19 August, 2014

Napoleon Bonaparte - An essay by Abhay Venkitaraman

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Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte or Napoleon I was a Military and political leader in France in the early 18th Century. He became the King of France in 1804

Early life

Napoleon was born as Napoleone di Buonaparte on the French island of Corsica in 1769. The island was previously under the control of the Republic of Genoa, and Corsica came under French control a year before Napoleon's birth . Napoleon’s family were descendants of minor Italian nobility, and Napoleon's father was Corsica’s representative to the French Court. Napoleon had 7 siblings: an elder brother named Joseph and younger siblings named Lucien, Elisa, Louis, Pauline, Caroline and Jerome.

In 1779, Napoleon was enrolled in a school in Mainland France, and a few months later, Napoleon was admitted in a military academy in Brienne-le-Chateau. He completed his studies at the academy in 1784 and was admitted at another military school in Paris. He trained to become an artillery officer and one year later, he graduated.

Early Military Career

Napoleon became a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment. He served in the military until the French Revolution, when he took leave. Napoleon fought with Corsican Rebels in the Corsican Revolution and was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Corsican Militia. When he fell out with the leader of the militia, he fled to the French Mainland.

After the French Revolution, a French city named Toulon rose against the Revolutionary Government. Toulon had been occupied by British troops. Napoleon was one of the leaders of the Siege of Toulon. Toulon was successfully retaken. Napoleon also suppressed a Royalist rebellion with a “Whiff of Grapeshot”. Napoleon became the Commander of the French forces in Italy in 1796. In the same year, Napoleon married Josephine de Beauharnais.

War of the First Coalition

At the same time, France was having a war with a number of states in Continental Europe which saw France as a threat. The war had started in 1792 when France declared war against Austria and Prussia. In 1797, Napoleon invaded Austria. This forced Austria to sue for peace. A French Invasion of Britain failed. The Treaty of Campo Formio was signed between Austria and France. Belgium was ceded to France and Austria recognized French control over the Rhineland and a large part of Italy. The Republic of Venice which Napoleon had invaded was partitioned between France and Austria. France remained at war with Great Britain. France had a number of satellite states in Germany and Italy.

Invasion of Egypt

In 1798, Napoleon captured the island of Malta and captured Egypt from the Ottoman Empire . There were a number of nationalist rebellions in Egypt, but these were suppressed by the French Administration. Artifacts like the Rosetta stone were discovered. But he was forced back to France by the British and the French Fleet was destroyed in the Battle of the Nile.

War of the Second Coalition

War with Continental Europe resumed in 1799 and in the same year, Napoleon overthrew the French directory and became First Consul of France. He reorganized the French Army. Anglo-Russian troops invaded Holland but the invading forces ended up surrendering. Meanwhile the Russian Forces under General Suvorov defeated the French in Italy. But Suvorov was ordered by the Russian Emperor to transfer his troops to Switzerland, where Suvorov’s troops came under the command of another general. The Russian Army was defeated at the Second Battle of Zurich. After the battle, Russia pulled out of the Second Coalition.

Peace in Europe

In 1801, the war ended and France and Great Britain signed the treaty of Amiens. Napoleon faced a slave rebellion in Haiti and ended up losing Haiti in 1803. In the same year, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory in North America to the United States.

War of the Third Coalition

In 1803, Britain declared war on France. In 1804, Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor, and due to Austrian and Russian threats, he launched an offensive on the Rhine, calling off an Invasion of Great Britain. In the Ulm Offensive, the French Army managed to surround the Austrian Army and was victorious He defeated the Russian and Austrian Armies at the Battle of Austerlitz. This ended the Third Coalition. The Holy Roman Empire was destroyed. France also gained territory. The Confederation of the Rhine was formed with Napoleon as its protector.

War of the Fourth Coalition

Napoleon’s empire gained even more territory after the War of the Fourth Coalition. France signed a treaty with Russia, dividing Europe between the two empires. France also signed a treaty with Prussia, stripping it of a lot of land. Napoleon placed puppet rulers on the thrones of German States. Napoleon also attempted to enforce a law called the Continental System in which a lot of countries in Continental Europe were forced to boycott British Goods in response to Britain’s naval blockade of France. But this encouraged British Traders to smuggle goods into Continental Europe, and Britain’s control of the seas helped to reduce the effect of the Continental System on Britain’s economy. The Continental System also hurt the economies of countries in Continental Europe.

War of the Fifth Coalition

In 1809, Austria broke its alliance with France, and war resumed. Napoleon suffered a defeat at the Battle of Aspern-Essling. The French then defeated the Austrians at Wagram. Austria then signed the Treaty of Schonbrunn. Britain also attempted to invade Holland, but the British troops caught a fever and many of them died. The British troops were forced to retreat. Napoleon also annexed the Papal States after the Church refused to adopt the Continental System.

Invasion of Russia

As relations between France and Russia soured, Napoleon made plans to invade Russia. Napoleon invaded Russia in June 1812. The invasion was catastrophic for France. The French Army was destroyed. Napoleon managed to capture Moscow, but he withdrew from Russia soon after that. The harsh Russian winter halted the French Army, and the Russians also gave stiff resistance. French morale was also low.

War of the Sixth Coalition

A 6th Coalition was formed. Napoleon suffered losses in Germany. At the same time, France was fighting a war in the Iberian Peninsula against Britain and Spanish Rebels. The war had started in 1807, when the old Spanish king was deposed by Napoleon and Napoleon put one of his brothers on the Spanish Throne. France lost power in the Iberian Peninsula in 1814. At the same time, coalition forces entered France and Paris fell.

