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.

22 April, 2014

The TamBrahm Series (Part 10) - The Newborn Arrives ....

(Image courtesy : penciljammers.com via Google)

For the sake of continuity, here's the link to Part 9 of The TamBrahm Series

The arrival of a baby is one of those events that pretty much affect people the world over, the same way.  The jaw dropping wonder, those little tiny fingers and toes that makes the heart do flip flops on its own and the typical drunk look or the slightly irritated look that newborn babies often have, which are sure to make their families derive and reach their own conclusions as to whether the baby is debating about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or Newton’s Law of Gravity or is simply trying to decide between crying out of hunger, crying out of cold or crying just for the sake of crying. 

Behold the newly minted parents, people !   That glazed look, that slack jawed grin and that feeling of responsibility that just hit them a few milliseconds back with the force of a ten ton truck !!!  Yes !  They’re still pretty much in shock that they have this little being, a whole new life to care for and raise - a very humbling feeling, in my honest opinion.  Coming back to the moot point, TamBrahm families are pretty much the same in reacting to newborn babies – believe that, people. 

In a ultra traditional TamBrahm family, once the newborn has made its arrival into this world, the maternal grandparents or relatives from the mother’s family (of course – it always is that way !) make their way to the residence of the father’s family, their arms laden with sugar and bananas.  Who in the world thought of that combination, I wonder.  Given the fact that Type 2 Diabetes is hugely making its presence felt among people of Indian origin, I think it is about time people give this particular tradition a serious think.  A couple of kgs of sugar and a riot of bananas to feed the whole building ??  Given the rate at which the population is increasing and given the sugar-banana tradition, put together a few TamBrahm families sporting brand new newborns and we could have a BanaTina festival, right there, right then.  The Tomatina festival in Spain would have to beat a rather hasty retreat.  In fact, it could be incentive enough for Bollywood and Tollywood to come together and produce a movie on the lines of a BanaTina festival.  Who knows ?  The TamBrahm BanaTina's could well set a trend !!

The newly minted mother, in the meanwhile, would be in the process of rediscovering the meaning of the word “zen”.   She will also discover pretty soon (if she hasn’t, already) that people around her have suddenly started to view her as a walking talking Aarey Milk Colony (a company that has herds of buffaloes which produce milk (surprise !!) and the company markets the same rather successfully.  Ergo …. the name Aarey, for those of you not familiar with the Indian context, is synonymous with milk)  She is expected to turn into some sort of milk vending machine, just like that.  Snap your fingers and see the milk flow kinds.  No people, no.  What the mamis with the blings fail to realize right then is that for us TamBrahm mothers too, breast milk is controlled by the hormones in the body.  Oh !  Surpriiiissseeeee !!!  For the senior TamBrahm mamis however, all these hormones wormones do not make any sense.   

I remember feeling the full force of the mami brigade when I’d just had Macadamia.  A whole posse of blingy bling mamis would float in and out and there would be statements flying across and around like “oh ! the baby was asleep”  “her nose looks like her great grandmother’s nose” “her ears look like her great grandfather’s ears” and then like hungry eagles eyeing hapless prey on the ground, they would zoom in on what they think is a very pertinent issue at that point of time “have you started breastfeeding ?” .   Now why the whole world needs to know the answer to a question like that has always been beyond me …. even more so when one is a newly minted mom, for whom just about everything is confusing and  bewildering right then. 

One is led to believe that breast milk is something like the River Ganga flowing out on demand.  It is not, people !!  Even all those mantrams and prayers said during the seemantham to augment lactation need for the human brain to send the right hormones to get the whole lactation process started.  What no one helpfully points out to the new mom then is the fact that it is quite normal for the whole  process to take a couple of days (sometimes longer sometimes not so long).  I remember thinking, much to my dismay then, that it was me something was wrong with, the way people were reacting to the fact that Macadamia needed to be formula fed for the first couple of days until I could start nursing her.  Even statements like “the baby is hungry but you have no milk to feed her” used to be quite commonly and insensitively thrown my way.  My dear know it all mamis of the bling bling fame, it is not the fault of the new mother and it does not help trying to be "helpful" that way.   It does not do anything in alleviating fears or concerns that new mothers might have (and trust me, at that point of time, they have loads of them).  It just makes them worse, it just makes them feel bad about themselves and about not being able to “provide” for their baby. 

