Monday, February 27, 2012

My daughter will always have a refuge

I spent most of the morning today sitting in a hospital waiting room. One of my second cousins is in the burn ward, with 80% burns, struggling to stay alive for another hour, another day. All I could think of, in that antiseptic, impersonal space reeking of disinfectant is why daughters are still burning in educated, modern, urban India, and that all of us should hang our heads in shame.

Tuesday, (after eight-odd years of marriage, and a two year old kid) J was rushed to the emergency room of the biggest hospital in her city with massive and severe burns to all her upper body. They immediately sent her to the better hospitals in this city because the injuries were too severe for them to handle. This current hospital, one of the best in the country, has refused to give any kind of a prognosis until at least fifteen days have passed, because with burn victims, things can go wrong at any time. Yesterday she was doing well, had even been given a little solid food, and this morning she crashed again and was back in the ICCU.

There is a very real doubt that she will survive this, her 3 month foetus hasn’t (she was pregnant at the time of the incident). If she does survive, this once extremely pretty girl will be hideous for the rest of her life. Her looks are not only gone, they are now the opposite of good. And that’s the least of her worries (although normal looks, if not beauty, is a big part of most peoples’ self esteem, and disfigurement or severe scarring can take years of counseling – which she is not likely to get in India where seeing a psychologist is still a huge taboo – to get over). Best case scenario is that it will take her months, if not years, to get back to some semblance of functioning normality, both physically and psychologically.

How that is to be managed is anyone’s guess. With a small child to manage as well as her own recovery, doing all that is necessary to ensure her return to former health is likely to be slow and problematic at best, even assuming there is no permanent damage to any of the organs. Add to this all the emotional and psychological aspects, and it becomes more and more complicated. Getting back from any kind of severe trauma is a long haul of sorting out one’s head, dealing with various sorts of monsters, and learning to feel oneself to be whole and human all over again.

However tough the future looks, the real issue remains what has happened in the past, not merely from the viewpoint of punishment of the guilty, but also because much of it will affect how the future needs to be handled. First of all, why did this happen? Bengali families are renowned for their superior treatment of women. Bengali daughters, wives, and daughters in law have a much better voice in the family than women from most other communities, and the whole dowry issue is much, much less of a problem because traditionally most Bengalis have no concept of dahej. Bengali women, most people who know Bengalis will tell you, are stronger, with a longer history of women’s education, bolder, and much more outspoken.

Given that all of this is, by and large, true, it is a matter for grave concern that incidents like this one are on the increase. Dowry has started to become more common, or more open, as have cases of domestic violence, spousal abuse, and yes, burnings. And no, they are not all in the villages or happening to uneducated women with no other option except to live on in the marital home. In fact, in many cases the women are well educated, often working, and most of the reported cases are in the cities. So, obviously something is wrong with the way we are bringing up our girls that educated, financially independent, urban women are unable to leave even after undergoing years of abuse and mental, physical, and emotional torture. Why is it that these women feel themselves obligated to continue the charade called marriage in these situations, even unto a horrible and painful death?

This case is a prime example. Although all the facts are not all in yet, what we know as of now is bad enough. It was a love marriage, which is probably part of the problem, because – especially in India where marrying for love is still the rarer and not so socially acceptable way of finding a mate – women often tend to take a lot of abuse, endure a lot of torture, without letting their families know. Their logic is along the lines of “I made the choice now I must live with it”. Of course I find this completely meaningless, and wish that parents would teach their girls that people make mistakes, everyone does, and having made a mistake, and realized it, one does not have to live with it for 8 or 17 or 50 years! Especially not when living with the mistake involves insults, abuse, and physical and emotional torture!

She is highly qualified, has a masters degree in life sciences, and teaches at a college. For all the FEMINISTS who think that just having an independent source of income will magically emancipate women from all the nastiness they face everyday in every society, this is what the world really is like! We have still not been able to teach our girls that nothing, NOTHING, can excuse any kind of abuse, and that they have all the right to walk out of ANY relationship at the first hint of it! We are still unable to give them the mental and emotional support that are essential if their financial independence is to mean anything. We are still unable to say “your home is always open for you, and you can come back at anytime if things get bad out there”.

Everyone is bickering about whether he set fire to her or she set it herself. The point is that regardless of who did the actual striking of the match, things obviously didn’t get to this point in one day. How is it that we cannot make our daughters and sisters strong enough to walk out at the first sign of abuse? Why is it that a beautiful, educated, working, above middle class woman (among the more empowered minority in India) cannot leave a philandering, cheating, abusive husband? Why can’t she leave a man who, in all the ways that society measures eligibility, is less of a catch than her? Looks, family, roots, Ghar bar, she trumps him in every way! So what is it that makes this power imbalance just as bad as, if not worse than, any of the typical repressive marriages around us?

