To a Woman of Strength #ALettertoHer

“Oh, it’s just a burn” you said

As I asked you about the bruise on your neck.

“But how in the world did you get burnt there?”

You smiled apologetically

“Things happen, you’re overthinking this”

You said.

 

A few weeks later,

Your eyes were sunken in.

That kurti hung off your thinning frame,

As you chaired the team meeting.

When I accompanied you to the washroom,

You washed away the cakey make-up

More scars, more bruises, more proof

Of violence.

 

I wasn’t overthinking it,

You weren’t trying to think about it,

You called them the marks of love.

What kind of love was this

If it needed to be kept under wraps?

What kind of love was this

If it killed you instead of healing scars?

What kind of love was this

If it allowed wounds to fester

Instead of letting new skin grow?

“Seriously, are you okay?” I asked

You nodded,

Your face turned white

And then, your eyes welled

With the tears that never became a cry.

“Stay with me” I begged you

“For how long?” you croaked.

“As long as you want.” I assured you.

You embraced me

And wept for a few good minutes.

 

Straightening up, you washed your face

Applied make-up,

Adjusted the stole that hid a few bruises

And put on a fake smile.

“I don’t want the world seeing me as a weakling”

You whispered,

Mustering every iota of courage in you.

“You aren’t weak” I assured.

You smiled a sad smile

And walked out of the washroom,

Ready to face the world.

 

How do I explain the twenty one frantic missed calls

From you that evening.

When I rushed to your apartment

I saw you shuddering

As he raised his hands to hit you.

Even the sight of your bloodied nose

Didn’t prompt your neighbours

To intervene.

I saw the hypocrisy of

“To each man, his business.”

I would never let you be turned into a spectacle.

That night, you lay weeping on my sofa

Mumbling incomprehensible things,

Wishing to God that you hadn’t been singled out.

 

“A bouquet for every bruise” You whimpered

“Dresses for every round of thrashing”

“Italian cuisine for intercourse”

I couldn’t hear anymore.

We cried together all night.

You had done nothing to deserve this

And yet you bore those scars in the name

Of a flawed idea of love.

 

“It’s not my fault, is it?” you asked.

“No, never was it your fault” I assured you.

“How could he say that I was being unfaithful?”

You know deep down that it was a lie.

“How did I let this man destroy me?”

The question hung mid-air,

Not wanting an answer.

“There’s still a lot of life in you” I said

“You think so?” You asked, desperate.

“Why would you ask yourself these questions

If somewhere within you, there isn’t the will

To live?”

You got up and walked to the balcony,

Watching the daylight replace streetlights.

 

I knew that nobody could crush the fire

That raged within you.

One restraining order filed,

One divorce case won,

After casting several doubts aside,

Those sorrowful emails in my mailbox

Gave way to postcards and presents you’d send me.

“You stood by me when I needed strength.” You wrote,

“Trust me” I replied “It was within you all this while.”

-Meryl Mammen Kurien

 

A/N It was in the year 2006 that I read Kathryn Keats’ story. Until then, I was a naive child who saw relationships through rose tinted glasses. In a society that is willing to shove issues such as this under the carpet of ‘sanskar’ and gender expectations, memoirs like Meena Kandaswamy’s play a role in challenging the status quo. I would like to read the book as I have nothing but respect and admiration for women who rise above their challenges and stand up for what they believe in. Here’s the link http://bit.ly/Meenabk2.

 

Yes, I’m a feminist

feminism

 

Oh yes, I’m a feminist,

I’m not afraid to say.

If you want me to change,

Then get the hell away!

 

Don’t ask me to be okay

With being treated sub-human,

As a pair of breasts

Or buttocks that your eyes never leave.

 

When you say that I live in a bubble,

My friend, so do you!

Many are the ways of patriarchy,

Many are the shackles I must break on my own.

 

Say, Mr/Ms Conversion Therapist,

Do you know the internal battle,

The struggle to reclaim my sanity

In a world of values I don’t identify with?

 

The nights of denial and fear

That welded themselves into my psyche,

All the self hate and shame

That were not supposed to be rightfully mine?

 

You’d never know the struggle to find a voice,

You’d never know the battles a woman must fight,

You’d never know the demons inside,

the people outside

And the many sufferings untold.

 

Your biased, one-sided, feminist, You say!

Answer me in all honesty.

Did Martin Luther King glorify the ways of his oppressors?

Did Anne Frank sing praises to Hitler?

Did Emmeline Pankhurst exonerate patriarchy?

Did Savitribai Phule exalt ignorance?

Did Maya Angelou remain silent for life,

Just because a man raped her?

 

Have I crossed the line

In being unabashedly me?

No, I’d reckon,

That’s what got me this far.

I’m no saint,

I’m no whore.

I’m a woman

I’m human.

 

Most of all, I’m a woman with a voice,

And yes, I’m a feminist.

I don’t need your sympathy.

 

 

 

Maya Kayalvizhi Hemanika

mayakayalhemanika-1

(This is a  dramatic monologue in the voice of the female characters of Gautham Menon’s cop trilogy: ‘Kaakha Kaakha'(2003), ‘Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu’ (2006) and ‘Yennai Arindhaal’ (2015).  Those who have watched the trilogy would understand the concerns of the monologue. It is strictly not a piece of fan fiction as it is impossible to enjoy the butchering of three strong characters by a talented director capable of so much better. This  is copyrighted (All Rights Reserved) content was originally published by me on Wattpad.)

