The Touchstone for Complaints: the Young Urban ‘Middle-Class’ Indian Housewife.
As dawn breaks, the Indian housewife of today cannot shut her eyes and go back to sleep, to finish her dream, whether wistful or happy or tragic, in a busy urban Indian household.
There are a hundred diverse thoughts milling in her mind. Has the milkman come? Will the domestic helper come today? No one wishes to be a domestic helper these days. Are the children awake?
On a one-salary household, there is just one helper to sweep and mop this two-bedroom flat, with 2 bathrooms and 3 small balconies. When the helper is unable to come, it falls upon her to do the needful.
It is time to make chai, prepare breakfast, pack lunch-boxes. Never mind if her head hurts and she has not slept well, as the family mocks her snoring, as she serves their breakfast. “You call this food?”, “I don’t want toast”, “I don’t want parathas”.
The urban young Indian housewife is the Touchstone for Complaints.
Her older version is often not spared either!
“You don’t earn anything, so don’t talk about holidays or travelling!”
How does one justify the lack of jobs or the mismatch of skills that present-day jobs demand? It’s a losing battle.
She sighs, thinking, I am tired. I am not a certified chef or cook.
Heaven forbid she says this out loud again, as all kinds of accusations would be hurled at her. “You don’t have anything to do, so why can’t you cook properly?”
The conversation and laughter encircle her, but she is left out of it. If she ventures a comment or two, she is cut short, curtly. She has a mind, but because she does not work outside the home, her comments do not matter.
It hurts, this belittling of her intelligence, this underscoring of her ‘non-identity’. When she reacts in anger, she is faced with much wrath from her spouse and children, but how often may one listen to constant rebukes and not be allowed to complete a sentence or participate in a lively discussion with guests?
“You can sleep the whole day”, “You can watch TV the whole day”.
Define ‘time management’. Define ‘schedule’. Define the non-payment of a monthly ‘salary’ for all the household chores done daily, for the family. The money given to cover household expenses just does NOT count!
7-9 AM (2 hours) Morning duties: make tea, prepare breakfast & ‘serve’, then ‘clear’.
9-10 AM (1 hour) Drink a cup of tea, read the newspaper, listen to the news, or watch on the TV.
10 -11 AM (1 hour) Load the washing machine.
Then, Bathe, Pray, Eat? Perhaps.
Then dry the clothes outside, as the helper does not have the time to do so. She can only work for 2 hours in the morning. She needs to work in 3 households to manage her household and we are grateful for her services.
11- 3 PM (4 hours) If required, go out to buy groceries, vegetables, fruits. Perhaps meet a friend for coffee out somewhere, for a change! Try to read! Or sew or watch some TV, maybe sleep for a little while. What luxury!
Return home, then it’s back to the kitchen to chop vegetables.
3-5 PM (3 hours) Children return at different times; prepare snacks; spouse returns, prepare tea and snacks.
Do not disturb anyone as they need to ‘unwind’.
5-7 PM (2 hours) Start to get dinner ready.
7-9 PM (2 hours ) Dinner-time.
9-10 PM (1 hour) Clear up, put things away, wash the dishes.
10 PM – Midnight (2 hours) Perhaps get to watch some TV if the remote control is free or read; use the computer, if it is free… always the last, because she is a housewife and has the whole day to watch TV, use the computer and sleep!
Usually, that is almost 16 hours of housework daily, being on call 24X7, 365 days a year. No ‘salary’ really required, just a touch of appreciation.
Everyday, for at least the next 30 years, she will wake up early to this routine perhaps in the future she may sleep as much as she wants, as a senior citizen and that too, only if her spouse is supportive; only if her adult married son lives with them and her daughter-in-law helps in the kitchen, before going to work. But that’s an unlikely scenario.
So, one day, do sit her down, help put her feet up, make her a cup of chai, put on her favourite music (she must have some choices, have you ever asked her?), or the TV soap she faintly chuckles at and even cries. Do tell her sometimes that she is worth much more than being a touchstone for complaints and see how her smile will reach her eyes!
The nearest our grandmothers may have got to saying, “I love you” in Oriya would have been “I like you!” And even that would have been said with a blush. Dad’s mother, Ma, left us too soon. We were away in England in the sixties and I used to conjure up her smiles from black-and-white photographs fitted into triangular corners, pressed lovingly in the few surviving albums, with tissue paper overlays that rustled each time you turned the pages.