And even now, when she is lying there between life and death, there is still no strength being shown about what the future will be like if she does make it. I’m still hearing “lets see, if she wants to go back then …” instead of a firm “she will stay here at home until the matter is sorted out, and forever if necessary”. And its not a lack of financial strength. Not only are the parents perfectly financially able to take care of her and the child for the rest of their lives, she IS educated and employed, so she is not likely to be a burden on them. It may take her a while, maybe 6 months maybe a year, but she WILL be back on her feet. And having her parents’ support would surely make her recovery faster.

Instead, what’s likely to happen is that she will go back to the same abusive marital home which tried to kill her or drove her to try to kill herself. And, this time, she is not likely to get out of there alive. It makes my blood boil. As a mother of a girl, I CANNOT imagine ANY situation in which my naak, reputation, image, biradari, what will people say, would EVER be more important to me than the happiness and well being of my child. I CANNOT imagine any situation in which I would put my girl in a position I know is likely to kill her merely to save face in some mythical social circle.

My daughter already knows, as I am fortunate to know, that my father’s house is my house. That I am DEFINITELY NOT paraya. That I can just pick up a suitcase and arrive on their doorstep when things get too much to take, and I will be most welcome. That my parents, and my brother, are THERE for me… no matter what … in the most important ways. That I ALWAYS have their love and support when I need it the most. That I will NEVER be turned away if I need to come to them for shelter and succour, and that I need not kill myself, or allow myself to be killed, as my sole escape from hell.

My daughter knows this is true for her too, and she is told so everyday. I just wish we could tell this to all our daughters, to make them believe it, and to really give it to them, so that I would not have to spend any more mornings weeping in the cold impersonal disinfectant reeking hell of a hospital waiting room.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bleached out

It is funny how much of a science Indians have made out of the gradation of darkness of skin. Most Indian languages have myriad names of shades of dark skin, and the skin colour – particularly of girls/women -- is a major concern for all and sundry. Although in most of the pale skinned world it is considered a thing of beauty, of health, and yes attractiveness, to have a tan – or darker skin -- anyone born with a dark skin in India knows how completely opposite our cultural reactions are to those of the white folk.

I am one of those “unfortunates”. I was born with what is called a “wheatish” complexion. And all my life I have had to face all kinds of strange things, simply because my skin has a higher percentage of melanin than some. In my formative years, yes it felt awful. I was lucky enough to have parents, at least, who couldn’t care less if I was purple or orange, but every single other person seemed to automatically go into the “poor thing she is so dark” mode. From friendly advice to my mom, about how to lighten my skin (everything from poultices of gram flour and turmeric, to almost voodoo like home remedies), to straight-out insults, I’ve seen and heard it all.

Luckily for me, I had a home atmosphere that – I realize more and more as I grow older and try to bring up my own little one – was fantastic and amazing. Somehow my parents managed to teach me that looks don’t matter in the least, and that skin colour is the absolute last thing that should have any effect on how I see myself, or anyone else. With their teaching, and my inherent contrariness, I managed to become the kind of person to whom looks are totally immaterial. However, society and media didn’t help one bit in that process, and actually actively hindered it.

And this was before the age of skin whitening products and fairness creams. Growing up, the only product on TV or radio that claimed to do anything to my skin was Vicco Turmeric cream which claimed to keep skin supple and protected, with only a sly and sideways reference to NIKHAR, which can be translated as glow. Then, when I was in my 20s, the big boom happened in the bleaching products industry. Starting with the familiar Fair and Lovely creams and the Fem bleaches, more and more products proliferated, very quickly, over every possible kind of media which promised miraculous and overnight transformations of dark as midnight unfortunates into fairer than the fairest paleface social royalty.  

Our innate cultural bias against dark skin only added to the obsession, and a sizeable portion of people I knew in those years, (men in secret and women more openly), began using these products on a regular basis in the hopes of some unbelievable transformation from what they thought was an ugly duckling to a swan (on an interesting aside, the first book I bought my daughter was The Ugly Duckling, and this illustrated Indian version had a very dark grey baby swan as the UGLY duckling which grew into a beautiful milk white swan. That’s how deep the subliminal conditioning goes).

Today, I constantly worry about the warped messages media and Indian society are sending my six year old daughter. She not only has to deal with all the pressures we had growing up, all the prejudice, inherent discrimination, insults, and more, she also has to deal with what 2 out of every 3 ads on TV are telling her. In this kind of a situation, learning to see beyond skin when she interacts with others, and learning to base her self esteem on more than melanin content as she grows up, will be a long and hard fight. She’s fairish, fairer than me at least, but that’s an accident of genetics, and I refuse to let her learn to assign value to it. And society does teach you to.

