Chennai Observations – Beginning with ‘A’

I started out the day rather glum. Truth be told I can’t shake away London from my system. I do not want to shake away London or that when I have tried to bring aspects of my London life to the present I am reminded that it is not London.  It doesn’t help but it is surely incentive enough to work towards leaving as soon as possible. It is still early days and maybe my perspective right now is from a magnifying glass. I find it therapeutic to observe people in conversation with me and steer the dialogue to gain their perspective. So far people have warmed up to the idea. I have made some observations. They may not be distinct to Chennai alone. However, to me, at this time of my life it seems as though the conversations, reactions and reasons are distinct. It is unique because I am using them as a means to pay attention to the city and try to overcome a feeling of displacement. Displacement – not physically but mentally and emotionally. It has happened before, just that this time I am more mature.

Attire – The heat, sweat and dust definitely limit the presence of western styled outfits. And the all too well known lecherous men too. While elsewhere it may be a statement of style, on the streets of Chennai it is  your protection from both nature and other human beings. Interestingly, unlike in other countries, formal and informal clothing in India is the same. That is a positive! When travelling by public transport your choice of clothing may save you some money. A friend mentioned to me how if you dress low key,that is in the traditional manner, you may not be thought of as some one who is rich and can get away with a good bargain. Clothes here are not colourful prints and frills that make you feel beautiful, rather the first consideration while picking up your day’s wardrobe may include your mode of transport, the crowd, destination etc. A part of me feels this is the case anywhere in the world. Maybe it is and the difference is in their relative importance.

Alcohol – Enjoyed by so many and yet its distribution and discussions about it in Chennai morph it into something that is still highly gender blind, a taboo among some, an experiment and/or a rite of passage for some others. I have belonged to both groups at some point in my life but have had the good fortune to realise that neither of the two makes sense. Unlike in the years when I used to live in the city alcohol is served only at government outlets now. This means mostly men only crowds. Two stories to make clear this point. A friend of a friend had the ‘courage’ to go by herself to the outlet only to observe that the men moved to give way, more out of astonishment and surprise rather that respect. On another occassion, when dropped off in a taxi and having to call the cab driver later to check on lost property, a conversation on gender appropriate morals ensued from the driver. Everbody’s business is everyone’s business.

Coffee – On a more positive note I finally had the chance to make some filter coffee! I am officially a fan and it certainly does liven up my day!

Cooking – My housemates are avid cooks. One of them started cooking since she was in third grade. Coming from a household where half of us live to eat I am delighted. Also, I have learnt that I am not too bad myself. I wonder how much of the importance given to cooking is owing to the fact that all of us in the house are girls. But it has given me some good insights into the characters of my fellow housemates. The daily evening sessions have given me the chance to get to know them better. So far I have observed a leader, an earnest follower ( I was inclined to say ‘blind follower’ but realised the phrase didn’t give enough room for a change of character later) and a discretionary follower so far. It seems like a good spectrum of characters. It has until now allowed for smooth working together.

Dogs – In keeping with the tradition, I find myself in a household of non-dog lovers again!! I have one of a few that are owned by the land lords and I hear one often running just outside my window. I have a feeling that they have gotten used to my scent. The first few days when I moved here they were their loudest.

 

Chennai!

It has been a while since I last entered a blog. The resolution first made when I started blogging just reached it’s first hiccup. But like the current song list I am listening to while I am blogging is titled ” I am a living story. I will not give up.” So here is to successfully passing through this hurdle right now while I am writing this blog!

Now THE MOVE has officially happened. I am now in Chennai, India and up for another year of adventure, work and friendships. So far it has been alright. Actually it has been much better than expected. I have moved into a house of fellow career beginners who are ambitious and hard working. I must admit that watching them work hard and organise their lives in India is quite inspiring. You see we are possibly the first generation of ‘independent women’ over the age of 24 years. Therefore, living alone here has challenges that are slightly different from say living alone in London. The challenges are enlightening and if taken in the right spirit very empowering. I suppose the key is to anticipate trouble so that when it does arrive you are well prepared and if it doesn’t you are pleasantly surprised.

