Archive for 2009

The Trip To Nowhere


"Please dad no!" wailed Nishigandha. "I want to enjoy my break. Don't make me go through this rigmarole."

"Come on Nishu", her father cajoled. "Whats the harm?"

Nishi hated those three words. They were the single reason for many of her troubles in the recent past. And now the three headed hydra had raised its ugly head again. Whats the harm in meeting Mr.Thinks-he-is-marriage-material? He had been found through the good offices of Match Made in Heaven Matrimonials and high meddling by Vishu mama who lived in Chennai.

"Why don't you go to Chennai and spend Christmas and New Year with Vishu mama and Latha mami?" her father had suggested. Innocently she had agreed. She did need a break, especially after her harrowing experience with Bob the Flasher. A few days with Vishu mama and Latha mami would be nice. They didn't have children of their own and loved her to bits.

And then, a day before her departure, her father had cornered her. Mr. JP, was a post graduate in English Literature from Delhi University. He also had a diploma in French. He worked in the HR department of a software company and was based in Chandigarh. He was on his way to a holiday in Bangkok and would be stopping over in Chennai. Enter Vishu mama and Latha mami.

Despite her protests, JP's biodata intrigued Nishi. English Literature didn't sound so bad. A man who had studied literature would have an appreciation of fine things now wouldnt he? And he lived alone in Chandigarh. Considering that Indian men rarely cut the apron strings, that was a good thing. And he was taking a holiday, by himself, in Bangkok. Which could mean that he liked to travel in his free time (like her) which in turn could mean that he liked to explore new cultures and lifestyles (like her). Hmmm....perhaps he was worth a dekko?

And so it happened that Nishi arrived in Chennai two days before Christmas. Vishu mama was bristling with excitement. This was the most important task entrusted to him after his retirement and he was determined to make a success of it.

"Wear the red one Nishi. No not that one. And please avoid black. Its inauspicious!" said Latha mami. "Do you want my ruby necklace?"

"Mami!", cried Nishi horrified at the thought of rubies. "I'm not on display here. Besides, his flight arrives only at 11AM. There is a lot of time to decide on what to wear."

"Delayed!" said Vishu mama putting down the phone. "The flight is delayed due to severe fog conditions at Delhi".

"Oh good!" said Nishi, " perhaps he will not turn up at all. What a relief!"

"Nishi!!" Vishu mama said in reproachful tones.

"Oh all right! But I draw the line at wearing rubies mami." said Nishi with finality.

Five hours later, Vishu mama finally called from the airport.

"The flight has landed. I'm taking him to a hotel".

"Why can't he just bring him here?" asked Nishi. "This is a double storeyed house with four bedrooms na?"

"Nishi!" said Latha mami in horrified tones. "That is very Improper and Inappropriate".

Three hours later, Vishu mama returned, tired.

"I had to take him upto Central station".

"What?! Thats on the opposite side of town! Dreadful traffic too."

"Yes, well thats just too bad isn't it?" snapped the normally calm and placid Vishu mama. "None of the hotels I took him to fit his budget. He said he will freshen up and make his way to our place. I'm going to take a nap in the meantime."

An hour later Nishi was seated in front of the elusive Mr. JP. Sizing him up, she saw a lanky build on a tallish frame. He wore geeky glasses and seemed a little nervous. Not surprising, considering how Vishu mama and Latha mami were fawning over him.

Nishi tried conversing with him, but it was awkward making conversation under the incandescent beam on Vishu mama's face. Finally, taking matters into his own hands, JP ventured, "Would you like to show me round the city tomororow? Is it ok with you sir?" Vishu mama's beam went up a few hundred watts - if that was possible. It was decided that they would drive out to Mammallapuram the next day. JP left soon after.

"Well....? What did you think? Do you like him?" a volley of questions which were interrupted by the ringing of the phone. It was JP. He had stopped at the ATM just outside their house to draw money. The ATM had swallowed up his card. So now he was both cardless and cashless. What should he do?

Vishu mama looked flustered. He used ATMs rarely and had no idea about fire fighting when faced with greedy machines that swallowed up cards.

"Ask him to try the helpline of his bank and freeze the card number" said Nishi. And that was that.