My maternal grandmother,Aaee’s been gone a decade now. But I can still see her, smiling endearingly, licking her paan-stained lips, chuckling over our torrent of questions on the silliest of topics, including love, her eyes crinkling in amusement. As she sat to clean the fish to be served for lunch, she’d say, “Haan, you better know how to clean the insides of a fish. Or else it will be so bitter that love may not save you from the comments!”
As for us, young teenagers, we would talk endlessly of falling in love, drinking champagne, daring to have a “love-marriage”. All Aaee would say was, “Bhack! Watching too many cinemas.” Yet she would always pull open the corner of her pallu, hand over some crumpled rupee notes so that we could go for the first evening show in the only cinema house in Dhenkanal — furtively, so that our grandfather, Aja, would not spot us. An uncle owned the cinema hall. He refused to take money for our tickets and even rewound the movie reels for us if we were late and had missed the trailers. Aja did not want to be obliged to his wife’s nephew, so he would frown heavily, shaking his head in despair!
Then I turned 17 and it was time to say goodbye before leaving for Delhi University. Sad to think about it even now, the tears they shed, my elderly grandparents, as if I would never see them again. There were no lectures about getting married. Aaee would say, “You must study. I’ll come stay with you when you are in the IAS.” She had been a child bride and became a very young mother. What had she dreamt about as a little girl? I should have asked her.
Now, at 50, it’s all so different. Two strong personalities, almost the same age and 20 shared years of worrying about the children — from school to college; through sickness and through sadness. Watching them grow and recede from our lives. We have learnt to confront financial problems, resolve conflicts, balance opinions. Think about medical care. Grow old. We now acknowledge it and accept our imperfections. And realise that — in the end — it may be just the two of us.
We have learnt to accept each other as time has changed us — the expanding waist, the dental bridges, the need for reading glasses.
“A safe space for conversations, trusted information and resources on mental health in India”.
Have you noticed the apparent stealth with which certain words are doing the rounds on Social Media platforms, in a flippant way? How some persons talk about counselling in belittling tones or alternatively, in nonchalant tones, saying that it is like going to the gym?
We need to pause and consider what we say and write, bearing in mind the far-reaching repercussions our words may have. I have read harsh and hurtful words online and as someone who has experienced most of the these emotions, in varying degrees, over the past forty years, it evokes a strong reaction each time and takes a while to put behind me. I have been fortunate to have worked through issues, including by talking to professionals. I did not need medication, but some people do. This is important to know and not feel apprehensive about.
Intensive research has been conducted over the years and figures put out – that one in four persons the world over has had or will have a (mental health) ‘episode’ at some point in their life. Many families have loved ones and friends who have needed or need help. Without the stigma attached to the word ‘mental’. Symptoms may seem interchangeable, but a word of caution. Tread very softly here.
Let me begin with melancholy – the word may trip off your tongue as it sounds mellifluous.
The term ‘Melancholia’ goes back to the time of Hippocrates: c. 460– 370 BC. It is now defined as a distinctive mood that is not interpreted as severe depression*.
Or you may recall John Keats (1795-1821), in an Ode to Melancholy – where he exhorts the reader to seek out beauty rather than sink under the influence of drugs.
“But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies…”
These images have always evoked my senses with mixed feelings, hard to pin into categories.
Sylvia Plath, 1932-1963, often wrote of her ‘emptiness’ and ‘blankness’.
In Tulips, she writes,
“I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.…”
She wrote these lines on her stay in a hospital. When she could not deal with her emptiness, she ended her life.
As Plath wrote in Lady Lazarus:
“Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call.”
Contemplating suicide cannot be taken lightly. And no, it is not fashionable to make an irreverent statement on it, even in jest.
Feeling worthless is not to be taken lightly either, especially if coupled with feelings of self-loathing and the inability to move forward over a long period of time.
Sadness is perhaps the only common factor amongst all human beings – but this may pass sooner for some than others.
Depression is not just feeling the blues, or just sadness or a mood that people can outgrow. Sadness and depression may be connected, but sadness is but one element of depression.
It is a much bandied word.
Anxiety, yes, when you feel uneasy, your heart beats faster, you may sweat or breathe rapidly – about an interview or taking an exam or doing some public speaking, may be considered normal under stressful conditions. However, if it interferes with your daily life, for an extended period of time, then it cannot be taken lightly.
ON GRIEF AND BEREAVEMENT
Bereavement brings its own bag of troubles – even raising the question of whether grief actually protects a person from major depression. The process of grieving or mourning, is a natural one, but each individual grieves differently.
Mourning, grief, a period of depression after losing a loved one is “normal” but the death of a loved one can trigger major depression. I closed up soon after my husband died two years ago, and resented people telling me that life goes on … yes, it does but I did not want to hear it.
