Sunday, May 15, 2011

I am humbled by artists and those who empower them

Sometimes there's more to buying a beautiful garment than buying a beautiful garment.

I'd invited friends partly because I thought they'd like to see the the rather delightful display at the Chanderiyaan exhibition; partly because I hadn't met a lot of them for a while. I did say there was a story here which they may relish. I just didn't realize how magical the story really is.

I walked in and knew at once that I was going to succumb to at least one dupatta, one saree maybe. But so far it was only a talk of 'this one?' 'isn't this gorgeous?' 'hey, really love and great prices' 'keep this aside for me'. Yes, Chanderi is popular and available elsewhere but I also knew the weavers were bringing their art directly to the buyer, empowered by the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and it is a laudable initiative. And then, it became more.

Osama Manzur and Shahid from DEF sat down to tell us the stories - of Chanderi, the village with 3000 weaver families who create fabric and designs which pull in Rs. 65 crores annually, but where most families take home less than Rs. 2000 a month; a village where you walk in and out of monuments that murmer historical tales; where a culture that is 700 years old had catered to the fancy of kings and princes: a craft preserved painstakingly, weaver to weaver on old looms and on memory, consuming time and effort and loss where piece after piece could sometimes be scrapped after days because it had changed from the moment till the moment it was finally ready. The world changed - and the work of the weavers didn't know that. This world wanted different colours, a renewed aesthtic, maybe stitched garments, maybe embroidered - and they wanted more and faster. In Chanderi they only knew how to weave.

That's when DEF stepped in and we listen as Shahid tells us that the village is wi-fied, the designs are preserved thanks to technology, the piece is now laid out and experimented with on the computer before it finds it way to the loom - so much time saved, so much work contained; new skills are learned. He shares how the beauty of Chanderi attracts so many different people and tells us stories of women from other cultures who buy the sarees and then want a scissor to cut them up and make outfits - his heart breaks as the weaving and the whole design, so lovingly woven, is separated - but he has learned that this too will re-create a beauty of its own.

And then we sat and spoke of our own histories and families, our mothers and their Chanderis - some of which are heirlooms which perhaps cannot be worn anymore but which daughters preserve; we spoke of the elegance of the saree that younger generations seemed to be missing out on. We sat and spoke of middlemen and business people who are a boon to the trade but to whom the weavers had lost their very livelihoods, and the dangers of exploitation.

Yes, I did succumb to the dupattas and the saree and the stoles which are going to be gifts when I go on holiday next, carrying with me stories of the weavers of Chanderi, their looms and their regal offering.

Monday, March 07, 2011

'Women's Day' musings

In the lead up to International Women’s Day, I am beset by doubts as usual about why we really need to have this one day (just one?) for women. It is a good way to get initiatives begun for women who have no clue that there is such a day but clearly need to benefit from these well-intentioned and successful initiatives begun by men and women alike. But all this reinforcement and symbolism, events and awards and articles and talks and discussions - all on one day - is just becoming - well, noise. And then I start getting a little cheesed off with the whole commercialization around the day – Buy yourself the Gift you deserve – ad nauseum. Women’s films, women’s books, women’s clothes, women artists, women leaders, women in business – need a man-breath by the 10th of March – always. As you can see I’m not getting into all the reasons why I am or am not a feminist right now and here – that’s for the rest of the year. Right now I’m kind of ranting. Triggered off by a friend wishing me Happy Women's Day and when I tell him 'that's everyday', he responds by telling me to accept the appreciation and say 'Thank You'. That's the problem, I want to say, appreciation is not doled out on a per-day basis. You just appreciate. But the man is only responding to a hype we've all contributed to. And I'm too tired to set him right.

Like I'm tired of those articles and blogs about how wonderful it is to have a daughter – your life is not complete without one – a son is a son till he gets him a wife / a daughter is a daughter for the rest of your life – no one cares for you like a daughter – no one brings you more joy or support. I’m sure. I love girls. I am one. I loved my mum and she and I were the best of friends forever. And hopefully, I was a joy to my dad. And yes, it would have been good to have a daughter too.


