Saturday, July 25, 2009

What's on my plate

Bonjour! to all you people out there. I had been looking for an opening to slip a post of mine in here, one because I am too lazy to maintain a blog and second, the blog I created got deleted because of your’s truely's mistake. Wait, there's a third one as well, Her Majesty is out of town for a week and probably without internet, and that gives me the opportunity to pull a fast one here. I am sure a few of you know me as the 'editor' and with the powers vested in me, unknowingly by HM herself, I am going to commit this treachery. If I live to see another day, after she returns, I plan to slip in a few more posts, with more confidence when she's away and audaciously when she's around. Look out for postings under - 'Musings from the editor'. Until then, Dieu soit avec nous.

It was lunch time and we decided to eat out. But Namit was still grumbling, even after we agreed to go to a vegetarian restaurant. May be it’s because of the company he keeps; that would be me and Shikha. We are both non-vegetarians, though it’s Shikha who’s a more vocal supporter of her eating preferences. And if you have these two guys across the dining table then expect fireworks for sure. I always end up enjoying their debates, for there is always something interesting that they agree to disagree on. I had a strong feeling that today was going to be no different. Namit had been pestering us to try this new place and so we decided to give it a try.

Even before we could take our seats in the restaurant, Namit started the salvo, “Guys, this restaurant has the longest list of starters I have ever seen.” I thanked God that we got a corner table today. Surprisingly Shikha didn’t respond. But Namit was on a mission, “And even the list of main course is endless.” She still didn’t react and kept flipping through the pages of the menu. He persisted, “and I am told that the Paneer Tikka Masala here is the best thing you guys would have ever eaten in your whole life.” That proved to be the snapping point for Shikha, “That might not be true for us but YOU would definitely not have had anything better than PANEER in your whole life.” Namit leapt with a reply, “At least I don’t kill my food before eating it.” Shikha was not far behind, “At least we admit that we are ethically flawed by being non-vegetarians but how long will you preach us from your moral high ground and not accept the fact that you are equally guilty. Even your Paneer is made of milk, which is actually meant for the cow’s offspring. Who gave humans the moral right to wean a calf of the milk? Isn’t that cruel?” I suggested that we should at least order the starters. Shikha said that because Namit knows this restaurant well and that it’s anyways going to be veg, so he can order for us as well. Namit quickly picked something from the menu and got back to business, “Don’t you feel bad that the things you eat were living and walking around just moments ago”. There was nothing new with this pitch but Shikha was quick with hers, “So you mean anything which has legs is living and anything that has roots is not?” Namit reacted as if he didn’t hear that one but said, “Well, it’s not about the number of legs, but the chicken or any other animal has so many features similar to us. They walk, feel pain, and have blood like we do.” Shikha replied, “So anything which doesn’t look like us, can’t move or feel pain is non-living and we are supposed to eat them. Look at plants, trees and fruits. Do you think because they look different, can’t scream out in pain means that they don’t feel it? Even they ooze sap when you cut them. That’s their blood.”

I didn’t know when we finished the starters. Whatever that was, it was good. I was enjoying both the conversation and the food. They were having none of it. I suggested we choose the main course. But I didn’t get a response from them. I went ahead and ordered. When I got back to the conversation I heard Namit say, “But wheat, rice and fruits are biologically dead when we buy them. The cereals are extracted when the plant dries off and fruits are picked up when they are ripe.” Shikha didn’t even let him finish that one and interrupted, “Cereals and fruits are not meant to be eaten. They are intended for re-production. They are meant to start new lives. So if you are not letting the seeds to grow you are actually killing them. They are like the eggs of the plant, similar to a chicken’s.” She was not done yet, “The same way a chicken is fed, brought up and then slaughtered, the food crops are sowed, watered, reared and then harvested. It’s no different.” Namit retorted, “Vegetables are good for the body as compared to meat. It takes much longer to digest meat as compared to vegetables and all the nutrition that you get from non-veg food has alternatives in vegetables; the Omega3 fatty acid you get from fish is available in walnuts, iron is in plenty in spinach and soybeans can give you as much proteins as you get from chicken. Moreover meat and meat products can lead to a lot of diseases.” Shikha continued, “Well I am not sure if you would enjoy having walnuts, spinach and soybeans everyday but I would love to get my irons and proteins from meat and fish, everyday. And all the diseases from meat can be controlled if you follow a fitness regime.”

