The Name Game

Also published in Youth Ki Awaaz.

The views I express in this article run the risk of sounding aggressive, extremist, and drenched in the most dreaded of all feminist perspectives – radical feminism. The reason I called ‘rad fem’ the ‘most dreaded’ is because even some of those doing gender justice work refuse to identify with this branch of feminism, and no wonder it is considered synonymous with words such as ‘feminazi’, ‘militant feminism’, ‘men-hating women’ and so forth. Which, I must say, is completely and utterly rubbish. Academic radical feminism essentially seeks to get to the root cause of oppression in order to dismantle it, and believes that this root cause is sexism, from which other forms of oppression such as racism were copied. But certain right-wing ideologists have convinced the world (including those with egalitarian views on gender and sexual politics) that radical feminism is opposed to men and seeks to create an inversion of gender power relations in which women will persecute and dominate over men. Hence, radical feminism has become a ‘snarl word’ for any individual who espouses anarchist, leftist or even egalitarian positions on gender issues.

Although I would very much like to, my article is not to defend against feminism in any of its radical or conservative ‘white, middle-class’ variants. I am simply going to put forth my comments and critiques on certain life ‘choices’ that are made by today’s apparently ‘empowered’ and ‘educated’ women. Since I live in India, I will obviously focus on the context of the Indian woman. I write this not only to critically analyze current norms and populist trends, but also to put forth an argument in favour of practices I consider being the most egalitarian.

We live in a society today that is ‘civilized’, but I have my doubts. Primarily because this so-called civilized society that we are part of is based on certain fundamentally oppressive systems. There is huge debate on how these systems came into place, ranging from theological justifications to Marxist perspectives to evolutionary explanations. Let us, for now, assume that these systems were designed to being a sense of order and regularity into the processes of human beings relating to one another in all aspects of life – be that work or leisure. Unfortunately, due to the human race’s volatile relationship with power, over time these systems and divisions turned hierarchical and oppressive – favouring and privileging one particular human group over another.

We can confirm this malady through a simple diagnosis – Are the various groups created by these systems relating to one another as inferior or superior in nature simply on the basis of their collective identities? If this is the case, then we have no difficulty in asserting that we are a fundamentally flawed race that believes in subjugating, persecuting, enslaving, brutalizing, and even massacring its own as the ultimate purpose of existence. (As for the horrors it has unleashed on other beings and Nature itself, let us not talk about those. I tend to think there is no argument; no scope for improvement left along those lines, except maybe to feel deep, heartfelt remorse at our moment of death as we look back at the pain this one human life has brought to Nature.)

Having determined thus, let us move on to a system which, as a proud radical feminist, I have no qualms about declaring as the “root of all evil”. A system that denigrates one half on the human race as the ‘Other’ just because of the differences in reproductive functions of their bodies. A system known in short as ‘patriarchy’ (pitr-sattah) or the ‘patriarchal system’ (purush-pradhan sanskriti) in which males who become ‘men’ are given the ultimate power over the rest. I use the term ‘males who become men’ because according to patriarchal hierarchy, any person with a body that doesn’t have the phallus, along with any male who doesn’t display the normative testosterone-charged masculinity, or who prefers to have sex with other men, or who wants to be identified with other genders, is consigned to a rank lower than the ‘masculine’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘phallic’, ‘patriarch’ male.

Let us not get into speculation about the origin of patriarchy, or even the reasons it has stuck around for ages. There is plenty of material available on that – from religious discourses to ideological debates. Let us instead talk about how patriarchy, in its current form, operates in the lives of human beings, especially the manner in which it permeates the most intimate and vulnerable of human relationships – family and sexuality.

Sociological theory states that the twin institutions of marriage and the family function in order to fulfil certain basic human needs. The need for companionship, sexual expression, sharing of economic and other resources, bearing offspring and socializing them are some of the needs fulfilled in a marriage/family. At a glance, these needs are not explicitly linked to patriarchy. But if we dig a little deeper and unearth the very foundations of these institutions, we will find patriarchal undercurrents flowing deep below the surface and nourishing them.

When we are born, one of the fundamental identities given to us, along with our sex, parentage, religion, and caste, is a name. The name, like the rest of our ‘ascribed’ identities, isn’t chosen by us. Who chooses it then and how is it chosen? In some parts of India, a syllable is drawn up based on position of the planets and stars at the time of our birth, and a name beginning with that syllable is decided. Usually, the parents or the father’s family choose the name. Why not the mother’s? In India, most cultures (save for the dwindling matrilineal societies of the North-East and South India) are patrilineal. So a child born into this world, carrying genetic markers from two principle sets of ancestry in its DNA, will only be identified with the father’s family, including the religious and caste identities of its father.

But are we not born with one half of our DNA coming from our mother? Are we not born from her womb, because of the labour she undergoes during the ‘miracle’ of birth? Are we not raised on her breast, sucking the milk that her body produces? In that case, why are our mothers, and their ancestries, invisible from our most primary identity, our very names?

In the institution of family, a woman’s traditional role is to be the vehicle that carries a man’s ‘seed’ forward. The man sows, and so he reaps. The woman’s body is controlled and exploited by the man, first for the gratification of his sexual needs and then ‘harvested’ to bear him offspring (preferably a son) that will carry his name forward. A daughter, however, is ‘paraya dhan’ or ‘another’s wealth’. She, too, will take her father’s name on birth, only to dissolve it into her husband’s identity upon marriage. One of the reasons sons are preferred over daughters across a vast majority of the religious, caste and class spectrums of our country is because of this very fundamental patrilineal norm that gives a only the male child the right to ‘belong’ to his father’s family.

I find this basic disparity repugnant and frightening for two reasons. First because the loss of one’s name – one’s primary identity – can be calamitous for anyone, and yet women are taught to accept it, even look forward to it as part of their ‘destiny’. Jill Filipovic, in her article urging women not to change their names after marriage, argues that “Part of how our (human) brains function and make sense of a vast and confusing universe is by naming and categorizing. When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming our own identity into our husband’s, it lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole. It disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female (sic) understanding of self as relational – we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone’s wife, or mother, or daughter, or sister.”

The other reason I am repelled by this notion is because it will never occur to or be suffered by a man! Simply by the virtue of being born a male, he can affirm his ownership over his name without second thoughts, without doubt for the rest of his life, regardless of the number of times he gets married. (Some people, some men, might think of this as a curse rather than a privilege. It is extremely difficult to change your identity as a man; women can and do get away with it simply by marriage. This assumes that women are evolutionarily given to being relational, and that their identities are expendable.  How I see it as unfair is that it is not a choice equally available to all, regardless of gender) This dichotomy exists even in current times of so-called empowerment. In fact, it frightens me even more when women, in the name of empowerment, make a conscious ‘choice’ to ‘give up’ and change their surnames, or at least add a suffix of their husband’s surnames, with or without hyphenation.

