Feminism v/s Fairytales- Part I


“We are becoming the men we wanted to marry.”

— Gloria Steinem

This post has been far too long in the making — four months to be precise; and has changed titles three times, always a little shy of perfection—until about twelve minutes ago, when I was driving my son to school and the perfect title just glided into my mind, fitting in there with a pronounced click.

Feminism and fairytales. There has been far too much of a discourse about this, far too much of fairytale-bashing in the halls of feminist fame. And the die-hard romantic in me couldn’t reconcile herself to it.

And then I read this line by Gloria Steinem—the one I’ve quoted above.

Every time I read feminist authors—or even just quotes from feminist leaders, I feel a sense of solidarity. The power of the sisterhood, so to speak. But when Gloria Steinem says that we are becoming the men we wanted to marry, I get a stupendously severe sinking feeling.

Really? Is that what we want to achieve? To become MEN?

No, I do get it. I get what she means to say. I get the context of the time and place that these words were spoken in—times when the only ambition for women was to marry a ‘suitable’ (read ‘wealthy’) man and live a life of basked glory. So what Steinem really means is for women to possess ambitions over and above marriage, to actually earn their own glory and fame.  To rise and shine, to be all those things they want to be—instead of merely looking for those things in the men they wanted to marry. I get that those words have led us to where we are right now—where a woman leading an independent, successful life is not an aberration. I get it all.

But what I witness now, in the time and place that you and I live in, is that feminism is becoming more and more about women becoming men. ‘Femininity’ is becoming taboo. To be successful, you must be like a man—that’s the subconscious message being sent out. And that makes me sad, not to mention intensely furious.

I haven’t yet watched Aamir Khan’s acclaimed movie Dangal— where a wrestler dad turns his daughters into champion wrestlers. It is actually based on a real life story— of the Phogat sisters, three of whom have won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, while the others have won medals and accolades in other National and global championships. My sister went for the movie and came back gushing about it. But when she came to the part where the wrestler screen-dad Mr Phogat chops off his daughters’ locks because they were using their hair as an excuse to get out of wrestling, I felt hugely uncomfortable. There it was again—to be successful you must be like a man.

dangal

Part of my discomfort stems from personal reasons, I must admit. My long hair has been a very, very important, distinctive part of who I am. But then, there are lots of women who like to keep their hair short, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

What felt entirely wrong was that it appeared like the dad forced the daughters to renounce their femininity—so that he could turn them into the sons he never had. (Apparently, in the beginning the movie shows that the family had an intense desire for sons so that they could take the wrestling tradition forward.) But ultimately it leads the women to success and glory—so all’s well that ends well. And everyone goes home clapping.

I would have actually bought that theory, too, if not for the little fact that this past year, Sakshi Malik, an actual female wrestler, brought home an Olympic Bronze for India—and she hasn’t chopped her hair off at all. What’s more, PV Sindhu, the Olympic Silver medal winner, hasn’t chopped off her hair either. In fact, there have been five women in all who have brought home Olympic medals for India: Karnam Malleswari, Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu—and none of them has close-cropped hair. Deepa Karmakar who came whizzingly close to a a Bronze medal in the gymnastics category last year doesn’t have cropped hair either. And our very own home-grown Tennis World Champion Sania Mirza is the pinnacle of femininity: long hair, nose-ring, uber-cool and always stylish.

The reason I have chosen long hair to illustrate my point is that long hair is perhaps the most marked of feminine attributes. And by choosing hair, I want to point this out: you don’t need to renounce your femininity to be a feminist.

All the above mentioned women would surely be defined as feminists—breaking the mould with their endeavours. Sania Mirza famously even wore a T-shirt that proclaimed “Well-behaved women never make history.” The thing to be emphasised, though, is always this: feminism isn’t the opposite of femininity. You don’t have to be ‘like a man’ to be strong and successful.

In fact, when we make ‘manly’ attributes the standard of success, we are actually upending the years and years of protest and battle against the belittling of women. We are subliminally spreading the message that ‘womanly’ attributes are worthless and signs of weakness: that femininity cannot lead you to strength and success, only masculinity can. And that, ironically, is the reinforcement of patriarchy—presenting woman and womanliness as possessed of far less value than man and manliness.

