Mad About Boys
Saroj is the cook who works in our house. In India, almost everyone has a cook and/or cleaning lady. Without these amazing people, we just wouldn’t be able to function. Days the ‘bai’ doesn’t come resemble the apocalypse. Dishes pile up, the floor looks dusty, everyone eats leftovers or pizza, and chaos reigns. Saroj is around thirty years old, and has three daughters. The eldest is fifteen years old. So yes, she got married well before eighteen. Conversations with Saroj reveal several bitter truths about Indian society, which the rest of us ‘privileged’ lot conveniently ignore.
Poverty forces most of these people into early employment (employment=menial tasks, labour, housework). Saroj is an intelligent, ambitious person. But she is the eldest of four siblings. Her own mother was married at twelve, in her village. Since her father was a useless drunk who took his wife’s income and beat her and the children, her mother decided it would be best to get her children married off at an early age. Though Saroj was keen on studying and making something of her life, she didn’t have a say in the matter.
After marriage, she had three children. Why? This is where it gets interesting. Like many, many Indians, she was hoping for a boy child. This terrible desire for a male child seems hard-wired in many Indians, despite the ruin it wrecks. It cuts across economic backgrounds, religions, and geographical areas. It’s one of the great levelers of Indian society. Fortunately, Saroj’s husband was sensible, and realised three was quite enough, thank you. He feels that a girl is as valuable as a boy.
But Saroj’s relatives, and even other maids in our building, talk to her with great pity. “Oh, you have three daughters?” Significant pause. “No sons?” They make it a point to ask this ‘no sons’ question, as if Saroj is inflicted with some incurable disease. Seen from their point of view, she is diseased, because she’s already worried about how she will get her daughters married and produce a dowry for each of them. Here’s one of the many conversations I have with her.
Armeen: Let your daughters study. They can get decent jobs later.
Saroj (smiling): Yes, I want them too. What I couldn’t achieve, they will.
A: Don’t get them married very young to just anyone. Many men ill-treat their wives. So be careful.
S: Yes. But didi, if they study too much. Then we won’t find boys for them. Our boys don’t study that much. Twelfth pass at the most. If the girls are graduates, then they won’t find husbands.
A (still trying): Ok. But let them study. They can still get married. Everyone has to change to make things better.
S: That’s why people like having boys. Girls are a big load. My sister-in-law has had three abortions when she got to know she was expecting girls. She has five daughters and they want a son.
A: Three abortions? That’s very dangerous for her health. It’s illegal for a doctor to disclose the sex of an unborn child.
S: Yes, it’s illegal. But there are doctors who do it. There’s a clinic in Surat which does just this. Many people go there, get tested and come back. It’s famous.
A: So many of your men beat their wives daily, abuse their children and make their lives hell. You complain about your own father and brother all the time. Why are you all so obsessed with having sons?
S. What to do, didi? That’s the way thing are in our community. I will have to look for grooms among my community people. If my daughters study too much, it will be a big problem. We can’t look in other communities. People think boys are a blessing. But often they are just a headache.
A: Look, now the world is changing. Girls are doing a lot, as much as boys. Let your girls become something. If they work they will be better off in life.
S: Yes, that’s true. But they can’t be better off than their husbands. That will be a problem.
A: If you want things to change for them, then you have to start changing.
S: Yes I know. But what’s the use. Only one person can’t change. Everyone has to change.
A: (gives up)
S (grinning with great pride): But my girls speak English. They will do something. I'm worried about their college. Boys will harass them in college, and on the bus.
A: We all faced that. They will learn to handle it. (Although these days the level of harassment has reached something else. But we can't all sit at home because some 'boys' will harass us, right?)
So that’s what it comes to. She doesn’t believe that changing her thinking or practices will have any positive affect. She’s waiting for the rest of her community to take the first step. And the rest of them are waiting for someone else to change. It’s very hard to alter mindsets. There's no easy solution to this. Her girls are the only hope. They’ve gone to school. The eldest will start college next year. Hopefully, they think different. However, that may not be enough. They will have to be supremely strong to put their foot down to go against the grain, if they want to work. They will have to disregard the enormous pressure on them to get married, and produce yet another boy.
The Summer of 2014
Phew! It’s been a hot summer in more ways than one. Besides slurping mangoes and sweating buckets, we Indians actually came out in droves and voted.
