a month in London…

I’m walking along High Holborn towards Covent Garden with a friend. She’s in a hurry – the shop closes in ten minutes – and I with my short legs struggle to keep up with her. A group of three people walks in front of me – just a mass of bodies in my way – and as I’m trying to navigate my way past them, one of them looks at me and says, “Please.” First, I think he’s asking me to go ahead, but a more desperate “Please!” comes my way again. I stop. The three bodies belong to a middle-aged man and woman and a young boy. The man has a slight limp, the boy is holding his hand. Anxious as I am to catch up with my friend, I wait for them to speak. “Is this the way to Piccadilly Circus?” is all that’s asked. The man has an Italian accent. By their clothes, they don’t look touristy, at least not the rich tourist variety. And in that moment, for some strange incomprehensible reason, I feel a wave of affection towards these three strangers. “Yes, you’re going the right way” I reply, hastening to add that I’m a student who’s also new but can look it up on my phone. “No, that’s not necessary” they say. They thank me for my help, and I hurry ahead to meet my friend.

I cannot fathom why and how and whereabouts this feeling of affection for random strangers has emerged. But it has stayed with me, a rich and engaging – if slightly disconcerting – emotion. But I speak of this exchange because it encapsulates so much of what it has meant to live in London, of which I complete exactly a month today. Being a little lost. Friendly and extremely helpful (and better at giving directions than I was!) strangers. An obsession with Piccadilly Circus. Struggling to keep up. A touristy family of three. But not the rich we’ve-been-here-before kind. More the we’re-not-from-here kind. Discovering London on foot. Limping. Unwillingness to rely on technology. Parents. And then the sheer exhilaration and sheer exhaustion of being alone, alone, alone…

…and yet, not being alone. London has been, surprisingly, accommodating. Before coming here, I was really worried about feeling alienated in a European city full of White people. One of my formative experiences of being culturally ‘othered’ happened when I travelled to Europe and the US as a child, where I became painfully aware for the first time in my life that I was different from everybody and not in a good way. And that this difference was marked upon my body and my person – the colour of my skin, the way I spoke English, the clothes I wore, made people look at me in a particular way. The worst privilege is the one that is self-deceptive, which insidiously hides itself within the ‘normal’, the ‘general’, the ‘standard’. In India, I never had to think about my identity precisely because I belonged to identity groups that were in power – ‘upper’ caste, religious majority, middle class, urban – the same groups that form the subjectivity of the normative, unmarked ‘Indian’ (perhaps also male, but gender is something I will not get into for now!). But step out of those boundaries, and suddenly the fact that I am ‘brown’ (not ‘one of us’), poor (wealth is so relative!), non-native English speaker (even though I’ve been thinking in English since I can remember) and fat (hello culture-specific beauty standards!) becomes painfully obvious.

This feeling of being marked in a particularly disempowering way was something I had dreaded about moving to the West. But amazingly, I have not felt that way in London. London prides itself on being the most international city in the world – apparently, all of the world’s nationalities are said to be living here. And that diversity – of bodies and faces, of colour, of language, of ethnicity, of religion – is very visible here in the city. There are times when on the Tube, I hardly hear any British-accented English, or even any English at all! The diversity makes it easy to feel belonged – to feel part of this amalgamation of difference. The gaze is different too – you’re not so much an outsider as you are another inhabitant going about their business in this big, big city. The very fact that I – a brown-skinned, kurta-and-bindi-wearing (on that particular day), very-un-English-looking person – was asked by a White European family if I knew the way to Piccadilly Circus as if I was a born and bred Londoner itself indicates how easily diversity is understood and accepted around here.

Of course, this diversity is not free of hierarchy. Which bodies occupy which spaces, which bodies do what kinds of work, is quite clearly visible. For example, most behind-the-counter and cleaning staff in LSE as well as at Goodenough College (my residence hall), are (like me) non-White and immigrant. As most of my interactions, especially at Goodenough, are with them, this ‘outsider’ likeness gives me a sense of connection to them, which is nice, but also leaves behind a disconcerting subsidiary of the Imposter Syndrome (…what am I even doing here? …do I have the right to be here?), which I am trying to make sense of and explore further.