I saw you for the very first time as you punished and dispersed the truant college boys who harassed the girls at the bus stop. You were the good guy, no doubt. Those young, impressionable minds in my care didn’t have to see the bad example the harassers were setting. That was when our eyes met and your expression was unreadable, Anbuselvan. In one minute, your rage torn face tried to register shock and confusion on seeing a teacher guide her children away from you. Was it because I feared that they too would begin to replicate your actions and pretend that all could be settled with a couple of blows? Part of me felt that way. Like you, my future love, I felt confused. Little did I know that I too would one day receive a blow like that, just so you could ‘become manlier ‘. Admit it, Anbuselvan; you set yourself to extract every detail out of me as though I were a criminal. At the grocery store, you crossed the bounds of decency to verbally accost me. I guess you felt that I’d give in for fear of you. That, I believe, drew you to me. You can’t blame me for thinking that you were a vagabond cum harasser especially after the anklet episode. I was bent on avoiding you, Anbuselvan. Then came the epiphanic moment when your identity as a cop became apparent to me. Did you change from stalker to guardian angel overnight? I have need for neither. Had. That was until we fell in love. Or rather, when you learnt to admit that to yourself. The villains that you chased began to chase you. I didn’t see what kind of masculinity you were lacking. You ticked every box I could ever construe. Brave, strong, dutiful, unfeeling as a rock (just you wait!) and aggressive. Was I just a prop that messed with your DNA? Did feelings happen to you only after I walked in (away, in our case)? Nevertheless, I fell in love with you, Anbuselvan. You embodied the textbook values that school instilled in children. You fought for what was right, inspired people to walk with their heads held high and impelled them to be strong and committed to their craft. My breath hitched as that bottle of water in guise of acid was thrown at your face. Would I allow the face I’d die for to be ruined by a hooligan’s instrument? No, Anbuselvan, my conscience and my cosmos would never let me rest in peace. I sat watching as you metamorphosed into the hero that would literally return from a death-like situation. You were already a man to me. You were The Man. But you just wouldn’t agree with me. “Are you crazy?” your body language seemed to ask when you laid that gun on the stool as you came to see me at home. Yes, Anbuselvan, I was crazy in love with you. You cried tears of grief and defeat as you held me in your arms on the way to the hospital. I imagine you did the same as you held my corpse in that godown. Oh, my love. He didn’t even wait for the first night of our life to pass. He had me killed.

Somehow, He reincarnated me, Raghavan. He raised us from the dead. I became Kayalvizhi, a mellowed Maya. You became Raghavan, a mellowed Anbuselvan. It was love at first sight..for you! How you have changed. Gone was the stiff, apprehensive policeman who warned me of his emotionless-ness. Now, you have become jovial and smart at pickup lines! He designed me to drop all resistance to falling for a man I met just two hours ago. Boy, I suppose you swept me off my feet with that smart-talking mouth of yours. When you said that things were moving too fast for you, someone bothered to listen. How I wish you paid me that compliment. Things moved so fast that my end too neared quickly. At least He waited for our honeymoon to be over. Was it His hurry or yours that our wedding should happen and get consummated at breakneck speed? Those fast paced scenes of love culminated in my murderer’s swiftness in throwing me off the first floor of that dark construction site. Being your wife never protected me like it did during my last hours as Maya. But what of me, Raghavan? Do my virtues and vices get pigeonholed over the course of your proposal, a song that chronicles our honeymoon and ends shortly before my murder? I know that you are a man of feeling, Raghavan. As my soul wandered restlessly, you lay by my lifeless body and wept.

He then assigned me to the body of a graceful dancer: a strong willed woman named Hemanika. You loosened up and became wiser: Sathyadev IPS. With every reincarnation, you became more persistent and I, hesitant. You became Maya and I, a feminine Anbuselvan. We courted; you won Esha’s heart by unconsciously becoming her surrogate father. I feared falling in love with you despite wholeheartedly plunging into it. You knew this too well. Why else would I discreetly guide you into the darkness of night as Esha slept peacefully in her bedroom? You’d have me at any cost, braving rebuke and the upheavals of living with a divorcee. Yet, you saw in me a human being worth loving. You gave me the love and respect that that man never gave. You gave Esha the care and attention he blatantly deprived her of. Every time you watched me teach my students dance, I saw admiration in your eyes. I’ve never told you that I felt the same for you. Our silences have spoken more than our voices have. He decided that I must however be disallowed from speaking. Those knives were plunged into my body even before we tied the knot. I wondered if His sole purpose in creating me was to finish me off so quickly. Oh, how I yearned to spend every day of my life with you, Sathya. I still do it though, as a photograph on Esha’s wall. I am forced to contend myself with seeing that you are taking care of her well. Who is this fringe haired woman you are slowly replacing me with? Could you just remove the layer of glass and that ornate wooden frame you have trapped my smiling form in?

Was I made strong that you could be stronger? Did my dying liberate you from the vitality of life that you so badly needed? He doesn’t see fit that I must live, darling. I too want to live with you, look into your eyes, bear our children and grow old with you. Why has your courage killed me? What have those villains of yours to do with me, an innocent female spirit? Have they achieved their vengeance and have you, through that fatal encounter, attained manliness?

I was Maya.
I was Kayalvizhi
I was Hemanika

I am a nobody against He that willed me to die. I exist only in your memory, darling Anbuselvan/Raghavan/Sathyadev. I still hope I do.

The Church and Women

Marxism speaks of Ideological State Apparatuses that sustain and instill certain kinds of values in human beings. The primary ISA that I go to is the church. More often that not, the messages conveyed in church are deeply confusing, hypocritical and misogynist. While the church is one of the last of all institutions to accept the zeitgeist of the times and adopt change, it is disheartening for a feminist at heart to cope with monthly if not daily doses of extremely off-putting misogyny on a Sunday morning. With all due respect to the church that has undoubtedly played a key role in the development of my character, I should like to be forthright in my criticism of how women are treated in the church.

Uterus Fetish

uterus

Women are essential for the growth of the church, no doubt. But why is it there is an intrinsic and unconscious connection made between women and reproduction during those apologetic ‘gender equality’ sermons? It’s sad to note that my church in particular doesn’t have any female saints other than Mother Mary. As a woman of the 21st century, I should like to point to how there is a glamorization of Mother Mary because she chose to have the Son of God take form in her; it is explicitly evident in the manner with which we address her. While motherhood is an important part of sustaining bloodlines and cultures, it must not be the only factor that defines womanhood. I have never heard more than one sermon being said about other facets of Mother Mary’s personality: her courage, faith and unshakable conviction in Christ or her humaneness.

