Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Bengali Bou

The signs are hard to miss: there is excitement in the air, chatter in the house, the girls are unusually cheerful and the boy remarkably relaxed; the kitchen no longer smells of zeera and hing but that of paanch phoran and posto bata, the fridge is stacked with sandesh and rasgullas, while the fish -- it has travelled twelve hundred kilometers to be with my husband, hides slyly in some corner lest I discover it and throw a fit. And, the mother in law waits patiently for me to step out so that she can fry it in peace. You guessed it right; my parents-in-law are home.

In the heart of North India, where I grew up, I was surrounded by stereotypes: the mother in law being a devil incarnate and the daughter in law a mute doll, although my family was different and none of the women had to cover their heads or wake up at day break, but I had seen enough of it to shudder at the very thought of being married into such a family. My biggest fear was, and it still haunts me at times: being married into an orthodox joint family, where I am expected to be dressed up like a bride, cook all day and live with dozen other people in the same house. Nothing wrong in it, my father would argue, nothing wrong with that I agree, just that it would have been very, very tough for a compulsively independent person like me. 

I had expected to meet similar fate, and therefore, as soon as I had reached home after my wedding, like a good bahu, I had bathed and dressed up early in the morning and had gone to see my maa in law, who I had never met before. To my pleasant surprise, not only was I admonished for waking up so early but also was asked to remove all the bridal paraphernalia, including the pallu. I was in heaven. For the next few days that I was there, I was pampered to the hilt: after having discovered that I drank only coffee, my father in law, who probably had never bought coffee before, had brought a five hundred gram pack of coffee home, just so I could have one cup. I was not allowed to help with the chores or cook and did not have to do anything that a bahu is supposed to.

While on one hand I was revelling in the love and attention being showered on me, on the other hand I had some uncomfortable encounters too: dal chawal no longer meant arhar dal and basmati rice, it had transformed into masoor dal and boiled rice, something I had never eaten before. I was suddenly being called maa by a strange man ( I later discovered that the strange man was my husband's uncle and that maa is an affectionate way to address one's daughter), but the funniest and the toughest part was to wear flower jewellery for the reception dinner, I suddenly looked like Ramanand Sagar's Sita!  Thank God I have no pictures to remind me of it.

Marrying a Bengali man, in itself was an irony of sorts. Until I met him, I had, for most part of my grown up years, disliked Bengalis -- I found them annoying, overbearing, gluttons even. This of course was based on the very little exposure I had had to the community until then and the trigger was a particular Bengali wedding I had attended where the hosts had served only a dry preparation of aloo parval for the vegetarian guests (that too in a separate enclosure), I had felt like a criminal that day -- all for being a vegetarian. The feeling had only intensified in the years that followed when I had to live in Calcutta, amidst the chaos of the street -- with or without the Pujas, the smell of fish and the stink of sweat. The only exception to this rule had been the men -- the only men I ever found worthy of my fancy were -- and still are -- Bengali.

In the last twelve years however, everything seems to have changed: I have a long list of Bengali friends, I know and love the language, I have fallen in love with the charm of Calcutta, I have converted into being a Durga-Puja fan, and not only do I love Bengali men but also the women. I am, after all, a Bangali Bou.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How Soon Is Too Soon

‘Where do you use stayfree, mumma?’ Asked my five year old as I hurriedly dressed her that morning. We were at Gir and had to shortly leave for Gandhinagar, in the rush of packing and unpacking, the packet of sanitary pads must have been left unattended and she had probably seen it somewhere.

‘I am not sure, I don’t use it.’ I lied and changed the topic. The rush and the confusion that precedes a journey, especially with two young children, ensured she forgot about it soon. But for how long? Thanks to the brand wars, free media and marketing strategies, it is impossible to keep kids away from things that they may be a little too young to understand.

I remember even as a three year old, the first thing she picked up at the supermarket would be pads, ‘badal ke’ as she would call it, referring to the tag line of a famous brand. Full marks to the advertising guys! Her brand awareness and her curiosity had made me so paranoid that I would rush to the TV room to change the channel as soon as there was such an ad. I know I sound old fashioned and stupid, but the fact is: given the nature of our society and social conditioning, such reactions are almost a part of our being. Remember our parents doing the same when we were young?

