From Nine to Nought?

So, as I shared a table at an over crowded gay bar in San Francisco, the German man who had struck up a conversation with my friend, leaned over to me and said, “That is a beautiful colour on you”. He was admiring the tomato red top I had on that evening. I thanked him, and then the conversation veered to where I was from originally. When I said India, he sat back and exclaimed delightedly, “Ah India! Such a beautiful country”. I felt my heart swell with pride till he leaned over once more and asked, “So why don’t Indian women wear sarees anymore?”

Don’t we? I mulled this one over. When was the last time I’d worn a saree? That would be Diwali 2017. That was also the only time in the year I’d worn a saree. I could plead a dozen excuses. After all, the climate in the U.K. doesn’t allow a lot of saree wearing. I lead a very busy life. I travel a lot. The saree is not the most convenient outfit for everyday use. Yet, the sad truth is, I really don’t wear a lot of sarees. Nor do most of my contemporaries.

Trawling through Facebook pictures of some New Year’s Eve party, I was struck by how many overweight Indian women insisted on squeezing themselves into unflattering dresses, when a saree could have covered a multitude of sins, and allowed them to look elegant and beautiful. Instead, there they were, mutton dressed as lamb, wearing mini skirts that displayed wobbly thighs, or halter necks that did little to camouflage their back fat.

Since when did sarees get relegated to fashion oblivion?

Bollywood that sets fashion trends has all its starlets parading on the red carpet in the latest sequinned number from Elie Saab or some such designer. If a mainstream actress decides to wear a saree, she is immediately consigned to the ‘Amma’ (mother) heap. Sarees are passé. They are for the elderly or the behenji (read boring) types. The trendy, modern, fashion forward diva  wouldn’t be caught dead in one. More is the pity.

With a history that dates back to pre BC Indus Valley civilisation, the saree- a single piece of cloth measuring between 5 and 9 yards, has had a rich, varied and symbiotic relationship with the subcontinent. From the multiplicity of its drapes, to its fabrics and designs, it has adorned the female form much longer than most other vestments. Why then, is it so under threat now?

Growing up, all I ever saw my mother wear, were the most exquisite sarees. From Chanderi cottons to Kanjeevaram silks, her wardrobe consisted of a riot of colours, weaves, fabrics and patterns. Her collection of sarees was legendary amongst her peers, and I was constantly reminded how lucky I would be one day to inherit all this. Yet today, those sarees languish in unopened cases, her legacy ignored, if not forgotten entirely.

Is the Indian Saree going the same way as the Japanese Kimono- only to be worn at weddings and special occasions?

My fervent hope is that never happens. The beauty, the elegance and the grace of the traditional attire, the cultural weight it carries, the exoticism it bestows upon its wearer can never be replaced by its western counterpart. There are some incredibly stunning couture dresses out there, but put an Indian woman in a simple khadi saree and watch the transformation.

Designers like Sabyasachi and Ritu Kumar are reinventing the saree for the Millennials. Fashionistas like Sonam Kapoor are donning them with flair at places like Cannes. So, perhaps, the saree isn’t entirely dead? If reinvention is the name of the game, then so be it. Let the saree evolve, but let it survive.

For my part, I intend to dig my mother’s sarees out, and wear them with pride. And as I fold and drape the luxurious silk over me, in some small way I will keep her alive as well.

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#MeToo and why this hashtag matters

Year 2017 saw the birth of a new movement called #MeToo. Right on the heels of the sexual misconduct charges against Weinstein, a feeling of kinship and a need to tell their own stories led to the emergence of this hashtag. #MeToo spoke for women who had buried, suppressed, hidden and suffered their own indignities at the hands of men over the years. A sisterhood that had been bound in chains of silence because of the shame associated with their experiences or the powers that muffled their voices. Not any more.

As #MeToo gained momentum, more stories emerged. Stories of workplace sexual harassment. Stories of sexual assault on women too young to fight back, too scared to speak up, too powerless to defend themselves. Stories of careers sabotaged of those who refused to succumb. From celebrity origins it spread like wildfire with the quotidian accounts of the everywoman. It made news because it shone a light on a disease that a largely patriarchal society had accepted and condoned. ‘Boys will be boys’ no longer washed, and women were fighting their corner with every ounce of outrage they possessed. Hashtag after hashtag proclaimed ‘Me too’. Some simply whispered it, while others detailed the hows, the whens and the ignominy of their experiences being repeatedly ignored.

From someone who has suffered sexual harassment at the hands of men starting from the tender age of eight, I added my voice to the hashtag. It has been many years since the last incident occurred, but I cannot forget the feelings of shame, helplessness and disgust that I felt back then. Why did it stop? Because I moved continents, and started a career path that had women on an equal platform as men. Yet those early incidents left an indelible mark on my psyche.

Being propositioned by a roadside hawker when I was young enough to be his grand daughter. A passerby stopping his vehicle and exposing his genitals as I walked home from school. Being groped in a temple by a stranger. Heavy breathing and threats of rape over the phone by a male classmate. A forty year old friend of my father asking an eighteen year old me to call him directly on his ‘bedroom line’. A superior at work taking advantage of my naiveté and planting an uncalled for kiss on me. Incident after incident that left me feeling violated in a billion different ways.