What would indeed help loads at times like these is someone reassuring and encouraging, someone who tries to put a new mother’s fears at rest and tries to ease her concerns by giving sensible answers to questions rather than mouthing sentences that have simply been handed down generation to generation.  My grandmother's grandmother said that to my grandmother and my grandmother said that to my mother who, in turn, said it to me and so I'm saying it to you !!!  Huh ???!!!  What weird logic is that ?  

It would help and calm a new mother’s fears to know from someone who has already been through this experience that it is perfectly normal for it to take a couple of days or more for the body to start lactating.  It would help a new mother to know that there could indeed be latching problems and issues and that these need patience and that one needs to persevere and that it is as much a learning process for the newborn baby to learn to feed as it is for the new mother to feed her baby.   It does not help to have people fling statements like “Oh ! you don’t know how to feed your baby”  or “ Oh ! There must be something wrong with your boob/s then”.  These are convenient but end of the day, they do not help one bit. 

If the new parents happen to have an over zealous paediatrician, their joys would simply be compounded overnight – literally.  Now, the usual practice in India when it comes to choosing a doctor, is pretty much going by your neighbour’s hearsay.  The same pretty much applies to the TamBrahm community too.  Which is precisely how I ended up with an obstetrician whose idea of a labour / delivery room was a converted bathroom in a residential building in Bombay.  One look at the OR in that nursing home was enough to make me decide that come hell or high water, I was going to push that baby out.  There was no way in heaven, given even the minutest of choices, that I was going to end up in THAT Operating Room !!  Some incentive that, huh !  Actually, one look at that OR would work really well in putting women off a C-Section.  It looked like one of those torture chambers from a set that had belonged to one of the movies from The Nightmare on Elm Street series.  I remember thinking very clearly and praying that the operating lights wouldn’t detach themselves from the ceiling and land on someone being operated upon.  I can imagine the said obstetrician looking all officious and saying “Oh !  we brought the lights down because I needed more light to operate” !!  Yes, people, it was that dicey !  If you’re wondering as to why I did not change doctors then, it was because I was due anyday soon and like I mentioned earlier, I was about as dainty as a beached whale.  Trundling along to “find” another obstetrician right then seemed more difficult than possibly a ride on the Battlestar Galactica in Universal Studios. 

The situation thus, is rather dexterously poised with the newborn, struggling to adjust to this noisy, bright world into which it has (quite literally) been pushed, the new mother who is going through a whole new learning curve and suddenly discovers that being able to sleep four hours straight was a luxury, the new father who is beginning to look more flummoxed, confused and sleep deprived with eyes wider and more baffled than deer caught in headlights. 

Another rather famous piece of advice that was given to me when Macadamia was born was "don't use diapers" - as in don't use disposable diapers.  Oh well !  Those little triangle pieces of cloth are next to nothing, truth be told.  God alone knows what possessed me to accede to that particular suggestion from the helpful angels around me but fact remains that I did.  No wonder then that I spent the first couple of months looking like a raccoon that had been electrocuted into dumb silence.  I guess that happens when one is terribly sleep deprived and surrounded by all sorts of Einsteins and Blaise Pascals.   