I want to make a point here about choice, and whether we, as a society, are really that free to choose as we imagine ourselves to be. When I buy a pink-coloured dress for myself, am I doing that out of my own agency of liking hence choosing the colour pink, or am I doing it because I’m a victim of the image politics around me that conditions me into liking, and hence choosing pink? Alternatively, when I, as a ‘feminist’, consciously make an effort not to choose pink, or cosmetics, or feminine embellishments of any kind, am I doing so out of my own agency or out of a compulsion to be faithful to the ‘kitsch’ of feminism? I have reached the conclusion that nothing today is free, and choice is an illusion invented by capitalism and the advertisement industry. And if that is the case, is having the freedom to ‘choose’ really a privilege/empowerment?

In my endeavour to understand the processes behind this ‘freedom of choice’, I spoke to women who, unlike most women in India, had a choice to keep their ‘maiden’ names, but chose instead to get their spouses’ surnames, or at the most, hyphenated ones. I wish to discuss here two of the most cited reasons for name changing. First, many women said they did it because it was ‘convenient’. Which is what patriarchy is all about, isn’t it? Convenience and social acceptability to those who keep inside the laxman-rekha (moral line) of conformity. But those who step out – they will be engulfed with shame, veiled as inconvenience. As someone with no surname and three first names (my own, and each of my parents’), I know a lot about inconvenience. From schoolteachers thinking my name was Anita (my mother’s first and my last name!) to Government bureaucrats refusing to pass my legal documents, I’ve experienced it all. There was a time when I got so irritated with my name I wanted to marry a nice-surnamed chap to change it once and for all.

To be honest, I’m scared of convenience. I’m scared of the complacency it brings, of the wall of comfort it builds around us. This wall isolates us from the rest of the world, making us apathetic to the world and to the interconnectedness of everything. When I ‘choose’, again, to travel in the less-crowded, more-expensive air-conditioned compartment of a train, I do it for my convenience, because I am privileged with money that pays for my convenience, I fail to engage with and learn from the people who don’t have the same privilege as me. I know this; I understand the irony of saying “I want to work for people” and yet, being so used to convenience, still preferring not to be with people! I prefer, instead, to feed the system of class segregation that I’m supposed to be fighting against. I prefer, instead, feed the selfish, non-egalitarian, convenience-seeking wolf inside me.

Another set of responses that I received was that women changed their surnames because they loved their husbands, and subsuming their identities into their spouse’s was their way of showing the love. To which my question is (apart from other heavily philosophical questions such as what is love, etc.), so in order to show his wife that he loved her back, the husband would have to take her surname, right? Simple logic based upon the reciprocity of love. Also, if the woman did not change her surname, would it be assumed that she did not love her husband? And conversely, since the man would obviously how-can-you-even-make-this-statement-it-is-laughable not take his wife’s surname after marriage, did it imply that he did not love her at all? The same applies for hyphenation. Why does the woman always take two surnames, but why not her husband? The best thing to do in such a situation – i.e. the “we love each other and want a common name”– would be to forego both their surnames and invent fantastic new name that rings well with both first names. But ask any man to give up his surname and watch his response, would he agree heartily? In 90% of the men I asked, it was at best, a laughable suggestion, and at worst, hurt their ‘male ego’ that I could even suggest something like that.

In India, surnames often denote caste. Hence to give up one’s surname is to eliminate one’s caste – something that is an intolerable prospect for many people. Caste as a tool for identity and cohesion is presently so strong in our country that uprooting it is the stuff of anarcho-commie dreams. But for me, it is an unjust system of oppression that has dehumanised entire communities and robbed them of their dignity simply because of the work they do. I find it almost ironic – religious scriptures telling us that all work is God’s work, and the same religion then debasing all those who clean other people’s dirt as ‘less than human’. I refuse to be identified with any caste, and refuse to identify and pigeonhole anyone else based on their caste. I used to think that I don’t have a surname would help in not being identified with a particular caste, but I realise that caste is so deep-rooted within me that it isn’t only about the surname I wear. My caste, rather, the kitsch of the caste I was raised in, is present in every part of me – the way I pronounce my syllables, the kind of food I eat, the attire I wear, the relationship I have with shit, and the amount of security I feel within myself. How do I then get rid of this layer of caste that has embedded itself so subtly, so deeply, within me, without scraping away bits of myself?

In the end, I realise it boils down to me. Patriarchy and caste are not physical structures and institutions operating from some headquarters somewhere. They are systems of understanding that have been constructed within me, the frameworks and filters of how I perceive and interact with the world and myself. They are also what make me, me! And yet they are not me. I am bigger, better than these narrow slits of perception. But I have identified that my purpose, the meaning I make of my life, is to strip away these constructs from myself, just as chemotherapy or intensive surgery attacks and slices away the cancerous growth inside a body. The process is painful – inconvenient at most and unbearable at times. But I struggle. Because I want to be healthy again.

लग्न म्हणजे काय?

‘लग्न म्हणजे काय’ ह्या प्रश्नाबद्दल विचार करताना मला निर्माण व डॉ. अभय व राणी बंग ह्यांची आठवण झाली. त्यांचे हे आवडते प्रश्न: MK-KM, अर्थात ‘म्हणजे काय’ आणि ‘कसे मोजणार?’ कोणत्याही गोष्टीचे विश्लेषण करायला हे २ प्रश्न अनिवार्य आहेत. पण हे प्रश्न ‘लग्न’ अशा अनेक भावनांच्या व नात्यांच्या गुंतागुंतीने घडलेल्या गौडबंगालाला समजण्याकरिता पूरक ठरतील का, असा प्रश्न मला नंतर पडला. तरीही, मी स्वतःला हे २ प्रश्न विचारून बघितले.

मी स्वतःला एक ‘जाज्वल्य’ स्त्रीमुक्तिवादी मानते. खूप लोक विचारतात, स्त्रीमुक्तीवाद, अर्थात ‘नारवाद’ म्हणजे काय? (परत तोच प्रश्न!). एका वाक्यात उत्तर द्यायचं असेल तर मी म्हणीन, नारीवाद ही अशी चळवळ आहे जी समाजातल्या स्त्री-पुरुषांमध्ये – अर्थात अशा कोणत्याही उच्च-नीच बाळगणाऱ्या सामाजिक गटांमध्ये – समानता आणण्याचा प्रयत्न करते. नारीवादाचा एक विशेष पैलू म्हणजे आपल्या समाजातल्या विविध व्यवस्था व प्रथांचा बारकाईने अभ्यास करून, त्यातल्या असमान किंवा पुरुषांना प्राधान्य देणाऱ्या घटकांवर एक समाविष्ट विकल्प प्रस्तुत करणे, असा आहे. तर हा ‘नारीवादाचा चष्मा’ लावून आपण लग्न ह्या सामाजिक संस्थेला पारखून बघू शकतो का, असं वाटलं.