Feminism evolved to give women their rightful place in society—so long denied to them. In effect, therefore, to be a feminist is to embrace your womanhood with pride, to wear your femininity like a badge of honour. In trying to be ‘like a man’ you’re merely succumbing to the kind of society whose greatest praise for a daughter is that “She is the SON of her parents.” That is to say, in transforming from daughter to son, she has reached a higher level of evolution.

That kind of mentality is precisely what feminists have vehemently opposed, but when we try to “become the men that we wanted to marry,” I am sorry but we’re playing right into the hands of the chauvinist brigade.

In the stages of evolution of a society, where misogyny is widespread with things like female foeticide being the norm, it is understandable why you would first need to prove yourself to men, just to show that not only are you equal, you can also be better. But as we move toward greater evolution, it is important for women themselves to value their womanhood, and not fall into the trap of woman-shaming.

In essence, what we need to become is the kind of woman we want. Let no one tell you what is womanly and what is the meaning of being a woman. YOU, yourself, are a woman—and YOU get to define what that means—not a man. So if your inner woman finds expression in short hair and wrestling, go for it, by all means. But if your inner woman loves both— long hair and wrestling— let nobody tell you that it can’t be done.

And if your inner woman loves all traditionally womanly things— long hair and cooking, for instance, that’s perfectly fine too—let no one tell you it’s something inferior.  The only thing is to be strong enough to decide for yourself and stand up for yourself—and for other, weaker people. That is the essence of a strong woman.

To be fair to Mr Phogat, though, I watched his interview on a TV show a few days ago, and perhaps by some cosmic coincidence, he was asked the ‘hair’ question. His reply was mighty impressive, I have to admit.

“Looks are fine,” he said. “I get that you want to look beautiful. But when you have done something substantial in life, when you have stacked up your achievements, only then you must focus on your looks.”

No arguments with that, Mr Phogat. No arguments at all.

{Stay tuned for Part II where we will actually discuss Fairytales.}

TRR strikes gold–twice!


It’s celebration time, most certainly,because The Reluctant Reproductionist is now a Double Award Winning blog! Yes, we’ve won the Orange Flower Award for Mom Blogging AND the Orange Flower Award for Personal Blogging too! I cannot thank you all enough for all the love, for reading and following and voting for this blog. This victory belongs to you, dear readers. The Reluctant Reproductionist thanks you all 😀 Here’s hoping for more fabulous times together, and more victories in this New Year and all the years ahead. Lots of love!

 

Chapter 34: The Witch Inside Me


“We women, when we’re searching for a meaning to our lives or for the path of knowledge, always identify with one of four classic archetypes.
The Virgin (and I’m not speaking here of a sexual virgin) is the one whose search springs from her complete independence, and everything she learns is the fruit of her ability to face challenges alone.
The Martyr finds her way to self-knowledge through pain, suffering, and surrender.
The Saint finds her true reason for living in unconditional love and in her ability to give without asking anything in return.
Finally, the Witch justifies her existence by going in search of complete and limitless pleasure.”

— Paulo Coelho, Brida

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The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle  is a 15th century English poem that narrates a tale so timeless, so alluring, it’s been retold a multitude of times in as many versions as the mind can imagine. Over a decade ago—12 years, to be precise— I narrated one of these versions to a boy with a serious demeanour and a crooked smile— a friend and a tease.  He and I sat in the verandah of my house, conversing casually but locked in a joust of wits.

He had discovered the biggest chink in my armour—my fierce feminism— and he knew just how to get my goat. Keep making snide remarks against womankind in general, and sooner or later you’re bound to get the mercury rising. And my goodness, it sure did work. But after several instances of this, I’d grown wiser and learnt to dish it back with a smile. And so, on one of those balmy afternoons that punctuate the month of March, I began:

“You know, you have actually no idea what a woman really wants, and that’s why you keep making fun of them,” I said, grandiosely. “Let me tell you what it is.”

King Arthur, went my version of the story, was ambushed and held captive, but his \wisdom and valour so impressed the enemy that he agreed to spare Arthur’s life. There was, however, one condition: within a year, Arthur had to bring back the answer to the question,’what does a woman truly want?’

As it so often happens in legends, Arthur reached the end of his year without success, but then he met a witch who proclaimed to know the answer. But of course she had her own conditions, too—marriage to the young and most handsome knight in all of the land, Sir Gawain. Poor Arthur could not subject his loyal knight to a lifetime with the ugly, spiteful, malodorous witch with a face full of boils and the most obnoxious behaviour.  Sir Gawain though, loyal to the core, agreed to marry her and she in turn promised to give the answer on the wedding night.  

