Author: Tan Twan Eng
Keywords: Intriguing. Mysterious. Historical.
This is the tale of a judge who has been a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp in Word War II. After the war she tries to make sense of her life. She is also battling an illness in private. While visiting old friends, she meets a Japanese artist who was previously the Emperor’s gardener. She is conflicted, as she wants to learn the Japanese art of creating a garden from a master, but she also hates the Japanese for what they did to her and her people.
The Japanese philosophy of building a garden, which goes beyond the obvious, affects her without her knowledge. She also overcomes her hatred and anger against the gardener to become friends, and later lovers. This tale moves effortlessly across different times of her life. Her journey draws the reader in. Although the book is set against the backdrop of war, it is not only a war story. We see her young days with her parents and sister in Malaya before it was torn by war. We get to know her as a well-known judge, and later, as a person searching for peace, and searching for herself. The slow revealing of her character, and the story, makes for a wonderful read.
Author: Bel Kaufman
Genre: Epistolary novel
Tags: Realistic. Humourous. Unconventional.
My cousin – a school teacher – never stops raving about this book. So I finally got my hands on it. And no wonder teachers love it, because no book explains the life of a teacher with all its trials and triumphs as well as this one.
Set in a school in the New York area in the 1960s, Up The Down Staircase rings true even today. The book unfolds in different voices, in the form of dialogues between people; notes between teachers, from the trash, or the suggestion box; letters between characters; scribbles on papers and so on. This lends authenticity, landing the reader smack into the life of a teacher, with all its challenges and rewards. It also makes for an interesting read, as you experience school life from various points of view. We see the growing pains and difficult lives of certain students, the insecurities and pettiness of some of the staff, and the dedicated teachers who truly love their profession. There are plenty of little stories sprouting around the main theme. Even fifty years later and continents away, one can relate to and enjoy Up The Down Staircase.
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 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.
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
The census is a chance once a decade, for a country to reflect on itself. The recent census of India show us facts and figures about ourselves, that give some indications of our culture and mindset. The gender ratio, is still pretty skewed, especially in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan where the odds are really stacked against women. For some strange reason, large parts of India are obsessed with the male child. Mothers and fathers do not consider their families complete or 'blessed' till the arrival of a male heir. Occassionaly this male heir will grow up to be an unemployed, wife-abusing drunk. And the abused wife is once again craving for a son, ignoring her daughters, recreating the whole cycle.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. One can somewhat understand the centuries-old desire for a male child in rural areas, or amongst the uneducated. But what is more (and seriously) alarming is this desire for a son even amongst educated, wealthy citizens, living in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Female foeticide is still prevalent, among all sections of society. A brilliant paper by Amartya Sen titled More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing, (title self-explanatory) sheds light on some some alarming realities.
Moving closer home, where are all the women in design? I studied Applied Art, where there were mostly women. Then I came to study at NID, where there were still more women! Some disciplines such as graphic design and textile design, have women in greater numbers than their male counterparts. But one sees very few women at top level positions in design, or running design firms. Off-hand I can only think of Sujata Keshavan (Brand Union) and Divya Thakur (Design Temple) in India. There are some women running businesses, media houses, ad agencies, publishing etc., but not much is known about them. On the other hand, one can immediately think of several foreign female designers: Jessica Helfand, Paula Scher, Zaha Hadid, Leila Vignelli, Debbie Millman, Marian Bantjes, Ellen Lupton, and more. There is a dearth of female role models in design in India. Type 'famous female designer India' and Google throws up a list of interior and fashion designers, with Tarun Tahiliani as the seventh link. (guess Google still can't tell gender apart ;-)
What happens to the thousands of female students at these design schools? Where do they all go afterwards? Is it so hard for women to climb the success ladder? Probably yes, with long work hours, family pressure, and the occasional man who resents a women's success. India may be a rising nation, the next economic superpower, and we may even be able to finally do something about our corruption, but the basic attitude towards women is still stuck in the Dark Ages. Why else do men on the street behave the way they do? Why do foreign visitors get harassed even when decently dressed? Make no mistake, even at the best of places, anywhere, there is always a creep hanging around the corner.
Maybe it all stems from the fact that a girl has to be married fast and young. Before she grows a mind of her own. Career is acceptable, but upto a point. Independence is not preferable. Read the ads in the Matrimonial section of any paper and you will know what I mean. There are fixed words used in almost every matrimonial ad
1) Everyone wants 'fair' in a country of wheatish complexion.
2) 'Domesticated', because women are wild animals that need to be lassoed and tied up. No 'junglees' wanted.
3) 'Homely', as opposed to what? Shop-ly? Collegely? Stupidly?
In the matrimonial zone, its a man's market at the moment. Personal friends, perfectly decent, intelligent, wonderful women, can't find prospective grooms because they aren't fair enough, homely enough, or (the worst) earn too much!
I would like to place a new matrimonial ad.
Wanted: Dark, wild and undomesticated woman. Must not give a dam about her face, hair, skin, the beauty parlour or men. Must possess independent, fully functioning brain. Preferably has a career. Cooking, cleaning and housekeeping skills non-essential. Must look like a healthy Indian girl and not a plastic doll.
If you say you are 29, and unmarried, you get a pitying look (even though its your choice). If you say you have only one sister, you get another pitying look along with, "What! No brother! How sad for you and your parents." I tell them, show me a dutiful son, and I can show you ten dutiful daughters.
Gandhi was right when he said, "Unfair treatment of women is a disease as bad as untouchability." It's the worst form of racism. Yet, things are much better for women now than they ever were in the past. Meanwhile, I'm still hunting for that top-shot female design person in India.