While it is common knowledge that the only adulatory qualities associated with women back then were reproductive and nurturing abilities, do these qualities need all that much of attention and praise? Rearing children is no mean job but is that the only quality  women MUST possess? Like the many ignored facets of Mother Mary’s character, the church does virtually nothing to empower women who are leaders, visionaries, rebels, advocates or just not interested in motherhood.

Woman as the root cause of all evil

I do recollect attending one of those famed ‘Conventions’ while I was in primary school. The speech was about the various types of desires that lead man to sin.

  1. Mann-Aasha: Lust for land
  2. Penn-Aasha: Lust for women
  3. Ponn- Aasha: Lust for gold
  4. Kallh- Aasha: Lust for alcohol

It isn’t patronizing to have women listed out among a list of inanimate objects, you have dehumanization and objectification thrown at you in one go! Now that this has been established, I should like to point out that there are only two ways by which religion puts women on the spectrum: 1.saintly or 2. slutty. Its rather sad to note that the second category exists even though Christ was the only man who recognized the humane and unfortunate circumstance of a woman who was named ‘adulterous’ by the society. Contrary to the life and practices of Christ, a few members of the clergy unconsciously fuel patriarchal bias against women who don’t fit the impossible ‘saintly’ bill. Sermons like the above make women look like sexual predators whose only purpose in life is to bait men. They also legitimize the blaming of women for the sin of a man.

Another oft quoted case is that of Eve influencing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. This is used as a reason to brand women as treacherous and untrustworthy. Well, if Adam belonged to the ‘stronger’ sex, why didn’t he resist Eve’s persuasion? As that question will never have an answer, isn’t it convenient to put the blame on Eve? Nobody cares about Adam being a weak, egotistic, dogmatic ass!

St Paul’s dose of misogyny

St Paul

While sane theologians apprise the congregation that The Bible was written in a particular socio-historical context, they are still spotted reading out deeply misogynist regulations set down by St Paul.

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” (1 Corinthians 14:34)

If you happen to be woman and hear a verse like this on Sunday, would you think of the socio-historical context or realize that the week just began on a depressing, traumatic and extremely pessimistic note? While I am tempted to request the Synod to ban readings of the above nature, I am aware that it would just be a small and meaningless victory if actualized. These readings reflect the mindset that has been deeply ingrained in the minds of the clergy as well as members of the congregation irrespective of gender.

Faux Feminism

While there was a year dedicated to praising ‘The Virtue of Womanhood’, there were some extremely disturbing ideas thrown in our direction. As usual, the church decided to tone down its aggression and perpetrate patriarchy in a milder fashion. While I get to that, let me state an uncomfortable truth that we all have to admit.

The church is run by people who hold affiliations to two inter-sectional categories: 1. Clergy 2. Men. The reason why I put clergy first is because the representation of laypeople is tantamount to tokenism (it’s next to nothing in the case of women). There is an alarming dearth of lay preachers, ministers and missionaries in the church. The threatening dominance of the second category is what makes representation of women in church a very problematic one.

How can we expect the ‘holier that thou’ boys club to know anything about women when their ready reckoner is St Paul’s brand of archaic regulations? As expected, an erudite woman was delegated to preach on one particular Sunday and she was made to say that women must be submissive to men as the virtue of womanhood lay in submission. That way round, she had adhered to the church’s policy by disguising misogyny in a faux feminist package, which in reality was a glorification of uterus fetish.

With more women taking up challenging careers and keeping marriage/motherhood out of their way, there is a burning need to change the scope of women’s discourse in church. It doesn’t make a difference if a token woman is brought to preach the same, generic misogyny that a good number of our priests hold a Phd in. The parochial gesture of offering voting rights to women in church doesn’t make any sense if the same ‘boys club’ is slated to rule the roost. The church needs feminism, if not she is sadly digging her own grave.

Rate My Female Member of the Family

Take the most generic sermons you get to hear on Christmas or any other big day  and you’ll find a trail of mandatory female bashing statements in them. Priests liberally coat women in insult,insinuation and invective by saying “All you women shop every-bloody-day. Why do you need to shop so much?? All you women cook so much and waste food every-bloody-day!! Why do you need to cook so much?? All you women are not like men every-bloody-day!! Why do you even exist except to give birth and be submissive?”

Yours Sincerely, the mothers of  such priests were amazing Christian women who chose not to abort them when they were helpless fetuses. If their mothers never bought them clothes or fed them anything, they’d be social outcasts and dead respectively. Even then, the mothers are still female!! Who needs a better reason to find fault?

The politics of Policing

One could write an epic on the ways in which several puritanical priests and ministers merely reinforce ‘Modesty Culture’ in church. If at all there is a discussion on dress code, one will not be surprised to find an all man committee skewering the morality of women who attend service in church. For instance, here is a disgusting meme that was trending on the so called ‘spiritual media’

moral policing

It says “This photograph is from the wedding of a deacon of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church!!!I am reminded of a dialogue by Cochin Haneefa that goes like ‘today she’ll show the backside, tomorrow the front”

While it is pointless to argue about whether or not it was right to wear ‘that’ kind of a gown, isn’t it unbecoming of a church to wait so eagerly for a woman to bare her breasts for the former’s perverse entertainment? For the benefit of those who are unaware of what exactly this kind of commentary must be classified under, its called SLUT SHAMING.

Nobody has problems when men come to church wearing their shirts tucked inside tight trousers. Nobody complains when men decide to wear their shirts a button or two lower, revealing a wealth of chest hair!! Nobody complains about low waist jeans when men wear them. But if at all a woman comes to church wearing a pair of leggings or jeans, a T-shirt or short top, a rounded neckline, she becomes a whore! I might even end up getting called a ‘slut’ for ‘noticing’ so much about men’s clothing. This hypocrisy of the church needs to be called out. Take a look at this obscene meme that was edited in such a way to make the bride look like she came to her own wedding stark naked.

moral policing 2

Moral policing of women’s bodies is as much a paradox that must be solved. The church doles out advice on protecting our bodies a.k.a ‘The Temple of the Holy Spirit’ by dressing up in modest attire. The longer your sleeves, the higher your neckline, the broader your dupatta, the more modest you appear!! The more jewelry you wear to distract attention from your breasts, the less you sway the minds of men!! Allow me to point out that I got ogled at IN CHURCH by a FORMER VICAR while I was dressed in the christian equivalent of the Islamic burqa. The forthcoming vicar touched me in a ‘fatherly’ manner without my consent despite my parent being around!!So, even the holy men are distracted despite my unquestioning adherence to the dress code!! Serves me right for being woman, I suppose!

