Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Some Thoughts on (Ekta Kapoor's) Mahabharat

The other day, I caught a bit of “Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki”. One purpose it served was to bring home my ignorance: I had no idea how far-fetched the elaborate sets were because my knowledge of the epic is limited to the B. R. Chopra version and Amar Chitra Katha comics. I reminded myself to find a translation I could read: it is ironic that I have read the Iliad and the Odyssey but not the Mahabharat. (I did once buy – and read – a translation on the Ramayan, but then the Ramayan is so much more bland than the Mahabharat as a story.)

I watched Ved Vyas impregnating three women on TV and was put off by the hypocrisy of the scene. They would have us believe it was immaculate conception. If that’s so, why was Vyas needed at all? And what curious demarcation of powers to Vyas and the gods (for wasn’t the Sun God involved in the similar conception of Karna, and other gods of all the Pandavas?) that they can implant an embryo in a woman’s womb, but not produce a fully-fledged infant? Or have Bheesma or someone bear the baby instead, which would probably be even more legitimate – direct line of dynasty, you see. (Interestingly, it was legal at the time to have a son born to the queen who wasn’t a son of the king be the heir to the throne?)

So there you have Vyas gloriously narrating that he raped the queens. I say raped because the first queen closed her eyes in fear and the second turned pale with fright. (Which is why Dhritarashtra is born blind and Pandu weak, go figure. If I conceive while reading umm, Stephen Hawking, will my baby be born a brilliant scientist? It will be difficult to sustain my interest, but to give the world a brilliant scientist, I could make the effort.)

The most precious bit was Vyas saying that the queen was scared by the sight of his "kathorta"(literally, hardness).

And oh, for those who don’t know the story, this rape is approved of in advance by Bheesma, the family patriarch who has vowed to never take the throne but still hangs around acting the patriarch, and the queen mother.

Oh and all the immaculate conception thing is of course not a new take. I remember seeing the same in the B. R. Chopra version as well (and vaguely recollect something like that in the Amar Chitra comics).

Vyas, of course is supposed to have written the Mahabharat. Maybe he couldn’t resist going down in history as the First Great Sperm Donor?

Monday, July 28, 2008

In Other News...

I've been ill, which accounts for the sparse blogging over the last two weeks. I'm back on my feet now.

In more interesting news, the Guy's sister had a baby boy a week ago. When we went to visit them, the Guy's mother placed the baby on my lap. And I looked in wonder at the tiny fragile being staring up at me intently, looking for all in the world like a wise old elf rather than a helpless new infant. He had lovely long eyes, the tiniest fingernails, crumpled ears, and wiry hair that hung straight down his head.

Welcome to the world, Elf!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Of Scarves, Bullets, and Criminals

How sad is it when my city's new police commissioner boasts about being eager to shoot criminals? When he doesn't even fear public opinion enough to keep such bloodthirsty thoughts to himself, and publicly avow trust in the rule of law, in the system of which he is supposed to be a tool?

I don't know if it's funny or sad that he wants to ban women on two-wheelers to covering their faces with scarves. He doesn't want to make the use of helmets compulsory for two-wheeler riders, mind. He just wants to prevent women from wearing scarves. While I don't understand the custom either, I don't see what kind of security risk he assumes this poses.

Monday, July 14, 2008

I Have Moved

Come over to to continue the party!

Jaane Tu... ya jaane na

I watched the movie the second time yesterday. The first time, I was so overwhelmed by it that I couldn't straighten out how I felt. It was after I watched it again that I understood some of the reasons why it affected me so powerfully.

Near the beginning, Jai consoles Aditi for the loss of her cat. And it seemed like a vague shadow of my own loss back when I was in b-school, the death of my father. And how the Guy had stuck faithfully by me then. How he had seemed to realize how much worse it was when I was alone, and tried to ensure that I was not. I had a boyfriend, then, who was at my side much of the time - yet whenever he was not, the Guy would come over quietly and sit by me and try in his absurd way to make me laugh. One evening, I was feeling terrible and had a compelling voice in my head that was telling me to walk off alone to oblivion and that I was trying to fight off. I called up the boyfriend - he was busy and talked to me for some minutes about whatever it was he was busy at before we hung up. Then I called up the Guy, and as soon as he heard my voice he asked if I was ill, for I didn't sound as usual. I asked him to come, and he came. He came and listened while I cried uncontrollably (in a very public place), and slowly he brought me back to sanity and made me laugh. Neither of us remember how he did that, but we remember the horror I faced and how he helped me fight it.

