Sunday, December 01, 2013

Grace under fire

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, 
Dec 1, 2013, DHNS:

In the mad rush to win the race of life, courtesy and politeness are given the short shrift. Getting ahead by any means has become more important than acting with grace. Shefali Tripathi Mehta holds a mirror up to our society where refinement, elegance, thoughtfulness and kindness have lost their value.

Every evening, a bunch of kids — boys aged seven to nine — come to play near my window. It is the hour of the day I dread. It’s not the noise — the happy chatter of kids is quite mood-elevating and nostalgia-evoking. It’s the nature of the noise. The children are abusive and expletives that many adults will cringe from using slide off their tongues with such ease that I am stunned. The other thing I notice is that they don’t appear happy playing together. Each one is primarily concerned with wrangling control over others. The timid ones are alienated and bear the brunt of the offensive behaviour.

A new TV and print advertisement has a prominent toothpaste brand run down another popular brand, brazenly displaying the product and its name. Advertising wars are not uncommon, but such unveiled attacks were rare till recently.

Karan Thapar and his television show, the Devil’s Advocate, known for aggressive attacks on guests on the show, used to be an exception, and most people unaware that the format was its chief differentiator, were appalled by his rudeness. Today, every news debate borders on the offensive. No principle or social compunction stops politicians, celebrities, leaders, lawyers — the pillars of our society — from maligning, bad-mouthing, casting aspersions on others to win the war of words.

This aggressive behaviour that we see in our daily dealings slowly corrodes our sensibilities and sensitivity and leads us to a point where crassness does not only stops bothering us, but even seems legit for ends we wish to achieve. The line between being strong and compelling and being abusive and derisive has certainly blurred. Today we don’t raise eyebrows when people are rude and irreverent because it is commonplace. Courtesy and politeness are given the short shrift. In the mad race to stay ahead, we compromise on refinement, elegance, thoughtfulness, courtesy and kindness.

You can read the full article here

Monday, September 23, 2013

Next door to nobody

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Shefali Tripathi Mehta, Sep 22, 2013, DHNS:

Not too long ago, neighbours were extended family; people we could count on, at any time of the day or night. Sadly, it’s a changed scenario now when we do not even know who our next door neighbours are, rues Shefali Tripathi Mehta

There are no proverbial heppige mosaru or sugar-asking, bowl-in-hand neighbours anymore. And no one’s ruing the absence, yet. The word ‘neighbour’ has a typical connotation. A neighbour is neither a friend nor a relative. A fuzzy relation. When you introduce someone as your neighbour, people smile understandingly.

A neighbour is supposed to know you not from what you tell them about yourself, but from what they observe and overhear — how you conduct yourself in your daily dealings with people — house-help, courier guys, postman, presswala, driver; how you treat the space just outside your home — if you think of it as an extension of your house and encroach upon common space with shoe racks, children’s bicycles, discarded items or beautify it with rangolis, urns and urlis; how much you respect others’ privacy — not lurking at the windows to catch raised voices, not peeping in when their doors are left ajar; how much consideration you show by keeping noise low, inquiring when unwell; how you celebrate and how you fight. As G K Chesterton puts it, “Your next-door neighbour is not a man; he is an environment. He is the barking of a dog; he is the noise of a piano; he is a dispute about a party wall; he is drains that are worse than yours, or roses that are better than yours.”

You can read the complete article here. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A woman has no escape ~ Daphne du Maurier

My Boss was very cross. Cross with me for no reason at all. It was my first job – a sub-editor with a daily. Straight out of college and still under the protection of parents, whose evening tea would wait for me to return home from work. I worked the afternoon shift 12 to 5 for the inside page – National –relatively less significant. 

If you didn’t know, a newspaper office is like a large classroom – only more noisy and disorderly. We sat on both sides of large tables – groups together, editing what the various news agencies sent. Every once in a bit, the Boss would point a finger at one of us and say, ‘You go’ and obediently, mid-sentence, making then-than, it’s- it is, the pointed-at would get up and go into the Printer Room to gather the spool of paper the machine was constantly  dispensing – quite like a toilet paper roll running on the floor. Each news item was then torn and randomly handed to us by the Boss. I got the boringest, the least important, the ones that were fillers and at the end of the day would have to be discarded or I would have to go around to snooty men on Business or Sports desks and ask if they had any use of it – like selling news was my job too.  I didn’t mind.

We sat and ‘subbed’ – copy edited with pencil – each news item, then gave it a headline and presented it to the Boss. The Boss looked at our work disdainfully, made some random corrections wearing an annoyed expression, letting off some sighs and uffs. I didn’t mind.

The Boss made me sit across the table from the rest, facing the large sunlit windows that stung my eyes. I didn’t mind.

On the Boss’ particularly bad days, at five when I would be about to leave, I would be told, ‘You!’ ‘Stay back and get the pasting done. No mistakes!’ I stayed behind waiting for the paan-chewing Paster uncle to make an appearance. Slowly, like the chewing of his paan, he pasted headline after headline, news items under headlines. That done, one had to accompany Paster Uncle to the Chief Editor for approval. It would be past tea and close to dinner time when I reached home. I didn’t mind.

