Thursday, 20 October 2016

Women Empowerment - The Context of Us vs Them

Returning from my evening walk, I spot her with her signature flowers, walking towards a car at the traffic signal. Where did the promise of my tube roses go, I wonder. With that thought I call out to her, and on the divider lovingly pull her ears. "Didi (an address for an elder sister) I am so sorry. Will get them tomorrow, but now can I pull your ears too please..."

This banter is quite usual between her and me, two strangers who meet at the same traffic signal; everytime that I walk past or drive by. A bright wide smile, lustrous black hair and a bunch of colourful flowers in her hands; she tells me small anecdotes each time and her smile transfers to me.

Last week as I sat in the car, waiting for the traffic signal to turn green, she knocked on the window. She never asks me to buy flowers and nor was that her desire then. She wanted to show me how her daughter was growing up. Shireen; she pointed out, with a mother's heart swollen with pride. Somewhere I sensed the pleasure was burdened with pain. Before I could ask what was bothering her my way was clear. The cars behind honking, I had no choice but to drive away. After I parked, I thought of going back to verify my suspicion but feared being interfering, and so buried my inkling....

"Of course you can pull my ears", and I bent my head towards her. 
She gently pulled one and said, "didi this is probably the last time you will see me. Post Diwali (the festival of lights coming up in 10 days) I am going away to the village". 
"For how many days?" 
"Maybe I will never come back!" 
"Oh sure, and I was born yesterday! You have been here forever! So when will you return and when will my tube roses come?"
"No didi, I am serious. I have never shared what I am about to, with you. Do you recollect, a few months ago, I had asked if you knew of anyone looking for domestic help? Well I have been asking multiple women and have been unable to find a job. The reason I was asking is because I want to get away from my husband; I need physical distance between us. He does not earn, drinks and then comes home to beat me up. I have legally divorced him but he wants us to remarry. How can I, when he does not respect me or support me? He comes even now, on the pretext of meeting Shireen and verbally abuses me. I am scared that one day he will hit our daughter. That I won't be able to tolerate. And so I want to go away."

My brain is processing this very slowly. I am not hearing this right or maybe my instinct last week was right.

"Didi I tried very hard to find a job but because of a two year old, no one will employ me as domestic help. I have no other skills and it's so expensive to live in Mumbai and send her to school."

Puzzled I stare at her. No solution comes to mind. She looks tired but not sad. She looks gentle and yet determined. She looks helpless but still is persuasive.

"So I am thinking of going away and renting a small room in Ahmedabad. There I can find a place for Rs 500 monthly rent, sell vegetables and get my daughter to study. Only if I could get Rs 5000 for the deposit I can manage all else."

My feet are glued to the ground and are not moving when suddenly her sister appears.

"Yes didi he verbally abuses us too. She is better off with some distance from him. Maybe with no way to get to her he will mellow down. But she has no money. we have no money. Who knows..."
"He has tracked me down when I moved away from here to a shelter. If I could get a job as domestic help, the fear of the employer would keep him away. He abuses the cops too. So not able to find a job, I have to leave. There is no option left. Promise me you will come to meet me before Diwali..."
"Of course I will..."

I make my promise, stroke her arm, pull her sister's cheeks and my feet start to drag me home.

My head is spinning. On the day that most women in the neighbourhood are fasting and praying for the long lives of their husbands, this one is struggling to find a way away from the one she has divorced. The irony of life!

I wrote, just last week, that to empower women we must allow them to live a life of their choice. But if she lives the choice she is being forced to make, will that truly empower her? I said, just last week, that emboldening girls will give them their rights. If she uses her confidence to move away from a place that is her home, will that be righteous? In this context it is not choice or confidence that she needs. She needs financial independence and some societal support...

I hope we can all educate our children and I hope we can all be respectful of one another. If not, then maybe some amount of affirmative action will always be needed. If not, then we will always remain weary of the other gender, and the us vs them saga will linger on. 




Sunday, 16 October 2016

Women Empowerment - A Life of Choice Lived for Others

Where do I begin,
To tell the story of how great a life can be,
The awe-inspiring story of the love she brings to all and me,
Where do I start?

This third story has been on the drawing board for days now. Everytime I attempt to complete it, I seem to go back to the beginning, feeling I have not done her justice. Maybe it's because this story is the closest to my heart. Maybe, because, while my parents gave me my dreams and the wings to fly, she helped me navigate the turbulent winds. Maybe, because, while my sisters showered me with selfless affection, she taught me to love even in the absence of warmth. Maybe, because, while my friends became my support system, she taught me to back my own self through stormy seas.

Her love and guidance are the reasons that I improve as an individual everyday. She is the reason that many young women have succeeded in living their choices by being confident, empathetic and patient; and not fighting under the auspices of feminism. She is the reason that multiple individuals have found harmony and peace despite most dire circumstances. And yes, she is the reason that I say women empowerment is truly about women living their choices and astutely using their abilities to make their dreams come true.

Persuasion

Born into a traditional family, she grew up in a smaller city in Uttar Pradesh. Adept at all house work, incredibly knowledgeable about all scriptures, loving and respectful towards elders and youngers alike; when she should have been getting married she declared that she wanted to give up the larger worldly and materialistic life. She wanted to work for welfare of the society and to spread education. This would only be possible if she could calm and center herself, and keep distractions and temptations at bay. Her choice seemed extreme and her future uncertain; but her knowledge of the scriptures and lessons from her father had taught her to follow her heart. The heart can never lead one astray;  on a difficult path yes, but never on the wrong path. And so she worked on helping the family understand her choice, and her need of their support to achieve her dream. Permission granted, she started her life's work 23 kilometres away from the city on the banks of the Ganges.

