Sunday, June 4, 2017
Saturday, April 1, 2017
Monday, February 8, 2010
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
As stated earlier, in my teenage and college days while I was in love with the idea of India, I was suffocated staying here.
London came as a breath of fresh air. I was not a woman who had to get married, I was not a 'topper' who had to take up engineering, I was not a middle class ordinary person who could not break rules, and more importantly I did not have to be a reactionary rebel to survive. Away from India, I felt I could carve myself into a person I wanted.
I fell in love with the London culture- where one could study what one wanted, where one could party late into night, where one was free to walk away from a relationship, where one could wear low cleavage tops, and high hemline skirts without people batting an eye at you, where the river Thames was there to console you, and where you could work and study in am amazingly democratic culture. I was happy; deliriously so.
And just when I decided India was not for me, fate compelled me to go back to it. I landed in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, on the day airport officials were on strike. So, I disembarked onto a dark (there was no electricity), and dirty airport. As the taxi weaved its way through the menacing Delhi traffic and on its potholed roads, the heat and mosquitoes assaulted me, and I wondered how quickly I could go back to my beloved London.
There was still hope of getting a job offer as I had given two interviews on my last in London. But within a week, I knew that nothing had worked out. I locked up myself in my room for two days and cried my heart out. I remembered the teary farewell that my friends had bid me, and cried some more.
Circumstances here did not help. My relatives wanted me to get married; my father wanted me to work for an MNC. I had left jobs back in London as I did not want to do elitist urban design projects; back here I found the same sort of jobs awaiting me. Back in Delhi, I was reminded that men here stare at you not because you are beautiful, but just because you are a woman. However, the fact was that I did look radiant when I came back from London-my cheeks were red and flushed, my dressing sense had catapulted up, and I carried myself confidently. Without exception, everybody from children to my friends to my aunts commented I looked pretty when they first saw me on my return. Within few months, without exception, everyone said I looked lack lustre, and what ever had happened to me.
I have grown up here, but a year out and I could not tolerate it. It was not the material discomforts, but I could not bear the fact that there is little social life for an unmarried woman in India outside college (now I understand there is little social life for unmarried men too), that I could not travel alone in India (I tried, and almost got molested). It was also depressing that, within the span of a year that I was outside, India had lost many battles to capitalism- the malls, the reality shows, the multiplexes. I was working under a tyrant boss, and, I realised the full extent of the hierarchical structure in India. While my intellectual gymnastics in LSE had made me more perceptive, they had left an ethical vacuum in me, and now that I had the analytical skills, I was also desperate to put it to use somewhere. I stayed alone, survived mostly on junk food, and almost got addicted to vodka. I lived that at that moment only for my Dad- who was totally emotionally wrecked, and totally dependent on me.
Then TARU happened. I walked into a workplace that was refreshingly different. The people there belonged to that rare breed of people who were thoroughly competent and impeccably ethical. To me, it demonstrated a democratic work culture rare in India- we made our own coffee, washed our own cups, and even the senior most person had no secretary. I fell in love with it. I would have been happy in the comfortable world of TARU, but it also opened many more worlds to me- indeed through my short spell there I have been introduced to an India I did not know. I came in touch with like minded people. I met woman activists and social workers in different parts of the country. I met people who had lived on their terms, inspite of the rules that the Indian society lays down. I was happy; deliriously so.
And just when I was settling down into work and India, my father passed away. While he had been breaking down slowly over the years, his death was sudden and unexpected. My wedding was his biggest dream, and I think it was an unsaid pact between the two of us that he would hold out till then- and I also hoped (rather was foolishly confident) that my marriage (and my kids) would give him a fresh lease of life. But death has designs different from life, and so he left. My parents had been divorced, my mother had chosen a life away from us, and I had no siblings. I felt hopelessly alone.
Everyone asked me to leave everything and go back to London as I had no more responsibilities here. Friends there invited me with open arms. And yet at this juncture when there was nothing left for me here, India revealed its softer side. My mother and I had been on desultory, formal terms for more than five years. And yet, at that moment, she packed up her entire life, and came to stay with me to help me tide over it. My junior from college, too shifted in with me- and though I raved and ranted at both her and my mom- they lived through it. My uncle-aunts, cousins, my friends, my father’s colleagues, all supported me- emotionally, and through the legal procedures I found myself surrounded with. I think this was possible only in India- where friends become family, and family sticks through you at such times- no matter what fights you might have otherwise.
