15 July, 2014

Sexism - See it. Say it. Stop it.

(Image : seeitsayitstopit.com via Google)
It all started with the outlet tube of the washing machine snapping open at the joint, a couple of weeks back.  The existing tape had to be removed, the outlet pipes fitted together again properly and taped up securely with insulation tape.  Once I was done repairing the pipe, casual conversation led to me saying that small electrical repairs around the house like repairing plugs, changing fuse wires etc were things I used to do at home, during my college days and how it used to leave my grandmother rather horrified.
I also used to repair leaky taps at home by changing washers and the like.  I’ve used a proper saw on wood to build something once and these habits of mine were always a bone of contention with my grandmother.  Her comment to my mom always used to be “these are not things girls should be doing.  It is very unfeminine for a girl to be repairing stuff, sawing wood etc”.  
Yet another incident that this brought to the fore was when one of my aunts used to repeatedly tell me not to sit with one knee over the other.  Apparently, if girls sat that way, it was a sign of disrespect.  Boys could sit anyway they wanted, they could scratch themselves anywhere they wanted, in plain view of anyone around and it was perfectly acceptable.  But girls sitting with one knee over the other knee was an absolute NO !
During my college days, I also used to paint with water colors and I did notice, even then, that painting did not evoke any negative response from anyone at home.  It was seen as something creative, something feminine. 
This whole concept is worth a serious think – “What does one mean when one says this is not something girls are supposed to do or not supposed to do ?”
Growing up in a patriarchal society that is India (it was and it still very much is a patriarchal society), girls, right from a young age were taught to conform and obey, no questions asked.  If it was someone like me, questions would be raised only to be shot down and muzzled.  Answers were never forthcoming and I now realize that I never had any of my questions answered because the elders in question simply did not know.  Customs, ideas, norms, habits were given the title of “tradition” and simply passed on from one generation to the next, with no one questioning the basis or the logic thereto.
As a child, I came in for a lot of flak from the elders in the family for playing cricket with the boys.  Apparently, it was something “girls simply would not and should not do”.  I didn’t get the logic behind that statement then and I don’t get it now. 
During the long summer holidays, a whole load of us used to get together in the afternoons to play card games or board games.  Inevitably, there would be a lot of noise and ruckus and I remember one grandpa in the building complaining to some of the grandmoms about their grand daughters making noise and how it was so “un girl like” to do so.  That there used to be boys too, creating an equal ruckus alongwith us, was completely sidelined – almost as if it was considered natural for boys to behave that way but not for girls.
It’s been a few decades now and the sad fact is that things remain pretty much the same.  Attitudes are the same, mind-sets, outlooks and approaches pretty much remain similar.
Women should not have to protest, should not have to hold up banners, should not have to walk around naked holding placards, should not have to burn bras to be heard and taken notice of.  When a woman speaks, it is as much her right to do so as it is any man’s out there and when she does speak, giving her an ear is something that needs to come naturally to the public just as they would, if it was a man speaking.
Being a woman has never been easy anywhere in the world, especially so in patriarchal societies like India.  Come to think of it, a woman is pretty much doomed the day those XX chromosomes decide to hang out together.  That is essentially when the struggle begins – a struggle for life, a struggle for existence, a struggle for self-identity, a struggle to have her voice heard, a struggle to have her opinions taken seriously.  For a woman, life gets down to being a struggle to simply survive with her senses intact, for, she comes into a world, a society which is biased and inclined towards heeding the XY chromosomes over the XXs. 