We spent a lot of time together, the Guy and I, and while we weren't as stuck together as Aditi and Jai (and no one assumed we were together - maybe because of the boyfriend?), the natural way in which they seemed to gravitate towards each other reminded me of us. Of how I would be sitting in a classroom and the Guy would hurry in, just in time, and take the empty seat by me. Of how, when we had nothing to do, we would find each other - usually in the canteen. And yet we never considered, then, that we might be together. I did wish my boyfriend were more (the Guy would correct me here and say, somewhat) like him, and he wished he would find a partner like me. But we didn't wish for each other. For each of us, the other was the ideal, nearby and yet unreachable.

Remember the scene in which Aditi's brother is raving about Jai and she says, "He's so good isn't he? I know", and smiles proudly, even though he's not hers? I remember feeling like that, back when we had left b-school and weren't in touch, when I remembered him fondly and felt proud of him, and felt like I owned a part of him that was totally mine, even though I didn't even have the right to be his friend any longer.

This was the first romantic movie I've ever seen that I could actually relate to. All others - even rare ones I liked, like Socha Na Tha and Jab We Met - seemed to be unsatisfying in their reason for why the lead pair come together: there simply didn't seem to be enough reason. But in this movie, you know they are meant for each other: they are the best of friends, they know each other through and through, and enjoy each other's company. When the movie ends and they are together, you know they're going to be happy.

All the secondary characters seemed so well-etched in this movie. Shaleen, the sensible, smart friend. She knows what's in all their hearts but is too wise to advise them. She looks on affectionately as they love and lose and love again, but is too mature to indulge in such games herself, too strong to need someone.

Jai's mom - probably the best mom ever portrayed in a movie (at least any movie I've ever seen). No son of a mother like that could turn out screwed - no wonder Jai has the right head on his shoulders and his heart in the right place. She understands his feelings better than he does, and is too wise to tell him what to do but waits for him to find out. She holds him when he cries with heartbreak, and cooks comfort food when he is disappointed. She has brought him up to be sensitive and independent, a guy who cooks (not once in a blue moon, to impress a girl, but regularly, taking turns with his mom) and is a friend of his mother.

Meghna was a complex character. Jai gets what he wants for in her - a romantic, nice girl - and she turns out too romantic for him. She lives in a dream world of her own. And you know that, interesting as she is, she's not right for him - he needs someone more direct, more headstrong, to balance his easygoing nature - someone like Aditi.

Jai himself is the nicest "hero" I've ever seen. He is sensible, sensitive, grounded. He refuses to be carried away into fighting - unless there's something worth fighting for. He is so nice that he antagonizes Amit, Aditi's brother, by his very goodness - and yet understands how Amit feels and doesn't dislike him for it. He doesn't seem to demand anything from anyone: he accepts people as they are, and tries to understand them. Best of all, when he finds out that his mother has lied to him all these years, he laughs. Loud and hard. He laughs at himself for being a fool, and at his mother for going to such lengths to deceive him. It doesn't take away from all the care and love and respect she has bestowed on him.

My favourite character was Amit. The sensitive artist who isn't understood by his family and retires into a shell. Who is blunt and provocative, because everyone around him is so nice and polite. Who says the only benefit of being rich is that he doesn't have to work: a statement with multiple layers. He has found no other benefit of being rich because he doesn't care to buy things. He misses having friends - or family - who understand him. And yet he doesn't want to get caught in the daily grind and is grudgingly grateful that he can do what he wants - paint, read, listen to music. For someone who's derided as being unemployed, he's rarely idle - you see him painting most of the time.