There was nothing special about the main-course to write back home, though I had it all in a jiffy. It’s usually this time that the conversation ebbs because both our debaters, knowing that I have finished, start concentrating on finishing their meal. But Namit gave it one last shot, “Though you have been eating meat it doesn’t mean that you have to keep doing it. It’s not like an addiction. You guys have the choice to change.” But it looked like Shikha had become addicted to this conversation. She quickly responded, “If I have the ‘choice to change’ then I would also like to have the choice to choose the ‘choice to change’ and I chose not to choose the ‘choice to change’. And you should appreciate this choice in the same way as you would if I chose to become a vegan.” Phew! With so many ‘choices’ I felt lost and so was Namit. He was actually left with no choice. Then I ‘chose my choice’ to pay the bill as these guys would, usually after a heated debate, forget all generosities. As we got ready to leave the place they both looked at me and I instantly knew what was coming; all through the debate they would not let me utter a word and in the end they would want me to pick a side. I hate when they do that to me. “Well, if I’ll have to end up paying the bill every time we eat out, it better be vegetarian. At least it’s cheaper,” I said.

It was a silent ride back to office.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Marriage matters-Journey to the altar-Part 1

"This mail has already got too long that it would cost me a lot of stamps. But before I close this one there is one thing I want you to know and to ask. You are in the better half of 20 and I am almost done with being 20. I would even say that 25 is not the age to get married. I try remembering being 25 and I would have killed to not get married. But now life has changed tracks and so have priorities. There is a lot of pressure from home to get married and yes off course companionship (my two strong reasons to get married). So I want to ask if you are ready to get married. I am sure it's not an easy question but the answer would make so many other things easy, for you and for me. I am sure a friend in you would be good but I am looking out for a life partner. I hope I have said it in the right way. I have re-formatted it seven times already and this is the best way I can put it."

I stared at the screen. For how long, I don't remember. There was nothing romantic here. After all we were both two rational individuals who were venturing into a new arena. Everything sounded business like. After all what could you expect from a business analyst?

But he sounded frank, blunt rather. I had many experiences from men who literally gave me the desired year of birth of their unborn child and parents demanding half the stock market. Talking to someone sensible was a respite. I knew nothing lasted forever. Thanks to my endowments, no one stayed with me for long. This was a new flavor of the season and I had no desire to see it last forever.

But something about this guy made me feel comfortable. My alters were waging wars to comprehend the situation. The ‘feminist’ was dominant and the ‘daughter’ was helpless." What did the ‘ME' want”?

“What are your two reasons for marriage?", he asked.“Love and companionship”, I said. Did I really mean it? Me the feminist?

“I don’t believe in love, accommodating a new person is too scary. I won’t do anything that would hurt my family and me later”, he added. I admitted I had the same fears. I felt I was looking at my image in the mirror. Words I have had thrown at many others boomeranged and hit me.

Why did I feel like I knew this guy? Why was I taken aback by his blunt statements? Why was I not protesting to what he said?

We had a lot of interests in common to discuss books, movies, blogs, pets, food - the list was endless. I tried discussing anything but marriage but he did just that. He brought the conversations to what I was avoiding. He knew my mind or maybe human psychology.

“You are showing me hurdles before I start?”, he asked one day. That was the truth, that was what I did to many before. I shut myself out so no one would know me. How did he crack that? How does he know me?

“I want to plunge into the water”, he said.“But if things won’t work out you won’t hear from he again”, he said one day. I felt a sword piercing my heart. What was this new feeling?

“Why we can’t be friends”, I asked. “I am afraid you are not looking in the right direction, I don’t need a friend and not in these circumstances”, he said.

Why doesn’t he elaborate on the circumstances? Why this aversion to love? Why was there a conscious diversion when conversations drifted to dreams of married life? It felt as if he was talking without inhibitions and then suddenly he became silent.

"Never promise something you can't. I can't hurt you”, he said. “You are emotional and passionate. I am logical and selfish".

"I need to tell you something important, but before that you can say all that you want. Once I start you can’t speak.............

What was he going to say? Does he love me? Will he leave me forever, god I wish he did not. Was he going to talk to his parents? Does he have a secret to share? My mind raced like a wild horse. And then he said something that changed my life forever.......

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Two cups of tea and a sex worker

If you ever travel alone, never chose a stranded railway station, especially in the peak of the monsoon. I was waiting since two hours for a train which was running late by three hours at Karwar. Karwar is the border town between the states of Karnataka and Goa. It is a coastal village and why I was there is a stupid story.

I worked at Dharwad and only one train connects Dharwad to Kerala was Kochuveli Express. This train was stopped for some reason only Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family (read railway ministry) would know. Travelling to Kerala was a nightmare. We either went to Bangalore which was ten hours from Dharwad and took a train or, we went to Karwar.