Still the going was tough- I had to support my grandmother partially, pack up the entire house, and cope with the fatigue that the recently detected thyroid lashed my body with. To top it, I had to complete five sets of working drawings for a project at work. The first set of working drawing is a challenge enough for any architect- I had to embark on five together (they were all similar, but it did entail huge problems of production). I had to pack my bags and shift to my project office. But this intense piece of work was also my salvation. For most part of the day (and night), I did not have time to think about anything. As I sat up late nights with likeminded colleagues, , we discussed (over cups of coffee and tubs of icecream) rural development, Baba Amte and Rajendra Singh, Vijay Tendulkar and Marathi theatre, Indian marriages and what it entails. And so through my numbing grief, my tryst with India re-emerged. Though I would be exhausted with work, I found time to listen to the Gita, read Gandhi, or simply visit website of some path-breaking organisation in India.
Since then, I have been travelling almost continuously (it is only a year though). My life has been painful to inspect, and so I have observed carefully lives of others. I have seen women in India create their own space, I have talked to some slum dwellers who have articulated climate change and its impacts in the most lucid of terms, I have grown to respect my ‘conventional’ family members who, while subject to social mores, do their duties, with a simple faith in God. I have seen the same joint family systems, which strangle at times, be a support system. I have seen rituals of worship, which I had loftily discarded, provide relief and security to people- that no amount of money can buy.
I have eventually relegated my intellect to just one of the ways to understand life and society. Death has rooted me to this country as life never could have. Earlier, I could not have cared where my wedding took place, but now if I get married at all, I want my wedding at my Dad’s home. I know it is not a rational decision- but unlike what economics would have us believe-we, humans, are not rational beings- we listen to our hearts, follow our dreams, and can never be totally oblivious to our conscience. That then is the beauty of India-just as its philosophical tradition provides for multiple viewpoints; its culture allows for multiple understandings and provides space for the intellect, heart and the soul.
I see the shortfalls of this country all too well, and see no Shining India anywhere, and yet I have grown to love it. The journey for ‘purpose’ that started here has finally ended here.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
I have always loved India, always celebrated its festivals with gusto, been mad over ethnic dresses, bindis, and bangles, been proud of this culture (or whatever I understood of it). And yet, to my consternation, all this had been something of a Westerner's gaze- that sees romance even in poverty. While pre-London much of my thoughts were enveloped in this rosy picture, my personal life (seen through the narcissist view of a teenager and a graduate) was a set of struggles, and I was forever rebelling against something. So, there I was-hopelessly unhappy, and miserable in a country and society I loved- India was the best, of course. Packing my bags for London, I told anyone who asked, ‘Oh! I will be back in India in two year’s time. India is where I want to be.’
But I had not forseen what was to happen. Away from the horribly constrained Indian society, and among some of the best minds of the world in the LSE library, I unpeeled the enigma of India. For the first time, I understood the oppression that the bindi and sari represent. I understood beyond the gaiety of festivals lurks at times chauvinism of the worst kind. I saw how class and caste have been institutionalised in India. As I submitted my essays on Indian cities, I was faced to confront the inequities there. And then there was the Matrix moment- when I saw Indian society for what it was-parochial, patriarchal, and bogged down by social mores. I became an atheist, a cynic and almost a nihilist.
While it was great to view society as an intricate puppet show, with the strings held in the hands of a ‘system’, unfortunately, this view does not give any direction to one’s life. Can puppets really live in any meaningful ways anyways? So life retained meaning just as an intellectual quest-satisfying, but just so.
Back in India (not of my own wish), I felt a world had been snatched away from me- where could I continue of my exploration of social sciences, philosophy and urban culture? Books are expensive, and libraries are next to non-existent in India. The only available authors were the Indian ones, home-grown ones at that ( Appadurai and Bhabha) remained as inaccessible as the rest. Tentatively, I brought a book by Ashis Nandy. Then picked a Ramachandra Guha. Through Guha, I discovered Verrier Elwin and his amazing life among the Indian tribals. Indian tribals led to Mahaswata Devi. That led me to regional literature. I also found out they had been publishing the ‘Seminar’ for decades- it was the ideal magazine- no right or wrong, no summing up, just a motley set of views put together in one place. And from UK, another Indian Satish Kumar had been publishing the Resurgence. I re-read Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography. I brought Karma Yoga by Swami Vivekananda. Finally I brought a Bhagavad Gita. And for the first time, a possibility of reconciling my personal and emotional lives emerged.