* * *

The next day saw Nishi and JP in a taxi on ECR on their way to the quaint port town of Mamallapuram.

"Hope your card troubles are under control?" asked Nishi.

"Yeah. I've told the bank. They've frozen the card. It was a debit card. I have to use my credit card now. Do you mind if I smoke?" he asked as they walked towards the five rathas.

Nishi was slightly repelled. She didn't care much for the habit of smoking. But hey! he was an adult.

"Suit yourself. Its your life." She steered the conversation towards literature.

"So...I hear you have a degree in Literature. What texts did you study? I love to read and own (rather immodestly) that I'm pretty well read!"

"Thats nice. Ummm....I can't remember what we did." Duh?! Well never mind perhaps he was still upset about the loss of his card.

Over lunch, JP said he liked meeting her very much.

"Thank you. It was nice meeting you too. You're nice to talk to." said Nishi.

JP set aside the plates and spoons and asked her to show her hands. Thinking it was an attempt at home grown palm reading, Nishi extended her left palm.

"Both hands please"

Nishi had a premonition about what was to come. But somehow couldn't stop it. He grabbed hold of her hands, looked into her eyes and said "Nishigandha, will you marry me?"

Nishi was flattered. I mean come on! Which woman wouldnt be flattered when a man held her hands, gazed into her eyes and asked her to marry him? But she had to be sensible about this. Just because they had spent a pleasant day together did not immediately make him a suitable candidate for her life partner.

"I need to think about this JP. We met just yesterday"

"Thats ok. Say yes. Even if you mean no."

DUH??! "I can't do that. I'm a straightforward person. When I say yes or no, I usually mean it."

To lighten the heavy mood, she asked "Are you looking forward to your Bangkok trip?"

"I'm not going. When I lost my card in the ATM, I was so put off, I decided to cancel my trip."

"OK. What do you plan to do now?"

"I'll hand around a few more days here. Will you keep me company?"

"Ok. I can meet you tomorrow evening. I'm busy during the day."

"OK. No problem. Lets meet at Chennai city center"

That night, Nishi recounted 'The Proposal' to her best friend on the phone.

"I'm a little swept off my feet. Maybe I'll say yes."

"Go slow Nish. Check out other stuff about the guy. Find out more about his company. I'm in software myself and if I'm not mistaken that company has given pink slips to about 500 employees this year. Ask more about how much he earns."

Food for thought.
* * *

The next evening, Nishi waited for JP outside Chennai city center. He came up to her a little later.

"Sorry. I'm a little late. Traffic"

"Yes. You've chosen a hotel in a very crowded part of town." said Nishi. He was looking a little funny. He wasnt wearing the geeky glasses. But that wasnt all. His eyes were looking funny.

"What happened? Why are you staring?" asked JP.

"You're eyes are looking a bloodshot" said Nishi.

"Oh that! I've worn contact lenses."

"But your eyes are looking green also!" said Nishi.

"Yes. These are tinted contact lenses"

Wow! Nishi had never encountered vanity in a man before. He went down a bit in her estimation. Were these double standards?!

"Shall we go to the gaming zone?" he asked.

"Gaming?! I don't go near that stuff" said Nishi.

"Oh come on! Lets try it"

The next hour was spent with JP moving from machine to machine in excitement and Nishi doing her best to enjoy the games. The glamour of 'The Proposal' was beginning to pall rapidly. He was getting on her nerves.

"So! What shall we do tomorrow?"

"Eh?! Tomorrow? You're still going to be here?" said Nishi in dismay. Then quickly correcting herself, " I mean, don't you have a flight to catch to Delhi?"

"Actually, I havent booked my return ticket as yet. Perhaps you could help me?"

"Sure. Would you like me to put you in touch with a travel agent?"

"No. These fellows overcharge you. I would like to book directly from the airport. Can you come with me?"

If it got him out of the city, she was willing to invest the time.

* * *

"How much is the fare from here to Delhi?" He was asking at the Indian Airlines ticket counter.

"Sir Rs. XXX"

"Lets try Jet Airways"

The line at the Jet counter was long. They had to wait for 15 minutes before they reached the enquiry window.