I caught her saying things like “baba you are so dark yuck, look how fair I am” to her father. As if that wasn’t a big enough red flag, I’ve heard offhand remarks like “X is a bad girl mama, she’s so black!” each time I hear these things, I haul her up, explain that it doesn’t matter who is dark or fair, and that skin colour has nothing to do with who is a good and worthy human being and who is not. But I worry. I worry about all the ads she sees everyday for fairness creams, lotions and whatnots. And its not just every other channel on TV, the channels specifically aimed at kids, like Cartoon Network and Pogo and Nick, also have a disturbingly high number of ads for these products!

And, I don’t know if this is more feminist or egalitarian or what, men now have their own range of fairness and finicky skin care products from MACHO skin whitening creams to BUTCH oil control! LOL! So, now that men must worry about their looks, complexions and pimples as much as women have to, I wonder how anyone is supposed to find the time to study, evolve, make a career, have a family, and other such unimportant things in life. Oh! Wait! being fair will magically get you all that! right? Yeah... dumb old me!

And they keep getting more and more ridiculous – these ads. 10 years ago you needed to be a Fair and Lovely girl to become a model or an air hostess. Well, marginally acceptable I guess, given that looks are a major part of those professions. Then you needed to be fair, fair, fairer than fair, to get and keep a man – whether boyfriend or husband. In my opinion, any man who is with you because of the colour of your skin ( or how you look 10 years younger for that matter) is not worth having around. I would rather get rid of such a shallow creep and find someone who values my brains, my mind, and my nature.

These days however, it is even more than that. Dark women cannot be journalists, tour guides, singers, dancers, TV anchors, chess players, business owners, or anything else for that matter! I mean, please….you need to have a fair complexion to win at chess? On what planet???????? And as if that wasn’t meaningless enough, now the ads are venturing into the kinky world of fetishism! At least two ads in recent times are for whitening products that give you “underarms that are ready to be revealed” and encourage you to “go sleeveless on him”. Is that how desperate we are then? It's not enough to be fair and lovely and glowing and spotless and whatnot everywhere else? And the ad for the “go sleeveless” product is such a kinky one! Obviously it assumes men have a thing for UNDERARMS of all things! And the man is knocked speechless and struck dumb with lust merely because his girlfriend/wife flashes him a glimpse of some FAIR armpits?

Whatever dude! If you say so! 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Rape is not a crime

The recent much publicized and highly controversial case of a woman raped at gunpoint in the up-market park street area of Kolkata seems to have brought all our repressive and regressive ideas about sex/sexual violence to the forefront again. As has a more recent case in Falta, roughly 100 odd kilometers from Kolkata, where the father of the school-age victim of an abduction and gang rape actually has to move court to get the local authorities to even register his report (still no actual case registered as of this morning).

As a culture, the shamefully biased and anti victim stance we have in such matters is of almost legendary proportions. We make a cultural art form out of victim shaming/victim blaming, and go all out to excuse, encourage, and make the perpetrators comfortable and safe in every possible way. We make an art form out of ignoring the victim, or maligning them, and completely exonerating the perpetrators.

The most glaring example of our complete blind spot towards sexual violence is that we have practically no laws to deal with it. We have absolutely no law to deal with the rape of a minor or any form of short or long term child sexual abuse. The only law which is used in some way to deal with sexual offences against a child is the section 377 of the IPC, which in turn creates a lot of mess for adults engaging in consensual sexual activity. We also do not have any kind of a competent law to deal with rape and other forms of sexual assault and harassment, forget a comprehensive one. We have no decent infrastructures or processes in place to collect evidence in such cases, or to even register a case without precious time being wasted.

What laws exist leave a lot to be desired, what processes exist are flawed and made worse by the lack of sensitivity and training among baseline law enforcement personnel. Until very recently, there was also no law dealing with marital rape. In fact the concept of marital rape still does not exist in our culture. After all, a wife is the property of the husband, to do as he likes, and sex within a marriage is a duty she owes him, and a right he can claim anytime he likes. The question of whether there is her desire, her consent, or her willingness, does not come into the matter at all. Also, it is the most often unreported crime. Neither the women, nor her well wishers, nor anyone around has any knowledge of marital rape – what it is, and whether it is a crime – and the Indian woman is highly unlikely to tell anyone even if she suffers it repeatedly.