The locality is great. It is an area that I have been familiar with for a long time. It is rather nostalgic to be back. This time as a native and not as a foreigner or a holiday goer. I haven’t yet started on figuring my life from here as yet. The past few days have been spent with old friends, lots of talk, journaling and books. In addition to the blog I thought of writing down a few observations from the city. My perspective now is different to the one I had three years ago when I left. The opportunity to truly live in another country has opened my eyes to a few differences in the city already.

Difference have also been of the personal kind. I am no longer the insecure teenager or young adult, always on the look out to impress but rather have come back a mature woman who is very comfortable in her own skin and is less overwhelmed with the city. Perhaps I may be overwhelmed in the next couple of days but it is something that I am better prepared to face now than a few years ago. Reminding myself to stay calm comes more naturally.

I have been feeling this big wave of positive energy. I hope it lasts.

 

 

 

The Five Second Rule, “you will never feel like it” and a positive video.

So this blog has now evolved from ‘feelings for London’ into some sort of electronic, partially public diary. I think it is a good thing. I am not good with keeping hush on the good, bad and ugly in my life. Often, it has been the case that the more I talk about it the more solutions have come my way.

So a few days back, owing to the fact that I am an emotional creature (credits- Eve Ensler) I was hurt and confused and outright angry with the treatment of women in places I once considered home. I blogged about it and ended on a positive note. I said something along the lines of good things happening to people who think positively. And today when I checked my inbox a friend of mine forwarded a Youtube series that is being compiled on the issue of violence against women in the city that I will always call home. It is a compilation of men living, working and from Chennai talking against violence against women. I was happ is an understatement, ESPECIALLY when one of them spoke of ‘safety’. In my meter of gender equality or sensitivity, the mark of the concept final ‘arriving’ in a community is that point in one’s life when you can walk down the street without fear of being assaulted or robbed or molested or kidnapped or raped or disfigured by acid. It was great listening to what they had to say.

So that is one positive to my weekend so far.

Then the next issue plaguing my mind was that of continuing my academic interest. As an enthusiastic and outgoing student I have always been a doubtful student and have recently been wondering whether my ‘off days’ are a sign that maybe an academic’s career is not for me and then I came across this TED Talk and realised , well, I will never feel like it.

 

And here I go full circle.

In a week I will be going back after three years. It is not a big deal you would think. So many have done this before and survived. Yes, many have gone back home, survived, thrived even. I am sure I will too! But there are a few questions, a few ‘cultural’ practices, a few ‘excuses’ I am not willing to embrace or accept or ignore or turn a blind eye to, because that is what most of us have been doing since we could make meaning of the community around us. 

What is this rant all about?

Yesterday, I was going through my daily Facebook ritual and lo and behold another article of a public molestation, this time in a city I had stayed in for four years and in a location I knew. I knew the place and therefore it struck a little harder. I was hoping that in my interim plan of action until I catch the next wind to somewhere, I was going to work there, live there, make friends there, party, post blogs and write from there. And then, this happens and I am reminded of one of the monologues about being a girl I had watched last year when Eve Ensler was touring the UK. It went something like this, ” I don’t want to have to keep looking over my shoulder to feel safe in a city.” It hit home. I grew stronger in London. I learnt that as long as I always knew my way back home and the nearest tube stop I was OK. I un-learnt to stop looking at the ground every time I walk on the street, something I did out of habit and the second message in a string of direct and subtle received when my parents realised that I wasn’t sitting the ‘girly’ way and getting curvy. I started crossing my legs and would ‘avoid trouble’ by walking with my head held down, never looking people in the eye, unless spoken to. I won’t blame them. I disobeyed and wham the vultures swooped in. I wouldn’t blame my parents for they taught me what they knew as the only survival mechanism known to young parents of girl children in India. Avoid, avoid, avoid – even when you did nothing wrong or have no intention of doing anything wrong.

But now I am older, confident and have learnt, seen, participated and have been encouraged to not just see but actually look at the alternative. And it feels good. 

