Saturday, May 29, 2010

Why I am Not a Feminist

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 29 May, 2010)

“Don’t you feel objectified when a man stares at you?” he asks me earnestly, slurping on his coffee.

I look at his girlfriend, who’s beaming smugly at the sensitivity he’s displayed. The one ideological grouping I find more insufferable than the Flag-Bearers of Feminism are the Male Feminists They Date.

I’ve never quite figured out whether they're brainwashed by the sweep of their worse halves’ principles or whether they’re trying another version of the I-am-so-good-with-babies-and-find-them-so-cute-you-can-say-aww-now first date routine.

“Dude, we all know women would never go to salons and men would never bathe if we didn’t want to be objectified,” I say, biting the one nail I ration out to myself after a manicure.

“No!!! I look good for me,” he bobs his head, “and I like who she is…”

“Yeah, yeah, with all the hair and a wheelchair. Popular turn of phrase. But I know I’d shut myself up in a room with chocolate, cheese and books if men didn’t exist. I'd be perfectly happy with my rotting teeth, four millimetre nails and Frida Kahlo eyebrows.”

“Don’t you think looking good is about you?” my friend chimes in.

“Umm…you think I go to the dentist’s and the salon for me?”

I’ve studied in a convent whose mission was less to educate than to Christianise. I’ve worked with three born-agains. I’ve roomed with a Pakistani who was exiled for being an Ahmeddiya. I’ve conducted two-hour debates with atheists. And yet, I’ve never been harassed to convert by any group as much as by the Flag-Bearers of Feminism.

This group finds the concept of a non-feminist woman so obfuscating that it can only deal with it through denial. They look at you with a mixture of pity, condescension and frustration, and chorus:

“I think your education in feminism is lacking.”

“It’s not about bra-burning.”

“I don’t blame you, you’ve got the definition of feminism wrong.”

“How do you define feminism?” I once asked one of its proponents, who said, “it’s about standing up for your rights.”

“So Amnesty is the best-known Feminist organisation today?”

“Why are you so self-hating?” I’ve been asked.

Forget that the chain-smoking, poly-amorous, bisexual feminist Simone de Beauvoir spent most of her life with the misogynistic Jean-Paul Sartre.

“Maybe I just don’t find it particularly worth my time to find an extremist solution to patriarchy, which, by the way, I have never encountered.”

“But other women have.”

“I’d rather worry about animals being killed everyday to make shoes like those.”

“How can you be intelligent and not on this side of the fence?” asks the Male Feminist, “how can you endorse patriarchy?”

“Maybe I’m dumb, like most women,” I say, and the collective gasp makes a bird shriek, “oh, most men are dumb too. But the difference is – women are dumb in predictable ways that lend themselves to slapstick, while men are dumb in unique ways that lend themselves to girl-talk.”

Having silenced them with that bit of inspiration, I go on, “women and men can never be equal. Our bodies are different, our capabilities are different, our…”

“Are you saying biology is destiny?” the Male Feminist splutters.

“Should we talk when you get pregnant and I open a can by myself?”

Why does rejecting one school of thought imply endorsing another? Why does changing your surname have to mean you subscribe to sati? Why does wearing sindoor, thaali and toe-rings have to mean you’ve compromised on your rights? Why does deciding you’d rather do the cooking and cleaning have to mean you’re a ‘victim of the male gaze’? Ask a woman who’s fought her way through a vegetable market in Delhi, and she’ll swear she’d rather have her man buy the produce than put it through finishing school.

I believe being female has two advantages: (a) I can write anti-feminist columns without being lynched (b) I can flirt my way through ten kilos of excess baggage at most airports.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Was Suleman a Turtle?

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 15th May, 2010)

Find out about your past life now! SMS your name space your birthday, eg. POOJA 07052010 to 56786 to know if you were a human or animal in your last birth. Charges Rs. 3/sms.