Now, if a new mom has been deemed as "not lactating enough" to fill her newborn's tummy (it was later that I realized that my newborn then used to keep crying because she was colicky and not because she was hungry all the time, as I'd been rather helpfully led to believe), all sorts of magic potions and concoctions make their way into the new mother's life.  Had someone turned this into a movie, it would have easily put Harry Potter's potions to shame.  One such magic potion given to my mom by some helpful soul involved a whole head of garlic (not a pod, people - a whole head of garlic), peeled and crushed, boiled in milk.  Rather helpfully, she asked my mom to then strain the milk, add some sugar so that it tasted good (yeah, sure !) and of course, I was asked to drink it all.  It helped wonderfully - as an emetic !!  Just the strong smell of that concoction turned my insides out and I spent the rest of the night retching and throwing up all the non existent food in my stomach.  When the helpful soul heard of this, she did remark "Oh Good !  It would have removed all impurities from the system" !  Excuse me ???!!!!  What impurities ?  It removed a good couple of layers from my intestinal tract !!  

Speaking of the intestinal tract brings me to the topic of food.  Now, in a TamBrahm household, new mothers have this "special diet" to follow.  They have to avoid root vegetables of any sort because that makes the baby colicky.  They have to avoid yoghurt because that too, apparently does something to the newborn - I didn't bother ask.  They have to avoid oil and spice because I'm sure that does something to the newborns too.  Basically, they have a select, gourmet choice of 4-5 vegetables.  It is indeed an experience of the highest order in sadism and masochism.  Truth be told, for a foodie like me, this diet for 42 days hurt way more than 10 hours of labour did.

I was fed (I know I am making myself sound like one of those cows from Kobe,Japan which are fed on the best of things so that they make the best beef steaks on someone's plate) a pure diet of okra or methi leaves or cabbage. One of those three vegetables would be cooked in ghee (which was never one of my favourites to begin with) and loads of cumin seeds (which aid digestion) and loads of methi seeds (which aid lactation, so it is said).  This was my diet for about 41 days, by the end of which, I was pretty sure my taste buds had died.  On the 42nd day, when I was given a tablespoon of some tomato dish with coconut, trust me, I almost turned delirious - deliriously happy that my taste buds were still alive and kicking.  Stubbornly spunky souls, those tastebuds !!
The new family is indeed complete, for now.  We shall join them in part 11 of The TamBrahm Saga, when the family starts to decide upon a name for the baby.  We shall also join them as they celebrate the newborn’s arrival at home with a naming ceremony and the kaapu ceremony.

Stay tuned, folks !

08 April, 2014

The TamBrahm Series (Part 9) - Events after the Valaikaapu / Seemantham

(Image courtesy : suga-namasivayam.blogspot.com via Google)
Continuing with The TamBrahm Series, this post is about the customs, traditions, fanfare and the social attitudes that women tend to exhibit towards pregnancy, in "educating" the mother-to-be on what to expect and quite successfully scaring the living daylights out of her.  This is Part 9 of the TamBrahm Series.  Am also posting the links to the earlier 8 posts in the TamBrahm series.
The TamBrahm Series (Part 1) Jaadagam Eduthacha - Horoscope matching and bride viewing.  Click here to view the post.
The TamBrahm Series (Part 2) Nischayathaartham - The Engagement Ceremony.  Click here to view the post.
The TamBrahm Series (Part 3) The Wedding Part 1.  Click here to view the post.
The TamBrahm Series (Part 4) The Wedding Part 2.  Click here to view the post.
The TamBrahm Series (Part 5) Kalyana Saddhi (The wedding feast) and Nalangu (games after the wedding).  Click here to view the post.
The TamBrahm Series (Part 6) Shanti Muhurtham a.k.a The Wedding Night a.k.a Suhaag Raat.  Click here to view the post.
The TamBrahm Series (Part 7) Valaikaapu and Seemantham Part 1.  Click here to view the post.
The TamBrahm Series (Part 8) Valaikaapu and Seemantham Part 2.  Click here to view the post.

