Friday, August 29, 2014

Of privilege

I was sitting in the Old Delhi railway station waiting room when I heard cries between me. 'Hat! Hat!' screamed the woman attendant. I looked around. It was not a stray animal she was shooing out in that manner. It was a sleeping man. He woke, got up meekly and asked for permission to go to the loo before he left. 'No!' screamed the woman again.  I went cold with nervousness and guilt. My turn next, I thought, even as I knew that it would not come.

This was the 'upper class' waiting room- for passengers who have purchased a 3-tier AC ticket. The man who was being thrown out presumably had a sleeper class ticket. So did I. I too, was an interloper.

But I would not be thrown out, I knew. And I was both reassured and mortified by that. The being reassured is simple enough, the mortification needs some explanation.

See, what was the difference between me and that unlucky man? We both had sleeper tickets, we were both looking for a place to spend a few hours between trains. The difference was my being of a family of atleast four 'educated' generations, on both sides. And their being educated at that time could only happen because they were brahmins.

And today, because of them, I exude that something which makes the waiting room attendants believe that I belong in the Upper Class area. In the waiting room it was my computer. But the previous night, I was lying in my sleeper (non-AC) berth swaddled in Mian's lungi. Half-asleep, I could hear the ticket collector make his way up the compartment. He was business like to the point of being curt. 'Ticket dikhao' is all he said over and over again. And then I heard him say 'Hello Madam, your ticket please'. The three generations of brahmins apparently are visible even through a lungi.

It makes me uncomfortable, this cloak of privilege.

Disclaimer: I don't normally use my cloak. The ladies' waiting room was closed for maintenance, and the general one was shadowy and forbidding.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The perils of interviewing

While interviewing people in the course of work, I always am slightly uncomfortable. Researchers ask respondents for their time, their opinions and their  emotions. All of this is often willingly given. And what do we give in exchange? Very often, it is nothing.
And sometimes, we offer entertainment in exchange.
This happened when N and I trudged up to a village almost exactly in the centre of Uttarakhand. 'We are trying to understand the river', we said. 'We would like to speak with you.' We were led to a group of  five merry old women-maybe in their seventies. These were old friends who had now moved to various cities, but return to their village every year.
 On age:
'What is your age?' I asked one.
'The same as yours'
'But I am 37!'
'That's what I said. Now write that down!'

On livestock:
We asked them the number of cows, buffaloes, goats, and mules  in the village. At the end of  it, one of them pointed to a mango tree.
'There are crows there. We don't know how many, but you should go and count them.'

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Towards the light

The dark underground space was full of small chirps and whistles. Almost unheard among these was the faint sound like paper being torn as the first baby pushed out of its egg. This was immediately followed by more rustlings till the entire brood had emerged from their eggs into the warm darkness of their nest. Aimlessly, they stumbled around till the first of them felt a far-off thunder and sensed a glimmer of light above. This faint radiance drew the brood towards it with the all consuming passion of  going home.

Its siblings stayed back as the first baby turtle struggled up from the nest and poked its head out onto the beach. After several suspenseful seconds, it clambered out and was immediately followed by the rest of the brood. They were going home.

There it was. The sparkling horizon reeled them in, all instincts led the turtles to scurry towards that light. Where the light twinkled, their bodies told them, there it was. There they would find home.

They continued walking around, over, and through traps that their instincts could not warn them against. The plastic bags and discarded nets and rolls of twine trapped some, but the others went on and on towards home.

Stray dogs claimed some turtles and terrorised the others. But it did not matter, there- just in front of them- surely was home.

They couldn't reason, but their bodies knew what to do. Over the beach they struggled, filled with an overwhelming sense of urgency that drove them on. And so the turtles eagerly panted on and on, towards the distant rumble and twinkling lights of the East Coast Road.

Far away behind them, the sparkling Bay of Bengal continued to call its babies.

*  *  *

D, my colleague, told me of the disorientation of the Olive Ridley hatchlings due to the road along the beach. Very few of these hatchlings survive that first walk to the ocean, even fewer reach adulthood. There are some efforts being made to lessen the extent of the damage that humans are doing. The Chennai Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network I've been told, are doing stellar work.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

In hiding

There is a woman I wish I knew better. She's super-intelligent, attractive, and tough. She has committed her life to a cause most would consider lost, but still retains her sense of humour. Her integrity, her courage and her brilliance are held in awe by all the people who know her. In three sentences, I have told you pretty much all I know about her, barring a few details of name and place. Despite this paucity of information, I love her. I believe she likes me too.