This confidence, this walking with head held high, looking people in the eye and the simple things in life, for instance choosing to wear what you want without fear will all be challenged this time next week. 

Hence the dillema. On the one hand I am going back to the only place I have ever known until three years back. Ideally it should be like the books non-resident Indians usually write or talk about, a sweet home coming steeped in family, love and endearing memories, 

I am not going to visit, I am moving to live there for a few months, to work and even hoping to do research based in India. This is not romantic and I am not asking that it be a path strewn with petals. All I am hoping is that I see some semblance of social change. An indication – big or small that I can be a young, hard working and ambitious young woman in the prime of her life, fresh out of one adventure and willing to dive into another without fearing for her safety. 

It seems like a hard ask. I am willing to put in my share of questioning and fighting. Heck! if I didn’t it would be a disservice to the many wonderful Indian women I have met in my life. I want to be positive because I believe fervently that good things happen to people who think and do good. Call it a coping mechanism, an attempt to look at the bright side and stop whining, call it what you like. But I refuse to be a pessimist. I would rather be an optimistic realist. I write it as it is and hope for it to get better.

It seems I have come full circle albeit with a much more refined viewing lens. 

Random Thoughts

I realised a couple of days ago that I hadn’t blogged for a long time. But although I wanted to write I was and am still dealing with a writer’s block. I am not sure what to write about and so decided that for this blog I am just going to list the thoughts in my head as they come to me. They haven’t just come up in my mind but have been around for a while. I just thought that they needed a ‘format’ if I were to put them down in a blog. But then, in hindsight, I am not one for ‘formats’. I do best when on an impulse.

1. My friend and I went to the National Theatre last Saturday night and when I saw St Paul’s Cathedral (and I mention again like a mantra, my most favourite part of the world) I realised its dome looks like a dollop of marshmallow! And I gave my favourite spot a cosmic hug. 

2. On Monday I was at a University Alumni dinner and found on my way to the venue a very fancy looking Indian restraunt called ‘Quilon’. Quilon is a town in Kerala and where my sister was born. Outside also hung a huge Indian flag. The universe was reminding me that December back home was going to be good.

3. Next to where I volunteer at University there is a cute little new age store. I am hoping to pop by there today. I would like to go to one of their classes, talk to their therapists about life, philosophy and their work.

4. This week, The National Portrait Gallery is also on my list of places to see. 

5. I am as curious as a cat. Not in the nosy way but in the tell me your life story, talk to me about your country and culture, in a naive anthropologist sort of way.

6. A new bad habit that I have just spotted. When online I always have my inbox open at one of the tabs and keep looking at the number at the top – the number of emails I have in my inbox. The minute it changes I am most likely to entirely stop what it is that I am doing, even when in the full swing of things and when finally in that space when I have hit concentration to look at what that new email might be.

7. I had tea with my two favourite people in London on Tuesday and heard horses hoofs – nostalgia of when I first heard them outside my dorm room.

8. On Monday I got an email announcing that my M.Sc project supervisor had completed his PhD. My time in London seemed complete somehow. Perhaps that is just the way I am making myself feel as my departure to something new approaches but for now it seems as though there is a sense of completion in the air. I make no complaints , it feels good.

9. I love Disney and although I am way past the age group they would ideally like to target it is a dream to go to Disney World with my first pay cheque!

 

Conversations continue……

There is one thing that I have learnt very well from living in London – talking to strangers is enlightening, funny and never fails to liven the day. 

If I am at University I like to have the Hare Rama Hare Krishna lunch. It is hot, healthy and free. It is difficult to eves drop on conversations when standing by yourself in a que – even if you were to take a book with you for while you wait your turn! 

But the uniqueness of the Hare Rama Hare Krishna que is that it is usually a que for strangers. Although it is right outside three Universities people who stand in these ques are usually not with a big band of friends and are there by themselves. And because it is right at the entrance of the University, there is a constant flow of people which means that the chances of meeting the same people twice is very rare. Very different from a college canteen where meals are served for longer and since it is within the premises you will often bump into a friend.