I didn’t mind nothing because I was doing what I wanted to; Papa looked at the paper each morning and his face beamed with pride when I pointed out the headlines I had written; and the Chief Editor encouraged me to write short pieces, by-line and all, and soon I had a column. I did not mind anything because one day he had called me inside his cabin and in front of his visitors, said, ‘Your piece on Coleridge was brilliant!’

Did I tell you my Boss was a woman? As women bosses go, women have a tough time dealing with them. Kind of teenage romances these are – dealing with quicksilver, irrational moods, unfounded jealousy that is not professional alone.

The Boss became cross-er when the Chief Editor’s praise wafted out of his cabin, when he started to walk up to thump me on the back right at our National table that sat my Boss, a bearded, kurta-ed young man who had lost his fingers in an accident in the press and was sent to the news desk, some floating people like the whimsical, college girl who came for five days a month including the payday and poor me who sat wiping her sunshine tears all day.

Papa said I needed to give her more respect. Call her ‘ma’am’, he was categorical.

Unwillingly, I ‘ma’am-ed’ her and we became close in a problem-sharing way. The Boss had married an already married man and was facing hell from his family and the man, her husband lived off her earnings. I, poor little lapin, growing up secure in a close-knit family, knowing nothing of the wild, bad ways of the world, asked my Boss, dear lady, to go back to her home in Bombay to be with her parents and siblings, the protectors from all things evil. That is when I heard the most heartbreaking thing ever. My Boss, the cross, ignoring-me lady, said with more disdain than she had for me, ‘Do you think the exploitation there is less?’ 

*Picture from the Internet. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Flying Chair

These days the course I’m writing is for very small children – classes I to V – teaching and practicing English language and grammar through simple stories and rhymes in a fun, interactive way. I couldn’t help sharing the story I loved as a kid, my Papa’s story of the flying chair, the उड़ने वाली कुर्सी.

The memory takes me back to the room where it was spun 
 each night, a new adventure.

In his book and paper smelling first floor room that opened into a small balcony over our lush garden, along the window, sat the big mez with three typewriters – two bulky ones, one of those Hindi and the sleek portable, Remington which he mostly used. The big table was strewn with big, open books and papers and under those lay wonderful childhood attractions – the paperweights, the hourglass in-cased in glass along with a sea horse and shells, a stopwatch, a small handheld slide magnifier, seals and boxes of photo slides. 

Papa's chair looked a lot like this.

Office chairs had not invaded homes (nor offices) – no swivel, no recliners. Ergonomics?  The word wasn’t invented. Straight-backed, no nonsense, good lumber support, if you slouched, it hurt so if you were stiff from sitting, you got up and walked some. The chair in question was a carved armchair with a cane-woven back and seat. A cushion on the seat, and two when I sat on it. I can still feel the smoothness of its arms when in make believe, I sat on it typing important imaginary things on the typewriter.

There was a single cot in the room and at night I would climb into it next to Papa (mornings, I magically woke up in my own bed), under the ubiquitous mosquito net. Then the story would begin. The story of the flying chair. The magical chair. I imagined the one in the room spouting wings and taking Papa over Kamla Park and the Bada Talaab, the lake. He would describe the chair covered in red velvet and I would feel its softness and mossy texture. When he sat on it and asked the chair to fly, I felt the lightness in the head like on being airborne when a Ferris wheel takes off the ground. Papa-on-the-flying-chair would do good deeds like saving people from robbers and helping those in need but he would do a lot of naughty and fun things too like whisking off ice-cream from someone’s hand; chance meetings with my friends and school tormentors who seemed comic in the situations he created. 

May every childhood be blessed with such wonderment and memories to last a lifetime...

Friday, August 16, 2013

Remember lemon drops. Above all.

          Photo credit: Shibani Mehta. More by her, here. 

My claim to the experience is by virtue of having cut myself twice. Cuts that required sewing. Many have been through worse bloodshed, but for more gallant reasons than pottering about the house. From this, arises my notoriety, the singularity of purpose that makes people ask ‘how did you manage?’ before they say ‘aww…’. Nah, the second time round no one says ‘aww…’, they say ‘but seriously!’ all the while trying not to laugh so much that they begin to hurt. So here’s my ten rupeeworth. 
  • Cut yourself when you’re properly dressed. Both times, I've been in bed clothes and the changing even into hospital-going ones was a bloody mess. Bad blood!
  • Don't tell the husband to quickly get a towel. He doesn't know where towels are. And you are not in a position to say no if he dashes to the spare room farthest away and gets the cleanest, whitest ones you've saved for guests, so well hidden. Until then. 
  • The car door will slam on the hurt palm that feels nothing as easily as the palm bangs into random, solid, heavy, hurtful things. 
  • Even though you wrap it in bath towel, it will soon be soaked as all nearby hospitals refuse to look at it and then the blood will flow down your elbow into your clothes and when some hospital finally takes you in and asks you to lie down, you are going to feel really cold. 
  • Those that refuse you do not do so immediately but take you into their OT, placing a basin under your cut to catch your blood and then you are temporarily amputated from the situation as five heads, treaters and onlookers thick as blood brothers, bend over it and take their time marveling at how amazingly the blood is spouting non-stop. They will wrap it back into fresh towels you are carrying and hand you back your injury, saying ta-ta.
  • Don’t worry that the nurse who finally 'takes a look' when you are placed on the hospital bed is almost fainting at the sight of blood. Offer her lemon drops. 
  • Lemon drops are important. Always keep them handy. Start popping them in as soon as you’re done with the changing of clothes. After that you are required to do nothing more than hold up your bloodied arm to let the traffic part for you. Feels very Moses. 
  • You will need the lemon-drop energy to help the sweating-blood doctor in the OT who will ask you to hold the tread he’s sewing you with or the scissors, and with the sewing job topmost on his mind, he is bound to forget to check your BP or give you a tet vac... you will have to do all the remembering. You will need to keep your eyes open. Remember lemon drops. Above all, lemon drops.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