We often feel that we are a divided country. We’re just too big, too populated, and too diverse to actually feel like one nation. But this time there was something common amongst all Indians, across the length and breadth of the land. We were all totally fed up with our last Government. Everyone unanimously felt that enough is enough. Now why we were so fed up is another story altogether (more than a story actually, it can form a series of books). But it was a new experience to see everyone throw their vote behind one man. Congress made desperate last-minute barbs by calling him ‘chaiwalla’, and referring to a 56 inch chest, but in the end they had to put their tail between their legs and run for cover, because the people of India gave them a good, solid, well-deserved kick. It feels great that they’ve been squashed (for the present at least), like that lazy, disgusting cockroach that lurks in the corner of your kitchen.
Because of all this polly-tickle tamasha, one watches a lot of news these days. You can’t see a minute of news without hearing the name ‘Modi’. It’s the most used word after the phrase ‘India needs an answer’. If someone actually did a statistical tally, the word ‘modi’ would be occurring at the frequency of one per minute at a bare minimum, and even going up to twenty-seven per minute on a good day. Because even when people are not talking about Modi, they are talking about Modi. You can’t discuss anything without his name popping up. Government, corruption, dhoklas, Gujarat, Hindus, Muslims, kurtas, puppies, and everything connects to Modi somehow. You’ve got to hand it to the guy for become Brand No. 1. During the last six months or so, family/friends get-togethers could not proceed as normal. The room would be firmly divided into pro-Modi and anti-Modi factions. Everyone would be shouting their opinion without hearing anothers’. Each camp is firmly entrenched in its belief, and it’s impossible to budge them either way. There are spouses, siblings, parents and kids who don’t see eye-to-eye on this.
But we forget an important thing. We have to thank the Congress party. Why? If they hadn’t put up a goofy like RaGa, who knows, they might have got a bigger majority, and would not be shaking in their shoes today. Imagine if they had a smart, shrewd, capable leader. It would be terrible, because they might continue in power for the next sixty years, reducing India to pulp. Their miserable governance actually united this country, which otherwise can’t agree on which MDH masala is best.
As citizens of this great nation, there are several cards that are essential to our existence. Yes, you heard right—cards. These harmless little laminated pieces of paper, generously stamped by the Government and decorated with illegible signatures are our lifeblood. You aren’t truly an Indian until you have a bunch of these cards, squirrelled away somewhere.
Take that grand old patriarch of cards, known as the ‘ration card’. This has been around for decades. Are you likely to buy rice or dal at subsidised rates? I thought not. This little booklet doubles up as a proof of residence and practically a proof of citizenship, for when you need to acquire other cards and add them to your ever-growing collection. It is nearly impossible to get your own ration card. I was told by a helpful tout that my name must exist on my parent’s card, and it could only be transferred from there to a new card. Like blue blood, ration cards move from one generation to the next. Unlike blue blood, the transfer would come at a cost, said aforementioned tout, eyeing me greedily.
Consider the humble driving license, another innocent looking thing. Traffic police threaten to confiscate it if you get caught. Friends double up laughing when they see your photograph on it. Thus, it provides power for some and entertainment for others. To attain a driver’s license you should know how to drive. That is the general assumption people make, and it is wrong. Is the ration card used for ration? No. In a similar manner, the license is not proof of your driving skills. Many people possessing driving licenses do not know how to park, and why should they, when the license has much more important functions? It acts as proof of your residence (again) and identity (inspite of the hilarious picture where you resemble a tomato) when you want to apply for Passport, PAN card, Election card, open a bank account, close a bank account, board a domestic flight, prove your identity to a train ticket collector, and so on.
So once I was the proud owner of a driving license I decided to put my license to better use. I would get my Voter ID card, or Election card, or whatever they call the blasted thing these days. This is a precious one. If you possess it, hang on to it. At this time of year everyone is turning his or her cupboard and wallet upside down hunting it down. First-time voters like myself are trudging miles in the heat trying to track down where their card is. This is the card that connects you and me, normal, unimportant people, to the Prime Minister himself (or herself). This card can change our future (or so we believe). This card will improve our lives (that’s what we tell ourselves). My spouse and I are running from pillar to post, but the card is a coy damsel, dodging us at every turn. Still, we have to thank it for getting us into shape with all that chasing, as well as developing our Buddha-like patience.