They had my best interests in mind. It took me months to find the strength to say so.
May one be forbidden to mourn?
John Donne (1572-1631), wrote A Valediction : Forbidding Mourning
“As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, No….”
The poets mentioned here all express universal feelings of suffering.
I do believe Poetry sometimes helps us express what we cannot articulate – the memories that cause pain. It is important to remember the power that words have.
Others may find Art /Painting effective in dealing with their emotions, or listening to music, singing or cooking, running or playing a sport. But you have to actually enjoy what you do, not resent being told to do it!
Losing a job or being a victim of a physical assault, of domestic violence, confronting duplicity may also lead to major depression. So can loneliness, ageing and the empty-nest syndrome. Professional help must be sought if symptoms last longer than two weeks. These may include mood swings, the inability to make decisions, thoughts on death or suicide, experiencing fatigue, excessive sleep, or insomnia, sudden weight gain, drug or alcohol abuse – but ONLY a professional may diagnose these symptoms. A professional will over the course of counselling, decide whether psychotherapy is effective or whether medication may be required and will refer you to a clinical doctor.
At least nowadays, there is discussion on these topics. Your parents and grandparents may have suffered too – with little or no support. Words were not spoken. Feelings were kept under wraps.
Each of us has a public face and a private face. We really do not know what others are going through. So whatever your thoughts, on whichever topic, please go easy on what you write on social media – there are far too many desolate souls out there who may mistake flippancy for fact. And think the unthinkable. My thoughts here are only the tip of the iceberg
How Languages Changed My Life is a collection of stories exploring the importance of languages in shaping the lives of individuals and communities around the world. It brings together writers and musicians, politicians and activists, teachers, students, scientists, comedians, and sportspeople whose experiences are both unique and exemplary. The first-person voices are conversational, intimate and uplifting, but also often very funny and deeply moving.
This book is for anyone who loves real-life stories; is interested in languages, culture, and adventure; and believes in global citizenship. It embraces more than forty different languages and offers a kaleidoscope of individual views that collectively make the case for linguistic diversity being as essential to our survival as biodiversity.
Irrespective of age and background, whether as first-time learners or professional polyglots, all our storytellers testify to how languages have inspired and empowered them. How Languages Changed My Life is a book for our times, reminding us that what we have in common is always greater than our differences.
“My apologies, dear Reader, sometimes I listen, to learn, not judge……It was at the last Ladies Luncheon…”.
There are passionate voices extolling the virtues of professions over motherhood, of choices made, with the support of a husband or joint family, but are these coloured with a twinge of melancholy or is it guilt?
A doctor has to make a choice between serving her patients and her children. A business woman does feel pangs of unhappiness as she juggles her dual roles, while the two male ‘spouses’ at the lunch offer us balanced views on the topic. Education, one says, is what will help. Another lady reveals her husband asked her to stay at home with her children and she professes no regrets. There are smiles as she deftly averts her eyes and looks across the group, with just a glint of knowledge in her eyes.
A young wife then says, “One of America’s highest paid women executives has recently created a furore with her choice of words: “I don’t think women can have it all…..”
The group sighs in unison!
But wait, I muse, there is one person missing here – yes, a home-maker, one who is thrust into such a role by circumstance, not choice. I could be referring to myself here, as someone who has travelled across continents, resided in seven countries and the homeland, over the past three decades following my husband to his postings. Being in the foreign-service family is fascinating, vastly challenging in certain countries for the civil servant, but even more so for the ‘spouse’.
The government has graciously granted the spouse leave to work, within specific parameters that pose no direct or indirect conflict of interest. This is a given- to uphold the dignity of our country at all costs. However, jobs are not easily available in certain countries or at the time of a posting. Then there is the question of the existence of double-taxation. Then employers are not usually impressed with a chequered experience table. How may one fill in all the years given away to the family as a wife and mother? Some spouses are delighted to be home-makers and care-givers. Others decide to pursue their ambitions, in India, or even overseas. Some stay on, fulfil all their duties unstintingly, but often sit down and have a good cry, especially as the days turn to months, then years and the decades fly by.
Till it is time to return home, perhaps to retire, or fade into oblivion? The husband will retire as a Distinguished Citizen of India. The wife, who has worked unstintingly behind the scenes in varied roles supporting her husband, what will she be remembered for?
