Of “homely” girls and gender stereotyping

I have often been proffered unsolicited and completely unwanted advice on how to become more “lady-like”. Now, what’s this about men and lady-like behaviour? Smart, articulate, educated young men of my generation actually seem to believe the crap they dish out in the name of advice. Someone I know kept offering me such advice until I told him in no uncertain terms that such advice was completely and totally useless because I wasn’t planning on listening to him. And pray, what did he want me to do? It’s simple really. Be everything I am not. Apparently, men like talking to, going around with and outrageously flirting with smart, bold young women, but when it comes to marriage, it’s the “homely” girl who is most-wanted. Don’t believe me? Check out any matrimonial ad, or even one of the numerous match-making programmes that run on TV, and you’ll find the same requirements repeated ad nauseum: slim, fair, homely, educated but not too much, earning but not more than the man…such rules!

I find it inherently unfair that such restrictions be imposed on anyone, man or woman. Just as a woman is often expected to be docile, demure, shy and soft-spoken, a man is expected to be the very anti-thesis of all this. If you’re a man and soft-spoken or gentle, you’re as damned as a woman who is bold and outspoken. What’s this about gender stereotypes that forces people into little slots, however ill-fitting that slot might be? Why can we not accept people for what they are, instead of expecting them to live up to our expectations of how they should be?

Contrary to popular perception, gender stereotyping is not exclusively a problem that women face. Men who help at home, are soft-spoken or are happy handing over decision-making to the women in their lives are often labelled Mama’s boys or hen-pecked husbands. I find a lot of commentary in public spaces anti-men, when that’s only part of the reason gender stereotyping hurts women so much. In reality, the problem is more systemic. The same system which expects women to be Mother Earth incarnate, bearing all ills also expects men to be aggressive and dominating. I sometimes wonder if it is as difficult for men to conform to those stereotypes as it is for women to do so. Am sure it must be.

The question is, will all this ever change? Will be learn to accept a woman for who she is without expecting her to make a million compromises and be a doormat all her life, or without expecting a man to change his basic character? I hope to live to see that day!

Books, books and more books…

I’ve been on a reading spree since January this year. At the beginning of the year, I made a conscious effort to watch less TV (not that I watched any previously), chat a little less, tweet a little less, blog a little more, and read a lot more. Of all the aforementioned resolutions, managed to actually keep only the reading bit! I have till date read 12 books, with the 13th currently on my reading list. The thing about books is that they keep depression at bay, and end up being truly enjoyable experiences. Some books stay in your mind and heart long after you’ve finished reading them and others don’t even make a dent. My books this year were kind of a mixed bag. Some of them are so beautifully written that you truly feel the emotions through the book. Others are so pathetic that you wish the writer would just stop writing. Most others fall somewhere in-between. Since I am not too good at doing book reviews for each individual book, I thought I’d put down my thoughts on each of them in a blogpost.

Must-reads

The one book I would strongly recommend for anyone with even a passing interest in Hindu mythology is “The Pregnant King” by Devdutt Pattanaik. Beautifully written, the book explores complicated gender roles that have become the bane of our society today, but through a story from the Mahabharata. A king accidentally drinks a magic potion meant for his queens and becomes pregnant. The dilemma of nursing a child as a man, while still continuing to be king is beautifully explored. He is never fully a mother because he is a man and his aged mother could never become king because she is a woman. The blurring of gender roles and the uncomfortable questions it raises in a world obsessed with a male heir is as relevant today as it was in the times of the Mahabharata. And on that note, “The Immortals of Meluha” is also strongly recommended for reasons stated in my review.

I always knew Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was a good writer, but never got around to actually reading her. So, when I couldn’t find her much-acclaimed “Palace of Illusions”, I settled for “The Vine of Desire.” Wow! There is no other way to say this. The book is fantastic. It explores with a touching sensitivity, some taboo relationships, and the eternal struggle between passion and duty. The author’s women are strong characters, with minds of their own. They decide, with a rather delightful determination, what’s good for them, even if the process of arriving at the decision is painful and confusing.

How does an author describe a South Indian Brahmin household and their practices with so much perfection when he is in no way connected to that life? The genius of Ameen Merchant lies in making his narrative both gripping and convincing, even to someone who is familiar with the practices describes. “The Silent Raga” is Merchant’s debut novel that delights even the most discerning reader. The beauty of his prose, the sheer poetry of the narrative and the authenticity of the setting are too good to miss.