I have this wonderful son, and really, he is not less than any girl I would have had. To be fair, he is the most marvelous child, the keeper of my soul – and it has nothing to do whether he is a boy or a girl. This is seriously not a gender thing. My brother was a wonderful son to my mum and dad. My husband is a wonderful son to his mum and dad. I love the women in my life. But hey, I love the men as well. And the ones I don’t like – are both – men and women.

Yes, I will be a feminist and fight for women where they are abused and discriminated against, and that’s pretty much in a fair share of life – but I don’t think I’m fighting men as much as I’m fighting society and prejudices and systems and hunger for power and vested interests that propagate gender hierarchy that restricts women to non-life and to pain. But if I were to fight all this by fighting men, I wouldn’t be fighting for women at all, would I? For it is not about being better than, is it? It’s just about the freedom to be the best of who we are. Who all of us are – regardless of gender, race, nationality, economy, creed and all the other external layers. And its about a degree of what's fair and loving and human.

So, Happy Day to you – whoever you are & wherever you are.

8th march 2011

Back from a City of Women

I come back from a 4 day holiday and realize I remember it by the women I met. Yes, I did go to just unwind and sit in the sun so there was no sightseeing or shopping or eating out or partying – just some serious sitting in the sun and the shade and strolling around the club and mending even as I unraveled. And yet when I return and rewind and tell them back home what my trip was about I find myself talking about the smiling eyes of the woman on the train who I befriended even before we spoke to each other in the last ten minutes of our journey - a woman who had worked and created a life for herself and got tired and stopped working and enjoyed the days of leisure only to discover that she needed to work again to redefine her relaxation – so, why didn’t the world get slower and companies not offer flexible jobs to women who would anyway give it their all – in 4 hours or 9? I smiled – this was my territory.

Then there are these two young girls at a salon where my friend has blocked me for a manicure and a pedicure – such indulgence. Its an all-women space, they are expecting us on time (surprise!), and we begin without fuss but with great care – a cup of coffee? Water? A magazine? Not too much talk, thank god; gentle firm hands massaging my arms and legs with soothing lavendar oil, de-stressing all those reflex points, sweeping me away in healing wax and fullers earth and warm aqua without any signs of wanting to stop, no hint of ‘your hour is over’ and then calmly colouring my weary nails so that they look almost new, almost pretty. No hanging around for a tip, a soft towel, a quick payment, a shy smile and we’re out. And I want to go back again to ask where they live – these small, slim, strong women who you could easily miss and who blend into the background - are they married, who looks after their children and do they have to cook and clean when they reach home and then who will massage their tired arms and legs shyly, gently yet firmly with healing? And I want to go and say thank you once more, and mean it some more.

We walk and drive past stores and boutiques and bookshops and restaurants owned by Dolly and Neelam and Sahiba and …, and my friend tells me stories of the women who own these places, and who they are and why they do what they do, and they all have lives which sound full of – well, life. Not just their work, but full-bodied families and errant or good husbands, and children, and laden tables with recipes they exchange over the phone, and dogs that romp around abundant homes, and gyms they frequent and golf games they play, and old parents they care for and who are demanding of their time, and the active god-fearing life of community. I am awed and made little – in this city of women with an appetite for life. In a nice sort of way.

march 2011

The fragrance of D

The first thing I discovered when I met D was that despite my ‘open, completely non-judgemental’ attitude, I’m just as presumptuous and prejudiced as Nina, Meena, Tina. Sure, experience and age does teach you what to expect, but it should also teach you to expect to be surprised – every time.

So, I wait, expecting another one on the ‘holistic healing’ bandwagon. This one was aromatherapy. I lost my sense of smell some 20 years ago, so that makes me more skeptical than most. Yes, I remember the romance of fragrance and perfume, of heady earth smells and day smells, the scent of fear and passion, the aromas of the kitchen . But if you think you are going to put this into a charming little bottle with one really pretty price tag and I’m going to buy it, uh, uh. Perfume – I understand. Potpourris, diffusers, scented candles, pine floor cleansers – okay – but there are so many of them on the market. What’s different, D? I’m not ready to be sold something again.

So, what is it about D that animates me as we talk, what lingers with me after she leaves?