It was the early 1990s and she wanted to start a shelter for destitute women - child widows, homeless women of the streets and women spurned by their families. Construction of the shelter was to be done on land that her father had kept for her financial security. The land was duly donated to the Trust (that she had formed for the cause) before it was put to use. Though she was inexperienced, not knowledgeable and had little exposure; she took complete responsibility of the project from conceptualisation to completion. She learnt on the way and asked for guidance when needed; but otherwise in the relatively more conservative and aggressive heartland of India, managed every aspect of the project from monitoring construction workers, to negotiating with contractors, to dealing with government officers, all on her own. No bribes were given, no compromises made on quality and all work was done painstakingly in the manner that it should have been. It took longer than envisaged, but her conviction was that at the right time things would complete. Her determination and calmness did not waiver even for a day; even when locals created wrinkles by bringing up petty issues month after month. She provided all clarification, maintained her focus and kept to herself.

I am calling it a shelter but it is not that, and never was, right from day one. I just cannot seem to find a better word. Every lady was given a room, with an attached bathroom, to share with one other woman. Each one of them had a role to play, the responsibility of a daily chore - cleaning, washing, cooking a meal, tending to the garden etc. And everyone had a title with which they were addressed - bhua or mausi (Aunty) by the youngsters, behenji (Sister) by the elders, or mataji (Mother) by the daily visitors such as the milkman or the vegetable vendor. The same continues todate and it is one big happy family where there is mutual respect and affection, everyone works together, eats together and prays together.

The prayer sessions are all inclusive;  people from outside are welcome to join. Within the first few weeks of the morning prayers starting, she realised that outsiders who attended the sessions were those who had no means of support. So she decided that every one of them should be given a morning meal (rotis and a vegetable), raw dal (pulses), atta (unrefined flour), some salt and a token amount. The reason was simple - one meal taken care of and the basic ingredients of the next one provided for, they would be assured two square meals a day. This would reduce any provocation or temptation do indulge in anything unsavoury. The small sum would be saved, hopefully, and provide a contingency or emergency fund. Or else it would be pocket money to be used when simple wants arose.

Accustomed to waking up at 400am, she used the kitchen before anyone came to make breakfast and prepared the morning prayer meals for over 30 people, everyday. The ingredient packets were put together before she went to sleep each night. This was in addition to running the administration, finances and maintenance of the shelter; and being a friend, philosopher and guide to many like me who form her circle of family and friends. These were her desires and her aims, nobody else could be inconvenienced towards the fulfilment of the same.

All Trust expenses were (and are) met by dipping into the small savings that had accumulated during her tenure as a teacher,  the little money her father had set aside for her and what her brother and sister voluntarily contributed. Ocassionally, friends and family donated (and continue to do so). All proceeds were (and are) strictly used for the works of the Trust.

Money has no significance for her; beyond providing food, water and shelter for the women who she calls family for over two decades now. She owns no more than two or three sets of clothes that she washes herself and wears on alternate days. Jewellery has no place in her life. She eats only one meal a day, and that what is cooked for everyone else. There is no need to travel and if a need does arise, then the cheapest mode is used - tempo travelers, buses and trains at best. With her knowledge and application of ayurveda, a high pain threshold and tremendous amounts of self control; medical expenses are bare minimum. Cosmetics are alien to her and gifts not acceptable. She is content with as little as possible and in giving as much as she possibly can, both physically and emotionally.

To give a purpose to the lives of the scorned, to improve the lives of the villagers and to encourage a community feeling; in the late 1990s she decided to initiate a small sewing school in the premises of the shelter. It seemed to be the most interesting way to skill up the local population and productively engage all involved. The teachers were women of the shelter, students were women and girls of the village, and all material and equipment was provided by the Trust.

Once the pupils were capable, she requested the village women to get their sewing needs, big and small, fulfilled by the newly trained seamstresses. The Trust equipment could be used at no cost, but pre-intimation for planning was needed. Soon there was a thriving close knit community that formed. After lunch, when classes and sewing would be underway; laughter, happiness and melody would tiptoe everywhere that the women went. A sense of belonging was visible on every face on the premises. For those few hours, everyone forgot all worries of life and enjoyed the company of those present. It truly was a place under the sun that soaked everyone in the love of life.

But vagaries of life dance to their own tune. All of a sudden, there was a complaint raised that under the garb of a Trust she was running a commercial enterprise. The bank accounts of the trust showed balances that were embarrassingly low, even for a charity. Her own account had barely enough to meet her meagre monthly needs. Cash-in sources for the Trust were, in majority, identified as deposits made from her and her siblings' accounts. Expense reports and receipts were all available down to the last paisa. Villagers vouched that they never paid anything to the Trust or any teacher. Legally there could be no non-compliance and none was found. Morally not a blemish could be spotted. Ethically, those who were investigating, blushed when the squeaky clean and the noble way of working emerged. And yet someone somewhere decided that all the testimonies and proof were insufficuent and a legal notice was issued. The lessons, the assignments, the afternoon bliss; all came to a screeching halt.

I went to visit soon after, and in my wisdom told her that we should opt for judicial help. She had a simple answer, "the money and time we would spend in a legal battle can be used for better things. We have to find an alternative, non interfering means to improve life in the village, and in time that path will show itself. Maybe there is a worthier cause that we have missed." I was not convinced and said I would bear the legal cost. She asked me to give the estimated amount to those who needed it for education. When I was not convinced any other way, she took to Ramayana to make the point.