At this point in time, regrets? Perhaps a few. Remorse? I do not think so. A sense of guilt? Why? Did she not ‘have it all?’ The children are all grown – up, in their chosen fields, given the choices that she could not have made without upsetting the earlier generation. It is a hard cogged wheel that turns exceedingly slowly and painfully, for some of us. The question I am underscoring here is: why should I feel guilt for not having a career, if I stayed with my spouse and children, for not contributing to the monthly single-income? Does not earning make me a ‘bad’ mother? Has my unhappiness at not having a career or pensionable job lowered me in their esteem? Do they think that I ought to have been like some of my University batch mates, in high places- how did they manage to balance marital matters and motherhood with a profession?
Destiny, Karma ,call it what you may, or just the sheer outcome of having made the choice of getting married.
The questions and answers, not just at that Ladies Luncheon but also on TV panel discussions are difficult to answer or compartmentalize neatly.
Today, in urban India, young adults in their late-twenties or mid-thirties are quite happy to be professionals and single. They may accept their parents’ concern, or their opinions in their stride, but may not heed their advice. They are not afraid to voice their opinions either. Just chill! These are the smartphone kids, the short-texting generation, no voice calls really required. They are at ease anywhere- nationally or internationally. They traverse spaces with verve. Their parents are often stuck in limbo between two generations – two World Wars, Vietnam and the missions to the Moon. Now it is Mars. Unable to come to terms with this distancing or rather ‘my space’ or ‘my time’ or just plain ‘let me be’? Understandable, as today is fraught with a myriad deluge of issues. They need time to think, to gauge points of view and then arrive at their conclusions. We need to understand their anxiety and allow them to take their stands. They are the youth of today, the future is theirs to know.
Many have just barely escaped the vulnerability of adolescence.
What worries me is whether they are able to share their anxieties with their companions, in order to be happier or calmer and move forward. If they may overcome peer-pressure and the ticking of the biological clock. I cannot be sure if ‘guilt’ figures in their thoughts, given their independence and their choice of friends and careers. I can only wish them well, in whichever role or roles they choose and keep them safe in my prayers.
I only know that we all need to adapt to circumstances, at every stage in our lives. And that a supportive husband, in-laws, parents, friends – these are the positive blessings in our lives.
And that women should not feel guilty about their choices.
Every day one fact stares us in the face – in this our homeland – the horror of crimes against women and children. No longer hidden away in dusty storerooms or barnyards, thrown into the depths of village wells or rivers, but right in our faces on national media. Can anyone, male or female, turn away from the horrific sight of those two young girls, hanging from a tree? Their hair tied in pigtails, thin young girls, dressed decently in traditional salwar-kameezes – yet to blossom into womanhood. Perhaps some macho types will shrug it off as what they deserved. Whether it is an honour killing for marrying out of caste, or for giving birth to girls (why is it still not public knowledge that it is the MALE chromosomes that determine the sex of a child?), whether it is for not receiving enough dowry or for answering back in justified distress or just to show a family that does not conform within a village what atrocities lie in store for its members… the list is endless. It is futile to even try to attempt to make those rapists pay for their heinous acts. Is there strength in numbers? Yes, when such crimes are committed. It gives those villains a sense of power, even to throw acid in someone’s face for having not accepted unwanted or uncalled for advances.
Is this who we are? A nation of listless citizens, not wanting to be involved in someone else’s tragedy?
Psychologists have long spoken about repressed adolescence in India. Most families are over-protective of their daughters yet may have sons who need to teach a fantasy-girlfriend a lesson like they do in the movies. But movies are mostly fictional but who will drill this fact into the heads of most of our people, no matter how much or how little they are educated?
No, it is not right to punch someone in the face for an insult, or eve-tease with whistles and cat-calls, even if a handsome hero or pretty heroine does it onscreen. No, it is not right to seek vengeance on a family over disputed land. Neither is it right to beat up the competition in winning the heroine’s heart or to rob banks and rich-guys, putting it simply, for the ‘better’ of the community in the village or chaawl or basti. Our TV serials are not helping either, with difficult sasumaas trying to interfere in a couple’s life and all sorts of unimaginable twists and tales.
Our rural and urban viewers are equally susceptible.
No, it is not right to admire vigilante justice or kangaroo courts that administer physical justice and humiliation, even if our film industry indulges in such fancy. But the public is fed up of the months, even years in courts, waiting for justice. In the meantime, the culprits are fed daily, allowed to exercise, meet visitors… until in the crime is often diffused by this sense of distance. This is inexcusable. Prompt justice is necessary for such heinous crimes. Laws need to be amended. We wait in anticipation for change.
But wait, does education not play a role on what is morally right and acceptable?
Can rape be defended on the grounds of meting punishment for an alleged grievance? This is the message that seems to be going out to the world.
