Apr 27, 2009

Maa Tujhe Salaam

The picture above shows a resplendent and radiant mother-daughter pair. But behind the radiant smiles and crinkled eyes are ears of trauma and a long struggle. A struggle to give birth. A struggle to be born. A struggle to live.

This is the story of three persons who were told they deserved to die, or at the most live a second-rate life. Just because they were women. They were abused, abandoned, berated, belittled, disowned. Just because one was a mother who was not given the right to beget a daughter. Just because the other two were offsprings who carried a different DNA pattern than the one desired by their family. Just because Neera had the guts to bear and raise Shubhra and Pooja despite the hardships she had to endure for doing so. Just because Shubhra and Pooja were determined to live the life their mother struggled to provide for them.

Like any other Indian girl, Neera was married to a well-placed and fairly well-to-do man who she'd thought would be her 'partner' for life. The marriage was not the perfect romance or a bed of roses or a perpetual honeymoon or any other simile the word is accorded by poets and romantics. But like any other Indian wife, Neera tried her best to pull the relationship through. And then she discovered she was pregnant with her first child.

Neera's in-laws told her everything would be back to normal with her husband if she could give him what she had been brought into the family for - a son. When Shubhra was born, the marriage predictably went from bad to worse. Her husband decided to seek on the streets the son he did not get from his wife, and made no qualms about flaunting his many 'women' in his wife's face. Despite that and everything else she was subjected to in her marital home, Neera did not (read could not) walk away. Just like any other Indian daughter. She tried her best to please everyone from her malicious mother-in-law to her adulterous husband, all the while hoping and believing that she could win them over. This despite the fact that she served her cancer-stricken mother-in-law with all her heart only to hear abuses hurled at her. This despite the fact that her husband brought one of his mistresses home and announced their imminent wedding. This despite the fact that there was nobody who stood up for Neera or even felt for her.

Then Neera was pregnant a second time. This time, she fervently hoped and prayed for a son. But I wouldn't have been writing this and being inspired, had Pooja not been born to her.

Neera's worst fears came true when nobody from Pooja's paternal family ever came to see her. She had to borrow clothes for her newborn daughter from the new mother in the adjacent bed. When Pooja was 20 days old, Neera made a choice. She left her marital home with her daughters, and hasn't looked back since.

This was not the end of misery or hardship for Neera, but she could breathe again. The freedom from a shame and a guilt that were in no way hers brought the courage to live again. For herself. For her daughters. Needless to say, the little girls imbibed their mother's grit and devotion to them, returning and sharing the feelings in equal measure. They not only lived for each other, but were determined to live for themselves as well. Not surprisingly, Shubhra today is a management professional happily married and blessed with a daughter.

As for Pooja, we saw her crowned Miss india-World 2009 on a night when the stars shined down upon her. Amidst these, the brightest star is her mother, who truly and completely gave her life. More than any ordinary mother could.

Apr 11, 2009

Am I So Pretty?

A cute little girl peers into the mirror and asks her father if he thinks she is pretty. She tells him that nobody looks at her (possibly due to her obviously visible spectacles). She remembers how she willed the little boy seated beside her to look in her direction, but he doesn't. The next day, her father arrives at school in a brand new Maruti Suzuki "Dzire", and picks her up right from the middle of her classes. As the car moves out of the school porch, she is delighted to see scores of her fellow students clamouring for a look at her (or was it the car?). She asks her father, this time in a thoroughly upbeat tone, with just a tinge of vanity, "Am I so pretty?" The background score goes, "Take a look at me now."

Now this ad left me shocked, and not to mention disgusted. Shocked because the ad had one of the cutest little girls I have seen on TV saying those lines and portraying those feelings. A child - who should be spending her time playing and studying and making new friends and discovering new wonders, instead of fussing before the mirror or vying for a classmate's attention. Disgusted because of the advertising world's obsession with the feminine to sell any and every product. Never mind if this time it was a little girl instead of another of those models with unrealistic bodies and unrealistic emotions.

Every channel we flip to and every show we watch is interspersed with a plethora of ads. Almost all of them (and the exceptions are right on top of the 'highly endangered ads' list) use women and their body parts to sell everything from food to toiletries to cars to men's underclothes. Any women's magazine one may open is full of articles earnestly proclaiming that if a woman can only just lose those so many 'extra' kilos, she'll have it all - a perfect marriage, a doting spouse, loving children, amazing sex, and a rewarding career. Bliss lay all this while in the race to size-zero (or even negative), while I ran after chocolate and friends and fun and love. How naive of me! Phoo!

Discriminatory, unrealistic, and even insulting standards of beauty are imposed on women, a majority of who are naturally larger and more mature than any of the models. Ever wondered why? The roots to this practice are clearly economic. By presenting a target of outward appearance that is obviously difficult (sometimes impossible) to achieve and maintain, the cosmetic and fitness industries are assured of growth and profits. It is no coincidence that flawless youth is increasingly promoted as the most essential criterion of beauty. Either all women need to lose weight, or they are ageing. If nothing, their complexion has yet not reached that perfect shade. According to the industry, age is a disaster that needs to be dealt with.