Despite rampant cries for change, the cultural identity of an Indian woman is still looked upon, first and foremost, as being a wife, a mother.  The traditional female identity in India still pretty much places a woman in a very restrictive environment.  Education too, even now, is seen by society, not as much as a tool towards an independent woman but more as a means to improve their chances of finding a husband of a higher social status.
Irrespective of life in a village or a city, women are still expected to adhere to traditional expectations.  In many families, it is still considered necessary for a woman to touch her husband’s feet as a mark of respect, she is still expected to wear on herself, accessories that “mark” her as a married woman – her mangalsutra, her sindoor, her toerings.  Does society show a shift towards expecting something on similar lines from men, now that we call ourselves an advancing society ?  Sadly, the answer still remains in the negative.
Religion is still used to reinforce cultural stereotypes of feminity.  Sita is still embodied as the perfect Indian wife who sacrifices just about anything and everything at the drop of a hat to follow her husband and does what is asked of her – no questions asked.  I still remember the press exemplifying Narendra Modi’s wife as a perfect example of an exemplary Indian wife – one who still prays for her husband and sacrifices her comforts for his benefit because she’s still married to him – unheeding of the fact that theirs was a dead relationship the day he chose to walk away from it.  That is just one example of the media doing its duty towards reinforcing stereotypes, at a time when women all over the world are trying to break free of typecasts and labels.  
The media is often found saying that sexism is on the decrease now as compared to what it was a few decades back.  There are countless articles which say the lines between male dominance and female submissiveness has blurred and that there definitely is a grey area which is growing.  Well, as things stand in society today, what we see is probably not the institutionalized sexism that one used to witness a few decades back.  There are no professions from which women are barred or not allowed to practice.  What we see in today’s world is sexism in a more subtle form. 
It rears its head every single time a female faces catcalls and sexist comments as she walks down a road.  It rears its head time and again when male colleagues attribute just about anything and everything about you to it being “that time of the month”.  It rears its head every single time men deem it fit to make jokes about women not being able to do things which society has always considered “macho”, driving for instance.  It rears its head every single time the so-called “educated” men don’t think twice about making statements like “a woman’s place is in the kitchen, making rotis and cooking for her family”.
Sexist attitudes are long gone, is what some people say.  It is something that used to belong in the previous century, said someone, the other day.
Unfortunately, that is not quite the case.  Not quite.  It is still very much out there. 
We still live in a society which defines woman-ness or feminity in terms of actions or dress codes.  We still live in a society that permits and makes sanctions for gender based jokes in workplaces or schools, we still live in a society which recently ruled that family owned businesses do not have to cover contraception in their workers’ health insurance.  We still live in a society where male members in the Senate and the Supreme Court get to decide on whether women should have control over their own bodies.
Sexist ideologies still continue to seep their way into several issues in society, thus affecting and twisting perceptions and public attitudes.  Sexism does exist even today and this is an issue that needs to be at the forefront in terms of raising awareness, not something to be denied or swept under the carpet or deemed as something that’s long gone away.