"How much is the fare to Delhi?"

"Sir Rs YYY"

Well, which one do you want to take? There is not much difference." said Nishi.

"Hmmmm. Lets see, let me try Spicejet"

"Sir, there is no flight on this day. On the next day, the fare is Rs. ZZZ"

"What is the fare to Mumbai?"

"Mumbai?" asked Nishi. "I thought you wanted to go to Delhi."

"Yeah. But I thought maybe I can spend New Year in Mumbai or Goa"

Goa?! Where did that come from? He would ask to go to Timbuktu next.

"Let me try Kingfisher" said JP.

"OK. I'll just wait right here near the coffee counter." said Nishi. She had had enough of standing in queues for destinations to nowhere.

Thirty minutes later, JP returned.

"Well? Where are you finally going?" asked Nishi.

"I think I'll hang around a few days. I haven't booked my ticket."

What?! Three hours of badgering various airlines for fares and no ticket had been purchased? What were his plans?

" What are you doing on New Year's Eve?" he asked her.

"I'm leaving Chennai tomorrow and will be back home" said Nishi firmly.

"Oh"

"Yes. Shall we move now? To Vishu mama's house? Remember you accepted their lunch inviation?"

"Oh yes. I'm sorry. I'll not be able to make it. Please inform them."

On the auto ride back, Vishu mama called her. "He can't make it mama."

"Why? Did you say something to offend him?"

"Mama! We will talk later. Please drop me at that corner. I will walk the rest of the way."

Getting down, Nishi extended her hand " Bye JP. I'll be in touch. I need to speak with my family before I can give you an answer"

* * *

Back home, Nishi informed her dad that it wouldn't work with JP. He was out.

"Why?" asked her father.

Now that was a tricky question. If a guy was educated, had a job and didn't look too bad, parents had a tough time understanding why their daughter was refusing him. Plus, how was she to explain that his vanity, indecisiveness and apparent stinginess had put her off totally?

"He smokes."

* * *

A few days later, Nishi sat down to write the first 'Dear John' letter of her life. Only this one was sent over email.

Later that day, JP called. Nishi didn't take the call. JP sent her an sms "I'm sorry I proposed to you."

Nishi supposed she deserved the rude message. She should have taken JP's call and told him in person. Normally she didn't take the coward's way out. Maybe she was punishing JP for Bob the Flasher's behaviour?

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Functions, Tambrahm Ishtyle


The social life of Tambrahms is full of 'functions'. This is the collective noun for an assortment of socio-religious occasions, when one dons expensive saris, jewellery, rubs shoulders with numerous relatives and, most importantly, FEASTS! Life in Chennai over the past fifteen months has been filled with Kalyanams, Shashtiyaptapoortis, Sadabhishekams, Poonals and Punyajanams.

The first thing about Tambrahm events is that they begin early. Very early. It is not unusual for 'muhoortams' to be scheduled as early as 4 AM. When I was getting married, my father made noises about a 6 AM 'muhoortam'. I put my foot down and said nothing earlier than 10 AM would suit me unless he wanted me to fall asleep at my own wedding. Thankfully, I got my way. I suppose he had visions of me pitching forward into the sacred fire!

Back to the 'functions' I mentioned earlier. I am a vetran of at least a dozen. Now I'm not complaining. Attendance at these events means my husband and I don't have to do housework for that day. Besides, I'm a foodie. And the fancy food served at these occassions are a great attraction.

When one arrives, usually around 7 or 8 AM, a steaming hot cup of filter coffee is immediately pressed into your hands. With that, you sink onto the nearest plastic moulded chair and take reconnaissance of the area - or at least whatever you can manage in that sleep deprived state. The filter coffee helps. You're then better placed to critically review the array of pattu saris and gold jewellery worn by 'Maamis' of various age groups. You then catalog them as 'Wow!' , 'Hmmm. But not for her age', or 'how kaatan'(a term best known to alumni of my alma mater. Also known as Ghaati). This pleasant reverie is broken with summons for breakfast. Or as we call it here in Chennai 'Tiffin'.