We don’t have stringent laws, or any enforcement of existing laws – however weak they may be – to deal with molestation and sexual harassment in public spaces. In fact, to us, it is such a non-crime that we even give it the very benign name of eve teasing, as if that’s all it is, a little harmless teasing of protesting but basically willing girls. Whereas, it is probably the single biggest problem faced by any woman in India on a day to day basis. Of all the women I have met in my thirty six years of life, there is not a single one who has not been accosted, groped, inappropriately touched, or had offensive language thrown at her in buses, trains, crowded rail stations, and a thousand other places.

In the absence of a go-to solution for legal recourse, each one of us has come up with her own defense mechanism. Some carry rolled up umbrellas under their arms to prod unwanted physical closeness from pot bellied wannabe lotharios insistent on invading your private space. Some carry large safety pins to stab the groping hand with. And, more recently, some carry pepper spray or good old mirchi powder. It is a SHAME – in capital letters – that every single woman HAS to take “eve teasing” in her stride, as a way of life, as a necessary evil, something that must be endured because it can’t be cured. Our repressive culture even makes it very difficult for her to raise a hue and cry during the incident, because SHE is the one who will get the leers of all the people around her.

In the case of a schoolgirl, abducted by local goons, and gang raped for 10 days before she managed to escape, it is much worse. Although she was found by a police patrol, wandering dazed after her escape, and although her injuries are severe enough to warrant her being hospitalized for a month, no case is being registered, and the south 24 parganas SP actually goes on record with a statement that he APPRECIATES the Falta OC for not registering a complaint since this is apparently a case of the victim having an AFFAIR with the accused!

The highly injured, traumatized, and now pregnant, schoolgirl was having an AFFAIR with the five accused??? So the injuries, severe enough for her to still be in hospital more than a month later are no more than love-bites. Is it? And her trauma, and nightmares, and overall psychological shock is probably just pretense. Right? All this conclusion drawn from knowing nothing about the case? The point here is that regardless of what actually did or didn’t happen, the victim wants to register a case, they bloody well have to take the FIR. Facts of the case, affair or rape, blah blah, are all things that will eventually be sorted out via an investigation. It is not for the OC or the SP or anyone else to decide on the MERITS of the case BEFORE a complaint has been officially registered! It is not up to them to play judge and jury and dismiss a complaint out of hand!

Imagine then, how much worse it is for someone to garner the strength of heart to report a case of rape, especially given how our society treats victims. Most of the people I talk to, and Indian society in general, don’t even consider rape to be an especially heinous crime. In most minds, it is something that happens to young, good looking, PARTY going women who dress inappropriately (meaning anything from jeans and a long kurta to tube tops and mini skirts) who frequent pubs and bars, stay out late, and indulge in such WESTERN vices as socializing with the opposite sex, drinking, etc. so, all in all, it is their own fault, and the men are not to blame. Even in horrific cases, such as the rape of a 10 month old baby, the rapist gets a reduced sentence because the judge “understands” that he was living away from his wife and family, and was therefore lonely and frustrated!!!

When a woman arrives at a police station to register a complaint of rape, first she faces leers, then, the officer in charge makes comments like “how is it possible for someone to be raped in a moving car? Can you show me the exact position you were in when you were raped?” Then, when she refuses to be intimidated by all this, and insists on registering a complaint, they tell her to come back the next day, with a written statement, because apparently her STORY was inconsistent. When the case is finally registered, the chief of police makes statements like “she is already separated from her husband, what was a mother of two doing in a nightclub so late at night?” as if who she is and where she was has anything to do with it.

This only amply illustrates the Indian mentality. For a woman, being in a nightclub is an automatic certificate of loose morals. From personal experience, I can say this is not a rare mentality. When some friends and I made plans to go dancing, I made the mistake of inviting a young relative and his wife to come along. When he mentioned the plans at home, all hell broke loose! The outing was compared to going to some 10 rupees a pop prostitute! Keep in mind that this was not some man planning to visit a seedy dance bar with cronies. This was a bunch of married and committed people, with their spouses and partners, going to a reputed discotheque, in a group. No hanky panky, no seediness, nothing. Just some harmless fun. Not surprising then that a married but separated woman, alone in a nightclub at 2 am, is seen as little more than an escort. The point though, (which Indians will never get) is that it doesn’t matter. Even if the person is a prostitute, selling his/her body for money, they still have the right to say no, and no one, absolutely no one has ANY right to force any sexual activity on them.

We also don’t seem to understand, as a culture, that rape is not a crime about sex. It is about violence and power. If it was about sex and attraction, random strangers wouldn’t grope women they don’t know in buses and trains. If it was about sex and attraction, 10 month old babies and 90 year old grandmothers would not be routinely raped. If it was about sex and attraction, male rape would not be such a major part of subduing your enemies and the prisoners of war in any combat situation. RAPE IS VIOLENCE pure and simple. It is one party ASSERTING THEIR POWER over someone they see as less powerful.

