Saturday, September 13, 2008

Are you a victim of the Horrible Indian Loo Phenomenon (HILP)?

I admit, this one is written with a bit of angst and lots of bundled up irritation. The story begins with the three of us (my editor, a senior colleague and me) taking to the road (by a car) to go to Surat for a meeting. My colleagues made a start at 5.30 in the morning and they reached Baroda at about eight. They picked me up and the car took to the highway. It was a good four and half hours before we would reach Surat, thanks to dug up roads, held up traffic and a tea break. And herein, starts my angst story. You see, it could have been otherwise. The car had an AC which worked, the landscape from our car window, a beautiful picture of rustic India and we had plenty of conversation flowing between us.

But the sob story started as soon as we felt the need to take a 'loo break.' It is, you will agree with us, human to feel the need to use a washroom in a journey that is five to seven hours long. And so, we encountered what I can best describe as the "Horrible Indian Loo Phenomenon (HILP)." We alighted at a reasonably and what looked like the best eatery on the highway and tried to use the loo. I realise that gory details should never be described and so without going into the intricate details, I can say that those loos weren't fit to used. Even a pig living in a pigsty would have said, "I can do better. My slush pond smells better.'

And herein lies my angst. Why can't we get our basics right? Why do washrooms even in swanky malls, eateries, restaurants (those on the highway and those in the city as well) can't adhere to the basic standards of hygiene: running water, clean-litter free floor, a dustbin that is regularly emptied , a soap dispenser that actually has soap in it, commodes or Indian style toilets that are cleaned every two hours or so depending on footfalls?

If we are a culture that prides itself on having "rich traditions, morals and family values" how do we explain our complete disregard for something as basic as providing safe, clean washrooms for our women and children, and yes, I am not leaving the men out; every one deserves a clean washroom. If we proclaim ourselves to be a people who are extremely protective towards their women, how do we again explain the fact that we choose to ignore that women, irrespective of the fact that they are menstruating or not, need a washroom that doesn't bring out "I wish I was never born in India' in them.

Most women, who happen to have their periods while travelling (by a train, bus or car) will vouch for the fact that there are no facilities for them to dispose of a pad (meaning there will be no dustbins or ones that have not been emptied for days together) in the washrooms. For mothers who travel with small children, again, there is no facility to change nappies or dispose off the nappies (absence of a nappy board or a dustbin). Forget wishing for a decent sized mirror in the washroom, we can count ourselves lucky if we stumble across a public washroom which has running water and relatively clean environs!

I am decidedly cranky today, but if I ever emigrate to the US, UK or Australia, one of the reasons would be that, I will, while travelling, eating out or going to a movie, can avail of a washroom that has running water, tissue, soap dispenser, nappy board, fragrant fresheners, clean tiles, and hey, washrooms abroad also stock sanitary napkins dispensers! That will be one of my primary reasons besides the fact that when I go driving on the autobahns or the roads there, there will be no cows, pigs, goats and other inhabitants of a farm running amok, neither will I encounter pits, open drains, dug out lanes or people who ask, "Are you married? No? Still single? Oh ho, how sad. You bechari girl. What are your parents doing, ask them to register you in a marriage bureau. Good thing you earn. How much is that? What is your salary? And, are you an Assamese or Bengali? No? Sindhi perhaps? No? Toh, what else can you be? You are an outsider for certain, hai na?"

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Can I be a sparrow?