But largely, the feeling has been of accommodation. Of falling in step with the crowd. Which brings me to a side note I must say about the crowd. People had warned me that London is crowded (ha!) and the tube sometimes resembles the Mumbai locals (haha!), but that is just a gross overstatement. Yes, London is peopled, and there are crowds on the Underground at times, but even the crowds are accommodating. People wait to see if anyone else would like to claim an empty seat before sitting. People make way for you and try not to get in your way. There is a sense of detached politeness that’s really rare in India. Or, as a friend remarked, back home we are taught (conditioned) to fight for space, to fight for everything, basically. Here, that frenzied win-or-die attitude isn’t on display, at least not in public spaces. Perhaps, same friend remarks further, a couple of beers later the politeness will recede, and the inner xenophobia will be revealed. Perhaps. But for now, I’m happy with the stiff upper lip. It makes me look at my own learnt behaviours (I need to grab that seat before someone else takes it!) with a more critical eye, and pushes me to be more considerate, more polite. Maybe it’s a dikhawa, but even that’s a good thing when we’re navigating the public space together, I suppose.

More than the public space, navigating the private space has been interesting. As this is the first time I’m living literally on my own, without the support systems of family or close friends or boyfriend, it is a learning curve. It also makes me aware of how much time and energy is consumed for routine tasks that were either taken for granted (read: not recognised as the domestic, reproductive, and emotional labour done mostly by women) or shared at home. Even decision-making takes such a long time – like whether to do laundry today. Or planning to cook. And what to wear – London weather is so famously unpredictable that I feel I am dressing for different seasons in the same week! The hardest is to do the emotional labour for and by yourself – to comfort, to cajole, or even to convince your own self is un-easy. There is nobody I can be grumpy, crabby, and whiny around! Sulking or crying on the phone isn’t the same as sulking and crying to people in front of you. I really miss the physical presence of loved ones who know me and love me as I am.

Another painful realisation is the lack of touch, and how much we take touch for granted. What really hits me sometimes, especially when I come back to a cold, dark, empty room after an exhausting day, is the realisation that I have not felt human touch at all during the day. Maybe because it’s just the first month – friendships are still being forged, personal space is still being negotiated, and while there are people I’ve become great friends with here, and those who are available to (occasionally) get some nice hugs from, it’s still not the same as a parent’s touch, or a lover’s touch.

I’ve been repeating to myself what a friend described as the ‘Chosen One’ hypothesis, which consists of the following premises: 1. I only have a year here. 2. There’s so much to do in London! 3. I should consider myself lucky to be here, and hence 4. I cannot waste any time moping. Thus, I convince myself – and everyone else – that I’m doing great, that amazing things have been happening to me. Which they have. And I am really doing great (ha!). London has been generous in its offerings (even weather-wise), and apart from certain days from hell (if hell were a rain-sodden desert of gloom) which I can count on the fingers of one hand, I’ve been having a fantastic time.

But coming back to an empty room, with no one to cry to but your pillows, kind of majorly sucks.

Alright, enough moping. Let’s move on to the more than good enough time I’m having at Goodenough College. Goodenough College is a quintessentially British establishment (the Queen is their patron!) which houses international postgraduate students in London. It’s a lovely place – Georgian style buildings, manicured lawns, quaint furniture, and a Great Hall straight out of Hogwarts. They really emphasise on community living, which is great because it means you’re constantly around people. And yet, you have your own space to retreat to, if so desired. The community also becomes a resource pool – there’s always someone to ask for help, or anything else. After spending a month living here, it has already started to feel like home. It’s also just nice to meet so many people from different parts of the world and hear their stories. Made me realise how little I know about the rest of the world, and how what we hear or know about other cultures is so different from the lived experiences of someone who is actually from that culture or location. And how, because of the sharing, it makes it easier to build a more nuanced understanding of the lives and realities of those who are not like us, and hence also of our own lives.

It has been interesting, in this background, to talk about India. A random man I played table tennis with one day was very interested in knowing about ‘Indian culture’ and its various trappings, including the notion of ‘arranged marriages’. He asked me if families in India continue to coerce their daughters into marriage with a person chosen by the family. The easy answer to that question was yes, as I was thinking about the girls and young women I was working with prior to coming here, and their struggle against early and forced marriage. However, as soon as I responded, the man asked, “So even you will have to marry the person your parents choose for you?” which made me laugh. Except, he was genuinely confused. I tried to explain that 1. India is not homogenous and 2. Not all families think this way, and 3. Fortunately I belong to one that is very liberal, but the exchange left me feeling uneasy. Full of questions such as how to represent one’s culture responsibly, while being mindful of the relations of power that exist between as well as within cultures, which not only create partial understandings about certain (especially non-Western) cultures, but also accord different positions of privilege within them. Could I, as a person with considerable privilege in my culture, accurately and authentically describe it to someone completely unfamiliar to it? Could I be informative and yet acknowledge the confusion, the bias, the partiality, the contestations within my narrative?