The stakes are huge. On one hand, women who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy the products that promise them socially acceptable standards of beauty. On the other hand, a deliberately constant exposure to images of stereotyped female bodies that are presumably deemed acceptable by society's yardstick may culminate in loss of self-esteem and the development of an alarmingly unhealthy lifestyle in women. Worse, the age profile of these women gets younger every passing day; it has begun to influence girls as young as 5. The evidence - the ad I mentioned at the start.

What is perhaps the most disturbing facet to this image-consciousness is the fact that media images of female beauty are unattainable for all but a very small number of women. Recently, researchers in the USA generated a computer model of a woman with Barbie-doll proportions. The study found that if such a woman were to exist, her back would be unable to support the weight of her upper body, and her body would be too narrow to contain more than half a liver and just a few centimeters of bowel. Incidentally, the small and large intestines together are a total of upto 8.5 meters in length. Such a woman would therefore suffer from perpetual chronic diarrhoea and eventually die from malnutrition. Frightened? Here's more. A Mattel study also indicates that 99% girls aged 3-10 years own a Barbie doll, or at the least have seen one.

The deluge of overt and covert messages about warped ideas of beauty tells 'ordinary' women that they are always in need of adjustment, that their body is an object to be perfected. These overwhelming reminders mean that real women's bodies have become invisible in popular media. The real tragedy is that many women internalize these stereotypes and begin to judge themselves by these standards. They learn to compare themselves to other women and compete with them for male attention. This focus on beauty and desirability insidiously destroys any awareness and action that might help to change this situation. Women across ages and ethnicities get and stay trapped in this vicious circle, a proverbial catch-22 situation.

Like a whiff of fresh air comes the Women's Horlicks ad with Konkona Sen Sharma as the face of the product. The film shows Konkona waking in the morning and beginning her day with running down a a list of things to do. She is shown taking up one task after another - from household chores to professional responsibilities. As the day passes, she looks at the myriad notes that she had made at the day's start, and realises that she forgot about herself. A voice-over says, "Aaj is badi si list ne chhoti si baat ka ehsaas dila diya. Apni hi list main apna naam nahin." Konkona enjoys a cup of the drink and indulges in a variety of pursuits for her health. The ad ends with her proclaiming, "Because your body needs you too."

It is high time we women (and our men) begin to look at ourselves as a whole person and not focus on body parts. We deserve to do things that we enjoy, no matter what shape or size we are. We can begin by understanding that images and stereotypes portrayed by the media are created for a commercial purpose and are not reflections of reality. This understanding must also be shared within our family and other social units to avoid misconceptions and dissonance in thought. We can encourage ourselves and each other to think beyond traditional stereotypes. For instance, instead of complimenting someone or ourselves by saying, "You/I look great/ pretty today", we can actually say, "You/I did a great job today". This would help widen the range of appeal beyond the aesthetics to grounded realism. Lastly, everyone should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.

Consider this. What would life be if not a melange of different people - truly different and not assembly-line products similar in appearance? Variety, as they say, certainly is the spice of life! So let us all be different and celebrate the fact. Surely, love and laughter, and not external appearances, make the world go round.

Now go watch this, rejoice the fact that you aren't there yet, and promise yourself you never will be.

"Then be bold and love your body and stop fixing it. It was never broken."

- Eve Ensler, "The Good Body

The comments on the advertisement of "Maruti Suzuki Dzire" do not necessarily become applicable to the actual product. The description is also not intended to discourage purchase of the same.

Source: Media Awareness Network
Video Courtesy: JaagoRi

Apr 5, 2009

"Bus" Ek Pal? Ab Bas!

If you wish to be groped and fondled, get on a bus. It does not matter whether it is a DTC or a Blueline or a BEST - a bus on Indian roads is the surest and easiest way to be leched at, pawed on, felt up or even flashed. Think it can or will never happen to you? Think again. It can and does happen to any and every woman, transcending all boundaries of age or ethnicity or lifestyle or even the much-talked-of 'dress sense'. So you may as well be in jeans-and-tee or a denim micro-mini or black spandex with fishnet stockings as in a sari or a salwar kameez or a hijab and burqa - there's no escaping prying eyes or wandering hands.

I will never till my dying day forget two trips in Delhi's acclaimed Blueline buses. Two different days, two different occasions. A similar experience each time but two strikingly dissimilar reactions.

The first incident happened at nearly 5 pm one sweltering summer evening. I got on to a bus, crowded but the first to come. It was unbelievably hot and I wanted to get home quickly. It was a long journey home. Now I was clad in what is unanimously considered to be 'decent' clothing - a simple churidar-kurta with that 'modest' dupatta draped around my shoulders. What's more, the dress had sleeves. Think I would have been safe from prying eyes, a dowdy demure girl? Like hell I was.