Why are such subjects not introduced in national schools or adult literacy classes? We now have classes on agriculture beamed into rural community centres.
India must protect its own especially its young girls and boys, as boys are vulnerable too and not enough is spoken on their behalf.
Our children must be safe at school and their environment. CCTV cameras are all very professional but we must have responsible persons monitoring these visuals carefully not chatting and going to the canteen for chai whenever they wish to. Accountability is not a strong word in India. School managements must ensure safety for their pupils. One washroom attendant is not enough and background checks are very necessary, prior to hiring. Many international schools overseas insist on a mandatory police verification that is mentioned in advertisements for educators and non-teaching staff.
Then as parents, we need to keep our children safe at home. We cannot be suspicious all the time of relatives or friends, but need to question ourselves if they make our children uncomfortable. This may be just out of shyness too, but it is important not to overlook a child’s concern. I am not stating that every smile or pleasant exchange of words is sinister, but we need to prepare our children to grow up and fend for themselves in this unpredictable world.
Coming back to that particular Ladies Luncheon , “It is your turn, now, Jay”, I was startled out of my reverie over the past hour, smile sheepishly at no -one in particular to begin on the topic of Living Overseas and the other side of Domestic Servitude.
The recent outrage on Social Media over salaries paid to domestic helpers overseas by Indian government officials has a spate of ‘holier than thou’ undertones. While no-one is above the law and indeed, must respect the law of the land, let us look closer home.
Why do some of us get so upset when the maid fails to come, one day in a week or month? Maybe she was tired, had caught a cold or was ill with fever, or perhaps her child was sick? Or maybe her husband ill-treated her and she had bruises on her face and did not want you to see them? Or maybe she lied.
How many of us feel that what we pay our domestic helpers is adequate? Inside a ‘society’ compound, salaries are usually on par. The younger generation is advised to pay the average salary so there is little room for discontent among the domestic workers.
Then, as they arrive for work, we make them remove their footwear, even in winter. True, in ancient times this was the norm and still is, in many South-East Asian societies. The inside of the house ought to remain clean and the dust from the streets should remain outside. However, we all walk in with our shoes on.
Then the constant drill begins: “do this properly, you never sweep under the chairs”, “dust properly”, “I can’t find something, you must have taken it” and on and on until the end of the working day (whenever that may be, after 12 hours maybe?)- tinnitus voices. We pile up dishes in the kitchen. We dump clothes in buckets. We leave the cleaning-up for the domestic helper.
Circumstance, not choice is what determines a person’s life of domestic servitude.
Woe betide the helper if she “answers” back. This is not acceptable, for as a domestic helper, she apparently must remain mute. She must not display friction or any emotion (tears are acceptable) that would upset the lady of the house, even the children.
Do we even think of sitting her down for five minutes, with a cup of tea and talking to her as a human being? Perhaps we do, but never seem to find the time to do so regularly. I do not think the topics would always revolve around money. Perhaps the dialogue would focus on the ups and downs that life imposes on each of us, in varying degrees. To listen is to help a person through her sorrows.
How many of us actually give our helpers money for healthcare, hospitalization or an amount as pension, when they too old to work? Yes, the odd paracetamol tablet is usually given out of a selfish motive, so that the helper recovers quickly (however temporary the relief) and completes all her chores.
What are average salaries in the cities of India? Do corporate executives who earn five times the amount government officials do, pay their domestic helpers five times extra?
Over the past three decades, I have usually hired local helpers for a few hours daily, or three times a week, depending on the country my husband was posted in and abiding by its laws. This is of utmost importance. I do not believe in signing a contract in India stating the monthly wage, while the minimum wage overseas is at variance.
Many countries insist employers pay monthly Social Security instalments for domestic helpers. This is checked prior to a person’s departure from the country and receipts from the Social Security office are required for the full tenure in the country.
For example, over twenty years ago, we paid the average salary of US 300/= per month to Rosa, our helper in a Central American country and forever breathed easy, as this was the ‘going rate’ locally, for all diplomatic families and included social security. However, this was far, far more than the allocated amount given to us in the foreign allowance. It was really difficult making ends meet those days, with three children, but we had to. And we were blessed with children who helped in our chores in many ways ….the two elder girls baby-sitting their brother, helping hang up the laundry…even raking autumn leaves when much younger. Or shovelling snow with their father…bless their hearts, and later, our son who is more than a decade younger than his sisters, setting up stages, recording patriotic songs, checking the loud speakers, creating power-points …memories and gratitude forever in our hearts . And, I often told friends in India, tongue in cheek – “Some of us mere ‘spouses’, look after residences, plan menus, cook, lay tables, wash dishes at times all for free!!!”