A few weeks ago, I visited the Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace, a free tour organised by (who other than) Goodenough for its new members. As someone with a major postcolonial hangover, it was dreamy to see the House of Commons and House of Lords and the opulence and splendour of it all – the tradition, the ceremonial frills, the rules of etiquette. But I had very mixed feelings on the tour. At one level, it was thrilling to be in the birthplace of the parliamentary system, and to historicise it – to see it as a site of contestations and struggle which made it possible to refine and further strengthen its conceptualisations of democracy and representation. Despite that, it was also unsettling to think that this was the very space, these were the very seats of power, that produced and legitimised so much violence and destruction in so many parts of the world, including the part I call home. But do I then blame the current British government or people for it? Do I hate them? No! Thinking of ways to engage more critically with these feelings, and to take the dialogue forward with people from both sides of the ‘Commonwealth’.

Speaking of dialogue, something I really like about my course at LSE is the emphasis given to dialogue as a pedagogical tool – as a way to make better sense of this world. I am really inspired by the way in which my professors and classmates at the School respond to and are responsible to diversity. In the beginning, having only heard of LSE at this academy of global renown, I was (more than) a little worried that the teaching here would be pedantic and impersonal, and how it would juxtapose with the teaching of gender studies as itself a subject of radical study. However, I have been (more than) pleasantly surprised at how participatory and inclusive (and warm!) the classroom space is, particularly in my (Gender Studies) department but in the School overall. And how there is a strong emphasis on diversity, not just of access (almost 70% students here are international) but also in terms of classroom engagement. Among my classmates too, instead of competition, there is a shared commitment to learning together. As we come from very different backgrounds (academically, culturally, socio-politically, geographically) it is much more fun to attempt to make collective (but perhaps not always coherent) sense of it all than to determine who knows best. (Also because as gender studies students we challenge the very idea of knowing something ‘objectively’ and in its entirety – how can an individual claim to know anything when what they know and can know is so rooted in their subjective locations and located subjectivities? But more about that some other time!)

Of course, the niceties are also within an academic structure that is not unlike academia elsewhere (and in India). Teaching is still informed by power – in my first gender studies class, I found out that out of nearly twenty thousand professor-level positions in the UK academia, only nineteen (19!) are held by women of colour and ethnic minorities. And that the professors in my department continue to struggle against pay gaps as well as increased marginalisation of and attacks on gender studies as an academic discipline. So, same storms brewing in different teacups.

That brings me (thankfully) to the end of some very rambling reflections of this first month in London. As I’ve already spent a day and a half of my precious weekend time on this (with still-unread readings for next week’s classes haunting me) and as you also must have spent enough time reading this (good enough? Not good enough? Also this phrase has forever lost its semantic purpose for me), I shall take pause.

Just want to end with a small riff: the leaves have already started turning yellow/brown and falling; soon all the trees will be bare-boned and sad-looking. While autumn continues its ‘mellow fruitfulness’, we are reminded constantly that Winter is Coming. And that this is going to be the worst winter London has witnessed in a hundred years. So, as I enjoy the last bits of sunshine on this sunny Sunday and try not to worry about falling leaves and the (sheer amount of) homework left to do, here’s a verse by Frost (the name, too!) that says it ever so much better:

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

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2017 taught me…

It seems as if I post only once a year, reflections on the year that was. But this time, instead of my usual rambling post, here’s a rambling list of 99 things 2017 taught me:

  1. The sophisticated art of composing Instagram stories
  2. The true meaning of the phrase “plausible deniability”
  3. How to bake rainbow shortbread biscuits
  4. The importance of self-care
  5. The ability to say no
  6. To not give a fuck
  7. To go against the advice of elders, experts, and experienced peers
  8. To listen to my gut and follow my heart, no matter what
  9. To take the plunge without knowing how deep it goes
  10. Courage
  11. That the moon looks beautiful through a gap in the curtains
  12. That my boyfriend grows more handsome each passing day
  13. To love my boyfriend even more
  14. To be okay with the long distance
  15. That babies are heavy
  16. But also, that there’s nothing more fulfilling than a tiny body curled into yours as you rock it to sleep
  17. The sudden thrill of making a baby laugh, finally
  18. To keep trying
  19. To celebrate even the tiniest of victories
  20. To celebrate even the greatest of failures
  21. To shrug off the smaller defeats
  22. To peel away the scabs of jealousy
  23. To negotiate with my non-negotiables
  24. The liberating realisation that I will never know anyone, including myself, completely
  25. To appreciate people for who they are, rather than who I want them to be
  26. That there’s a time and a season for everything
  27. But not always a reason
  28. The joy of living, sometimes
  29. The promise and the potential of ‘sometimes’
  30. Procrastination
  31. Focus
  32. That contrary moment of vulnerability mixed with determination, when you open as well as brace yourself for criticism
  33. To be proud of the ability to do so
  34. The pain of receiving hateful comments on your work
  35. The fear of disapproval
  36. The ability to not let disapproval affect what you do
  37. The comfortable familiarity of returning to Harry Potter
  38. Renewed appreciation for Ron-Hermione fanfiction
  39. Renewed appreciation for Phillip Pullman
  40. To not go looking for answers
  41. Instead, to ask better questions
  42. To not be afraid to point out what’s going wrong
  43. That little things don’t often go as I hoped. I don’t always get what I want. But what matters is that I have what I need. That I’ve been given so much, much more than most people
  44. Gratefulness
  45. The realisation that I’m in a good place
  46. The realisation that I’m a very (immodestly) good cook
  47. To look at privilege in the eye
  48. Listening better
  49. Speaking lesser
  50. To keep quiet
  51. To fall out of love, slowly, like the soothing warmth that seeps in after a burst of pain
  52. That I am deeply, profoundly loved, especially by those I love
  53. Easy goodbyes
  54. Difficult goodbyes
  55. That things, people, stories, feelings, tend to get lost
  56. And not everything can be found again
  57. That happiness is hidden in the darkest of spaces, and can be found even in the darkest of times
  58. The delight of watching a baby’s wonderment at discovering how to switch on a light
  59. The infinite joy of working with girls
  60. Appreciation for girls and young women as they navigate their lives with wit, wisdom, curiosity, and everlasting hope
  61. The power of Lists
  62. The power of solidarity
  63. The ability to bring your pain closer to another’s
  64. Empathy
  65. The refined art of blubbering in front of people
  66. That parents are imperfect
  67. To love my parents more
  68. To make art with food
  69. To prioritise
  70. To not apologise for myself
  71. To stand up to what I believe in
  72. But be open to be stood down
  73. How to cook fish like my mother
  74. The empowering realisation that every situation can be dealt with
  75. To be mindful, but not afraid, of the consequences
  76. That pity is a useless emotion
  77. To believe in the potential of the undiscovered, unspoken, unwritten, unheard
  78. The joy and inexplicable sorrow of rediscovering the magic in old friendships
  79. The power of shared vulnerabilities
  80. To love Bughead
  81. To love Ed Sheeran
  82. Appreciation for home
  83. Appreciation for solitude
  84. The simple joy of bae-cations
  85. The simple joy of baking
  86. The simple despair of studying for something as absurd as the NET
  87. To take efforts
  88. Grit
  89. A tolerance for disorder
  90. The subversive power of Dust
  91. To dance like a fucking boss
  92. To transact like a fucking adult
  93. That everyone doesn’t think like you about Game of Thrones
  94. To hate George RR Martin for not completing Winds any time soon
  95. To master my anxiety
  96. Bullet journaling
  97. Preparedness for failure
  98. Serendipity
  99. Hope.

25.

Today is my ‘lunar’ birthday, it seems. It didn’t feel like a birthday, to be honest. Definitely not a milestone like the 25th. The social constructivist part of myself laughs at this seemingly arbitrary calculation for an arbitrary number of years of existence that is deemed so noteworthy. Yet, as my ‘actual’ (oh well.) birthday looms just around the corner, another part of me – more difficult to label – titters excitedly. Why are birthdays so important to me? Perhaps because it is the only day of the year that I am so self-aware: a day that I know for sure is going to be remembered for ever; rather, has to be remembered; hence, has to be worth remembering. I have tried my best to make my birthdays these spectacular, perfect days that stories can be spun out of decades later. I have mostly failed. The failed ones are remembered in sharper clarity, unfortunately.