When Ravana abducted Devi Sita, Lord Rama did not need anyone's help to find her. He, the omnipresent and omnipotent, knew exactly who was responsible and where his beloved was. He could have waged a war right then and killed Ravana. Yet he went wandering in the dangerous forests, crying in grief and yearning for his wife. That is when Lord Hanuman met him and avowed to help find Devi Sita. When Lord Hanuman left with that aim, he was faced with crossing an ocean. He had forgotten his powers of flying and it was in the despair of not being able to keep his word to the Lord, that he was reunited with his power. Ultimately when war ensued, Laxman was gravely injured. The only cure for his wounds was available thousands of miles away in the Himalayas; and that is when Lord Hanuman's flying prowess showed it's glory. He flew from Lanka to Himalayas, secured the medicinal herbs and saved Laxman's life. So maybe this turn of events was necessary to usher in another effort that would touch and change many more lives. We had to be patient and calm to see how future unfolds. If the laughter had ceased, she was convinced that so would the eerie afternoon silence of the premises. This explanation and chain of thoughts I could not refute; and was once again left speechless by her equanimity, faith and selflessness.

Time continued on its journey and she continued on her path, toying with multiple ideas to bring about a positive difference in the village life. But every idea conflicted with her ideology of non-interference or spoke of significant capital requirements. Amongst all the plans that she brought up over the years, the one that kept resurfacing was that of starting a school. Her only hitch in starting one was the need of place and capital. Both were in short supply and hence her dream remained just that, a dream.

Where there is a will there is a way. When the desire is deep from the heart then the mind is forced to carve out solutions. That is what happened last September. She called up her brother with the perfect solution for a space for the school. It was the premises of the shelter. The women living there would keep their rooms and the kitchen. But all other available rooms, including her own room, the prayer hall, the communal dining area etc. would be converted into classrooms. To begin with, there would be enough space to create decently sized classrooms from nursery to grade five and a staff room. The space available in front of the shelter could be used to create two rooms that could be used as the principal's office and a small accounts office. The garden of the shelter could be used as the playground and to hold events on independence day, republic day, annual day etc. He would need to help her with the funds.

The brother asked her not to worry about finances, his life savings were hers. But where would she live and sleep? That was simple she said - on a folding bed in one of the classrooms. In the evening, post dusk, the bed would be opened and laid in the room after moving the classroom furniture. The next day before dawn she would fold it back and rearrange the desks and tables. Waking up early, not sleeping in the afternoon and having one meal a day; all these helped in that she would need no space through the day. Her training was probably for this day! And if this was not acceptable, she said she would sleep in one of the tiny storerooms that housed all the linen of the shelter. She was ready to make do with even lesser, only to see her dream come true. She now was derermined to start an English medium school and provide the village children with an environment that not only made them literate, but educated them about the rich heritage and culture of our nation, and the newer ways of life that will change the world of the young ones. 

While her brother was taking his time in weighing the merits of her proposition, she started  speaking to a few young and trusted locals. Soon there was a troop of volunteers to help with tasks such as admissions, finding teachers, designing uniform and doing the clerical and office work. She started thinking of a name for the school. She called an old friend, who now runs a school, to understand what it would take to run one herself. Her passion, conviction and relentlessness forced the brother to cave in. He took on the responsibility of doing the paperwork and raising or providing the funding.

In February this year, the school was inaugurated. While the brother sister duo had envisaged only about fifty children to start with, they were astounded with a hundred and fifty plus admissions. Fees payable by students such as young Ali, whose father was lynched to death by a mob and whose mother washes utensils to provide her children with two meals a day, was waived. Trying to minimise expenses, she decided to herself make and serve tea to the staff and the teachers, thrice a day. To ensure standards are maintained and laws followed; administration, accounts and maintenance are all personally looked into by her. All events are planned under her guidance. Teachers, students and parents can see her at any point in time for grievance addressing. This, of course, is in addition to still doing all the work that she has committed to at the shelter.

Last month I went to spend a weekend with her. She was snowed under responsibilities but content at seeing her dream coming true. She had not a minute to herself but still found time to listen to my stories, grunts and dreams. She put her folding bed in the classroom but suggested that I stay at a nearby guesthouse so that I was comfortable. In awe, I burst out laughing. How could she be so selfless and so loving! I was there to be with her, and would sleep on the floor if I needed to; if she has lived her life as she has, I could live with just a bit less for just two days.

Everyday when I speak to her, I come face to face with the fact that just like respect, empowerment has to be earned. She chose her life with her heart. She fought her battles with grace. She soars in victory with humility. And that is how she brings alive the words of Jacqueline Bisset - Character contributes to beauty. A mode of conduct, a standard of courage, discipline, fortitude and integrity do a great deal in making a woman beautiful and a life meaningful. Yes empowerment is earned and cannot be demanded; that is a lesson I have learnt, and now need to master. 

Monday, 10 October 2016

Women Empowerment - Against all Odds

"Is this what you plan to wear while you go out to meet your friends, shop or go and do whatever it is that you do? I don't approve of it. But well, I have lived my life on my terms and so who am I to stop you." A rare but loving sermon over, I looked at her, smiled, gave her a hug and was out of the door. Neither was I dressed inappropriately nor was this my grandmother, mother or sister. This was the lady who cooks for the family and her only point was that, as far as she is concerned, I look my best in sarees and so should be wearing only those.

She has always been vocal about her views, protective about us sisters and I adore her. She is my second story, my second reminder of the wonders that self belief can lead to.

Sense and Sensibilities

The Relentless, as I call her, follows Swiss watches and has been doing so ever since she started working. Consequently she is always dot on time. Never has there been a day when she has taken a holiday without giving sufficient prior notice. And even those holidays, annually, can be counted on fingertips. There have been less than a handful of instances in her tenure with us, when she has asked for an advance or a loan against salary. All of this has been consistent for almost quarter of a century and for eighty percent of that, she has been the sole bread winner for her family; a family of four plus a mother and a mother-in-law.