First, came the epiphany – knowing everyone named Pooja who was born on the same day belonged to the same species. Second, there was curiosity – who does Vodafone’s market research and how did s/he discover that the question plaguing most minds was whether they had been born animals in their previous births? Third, came devastation – like every other Indian into whose formative years Doordarshan beamed movies, I’d been lulled into the belief that Rajesh Khanna, Rajkumar, Kamal Haasan and all the Khans had looked the same in every past and present life; it had taken a message from my mobile service provider to shake this notion.

There were several stages of contemplation before I thought up a list of people whose past life-forms I’d want to know. First, there’s that woman who was hypnotised by a man who wanted to write a best-seller on the subject. She believed she was a tree at some point of her evolution, and could feel the pain of being cut. Then there was the chap who claimed to have come to India in a past life, with Jesus. I tried googling his name to sound more authoritative, and the number of responses my search turned up is rather worrying.

Next, came the flashback. No, I didn’t take up the offer. But I did remember how a few years ago, I was sitting with three other women in what could have started a ‘Hex and the City’ series. We were all newly single, having dumped our fresh exes for the reasons that could only come from a deep, meaningful association. One was balding, one was effeminate, one was a junkie, and one was all of the above.

"Why does this happen to us? I mean, I meet intelligent men all the time. Why do I only land up with the losers?" asked Ms. Junkie.

"And the non-losers never have hair," contemplated Ms. Balding, "actually, even the losers never have hair."

"Maybe it’s karma," said Ms. Effeminate.

"As in, maybe we completely screwed over men in one of our past lives," I said, deleting yet another message from Mr. All-of-the-above, "maybe we sent them five-page love letters and then called to ask if they’ve got them, maybe we told them we had nightmares about Bugs Bunny eating us up, maybe we sent them pink teddy-bears and pink diaries with hearts on the cover…"

"Yes, maybe we’ve been hexed," said Ms. Effeminate earnestly.

The theory found a corollary when another friend’s 'family astrologer' told her this was her last birth. She was thrilled in the comfort of the knowledge that she could go about doing whatever she wanted, and there would be no time for payback.

"Do you realise this is also God’s last chance to make you pay for the misdeeds of your previous birth?" I asked, sharing Uncle Fred’s inclination to spread good cheer and light all round. Since then, she has been fretting about what her admittedly limited future holds. I secretly believe the astrologer and tarot readers are in this together. And probably the naadi josiyars too.

I remember a five-city trip around the state a decade and a half ago, when my family was convinced going to a series of temples and spending Rs. 5000 at each would even out Chitragupta’s account book. Our past-life resume is rather colourful, what with cutting out people’s tongues and tearing animals in half a la Marilyn Manson featuring there.

Maybe it’s the Mother’s Day factor and Nadya Suleman being the most popular news story, but I couldn’t help wondering what the Octomom was in her previous life. My guess is that she was an Olive Ridley turtle.


Sunday, May 09, 2010

Celebrating Tagore

When I leave from hence let this be my parting word that what I have seen is unsurpassable. I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus yonder that expands on the ocean of light and thus am I blessed, let this be my parting word.
 – Rabindranath Tagore

My introduction to Tagore came at a time when I didn’t know books were written in any language other than English, and people spoke any language other than English and Tamil. I was five, my mother and aunt were tired of telling me stories, and so I climbed on a chair and dug out a book from the top of the antique built-in bookshelf in my grandmother’s house. It was Cabuliwallah.

“That’s a very sad book,” my mother said, and I pouted.

“At least it won’t get tired of telling me stories,” I shot back and, offended at her amusement, I shut myself up in a bedroom and began to read. It was the first book that made me cry.

Touching its covers, I saw a curious inscription: ‘Translated from the original Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore.’

“Isn’t this the man who wrote our national anthem?” I asked my mother, forgetting the rockiness of our relationship.

That man would come to my rescue several times, growing up. The lyrical English he wrote, the poignant characters he created and the beauty he lent to the world he saw would etch indelible marks on my memory. So would his pride, courage and dignity – he had refused to kneel before the Crown, even to be knighted, and made his disgust at the Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre public.