लग्न ह्या व्यवस्थेकडे बारीक नजरेने बघण्यापूर्वी मी काही ‘Disclaimers’ मांडते. नारीवादाच्या बोलीत असे म्हटले जाते की कोणतीही संकल्पना किंवा कोणताही निष्कर्ष हा सार्वत्रिक नसून अनुभवजन्य असतो. म्हणूनच, माझे लग्नाबद्दलचे विचार हे माझ्या स्वानुभवातून, माझ्या चालू परिस्थितीतून निर्माण झलेले आहेत. मी एक बावीस वर्षांची, शहरात वाढलेली, इंग्रजीतून शिकलेली, हिंदू ब्राह्मण म्हणून जन्मलेली पण सध्या ह्या ओळखीवर एक मोठा प्रश्न चिन्ह उभा केलेली, अविवाहित पण प्रेमात असलेली, तरुण स्त्री आहे. येत्या २-४ वर्षात लग्न करायचं का, असा किडा सध्या डोक्यात फिरतोय, त्यामधूनच घडलेलं हे विचारमंथन.

ज्या हिंदू, उच्चवर्णीय परंपरेत मी जन्मले, त्यात असं मानलं जातं की लग्न हे एका स्त्रीच्या आयुष्याचे अंतिम व अनिवार्य ध्येय. लग्न झालं म्हणजे आपलं आयुष्य सार्थक होईल; संसाराची सुरुवात झली म्हणजे सर्व काही सुरळीत होईल, अशे संदेश आपल्या समाजातल्या युवांना, आणि विशेषकरून मुलींना, दिले जातात. विशी ओलांडली की आपण जसेकी एका ‘रडार’ खाली येऊन जातो. कौटुंबिक कार्यक्रमात, सामाजिक संमेलनात भेटल्यावर नातेवाईक व ओळखीचे हाच प्रश्न जास्तकरून विचारतात, आता ‘लाडू’ कधी खाऊ घालणार? (मला पहिले पहिले नक्की कोणते लाडू, असा प्रश्न पडायचा!) मुलगा बघायला सुरुवात केली का? अनेक सल्ले सुद्धा मिळतात. मला मध्यंतर असा प्रश्न पडायचा, लोकं असं का विचारात नाही की तू प्रेमात आहेस का? तुझ्या आयुष्यात सध्या ‘priority’ काय आहे? सरळ लग्नावर का येतात?

लग्न ह्या परंपरेला समाजात इतका मोठा दर्जा का आहे, ह्याचा थोडा विचार केला तर लक्षात आलं की लग्न हे समाजाला जसं-की-तसं जपून ठेवण्याचं फक्त एक साधन आहे – जात, धर्म, ई. सारखंच. आपलं नाव, जात, आणि मालमत्ता ही आपल्यानंतर आपल्याच मुलाकडे जावी; समाजात आपल्याकडे असलेली सत्ता हीदेखील आपल्याच कुटुंबात रहावी, ह्याची खात्री होण्याकरिता लग्न. लग्नातून एका स्त्रीच्या लैंगिक्तेवर नियंत्रण ठेवलं जातं, जेणेकरून ती आपल्याच मुलांना जन्म देईल, ही खात्री मिळते. अशी एक म्हण आहे, “मातृत्व हे सत्य आहे, पण पितृत्व हा विश्वास आहे.” हा ‘विश्वास’च पितृसत्तेसाठी असुरक्षित ठरतो, ज्याच्यामधून लग्नाचे बंधन निर्माण झले असावे.

हे बंधन स्त्रियांवर बंधनकारक कसं ठरतं? जास्तकरून हिंदू समाजांमध्ये (काही ईशान्य व दक्षिणेकडच्या मातृवांशिक समाजांना सोडून) लग्न म्हणजे एका स्त्रीला तिच्या जननीय कुटुंबापासून दूर खेचून एका अनोळखी कुटुंबात सोडून देणं. ह्या नवीन व अज्ञात परीस्तीतीत तिच्याकडून तिची संपूर्ण ओळख – प्राथमिकतः तिचं नाव – हडपून घेतली जाते. तिच्यावर विवाहित होण्याचे अनेक छाप लावले जातात, जसे की मंगळसूत्र, सिंदूर, लाल कुंकू, जोडवे, काही ठिकाणी घुंगटही. अर्थात ती आता ‘बंद झलेली तिजोरी’ आहे (हा dialogue आठवणीत आहे का? “अकेली लाडकी एक खुली तिजोरी जैसी होती है.”) हे दर्शवतात. पण ह्याच गोष्टी पुरुषांवर बंधनकारक का नाहीत? त्याचं कारण परत हेच की लग्न हे स्त्री व पुरुष, दोघांसाठी दोन वेगवेगळ्या टोकाचे अनुभव असतात. त्यात ‘समानता’ – जी नारीवादाची प्रथम परिभाषा आहे – ती लाग्नासंस्थेतून गहाळ आहे.

लग्न म्हणजे समाजाने एका स्त्री व पुरुषाला एकाच घरी राहून, लैंगिक संबंध ठेवून, अपत्य उत्पन्न करायला दिलेला मंजुरीचा ठसा. कायद्यातही (विशेषतः ‘Special Marriage Act’) लग्नाची हीच व्ह्याख्या दिली आहे. मला आधी प्रश्न पडायचा की जर दोन लोकांना एकत्र राहून घर चालवायचं असेल, मुलं घडवायची असतील, तर त्याला समाजाची परवानगी का लागते? जर ते दोघे त्यांच्या नात्यात समाधानी असले, तर समाज कोण होतो त्याच्यावर मत व्यक्त करायला? ह्याचे दुसरे टोक असेही आहे की लग्न करून त्या जोडप्याला, विशेषकरून त्यातल्या स्त्रीला, थोडीफार का होईना पण सुरक्षितता मिळते. एक विवाहित स्त्री आपल्या पतीला आपल्या मुलांची जवाबदारी उचलण्याची हक्काने मागणी करू शकते. पण ह्यात असं गृहीत धरलं जातं की एक स्त्री स्वतःची व आपल्या संततीची काळजी एकटी घ्यायला सक्षम नसते. किंवा जरी ती पैश्याने सक्षम असली तरी तिला ‘पती’ नसल्याने तिची परिस्तिथी किती केविलवाणी असेल, अशी एक सामाजिक समजूत असते.

असे का मानले जाते? आणि अश्या मान्यतांमुळेच आपण स्त्रियांकडे बघण्याचा असा दृष्टीकोन तयार करत आहोत का जो स्त्रीची स्वावलंबिता, आत्मसम्मान , व स्व-ओळख रद्द करून तिचं व्यक्तित्व, तिचं अस्तित्व हेच संबंधिक (relational identity) करून टाकतो? मी facebook वर काही दिवसांपूर्वी ही ओळ वाचली जी माझ्या ह्या प्रश्नाला भिडून आहे: “आपल्या मुलीला ‘कोणीतरी’ बनण्याचे स्वप्न दाखवा, ‘कोणाचीतरी’ नव्हे.” (“Teach your daughter to be ‘somebody’, not ‘somebody’s.”)