In the final analysis...

छोटी बाते, छोटी, छोटी बातों की हैं यादे बड़ी...

When I was still a casement tunic-ed, long-plaited, school-girl, Bua, Papa’s only sister passed away during the festival of Diwali. I don’t remember if it was on the same day or before. A kind of silence fell over the household for the short while that my parents must have reminisced or planned things. Then, Papa asked me to come along to the market to buy some things.  Just as we were starting back, I saw my best friend with her cousins having ice creams standing in the colonnaded New Market, laughing and enjoying themselves. On seeing me, she called out cheerily and when I hesitated, Papa waved back to her equally cheerily. I was awkward. I rushed to tell her that my Bua had passed away. She tried to change her expression of merriment into something more appropriate. Just as we left, very gently, Papa said, “You needn't have told them. They were so happy.”

That Diwali evening, I was tentative. I had been so looking forward to wearing my new clothes, I still remember the soft, white muslin of the gypsy skirt, each of its layers lace-trimmed and the pink flower-print top. I don’t know how it was conveyed but it was conveyed to us that we could wear the new clothes and go out with friends, only, there would be no fire crackers or lighting at home. All evening I saw Papa receiving guests, accepting their wishes, wishing them back. I saw him sitting on that chair in the yellow light of the drawing room of a dark house with no Diwali diyas or fairy lights. Bua was his only sister. How he must have wrestled with his grief so it did not mar the joy of others. 

It was an invaluable lesson.

Why should we wear our sorrow like a veil that must not slip from our heads? It is two months since Mummy passed on. And I have not mourned her as the world would wish me to. Life has to go on. For her sake. For everything that made her happy, and proud. I have celebrated her in my own way. Keeping the kitchen fires burning, for one. Till two days before she went to hospital, Mummy was, as usual, animatedly discussing recipes, watching Food-Food as on a loop all day. I have made more pastas, pulaos, cakes and curries in the last two months than in two years. It has been therapeutic. 

We've remembered all the wonderful things she did and was and we’ve had haircuts, shopped, eaten out, watched movies, had people over, visited friends, facebooked, liked and lol-ed. I still reach out for the phone several times a day to call her. Mornings feel strange without her familiar voice on phone – everything from what was had for breakfast to what some friend wore or did not, was discussed (for mum clothes shopping came a close second, after cooking). My greatest champion, Mummy was always there for me as for all of us, in sickness and in our littlest accomplishments. 

Whenever the going gets tough, magically, a friend or relative calls or visits. They have us in their thoughts. Feels wonderful and I am grateful for this support. Yet why do I hold it against those that did not call/visit/ write? This, I still have to learn. Then I see Papa, squinting an eye and tilting his head in a ‘let it go’. I’ll try.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Breaking moulds

You are here: Home » Supplements » Sunday Herald » Breaking moulds July 14, 2013 :

Social stereotyping on the basis of gender, culture, caste, class or profession not only leads to discrimination, but also limits possibilities. However, for every stereotypical thought that stops us from doing what we want to, there is a glowing example of someone who has debunked it to succeed in life, writes Shefali Tripathi Mehta.

I was visiting a neighbour when their house-help came to ask for a two-day leave and the lady promptly told her to send her daughter to fill in. Puzzled, I wondered why the child should stand in for the mother. Was it because hers was an unskilled, menial job? Or because the maid belonged to a lower social class and was expected to oblige? The maid, anyway, replied that it would not be possible as the daughter had college to attend. Later, when I ran into the maid again, I learnt that her daughter was studying engineering. My neighbour’s naiveté is pardonable if we consider that we are a society that is constantly judging people by their social standing and on other regressive standards.

You can read the complete article here

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The lovely shall be choosers...

Elder sister told me one day that waiting at the doctor’s, Leela Naidu had said to her, I want to be as slim as you. Someone wanted to be slim like my sister? I picked my bike and rode off. Neither slimness of girls interested me nor some Leela whoever.

Then one day this woman in a red saree, her gray hair stylishly swirled back in a French roll looked out of the pages of some Femina or Illustrated Weekly, advertising kitchen appliance or food. Sisters whispered, ‘elegant-elegant’. I was transfixed by her beauty and air of quiet dignity.