Let’s not hurt the sentiments of numerous other Indian cards by ignoring them. The PAN card is the easiest, friendliest one of the lot. The Gas Cylinder Card is again a very important creature in the card ecosystem. Housewives value it more than oxygen, and with good reason. For who even breathes real oxygen these days, with all the pollution around us? LPG gas is something we can’t live without, for our rozi roti depends on it. Have you seen a household without a gas cylinder? It’s usually falling apart in chaos. For a short while the Gas Card was hitched with that new kid on the block, the Aadhar Card. This made us all run around like headless chickens. But now that the two cards have got divorced, we’re all breathing easy again.
I hear you ask, why was I seeking a ration card to begin with? Well, let me explain. To provide proof of residence for my learner’s license, which would lead to the driver’s license, which could be used as proof to get an Election Card, which I could vote with to change the government which has created this system, and usher in a new government with their own new crazy system for us to adjust to all over again.
One of the greatest inventions of tropical countries is the afternoon nap, or siesta. The nap has always had a grand tradition in our own country, and with good reason. After a hot, humid morning in front of our computers, or at our desks, we desperately need some shut-eye, so we can spend the rest of the day once again staring at the computer screen. While the metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru have forgotten this noble habit, the nap is still kept alive and kicking (or shall we say, snoring?) in the smaller cities and towns such as Pune, Mysore, Ahmedabad, Surat, and of course in the hill-stations as well. Here, the shop shutters come cranking down by 2 pm latest. The shop owner will gleefully inform you, “Madam, ab toh band hai. Panch baje khulega.” You may grimace, stamp your feet and curse but to little effect. The afternoon nap is as sacred as the morning puja.
Nowadays, there are extremely annoying nap-killers. The biggest one is the courier man. Once in a blue moon you get a free afternoon to yourself at home. It’s a lazy Saturday. A heavy lunch sits comfortably in your tummy. The bed beckons. You’ve just laid your head on the pillow, your eyelids drooping, your mind sliding into la-la land, your toes snug under the blanket, when TINGTONG! The bell will scream with mind-numbing shrillness, shattering your last shred of sanity. With utmost difficulty you crawl out of bed, drag yourself to the door on all fours, just about manage to stand, and open it. There stands a grinning beast, wide-awake at the unearthly hour of 3 pm, holding your envelope. He greets you with, “Sign please!” while you dream of greeting him with a heavy object over his head. You scrawl some illegible signature, write down any random phone number that enters your half-dead head, and crawl back into bed. But now, the moment has been soured. Sleep eludes you, and you realize you may as well make yourself a cup of tea.
There are other, smaller nap-killers as well. The street dogs, who come to life at precisely 3 pm and 3 am everyday. These creatures have an inbuilt alarm clock that lets out a volley of barks. Then there’s a neighbour’s wailing baby. And yet another neighbour’s ambition to drill walls, cut tiles and hammer nails only in the middle of the afternoon. There are the teenagers on the sixth floor who fancy themselves Aerosmith and practice the electric guitar with admirable dedication and alarming tone-deafness.
Another nap-killer is the modern Indian mall. These urban monsters spring up in every neighbourhood, and stay open morning to night, ruining age-old good habits like napping. People who would have been dreaming between the sheets are now marching around in circles staring at shops. What a waste of a perfectly good afternoon. Afternoon naps have been known to have real health benefits, increase productivity, and better the mood. These nap-killers have no sense of responsibility. Hopefully, the next political party that rules India will have afternoon-naps high on their agenda. It will be discussed in Parliament and the Nap Bill will be passed, that will ensure the protection and enforcement of the Humble Afternoon Nap.
Jaipur is one of India's most historic cities. Amer Fort is a fabulous place to visit, and the old Pink City is fascinating. There are so many forts and palaces of India that leave one speechless. One can imagine what a rich country India must have been, not just financially, but artistically. It's a pity most modern urban architecture has lost these artistic sensibilities, and also the very useful practice of using materials that work for the climate, instead of against it.
At Amer Fort one can walk, ride on an elephant, or drive up to the fort itself. I highly recommend walking, as it gives you a chance to truly admire the place. Watch out for elephants showering you with their sneezes!