While women are pressurized to wear ‘modest’ clothing, it is perfectly holy for male members of the congregation as well as the clergy to ogle at them in church premises! Hypocrisy enough?

Even this arcane dress code doesn’t protect women, children and (in many cases) nuns from getting ogled at or sexually abused in church! I remember being warned by a former Sunday School teacher and her well meaning daughter that if I didn’t spread the dupatta completely across my torso, priests judging our Group Singing performance would stare fixedly at our breasts! Apparently, she had experienced this in the diocese she previously belonged to. Do we need more reasons to get things changed?

I approach my conclusion without any hope at all.

Three Reasons to have women in church….

I assure you to the best of my conscience that every statement you have read so far and will read is true.

REASON 1

Uterus Fetish

REASON 2

A former vicar had this increasingly annoying habit of pointing at the side of the church that housed the female members of the congregation  while speaking of bringing ‘Vattayappam’ to church. So what does this do? Reinforce gender expectations and stereotypes!! Is it wrong for men to prepare Vattayappam? Is it written in The Bible that it must be prepared solely by women??? How then is rhetoric of this kind warranted?

REASON 3

To generate money for ‘spiritual events’ which are merely wasteful gala events disguised under the thin veneer of  spirituality.

As I hate to end my post on a sourly pessimistic note (although my kind of reality wouldn’t change any sooner), here’s something touching i came across on Facebook

Archbishop

And Thereby Hangs a Life

It was twelfth/tenth standard.

That statement was enough to send a chill down his/her spine. The very mention of the name of the dreaded class was potent to let all courage slip away from his/her heart. It was as if he/she and his/her classmates were being lowered down the mouth of an active volcano. While the lava and flames leapt high to burn the children up, the teachers, parents and society clicked the button that would lower them furthermore. They pressed harder despite the chorus of screams and the reek of burning flesh. “My child will perform well under pressure” said a parent in hauteur, watching as the boy/girl was blackening from the burning. “Your child hasn’t been working hard enough.” said a teacher, tightening the noose of another child whose head alone remained above the molten lava. The screaming and the choking were not enough, “Oh, we expect to see his/her name in the State Rank list.” chimed society. Suddenly, the devices held by the trio dropped the children at the base of the volcano and the mouth automatically shut itself, sealing away the muffled cries of the children who tried to protect themselves from the all consuming , ruthless lava.

Face Of War- Dali

(Face Of War- Salvador Dali)

Salvador Dali could conjure an interesting painting if he were to study the shifting mental balances of the children who are taking their board exams/waiting for the results to appear. The above is not just a surreal idea in the making but a harsh reality that young students have to face. The education machinery churns out several such stories year after year around this time. The recurrent nature of these types of incidents must shake the intelligentsia and general populace into action. Allow me to spill the beans, these lives are very very real although the names of these people have been fictional.

Rita was hoping to do well in her Physics examination and waited impatiently as the aides helped her through the customary Board Exam procedures. The wait, the hurried last minute preparation, the bribery of God through prayers, the formal prayer ceremony…she wished that life has a fast forward button for occasions like this. She had studied really well and wanted to get a centum to prove her worth. Her breathing steadied as she entered the hall after leaving her slippers and water bottle outside the hall. Time was annoyingly slow that day. The question paper took forever to find its way to her table. The bored invigilators walked the length of the aisles as the students’ eyes were glued either to the giant clock or the table on which the question papers were kept. After a long time, the papers arrived and there was a visible tension among the students. Eyes widened as they gazed at the question paper but Rita kept her cool. When the piece of paper was dropped at her table, she pored over it and slowly felt confidence drain out of her. Half of the paper was full of questions she never comprehended!!! How on earth was she supposed to clear her paper? She felt something break within her. Gone were her dreams of studying in IIT. “Excuse me, Madam” she said after an hour of writing answers. The invigilator came to her side and pulled out a sheet of paper. “I’d like to drink some water.” Rita said. “Please do.” the invigilator said. The girl stepped out of the hall and jumped from the top of the balustrade to her death. When a scream was heard as life left her, the invigilators rushed to find her crumpled body on the ground.

Timothy was the Games Captain that year. He had an entire list of sporting achievements in his kitty and was happy about his fairly good academic track record as well. He had his dreams of making it to a good college that allowed for greater sporting prowess. After a lot of thought, he had made his choices and decided to do well in his Board Exams. Her waited like Rita for the question paper to arrive. His reaction was a lot less severe that hers when he saw the paper. A few minutes into the exam and he began to hiss softly to grab the attention of his classmate who sat before him. He was in luck, the girl understood his signal and moved a little to reveal a few of the answers from the Multiple Choice Questions section. He copied them out carefully until she unconsciously adjusted her posture, blocking the paper. He stained forward and hissed again. This time, he felt a hand on his collar. He turned to find the invigilator looking at him with sternness written in every feature. “Copying , huh?” the invigilator confronted. “No Ma’am. I was not copying.” he blurted out in a bid to protect himself from getting caught. “Don’t lie, I saw you hissing at the student sitting in front of you. Get up and leave the hall.” she ordered. Timothy was in tears as he was forced to abandon his answer sheet and walk towards the open door. “Ma’am, I know this boy.” he heard the voice of a teacher who rushed to meet the invigilator. “Ma’am, he is unwell right now. He’s got viral fever and the hissing you heard was probably the sound of him blowing his nose. I know that he is an honest boy.” the voice pleaded as the invigilator refused to buy the teacher’s story. Timothy stood outside and began to weep. “Come inside, boy” the invigilator called out to him in a rough tone, “I believe your teacher. Get back inside and finish your exam.” Timothy felt nauseous as he returned to his seat. The look in his classmates’ eyes seared through his mind.