She has been diagnosed with cancer of the breast. The mutual friend I spoke with could not hide the betrayal he felt as he told me that the tumour was not discovered for a long time. 'I don't understand how you can not notice something like that', he said. 'It's in such..such  a prominent place.' And then stuttered at his wretched choice of word. He didn't need to. I understand what he  meant. As a man worried about possible  inflammation of a hidden gland, it can be difficult to understand how women can not see something right under their  chins.

The truth is, we banish our breasts into hiding.

I am not talking of publicly- there of course, the two-three layers are there, covered with a dupatta over it all. I am talking of in private. Neither I nor my friends, non-prudish and non-diffident women though we might be, ever look at our naked breasts. We shower in a hurry, wear our clothes in the bathroom, and only face the mirror for makeup. We are conditioned to go through life hiding our breasts, and we have learnt to do that so effectively that we hide them from ourselves as well. And yes, there are times when we show them off. But then too, they are not something we look at for themselves- they are just tools in our seduction kit. Do you ever anxiously examine your chisel? And so it is shockingly easy to not notice any changes.

A breast self-examination. Learnt properly, practised regularly. Please.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Gardening is sexy!

Yes, it is incredibly sensual. There are very few other activities I know that so utterly enchant your senses. To potter around among the vegetables, feeling the air on your skin, smelling the flowering tomatoes and being kissed by the plants while the bees hum around you? It's a wonder I get any other work done at all. Focused on your surroundings, no detail gets missed. The tight symmetry of a sunflower bud, the glossy back of a ladybird, the intoxication of brushing against mint- the only other time we notice and admire such details is when we fall in love.

Our tomatoes
But like making love, gardening has its share of painfully embarrassing moments. And I am not just talking of those mornings when we wake up with aching muscles and realise that our enthusiasm has once again overridden -excuse the pun- our abilities.

First peaches from the garden
No, I am talking of conversation. Since G undertook to do the digging and heavy work around the garden, I find myself in increasingly more involved and explicit conversations. This is not helped by my poor hindi and his impeccable propriety.

Take something as simple as planting maize. G adores rows, I prefer blocks. In this case, I wanted  to explain to him why it is not just a matter of preference in the case of maize. I wanted to say that the male and female flowers are separate, that the plant is wind pollinated, and that block planting ensures that the pollen falls on the female flowers. Simple enough in English. Try to do that in a language you are not comfortable with. I ended up slipping into hand gestures before I blushed and ended with 'please just prepare a square be..plot! i mean square plot!'

And today he found me among the squash trying to impregnate a pumpkin. Not for the faint hearted, this  gardening business.
Zucchini- thankfully, these pollinate themselves

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A story of perfume

Open any woman's cupboard and you will inhale a rich mixture of scents, evocative of her own self.

There might be the deep sweetness of a sandalwood jewellery box, the intense woodiness of some carefully hoarded spices, the lemony fruitiness of her favourite lotion, and there will always be perfume. That's how I remember my mother's and sister's cupboards. Amma's cupboard was redolent of sandal and lavender, my sister's of more complex perfumes and creams. As a tomboyish child who - if you were lucky- smelled of Nycil and Pears, these cupboards were indescribably exotic.

And then my  own cupboard acquired fragrance. First simpler florals and finally grown-up perfumes. I remember a friend hugging me once. 'Oh, that's what the magazines mean,' she exclaimed, 'when they say a perfume should be only smelled by the one kissing you.'

But later on, a mean little voice began to be heard inside my head. 'Such things are for pretty women' it hissed.'What are you doing with them?' I stopped and my cupboard  became a purely functional, sterile thing.

Still later, Mian came along and insisted that I deserved all the prettiest and most splendiferous things in the universe. Incredibly enough, I began to believe him. But I still did not buy any perfume. By then, I was out of place in a store that sold fripperies. I felt clumsy and gauche and showed it.

Fragrance came back to my list of 'someday haves' though, spurred by a friend who told me with a mix of shyness and defiance 'I buy nice things for myself these days. Why not?' Why not indeed? I began to read fragrance blogs. Mian, spectacular husband that he is, took notice and took notes.

And on my birthday, he pulled out the very bottle I was lusting for .'Did I get the right one?' he asked worriedly. He had, but there is no wrong one.

Now when I open my cupboard, there it is- that lovely, lovely fragrance. All mine. Back after so many years.
Thank you, Mian

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Death by indiference

I wrote earlier about Rubeena and her family.
Since then, I have put up a photoset on India Water Portal's flickr page. Please do go and take a look- The people and the landscape need to be not forgotten.