Films from India
Some interesting films came out of India, back in the day of one national TV channel. Whatever your age, you'll never grow tired of watching these. The last one, 'I Am 20', shows how much has changed, and at the same time, how little has changed.
It's amusing to see minorities which number in millions. That's the wrong use of the word 'minority', right? They should be called minor majorities. Now take us Parsis, we are the only ones who know the real meaning of 'minority'. At last count there are around 1,00,000 of us worldwide (that's one lakh for the numerically challenged). The more optimistic amongst us (me included) peg the figure at 1.5 or 2 lakhs, because we count a pretty large population hiding out.. oops.. living in Iran. And the smart 30,000 or so who have settled in the US and UK. The other real minorities would be Jews, Armenians, honest politicians…you get the picture.
You know you're from the Parsi minority when:
1) You jump with joy when you meet anyone else who is also Parsi.
2) In college you're lucky if you can find three other Parsis in the entire campus. One year at NID I found five and was practically ecstatic.
3) As you move away from the strongholds of Mumbai and Pune, you find yourself increasingly explaining who you are and when you're from.
4) You rejoice when you meet a non-Parsi who knows something about your community.
5) You spend hours tirelessly explaining the beginnings of your community, and how you are neither Muslim nor Hindu.
6) You spend even more hours explaining why you speak Gujarati (and English) as a mother tongue. A friend of mine actually believed that we spoke a language called Parsi. I had to enlighten him that it was Farsi, nor Parsi, and very few Parsis speak it anymore.
7) When you meet another Parsi, you know you'll eventually figure out how you're both related after an in-depth conversation about relatives and friends. "Acha, so you're Rustom's cousin! Arey, Rustom is very close to us. He is my maasi's husband's cousin's mama's nephew's dog's owner's wife's mother's step-son!"
8) You have a long, convoluted, and/or highly unusual first name, and are so used to spelling it out you hardly bother saying it anymore. Easier to just shut up and hand over a business card.
9) Many people live hand-to-mouth. But Parsis live meal-to-meal.
10) You take great pride in Parsi-owned companies such as Tatas and Godrej, and gloriously defend their honor in public (even if deep down you don't believe it).
No Country For Women
The recent horrific rape of a 23 year-old in a moving bus in Delhi has outraged, angered and saddened many of us. Yet, I am sure that there are huge chunks of our population who think this is much ado about nothing, that the girl may have ‘asked for it’, why was she out so late, for rape is now a sport in India.
Why and when did we become like this barbarian? There is a historical-cultural-religious angle. There is the angle of law and order failure, and a sloth-like judicial system. There is the angle of things changing fast in India, but mindsets still remaining in the dark ages. There is the angle, the most crucial one perhaps, of attitudes towards women, by men and even by women. This rape is not sudden or out of the blue. There has been a steady increase in rapes and violence against women for years now. This most recent rape is just the pinnacle, or rather, one of the lowest points of depravity. Because for centuries, men in India have been taking liberties. They consider it their birthright to stare at women, to sing while passing them, to make passes and comments on them, to brush past them, touch them, to hit them, to rape them.
In many Indian homes both parents and grandparents, even mothers, will openly favour the son. He grows up treated as a demi-god, and probably sees his father beating his mother. This attitude sticks on forever. This man will feel outrage when he sees any woman who is not a demure slave. This man cannot cope with what he sees, and he wants to re-assert his power, and does so by violent sexual abuse. In his weak and probably sick mind, that’s the ultimate and only weapon he has left. His manhood and his brute physical strength.
These attitudes are only reinforced by ancient ways of thinking, religious beliefs and cultural practices. Take Raksha Bandhan, a seemingly harmless festival. It just reinforces that women need the ‘protection’ of men. Dowry favours the male. It puts the female’s family into debt and struggle. Some friends who have had or are attempting to have arranged marriages (even without dowry) describe it as 'the man’s market’. Across class and caste, the male has the upper hand.