Sruthi was confident that she had done her exams badly. Every time she got back home and confided in her parents that she hadn’t done too well, she could see the disappointment in their eyes. “My colleague’s son topped the State last year.” her father said as she trailed into the bedroom. She knew that it was his way of telling her to buck up and do better. She had stopped watching TV, accessing Facebook, playing with her friends and even reading novels for the sake of doing well in her Boards. Tuition after tuition filled her time, all she could do at the end of the day was collapse on the bed and will herself to sleep. “Life is a rat-race. You won’t do well if you don’t run fast enough. Push yourself harder.” her class teacher would exhort repeatedly. That voice kept ringing in her head even at nighttime, preventing those weary eyelids from shutting themselves to sleep. It was 1:00 AM by the time she slept and 4:30 AM when the alarm pushed away every trace of sleep. Underslept, underfed, undernourished, she’d trudge to school for every revision exam only to hear “You’re not working hard enough, Sruthi. Stop being a failure.” With just a week or so left for the results to come, she didn’t know how to handle the pressure. Her parents stopped talking to her, she refused to meet her classmates or friends and ate every meal in stony silence. Locking herself up in her room, she smiled for once as the rope caressed the roundness of her face. Even her ashes wouldn’t rejoice the fact that she’d scored 83% in her Boards. Her parents sat red eyed, realizing their mistake too late. She was gone. Forever.

Kedar knew he had done well. In his heart of hearts he expected three centums and a couple of ninety fives. While everyone else panicked themselves to death, he waited expectantly for the results to come. He would top the school and become the Best Outgoing Student that year. He could imagine him standing onstage, receiving the huge wooden shield from his Principal while his parents stood among the audience, wiping away happy tears. He relished the thought of his parents feeding him laddu on the results being announced. His grades never slipped below 95 percent during all the revision and model papers. He knew that God would help him as he stuck to his vow of avoiding chocolate and sweets for an entire year. Victory would be his, this time. “Kedar, come to the hall.” his father called out. He obeyed and sat before the computer. Once the register number and password were keyed in and the ‘Get Marks’ button clicked, Kedar wrung his palms together. When he opened his eyes, he heard two forceful gasps. His heart was in his mouth when he saw that he had scored an average of only 65%. His father was too shocked to say anything. His mother shook her head in disappointment and said “Didn’t I tell you, pride goes before a fall?”. “Ma, but….but I did well. This cannot be my marks.” he hesitated. “Kedar, these are your marks.” his father said plainly. He felt strange as the telephone lines began working up a cacophony. It hurt him all the more to see that Arnab who consistently scored 50% during all class tests had now topped the class. “You lied to us” his father scolded him. He sat there with his head in his hands, weeping madly.

Rita, Timothy, Sruthi and Kedar live among us today. They are victims of a system that promises accomplishment and reward but turns them into Mark Producing Machines that the society can either curse or gloat about. Before calling Rita a coward, Timothy an immoral youth, Sruthi a deluded loser and Kedar a proud creature; lets contemplate the relevance of this system. Whether cyanide is administered in a teaspoon or a barrel, it doesn’t cancel the fact that cyanide is still poisonous. Is education becoming a mere cesspool of marks? Are question papers mere repositories of sadism?

A penny for your thoughts.

einstein- educationkalam-education

 

 

 

 

Big is Beautiful. Autocorrect: Sympathy is Progressive

There is a great deal of noise generated about appreciating women of all body types. After a very long stint at perpetrating the sickly anorexic body model for young children, Mattel’s Barbie underwent a much needed body revamp. Its result: three variants of Barbie body types in different racial representations met a mixed response. What caused this sudden change? Although it was much appreciated, was it because Mattel gave in to the recent surge in body diversity movements? This is a question that the organization must answer.

barbie-3_3561511b

As much as parochial diversity is a small relief, reality is bitter indeed for women on the higher side of the weighing scale. Take a look at beauty pageants around the world. Isn’t it perfectly natural for tall, fair and skinny women to win the coveted title ? One can count on one’s fingers the instances in which a woman belonging to none of the above categories has won.Although Beyonce’s touching music video of ‘Pretty Hurts’ does not touch upon this particular topic, we do witness a stereotypical beauty queen take away the prize by beating a curvy, dusky and relatively shorter woman. If at all anything is felt for curvy women, its nothing more than superficial sympathy. We still have to ‘lose just a little more weight’ to be accepted. Who would be around to help when a formerly full figured women develops depression simply because she cannot identify herself with the now thin being she sees in the mirror? While the shallow society will laud her act of embracing her ‘beautiful’ new body, she grapples with the painful truth that the world has no real love for curvy women. All that noise about accepting people irrespective of body type is just drivel. Why then are people around her busy losing weight? Why then are shows like ‘The Biggest Loser’ popular despite the horrendously negative message being sent out to full figured people?

Its absolutely funny how those who say “Its fine. Just be who you are. Don’t lose weight like me” are thin, ‘beautiful’ and accomplished. They carry on with their kind of artificially thin body and fill our ears with hypocrisy. The poster children for body diversity are still thin and have the ‘perfect’ bodies while those who really need emancipation sit crushed under the weight of nature’s punishment.  There was an interesting writing contest organized by Women’s Web; it was about beauty being in all sizes. Sadly, the poster enough to demoralize women who are not thin. It was shocking to see a renowned women’s emancipation website endorse this normalization of thinness and smallness.

Beautiful-in-every-size

A very significant proof of the shallowness of the ‘All body types are beautiful’ brigade is that the message hasn’t trickled down to organizations that disseminate essential commodities. Go to any shop in the neighborhood and you don’t find clothing for women of wider body frames, shoes/sandals for women of broad and large feet, and basic lingerie for large busted women. My only request to retailers is: Don’t punish those of us who have been punished by nature.  My request to the advocates of body diversity: You’re gonna have to work harder. We, big women, don’t need your sympathy. Every time we don’t find commodities that suit our bodies, we feel enervated and demoralized. When we see a thin poster girl endorsing a body appreciation message, we cannot help but notice the shallowness of the campaign.