Now the wedding day was a perfect disaster, with the lady at her witchly best—rude to guests, cackling hideous and disgusting. Gawain, on the other hand, resolutely remained a gentleman, ignoring her behaviour and putting guests at ease.

But as night drew near, Gawain rued his fate and braced himself to enter the bedchamber. Imagine his great surprise, then, when he found in the bedchamber not the hideous witch he had married, but the most beautiful maiden he had ever set eyes upon.

“Who are you, fair maiden?” Gawain asked, confused.

“I’m your wife,” smiled the woman, “the witch that you married. Your behaviour today has won over my heart, and I shall grant you a favour, by transforming into a maiden wondrous fair,” she paused, “But only half the time — either by day or by night. The choice is yours.”

Wise Gawain pondered for a moment. A wife like that would make him the envy of the land by day, but this beautiful woman at night was a sight no man could refuse. The choice was tough.

In the end, Gawain made his decision.

“Since you are the one granting this favour,” he said, “I leave the choice to you.”

The witch beamed.

“Brave and wise Sir Gawain! Know that this is truly the answer to your king’s question. What does a woman really want? The answer is Sovereignty. The power to make her own decisions. And so dear knight, I shall be my beautiful, pleasant self at all times—day and night—for you gave me what a woman wants.”

I ended my narration and gave him a smug smile. “Now do you get it?”

The boy smiled mischievously.

“Hmm…” he said— his favourite word, as I was to discover later. “But there’s another moral to the story.”

“Is there?” I grinned. “What?”

“Inside every beautiful woman… hides a witch.”

I so wanted to punch him, but he’d definitely scored this one.

The episode passed, but the boy never forgot the story— for he remained forever a gentleman, and gave the beautiful woman in his life the best thing a man can give: Sovereignty.

But he had been right, all along. Inside every beautiful woman there does indeed hide… a witch. A witch with deep, burning desires and clandestine thoughts full of sorcery. The Witch that, if you believe Coelho, “justifies her existence by perpetually being in search of complete and limitless pleasure.”

On the surface, I might as easily have identified with the Virgin: ‘complete independence’. But there’s always that little matter of the witch lurking inside…

January 10, 2014

A new year, with nothing quite new to show for itself.

Except that the witch grows stronger with every breath, feeding on unspent passion, unspoken thoughts, unremarkable days and untouched nights. She claws my insides hungrily, egged on by a weakening exterior. The witch is strong and desperate.

Every bone that holds her in is a fossil, assaulted by relentless winds of fate.

There’s a reason why witches are always depicted as ugly, gnarled, crafty creatures of hate. The world is intimidated by their unashamed acceptance of desire, their full-blooded longing, their refusal to be meek martyrs— their need to ask so much of life and their ability to extract it as well. The sorcery of her untameable spirit scares and confuses the world, and so the pleasure-seeking ecstatic witch must necessarily be turned into a fearsome creature— villainous to the core and hideous to behold. Because ugliness, more than anything, repulses humans.

The witch inside me screams.

She screams, inaudibly, in indescribable agony. Twists each strand of yearning she finds and spins technicolour dreams in my head at night—dreams purple with passion and longing, crimson with violent lust. She bottles that which has coagulated inside—unable to flow for so long—and uses it relentlessly against me—against herself—revelling in the pain; hers and mine.

‘Tis true. The witch is forever in search of complete and limitless pleasure.

Pleasures of flesh.

Pleasures of blood.

Pleasures of vein and bone.

A caress, an embrace, a kiss, a whispered conversation deep into the night. A choreography of ecstasy. The world around her is full of it—every image on screen, every poem on page, every note of music wafting around.

 “And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?”

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s lines pierce through the page.

“Fading in, fading out
on the edge of paradise
Every inch of your skin is a holy grail I’ve got to find…

…So love me like you do, la-la-love me like you do
…Touch me like you do, ta-ta-touch me like you do…”

Ellie Goulding croons from the opposite ends of the earth.
Curse you, Fifty Shades of Grey.

“Lahoo mu lag gaya…” smoulders Deepika Padukone.

“Soya tha nas nas mein ab ye jag gaya… lahoo mu lag gaya…”

‘I’ve tasted blood—it smears my lips,

Long asleep in my veins, it blazes awake.’

The witch smirks. Grimaces.  And writhes.

She knows.

