5,500 Kilometers of Evocations: Bombay – Dubai – Mumbai

Over the course of 30 years, the author has seen family and distant relatives migrate from her little village in south India to the dusty outflanks of the Emirates. She pieces together the invisible but established chains of aspirations that bind her clan together in imagining Dubai.

Dubai Maal + Disco Chain
I first encountered Dubai through two rather innocuous channels: my olfactory and my epidermal. My ocular faculties were busy engaged with the text. It was the late-80s, and I was a chubby 5-year-old whose nose was always stuck in the glossy pages of the Russian Misha magazines and the colorful swirls of Folk Tales from Around the World. Unlike other kids who were weaned on the staple Indian diet of Chandamama and Tinkle comics, my father’s affinity for world culture and National Geographic Magazine, meant that we, my elder brother and I, were treated to medieval Slavic stories and Assyrian Art rather than our home brewn ghostly vetaal. My uncle from my mother’s side was paying us a visit. He was a businessman and owned a factory in Bombay which manufactured ‘covering’ jewelry. Although ‘covering’ is still used as a colloquial term in Mumbai, it is so conspicuous in its nomenclature for alluding to its cheap constitution of pital (Hindi word for brass) and tamba (copper) hidden beneath gold or silver plating.

So, uncleji was in the midst of expanding his business and had just returned from a trip to Dubai. This was his bi-annual Mecca, a trip to network with jewelry devouts and seek inspiration from the designs on display at hundreds of shops and street stalls, where authentic gold is sold. Uncle’s laborers worked 30-day, 14-hour shifts to replicate Emirati designs on Indian oxidized and gold-plated metals, and these would eventually find their way to our ears, neck and hands. Family was always ‘First Come, First Served.’ Our pride was richer for the insourced designs, “This is the latest attraction in Dubai. You won’t find this in Zaveri Bazaar’s sona walla yet!” or for that matter, Mohammed Ali Road, Bhendi Bazaar or Crawford Market—the eponymous jewelry lanes of Bombay.

And truly, you wouldn’t find the jewelry designs sourced from the Emirates at any of the Hindu sona walla’s display cases. The gold-plated circular hoops, garlanded with tiny beads in all colors of the rainbow; bangles marked with geometric patterns; disco chains, some slim and twisted, others chunky, that came with a single ‘dollar,’ a pendant in the various shapes that mathematics produced; jhumar or chandelier type bird cages and the tightly-woven, chain-mail like wrist cuffs whose weight was a pleasure to feel against your skin. There was something very sophisticated about even the most simplest jewelry, or perhaps, my child’s eyes saw something fantasy-inlaid in the gold that for the first time didn’t come from our local family jeweler, but from somewhere foreign, and was thus, granted a status of value. The disco chain, especially, a staple of every jeweler in the 1970s and 80s, has been the cause of many a tangled tale for women around the world, as its curled and jumbled surface pulled the hair growing around the lower part of our necks. I imagine every jewelry box that guards this chain preserving a couple of withered, brown-black-blond-hennaed hair clinging to its tiny hook.

Gold as Religion
I grew up fascinated with the almost pathological demarcation of designs claimed by each of Bombay’s community; gold spotting comes easy in a city which sees people from every town and municipality of the country crossing borders to call this megapolis a foster home. One could ascertain the religious denomination of a woman, sometimes based solely on the accoutrements on her person, including head gear, clothes obviously, the presence or absence of certain traditional makeup, shringaar, and most importantly, the gold she wore. You only have to catch a glimpse of the mangalsutra (as it is known in north and west India) or thaali chain (south India) that married women wore, the upper strings of which would be visible through the pleats of a saree, the wrappings of the dupatta or the collars of the dress. The neighbor to our right, Jincy aunty, a Keralite Christian, would wear subtle gold on her person, a simple disco chain with the crucifix as pendant, small yet broad-banded hooped earrings, and slim bangles; the neighbor to our left, a Kutchi Muslim from Rajasthan, would wear these heavy kadas, totally plain looking bangles, almost the color of clarified butter, with big, hooped earrings that would reveal the tears in her ear lobes – always petrified me, that one; the Mahashtrian neighbor opposite our flat would wear these colorful magenta-bottle green glass bangles interspered with slim gold bangles, a black-beaded mangalsutra with a locket that resembled a flattened dumbell, and silver toe rings.

And this was the norm noy only for the city’s mainstream sects (whose prayer calls and bells dominated our daily rituals); the traditional castes and the tribal folks living on the fringes of the city’s existence would have their obvious and specific identity markers in the jewelry they wore. The Kolis (the fisherfolk) who lived along the beachy-suburbs of Bandra, Khar and Juhu, wore very peculiar, heavy, coin-like neck pieces, a variant of which the Tamils and other south Indians wore, which we call kasamala (money chain). The Kutchi Muslims, many of whom dealt in textile trade, wore gold that was thick, with fine scroll-like detailing and curliques inlaid with Kundan stones and Mina work. Meenakari has a very interesting provenance outside of India. Mina or enamel work inlaid on gold, using variety of colors, came to India by way of craftsman from Lahore to the court of the ruler of Jaipur, Raja Sawai Man Singh to the province of Mewar in Rajasthan in 16th century. In Minakari, an ornament is crafted in gold or silver and then the artist draws the desired design that is then outlined by the engraver to make the enamel adhere firmly. The enameller then brushes the ornament on the engraved design with special colours called meena in red, green, black, yellow, blue. If you traveled across the length and breadth of the city, you would spot the banjaras or gypsies, adorned from head to toe with silver jewelry, coin-like lace work sewn on to their shawls, heavy, jhallar (chain) earrings attached to their hair on either side of the forehead, multicolored beaded chains around their necks, scores of thick, but hollow silver kadas engulfing their arms, and solid silver anklets around their ankles. I guess argentum was the first word they learnt to speak.

The mid-1990s saw a transfer of loyalties from the designs of your traditional family jeweler to the ones you saw advertised in the urban magazines and national dailies of the counry. Femina and Women’s Era carried full-page, glossy ads of gold jewelry designed by big Marwari or Jain jewelry-chain owners, modeled by reed-thin, shoulder-exposed, dusky models, with their atrocious pink lips and intricate hair styles. The much-traveled uncleji from my mother’s side, who was once again in the throes of expanding his covering jewelry business, now designed and deployed variations of not only the Dubai maal but also what was the Indian flavor of the season: Bollywood fashion. Cross-pollination and synthesis in design are, after all, hallmarks of our ancient land and its people. This was the time for the ascendancy of Bollywood, when costume jewelry and film fashion began to have a profound infleunce on the aesthetics of the urban, middle class girls and their mothers. To be ostentious about your gold is definitely an Indian trait, but this was the era of the divas, Sri Devi, Jaya Pradha, Rekha, and Meenakshi Sheshadri, south Indian sirens who didn’t ostensibly display any kind of yellow glitter in their onscreen avatars, but rather, went the way of diamonds, stones and pasty gems, as demanded by the colorful, gaudy and garish films and songs of the time. Instead of spending thousands or lakhs on an original gem, one could spend a mere hundred rupees on covering items and instantly ape the look of our celluloid goddesses. This also had bonus benefits: compliments of your Gujarati, Kutchi and Marwari neighbors who, having surrptitiously kept track of our (my mother’s and mine) jewelry oeuvre, exclaimed that our dazzling collections “rivalled the stars” – not in the skies, but “of Bollywood”.

I often wonder about the rather Indian way of christening a thing for its obvious characteristics, and covering gold was one such example. Wouldn’t it have made more business sense to come up with a term other than ‘covering’, a term that didn’t allude to the jewelry’s artifice, especially if you consider the subcontinent’s obsession with sona. At birth, the child is girdled around the hips and lovingly manacled around the ankle and wrists with gold cuffs and bracelets. We can keep adding to this tally as we age, through the naming ceremony, following our first tonsure, gilding our first footprints in 24 karat gold leaf, and from then on the tally is maintaned for strict purposes of marriage bounty, and then, coming full circle by passing on the grandmother’s and mother’s gold to the grandchild.

While diamonds were Marylyn Monroe’s best friends, in India, they weren’t in circulation until the late 1970s and began as cottage industries. For dowry, especially, the measure of value in terms of a carat could not be compared to the solid weight of a tola, a British unit of measurement. Remember those Hindi film dialogues where the evil mother-in-law asks her glossy-maroon-lips-biting, timid daughter-in-law if she has brought sau tola (100 tola) gold? As for Platinum, it was an unheard of element, so gold had plenty of mileage. In my teenage years, as I rebelled against mother’s constant missive to deck myself in womanly adornments – and make myself presentable to the relatives with eligible bachelors, she would tell me that the yellow metal had healing properties and would bring a glow to the face and body of the wearer. Although I didn’t put it beyond her to invent this new non-medical therapy, I did take to wearing a smattering of neck, ear and finger pieces for a while. Who doesn’t like a glow on their face!

Rupaiyya for Dirhams
While none from my Tamil Muslim clan crossed the Pacific or Atlantic to test the shores of America and Britian, scores of relatives – single men, married couples, families and sometimes, three generations in a family, did make a 5,500 kilometer journey to set up shop and life in Dubai and its sister cities. No one quite remembers about the First Family who shifted to the Middle East in the early 60s. There also seems to be no definite pattern to the subsequent voyages of other relatives, who moved to Dubai, Sharjha and Abu Dhabi in the 70s. You have to understand that it was not an easy future these men contemplated, rather it was the search for a life that would surpass the narrow reality of what their village and outying towns of Tamil Nadu would offer: setting up petty shops, owning cloth, grocery or spare parts shops, or working as supervisors in workshops and cottage industries.

These village outliers, who dared to cross the seas in search of fortune, were barely out of their teens in the 1960s. They came from large, undivided families and grew up in the luxurious lap of post-Independent southern India. Their fathers dealt in silk, ivory, sandalwood and precious stones, traveling to Ceylon, Thailand and Malaysia—just a hop away from our little village in southern India—in exchange for satin, porcelain and gold. With money flowing like silk and honey, education was not much of a focus for the sons of wealthy businessmen, as they too were expected to follow in their father’s footsteps. Reality was much more complex. The traders gradually lost their foothold overseas and saw diminished returns from business. Many of them literally squandered their wealth on multiple marriages, raising a dozen kids, maintaining expensive tastes in porcelain and chinaware, added to which was a preoccupation with rich food and sweetmeats that invariably affected their health, and following the habits of the idle wealthy that saw their rupees figuratively mothballed by the passage of time. This is the slow decay they desperately wanted to leave behind and rekindle their father’s and grandfather’s Midas touch; South East Asia was plotted territory; the Middle East beckoned.

The earliest of these voyagers traded the remainder of their ancestral gold and bet on a future where the value of the dirham would be treblefold the price they paid for it in rupaiyya. One wonders what contacts they had, apart from perhaps salutary and tenuous networks in the trader circles forged by their fathers. However, they did manage to helm comfortable lives as early as in the 60s and 70s, by setting up modest department stores and working as managers in offices, hotels and manufacturing units. Their success prompted the next generation of youngsters in my village to follow suit in the 80s; not all of them left behind their grand bungalows and the predictable life of a shop in the town or municipality, only the really brave or the really curious decided to try their luck in the Emirates. My uncle, from my father’s side, and several cousins, each set up temporary residence in the outskirts of Dubai. Since none of them had any savings following their Matriculation and nothing of any substance passed on from their fathers, they would have had to rely on the support of friends who had already secured steady jobs or on the largess of the twice or thrice removed relatives, who had by now become one of the many permanent fixtures of the Indian community in the Emirates. These youngsters found work as cash counter operators in department stores and supermarkets, or as overseers in godowns and industrial units.