 

 

Artistic Response: When Music Packs a (Lethal) Punch

Music

Music is known to be the best medium to convey powerful, politically charged messages when all else fails. It is rewarding indeed when your unconscious mind forms a small bridgeway all the way  through reality, connecting all experiences and solidifying them on paper. When these experiences have been penned down, you have the liberty of embellishing it with beats and the music of your choice thereby transferring the thumping of your own heartbeat to the song. When the notes converge to form the crests and troughs of a melody, your experience somehow becomes the listener’s. Your fears become known to them, the threats faced by your world become their own and you begin to tell them the story of your heart.

We may not know what the average African-American may be facing on home ground be it cultural appropriation, stereotypy and police brutality. Mere newspaper reports of members of the community being roughed up by the police or shot dead by racist organizations may not impact us all that much; but when Beyonce took to the Superbowl Halftime Show this year with her politically charged anthem ‘Formation’, our eyes were opened to the shock and trauma experienced by the African-American people. The video features an almost submerged police car with Beyonce poised atop it challenging the xenophobic haters to try and extricate the African identity from Afro-Am psyche.  She recounts with great pride her ancestry through the lines:

“My daddy Alabama, Mama Lousiana,

You mix that negro with that Creole,

make a Texas Bama”

On the other hand, there is a rather saddening message hidden beneath the folds of pride: the pain of having to prove your loyalty on a daily basis. By calling herself a “Texas Bama” in ‘Formation’ and  through the lines “This is how they made me: Houston, Texas, baby!” in ‘Girls’  Beyonce reiterates her American identity. Being a woman of mixed racial ethnicity somehow invites racial tension in a country that still has vestiges of desperation in maintaining a purist white identity. Unlike the postcolonial hybrid, she doesn’t experience a feeling of claustrophobia despite being sandwiched between negro, Creole and American identities. There is a unique blending of all the three identities into one, wholesome package. This confidence arms her to be a spokesperson for the many people of her community who are tortured by a couple of the members of the Police Force.

(Photo credit: @Beyonce on Instagram)

The song is replete with images of Afro-Am identity: settlements both ghettos as well as images of quiet dignity, children with curly hair as well as symbols of fashion, cultural and religious sensibility. This duality is enhanced by her firm determination to bust stereotypes of African American identity and potential through the noteworthy lines

“I see it, I want it, I stunt, yellow-bone it
I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it
I twirl on them haters, albino alligators.”

Besides this, she asserts the ability of the African-American people to be resilient, hardworking, powerful and focused. Should this kind of a people be subject to such great torture at the hands of the so called defenders of the law? Does the sinking of the New Orleans Police car at the end of the video provide us the sinister answer we are looking for? Perhaps the answer lay in the largely negative reactions Beyonce’s performance received at the Super Bowl Halftime show.

Beyonce lets women have the final laugh in the bargain. She reminds them to realize their power to fight injustice. The Malcolm X Formation becomes the metaphorical starting point for the realization of the powerful feminine principle. The concluding lines of ‘Formation’ exhort women to start what is touted as one of the most uncomfortable conversations of White America: the position of African Americans and the dignity due to them. She tactfully juxtaposes the sexism the women would face if they were to take up any cause for the sake of justice.

“Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, I slay
Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation
You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation
Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper”

AS2
A second kind of artistic response that I would invite you to take a look at is the more subtle, artsy yet characteristically humane kind. Anoushka Shankar’s latest album ‘Land of Gold’ is one such response. Although not overtly like Beyonce’s firebrand anthem, the titular song  containing Anoushka’s stirring sitar and Alev Lenz’s meditative vocals narrate the tale of the Syrian refugee crisis. While Anoushka takes on the task of depicting the mental battle of the refugees as they flee home, Alev Lenz’s lyrical rendition serve as the reminder of the current identity and settlements that the refugees have to inhabit. This sense of ambivalence further intensifies as the song moves towards its latter half. The strumming quickens, the lyrics are sung with greater forcefulness that still carry a tone of resignation. The sudden change in key brings in a wisp of hope into maelstrom of turbulent emotion. The drop from turbulence to sudden calm somehow reminded me of the action of a tidal wave: the height to which it can rise and the abruptness with which it could crash. Was it somehow symbolic of hos the refugees would find their own lives shattered by terrorism. Anoushka Shankar succeeds in depicting the trauma of being flung from a formerly peaceful life, displaced from the only familiar landscape of home and lastly, losing a sense of belonging. The journey motif is evident throughout the piece in which hope marks the beginning and the end.

The responses of Beyonce and Anoushka although very different in their approach remind us of how humane music can actually be. While Beyonce speaks for her community, Anoushka invites us to participate in the emotional dilemma behind a terrifying exodus. This brings me to ask one question that has always preoccupied all of us artists, “Does Life imitate Art or does Art imitate Life?”

(This is a piece I had written for my group ‘Writers’ Association’. You can check out our e-mags by clicking the link https://writersassociation.wordpress.com/)

Unsexing and the Woman

It has always been a matter of immense amusement to observe the pattern of action taken up by women in positions of leadership. My curiosity peaked when I picked up a few works of the great English Bard William Shakespeare and pull them apart in the name of analysis. Celia from ‘As You Like It’ , Portia from ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Viola from ‘Twelfth Night’ are three heroines I have now chosen to prove my point.