And victim shaming, telling people that “it must be something you did” just gives MORE power to the rapists. Excusing men as helpless creatures with no control over their raging libidos just gives them an excuse to continue this kind of TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE behavior. It discourages women and children and victimized men from speaking up, which gives the rapists even more of an excuse to continue this kind of TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE behavior. It destroys the victim’s sense of self, or self worth, or self respect, all of which are already in tatters from the trauma of the crime itself. It also causes the general public to see rape as pure titillation. Rape scenes in Hindi films are tantamount to porn, to be rewound again and again for morbid enjoyment. Why? Because not only was she asking for it, deep down, in her heart of hearts, she enjoyed it! THAT’S the kind of mentality that has created today’s rapist friendly India.

Insensitivity is all pervasive, from the absence of adequate female constables and officers to take reports and escort the victims to their medical examinations, to the administration of the archaic and meaningless (especially in the case of women who have been sexually active before the incident) two-finger test on the victim (which they are finally talking about dropping).  In spite of a clear ruling from the judiciary that simply the word of the victim is enough grounds to register a case and begin investigations, especially forensic investigations (for evidence like sperm, which degenerates over time and any delay can mean the absence of conclusive proof), cases are routinely delayed, as with the park street rape incident, where forensic tests were finally conducted something like 9 days after the incident. Fat chance of finding anything! And this is being touted as another doubt, that there are only abrasions, but no CONCLUSIVE evidence of rape! Whose fault is that? And the Falta case? A month and more of delay in even registering a case has comprehensively ensured that there is absolutely no forensic evidence left to find!

This is how we react to the few cases of rape that are ever reported, which are probably some 10 percent of the cases that actually occur. We STILL have no concept, no teeny tiny discussion even, of male rape. We still think of and deal with child sexual abuse as a crime perpetrated by the dreaded STRANGER which is too rare to even think about, whereas some 60% of adults have faced some form of it in their childhoods, and given the blindness, encouragement to perpetrators, and the overall increase in crimes against women and children, the number is probably much higher today.

I really think we should all, collectively, wake up and smell the coffee!

Repression reflux

We Indians have a really screwed up view about sex and sexuality. We’ve always had. Whether it is film censoring or day to day taboos, sex seems much more horrific and sweep-under-the-carpet worthy to us than violence, unethical behavior, and a hundred other awful things that happen everyday. It’s quite amazing really that gory, super violent films like the new Agneepath -- and a lot of others – pass muster, while any film with the slightest hint of handling sex or sexuality in any way immediately gets the chop.

About 80% of 20-30 yr olds that I interact with on a daily basis have little or no real information about not just human sexuality and its myriad facets in general but their own bodies and how they function, or how basic man-woman (which is the only form they can imagine) sexual activity functions. They think they know… at least some of them … but the knowledge is either half baked or totally wrong. Not surprising given the fact that they have never even seen their parents hold hands, have never heard a single honest conversation about sex, never been given a clear idea of what it is, and never been encouraged or given the tools to help them to find out for themselves.

Over the years, ever since I was about 16 or so, I have ended up counseling not just people younger than me, but my peers as well, in matters carnal – simply because I have always been better informed than any of them about these things thanks to my brilliant family and their frank and honest upbringing. Sadly, the trend continues, and I still find I am better informed than a lot of people my age, and younger, in spite of them having a WAY better access to information than we had in our formative years, and in spite of most of them being sexually active.

Of wait! Indians don’t have sex before marriage, right? Well, that’s what most Indians believe anyway, even as they themselves indulge in casual sex, premarital and extramarital sex, chat sex, phone sex, sexting, and what not. The section that doesn’t indulge – its not for a want of trying. Their escapades are limited merely by the segregated nature of most of semi urban and non urban India, their own fear and horror of sex (what if someone found out, what if she got pregnant, what if her family killed them both, etc etc), and their lack of access to willing partners and spaces to experiment in.

And it is this very repressed latter category of chatters who mainly populate that prime example of the results of repression in Indian society – the chat room! I am more and more a misfit in this chat world, despite being a veteran and a regular (see chat masala), simply because I am still here looking for CLEAN chat, for normal, decent, hopefully interesting, conversation, while 99% of the others seem to be here solely for something called HOTCHAT. What being might that be? Well, its funny really, from what I have been able to make out as an outsider, this hotchat or sexchat seems to be some form of make believe playacting, sort of like a fantasy roleplay, but with faceless strangers.