People do not understand what it takes to work for one’s country, for average salaries, especially so before the past decade, when the young generation in the corporate sector were making five times the amount in India!
It is a certain ‘bent of mind’!
The ‘wrong-doings’ by some in the ‘service’ is disheartening to the rest of us.
The media too, plays its part in highlighting certain issues that trigger a long-list of complaints in other areas that have remained dormant.
An Indian diplomat overseas is still your average Indian at home in Delhi. It is that simple!
We need support from our own! Life overseas is not just a series of diplomatic parties, sipping champagne or apple juice, clutching crystal stems and wearing designer clothes! Life is often hard, as we live our personal lives too and miss our extended families, our friends and really do not have ‘shoulders’ to cry upon.
Now in my early 60’s, my 3 R’s for positive thinking are: Rethink, Relearn and Retain your memories of a full life, well-lived. And write. I do.
Thirty years of travelling overseas with a few home-postings.How does a foreign service spouse, having lived overseas for decades due to her husband’s work environment, cope with not having a career? Are there employers who look beyond the 10-15+ years in-a-job tag? Not even a handful will take the ‘risk’! I have often lamented my dismay at ‘rejections’ during home-postings- “..but you will not be able to stay with us over a period of time,” – when I was in my mid-thirties and forties. That was then. I would console myself by saying that I had made a conscious choice to marry my late husband, a career diplomat in the Indian Civil Services and follow him around the world.
Yes, I have indeed, often been disappointed with not having a professional career, but then cheer up with memories of the years of ‘lived experience’ – in diverse cultures, meeting wonderful persons, learning extensively about customs, culture and local cuisine. Of travelling to exotic places, once read about in my childhood.How fortunate I have been all these years and to have had our children with us – until they left for University.
I breathe in deeply – in and out – imbibing the wonders of travel, of making friends, at all ages, in distant lands. My ‘oldest’ friend is from 50 years ago. I first met her at school in London and we have been friends ever since, through snail-mail, her visit to India, telephone calls…….and emails!
Now it is time to reconnect with my diplomatic spouse-friends the world over and discover new ones on social media. We are fortunate to be able to do so instantly – in this wondrous digital age.
Poetry, Tales in Verse for Children with a social message, Narratives, Workshops for teachers – these are my ‘rainbow-colours’, through the passage of time. My ‘career’ is as wife, mother, diplomatic colleague, teacher, writer and enshrines friendships, forged in foreign lands.
Here’s to aging healthily and some reflections in retirement!
“We are not given a short life but we make it short, wasteful… Life is long if you know how to use it”.
Seneca, Roman Philosopher circa BC 4 65 AD
Nearing sixty, I am trying to make the most of Seneca’s words, in my own inimitable way. To make the most of silence, to charge it with creativity, reflection and innovation. But then there is just too much noise all around!
New Delhi has changed in the past five years. In the shaded by-lanes of the bureaucratic roads fanning the heart of India Gate, there are unfamiliar sounds, even at six in the morning. On one such lane, I can hear sounds from the domestic quarters across the lane, songs at full blast on a radio or the television. Moments later, there are loud voices, rising in crescendo, as footsteps draw closer, as women exchange comments or shout out to the men sweeping the sides of the lane, with long handled jharus, loud sounds, jarring sounds – they are now impinged in my brain, tinnitus-sounds that will forever haunt me. How quickly their chores are done and it is only a matter of hours before the road will be full of litter once again. We Indians seem to be oblivious to where we discard garbage. Arre Baba, as long as it is not in our kitchens or rooms. Our streets are fetid litter-stores.
School children pitter-patter down the road, their faces aglow in anticipation of the new day in class and playing with their friends during the short breaks. These are pleasant sounds. The NDMC truck pulls up soon after, with its own churning sounds, as the men battle through putrid garbage, gather branches of trees, lopped off or shorn off by the gusty winds, in prelude to the long-awaited monsoon rains this year. Yet, like everything else that seems to be done here, half-heartedly, so much litter remains, to be marked as property by the strays that reside here too. Their intermittent yelps have also been added to my list of sounds.