The next big moment in my relationship with Tagore came in the third year of my college life. I was depressed. I was in a class where everyone was a feminist or an idiot, and often, both. Most of my teachers couldn’t pronounce ‘nihilism’ right. But that was the least of their problems. One of them asked me whether Measure for Measure was written by Shakespeare or Marlowe, and another disliked me because I wouldn’t conform to her misinterpretation of texts. Since the woman believed Mephistophilis was a beautiful character and Dr. Faustus was punished for his deal with the Devil and refused to think Marlowe himself was a rebel, I was not her favourite student.

Two years after this woman had said, “don’t be so happy because you’ve got eighty percent. You’re not that good”, I opened Gitanjali for the first time.

I will never forget these words:

O fool, to carry thyself upon thy own shoulders
O beggar, to come beg at thy own door!
Leave all thy burdens on his hands who can bear all,
And never look behind in regret.

Having spent two years resisting attempts to convert my religion, my stance on feminism and my attitude to life, I heard the words echo something within me; as though someone else had gone through the same thing, more than a century earlier. And then I read this:

When thou commandest me to sing it seems that
My heart would break with pride; and I look to thy face,
And tears come to my eyes.
All that is harsh and dissonant in my life melts into one sweet harmony –
And my adoration spreads wings
Like a glad bird on its flight across the sea.
I know thou takest pleasure in my singing.
I know that only as a singer I come before thy presence.

That was the second time Tagore made me cry. I sat in class, using my curly hair to block my profile as I bent down, pretending to sneeze so I could wipe off the relief of sorrow finding a kindred soul.

That wasn’t the only reason I was crying, though. Everyone who knew me four years ago knows I couldn’t sing a note. My voice had broken into a deep bass that had been branded sexy, sultry yada-yada. But I couldn’t sing a note. At least Tagore had his songs, I thought on that day, more than six years ago. The reason I sing today is him. The reason I sang today is him too, but that story will come later in this post.

While I have memories of my Bengali uncle listening to music I found fascinating, I didn’t know that was Tagore too, until one of my best friends, Anirban Banerjee, gifted me the CD Tomar Binai Gaan Chhilo. The first song I heard, Ami Tomaro Shongge, rendered by Pankaj Mullick, made me well up for the third time in the history of my association with Tagore.

A man who could sing, write, compose, paint, act and lead…someone who had penned the national anthems of two countries, someone whose life’s work is knit into the fabric of not just those who come from his region, but lovers of art all over India and the world…what was his life like, I wondered. What pain had spurred on such creativity and such sadness? Sunil Gangopadhyay’s masterpiece Pratham Alo and Reba Som’s work The Singer and His Song gave me a peek into the eighty years that had moulded a language and a genre.

Each plaintive note tells the story of love, not unrequited but forbidden – his much-celebrated muse Kadambari Devi was so accessible, and yet cut off. When she killed herself, Rabindranath thought he would never write again, until he began to see her ghost. Is it the indomitable human strength that makes one pull oneself together when one’s life is in pieces, is it the fact that our bodies and minds cooperate completely only when our hearts are too broken to carry on with life…what is it that makes us recover from the most devastating circumstances and go on? Whatever it was, that brilliant mind found it.

Each plaintive note tells of a partnership that could never inspire. Perhaps, as a woman, I’m expected to pity Mrinalini, Tagore’s child bride. The family clerk’s nine-year-old daughter, whom Tagore was married off to when he was twenty-one, as his oldest sister-in-law Gnanadanandini Devi wished. But I could only feel the pain a gifted artist without a partner who could appreciate his talent felt. What is the point of having to live with someone to whom metre and verse, lyric and intensity, high drama and subtle emotion are just descriptive terms?