Jerry Pinto who I admire for his writing and for his heart in the right place, its ‘Leela-shaped hole’ and all, the SRK of writing in so much that I haven’t seen another writer blow such effervescent ‘I love yous’ at his audience, collaborated with her on this. So ‘Leela - A Patchwork Life’ by Leela Naidu with Jerry Pinto was picked up with much gladness. 

The Foreword by JP was a letdown. Leela was among the world’s ten most beautiful women and he had the good fortune to know her intimately but the way he runs down other journalists when they have to write about her and ask him to share/whet/correct/fill-in disappoints. Our stray-loving, bucket-bath-bathing-to-save water journalist-teacher I expect to understand the job of journalists better. His tone is almost of a kid holding a doll close to himself  refusing to share it with other kids. But otherwise he chooses his nuggets to write about well and is at his evocative best. So I will not hold it against him. People evolve.

Leela takes over and draws us into her wonder-full life lived in Bombay, Geneva, Paris, London. Beginning with the sensational story of her grandmum hosting a naked Count – the Count Yousoupoff who was among those that killed Rasputin presumably; she tells us how her aunt Sarojini Naidu handing her a box of chocolates and a bunch of gladioli, sent her off to the outhouse to ‘see Mickey Mouse’. 

‘I knocked on the door and was called in...sitting on the bed was Mahatma Gandhi.
“You are not MICKEY Mouse!” I said.
“No?” Gandhiji asked.
“Your ears are big but they are not big enough.”
“Is that all?” he asked and turned around to put on the side light.
“And you don’t have a tail.”
He laughed at that and put on the light.
“So I am not Mickey Mouse.” Gandhiji said, “but who am I?”
“You are Gandhiji,” I said.
I put the flowers down and gave him the chocolates. He took them and began to eat them immediately, as happy as a schoolboy with a box of tuck.
“How do you know who I am?” he asked.
I don’t remember if I had explained....But I do remember his strong arms around me as he hugged me.’

Her tone is friendly, the descriptions candid. The men! Oh the men! Roberto Rossellini suggests a doctor for her; she’s ‘adopted’ by Jean Renoir and his wife, M Cartier gets her rani haar restrung when it breaks suddenly sending the beads rolling in the hotel lobby, Salvador Dali sketches her and takes her to a private showing  of his sketches... and none of this seemingly affects her! The ‘men’ come first and the ‘discovery’ of who they are later.

Overall it isn't quite where my other idol’s memoirs are – A Princess Remembers, Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur – with JP’s ‘collaboration’ and all. Written almost as if for academic reading – chapters as ‘facets’ of Leela Naidu –the translator, the Editor.. film maker. 

She does come across as very intelligent, witty and full of the milk of human kindness, never able to stop herself from standing against injustice, confronting the wrongdoers but there is no mention of Leela the wife, the mother... personal joys and heartbreaks. She’s most often a victim of cruel, self-
centered people. The skips and jumps do not make it a fluid read. That got a little tiresome. If she had started as she ended, telling JP that the book, ‘would have nothing to do with my life. ...It’s only about the funny anecdotes and sad historic ones I came across.’ I would have been less disappointed. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Colour of Words

All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs.

Rao Uncle was visiting. Almost 20 years ago, we used to exchange books as neighbours in Delhi. But this time we were caught in the catching up of where is who, some more chai, cracker, cutlet. As he slipped his feet into his shoes to leave, he asked, ‘But who’s your favourite writer?’ 

‘Nabokov,’ I chose one.

Shocked eyebrows shot up and then his face fell in folds of disappointment, disgust almost. Did I say something that’s not to be said to elders? I bit my tongue and smiled. Like when Papa chanced upon Z and me together-alone between the book aisles in the library, I presented without being asked, at dinner that day, my defense – the reads Z had been recommending. Papa’s eyebrows shot up, but in his calm, typically understated and almost talking to himself manner, he said, ‘He was suggesting D H Lawrence?’ That only sent me scurrying post haste to grab a DHL.

If you said ‘Nabokov’ at Word Association, the first, only, fastest response would be ‘Lolita’! Its ‘depraved’ theme makes readers overlook the aesthetic bliss of its delightful telling – the almost-dream sequences, the lilting, lifting prose, dazzling images softened by his nuanced brush strokes of memory and passion. But we are judges of human failings first.

I read Lolita later. I loved him first for his autobiography, Speak, Memory – the Bible on my bedside that constitutes my ‘spiritual reading’ as opposed to the ‘carnal reading’ famously distinguished by the literary critic, Frank Kermode as, ‘the hurried, utilitarian information processing that constitutes the bulk of our daily reading diet and ‘spiritual reading’, reading done with focused attention for pleasure, reflection, analysis, and growth.

I came upon Speak, Memory while reading about minds, working of minds, wrong wirings and wiring into my major love – synaesthesia*. 

Nabokov, a synaesthetic, could see and feel colour, a faculty that equipped him to create word images that breathed. I cannot read more than three pages of Speak, Memory at one go, on good days. So suffused with sensory delight it is that one has to stop to soak it in. Like chocolate, I leave some for later. 

If I had some paints handy, I would mix burnt sienna and sepia for you as to match the color of a 'ch' sound. And you would appreciate my radiant 's' if I could pour into your cupped hands some of those luminous sapphires that I touched as a child.