Now, that makes absolutely no sense to me at all. Why on earth would I want to pretend to have sex with a faceless stranger? Or wish to discuss the intimate details of my sex life, sexual fantasies, preferences, etc with one? The only explanation I can think of for the almost complete prevalence of this kind of chat in the various rooms is that these people just don’t get enough in their lives! I can imagine the odd roleplay situation (with my partner), or the desire to fulfill the odd fantasy or two (also with my partner), but cannot under any circumstances imagine wanting to do either compulsively, all the time, and with every stranger I meet in a chat room!

Yes, I can imagine that some people do find this kind of anonymity a turn on, and sure, I know many who would probably not be averse to a bit of fake fun once in a while, but when it becomes as compulsive and as constant as it is with these chatters, one has to wonder what the problem is. Why this constant need to talk about sex sex sex 24/7? To the extent that I actually get insulted for asking for clean chat? To the extent that I an abused, called names, or worse, pestered and irritated to within an inch of my life for not indulging in this overwhelming obsession of the online Indian?

The reasons are not far to seek. You are talking about a culture where you cannot and I mean CANNOT talk about sex across generations. Where talking about sex within your peer group is this massively taboo, deliciously forbidden, goose-bump-raisingly whisper-only subject. Where even partners engaging in sex DARE not tell each other what they desire or what feels good for fear of being seen as promiscuous or being accused of knowing too much (more applicable in the case of women, especially since being INNOCENT and VIRGINAL is so much of a premium still, and the reason why a huge chunk of Indian women have never had an orgasm in their lives). Not surprising, given this atmosphere, that any chance to talk about it would be like a heaven sent. When something is so firmly and single mindedly swept under the carpet, it is more likely to explode into uncontrollable yearning. And that’s a fact of life.

While more and more people, and younger and younger ones, are engaging in sexual activity, (an India Today Survey some years ago put the number of 10 to 12 year olds engaging in sexual experimentation at about 60%) most people with 10 year old marriages have no clue what they are doing beyond the basic insert, thrust, and go to sleep. Concepts such as foreplay, experimentation, and alternative preferences r dismally abysmal, yet the chat rooms are full of people looking for incest and BDSM chat. (of course you soon realize that to a large number of people there seems to be no difference between the words incest and intercourse). Like all anonymous platforms, the internet, specifically the chat rooms, gives most of the people who feel “different” the freedom to try to find like minded people…. And that’s a good thing. It’s the thrusting of your preferences down my throat regardless of whether I am interested or not that I have a problem with, and that comes from the bang of reflux caused by the insane pressure of sexual repression.   

Hence, we live in a country where, when I chat, and also in day to day life, I am no better than a prostitute because I don’t see any problem with sleeping with someone I love, regardless of whether I am married to them, but I am a prude and a narrow minded person because I do not wish to engage in MATURE chat with someone I do not know from Adam. Where I am a popular go-to person for people online and off, looking for some knowledge and some counseling on matters of sexual health, but they will still try to engage me in sexchat, or to ask me personal questions which I will never answer, in spite of knowing full well that it will make me delete them from my list of knowable people and hence cut off their access to their only source of accurate information.

Well, that’s what happens when you don’t have a free and healthy mindset and a reasonable attitude to something that is just another part of a healthy life. Then it becomes, as sex is in India, your single minded obsession, something that you want all the time, from everyone, but something you will denigrate others for having or doing. It becomes the thing that twists your entire mind and life into intricate, unnecessary and unsolvable knots that will skewer every aspect of your life.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Being Together Blues – track two

Relationships are hard work. Yes, I’ve said it before, am saying it again, and will continue to say it for a long, long time. A fellow bloggers words having sparked off my own train of thought on whether it is even possible for people to live together under the same roof at all, I spent the first few hours analysing the family, and family life, and all the problems I see in the way families function around me. That’s HERE for anyone who is interested in checking it out. In this installment, of the being together blues, it’s time to look at interpersonal relationships within a romantic, committed, or married framework

People wouldn’t really get what the fuss is about. For many, it’s a simple matter. You get a girlfriend/boyfriend, you DATE (which has its own strange meaning in Indian English). And then you either marry or you don’t. if you don’t marry him/her, you eventually marry the nice little girl/boy your daddy/mummy chooses, and that’s that. The concept that a relationship needs to be built, worked on, or kept going doesn’t really exist in out combined mental ethos because relationships for us, culturally, are never interpersonal. They are never between two people, two individuals, because out cultural emphasis is emphatically NOT on the individual.

Marriages, relationships, society, it’s all about collectives for us. The individual exists merely to serve the greater unit – the family, the joint or extended family, the biradari, and so on. No surprise then that we don’t really pay attention or even think about relationships much on the whole. Marriages happen because they have to happen, because that’s the way it is. And then that’s how it goes. You live under the same roof, have a few years of sex, bear and rear kids, and sort of drift off into a relationship coma where you tolerate and coexist with each other because that’s become a habit, and anyway…there’s no real or visible reason to break up, and the concept of compatibility or the absence of it doesn’t really exist.

