Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Gender Myth

This Piece appeared in The Hindu dated 24th Feb:

"Ma’m, Lavanya only plays with the boys in the bus, never with the girls,” complained the visibly distressed attendant. "What is the problem with that?" I asked her.

Lavanya, by the way, is my six-year-old, who, according to her bus attendant, is not only unruly, but also prefers the company of boys over that of girls.

My first reaction was that of anger and disbelief. Not because she was thought of as unruly — I know she is far too independent and free-willed to be tamed, and have made peace with it. What struck me however was the lady's objection to her talking to, and playing with, boys. 

As a young girl my first -- and only -- best friend was a boy. Protective, sensitive and intelligent, he was neither political, nor bossy (like the girls) and I enjoyed being with him. All was well until we entered our teens and things suddenly changed: it was no longer ok to hang out together, talk long hours or meet alone. I wondered what had changed and when I questioned him about it, he would say, “You don’t know how the world is.” We started to talk less and less, and eventually drifted apart. 

Many years later when we reconnected, he was more bothered about my husband than me: would he be comfortable with our reunion? Most of our conversations revolved around this concern. Needless to say, we soon went our separate ways.

As a society, we are adept at segregating, take pleasure in it. For instance, we insist on separating the rich from the poor, the blacks from the whites, Hindus from Muslims, men from women. We find it hard to allow them to mingle, communicate and form their own opinions and perceptions. So girls stay away from boys, and women from men, unless of course they are related by the way of work, or family, or friends. Anything other than that is questioned and discouraged. 

It gets even more complicated if spouses or partners are involved: explanations are sought, clarifications need to be provided, and friendship is often sacrificed at the altar of marriage. 

If it is acceptable for two women -- or two men -- to be close friends, spend time alone, talk at odd hours, even live together, why is it that a man and a woman doing the same are subjected to labelling and judgment? Because they belong to different sexes, must their relationship be sexual or romantic? 

I recently noticed a lady in my society publicly admonishing her teenaged daughter for hanging out with a boy, and not with other girls. The girl seemed apologetic and the mother livid. I see the same happening to younger children too. Although not so blatant, gender dynamics takes place even in the play ground--boys usually play with other boys, and girls with other girls. And it is not deliberate. They have been divided for as long as they have known -- in school, at home, outside (blue for boys, pink for girls; cars for boys, dolls for girls; cricket for boys, badminton for girls etc). 

Luckily there are people who refuse to conform to the stereotypes-- parents who understand that confining their children hampers their development, banning their teenagers leads to rebellion, women who know that their man talking to another woman does not imply his having an affair with her, and men who realise that just because a man cares for his woman, it doesn't mean he is romantically -- or sexually -- attracted to her. And so there continues to be hope.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

An Outstanding Work Dynamic

This piece appeared in The Hindu dated 20th Feb:

My daily dose of news and entertainment starts at ten every night soon after husband returns from work. While most people would be tired, irritable, and grumpy after a twelve-hour workday, my man is energetic, cheerful and talkative (sometimes too much for my comfort, actually). And then, over his cup of tea begins the session of news, views, and reviews.

When it comes to his passionate discourses on policy changes, environmental issues, or political drama, I mostly pretend to listen (and plan the girls’ Tiffin, or think of my next article), but I am all ears when he narrates stories from work. Perhaps that is why even though I have not set foot in an office for more than three years now, I do not really miss it. Perhaps that is also why I stay abreast with the latest happenings in the corporate world too – be it the latest fashion trends, technological advancements, changing dynamics of the business, or the plight of the workforce.

While it is a fact that most companies today are cutting down on perks and benefits like never before (free transport, free meals, regular parties are a thing of the past now), a healthy trend of investing on employee well being is fast emerging. Building gymnasiums and providing nutritious food options have long been methods of promoting fitness; the latest trend however is to pull the chair away from the employee’s desk.

The ill effects of a sedentary lifestyle, especially those caused by desk jobs, have been proven time an again. Sitting for more than six hours a day, it is said, considerably increases the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and can even result in early mortality. It is also believed that these effects are not only lethal but also irreversible. So much so that even a regular workout cannot undo the damage caused by sitting all day long. The solution, however, is simple: to sit less and stand more.

Standing for three or more hours a day, on the other hand, not only helps you burn more calories, keeps your postural muscles active and toned, and keeps you alert, but it also keeps you mentally agile and helps you connect with your co-workers more effectively.

More and more workplaces are therefore making provision for stand up desks, and sometimes desks that are attached to treadmills too. (A stand up desk is typically a high desk, which can be used while standing up; a treadmill desk is a similar desk attached to a treadmill). In India the concept is still new, though it has been quite popular in the west.