While it is true that many of my now aged uncles and cousins migrated to Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi two decades ago, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Muscat were not far behind for several others in the village. By the time I hit my teenage, close cousins had moved to Saudi Arabia in teaching jobs and management roles in consulting firms, architecture firms and oil companies. This was generation next, who neither relied on the old glory of their forefathers or the semi-educated but business acument of their fathers, and instead focused on moving out of the village to near by cities to secure graduate degrees in science, mathematics and English literature. I cannot be so clinically generic and say that my village folk were not highly educated earlier, considering the fact that the bar of education keeps rising every generaiton. However, from anecdotal evidence I can say this: my father was one of a few handful of men who studied for a graduate degree in mathematics and went on to secure a job in a bank in the Bombay of the 70s. On the other hand, his batchmates in school, gravitated towards business, setting up shops, or working in the railway; a very few became lawyers and doctors and moved to other Indian cities.

The next-generation of cousins, who were a couple of years older to me and sought jobs in Dubai and the neighboring countries in the Middle East during the 90s and the new millennium, were still not biting the American bullet. I personally knew several of Gujarati, Marwari and Punjabi neighbors in Bombay, migrate to the United States in the 80s and 90s, but didn’t hear of more than a couple of families from my clan moving to Europe. Since the only ever dream I nurtured was to study and then work in the U.S. or in London, it always left me curious as to why my cousin brothers didn’t try their luck in the West? Someone suggests religious reasons, the safety of working, living and raising your family along with your faith-based brothers and sisters. Honestly, Dubai was never seen as a religious entity in the way that we know Saudi Arabia to be. The Emirates was always a place to enrich yourself materially and my cousins did that. Dubai did not fail them. They built homes and raised their kids not in the heart of the city, but in the distant flanks, commuting hundreds of miles from home to work, and reveling in the freedom that an electrified, glitzy, glamorous, and cosmopolitan State had to offer.

Senteur Lavande Anglaise
Books are great nourishment for the young mind, but the body needs its source of material comforts too. Nothing could match the luxury of being anointed by the sweet, floral, headiness of lavender combined with the milky, buttery texture of cream. These exotic salves and spirits were offerings from the Middle East pilgrims as they paid their annual homage to their blood kin, back in the sub-continent. News of their arrival would be announced well in advance. You remember how landline phones of the 90s would have a special ringtone for long-distance and international calls? A quick yell to mother in the kitchen, before I would dive to pick up the phone and answer in my most ‘Enid Blyton-honed’ cultured voice, ‘Hello, whom I am speaking to?’ The diction of Asalamu Alaikum alone would confirm whether these were relatives from Mumbai, or from my village on the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, or from overseas. A girly and garbled ‘walaikumsalam’ would be followed by ‘are you well, when are you coming, what are you bringing for me’ spiel.

The children of the family are spoilt for choice with gifts from these foreign-settled relatives. Behind the scenes, though, the politics can be bitter, petty and cruel. Those who dwell in the villages expect annual tributes from the urban sophisticates, and those in the city expect generous endowments from the overseas royals. It’s based on the assumption of ‘relative’ affluence (pun intended!); the further you live and work from your village, the more the relatives back home see you as someone with means and resources. It is expected that travelers from cities and foreign countries arrive with a suitcase filled with goodies for extended relatives and every member of individual families. Because of the projected glitter of Dubai as a rich Emirate and a city of plenty, we assume that our relatives also partake the same wealth.

I wasn’t endowed with such empathy. I was happy to receive velvet bedspreads, my first gold filigree work bracelet, Nivea body cream (no lotion at that time), bars of white Jergens soap (was there another color, I would feel cheated if I now chance upon the existence of a pink-colored Jergen!) and my maiden perfume gift from Dubai, Lily of the Valley parfume de Yardley.

As I write this 15 years later, recollecting the moment of tearing open the crinkly, transparent followed by the small, slim and sharp-edged cardboard box, I sensed, before seeing, the perfume bottle. I dip my nose to the covered nozzle and smell this intense, concentrated scent of something that was I was to learn was lavender. There was this sense of the universe squeezing itself into this patch of intoxicating fragrance. I couldn’t stop inhaling from the cap of the bottle. And true to a child’s hoardish nature, I would not immediately use it, safekeeping it in the Godrej cupboard locker for close to three months, worried that either family members or I would deplete its contents. I instintively knew that such a treat would not be bestowed again. At least I didn’t have to hide my stash from my elder brotherm who was least interested in the flowery, feminine scent and instead was happy pouring over his kilograms of chocolates, fancy stationery and watch!

Come to think of it, I don’t even know how the real lavender flower smells like! For most of us, Yardely’s bottled version is the closest we would ever get to knowing that a flower with such an exquisite scent exists. Yes, even this would be a pollinated version though, blended with lighter notes, oils, fixatives, solvents, extracts and compounds. So, while my idea of lavender is necessarily contaminated, this has had no impact on my lifelong love for the perfume, a scent which I continue to use even today. In subsequent years and even until last month, I have been gifted Yardley soaps, Yardley body sprays, Yardely talcum powders, a host of cosmetics, kerchiefs, canned products, chocolates, dress materials, hair accessories, but never the Lily from the valley. My most strongest association with Dubai would always be the parfume de Yardley.

Pilgrims into the Millennium
When I look at the lives of my cousin sisters-and-brothers from my generation, and their young children, I think about the vast distance they have crossed, metaphorically. They have unmoored their anchors from Indian shores and call either side of the Gulf their home now. I labor over the idea of what home means, when your childhood friends, your Kutchi Muslim neighbor, your parents, college buddies,  and your brothers and sisters are no longer tethered to you, physically. I try to imagine their cultural underpinning, their involvement in civic life and political legacies, their interest in forging binding ties with their neighbors, all of which is a mandatory and celebrated part of being in one’s motherland. Their roots are not underground, but aerial, exposed, different in its phenotype, absorbing the myriad pollens of ideas, language, diet, changed habits, new ways of coping with traffic, with religion, with safety, and with friendship. They are also learning how to live with loss, loss as they understand it, not how who sleep in our ethnicity might perceive it. And most importantly, they are re-framing what satiety and happiness can come to mean, when distance and time severs any scope of falling back on the comforts of remembered joys.

Or is this an imagined pain, conjured by those who have been left behind on behalf of those who have flown the coup? Am I placing too much of importance on the idea of being (Indian) and belonging (to India) that I cannot imagine whole sets and sub-sets of my blood ties and those with whom I share bonds of affinity living optimally in a land far from what they were most familiar with, water, earth and home. When I raise these sentimental points in family discussions, the expatriates share the minutiae of their lives to convince me that their alienated self is not much different from how their lives would have unfolded in India, in fact, it is much better economically and materially in the Middle East. Home is not rooted to the Earth or to the coordinates of a village, but in how well you can claim to have achieved a sense of well-being and comfort, and how your children thrive in the company of friends, picking up the new language as fluently as their mother-tongue, and internalizing the mixed culture of the Arab world and the overseas Indian community, au naturale.

My kid cousin sister, a generation younger to me, interrupts the conversation, eager to know if I watched the latest episode of the Star Plus (that great carrier of Indian tradition) soap, Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon?’, and I give her a bemused look. Her mother questions my surprised look and tells me that they watch, enjoy and religiously follow all the Hindi, Tamil and English serials that we do here, in India. Of course, satelitte television and its 493 channels doesn’t surprise me. I am obviously aware, as I keep up my cousins’ Facebook updates and Likes, that they are crazy about these soap operas, just as I am. They also celebrate all festivals in school and in their neighborhood, exchange sweets and cooked meals with neighbors, go out to malls, parks and theatres on the weekends, shop and dine out when ever they fancy, and have access to excellent educational facilities and employment opportunities for the children and the father. So, life couldn’t get any better.

Perhaps I haven’t kept pace with the changing dynamics of a globalized world, where culture is a transportable and transplantable commodity. What I imagined culture to be, a vague and nebulous concept that could only be experience in situ, is a reified experience. The things that went towards building my sense of identity as an Indian, including books, movies, music, clothes, conversatons, food and rituals, are available at every Amazon.com potal, Café Coffee Day lounges and KFC outlets, and in the posh boutiques and malls of every urban city. What I thought was rooted in geography and place memories, like the sensation of phantom limbs, is actually rooted in the mechanisms of migration: the very thing that one might be afraid of losing when moving to another country – a sense of what one is and where we come from – is perhaps reinforced and strengthened in an alien land, where it becomes all the more obvious and commonplace to carry with you that sense of displacement. Yes, this negotiation is fraught with pain, with insecurity, and also with a sense of longing, but perhaps it is compensated by other, equally valid goals: a sense of physical well-being, of being economically independent, being among people who are similarly testing uncharted waters, and of discovering new ties that bind together the next generation.

This sense of discovery is what my father missed, when it was time for him to consider a stint in Dubai. I was just born that year to my family of three, including my 6-year-old brother, and father received an offer to work in an Emirati bank. I am sure he must have struggled with the decision, labored over the possibilities of missing the boat, of having to choose between family and work – because the move would entail leaving us for quite some time before he would be in a position to call for us. We know of many women in the village and cities of my community, who live with their parents-in-law and meet their Dubai-Saudi-returned husbands once a year. Soon, they have kids and the children grow up knowing about this special guest called ‘dad,’ who stays with them for 30 days in a year, and showers them with love, gifts and pamperings, and then disappears. We knew of mothers and daughters-in-law who spent their entire lifetimes being more of a companion to each other, than they ever would to their son and husband who was perpetually earning a living in Dubai. My father would have probably risen up the ranks of the globally-branched bank, as he has done so in his three-decade-long tenure in India. We would have all been well-off, happy to be materially enriched by the souks of the desert, and not struggled under the schedule of a nationalized-bank aided growth in India. The course of my own life would have taken a different path as well. In life, these probabilities are games of chance. My father probably forsook the chance to make more money, but he bet all his cards on love and family. And that’s a voyage that is no less courageous in its execution, as it was in its conviction.

From the sheen of gold and the scent of lavender, to becoming the mall destination of choice for the sub-continent, the posh emirate today is as much a space for reminiscences for me as it has evolved into a tower of aspirations for the next batch of graduates in my village, newly-married couples (planning their honeymoon), seasoned couples (planning a quick vacation during the Great Dubai Shopping Festival) and other close relations (who travel for business and leisure). Sometimes, I imagine my alternate reality in Dubai, away from the struggles that entail a life in India. But I cannot regret a life that was never mine to choose. That was someone else’s destiny. For what it’s worth, I think Yardley would probably not be half as exquisite as it remains for me today, if it hadn’t traveled through 5,000 kilometers of evocations.

Published in The State, Volume IV, May 2013 | You can buy a hard copy or PDF of the magazine.

THE STATE is a publishing practice based out of Dubai, U.A.E. It investigates South-South reorientations, alternative futurisms, transgressive cultural criticism, the transition from analogue to digital, and the sensuous architecture of this “printernet.”

How Watching a Movie Online Turned Into a Cultural Experience For Me

The Lunchbox

I just watched a Bollywood flick online. It was a theater quality print (as the elders and authority figures of our generation are so fond of calling it). Meaning, some guy running a video CD parlor somewhere in Mumbai secretly filmed the movie as it ran First Day First Show in some single-screen cinema hall. The picture was punctuated with peals of laughter, definitely not what the film director intended for such a moving romantic drama. The silhouettes of popcorn totting lads and regional accented conversations on cellphones added the much needed gravitas to an already somber film.

But half-an-hour into the viewing, I realized that far from disturbing the proceedings, the studio-like canned laughter recorded by default by the video CD guy – pirate, if you prefer the euphemism – lent me an element of comfort.