पण लग्न हे फक्त स्त्री-पुरुषांमधलंच नातं का असलं पाहिजे? सध्याच्या समाजात – ज्याला आपण एक पितृसत्ताक व विषमलिंगी-मानक समाज मानतो – फक्त एका स्त्री आणि पुरुषाला लैंगिक संबंध ठेवण्यास परवानगी आहे. भारतीय दंड संहितेतसुद्धा कलम ३७७ मध्ये समलिंगी लैंगिक संबंधांना गुन्हा ठरवलेलं आहे. पण हे का? असं कोणी सांगितलं आहे की लैंगिक आकर्षण हे फक्त आणि फक्त नर आणि मादी ह्यांच्यामध्येच होतं? जसे काही लोक जन्मजात डावखोर असतात, तसेच काही लोक जन्मजात समलिंगी असतात; ह्या निसर्गतः असलेल्या लैंगिक अभिव्यक्तीला गुन्हा किंवा अनैसर्गिक ठरवणारे आपण कोण? जर आशयच दोन समलिंगी व्यक्तींना आपला जोडीदार शोधून लग्नसंबंधात राहायचं असेल, तर ते नातं एका स्त्री-पुरुष लग्नाइत्कच स्वीकारलं पाहिजे.

मग कोणतं/कशा प्रकारचं लग्न हे समानतेच्या आधारावर अचूक ठरेल? ह्याला खरंतर एकच उत्तर असू शकत नाही. लग्नाच्या निमित्ताने पितृसत्तेने अनेक गुप्त हेतू चालवले आहेत, ज्याच्यामध्ये स्त्रीया व इतर लिंगाधारित अल्पसंख्याक लोकांना दुर्लक्षित केलं जातं व त्यांच्यावर नियंत्रण ठेवलं जातं. मग लग्न करणं हेच चुकीचं का? मला असं वाटतं, लग्न हे दोन लोकांनी आपल्या नात्याला दिलेली व्याख्या असली पाहिजे. ती त्यांनी स्वतः विचार करून व एकमेकांशी संवाद साधून तयार केली पाहिजे. सामाजिक अपेक्षा व मागण्यांमध्ये न अडकता, उलटं त्याच्यावरच प्रश्न उभे करून, त्यांना चिकित्सक दृष्ट्या पारखून, आपली वेगळी परिभाषा तयार केली, तर ते खऱ्या अर्थाने एक समान व समतावादी लग्न ठरेल.

Human Beings

When I meet people in different parts of the world, I am always reminded that we are all basically alike. We are all human beings. Maybe we have different clothes, our skin is of a different colour, or we speak different languages. That is on the surface. But basically, we are the same human beings. That is what binds us to each other. That is what makes it possible for us to understand each other and to develop friendship and closeness.
~ The Dalai Lama

I often wonder about certain people’s lives. Like the carpenter and his assistant who came to work in our house today. Or the court bailiff whose display of patriarchal condescendence was blatant and outrageous. Or the sales assistant in the shopping mall I went to this evening. Who are these people, what are the kind of lives they live, where they live, how they live, what kind of relationships do they sustain, what kind of person they really are. Also, what must be going on in their minds when they look at me, my house, my life, the external and internal intricacies of myself?

I wonder because I feel so disconnected, so distant from them. The conversations I have with them are formal, impersonal, work-related, and sometimes I even look down upon them. I’m the more educated, more privileged, more intellectually and morally superior – that’s the position I take with them. I’m kind, benevolent yes, but also harsh and rude when I feel my own superiority being questioned or overlooked. Like what happened today with the bailiff. Maybe I’m even proud of it, a part of me says jubilantly, “I taught that sexist bastard a lesson.” or “I silenced him.” I feel pride at being able to speak out, perhaps shout out, against these notions that so subtly and not-so-subtly teach women their ‘place’ in a patriarchal setup.

But then, another part of me – a deeper, harder-to-reach part suddenly sends a wave of… I cannot describe it. Pity? Sympathy? Empathy? This part of me wants to reach out to them, wants to make friends and get to know their lives. The lives of people I usually at best ignore or at worst condemn. This part wants to hug someone, just to reassure them and perhaps myself that I am just as human as you are. That at our core, we share the same fears and hopes and dreams. That we were born to love someone, that we might have got our hearts broken at some point. That we’re scared someone we love so much will one day be a cold, lifeless body. And then nothing. That we’re all headed in the same direction, the same abyss we are one day going to fall into, unknowing of what lies beyond.

And for that one moment, I want to take joy in the fact that both of us share this core. That we’re together, at least for now. But this feeling, this want scares me, or my more rational, pragmatic, socially-oriented, easier-to-reach self. I think of the problems that they – the poor, unprivileged, having to work as a peon/carpenter/manual labourer/and so on – face. Their quality of life. The socio-political-economic reasons behind such a vast disparity. What are the ways, mostly utopian, it can be fixed. Then I chide myself, because who am I to decide what work is unworthy and unvalued? Perhaps someone likes carpentry. Or masonry. Or even delivering letters. Maybe that’s what they’re good at, that’s their purpose in life. Maybe they feel a sense of fulfilment in what they do, in the service they provide others. Who am I, from my point of privilege, to decide someone else’s job satisfaction? Can I ever do that? Then I think about choice and its relation to privilege, but again, are we, am I, with all my material resources and ‘education’ really as free to choose as I think myself to be? Definitely not.

But as you can see, my more rational, pragmatic, socially-oriented, easier-to-reach self has taken over the thought process and does its best to intellectualise and justify the feeling that was released by my harder-to-reach self. It is because of this that I need to write, to express this jumble of thoughts and feelings on paper before they vanish, before they are taken over thoughts that do often rule our daily lives – my increasing weight, whether a new diet and exercise routine will work, will I ever be thin enough, my new clothes, my shiny new wallet, my glittery bag, my amazing boyfriend, my mane of hair that is also the bane of my life, and so on.

I want to capture that feeling in these words. I want to retain it because it is powerful and deep, like a jolt of electricity under my skin. Like a cold shower on a wintry morning. I want to revisit it sometimes, and wake up from my shiny happy world. Because it leaves me uneasy. There are no intellectual-sounding solutions that can bridge this gap between you and me, a fissure hacked out from generations of disconnection. I simply cannot reach out; I am scared of doing so. I’m scared of explaining to myself the simple little truth that I’m as human as that man out there, and like him too, I have to face my share of losses, resulting, ultimately, in the loss of my own life.

Once there was a little puppy stuck in the rains that was crying for help in the yard outside my house. That night, I couldn’t stop thinking about that little mutt and crying, even though my father and I had ‘rescued’ it and made a home for it. Much more recently, I read about an old man who patiently stands outside Connaught Place in Delhi and sells toys so he can sustain his family, years after his retirement. Once again, the tears didn’t stop, although after a point the rational mind failed to understand why the tears were coming out. What is it about these stories that makes me so emotional? What is so universal about pain, about suffering, that reaches spaces within us beyond the various walls and abysses of identities we have created for ourselves?

Maybe there isn’t one way to reach across and communicate and share our mutual humanness. Maybe, sometimes, it is a small step – a smile, a tear, a dabeli in the rain, or even a look – that creates tiny pathways and alleys that crisscross across the yawning gap between our souls. These are our only hope.