It hasn’t.

08 July, 2014

A Celebration of Life - A 2000 word short story


(Image source : anshaimeth.org via Google)

He looked at his Smartphone.  The edges were cracked, the screen bore smudges, multiple fingerprints.  It was an older model, distinctly showing signs of wear and tear, of neglect and disregard. 
Light drops of misty rain caressed his head, his face.  They pattered down in a fine mist.  The winter rains, as they were called in HongKong, descended softly, as the roads waited to receive them with open arms.  He lay still, eyes wide open, his breath condensing, forming small white dissipating tufts that seemed to emerge from his nostrils like the breath of a dragon hibernating in the cold.  Traffic zoomed past as people rushed to get home for Christmas but he was in no hurry.  Last minute shoppers crowded into the shopping malls, trying to find that “perfect gift” for their loved ones but he was not one to be hassled.  Carollers could be found at street corners, people of all shapes and sizes, filled with the cheer that Christmas brings along with it, ushering in the festivities.  Through it all, he lay on the bench in the park, eyes open but unseeing, ears open but not quite hearing. 
He could still hear her laughter, peals of which now threatened to deafen him with their deathly silence.  In his mind, he could see her eyes, so full of vitality and life, as they sparkled with mischief.  All he could sense, however, was the mind numbing, crushing pain that filled every pore of his being.  The tears simply would not flow.  It was all bottled and sealed in his mind, creating a vacuum like none else. 
They had lived an idyllic life – young, vibrant, energetic – when everything had seemed alive and vital.  He had met Jen in the crowded lanes of Causeway Bay, when she had almost broken his leg.  He had been waiting outside Sogo to meet up with his friend and go over to the cinema but thanks to Jen, he had ended up in the hospital with a badly sprained ankle.  “Nice way to spend Christmas” he remembered having thought rather morosely then, as he spent a good portion of his Christmas holidays hobbling around on a heavily bandaged foot.  She had appeared in the doorway one fine afternoon, looking rather sheepish and remorseful but nothing could contain the lively twinkle of mischief, the life that simply seemed to spring out of her eyes, forcing everything in its path to simply get up and live life to the fullest.  Yes, Jen had always had that effect on people.  She made life seem like a celebration, always.
After a whirlwind romance, they had decided to take the plunge and get married.  Life had just seemed to look upwards after their marriage.  Jen worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Molecular Biology at the HK University with the renowned Prof.Chan.  He had meanwhile hurtled towards fame with his contribution towards building one of the tallest structures in HK. 
Time simply flew as it usually does, when the going is good.  They spent their free time revelling in each others’ company.  The house that they had bought with a mortgage from the bank began to take shape as “their home” as it acquired its own character through the little knick knacks that Jen had an eye for.  She loved shopping on the small, cluttered, crowded lanes of Hollywood Road.  She loved sifting through heaps of antique looking stuff in the little shops and bargaining, haggling over the price while he preferred the cool, chic surroundings of the high end malls in Admiralty and SheungWan.  Jen loved the vibrancy, the vivaciousness, that pulsating energy that the streets of HK infused while he preferred the remoteness, the cool detachment of the huge malls.  She loved the little dai pai dongs, the little baskets of steaming dim sum and the hot, sweet, heavy stocking tea from the roadside stalls while he loved the pretentiousness of supercilious restaurants.  She loved outdoor sports and often dragged her extremely unwilling husband along to hike the rugged terrains of HK or to climb mountains.  He, in turn, dragged Jen around golf courses and pool tables in the many clubs in HK while she made it abundantly clear that golf and pool, to her, were like a visit to the dentists’ office. 
To their friends, however, he and Jen had embodied the basic principle of the Yin and the Yang.  They were seemingly opposites, totally contradictory personalities who simply could not do without each other.  He and Jen were interconnected, their psyches intertwined. 
Every rope, however strong, has a split at someplace or the other.  With them, the first give made its presence evident when Jen brought up the idea of having a family, of having a baby or two to make their family complete.  She had completely taken him by surprise, for he had never imagined that the vivacious, effervescent Jen would want to settle and huddle down under the wings of maternity and the responsibilities that it brought along with it.  He simply could not imagine playing golf with a stroller alongside.  He simply could not stomach the thought of having a screaming, snotty infant who would, invariably demand most of his time and Jen’s, thus driving a wedge between them. 
They had their first argument a week before Christmas.  Jen had insisted on having a Christmas tree at home.  In the hustle and bustle of HK, shopping for a Christmas tree, for him, meant a visit to one of the malls while Jen, true to her penchant for the lanes and bylanes of HK, had insisted on shopping on the streets of Mong Kok and much to his horror and consternation, Victoria Park.  He could not bear the thought of being in the midst of a sea of humanity, to get a Christmas tree.  He could simply not rewire himself to get out there in the middle of massive crowds, get jostled and hustled while shopping for something as unnecessary and superfluous, in his books, as a Christmas tree. 