The long ‘a’ of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard ‘g’ (vulcanized rubber) and ‘r’ (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal ‘n’, noodle-limp ‘l’, and the ivory-backed hand-mirror of ‘o’ take care of the white. . . . Passing on to the blue group, there is steely ‘x’, thundercloud ‘z’ and huckleberry ‘h’. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see ‘q’ as browner than ‘k’, while ‘s’ is not the light blue of ‘c’, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.

And here are indisputably the most beautiful lines in English Literature that I have read (I have read little) and read over and over:

I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past. I like to imagine, in consummation and resolution of those jangling chords, something as enduring, in retrospect, as the long table that on summer birthdays and namedays used to be laid for afternoon chocolate out of doors, in an alley of birches, limes and maples at its debouchment on the smooth sanded space of the garden proper that separated the park and the house. I see the tablecloth and the faces of seated people sharing in the animation of light and shade beneath a moving, a fabulous foliage, exaggerated, no doubt, by the same faculty of impassioned commemoration, of ceaseless return, that makes me always approach that banquet table from the outside, from the depth of the park —as if the mind, in order to go back thither, had to do so with the silent steps of a prodigal, faint with excitement.

Through a tremulous prism, I distinguish the features of relatives and familiars, mute lips serenely moving in forgotten speech. I see the steam of the chocolate and the plates of blueberry tarts. I note the small helicopter of a revolving samara that gently descends upon the tablecloth, and, lying across the table, an adolescent girl's bare arm indolently extended as far as it will go, with its turquoise-veined underside turned up to the flaky sunlight, the palm open in lazy expectancy of something —perhaps the nutcracker. In the place where my current tutor sits, there is a changeful image, a succession of fade-ins and fade-outs; the pulsation of my thought mingles with that of the leaf shadows and turns Ordo into Max and Max into Lenski and Lenski into the schoolmaster, and the whole array of trembling, transformations is repeated.

And then, suddenly, just when the colors and outlines settle at last to their various duties —smiling, frivolous duties —some knob is touched and a torrent of sounds comes to life: voices speaking all together, a walnut cracked, the click of a nutcracker carelessly passed, thirty human hearts drowning mine with their regular beats; the sough and sigh of a thousand trees, the local concord of loud summer birds, and, beyond the river, behind the rhythmic trees, the confused and enthusiastic hullabaloo of bathing young villagers, like a background of wild applause.

In the same vein, another piece that I often refer to and badger others into reading, is from Girl With a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier. 

"What have you been doing here, Griet?" he asked.

I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. "Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup."

I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disc in the center.

The man tapped his finger on the table. "Are they laid out in the order in which they will go into the soup?" he suggested, studying the circle.

"No, sir." I hesitated. I could not say why I had laid out the vegetables as I did. I simply set them as I felt they should be, but I was too frightened to say so to a gentleman.

"I see you have separated the whites," he said, indicating the turnips and onions. "And then the orange and the purple, they do not sit together. Why is that?" He picked up a shred of cabbage and a piece of carrot and shook them like dice in his hand.

I looked at my mother, who nodded slightly.

* Synesthesia is a neurological condition, often described as a sensory cross-wiring in the brain. In its most common manifestation, people see letters in colour. Some also see numbers in colour, hear music and speech in colour, taste shapes, smell sounds ...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Spiral of Silence

You are here: Home » Supplements » Sunday Herald » The spiral of silence
Shefali Tripathi Mehta, May 26, 2013, DHNS:
Home truth

When we see unfairness around us, our reaction is mostly to remain silent. The courage that is required to speak up in such situations is wanting. The negativity and the fear of confrontation force us to forfeit our rights and silence our voice of gumption. But, isn’t it about time we stood up for ourselves, and for others, wonders Shefali Tripathi Mehta

A new series of TV commercials that show the house-help being asked by the family to join them at the dining table for a meal, and a waiter being offered a cold drink by the customers he is serving, seem to have struck a chord with us. It asserts, ‘Hawa badlegi’, the winds of change are imminent. 

So, who will bring the change? Any change, not just to have the house-help sit on the sofa with us, but the transformation of the innumerable situations which make us feel cheated, defeated, wronged because these are wrought out of some bias, unfairness, unreasonableness, or simply, unthinking, unsympathetic attitudes?

Big and little heartaches, injustices of life dot our days. Initially, when we are exposed to the vagaries of living in a world with others and the skewed balance of right and wrong, most of us try to take things on, improve, and make a difference. Gradually, as our attempts are thwarted, the ‘what can I do?’ helplessness that dismays at first goes on to become a way of life, a convenient refrain.

When we see a vehicle that is speeding, erratically driven, or the driver talking on mobile phone, we fume but do nothing about it. If the vehicle hits someone, kills someone, we are outraged. Bangalore hasn’t forgotten the 2006 accident involving a Volvo bus that ploughed into a bus shelter killing two and injuring 20. Yet, today, it is not uncommon to see Volvo bus drivers deep in conversation on their mobile phones while driving the enormous, speedy buses through our delinquent traffic. Why don’t the passengers object?  