सम-वेदना

गेल्या काही दिवसांपासून आपल्या देशात सर्व स्थरांवर निरंतर चर्चा सुरु आहे ती म्हणजे दिसेंबर १६ ला घडलेल्या एका भीषण बालात्काराची. त्या रात्री ६ पुरुषांनी, ज्यांच्यापैकी एक तर १७ वर्षांचा ‘अज्ञान’ मुलगा होता, मिळून एका २३ वर्षांच्या मुलीवर सामुहिक बलात्कार केला. इतकेच नव्हे तर तिच्या योनीत एक गंजलेली सळी घुसवली, तिची मारहाण केली, व एकंदरीत तिला व तिच्या पुरुष साथीदाराला अनेक यातना दिल्या. २९ दिसेम्बेर रोजी, तिच्या आतडी व मेंदूला प्रखर जखम झाल्यामुळे, तिने प्राण सोडला. अनेक प्रकाशनांनी तिला वेगवेगळी नामे दिली आहेत जसेकी निर्भया, दामिनी, जागृती, इ.
‘दामिनी’च्या मृत्यू नंतर आरोपींना कोणती शिक्षा योग्य ठरेल असा प्रश्न सरकार्रला पडला आहे. बहुसंख्यांक लोकांना असे वाटते की फाशीची शिक्षा किंवा रासायनिक रित्या नपुंसक करणे हेच योग्य राहील. अनेकांचे हेही मत आहे की सरकारने स्त्रियांवर होणा-या हिंसक व लैंगिक छेडछाडीविरोधात अजून पक्के कायदे अमलात आणले पाहिजे. पोलिसांना स्त्रियांवर होणारे हिंसेचे विविध प्रकार व लिंगभेद ह्याबाबत अधिक संवेदनशील असणे गरजेचे आहे, हे देखील चर्चांमध्ये नजरेस आले आहे.
हे सगळे प्रस्ताव बरोबर आहेत व त्यांची तातडीने अंमलबजावणी झाली पाहिजे असे मी पूर्णपणे मानते. पण इतकेच पुरेसे ठरेल का? खरंतर ह्या बलात्काराला कोण कारणीभूत आहे? आपले सरकार, आपलं पोलीस सैन्य, ते ६ बलात्कारी पुरुष, की आपण एकंदरीत तयार केलेली ‘बलात्कारी’ संस्कृती, हे विचार करण्यास्पद आहे.
आपला देश एक लोकतांत्रिक, धर्मनिरपेक्ष व न्यायप्रिय संविधान मानतो. भारतीय संविधान स्त्री-पुरुष समानतेचा पुरस्कार करतं. पण आपल्या भारतीय समाजात स्रियांचे स्थान हे पुरुष्यांच्या समान आहे का? आणि समाज घडवणारे आपण सगळे सुद्धा ह्या असमानता बाळगतो का, असा प्रश्न आपण स्वतःलाच विचारला पाहिजे. स्वतःला थोडे खोलवर पारखून बघितले तर लक्षात येईल की आपणच कित्तेकदा लिंगभेदाला जवाबदार ठरतो.
प्रसार माध्यमांच्या प्रभावामुळे आपण अभावितपणे का होईना पण अनेक निकष बनवतो – ते सुंदरतेचे, लैंगिकतेचे, व यशाचे असो, किंवा सामान्यतेचे. कोणत्या गोष्टी समाजात ‘सामान्य’ किंवा ‘normal’ मानल्या जातात, त्या कोण्याच्या म्हणण्या प्रमाणे, ह्याचा कधी विचार केला का? सिनेमा, टी.व्ही. सीरिअल व जाहिरातींमध्ये स्त्रीयांना सौम्य, अबला असेच दर्शवला जाते, जिला कोणीतरी ताकतवर, ‘मसल्स’ असलेला पुरुष नेहमी वाचवतो. खरंतर अधिकंश स्त्रिया पुरुषांपेक्षा जास्त कामे करतात, ते घरकाम असो, शेतीचे काम किंवा मुलांना जन्म देण्याचे काम का होईना! पण स्त्रीयांनाही हेच शिकवले जाते, की आपण अजाण, अबल आहोत ज्यांचे यश, आयुश्याचे सार्थक, अर्थात अख्ख अस्तित्व हे आपल्या आयुष्यातील पुरुषांवर औलंबून आहे. बघा ना, ‘फेअर एँड लवली’ च्या जाहिरातीतल्या मुलीला ते क्रीम लावाल्यानंतर मुलगा पसंत करतो म्हणून तुम्ही पण हे ‘फेअर एँड लवली’ क्रीम विकत घ्या, असा संदेश दिला जातो. (खरंतर सुंदरता ही ‘फेअर’ म्हणजे गोरं होण्यातच आहे असेही कोणी सांगीतले, हे पारखून बघितले पाहिजे!)
दुसरे म्हणजे स्त्री ही एक स्वतंत्र अस्तित्व असलेली व्यक्ति नसून एक भोगवस्तू आहे जी फक्त पुरुषांच्या लेंगिक चैनीसाठी वापरता येते असे दर्शवले जाते. स्त्री-हक्कांवर काम करणा-या अनेक संशोधकांनी असे पटवून दिले आहे की प्रसार माध्यमांत, एकंदरीत समाजातही स्त्रीयांना बघण्याची वृत्ती ही एक ‘मेल गेझ’, अर्थात पुरुषी नजर आहे. जाहिरातीत अनेकाहून जास्त वेळेला एका स्त्रीला अक्षरशः एक वस्तू बनवलेलं दिसेल, जसं की एका ‘सोफ्ट-ड्रिंक’च्या जाहिरातीत ती मुलगी त्या पेयाच्या बाटलीचं स्वरूप घेते. नाहीतर स्त्रियांच्या काही विशिष्ठ अवयवांवर लक्ष कांद्रित केलं जातं, खासकरून तिच्या स्तनांवर. म्हणजे ‘स्त्री’ होणं हे फक्त एक शरीर होणं असं का? आणि हेच जर आपण आत्मसात करत असलो तर आपणही प्रत्येक महिलेला, विशेषकरून रस्त्यावरच्या एका अनोळखी महिलेला एक शरीर, नाकी एक पुरेपूर्ण व्यक्ति, मानणार.
पुर्षांनाही, ‘पुरुषार्थ’ अभिव्यक्त करायचा एकच मार्ग दाखवला जातो. ‘मर्द को कभी दर्द नही होता’, एक ‘खरा’ पुरुष म्हणजे जो हिंसक, निर्भय, व स्त्रियांवर हावी होणारा असला पाहिजे, असे दर्शवले जाते. एका ‘डीओडरन्ट’च्या जाहिरातीत असेही म्हटले आहे कि तुम्ही ‘बायकांचा’ सुगंध वापरला तर तुम्ही ‘बाई’ व्हाल, जसे की बाई होणं हे तुच्छ! असे संदेश पुरुषांच्या मनात स्त्रियांसाठी ना आदर निर्माण करतात ना संवेदना. मग असे संदेश प्रसार माध्यमे आपल्या पर्यंत का पोचवतात, असा शोध घेतला पाहिजे.
तितकेच नव्हे तर अपल्या समाजातले नायक किंवा आदर्श व्यक्तींच्या मनात स्त्रियांच्या काय प्रतिमा आहे, ह्याचा चिकित्सक अभ्यास केला पाहिजे. दिल्लीच्या बलात्काराच्या घटनेनंतर कित्तेक अश्याच ‘आदर्श’ व्यक्तींनी आपली मते मांडली. त्यामधले काही नमुने म्हणजे की, “स्त्रीयांनी मर्यादा ओलांडू नव्हे”, “चूक त्या मुलीचीच होती, तिने त्या पुरुषांपुढे हात जोडून त्यांना ‘माझे धार्मिक भाऊ’ म्हटले असते तर असे घडले नसते”, “छोटे कपडे घातल्यामुळे असे होते” व “स्त्रियांनी घरीच बसले पाहिजे” ई. मला सांगा, जर छोटे कपडे हेच बलात्काराला कारणीभूत असले असते तर इस्लामी देशांमध्ये, जिथे स्त्रीयांना बुरख्यात राहणे हे अनिवार्य आहे, तिथे बलात्कार झालेच नसते! पण तिथे ही बलात्कार होतातच! घराच्या ‘मर्यादेत’ सुद्धा महिलांवर व मुलींवर अत्याचार व लैंगिक छळ होतातच! आणि फक्त आई-बहिणीच्या नात्यातच स्त्रीयांना ह्या छळापासून सुटकारा मिळतो असेही आपण का मानतो?
स्त्री असो वा पुरुष, कोणत्याही व्यक्तिला परिपूर्णपणे, निडर होऊन जगण्याची, स्वतःला फुलवण्याची संधी मिळालीच पाहिजे. अब्राहम लीन्कल्ने म्हटले आहे, “Everyone has the freedom to raise their hands, as long as they don’t poke anyone else’s eye.” म्हणजेच सर्वांना स्वतःला आपल्या मनासारखं करण्याचे स्वतंत्र्य असले पाहिजे, इथपर्यंतच की ते कोणत्याही दुस-या व्यक्तीचे स्वातंत्र्यावर हावी होत नाही.
‘दामिनी’ वर घडलेल्या बलात्कारानंतर जे हजारोंच्या संख्येने लोकं रस्त्यावर आले, त्यांचा एकच नारा होता – “हमें चाहिये आज़ादी!” ही ‘आज़ादी’ कोण देणार? ती आपणच द्यायची असते – एकमेकांना व स्वतःलाही! प्रश्न इतकाच की आपण एक समाज म्हणून, एक देश म्हणून, एकमेकांना ही आज़ादी द्यायला ‘मुक्त’ झालो आहोत का?