Let me provide you with some background. As is the norm in my life, weekends are reserved for movie watching with the husband. We have our own schedules through the week and weekend, but like clockwork we take out time over a Saturday or Sunday to watch a couple of movies. In fact, I maintain an Excel sheet with a list of movies I have watched: the lead stars, genre, and my primary reaction to the film. Yes, I am a through-and-through movie buff and love my 90-, 120-, 180-minutes of love, tragedy, comedy, suspense, thriller, and horror.

Unlike my husband who has stringent requirements for the quality of print, I am an easy person to please. It’s too expensive to head to the theater every week and neither do I have the patience to wait a full 6 months before a movie appears on DVD or satellite TV. So, if something’s available online, I play it. During the weekdays, after a stressful day at work, I turn to books to help me relax. However, if time permits, I do sneak in a movie! Tonight was just one of those nights where I was on speed-dial with office updates and decided to watch an independent, small-budget romantic-drama that has received unanimously glowing reviews from the critics and public alike.

And so, half-and-hour into the movie, lounging on the couch, I felt a sense of comfort as I listened to the laughter and ambient sounds recorded into the online print. It felt like I wasn’t alone and that I was drawing in from the common pool of the people’s reactions: their laughter, their snigger, their gasp, their pin drop silence in a particularly poignant scene. I felt connected to the audience, even though we haven’t shared physical space. It might appear as a lonely movie watcher’s moment of validation but it also hit home that partaking of pop culture can never be an isolated experience. Culture is immersive, experiential and participative, and it can only thrive when allowed to be reviewed, remixed and recalibrated.

***  ***

You remember the unexpected joy of borrowing a book from the school library or paying 30 rupees for a second-hand book and then finding notes on the margins? I have had the pleasure of experiencing several such moments. The dedication on the flap of old books would feature a birthday / graduation / season’s greeting, along with the name of the “gifted” and the year, and I would scour telephone directories to see if any matches turned up. It was a thrill to hold books that was read, felt and experienced by someone else, and then be privy to their thoughts as they jotted down notes in the margins.

Me writing this post as a means of stretching that singular experience, in this case, watching a film that was available online – and waiting for my readers to share their thoughts on my experience tonight, is just another example of this principle of culture.

Over to you, now.

Remains of the Day: Food and Waste

Appetizer + Soup

In an earlier post on Feminism and Cooking, I spoke about the layered relationship we share with food and the people associated with feeding us: Mom’s love is tied up the food she cooks for her children. In this post, I want to explore our feelings towards food, once we have consumed it.

Foodwaste

Foodwaste

In my traditionally conventional Indian household, I observed that a “waste plate” would always be placed alongside our dinner plates and serving bowls. The plate, an innocuous plastic dish, had only one stand-out feature: it faded into the background of the steel utensils, gleaming cutlery and china plates. The plastic dish served the purpose of holding the remains of our food. The chewed bones left off from goat curry, the succulent bits of chicken legs ripped bare off its fried flesh, the stubborn fat that refused to dissolve from the meat, the unwanted curry leaves, the pasty remains of tamarind, the squeezed-out pulpy remains of drumsticks — all this was flicked with neat precision into the waste plate.

The gory part came afterwards. Once the plate was piled high with waste, and we were done burping and licking our fingers, someone had to pick the plastic dish and toss the contents into the bin. My brother and I were filled with disgust: chee, we said, whenever mom would ask us to carry the plate to the kitchen. “Chee” , as in “Yuck!” “Gross!” “Disgusting!” A plate that held all our “waste” would certainly not be handled by our clean hands! It would either be mom or dad who handled that chore and we were happy to cart the utensils, spoons and dinner plates to the sink. That was how we “helped mom”. We were good kids like that.

Years later, now that I am married and have a family of my own, I am responsible for serving food and yes, taking care of that innocuous little “waste plate”. It’s not my burden to take it to the dustbin, dump the contents – with my bare fingers – and clean the morsels or pickings of rice, curry leaves, whole pepper, or chewed but spat-out green chillies that dot the table (sometimes) or floor mat (usually) we sit on. I had to consciously work out the disgust from my face and gestures in the process of taking over the task of cooking, serving and clearing the remains of the day.

In traditional families, it’s the woman who is expected to serve and clear away the table, and while I co-habited with my parents-in-law for a few weeks, I was expected to uphold this tradition. It was the toughest and quickest lesson for me in overcoming disgust. From never having cleared the waste plate in my maternal home to having to clear the plates off my new, extended family. I had to display a fierce need to clear away the waste, there by proving that I had adopted the new family as my own – bones, curry leaves and spat-out seeds included.

This made me think. The “this” being the ritual of waste plates and food clearance. Why was I so put-off by the idea of handling the waste plate and inadvertently touching the juiced-out bone? An obvious reason is pathological: the mind operates with extreme caution when it comes into contact with external body fluids: semen, saliva, blood, phlegm, and mucus. From an evolutionary standpoint, these fluids are all mediums for transmission of disease-causing germs and pathogens; it’s instinctive to shy away from potentially life-threatening things. See: The Omnivorous Mind: John S Allen (Harvard University Press; and Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics: Caroline Korsmeyer (Oxford University Press). 

Within a span of 30 minutes, food that was once hot, tasty and appealing turns into waste, something to be handled with reluctance, disgust or distaste, and disposed off as far from the site of consumption. No visual pointers remain to remind us that the stale leftovers and foul residue was once licked right off our collective forks and fingers.

Another reason is socio-cultural. In most cultures, traditional or modern, the cooking and serving of food is handled by women. Popular culture portrays women as bustling about in the kitchens and taking extra pains to ensure that food courses, tableware and seating arrangements are impeccable. Once food is eaten, the men simply push the plates away from their self, throw down the napkins, rise up and wash off their hands. The act of rinsing, sometimes aided by the women, kids or household help / maids, signaling the final frontiers of their association with food.

As a child growing up in a Muslim household, with plenty of relatives visiting us for weekly feasts and sit-down dinner celebrations, I learnt that men join in the activity of cooking only as consumers. The women had to cook, serve and clean. Since waste was never handled by the men in my family, I also began to associate it with disgust. If you didn’t have to handle waste, you were high up in the pecking order.

Back home, alone with my husband, the honor of clearing the waste plate falls on both of us, mostly. I have learnt a nifty trick to avoid post-dinner clearance: Once I am done with eating, I take hold of both our dinner plates by the right hand and the rice or curry vessel in the left, leaving the husband to balance the water jar on his left hand and the still-plastic-in-character waste plate by the right. Notice the fact that “waste” is held by right hand – used to eat food — and the same will be used to clear the waste into the bin, and then you wash that right hand thoroughly with Lifebuoy Liquid Soap, of the pink colored variety (for soft and gentle hands). This saves you from having to dip the left hand under the running water of the tap and wasting extra squirts of the Liquid Soap on a hand that was otherwise not required in the ritual of fine dining.

Main Course

In the time that I was an undergrad student studying History, Literature and Psychology and up until the time of my marriage, I had turned from a staunch meat eater to a Vegan. It only took me about 10 minutes, following my History professor’s reading out in class of Maneka Gandhi’s seminal book to know that I would never be able to touch meat again. Or any food item or product that came from an animal, for that matter. I had become a Vegan.

I switched to wearing jute slippers and carrying a jute sling bag; wore pure cotton tunics; threw out Colgate and got a Miswak (100% Vegetarian toothpaste); and gave up my beloved cheese-chocolate-cream-goodies troika of heaven. Camera reel contained fish bone powder, so I gave up my photography hobby and regular soap contained animal fat, so I switched to vegetarian soaps such as Medimix. The motto was to cut out the excesses of daily consumption and rely on what was strictly necessary for a decent life.

Ethical eating and ethical living is a highly subjective issue; it’s impossible to pick sides and declare judgement on the other camp (meat eaters, eggitarians, et al). But there are several communities that take the credo of co-existence with nature and non-violence to a heightened degree. The Jaina community, for instance, have strict prescriptive regulations pertaining to not just diet, but also to the very act of breathing. Read More on their Way of Life.

A very interesting point about their diet revolves around the belief that all organisms – including plants – are sentient beings that will feel pain when they are harnessed, to consume as food, for instance. Plucking vegetables, shoots and roots from the earth causes harm to more than just the plant; it also impacts the micro-organisms that thrive on the vegetation, killing them in the process. Therefore, strict adherents of the Jaina code of conduct have specific directions to pluck, clean, cut, cook, and serve food. Now, here comes the most interesting part, the remains of the meal.

Jainas don’t leave behind any waste on their plate, no food morsels or tidbits, not even their saliva, as they believe that sentient life can take birth in the saliva and by a conscious act, they cannot be responsible for its birth and death. (Bhagavati Aradhana – Gatha Nos. 781-937).

What an excellent way to navigate through the excesses of modern day consumption and waste generation, while maintaining a simple (no doubt difficult) way of life that’s in harmony with the world around. Of course, eating vegetables does involve harm to the plants, but according to Jaina beliefs, this involves the least amount of violence necessary to sustain human life. The conviction that we need to consume only as much as is required, and not as much as we desire supersedes all sensual (of the senses) stimuli.

Dessert

Usthad Hotel is a Malayalam-language film (2012) and revolves around the love affair of Indians with Biryani. Well, that’s not all the movie is about. The film weaves into its narrative the love for well-cooked food, the disparities between the rich and poor of our country, food wastage, poverty, and also, the overarching idea that there is grace in feeding someone, when you cook and serve food that “not just fills someone’s stomach, but also their hearts”. Grace that comes out of love.

The movie is supposedly based on a true-life incident of a top-notch Indian chef who worked in a five star hotel years ago. One morning, while driving to work, the chef caught a glimpse of a poor, street dweller sitting on the side of the road. What he saw made the chef wretch: the poor man was eating his feces! The chef decided to get out and ask the man why he was doing such an abhorrable thing and the man replied: I am Hungry.

The chef had a life-turning moment. Working in a five-star hotel where food is treated as a luxury item to be ordered, bit into and disposed off, here he was confronted by poor people who had nothing to survive on, not even water, and had no means to take care of themselves. Their survival itself was doubtful. The chef quits his job and starts a food-donation organization, cooking meals to feed the poor.

Watching the film, interspersed though it was with songs, dance, romance, and parent-child drama, shook me up. I had given up my Vegan life 5 years ago, and had resumed a life of excess. Cooking extra quantities of meals in a day, only to dispose it off in the garbage at night is a regular affair at home. Consuming “Happy Meals”, 1,500 Rs gourmet-meal-for-two, storing the leftovers in the fridge and giving away three-day old curries to the maid is normal. It’s the way of life for not just me and my family, but for millions of households in India. There is something alarming in a world where we don’t feel anything about kids dying routinely for not being able to get three chapatis, two bowls of rice and three cups of lentils in a day. There is something scary about a world which allows an old man to eat his own feces.

After Dark: Mint

This brings me back to the premise of this post: waste and disgust and the rather complex relationship we share with food and its remains. We need to teach ourselves to view food as something beyond a plateful of desire or a commodity of consumption. Bones and shells, unpalatable and non-chewable items will be a part of the menu for most of us, but what is waste for some, is a luxury for millions of others. How many of us have seen poor people scrounge around in the municipal waste bins of the street for that rotten, half-eaten banana, or for curries that are disposed off in takeaway containers. While this might sound abhorrent to many, here’s something I have begun doing recently: there are times when I am unable to physically go to a poor person and give them the remains of my daily meals. Or if there is an excess amount of food in the fridge and the maid doesn’t take it, my only option is to throw it away. So, I place this in a plastic bag or disposal box and throw it in the garbage anyways. Because, I know for certain that when my rubbish is dumped in the bigger utility bins, it will find a stomach to feed. Crazy logic? You need to think about that poor man in the movie who was reduced to eating worse than this.

So, this is a pledge. A Pledge to be the change that I want to see around me. A pledge to begin cutting down the excesses of / in my life. I want to redefine the credo of “less is more” to mean “less is more than enough.”