Lastly, here is a book that must probably have been reviewed a million times by now. “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini is a masterpiece. The descriptions of the horrors of Taliban rule in Afghanistan are gut-wrenching. The travails of the protagonists hits you with a force that is sometimes too much to take. But you continue to read because the narrative is too gripping to ignore. If you ever get your hands on this book and you haven’t read it yet, please do! That’s a personal request.

Read if you have nothing better to do

Nothing much to say about any of these books. They provide good entertainment and sometimes even rise above the mediocre. Dan Brown is an author you can read and enjoy without giving much thought to trivialities like authenticity and realism. Over the past month, I have read two of them. “The Lost Symbol” and “Deception Point.” Both are very good. Both are perfect examples of escapist fiction. You will probably enjoy both if you don’t give much though to how possible and realistic it is. And Dan Brown is just….Dan Brown! So there! Take your pick.

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid has all the ingredients of a must-read book. But somehow, it falls short because of Hamid’s inability to convince the reader about the compulsions that led a Harvard-educated, secular, elite, beef-eating, wine-drinking Pakistani Muslim to becoming a fundamentalist. The girlfriend (if you can call her that), the job, the money, parents, Taliban…it’s all too confusing for us to relate to because we can never really determine what the trigger was. Definitely readable, but only if you can’t find a better book.

Advaita Kala is a chick-lit writer and that label should be enough to keep men away from her debut novel “Almost Single.” But being a single woman, aged 28 years, I could relate to the novel. It’s not great writing, nor does it have any pretensions of being classified as literature. In the same league, is Cecilia Ahern’s “P.S. I Love You.” Chick-lit, depressing, but still readable. You decide.

And finally, “Serious Men” by Manu Joseph. Was vigorously recommended by Praveen, Nikhil and other assorted people. I picked it up somewhat reluctantly. But, the book is definitely not bad. It is not something that I would classify as “unputdownable” but not something I would dismiss easily either.

Don’t touch with a ten-foot barge pole!

Do you think Chetan Bhagat’s book is eminently unreadable? Then Karan Bajaj is worse! “Keep off the grass” is mediocre in every possible way. At least Chetan Bhagat has an engaging writing style that keeps the plot moving and the reader interested. For all my intellectual snobbery, I still found Bhagat’s “One Night at a Call Centre” readable, and even interesting. Bajaj is just unreadable. The language is mediocre and so is the plot. At one point, you begin to wonder if you really should be wasting valuable time reading this tripe! I am not generally so critical of books. I try and give some credit to the author for the effort taken to write the book. Bajaj unfortunately deserves none!

So, here is my list for 2011. Take your pick, and if you’ve read any of the above books, I’d love to hear your take!

Payanam – A review

There are some movies that you watch with enormous expectations. Some of these bowl you over with the sheer beauty of the filmmaking. Others leave you feeling shortchanged. And yet others make you happy, but make you wonder what that little missing component is, that will make a good film perfect. Payanam falls into the third category. The combination of Radha Mohan and Prakash Raj was enough to draw me to the film. Their earlier venture was quite satisfying and I expected to see a well-made film. And they do not disappoint. However, there are those nagging little details that differentiate the good from the great.

The screenplay is tailored to perfection. The pacing of the narrative, the style, the use of humour in the most tense situation, the sheer tightness of the script…all these and more keep you on the edge of your seat. Not once until intermission are you compelled to check your watch to see when you can get your popcorn. The narrative ensures that no further entertainment is needed. In all such dramas, the depth of the characters are normally open to question because of the sheer numbers of people that you are compelled to handle. When your story requires you to centre the narrative around more than a hundred passengers confined to an aircraft, there is plenty of scope for mistakes. This is especially true in the case of hijack dramas with big stars where the action needs to centre around them. Payanam steers clear of that danger (and of succumbing to commercial needs and inserting an item number in the climax) by choosing to use lesser-known, but highly talented actors in place of big-name stars. Each of the characters is etched with a decent level of detail. As a result, the middle-aged couple on the way to see their son, the young woman leaving her husband for good, the priest, the Pakistani family returning to Karachi after their child’s heart surgery; each of these characters become real people and not merely victims in a hijack waiting to be saved by a hero. And this approach, despite the presence of a star like Nagarjuna is refreshing.

The soundtrack is unobtrusive and conveys the tension in just the right measure. No exaggeration. The smaller characters, although garnering much less screen time, are as important to the main plot as the protagonists. Indeed, at one point you realize there are no protagonists really. Just a bunch of people who are trying to do their best to save a hundred passengers from a fate worse than death. Nobody is more important than the other. But nobody is less important either. The camera work and editing reminded me strongly of Unnaipol Oruvan. Slick editing, and ruthless trimming away of non-essentials have done a great deal to enhance the already tight scripting.