In my own alma mater, the country’s premier design school, there are a few faculty/staff who take terrible liberties with female students, especially young under-graduate students. What they do is well known in the campus, and most of these men have notorious reputations that precede them. And if we questioned this behavior, we were told, by female faculty to “let it go, these things happen, you can’t do anything about it.” And this is another strong root of this disease in society. We keep quiet. Women tell other women to shut up about it, and move on with their lives. As a woman, how can you tell another woman ‘it happens’? Does that justify it? That just hands over all power to the perpetrators. And this is how society starts spiraling out of control. Today, it may be extra-friendly physical proximity or a personal remark. Tomorrow, it becomes rape. If we don’t start talking about and discussing these things, they are never going to start being resolved.
And let's not forget that ours is still a repressed society. Driving Audis, drinking Starbucks, wearing Levis and visiting malls does not make us progressive. Most Indians cannot even think of talking about things like sex, gender equality, or even periods. Just go and buy sanitary pads at any shop in India. Even in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai people may look at you strangely. The shopkeeper will wrap the packet in newspaper and put it in a black plastic bag, for what shame it is to be seen walking around with Whisper or Stayfree! We are ashamed of carrying sanitary pads. We are not ashamed of raping five year olds. That is the kind of culture we are. And our film industry persists in showing women as objects without minds of their own, to be ogled, and to be harassed.
The Mayans believed end of 2012 was the end of the world. It definitely seems as if human beings have stopped being human. Perhaps it is truly Kalyug, the age of downfall. We have all felt extreme emotions over this rape. Rage, outrage, sadness, hopelessness. We have to translate these emotions into positive action.
There is not a woman alive in this country who hasn’t been (at the very least), stared at from tip to toe. Most women have gone through much more. It could be groping by a stranger, it could be being flashed at, and it could be being raped by her father and/or uncle. Somewhere in India men don’t want women to use mobile phones. Somewhere else a man locks up his wife’s genitals. These are desperate and heinous attempts by men to stay in ‘power’, what they consider their birthright. There is a Talibanisation of India going on even as we speak. We cannot keep looking the other way. Rape and sexual harassment as sport has arrived on our doorstep. And it’s going to bang the door down unless we do something now.
Wanted: The Greatest Indian
Have you heard of the CNN-IBN initiative called The Greatest Indian? They are trying to find the greatest Indian since Gandhi. The very concept of this episode reflects on us, as a nation. We don't have any real heroes after Gandhi. If we have such a program , it means we are desperately in search of a new hero. This is no surprise. Most of our heroes are from cricket, or Bollywood, or politics, or cricket (did I mention cricket already?). And there is a real dearth of heroines. I mean real women, doing real work, not those cast in the 'fair and lovely' mold. It's not that they don't exist, it's just that the media is too busy showing us the Bollywood ones.
Some of you may ask, "What happened to Gandhi?" Well, a country can't keep harping about the one and the same great soul after more than half a century. While I personally admire Gandhi and his philosophy greatly, the 'simple living' he advocates is not popular among most middle and upper class Indians today. Who wants to consume less when there are so many mindless malls dotting our cities? Who is going to clean his or her own toilet (forget about the streets), when there are bais, a dime a dozen? Ironically, you can often see Gandhi's portrait in government offices and police stations, precisely the places where Gandhi's principles are shamelessly flouted, with large sums of money changing hands below (and even above) the table. Gandhi stoically looks upon all these transactions from his glass frame. He is still on many of our stamps. He has been reduced to just that, a half-inch chit of paper. If he saw the country he fought for, he would probably weep.
CNN-IBN has drawn up a list of 50 people, and 'we the people' can vote for the top 10, and then finally that one glorious soul as well. Of course, there is a panel of distinguished judges whose vote will count too . Now this is a tough one, because you can't really compare the achievements of a Birla with an M.S. Subbalaxshmi. While some are nation and institution builders, others are social workers, and still others are intellectual stalwarts, entrepreneurs, military heroes, or artists and musicians. It takes all kinds to make this world. R.K. Laxman has contributed something great to our country for over 60 years, so has Kurien or B.K.S. Iyengar. Not all achievements are concrete and tangible.
When we choose one of these great people, it is not a reflection on them, but rather, a reflection on us. Every person has a different definition of 'greatness'. There are countless ways to measure contributions to the nation. This is the list of 10 people.
The upside of this watching this program is that one learns a lot about these people, and I realized I was badly informed about many of them, such as M.S. Swaminathan. Definitely, each figure here is inspiring in his or her own way. To give any one of them the tag of ‘The Greatest Indian’ is a tough task. At the core of it, this whole quest is a bit senseless.