I’m Twenty-One and I’m Still a Foetus

I’m twenty-one and I’m still a foetus

I was born into this world twenty one years ago but

I haven’t been born into myself yet

I’m still a womb, carrying this person

Who is yet to be me.

I’m twenty-one and the only thing I know

Is that I don’t

Know anything.

I know that perhaps no one ever has known

No one ever will.

I’m twenty-one and I have stopped filling in answers

To life’s every question. To the word question itself

Facts have become questions

Questions have become facts

In their permanence. In their omnipresence.

I haven’t been born into myself yet.

At twenty-one I’m still a foetus.

I think maybe I need a hiatus.

I’m twenty-one and love is not a word I use anymore

Intimacy is only anticipation

And heaven is always just out of reach

Love is being in limbo.

Like the foetus which is in-between life and non-life

Like Schrödinger’s Cat which is in-between death and non-death

Like me, at twenty-one.

I’m twenty-one and I’m afraid of death

I think that is because I’m not born yet

To be alive is to be ready for death any moment

I cling to life like a foetus clings to the womb that nourishes it

Only when it let goes is it born

Maybe to be born is to die in one sense.

So what do I wait for? Death or Life?

I’m twenty-one and I haven’t got a clue.

All I know is this – my water has broken.

The labour pains have begun.

Twelve Commandments of ’13

So it’s the New Year and everyone is in resolution-making mode. So here’s my two-penny’s worth.

This morning I came across a wonderful blog, titled The Happiness Project, which is about a woman’s journey to figure out what the hell happiness is really all about. But something that really inspired me was the post on Personal Commandments, which the blogger explains as

“The overarching principles by which I try to live my life… A creative way of distilling core values.”

I’ve been trying for some time now to ‘distill’ (how I love that word!) the core values of my life and hence, my first post in the new year I’m going to make a list of my Twelve (because it’s my lucky number) Personal (because they apply only and only to myself) Commandments (I don’t like this word so much. Too much of religious baggage. But it’s a borrowed phrase anyway…)

12 Commandments

  1. Que sais-je? (roughly translated as – I don’t know shit about anything)
  2. Be authentic. Be honest.
  3. Life is short. Savour the mo’.
  4. It’s all a joke anyway.
  5. Be fair.
  6. Listen.
  7. Accept everything, but don’t tolerate everything.
  8. Shout out. Say no. Protest.
  9. Stay with the questions.
  10. Stop. Breathe.
  11. Keep loving.
  12. This too shall pass.

Men and feminism?

First of all, let me clarify that I’m a woman writing this article. Also, that I’m a feminist. And these two terms are not necessarily interchangeable.

The reason I’m writing this article today is because, since the time last year when I started taking feminism seriously and started talking about it, most men in my peer-group started being very defensive about being men. After having long arguments with practically every male friend I have, being labelled as a ‘female chauvinist’ by some (in jest, apparently!) and trying to decipher the reason behind such a strong and vehement resistance towards feminism amongst men, I have finally decided to write this article. As an assertion that we’re not here to steal the golden throne on which you men sit perched upon so proudly. We just want you to shift a little and make space for us to sit as well. Or better still, get rid of the throne and let us both sit on the floor. And celebrate being together.

Most people, I’ve realised, have a problem with the word ‘feminism’. It comes from the word femininity which, according to many, refers only to everything women do and are; it is ‘womanliness’. But what if means more than that? It is, after all, an abstract concept, an idea symbolizing something, just as masculinity symbolizes another, diametrically opposite, idea. Traditionally, the feminine or the ‘yin’ symbolises fertility, creativity, nurturance, compassion, emotions, passivity, fluidity, empathy, tolerance, the moon and a holistic view of the world. Masculinity, on the other hand, symbolizes the ‘yang’, determination, passion, action, goal-orientation, logic, steadfastness, inflexibility, linearity, the sun and an individualistic view. Although, let me clarify that these are merely contextual representations; the concepts of masculinity and femininity can be perceived differently in different cultures, times and contexts.

The earth is feminine; receptive, compliant, has the power to create life. The rain is masculine; penetrating the earth to create new life. But the earth has masculine qualities as well; it is hard, solid and steadfast. And the rain has feminine qualities as well; it is fluid, tempestuous, nurturing as well as destructive. Just like that, all of us have within us both masculine and feminine qualities. A woman can be extremely determined and action oriented, like Rani Laxmibai, just as a man can epitomise qualities of compassion and tolerance, such as Mahatma Gandhi.