We look for ‘someone we know’ in government offices, police department or any other agency that we need to ‘deal’ with; on being harassed or cheated, we do not report for fear of consequences, of a backlash. We conform to the ‘take it or leave’ attitude of those in control everywhere. Little children get abused in school buses and in schools, yet we do not report suspicious or unacceptable events or behaviour because we are afraid of the school’s disapproval or action against us. The same obsequious attitude persists in our other dealings — schools and colleges impose arbitrary rules, demand ‘development charges’ without receipt; packed malls and film theatres that make a few hundred on each ticket keep air conditioning switched off; clerks in offices are ‘not on their seat’ for hours while we wait; the courier reaches us in 10 days; some post never reaches us; the grocery store does not add the ‘free’ item; overcrowded ticketing, billing counters have one working among the several unmanned; and railways, the lifeline of the millions, grows out of bounds for them as shoddy technology in the name of progress takes over reservations, and touts find loopholes to sell tickets to those who can buy at a premium.  

Blinding biases

A person, apparently of limited means, travelling in an airplane, was treated contemptuously by the cabin attendant who kept asking him rudely what his problem (illness) was, insisting on speaking in English, a language clearly the passenger did not understand. The gentleman and his escort were travelling for treatment to a big city and only dire necessity could have compelled them to take a flight. The crew’s duty is to serve the passengers and not judge who deserves their attention or contempt. But bigotry and biases make people shame their position repeatedly. The person who needed the most care onboard was ignored and humiliated, and men in business suits, completely capable of wearing their own jackets, were graciously helped into them.

What were the other travellers, I included, doing? Watching it all, feeling the anger, the shame, the indignation, and yet keeping quiet? After I registered a complaint and was assured of necessary action, the incident came up on social media, people were disgusted, shared similar experiences and offered recourse, including never patronising the airline again. But social media is only a likeness of the real world. It is easy to vent on online forums. The courage that is required to speak up in real situations is wanting.

The negativity, and the fear of confrontation, of not finding support from others, or simply of what onlookers may dismiss as ‘making a scene’, stops us from putting ourselves into confrontational situations, forfeit our rights and silence our voice of gumption.

Apathetic system

Early this April, in a small town in Uttar Pradesh, four sisters aged between 20 and 30 years were returning home in the evening after invigilating a school exam when two men on a motorcycle sprayed acid on them with a Holi pichkari. One girl, severely injured, lost an eye, and the others suffered burns in the brazen attack, which was someone’s idea of fun, perhaps? Another young girl lost an eye and lies critically burnt after an acid attack on her just as she arrived in Mumbai to join the Army.

We, especially women, are told to fear and not take on hooligans, jealous exes and eve-teasers who may resort to revenge and who always seem to get away without punishment. Criminals, perverts, thieves and petty wrongdoers are a part of the society we live in. But for them to take control, to go about audaciously committing crimes and not be punished, adds to the despondency of the man on the street.

We have seen people losing lives over trifles. We have witnessed the ordeal the families of Sabrina Lal, Aman Kachru and Nitish Katara went through to get justice for their loved ones. But for each one that got justice, distressingly delayed even, there are hundreds that didn’t — Sanjana Singh of Bangalore, who died when a wall that was found to be of poor quality, constructed with no inspection and supervision, collapsed on her; or Kshama Chopra Shetye of Gurgaon who, along with her unborn baby, was crushed under the wheels of a rashly-driven BMW. We know how difficult the path to redress is. The fight is not just against the criminals, but against a system that seems to harass the victim.

Our judiciary, law, government, police cannot ensure that our rights will always be safeguarded. We know how money, status and power prevail over our rights. We have seen how those that have harmed and killed whistle blowers and RTI activists have not been brought to book. Manjunath Shanmugam and Satyendra Dubey were brazenly killed for trying to stop corrupt practices. 

When in 1990, Ruchika Girhotra, 14, of Haryana, molested by the Inspector General of Police, SPS Rathore, made a complaint, she, her family and friends, were so harassed by the police that she committed suicide. It took almost 20 years before Rathore was pronounced guilty and given a diminutive sentence. Ruchika’s friend and eyewitness, Aradhana Prakash, did not buckle under the threats and fought for justice for her friend till the case was closed two decades later. But she is among the brave hearts that show exemplary, extraordinary courage. Normally, life demands less from us. By conceding our right to speak up against little wrongs like when cable TV, water supply, auto rickshaw unions act like mafia and render our rights ineffective, we encourage wrongdoers and set a vicious cycle of crime into motion.

A Mumbai housing society where people have been living and paying property and corporation taxes for 23 years has been declared unauthorised and is facing the threat of demolition. While the defaulting builders have absconded, the residents face an uncertain future. In the meanwhile, there are a hundred other illegal structures that are allowed construction so money can be made. How do we bear such skewed forms of legality?

Speak up, speak out

“Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonour and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got... Just refuse to bear them.” (William Faulkner).

V S Sunder, who has raised his voice against the inflexibility and insensitivity with which people with disabilities are treated, recounts incident after incident of blatant disregard of their rights. Why should a person on wheelchair have to stand up for security check at the airport? Why should not the companion be allowed to accompany them? Why must the person be physically lifted to a seat somewhere in the middle of the aircraft? Why must all the questions be directed to their escort?