Before we walked into the theatre yesterday, the Guy wondered if this time would be disappointing. But it wasn't. The little bits of melodrama seemed even more amusing, like they'd been deliberately put in to spoof formula-based romantic movies. We noticed little things, like how Shaleen beckons to Jiggy on the dance floor when the music changes to a romantic song, and they leave the couples to dance together and find company in each other. And as we walked out, I said to the Guy, "I wouldn't mind turning back and watching it again."

Friday, July 11, 2008

On Periods

I'm putting up something I wrote last year. I hesitated a long while before posting it because it is much more personal than my usual style, but here it is anyway.

I’m feeling just a bit unwell today, with my periods approaching, a sore throat, and a tired body. And yet it reminds me of how privileged my life is right now. I could, if I felt like it, call in sick and laze the day away at home. (I did not because I felt guilty, not being ill enough and with a long vacation due in two weeks; also because I would be bored alone at home, and we’re out of cooking gas so lunch would be a problem.)

Once I decided I was going to office, all I had to do was get bathed and dressed and sit in the car. The ride, admittedly, was slightly uncomfortable, because my weak back amplified the effect of each little bump on the road – but I take it as a measure of my comfort that something so minor was the most significant discomfort I faced.

The Guy kindly stopped outside Café Coffee Day so I could go in and pick up a lunch I liked, and a drink that would make me feel better. And I reached office feeling substantially better than I had at home.

There are three things to which I can attribute my relative comfort: the Guy, of course, that kindest and most patient of beings; the contraceptive pills I take which make my periods much easier to bear; and my relative independence, financially and otherwise, that allows me to make my own decisions (owning a car, I submit, is a subset of this).

Compare to a few years ago, when I was staying with my parents, financially dependent on them, and when the beginning of my periods would bring an onslaught of cramps so severe that I would need to rush home and spend the next couple of hours writhing in bed. I would take a pill, sometimes, if the pain was too difficult to bear, and place a hot water bottle on my tummy. But I had been psyched into thinking that taking pills for cramps was a weakness and would ultimately harm my body in some way, so I would be very sparing with them.

Living in a rather conservative society, it was taboo to talk about my “condition” in front of males. Once a couple of male classmates, seeing me unwell, kindly offered me a ride home, going far out of their way to do so. I was too ill to talk to them on the way home, and had to stop the car once to puke. And they only guessed that I was overcome with acidity or a stomach upset. I still regret that I was too unwell to thank them properly after I got home.

I wonder now that my mother never offered to take me to a doctor, and consoled me with the hope that the pain might reduce after childbirth (!), as it had for her. She got me tonics, though, and took me to a homeopath, and though all that worked for some time, it never had any prolonged effect.

I wonder, also, that doctors never advocated – probably still don’t – oral contraceptives. I know friends who had talked to doctors and were advised painkillers like the one I started taking. That dulled the pain somewhat, but still reduced me to misery for one day of every month. I realise that oral contraceptives have side effects; that taking them for prolonged periods might be harmful; but why isn’t it even an option? Why does society so conveniently turn a blind’s eye on women’s suffering and deem it natural? Why do our own parents not try harder to protect their children from pain?

I remember once, being in school and suffering from terrible cramps. I was overcome by nausea and puked. My friends helped me along to the headmistress’ office to ask for permission for me to go home (I think). She refused to let me, said pain at this time was natural, and the painkiller I had taken must be the cause of the nausea. I don’t remember what I thought of it then: I am appalled now, at such insensitiveness in a woman who was supposed to be our guardian while we were at school.

Yet I have often noticed women being insensitive in such matters – probably because all women don’t go through the same level of discomfort and pain and find it difficult to understand that others have a more difficult time. All the men I have ever confided in have always been more sympathetic, perhaps because they are in awe of something they don’t understand, or perhaps because I took care to confide only in those men who I was sure would be considerate.

Often, when the pain was upon me, I used to regret being a woman, and sometimes thought that anything was better than such pain. Yet it lasted for only a couple of hours, and then I would wonder what the big fuss was about. It scares me still, though. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m forced to go off the pills. These days, the first sign of my periods is often a sudden irritableness, a pain in my back, or a sudden weakness. Cramps are slight, subtle nudges that the time is nigh and I should be prepared. I can work the entire day (I had earlier needed to go home early when my period started in the middle of the day) and feel no more than fatigue. I think my period started as I am writing, and yet I feel no worse than I did when I started, and in fact, much better than I felt at home this morning.