The taste of blood never fades. Never wanes. All it takes is one sampling.

The world around her appears submerged in pleasure and not one speck can she partake.  Blood, blood everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.

Day passes night, night passes day, and the witch’s bloodlust saturates each pore. The more she starves, the more she frenzies. Gnashes her teeth and snaps my veins. My brain clots. My vision blurs.

I’ve tasted blood… it smears my lips….Long asleep in my veins, it blazes awake.

Blaze, blaze, inferno. Raze me to the ground.

For surely it is the fate of the witch to be burnt forever at the stake.

Do women want it less?


(Disclaimer: The following post contains views that might perhaps be offensive to you. Please proceed at your own risk. You are welcome to vent your disagreements at the bottom of the post.)

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I read a line, a perfectly innocuous, irrelevant line, inside the pages of the Samuel Johnson Prize winning H is for Hawk, which unintentionally set free a question bubbling in the cauldron of my mind— popping up, fizz-like, every now and then.  

The book is Helen’s memoir but also partly chronicles the life of T.H. White, author of the famous Arthurian Novels. In one place, Helen explains why White’s parents’ marriage went haywire: Constance Aston, Terence White’s mother, married Garrick White, British District Commissioner of Police in Bombay, not out of love but to escape her own mother’s jibes about how difficult it was getting, financially, to keep her with them. And then, writes Helen:

“The newly-weds travelled to India, and as soon as Terence was born, Constance refused to sleep with her husband any more. He took to drink and the marriage toppled into violence.”

 

Why do women want it less? When I say ‘it’, you immediately know what I’m talking about, because everyone knows it can’t be clothes, shoes or chocolates and flowers. It’s that other great thing that women have been accused of avoiding, losing interest in—and which men have been accused of being obsessed with and thinking about all day. And for the life of me, I couldn’t fathom why, because I could never relate to it. If you’ve been following this blog you’d remember when I was being wheeled out of the labour room after childbirth, my first thought was concern over how I’d be able to ‘do it’, now that my case-relevant body parts were significantly mauled. And heavens be praised, I’m not an exception. A vast number of women I know—close friends, acquaintances, neighbours and such– complain of the unfair categorisation of women’s libidos. And before we go any further, I’d like you to do a general Google search—like I did— for women frustrated with their husbands’ lack of libido; the unequal balance of desire where Women would like to have more. You’d be surprised by the number of complaints you’d find.

So where, how and why are there women who would like to avoid getting busy in bed? Plenty, it would seem, surprisingly to me.  Part of the answer I discovered while skimming through aforementioned chat groups of women who wanted more but didn’t get enough from their husbands. Sample this: A man engaged in one of those discussions rather proudly declared that married life isn’t all about sex, that bringing up children is the most important part of marriage, and his wife was ‘cured’ of her ‘abnormally high’ libido once she had children—after that she was okay with just having it twice or thrice a month.

How wonderful, Mr Pathetic.

I wanted to box that jerk’s ears. Buddy, did you ever give thought to the fact that child-rearing is becoming too taxing for your wife, so much so that exhaustion and frustration are killing her libido? Did you ever consider that you might help her in bringing up your children so she could relax a bit and get her desire back? Oh, I’m sorry I forgot—you thought it was ‘bad’ and ‘abnormal’ in the first place so you’re obviously glad she got rid of it. Congratulations.

As you can see, that’s part of the reason—overwork and exhaustion which, I can tell you with the absolute certainness of experience, murders a man’s libido too. But that’s not all. Let’s come back to Helen MacDonald’s mentioned-in-passing sentence from H is for Hawk, which hit me like a lightning bolt.

“The newly-weds travelled to India, and as soon as Terence was born, Constance refused to sleep with her husband any more. He took to drink and the marriage toppled into violence.”

Let me highlight the significant bit in case you missed it: As soon as Terence was born

Now, I’m no historian and know nearly nothing about Britain—or India—in the nineteenth century, but I do know that even now, hordes of women in the world have no access to fairly easily available birth control options—blame ignorance or patriarchy or both.

Constance Aston might or might not have had contraceptive option around her, but here’s my theory: Imagine a world where every time you had sex you were sure of getting pregnant. You’d soon develop an increasing aversion to the former for fear of the latter.

Even the highest libido would evaporate like morning dew in scorching June daylight.