In the ancient times, both these masculine and feminine energies of the world were worshipped. Hence, during those times and even in contemporary tribal cultures which live apart from civilized society and in harmony with nature, women and men were (are) accorded equal respect and status in the social structure. However, with the advent of monotheistic religions, the world has moved towards a reverence for the masculine (a single male God or ‘His’ Messiah), progressively eliminating the importance, and thus the appreciation, for the feminine. Subsequently, we see our society becoming increasingly masculine; goal-oriented rather than process-oriented – the pot at the end of the rainbow is always more important than the rainbow itself! We are becoming competitive, individualistic, and consumerist, while ideas such as compassion, co-operation and tolerance are disregarded—be that in areas of work or in our personal lives. They’re becoming words that are glorified, idolised and put on pedestals, but of no use ‘out in the field’, much like how society perceives and treats women!

Feminists argue that the system of patriarchy that is omnipresent in society today, and has been for centuries, imposes many restrictions on women. And I’m not denying that. Even today, the condition of women is definitely worse off than that of men. Women have to deal with threats of violence and abuse, both inside as well as outside the house. They have no say in governance of the home or of the state, and whatever little they have is mostly nominal.  They have no property rights, even now after so many laws and policies on joint home ownership and women’s share in heritable property. Basically, most women are not aware of their rights or not bold enough to demand them. They are conditioned to be compliant, docile and subservient. Men, on the other hand, have a sack full of privileges that patriarchy has gifted them, right from their birth. And the women’s movement, since its inception a century ago, has been fighting for women to not be denied those privileges and choices that are available to men.

But behind this, what fails to be recognised by both men and women is that patriarchy has also put restrictions on men, although so nicely gift-wrapped and falsely glorified that many don’t even understand they are restrictions. These limitations are basically regarding the expression of or inclination towards the feminine. In earlier times, this was controlled through religious teachings and had a framework of ‘dharma’ or morality attached to it. The worst part is, this notion of ‘masculinity as a virtue’ is so deeply rooted within us, through conditioning while growing up or the influence of mass media, that we start regarding it as natural. I remember in primary school when the sight of a boy crying made me so uncomfortable that I would have a fit of awkward giggles. Never did a girl crying leave me feeling like that. I still wonder what it was that caused this discomfort. Crying is a natural phenomenon that is triggered by pain caused to the body or mind. Everybody does it; we don’t observe male babies not crying because they are males. So obviously, it isn’t ‘unnatural’ for males to cry. Why is it, then, that society hammers this “men do not cry” ‘fact’ into our brains— be those male, female or somewheres-in-between?

Feminism sought to show the world that women could be ‘equal’ to men. But in that process, I feel, it asserted something that patriarchy was already doing for so long. It exalted masculinity and shunned femininity. For my mother’s generation of feminists, discarding make-up, hair and traditional women’s clothing was a sign of protest; a liberation from stereotyped notions of femininity and beauty. Today, what with ‘lipstick-feminism’ and SlutWalks, women are acknowledging that it is empowering to ‘embrace one’s femininity’… but when will men start embracing it as well, and appreciating its value? And again, is femininity only about wearing revealing clothes and lipstick? Or is it about also nurturing the values it symbolises, values that men and women both have been steadily rejecting over the years?

Hence, feminism isn’t only about women trying to step ‘out’ and prove their place in the world, or ‘show’ men how they can do everything men do, it is about men accepting the feminine within themselves, and not being afraid to express it! That doing the work traditionally done by women, or expressing tendencies traditionally associated to women, can be as empowering as women stepping out of the house in trousers, to earn a living. Being able to care for one’s children, cooking, looking after the home, expressing strong emotions, showing care, compassion, empathy, sensitivity, being able to just listen to someone, are all needs that exist within every human being, but which have been denied expression by the patriarchal society for too long now. This denial and belittlement not only creates a sense of false superiority within men and women who portray strong masculine tendencies, but also puts a burden on them to follow rigid patterns of behaviour, communication and choice of work. Instead, by nurturing these feminine values and traits, not only can men (with some help from women, of course!) rein in a new kind of revolution but also develop themselves as more holistic and humane beings!

Ultimately, what feminists have been advocating for the last century is this freedom of choice. The choice to live, work, behave and just be according to our own potentials and dreams, rather than according to our sex, or our caste, or our religion, or our skin-colour, or any other such categorization that we have no say in.

The earth needs rain just as the rain needs the earth. Both are interdependent. Masculinity and femininity, both abstract concepts – values and ideals –co-exist, just as men and women, imbibing both within them, co-exist. And what the world needs today is a shift towards femininity! It needs compassion, empathy, tolerance and authenticity. It needs people who can talk about their feelings, but more importantly, it needs people who can listen. It needs a sustainable, holistic, we’re-all-in-this-together! approach. It needs people, both men and women, who care – for each other, for their children, and for the environment. It needs the sun and the moon both, although there are times when they do eclipse each other!

As the pendulum of time swings towards a masculine pull today, can the men of the world help swing it back towards a harmonious balance?

A world without money!

“I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay
Ain’t it sad
And still there never seems to be a single penny left for me
That’s too bad
Oh, all the things I could do
If I had a little money
It’s a rich man’s world…”

Sang the pop music group, ABBA, in the 70s and in this case at least, things haven’t changed much. Money governs the economy, and our lives. Among teens, in both rural and urban areas, there is a need to earn money, as soon as possible, as quickly as possible. Everything these days, it seems, is focused on the ultimate aim of having plenty of money in life. We go through the endless rut of exams and studies, in order to get a degree. And for what? To get a job with a good starting ‘package’ and gradually increase our bank balance.

There is a Mewari proverb that says; “The river never drinks its own water. The tree never tastes its own fruit. The field never consumes its own harvest. They selflessly strive for the well-being of all those around them.” Everything in Nature gives unto itself for something else; nothing is done with a selfish intent. In our post-World War 2, materialistic, consumerist, capitalist, environmentally-destructive, and ultimately selfish society, this sentence is of no value, no significance, and most importantly, no meaning. Economics says that the ultimate aim of Man is to consume or ‘allocate’ scarce resources for meeting his unlimited needs to achieve well-being. But as we strive to produce more and more, in order to consume more and more, is well-being really achieved? And can money really buy us happiness, or is another, completely different dynamic at play?

In the light of our ‘fast-growing’ economy, there are problems of inflation and exponentially increasing prices. Poverty hasn’t been eradicated, there in widespread inequality of incomes even today, the rich are getting richer and the poor become poorer. There are growing levels of stress, loneliness and increasing cases of depression. Perhaps, as many people feel, there is a need to re-think the idea of economics, and create an economy that doesn’t promote the ideas of materialism, competition and wastefulness.