Exile to Elba and Hundred Days

Napoleon abdicated and fled into exile on the island of Elba, and Louis XVIII was placed on the French Throne. Napoleon managed to return to the French Mainland and after Louis XVIII caught hold of this, he sent the 5th Regiment to arrest Napoleon and found him. Napoleon marched to within gunshot range and said “Here I am. Kill your emperor, if you wish.” The soldiers responded with Vive L’Empereur!” Louis XVIII fled and Napoleon retook the throne. This began a period known as the “Hundred Days.” Napoleon was defeated by British and Prussian forces at the Battle of Waterloo.As Coalition Forces came closer to Paris, Napoleon lost hope in retaining the French Throne, and placed his son on the French Throne(Napoleon's son would later be forced off the French Throne. Napoleon thought of going into exile in the United States, but all ports were blocked by the British. Napoleon surrendered on the British ship HMS Bellerophon 

Exile to St Helena and Death

Napoleon surrendered to the British and was exiled to the Atlantic island of St Helena. He lived at Longwood House. While in St Helena, Napoleon’s health rapidly declined, and he died in 1821.


Napoleon has been remembered for the implementation of the Napoleonic Code, a civil code which is the basis of the laws of many countries in today’s world. He also made greater property rights, greater suffrage rights and better education for French citizens. But Napoleon was considered a tyrant by his opponents, and left France bankrupt at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

In my opinion; Napoleon was one of the greatest leaders in history, a great man who revolutionised Europe, a man who had so much power and influence, but ended up dying in vain

"Great ambition is the passion of a great character.  Those endowed with it may perform very good or bad acts.  All depends on the principles which direct them." ~ Napoleon Bonaparte

 Sources :


Start of school - A mom mopes and whines

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A month together we did have
T'was summer, school vacations, simply fab !
I didn’t realize time fly past

That one month, very long, did not last.


Finally dawned today morning
The start of a new school year for the Nutty Sibs, it did bring

There were up and out of bed very early
Of “unnnhhhh can we sleep some more ?”, there was no plea


A new beginning for them both, today
A graduation of sorts, shall we say

Macadamia starts Senior School today

And Pecan in Middle School, starts his foray.

I sit here right now, the house all quiet and silent
The usual ruckus that the Nutty Sibs usually make, is totally absent

During the holidays the house, with noise, was filled
as our conversations, laughs and arguments shrilled and spilled

Funny, now that I think of it in wonder
I’d rather prefer the house, audibly torn asunder

This silence and quiet, I realize with dismay
This “peace” is so not fun. Nay !

The feeling hit me today morning

As the beginning of their school year, it did bring
“What am I going to do all alone ?” I wondered

“You will have time to do your own stuff” a little voice inside me answered

That simply was not to be
For, to my spirit, they are indeed the keys

I’ll say it out loud here, despite the grins I’ll need to face
once both of them, in the noon, get back to home base.

“I miss them, I miss them, I miss them crazy
Their presence, their fights, their laughter and all that’s itsy bitsy”

The silly banter, the goof ups, when we bake together

Came back to me a while ago, as the muffin batter, I stirred
No voices piped up “are the muffins done yet ?”

As the temperature on the oven, I once again set.

I shall wait for the afternoon, when the Nutty Sibs get back
I shall wait for the afternoon when the house floods with noises

That noise, the little talks, the fights, they’re a root part of my life
Without all that noise, things actually seem rather strife.

I realize now that the tables have turned
Another one of life’s lessons, I just learned

Parents hold their children’s hands, when they’re little, for a while,
But their hearts they hold forever, as life progresses, mile after mile.












