Friday, 18 March 2016

What’s in a name? Or Defining Identities.

What does it mean to identify with a name? It comes with a host of implications, especially in our society: caste, class, gender... and so on. Quite a few of my friends, especially on Facebook, have taken to exploring alternative names. People who have harked back to their mothers, people who have created fanciful names, or people who have chosen to maintain only their name, minus the surname (i.e. their father’s/husband’s name).
So, one may ask, what’s in a name? Why even bother to change it? Is this even an important act in a world filled with uncountable atrocities- rape, physical abuse etc.? Shouldn't these be the issues we should be fighting for? Why can one not just maintain the name given to them?
Often however, maybe not specifically in this context, I have heard people ask if something is a fight worth fighting. Is it significant? Is fighting for temple rights significant? Is a woman who runs a marathon on her period without a pad significant? Is changing your name significant? It is such a trivial notion. How is it going to change perceptions? What effect will it have on a larger scale? How will it benefit the greater good?
But, what is this notion of the greater good? Who decides what is significant and what is not? Recently I came across a post that highlights this:
The moment one has stated that an issue is ‘unimportant’ or ‘insignificant’, the implication is that the way things are currently is all right; manageable. But equality isn't about what is manageable. It ought to be about the ideology behind statements, actions and events. When someone states that certain situations needn't be questioned they are accepting an inequality, however trivial it may seem.
But, feminism anywhere (and for people who might argue, I am discussing a feminism that emphasises the equality of men and women) and at any level is a struggle for equality. I know women and men who are doing this in a radical manner- questioning the norms of marriage, or patriarchy, or gender openly and bravely.
But there are those who do this in small ways, in what is considered ‘insignificant’ ways. And this is equally important, because it is from the small ideas that big notions grow. When one of my friends changed her Facebook name, for instance, she was faced with a verbal attack on her personal stance towards her family name. But such a move, to alter one’s name, is not about the personal. The argument that one can support a cause only because they have a personal agenda behind it is invalid and narrow-minded.
It remains a fact that there are many people out there who are unaware of the politics behind the way names function- where either the father’s name or that of the husband is taken as the surname. It does not require a personal struggle with family or society to act as a cause for change. There are people who choose not to use the father’s name; choose not to alter their names after marriage... The understanding of the manner in which society functions to restrict equality is enough. It is not about the individual, but about the larger society.
That such questions arise is in itself proof that these acts are not ‘insignificant’. They are actions which believe that equality implies the acceptance and tolerance of my notions, irrespective of your belief. And this is true of temple rights as well.
I personally may or may not care about temple entry. But there are millions of women who are denied access to praying to their gods only because they are on their period. And whether or not I personally want to enter temples, it is crucial for us to accept that this is important for so many other women. Whatever the reasons for the restriction, the eventual outcome is the lack of equality.
In the discussion about equality and the struggle for it, every action- big or small- is equally important. And in defining oneself and one’s stance, whether or not it impacts a huge group of people, it is crucial in creating dialogue. It is essential to have an open interaction between people of different mindsets, in order to understand one’s position, in order to discuss the politics behind an individual’s act (in this case the act of name changing), and hopefully in order to initiate a change in societal norms regarding gender equality. Unfortunately that dialogue is not often open, and two-sided. But hopefully that dialogue will help question identities.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

A women's day post

I am so glad to be surrounded by strong women. When I was younger, there were stipulated roles... Boxes that we apparently had to fit into. But as I grew up, I realised, that even my family broke barriers in their own small way. And one thing my family taught, but also all my friends was to be strong for myself, but also to be strong for the people around me. And in this incessant struggle to maintain our independence and our identities, it is important to recognise that there are the men who treat us as equals- friends, family... everyone.
This is for everybody who celebrates independence and strength and a voice of one's own. That list is never-ending.

Thursday, 28 May 2015


Inspirare. Inflame. Blow into.
Lungs filled with air. Filled with Oxygen.
Filled with passion-desire-madness-chaos.

Inspire. You inspire me.
You have blown into my heart-mind-soul
And you have created a whorl
That will not cease and settle down into stillness.

Inspire. You have inspired.
You have inflamed a wood-burn fire.
You have kindled a spark that spreads in the wilderness.
You have triggered creation.