I am surprised that something that is apparently so easy to overcome is still endured by so many women every month. I am appalled that we seem to push such issues under the carpet, expecting girls to be modest and suffer, being too hypocritical to even discuss it openly. And yet a girl's puberty is cause for celebration, for she has 'grown up' (read: can now reproduce) and in Assam, they used to have mock-marriages for girls at this time. (I don't know details of the ceremony, for my parents were against the practice and I have only heard about it from other people, but I know it involves the girl getting new clothes and jewellery and probably some religious rituals and a feast.)

I saw this topic discussed on a couple of blogs some time ago: read the Mad Momma and Chandni.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The 60th Carnival of Feminists

Welcome to the Carnival of Feminists! It is Wednesday morning in India, so I am putting up the carnival. I am still accepting entries till midnight, so send in your submissions (of your own or others’ posts) on the form here, or to unmanaATgmailDOTcom.

This is the first time to my knowledge that the carnival is being hosted from India, so I have included several posts by Indians and showcasing issues peculiar to India.

Feminism and Culture, with a Spotlight on Indian Culture
Apu writes about the dilemmas modern Indian parents face in raising liberal daughters. I can identify with this myself: my parents brought me up to be financially independent, yet didn’t seem to be able to completely reconcile themselves with the idea that I might be independent of them in other ways as well.

In a similar vein, Rukmani writes about how Indian parents are anxious to see their children, especially girls, married and "settled".

Indian Home Maker takes on an old Indian institution – the joint family – and argues that it is oppressive to women, especially young wives. The joint family is a patriarchal family structure, with the oldest male being the “head of the family”, and the newest daughter-in-law usually being the position with least power.

Reema talks about the undesirable child in India – the girl child. Sadly, in many families in India, the birth of a girl is greeted with disappointment, not joy, as a woman is supposed to be a burden on the family. I also had experiences similar to Reema’s, with my mother often being asked, “You have two daughters? No sons?” I also remember one woman who followed that up, after finding out how my sister and I were doing at college and school respectively, with, “Your daughters are so smart! You don’t need sons!”

Chandni writes a touching post about how the arrival of a daughter is a disappointment for some mothers.

Chandni also writes about women getting labeled on the basis of the clothes they wear. I am aware this happens in every society, but it is somewhat more complicated in India, where each region has its own traditional costume (which of course, it is the duty of the women to “preserve”), and you might get labeled for just tying your sari a different way, let alone for wearing a short skirt.

Hopeful Spirit expostulates that feminism is a Christian concept and claims that Christ was the first feminist. Frankly, I do not hold with religion myself, but if you feel your faith strengthens your feminism, good for you.

Whatsername claims that “marriage is beholden to the people undertaking it”, and I thoroughly agree with her view. It annoys me when people imagine my life must have changed in certain ways after marriage (for instance, a colleague sympathetically asking as I leave office late in the evening, “You’ll have to go home and cook now?”) It astonishes me when single acquaintances ask about my married life to get an idea of how life will change for them after marriage – this includes acquaintances who are engaged to be married (and they ask me instead of asking their partner?!). Why should you let anyone else make the rules for your life? Marriage is what the two people in it make of it.

Discrimination and Sexism at Work
The Baglady claims she acts like a man to survive in the man’s world of technology. I do not quite like the phrase “acts like a man”, though – it’s demeaning of women as well as of men, especially men who do not conform to socially-approved stereotypes.

There’s more on workforce discrimination at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like. She points out that the reason articles based on this keep appearing is that discrimination against women, and especially mothers, is far from disappearing. In relation to India, I personally feel we should make discriminatory interview questions illegal, as they are in the US and other countries. I have got asked questions on my married state and when I plan to start a family (!). I have also heard that one HR manager (at a company that ultimately hired me) mentioned (to the person who later became my boss) that it’s not a good idea to hire single women, as they get married and move away. So you don’t hire single women because they’re likely to get married, and you don’t hire married women because they’re likely to get pregnant.