She is collected and calm, yet her eyes are alert, her posture elegant and she glows. She looks like a woman who owns her own life. She takes in the room as she walks in, making a few adjustments in preparation for this conversation making sure she has what she needs and she can sit where she will be seen and heard clearly, even as she smiles to acknowledge us waiting there. And she begins to tell us about aroma and essential oils and healing and about us. As much at ease in her skin as she is in that saree and shawl, she leans forward gently and talks about the things she knows so well, the oils she truly believes heal people, the blends with which is helping to heal people, the way nature has blessings within itself. Her smile reaches her eyes and did I tell you before, she glows. Yes, she uses her oils and serums. Yes, she has healed herself – out of what sounds to be a really debilitating illness that didn’t respond kindly to long allopathic treatment. Yes, her kids turn to her aromas for their anxieties and their acne. And, yes, she will call me with a special solution for my own little problems.

I realize later what I like most – She Cares – about what she does, who she speaks to and how, who uses her products, why, whether it suits them, do they like it, how can she make it better. In my book that makes her a true professional – and that’s big.

feb 2011

Women I Meet

After spending an entire youth talking and thinking about the men I met, I’ve grown to really enjoy the women I meet far more in many ways. My words will only make this banal and so, instead of trying to describe the diversity, the learning, the nuances of life, the range, the depth, and yes, the fun of laughing and crying and listening and talking and living with women, I’m just going to try and tell a story every time I meet a woman who adds something to my day.

These stories don’t belong to a ‘world of women’. I often wonder what that means – for isn’t the world of women the whole world? Does it not include everything? And its only where and when it doesn’t that women (and men, sometimes) question and ask, why not? As indeed we would if the world of men were not to include some portion or the other. As indeed we do when the world of a people excludes other worlds.

Mostly the stories are about the women, but often they reveal more about the world and others around them, and yes, frequently, they’ve shown me a thing or two about me. I bet the women in your world do that as well – at work, at home, in the marketplace.

Friday, August 10, 2007

'Should the reigns of the country be handed over to the youth?' I look at it again. This is Zee News and Dainik Bhasker's Opinion Poll Question of the Day. I want to come back to media polls later. Right now, I'm like - do they really have nothing to do or say? Is this a question at all? Are we going to become a country which has opinions and discussions on lines which pop up in some deadline-oppressed executive's head?
Do they mean should the young form the government of the country? How young? Why just young? Why not qualified and capable and committed? Why don't young people stand for election, get elected and be part of the government - this IS a democracy, after all - nothing is just handed over in a democracy. Now, how this democracy runs and the seamier side of it - that's another discussion.
Or do they mean there should be a retirement age? OK that's a better question.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Women and their many jobs

"When a woman gets near the top, she starts asking herself the most intelligent questions," says Warren Farrell, the San Diego-based author of The Myth of Male Power (Simon & Schuster, 1993). The fact that few women make it to the very top is a measure of women's power, not powerlessness, he maintains. "Women haven't learned to get their love by being president of a company," he says. "They've learned they can get respect and love in a variety of different ways--from being a good parent, from being a top executive, or a combination of both." Free of the ego needs driving male colleagues, they're likelier to weigh the trade-offs and opt for saner lives.

Just putting this here alongwith the link to the complete article, to reflect on later and perhaps discuss. Makes much sense to both genders, not just women.

Also it puts into clearer words a refrain thats been running in my head for some years - why do we do what we do to ourselves? And why don't we recognize the tipping point? More when time allows and the fog lifts.

Monday, October 30, 2006


Writers against Terrorism
Protest against the attack on Lebanon
Petition online against X
March against Y

What happened to FOR?

When did we stop fighting FOR what we wanted? When did we become a people against War, not a world FOR Peace? While we were pushing FOR healthy workplaces, working FOR good marriages and sustainable relationships, FOR safety and freedom and independence, FOR respect and civil behaviour, FOR love and tolerance; while we thought standing FOR the good stuff would change the world, there was a growing group already in the driver’s seat swinging the AGAINST demolition ball to strike down the entire edifice.

It’s pretty successful, the demolition squad. The structures are crumbling; however, not always replaced by anything at all. Or perhaps by an ambiguity that allows for every freedom pretending to be encased in an assertive façade which means nothing, because it stands AGAINST much, but it seems to stand FOR nothing – it feels hollow inside. Like one of those movie studio lots. Leaving me to wonder, can we as an ‘instant’ generation raze foundations and immediately build a value-added world that includes our history and culture, the collective learnings of generations, some values forgotten, some strengths ignored?

