Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Singhnis

Like most educated Indians, I tend towards taking residence on the fence. My reading and exposure has rendered me incapable of committing to any one view point. I take refuge behind words like objectivity, maturity, liberality. No extreme notions please; it all depends on one’s circumstances; we draw upon our own life’s experiences; life is grey, not black and white, so goes my global mind. And nothing exemplifies this wishy washy stand better than my aversion to staunch religious identities.

I was named Shamminder, I switched it to Neerja. Dispensation with the Sikh middle name for women “Kaur” meaning “Princess” was a foregone conclusion. And the radical step of chopping the tresses happened as early as my Vth grade, no less. This is not to say that we lacked in parental indoctrination. There were sporadic dinner table discussions when Dad would remind us of our unique privilege in having been born into a Sikh family. We did undertake the annual Gurudwara visits on significant ‘Gurupurabs’, my participation being limited to the rare delivery of a sabad kirtan. But the acquaintance with this faith by birth remained at the nodding tier until the year 1984 in Delhi, that is.

While at our Saket home in South Delhi on those four eruptive days from the 31st Oct to 3rd Nov, there materialized overnight a coagulation of an essential difference. 
For the first time, I felt a sense of being outside, of having been marked in an elemental way. I remember with crystal clear clarity the night of 1nd Nov. Sick with claustrophobia at being cooped up while the national capital of the world’s largest democracy giddily lost its humane map and tired to the gills of the relentless TV coverage of mourners filing past Mrs Gandhi’s body lying in state at the Teenmurti Bhavan, Dad and I stepped out at night for some airing around our J-Block residence. 

Oblivious to the horrifying fact that the J-Block Gurudwara had been burnt down just hours earlier, we approached it from the far end, wondering at the slow plumes of smoke rising into the night sky. Earlier in the day, we had stood against our front door window chinks, viewing with disbelief the sight of a marauding bunch, looting the shops in the block market. And now here we were, licking at the rim of trouble.

A few steps further, the tight knot of conspiratorial huddle facing the Gurudwara stirred as a singular figure broke away to come charging at us. He panted up and garbled nervously, “Sardarji, please go back home. It is not safe here.” I looked up at my father, surprised to see him hesitate. There was that second of a pause, we turned around and walked back into the mourning shehnai.

That chilling hour came and went. Two years later, I was at the very same Gurudwara, this time in my bridal finery. Married into a conservative Sikh family, I remained preoccupied with life’s a-religious events for the following twenty five years.

The next my Sikh identity came slamming at me was, of all the places, an elegant restaurant with views of the Santa Monica Mountains at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles, California. 
I was in the company of two feisty, generous and brilliant Singhnis and we ended up discussing “Amu”. I, a reasonably well informed Indian, had never heard of this movie by Shonali Bose, starring Konkona Sen Sharma and of all the people, Brinda Karat. It turned out that the film that won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in English was censored in India. 

Needless to say, it was that “hello myself” moment.  I never felt more “Sikh” than I did watching “Amu” late that farewell night at Sadhana’s silent Agoura Hills home.

Thank you Navinder! Thank you Ranjit!

Waheguru Ji da Khalsa,Waheguru Ji di Fateh.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Girlfriend time

Sadhana calls it ‘girlfriend time’; I call it ‘revival time’.

The business of living an adult life, raising a family is such a heavy duty personal investment mission for a typical woman that she is soon running out of physiological battery charge. In the daily grind to keep a growing family on track, healthy and cared for, her own nutrition, emotional well-being and self-esteem pretty much get swept under the day's agenda. She has this commitment to her husband, the children and society around her. It is as though all her growing up years were preparation towards the discharging of these responsibilities, in complete exclusion to herself. The first to arise and the last to get to bed, it is a ceaseless drive.

What then is the secret switch that keeps this dynamo ticking? Love for the family, yes. Could it be an appreciation of the man’s loyalty, maybe? Or that personally defined bar for an ideal family, it is feasible. With some of us, the conditioning is so deep that we just have to be the perfect superwoman. A well run home, accomplished children, personal grooming, an amicable footing with the relations-in-law and that hundred per cent support to the husband. It is a tall order for any being, leave alone a creature that gets little acknowledgement, appreciation or back thumping from any close quarter, not even from her biological family often times.

Hers therefore is to serve and sigh. Hers is not to question why.There can then be only one logical conclusion to this one sided story and that is ‘therapy’. Retail therapy, food therapy, drug therapy, sleep therapy….one can take a pick. Although they all work, they suffer from a sustainability deficit and associated side-effects. 

There is one cure however that is free of these virulent overtones. It is ‘girlfriend time’. Women understand to a great degree what it is like to be each other. They are quick to recognize pain caused by that dismissive indifference in dear husband’s tone, the furious glint in a teenage daughter’s eyes, and the demanding ways of a pubescent boy. They can watch and listen and observe without judging. Having juggled half their lives themselves, they will make time to step in at critical junctures. In their company, it is possible to let the guard down and share and compare notes. They see that most times, the need is merely of an empathetic ear and a sympathetic smile !