Dear Readers, do you have any food-related habits you would like to change? Share your stories of excess in the comments below and also help with the Reading List.

By Nilofar Ansher

Reading List:

1. What’s Wrong with Technological Fixes? Interview with Evgeny Morozov by Terry Winograd at Boston Review

2. Mas vs. Food – TV Show hosted by Adam Richman: Disgusting and Filthy

3. About 90 million tonnes of food is wasted annually in Europe

4. One third of all food fails to make it from farm to table

5. Resource: Portion Planner and Handy Tips to Keep Food Fresh

Ritualizing Disgust: On Menstrual Taboos

Thousands of years should have been a good time frame for us to get over our collective aversion to menstrual blood. However, communities are increasingly seeing – and colluding – towards an attitude of rejection of this daily occurrence. Evolutionary Biology and History offer clues to our notions of disgust.

From Cave Man to Mother Goddess

The aesthetics of human emotions are physiologically classified into the six broad affects of joy, anger, sadness, fear, however, two would do just fine in categorizing the breadth of experiences we undergo: disgust and delight. Both these emotions have shaped much of our discourse on what is taboo and acceptable, universally and topically. Take food, for instance. Many of us reject insects and bugs in our diet – the repulsion is physical, even though we know that it is a vital part of the diet for communities and populations across the world. The reason bugs are held as repugnant is not because by itself they are disgusting – otherwise, they wouldn’t be food for millions – they become so by virtue of the fact that we (certain groups) don’t consume them. Xenophobia works on the same principle, those who don’t belong to our group (religion, race, community, linguistic family) are by default alien, and therefore, to be feared – which is an emotion on the same spectrum of affects as disgust, anger or hatred.

Menstrual Lunar Calendar by vivalacraft

Does menstruation act as a stimuli in this affective spectrum? It makes sense from the perspective of Othering the female sex and her unique bodily functions, including overt physical changes on puberty, pregnancy and menopause, and the associative somatic and psychological changes that herald these biological stages. Carolyn Korsmeyer, author of  Savoring Disgust, offers compelling evidence from an evolutionary perspective in her research on our relationship with disgust: “in the case of the highly sensory disgust response, natural selection has programmed us for quick, protective recoil from things that smell or taste foul or are repellent to touch, and where ingestion or contact may be dangerous or noxious. Evidence for this can be surmised from objects identified as disgust elicitors across the globe, such as feces, pus, sexual fluids, and parasites, are also disease-bearing substances…this, what appears to be an irrational aspect of disgust, namely, that its range of objects far exceeds those that are truly infectious or toxic, is in fact, a kind of protective umbrella with an important adaptive function.”

So, are we to believe that historical progress and the intervening years did not have a civilizing effect on man’s innate aversions? Well, History and Science show that we have been able to adapt from a purely instinctual learning pattern to one that is more controlled, thoughtful and perceptive, especially when it comes to understanding natural phenomenon. This is especially true when you study the history of the ancient civilizations, beginning with Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq ) and Indus Valley (India). Thousands of years ago, these advanced cultures practiced goddess worship and the cult of fertility superseded that of even the sun. In ancient Egypt, menstrual blood was used as part of medicines, in ointments and drugs (Petra Habiger). Cultures that place emphasis on the curative and sacred powers of menstrual blood, like the East African Warundi, do “segregate completely the menstruating girl,” but would also get her to “touch every object in the house to confer magical protection on it” (Jenny Kien, The Separation of Women’s Bodies from the Cosmic Dance). Janice DeLaney writes of the ancient Indian expression for a girl’s first menstruation as “flower growing in the house of the god of love” (The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation), signifying a powerful and positive affect related to menarche and menstruation, associating it with rebirth, reproduction, sexual awakening and bodily autonomy. How did we go from worship to aversion?

Bearer of Meaning, Not the Maker

Pre-Christian and much later, Medieval attitudes towards menstrual blood help us understand how the sacred affect came to transmogrify into disgust and pass on as a universal cultural code that summarily dismissed women’s bodies as a site of something dirty. In Aristotle’s own words: (Women’s) lack of vital heat also meant that women could not be as intelligent as men. “…this made Aristotle believe that the Greek social structure that kept women strictly under men’s control was justified by women’s anatomy…he believed that a child was produced only from the male’s seed – the woman was a passive vessel in which the seed was planted, and the women’s pleasure during sexual intercourse was irrelevant” (Joyce E. Salisbury, Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World, 2001).

This line of thought that began with the Greek philosopher, reached its ascendancy with the Christian Church. Take the manuals of confession and pastoral care, written by clerics educated in the theological and law schools between 12-14th centuries. Thomas of Chobham, in Summa confessorum, insists that “it is dangerous to sleep with a menstruating woman because from such a union leprous offspring are born, and it is most shameful to lie with a puerperal woman while she suffers a flow of menstrual blood” (Becky R. Lee, The Purification of Women after Childbirth: A Window onto Medieval Perceptions of Women, FLORILEGIUM 14, 1995–96).

As we move towards the modern era and peek into the traditional American communities of the 18th and 19th century, we find that there is growing disconnect between the domestic realm and the medical profession. Housewives considered it taboo to enlighten (and initiate) their daughters into the first steps of being sexually functioning woman, where as clinics and hospitals reduced the monthly cycle to a physiological occurrence, with a focus on hygience and sexual reproduction. Conservative mothers did not think it appropriate to broach the subject with their pre-pubescent daughters, believing that “such things were not talked about and also not thought of”. While this may seem like an abdication of maternal responsibility and a clear indication of Victorian sexual repression, the relucatance to talk appears to have been a pervasive maternal strategy related to the middle-class mother’s desire to preserve her daughter’s innocence. As Constance Nathanson rightly observed, the suppression of sexuality was defined in the 19th century as necessary to the health development of a young woman’s reproductive capabilities” (Health in America, 2nd Ed.: Historical Readings, edited by Judith Walzer Leavitt).

This cultural trope materialized in fiction as well, as seen in an essay on American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804-1864) The Birthmark, where critic Jules Zanger “explores the implications of the curious red mark (a tiny hand) on the heroine, Georgiana’s cheek.” Zanger traces the meaning of Georgiana’s imperfection to nineteenth century menstrual attitudes, demonstrating that because of its tabooed nature, menstruation demanded a set of euphemisms. The monthly euphemism is an evasion of menstrual reality” (DeLaney).

Bloody Horror
When I experienced menarche, my first reaction was one of horror. This had nothing to do with the patchwork bloodstain on my white slip, or the cramps, or acclimatizing to your own mutating body. It had to do with how, all of a sudden, I had to become this girl who had to learn about appropriate physical boundaries with her brother or father, or the neighbors. We are taught to be alert about who is looking at us and the self-learnt mantra of our body being something to be kept safe. Having your period meant your body could now be violated, because it was now a body capable of sexual intercourse. We are taught how to dress appropriately in consideration of the visible breasts; the legs need to be covered as well as they now incite feelings in men. I couldn’t keep up with the litany of do’s and don’t’s my mother impressed upon me, never overtly as diktats, but in subtle head shakes and shrugs, in the admonitions passed on by the eyes, in the visible frowns and thinning of the lips – I was just not learning to be a suitable mature girl!

Traditionally, a ritual celebration accompanied the menarche of girls in my community. There would be a feast, a couple of hundred relatives and close friends would be called, we would stage a mock ritualistic marriage between the menstruating girl and another girl who has not yet hit puberty, and basically let the entire world know that a rite of passage has been achieved. I used to wonder whether this rite of passage was benevolent; after all a ritual that celebrates the coming of age of a girl must obviously mean that the community has a progressive outlook towards a woman’s body and the naturalness of her bodily fluids. However, this ritual – now mostly practiced in the village and not much in the cities – marks the commencement of the reproductive readyness of the girl. Having your period means it’s time for the family to get the girl settled with a boy of suitable age – the sooner the better. It reminds me most disturbingly of the ritual slaughter of animals for a festival, where the sacrificial creature is first venerated, fed good food, paraded in the community and then, following holy words and prayers, cut open in front of its god.

Describing the taboos of modern day India, particularly in towns and villages, Rose George, spoke to girls post their menarche and the horror, seclusion and fear they undergo every month in the name of tradition. She writes in The New York Times about the injunctions that young Indian girls from a particular community receive from their mothers or elders: “when you menstruate, don’t cook food because you will pollute it. Don’t touch idols because you will defile them. Don’t handle pickles because they will go rotten with your touch…The taboo of menstruation in India causes real harm. Women in some tribes are forced to live in a cowshed throughout their periods. There are health issues, like infections caused by using dirty rags, and horror stories, like that of one girl who was too embarrassed to ask her mother for a clean cloth, and used one she found without knowing it had lizard eggs in it. The resulting infection lead to the removal of the girl’s uterus.”

Remedial Prescription

Menses by itself is not disgusting, but the practices that led to the isolation and segregation of women during their menstrual cycle got codified into ritualistic codes. The construct of tradition works just like an Infinite Loop, “a sequence of instructions in a computer program which loops endlessly, either due to the loop having no terminating condition, having one that can never be met, or one that causes the loop to start over.” These codes are not only entrenched, but are regenerative, as can be seen by how each one of us subscribes to a prescriptive model for behavior based on our family traditions, religious affiliations, national identity, and the meta-narrative of culture. These subjectivities form part of our tradition and act as a navigational compass guiding our performance.

If a mother’s response to her daughter’s period is one of anxiety, disgust and prudish codes of conduct, then it sets a precedent for others in the family and community to emulate that affect. It becomes ritualized behavior, something that is not questioned but performed. Laura Mulvey beautifully captures this transmission of code when she categorizes women as “the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning”. Yes, our learned affects don’t make sense most of the time because a million years of mangled evolutionary code separates our current affect from our evolutionary past. It’s easy to connect the dots backwards and understand how we have precriptions for clothes, for body art, religious practices, rules for social participation, for rites of passage, marriage and burial rites, and so on.

It also explains why it’s so difficult to reset ritualistic codes and throw off the yoke of tradition. What we fear the most is losing our sense of bearing and rituals act as signposts in our daily iterations. “Rituals reveal values at their deepest level…men express in ritual what moves them most, and since the form of expressions is conventionalized and obligatory, it is the values of the group that are revealed. I see in the study of rituals the way to an understanding of the essential constitution of human societies” (Victor Turner, 1969). Anthropology offers an insight into our pre-historic affects. So, while it is true that modern society has sanitized and deoderized the more visible aspects of the human stain, people have yet to examine and unlearn their learned aversion to menstrual blood.

Unlearning is a gradual process and it must first begin with us, women ourselves, and our rejection of this monthly cycle. Let us question the narrative of hate, of refering to it as a curse, and using euphemisms and puns while talking about ‘it’as the red sea, or the floodgates having opened, or it being that time of the month. Let’s step back from the reification of our biologies, the thingification of what is natural. It’s only then that we would be better placed to construct a positive affect of our living body. Anne Frank writes: Each time, I have a period – and that has only been three times – I have the feeling that in spite of the pain, the unpleasantness, and nastiness, I have a sweet secret, and that is why, although it is nothing but a nuisance to me in a way, I always long for the time that I shall feel that secret within me again.” Perhaps the time will come, when we have evolved neutral affects; not celebratory, neither derogatory or shameful.

Feminism and Marital Name Change

Choosing to take on your husband’s name after marriage doesn’t bode well for a budding Feminist, at least that’s the impression I get from the heated debates that have been criss-crossing the web diaries of Feminist writers in the quarter that just went by. On the one hand, we have Feminist debates that focus on identity politics. In ‘Why should married women change their names? Let man change theirs,’ The Guardian writer Jill Filipovic writes about how societal expectations for a woman to change her last name post marriage play into patriarchal injunctions against women’s selfhood: “The cultural assumption that women will change their names upon marriage – the assumption that we’ll even think about it, and be in a position where we make a “choice” of whether to keep our names or take our husbands’ – cannot be without consequence.”