12 August, 2014

The TamBrahm Series (Part 12) - The Naamakaranam or the Naming Ceremony

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(The TamBrahm series is a series of satirical posts on the customs and traditions which are a part of the TamBrahm community.  This post is Part 12 of the TamBrahm series.  If you haven't read any of the earlier 11 posts in this series, I am posting the link to Part 11, which has the link to Part 10 and so on.  Part 11 of the TamBrahm series was about the Kaapu and Thottil ceremonies (Protection and Cradle ceremonies) of a newborn baby.  The link to Part 11 can be found here.)
We left the previous post on a pretty high note – what with a boisterous Macadamia screaming her head off at the Thottil (cradle) ceremony. 
Well, us TamBrahms simply love to have ceremonies for anything and everything.  I personally think it is some sort of standing agreement between the TamBrahm families and the family priest because most of the ceremonies that involve priests in India now, are nothing but sponsorship elements for the priest community.  What better reason to keep having one ceremony after another, other than a newborn baby in the house. 
After the Kaapu and Thottil ceremonies are done and over with, TamBrahm families usually have the baby’s naming ceremony on the 11th day after birth.  Until then, the baby (in the olden days) does not officially have a name.  In the olden days, there have been many birth certificates issued with the words “Not Mentioned” or “Not Available” against the name column.  No, that is not the baby’s name.  That is just a stand-in of sorts until the official naming ceremony is done and over with.  Thank God for that though else there would be hordes of TamBrahms with names like Not Mentioned Ramachandran or Not Available Seetharaman or Do Not Know Venkatiswaran and N.A Saraswati and the like. 
In the days of yore, deciding on a name for the baby was no decision at all.  It was all planned out and ready even before the baby made its appearance into this world.  The firstborn son would be named after his paternal grandfather and the first born daughter after the paternal grandmother.  If there was a second born son or a second born daughter, they were named after the maternal grandfather and grandmother. I guess no one really gave it a thought as to the kind of trouble the kids would face at school later on.  While there would be other kids with short names, there would be the TamBrahm kids with names long enough to keep the teachers going into a tizzy because every TamBrahm name is nothing short of a tongue twister in itself.  While girls would sport names like Anandhabhairavi Venkatakrishnan, Tripurasundari Ramasundaram and Meenambal Jambunathan (to name a few), the boys would not be far behind with names like Venkatasubramanian Panchapakeshan or Janakiraman Vaidyanathan or Kothandaraman Sambasadashivam.  I’ve always been of the opinion that TamBrahm names should be allowed in spelling bee contests.  That would give things a whole new spin with these TamBrahm names stretching like freeways in the Land of Oz. 
Like I said before, preparations for the naming ceremony start well in advance – read the day before or a few days before the actual ceremony.  Since the newborn baby and the new mom take up residence in the baby’s maternal grandparents’ home for a few weeks after delivery, the naming ceremony usually takes place at the maternal grandparents’ home.  The grandparents and immediate relatives (read about half a dozen chitappas, chittis, mamas, mamis, athais and what have you – virtually the whole family, that is) would be busy procuring items on the list given to them by the priest. 
As with all TamBrahm ceremonies, the naming ceremony too is conducted in the mornings.  The priest would arrive with his entourage – a whole succession of pot-bellied, unshaven men.  Some sight, eh ?  That too, early in the morning.  Now all these priests would be clad in dhotis which, at one point of time, a few years back, were white in color.  After many washes, each one’s dhoti would be a different shade, ranging from off white to yellow and spots of red (thanks to the turmeric and kumkum – what were you thinking) to off white with streaks of brown (how that happens I know not and am not sure I want to, either).  This whole entourage would then sit around cross legged and start calling for random items for the said ceremony.  Some of the items that they call for would not have been on the original shopping list given by the head priest and there would be a mad rush among the people at home, to procure that particular item.  This is a rite of passage, per se, in any given TamBrahm function.  The priests, in the meantime, would request the people in the house for drinks.  Milk based ones, people.  Not what you’re thinking.  But that’s complex enough.  There needs to be a specialized priest barista in every household because if one priest asks for kaapi (coffee), the other priest will ask for tea and the third one might well ask for Bournvita and the fourth for Horlicks.  There will also be variations to the coffee, tea or whatever else is on offer – with regard to the milk or the sugar or some such.  I remember one such priest who once came home for some function and asked for coffee with cow’s milk.  I really can’t remember whether anyone actually went looking for a cow.  Thank the lord he did not ask for goat’s milk, sheep’s milk or better still, camel milk.  If they are that particular, they should carry their own animals around, to be milked at their convenience. 
While all this is happening in the living room, the new mom would usually be hustled into bath and out of it.  Hustled because she would invariably be groggy eyed, if baby has been particularly helpful the night before in keeping her awake and here would be a whole posse of relatives asking her if she wants a yellow sari with a red border or a blue sari with a pink border and such questions which would positively sound so inane at that point in the new mom’s life, where all she wants and needs right then is a good couple of hours sleep.  During Macadamia’s naming ceremony, I remember feeling so groggy and sleepy (and yes, little Macadamia had been tremendously helpful the night before) that had I been sitting down, I probably would have gone right off to sleep sitting in front of a whole load of guests, with the priests hollering mantras and chants like there was no tomorrow.  I anyway had a rather stoned look on my face and in all probability, I’d have given the term “out cold” a whole new meaning.
After some initial prayers and mantra chanting, the father is handed a big brass plate (bigger the plate the better for the father – I’ll explain why later) and asked to place it on his lap.  There is a lot of raw rice spread out on this plate and usually, the ladies in the house, at that given moment, behave as though inspiration just struck them.  They start to play this weird game that looks and sounds like the Chinese Whispers that I play with the kids at school.  One mami or one of the grandmothers standing right next to the father will start it off by behaving like Archimedes did in the bathtub when he discovered the Theory of Displacement.  The body language of the lady in question would scream “Eureka” and she would hustle and bustle and whisper something to the lady next to her.  No – before you start wondering, let me clarify that she behaves like an Archimedes in a Kancheevaram sari and the blingy blings.  She does not (thank the lord) take her clothes off and run around shouting “Eureka”. That lady would suddenly look all wise and sprout a halo around her head and say something to the lady standing next to her and so it would go, until it reached the last lady in the chain.  The last lady in the chain would rush off into the other room as though Mt.Vesuvius was about to erupt in all its glory any second and would rush back with a piece of cloth.  This piece of cloth invariably will follow the same line of progression along the mamis, but the other way around until it ends in the hands of the lady that started the game of Chinese Whispers.  She would then, rather ceremoniously, spread this piece of cloth onto the brass plate which, by now, would be resting rather precariously in the lap of the newly minted father. 