Once all the fanfare of the Valaikaapu and Seemantham have settled, I mean once the dust has settled, it is time for the parents and the in-laws to decide upon when the expectant mother can go over to her parents’ house.  I mean, she can go over anytime she chooses to but given the TamBrahms’ penchant for muhurthams, there simply has to be one for this situation too.  After all, she is going over to her parents’ house and she will be staying there for a month or so after her delivery.  More importantly, she is carrying the next generation of the family.  So, finding a muhurtham is an absolute essential.
The family priest is consulted and he, in turn, consults the religious calendar and somehow, a consensus is arrived upon.  I’m making the word consensus sound like some sort of magic because people, trust me, it is.  The word “consensus” is just about as rare between a set of TamBrahm parents and in-laws as would be torrential rain in the deserts of Arabia.  It simply does not happen.  They just have to differ – it is a compulsion of some sort – they have to differ.  Period !!  I’ve always wondered why there is as much of a fuss as there actually is, over this “going to her parents’ place” thing.  There are many instances where the parents live in the adjacent building but that does not, in any way, diminish anything.  People still behave as though the expectant mother is embarking on a journey to Timbaktu, for her delivery.
When the expectant mother leaves her in-laws home for her parents’ home for her first delivery, there is this weird custom of sticking twigs of the curry leaf plant or the neem tree (I can’t seem to remember which one but there definitely are twigs in the picture) in her clothes – not in her, mind you, in her clothes.  Yet again, this is one of the customs which don’t seem to have any logical cause-effect relationship.  Or even if there is one, it is not something people seem aware of.  It has become more a case of “twigs were stuck into my clothes so I’ll stick some into yours” kind of a thing. 
I remember many of those twigs being stuck in many different parts of my clothing until I resembled a plant which started growing with the full gusto of a teen hitting a growth spurt and somewhere along the way, suddenly decided that it did not want to grow any more.  Just like that !  Had some Red Indian tribes seen me then, I would have been elected their chieftain, unopposed.  Simply put, I was a sight !  Just when I thought that was the end of my “make up” session, someone handed me an iron knife.  I kid you not !!  There I was, with a forehead that looked like Morse Code because of the number of dots and dashes of Kumkum on it, with twigs sticking out of many different areas in my clothes, brandishing a large iron knife.  Truth be told, I must have looked like an exemplary cross between an Red Indian Chieftain from some far away tribe and Phoolan Devi !!  Had it been put to the vote, we would have had a hung Parliament, for sure.
I simply did not know what to do with that iron knife and neither did any other person around.  All they knew was that an iron knife was to be given to the expectant mother.  What she was supposed to do with it or more importantly, what she was not supposed to do with it, no one helpfully knew.  I mean, a woman in her eighth month of pregnancy would not really need a large iron knife even for self-defence because even if she had a large knife, defending herself or attacking someone in that condition, would have been a mighty effort.  So yes, that is another one of those traditions, the answer to which no one knows !!
Once at her parents’ place, the expectant mother will have a steady stream of relatives and other mamis from all over the neighbourhood, stopping by to visit her.  Now when they come over to visit a pregnant lady, they always bring goodies with them.  Usually it is some home made savouries and sweets.  The timing could not have been worse, I say.  That late in pregnancy, women usually cut down on food intake because of the acid reflux situation.  If Lady Luck has been rather unkind, they would also have to watch their diet because of gestational diabetes or some such transitory phenomenon.  Now, this lady who has been asked to cut down on salty stuff (because she cannot risk sending her BP shooting up), oily, spicy stuff (because of acid reflux) or sweets (probably gestational diabetes), will have a large variety of goodies on which she can feast her eyes and only her eyes.  It is small wonder then that many women, late in pregnancy, are known to go looking for walls …. To bang their heads on !!
When these helpful mamis come visiting, they also bring along a wealth of experience to share with the expectant mother – whether she likes it or not, whether she wants it or not.  I, for instance, was told my many a mami that labour is so difficult and so painful that it is as good as a rebirth for the woman going through it.  In this instance, me !!  While I’m sure it is said with all good intentions, it does not help at all, at that stage of pregnancy.  As it is, the expectant mothers are quite apprehensive because they simply do not know what to expect.  To top this, to fill their heads with horror stories is not really a good idea.  The fear factor climbs exponentially and since ladies at that stage of pregnancy are not able to sleep much anyway, they have a whole lot of time at their disposal to imagine and conjure up all sorts of situations, most of them involving horrible or terrible pain.  No, it does not help !  What would help, under these circumstances, is having a sane voice of reason, one that does not hide the fact that there is a whole armload of pain waiting but one that also says, in the same breath, that it is very much doable. 
When one is a novice, there is always a fair amount of trepidation, of fear because one is basically stepping into the unknown.  In the case of couples expecting their first baby, this anxiety hits exponential levels because as the due date looms larger, appears closer, it always gives things a “larger-than-life” feeling.  That is when it hits people square in the head, that is when the penny drops, sinks even.  They are bringing a new life into the world and their responsibility as parents does not end with that.  On the contrary, that is when it begins.  The very thought of being responsible for another little human being, his/her well-being, of raising another member of society is quite a huge responsibility and the thought is a very humbling one, to put it mildly. 
Not to sound sexist here, but women experience more anxiety towards the end because if there is one thing any living being wants to avoid, it is pain.  Having their heads filled with innumerable tales of how extremely painful and distressing labour is, does not help.  Yes, expectant mothers (even ones expecting their first baby) do know, people, that labour is painful.  The least other ladies can do is present facts (if they are asked for or called for) without making the whole thing sound like one of those Saas Bahu serials, which are so utterly long drawn out, overly dramatic and excessively painful.
I still remember how many mamis had sworn then that they almost died of the pain, they saw stars in the daylight, they “went to heaven and came back” (now why anyone would want to do that, is beyond me !) and what have you.  Even worse is when the whole thing turns into a lamenting saga on “this is why women should not be born as women”!  Huh ???!!!!  What’s that even supposed to mean ?  Anyway, no disrespect meant, but when one of these sagas would begin, I had trained my brain to switch off.  There were but a few ladies who sounded extremely practical about the whole thing.  What society needs is more ladies like them around.  We need people that actually infuse confidence in expectant mothers, ones that state things for what they are or what to expect rather than overly dramatize the whole issue.
On that rather rebellious note, let’s leave the expectant mother at her parents’ house, for now, where she waits.   We’ll leave the expectant parents as they wait for the magic to happen, wait for the moment when they will touch their newborn baby for the first time, gaze into the baby’s eyes for the first time, when they will stare at those little tiny fingers and toes and feel that little being tugging at their heartstrings with a force they’ve never experienced before, when they will be completely bowled over by the sheer force of nature in all its glory and they will experience love for a little human being as an emotion in its purest form. 