Each time I wondered why? Had I done something to lead them on? Had I dressed provocatively? Did I come across as sexually uninhibited? Little did I know back then, that women the world over were facing these humiliations and asking themselves the same questions.

Sexual assault or sexual harassment has very little to do with sexual gratification. It is power play, pure and simple. Men, whether they are superior in rank, age, strength or because society deems it so, wield that power over women in every arena, including the sexual one. Not all men, but I’ll come to that later. If a sexual encounter is to be a pleasurable one, it needs to be consensual. Yet consent is something that these men trample all over. They get their kicks through the fear and vulnerability of their victims.

How does one fight back? After all, not only is sexism institutionalised, it is practically an institution in itself. If #MeToo is anything to go by, then joining hands, exposing the perpetrators and standing up for what is right, can be a start. Easier said than done however. Education is the foundation of everything. Education that begins at home and is carried on throughout life. Education that portrays women as equals not to be preyed upon or ill used. Education that is subliminal, ideological, conscious and subconscious. Education in the messages that are given and received from various platforms, be it entertainment or media. Education that emphasises that women aren’t just baby machines or primary caregivers, Madonnas or whores. Education.

Criticisms of #MeToo have been that its ubiquity diluted its message, or that the LGBTQ communities found little or no representation, or that minor misdemeanours were categorised alongside major assaults, and that all men were tarred with the same brush. While there is merit in these accusations, it is important to recognise the spirit behind the movement. For the first time, in a long time, perhaps even since the Suffragette movement of the 1900’s or the feminist movement hitting its stride in 1960’s, were women banding together and calling attention to their respective stories. Change has to begin somewhere and in 2017, it began with one woman saying to another, “Me too”.

Nearing the end of the second decade of the 21st century, one can only hope that more voices chime in to stamp out behaviour that is absolutely abhorrent and unacceptable. Men, good men, who were equally horrified to see the extent of the problem, become a part of the solution. Shut down the locker room talk, stop viewing the female sex as commodities, take responsibility for your actions, and speak up when you see an injustice. Not too much to ask for.

As a mother to two teenage girls, I hope I have planted the seeds of self worth and self respect in them. They have watched the dynamic between my husband and I all their lives. Our roles have been fluid, flexible even, with each of us happy to take on traditional and non traditional parts. We are equals, we are partners and we are immensely lucky to think the same way about gender and equality. Moving forward, I hope my girls and countless others step into a world that is less skewed in favour of men. I hope they never have to encounter abuse or power play, and if they do, they are equipped to fight back and stand their ground.

#MeToo may not be a perfect movement, but it is an important one. By highlighting the extent of the problem, it has called attention to the behaviours that support and perpetrate abuse of power. Important people have lost their jobs and livelihoods because zero tolerance has kicked in. Companies are recognising that this sort of behaviour is unsupportable. Individuals who thought they were above the law, are finding themselves out in the cold.

Just as we take our voting rights or birth control rights for granted today, I hope a day in the not-too-distant future, will see us take our safety in the workplace, our rights over our bodies and swift and immediate punishment for anyone who violates us, for granted as well. Then and only then, can #MeToo die a quiet, acceptable death.

Until then, keep chiming in, keep telling your stories, keep supporting one another. For in numbers lies our strength, and in unity lies our success.

For those who are willing to go a step further to ensure that all voices are heard and there is accountability for all perpetrators, read and contribute to the #TIMESUP movement:

http://www.timesupnow.com

In solidarity and with respect, #MeToo.

The consequence of contradiction

She wrapped the saree carefully around her, making sure that the pleats fell together in tandem, not one shorter or longer than the other. The pallu was the last fold of the saree, and with a graceful swish, it was over her left shoulder, falling at exactly the point she needed, just below her knee. With a self satisfied pirouette, she flicked her hair back and examined her face. Still no lines. She was lucky to have been blessed with her mother’s beautiful Asian complexion, and at forty five, prided herself on looking at least ten years younger.

“Diksha…how much longer?”, called out Ajay. Twenty four years, and he still didn’t understand the pleasure that she took in the ceremony of dressing up. Shringar, they had called it in India. She remembered being part of a dance ballet that explored the concept of Shringar. The preparation, the anticipation, the actual act of beautifying the self. The grace and the pulchritude.

“Ten minutes!”, she called back, sensing his irritation, and perversely enjoying it.

It was an anniversary party. Everyone was dressed to the nines. They still turned to look when she walked in. She enjoyed being the cynosure of all eyes. Always had.

“Burnt orange? I thought you said you were wearing green?”, Rina questioned her sourly.

“I changed my mind”

“Well, it does look good on you. Sushma won’t be pleased.”

The hostess was wearing burnt orange too, but despite her best efforts looked like a dowdy partridge masquerading as a peacock.

“Sushma, how lovely you look!”, Diksha air kissed her, ensuring the photographer got her best angle. “Where is Lalit?”

“Oh, he’s sorting out last minute stuff. Your children didn’t come?”

“No, Aria has her exams prep, and Akash..you know boys…”

With a shrug, she moved away to say hello to the other wives. They were all polite. They always were. But they hated her. She had refused to grow old and frumpy like them. She enjoyed her liquor, and the company of men, and she had a husband who allowed her all these freedoms without censure.