The head priest will then ask the father to take the newborn baby from whoever is holding the bundle (of joy or noise or peace – depends on the situation at that point of time) and ask him to place the baby on the brass plate.  Ah ha ! Now begins the fun !!
Many new fathers who are not used to holding their newborn baby do have a lot of fun at this juncture in the ceremony.  Not only does he try to look as though he has virtually grown up holding a newborn baby (huh ??!!) but he also has to balance that large brass plate on his lap without toppling the whole thing over.  Babies are babies and they do what they naturally do when they are newborns – they squirm, they wiggle, they flail and if it is indeed the dad’s lucky day, apart from all those, they also choose that very time to display their awesome lung power.  Talk about getting a newborn baby to lie on a brass plate and balancing the whole thing.  Are you asking yourself if it is difficult ?  Get an octopus and try to stuff it into a wire mesh bag – the body, the arms the whole octopus, without any part of the octopus sticking out of the bag.  Balancing a flailing, crying, red in the face newborn baby on a brass plate is just about as difficult or easy I guess and if that little octopus is all angry at the world for having disturbed its peaceful state of slumber or if hunger is all that’s on its mind right then, a huge “good luck” with an equally wide smile towards the father, would be just the thing to do.
If you think the balancing act ends with somehow fitting the baby on top of that plate in such a way that the baby’s arms and legs are not hanging out of the plate like one of those circus performers on a trapeze, think again.  TamBrahm customs are never ever that simple.  To convolute matters further for the new parents (read father because remember the moms are almost always doozy around this time due to lack of sleep and sheer exhaustion) he now has to lift the entire brass plate, baby and all, up and whisper the baby’s name three times in his / her ear.  Another reason to keep those baby names short, eh ? 
First the newly minted parents (or parent the second / third time around – it doesn’t really matter – things are just as confusing as ever) whisper the baby’s name three times and then the whole clan lines up to whisper the same name (obviously) into the baby’s ear three times.  Funny, come to think of it – even after having its name literally dinned into its head so early on in life, the number of times parents have to call out their kids’ names in order to get a response from them later on in life, is simply amazing.  One would think the name should have gotten imprinted in memory or branded in his/her head with having so many people repeat the name – that too three times over.  Apparently not ! 
After this is done (or maybe before the name whispering ceremony – I’m not quite sure), the priest mixes up ghee (clarified butter) and honey in a bowl.   He then asks the father to take off the ring on his finger and dip the ring into the ghee honey concoction in the bowl.  I do remember watching out to see if this was a traditional gold polish of sorts but apparently it was not.  Now the father has to feed that ghee-honey concoction to the baby.  Now show me a baby that does not like something sweet.  All babies do.  Quite naturally, when a baby is literally being spoon fed (in this case, ring fed) honey, the baby is sure to open it mouth for more.  Logic, right ? 
According to the TamBrahm mamis, this is no logic vogic.  It is something to be massively excited about, every single time they stand witness to a naming ceremony, and trust me when I say this, when they see that baby opening its mouth for more of the sweet stuff, the mamis and mamas break into this super excited chatter that makes it seem as though they’ve seen all seven wonders of the world, at one go.  It is that expression of wonder, of jaw dropping delight and an expression of utter enchantment and satisfaction – all rolled into one.  One look at their rapturous faces and one would be convinced that feeding something sweet to a baby and getting baby to eat it is nothing less than the eighth wonder of the world.  If their expression turns out that way to babies eating and downing normal food without spitting it out on the mom or dad’s face, it is totally understandable.  But sweet stuff – isn’t that the stuff one finds it difficult to get babies out of ??  Then why do the mamis look so incredibly thrilled as though they’ve just seen Brad Pitt walk around nude on a beach ?  Sigh ! Just one of those things to which there is no answer, I guess ! 
Once the father has fed the ghee honey concoction to the baby three times, the priest signals that the mother can now feed the baby.  I mean, they just announce that the baby now needs to be breastfed.  Yeah – just what moms need.  A permissive signal from the priest to breastfeed the newborn babies – Ye God !  Of course, the priests ‘milk’ the moment (sorry for the pun – was not intended but then puns often get the better of me rather unknowingly) and announce it loud enough for the whole world to hear “ok now you can go and feed the baby”.  Thanks for that because that is often misconstrued by the mamis there as a cue to start talking about the breastfeeding issues that the new mom is having !  .  I remember thinking at Macadamia’s naming ceremony that the priests do forget to put something on that shopping list.  A megaphone ! 
Another thing I noticed during Macadamia’s naming ceremony was the fact that I was not allowed to take part in any of rituals other than whispering her name three times.  Reason given then was that I was still “impure” because postpartum bleeding takes a few days to completely stop.  This did strike me as odd because a woman goes through a lot through nine months of pregnancy and then the rigors of labour and delivery.  It doesn’t stop there.  She is still going through a massive adjustment phase in terms of learning to care for her newborn, handling sleepless nights, latching issues and what have you.  Basically, she has a lot on her plate – both parents do, for that matter.  Also, the very thing that provided nourishment for the baby in utero now has her sidelined from rituals associated with her baby ?  Somehow, to me, that does not make sense at all.  Being told that she needs to stand aside and not be a part of the rituals is yet again, in my books, quite insensitive and illogical.  But then again, I’m a rebel and when I see something at odds, I say it.  Period ! (did not intend that pun too, yet again).
So now we have a little newborn, who has had his / her name dinned into his / her head a gazillion times by the elders in the family and we also have a newborn who has had his / her first taste of sugar.  So we leave the newborn in that happy place for now, all tizzy and dizzy from the sugar high, yelling for more and the right now hapless new parents, quite unsure of what all that ruckus is about.