This has been with me for as long as I can remember. As a child, I would clamour for my grandmother to tell me stories. It could be a bedtime story, or a story after lunch when sleep came to me on jet plane or a story for Sunday when hours were leisurely and friends were away. My grandmother told me stories from her childhood, stories of her life as a young woman and a wife and a mother. She also told me stories of kings and queens and mendicants with magical powers. Each of these stories had a beautiful structure to it - a beginning, middle and an end, a plot that wove the story together. In that sense, as I grew up and read a lot of authors, I retained my love for the traditional way of story telling. I like clearly fleshed out characters, I want a strong narrative, I also wanted a beginning, a middle and end. It comes as no surprise to me then that though I waited eagerly to graduate to being taught Virginia Woolf during my graduation in English literature, I really didn't enjoy her. I loved Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence but I couldn't bring myself to appreciate the stream of consciousness technique that Virginia Woolf is so famous for.
Most of the stories that my grandmother told me had an element of magic in them. The mystic fakir she met as a young girl, the village (in a fictitious story) that had a well that spoke to women and so on. I can't really pin point when and how, but I started wishing for some magic that would change me into a sparrow. The ordinary, brown Indian sparrow that we see in most cities and more often and more in number in villages. I fancied my mother pulling off the chadar from my bed to reveal a small, sparrow! That sparrow is me. Overnight, by a magic charm, I have transformed into a sparrow.
I have always thought that sparrows live an extremely charmed, content and happy life. Since they are ordinary and so much in abundance, no body enslaves them in a cage or tries to keep them as a pet. Food is available in plenty: food grains scattered at a grocery story, leftover cooked rice grains on a vessel left out to be washed, bread crumbs from a picnic basket... Plus, sparrows don't need to go to school, get jobs, build a fancy bungalow or be drowned in the peer pressure that dictates so much of what we do as human beings. What are a sparrow's biggest fears? I guess, being eaten up by a cat. Or to get drenched in a sudden shower perhaps? To me, these fears seem far more tolerable than the ones that stalk us humans.
Is there a magic somewhere out there? Do you know a secret charm or a chant? Can I turn into a sparrow? I promise, you mum and dad, I will come every day in the evening to see you. I will sip a little tea from dad's cup (Do sparrows like tea?) and sit by mom's feet to nibble at the biscuit crumbs that fall as she eats. And ah, yes, please don't keep a cat as a pet.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The professor and Cleopatra

Sometimes, everyday conversations or communications (mails, chats and the sorts) are so full of unexpected humour that you remember those conversations for long; they are stored in your memory for weeks and months and even years. And when you think of them, you smile to yourself or burst out in laughter. It happens to me all the time. I am driving my kinetic and I suddenly remember a funny episode and I am laughing while I am driving. I admit, I must look like a nut to those around me but I believe there will be some others who will think, 'She must have been reminded of something funny. It happens to me as well."
This week, I was chatting (gchat) with a colleague and to the utter bewilderment of those around me, I suddenly burst out laughing and all of them tried to have a look at my computer screen. My friend was to travel to Delhi and she asked her friend to book her tickets for Augustkranti Rajdhani Express. But, bless that sweet, forgetful professor, he instead booked her in a train called Sampoornakranti. Here's what she wrote to him and narrated and forwarded to me:
"Hi darling,
In which train you have booked my ticket to Delhi??????? It takes three hours more than Ashram and four hours more than Rajdhani..... I told you AUGUSTKRANTI RAJDHANI EXPRESS not some SAMPOORNAKRANTI EXPRESS (READ KHATARA EXPRESS) which your country cousin Laloo Yadav started on metregauge two years back ...... yeh kya kiya puchu aap ne... this khatara train reaches Nizamdduin at 10.35 whereas Ashram reaches at 7.30.....
Wait I will be a Krantikari when I reach Delhi through Sampoornakranti Express.... (Good that I checked otherwise I would have entered the Rajdhani.. ha ha and landed in jail without ticket)
(p s Now I realise certain people are not meant for certain things.. though I humbly appreciate your effort. HARD REALISATION THOUGH)
My colleague's absentminded friend reminded me of a professor who used to teach us English literature in university. He was, as can be assumed, very very fond of Shakespeare and one day, with his lovely cotton, weathered thela in hand, went off to a local theatre that screened English movies. He had, in great enthusiasm bought a ticket for Anthony and Cleopatra, having read in the newspapers an advertisement announcing the same. He did notice that an unusual number of boisterous, lanky, young men had turned up for the movie as he stood outside the theatre (back then, there were no multiplexes in Baroda), and he thought, a tad pleased: 'I didn't know so many young men read Shakespeare." He took his seat at the hall, and as the lights went off, catcalls rose from all over the hall. Again, our professor was surprised: a hall full of young men, but he thought, they somehow, if he could say so, didn't look like men who would have read anything, even a comic, or a label on a bottle, leave alone Shakespeare. Well, he was right. A blond, buxom woman came on the screen and when she started 'acting,' our sweet professor realised that this was no play of Shakespeare! It was a porn movie!
This incident still makes me laugh.