She had always assumed that living in the US would mean taking these liberties for granted. Yet discovered to her dismay that the Indian community in Chicago was even more narrow minded, orthodox and conservative than the one she’d left behind in Delhi. In that stultifying environment, she’d had the choice of toeing the line or rebelling. She’d chosen the latter.

“There you are!”, he pinched her bottom discreetly.

“Lalit, stop it! It’s your anniversary party.”

“It’s also another anniversary”, he winked at her. She suppressed her grin, and thrust her glass at him. “Get me another whiskey, and go mingle. I don’t want to set tongues wagging.”

The evening passed, as it always did, in a haze of whiskey and tall tales. She stayed in the mens’ corner, provocatively dropping her pallu now and again to let them glimpse her cleavage. It never failed to amuse her.

*

Later that night, as she unwrapped the saree, she caught Ajay’s eyes in the mirror.

“You looked hot tonight.”

She stopped and waited.

“They wanted you so badly. I could see it in their eyes.”

She held her breath.

“You’re a whore! A fucking whore.”

With that, he turned his back on her and let out a little fart, before falling asleep almost immediately.

*

“This is The Bean, Mamu. A very famous sculpture by Anish Kapoor ”

“Too hot beta. Too hot. I need to sit down.”

Exasperated she sat down once again. At this rate they’d never get to see anything. She examined her uncle and aunt with fresh eyes. They really weren’t that old. Mid sixties wasn’t old, was it? Yet, there they were in their traditional attire, incongruously paired with sneakers and baseball caps, insisting on ten minute breaks every half hour. Why spend lakhs of Rupees, travel thousands of miles, and then want to sit indoors in air conditioning watching Indian television? It baffled her.

She loved Chicago. Her adopted city that had embraced her, taken her to it’s high rise bosom and laid her gently by the shores of it’s lake. She loved the extremes of its blistering Summers and its freezing Winters. Spring brought her hope, and Fall, a beautiful melancholy. She couldn’t imagine going back to the noise and pollution of India. She had little to return to as it was. Mamu Mami were her only living relatives, and she wanted to show off her city to them. Preen in its beauty, and bask in the worldliness it had bestowed upon her.

They were not making it easy.

“Can we have curry tonight beta?”, Mami looked at her hopefully. “That sushi has given me constipation”

*

The butter chicken had turned out well. Even if she thought so herself. It had been a while since she’d cooked Indian food. Yet memories of her mother’s instructions had risen to the surface like it was yesterday that she had been taught the nuances of masalas and tarkas.

Aria swung her legs back and forth, perched on the kitchen counter top.

“Who is coming to dinner again Mom?”

“Some friend of Mamu’s. No- actually, his friend’s son. He’s working in Chicago, and you know how these old bonds operate. His father must’ve said he needs to visit…”

“That’s why you’re cooking up a storm? Why not just order some pizza?”

“You know they don’t care for western food”

“And I don’t care for all this smelly Indian food!”

“Aria! Have some respect. They are like your grandparents…”

With a lazy shrug, Aria slid off.

“Happy cooking Mom. I’ll be out tonight.”

“What! Again..?”

Aria had already left the kitchen. With a sigh, Diksha returned to peeling the cucumber. How obedient she had been at twenty. Her family had wanted her to go to a college near home. She had agreed. No riding in buses to the North Campus. No exciting freshers parties. No boyfriends. No late night soirees. God! She’d a had a boring youth. No wonder she was making up for it now.

Her thoughts circled back to Lalit. It was getting awkward now. He was getting sloppy, and the initial thrill had long since evaporated. She had to find a way to break it off before the crap hit the fan.

*

That evening she decided to dress casually. After all, she had to do all the running around. Despite Mami’s protestations, she wanted her to relax and enjoy the evening. She did enough in India. This was her vacation too, and she didn’t want her spending it in the kitchen making chapatis for their guest.

So it was a slightly sweaty and harried Diksha that answered the door to Rahul. Her eyes widened slightly at the sight of the good looking young man on her doorstep. She noted his response. A quick, surprised appraisal before bland politeness took its place.

She tried not to flirt. After all he was nearly twenty years younger. But her nature could not be denied. As the evening progressed, and the wine worked to loosen inhibitions, he leaned over to her.

“That was the best butter chicken I’ve eaten in years. Tell me the name of the restaurant, and I’ll promise you anything in return.”

In mock horror, she leaned back. “How dare you imply I had this delivered! I’ve been slaving over the stove all day….”

He laughed then, and stretched out his long legs. “Then I suppose I’ll have to promise myself to you, in return for the recipe”

She sensed Mami’s discomfiture, and avoided her eye. It was only harmless banter. Their generation was simply not used to it.

*

He trailed kisses down her back, stopping at just above the slope of her curvy derriere.

“You are incredibly sexy”, he whispered.

She laughed, and turned to face him. “Not too old then?”

“Like wine. Like a rare Bordeaux- full bodied, silky and luscious”

“And you are wasting time….Come on, we don’t have long….”

*

Lalit had been a pain to shake off. It had taken several weeks of avoiding his calls, and ignoring him at social gatherings for the message to finally penetrate. He still threw her perplexed, and slightly hurt looks whenever they came across one another. She studiously ignored him, focussing instead on the heady feeling of being desired and pursued.