So here I am, once again, trying to make this one special. The failed birthday cynic in me scoffs and is already wondering what can go wrong. Some loose threads have already begun to unspool. But I shall not be daunted. So, I’m giving myself the best birthday gift I can: time to write. Write about what it means to be 25, to be flung beyond the cusp of adulthood that I was long hanging on to. Write to celebrate my learnings and reflect upon my mistakes. Or should it be the other way ‘round? Write to remember. Write to recover. Write to let go. Write to invite others into the conversation. But mostly, write because I love to.

Adulthood.

The other day, as my best friend and I were crossing the road, a group of preteen boys called us ‘Kaku’ (roughly translated as Married Aunty). We were offended, but later joked about it being the lowest point of our year. But it happens. I sometimes catch myself in the mirror and think, when did I grow so old? I have millions of grey hairs. But not the wisdom that comes with each strand. I behave like an adult but I have to remind myself of being one, at least once a week. It hasn’t sunk in yet. When did it happen, I wonder? When did I finally become an adult? Was it after I got a fulltime job, and my first salary? Was it when they let me inside a bar after checking my ID? Was it after I cast my first vote? Was it after my first sexual encounter? Was it after the first time I experienced intimacy, and relished it? Was it after my first experience with a loved one’s death? Was it the first time I drove a car? There have been so many firsts! And yet, none of them exclusively made me feel very grown up. I think adulthood is a process of adaptation. Of slowly unpeeling layers of yourself – and the pain and exhilaration that come with it.

I don’t feel like I am on the edge of a precipice anymore, though. I’ve jumped in, and am learning to swim. When swimming gets tiring, when the current is good, I float. But not for long, or else I’ll drown. So, swim I have to. It is a vast sea of loneliness at times. Other times, there’s too much company. I’ve stopped being afraid of loneliness. There was a point when I started craving it. Maybe that’s when I became an adult.

Love.

Falling in love, to me, is the easiest and most difficult thing. Easy because it just happens. Serendipitously. My most prized relationships have been ones which unfolded without us even realising it. And love is most difficult because it is not easy to love someone so constantly, so completely. Not even myself. Not even life. And yet, that’s what we are expected to do. I’ve realised that I love people contextually. I love my boyfriend in certain situations. Does that mean I don’t love him in other situations? Not necessarily. I just cannot see him in certain contexts. There are times when I desperately want to love him but cannot. There are other contexts where other people, other ideas overpower my heart completely and claim it as theirs. I love feminist theory because it allows me to see a completely new dimension of the world – one that has already been right there but never perceived, never realised, never understood. It allows me to see so starkly the workings of power in a society which invisibilises it by hegemonically normalising it. Like I have some sort of superpower, a supergaze. I love thinking about what we do once we gain this gaze. Do we bask in the glory of possessing it, gazing down upon lesser other who don’t? Do we try to spread it to more people, infecting as many as we can with this supersensory perception? Do we attempt to change what we don’t like (but care enough about)? This is my question. I think I’m in love with this question.

But loving people is much more difficult. Most people I love, I don’t know the answer to why I love them. And yet I still do. What does loving someone entail though? To me, (and I steal from CS Lewis here), to love is to be vulnerable. Permeable. Open to pain, and sorrow, and joy. It is also to be honest. This year has given me the opportunity to make myself vulnerable to people in beautiful and powerful ways. Some of my best conversations stemmed from this space of vulnerability. I think being vulnerable is important because it is the only act of political resistance left to me in a world that tries so hard to make me competitive, insurmountable, perfect, so geared to succeed. Vulnerability makes space for imperfections, for failures, for warmth, for empathy. It allows me to connect my pain to the pain in others and to collectively try and ease it. It allows me, as a wonderful lady told me this year, to come close to people. My pain may not be the same as another’s, but it pushes me to move closer.

My problem, however, is that in return for my vulnerability, I expect it from people too. And that’s where I’ve been sorely disappointed.

Disappointments.