But to stick to the intellectual bit, I realised that a person and a society need not be judged by the strictly ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ value systems of Enid Blyton (and I discovered on the way that Blyton’s books had racial undertones), and I rediscovered the Amar Chitra Kathas and the Tinkles. Indian mythology, Hindu philosophy, has been accused of having a god, a story to support any ideal one wants. But that then is its strength- No ideology or moral system or development paradigm has any relevance without a social and cultural context to define it. Integrity is what happens when ideals meet real life.
If London stripped my intellect of conventional values (drinking is wrong) and taboos (pre-marital affairs are a no-no), it was India who again filled the vacuum. While Sennett, Focault, Harvey filled my brains with questions, Gandhi, Nandy, (Amit) Bahaduri answered some of them. (I do not discredit the questions-to get the right answers, one has to ask the right questions, to find a solution to a issue, it must be ‘problematised’ accurately.) Moreover the first set of thinkers were part of the disciplines that had its genesis and evolution in a culture far different from India.
And so making a journey from India to Europe and back, I find that it is easier to understand India from within, than without. To understand it as a culture, a civilisation and a society in its own right rather than understand it in comparison to some other country, or understand it through disciplines whose body of knowledge might be alien to it.
Sunday, April 6, 2008
I went this weekend with my mother to Haridwar- a religious place in North India for worshipping the river Ganga. Haridwar, literally translated as Door to the Gods is ( along with Rishkesh) the first stop for pilgrimages moving upwards to other religious places in the lofty Himalayas. And for the Ganga, it is the place where it leaves the mountains to enter the plains, and from here begin the rich, bountiful Gangetic plains.
The visit to Haridwar brought to the fore my love-hate relationship with India. Haridwar was about small, ancient temples with their spires and little flags seeming to reach the skies, it was about small roadside shops selling delicious tea and snacks-puri-sabji, kachoris and halwas ( all very very unhealthy but lip smacking), it was about refreshing air that I associate with the Himalayas, it was about helpful people. But more than anything, Haridwar was about Ganga maiyya ( mother) . I had forgotten that places of religious importance at least in Hinduism are also places of natural beauty. So there she was, vibrant, fresh, and stunning. The refreshing breeeze. And peoples of ancient India had enough sense not to spoilt it all by building monstrous temples; there was just a motley collection of small temples and shrines. It is said that Hinduism comes close to nature worship, and it was evident here. At night, as I sat on the simple ghats, and looked at the enchanted view of tiny lights of the temples, the sound of aarti, and Ganga in the background, I felt pretty close to heaven.
But that was the good part. The bad part was wisdom of ancient Indian seems to be lost. I did not mind all the flowers, milk and earthen diyas that the pilgrimages put in the river- a kilometre down the river, and Ganga would clean it. And few pandits there had the sense to tell people not to put the milk packets in the river. But then, in the evening, some idiot had dumped into the river the plastic bags distributed for seating in the river. I pulled out the one had floated by me, but there must have been others. Plastic bags for everything from prasad to milk to food. I think places like Haridwar that are meant for worshipping rivers, seas, trees or anything in nature, ought to take the initiative to BAN PLASTICS. The problem with plastics is that they slowly replace traditional ways of collecting and distributing, and we forget for centuries together we had survived without them. There are things in the modern world that have made our life comfortable at the cost of environment- plastic has done nothing of the sort, and caused greatest pollution.
Then there were the pundits. Emotionally blackmailing you, cajoling , threatening, and using very trick up their sleeves to receive a dakshina. And all on the basis of they being Brahmins. it reminded me of the reprehensible caste system, which is very much a part of modern day India. I felt then like wildly lashing out against the people. How can anyone be proud of something that there were given on birth, and they had no role in whatsoever. It is the same with inherited wealth, position or legacies of any kind.
It is said that whatever you wish for on the banks of the Gangas comes true, and I wished that it would give me the strength to protect it.