Rahul had not been subtle. With the gusto of youth, he had made his ardor evident. From the thank you flowers to the cards that followed to the phone calls inviting her to coffee, he left no stone unturned in his pursuit of her. She found it exciting and unnerving. That she would succumb was more a matter of when rather than why.

His apartment had the feel of a bachelor pad- largely unused, and mostly neglected. He had wasted no time on preliminaries, and taken her on the couch, in the first of many lustful adventures. He was a masterful lover, making her body quiver to his command. The afterglow of their lovemaking would encase her in a golden hue, till their next rendezvous, and the next, and the next.

She didn’t want to examine her feelings too closely. She had been in other extramarital relationships. There was an understanding between her and Ajay. She didn’t question his activities, and he turned a blind eye to hers. This tacit accord had worked over the years. The children knew nothing, and to their friends, they were an ideal couple. Yet this time, she felt something in her changing. Rahul was the man she wished Ajay could be. Erudite and accomplished, with a strong sense of purpose, and a determination to succeed. Ajay, for all his money and business acumen, would never be as sophisticated as the young man who wooed her with such urgency.

*

“You’ll never believe this”, Rahul blew smoke rings towards the ceiling, as she lay dozing next to him. “Your uncle has been in touch with my dad….”

“And?”, she responded sleepily.

“They want me to meet your daughter”

“What?!”, she sat up startled.

“Your uncle seems to think we’d make a good match”

“But…but….Aria is only twenty! She’s far too young…..”

He looked at her and laughed.

“I think that may be the least of your worries”

*

All evening she agonised about what her uncle was conspiring to do. Ajay had just returned from Denver, and she brought it up with him.

“Yes, Mamu had sent me an email about it, and I said why not?”

“Why not? Ajay! Aria is so young. She hasn’t even completed her education.”

“She’s not the most academic of children anyway, and in our families we marry the girls off young. You were not much older when I married you.”

“She will never agree. She’s far too independent. Besides, what do we know about this Rahul anyway, huh?” Superstitiously she crossed her fingers.

“Well, his parents are visiting in June. I’ve asked your uncle to arrange a meeting. We can get to know the family, and introduce the children. I’ve heard he’s doing well. A hotshot lawyer in some big firm. Didn’t you say he was a nice chap too?”

Silently, she digested the news. June was two weeks away. This could be a complete disaster! Or maybe not. An idea took shape in her mind.

*

“You have to say no”, she insisted batting his hands away. She’d been trying to talk sense to him but he was intent on unbuttoning her top.

“Why?”, he finally leaned back with a sardonic grin.

“Because…because….”, she spluttered, “She’s only a child….and you and I….”

“Yes?”, he resumed removing her blouse. “You and I what?”

“We’re lovers!”, she spat out angrily, moving out of his reach. “It would be wrong….incestuous…”

“Les Liaisons Dangeureuses”, he commented with a wicked glint in his eyes.

“Be polite but firm. Say she’s too young. Say you want to concentrate on your career. It’ll blow over soon enough.”

“Alright. Alright. Now come on over here”

*

With a strange sense of foreboding, Diksha wore the most conservative of her salwar suits that evening. Aria had been oddly compliant in agreeing to meet Rahul. She had even deigned to dress in a somewhat sober fashion. Diksha couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride when she looked at her beautiful daughter. Aria had the same willowy loveliness that she had once possessed. But underneath it all was a fiery temperament, and an implacable will.

“Are you sure you’re okay with all this darling? You know there is no pressure. You can say no. You know that, right?”

“Oh mom! You worry too much”, Aria planted a swift kiss on her cheek and headed out.

On a scale of 1 to 10, it was an 11 in terms of disaster. Ajay and Rahul’s parents had gotten along like a house on fire, talking common friends, common schools and all the commonality that came from belonging to the same town many moons ago. Worse however was the look that she’d spotted in Rahul’s eyes when Aria walked in. An astonishment, and an awe in the face of her beauty. She’d suddenly felt very old, and had to retreat to the kitchen to compose herself.

When the last of the brandies had been consumed, and the last cigars smoked, it was lightly suggested that the young folk might want to get better acquainted. Aria had blushed, and Rahul had eagerly agreed. Diksha felt sick, and pleading a headache left Ajay to conclude the evening.

*

“Rahul, please pick up! You’ve been ignoring my calls long enough. Please!”

Once again, it went into voicemail.

All her pleadings with Aria had fallen on deaf ears. Aside of being smitten with her dashing young suitor, Aria saw this as an escape from the tedium of studies and jobs, and an entree into an exciting life of parties, and travel, and unencumbered sex. They were already discussing venues and dates. Diksha felt desperate and alone in her misery.

In a last ditch attempt, she waited on his stairwell, cornering him just as he was entering his apartment.

“Rahul!”

He flinched when he saw her, and then covered his reaction with a polite mask.

“Diksha, how nice to see you here. How are you? Long time, hey?”

“Don’t fob me off with this crap!”, she spat.

He ushered her in quickly, the mask dropping just as fast.

“What the hell do you want?”

“You know what I want. I want you to leave Aria alone.”

“No can do”

“You don’t love her”

“You don’t know that”

“What sick game are you playing Rahul?”