Celia is supposedly Shakespeare’s most fascinating female character. It is absolutely awe inspiring to find a female character so forthright in the face of a threat from her own uncle. She is brave and is all too aware that she is on the side of justice. Was it however necessary that she take on her male alter ego Ganymede to survive in the Forest of Arden? I don’t imagine that the guise strengthened her already ‘unfeminine’ characteristics. Nevertheless, she was stepping out of the circle of patriarchal expectations through her defiance and ability to take on the role of negotiator, teacher and leader. The same holds good for Portia. She as her ‘feminine’ self is equally forthright, wise and practical. It is through the progress of the play that we find her donning the male avatar of Balthazar the lawyer in order to prove her mettle and save Antonio. At this juncture, I would like to ask if the audience would have received well a female character in her ‘feminine’ form, saving a male character. Was Shakespeare resorting to such a tactic simply to make Portia’s actions palatable to a heavily misogynistic crowd?(It is common knowledge that male actors had to take up female roles also. Thereby it could have been an act of convenience).  Viola is a tad too similar to Portia when it comes to the execution of the role of a negotiator. That apart, she also manages to bring in an element of homoeroticism.

kannaki

Indian folklore and literature are ripe with tales of similar attempts of what Shakespeare would term ‘unsexing’. We Tamils have our own classic ‘Silappathikaram’ and the much revered heroine Kannaki. The transition of this character from a voiceless being to a fiery Sakhmet. The final blow to the ramparts of Maturai is dealt when the fiery Kannaki wrenches off her breast and throws it on the city. The power of her chastity is said to have dashed to the ground every trace of injustice. This story also plays in the favour of removing an essential marker of female identity in order to execute a typically male deed: the keeping of justice.

Another story that is doing its rounds on social media is that of Nangeli, the fearless Dalit woman who is the sole reason for the abolition of the humiliating ‘Mulakarram’ or ‘Breast Tax’ in Kerala. As legend goes, Nangeli was approached by the tax collectors so as to continue the tradition of keeping the lower castes in debt. She is said to have cut off her breasts , put them on a banana leaf and handed them over to the officials stating that they pay off the tax as they are now in possession of her breasts. She died of heavy bleeding and her husband performed the act of sati in her honour. The governing body is said to have named Nangeli’s then residence as ‘Mulachi Parambu’ which is loosely translated as ‘The Land of the Breasted Woman’. Here the woman is extolled for literally eliminating her female organ for the sake of justice much like Kannaki. In a similar pattern, her identity has been declared through the naming of the ancestral property just as Ilanko Adikal would refer to Kannaki as the chaste woman with the single breast.

As much as I wish we could dismiss the above as a mere legend and nothing more, it is sad to note that the tradition of unsexing still continues. Despite the amount of progressiveness that has made its way through the stubborn doorway of a patriarchal society, we still classify spheres as male and female. It is with much elation that I witness many women making it big in leadership roles however certain inequalities remain.

HRCDuring a guest lecture, the speaker mentioned that American politician and Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was often called a ‘ball buster’ and criticized for her ‘unwomanly’ legs. These statements prove that a certain kind of judgmental taxonomic classification still remains ingrained in the human psyche. Any woman who is confident and resourceful is considered a threat to men and the male dominated world. Her excellence is not evaluated as an individual hallmark but rather as a yardstick against the competence of her male counterparts. This is one major challenge faced by women throughout the ages.

Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India was one who had supposedly tried very hard to shed her female identity and pursue an aggressively masculine demeanor in order to be taken seriously. It is said that she confessed to an American politician that she would like to be called “Sir”. This might be a thing of the past but it does raise a serious question considering the nearness of Ms Gandhi’s  historical tenure as well as the contemporaneity of Ms Clinton. Do women still have to sacrifice their female identities and take on a masculine one in order to be taken seriously? Do the credentials of a woman be considered manlike so that she may prove her worth?

Horizontal Hostility: Patriarchy’s Inferiority Complex

This post was inspired by a short  tête-à-tête with my buddy who has embarked on a new project of hers: to quiz people about their ideas of beauty and fashion. She has chosen to start rather auspiciously with me 🙂

One of the principles that feminism is founded on is that a woman being able to understand another woman is not on any account a GIVEN. We as women long for some empathy from fellow members of our own species, there’s nothing objectionable in such a logical need to derive strength from the shared experiences and wisdom of each other. Patriarchy somehow seems to have major issues with this bond. The P-word is the bitter enemy to every human being.

 

 

Any criticism relating to a woman’s appearance is enough to let someone blessed with confidence as tall as a skyscraper to come crashing down. If this criticism comes from members of the opposite sex, the damage is more likely to be less or next to nothing. But what happens when the unnecessary criticism comes from a woman herself? This is when patriarchy takes on a cruel, manipulative form. Just like Satan used the lacuna of the forbidden fruit being off-limits to provoke Eve, patriarchy employs serpentine methods to pit one woman against the other. It all begins when women degrade themselves through comparison of physical features with fellow women. Woman A endowed with full features might envy Woman B, who may be the proud owner of a slender frame and high cheekbones. Problems begin when this pointing out of one’s own lacunae becomes mutual. On logical terms, Woman A can never have Woman B’s features and likewise. In that way, patriarchy does not have any well defined standards of beauty at all. It is all a cruel farce to make women breathe fire on each other in the name of physical features.

A woman is most vulnerable when being repeatedly fed body-shaming messages by fellow women. The impact of internalizing these heavily disastrous messages can have long term effects leading possibly to depression, inferiority complex and extreme self hatred that could turn into self harm. It now appears that women are capable of delivering negative and often unfounded content besides enjoying a greater degree of influence among their female peers. Why can we not allow these women to be receptacles of positive energy? I am reminded of what Dayabai had shared during her chat with me: women have the energy of an atom bomb but they don’t realize how powerful they are!

body diversity

The firepower from the bomb can either blast the negativity to shards or blow up carefully layered walls of positivity. We women must understand that every time we give in to patriarchy, we are dividing ourselves. Every time we tell another woman that she is ugly, patriarchy wins. This ‘Divide and Rule’ policy has been eating away at our sisterhood and solidarity. Let is spend the energy we devote to shaming fellow comrades in empowering and motivating them. It is easy to point out one’s own flaws and coerce one to accept a standard of beauty that is impossible and largely non-existent. Women are powerful agents of change, let us accept the power given to us at the time of our birth to create a united front of confident women who are proud of their bodies. As Beyonce puts it across in a very powerful and beautiful way in her song ‘Run the World’, I quote

“My persuasion can build a nation,

Endless power, with love we can devour!”