You bet we’d be very, very sparing in partaking of the pleasures of a man if every single portion of pleasure would mean nine months of horrendous vomiting, killing backache, sometimes high blood pressure and high blood sugar—and in my case, thigh-aches and head-aches too—fainting spells and a super-horrid culmination into the unspeakable torture of ripping a human being out of your body

NO.THANK. YOU.

And that, obviously, is why men are always high on the ‘stuff’: they’d never have to worry about any of the above-mentioned consequences. Do it, forget it. And leave the woman to deal with it. Yes, I do know most men have to pay for the child’s upbringing. But not everyone does that either. And then again, a super wealthy man could bring up, oh say, 6 kids just fine. The super-wealthy woman would still have to rip them out of her body, one at a time.

So before I say a word more, let me glorify the universe for birth control. It just threw our fears out the window.

There. Now we can get back to where we were.

That, in a nutshell, is where I guess all of this comes from. The fear of the after-effects. But I’m forgetting one very crucial aspect here—the women who’re actually eager for motherhood but ironically not rooting so much for intimacy. The kind of women who don’t fear pregnancy but fear the act itself.

Because traditionally women had little access to information about physical intimacy, and men weren’t really taught to be considerate in bed, the entire experience would turn one-sided and unpleasant. And you wouldn’t be fool enough to keep wanting something that brought either pain or vacant numbness with it, rather than mindboggling ecstasy. The whole thing about having a high libido is that you enjoy the act, not go through the motions just for duty’s sake.

If you know anything of Carl Jung’s analytical psychology, you’d know that mental concepts—fear, mother, God and such—are passed on to future generations, brain cells to brain cells, much like inherited skin colour or hereditary disease.  It’s called the collective unconscious. So we have entire female generations inheriting the fear of sex, which is only countered if they live in an environment where women’s sexuality isn’t frowned upon. For the most part, that kind of environment is extremely hard to come by. Good girls don’t have naughty thoughts—that’s what you’re always taught.

The more you deny your sexuality, the better the good girl you are.

But you can stop thinking that— right now. The good girl and the naughty can merge miraculously in bed, with every good girl’s ‘naughty’ desperate to rip out and let the hair blow in the wind.

If you’re one of the guys who wishes his partner had a higher libido, darling, go check if she’s exhausted or overworked or generally unhappy with the way you’re doing it.

To put it bluntly, before you blame your partner for being frigid, consider the fact that you might be plain incompetent.

And if you’re a woman who thinks her libido is lower than a man’s—baby, think again. Are you still trying to be the good girl? There’s a whole multitude of places to be a good girl —just not your bedroom. That’s your space to let the naughty go wild.

And remember—birth control’s always freely available.

 

{IMPORTANT DECLARATION: This post absolutely does NOT endorse pre-marital—or extramarital— sex. All of the above refers to making love with your sacred wedded partner. Yep, you guessed it–that’s why Edward and Bella feature right at the top of this post.
And before you say it—no, this has nothing to do with concerns of women’s virginity; this applies equally to men. Yes, let me say it again. I don’t advocate premarital/extramarital sex for either MEN or women. 
(On hindsight, though, that sounds like a ridiculous kind of statement, because if you think all women should be virgins before marriage, but not all men, are you saying all men should be gay? Just askin’.)
To get to the point, though, the reason I don’t endorse either of the above stated acts of intimacy is that making love should be special. It’s the ultimate expression of self, the culmination of emotional and physical bonding. When you save nothing for your marriage, how do you experience the sacredness of it?  When lovemaking becomes casual, love itself becomes casual. Don’t do that to something so tender, so divine.
}

So now that we’ve got that out of the way, ladies what’re you waiting for?

Make like Nike and JUST DO IT!  😉

Chapter 33: Love vs Marriage


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Dec 15, 2013

Nobody really understands.

The advice flows thick and fast; consoling words with all the soothing quality of Dettol burning on your wound—without the disinfectant effect. You are an aberration, a freak, a phenomenon unfathomable. They cannot figure you out. Why do you pine so for your husband? You have your child, after all. Isn’t that amazing?

And you cannot for a single moment understand why these are the very people who most vehemently advocate marriage. I mean, by the same logic, why was there even the need of a husband in the first place—you had your parents after all.

The idea of ‘at least you have your child’ is entirely baffling. Is the child a replacement of your life partner? Is one person ever a replacement of another? Is one relationship ever a replacement of another? Each person, each relationship holds its own unique place in the carefully stacked-up pyramid of life. You cannot extricate a single one from the structure without causing all others to trip over each other and come tumbling down in a heap.