So what do smart people like me do on working days? They end up lying they have stomach pain to get a half day and take a bus to Hubli and from there a bus to Karwar which is precisely four hours journey and voila! Netravati reaches me home 10 am next morning. (Netravati is a regular train from Karwar so in times of emergency I travelled from Dharwad to Karwar to catch this train.) Definitely a painstaking but adventurous journey with fishermen folks and each time I have met people who made my journey worthwhile.

This was one such journey. Let me also tell that you not everyone is crazy like me to take this route. You either find petty shopkeepers, navy men or students at this station. On this particular day in the rain I had no one to share the entire station except someone whom I mistook for a teenage boy.But he was the sole soul I could talk to in the delay in my itinerary. After repeated hellos, he turned around and I realized it was a she “Transgender”, I told myself. I needed company and did not wanted to fall asleep. To break the ice, when I asked, what she did, she nonchalantly replied, “sex worker, and mind it madam not a prostitute”.
I was stunned. It was raining heavily, I was stranded at a railway station and my sole soul for company tells me she is a “#*@#”, I could not bring myself to pronounce it.

“Do you love yourself?”, she asked. It was not a strange question. I had asked it many times to my subjects while administering questionnaires on self esteem. But, I never dared to ask it to myself. “I love myself”, she declared.

Her lips made a curve which could be mistaken for a smile but I qualified it as a smirk. Now you would wonder how a sex worker could say this, won’t you?From the beginning of our conversation, it was she who asked questions and gave answers. I was just transfixed to her.

Chanda, that was her name. She was barely 16 and was soon to be transferred to a women’s home as she was no longer a child to be retained at the rescue home. “I ran away from there. I don’t belong to that world, I don’t need rehabilitation”, she said. She wore jeans and a top and had her hair cut like men. She hated dressing like women. She said she often fought with other kids at the rescue home and was addicted to pan and alcohol.

“I was married off to a guy when I was 14. He was 26 then. He never did anything to me but took me around and sold me to men. Before I could learn the word ‘pimp’, he left me. I was ruined, so I decided why not make money out of this mess. After all I love myself and if I enjoy it they can’t misuse me. I was happy madam, I dictate the terms of my life. They can sleep with me but everything comes at a price”.

I had read case studies, read everything on counselling tips but when I was listening to her something was troubling me. I felt insecure of my womanhood. I felt guilty of having what she did not- a good family, education, security and love. I was amazed at her viewpoints and I felt I was doing the wrong job treating people like her as guinea pigs for my projects.

“I have seen all kinds of bastards”, she continued.”Some even tell me I am like their daughters, which makes me wonder what they do to their own daughters”. I was silent. I did not twitch a muscle but kept listening to her silently. I was not asking her anything. For a moment I suspected the legitimacy of her statement and then felt ashamed for thinking so. She seemed to have developed a mastery in delivering her narrative that I felt affectation in her mannerisms.

“I miss the good old days. It was fun than all this stitching, pickle and papad making they taught me. I don’t think I can be rehabilitated and I won’t ever be a wife”. She was calling it fun , was she hopeless and denying herself what she could get- ‘a life’.

“You might think what a characterless girl I am, right?” I smirked.
“I never knew what married life was like and I never had it though I am technically married”, she said.“I don’t think I can end up cooking and cleaning and worshipping a man. They hurt me once and now I seek revenge by making them pay for it. Yeh dhanda hai apna”, she said.

What does a society expect from 16 year olds. Psychosocial stages of development says it’s adolescence and children mature at this age. They choose higher education, form values and viewpoints about life. But how do you decide what is the right way of living? Chanda said she had no morals, she had learned the world the hard way and she had chosen a career and she felt sex work was no sin. “What about devdasis?” , she argued, they were respected and considered well learned. I was sure all this was indoctrinated into her during her initiation into this trade or should I say profession? The intensity of the rains and her words matched making me feel their sharpness.

“We are human beings”, she continued. “If a cook satisfies your appetite you are happy. He is a respectable man and earns a lot. We satisfy appetites too, why are we disgraceful. All your great men come to us hiding from the world.”

I was getting uncomfortable in my seat. A social worker is not expected to give a moral dictum and she was going overboard already. “Madam don’t even try advising me. Not even Khuda ke vaaste. Khuda nahi hai , hote to mujhe bacha lete, she said.