He leaned back against the wall. “Tell me something Diksha. Would you leave your husband for me?”

“What? No! And you wouldn’t want that either. It was always a no strings attached thing.”

“Well then, how can you begrudge me the next best thing?”

“Rahul,I’m not sure what your agenda is, but please, I beg you…this is my child. She is only an innocent”

“Not from the way she performs dearest Mom in law to be. She could teach you a few tricks.”

Her palm connected with his face with such force that she nearly dislocated her arm. She ran out, her face flaming, her heart beating an uneven tattoo.

What do I do? What do I do?

*

Delhi was just as hot and polluted as she remembered. Aria wouldn’t stop coughing, making her point loudly. She’d refused to exchange a word with her on the flight. Not even the promise of a magnificent trousseau could puncture the grand sulk.

As she lay next to Mami, enjoying her afternoon siesta, the knot in her chest loosened somewhat. From the first moment that she had walked into the bougainvillaea covered bungalow, she had felt a sense of peace. Mamu, Mami, Home. Memories of her childhood had come rushing back. The childless couple that had taken her orphan self in, and given her love and opportunity and a future. How had it become so messed up? Why?

The Blind school she took Aria to on the pretext of buying candles, was only an excuse.

Years ago, Mamu had taken her there. In her selfish, teenage years she had often wallowed in self pity at being orphaned so young. He had made her sit in on classes, help with serving the food, and in his own exquisitely insightful manner, opened her eyes to her good fortune.

She watched Aria respond to the children around her in the same fashion. She was reticent at first, and then gradually she volunteered herself, playing, laughing, clapping and singing with the happy souls that surrounded her.

Diksha saw no handicap in anyone there, but herself.

*

“When were you going to tell her, beta?”, Mami enquired gently. “About Rahul and yourself?”

Diksha felt her mouth go slack. She had forgotten that this little old lady had all the powers of incision that a mother possessed.

“How can I, Mami? What will she think of me? She will never ever respect me again.”

“Diksha, is respect more important to you than honesty? This is your daughter’s future. You cannot let her make her decision without knowing all the facts.”

“Why did you let this go ahead Mami?”, Diksha questioned bitterly.

“I tried to dissuade your uncle. But he was adamant. He saw us forging a stronger bond with the Sharmas. He did not suspect what I suspected. Besides beta, isn’t it time you examined your own actions? Every action has a consequence. Isn’t it time you owned up to your responsibility?”

That night as the fan rotated lazily above them, Diksha tossed and turned, her mind in tumult. Everything hung in balance here. Her child’s happiness, her own marriage, her reputation, the future of her relationship with her family.

It was true that every action had a consequence. Her contradictory behaviour, her unhappy marriage, her wilfulness, her selfishness had long been leading to this day of reckoning. Yet, it was a consequence she could not shy away from any longer.

Impulsively she shook Aria awake. Groggy and irritated, she sat up.

“What is it Mom?”

“Aria, I have something to tell you”

THE END

©Poornima Manco 2017

Thank you

What can I say? It has been the most marvellous experience collating all the various guest blog posts that I’ve had the good fortune of being able to showcase on my blog. From experiences to thought pieces, from fiction to poetry, from opinion pieces to slice of life offerings, I have enjoyed the process of collecting and presenting this fascinating array of articles. A huge thank you to all my contributors! Such talent, such imagination, such wisdom and such depth and breadth of experience. I am truly grateful, and humbled to have been a conduit for all of that.

Becca is an incredibly creative soul. If there any kind of artistic pie, you can bet your bottom dollar she’s got a finger in it. In her article, A story of many strands – Becca Robbins, she talks of her love for knitting. From choosing the yarn, to its transformation into something beautiful and wearable, she allows us to be a part of its journey. Never will I ever look at a hand knit sweater in the same way again.

Mahika’s article, The BIG difference: J20 and H20- Mahika M, was actually a school project. She had insisted on reading it out to me while I was completing certain chores about the house. Not being of a very scientific bent of mind, I was only half listening to this essay about water, when in spite of myself, I found myself riveted in the way she had taken a rather dry (or wet) subject, and made it understandable. In comparing J20 a soft drink that most teenagers gravitate towards, and water, that most of us take for granted, she managed to display the latter’s incredible qualities and obvious superiority to any other liquid on the planet. Much to her discomfiture, I insisted on including it in my guest blogs. Do have a read as it educates without patronising, and is full of subtle humour.

Inside the city in me – Bharat Shekhar, was Bharat’s contribution to my blog. Bharat is a very well known poet in Delhi. He has written a few children’s books and also writes prolifically about current affairs and politics in India. However, it is his poetry that is truly magical. His words have the power to transport you to another realm. They wrap themselves around your mind and then penetrate your heart to finally set up residence in your soul. I am in awe of his prowess and look forward to reading so much more of his works.

James’ Examples of found articles circa state controlled Serenity. 2356 AD – James Dhanjal was a Science Fiction piece that was very well liked by my followers on WordPress. Not being particularly accomplished in this genre, I truly enjoyed reading and displaying this story. Imagination is a wonderful thing, and other people’s imagination even more so. James took me into a dystopian future where a State run program has gone very very wrong. Disturbing and fascinating.