How did she become so self reliant, self sufficient and self confident? As a curious teenager I had asked her this question while still relatively new, she stirred the delicious pav-bhaji (minced vegetables stewed in tomato puree, spices and butter). Her regular stern look refused to deter me that day. I was taking a break from my study schedule and could do with some conversation; I left her no choice and she minced no words.

As is the case in most Maharastrian families, she got married at a young age and did not see her husband till the wedding night. On that night, as an expectant young bride, she waited for her husband to walk in confidently, only to find a drunk man barely managing to sway in through the door. She was not new to the stench, but she was not prepared for this to be the foundation of the rest of her life. Reality had jolted her out of her demure bride's blissful dreamland!

Her husband was a gambler and a drunkard. He was hardly able to keep jobs and what he earned was lost to the addictions. Relentless decided that she would put in the labour needed to buy food for and clothe the family. The first job offer she got was from a Bengali woman who lived several miles away, but she accepted. Every morning she would wake up at 500am finish the domestic chores, leave home at 700am and reach her employer at sharp 900am. After she cooked lunch at that house and helped with the daily tasks, there was still time left. So she took up a few jobs in nearby households. At 600pm she would make her way to the station, reaching home by 800pm to finish the remaining home chores. She did not cook at home. That was her mother-in-law's pet peeve. It was a hard existence which she had almost accepted as her fate until one dark monsoon night when it became her choice, her self esteem and her persona.

Her eldest son was running a fever. It was late at night, pouring heavily and it was becoming critical to take the child to the doctor. The father was nowhere to be found and there were the mother-in-law and two children at home to care for. She wanted some help but none was available. Suppressing all emotions - anger, frustration and fear - she made her way to the emergency room. The child was admitted immediately and the treatment started.

Back home, in the wee hours before dawn, she waited for the man of the house to return. It was still pouring outside and after many cups of hot water she was finally able to feel the dampness go out of her bones when she heard the knock. She opened the door and he stood in all his glory, laced with the scent of alcohol and devoid of any sense that a human being should possess; forget a responsible father of three young ones.

He took one wavering step inside the house, when overcome with self respect, she used all her might and pushed him out, into the heavy downpour. He glared and stared and she silently growled back. The mother-in-law emerged from the shadows and Relentless turned to her, "this is my house. I earn and run it. If you want to be with your son you can go out too. If he wants to come in, he will have to come in sans the alcohol and with some sensibilities of his responsibilities. Otherwise I am capable of taking care of myself and my children. I am done carrying his burdens." The mother-in-law retreated inside and the husband spent the entire night outside. That one surge of strength and confidence ushered in a new her and newfound respect for her amongst the family members, including the husband.

The son in the hospital was in a serious condition. She continued to work and care for him, and the father started being around too. But it was too late for him, soon the son died. He was free from his suffering was her take. The husband saw her immense strength and his core was shaken. What had he done to deserve this selfless, nurturing and principled woman as his life partner? Just that thought forced him to stop drinking. He started keeping small jobs and taking some responsibility at home even if it meant only ferrying the children to and from school. But years of abuse had rendered his liver weak and his strength was limited. In a few years time he succumbed to liver failure but not before letting his wife know that the last few years of his life was when he truly lived. It was now her two children and her mother-in-law who comprised her family.

As she closed her narration, my next question popped out. Why was she still following the same back breaking routine? She had avowed to educate her children and make them into responsible human beings. She liked the houses she contributed to. She knew that her gruel had helped her deal with life's blows and not become a victim of circumstances. So this was going to be it until she could physically find it possible to continue.

The wide eyed, confused and overawed teen me, picked up some pav-bhaji and strolled into my room, back to my books. I could not comprehend her tremendous resolve and decided to stop giving her grief over her occasional tobacco chewing.

Six years ago when I moved back to India she was still around. Her daughter had been married by then and was a mother already. The daughter had a driver and a help as well. Her son was doing well in his career, was married to a nice girl and had a nice house for himself. Backup! Why was her son living separately? Why was she still travelling four hours a day and still exerting beyond her years? Why could she not take it easy? Because she would not be a burden on her son and his family. Because she wanted her self reliance and self sustenance intact till the day she died. Because now after her children were settled the responsibility of her mother-in-law and mother was hers. When did her mother move in with her; I don't know. But I know she was a tremendously proud mother who died recently and that was the first time Relentless took time off without a notice.

I could go on about how Relentless built a new home in the village, and refusing to take help from her son-in-law chose to sell her home and move further away to a place that increased her commute. But if I continue her story I would not know when to stop, and I am sure there is no more evidence needed to see very clearly how this woman made her own choices, gathered confidence when the best of us would sink into the depths of self pity and depression and has moved from strength to strength. Relentless highlights how women are not weak and cannot be oppressed if they so choose. I think women just don't have confidence and self belief that they can overcome any obstacle and have it all.

It is ashtami today, the eighth day of Navratri, the day Hindus prays to Goddess Durga - the symbol of strength, the destroyer of evil and the all benevolent and nurturing mother of all. How apt is it that I am writing about Relentless today, not only because she personifies all of the above but also because her name is another name for Devi Durga herself! 

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Women Empowerment - The Strength from Within

Engrossed in my thoughts on women empowerment, I mechanically stared outside my window. A huge serpentine queue of women had formed to do darshans of Goddess Mahalaxmi on the auspicious seventh day of Navratri (the nine holy days before Dashera, the day good won over evil). Amidst the flurry of traffic I could spot yellow, pink, orange and purple sarees; giving the serpent a definite soul and character. But why was I seeing only women in that queue? Maybe because my mind was tuned into a station that continuously repeated that women pray a lot more?