It is the sound of screeching tyres and drivers honking loudly, perpetually, in the now dusty by-lane that elicits despair. The stray dogs bark in anger, even chase a car or two, in a brave display of courage against someone who may have rammed into them, causing a limp or shattered toes. The monkeys stroll from the rooftops across the road, along the low walls of our tenement and swing into the school compound. There are many suckling babies, hanging tenaciously to their mothers. They just glance up at me, nonchalantly. Here I am, standing alone on the balcony, reminiscing about years in the past, when the children were with us. The empty-nest syndrome has engulfed me for two decades now, as one by one, the children or young-adults, left to study and work. I am so thankful that one of them now lives twenty-odd km away and drops by whenever she can, despite a hectic work-schedule.
It is no different inside the flat, as here, the sounds of silence are deafening, so I keep the TV on. When reporters and anchors raise their voices beyond the natural decibels of acceptable sounds, sounds that do not lead to hearing-loss, I decide to amble onto the balcony again. It is no different here on the small balcony, but the sounds I hear now are happy squeals of laughter, as the schoolgirls spill into the field at Lunch-time. Chattering away their precious free moments between serious study. The two peacocks that stroll through that garden on holidays and rainy days, have disappeared into the dense shrubs that adorn two adjacent walls of the school compound.
If I am lucky, I catch a glimpse of a grey horn-bill on the tree, barely two feet away. So far from its natural habitat, but I am fortunate to see it. The koel is another regular visitor and their sounds soothe my anxious mind.The woodpecker too, flits and flaunts its dexterity- it is a sight to behold, especially when perched precariously, side-ways, chipping away at the bark. The orange-rust hopoe visits now and then too, adding to the oxymoronic charm of a forest-city, barely within a periphery of twenty feet.
It is not the noise that I really want to shut out, but perhaps the silence that engulfs me in a room full of people. I watch as they move their lips in shapes I could draw blindfolded, hoping the yes-no nod of my Indian head is appropriate to the words being said. I purse my lips into decent smiles, every now and then and then deftly ease myself away to the corner. So many escapes in the past three decades the memories make me smile.
All the ‘Babel’. Are we really listening to each other? Everyone seems so impatient, cutting in the conversations, imposing views, not allowing the others to have their say. It often feels like time wasted, but we need to adapt to social expectations. What is different on Social Media? It feels good to tweet in 140 characters, but not if the trolls replies are abusive or if the communication has been misunderstood. The silence here too, is often deafening, if no one responds or Likes or Retweets. Social Media Anxiety is the new kid on the block of all our 21st century ailments. And carpel-syndrome, for typing too long…
Or does it feel really different, is it really worthwhile to know that perhaps for a minute, a few persons, maybe hundreds, will actually ‘listen’ to your words?
There are some resonant sounds we hear daily in this pulsating, multi-tasking world we live in- listen to the myriad nuances of the word ’empowerment’. Do the words ‘empowerment for women’ reek of gender bias? I will begin with women in their mid – 50’s, born in the cities to well-educated parents and grandparents. Why have many such post-independence children, grown up with fears and apprehensions? Do they continue to live under an invisible sword of Damocles, from their early childhood? They do not speak out against their parents and elders, even though they may harbour feelings of disappointment and angst for years on end. They often say they cannot bear to hurt their parents’ feelings or ever face their rage or witness their tears. Do pent-up emotions corrode relationships? A never-ending query, with no real resolution. Unless you want to “break ties”. Empowerment? Perhaps we may begin with nurturing just a sense of self-worth? I do believe this would be truly meaningful. Why do some women, even in their 40s, quake in their comfortable shoes or teeter on 3-inch heels, as elders in their late 60’s or 70’s silently admonish them ~ with a certain curl of their lips ~ for laughing loudly as they saunter towards their lunch table, at one or more of the prestigious clubs in Delhi?
Are women of age and substance still inherently seeking commendation? For the respect shown to elders, of not crossing their husbands as they sally forth with anecdotes that smack of intellectual snobbery, only as they do not wish to offend them or seem too feminist? It seems to me that we are always finding excuses for some flaw in human nature. Roles have changed dramatically over the past three decades in India. Women began working and demanding a share in the family’s decision-making. Demanding yes, but I wonder how many would own up to actually having been ‘permitted’ to do so ? A few. So how may we empower women? They still need their father’s or husband’s approval to study at University, in India or overseas. They still need their father’s financial support all through University, plus travel expenses, plus monthly expenses and later on, the husband’s too – in case there is no job available to practice the skills acquired or lack thereof? Which in turn, may cause a deep rift in their relationship. Under such circumstances, in this 21st century, do we need to facilitate amends between warring spouses, by affirming their need for a peaceful co-existence, through negotiated soft-skills training? aka …That they must be aware that an argument only makes anger linger and words spoken in haste are often rued forever. That it is nice to make up, without feeling small or less of a person for caving in? That is empowerment. The knowledge that it is far more important to be civil to one another, both at home and in the workforce. That tantrums and irritable episodes may be allowed to run their course – we are human, after all! A good pillow-fight may even amuse the children. Seriously though, a good workout or swim, a brisk walk, even pounding a boxer’s punching bag, or shooting a few basketball rings, will drive away the stress, without affecting the children and family. That, I do believe, is empowerment!