Not to be left behind, husband’s swish new campus has come up with stand up meeting rooms – they do have high tables, but no provision for chairs. The meetings, according to him, are now shorter, crisper, and more productive as opposed to the never-ending discussions that last for hours with bored employees slouching in their chairs. The colleagues on the other hand are more active, energetic, and livelier than before. The stand up desks, or workstations, although are still sometime away.

Closer home meanwhile, realising how much I sit (thanks to my writing), I have cleared the top shelf of my book rack and have perched my old dilapidated laptop on it. And so, while my tech-savvy, corporate man is still a few steps away from his stand up desk, I have one right here in my study.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Madras, Calcutta

In school I was famous for two things: my voice, and my love for Madras and Calcutta. 

To be honest I don't think I sang any better than an average person, but since I could not draw or paint, or dance or run, the only thing I could come up when asked about my "hobby" was singing. That I knew some old Hindi songs strengthened my case. Soon I was one of the voices representing the school in every inter-school competition. It would be pertinent to add that even though I was considered -- or considered myself -- one of the leading voices of our school, I hardly ever sang solo. My biggest nightmare was -- and still is -- to stand alone on a stage with hundreds of eyes fixed at me. Once or twice when I was forced to sing solo I messed up badly. They never sent me to another stage alone.

The other part, about my Bong and Tamilian love, is slightly more interesting and elaborate. It so happened that every guy I ever had a crush on -- and I had quite a few -- was somehow always a Bengali or a Madrasi (although the non-resident variety), the others, even the best looking ones, just never made the cut (I guess they lacked the intelligent gene). Unfortunately the crushes remained only that -- crushes, but they did help me earn a reputation.

I expected to grow out of my love for the Madrasi and the Bengali when I got to college: it was an all-girls college and there was no scope for fancying anyone, let alone have preferences. But neither Bengal nor Madras was to leave me anytime soon -- every introduction during the three years of college began with a question about my non-existent Bengali roots. On getting a negative response the next question would inevitably be, "then you must be a Madrasi, your name is Anubhuti Krishna, no?"

And so for three years I explained to people that I was neither a Bengali (even if I looked like one), nor a Madrasi (even if my name sounded so). I heaved a deep sigh of relief when college got over: no more explanations to give.

Meanwhile something else had happened: I had spent about two months in Calcutta and was supposed to stay there for further studies, fortunately or unfortunately I disliked the place so much that I promptly returned promising never to set foot in the city again.

But as they say, you often meet your destiny on the road you take to avoid it. 

To avoid being in Calcutta when I took the road -- rather the train -- to Delhi, I had no idea that I would end up with a Bengali, that too for life (not before an endearing encounter with a charming Madrasi though). I was now convinced about my deeper connect with the two cities -- and its inhabitants -- and had given up the idea of avoiding them. 

Calcutta soon became a significant part of my life. However much I detested the city and its chaos, I could not avoid it. I continued visiting Calcutta year after year after year. And one fine day I found myself looking forward to the trips. I felt at home among the same chaos, clutter and crowd that once had me wincing, I had developed sense of belonging with the city I had once promised never to set foot in. It was strange, but it was true.

Madras, on the other hand, was only getting farther. I had not been there since I was ten, neither did I know anyone from the city anymore. To top it all whatever I had heard was uncomplimentary: it is too hot, it is too crowded, it is too hostile. My connect with Madras, I suspected, was over along with my infatuation with the Madrasi. Until four years ago, when I finally went to the city that is.

It was a transit trip and I barely had the time to experience anything. In the short span of a day and a half however, I could not help but notice the beauty of Madras. It was nothing I had thought it to be, and everything I had not. I found in it what I had not found anywhere else. It smelt of history. It was wrapped in tradition. It was drenched in culture. And, it felt strangely familiar. While boarding the train back, I secretly promised myself to go back.

It was on my next trip, about two years later that I got to experience Madras a little more. I was alone and had all the time to walk the quiet lanes, rub shoulders with shoppers in the crowded marketplaces, indulge in the local food, and do all the things I have not done even in my own city. I spent the two days soaking in its sights, sounds, and smell. I have not had a chance to go back since, my connect with Madras has nonetheless only gotten stronger: I wake up each day thinking of it, and go to bed dreaming about it. While it is Chennai, or Madras, that I live with each day (by virtue of writing for a paper there), Calcutta remains as close to my heart if not more (especially after working extensively with a friend on his book on the city).

Twenty years after I first became famous for my love for Madras and Calcutta, the wheel, it seems, has turned a full circle. With a Bengali already by my side, all I need now is a Madrasi to complete the picture.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Hide and Seek

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the intersection of my school, quite by chance. Given that I had not been there in more than a decade, I had expected to be flooded with emotion. Strangely I was not.

The reasons could have been many. First: I have grown up -- eighteen years is a long time and probably I have outgrown the people, the place, and the memories. Second, and perhaps more pertinent, that the place around the school – and the building itself – has completely transformed; it no longer looks like my school (the way a place looks, I am told, has a huge impact on how it makes you feel). And so, for almost ten days I drove indifferently through the road just like I did many, many years before, but I neither felt the agony nor the ecstasy that one usually expects to encounter in such situations. 