Each plaintive note tells of regret, of failure, of doubt…of being the one who returned from a half-complete education, of being a non-businessman, of being unable to fill the shoes of his grandfather and brothers, of being uncomfortable with the garlanding and crowning ceremonies his serfs held for the zamindar, of trepidation lest his dream fizzled out, of guilt as the family’s money was drowned in that dream – Shanti Niketan – and his wife died for him just as his muse had died for his brother.

Sometime in those months I spent listening to hundreds of his songs, I felt the urge to sing them. I felt the urge to celebrate the man who has been there for millions of people he didn’t know, influencing their lives decades after his death.

And exactly a hundred and fifty years after he was born, I found myself in the middle of one such celebration. The music teacher I learn Hindustani classical from, who happens to be Bengali, asked me if I’d like to sing at a little function in her house. My frighteningly excited reaction prompted her to teach me four songs. Today, as I sang, I could see Tagore giving Kadambari a push as she sat on the flower-decorated swing of their expansive home in rural Bengal, I could see him directing the servants to set the stage for one of his many plays, I could see him looking anxiously for Kadambari as he was getting married to Mrinalini, I could see him sitting contemplatively on the family’s houseboat, watching as his children ran about under the supervision of Mrinalini and Gnanadanandini, his pen writing words on thick parchment as he saw the ghost of his muse, I could see him on that bed preserved as he left it in Shanti Niketan, thinking up names for babies who went on to become Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen.

The evening, which saw a group of singers pay tribute to Tagore with more than thirty songs, ended with the rendition of two of my favourites, whose lyrics and translation I put down here. He said what he had seen is unsurpassable; so is what he had been. Let him have the last word.


Tumi kaemon kore gaan koro he ghuni
Ami awbak, hoay shuni, kaybol shuni
Shoorer aalo bhubon phaelay chheye
Shoorer hawa chawle gogun beye
Pashan toote baekul baygay dheye
Bohiya jaay shoorer soorodhooni
Tumi kaemon kore gaan koro he ghuni
Monay kori omni shooray gai
Konthe amar shoor khooje na pai
Koite ki chai koite kawthaa baadhe
Haar maynay je pawraan amar kaandhe
Amai tumi phaelay chokon phaandhe
Cho dikhe mor shoorer jaalbhuni
Tumi kaemon kore gaan koro he ghuni
Ami awbak, hoay shuni, kaybol shuni

Translation by Rabindranath Tagore:

I know not how you singest, my master!
I ever listen in silent amazement
The light of thy music illumines the world.
The life breath of thy music runs from sky to sky.
The holy stream of thy music breaks through
All stony obstacles and rushes on.
My heart longs to join in thy song,
But vainly struggles for a voice.
I would speak
But speech breaks not into song,
And I cry out baffled.
Ah, thou hast made my heart captive
In the endless meshes of thy music, my master!

And this next song is my absolute favourite:


Aji boshonto jagroto ddare
Boshonto jagroto ddare
Tobo obogunthito kunthito jibone
Koro na be rombito tare
Boshonto jagroto ddare
Aji khuliyo rhidoyo dolo khuliyo
Aji bhuliyo apono poro bhulilo
Ei shonggito mukhorito gogone
Tobo gondho torongiya tuliyo
Ei bahiro bhubone disha haraye
Diyo choraye madhuri bhare bhare
Aji boshonto jagroto ddare
Boshonto jagroto ddare
Eki nibiro bedona bono majhe
Aji pollobe pollobe baaje
Dure gogone kaharo potho chahiya
Aji bakulo boshundhora shaaje
Mor porane dokhinobaju lagiche
Kare ddare ddare koro hani magiche
Ei shourobho bihbolo rojoni
Kar chorine dhoroni tole jagiche
Ohe shundoro bollobho kanto
Tobo gombhiro ahbano kare
Aji boshonto jagroto ddare
Boshonto jagroto ddare

Translation by his niece, Indira Devi Chaudhurani:

Spring stands at your door today.
Let not your life of dark constraint embarrass the guest.
The day is come for you
To open your heart like a flower,
To bestow your gift on all alike.
Let the aroma of your blossoms
Arise wave upon wave
Up to the very sky
Which reverberates with songs.
Come, stand in the wide world outside
To shower your gift of sweetness.
Deep in the forest of your heart,
There is a pain
Which murmurs among your leaves.
You look longingly at the far horizon
And avidly put on
Your vestment of beauty.
Softly blows the south wind
As it knocks
At the door of your heart,
Calling for your surrender.
Sweetly do you lie at your lover’s feet
All through the fragrant night.
‘You are beautiful, my beloved,’ you murmur,
‘You are the Lord of my heart
Your call is sweet and solemn.’

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Corporate Speak

If You're Tam Brahm, This Has Happened to You

Ever Wondered Why HR Gives You Those Fancy Designations?

My Other Blog

I started another blog I think the intention was to reserve the URL before one of my namesakes hijacked it.

But in an attempt to exude professionalism, I've made that the blog for my random musings and the current one the site of pseudo-intellectual ones.

So if you're curious about my life, go there. If you're wrinkling your nose right now, I approve.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Phase That Launched a Thousand Probes

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 1st May, 2010)

Dear madem

I am writing to present for your perusal my humble opinion. Don’t you think woman are the cause of downfall for powerful man? Case in the point is Mr. Shashi Tharoor of whom you have spoken of highly.

At this point, I was wondering whether my interlocutor was holding my regard for Tharoor’s writing responsible for his resignation.

Clearly, the highly erudite Minister Tharoor would not have fallen from grace if not for his liaison with Sunanda Pushkar (who has been married before only to divorce.)

The avuncular concern this reader had for the innocuous Mr. Tharoor’s seduction by a lascivious character was intriguing, as was his deduction of her nuptial goals.

Shashi is not the only one. Since time immemorial, many heroes of epics have been led to downfall by the weaker sex. The saying ‘pombaley sirichcha pochu, pugai ilai virichcha pochu’ (if a woman laughs, it is gone, if a tobacco leaf is opened, the flavour is lost – I am translating as you are modern girl and probably not knowing Tamil) was proved true by Draupadi’s vicious laughter at Duryodhana slipping. Helen of Troy is called the face that sank thousand ships.

‘Launched, launched,’ I thought, feeling a pang of pity for Christopher Marlowe.

Kaikeyi is responsible for Rama’s sufferings in the forest. Some modern people are even blaming Rama for Seetha suicide. You might not know the story of Kannegi and Kovalan, but in Tamil mythology, he was beheaded because she gave him a replica of the queen’s anklet.

This new interpretation of the Silappathikaaram must be of interest to researchers of Tamil literature. The conspiring Kannagi who gave her husband an anklet that was sure to have him beheaded, before seeing him off to the brothel where he planned to make his living.

Also, remember it was the celestial dancer Menaka who seduced Vishwamitra when he was concentrating on his penance.

I wondered if the next argument would be that Indra, who had ordered Menaka to perform that task, was a woman too.

In conclusion, I would like to say the saying ‘behind every successful man, there is woman’ must be rephrased as ‘behind every man who has fallen from success, there is woman’. You have said before you are not a feminist and I appritiate this attitude. Despite being a Malayali, Shashi Tharoor has proved the Tamil saying ‘You can tell a thousand lies to perform a marriage.’ I hope you, with your informed opinion, are on the same page as me about the malfunctions of Sunanda Pushkar.

Since the only way we could get on the same page would be for him to share my column space, I decided to indulge the writer of this email. After all, if Tharoor were the hero of an epic, his wishes might well become the horses on which he could carry away his malfunctioning bride. What I struggled to figure out, though, was why this person was appealing to a member of the ‘weaker sex’ to validate his opinion. Clearly, the proverbs he quoted had foreseen that the latest controversy in the IPL would be caused by a woman, who would singularly bring down the unsuspecting Shashi Tharoor and Lalit Modi.
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