Identity is also something that drove Claudia Maittlen-Harris to stick to her maiden name. She writes in The Huffington Post: I couldn’t part with the identity and history I have attached to my name, and I couldn’t part with who I believe I am with this name. Jonathan Jackson (nee Jonathan Jones Camery-Hogatt Jackson) reflects on the backlash he received on his decision to go against tradition. He writes in The Huffington Post: “Our society needs an overhaul, and this last name choice won’t make a huge difference by itself. We know that. It’s quiet. It’s subtle. But it still undermines small power asymmetries. In that sense, our last name has the potential to stand for something much, much bigger: It symbolizes our relationship with society itself.”

Indian bride

The kick-off point for my own exploration of why I gave up being a Miss Haja to become a Ms. Ansher began with three of my good friends getting married recently: forget hyphenating their last names, the thought of giving up their surnames didn’t even enter their minds. While one of them is an avowed Feminist, the other two aren’t. For them, the question of taking on their husband’s family name was a moot point; why should marriage preclude women from holding on to their individual identities, and not place any such expectations on married men?

The narrative of associating our names with identity runs strongly through all the articles I mention above. Filipovic even mentions how Patriarchy conditions women to treat their names – and therefore our identities – as temporary, something which will soon be appended by our true, permanent and real names. This is something I understand and can trace to my own childhood spent day-dreaming with cousins about the possible romantic surnames that we would all have, post marriage. In the Tamil Muslim community I come from, married women take on their spouse’s first name post marriage – and not the surname, family-, village-, or clan name as is the case with the country’s multitude of ethnicities. So, for us, it was doubly exciting to contemplate getting married to a Salman, or a Zubair or an Armaan, and not bother too much about the Khan, Syed or Mohammed addendum.

What I was very clear about was not adding the prefix of Mrs to my name. To me, this more than anything else placed more emphasis on a woman’s marital status and projected her as a wife first, and a woman later. In the lead up to the wedding, my fiance was least concerned about what name I would take up post marriage. It was I who had to bring up the topic. With three months to go for D-Day, I went ahead and signed up for new Facebook and Google accounts, shutting down my old ones and generally making a fuss about the impending nomenclature change. My friends thought it was an excellent way to announce my new status in life and none of them questioned why I chose to drop my father’s name.

What I didn’t anticipate was that in the course of my marriage, I would also grow to recognize and embrace the Feminist in me, and this certainly made things uncomfortable for the smug Ms. in me. I questioned the implicit social expectation that required women to disassociate their married selves from their maiden lives. The reason why this act of rechristening holds so much power is because we invest so much of our emotions, memories, selfhood, and character in the names chosen by our parents. I also began to understand the agony of some of my other girl friends who wanted to stick to their maiden names, but couldn’t.

****

It’s been five years since I took on a new last name. Today, despite being aware of how chauvinism and misogyny operate, I don’t feel anything less than a complete woman, or anything less than what I was before marriage. In fact, marriage has added to my journey, to my successes and to my discourse of being a Feminist. I cannot exhort my husband to consider changing his name because he never asked me to change mine. And by the very same standards that chauvinism thrives on, if I expect my husband to change his last name for my sake, to prove his love, or in the name of tradition, I would be playing into the same constructs that Patriarchy thrives on.

I have also come to believe that our given names are not sacrosanct and christening your children brings into play the Patriarchal construct of parental authority over offspring. Not choosing to take on our husband’s name, but choosing to keep our father’s surname, is what I would call “same difference”. The act of holding on to our maiden name doesn’t strike a blow to the bogeyman of tradition and favoring a male name as the carrier of heritage and genealogy. We invest so much of who we think we are in our given name that the only way you can dismantle this specific tradition is when you voluntarily choose your own name, either when you become a legal adult or perhaps by fomenting new traditions that allow children to christen themselves as they wish and making it legal. As Jessica Grose writes in The Slate, citing a 2004 essay written by Katie Roiphe: “Our fundamental independence is not so imperiled that we need to keep our names.”

road less traveled

As it is, with my new found awareness of how Patriarchy functions, I am still comfortable going around as Nilofar Ansher. I don’t feel subsumed or shorn of my selfhood, neither is there more emphasis on my wifehood merely because my last name is now associated with my husband’s. The sense of love that pervaded my decision does not warrant second-guessing and neither should women who choose to go my route face censure from Feminists. Jen Doll, who writes in The Atlantic Wire, sums up this sentiment: “…whether or not one takes a husband’s name upon marriage is no big deal, really; everyone should do what they want, and may the best name win. Judging someone for doing whatever it is they decide to do for themselves is the problem.”

What is really at the bottom of this issue is the fractured idea of empowerment we each hold. To me, empowerment could be the very act of breaking away from my pre-marital family narrative and willingly taking on that of someone whom I chose to adopt as my family: my husband. In doing so, I have not given up who I am, but instead have added to the narrative of who I hope to be. Some day, in the future, it will no longer be necessary to justify our choices, either in the name of Feminism or Love. For me, both aren’t mutually exclusive constructs.

Follow me on Twitter @culture_curate | About Nilofar Ansher

This post appears in UltraViolet. Do check out their blog.

Another version of this post first appears on The Feminist Wire. Go the TFW’s webpage.

Also read: Women Aren’t Perfect (And We Shouldn’t Expect Them to Be)

Feminism & Me: Feminist in My Kitchen

The age-old trope of drawing parallels between woman and cooking needs to be dismantled, especially since loving one’s family has nothing to do with mastering the skills of putting together a meal.

Nilofar Ansher

The Romantic Tedium of Cooking
Our notions of love and nurture are bound with the flavor, texture and warmth of food cooked and served by our mothers. It’s the leitmotif of my childhood in the late 1980s: the children busy with homework and heading off to school, dad reading the newspaper and hurrying off to work, and mom marking her presence in each room – the bedroom for dressing us up, the kitchen to cook and pack our tiffins, the hall to send us off – with the main door threshold marking the limits of her influence.

This has been a constant in most Indian homes. The daily pattern of women tending to the household and the men heading out is a typical middle class phenomenon and has been projected as part of the narrative of an Indian women’s grihasti. It presupposes division of labor: husbands handle livelihoods, while wives nurture lives. You won’t find a single imprint of this domestic structure in the homes of the lower middle class or poor families. There, women head out along with their husbands to earn a living, as daily wage laborers or workers in small factories and cottage industries. But cooking remains a woman’s fixture, no matter which class society imprisons you within.

The measure of our worth was also calculated by the day’s menu – the more special the dish, the more mom loved us. And Sundays were reserved for an extra helping of her boundless love, as witnessed by the biryanis, ghee rice, fried accompaniments and dessert. Days when ordinary meals were served meant mom didn’t love us enough to take an effort to cook our favorite items. Simplistic? Yes. But that’s a child’s way of making sense of the ritual of cooking and associating tasty food with love. We connect the dots – rather incorrectly – equating the action (cooking) with intention (love).

Our notions of love and nurture are bound with the flavor, texture and warmth of food cooked and served by our mothers.

Even though we lived next door to a household where an aunty worked at a bank, she was still expected to finish the cooking, supervise the maid, pack the tiffins for her children, do the same for herself and her husband, get ready and rush to catch the 9 am bus. What sets my family apart from her and other neighbors and relatives is that my father is an able cook himself and helped mom with kitchen work whenever he could, in the morning and after returning home from office. My brother and I were never asked to help with even the simplest of chores, like washing or peeling vegetables, or preparing tea, and we took it for granted that cooking is a woman’s domain with occasional assistance provided by men. My assertive, outspoken and opinionated mother never highlighted that father helping out in the kitchen was an uncommon practice and as a girl, I grew up with the notion that while cooking would be my lot, I would be ably supported by my partner when I commence my marital domesticity.

Outsourcing Domesticity
On our yearly pilgrimage to the southern part of India, at my parents’ native place, I experienced another aspect of domesticity. Houses in my village are large affairs, with kitchens dominating the entire backyard and a cotery of maids, errand boys and cooks to manage the household. Here, cooking was not strictly the domain of the women of the house; they had to supervise the cooks and manage the chores; they were not physically responsible for shucking the peas, stirring the curries or cleaning the entrails of the chicken. Hired cooks were not necessarily women and on festive occasions and ceremonial functions, when vats of food had to be cooked, served and distributed, male cooks were the obvious choice for the job.

This notion of the privileged, landed gentry in the village following a different, but familiar pattern of domesticity is echoed by an extract from the periodical Lakshmibai, a Malayalam women’s periodical published in 1908: ‘We all know that the periodical Lakshmibai is published for the particular use of women. Though there are various issues women should know that are discussed here, I have yet to see anything written on the science of cooking—something women should necessarily know…I do not think anyone will object if I say that women should have the knowledge of cooking. Like caring for one’s husband, tending one’s children and supervising the household, this too is important. I do hope that readers do not misunderstand and get ready for battle with me. The essence of what I say is not that women should, like servants, go to the kitchen and slave. I am only saying that women should know enough to ensure that their servants work as desired. It is the housewife who has the burden of ensuring the health of the husband, of the children and of herself. If she has to carry out this responsibility adequately, she has to have a decent knowledge of cooking.’ (Sharmila Sreekumar, Writing the Culinary in Early Twentieth Century Malayalam, in The Writer’s Feast, Orient BlackSwan, 2011).

It’s elementary then, to deduce that economic status has much to do with setting domestic norms and expectations. But we know that differential financial backgrounds don’t really alter traditional gender roles – they instead shift the degrees of expectations. Take the case of American women in the post-World War II era, which saw an increase in purchasing power and consumerism. This was the time when ‘women-friendly’ electronic appliances and household gadgets flooded the markets, and blatantly positioned as a means to escape “from the shackles of household chores”.


 Vintage 1950s ad for household appliances - Hoover vacuum cleanerVintage 1950s home appliance advertisement - Washing Machine   Vintage ad for kitchen appliance - oven

These vintage advertisements dating to the 50s and 60s, seem to suggest that technology has finally resolved the age-old conflict of who will do the dishes. With the aid of appliances, household chores were now a relaxing activity, one to pursue in between all our reading and tea time. Women smiling cheerfully, raising their eyebrows in pride, looking over their shoulders at their husbands with a smirk, intimating the reader that they have managed to bring order to the home without breaking into a sweat.

But the reality was much different, as expounded by Betty Friedan in her seminal work The Feminine Mystique (1963): The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “is this all?” Friedan makes two points here: the sense of ennui experienced by American women because of their endless chores, and the dissatisfaction that arises out of being tied down solely by chores. The technology that was supposed to give women more time outside the kitchen and our homes, ended up restricting us within.

In her critique of civil engineer Samuel C. Florman’s book, Blaming Technology: the Irrational Search for Scapegoats, individual anarchist and feminist Wendy McElroy explains how Florman – himself a champion of engineering, modern science and technology – was forced to comment on the increasing tension between the scientific community and feminism, with somewhat bewildered amazement: “The development of household appliances, for example, instead of freeing the housewife for a richer life as advertised, has helped to reduce her to the level of a maidservant whose greatest skill is consumerism. Factory jobs have attracted women to the workplace in roles they have come to dislike. Innovations affecting the most intimate aspects of women’s lives, such as the baby bottle and birth-control devices, have been developed almost exclusively by men. Dependent upon technology, but removed from its sources and, paradoxically, enslaved by it, women may well have developed deep-seated resentments that persist even in those who consider themselves liberal.”