Let us promote body diversity and make it our lifelong endeavor to uplift and encourage our sisters to take pride in their bodies.

With this thought, I would encourage all my sisters to watch this inspirational TED talk by leading model Ashley Graham. (Click the hyperlink to watch the video).

 

Homeless But Not Without Hope

If someone had ‘visitor to 20 countries’ on their CV it would be a mark of accomplishment but if that were accompanied by ‘imprisoned over 12 times in jails both in India and China.’, an entire image makeover were to follow. Martyr or miscreant? A rightful question indeed.

When Tenzin Tsundue stepped into the crammed room that we were allotted for his talk with us, this unassuming man of short stature, clad in  casual clothing and a bandanna looked nothing like an individual who would fit the above description. With a smile, he broke the ice, saying “If you expect me to do some kung-fu or karate moves, I am not that kind at all.” eliciting laughter from an expectant audience of young minds.

Tsundue

 

“I am not going to talk about Tibet but about writing, about identity.” With that assertion, Mr Tsundue led the crowd through a well planned talk interspersed with carefully chosen excerpts from his simplistic but moving poetry as well as punchlines in Tamil and Hindi.

Mr Tsundue shared that early on in his childhood, his teachers at the boarding school in Himachal Pradesh taught him that they, the Tibetans were born with a metaphorical ‘R’ etched on their forehead. This ‘R’ somewhat like the humiliating Star of David stood for refugee. An imaginative young child who would grow into a strong and courageous teen, Tsundue sought to rename the ‘R’ as ‘Rangzin’ or ‘freedom’ as it meant in his native tongue. As a refugee growing up in India, Mr Tsundue like many others of his generation nurtured in their minds the imagination of a nation that did not however exist on the political map. This nation existed in their songs, games, proverbs and sense of dress. Being no stranger to identity crisis,  Mr Tsundue describes his early years with a smile on his face. For someone whose parents lived in Karnataka, he spent his growing years in a boarding school in Himachal Pradesh. When people would asked where he came from, he would be in a tight corner. “With this kind of a face” he said, letting his fingers trace the shape and essence of his Tibetan countenance, “How was I to tell them that I was from Karnataka? People did not know Tibet, back then.”. He raised his fist in a threatening position and pushed it roughly through the air to demonstrate the aggression with with people demanded to know his identity. “You know, Manasarovar-Kailash?” he’d reply to their question, adding “You know, the abode of Lord Shiva? Yes, that’s where I am from!” With his trademark smile, he said to us, “Lord Shiva by virtue of living in Tibet becomes Tibetan, The Dalai Lama by virtue of living in India becomes and Indian! A fair exchange indeed”. More laughter followed.

So how does one write about identity? The first misconception to be cleared is that putting the pen to the paper is the primordial part of this process. According to Mr Tsundue, one needs to recognize the uniqueness of one’s identity, experience and feelings thereby allowing them to become forces of inspiration. When the forces of inspiration are at work, one is driven to seek an element of depth and detail. Once that has been solidified will the quill be dipped in ink and allowed to transcribe the crystallized perspective of the author/poet. If this process has to be initiated, it is important to consider the importance of each experience instead of blindly dismissing them as paltry.

This is evident in the works of this winner of the Picador-Outlook Prize for Non-Fiction (2001). His writings speak of loneliness and homelessness.  His much feted essay ‘My Kind Of Exile’ draws the reader into the complex web of belonging to one’s landscape and forceful eviction from it. Mr Tsundue shares how poverty had been his companion right from birth. During a span of eleven years at the Himachal Pradesh boarding school, he was able to visit his parents only thrice. The feeling of a warm, human embrace was lost to him. This however did not stop his fellow students from comforting younger boys at the school every time they would cry for their mothers. It was that warmth of a hug that could comfort the younger boys yet torment Mr Tsundue and his contemporaries. This pathway dotted with tears would make its way to his adulthood. He would note how the telephone booths would become what he calls ‘Cry boxes’ as those in exile communicating with their relatives in Tibet would break down as they’d emerge from the booth. For him, he confesses that he had nobody to talk to in Tibet and hence could not cry in that cry-box. But the tears would come when they had to. Mr Tsundue’s poem ‘When in rains in Dharamshala’. He spoke of how the rains would pummel his roof and seep through the walls to inundate his room. To survive that kind of a rain, he pointed out rather laughingly that the ‘cheap Chinese umbrellas’ wouldn’t do. His quick wit which is evident in the concluding verses of the poem, help subtly heighten the underlying pathos in the poem.

“There has got to be
some way out of here.
I cannot cry,
my room is wet enough.”

(Courtesy: http://www.tenzintsundue.com)

This feeling of sadness would linger through his lifetime. Mr Tsundue admitted to making getaways to Marina Beach while travelling ticketless on the MTC buses he took from Loyola College, Chennai. When asked what the inspiration behind his poems were he stated that the verses written on the tombstones at the cemetery were what inspired him the most. The enshrining of such intense love in beautiful words would find a place in his own writing. One can find a deep love for a country that exists in the map of his mind and a sadness that the physical space doesn’t exist on the Political Map.

There was still hope in the form of three precious treasure that lay in his worn out backpack. As he displayed them to us, I wondered at the sheer brilliance of this human being. How was he able to find so much joy despite the sadness surrounding him? The answer is a mystery to me. Through his soulful narration of how poverty drove each member of the refugee families to one part of India, being unable to reconcile at Dharamshala for Losar or the Tibetan New Year, he had our sympathy. His quick juxtaposition of a rather joyful anecdote was a reminder that sympathy was not what he wanted from us. With a smile on his face, he confessed how he’s politely remind people “This is your country, we are just temporary occupants” when people visiting Dharamshala would remark that they felt they landed in a part of Tibet that was maintained rather beautifully by them.

With the idea of staying in India being a temporary option, what were his feelings towards his current host nation? “I feel a great sense of freedom in India that I don’t feel anywhere else.” he said.  These words were potent to take our breath away. What more could we wish that the profound sadness of this illustrious author cum activist come to an end.