Still, we are learning. Magazines and newspaper articles, TV chat shows and international films are finally introducing the concept of thinking about relationships, at least to a certain segment. So, how easy is it for two people to live together? The old school would see no sense in that question because the concept of easy or hard doesn’t arise. It just happens … people live together. What the quality of that cohabitation is, and what that relationship really gives to each partner aren’t really issues at all. The new school, however, does worry about these things, or has begun to.

Yes, it is hard. Eleven years into my own commitment, I can unqualifiedly agree to exactly how hard it is for two people to exist under one roof, especially when they are from different backgrounds, different kinds of upbringing, and different thought processes. And no, it does not get easier with time. The two stages of a relationship – the pulse pounding, can’t keep your hands off each other, oh so much in love stage, and the more sedate, calmer, deeper, later stage – have their own kinds of challenges to be dealt with, in their own different ways. And the challenges only morph into other types and shapes, and do not ever disappear altogether.

When that early relationship glow colours so much of your time together, it can be easy to expect everything to just magically sort itself out, and for love to conquer all. However, as anyone who has ever been in a real, and serious, relationship knows – that doesn’t really happen. This is the time when the initial kinks have to be worked out. When my liberal upbringing clashes with your more conservative one, when my messy habits irritate the neatnik in you, and when the toilet seat up or down controversy is at its strongest, merely because you are not used to making those changes in your habits. This can be a time of huge fights, it certainly was for me, which are part of the negotiation and explanation of being a unit as opposed to a single individual. (of course making up is so much fun that sometimes you might pick a fight just to be able to make it up afterwards :D).

Later though, if things go as they should and you have worked out some of the initial kinks, things tend to settle down a bit. Unless the relationship is floundering, or there is a serious deficit of compatibility and communication, this is a calmer, more quiet time. The nitty-gritty has been sorted out, and much of the little differences evened out by time and habit, and the partners know each other a lot better by now. This is when things can start to go south in the form of a lack of communication, a taking for granted of the significant other, and a slowing down of physicality. Life tends to become much more routine, much more predictable, and much less spontaneous. Things settle into a kind of daily rut and rhythm and conversations settle down more to a “we need rice and tea” rather than discussions of the state of the world or Egyptian history.

With jobs, kids, chores, and whatnot, physical intimacy too becomes a rarer thing. Along with the pressures and tiredness of daily lives, is added the thought that since they are going to be around, its not entirely necessary to grab every second. First stage sex is a kind of race to grab all you can while you can. While this second stage sex is more a matter of the rare occasion when your schedule and libido happen to coincide with mine, since there is no hurry, and you are not going anywhere. What this means though, is that the extra boost of intimacy you get from the pillow talk and the post coital giggling sessions gets rarer, leading to the possibility of distance building up. Add to this the fact that small resentments and misunderstandings are often not cleared up because of the routine nature of much of the conversation, and the danger of distance increases.

This is the stage when the real challenge is to keep the communication channels open, and the intimacy going as much as possible. The problem is that most people are not geared to having fun with their partners. Just hanging out, talking, adda, drinking, dancing, chilling…. These are things we seem to prefer to do with friends, with or without the partner present (often without, at this stage), rather than “just the two of us”. What we miss out on is the building of a friendship, a fun equation, and a compatible companionship, to augment the waning animalistic passion of the first few years.

Making the effort to take the conversation out of the domestic grind, and into the fun/intellectual realms can and does make a huge difference, and having fun with the partner automatically increases the desire to extend that fun to the bedroom. Yes its tough to live with anyone, parent, sibling, partner, child. But with a little bit of rationality, and a little bit of readiness to be flexible and accommodating, not to mention the giving of LOTS of space, it can work, and work really well. Eleven years have taught me that, and seeing those adjustments leading to the relationship going strong (he is still one of my closest friends, and one of the few people I prefer to discuss philosophy and politics, and art and culture with), has confirmed to my mind that this CAN be done.

Being Together Blues – track one

Relationships are hard work. That’s a fact most sensible people have always known, and appreciated. It was in one of my many jaunts around the blogsphere that I ran into another blogger, who goes so far as to ask “can two people really ever live together?”  Although he presumably meant it as a question in the context of adult human romantic relationships, it is worth looking at it from the perspective of all relationships, whether filial or romantic.

Setting aside romantic relationships for the time being, consider families. Kids, parents, siblings, all living under one roof, at least for the first 20 or so years of the lives of the children, at least in India. Unconditional love (that’s what they say it is… although in most cases there are numerous conditions to be fulfilled before approval and love can be won, and both approval and love can be lost in an instant by one misstep), combines with similar upbringing, one common set of parents and values. However, all these great and noble emotions notwithstanding, it is a difficult enough job to live together in peace and harmony with one’s parents and siblings, and most people end up with a lot of baggage of repression, anger, resentments and what not.