Transmute this power equation to Indian shores, and we are looking at a majority of women who don’t have access to any of the more expensive contraptions, and rely on their self-labor to complete their chores. The only two options we are presented with – by the system – is: earn enough to buy appliances that will end up burdening you more with their setup and maintenance, or, hire a maid or cook for pittance and commence a cycle of exploitation. Outsourcing as a model of altering domestic patterns doesn’t seem to be ethical, pragmatic or foolproof. What do we need to change this equation then? Well, where have our better halves disappeared and why haven’t we involved them in adhering to the idea of equal division of labor?

Re-discovering the Kitchen
Up until I turned 22, I was not compelled to learn cooking. Understanding that academics and extra-curricular activities were more relevant to my life in college, my mother let me be. But the fact that I would have to eventually learn how to wield the tava and spar with the spatula was not far away from my thoughts. And this was not something I dreaded or frowned upon. Rather, the years of reading romance novels and being fed on a diet of cookery shows on Doordarshan and Star Plus, and movies across the language spectrum filled me with the romantic notion of cooking for my husband. Fiction and popular culture drive home the point that it doesn’t take too much to win the love and appreciation of a husband and his family, which required only that we learn to navigate their circuitous intestines! Love, affection and being a dutiful daughter-in-law is consistently associated with being a good cook. The ritual of the pehlirasoi in Hindu households, where the newly-married girl is supposed to cook a dessert and offer it as sacrifice to the goddess, followed by cooking a variety of dishes that cater to the 10-member family’s tastes is captured in fuzzy, warm tones of delight in our saans-bahu serials.

traditional indian mealPlump with this diet, I approached my own domestic life on a Dopamine overdose of enthusiasm and determination. My husband’s praise was the prize and the race involved multiple tasks: prepare meals on time, plan menus with variety, serve dishes in style, keep the kitchen clean, don’t complain about the effort it took, and lastly, don’t appear too eager for praise. I agree, this soap opera kept me satisfied and lulled for a few months, until I got myself a full-time job. Now, the goal was not just to manage the home, but also external chores and the demands of a multi-national schedule. My family encouraged me to embrace the woman in me, who was supposed to be capable of great feats of juggling (this has now become a running joke, with my husband sometimes referring me as Goddess Durga, with her ten hands!). Cooking became a bone of contention: is it alright to get a cook or do we change our eating habits and order out? Neither option seemed the best, especially since I couldn’t find a reliable maid and second, I loved the taste of my concoctions too much to cede control to another person. With no promises forthcoming from the husband to enter the kitchen and support my labor, I realized that the odds were stacked against me. I could either spread myself thin, in a bid to prove that I could ‘have it all,’ or be honest with myself and accept the truth: the system is rigged against me – against all of us women – and it’s time to call show.

It is in patriarchy’s best interest to step on the pedal of tradition, cloak it as love and drive women into a guilt trip. John S. Allen, in his book The Omnivorous Mind (Harvard University Press, 2012), draws up a complex story arch with food, gender and the agents of memory playing key roles, referring to the enactment of the traditional Thanksgiving meal in American homes every year: Even with some breakdown of traditional gender roles concerning the preparation and serving of the Thanksgiving meal, it still provides opportunities to display aspects of gender. Sreekumar succinctly captures this anomaly in her article: “…the act of cooking and the home in which it was imagined as taking place were in fact fictions designed to support one side of the debate, ongoing in Malayali society of the time, over what exactly was the woman’s role in the house, and indeed what the categories of ‘wife’, ‘husband’ and ‘family’ ought to mean.”

Deconstructing our association of home-cooked meals with mother’s love is also a journey in ownership of domestic life, for both men and women. Domesticity in general and cooking in particular don’t have to be phenotyped by their historical gender orientation. What is required is a recalibration in how we approach tasks within the realm of our homes. For instance, can we try to deconstruct our relationship with waste: transform the disgust associated with taking out the garbage into a chore that is necessary to keep the kitchen free from germs and diseases. Language once again plays a significant role. Did you know that the word ‘menial’ has its origins in the Middle English meinial, meaning belonging to a household. So, the very idea of anything related to domesticity has been systematically constructed as pertaining to servility. Deconstruction works by cleansing the stigma associated with all our chores – think about how we refer to cleaning the toilets as ‘disgusting’ but don’t mind our women cleaning the same. I do see the winds of change in my generation, beginning with my maid who says that in her home, her husband is in-charge of cooking “as he’s good at it and I am not”. The age-old trope of drawing parallels between woman and cooking needs to be dismantled, especially since loving one’s family has nothing to do with mastering the skills of putting together a meal..

This article first appears on The Feminist Wire, March 2013.

Nilofar Ansher
http://www.about.me/nilofaransher

Coming Out of the Feminist Closet

The toughest battle Feminists face is to reframe the narrative of society’s ‘glorious’ traditions and recast them as weapons of oppression. How do we engender a Feminist history of our future selves? 

This New Year began with me delving into Feminist texts, especially Estelle Freedman’s The Essential Feminist Reader (2007) published by Modern Library Classics. Following years of denying outright that I subscribe to Feminism, it was time to look at why I had distanced myself from the movement, when my thoughts are clearly in line with its agenda.

Like most graduate students of literature and history, Feminist discourse is not dealt with in the mainstream arts degree curricula within India. I first encountered Feminism while browsing online about gender disparity and violence against women, and learnt that ‘the second sex’ has been fighting for equal rights and protesting oppression for several hundred years. This oppression takes the form of Patriarchy, “a (rule by fathers) social system in which the male is the primary authority figure central to social organization and the central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and control of property, and where fathers hold authority over women and children. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination. Many patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage.”

It was a splash of cold water on my face. At an age when you discover your dreams, make career plans and are more concerned about the shade of your sling bag matching your sandals, the concept of Patriarchy sent my head spinning. It encapsulated everything that I felt was wrong in society and slowly put into perspective my personal narrative of struggle and rebellion at home. Power equations in relationships, especially the authority wielded by parents over children, and the shifting degrees of control that is the hallmark in a marriage, the exploitation of workers, class struggle, hierarchy and hegemony in all its forms now made sense to me.

Questioning the Question
It was the turning point for me to reject – in agonizingly slow degrees – the dogmatic traditions and cultural norms that I was expected to uphold as a member of my family and project as identity as part of a community. My late teens and early 20s was the period during which I began to disassociate myself with religion and the sacredness of holy texts; any written body of work cannot hold sway over how individuals need to behave or live their lives. Exposure to post-modern literature, on the likes of Barthes, Borges, Foucault, and Derrida, also cemented the impression that rejecting the establishment or status quo was an expected step in coming out of the closet.

When you begin to question the pillars of institutions, you also deconstruct the notions of the self. It began with my appearance and body image: why has normative become the bedrock of social cohesion? How do we come to label something deviant, unconventional or counter-culture? Why is there duplicity in gender roles and disparity in the gender ratio? How do I take ownership of this self, when it’s nothing but a conjectured set of constructs, stimuli and reinforcing behavior? If I am not supposed to be this naive, bubbly, traditional girl who loves her romantic Bollywood movies and cooking, who am I supposed to become when everything is rejected and every root questioned?

In the heady days of discovering the barrage of texts and in turn, the self, I still couldn’t quite grasp what Feminism is and how “these women” (Feminists) planned to erase the history of subjugation and right the scales of equality. Reading about the suffrage movement in the United States and the rise in power of women politicians across Asia and Europe didn’t convince me that progress was being made. I wasn’t aware of any legal precedent or legislative breakthrough that women presidents and prime ministers championed towards better healthcare, education, domestic rights, workplace parity or public security for women.

Of course, I wasn’t naive enough to think that change can take place overnight and we are just 60 years into Independence as a country. Secondly, women with political clout still had to contend with the dominance of their majority male colleagues. However, the skeptic in me questioned the change promised by a gender-equal government: even when men are in power they haven’t done much to better the quality of life of their own fellow brothers, why would women in power be any different? And isn’t power the very construct we were to question? I do acknowledge that perhaps this was an extreme line of thinking, but nothing has changed my jaundiced view of things, until now.

Coming out of the Closet
Distancing myself from a political standpoint and donning the cloak of apathy hasn’t gotten me anywhere. In fact, it’s a recipe for pathological rage at the unchanging norms in society, with you as one of the millions who don’t lift a finger or shout out against injustice. However, I do not see myself heading out to the streets, placard in hand, participating in Slut Walks, Safe City Pledges and Anti-Rape campaigns. My way is quieter, inward looking and closer to where the most battles are first fought. My war is waged from the frontlines of the home, and my enemy, the people we call family. The first volley was actually thrown by my family, calling me a Feminist, and it angered me, to be labelled something in accusation, instead of in pride. It was then I decided to own up to the movement. Yes, I am a feminist and proud to fight for my piece of identity.

Subscribing to Feminist principles of equality – which are actually universal precepts for human rights – does seem like a black and white issue. If you believe in human rights, don’t you automatically become a Feminist? Why are Feminists blacklisted for fighting for what should have been the natural order, beginning with Adam and Eve? Once again, it’s Patriarchy that has the answers: “Although the term patriarchy is loosely used to stand for ‘male domination’, as has been pointed out above, it more crucially means – as others have stated here: “The rule of The Father” or “The responsibility of The Father.”

So, patriarchy does not refer to a simple binary pattern of male power over women, but power exerted more complexly by age as well as gender, and by older men over women, children, and younger men. Some of these younger men may inherit and therefore have a stake in patriarchy’s continuing conventions…The operations of power in patriarchy are usually enacted unconsciously. All are subject, even fathers are bound by its strictures. It is represented in unspoken traditions and conventions performed in everyday behaviors, customs and habits. The patriarchal triangular relationship of a father, a mother and an inheriting eldest son frequently form the dynamic and emotional narratives of popular culture and are enacted performatively in rituals of courtship and marriage. They provide conceptual models for organizing power relations in spheres that have nothing to do with the family, for example, politics and business.” (Source: Wikipedia).

As I attempt to make my thoughts accessible to readers, it becomes clear that indeed, along with courage to own up to the movement, guilt has played a punitive part in the reason why I sought safety with apathy. I was conditioned to feel squeamish with the idea of being independent, outspoken, opinionated, strong, aggressive, assertive, and the hundreds of other adjectives that go well when you are describing a man, but sounds vulgar when it’s for a woman. In the true spirit of Patriarchy, I am conditioned to value how society thinks about me, whether my family accepts me or not, whether I fit in with conventional peer groups, and if I can mold myself into constructed roles of a mother, sister and daughter. My legibility as a social entity is validated when I internalize these norms – that’s the power of patriarchy. And so, owning up to Feminism would mean disowning all the values that I was taught to hold more dearly than life itself.

Reconciling the Political with the Personal
As a student of history, art and ancient civilization, Feminism has also placed me in another quandary: questioning and rejecting rituals, traditions and values, all of which delight a historian, but are to be questioned, rejected and reworked to displace patriarchy. Everything from birthing ceremonies, fasting, circumcision, the rituals of beautification and bodily adornments, the permutation and combination of the arts – dancing, singing, poetry, painting, and photography – and every other cultural homily is necessarily engendered in favor of men and conflated to oppress women. Visuals objectify women, rituals suppress us, tradition is oppressive, and public spaces are shuttered.

How can I then conscientiously enjoy my Hindi movies, which revolve around ‘ishk wala love’ songs and heroines seducing the heroes in chiffon sarees? How do I condone the exotic body and facial tattoos, piercings and complicated body adornments of the African tribes, all of which mark the changing stages of a women’s body (and that of a man as well)? I have to keep questioning my choice in clothes, my love for Pride and Prejudice, my need to feel pampered and protected (sometimes), celebrating festivals, admiring temple art, the list is endless. Can we engender identity without the inputs of culture? Can we function and forge a new way of being? The historian in me shudders at the million-year-old line of unbroken tradition and evolution that Feminism requires us to question and reject. However, holding on to this narrative means I become witness and accused to a crime that has led us to willingly abuse women. Would you choose such a narrative?