Now, here's another mail which again, for some reason makes me smile if not double me up with laughter. As I opened my gmail account one day, it was there, written to me by a friend from Mumbai :
"prerna........i think i have reached the peak of depression.!!!!!!!!!
i told u naa that maine me apna profile dala that.........i got 21 responses.....but itne GHATIYA ladke..........chi chi.........maine apni life me nahi dekhe...........

dekhna meri shaadi nahi hogi 35 saal tak.aur jab hogi tab kisi ghatiya se buddhe se hogi...aur mujhe koi naukri bhi nahi milege.......i think soon i ll turn to alchoholism or drugs...


love *****"

I quite like the mock melodramatic ending: "... will turn to alcoholism or drugs... alvida!' I also like the beginning and my friend's very colloquial, conversational 'chi, chi...'

Now here's a third one. A friend of mine, who was a research analyst, was chatting (gchat) with me. I made the emoticon B-) in the chat and he wanted to learn how to make that. It's really simple, one types a capital B, the small - and the ) and B-) is ready!
I asked my friend to guess how to make it, or do some R & D. When he couldn't, I typed "B=Buddhu. You are buddhu." My friend, started typing: "B=Buddhu, B=Buddhu all over the chat window" and then "Prerna, it doesn't appear. I typed B=Buddhu but the emoticon doesn't appear!" I have saved the chat. I often go back to it and I am reminded of the time when my otherwise intelligent friend really got 'intelligence ransacked' for a few, brief moments! He admitted as such and wrote "i mean i dont know (why I did that)
something must have taken over me to think that
B=Buddhu could lead to that
i mean i thought a while before that
windows wasnt designed in india
so how can they have a buddhu sort of word to mean anything
but i stil went ahead and tried that"

Of course you did! You are such a sweet<3. Now, try that!

Friday, July 11, 2008

The coffee blossoms in Coorg

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Happy days

I woke up in the morning to find a rain-kissed day dawning upon me. A madhumalti creeper runs right over my bedroom window; and like a wizard it climbs up over the terrace. The rains had brought the heady fragrance of its blossoms wafting through the window, and there were a dozen other scents running amok in the air. The meetha limda tree was also in blossom and I could trace the fragrance of its flowers and I woke up feeling intoxicated.
I found out that my little garden had indeed turned a new leaf. All the plants, shrubs and creepers were deliriously happy, they looked scrubbed clean and it felt as if everything about the day was made to order! Made to order to please me! I took a few pictures. I felt like Alice in Wonderland.
The fragrances reminded me of the trip that I had taken to Coorg. Coorg is known for its coffee plantations and we (Mukta, Dhara and I) were in Coorg just in time for the coffee blossoms; they spring forth only once in a year. It is almost a surreal experience to wander through the coffee plantations. Like a man drunk on good wine, after some 15 minutes or so, you actually begin to stumble and feel light and gay. The blossoms let out such an intoxicating fragrance that you are high without a drop of alcohol.
We had stayed at a home stay in Coorg and it turned out to be such an idyllic vacation. A beautiful traditional red tiled Coorgi home. Two dogs and a cat. Rich coffee any time of the day. Homemade food and wine (honey, garlic, strawberry and grape) that reflected a very rich cuisine. A fireplace and an arm chair. A garden to wander about.
I had felt myself slowing down: thinking less, speaking without a rush, a feeling of being at peace, at home. There were other guests at the home stay and conversation flowed easy. While it rained one night, every one gathered near the fire place, and among glasses of homemade wine, one of the guests picked up his guitar and belted out a few songs. Everyone joined in, the rain went rim-jhim in harmony, a fire fly circled our heads briefly, the dog came and sat near my feet, the host came along with trays of fish, egg curry, chicken, rice, sambhar, rice cakes, idli, stuffed capsicum, a salad, four different types of chutney... It was heaven.
It was a happy day. And it is a happy day today. Thank god for happy days.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sick leave!

I have been at home for the last five weeks. I fell ill and was diagnosed with jaundice. The first week or so, I was on bed rest and that part was awful. I threw up a lot, couldn't bear to look at food, lost weight rapidly, and itched all over besides looking like a bride who had forgotten to wash off the turmeric over her body after the haldi ceremony!