Inspirare. Inflame. Blow into.
Blown my mind away.
Inflamed new love.
A tingle of sensation,
Starting at the pit of my stomach
Seeps into the veins with the lightness of air,
With the fury of flames.

Inspire. Take a deep breath.
And hold it.
In this summer-time madness,
You have given me something
That has taken my breath away.


Tuesday, 11 November 2014

When young minds brew new stories

Tales spun are the golden threads
In the banal life of cotton-simplicity;
Tales woven with intricacy
With ingenuity
With passion.

Tasting the refreshing redness of words
That tinkle into the transparent emptiness
Of day-to-day-ness
And slosh about in the mind,

Creating psychedelic images
Creating new lives- albeit fictional
Creating emotions
And expressions
And stunning plot sequences.

When young minds brew new stories
And you get to hear them,
Fresh with the enthusiasm
That comes with belief, with faith...

You realise
These are the stories
That make life worth living;
And you realise

Sheer joy.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Teacher Notes 2

Teacher: The Szgany people, who are Dracula’s followers are ‘outside the law’... They follow methods that are outside the law. For instance, killing humans (something that vampires do) is illegal, isn't it?

Student: Ma'am, what about the army?


Teacher Notes: 1

            In class, we were discussing how we can relate to a text by comparing it with events in our lives. It moved on to a discussion about how we get affected by books. A student said, “When I read a book, and there is a scene… for example, where people are sleeping, I start feeling sleepy too!” Today, after a harrowing morning, my last period was a library period, and for a few quick minutes, I got to read something while my students read their books. Inadvertently I yawned. A perceptive kid picks this up and connects it with a class we’d finished at least three to four days previously: “Ma’am, could I ask you something?”
“Was there a ‘sleepy’ scene in your book, because you just yawned?”

I said no and went back to my book. Suddenly I realised, Jem and Scout Finch were actually lying on their bed, waiting for Atticus to sleep. Maybe it was the words…

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Nepal Narratives. Day 1. Arrival and Sight-Seeing

     We'd travelled a whole day by flight! A wait at Delhi- an expensive lunch and breakfast- and eventually arrived in Nepal by 5.30 p.m. A Nepali SIM bought at a shop with flirtatious assistants, a meet with an excited and happy friend, and a bumpy car ride on dusty roads toward Thecho, Lalitpur district, Katmandu. Reached the house we were to stay in. A hearty, filling dinner with Binod, Shakuntala, Bimla and Niroj, and then sleep.
     We set off across the fields and houses the next day, at six in the morning, to visit Bajrabarahi- a temple for the goddess situated in the midst of a park. The goddess was set in the ground, people bending to worship her. The temple itself was in the pagoda style- a style seen across the land- dark brown shades enclosing the goddess, bells chiming constantly. In the outer pathway, surrounding the temple, pigeons flocked to eat grains and drink water given by the people there. A feeling of absolute bliss!
    From there, we went to a Buddhist monastery, behind which a new one was being constructed. We got to visit the school in which Shakuntala taught during the daytime and finally reached home once again by 7-ish. After mild black coffee and biscuits, we set out to meet Sarveshwar at a tea-shop down the road (a place that was to become our favourite morning haunt during our stay- Kashi bhaiya's tea-shop). Having tea and 'doughnut', we set off to visit Pashupathinath.
    First to Satdobato and then to the temple itself. Built in the Buddhist style of the pagoda, the central idol is known as the 'chaturnukha', comprising four faces of Shiva. Though we weren't able to figure them out precisely, we could spot the faces of anger, meditation and happiness (in my head the last one was sorrow, but I cannot be too sure!). The temple itself was teaming with animals like cows and pigeons that crowded the outer pathway as much (or at least almost as much) as the people themselves.
     Walking around the temple, we could see a partially aerial view of the river Bagmati. People flocked around the steps to the water.
Something was happening there.
A funeral.
A corpse floating on the water.
Symbolically a movement into the other-world,
Cleansed and purified.
And what of the water?

Later, we see the burning bodies,
Families missing their dead ones,
Now, nothing more than a floating dead-weight on dirty water.