A lot has been said in the Indian Press about the state of pollution in Delhi. Yet, a poignant piece from Melissa Breathless – Melissa Singh, a resident of Delhi, spoke volumes about the noxious air that the inhabitants of the city are breathing. Her question is a simple one: is this the price of progress? Something to ponder.

Johanna confronted tradition and discrimination in her insightful and discerning The Dutch tradition of Black Pete – a jolly children’s friend, or a racist caricature? Johanna Brunt. It is so easy to accept and follow certain practices as gospel just because there is tradition attached to them. How much harder it is to try and understand that it maybe time to change a hurtful and discriminatory custom. How much harder to place yourself in the shoes of the other, and feel as they do. Johanna did all this and more, going as far as to suggest the alternative of Roetpiet as the future of Black Pete. Will the Dutch do the right thing? That remains to be seen. However, as long as there are empathetic, open minded and forward thinking individuals like Johanna, I still have hope.

Hope was the light that shone in Sonia’s The games women play – Sonia Narayanan. An avid sports follower and an extremely talented writer, Sonia showed just how far Indian sportswomen have come in the last few decades. With meagre resources and next to no support, it is iron will and determination that allowed these young women to conquer all kinds of hurdles to emerge victorious in various sporting arenas. As India changes its outlook towards women in sports, a golden era beckons. Long may it last and more power to these incredible girls!

Pecking order by Prianka was a cry from the heart. A cry of a thirteen year old girl who feels neglected and sidelined by her peers for her non conformist ways. It was a tough piece to write, as it exposed all of Prianka’s vulnerabilities and hurt. Yet, as a writer, it is when you lay yourself bare that you connect with your audience. So many people reached out to her through me, and through the blog, to say, hold on and stay true to yourself. Hierarchies diminish and disappear. Individuality rarely does.

The last article, The impossibility of saying anything even remotely comprehensible…… by Michael-Eric Schwaabe ,was Michael’s brilliantly sharp observation on how communication can sometimes fail us. When thoughts, ideas, social structures and strictures are subconsciously embedded in our psyches, we find words inadequate in bridging chasms of understanding. Yet, the point is to never give up. In trial and error, in non or misunderstanding, there is still the attempt to reach a solution. In reaching out to the other, we are expanding our own boundaries and that can only be a good thing.

I know my Guest month overran somewhat. With so many wonderful, diverse articles to display, I had little choice but to let it.

“We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity. We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion.”
— Max de Pree

 

 

The impossibility of saying anything even remotely comprehensible…… by Michael-Eric Schwaabe

One of my favourite pastimes and one that I had significant opportunities for indulging in as a younger man, was sitting round a table nursing a pint of beer (real ale please) and solving all the world’s problems in conversation with one or two good friends. We usually had everything solved by the third pint, which in turn, opened the way for a celebratory fourth thus reaching my upper limit, especially if I wanted to function well enough to navigate back home. Which describes a particular conceit of mine; in that the world’s problems are solvable. This was an odd thing to be doing and perhaps a greater reflection of the cultural privilege that a white Western man enjoys – although I could not have framed it in quite that way at the time. The conversations were usually between men and, since they only rarely extended to include women, they beg the question (which I could blissfully disregard at the time, although the alcohol-based mental lubrication may have helped somewhat): how are you going to solve anything if fifty per cent of humanity isn’t even represented? Or even, as was definitely the case for this young man in his twenties, I really didn’t control very much at all and actually still don’t. It’s not like I could set global transport policies, or make State planning decisions, or initiate a comprehensive waste recycling scheme – to mention just a few.

That’s not to say that nothing good has come of this particular pastime – on the contrary, some problems did get solved as a direct result. But many fewer than the number and grandeur of those mental palaces I constructed. Worse still, my ability to effectively capture the problem in words seems to be failing. Every time I try to nail something down the issue either slips through my metaphors or my preamble becomes so overly top-heavy that I’ve lost my audience before we can really get started. As there’s less beer involved too, this may underlie part of the difficulty. These days it’s usually my wife who will cut me off leaving just my progeny who occasionally has the patience to put up with her father when he goes off on one of his overbearing rants. But the problem remains – defining issues has become considerably more difficult for me. The thought builds, I try to speak, and in that precise moment a multitude of other issues occur to me demanding my urgent attention, all of which have a direct bearing on the relevance of the issue, and I then feel the need to systematically explore each one. Little wonder perhaps that my family’s switch from good natured tolerance to extreme exasperation sits on a hairpin trigger. Worse still is when I try to write, because most of the time, the effort involved in setting thoughts on paper (computer screen nowadays), it’s like swimming uphill through a sea of mental treacle.

Why are words so damn difficult? Each word is a box inside of which sits the idea of what it is you want to say. Except it’s not really your idea. A “cup of tea” clearly means a mug-shaped vessel made of some kind of porcelain containing about 250ml of recently poured boiling water over brown tea leaves, usually held in a porous paper sachet or bag, with about 30ml of added cold milk. Except it doesn’t, to people who don’t like milk in their tea, or who prefer green tea, or insist on a cup and saucer, or it might even mean a cup filled with tea leaves. Ultimately, you won’t know what the other person understands unless you ask, and if you have to ask about every little thing then life can become quite exhausting. So most people prefer to rely on a form of shorthand and assume that their “cup of tea” is exactly what they imagine it to be. How easy it is to be fooled into a false sense of security, as anybody who has ever had the experience of being asked for “hot tea” by an American. Of course it’s hot, dammit, otherwise it wouldn’t be tea! All this confusion arises from three little words. What these words, these boxes surrounding ideas, these forms of mental shorthand really represent is a social construct – a “cup of tea” is like this because, well because everybody else around me who is like me thinks that this, and only this, is a cup of tea.