Of the many alternatives proposed, one that epitomizes the core value behind the Mewari proverb is the concept of a ‘Gift Economy’. What is a gift economy, exactly? Wikipedia describes it as “a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards”. Very simply, the idea is to give away ‘gifts’, in the form of anything – food, clothes, household items, books, information, other services – without expecting a reciprocation or a ‘charge’. In some indigenous societies, gift culture is practiced in the form of ‘potlatch’, a ceremony held on special occasions by a family that gives a feast to the community and distributes its wealth to the people gathered. The value of the gifts given away indirectly increase the family’s social stature in the community; it earns respect in the eyes of the villagers. One could argue that it isn’t completely based on ‘gifting’, since there is an expectation of return, even though it maybe intangible.

On a philosophical level, the ideal of gift culture is the complete lack of expectation of returns. Where the driving force behind the giving isn’t the need to receive, but the need to give. It operates out of love, and what certain old romantics refer to as unconditional love. But is such a drive, such an ideal, even possible? There are certain people who experimenting with the concept. Like ‘Sewa Café’, in Ahmedabad, which runs completely on the idea of gift culture. As their tagline says, ‘Living is Giving’, it is a volunteer run café that doesn’t have fixed prices on its menu. Guests can pay whatever they want, it is anonymous and you don’t pay for your own meal, you pay to ‘gift’ a meal to a future guest. And amazingly, it manages to cover its costs and even make profits! Except that the profits are more in terms of people’s love than monetary.

Inspired from this idea, Madhusudan Agrawal of Ahmedabad has started a new initiative, called the ‘Smile Store’. It is “a place for sharing, connecting and recycling. It’s a complete volunteer run gift store. There are no price tags, anyone can leave anything, anyone can take what they need and put any donation to run the store. Without any strings attached, this store is an experiment to spread trust, love and smiles.” *1

Many such small ‘karma kitchens’ and ‘free stores’ have sprouted across the length and breadth of India. But how can we implement this idea in our own lives. First of all, THINK. How often has ‘fun’ and ‘entertainment’ been link inexcusably to money? We go to ‘hang out’ at Café Coffee Day, go to watch movies and end up spending quite a lot of money. We zoom around on our scooters or go for long drives in our cars, and more money is spent. We ask for ‘treats’, and when it’s our turn give some too! Most of what we do with friends results in lighter wallets and sometimes empty ones as well! So, is there a way through which we can have fun, but which is conducive to our pockets, as well as the environment and society?

A friend of mine organizes cycle adventures on the outskirts of his city. During weekends, some people gather and head off into the wild on their bikes (pedal-driven ones!) for a day of fun, adventure and new stories to tell. How easy is that? Some years ago, I had invited some friends over and done an impromptu mural-making session on a wall outside my house. We did warli art, and the designs still look beautiful and attract people to the house! Another friend of mine was sick of constantly giving and receiving gifts in the form of material presents… most of which she never used, and to others she felt compelled to give a ‘return gift’, the pressure of which she didn’t like. She has resolved to not accept such ‘presents’ anymore, and instead, as ‘gifts’, she usually gives a service to the person concerned, like a meal she’ll cook, or clean somebody’s garden, or give a nice head massage. “It is more engaging for both the receiver as well as me, because I don’t just give a ‘thing’ that I’m obliged to; instead, I give my time, my attention and my service as a form of love to that person, and this is obviously more special.” She says. The gifts she accepts also are ones in such forms only.

Two friends of mine and I, once decided to delve into the art of cooking and help each other learn to make three new dishes in the period of three weeks. Each week, we met at one person’s home, and made the ‘special dish’, while shooting the whole process of cooking on a basic video camera. We made a snack, a main course and a dessert. They weren’t fantabulous, of course, but we relished them! (Our parents ate a little reluctantly, though). And in the process, we learnt not only the finer aspects of cooking, but also many things such as basic video-shooting and editing, improvisation (once, the electricity went and we had to cook in candlelight), making the best from what we have, working in a team, disaster management, and basic marketing skills as well (How to Make a Dish That is Terrible into Something That Looks Edible 101, and parents always needed some convincing before they would taste!). More than anything, we learnt how to have fun – differently, creatively, and without spending money and time just on consuming stuff.

And if I were to summarize what ‘gift culture’ truly means to me, I would quote a much-loved Beatles’ track that goes –

“I don’t care too much for money
‘Cause money can’t buy me love…”

Two sisters

This is a story from long ago
When the Earth was very new.
It is about the Sun and Moon
Known only to a few.

The Sun was a dutiful daughter
Did her work fair and square
The Moon was her conceited sister
Her head filled with hot air.

The Sun would rise up daily
At the precise hour
Do her bit to warm the Earth
Light up the very last flower.

The Moon never did anything
Being really very vain,
Dancing through the night in full glory
Never did she wax, or wane.

Then one day she did it.
“They love me more than you”
She taunted the good Sun
“The wolves howl, lovers swoon, even the tides, they move for me. Not you!”

“No one dares look at you
You are SO ugly.” She jeered.
The Sun, poor thing, was so distressed
That off her course she veered.

The moon laughed, and shone
Even more brightly that night.
That people on the Earth
Remarked at the brilliant sight.

But alas! The next day dawned
Grey and gloomy as can be
For the Sun was nowhere to be seen!
She couldn’t face the Earth in her agony.

Several days passed with no sign of her
Until Earth-folks approached the Sky
Only he, being their father, could do something.
But he only gave a sigh.

“Oh, she’s gone and hid herself behind a cloud, as usual.
Her sister’s really mean.
But the girl should show more nerve
She’s the mighty Sun! Yet underneath, still green.”

So he called them both around and said
“You are BOTH loved, and need
To understand that! Sun, without you
This world is a sad place indeed.”

“No light means no flowers.
And that means no food! No life!
The Earth will be a dark, dark planet.
Full of sorrow and strife.”

“And you, my dear Moon!
Vanity leaves behind its mark.
You are punished! Every month you’ll fade a little,
Until one night, you’ll be completely dark.”

“You can’t do that!” cried the Moon
“Indeed I can, for you must learn a lesson
Even beauty turns into a beast
If it gets out of proportion.”

“You must grow and fade
It won’t lessen your shine.
On the contrary, being seen so rarely
Will make you more divine.”

So that is why, my dear folks
The Moon waxes and wanes,
And all the Earthly mortals will agree
That her beauty thus remains.

Is hope a good thing?

What is that which binds me to you?
A bond so taut it cuts my fingers
You don’t hold it from your end
You don’t even acknowledge it exists.
Is it a noose around your neck that I have placed?
Do you wish to be free?

Is hope a good thing?

Why does the world spin on a tilted axis?
Why do camels walk in the rain,
While fertile lands crack with thirst?
Is hope a good thing?

Or maybe it’s my imagination
Gives me dreams to sustain
Like a crack from which a shaft of light escapes
Into that abysmal hole of loneliness
What is the difference between hope and false hope?
Is there any?
Tell me,
Is hope a good thing?

But what will you answer?
You, the shredder of quilted hopes
And burner of combustible desires
They flare up so fast and leave nothing but smoke behind
Polluting, suffocating, poisonous fumes.
Is hope a good thing?

But what will you answer?

1/8/2012