But far worse are the annoyed, accusatory voices jabbing at you from all corners.

“Why do you need to keep harping on this?”

“Get a job, get something to occupy you, get your mind on other stuff.”

“These things happen.”

And to quote a relative: “Well, this is entirely normal. It’s been happening since the ages. Men go away for work and women stay at home and bring up the kids.” And these aren’t even the words of an old man (so you could pass them off as generation gap) but a young man, about my age.

It hurts.

Your pain, your anger, your rankling hollow loneliness. All of that is normal.

Because why should love be of any importance once you’re married?

Let me illustrate: why don’t you ever laugh at or feel annoyed with Romeo and Juliet? Shirin and Farhad? Even Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy? Why does the world find joy in eternal romances, why does your heart weep for star crossed lovers that couldn’t unite?

If this were a typical, pre-marriage love story, no-one would bat an eyelid over the self-destructive obsessiveness brought on by separation. Nobody questions Devdas and Paro, nobody questions Laila and Majnu. Come to think of it, nobody even questions Bella and Edward.  Because we all believe it’s quite alright to push the world aside and fight a desperate battle for love—as long as you’re not married to that love, of course.

Marriage is supposed to work as sanitiser, disinfectant, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic combined. Whatever was in your system ought to be cleansed by now, and you must be engaged in a power tussle:  sharing lame husband/wife jokes with other friends, pining for singlehood and regretting the knot. So, of course, it becomes difficult to digest that a married couple could be immune to the anti-inflammatory shots and remain pulsating in a whirlwind of classically romantic madness.

No, I cannot just ‘let go and walk ahead’, ‘shake off the past and move into the future’. I cannot ‘find something else to focus upon’, to accept this as ‘part of life’ and just get on with it.

I refuse to focus on anything that declares this as an acceptable way to live. Refuse to settle for second best.

You might call me obstinate. But the world needs to know that it isn’t okay. That it is not supposed to be “what’s done.” That it shouldn’t be what’s done.

That I won’t ever consider it normal and buckle down to it. I would dig my heels in and refuse to budge. This was my protest.

It almost killed me.

Chapter 32 (ii) The Addams Family — Train to Delhi


It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father.

–Pope John XXIII

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My father was the kind of man who delighted in the asking of nonsensical questions. By me, of course. It assured him that his offspring was using her mind, probing at the world instead of taking it as given. So questions like, “Why is a mango called a mango?” were never answered with “Well, that’s just how it is.” They were answered with equally nonsensical, hilarious episodes created extempore by his fecund imagination.

“You see, when the British came to India they had no clue what a mango is,” he would begin, with a completely straight face. “And then one of their higher officials received a gift of a bushel of the best quality mangoes, which was brought to his room by a servant. The servant, while setting the bushel down, clumsily dropped a few and they rolled into a far corner. Irritated at the man’s clumsiness, the officer shouted at him, pointing at the dropped fruits: Man—Go!”

And he’d pause, eyes twinkling, to smile at me conspiratorially.

“The servant, of course, took this as the name of the fruit,” he would grin widely, “And so, my dear, ‘Mango’ got its name!”

I would break into squeals of delight, entirely aware of the answer being utter nonsense, but happily satisfied nonetheless— for I knew my question was nonsense, too. But this was two years before Google was even born, so you couldn’t just type in random questions and get perfectly logical answers to them. (In case you do want to know how the Mango got its name, you can just click here: http://www.skymetweather.com/content/lifestyle-and-culture/how-mango-got-its-name-interesting-facts-about-aam/)

But here’s one of his best answers by far, in response to my query: “Why is a ‘naao’ (boat) called a ‘naao’?”

“There were two friends who first made a boat to cross the river. No one had ever wanted to cross the waters before, and so they never knew what the thing was called. When they had reached the middle of the huge, wide river, they were spotted by some villagers on the other shore, who waved frantically at them. The villagers knew there was a storm brewing over the river and wanted to warn the men who’d be caught well before they reached the shore. So they waved vigorously, shouting at the men to stay back.

‘Naa Aaao!’ They shouted. Don’t Come Here!

‘Naa Aaao!’

But the men didn’t speak the same language. And so they inferred that the thing they’d made was a ‘Naao!’ and the villagers were cheering them for having created it!”

And I dissolved into peals of laughter.