This statement, of course, labels me as anti social, against Indian culture, unnatural and whatnot, simply because I dare to question the concept of blind love and loyalty and duty to the family unit and parents. Not that it exists, in my experience. The ones most vehement in shouting the praises of all these are the ones most loudly badmouthing their families behind their backs. The few families I have seen which have genuine personal space, independence, and real respect for each other are the unusual ones. These are the homes and families, like the one I grew up in, where the RULES are not so codified and the emphasis is on working on earning real respect and love rather than insisting on the outer trappings like feet touching.

Most people have a mini heart attack every time they hear me address my man or (shudder shudder!) my parents with the ultra familiar “tui” or “tu” which is reserved for pals and people younger than oneself in India, or for the beings of a much lower social strata, such as the domestic help, or the paper wala. My brother and I, on the other hand, find it most natural to address them this way rather than with the more formal “tumi” or the very formal “apni” because they are our buddies. We have a very open, frank, really close relationship with both parents, and I actually find it amazing that people find it amazing that my folks know everything there is to know about me. To me, that’s the most natural thing in the world! And yes, I hope to be that kind of a best friend to my kids in turn! And no….to answer some critics…. I will not mind or feel insulted AT ALL if my daughter calls me tui….in fact, I would love it!

And yet, in spite of the open atmosphere at home ad the total absence of formalities and codified behavior expectations, it was difficult enough growing up, simply because that’s what growing up is like. And yes, there have been massive arguments, misunderstandings, and resentments, a few of which probably linger on in some way or the other. Any set of people, living under one roof, is a situation rife with the certainty of emotional hassles and ego clashes, personality mismatches and sheer miscommunication. That’s just how we are made. If, to top off the already roiling confusions, you add a thick veneer of FORMALITY and “ADAB”, and you have a recipe for the worst kind of disaster.

And that is exactly what I see around me in many families. On the surface, perfect. Never a raised voice (there are many in our house), never a harsh word, and certainly not any disrespectful behavior (the definition of that one is another blog post in the making) ever in those houses. Everyone is invariably polite, nice, and oh so proper with each other. Get them alone, and the story is something else. There is NO communication, NO understanding, and NO empathy among the members of these families. Forget all that, there is no RELATIONSHIP to speak of. They are strangers related by blood who just happen to co-exist in a common physical space. They don’t know each other, have no clue of the others’ dreams, aspirations and emotional needs, and have no channels open to even try to know or explain those things.

So, the children HAVE to do what the parents want, regardless of what their ambitions/ desires are, until they are ready to leave the nest…if ever. While a few have begun now to leave the nests at the beginning of their careers, they never quite manage to detach themselves from the umbilicus which reaches across time and space to exert its authority. Many never leave the nest, unable to be “their own person” until the parents die, at which point they are too old, it’s too late, and they are too set in their ways and demoralized to have a life.

As a result, they study what they don’t like, marry where they don’t love, and where there is no mental emotional match, and exist in a sort of bound and gagged state known by our culture as the respectful and loving family. I am the black sheep for occasionally screaming at my mum to make her see my side of things, but these ideal children would never dream of any such transgression. Instead, they are willing to sit with any sympathetic “other” and use terrible language to describe their angst and name call their “elders” to hell and back. Naturally, resentments deepen, anger turns to a deep seated poisonous vitriol, and all real love and emotion becomes warped into a strange love-hate being which hurts more than it heals.

Add to this the common absence of the concept of compromise or adjustments. Kids will HAVE to do what the parents say…because they are the parents,  and in our culture, they virtually own the kid. They can beat it, torture it, emotionally and physically assault it, restrict its mind, emotions, life, and basically do exactly what they like with it, just by virtue of the fact that they happen to have biologically created it. So, obviously, there is absolutely no concept, or even an imagination of a concept, that a child may want something other than what the parents want “FOR IT” or that he/she may have the right to voice that want. By extension, there is no concept that parents might tone down, or even give up, what they want in favour of what the child wants. The child too is trained to hide and lie. From its earliest years, the kids learn not to tell the truth to their parents, not to bring their friends home, to say they are going to group study rather than announce they are going dancing, and never ever try to explain what they think or feel, never ever to ask questions, and never ever expect communication.

As a result both sets spend their family lives looking at each other with mild scorn (you don’t understand anything), and barely tolerating each other. Hardly the recipe for ideal filial ties (whatever those might be). Hardly the best formula to have a great and happy life together.