One thing about Payanam that appealed to me personally was the use of humour to ease the tension on screen. Wit, sarcasm and dry humour were the hallmark of Payanam and for me, that worked big-time. I have never been a big fan of Vadivel-type slapsticky humour and this is precisely what Payanam diligently avoided. Kudos to the team for that! Me, being the die-hard Kamal fan seem to compare every non-Kamal film I see with something Kamal may have produced from his stables. This is especially true in the case of my taste for humour. It is perhaps a tribute to the few Indian directors who still swear by satire and sarcasm as a weapon for criticism, that the filmmakers have chosen to employ humour even in the most critical situations in the film.

On the whole, Payanam is a satisfying film. That said, the little things sometimes irk. Like why is Yusuf Khan reading The Hindu in a scene that is supposed to be taking place somewhere in Kashmir. Ok, he is really in Tirupathi, but a local Kashmiri newspaper may have been more convincing, in my opinion. I know this is probably nitpicking and that it is entirely irrelevant to the plot, but these are the little things that go into making a good film great. Also, after all that jihadist propoganda and talk of kafirs, why does one of the terrorists have to be Hindu? Why this obsessive need for political correctness?

The bottomline is, the film is definitely watchable. It is well-made, well-scripted, well-edited and well-structured. It is not one of those films you should watch between several breaks on a pirated DVD. Go to a theatre please! This is worth the effort.

Of democracy and democratic traditions…

There has been a raging debate on the origins of Indian democracy on Twitter ever since I tweeted about Christophe Jaffrelot’s latest Foreign Policy Review Essay, comparing democracy in India and in Pakistan. I strongly recommend that you read Jaffrelot’s article and Nitin Pai’s superb fisking of the essay at The Acorn, before moving on with this blogpost.

The one problem I see with Jaffrelot’s approach to India and its democracy is that he tends to view everything Indian democracy stands for from a western perspective. I am saying this after studying not just his articles and essays, but after having studied under him during my two-year masters at Sciences Po, of which CERI, his parent organization, is a part. First, he believes that all democratic tradition in India is a legacy of the British Raj, without which India would still have been a nation of barbarians who do not know how to rule themselves. He completely discounts the influence of native cultures and traditions, which may be called democratic in the vaguest possible sense. Second, he attributes the success of democracy in India, during his lectures as well as through his writing, to the en masse politicization of the Indian population by the Indian National Congress and the independence movement. The role of other political movements however marginal, tend to be completely ignored, not just by Jaffrelot himself but by most western indologists, including Philip Oldenburg whose book he reviews in Foreign Policy. To them, democracy in India is a western legacy that its people have unquestioningly accepted to the extent that we are today, the world’s largest democracy.

This standpoint is often accepted by many Indians themselves and this acceptance triggered a raging debate about whether democracy was actually Indian in nature. This is where I feel compelled to clarify certain popular misconceptions, prevalent even among the well-read, intellectual elite. My claim is not that democracy as it is practiced today is entirely Indian in nature and we had it all before the British came along and conquered us. My contention is merely that democracy survived and prospered in post-independence India the way it never could in Pakistan because the Indian traditions of pluralism, tolerance and multi-culturalism are derived mainly from certain traditions that may be considered democratic in nature. At this point, it is impossible to ignore the obvious differences between the Indian and the Pakistani State: pluralism vs. monism, federalist union vs. unitary state, non-interference in religion vs. Islamist governance. Viewing the two countries through the politically-correct prism of secularism is neither sensible, nor desirable.

It becomes important, at this juncture to clearly define those democratic traditions, so as to dispel the perception that I claim democracy to be purely Indian in origin. The example of democracy in India that I am personally most familiar with is the “kuda-olai” system of electing village administrative officers. K.A. Nilakanta Shastri explores this system in detail in his two volumes on the Cholas. The books are now out of print and can only be found in colleges and public libraries. This information, unearthed from stone inscriptions in Uttiramerur near Chennai, date back to the 12th Century A.D, especially during Rajaraja’s reign between 985 and 1014 A.D. To put things in perspective, the Chola administrative system pre-dated the famed Magna Carta signed in 1215 A.D. With the signing of the Magna Carta, the western world finally accepted the limitations on the right of the king, whereas in southern India, the system of electing representatives who were governed by rules already existed two hundred years previously.

