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Archive for the ‘Social issues’ Category

Can’t buy you love

14 February 2013
Posted in: Scratchpad, Social issues | 1 Comment

Commercial loveSomething strange happened today—I almost found myself in agreement with HT City. “Are we being conned?” screamed the headlines, asking if Valentine’s day was a gimmick thought up to line the pockets of sellers of pink and heart-shaped things. Unfortunately, a closer look revealed that the placement of the story was probably a gimmick itself. And my world was righted.

Citing a survey “across platforms”, HT came up with the revelation that 42 per cent (of youngsters aged 18 to 25) agreed that it is a con, followed by 35 per cent who thought it probably is but are willing to be wooed, and bringing up the rear were the remaining 23 per cent who felt it is a “worldwide tradition” that ought to be embraced.

Like most of these sort of polls, a closer look at the sample told a different story: 340 respondents in a city with over 16 million residents (23 million if you count the entire NCR) is hardly representative. Moreover, one would hardly imagine the “platforms” the survey was conducted on—website, social media, FM radio channel and face-to-face (and they got only 340 people?!)—made any effort to reach every corner of its complex society. Yet another testimony of how the day is targeted at a class able to spend money.

Up until liberalization in the early 1990s, we in India really hadn’t much notion of Valentine’s Day. The first I heard of it was as a pre-teen, through an aunt who worked at a Christian missionary school and was generally better informed about saints and their “days” than anyone else I knew. It was only around the mid-1990s that the commercialization started (as I recall it). Twenty years later, Valentine’s Day is a money-spinning blitz coated in shiny, glittery marketing, and pushed down our throats in a package of emotional blackmail.

Most of the carrots are dangled in front of youngsters—”Tell your special someone that you love them. All you need is this heart-shaped chocolate wrapped in pink shiny paper, and here’s a bunch of roses and a fluffy teddy bear holding a card with mushy verses inside just in case they are a bit slow.” And if you’re slightly older, there’s always that special Valentine’s Day dinner or romantic getaway. These messages are also continually reinforced by deviously planting in impressionable minds the idea that if you get it wrong, there is something lacking in your relationship. Thus, an unrelenting pressure to conform, without really stopping to wonder why.

My general derision for Valentine’s Day does not mean I’m opposed to romance or love. Just that the idea that you’re supposed to express it in a certain way on a certain day is loathsome (to me). Especially because doing so will mean I’ve fallen for the marketing brainwashing. Also, who can really get excited about a day that “revolves around a deranged baby with a weapon” (from Switched at Birth)?!

Call me regressive, but if you love someone, they should know it by how you are every day, not because you buy them overpriced roses and take them to dinner because a shiny ad in the papers said so.



A hairy story

30 January 2013
Posted in: Scratchpad, Social issues | 3 Comments

There are RULES!Fact: women’s body hair is dirty. And how do I know this? Because I’ve always been told you’re cleaner if you shave your legs; and, stretching that logic, unhygienic if you happen to have armpit hair. And it’s on TV and in the newspapers, so it must be triply true. Heck, according to the media, even perspiring is a sin and will send you straight to hell.

In short, shaving your legs, waxing your arms, depilating your armpits and, while you’re at it, shining your vagina are mandatory. The question of personal choice doesn’t come into it. They are, after all, the little milestones on the path to becoming a Real Woman. How else do you expect to top your exams, make friends, get a job, snare a man and generally have fun or find success in life, silly?

There’s the logical part of me that wants to scream, “I am a mammal; I have body hair. Get over it!” or “It’s my body and I decide!” or similar such witty, insightful put-downs. But it has only a tenuous hold on the part that has been pickled by social conditioning. It is frighteningly difficult to rationalize with yourself that there is nothing wrong with the way you look when the world keeps hammering the opposite message at you relentlessly. (Cosmetic products and ridiculous expectations are also thrown at men, but that’s a subject for another day.)

For some reason, hairy legs are fine for men, but “unnatural” on women. That’s just the way it is; there’s no room to argue. And the other day the woman who cleans my house asked me if I “did” my eyebrows. I said I’d tried, found it too painful and given up. She found it amusing and said it was fine because I am “like a boy” anyway. This interaction disabused me of the notion that this terrorism of beauty hadn’t reached the working class—and to be fair, if looking good (I mean the narrow definition) is sold as something to aspire to, doesn’t everyone have the right to dream?