As I stepped out into the humid evening, on my weekly visit to the smaller temple just before Mahalaxmi, I realised that I would have to navigate alongside the slow moving reptile line. Awesome! Would give me a glimpse into reality; and that it did! Lo and behold, what I saw from my window was part truth. There were actually two queues, one for men and the other for women. The reason I saw only women was because of the vibrant saree colours and the fact that their queue was on the outside towards the road; while the men in their whites, creams and browns stood on the inside, awaiting equally patiently to reach the temple. How perceptions and preconceived notions can condition the human mind, and colour the thinking of even the educated and aware!

Today we fervently believe that predominantly in the Indian society women have no voice and little choice. We are made to be the gravely oppressed, who have to pick up arms and fight for all the wrongs that the world has committed against us for decades together now. But when I look closer to home, I see examples of some exemplary women who have lived through their struggles, worked against all odds and created happy lives for all those who are in their inner circle. They could do this, in my view, only because they did not feel like the victims that society makes women out to be. They are the happiest of the people I know only because they lived life making their choices. They could make their selection only because they understood that everything can easily be seen to be ugly, but the search for beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. I want to tell you three stories, of three such women who I have come to respect and admire. After that it is up to the more evolved readers to decide whether to agree with, disagree with or be indifferent to my view point.

Pride without Prejudice

It was the late 1960s. She was the pretty and educated daughter of an Indian Revenue Services officer stationed in the small town of Kota, in the desert state of Rajasthan. Her family hailed from Uttar Pradesh and wanted her to get married into a nice family from their part of the country. Soon she was of a marriageable age and her father sought out a groom. Of course her consent was taken, the future life comforts considered; and with great pomp and show the wedding was concluded. The new bride, with her dreams and hopes, made way to the small town of Lakhimpur; 800 kilometres away from her parents. She was told that she should call if there was anything that she was uncomfortable with and not resort to a letter, the most common communication medium of the times.

Like most women moving into a new way of life post marriage, she was nervous. But she trusted the man she was to spend the rest of her life with and so she was ready adapt. After all, adaptability comes more naturally to women who are even able to mould their bodies to bring another life into this world. But what she came face to face with, no woman, including today’s empowered lot could have dealt with. The man she called husband was already married, not only that, he had two children from the first wife. Why did he get married a second time, I have never asked and do not know. What I do know is that when they got married the first wife had been sent back to her parents, never to return.

There was turmoil and there was devastation that seemed to be all around her. This was not the new life she had dreamed of. This is not what she had left her loving and protected home for. At the tender age of 19 or 20, she did not know what had hit her and what should she do. Before she made up her mind, she decided to think. And in her words, there was no fun in being considered a victim. Her choices were to stay in or call off the marriage. But before she could decide which road to traverse, she wanted to restore the rights and honour of the first wife. A brave and bold move, one that I do not think I would have considered being mine for the undertaking.

So the first wife and the two children were met, got back home, and the husband given an ultimatum that if they were to be sent back or discriminated against then a police complaint would be a certainty. There was no support system at her disposal as she contemplated and executed her actions. The in-laws were enraged, the husband hostile and her own mind undecided. Yet she followed her heart, no self pity in mind and no feeling of loss enveloping her aura.

Having gotten to understand the first wife, another conversation with the husband ensued. Now she would want to make use of her education and start to teach in a school. While she would be earning, the first wife would take care of the home and the children. The husband was not allowed to object. That was her condition. She would only concede in trying to understand him if this was acceptable. And so it was. Against all his wishes he allowed her to start working. She started to understand him and he began to see her strength.

It was when there was some peace returning, that her family found out. The father rushed from Kota to take his innocent and wronged daughter back, use his influence in the services to punish the man and his family and to find another loving and more deserving man for his daughter. But she refused. What if the second man turned out to be a lazy non-achiever? What if the next man was one who believed in extramarital affairs? What if the other chance she wanted would mean she would need to be stuck at home and not be able to teach, a dream she had harboured forever? Against all assurances, parents’ pleading and world view of justice and rights; she decided to play the hand she was dealt with, with confidence and equanimity.

Her career progressed and she graduated from being a school teacher to being a college principal. She had two children who were looked after by the first wife while she worked. All four children knew her story and for them she was the anchor of their lives. The first wife loved her more than God and the husband died in her debt. After her husband and the first wife died, one of the four children succumbed to some sudden illness. Now there are three children and more than half a dozen grandchildren who vie for her love and attention. Now she is retired and spends time in an old people’s home not wanting to be a burden on any child. Now she tells her story with a smile and a belief that all the love, satisfaction and glory she found; was because she knew that no one could hurt her unless she let them.

Truly empowered, she has led an inspirational life; but her empowerment did not come from any enablers from the society or from a support system that righted her wrong. Her confidence and ability to choose for herself are what have let her lead a fulfilling life, a story every time I recount gives me goose bumps. No outsider can sanction such self belief and strength. And so I go back to saying that the fight for women empowerment needs to be a movement to build a more confident, compassionate and capable next generation.

The next two stories will follow over the next few days.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Gender Divide - Us vs Them

What was a gender equality row has now become a women empowerment movement. Of late, feminists have taken the discussions, debates and dues to women to a whole new level, and that has really made me sit back and think. How much of it do I agree with personally may not matter really, but as a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a mentor to millennials, as a woman with aspirations and ambitions and lastly with the responsibility of the many women in my team; I feel compelled to be honest about my views. If I fail in this honesty, I would not only be failing those I love but more importantly my own self.