After mulling over the list, I realized that we don't have to look that far to find the greatest Indian. In today's India, the greatest Indian is the common woman and man of India. Because they haven't yet given up on their country (though some have). It's the 'bai' that works in your home, because she struggles daily against odds, to work, to earn, to eat, to keep her kids in a school. The greatest Indian is the laborer tarring the road in the heat of summer. He has come from some distant village. It's the farmer, planting rice day after day. It's the aged fruit seller round the corner, who comes daily and sits with papayas and oranges. The greatest Indians are everywhere – we just need the eyes to see them. These heroes are above votes.
Edited by Urmilla Chandran
Satyamev Jayate ki jai
The idiot box is not so idiotic anymore.
Yesterday we watched Amir Khan's Satyamev Jayate first telecast on TV. Hopefully, many more Indians were watching too. Finally, someone woke up and made a meaningful TV series. The weaker-minded folks say they don't' want to spend their day off watching an hour and a half of the real issues of India. Such people are very reason India has so many issues to begin with. If apathy is our worse trait, Satyamev Jayate is a good poke in the right direction. It is hard to imagine someone who is not moved while watching it.
I was expecting a documentary-ish programme, but was pleasantly surprised to see it was actually a talk show hosted by Amir Khan. The last few weeks, when Satyamev was being advertised, I was wondering which issue he will cover in the first episode. After all, there is no shortage of issues in India. And they didn't let me down either. Episode 1 is Daughters are Precious, and it is the issue in India that is crying out for most attention, because it points to a seriously ill social structure. Any society that allows for lakhs of girl children to be aborted, or killed at birth, is a dangerous society. This is a symptom of a larger problem, that essentially, women are still not respected or valued in India. Although people say it is better than it used to be, it is still not what it should be. Ask any woman today, how she feels when stared at on the street, even when 'decently' dressed, or when she is groped in a crowded bus or train, or when she is paid less than a man for the same work. The increasing gang rapes, especially in Gurgaon are testimony to this wretched attitude of India towards its women.
Coming back to the show, Amir Khan shows some alarming facts. Female foeticide has risen significantly from 1981 to 2011. It occurs more in urban areas, even among the so-called educated and well-to-do families. Amir interviews some women who have been through hell, been beaten and abused for bearing a female child, have been forced through multiple abortions, but were brave enough to live through it, fight it, and come and talk about it on the show. You need to see the show to hear their stories.
The show also focuses on the positive. It tells us of change happening for the better, of journalists and activists fighting this issue daily, and of how citizens can hopefully put pressure on courts to dispense justice a little faster. Most importantly, Amir Khan tells us that it is you and me who can be the change, in our own small way. At the very least, knowledge is power, and the more people are made aware through this series, the better it is.
For the first time (I think) someone has used Indian television for a meaningful and powerful message. This medium of the idiot box, as I like to call it, is incredibly powerful, watched by millions, in rural and urban areas, and does not require one to be literate. It can affect positive change if used well, and who better to do that than Amir Khan, one of the very few in Bollywood who actually does sensible things. Instead of the ridiculous maa-bahu-saas serials, the mindless reality shows, and the demeaning and outright racist fairness creams crap, there is actually something sensible, intelligent and enlightening on Indian television. Hats off to Amir Khan. I just wish the ads of the saas-bahu serials would not air in the breaks of Satyamev Jayate. It is a cruel irony, that the source of the very issue being discussed, is being advertised. Also, hopefully, the issue of the music copyright will be sorted out soon.
Satyamev Jayate is a mantra from the ancient Mundaka Upanishad. When India gained Independence in 1947, it was established as the national motto. It means 'truth alone triumphs'. Somewhere, especially in the last ten years, it seems as if India lost all faith in her own motto. While many things have been getting better, many things have been getting worse. We have more malls, digital devices, and foreign cars, our homegrown companies are going global. But our cities are more unsafe, our rivers are horribly polluted, there is a loss of green cover, there is growing disparity between the rich and the poor, increasing rape, and unimaginable scams. Maybe Satyamev Jayate will hold a mirror to us all, and enable us to see the not-so-pretty truths there.
The New Yorker