15 July, 2014

Sexism - See it. Say it. Stop it.

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It all started with the outlet tube of the washing machine snapping open at the joint, a couple of weeks back.  The existing tape had to be removed, the outlet pipes fitted together again properly and taped up securely with insulation tape.  Once I was done repairing the pipe, casual conversation led to me saying that small electrical repairs around the house like repairing plugs, changing fuse wires etc were things I used to do at home, during my college days and how it used to leave my grandmother rather horrified.
I also used to repair leaky taps at home by changing washers and the like.  I’ve used a proper saw on wood to build something once and these habits of mine were always a bone of contention with my grandmother.  Her comment to my mom always used to be “these are not things girls should be doing.  It is very unfeminine for a girl to be repairing stuff, sawing wood etc”.  
Yet another incident that this brought to the fore was when one of my aunts used to repeatedly tell me not to sit with one knee over the other.  Apparently, if girls sat that way, it was a sign of disrespect.  Boys could sit anyway they wanted, they could scratch themselves anywhere they wanted, in plain view of anyone around and it was perfectly acceptable.  But girls sitting with one knee over the other knee was an absolute NO !
During my college days, I also used to paint with water colors and I did notice, even then, that painting did not evoke any negative response from anyone at home.  It was seen as something creative, something feminine. 
This whole concept is worth a serious think – “What does one mean when one says this is not something girls are supposed to do or not supposed to do ?”
Growing up in a patriarchal society that is India (it was and it still very much is a patriarchal society), girls, right from a young age were taught to conform and obey, no questions asked.  If it was someone like me, questions would be raised only to be shot down and muzzled.  Answers were never forthcoming and I now realize that I never had any of my questions answered because the elders in question simply did not know.  Customs, ideas, norms, habits were given the title of “tradition” and simply passed on from one generation to the next, with no one questioning the basis or the logic thereto.
As a child, I came in for a lot of flak from the elders in the family for playing cricket with the boys.  Apparently, it was something “girls simply would not and should not do”.  I didn’t get the logic behind that statement then and I don’t get it now. 
During the long summer holidays, a whole load of us used to get together in the afternoons to play card games or board games.  Inevitably, there would be a lot of noise and ruckus and I remember one grandpa in the building complaining to some of the grandmoms about their grand daughters making noise and how it was so “un girl like” to do so.  That there used to be boys too, creating an equal ruckus alongwith us, was completely sidelined – almost as if it was considered natural for boys to behave that way but not for girls.
It’s been a few decades now and the sad fact is that things remain pretty much the same.  Attitudes are the same, mind-sets, outlooks and approaches pretty much remain similar.
Women should not have to protest, should not have to hold up banners, should not have to walk around naked holding placards, should not have to burn bras to be heard and taken notice of.  When a woman speaks, it is as much her right to do so as it is any man’s out there and when she does speak, giving her an ear is something that needs to come naturally to the public just as they would, if it was a man speaking.
Being a woman has never been easy anywhere in the world, especially so in patriarchal societies like India.  Come to think of it, a woman is pretty much doomed the day those XX chromosomes decide to hang out together.  That is essentially when the struggle begins – a struggle for life, a struggle for existence, a struggle for self-identity, a struggle to have her voice heard, a struggle to have her opinions taken seriously.  For a woman, life gets down to being a struggle to simply survive with her senses intact, for, she comes into a world, a society which is biased and inclined towards heeding the XY chromosomes over the XXs. 
Despite rampant cries for change, the cultural identity of an Indian woman is still looked upon, first and foremost, as being a wife, a mother.  The traditional female identity in India still pretty much places a woman in a very restrictive environment.  Education too, even now, is seen by society, not as much as a tool towards an independent woman but more as a means to improve their chances of finding a husband of a higher social status.
Irrespective of life in a village or a city, women are still expected to adhere to traditional expectations.  In many families, it is still considered necessary for a woman to touch her husband’s feet as a mark of respect, she is still expected to wear on herself, accessories that “mark” her as a married woman – her mangalsutra, her sindoor, her toerings.  Does society show a shift towards expecting something on similar lines from men, now that we call ourselves an advancing society ?  Sadly, the answer still remains in the negative.
Religion is still used to reinforce cultural stereotypes of feminity.  Sita is still embodied as the perfect Indian wife who sacrifices just about anything and everything at the drop of a hat to follow her husband and does what is asked of her – no questions asked.  I still remember the press exemplifying Narendra Modi’s wife as a perfect example of an exemplary Indian wife – one who still prays for her husband and sacrifices her comforts for his benefit because she’s still married to him – unheeding of the fact that theirs was a dead relationship the day he chose to walk away from it.  That is just one example of the media doing its duty towards reinforcing stereotypes, at a time when women all over the world are trying to break free of typecasts and labels.  
The media is often found saying that sexism is on the decrease now as compared to what it was a few decades back.  There are countless articles which say the lines between male dominance and female submissiveness has blurred and that there definitely is a grey area which is growing.  Well, as things stand in society today, what we see is probably not the institutionalized sexism that one used to witness a few decades back.  There are no professions from which women are barred or not allowed to practice.  What we see in today’s world is sexism in a more subtle form. 
It rears its head every single time a female faces catcalls and sexist comments as she walks down a road.  It rears its head time and again when male colleagues attribute just about anything and everything about you to it being “that time of the month”.  It rears its head every single time men deem it fit to make jokes about women not being able to do things which society has always considered “macho”, driving for instance.  It rears its head every single time the so-called “educated” men don’t think twice about making statements like “a woman’s place is in the kitchen, making rotis and cooking for her family”.
Sexist attitudes are long gone, is what some people say.  It is something that used to belong in the previous century, said someone, the other day.
Unfortunately, that is not quite the case.  Not quite.  It is still very much out there. 
We still live in a society which defines woman-ness or feminity in terms of actions or dress codes.  We still live in a society that permits and makes sanctions for gender based jokes in workplaces or schools, we still live in a society which recently ruled that family owned businesses do not have to cover contraception in their workers’ health insurance.  We still live in a society where male members in the Senate and the Supreme Court get to decide on whether women should have control over their own bodies.
Sexist ideologies still continue to seep their way into several issues in society, thus affecting and twisting perceptions and public attitudes.  Sexism does exist even today and this is an issue that needs to be at the forefront in terms of raising awareness, not something to be denied or swept under the carpet or deemed as something that’s long gone away.

It hasn’t.

08 July, 2014

A Celebration of Life - A 2000 word short story

(Image source : anshaimeth.org via Google)