This social construct is my identity, and the brilliant thing is that I have many which express themselves in all the different roles I assume every day, as a parent, a husband, a friend, at work or while playing around. Here’s the rub – certain identities carry consequences, whether I like them or not, and I may not even be consciously aware of them. Things such as national origin, religious affiliation, as well as gender, ethnicity, degree of privilege, all define the boundaries – that is – the outer limits of what I’m prepared to accept that each word box will surround. And this has a real bearing on solving all the world’s problems, even when lubricated by my favourite beer. For example, I tend to assume that governments are benign structures mandated to help improve their citizens’ lives. Clearly, most governments are neither benign, nor do their officers feel in any way compelled to act in accordance with enacting or enforcing fundamental human rights principles. So, sitting in the pub, enjoyable though that may be and the odd exception aside, is not the most direct route to solving the world’s problems.

So this is my understanding: fixing anything requires us to understand that everything is a social construct that has been collectively invented by people who share the same identity. So if something is broken, or a problem, a big part of understanding the issue is understanding where the boundaries of our word boxes have been set. Commonly referred to as the paradigm, but that is only a particular word box which contains the idea of a commonly understood idea (I hope you begin to understand why I often feel like I’m swimming uphill through a sea of treacle).

When you are in the forest you can’t see the wood for the trees – what is required is a different perspective. And that means seeking out those who have a different identity, persuading them to share their understanding and taking the time to learn.

Anybody fancy a beer?

 

Michael in his own words:
For several years, my day job was largely (though not entirely) based on my skills in both the English and French languages – which I found highly amusing as these were, PE aside, the things I was worst in at school. The skills of caring, attention to detail, and customer focus I need for my current day job were essentially acquired through the example given to me by my parents, and most significantly my mother. Married with one lovely child, I live in London. I used to ride motorcycles, but development work and a Masters got in the way, leading to the occasional blog at: http://www.conversareblog.net/.

I aspire to do so again.

 

Pecking order by Prianka

The hierarchy of secondary school. Or, as I like to call it, the stupidity of teenage children.

Growing up, we always look at ‘high school’ as the years you will succeed, go to prom with a handsome boyfriend and go to exciting parties.

At least, that’s what movies like High School Musical and Mean Girls teach us.

Actually, it is the opposite. It is the time where you learn that standing out may not be a good thing, despite your parents saying so. You learn, that putting your hand up in lessons isn’t cool by the standards of the popular people. You learn, that having opinions gets you bullied.

I learned this the hard way.

I learned this from getting weird looks after doing something remotely ‘different’. I learned this, by getting laughed at after putting my hand up too much. I learned this, after having views in RE(Religious Education) that deemed me the opinionated feminist girl amongst the boys.

But the popular girls, they somehow got it right. On the first day of school, they all stuck together, like a pack of wolves. But all white. Coloured people aren’t cool, I guess?

The stereotypes aren’t like, ‘the goths’, ‘the nerds’, or the ‘drama club’. It goes in two ways. Those who are cool, and those who aren’t.

I fall amongst the latter.

I have gone through school, being terrified of the popular boys and girls. Only last week, none of my friends were in my DT(Design Technology) lesson, and no one sat with me. I was alone at a whole table by myself. This led to me running out of the classroom in tears, because I felt like I wasn’t worth sitting with.

The popular girls have the ideal secondary school experience, with the boyfriend, the prom, and the parties.

The rest of us are left clinging to each other, trying to keep our confidence from crumbling, and trying to ignore the obvious fact that we aren’t loved or cared about by our peers.

After a while, we manage to not let it affect us too much. But there are moments when we still crave to be popular and be invited to parties.

Sometimes, I wonder where these people will be in 10 years. Will they be successful? Will they have huge families? Will they still be popular? Or will these years be their prime, and will they slowly fall and reduce to nothing?

The truth is, we don’t know. We don’t know what will happen in the future. A lot of our teenage years go towards trying to figure out what our future will be. From choosing our GCSE subjects at 14, and then doing the actual exams at 16.

But I can’t judge all of the popular people by the same yardstick. The time I ran out of my DT lesson, one of them came after me and invited me to sit with her.

Maybe I just have to get to know them, and I will like them better. But that won’t change the fact that they have ignored me for so many years.

The idea of leaving secondary school is exciting for me. Meeting new people, and finding my place in the world.

Until then, I am caught in the grasps of the hierarchy of social lives and popularity.

 

 

Hi! I am Prianka and I am 13 years old. If you remember that article from a while ago, I was the one who asked where the smoked salmon was in the middle of the fish market in Pondicherry. I love Shawn Mendes and llamas and I hope to become an actress one day. And an author. I hope you enjoyed my thought piece.