When a queue breaker comes barging in to get served first, we have the option to remind them politely; demand they come in line; or fume and do nothing about it. A person who has the audacity to break queue, will most likely not be affected by any of this and nothing will be achieved. If, however, the person at the counter refuses to take the order of the queue breaker, would anyone break the queue in the first place? Those in authority, those in charge, must act with fairness, always.

Humiliation and a sense of wrong made Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela fight injustice. When Rosa Parks was asked if she had not given her bus seat to a white because she was tired, she said, “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

As Bangalore grapples with a population explosion that has its limited resources stretched to seams, we face acute problems of garbage disposal, water shortage, dumping of sewage water into lakes and contamination of water pipelines, chaotic traffic, missing pavements, indiscriminate tree cutting leading to loss of the green cover and rise in temperatures; superfluous, shoddily made, bumpy flyovers, the usefulness of which shall never be questioned; the buses that move and stop arbitrarily jamming traffic; the underpasses that have, despite protests, been dug and then abandoned following PILs, rendering the roads unusable; randomly constructed medians with no storm water outlets leading to flooding of roads after a 10-minute shower, we do nothing more than sigh.

The bellicose & the nosy parkers

Our anger and frustration with a system we cannot change surfaces in undesirable ways — road rage and unnecessary fights with fellow citizens. We live in an atmosphere of distrust, believing everyone is out to cheat and harm us. On an evening out, as we parked into an empty slot, two vociferous women with children came charging and began to fight because apparently we had parked where they were planning to. Since our action was unintentional and without malice, we waited while they vented. I wondered about those women starting off an outing with so much anger. What were the children accompanying them thinking and assimilating? Couldn’t they, if they felt wronged in the situation, have dealt with it with less acridity? Had they approached us with a ‘we had wanted to park here, could you park elsewhere?’ I doubt we would have refused.

Keerti, a friend who will go out of her way to ask after and help others, often wonders if people think of her as intrusive. Asking your neighbours unnecessary personal details is intrusive, being alert is not. If, for example, neighbours had been a little vigilant, would those poor kids who had been holed up in a Jaipur house, have gone unnoticed? Nearly 50 children, aged between 5 and 17, were kept in two illegal children’s homes in a residential colony for months with little food and in pathetic living conditions and no one noticed?

A burgeoning population of upwardly mobile, disposable-income-equipped middle class that can buy its safety and security, peace and distance, is increasingly seeking an easy way out, creating an insulated world for itself. If we can’t deal with apathetic agencies, we hire agents to get jobs done; if we can’t send our kids in unsafe school buses, we send them in chauffeur-driven cars; if we can’t send them to colleges for fear of ragging, we send them abroad or to the five-star institutions that offer mineral water and airconditioned hostels; if roads are unwalkable, we step out in cars. This disengagement with society leads to more blatant abuse of our rights. We continue to pay taxes towards infrastructure, public security, services like roads, streetlights, garbage collection, health services, preservation of monuments, emergency and disaster relief, but cannot be bothered by the sordid state of these.

Winds of change

In Bangalore, illegal dumping of construction material into Bellandur Lake at night was reported by irate residents and was stopped. But the audacity with which people do and get away with wrong because they are rarely punished, and because of the powerful that back them, stops us from making the effort and risk courting danger.

But how can we dream of change if we continue to keep silent? Change is not made without inconvenience. Complaining from the margins will not do. Social change does not require superheroes. We can each aim for a ripple effect — help one person and it helps their family, the community, and person by person, we help the world; set one thing right; or fight for that one cause that moves us. Each one of us has the power to make some impact.

As the American biologist E O Wilson famously said, “We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesisers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.” Information is key — to be aware of our own and other people’s rights, and to know what to do when — how to administer first aid, help accident victims, who to inform in case of an accident, fallen electric wires, cutting of trees, garbage or debris being dumped, kids employed, or when house-help is ill-treated. Why let the wrong prevail? Why not speak up for what is right, always and every time?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

What women want!

“Come, let’s go,” said Papa one afternoon and I, nine-ish or littler, tagged along, like I always did. The grave air about him told me we were going for something not very pleasant but I didn’t ask, like I never did. Papa was more ‘show’ than ‘tell’. 

We stopped near the Polytechnic College boy’s hostel. It was on the way to our home atop Shyamala Hills.  There were tea shacks at the crossroads. We waited a little distance away. Suddenly, Papa asking me to ‘stay’ there, rushed to the tea shacks. My elder sister who used to get down from bus there on her way back from college had also materialized on the scene. Next, I saw Papa holding a boy’s hand. There was some action, some words spoken, some onlookers and then Papa and sister came back to collect me and we all went home.

A matter of (eve) teasing, ched-chad was thus settled.

Growing up in a small town, we girls, kind of knew how to ‘deal’ with boys. With silence. Ignore, keep a low profile, don’t go to crowded places, don’t go to secluded places, don’t draw attention to you, don’t wear what fellow Bhopalies wouldn’t…

Predators came as the afternoon uncle to push the swing and by and by had you sit on his lap; the grey-haired gentleman who floored you with his impeccable English, his world tours, then stooped down; the men servants who could be trusted with the house keys but not with the girls of the house.