     We crossed the bridge and went to visit Guheswari. The story goes that after Sati commits suicide by jumping into the fire, Shiva is outraged. After setting a Yaksha on Sati's father, he carries his wife, dancing the thandavam, across the land. In the fury of his dance, his spouse's body disintegrates and lies scattered across the land even to this day, and Guheswari is the region where Sati's procreational parts fell to the ground. The sanctum itself is partially open, surrounded by pillared stone-thinnais (or benches). At the centre is a deep, round hole, besides which two priests sit. The water from this is considered holy water.
     Next, we went to Boudhyanath- a massive stupa. The story goes that an old lady, who had nothing in her possession dreamt of building something for Buddha. Eventually, she decided, to approach the king who asked her how much land she wanted. In response, she asked for land the length of a buffalo skin. Laughing at the smallness of the size, the king told her that the land was hers.The old lady, however, cut the buffalo skin into thin strips, thereby increasing its length drastically. The king was impressed and told her that she could take that amount of land. He also provided her with the labour required for the stupa.
     We could view the massive stupa from a small monastery situated opposite it. Climbing to the top, we saw the four-coloured Buddhist prayer flags fluttering all across the white dome.
Standing on top
Lighting a prayer-lamp
Watching them flicker,
Protected from the wind
By a small shed.

The air is cool,
Whipping strands of black hair
Across the skies.
     The outer circumference of the stupa comprised of the first tourist shops we were to spot during our stay there. While most shops comprised of the same beaded necklaces, masks, show-pieces, paintings etc., they always were a sight to see! The vivid colours, the array of images that hit us was for some reason unlike the shopping experience in India (but then, maybe this was just because we were acting all 'tourist-y')!
     Our last stop for the day was the Patan Durbar Square. Here, the prominent visit was to the temple of Krishna, which comprised of two storeys- the top floor had wooden carved panels depicting the story of the Mahabharata, while the first storey included the Ramayana narrative. Beginning with Pandu's death and the birth of the Pandavas, we were able to decipher bits and pieces of the Mahabharata till the deaths of the five warriors after the famous Kurukshetra war, though we worked harder to comprehend the story of Rama. Intricately carved, they hung a little above the eye-level. Craning our necks, trying to figure out which image depicted which story was a lot of fun! Apart from this temple were a few others which contained panellings of images from the Kamasutra as well as images of torture. The other main attractions included the shops which sold a lot of jewels and show-pieces with a lot of Buddhist influence.
    Finally, we got back to Thecho. Our first day's visit happened to be during mother's day. During this day, the customs of the Newaris of Thecho expected the married women to go back to their own house or 'Tha che' ('my house'), giving their mothers a treat, even as they paid their respect to the other elders of the house, by giving them Aila (or Raksi, a local, home-made drink) and fish. We got to spend the evening at Sarveshwar's friend's house, listening to the regaling of his father, and having an absolutely filling meal.

* * * * * * * * * *

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Music in my voice, music in my hands, music in my heart!