But these weeks at home (a rare, rare thing. Actually, this is the first time that I have been at home for so long, doing, as they say, nothing!) gave me some simple pleasures and how I loved them. Today, I was writing my diary and I listed them down.

1. Sleeping in the afternoon after spending a leisurely hour at the dining table relishing a home made meal with my parents.

2. Watering the plants in the garden and plucking lovely, fragrant, moon like white mogras and handing them over to mummy so that they can be used in the puja the next morning. Or arranging a bunch of garden flowers in a large bowl which is to be placed on the bedside.

2. Waking up after an afternoon nap at 4 and making a Prerna Special chai for Prerna and papa. The recipe for the Prerna Special chai is : a few leaves of Tulsi, mint, lili cha (lemon grass), chai masala, a sprinkling of Saunf and ginger are added to water which is set to boil. Once it does, add the chai patti and sugar. The milk comes last. Let it simmer, raise the container a few times over the gas ring, let the chai simmer again and it's ready to be served in a lovely blue porcelain cup! We had the tea on the swing on our porch. We discussed mundane things, there was no rush to go any where, no fixed agenda. Once while we were having our tea, it rained. The water came all around us in a lovely pitter patter and while the roof over the swing made sure we didn't get wet, a lovely fragrance of wet earth surrounded us.

4. Friends and family come over to 'visit' me. How I looked forward to those visits!

5. Gossip magazines. I begged my father to take me to Landmark and while I was there I bought gossip magazines, Agatha Christie's and a couple of more books. You know, I had never really cared about gossip magazines. But they are so interesting! Did you know for instance, that Rosa (Saif's ex) didn't know that he was married when she started going around with him (or so she claims!). Or for that matter Mika thinks that "A girl's figure turns me on. Her face doesn't really matter... All my wishes have been fulfilled. I have a huge fan following, have bodyguards and just got a Hummer..." Do you care? I don't but when you are home and sick, gossip magazines can spice your life up! Or so I discovered!

6. Sitting on the porch with clean white sheets of paper, lots of sketch pens and water colours. Trying to copy the flowers or recreate the birds on your paper.

7. Waiting for the monthly groceries to arrive. Then sifting through the bag and taking out packets of sugar, tea, biscuits, wafers, coffee. Finding clean, good smelling glass jars and carefully emptying the packets into them.

8. Spending two hours on rearranging your wardrobe and looking into details like --- putting soap wrappers between clothes so that they smell good, tying small red satin ribbons on the wardrobe handles, going through your earring collection.

9. Having a friend come over with an unexpected gift, just to cheer you up.

10. Trying to make yourself useful by sitting on the dining table and chopping the greens.

11. Having the beauty parlour lady come home and do your pedicure. Even if you haven't gone out in weeks and wouldn't do so for weeks. Just for yourself. So that your toe nails are in shape and they are painted in a beautiful, soft pink.

I realise the wisdom of Susan Madam's words: "Prerna, sometimes your body falls sick just because it wants you to pause and do things that you might not have done otherwise."

Swati Vishwanath Nage's death set me thinking

On June 17, there was a news item about a young woman Swati Vishwanath Nage, 29 who fell off a local train while on her way to work in Mumbai. A couple of days later, there were several follow up stories and one of the most poignant details that emerged about Swati was how she was supporting her family who lived in Valsad. She had postponed her marriage so that she could help her father, who had a small transport business and owned a truck, to pay off the educational loan that he had taken for her younger brother. Her father told newspapers that his daughter sent home money every month and was dedicated to the family. I wondered, had Swati postponed her marriage because she feared that her husband might have objected to her helping her family financially?

A new month will begin on Tuesday but I haven't been able to get Swati out of my head. What happened was truly unfortunate and I can only imagine how her parents must feel. I think what really struck me about Swati was that she was the face of the contemporary Indian woman. A woman with a good education, a woman with a drive to put that education into good use and an unfailing, touching dedication towards her family. A woman who worked hard, a woman who had dreams of a better future.

I have felt acutely over the last couple of years that as Indian women continue to take on varied roles and responsibilities, our society continues to fail them.

I am talking about attitudes. You see, as women focus on getting themselves a solid education and then a good job, and bringing home a salary that they generously share with their family (be it their parents or husband and parents in law) they are still held back by some out of date beliefs and value systems.