We wore skirts that had to be four-inches above the knee in the girls’ school but as soon as we joined a co-educational college, were required to cover up -- wear a salwar-kameez-dupatta. I was stepping out in a pair of jeans one evening, when Papa quietly said that he was no longer strong enough to go out and fight people. I went back in and changed.

Like most other girls in the city, I rode a two-wheeler to college. One evening, returning after dark from my French class, a group of men in a car waylaid me. Quick thinking and a quicker bike saved me but before I could say sacré bleu a question mark attached itself next to my French classes till a male classmate offered to accompany me back home every day -- he on his bike, I on mine. Every time he bunked class, I had to too. In it together, like conjoined twins.

Next stop -- Delhi. Danger stared dangerously, daringly on Dilli dil walon ki roads. On the way to work one morning, I was waiting for an auto. One stopped and I got in. When I told him where I wanted to go, he said, “I’m not going there. I just picked you because I like you.” Too scared to react, I let him take me where he left me and then told my friend. “Didn’t you slap him?” he asked angrily. Less angry, he asked, “Have you no sense? What stopped you from getting down?”

Fear? Embarrassment? What?

Red Line buses were a different planet – a free for all, groping, pinching, touching neighbourhood where desperate men let their wild fantasies loose. The details are too graphic for this space. Reckless driving was a minor crime. Reporting it did not, as a rule, call attention to the complainant. But it did. A few days after I reported a Red Line bus, registration number et all, for reckless driving in a letter to editor, it made headline news. The Police arrested the driver and were at my door to take my statement and proceed with the case.

Suddenly, I became the perpetrator of the misdeed, the villain of the piece, peace-pincher, trouble architect, the disrupter of life’s steady goings on.

What was the need? Why couldn't I keep my big mouth shut? Did I not know what the driver-kind can do?  Had I thought of my little girl? What if they kidnap her? Someone could just  throw acid on my face and disappear and everything would be OVER.

Now I knew real fear. I withdrew. The Police was angry with me. I was angry with me too. But I was a woman first. Anger I could live with. A small price to pay for not being violated. A woman, so like a traffic law.

So what has changed in four decades for me? Little. On the way back from the airport, alone in a cab (the Airport Taxi at that), I was again a petrified, little girl not knowing what to do when mid way (the 60-km stretch takes one and a half hours) the cabbie first seemed to lean back and relax, then lifted his pants to his knees and above. He stretched himself, rubbed his ankles, patted his thighs. Terrifyingly intimidated, I told myself, dirty is in the eyes of the beholder; that my fear was unfounded and he innocent, only uncouth.

I muttered a weak, “Why don’t you drive properly?” Everyone knows what cabbies say to that. I called husband and code-worded my fear. He asked me to get off. Get off? In the middle of nowhere? Stand on the highway with my bags and beg some auto to go my way? And what to tell this guy? How to not create a scene, feel helpless and mouth the dirty? I sat put.

Women are a broad spectrum group. I’m neither among those that’ll be happy with women’s day free manicures, show window’s amazing ingenuity in reflecting pink through next-to-nothing clothing or hassling men to make anniversaries/women’s day/valentine’s day special; nor among the coin-size bindi-ed, handloom sari-ed, Arnab Goswami-silencing ones. I am not a woman of extraordinary courage and I’m in majority. We’re the ones that are walking through life on an Alert mode forever.

So I welcome the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013 passed in the Lok Sabha earlier in March. It makes acid throwing, stalking, trafficking, employing a trafficked person, voyeurism (making videos) punishable offences. A policeman who does not take a rape complaint also faces jail now.

The 24x7 news channels hyperventilated and singularly dismissed the new bill on the only two issues it did not address.

I don’t understand marital rape. It plain amounts to domestic violence, sexual abuse. It is explained as women forced to have sex by their husband, ex-husbands, partners. The latter two are categories of ‘marital’? Preeti Jain crying ‘rape’? Secondly, we cannot make laws on statistics alone. Tomorrow, in a more equal society, will there be husband-rape? Or will a man have to suffer in silence because of his macho image? Spousal rape makes little sense because one doesn't just keep living with a rapist.  

The lowering of age of consensual sex… I was ‘hmm…’ about this till I read this, “a 17 year old who is a victim of sexual offense committed by another 17 year old will be treated as an adult victim/witness while the perpetrator will be tried as a child under the Juvenile Justice Act.” (Tulir - Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse). And of course, it has been pointed out that victims of rape in this 16-18 age-group would be coerced to admit it was consensual.

Protesting sisters and (their) bhai-logs in armbands, please take a rest and READ the amendment. Do not trust the Shankar Breathless Mahadevanesque newschannels to give you everything on a pink platter. If you then need a new cause, here’s one I found, Wiki tells: “In Taiwan, International Women's Day is marked by the annual release of a government survey on women's waist sizes, accompanied by warnings that weight gain can pose a hazard to women's health.”  Don’t you smell political conspiracy, hidden agenda, and vote-bank politics behind our government’s blatant disregard of this crucial step towards women’s safety?