This makes for wonderful conversations. It starts with a silent nod of the head or a smile. So there I was. I saw a South Asian women in front of me and thought “Ah! Finally I am not the only big haired girl in line.” This is usually the case. For a University that teaches South Asian and Oriental Studies  very few South Asians find the food to their liking. Mama’s cooking, if a reference point, is hard to duplicate! Thankfully my mama never took the kitchen and I am now accustomed to “Indian Cuisine in the UK”. 

After some time I heard someone ask the man standing behind me what this que was all about. “Free Hare Rama Hare Krishna food he said.” She sounded a very friendly person and both of them started talking about the courses they were pursuing. With nothing to do and not thinking about anything in particular got me listening to their conversation. Then I thought to myself that I would rather be a part of the conversation than eves-drop. But how? Should I think of a question or refer to something I heard them talking about? And when? Now? Or by the time the que moves to where the blue bicycle is parked. This went on for a few minutes.I kept passing by the physical milestones that were to signal to me the auspicious time begin! I turned around I smiled and turned back. Not a word. And then finally without a thought about what or when I turned around and said ” I have been listening to your conversation for some time now and I thought it better to be a part of it rather than continuing to over hear.” And there! They smiled back and through subtle movements and words acknowledged that that would indeed be lovely.

They were students. One is doing her a PhD on democracy and the other is studying a master’s in linguistics. The conversation was about language and how it is used. The PhD student was of the opinion that language can compartmentalise and be condescending. The linguistics student was of the opinion that the manner in which language is used is not it’s fault , rather the fault of the users. Language on its own in innocent of distinctions. This seemed a new area for me and I could really think of was how over the past couple of years new words have been invented and used, especially in the media. I was thinking about the evolution of words like ‘Kickbacks’ that in 2009 were very commonly used by the Indian media to describe corrupt practices. 

Later as the que seemed to move us closer to our warm paper plates the conversation moved to what it was I was doing in University because by now my two quemates had sufficiently talked about what their journeys have been thus far. From classroom to que. This next moment was priceless. After I narrated the usual, the PhD student told me, ” You are exactly where I was three years ago!” The fact that she was back in SOAS and pursuing her ambitions I took as a sign from the Universe that the next couple of months and my plans for them will stand me in good stead. I took this conversation as a sign that my plan is worthwhile. All I need to do is PERSIST. I asked her where she was three years ago and realised it is exactly where I am at this very moment. The urge to stay in the UK because opportunities seemed more worthwhile than in the Subcontinent. But she did give me a healthy perspective. The time she spent working in Pakistan provided her fodder for a more mature and context rich PhD proposal. I am hopeful that I if I make use  of every opportunity and every experience in India, I too will be able to say the same in some time. I must admit three years is too long! A shorter time frame for me please.

The que now seemed to move faster. Conversations help with the wait, for lunch and life! A messenger in a black hoodie and on a cycle rode passed and said, ” Sorry guys there is not Hare Krishna today!” Strange how we take everyday things for granted. All of us saw the usual afternoon que, took for granted that our Eastern European pandit friend was parked ahead and dishing out lentils and rice. Not once did we consider looking out to check out if he really was there! I am not sure if he came at all that afternoon. In hindsight, I didn’t see the students in front of me walk past with their free lunch. The que was moving ahead because people were leaving!! 

I suggested that if its ok with the other two we go for lunch somewhere else and we settled for the ‘Cafe in the Garden’ in Russel  Square. This is my regular haunt when I get sick of Pret, one of London’s chain cafes. We ordered and sat by the French windows. We spoke of books, politics, religion, partition and football. 

TED Videos were often referred to in this afternoon meeting of strangers turning friends. I am a huge fan of TEDx (as you can tell from my blog!) and it was wonderful to meet a fellow fan. I learnt how among some folks its viewed as an elitist initiative, very contrary to how it is marketed but put into perspective considering the high ticket prices for some of their best known events. But the collection of videos is very accessible so I won’t base take that argument for it being too elitist. 