The thing about these funny little stories was that they satiated a little heart’s yearning for an answer—any kind of answer, in the absence of the correct one. Far more importantly, though, they taught a curious 7 year old that no question—no matter how strange or nonsensical—ever had to be quashed. Questions were meant to be asked—and answered.

And above all, that life’s nothing without a sense of humour.

———————————————————-

 

Distance makes the heart grow fonder, they say.

Not if you’re running away.

Home was never home enough without my father in it. By the time I was in college, I found myself aching to be away, to cut myself off from the place that had sheltered me all those years. The cage is always safer, but the sky is irresistible.

My moment of freedom—a brief one—came for a month during my internship at one of India’s leading news dailies. I remember waking up that first day in my dank hostel room and whispering a prayer of thankfulness that I was here and not back home.

Later, when I started my first regular job as a journalist, it was always a thrill to go back , to the koel on the neem tree, the hibiscus flowers in the garden, the pink walls of my room and the bookshelves lining those walls. It was a pleasure to be back with family and catch up on all that we’d missed in each other’s lives. Sometimes I even ached for home, for the feeling of just flinging my shoes over with abandon. But it never ran so deep as to make me wish to go back. Delhi was my destiny, my ticket to freedom.

Every time Gomti, that ever-so-dependable train to Delhi, began slowing on the outers of New Delhi Railway Station, my mind switched on its background music.

“Yeh Dilli hai mere yaar… Bas Ishq Mohabbat Pyaar…”

And this is Delhi, my dear. Longing, Love, Amour…

And it was. Delhi was my amour.

India’s most polluted city, queen of traffic jams, rape capital of the country—call it what you may. To millions of small-town cage-breakers like me, Delhi is the place where dreams come true. Yes, you’d have heard that more often about Mumbai—the one with the glamour and star power. But Delhi is, shall we say, more inclined to the intellectual side. Of course, since I’ve never so much as smelt the Bombay air, I cannot really compare. But I will defend Delhi to the last of my pollution-plagued breath. Every time I sat in the women’s compartment of the Delhi Metro, I couldn’t help but smile incessantly, much to the astonishment of fellow commuters. But that’s exactly what I was — happy for no ostensible reason, except that here I was, sitting alone in a Delhi Metro compartment, like a stray cloud that can drift in any direction that catches its fancy.

And directions there were many —the bookshops that beckoned like Aladdin’s Cave, where you could sip on a lime soda, sprawl back on the couch and read one of those seductively beckoning paperbacks for as long as you pleased. Or just ogle at them lustfully and never have your fill. You could spend endless weekends exploring themed restaurants and actually have stuff like ‘Pizza-Parantha’. You could find a monument right around the corner—no matter which corner you turned, and you could sit in the gardens round India Gate doing nothing but sighing at the night sky.

I felt one with Delhi— enfolded in her embrace. The proverbial monarch of all I surveyed.

A cloud floating over the Qutub Minar.

Every day before I entered the gates of the newspaper office where I worked, songs from the adjoining music shop would gently waft their way over to me.

“Yaaron—Jee bhar ke jee le pal

Lagta hai aajkal

Daur apna aaega….

Yaaron—jo khud pe ho yaqeen

To zindagi haseen

Tujhe kal bulaega….

Hai Junoon.… hai junoon sa jeeney mein…

Hai junoon… hai junoon sa seeney mein….!”

 

“Hey mates! Live this moment now

For the day will be ours

And this era will bow down to us…

Hey mates! When you believe in yourself

The world is beautiful

And tomorrow beckons.

Let the passion rule your life!

Let the passion overflow your heart!”

[And may the force be with you, ahem.]

It would give me infinite pleasure, like the office building had clandestinely winked at me, as if the world were leading one grand cheer for me. It was my moment. The era that would belong to me. The passion overflowed my heart.

My mother would miss me immensely every time the song came on air, for it reminded her of me. But years later, the song would make her weep as she watched my battered, broken, bitter self— submerged in self-pity and pining for the life I’d loved. She would gaze helplessly at the shards of my soul sticking out at the edges, without the faintest idea what to do about it.

I had tasted one large slice of utopia before the pie had rudely been snatched from under my nose. Unable to cope, I kept reeling under shock, dumped right back into the bickering, boiling, rancid swamp of ceaseless family drama.

I was right back where I’d escaped from.