Vidya Rao
     Listening to eminent singer Vidya Rao performing Bhakti songs in the Thumri form was enthralling, to say the least. For somebody who understands neither form, she patiently explained what she was doing and why. She applied the form of Thumri, which became popular only in the 19th century, to Sufi music, which begins around the 13th century. She had chosen every song for a purpose and with an understanding of the difference it created.
     She began with Amir Khusro, a 13th century Qawwali poet, followed by Kabir's 'Jo khuda masjid vasath'. Choosing Kabir's song for its secularism, she says, god does not reside in a temple or a mosque, but rather in the hearts of humans. God, then, is not a collective notion, but a personal, intimate relationship. She went on to raise questions of the body using Mirabai's 'Ma Giridhar rang rachi re'. Rao notes that while first few lines of the song can be construed as giving the universe to Giridhar, a more poetic and sweet notion, it could also mean giving the body to him, a more sensual idea. With this song Vidya Rao believes that the idea of Mirabai as a 'sweet' singer can be changed.
     She followed this song by another Mira-bhajan, 'Man chaakar rakho ji'. A song that became popular after Gandhi's movement and usually sung with an air of submissiveness to Giridhar, Rao attempted to bring in folk elements that mingled an aspect of command as well. The first line which usually means 'Please make my heart your servant', is sung as 'Mhane chaakar rakho ji' with a tone that implies 'You better keep me as your servant'. Though there is an heirarchised relationship, even in that relation the submissive one possesses an element of agency, a little bit of command over the master. Vidya Rao explored these contexts of agency through the song.
     She spoke of religion, she spoke of the body, and she spoke of agency, and then she spoke about breaking the barriers of language, and the other barriers that get broken as well. Speaking again of Khusro's music, she says that the poet sang a combination of Farsi and Hindavi. Farsi is more formal, a language of the courts. It is usually sung in such a manner that it represents a male addressing a female. However, Hindavi was the language of the home and the intimacy that comes with the home, and it was mostly sung by a female voice addressing a male beloved. By combining both languages, Rao believes, Khusro collapses the spaces between the court and the home, and even between the male and the female.
    After the Sufi song, she moved on to a Milad-un-Nabi ('Ek raaj dulhara aavat hai') or a celebration of the birth of the Prophet. But, she said, the song could also just be a paidaish or the birth of a child, thus attempting to break the notions of greatness, where the ordinary child is also considered great. Finally, Vidya Rao performed a ghazal by Mah Laqa Bai (Chanda Bibi), an 18th century Urdu poet who was the first female poet to obtain a diwan or a 'collection of poems'. She referred in passing to the song which is usually sung by a male voice to a beloved and she wondered what gendered notions were broken when a woman sang these songs.
     But transcending all these questions of religion, class and gendered bodies Vidya Rao enthralled, captivated, held her audience spell-bound by her music. Her voice was soft and calm, yet beneath that quiet surface, one could see the excitement and enthusiasm bubbling in her words, pouring out in her music, subsuming the auditorium in her world of blissful song. And the music was not just in the words. It was in the way her hands and eyes and smile danced with her words. Each line evoked a commanding finger pointing out to the person sung to (usually the 'beloved' of Sufi music), it would curl into a soft flower-mudra that understood the beauty and complexity of the song and the words, it would call out to the audience to join her in the music. At the beginning of the play she quoted her teacher, Nainaji: "Sangeet sangat hai" (I would translate that, with my haphazard knowledge of Hindi as: "Music is in the collective"). And indeed, that is what she did. Though she sat on a dais, far away from her audiences, she managed to reach out to everyone 'out there', tapping them light-heartedly on the shoulder, and gesticulating to them to join her in the sheer joy of it all. There was music in her voice. In her hands. In her heart.

Note: Unaware of exact meanings for most of the lyrics, I have provided a rough translation that might not do justice to the words. If there are better translators out there, exact meanings to the songs, words etc. would be much appreciated.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Which character would you choose to have a prolonged interaction with?

     Based on an interesting conversation held with a friend, I began to wonder whether I could come up with a set of fascinating male characters that I would like to interact with if I got to meet them in real life. (Of course, if it is a fantasy story, I would then be situated in the world that the fantasy occurs in). It could be any film, tv-show, book, graphic novel etc.- basically, anything fictitious. Though I usually dislike the question regarding who my 'favourite' character is, I thought this identification of which character I would enjoy interacting with was a slightly different question. I believe that I (and this is a very personal notion, I guess) would enjoy interacting only with someone who is
a. sweet, kind, and basically cheerful
b. intelligent and smart.

     This is my preference list, of course, and it would probably vary from person to person. Yet, my friend and I, based on the above two ideas, wondered which characters would fit this description. But, to narrow the base, we were wondering if we could find men characters in this regard. So, we were mainly looking at
a. human men (as opposed to dragons, centaurs, fishes, pandas, ogres and other such characters)
b. not boys (so people above the age of 18 years, at least)