As a meeting point midway, they had ended up in a huge department store, looking for an appropriate Christmas tree and ornaments.  Much to Jen’s delight and his obvious horror, all they could see for miles and miles, on just about every floor of the mall, were couples with kids – of all ages, shapes and sizes.  The whole mall had been buzzing with activity and the kids were like little busy bees, high on the cheer that the Christmas Season brings along with it.  They were squealing, shouting, screaming, gurgling and making all the other noises that little people usually make.  For Jen, it was sheer music to her ears while to him, the whole cacophony sounded like Luciano Pavarotti with a massive stomach ache.  Simply put, he staggered under the enormity of what was about to descend on him, if he and Jen were to start a family.  He found himself hyperventilating and all of a sudden, the walls of the mall seemed to be closing in on him. 
“I don’t want children.  I cannot stand the thought of life and freedom as we know it being constricted by babies” he spat out adamantly as Jen stared at him, horrified, her eyes pooling with tears that eventually spilled over.  He saw none of it, he refused to see any of it since he was firmly in the grips of “babyphobia”.  “Give it a little while and we can think about it later” pleaded Jen but he refused to budge.  In his mind, on this one, he wasn’t willing to budge a millimetre.
The wedge was in place and soon, slowly but steadily, it started to drive them apart.  They started to live their separate lives and as their friends watched, the unthinkable began to actually take shape.  The Yin and the Yang started to exist, seemingly independent of each other. The difference was remarkable, so distinct and evident.  He started going out on black tie dinners by himself on festive occasions while Jen started to spend her time in orphanages, with the children, infusing the festive fervour and joy into their lives as they infused some much needed life into hers.
It all started at the Architects’ Conference in Macau.  He had not tried broaching the topic with Jen, knowing fully well that she would not go along with him for the conference.  Not wanting to be snubbed and slighted, he had chosen to err on the side of caution by simply not asking her.  There was only so much solace in the single malt whisky which he loved and one evening, feeling rather joyfully inebriated in the company of the single malt, he had made his way to the casino. 
He had discovered a whole new world therein.  A world where no one judged him, a world where he was not frowned upon for having made the choices he had.  He loved this bright world where time seemingly did not exist, did not dictate lives, where people were simply not ruled by the clock.  He loved this bright world which, like him, did not encourage the presence of children.  He loved this  world where adults were not bound by the rules set by the outside world.  Casinos had rules of their own and he loved it there.
The addiction had been swift and whilst marvelling in this newfound autonomy and revelling in its looseness, with the nonconformity of gambling, he had completely lost himself to a new domain - one in which Jen and her desperate need for children did not fetter, shackle or debilitate him.  There were no impediments, no hindrances, not any more.
The incessant flat tone on his phone tunnelled him through the time warp and brought him back to the present - the persistent, relentless flat tone that symbolized the end of something.  It was that very same pitch and timber that had shattered his life one, dark Christmas morning.  It was the same sound that played in an incessant loop inside his head ever since that fateful day.
He could see the whole thing being replayed inside his head like a film of some sort.  That Christmas Eve, Jen had urged him to join and handed him a brochure of Gamblers Anonymous.  He had thrown a massive hissy fit and his last memory of Jen was of her storming off, tears streaming down her face, car keys in hand.  He had heard her car screech out of the parking lot and a few moments later, an even louder screech and the heart stopping sound of mangled, twisted metal.
He lay on the bench in the park as Christmas shoppers milled about.  The newspaper lay on his chest and he could see the ad he had circled.  The experiment was being conducted by Prof.Chan who had been Jen’s mentor at the Institute of Molecular Biology at HKU.  He claimed to have perfected the art of time travel, having achieved spectacular results in being able to send one back in time.  No one knew if it would work.  To the rest of the world, it was a gamble of the highest order.  To him, it was a celebration – one that would re-unite him with his beloved Jen. 
As he rose from the bench and headed towards the University where Prof.Chan awaited his arrival to commence the experiment, all he could see was the happiness of the festive season.  All he could hear were the merry voices of the carollers and the happy squeals of children.  All he could sense was a feeling of celebration.  The weight lifted off his shoulders as he approached the University.  He was ready to begin celebrating the gift of life, all over again, with Jen, if she would have him back.  Life, love, creation were inexplicably intertwined, as he had realized.
To him, the experiment he had consented to undertake was not an experiment at all.  It was a celebration of life itself.