In working for a society that is free of violence and inequality, we need to reject language as well. Language is born with the seed of hegemony and power. It contains, suppresses, cloaks and hides. It silences and abuses. It makes us believe that what is spoken in jest is affection. So much so that today, saali and bitch are used playfully when you address your loved ones and friends. Weird, right? When did we get to a point where insult is passed off as endearment? One of the freedoms of declaring yourself a Feminist and coming out of the closet is that you don’t need to have all the answers, we can begin with questions first.

This is a post for FemFest, a three day blog event created by Preston Yancey, Danielle Vermeer, and J.R. Goudeau on February 26, 27 and 28, 2013. Today is the third day and I am linking up on Danielle’s blog, From Two to One (in answer to the question: Why Feminism Matters) and Goudeau’s Love is What You Do (in answer to What Feminism Means). If you would like to participate, check out Preston’s blog for more information.

This post also appears on UltraViolet, a web space for Indian feminists. Follow them on Twitter.

Fat Humans and Hard Working Robots?

Leisure by the sea

Reduced working hours, outsourcing of food production to robots, automation of manual labor and goods production points point to a future where humans would have more time on their hands – time for leisure and the freedom to pursue their talents. Is this how we perceive our regained Paradise? Will robots in the labor force, will our work be reduced in actuality? Then, if robots picked our laundry, what will humans do in the future?

Today, I read an interesting article that reflected on the future of humanity in terms of a machine driven economy. A country’s GDP* is calculated taking into account productivity in relation to the “amount of labor you have saved”. The author, Kevin, goes on to detail the three industrial revolutions (first, steam, second – electricity and third, computing) and the future of human time and leisure when everything gets automated. How would productivity be calculated when humans are taken out of the equation. He proposed a new benchmark for measuring productivity, one that takes into account products of human creativity, and rather, our creative pursuits itself. “Civilization is not just about saving labor but also about “wasting” labor to make art, to make beautiful things, to “waste” time playing, like sports. Nobody ever suggested that Picasso should spend fewer hours painting per picture in order to boost his wealth or improve the economy. The value he added to the economy could not be optimized for productivity. It’s hard to shoehorn some of the most important things we do in life into the category of “being productive.””

In another point, Kevin refers to a research paper by Robert Gordon, where he concludes that the United States has peaked in terms of economic growth. “He is trying to argue that the consequences of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, which bought to common people electricity and plumbing, was far more important than the computers and internet which the 3rd Industrial Revolution has brought us. (Gordon’s 1st Industrial revolution was steam and railroads.) As evidence of this claim he offers this hypothetical choice between option A and option B.”

With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

Kevin goes on to refute Gordon’s analysis, saying “…farmers in rural China have chosen cell phones and twitter over toilets and running water. To them, this is not a hypothetical choice at all, but a real one. and they have made their decision in massive numbers. Tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, if not billions of people in the rest of Asia, Africa and South America have chosen Option B. You can go to almost any African village to see this. And it is not because they are too poor to afford a toilet.”

Kevin has made several problematic assumptions about rural Asia, choice, and the collective aspirations of humanity. However, the article motivated me to think about several points, chief among them, the idea of choosing between practical necessity versus convenience, and secondly, that in the future, leisure would be the barometer of an economy’s success. But I disagree with Kevin when he posits that the villagers chose to go without sanitation, sewage disposal and waste management systems, and in fact, went a step further by choosing cellphones and internet connectivity, with its incumbent Twitter and social media sites.In India, villages and small towns do not have running water, plumbing or sanitation systems because it’s expensive to set up a village-level infrastructure of its kind.

It’s also the government’s mandate and duty to set up waste disposal systems. Bureaucracy, budget, corruption, priorities, and a huge population of more than a billion means that vast swathes of habitats are neglected, where as cities and metropolises are favored. Secondly, villages and small towns have no exposure to the idea of running water or toilets! They have carried on the tradition of using water pumps affixed in common areas, and using the village well to take care of their drinking water needs, and flowing rivers and small lakes for their utility and consumption. It is only cities with their municipal corporations and planning committees who are equipped to plan sewage, waste and sanitation infrastructure. We are just 60 years into Independence from the British. So, we have decades of change, progress and growth waiting to sweep tier 3 cities, small towns and villages, and this is not just an isolated example.

Taking the case for China, what the article doesn’t mention is the specific websites the farmers and rural community make use of with their mobile internet. Twitter was used as an example, one of several Web 2.0 technologies that was created in the last decade as part of the 3rd Industrial Revolution. The farmers, potters, weavers, dyers, hunters, artisans, woodcutters and teachers don’t choose to access Twitter. They would most probably want to check weather conditions to keep their crops safe, or check out seed prices, or check for water levels. The kind of information they access is not entertainment, it’s life saving! It is definitely cheaper to buy a phone today that comes with 3G or GPS connection. Mobiles are also used by health officials to deploy messages and we have seen tremendous adoption by African villages towards mobile health apps. All this points to an increasingly affordable market for mobile phones. There will come a time when developing countries will reap double the benefits that their developed counterparts couldn’t: they would have access to the best in computing, mobile, wearable A.I. technologies, along with running water and toilets, complete with paper rolls!

What really concerns me about the future – of which I am sure most of us reading this today will no longer be part of – is the widespread trope of projecting increased leisure time for humans as a sort of default aspiration.

It is assumed that what we most crave is leisure, fun and games. Secondly, humans being ‘innately creative and talented’ would welcome the freedom to put their ideas into practice. An obvious question is, do all humans really have talent that can be considered “waste-worthy” products of leisure? We are already seeing a level playing field with more people having access to technologies that help enhance or bring out their talents.  In this respect, this article by John Quiggin manages to capture the nuances of the debate:

An essay called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,’ written in 1930 by John Maynard Keynes, the renowned economist, “…makes a case for leisure, in the sense of time free to use as we please, as opposed to idleness…Keynes offered something quite new: the idea that leisure could be an option for all, not merely for an aristocratic minority.” As Keynes observed in his essay, ‘From the earliest times of which we have record — back, say, to 2,000 years before Christ — down to the beginning of the 18th century, there was no very great change in the standard of life of the average man living in the civilized centers of the earth’. The vast majority of people lived lives of hard labour on the edge of subsistence, and had always done so. No feasible political change seemed likely to alter this reality.”

But as the article goes on to narrate, this utopian Golden Age vision remained just that through both the industrial revolutions. As factories and industries sprung up, labor conditions worsened, work hours increased and wages were uneven and insufficient.

“Unconstrained by seasons or by the length of the day, working hours reached an all-time peak, with the number of hours worked estimated at over 3,200 per year — a working week of more than 60 hours, with no holidays or time off. There were small increases in material consumption, but not nearly enough to offset the growth in the duration and intensity of work.” As Quiggin puts it, “…40 or so years later, I am a grandparent myself, the year 2030 is rapidly approaching, and Keynes’s vision seems further from reality than ever. At least in the English-speaking world, the seemingly inevitable progress towards shorter working hours has halted. For many workers it has gone into reverse.”

In the 1900s, technological progress kept pace with Keynes’ vision: “The household appliances that first came into widespread use in the ’50s (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and so on) eliminated a huge amount of housework, much of it pure drudgery. By contrast, technological progress for the next 40 years or so was limited. Arguably, the only significant innovation in this period was the microwave oven,” writes Quiggin.

Today, a lot more of us are able to take beautiful pictures or design graphics than a decade ago. Tools are aiding our leisure, in effect. Then, apart from art, music, films, dance, cooking or writing, we would have other forms of creativity in future – highly specialized and niche at the same time. There’s the other point that many of us love our work. We love being productive, we thrive on having definite goals and challenges to take up each day. We might not be creatively bent or want to indulge in gardening. Where would that leave us in the future?

The animation flick Wall E was chilling in its portrayal of how humans will be rotund in their obese obsolescence while robots pick up their laundry. With no manual labor, we are reduced to creatures that consume. The movie actually made me think of Adam and Eve in a mythical paradise. Without the need to hunt for food, to study, to build structures, to weave clothes, to take care of children, to nurture trees, pet animals – without the motivation for survival – what would they have done? Just keep exploring the heavenly gardens? For how long? The market tries to sell us this vision of a free, happy, labor-free future, controlled and protected by robots. Am not sure we will be any good if we are not harnessing the resources around us. We will stagnate. From the perspective of evolution, we thrived and survived because we pushed our physical and intellectual limitations to overcome natural adversities. We were able to adapt and invent new technologies because of the way we are wired – towards seeking, creating, being useful and molding the natural environment to our changing needs. Am not sure a placid, non-needy human can survive its own future.

* GDP – Gross Domestic Product – is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period, though GDP is usually calculated on an annual basis. It includes all of private and public consumption, government outlays, investments and exports less imports that occur within a defined territory.

How Do We Reform Criminals?

There has been unprecedented media coverage and public outrage against the recent crime in an Indian city, where a girl was raped by 6 men in a bus, at night. She was raped, tortured and flung out of the bus along with her male friend who had accompanied her that night. She was 23-years-old and a medical student. A passers-by spotted the bleeding duo on the road and alerted the police. Read the report here.

The federal and state government and police have since promised to introduce a series of measures to prevent violence against women, including better night-time policing on the streets of Delhi, checks on bus drivers and the cancellation of licenses of illegal buses or those with tinted windows or curtains. “We promise a safer capital. This is going to be a place where any (hooliganism) will be strictly punished,” said Delhi police commissioner Neeraj Kumar at a press conference.

Several Facebook friends, some of whom also happen to be human rights activists working independently, have taken to protesting the incident. This is the network I interact with so I get to read their sentiments, their outrage, their sense of helplessness, and humiliation each of which are directed towards law enforcement officers, our government, the laws that don’t seem to work, and punishments that don’t seem to deter repeat offences. The protest is also directed towards civil society institutions, which have been unable to nurture a secure and violence-free environment for citizens. No safety in public transportation. No safety in schools. No safety in religious places. No safety in parks. There is palpable anger at being systematically pounced upon, hit, slapped, thrown out of moving vehicles, touched, kicked, and being treated worse than slaughter-house cattle. There is a sense of urgency in these protests. Thousands of women marching on the streets, holding placards, shouting slogans, asking the powers that be to step up their vigil, to do something, to make the cities safe once again, to hang the 6 rapists, to give us justice.

Protests. Placards. Slogans. Shouts. Outrage. My friends talk about ‘shaming’ the criminals and the government into owning up to their lapses. My friends talk about keeping ‘alive the outrage’, so that we may never forget this day of violence against that girl. My friends are devoting their time inventing creative copies, pledges and one liners that can fit neatly into their status updates and 15×15 inch posters. The only form of protest I know is to write and in doing so be an impartial documentator of society’s chronic issues.

       *************

Let’s connect the dots.  When a crime is committed, the law takes its own course. Criminals are innocent until proven guilty in our justice system and s/he stands trial when sufficient evidence is gathered. We know that it takes decades for convictions and subsequent sentencing, and in other cases, those who have power and resources go scot-free. In a country where corruption is the de facto mechanism of functioning, there is misappropriation, falsification, lapses and delays, all of which the public wearily reads in the national dailies and accepts as de rigueur.  Apathy is entrenched so subliminally in our consciousness that we don’t even react when we hear of billion-dollar scams arising out of pilfering tax payer’s money. Our sweat, our blood hoarded by someone else, who will never be punished. Someone who doesn’t care about that their act is wrong. A criminal becomes one not because s/he commits the act, but because s/he thinks of doing something illegal or unethical without fearing the consequences of what they are about to do. Their conscience has been silenced and the brain mechanism that should alert them to the dangers of their actions has shut down.