An hour and half passed in our conversation. I looked at her, she was 16 and I was 23. We were both women from two walks of life. Was she more strong and optimistic or was I stuck in a society that made me feel I was free ? I don’t know. For the first time I kept my morals aside and tried seeing the individual in her. I smiled, she reciprocated too.

“Chai ho jaye?”, she asked,“Meri treat aapko”. I smiled accepting her offer. Aap bhi kya yaad karonge ek veshya ke saath chai pee liya tha kabhi (you will always remember this tea with a prostitute). I got shocked for a second at her audacity, but she continued talking, this time like a sixteen year old on fashion and make up and dreams and…

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I wish you were my mother

I just can’t resist writing about kids these days. My mind is always preoccupied with the school kids at my field work. Observing them for a fortnight now, I could close my eyes and say a lot about them; things that don’t seemed to have registered in my mind. I know for instance Nivedita hates the term ‘mother’ and Balaji would not sit still if Jeevitha is asked to sit away from him. Arvind seeks attention but if you say he writes well and if you give him a chocolate he can be silent for some time. Selvam has sores on his butt and cannot sit on the ground, so he hops around. Anushya lies about having a stomach ache, it’s either there are problems at her home or she is upset. Preethi beats kids and even bullies senior boys. For Aarti, I am “Shapadu bell time keeper”. The moment she sees me she needs to know when the lunch bell is going to ring? I never thought they would all be a part of my life and without me taking any effort to know them too personally.

I was making observational notes yesterday. The teacher had two classes to handle as the teacher in the next class was absent. It was tamil period and I was interviewing few kids. Yashoda suddenly came to me and asked the kids sitting next to me to move away. She had never aproached me before. I was helping a girl to pronounce “pambaram” and Yashoda suddenly laid her head on my lap. I did not bother asking her why but reflexively I tried stroking her hair. She had shaved her head and so was being called “mottai” (bald head). I liked her smile, she had two missing teeth in the front row. Yashoda was in 3rd STD. Since the new system was activity based and it encouraged students to learn at their pace, this was a mixed age class with students from 1st to 4th STD.

Yashoda was brilliant and always active. You either saw her with her learning cards or she was busy helping the junior groups. I withdrew my hand from her head and continued asking questions to other students. She slowly pulled my hand and placed it back on her head. I withdrew it again without noticing. She got up from my lap and started answering her card. She gave up soon and lay back on my lap. “Is the card difficult? I asked“No”, she said. I never felt she would give up just because she found a card difficult and even if she did I am sure she would not run to her teacher’s lap. “Any problems at home?”, I asked. “No miss”, she said. We were both silent. What if she wanted to be loved, maybe her mother was too busy to stroke her hair or let her lie on her lap. Most of these students came from broken families, parents who are labourers or domestic help. The kind of family they have is quite different from what I know.

After an uncomfortable moment of silence, with tears filled in her eyes she asked me “Will you sit with me when I have lunch today”? “Sure, why not,” I said.

Nivedita, a girl in 4th STD, who was watching this interaction asked, “Is she your daughter?” Yashoda got up and looked into my eyes. I was caught off guard. What would happen if I said ‘no’, especially when this child was upset? I paused for a second imagining if I could be a mother of an eight year old? Seemed like a difficult and out of place question when an eight year old was expectantly waiting for an answer. But maybe the answer could make her day. I smiled and carefully phrased it, “she is like my daughter”. And as if sensing the careful use of words and tone, Yashoda was silent for a moment and then said, “I know I cannot be your daughter, but I wish you were my mother”. It amazed me how she did not tried to be politically correct and was truthful about how she felt.

I never expected this when I began my classroom observations. I never did anything special for the kids except motivate them and ask them doubts I had about their learning. Did I emanate something all along? I did not want to be emotional so I got up to leave to the next group. I felt two little arms hold me tightly from behind. I looked down and saw Yashoda with her eyes closed. It was not admiration, I was not her akka then, I was sure of that. I did not ask her what happened because I was scared there was transference of daughterly feelings happening then but what I feared was a counter transference of motherly feelings.

People lie when they say you need to be a mother to feel like one. And there are times we take our mothers for granted. My mom always told me you would realize my value when you become a mother. As I read this post to her on phone I could hear her sigh. Perhaps that was an approval that I have qualifed the prelims for motherhood. Each time a kid at school asked me to sit with them, hug them or carry them, I did not do it because it was my research. I love them and a warmth sweept me then. I call it motherhood. My love for kids often earned me compliments that I would make a good mother someday but Yashoda’s statements echoed my ears as I left school that day. “I wish you were my mother”. Was that a compliment?