That women have the right to be treated well is one thing I cannot deny. That women need to be encouraged to follow their dreams is an opportunity I have been given, and cannot deny the same to anyone. That women have been stereotyped is a truth best acknowledged upfront. However, as I am writing all of this, I am left wondering; do we not box men into types, do we not expect men to follow certain paths in life even if they are a hundred and eighty degrees opposite of their own desires,  and do we not suppress boys at any point in their lives? Even if one of these is answered in yes then the affirmative action needs to be inclusive in my view.

One argument against inclusion and pro women is the imbalanced ratio of opressed women vs men; and to that my question is that with a biased affirmative action are we not running the risk of having men in the same boat (as women are today) at some point? Where does this us vs them end?

I have written this before and I will say it yet again. To truly empower women and to create a balance, we need to give them the freedom of choice and confidence in themselves. Because a girl is a good science and maths student should not mean that she is forced to follow that path even if her choice is journalism. Because a girl wants to do Engineering let us not make it easier for her by lowering the bar that allows her admission into a college of her choice. Let us train her into becoming that person who can overcome that hurdle just like we would expect the boys to fight. Because a girl wants to work, let us not push her towards giving priority to her career even though she wants to be a stay at home mother. Because a woman prioritises her family but wants to work as well, let us facilitate the same equally for men and women. And while working on inclusive change let us sensitise genders about one another.

The girl child has an X and a Y chromosome and the male child two Y chromosomes. That must lead to some inherent strengths with each gender and some traits that are complimentary. Why is the same then denied or refuted? If a woman can run during her periods without a tampon, why can a man not shave for months? If a woman is expected to dress well and wear makeup, why is it alright if a man turns up as if he is just out of the gym? If a woman should be allowed to express her emotions and not be discriminated against, why do we call sensitive men sissy? If a woman is expected to lovingly nurture the family, why can't a man be the unconditional supporter? These are all views that we must consider and ask the next generation to dwell upon too...

Ramayana, the Indian epic, has had me fascinated for many years now. It is widely considered to be one of the biggest examples in Indian culture of how women have been wronged against regularly. Not something that I have ever agreed with, but was unable to articulate till I read the very gripping, In Search of Sita. A collection of twelve essays by twelve different contemporary personalities, it highlights how everything has two sides. For example, while Sita's exile when she was pregnant may have been a decision by her king husband, Sita's acceptance of the same was not her weakness; but a mark of strength to say that she could and would survive against all odds. It also demonstrated her faith in her husband who, if one reads the Valmiki Ramayana (the original Ramayana), himself gave up the comforts of a royal life in grief of not being able to live with his wife. Now if we take these views into consideration, love, equality and empowerment are all understood beautifully.

In fact it's amazing how the Ramayana over and over again signifies the importance of inclusive empowerment and the right to choice. It was queen Kaikayi who won the war for King Dashratha and hence became his consort. It was Sita's and Laxman's choice that took them to the forests for a fourteen year exile along with Lord Rama. Sita chose not to marry the very handsome, talented and powerful Ravana; both at the Swayamvar and post her abduction. At the same time, Ravana respected her choice and maintained his distance till such time that she said a yes. So if men were powerful, women with a right to choose were equally empowered.

The world has been painted with varied brushes and in many colours. There are as many emotions and interpretations as there are human beings. Happiness and sorrows ebb and flow with every passing second. And in all this complexity, if we add the variables of us vs them and subtract empathy and compassion; chaos and volatility will only multiply. If it had to be us vs them, then men should have never left Mars and women should have stayed on Venus. But now that we are here, together, on Earth, let us appreciate the beauty that we each bring and help one another rid oursleves of the wrinkles that we can do without. In our short lives let's make every interaction and each encounter special, irrespective of gender or any other divide. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

Music and Water


As the clouds faded and the sun emerged, the teacher stopped his lesson. Looking at the student he said, "be like water and the seven notes". The student continued to listen, she wanted him to explain. 

"In the Ganges water becomes holy. With single malt it's intoxicating. Mixed in the sewer it's filth. And just like that the seven notes are the seven notes. You can take them and mould them into classical, jazz, pop or rock. The form changes but the essence does not. The proposition changes the value does not. The perception changes but the identity does not."

The student smiled. It was so simple and yet so profound. No wonder the guru shishya parampara has been hailed as the best form of learning.

 

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Parent Lottery

The Pianist and I were meeting after ages or shall I say we were catching up after ages. Over a cup of coffee, that neither one of us had, we spoke about the aspirations we had in college and how life had turned out since. It took us back to the good old days when over many omelette sandwiches we had discussed the influence of our respective fathers in our lives; and The Pianist exclaimed, "you are still such a daddy's girl! "

How right is he! My father, has been my biggest inspiration ever since I can remember. In the words of Agatha Lin, he is my hero, chauffeur, listener, financial advisor, life mentor, friend, guardian and simply there when I need a hug, even today. And he plays all these roles so effortlessly, even after a twelve hour working day, that I have now resolved to find his secret potion pot of patience, compassion and energy! I need to steal it to be half of the person he is at less than half his age...

During our growing up years, father used to travel a lot. He used those travels to fuel our dreams, encourage our creative pursuits and introduce us to the world that existed outside the small village township that was home. It was a few days before my tenth  or eleventh birthday and he was on one of his business trips, unlikely to be home in time for my special day. I was moping and missing him already when a large packet arrived for me, a first such occurrence. Curious, wide eyed and just a tad excited I opened the package. What I saw inside had me smiling, ear to ear. Only father could have done this; it was a book! He knew my love for reading and had been asking me to read a bit of history. To persuade me further, he had shipped the newly published "Freedom's Daughter: Letters between Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru". Such an apt gift that I remember the name, the cover and the experience of reading those letters even today!