 

Chapter 32: The Addams Family – Part I


addams-family

In the 1990’s, when Cartoon Network was all the rage, one of my favourite TV shows was The Addams Family. They’re a quintessential horror family:

Gothic mother with an octopus-like slithering gait;
Super enthusiastic but crazy gothic father (eternally and passionately in love with his wife);
Poker -faced crazy daughter and horribly annoying monster son— both with a penchant for torture;
Frankenstein style butler;
Sneaky, explosive, shark-toothed Uncle; and
Motorcycle-riding, eerily-cackling, spell casting Granny.
Oh, and a dismembered walking hand for a pet.

Welcome, everyone, to The Addams Family.

addams-family-2

Grandma Bazooka is the Border Security Force in our household. Navy, Army, Air Force all rolled into one— no external power, no matter how strong or sneaky, can ever attack us and get away with it. She has her guns, missiles and bazookas forever directed at anyone who so much as wishes to harm a hair on our bodies. And her intelligence bureau is highly trained to keep an eye on all intruders.

Inside those borders, however, she can wreak major havoc. Military rule, so to speak.

Benevolent General of sorts, for you will be lavished with sumptuous delicacies, spoilt with beautiful gifts and tantalisingly exhibited—and promised— the heirlooms she would hand you at your wedding. But make no mistake, you will bear the brunt of that love in no small measure. You will be judged for every step you take, the tiniest of mistake you make, and though you will be encouraged to find your path, that path shall be strictly and unreservedly laid out for you—brick by brick, direction by direction. If she could have her own way—which she mostly doesn’t.

Ours was never an authoritarian household, so she couldn’t technically be a matriarch. To be honest, there’s no ‘Arch’ in our family—Patri, Matri or otherwise. We’re quite close to the definition of anarchy. Rebels all, to the core.

It wasn’t always so.

Before Papa died, mom was just a sweet, loving homemaker—well-read and intellectual but an ‘Indian woman’ nonetheless. I was a timid girl, brilliant in academics but quite a bit of a sissy. My sister was only two—so she just was. And my grandmother was an external force herself, encountered merely on occasions like birthdays and vacations.

And then the world as we knew it was no more.

In the beginning, our uncle—mother’s brother— lived with us. And then he got married and his wife was there, too. For us, it was like a normal, happy family again.

Like I’ve said before, our loss though greater in absolute terms—loss of a parent—was nothing compared to the loss experienced by our mom. We could create new fathers in our uncles, grandpas and whatever male relative that looked kindly upon us. For our mother, love was lost forever.

And then a few years down the line, my uncle’s family increased to four, and our house wasn’t big enough for everyone to fit in. They had to shift to another place—not too far off, yes, but then it was a separation, yet again.

Without a Patriarch to head the family, we escaped the trappings of the traditional Indian home structure, where the man’s word is final, and no one dare question it. And so we grew up quite like a crazy democracy—with the right to protest and the inalienable right to freedom of speech and expression—but squabbling all the way with progress often stuck in first gear.

We’re closer in the sense that we don’t feel obliged to maintain a persona in front of each other —as I’ve seen so often in small town families around me. But we also have significantly less peace and less direction. The best outcome of all this is that we have developed the faculty to think for ourselves and not blindly follow our forefathers and foremothers. The worst, of course, is that compromise never comes easily to us, with no semblance of sanity to our dawns and our dusks.

Into this kaleidoscope of crazies entered this man—this quiet unassuming man with his droll, Jughead-style sense of humour— like a sliver of sunlight in an unceasing storm.

There’s a huge Banyan tree right at the back of the auditorium in AMU Women’s College, underneath which I used to sit and read out poetry on the phone to him. Rabindra Nath Tagore. Gitanjali, Lover’s Gift, Crossing. Narrate to him stories of the books I was reading. Time Machine, Chitra, The God of Small Things. And sometimes, couplets from Ghalib. Or Mir.

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Women’s College, AMU: Front lawns

Ever wonder why trees are so often used in the backdrop of romances? Because trees are the poetry of the earth. They are the welling up and bubbling out of love from the earth’s heart— as shade and fruit and breath. Guardians and protectors. Preservers of love.

The weary heart always seeks refuge from the unending buffets of life . Asylum from the onslaught of accusatory screams and peristent, unresolved emotional clutter. And though I was an equally crazy member of the Addams Family, I desperately sought refuge from it too.

This man became my refuge. Noah’s Ark, with just me on it. And the promise of safer lands.