Chai or cay, what would we and the world be without it? From the sweet, milky, cardamom-flavoured repeatedly- boiled chai of our dhabas, here I am, thousands of miles away, sipping black Turkish cay in a cavernous enclosure, in the old castle fort of Urfa. I am seated just some metres away from the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, close to the holy pond with the sacred fish, which hundreds of visitors have come to visit this Children’s Day. The Golbasi garden around the pool is alive with colour.
I listen to my colleagues talk. Records relate the ancient city of Urfa, in southeastern Turkey, to the 4th century BC. However, scholars pre-date it to 9000-11000 BC, which excavations, barely six miles from Urfa, underscore. The megaliths pre-date the Stonehenge by 6000 years. Called Gobekli Tepe, it has been described as perhaps being the first man-made temple in the world. This area is situated in the northern part of a “fertile arc” of arable land, stretching across the Persian Gulf to modern day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt.
Legend has it that King Nemrut, a descendant of Noah, had built the infamous Tower of Babel, but gave up. He ordered all young children to be killed to defy a prophecy of his death. Abraham was caught demolishing the pagan idols of that time and was thrown from the citadel turrets into a fire lit below. He was barely 10 years old. However, he was protected by nature. A rose garden surrounded him and the fire turned to water, the burning embers of wood into fish. The fish and pool have been regarded as sacred and protected ever since.
Our hosts order more cay and as we sip, I glance around the cave. The tables and chairs are simple, adorned with local rugs and trimmings. One wall has a shelf full of old radios from the 50’s & 60’s. I do not feel like a stranger in this holy place, as I am sipping black cay from a curved, tulip-shaped glass, easy to hold. Young girls chatter away, oblivious to my stares. They sit, some with headscarves, others with the wind softly blowing into their carefree hairstyles. The colours of the scarves indicate where they are from – if they are Arab or Turkish but I am informed that many just wear whichever colour they wish to. Listening to the whistling wind outside (rain has been predicted), we hear many voices in the cave, a mixture of Arabic, Armenian, Syriac, Turkish and Kurdish languages, so natural. Like in my motherland, too. The thought makes me happy. My mind flits to an auto-rickshaw driver in New Delhi, asking me if I was from Bengal because of my accented Hindi! He was quite near the mark as I am from the neighbouring state of Orissa.
After cay, we stroll down to the bazaar that bustles even today. More so, as today is a local holiday. It reminds me of our ancient bazaars in the Red Fort, as crowded, as enticing, with the proverbial chai-wallah, weaving through the throngs of people, with practised ease. The caydanlk is the stacked two-kettle containers or teapots in which the cay is brewed. The smaller tea-container is used for strong brewed tea and the larger one contains boiling water to dilute the tea, if it is too strong.
I am told I cannot leave without tasting some Turkish coffee! We head across the cobbled stones to an old rest-house, converted into a modern-day coffee house. The woodwork is reminiscent of other such structures in the region and the dcor has been maintained in the traditional style. The tables have been set up in the former courtyard. My colleagues agree that coffee is still prepared in the manner in which it was during the wondrous Ottoman Empire Period. The coffee beans are ground well into a fine powder and then boiled in a brass pot, called a cezve. How can I resist having my coffee-cup read? That is another story!
These old traditional customs the world over only serve to show how people wish to welcome strangers in their midst. War and its attributes seem distant. Corruption in high places and in the field of sport seem surreal, but as I head back to the airport, its back to reality. The chai I order at the airport in Istanbul airport is just to get a chair as I have a few hours to wait for my flight. The airport is bustling with passengers and chairs are scarce. Then I ask for a coffee and scald my tongue, a wake-up call to sip the beverage slowly and savour its essence as I had in the ancient city of Urfa, a few hours ago. Somehow it does not taste quite the same.
Did this ancient ritual of drinking chai with family and friends and colleagues evolve, to allow us some space to listen, collate news and views and mend relationships?
Perhaps our elected persons in their high offices could have a time-out, just once a day, to sort out their issues, sipping chai, savouring its essence, clearing their minds and cleansing their souls. Perhaps the humble chai leaf may help flower a new chapter of history and development that we sorely need.