I have met so women who talk about how running a home is solely their responsibility in spite of the fact that they work as hard as their husbands. How their parents-in-law and their husbands forbid them to hire domestic helps like a cook, silencing them with "You can't escape cooking just because you work. When I come home at the end of the day I want food that is cooked by you. I don't want someone else to do your job" I believe cooking is therapeutic and a great art for those who enjoy it but if you have a job that entails that you will return late in the evening, you might want some help. Even women who are homemakers would want a break once in a while, a sort of weekly off that all of us in the organised sector duly claim as our right.

Recently, I received a phone call from a 33 year old US based guy, who's done no less than a Ph.D in his area of interest. He was raised in India and went to live in the US some 11 years ago. The conversation that we had will remain in my mind for a long time. Here are a few excerpts. "How would you address your husband to be? As tu or tame? (tu is the Gujarati equivalent of the Hindi tum , and similarly tame is the equivalent of the Hindi aap.) I told him that it would be something that I and and my husband would discuss. We would zero in on a form of address that both of us felt comfortable in. I also told him that I hadn't really thought of something like that but now that he asked me I recollect that most of my friends call their husbands by their names or in a very endearing way by using tu but it denotes no disrespect. I asked him, whether he would like to call his wife tame? "Well, women aren't usually addressed as tame. It's only the men who get to be called tame. And I have seen my sisters addressing their husbands as tame and I would like it to be in my case as well. The whole question is about how a woman will address her husband." His next question (and this was the first time we were interacting) was, "So, when you get married would you choose to take on your husband's surname or keep both the surnames? I have seen women using their maiden and husband's surname after their names, with a hyphen between both the surnames. I don't agree with that, it doesn't make sense. When a woman marries, she has to blend in with her husband's family. And when she changes her surname it is a step towards complete blending in. It is an affirmation of her commitment towards the guy's family." And then, he asked me whether I fasted, went to temples, or did the puja every morning. And that if I had eggs, did I have them once a week, every day or once a month? There were other things as well that really got me thinking, but I was genuinely surprised and taken aback with his conviction that (a) a husband has to be addressed as tame and that a woman of course, can't expect the same in return. Would he look down in contempt upon couples who addressed each other by their first names or especially towards women who chose to call their husband by their names or tu? (As in, a woman addressed her husband with - "Suresh, tu ketla vage ghare aavish?" (Suresh, what time would you come home?) (B), his firm opinion that women can't keep their maiden and husband's surname together and that forsaking your maiden surname is a sign of commitment. I have come across various couples, in my personal as well as professional interactions. While some women have happily changed their surnames, some have kept both set of surnames, while yet others have kept their maiden ones. I had never thought of any of the couples in a derogatory way at all. But this guy's line of thinking made me realise that not only would he have it only his way, he would probably look at women who choose to retain their maiden surnames as the sort of ones who hadn't "committed" to their husbands!
And these aren't isolated cases. My colleague at work told me about a guy who upon finding out that she was an only child and was helping her parents with monthly household expenses told her, or rather had the gall to tell her: "I really like everything about you. But the thing is, what worries me is that you help your parents with money. After we get married, I am afraid that you might continue doing so and even if it is from your own salary, I wouldn't like it. Besides, what if after a couple of years your parents might want to come and stay near you? What if they buy a house in the city where we settle?" Another friend told me about her experience, this time, it was the mother of the guy who said, "I would like a working woman. These days, one needs two salaries to run a household. After all, how can we buy things or take holidays every year if we don't have a double income? But I would like that the girl also completely takes care of the household. Our neighbour's daughter in law for instance, cooks, cleans, washes up, sweeps and goes to work. I would like my daughter in law to do the same." Yet another colleague told me about how her neighbour treats her daughter in law. The daughter in law isn't permitted to venture out without her mother-in-law's permission and when my colleague had once gone over with a bowl of kheer for the daughter in law, her mother in law had remarked, "Oh, you could have got her the left over tomorrow. After all, daughters in laws can't expect to be served fresh food."

I know that there are countless examples to counter these examples and there are good things happening as well, but I gather that there is a long way to go. We need to raise our sons differently, we need to accept that women are handling many more things than they ever did before, and they need help from their families to be able to do these things with perfection and they deserve to be treated better.