Being an adult means being disappointed quite a lot, I’ve realised. I feel like everything doesn’t live up to the way it is made to be. I’ve been disappointed quite a lot this year. With life. With the choices I’ve made. With my boyfriend. With my job. With my friends. With people, in general. A question I’ve been struggling with is, how do I deal with this disappointment? Do I stop expecting? Do I stop giving? Do I stop trying? But I cannot. Maybe I should stop holding everyone else to the same standards as I hold myself. Maybe I should stop holding myself up to any standard. Maybe I should give a chance to people to please me. Does disappointment occur from my need to be in control? Should I let go of the reins, a little bit at least?

Life isn’t any one thing. It has its highs and lows, something everybody knows. So, the good will come with some bad. I cannot let my disappointment overwhelm the good left in this world, in people, in myself.

I think for the most part, I’m very proud of myself. For taking the efforts, regardless.

Transitions.

It hasn’t been an easy year. So many things that I thought were becoming my footholds to life were pulled from beneath my feet. I got my gold medal but didn’t get my dream job. My boyfriend – who had been my anchor for the past four years – was pulled away in the pursuit of his dreams in another city while I was left behind, with memories that became increasingly bitter. I took up a job I wasn’t sure about in a city I didn’t want to live in just because I didn’t want to stay at home. For a while, I didn’t know what I wanted. I had had a glorious, perfect post-graduate performance. I had made a thesis-baby I was proud of. I had won accolades after accolades. I had won the gold. I had a boyfriend who fulfilled all my people-needs and snuggle-needs. From this lovely, cosy little oven, I jumped into the fire of mediocrity. Those few months, I hated my life. I hated Mumbai, my job, my boyfriend, my friends, my life. They had all betrayed me.

But it got better. Conversations helped. Unexpected friendships and drinking sessions helped even more. As did Sahir’s poetry. Life was bearable, even enjoyable. But just as I was settling down into this cosy little bubble I had created for myself, it was burst, once again, by Life. Circumstances. Things Beyond My Control. Maybe being an adult is to realise that it’s a constant, unending walk over hot coals. We just need to keep dancing. Reinventing. Readjusting. Rest your feet a little longer and you just might get burnt.

Will it ever get easier?

[re]Births.

Okay, I realise this thing is becoming too cynical. I’m becoming too cynical. I’m usually not like this! I hope it’s a phase. When was the last time I was truly, unabashedly, unequivocally happy? It was almost two weeks ago, when I found out that one of my closest friends had given birth to a baby girl. The baby’s father is the closest thing I have to an elder brother, I’ve literally grown up with him. Her mother is someone I look up to, an elder-sister-role-model in many ways. Around nine months ago, I had a vivid dream that these two had a baby daughter who I would go play with. I like to believe it was some kind of premonition which actually came true. On Christmas Day, when I held her in my arms for the first time, I felt a strange sense of solidarity, an attachment of sorts, with this little fortnight-old babe. I wondered what it was.

In many ways, her birth feels like déjà vu for me. She reminds me of myself, for a number of reasons. She’s a Capricorn. Her parents, in their thinking, in their politics, and even in their relationship with each other, are akin to mine. They’ve even given her a name that’s like mine – with no surname! I see this kid growing up in a wonderful environment – a progressive, liberal, egalitarian bubble, just like I did. But it is still only a bubble! Needing to be created, preserved, protected, upheld, at all time and at all costs. Looking at her little life, I ask myself, what has changed in the past twenty-five years? How will this one’s life be different from my own? Let’s take her name, for example. Just because her mother did not change her surname after marriage, the baby’s birth certificate was rejected by the municipal authorities. Because the mother and father need to have the same surname, apparently, in our society. Because within the institution of marriage, the wife needs to take her husband’s name, according to a clerk in the municipal corporation. There is no law to validate these claims, of course, but you see, these minor discrepancies will cause you trouble, inconvenience, shame. Dare you try.

Twenty-five years ago, my parents went through the same inconveniences. The times have changed, but social customs have not. At least my birth certificate wasn’t rejected! Maybe things have worsened. All the more reason to fight. All the more reason to protest. I look at my fifteen-day-old fellow-Capricorn, sound asleep and happily unaware of her own, very controversial, name. I wonder what battles she will have to fight. I wish her all my luck and love and strength. I wish the world she grows up in the next twenty-five years will be a better one.

I promise to help make it a better one.

 

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?