Suddenly we’re so sure of what we don’t want. What do we want? Our larger society gets reflected in our vocabulary, our little groups, in our media, in our actions and our aspirations. The young ones protest with ‘no way’ and ‘whatever’, words that spell their take on life. But are we not searching for a way and some definitive?

An author wastes my active time telling me why he is against the way I work with authors. I don’t even work with him yet. A group I belong to is vocal about why they are against formats of critical feedback. Women I know are against the reactions they evoke in men. Employees are against employer practices. I could go on – the world is against the world at large. Besides ‘against’, other popular words are can’t, as in ‘they can’t do this to us’, won’t, as in ‘we won’t tolerate this’, (sounds a bit of a Bush-ism, but Bush-isms are only a reflection of a larger malaise); not, as in ‘the government/ school/ my parents/ my children are not doing what they should’. Why aren’t we thinking of what we Can do to make them do what they are not doing; what Will work in place of what is currently intolerable; how should we make them Do and say Yes to what is right and good and honourable and useful and joyous and progressive and free.

Sounds idealistic? It is. Didn’t we stand for ideals? The same ideals we seem to think will be preserved by fighting against something. The rights of any human being to be free and be treated with respect – women, men, children, marginalized members of society, victims of abuse in any form; the responsibility of communities to create opportunities for their members, the right to freedom and accepting the consequences of the way you treat those freedoms. We stand for core values associated with respect and perhaps, with respect, we need to find ways to fight FOR all these wherever they are trampled.

Before you get the wrong idea, yes, I realize that when we stand up against something, we are also standing up for the opposite. But standing against has often proved costly to human life – qualitatively and quantitatively – we have enough historical examples to suggest that. And we aren’t out to bring about the fall of a civilization and wait for the birth of a new one. We aren’t that patient a people. We really have to work with what we already have, don’t we? As we work we need to search for solutions to fill the holes, ways to change thinking, remedies to cure damage, because we have to build and not destroy, we need to cement together and not pull apart, to create change and not pulverize. Isn’t that why when Indians stood For the Right to Information it worked so well as a step towards accountability; whereas all our rants against corruption per se haven’t really gone anywhere?

Before you get the wrong idea, I do not intend to generalize. There are wonderful people everywhere fighting for life, and doing some remarkable work in many areas. But there are so many more ready to criticize any constructive work, that my mind space is filled with the negativity and the fight against life, as it is. And I want to like what fills my mind space.

(This was written in response to many recent protests, helplessness while trying to assist some support groups working in the field, and as an attempt to begin addressing some major issues – an address which will hopefully follow soon. – Anita V.)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Again about Women

Do mothers just morph into their daughters because they bring them up in the same mould as themselves? Do they transmit their dreams and fantasies and hurts and despair and desires so completely and quietly that however hard we try, under the layers of who we are lie other women with their own stories and beneath them yet others? How much of us is really us and how much our mothers and our grandmothers and their mothers and grandmothers? Is that how we form a collective consciousness of women? Is that why there are little empty pockets in our souls where we’ve forgotten the story. Is that why when we don’t have stories of our own, we manage to understand other stories and adopt some as our own? Shouldn’t that make women the best story tellers? It doesn’t always seem so. Perhaps we women tell our stories to our sons and husbands and lovers, and leave them to tell the tale. In our daughters we just breathe out our lives. And our daughters live them further tending the world as they co-create it. Sometimes some emerge to write about it. It’s a different kind of writing, the writing of women authors. I wonder why some women don’t like to be called women authors. Isn’t author enough, they ask. No, it isn’t. It’s like leaving out the essence, draining out the flavour, squeezing out the fragrance.