08 March, 2014

A Musical Escapade - A writing prompt (1200 words)

(Pic courtesy : humintell.com via Google)

There was something amiss.  He could not put his finger on it but a part of his brain knew there was something definitely wrong.  “I can’t tax my brains right now” he muttered to himself.  “Getting up so early in the morning during such harsh winters is bad enough” he grumbled.  His hand felt something wet on the pillow and he realized, to his chagrin that he had drooled onto his pillow in his sleep.  A small smile played on his face as he thought about the fabulous dinner he had had the previous evening.  “The food was an absolutely feast – visually and taste wise and the sublime live music just added a whole lot of authenticity to the pleasurable ambience.  That vocalist was so good” he thought. 

That was when the penny dropped.  “Why the silence today ?” he wondered. 

Every single morning, he had awoken to the sounds of devotional music playing.  There were times when it had invoked his ire, especially on days when he’d hit the sack in the wee hours of the morning, only to be woken up a couple of hours later to the strains of M.S.Subalakshmi reciting the Suprabhatam.  Little did he realize how much a part of his life it had become, how ingrained it was in his psyche and his mind, how connected that early morning music was, to a sense of normalcy.

He got out of bed, pulled on his jacket and went over to open the windows.  He almost stumbled over the stack of the issues of Science Today.  “They’ve probably turned the volume down” he thought, as he pushed the windows open and stood there for a couple of seconds, ears straining to hear music.  Nothing.