If you are a TEDx fan then that afternoon was a perfect example of taking ‘The Other to Lunch’. We were all very different people. One was politically Right and two from countries at constant war with each other and very little people to people interaction.Two born and raised in peaceful democracies (yes, taking into consideration that democracies are of different kinds and its imperfections) and one from a violent democracy/dictatorship depending on who is in power. It was one very charged table. We were truly being conversational, curious, real and listening. And I learnt a few very valuable things.

1. There are different degrees to being on the ‘Right’ in politics. Not all of them are bad. The manner in which the message is put across is important. Rather than being portrayed as unabashedly after profits, the point of view becomes a lot more palatable and debatable if spoken in the context of cutting out waste that can be better used elsewhere. Religion in some circles of the Right is left to the individual. What you should be wary of is how far the belief will influence decisions.

Members of the Right are glad that Obama is the President of the USA rather than Romney. I am saying this not to state the obvious fact but as an attempt to show that not all of the Right are money thirsty conservatives. They have a middle ground too, if we are willing to conversational and not confrontational.

2. Imran Khan and his politics in Pakistan beyond the usual rhetoric is pro-Taliban, Unfortunately. in difficult times you see the forest for the trees.

3. The story of the South Asian partition is taught for politicians, not for students. Read outside your syllabus and when you are older to understand what really happened. It was interesting to be told that the older generation of Pakistanis, who were directly affected by the partition think of India more fondly as opposed to the younger generation. I always believed it would the other way around.

4. The Waterloo Bridge was built by women during the war. I am proud to walk over it everyday.

5. Some words in English are coming back. Some words we still have trouble using objectively e.g. black, yiddish and cunt.

6. The Taiwanese Health Insurance scheme is good, even for expats.

7. Books – We exchanged the names of books that are good reads. 

Another TEDx talk that I was reminded of during the conversation was ‘choices’. Often it is said and proven by studies (in case you are a hard core positivist) that the less choice you have in something the more easily you accept it as the best choice. We discussed this especially in the context of healthcare. My two student friends were of the opinion that asking for a little payment helps people ‘value’ the service and prevents their misuse. My prospective student self agrees, so long as these amounts are not exorbitant. But this issue is so much more than just paying for a service. This is for a whole other blog! 

After two hours we exchanged contact details, decided we will all meet once again for coffee in January and said our goodbyes. 

 

Innovation in India

thirukodemalavika:

This is a collection of nine talks about innovation in India.

I read about Mr Arunachalam a few weeks ago. I especially like his story because it shook out a very strong preconcieved notion – that men in India are squirmish about reproductive health -still true but here is man who can lead the way.

In my previous blog I mentioned V Day’s initiative to invole men called V Men. India, we just found our first potential member. I think Mr Arunachalam’s courage in sticking to his invention despite the shrugs and raised eyebrows and the fact that it all started as a way to help his wife is an inspiring and courageous example for men to talk, listen and share.

 

 

 

 

Originally posted on TED Blog:

Arunachalam Muruganantham may not seem like the most obvious person to have started a revolution in sanitary napkins — after all, he is male. But in this funny and uplifting talk, given at the TED Talent Search in Bangalore, Muruganantham describes how he is enabling women in India to make their own pads — all as a gift for his wife, Shanti.

“What you did in your early marriage days — you tried to impress your wife. I did the same,” says Muruganantham in this talk, describing how he one day noticed his wife carrying something behind her back. “It was a nasty rag cloth — I don’t even use that cloth to clean my two-wheeler.”

It was a moment when Muruganantham realized that his wife had to choose between buying feminine hygiene products and buying milk. And it launched a powerful idea — that making pads would…

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What to boys/men have to say?

So a friend of mine is back from her short visit home. Another friend from India is in town on a holiday after a business tour. The past week I have been talking, dancing, reading and listening to a lot of about being a ‘woman’. Somethings have been subtle. Some other observations more on the face. But all of these messages were the same. It all had to do with going through life as a woman. On the one hand I nod in affirmation but we have been talking about these issues for so long now. You know, us girls. We talk to each other about our ambitions, what we want to do with our lives, where we want to go, who we want to become, how we would like to grow older, meet someone or maybe not, have kids or maybe not. 