When talking about criminals, we only refer to big crimes and motives – murder, rape, robbery – but conveniently forget the hundreds of minor trespasses we give into every day. Jumping queues, jaywalking when the traffic signal is red, driving rashly, using a mobile phone while riding a motorbike, bribing officials of a school or college so our children get admissions, paying money to hawaldar who comes to verify our passports, not paying our taxes, giving into dowry demands, marrying our daughters and sons when they are underage – where do we begin to clean up our society?

So, what exactly are these protest marches for? Why are we taking to the streets and talking about shaming society? Are we hoping that this collective outrage will shame hardened criminals into confessing their crimes and surrendering? Do we hope for their conscience to ignite and refrain from repeating such crimes? Do we think that our protests will instill fear in a serial killer, serial rapist, serial robber? How do you talk to that regular guy: walking down the street, who goes about his work day, and while returning home to his parents, or hostel, or to his slum, or to his buddies, or to his wife, he sees a girl  – a teenage girl, or a middle aged woman, or an elderly lady, or a small child – and suddenly he rushes to her, forcibly takes hold of her, drags her to a secluded spot, tears her clothes and while physically holding her down, is overcome with rage and rapes her – the regular, ordinary, everyday Joe who could be my relative, my best friend, my neighbor?

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As a civilized society, we have evolved to understand that crimes have motives and criminals have varying impulses to commit crimes, including economic hardships, social conditioning and familial environment, sustained exposure to ideas in popular culture that encourage deviant / perverse / unethical behavior. The discourse of crime itself is so complicated that we have evolved a system of justifiable homicide in cases relating to murder and self-defense. When does the first act become a habit? When does crime become a psychosis, a sickness that needs medical intervention? If rapists are mentally sick then would tougher laws really deter them? If rapists are sociopaths who derive pleasure in subjugating the weaker person, then would raising awareness about the “wrongness’ of rape really cure them or change them?

We need a more evolved and consensual discourse on human behavior and motives. Remember those moral science classes in school, where the teacher repeatedly told us to “not lie,” “do not steal,” “be mindful of your actions,” “be courteous to elders,” “do not use foul language,”, “do not abuse those weaker than you,”, “be respectful of neighbors,” “be tolerant of customs different from yours,” “be a conscientious citizen,” and a list of other litanies which we had to learn by rote and recollect at the end of the year to pass the test. Now, when I look back on those boring lessons, it comes to mind that as kids we couldn’t wait to grow up and grow out of those injunctions. We wanted to break the rules and be punks. It’s disconcerting to think that if an everyday Jane like me enjoys the idea of rebelling and not sticking to a social code of conduct, what can we expect from sociopaths? If moral behavior evolves in every era of human evolution and varies over cultural divisions and geographical lines, then how do we set benchmarks for what is good behavior?

I am not sure I want to see a society where good behavior is codified into strict laws that bring out punishments for going out of line, but we are all disturbed by the massive and systemic breakdown in structures that govern our behavior. The upholders of justice and enforcers of law have a tough job either ways. Do you think there is a rational way out of this quandary? The answer lies with each of us. If you can police your own actions and be honest with your self, there’s hope for your neighbor.

Dear T.S. Eliot, Send Some Inspiration This Way

Dreaming of aExplorations

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot — “Little Gidding” (the last of his Four Quartets)

What happens at the point when you realize that this is the best that life can get and there’s nothing better that can come along? Do you feel euphoric, flying on the wings of knowledge that says you have made it, that you have arrived and your dreams have been achieved? Or, is there a disconsolate sense of loss, disbelief and horror that the ‘this’ you waited for all along is not as grand, not as triumphant or fulfilling as you imagined the moment to be. Elation freezes into ennui.

In reality, the ‘this’ moment in scary and slides the bottom out of your feet. You thought ticking off every little goal that added up to the one right at the top would mean, “mission accomplished, now I can savor the victory.” It could be that the sum total of your ‘this’ included: mastery over an ancient language; a degree that you set your heart on years ago and had to have at any cost, irrespective of how your career goals have changed; a love companion that gets it, really gets it; a job that shouts “passion” and a boss who’s Santa Claus in disguise; the point at which your bank balance gives you serotonin kicks each time you check it. All the 100 little checklists that had to be carefully planned so that the ‘best point in your life’ could be reached at exactly the moment you plotted: 29 years, 2 months, 6 days, 26 minutes and counting. You jotted down these goals yourself, fully convinced that this is what it would take to make you happy. Happy. Period. Not, happy but. Having found something that millions strive hard to capture, you would consciously avoid setting more goals. No, not needed. It’s like, you made a deal with yourself decades ago. You were that intelligent and all-knowing kid who realized that the more wishes you got fulfilled, the more you would crave for better things. I have thrown away my goal-writing pen. I am at that moment where my goals have been achieved. At this very moment, I should be reveling in happiness. Sheer, sun-shining-down-on me happiness.

But I am not happy.

I don’t feel euphoric. My contentment is cowering behind melancholia. I am depressed. I am spending my waking hours trying to figure out why the happiness bubble hasn’t enveloped itself around me, yet? Sure, the degree certificate could have sported an A+ and the job can get a tad uninspiring, and sure, I haven’t covered four continents yet in my travels, but I am not a perfectionist, I am okay with compromise! The fact is, I feel more displaced than ever more; as if I have lost more than what I had in the first place. It’s bewildering, it’s disorienting; it’s inducing bipolar behavior. Perhaps this is just a low phase where my muses have deserted me. I am unable to write insightful and original pieces. But “happyness” is not contingent on a few blogs, right? The system promised that when I have it all, I would be deliriously happy and smug.

But here’s a contradiction. The best and worst of minds in the media say our generation is the anxious one, the lost one, the confused one, the jobless one, the hyper-connected one, the detached one, the apathetic one, the revolutionary one. We all do, but never feel. We connect, but distance ourselves from us. We dream big, achieve grandly but measure satisfaction with atomic scales that skew relativity. Our sense of satiety is misplaced. A cup of ice-cream is not enough, we need a tub, a pound, a whole family pack. I would readily agree with these generalizations. Pop-culture says that we are right in the middle of a grand consumption cycle. Consumption should help in keeping us fed and satiated. Isn’t satiety exactly what we should be aiming for – the point at which we are content and the body at peace and the mind not over-worked into beginning the next cycle until much later? But help me, the feeling misses its mark every time and I am left feeling hollow, dissatisfied and empty.

I feel cheated out of reality.

Books that I read since I was four always spoke of creatures, castles and flights of fancy. It was only in faraway kingdoms that adventure could be found. In fact, the birthplace of adventure was in a land far, far away. I spent my entire childhood thinking that all I had to do if I wanted to live a life of adventure was to grow up and travel overseas. Those foreign lands would have quaint cottages, voluminous libraries, appetizing cookies, and miles of cobbled streets (or sand dunes, beaches or forests) that I could walk on to sight-see entire geographies and continents. That was the extent of my imagination and the strength of my conviction that ‘this’ is all it required to arrive at the ‘best point in life’ moment. I grew up to learn that kingdoms were now transformed into countries, and travel required the fixing of minor details such as money, visa and permissions from parents/boss/love mate (sometimes all three). When I boarded an international flight to travel to my first overseas country, instead of the adventure that I anticipated the journey to be, it became a series of mundane actions: cab-airport-baggage-check-in-uninspiring tray food-non-conversing-passengers-jet-lag-culture-shock-alienation. Was I naïve enough to believe that traveling to distant lands would actually be all about a spirit of adventure? Yes, perhaps. Do I believe that travel could be more fun? Yes, of course. Does the world thrive on romanticizing the most ordinary of life’s details? Yes. Does this hurt our prospects of growing up to be well-adjusted adults? Most definitely. Does the world and all its adults shelter children from the ordinary reality of life by building grand castles in the air and then cajoling us into believing that residing in one of those castles is not a improbable dream? Oh, my god, don’t get me started. It kills me to think that a lot of agony that we go through in matters of discovering the ‘real’ world could be spared if grown-ups could just grow the guts to speak to us in plain language. It would have been great if I knew way back in kindergarten that the world is a dangerous place filled with deviant minds, but also, there exist pockets of oasis that non-deviant folks could travel to and inhabit.

We try so hard to make sense of life. Of truth. We try so hard to understand reality. We want to answer the ultimate question about the purpose of human existence. Cultural Theorists have us convinced about the essential non-reality of our routine. It’s all structural. It’s all a construct. We are given a post-colonial, post-modern post-mortem on what life really means and the role we play within the frameworks of power and politics. We are weaned on the idea of agency and the network and are coached to rise against the Empire, even while we continue to work, live and die for the Empire.We are given conflicting signals about our dress code and sexuality. About our parenting and nurturing tendencies. About our love life and social disintegration. Being a boy, being a girl is no longer a simple equation, we learn to navigate patriarchy, power relations, social conditioning, advertisement. It’s tough. It’s so tough to take simple decisions for fear we are not stepping on the toes of any feminist/misogynist/atheist. What if I just want to do something because it feels like it has to be done?

Does knowing the truth free us from it? Are we all really waiting for the puzzle of our existence to be solved to just begin taking the first step towards being happy? Why did happiness become the benchmark or the index of measuring quality of life? Is there a historical precedent for claiming that yes, indeed, it is happiness that makes our life worth living? I am angry that every stimulus that I am confronted with tells me I need to step out of my comfort zone and aim higher and be more happier. Why? Why do I need to step out of my comfort zone? Is there a guarantee that comes with being adventurous and well-traveled and more knowledgeable about wine than the rest of us who might just decide to tame rabbits at home and earn a living out of being a gardener?

The question that scares me the most: what do we want the truth to be? How differently would you choose if you knew your purpose in life beforehand, at the age of one perhaps? Are you waiting for someone to tell you that this is what you need to do in order to get to the ‘best point in your life?’ Don’t. I have just told you exactly what takes place when you arrive at ‘that’ point. You begin again. T.S. Eliot says this, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time…” (Little Gidding). This is not a verse written in hope, but in utter horror, highlighting the endless, ceaseless cycles of madness that we indulge in when we keep aiming for the best. Perhaps the best is not out there in the distance, in the future, across the seas: it’s right here, in this moment, in the space you inhabit. The best is not about the dream job or the all-understanding lover or a body that is prime in health. You cannot control these situations. You have no power over how you age or fade. Don’t hold on to the idea that there is something out there if you just wait long enough. That the best moments of your life are yet to come. That’s just plain, old lies, fairytales for those who don’t know better. None of us have seen what happens after the last word of these tales fade by, then why hold that as an ideal to live your life by?

So, do we go about our lives without setting any goals? Do we sleep every day holding our dreams at bay, controlling our fantasies, neutering our wishes? Do we dive into meditation, breathing down on our never-ending desires? How? How do we even begin to stop being human, knowing that this is the only way we know how to be one? But let me ask you this: is being human defined solely by achievements and passion and the fulfillment of wishes? Does being human mean that we strive to have it all at the cost of our daily sanity? Do we continue to dissect every choice we make and pray that our mistakes somehow magically transform into promises? Even when you get everything you pray for, you are still going to end up at point one of this page. Look into the mirror and realize that that is our destiny, to be caught in thrall by our own fantasies, forever thrashing and struggling to be free. I wouldn’t know the first thing about liberation and neither do I believe that awareness is the first step towards enlightenment. Question the question. How did freedom become the final point of our collective nirvana? Why do we believe that salvation is the threshold towards eternal bliss? Why can’t we give up ambitions and exist solely to survive and then die? Is death too demeaning a benchmark to achieve and crossover? Question everything you have been told about what will guarantee you happiness or bliss. Question everything you have been told about the causes of misery and pain. Question your high ideals. Question your lowest points in life. Question your choices but live with convictions. Convictions too will transform. It’s all fluid. It’s all in a state of flux. Live in the moments that form between the questions and answers. Just live.