Soon there was another set of ads that I had to protect her against: Condoms. I mean, what business does a little kid have knowing the flavours and the variety and to watch Sunny Leone pose seductively in different parts of the house. Although in my heart I know that she probably won’t even get the context of the conversation, but I really do not want to take a chance, that I am quite a prude can be one reason, and that I do not know what or how to tell her could be the other.

But being a person whose first ever article to be published in the newspapers almost fifteen years ago was on sex education, I should know better than to be embarrassed or sheepish about it. As a mother, I should be prepared to share with my daughter what was never shared with me, as should all other mothers of my generation. The sooner the kids know about things like periods, childbirth and maybe even sex, the cooler they are with it.

I had told my daughter about how babies were made when my second daughter was due, and when children much older than here would say that their parents had bought the baby from a hospital, she would correct them and point at a big belly to announce that babies are made inside mummy's tummy.

This is when she was just three, she is soon going to be six and looking at the way the children grow these days -- both physically and mentally, I know I need to sit her down and explain her body to her. Although I am yet to figure out what to tell her and how, I am sure I will have to do this sooner than later, lest she comes up to me and tells me about it.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Guilt -- Of Being A Woman

Many, many years ago, as a ten year old, I had read a column in a children's magazine, it was titled kaash main (I wish), the magazine had invited entries from its young readers and had published some of those in one of its issue. While reading that I had noticed that while all the boys had wished for things like toys, train rides, sports goods, rockets, the works. Girls – quite a few of them, had wished they could be boys. I did not get it. Why would some one want to be a boy? As I grew up, I saw their viewpoint. I saw little girls being discriminated against, I saw women being humiliated, I saw girls being confined to homes while their counterparts, often brothers, enjoyed uninhibited freedom – of word and action.

To me being a girl was – and has never been – a cause of concern, I have never seen it as a deciding factor for anything in my life. The women and girls of our family were loved and respected as much as the men and the boys were,  sometimes even more, but never lesser. The women I grew up with – my grandmothers, mother, aunts – were all educated, independent, self respecting, self-sufficient women. At a time, when women hardly went out of their houses, my dadi travelled alone, around the country, ditto with the other women. They were strong, resilient, powerful. Never meek or weak. Although not many of them went out to work, but work, according to me, is never the determining factor of a woman's standing in her family and in the society. If it were, our housemaids would probably be the most empowered among all the women.

And then I went to work, where I met an absolutely different set of women: ambitious, career oriented, independent, empowered and often single. They earned their money and spent it too, they lived in their own houses and drove their own cars, paid their bills, travelled alone, spent money on themselves. These were women who lived their lives on their terms, the kind every one aspires to be. A tribe I was proud to be a part of. 

With time, however, I realised that although diverse, the two sets of women had a lot in common: they were responsible, smart, intelligent, loving, honest, ambitious, headstrong, sensitive, independent, powerful, and guilty.

Those who chose to work were guilty of not spending enough time at home, those who chose to marry and stay at home were guilty of not contributing to the household income, those who had children were guilty of having them too soon or too many, those who did not or chose not to, were guilty of not having any. Each one of them had something to feel guilty about. 

Being a woman, I often find myself struggling with the same feeling: for not paying enough attention to family when I have had to spend long hours at work, for being incapable of carrying my first baby through the term, for not spending enough time with the two I eventually had, for not being the best at work anymore, for quitting and living off my husband, the list goes on.

A few weeks ago, I happened to be at the Indira Gandhi memorial, where among many other things, I saw some pages from her personal diary, which have been printed and put up on the wall, one of which read, " I went to live with my father, at the Teen Murti House, The Prime Minister's residence... My father asked me to come over and set up the house for him.... I used to stay for sometime and go, it became more and more difficult to leave. My husband was then working in Lucknow, he did not appreciate my going away.... I was living for about half a month in Lucknow and half in Delhi."

Even the Prime Minister of the biggest democracy in the world, a woman known to be fiercely ambitious and courageous, a ruthless politician and a strong leader, went through her share of guilt. She was, after all, a woman.