Everytime father returned from his visits there was a treasure trove of music that he laid at our feet. Then whether it was Beethoven, Beatles, Beach Boys, Enigma, Kenny Rogers, Mozart or Vangelis; all found a place in his suitcase. Ravi Shankar, Kishore Kumar, Rafi and Lataji already graced parent's LP cabinet. Getting us accustomed to the right sound quality also was a task father undertook with great pleasure and so we had speakers that were the envy of every visitor to the house. In fact mother's talent in, and father's love for music were the reasons that not only were me made to listen to world music, but when we moved to Kuala Lumpur, Sequoia and I were enrolled into Church Organ classes! Bonsai had to learn the recorder instead. Today that early  foundation in music has resulted in our appreciation for the incredible art and varied artists.

While I could talk all night about all the interesting experiences father and mother afforded us, there are two opportunities that I think we will always be immensely grateful for. The first, they, never stopped us from exploring any avenue because we were girls. There was never any stereotyping that they indulged in, in any form then be it profession or hobbies. This despite being marwaris! Second, we were shown the beauty of the country that we lived in, all by road. So be it the hills and plains of Uttar Pradesh, the temples and forests of Madhya Pradesh, the desert of Rajasthan or the plateau of the Deccan; up close and personal road journeys were the family holidays undertaken till there was certainty that the girls appreciated and understood the spectrum of Indian culture and heritage. Only then did we go west! Father's love for driving and photography probably transferred to me via osmosis during these memorable trips and continue to be a binding factor between us even today.

"What car do you drive", the Pianist asked. "A Toyota", I replied. "You and a Japanese car! I had you pegged down as a Skoda girl"! Well the Pianist was right again; that is father's choice of car for his precious daughters' safety, but after two Skodas the patriarch decided to give the Japanese a try! And just like the Toyota, we have also found our place under the sun, thanks to our parent's relentless guidance.

Randy Pausch put it so eloquently when he said, "I won the parent lottery. I was born with the winning ticket, a major reason I was able to live out my childhood dreams"; in my case, an Indian marwari girl, they are the reason I am able to dream. 


Friendship

The teacher asked the student , "what is friendship?" The student started to think but could not articulate her thoughts. 

"Am I your friend?", the teacher asked. "Yes of course!"  was the student's instantaneous response. "Why? I am neither your age group, nor from your walk of life and nor am I knowledge about your vocation!" The teacher's statement made the student respond with gratitude, "but you know me, my wrinkles and all!"

The teacher was smiling. "Don't you see what friendship means now? It is the coming together of two truths. The existence of transparency. The acceptance of each other's reality." 

The student smiled. She had never considered it to be so simple, yet now understood lucidity of life and friendship; never to be forgotten.

Monday, 3 October 2016

The Gift Horse and I

Sometime last year, during one of our irregular WhatsApp chats, Hermione asked me to come visit her. She had bought her own place and now I must visit, she said. Gollywog had been complaining that all my holidays were spent in favour of Europe and Delhi and I was making no effort to meet him in Bangkok or Singapore, halfway for the both of us. Hermione has known me for two thirds of my life. Gollywog has been an anchor for half of my life. And yet, making my way to Singapore, to meet these two jewels was not happening; because it just was not coming from within.

As a very young and na├»ve teenager I had traveled daily, from Johor Baru to Singapore, to go to school. Everyday immigration authorities were nodded at, the blue passport stamped and the school bag scanned. Every period when the others learned Mandarin, I doodled, trying to figure out what I was doing there; a foreigner in a strange land. When I tried to clarify my  confusion on the relevance of a detailed project based on the short and limited history of the city nation, I was reprimanded for questioning authority. My views on the chewing gum ban had caused my only friend to yank me away from anyone's hearing distance. I did not enjoy physical education and went through the motions because I had no other option. The trainer took pleasure in letting me know that I was a laggard. To spite him, I decided to run a half marathon, and completed it in timing that had him shut up for the rest of my time at the school.

As a banker, my travel to Singapore was all about meetings in the middle of a concrete jungle. There was too much of frantic activity pre and post every trip. I was always tired and found little else, other than the ease and convenience of movement, to add to my appreciation of the city.

Consequently, Singapore was not a highly desired destination; until I realised I wanted to attempt to understand an Enigma.

I landed early to a bright Singaporean morning and breezed through immigration. Within minutes I was sitting in a cab and no less than ten seconds later the radio was belting out the theme song of Friends. The city had probably guessed why I was there. I was smiling for no reason, and that too in Singapore! Wonders don't seem to cease!  Maybe it was not such a bad idea to be here...

Gollywog was thrilled to see me and likewise. At some level he understood that I had finally undertaken this journey because I had wanted it; the desire and desicion had come from within. Hermione, smiling and embracing, was not just warm and welcoming but a tremendous guide to my understanding of the city. As we sat sharing and catching up, she got why I could not relate to Singapore. That I could be honest, authentic and myself already made the short holiday so worth it.

After a busy, tiring and interesting Saturday, an impulsive, relaxing and rejuvenating Sunday; I woke up to a wet Singapore morning ready to board my flight back to Mumbai. Having dropped Hermione at work, I sat in the cab, on way to the airport, lost in my thoughts; when suddenly the driver struck a conversation. Was I travelling someplace for work was the opening question. Answering that I was returning to Mumbai, the city I dwell in, I asked if he had been to India. In two days, I had had unpleasant experiences with Singaporean taxi drivers and so what happened in the next twenty minutes was a pleasant surprise.