He looked at his Smartphone.  The edges were cracked, the screen bore smudges, multiple fingerprints.  It was an older model, distinctly showing signs of wear and tear, of neglect and disregard. 
Light drops of misty rain caressed his head, his face.  They pattered down in a fine mist.  The winter rains, as they were called in HongKong, descended softly, as the roads waited to receive them with open arms.  He lay still, eyes wide open, his breath condensing, forming small white dissipating tufts that seemed to emerge from his nostrils like the breath of a dragon hibernating in the cold.  Traffic zoomed past as people rushed to get home for Christmas but he was in no hurry.  Last minute shoppers crowded into the shopping malls, trying to find that “perfect gift” for their loved ones but he was not one to be hassled.  Carollers could be found at street corners, people of all shapes and sizes, filled with the cheer that Christmas brings along with it, ushering in the festivities.  Through it all, he lay on the bench in the park, eyes open but unseeing, ears open but not quite hearing. 
He could still hear her laughter, peals of which now threatened to deafen him with their deathly silence.  In his mind, he could see her eyes, so full of vitality and life, as they sparkled with mischief.  All he could sense, however, was the mind numbing, crushing pain that filled every pore of his being.  The tears simply would not flow.  It was all bottled and sealed in his mind, creating a vacuum like none else. 
They had lived an idyllic life – young, vibrant, energetic – when everything had seemed alive and vital.  He had met Jen in the crowded lanes of Causeway Bay, when she had almost broken his leg.  He had been waiting outside Sogo to meet up with his friend and go over to the cinema but thanks to Jen, he had ended up in the hospital with a badly sprained ankle.  “Nice way to spend Christmas” he remembered having thought rather morosely then, as he spent a good portion of his Christmas holidays hobbling around on a heavily bandaged foot.  She had appeared in the doorway one fine afternoon, looking rather sheepish and remorseful but nothing could contain the lively twinkle of mischief, the life that simply seemed to spring out of her eyes, forcing everything in its path to simply get up and live life to the fullest.  Yes, Jen had always had that effect on people.  She made life seem like a celebration, always.
After a whirlwind romance, they had decided to take the plunge and get married.  Life had just seemed to look upwards after their marriage.  Jen worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Molecular Biology at the HK University with the renowned Prof.Chan.  He had meanwhile hurtled towards fame with his contribution towards building one of the tallest structures in HK. 
Time simply flew as it usually does, when the going is good.  They spent their free time revelling in each others’ company.  The house that they had bought with a mortgage from the bank began to take shape as “their home” as it acquired its own character through the little knick knacks that Jen had an eye for.  She loved shopping on the small, cluttered, crowded lanes of Hollywood Road.  She loved sifting through heaps of antique looking stuff in the little shops and bargaining, haggling over the price while he preferred the cool, chic surroundings of the high end malls in Admiralty and SheungWan.  Jen loved the vibrancy, the vivaciousness, that pulsating energy that the streets of HK infused while he preferred the remoteness, the cool detachment of the huge malls.  She loved the little dai pai dongs, the little baskets of steaming dim sum and the hot, sweet, heavy stocking tea from the roadside stalls while he loved the pretentiousness of supercilious restaurants.  She loved outdoor sports and often dragged her extremely unwilling husband along to hike the rugged terrains of HK or to climb mountains.  He, in turn, dragged Jen around golf courses and pool tables in the many clubs in HK while she made it abundantly clear that golf and pool, to her, were like a visit to the dentists’ office. 
To their friends, however, he and Jen had embodied the basic principle of the Yin and the Yang.  They were seemingly opposites, totally contradictory personalities who simply could not do without each other.  He and Jen were interconnected, their psyches intertwined. 
Every rope, however strong, has a split at someplace or the other.  With them, the first give made its presence evident when Jen brought up the idea of having a family, of having a baby or two to make their family complete.  She had completely taken him by surprise, for he had never imagined that the vivacious, effervescent Jen would want to settle and huddle down under the wings of maternity and the responsibilities that it brought along with it.  He simply could not imagine playing golf with a stroller alongside.  He simply could not stomach the thought of having a screaming, snotty infant who would, invariably demand most of his time and Jen’s, thus driving a wedge between them. 
They had their first argument a week before Christmas.  Jen had insisted on having a Christmas tree at home.  In the hustle and bustle of HK, shopping for a Christmas tree, for him, meant a visit to one of the malls while Jen, true to her penchant for the lanes and bylanes of HK, had insisted on shopping on the streets of Mong Kok and much to his horror and consternation, Victoria Park.  He could not bear the thought of being in the midst of a sea of humanity, to get a Christmas tree.  He could simply not rewire himself to get out there in the middle of massive crowds, get jostled and hustled while shopping for something as unnecessary and superfluous, in his books, as a Christmas tree. 
As a meeting point midway, they had ended up in a huge department store, looking for an appropriate Christmas tree and ornaments.  Much to Jen’s delight and his obvious horror, all they could see for miles and miles, on just about every floor of the mall, were couples with kids – of all ages, shapes and sizes.  The whole mall had been buzzing with activity and the kids were like little busy bees, high on the cheer that the Christmas Season brings along with it.  They were squealing, shouting, screaming, gurgling and making all the other noises that little people usually make.  For Jen, it was sheer music to her ears while to him, the whole cacophony sounded like Luciano Pavarotti with a massive stomach ache.  Simply put, he staggered under the enormity of what was about to descend on him, if he and Jen were to start a family.  He found himself hyperventilating and all of a sudden, the walls of the mall seemed to be closing in on him. 
“I don’t want children.  I cannot stand the thought of life and freedom as we know it being constricted by babies” he spat out adamantly as Jen stared at him, horrified, her eyes pooling with tears that eventually spilled over.  He saw none of it, he refused to see any of it since he was firmly in the grips of “babyphobia”.  “Give it a little while and we can think about it later” pleaded Jen but he refused to budge.  In his mind, on this one, he wasn’t willing to budge a millimetre.
The wedge was in place and soon, slowly but steadily, it started to drive them apart.  They started to live their separate lives and as their friends watched, the unthinkable began to actually take shape.  The Yin and the Yang started to exist, seemingly independent of each other. The difference was remarkable, so distinct and evident.  He started going out on black tie dinners by himself on festive occasions while Jen started to spend her time in orphanages, with the children, infusing the festive fervour and joy into their lives as they infused some much needed life into hers.
It all started at the Architects’ Conference in Macau.  He had not tried broaching the topic with Jen, knowing fully well that she would not go along with him for the conference.  Not wanting to be snubbed and slighted, he had chosen to err on the side of caution by simply not asking her.  There was only so much solace in the single malt whisky which he loved and one evening, feeling rather joyfully inebriated in the company of the single malt, he had made his way to the casino. 
He had discovered a whole new world therein.  A world where no one judged him, a world where he was not frowned upon for having made the choices he had.  He loved this bright world where time seemingly did not exist, did not dictate lives, where people were simply not ruled by the clock.  He loved this bright world which, like him, did not encourage the presence of children.  He loved this  world where adults were not bound by the rules set by the outside world.  Casinos had rules of their own and he loved it there.
The addiction had been swift and whilst marvelling in this newfound autonomy and revelling in its looseness, with the nonconformity of gambling, he had completely lost himself to a new domain - one in which Jen and her desperate need for children did not fetter, shackle or debilitate him.  There were no impediments, no hindrances, not any more.
The incessant flat tone on his phone tunnelled him through the time warp and brought him back to the present - the persistent, relentless flat tone that symbolized the end of something.  It was that very same pitch and timber that had shattered his life one, dark Christmas morning.  It was the same sound that played in an incessant loop inside his head ever since that fateful day.
He could see the whole thing being replayed inside his head like a film of some sort.  That Christmas Eve, Jen had urged him to join and handed him a brochure of Gamblers Anonymous.  He had thrown a massive hissy fit and his last memory of Jen was of her storming off, tears streaming down her face, car keys in hand.  He had heard her car screech out of the parking lot and a few moments later, an even louder screech and the heart stopping sound of mangled, twisted metal.
He lay on the bench in the park as Christmas shoppers milled about.  The newspaper lay on his chest and he could see the ad he had circled.  The experiment was being conducted by Prof.Chan who had been Jen’s mentor at the Institute of Molecular Biology at HKU.  He claimed to have perfected the art of time travel, having achieved spectacular results in being able to send one back in time.  No one knew if it would work.  To the rest of the world, it was a gamble of the highest order.  To him, it was a celebration – one that would re-unite him with his beloved Jen. 
As he rose from the bench and headed towards the University where Prof.Chan awaited his arrival to commence the experiment, all he could see was the happiness of the festive season.  All he could hear were the merry voices of the carollers and the happy squeals of children.  All he could sense was a feeling of celebration.  The weight lifted off his shoulders as he approached the University.  He was ready to begin celebrating the gift of life, all over again, with Jen, if she would have him back.  Life, love, creation were inexplicably intertwined, as he had realized.
To him, the experiment he had consented to undertake was not an experiment at all.  It was a celebration of life itself.