From these shared stories, comes strength and that much needed revival and renewal. One invariably comes away from these emotional loofah sessions with the scrubbed feeling of being OK.

‘Girlfriend time’ is the oxygen mask you need to pull over your nose when life’s barometer goes asthmatic. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Drop off day

With Andres, Ceca and Jill
Right there at the Whitman College was the reception committee, all set up to welcome the 110 or so international students, converging onto Princeton’s class of 2015.

Our cabbie seemed to know. He drove us around, onto and right through the welcome banner. There was a decent amount of baggage to be offloaded and we got off, in plenty of company. Laden cars and suitcase wheelies glided all around us. While I waited with the bags, watching the cheerful occupants disembark, Asawari zipped across to the welcome area for registration and check in instructions. It was a lovely, sunny green day. There was a washed feel to that moment, a kind of laundered, crisp, fresh feel, buoyant and squeaky at the same time. I skimmed the clumps of young people, languid in their cartage of boxes and such like.

Asawari was trotting back, two at a time, as is her wont. A golf cart followed, making its merry whirr towards where I stood. Before I knew it, the bags had been loaded onto the cart tray with helpful suggestions from the luggage owner on alignment and she had clambered on to the passenger seat, laptop and rucksack in lap. One determined burst of the motor and the student driver was off with my College Freshman, bound for her residence at Buyers Hall, Rockefeller College.

The mind plays tricks. I stood there, golf cart sound fading, in the throes of a filmy flashback. Recall one, the scrolling down of Princeton’s orange head acceptance letter on our home computer monitor. Recall two, her departure for the Bridge Year Program. Recall three, the family debate over whether I should accompany her to College drop off. And here we were, on the 31st Aug, off to the long awaited start. 

Half an hour later, I was following her in another golf cart driven by Rachel Baldwin, Princeton’s International Student Advisor! We made our cheerful way across campus, chatting and exclaiming and soon enough, I was inside Asawari’s newly assigned residential unit.

Introduction to the roommate followed; there was a guided tour around the college and some shopping for essentials. I could have stayed on endlessly but there was this new and pre-occupied look on the Freshman’s face, with lots to do and a packed schedule of orientation events to keep pace with. She gamely walked me to the New York Camera Store on Nassau Street for a battery check and while we waited for the cab to take me back to the hotel, we counted minutes. Much against the heart, I pushed her in the direction of the campus, the cab was taking time and she had a deadline creeping up. I watched her retreating back, the short pause at the traffic light and her sprightly, determined stride beyond.

I was going to visit again the following day for the international parents’ orientation but really, this was the actual drop off day. I rode back alone, pouring my heart out to a strange man at the wheel, a continent away from home. As I alighted, he said, “Don’t worry, she will be the smarter and wiser for your having left her here!!”

Amen, I whispered to myself.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Slutwalk Bangalore

Law school activism
I appreciate and acknowledge Aqseer’s angst and pain. Around the time she was beginning to gain a consciousness of the gender inequality in the air we breathed, I would wonder aloud to her Dad. “How is it that there is this latent furnace in her mind when we have never indicated any gender specific opinions to our growing daughters?”

“It is the environment”, I would answer myself in the ensuing silence. It is the community words, actions, gestures, thoughts…..all swirling in the ether we occupy that devalue the female gender. No matter how vehemently I assured my girls at the dinner table that they were unique and special beings with a right to dignity and respect, the world was out there, battering them with the contrary.  

If my girl got close to a guy, it was she who was ‘hooking’ him! When she rode out on a motor bike, singing against the wind, we had been permissively negligent as parents. The fact that they were partial to clothes, somewhat unflattering to the feminine form, was an indication of a poor maternal example.

Patent Aqseer in yellow, extreme left
It is true that I did not bring them up to seek salvation in a man’s shadow. How could I teach them skills that I was not willing to learn myself? The abhorrent notion that feminine guile was to be used to snare and maintain a provider; that men were to be manipulated with the batting of eyelids; that their sense of masculinity depended on a woman’s appeasing, entreating form. My social view instead, was populated by men who viewed women as their equals; husbands who were not threatened by their wives; fathers who expected their daughters to grow up as their own persons.

Was this going to be a blueprint for a life time of swimming upstream? Perhaps.

Would they have to work extra hard to keep themselves whole and intact? It was a distinct possibility.

Could there really be a man out there who would have the gall to shake off aeons of cultural conditioning so as to say, “You are ok, I am ok.” I was not sure.

Today and now, I am proud that Aqseer has channelized her outrage in the form of “Slutwalk Bangalore”, of which she is an organizing committee member. In their words:

”Slutwalk Bangalore aims to be a movement that brings attention to the endless cases of sexual abuse and narrow- minded practices of judgement and victim blaming that follow thereafter. It aims to be a movement that will work towards generating positive and affirmative action that will help tackle these issues.”
Please visit their page:
http://www.facebook.com/slutwalkblore for a glimpse of today’s motivated young, in the process of actioning a cause they hold dear. Also register your support by ‘liking’ and thereby upping their meter count.

Keep it up Aqseer!