The games women play – Sonia Narayanan

Being a sport is now synonymous with being a woman in India. Quite literally that is. Badminton, Cricket, Tennis, Gymnastics, Wrestling, Boxing, Athletics, Shooting or whatever else be the discipline, Indian women have taken not just the country but also the professional sports world by storm. They are breaking down barriers, defying the odds, challenging gender, cultural and social stereotypes to make a name for themselves in the highly competitive world of international sports.

Despite the initial resistance or cynicism they have faced through the decades, despite the challenges of their personal circumstances, despite government inertia, despite poor training facilities, despite financial constraints, these new age superwomen are standing tall in an environment which was, up until now, considered a male stronghold. It is no coincidence that today for a Virat there is a Mithali Raj, for a Kidambi Srikanth there is a P V Sindhu, for a Leander Paes there is a Sania Mirza. The list is long and it will grow longer still.

Not only that – at times these women have been trail blazers, walking into unfamiliar territory and doing what no woman has been able to do before. Take Sakshi Malik – the fiesty Indian freestyle wrestler from Mokhra, a tiny little Hamlet in Haryana, who coming from behind won bronze at the Olympics or Dipa Karmakar – the intrepid gymnast from Tripura who missed the medal by a whisker, or even P V Sindhu who won silver; all these women have brought cheer to a nation starved of heroics at the Olympics.

Having said that, it is not a change that has taken place overnight. It would be safe to say that a paradigm shift in the approach to women taking up professional sports came about with the success that India’s sprint queen PT Usha tasted. Even though she failed to secure a medal at the Olympics, the fact that she came so agonisingly close made the entire nation wake up to the potential of Indian sportswomen. Her exploits and her achievements spurred and inspired a generation of women into seriously considering taking up professional sports as a full fledged career, and not just as an extra curricular activity at school.

Though the change was gradual and painfully slow at times, families and society slowly opened their hearts and mind to the idea of Indian women as sports professionals. At first, tentatively and with misgivings as to the outcome of their choices, parents slowly started encouraging and supporting the ambitions of their girls. There are innumerable stories of how the parents have endured societal pressure and financial difficulties in shaping and realising the dreams of their girls. And slowly but surely, for many of the sportswomen, their perseverance and the courage of their conviction has been rewarded with unprecedented success at the highest international level.

Even the sheer physicality of professional sports and the demands that it makes on the body at the highest level is not a deterrent for this breed of Indian sportswomen anymore. If anything it is a challenge. Dipa Karmakar is today one among only five women gymnasts who has successfully landed the Produnova which is regarded as the most difficult vault currently performed in women’s gymnastics. Sakshi Malik registered a come from behind victory trailing by 5-0 to clinch the bronze for India. And who can forget PV Sindhu’s epic and exhausting 73 shot rally against Nozomi Okuhara where she matched the Japanese stroke for audacious stroke, defence for stoic defence and attack for relentless attack. That she eventually won the rally is a testimony to the level of fitness that she has reached in her pursuit of excellence. And then of course, there is the exhilarating example of Harmanpreet Kaur whose match defining innings of 171 singlehandedly took the Indian women into the ICC Women’s World Cup final defeating the strong favourites Australia in the process.

It is a brave new breed. Uncompromising, dedicated, ambitious, self motivated and with dollops of self -belief. They not only possess the skills necessary to compete at the highest level but also the mental make-up. The killer instinct and ruthlessness which was widely held to be lacking in Indian sports in general and women’s sports in particular is now making its presence felt. These professionals are not merely content with being national heroes; they want to be recognised as international stars. They are not content with resting on their laurels, they know that this is just the beginning of a long journey towards achieving their goals and realising their dreams.

Sure, there have been moments of heartbreak for sporting fans in India – like when the women’s cricket team imploded and lost to England in the ICC Women’s World Cup Final 2017 after coming painfully close to winning it. Or when Sindhu went down to Carolina Marin at the Rio Olympics after winning the opening game. But the transformation that has come about in the approach towards professional sportswomen is a heartening trend. We are seeing a systemic change. Government recognition, corporate and individual sponsorship, cash rewards, press and media attention, international exposure – all these have contributed towards raising the levels of awareness and interest in the sports. International training facilities, quality equipment, dietary and nutritional awareness all are being provided to produce sportswomen who will perform consistently at the international stage.

But above all these is the radical change in the attitude of a largely patriarchal society. Coming from small hamlets and towns, where even today women walk around with their heads covered, honour killings and female infanticide are carried out openly and without remorse, the feats and exploits of Indian sportswomen can hardly be overstated. Mockery and disbelief have been replaced with faith and pride at what women have been able to achieve. The new poster girls of Indian sports have challenged traditional roles and defied conventional norms and have forced a male dominated society to not just acknowledge but even celebrate their intrinsic worth. Now that’s what you call real girl power!

Sonia Narayanan is a Bangalore based author and writer. Her first book, At Close Quarters, a collection of short stories was published in 2002 and received critical acclaim. Her writing has been carried by literary publications such as MARG and Avantika and she has been a regular contributor to The Times Of India, Deccan Herald and Vijay Times. An avid sports fan, Sonia is partial to cricket, tennis and badminton – in that order. Fortunes have been lost on wagers to pull her away from the television when India plays any cricket match.

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