The conversation that ensued reminded me of the many invigorating talks with London black cab drivers. Discussion was on travel and life but world cuisine and street food were the central topics, and had to be. This was a food and beverage graduate running a successful catering business, driving  a cab as a "leisure activity". Love of meeting new people had pushed him to this vocation and being single, an additional job ensured he wasted no time! Endless information kept flowing and opinions were aplenty. I did not need to know some of the details but that he shared them was an insight into the person residing inside the outer body cover I saw. That he shared it with a total stranger not only demonstrated his own confidence but also highlighted that I was a worthy listener. Once we got to the airport he promptly got out to take my stroller out from the boot; he had not helped with it when we had boarded the taxi! Carefully placing it on the curb he shook my hand, wished me a safe journey and with a broad smile went back to the parked vehicle. The unexpected gentleness, openness and generosity left me humbled and smiling.

I walked to the check in counter lost in amazement of how the simplest of honest interactions can bring an incredible amount of positivity in our chaotic lives. Maybe the good energy was still enveloping me because the lady behind the counter was wonderful. My decision making pendulum was swinging  randomly between wanting to use miles for an upgrade, to understanding if I could fly economy but have four seats to myself. All through the many minutes of my inability to decide, the lady continued to smile and patiently answer my questions. She finally handed my boarding pass, when I apologised; I had changed my mind yet again but for the last time.  I was going to opt for an upgrade and wanted to fill the form authorising deduction of miles. Letting out an amused and endearing laugh she gave me the form and a new boarding pass. Smiling from the bottom most echelons of my heart, I thanked her profusely, and made my way to immigration. It was almost time to bid adieu to a city that I have never embraced, and I had a second insight into human kindness...

The next couple of hours just flew by as I window shopped and penned some of the thoughts that you are reading now. I walked into the aircraft ready to sleep, only to be welcomed by Simon and Garfunkel singing Sound of Silence; yes the very same song, lyrics of which ornate the title section of my blog. That was my third reason to smile this morning. Sleep vanished, gratitude swarmed in and the beauty of life started its twinkling dance.

Last night, bleary eyed and exhausted, Hermione and I spent the last few moments catching up when I sincerely felt that the wheels are in motion yet another time in my life. I told her so and admitted that I knew not where the movement would lead me, if at all it did create a shift. As I conclude this long meandering piece aboard the Boeing 777, sharing another part of me and my journey yet again, I know not where I will be a year from now. What I do know for sure , however, is that I will be a better version of me. The importance of open mindedness, magnificence of acceptance and beauty of change have been reiterated. I will not and cannot retreat from this new journey I have started. That sunshine and rainbows will keep dotting the occasional grey skies is my belief. That I can tell you about my joyous journey in a year from now is a fervent hope. That I never look the gift horse at the mouth and it stays in place are sincere prayers...

Sunday, 2 October 2016

My Shoes are Mine

Clothes, their choice, colours and styles, define a personality. Shoes and bags highlight the definition, accentuating the subtle undertones. And well that may just be a statement I am making to justify every impulsive shoe and bag purchase I may have indulged in.

On a hot tropical Sunday morning, after a lovely pancake breakfast, Hermione and I decided that if I was in the world's largest mall I must explore it. So off we went on an expedition to find me a bag just like the one she has; a style and brand I love, and a colour I need. As we entered the shop I gravitated towards a striking light brown bag. The bag was so me. I picked up the beauty only to have to place it back with one glance at the price tag. Just as I cannot draw, sketch or paint to save my life; I could not afford to buy the bag even if my life depended on it. Hermione was laughing; just like her, unknowingly, I had to have picked the unaffordable Hermes! We walked out of there with amusing disappointment written all over my face.

One level below we passed a shoe shop. It was not branded and it was not expensive, but Hermione said it had given her some of the most comfortable shoes. I do not need any more shoes but it never harms to look, and so we walked in. Right in front of me lay the most amazing blood red leather shoes. They were gorgeous. I tried my size on and they fit my feet like a perfect pair of gloves. Soft, light and pretty; the picture was perfect. And then Hermione showed me the most amazing pair of blue snake leather pattern heels. They were singing on the shelf and I could not wait to get my feet into them. But as I put my feet into these all absorbing shoes, my little toe gently pointed out its discomfort. I was torn and did not know what to do. I decided to tarry in indecision a bit longer. Then came another pair, a bright silver blue kitten heel stunner. Oh this one looked uber cool but felt just equally uncomfortable. I went back to my blues band and realised that I would love them but would grudge them the discomfort. And so ultimately we left with the blood red sizzlers for me and a pair of silver subtle shockers for Hermione.

Buying shoes was spontaneous and impulsive, but that is what brings excitement and authenticity in life; not the shoes, the unpremeditated, emotional and honest action. If everything is planned and too much perfection exists, it can become over bearing and suffocating. If all decisions and arguments are rational then humans may just as well be replaced with robots. If pretence comes in actions, relationships can never be trusted.

Yet it's so bizarre that one person's forethought is another one's reflex. What may be an emotion for one could be an irrefutable but irrational reaction for another. A possibly put on appearance, accent or action could very well be an unconscious and involuntary part of a personality. If I was to buy the blue shoes the discomfort would be mine. If I was not to buy the blood red shoes the regret would be mine. If I was to stop exploring shoe and bag shops, for the fear of being impulsive, I would stop being me. And I am the only me I have and why would I want to let go of that?

There are said and unsaid expectations that we take onboard and we try to conform. External validation carries significance both in personal and professional lives. Acceptance of views by others gives a feeling of achievement. But somewhere in all of this what gets lost are the self expectations, internal validations and self acceptance.

My shoes may have their small flaws but overall make my feet feel and look fantastic. I have my own imperfections but as a package I am the only individual who can deliver the signature experience that's unique to me. The warts are there to highlight the beauty that surrounds them just like my shoes highlight the subtlety of who the clothed individual is. And the Hermes, well if I want it, I will work to save to be able to buy it! Nothing is impossible, even the word itself says I'm possible!