Then one morning as we -- my husband and I -- were rushing through the street behind the school (the one in front was too crowded), I spotted a familiar silhouette. As we drove closer it became clear that it was our Geography teacher, a lady I was very fond of, as she was of me. In another few seconds she was right in front of the car, barely a few feet away from me waiting for us to pass. She had not seen me although I had. I looked away. Somehow I did not want her to see me, and she did not. In a jiffy we were past her, gliding towards our destination.

Shying away from people I have once known, even been close to, has been a habit with me. I have hidden from classmates, college friends, ex colleagues, current colleagues, neighbours, even relatives. I have dunked my head, changed course, left my meals halfway, switched elevators just to avoid making the mandatory small talk with those who had once been an integral part of my life but have little, or nothing, in common with me now.

When I told husband what had just happened, he seemed surprised: “Why did you not talk to her?” I had no answer. But it got me thinking: why is it that I shy away from people, the way I do. What is it that prevents me from talking to people? Am I embarrassed about myself? Am I just too insensitive? Do I care nothing about the good times?

I have since been thinking about it; although I do not have a definite answer, I do have an idea: it is my way of dealing with change. The change that is inevitable, yet painful. 

That day by dunking my head and avoiding the teacher, I prevented myself from having to get off the car and face the reality: everything had changed in the last eighteen years, I was no longer an awkward teenager but a mother of two. By avoiding long-lost friends I do the same: evade the truth that their lives, and mine, are running just as normally without each other as they did when we were together. Perhaps that is also why I can never be friends with an ex -- wait, I do not even have an ex!

Change perturbs me. It makes me uncomfortable. While I want new things, people, experiences in my life, I am extremely frightened of letting go of the existing: I want to live in Delhi, but not leave Bangalore. I want to be a writer, but not stop training. I want to stay a girl but be a woman. I want the lover, the husband, the friend, and the boyfriend all at the same time. But I know it's impossible. And that, I think, is my problem.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Some Yellow Pages, And A Long Forgotten Post

I clearly remember the day it arrived. Wrapped in bubble wrap and enclosed in a corrogated sheet, it was home delivered by Flipkart. (No, I had not discovered Amazon yet). It was love at first sight. Its soft black leatherette cover and smooth chrome yellow pages had me swooning. They were so perfect that for days I had not put a pen to them lest I spoilt them.

The notebook was a perfect gift to put the wandering thoughts of an amateur writer to paper and give them some direction. It seemed to have worked well for in the year and a half, if I may say so myself, the thoughts and the words have come a long way. And the notebook too. 

The first thing I eventually wrote on it, after my name that is, was something that still remains unpublished -- even on the blog. It was perhaps the most honest piece I ever wrote, a reflection of how I felt at that point in my life. The second, again unpublished, was a short poem. I started to write in it regularly only a few months later, and only the pieces that were important yet hazy in my mind. They somehow found a structure, flow, and meaning once I started to put them on the handsome yellow pages of the notebook. The rest, not so important ones, meanwhile would be written straight on the laptop. 

In the last eighteen months since, I have bought, and have been gifted, many more notebooks. Some came from husband, some from brother, and some from a friend, who loves notebooks equally if not more (I wonder if there is a reason why all my gifts come from men). But all of them remain untouched. Some I preserved for my book, and some for my London trip (both still a distant dream). The true reason however, I suspect, was not to let go of this one: the firsts are always closest to your heart, aren't they?

But as they say, everything that begins must, and does, end. And so, the notebook running into its last few pages is also coming to an end. Today therefore, after going through at least ten new notebooks -- most of them matronly and boring -- I finally chose the one closest to this: it has a beautiful embossed cover and it came as a gift from my notebook fanatic friend. Pretending to be excited about a new notebook, I flipped it around, caressed its cover, ran my fingers through its pages; I even wrote my name in it with the most beautiful pen, but I could not feel the connect. In a matter of minutes I had put it away.

And since morning, I have been busy writing in the last few pages of my yellow and black rubberband. Trying to make sense of millions of things that have been going on in my mind. Who knows scribbling in it one last time might just rid me of the everlasting writer's block.


P.S. My first piece from the notebook, lest it gets lost:

Two people live within me

One is simple, docile, loving, obedient, loyal and practical. Second is complicated, independent, wild, carefree, instinctive, impulsive, passionate and possessive.  

The first loves to plan, obey, fall in line, cook, clean, mother, and smother. The other wants to break free, live one day at a time, take risks, wander, sing, dance and love. 

Often there is a conflict, and often the first one wins. The second however strong it seems, is mostly treated as an unwanted guest. The world, I know, prefers the first. But it is the second I love.