“Got to find out what’s wrong” he muttered, as he rushed off to brush his teeth.  He set the kettle to boil water and found he couldn’t wait.  It was gnawing at him like a dog gnaws at a bone – that niggling feeling in his mind was relentless, persistent to the point of driving him out of the house without having had his morning dose of caffeine.  That act was another first, because he never ever stepped out of the house without having had his morning coffee.

His footfalls in the corridor were muted because of his soft slippers, as he headed in the direction from which the music usually emanated.  The entire corridor was silent.  There was not as much as a hint of noise anywhere.  The silence was, quite literally, deafening.

He rounded the corner and walked into the lift lobby.  Yet again, there were no signs of movement.  Silence prevailed supreme.  Both lifts were idling away at two difference floors, no one having called them.  He was just about to give up the James Bond mission and go back to the warm confines of his apartment when his eyes caught a large drop of something red.  It was right at the other corner of the lift lobby.  It was a big splotch and as he watched with growing horror, the splotch began to increase in size.  Slowly, very slowly, it started to trickle along the lobby.

“What have I got myself into ?” he thought to himself, alarm rising by the second.  Part of him just wanted to turn tail and run while part of him wanted to find out where that stream of red was coming from and what it was. 

He could literally hear the pounding of his heart, the cold clamminess in his hands and feet as the adventurer in him took over.  His feet moved as though they had a mind of their own and as he rounded the other corner, he saw a large pool of red liquid which was beginning to make its way down the corridor.  It seemed to be coming from the small apartment at the very end of the corridor.  “But that apartment is supposed to be empty” he thought to himself.  “How is the door open then ?”

The door hinges squeaked when he pushed it open.  Daylight was just beginning to break out through the skies and pour into the room through the window.  There was no furniture and the entire room was bare, empty.  The place seemed almost sterile in its emptiness. 

He saw it then.  One gleaming eye.  There was something magnetic about the eye that seemed to be drawing him towards it.  As he got closer, he got a good look at the creature and almost screamed out aloud.  It was a creature, the likes of which had never been seen on Earth before.   He contemplated calling the police when he heard the creature ask for help.  Not quite believing his ears, he carefully leaned further towards the creature and  heard it again. “Help me”, it said, sounding feeble and frail. 

“Who are you and where are you from ?” he asked, warily.  “What are you doing here ?”

“I am a being from another planet” replied the creature.  “We were in the forests, looking for some life fluid when I strayed away from our group.  Some humans saw me and injured me.  I am very close to death and I can be saved only if I reach the mother ship soon” it said. 

There was something so gullible, so trusting about the creature that despite all his common sense telling him to call the police, he relented. 

“How will your mother ship find you ?”  he asked

“Can you help me press these numbers into this keypad ?” asked the creature, holding out what looked like an extremely futuristic handheld device. 

It took just a few minutes before the whole apartment was lit up with an eerie green light.  Right in front of his disbelieving eyes a beam emerged from the ship as it started to pull the creature towards it. 

“Thank you very much” mouthed the creature, its eyes drooping weakly. 

The whole room was suffused with music too – strains of M.S.Subalakshmi floated through the entire room and he realized with a start that it was the Suprabhatam that was playing.  Suddenly, there was a loud jangling noise as the engines of the mother ship started up.

The jangling was getting louder and louder.  He tried putting his hands over his ears, squeezed his eyes shut but the loud sound was relentless.    There was a loud crash and with a start, his eyes flew open.
His fingers touched something wet.  He had drooled on his pillow again.  The familiar surroundings wrapped around him like a coat of cosy known comfort. 

He could remember everything with distinct clarity, though.  “Was it really a dream ?” he wondered.  

“Probably was” he muttered. 

He had fallen asleep reading the Special Edition of Science Today – An Alien Special, they called it.

“Nice dream, though” he thought to himself with a smile.  “Wait till my colleagues hear it”.

He went into the kitchen, craving a cup of coffee.  That was the first thing he had, every single morning.  His fingers closed around the handle of the kettle. He pulled the lid open to fill water and jolted, startled beyond comprehension.

The water in the kettle was boiling hot.