23 April, 2014

The TamBrahm Series (Part 11) - The Kaappu and Thottil (Cradle) ceremonies

(Image courtesy : penciljammers.com via Google)

Remember the newborn we welcomed in the earlier post ?  For those of you who haven't read Part 10, here's the link.

Well, among the first (of many) customs in a TamBrahm family is the Kaapu ceremony.  Though I haven’t been enlightened by the elders in the family as to the pertinence of this function, I would think it is something that is done to ward off evil eyes or some such thing because the very name Kaapu suggests “protection” – protection from evil eyes, that is.  Better to be specific because “protection” can mean a lot of things nowadays.

As all TamBrahm ceremonies do, this function too involves colourful Kancheevaram saris, blingy blings everywhere possible and of course, good food (for everybody else except the new mother who is on a strict no-nonsense diet, remember ?). 

Since the new mom and the newborn baby have set camp at the maternal grandparents’ place, it is the paternal grandparents’ turn to make a trip over.  As with all TamBrahm functions, the entire family is usually present for the Kaapu ceremony too.  It is during this function that the newborn is adorned (for lack of a better word – because I can’t say asked to wear and I can’t say made to wear) with three different kinds of kaapu.  There will be a pair of gold bangles (yes – for both boys and girls), for, you see, there is this natural affinity between the TamBrahm community and gold.  That now, is an everlasting relationship.  Always has been, still is and always will be. It is mushy enough and a bond strong enough for someone to write a Mills and Boon - on the everlasting love relationship between a TamBrahm and Gold !  

Hinduism has festivals like Karwa Chauth in the North of India and Nombu in the South of India – where women pray for togetherness and for the husband-wife bond to stay strong.  Gold, on the other hand, doesn’t have to go through any such rituals or hardships.  It is like one of those VIPs that people pay to encounter and it’s bond is rather secure without any fasting or tying strings around trees like Vat Savitris.

Getting back to the newborn baby, there is usually a pair of silver anklets too (the thin variety, fortunately not the kinds Kannagi used to wear) and apparently the most important one is the third pair – the Muppiri Kaapu.  Now the automatic question that arises is “why is this the most important, of the three ?”  To be honest, I haven’t been able to get an answer from the elders in the family.  These rituals are pretty much like the others, handed down from generation to generation and no one has quite bothered getting answers or clarifications.  So this question of mine remains unanswered till date.  The only thing I can possibly think of is that since Muppiri Kaapu is made of three metals, it probably works on the same theory as the modern day magnetic bands do.  Or, maybe these three metals that go into the Muppiri Kaapu are said to have higher protective powers to ward off the evil eye (since that is the whole purpose of the kaapu function).  If anyone reading this post has an answer to the above question, please do post it in the comments section. 

No TamBrahm function is complete without a particular food item being a specialty for that function.  For Karadayan Nombu, there are the adais, for Thiruvadirai, there is the Kali and the Kootu.  Similarly, for the Kaapu function, we TamBrahms have what is called the KaapuArishi.  (Ari means rice).  This KaapArishi is made by the maternal grandmother and the paternal grandmother (the success of every TamBrahm function is this innate competition, you see) and then, quite obviously, there would be divided opinions on whose kaapu arishi was better.  The Chief Guest in question a.k.a the newborn baby would be blissfully unaware of all these formalities being carried out in its name.  Good on you, baby, good on you.  Babies do the best thing one can do during these functions – sleep !!

Now I’ve always maintained that there is some age old connection between the kaapu ceremony and donations that need to be sent a dentist’s way.  Does that sound confusing ?  Well, this kaapu arishi concoction (it is basically a very hard chikki variety or say a Rice Brittle) is designed, in my humble opinion, to test dental strength.  Needless to say, people like me need to stay away from things like kaapu arishi because I am, even at normal times, a dentist’s recurring deposit.  If someone were to offer me kaapu arishi and more importantly, if I were to eat it, I would probably spend the next few months getting multiple dental implants !!  Such is the power of the kaapu arishi !!!

Another mainstay of the kaapu function is the presence of something rather odd.  A kitchen implement.  It is pretty much like a mortar and pestle but not the short squat variety.  This is a flat stone which is paired with an elongated stone and these implements were usually used for grinding spices (in the days when kitchen blenders were not around).  Now this mortar and pestle is considered to be a baby during the kaapu function.  This is where, in my honest opinion, sensitivities start to get eroded and women lose all sense and sensibility.

The usual posse of senior mamis usually tell one of the younger ladies to anoint the mortar and pestle with sandalwood paste, vermilion and they are supposed to bathe the stone in milk, which is considered akin to feeding a baby.  This is another one of those instances during TamBrahm functions where insensitivity rears its head and refuses to listen to logic or reason.   I clearly remember many an occasion when the said lady in question has been clearly hesitant to take up this task or has looked rather mortified.   The senior mamis usually have this habit of proclaiming (loudly, of course) that  this particular ritual will help the lady in question bear children. 

As I’ve said earlier, in an ultra traditional TamBrahm family, couples are expected to produce babies after marriage ASAP.  While this may work for some, there is an equally distinct possibility that it does not work for some others.  In such instances, to publicly call upon a lady, catch her unawares and ask her to go through a ritual which people deem will help her have a child, in my books, borders on cruelty and reeks of insensitivity.  Not once do people stop to think of whether the said lady/couple has/have been struggling with infertility issues, have been undergoing treatment unsuccessfully for the same or whether it is simply a question of respecting their choice, as a couple, not to have children.  Infertility treatments take their toll, on both the husband and the wife and the last thing a lady needs, is to have that rubbed in.