     Before going into the very minimal list we formed, we were also looking at a lot of women characters that we found fascinating. Some of them included- Arya Stark and Danaerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones), Jo (Little Women), Alice (Alice in Wonderland), all the women from Firefly, Kate Beckett (Castle) etc. There were many more, but I am not including a complete list.
     But we found ourselves getting stuck when it came to the male characters. We dismissed Gregory House, Sherlock (played by Benedict Cumberbacht, but also the book Holmes, and definitely also the Downey Jr. version) and even Wolverine as anti-social, Castle as over-the-top and we started wondering. These are characters we love on screen. Yet, when it comes to a face-to-face, we find them annoying or people we would not be able to interact with. Why is it that the grumpy or arrogant man is considered protagonist-worthy in today's world? When we did find sociable men, they were usually flirtatious, if not outright sexist. Very few characters were kindhearted and intelligent at the same time. We wondered whether Mal (from Firefly) would have ever read a book (could he have been patient enough?!). Even Jon Snow (who in the book is below 18 years, though) would have been amongst the grumpier characters.
     What we did find interesting was that the side-kick was usually more pleasant, and we tended to place them over the protagonist- especially when we considered associating with them. For instance, Wilson (from House), Watson (from Sherlock), Samwell Tarly (Jon Snow's friend from GoT) etc.
     These were some vague ponderings over a walk of three hours. I wonder whether you can come up with a list of ten protagonists who do fit the "if you were to have a prolonged association with a fictional male character, who would they include?". Some of ours included:
1. Atticus Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird (though not a protagonist, he does play a lead role. Personally, I think he is perfect. Brilliant, smart, kind, filled with panache! I doubt I would be able to speak confidently if ever I met him, but I would hold him in awe.)
2. Ged, from the Earthsea series (Ged is more quiet than grumpy, I felt. He is contemplative, but kind and also does interact with the other. He, too, is somebody who, when I meet, would be spell-bound by).
3. Leopold, from Kate and Leopold (because he is just too charming)
4. The Three Musketeers (because all of them are a lot of fun, though I guess Arthos (if I'm not mistaken) is a little serious)
5. Radagast, from Lord of the Rings (because he can talk to animals, but again, not a protagonist) and Tom Bombadil also
So, if you guys have an interesting list, do add on...

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

19/10/13 and 20/10/13- Delhi, Agra and over-priced autos!

     Half a day dissolved in the pleasance of sleep. Reaching the airport well ahead of time, only to find that the flight has be advanced to an hour earlier, and relief at being early enough not to miss my flight. Reaching Delhi, visiting JNU and Kalka-ji. A wait for a friend, coffee ice-cream and a Kindle-read American Gods. Meeting an old friend, making a new one, and conversations that are random streams that intersect with and deviate from one another like a crisscross of rivers. Back to JNU when the Onam celebrations were nearing an end, repeating the process: meeting old friends, and making new ones.

     The next day dawns with a slow process of getting ready to head towards Agra. Uneventful auto and bus journeys towards the city. You would think that the constant exposure towards images and information about certain places would reduce the beauty of certain places. But I was to be pleasantly surprised. There was a short-cut towards the ticket counter that seemed to be unexplored by many. Willingly, we chose to walk the empty road. As we trudged through the grass, we spotted a long blackish snake winding its way through the grass heading off towards whatever destination it had in mind. With a quick goodbye to our reptilian friend, we went along our way. We saw camel-carts with the massive animals standing idly waiting for a savari (whether they were waiting for the savari or not, I cannot tell, but their owners sure wanted people to be filling up the carts).

     And then there was the queue. We thought we had to stand in a long-winding, never-ending queue towards the entrance, but there was a separate queue for women. There were, in fact, four separate queues: the high-value tickets and the low-value tickets for both men and women. Both the ladies’ queues were short, and thankfully, we got in faster than most others. Mostly, being all tourist-like, we took pictures of everything we could. But that got us to looking at the construction itself. Not that we knew anything of architecture, but the minute stones embedded into the marble walls, twirling into twines of colourful flowers, the carvings on the walls, the writings in Arabic and the intricacy of it all.

     Stuck near a tomb waiting to get out, the security does not allow the people who enter the innermost area to exit it. A crowded shrine, and unhappy people. Annoyed with the guards, who eventually cave in and let the people out. A tussle between women when push becomes shove. A quick exit. – With all things beautiful comes something not so pleasing. The Laal Kila. Exploring with a map absorbed into a camera, and understanding things better. Once again, looking at carvings, and looking with awe at the fort walls.
And then the journey back- an escapade not worth mentioning about, save for the fact that the bus that ought to have gotten us back to Delhi by 9.00 p.m. reached the bus stop only by 11.00 p.m. Filled with exhaustion, there was a quick dinner and sleep.