Actually, “shaving your leg” is an apt metaphor—for the pretty arbitrary guidelines that society lists for women to be suitable for public consumption. And they are sneakily, insidiously drilled into us until we find ourselves subconsciously adhering to these rules without questioning them—and we know how patriarchy has honed this technique to perfection.

When I was in my early 20s, I overheard a friend of my mother’s talking to her about the way I dressed: “I, too, dressed peculiarly when I was her age,” she said, going on to add that she grew out of it when she got married, ostensibly thanks to real life catching up. I didn’t stick around for my mother’s reply, but in my imagination she defended me. I’m completely surprised how many people feel they have the liberty to comment on my body, what I wear, or how I look (outside of asking if I’ve lost or gained a few kilos or saying that I’m looking nice today or pointing out that I’m wearing my trousers inside-out) just because I don’t look or dress the way they expect “normal” women to.

When you actually sit down to analyse it, and see that all these dos and don’ts only restrict women in various ways—tottering in high heels, caked in make-up, tripping around in saris and skirts, lugging huge handbags—you’ll be forgiven for screaming “Conspiracy!” And despite our better judgement, we keep getting pulled in.

I know, for instance, that body shape varies considerably and that being fit does not necessarily mean being “thin” as defined by pop culture (or vice versa). That the flat-stomached and liposuctioned models pushed in my face are not representative of all healthy bodies. That sweating is the body’s natural cooling mechanism. That hairlessness does not equate with hygiene….

And yet I can be unhappy about the tyre around my middle when I sit down, I may suck in my stomach when I walk into a room full of people, I have been embarrassed about a patch of sweat on my shirt, I don’t always have the nerve to walk stubble-legged into the swimming pool…

So much pressure, so many expectations. But cultural conventions are transitory—they are not laws of physics; they were just made up by someone, probably with a vested interest in doing things in a certain way (or more likely because they were bored). Some conventions we hold sacred are easily smashed by looking into their antecedents. For example, the pink/blue divide and women’s “inborn” attraction to high heels.

Some of the shackles I have managed to throw off have been hard-won. If you are a girl and don’t like bows and frills, don’t do nails or use make-up, and have no compunction about eating a chocolate pastry every day, you must be broken. Therefore, the world will try to fix you.

If you’re not careful, it will succeed.


[Photo credit: lilieks via SXC.hu]


Auto-rickshaw adventure

3 May 2012
Posted in: Scratchpad, Social issues | 3 Comments

auto rickshawSo much of my life is spent in auto-rickshaws that I figure I must have some stories to tell. Of course, being more of a homebody, I don’t travel quite as much as most other people—such as people with full-time jobs—but yes, any trip outside the house usually ends up involving an auto.

And yes, I have stories.

In March this year, after a meeting of our kiddy writers’ coven in Bangalore, I stood at a bus stop outside Chinnaswamy Stadium weighing my options: take a bus and save a bomb or splurge on an auto. That was when I realized that someone was close behind me and I turned to find a young woman looking about as uncertain as I felt. When I caught her eye, she said, “Do you know which bus goes to Forum?”

It took me by surprise because that’s around where I was headed too. “Not really,” I said, “but I’m trying to figure out the same thing myself.” And then, without thinking, I asked: “Do you want to share an auto?”

“I wouldn’t mind,” she said. Then, “Where are you going?”

“HSR Layout.”

“Oh, I’m going there too. Near Greenview Hospital.”

Around that time, I was already kicking myself. And kicking myself for kicking myself. One part of me, the cynical one, was thinking, This is a little suspicious. What if this is one of those con artists you hear about? The other one part of me was shaking its head at myself: Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Unable to figure out how to extricate myself from the situation and not sure if I wanted to, we soon found ourselves in an auto, headed to HSR Layout. The cynic in me was thinking: So, is this where she whips out her knife/gun/sharp object and asks me hand over my cash? The faith-in-humanity part of me went, What a sad, sad world that makes me think this way.

Anyhow, to cut a long, hot ride short, I reached home unscathed, my faith in humanity in tact, and my cynic with its tail between its legs. For some reason, we also exchanged phone numbers (why do strangers do that these days?) when we parted. I forgot her name, so I have her down as Auto Friend.


Photo credit: Auto Rickshaw by kevin_sanjuanislands, on Flickr


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