I stood right in the front of the bus at the start of the aisle, with some other girls my age. A few minutes before the second stop since I got on, a guy come up and stood behind me. The bus was packed fit to burst, and I suddenly felt him pressing into me from behind. I felt uncomfortable, and not just because of how stuffy it was inside the bus. However, I told myself the poor fellow probably had no choice, considering we were all stuffed like sardines in a tin. You'll have to believe me when I say that I actually felt he must be fidgeting like I was, and that given a choice he would have maintained a respectable distance. I was about to discover how ridiculously naive I was.

Two stops later, there was more space in the bus. But this guy was either blind to this obvious fact, or his legs had been nailed to the bus floor. He stood exactly as he did three stops and fifteen minutes earlier. What did I do? Nothing. What did I say? Nothing. I simply stood there, without a single expression of discomfort but screaming and howling inside. Each jerk and turn of the bus would literally throw the man on to me. I still stood as if carved out of stone. An eternity of agony later, I got down at my stop.

I wish to this day I’d done or at least said something, to someone if not to him. I did not. Instead, I endured in silence. I wish to this day I'd felt enraged. I did not. Instead, I felt dirty, even ashamed. I went home and threw up. When Mom asked, I said it was the samosa I'd eaten earlier in the day.

If there was one thing I learnt that day, it was this. The next time I encountered anyone who doubted his being a man and tried to reassure himself thus, I had to stand up for myself, because no one else would or even should. And stand up I did.

Three weeks later, I again stood in the bus, at the front of the aisle. Same place, same bus. And suddenly, same situation. This time the creep tried to run his hand up my back. That day I did what I had learnt. I gave it right back to him. I asked him to get away just once, and he leched in a totally sick manner with the oft-heard and dependable, "Arre madam ji, itni bheed hai, kahan khade honge hum?" Then, that touch again - even as he spoke. I turned to face him fully and slapped the living daylights out of him.

Before he could even recover, the three conductors who'd been listening to songs on a mobile phone came and surrounded him. Using the best cuss words I knew (and I know quite a few, mind you), I demanded the creep be deboarded that very instant. Not only did the conductors instantly do exactly as I said, they even got down to give him company and thrashed him nicely. Then they brought him back up into the bus from the back gate this time, and took him to the police station at Pragati Maidan, the next stop.

That day I learnt another lesson. It never is our fault. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We did not ask for it. We do not invite it. Never ever. Yet we take it. Silently.

As far as I believe, people you'd go to expecting support or even empathy would unanimously think (or be kind enough to say it on your face), "Well, you know you are dressed in such a way. What's more, you have breasts and other typically female apparatus. So believe it or not, you asked for it!" So today, such creeps have obviously decided that any woman is an easy picking, so they can easily cop a feel or worse any time of day or night. They see no rhyme or reason to stop, seeing as the makers and implementors of law have seemingly better things to do. The creeps have been doing it for years and nothing earth-shattering has happened to any of them yet. What is there for them to fear?

If we have reached a time when we need to think before stepping out of our homes, or indulging in the simplest of pleasures and innocent pursuits, then we seriously need to stop and take stock. Hell, we need to actually give everyone (including ourselves) a vigorous shake from this deep slumber. The government needs to actually do the job they were meant to in the first place - 'govern' the goddamn place. The law and order machinery needs to do what they are supposed to - make sure there prevails at least some bloody sort of law and order. What kind of a country are they running where women cannot even welcome the New Year without getting groped and stripped by a deranged mob in the process? Remember Gateway of India?

What is it with creeps and this behaviour? Is it their long-repressed sexuality? Is it their suppressed curiosity about the other kind of human? Is it their utter depravity? Is it their unfulfilled experience of sex? Do they not get any or enough? Is that why they decide to let themselves loose on any and every woman out there? Is that really it? What do they wish for? Touch her? Fondle her? Is that it? And now that they’ve done that and got a nice buzz going, what? Pounce on her? Rape her? What?

I seriously doubt such creeps themselves know what they actually set out to achieve. More often than not, these men are cowards. They feel that the crowd gives them a perfect opportunity, and anyway the woman won't protest, her honour and all. They feel their being a man will help them get away with it. They expect no or at the most feeble reaction from the woman they creep up on. And that is exactly why most of the time a shrill yell or a tight slap sets them right.

To my fellow women, I say this. Stand up and fight right back. Scream your lungs out. Make a scene. Slap as hard as you can. Stomp down on to his foot. Push him away hard. Most importantly, look him straight in the eye. Help yourself. No one else will.

Who was it that once said, "Until the day a woman can go for a walk at midnight and return safe, we haven’t got true freedom"? Looks like after 62 years of freedom, we aren’t free yet.