If we go further back in history, we have archaeological and documentary evidence of tiny clans and even some bigger ones like the Lichchavis of modern-day Nepal, who practised a primitive form of democracy in choosing the leader of their tribe. They are often called “republics” by scholars like Steve Muhlberger to whose work I have linked earlier.

That said, these primitive systems can, by no means, considered a precursor to modern-day democracy because voting was largely restricted to men aged between 18 and 60 years, who in addition, must be land-owners. This constituted approximately 20 percent of the total population, excluding large groups like artisans, laborers, and most importantly, women. However, by that definition, no system predating the universal suffrage movement of the 20th century can be called democratic. Looking for a replica of democracy as we know it today in the Arthashastra or the Manu-Smriti is an entirely pointless exercise because much of what we hold dear today, including human rights, civil liberties, individual freedom and universal suffrage have evolved over the last two hundred years. Not even the famed democratic nation-state of Athens would qualify for that title. The Magna Carta, often considered the precursor to the British writ of haebeas corpus, and to modern democracy was actually devolution of power from the monarch to the feudal lords and not to the “people” as we qualify them today.

Finally, no country can adapt a completely foreign system if it goes against its political ethos, unless founded on complete destruction of earlier cultures and imposition of a new religious, social and political order as in the case of some South American countries. If democracy has succeeded in India, it is because our basic political ethos is not fundamentally different from the one imposed by western-style democracy. While British rule accelerated India’s acceptance of multi-party democracy as the only possible system of governance, it would not have survived the various threats posed, first by the bloody massacres of partition and subsequently by the state of Emergency imposed by Mrs. Gandhi, had that democratic tradition not existed in the first place. It is only intellectually honest to accept that a native discourse in democracy-studies is not an entirely-flawed approach, unlike indologists like Jaffrelot and Oldenburg who seemed determined to negate that influence.

Of democracy and democratic traditions…

The mandatory (pre) Women’s Day post!

A few hours from now, people I haven’t spoken to years, and who have probably even forgotten what I look like will be texting me to wish me Happy Women’s Day! Also, the blogosphere and twitter will explode with posts and tweets about the Women’s Day celebrations all over the world. Pardon me for my ignorance, but I just don’t get it! Why do people go all out to celebrate womanhood, worship their wives, mother, daughters et al. just one day in a year and promptly forget about it before the day is out? Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy the attention, the Happy Women’s Day wishes, the occasional chocolate that someone decides to give and everything else that accompanies such symbolism. Just don’t expect me to forget how you treat me the other 364 days of the year, while you’re at it! This Women’s day, perhaps it is time to tell all you men out there a few things that women want from you! Read on…

  1. Treat a woman just the same all days in the year. She may be too tired, ill, bored or just sick of your demands to bother to dress up. She may look like a slob and not even have that mandatory kajal on. But she’s still a woman. Treat her well. And she’ll love you for it.
  2. Whether she is your colleague, your teacher, your boss, your mother, your wife or your friend, give her respect. Acknowledge that she knows as much and perhaps more than you do. Treat her as an equal in intellectual terms and you’ll earn her love and respect in no time.
  3. If she’s succeeded the way you never could, don’t question her methods or imply she got there because she is a woman. That hurts more than any swear word or abuse you heap on her. She’ll never forgive you for making her feel cheap. But give her that respect and you’ll earn her love way quicker than you would have ever hoped to.
  4. Don’t call a woman a bitch simply because she is your boss and don’t like reporting to a woman. A woman’s problems with her boss are rarely because of gender alone. It’s not fair that your problems with a woman boss should be just because of her gender.
  5. Don’t expect your wife or your mother to babysit you because you’re a man and feel entitled to such treatment. We don’t expect you to share all housework exactly 50-50, but getting off the couch in front of the TV for a short while to deposit your clothes in the washing machine or your dirty plates in the sink would make us feel like family instead of maids. That’s the least you can do if you find yourself incapable of cooking us a fancy dinner!
  6. Treat your daughters exactly the way you would treat your sons. Give them love but don’t spoil them. Be there for them, but let them decide. And never tell them they cannot do something their brothers can because they are girls. They will grow up believing themselves to be inferior or superior, but never equal.
  7. And finally, remember that every day is probably Women’s Day because without a woman’s constant and reassuring presence, you’re most likely to be lost. And yes, even women need other women in their lives for stability’s sake. A mother, a grandmother, a sister, a daughter, a friend or even just a colleague…every woman is special because is she. Love her, cherish her. And most importantly, respect her.

Just a little step. And you’ll earn a woman’s respect forever. You may be called a mama’s boy or a sissy. But those who call you that aren’t worth your while anyway. And yes! Happy Women’s Day!