The inherent “looking down upon” or looks of sympathy that are dished out towards women who have not had children biologically their own, is quite astounding.  Even in today’s world, where people consider themselves well educated and well informed, there still remains a huge majority in the female populace who consider it their god given right to look down upon women who cannot bear children.  Functions like the stone bathing ritual during the kaapu just serve to rub the whole thing in.  Maybe it is not intended that way but the end result is pretty much that.  What I personally feel is that a whole great deal more of sensitivity needs to be applied in such situations.  It is just a simple question of asking the ladies beforehand, whether they would be comfortable being called upon to conduct the said ritual.  Yet again, there also needs to be a great degree of open mindedness to accept a negative answer.  There is no need to get all personal about it.  It is just a question of respecting the other lady’s feelings and wishes.  This is something I’ve always felt very strongly about, especially when hapless ladies are called upon in public, thereby taking away from them, the option of saying “no thanks”. 

Once the mortar and pestle have been “bathed and fed”, the mami brigade calls upon three or four small children and they are asked to go around the mortar and pestle with a bunch of leaves (I think they hold twigs from the neem tree), brushing the leaves on the stones.  The kids go around the stone and the mamis go into a trance of sorts, complete with the incantations and chants like high priestesses of some secret order.  They say something ... I am usually too baffled when this happens, to try and figure out what they say or why.  As regards the custom of having kids brush the stone with neem leaves, yet again, I haven’t been able to find an answer.  I have asked many elderly mamis but no one, genuinely no one, seems to know.  Yet again, if someone reading this does, please post it as a comment.

Once the kaapu function is deemed wover (finished), it is time for tiffin !!  No TamBrahm function can be complete without good food – that’s a given.  Tiffin is usually accomplished with a great deal of brouhaha (good food brings out the best and the worst in a TamBrahm, honestly !), people gear up for the next ceremony in line – The Thottil (cradle) function. 

This ceremony is when the newborn is introduced to the wonders of the cradle, which is supposed to rock them into peaceful sleep.  Never did happen with Macadamia.  It had quite the opposite effect, truth be told !  There are babies that sleep through the entire thottil function peacefully and behave as though the thottil is indeed the panacea to all the sleep evils but nah – not mine.  She had already made her mark in the family with the reputation of being a light sleeper and had also established that once awake, she would be as noisy as she could be.  Tremendous lung power that tyke had, so much so that there have been days when I’ve sat up bolt straight as though touched by a cattle prod, simply by the sheer lung power she used to exhibit, once awake.

So there, we had a Macadamia who I’d just managed to rock to sleep and right then descended on me the whole mami brigade who thought they were there to play “passing the parcel”.  The “parcel” in question was the vociferous Macadamia.   Need I say more ?  In just a matter of seconds, all hell broke loose and there she was, a little bundle of ferocity, expressing her displeasure vocally at having been woken up rather unceremoniously for a ceremony, nevertheless.

There was a sudden flurry of activity among the mamis who hurried the little bundle along and finally it landed in the arms of my mom, Macadamia’s maternal grandmother.  She was about to lay Macadamia down on the cradle when one of the mamis said something about the direction not being right.  I was, in the meanwhile, thanking the good lord that there are just four directions to follow.  The TamBrahm mamis manage to create a huge mathematical confusion out of four directions, imagine what they would do if there were, say, ten directions to contend with.  If that were the case, by the time the mamis arrived upon a consensus as to the best direction to lay the baby in a cradle, the baby would probably be a toddler !!

Now the cradle itself had been decorated and now looked like a circus carousel with this giant orb like thing revolving at the top.  I guess the idea of something shiny revolving at the top was to lull or hypnotize the baby into quietude.  They did not know Macadamia as well as I’d gotten to know her in a week’s time.  If there was one thing I knew for sure, it was this – that thing was sure to send her senses into an overdrive and the resultant din was something I didn’t even want to imagine.  I try very hard not to say "I told you so" but in this case, that is the only phrase that would fit the bill.  "Did I not say she would not take well to that disco ball or whatever that was ?".  

She did not !

Then there is this practice during the cradle ceremony.  Even if the baby is sleeping peacefully, which, I guess, is the very purpose of a cradle, the mamis would take turns singing their lungs out.  Why they do that is beyond me because all it invariably serves to do is to wake the sleeping baby up.  Now those first few moments when the baby’s auditory system is on an overload from the mami brigade singing Carnatic music is an absolute treat to watch. 

It starts off with what I call “the twitch”.  The baby starts to twitch its toes and occasionally startles in its sleep.  Not surprising, with the kind of nightmares that din must be creating in its little head.  It probably imagines that it is right in the middle of one of Percy Jackson’s adventures, battling some sea monster that is incredibly noisy.   The baby startles time and again and at some point of time, those yet unfocused little eyes fly open and then shut together, crimped close as tightly as possible.  People – now is the time to get those earplugs out !!  The mamis still continue their musical extravaganza and the little one decides, about now, that it is time they had some competition.  It turns into a competition of sorts.  The little one can’t stand the noise and starts screaming and bawling.  The mamis, never ones to give up, look just as determined as Zubin Mehta conducting an orchestra and decide to move things up a notch by going the Ragam Thaanam Pallavi way.  For the bystanders, this is pure joy beyond description !

That’s where this post ends ….. deafening, ear splitting noise created by a bunch of mamis hollering as though they are at a Thyagaraja Aradhanai festival where they have to compete to hear their own voices on the one hand and a little newborn baby pushing its lungs to the maximum, on the other. 

Since our little addition to the TamBrahm family has now been introduced to the ritual mania in a TamBrahm household, do stay and walk along on this journey as we take the newborn through the twists and turns of many more such ceremonies, rituals and customs to come.

The saga continues …. do stay tuned.