But that’s yet another story. We women did a trade-off. In return for the freedom to be whatever we wanted, we were ready to be stripped off the magic if necessary. It was a cause worth fighting for, but the giving up of an unasked-for gift was unnecessary, and eventually damaging. After a few generations of finding ourselves externally empowered with hard-won concessions but essentially compromised by ourselves, the bareness of our collective being scrambled around to clothe itself with a femininity we had denied ourselves, a femininity of spirit. But by now our belief seems to have only external tools and skills, and so we resort, almost thoughtlessly, to slaving towards a cosmetic beauty and suddenly the world is flooded by the very image of woman that three generations fought against – the sex symbol. What men did to us centuries ago, we do to ourselves today, and justify it by insisting that it is our voluntary (and hence, free) choice. No, we women don’t hurt each other – we hurt ourselves collectively, and voluntarily.

We also cry for each other. We weep for women who are raped and abused and beaten. We reject outrageous suggestions that ‘women ask for it’. We now display conservative and drab clothes of victims of abuse to prove they didn’t ‘ask for it’. No, they didn’t. But as women, we do. Every day. I sometimes wonder why men don’t make such a big deal about their bodies and looks and sex appeal and attractiveness as women do. Not for want of trying – there are enough male bod mags and TV shows and a desperate attempt to label men right up to uber-sexual. But it never quite cuts it, does it? Never quite stands up to the continuous deluge by women, we just don’t stop. Sex and the City could somehow never be about men, could it? Rakhi Sawant couldn’t really have had a male equivalent of an item-boy, could she? Why do women in our movies walk around in their bras (well, practically) while the men aren’t on screen in their underwear? Every second programme on television has a focus on women’s bodies – calendar shoots, beauty pageants, soaps, music videos, even people-to-people shows where the male anchor will out-clothe the woman thrice over. Magazines and the print media tell similar stories, advertising and promotion focus is once again back on the woman - how glamorous, how sexy, how slim, how free. Brands are using women all over again and we’re not objecting this time. Because this time we are convinced women are making decisions to participate out of choice and their own free will. So, if we do to ourselves what men did to us, it makes it all right?

Life, unfortunately, but realistically, lives within many contexts. So, where freedom exists, should it not do so in response to those contexts? I have a hypothesis. Ramu, a young man from a remote hinterland village has grown up with a common mix of realism and tradition and deprivation. He is attracted to women, but shy and respectful, still young enough to be affectionate with his mother and sisters. This is a society where the man is lord and master, the woman works at home and in the fields, the man probably drinks, the community goes through its travails together and maybe he’s seen his share of female infanticide or dowry abuse. He manages to fail the 10th Standard. There is no more money and no coherent plan of how the family will support him or itself. He then moves to an urban (not even necessarily metro) city or town where he apprentices or works at a meager salary, sending most of his money back home and living in a tiny, sweaty room, often shared, with an illegal cable connection on a TV set he watches whenever he’s there. He watches barely clad women on foreign channels like FTV, but increasingly on Indian channels. The Indian woman is available – look at the way she is with the guys on the music videos and even in movies about families; and they want to show it off all the time. The girls in the market where he works walk past him in jeans that pull down and show their panties; the boss’s young teenage daughter goes out at night with young men his age – just looking at her and her skimpy little clinging sexy black tube top gets his blood pumping. He’s trying to take all this in his stride. He’s not a bad guy, not a deep thinker, he isn’t too educated, he’s just completely out of his depth, young, confused, very horny and frankly, everything around him is telling him that women want it as much as he does. He doesn’t dare be anything but polite, even deferential, with the boss’s daughter or the smart working women or the housewives. He’s not that sort of guy. He’s tried getting it off on his own most of the time with the TV on, but the onslaught is too provocative. To cut a long story short, almost two years later, early one morning, after he has spent the last evening as a waiter at a fancy party where flesh brushed past him constantly, and the boys danced with the girls like they were doing other things, which some of them were in corners of the landscaped garden, he just cannot contain himself. And when Geeta, the sweeper’s daughter comes to collect the garbage from the alley at the end of the colony, he pins her down, clamps her mouth and has his way. He rapes her. And no, Geeta didn’t ‘ask for it’. And yes, Geeta was wearing conservative, drab clothes.