BetaCandy at the Hathor Legacy reveals that film schools teach screenwriters to fail the Bechdel test, revealing the immense sexism of Hollywood. BetaCandy found herself unable to adhere to this rule and ultimately “left film for good”.

Gweem at Me and My Army points out the appalling sexism and offensive comments directed at Maria Sharapova, who decided to play in the Wimbledon in shorts instead of the customary skirt.

Menstrual Poetry writes about the current obsession with “sexy nerd girls” and the various layers of sexism involved: calling intelligent women “girls”, implying that women aren’t expected to be in scientific or technical fields, and objectifying the women who are.

Double Standards around Teen Pregnancy
Kate Smurthwaite points out that in all the focus on teen girls getting pregnant, there has been very little attention on the fact that two people participate to cause a pregnancy. And no one seems to have asked the obvious question, were these under-16 girls raped or did they have consensual sex with minor boyfriends?

Menstrual Poetry asks a hard question: is the media promoting teen pregnancy or is the problem actually that we aren’t educating teenagers about safe sex?

On Feminism and the Backlash against It
Womanist Musings dissects the code words “angry”, “hysterical” and “irrational” that are frequently used as ammunition against feminists.

Kitten Politics argues that feminists actually love men, because we treat them as normal people with thinking minds.

Feminist Avatar holds the optimistic view that we will not retract to a more misogynist or sexist age, because feminism is good for men too. Indeed, sexism and gender stereotyping hurts men as well, as they are expected to behave in certain ways.

On Abortion, Female Foeticide and Medical Rape
Julie at the Hand Mirror muses about the strategy to use in terms of New Zealand’s abortion laws, to ensure that women continue to have legal access to abortion.
Cold SnapDragon takes on the tough subject of medical rape and is appalled at the nastiness of some medical professionals.

Deborah posts about female foeticide at the Hand Mirror, arguing that pro-choice feminists can still decry the widespread abortion of female foetuses in countries like India and China.

On Rape and Sexual Violence
HarpyMarx writes about the double standards and minimisation of rape. She notes, “It is still an uphill struggle for women to report rape and sexual assaults. There are numerous obstacles from the idea of ‘grey rape’ where a woman is in a situation where she never intended to have sex but wound-up being forced into it, ‘because until that point, they’d been a willing participant’ to ‘sexual familiarity’, where the woman knows the attacker, is treated with more leniency and is used in mitigation.”

Advertisers Exploiting Women’s Insecurity
Rage Against the Man-chine points out how the marketing and advertising industries engage in what she calls “gender-based terrorism”. I personally am not sure which is more sad: the fact that these ads are created – by, I suppose, successful professionals - or that they seem to work (else why are there so many of them?).

Reema takes on Indians’ obsession with fair skin (especially for women) and how marketers play on it through sexist ads. The sexist ads long aired for Unilever’s Fair & Lovely often irked me considerably, yet what disappoints me more is that Fair & Lovely is an extremely successful product and has spawned many imitations over the years. A warning: the comments space has a couple of nasty comments about Halle Berry’s Oscar acceptance speech, hinting that black people are racist because they bring up the issue of race. I absolutely disagree, and I suspect this view stems from ignorance of the struggles that different races have faced against discrimination in different parts of the world. An analogy for India might be caste or religion, with upper castes discriminating against Dalits and other lower castes and people of one religion looking down on those of another.

On the (Lack of) Efficacy of Single-Sex Schools
Tamara Schulman at Womenstake writes about single-sex classrooms and “the critical question of whether these programs provide an important educational option for students or are based on and replicate outmoded stereotypes”.

And that concludes the carnival. I hope you enjoyed it! If you are interested in hosting the next one, write to nataliebenATgmailDOTcom.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Remembering the Beach

Maybe some day I can stand before the sea again
While the water reaches out and tickles my feet
And my toes bury gently into the sand
And the waves whisper loudly to the land.

And I feel the peace of one so vast, so strong
And pretend nothing can touch me either
Forget the life I have escaped from
And live another, for a few days.