Over the past couple of months this debate has raged over the internet spearheaded by some exceptionally honest and succinct blogs, from the grass roots, from girls who have grown up in these worlds and now find themselves as young women in the same society – nothing has changed.

Which leads me to think – where are the men in this? What do they have to say?

I am not talking about dad or uncles or god fathers or community leaders. I’m talking of your classmates, your guy friends who you have kept in touch with for a long time, guys the same age as us. What do they think of all this, have I missed the tide of dissent from them?

Eve Ensler recently started V Day’s new campaign (well it isn’t very new, perhaps a year or two old) V-Men. The focus up to now is on men from Africa or men from Black and Ethnic Minority groups in USA. So what do men in Asia think? What do Malala’s friends who are boys and of the same age think?

It is funny how I have had discussions on gender equality with my girl friends and cousin sisters. But the only time I remember talking about treating women with respect or about the dynamism between the two genders in India with boys, that is, guy friends or cousin brothers is to do with ‘appropriate’ behaviour. It was when I was given my first orientation to a fact that many of us are aware of – ‘if a boy is a flirt and speaks of a million imagined and/or real girl friends he is a ‘hunk’ and if a girl does the same she is a ‘slut’. Or that if you are a successful woman it is best to stay single, not all men in a relationship are supportive of wives who are more successful than them. It is sad that these are the only conversations that I have heard. We talk about social networks and blogging and all of this technology. With all of this and the exceptional education my friends, family and I have been gifted I can count on my fingers the number of guy friends who have posted articles on women, their rights and empowerment. ONE. This, even including those who are regular bloggers. I understand that not everyone uses social media the same way and that not everybody on your Facebook friend’s list is actually your friend.But I find it very hard to believe that in today’s time, you, the guys on my friend’s list did not once read an article on gender or women or girls that made you stop and want to share it, not to make a ‘happening’ statement but just to say ‘ hey girls! I think all of you are doing fantastic and I am proud to know you.’ 

Of course, you can say this is not representative, that I have a very conservative set of friends from the opposite sex or that there needs to be more elaboration about the context of the conversation.But even after considering all the possibilities of bias you can think of,I have never heard otherwise. No friend of mine has ever reported having heard empowering messages from their male peers. Rather if you are looking for ‘consistency’ there seems only one. Young men between the age groups of 18-30 much prefer to talk about women as objects to be coveted, may I add ‘ Bollywood/ Tollywood/Whateverwood’ style’. Think about it, my sister, our friends and I have been bought up to be independent, take the risk, find yourself alone and you will learn along the way. The conversations about empowerment are not always materialistic, its ‘wholesome’. It takes into account character building as well as career aspirations. The need to be a good human being first and then everything else.With the boys its always about becoming an engineer or a doctor or a corporate honcho. It is about the first cars, the first expensive ‘date’, about what you did with your first salary. Again, no talk about following what you really want to do, taking the leap of faith; no talk ‘about them’. Talk ‘about’ them is actually talk ‘for’ them or more recently, ‘talk at them’.

Boys in the age group of 18-30 aren’t voicing out their opinions on the same issues that infuriate girls and women the same age because they have been socialised, possibly now more than ever to be ‘talked for or at’. When did you last hear, “my son is doing this and plans to do that” when all along he was sitting right there. 

So girls, firstly let us stop and pat ourselves on the back for ‘solidarity’. We aren’t over-reacting or being emotional. That is just a guy’s excuse for his inability to possess good self-esteem. Now don’t tell me I am being arrogant or going with the trend. To you (yes the guy who may be reading this) there is no reason why you shouldn’t be as emphatic as we are about the causes we support or talk about. If anything, your voice should be louder because you have seen first hand the different meanings and connotations of what it means to be empowered.

So if you are a boy/man or whatever you choose to identify as, voice your opinion, speak up when you know that something – thought, tradition, religion, practice etc etc etc is wrong. Be man enough to admit that things can be otherwise.