Now, in this story, I absolutely agree that societies evolve, surely we are free to dress how we will, yes, I am against censoring of media, and of course, women are free to go out when and where and how they will. And yes, I'm thinking of how the violence needs punishable deterrents. So, why do I feel that some other women asked for it for Geeta? Why do I keep thinking that if I am free to wear this sexy attractive shirt, then the guy next to me is free to look down it? He’s only looking, isn’t he? Why am I getting upset? Our freedom surely means we take responsibility for consequences – some good, some bad; and we also take responsibility to preserve and cherish that freedom. It comes at a great cost and we have to fight for it continuously in different and evolving ways. So, why are we collecting clothes? Why aren’t we putting our energies to get to the real roots of what threatens our freedom. Why aren't we talking about stringent laws and immediate punishments? Why aren’t we talking to media, television channels, producers, parents, teachers, employers? Why aren’t we talking to other women? Does the item-girl define your freedom, much like the pin-up girl of the last revolution? She doesn’t define mine. But she sometimes defines Geeta’s rape. Because life lives in the contexts of cultures, traditions, biology, urges, psychology, economics, deprivation, the politics of power and many other blurred boundaries.

I have many such hypotheses.
Perhaps they are responses to the layers within me deposited by my mother and grandmother and women before them who fought to be free so that I am.

This is in response to other responses to abuse of women, responses that look to place blame in blurred terrains and rocky ground. It in no way undermines or contradicts efforts being made by good men and women who work in areas of child abuse, trafficking, domestic violence, rape and other forms of abuse against women.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Blank Noise Project - Harassment

Had to jump into this one - it's critical and ranges from mild admiration to violent rape with harassment / eve -teasing etc. somewhere in the middle yet close to both extremes.
I have two views - both true I imagine, both diametrically different.
One is the simpler view. I've hardly been to a city in the world where 'eve-teasing' doesn't occur - from wolf-whistles, to leering looks, to driving close,cheesy one-liners heavily sexually loaded, to the breast-grabber and more graphic stuff. As a woman I try and quickly understand the culture of the city I am currently in. Some places in the world, you say 'No' to guy or just tell him to lay off and he does. He's just trying to see if you're game. Some cultures, particularly the North Indian one, the guys don't know better - they don't have the opportunity to engage in normal relationships with women at an age where they have active hormones - and they socio-psychological conditioning is so strong : the aggressive macho male who can have it all anyway he wants completely submerging his own trembling insecurity within. And as a woman, you learn to deal with this guy as well, in the manner that all the other blogs mentioned. Quick tips to keep safe. Sock a guy, keep mist handy, take precautions, use elbows, keep cool.

The complex view (and I'm a little ambivalent on this one, though I cannot ignore it) in India is a rapidly changing exposure to comparativly liberal mores in the media and in society over the past 10 years - not long enough for the deeply-embedded social and cultural conditioning to adapt itself. While I theoretically and personally agree with "if a guy can wear what he wants or scratch his balls in public, why on earth can't a woman wear / do what she wants without getting harassed?", this isn't how it works. Let's be real. We've been used to bare-chested, half-lungi, kaccha -clad guys since forever. But the spaghetti strapped, g-string panty peeping out of low-slung jeans, hugely sexy and carefree young thing is a new phenomenon. Sit at a Subway (or etc.) when school gives over in Delhi and you'll see a bunch of girls in decent school uniforms go into the restroom and come out looking like they're ready for the ramp. I think they look gorgeous. So do the guys. I think they look provocative. So do the guys. And the guys don't know how to handle it. So either those schoolgirls get harassed or some young guy who gets completely turned on but wouldn't dare do anything with them picks on an innocent alone in a bus girl / woman and wants to unleash his manhood on her. Sometimes this leads to more than harassment - sometimes it leads to rape. I'm not saying "she asked for it". I'm saying "he's not ready for so much so fast". And with the focus on looks, clothes, sex etc etc he's getting a lot to handle - and his collective consciousness hasn't equipped him with nonchalance yet.
Any solutions?
I'll try some.
- Mothers, educate your sons
- Media, initiate debate
- Media, (all kinds), you do have social responsibility.
- The older generation cannot abdicate its responsibility to the next and then rue the fact that there is violence and an unsafe environment. So, when you make a Neel and Nicky where the heroine wears a bra throughout and oozes out of it (story does not demand the same) then please expect all the guys from small toowns, villages, big towns to get possessed and lose rational thought.
- Girls, figure what you should wear where.
- Fathers, set a good example in how you refer to women in general
- Schools - talk about this.