Tiffin consists of idlli, vadai, pongal, accompanied with coconut chutney and sambar. Sweets are also served. Usually a halwa or kesari. You gobble it up and wash it down with another (disposable) cup of heavenly filter coffee. After this brief repast, you return to the main 'function' venue and commandeer the nearest plastic moulded chair to resume the aforementioned review of kanjeevarams. Occassionally, a known face walks by. You greet them and then reproach them for not having visited your home. They smile and nod and inform you that so-and-so's son has flown down from the U.S. for the occassion. If you know of any 'nalla ponnu' (good girl), do pass on the information. He lives in New Jersey and is in software. Naturally, you think. Thats the template.

The function has progressed. It is nearing 10 AM. You poke the spouse in the ribs and ask 'How much longer?'. For 'lunch' that is. Yes. Tambrahm functions serve lunch that early. 'Let us try to get the first 'pandi'" The very first guests to be served. If you're alert, you maybe be successful. Else, you'll just have to wait in line, hanging over the shoulder of some poor guest, who made it to the first 'pandi', willing him/her to finish their meal at top speed.

As you take your seat for lunch (barely two hours after breakfast), a fresh green banana leaf is laid out in front of you. A tumbler of water is set down beside it. Deeper pockets would serve bottled water. A 500 ml bottle for each guest. You sprinkle water on your leaf, cleaning it in readiness for the food to be served.

The first thing to be served is 'payasam'. Not much. Just a drop to begin the meal on a sweet note. This is followed by a spoonful of 'thayir pachidi' or a salad of sorts mixed in curd. Next comes some sort of fruit salad - banana, grapes, dates in honey. Coming up close behind this are the dry sweet, vadai and aplam (pappad). Next the vegetables are served. Usually an 'usali', aviyal and potato fry. You are now ready for the rice. Steaming hot mounds of it are heaped on your leaf and its is usually good practice to be alert to the quantities. The ghee is spooned over the rice. You mix it with the rice and create a small crater in the mound for the sambar. The sambar flowing down the sides of this makeshift volcano is reminscent of Mount Vesuvius. The 'sambar rice' is followed up with 'More kozhambu' (the Tamil version of Kadi), 'rasam sadam' and 'thayir sadam'. The meal ends with a delectable cup of payasam.

Feeling like a beached whale, you rise slowly from your seat and make for the hand wash. Your hosts stand by and chide you for eating too little. You field the remarks expertly and head for the star of the show - the person/s for whom the celebration has been organised. You meet them, smile, make small talk, mark your attendance and are ready to leave.

On the way out, you pick up the 'vettalai paaku/thamboolam' (beetal leaves and coconut) and the 'bakshanam' (goodies to munch on later) and head for your car. All the while remarking "good food. But its the same fare everywhere no?"

I tell you, there is no pleasing some people!!!

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The Misunderstood Man

With a contented sigh, Nishigandha got into bed and reached for her computer, hoping she would bump into some friend online. It had been a long day and she could do with some bantering and reminiscing. Opening her mailbox, she saw a mail from the online matrimonial site she had registered on. The mail said that ‘Topgun’ liked her profile and that she should log into her account to find out more.

‘Topgun’ was 34 to her 31 years. He had a post graduate degree in aeronautical engineering and had spent a good part of his life in Canada. He had moved back to India a few years ago and now lived in Mumbai, working for an airline company. Well that explained the ‘Topgun’ sobriquet. Moving the cursor down to the ‘accept / decline’ option, Nishi considered her next steps carefully.

She had put up her profile on this popular matrimonial site reluctantly. Admittedly, she was lonely and wanted companionship. Plus, at 31, she was under pressure from her family to tie the knot. But the arranged marriage route did not appeal to her. That was when her best friend had suggested the internet.

“Doesn’t it seem like shopping on Ebay?” Nishi said.

“Look at the positive side Nishi” her friend replied. “You’re in the driving seat. You decide who is eligible. You decide if you want to contact them or not. You can search for likeminded people. And you can avoid the horoscope matching, dowry hunting sods you have been presented with so far.” And so she had done it.

Two months later, Nishi had all but given up when Topgun entered her virtual space. His profile was well written though the photograph was not very clear. Deciding to take the plunge, Nishi clicked ‘Accept’ and shut down her computer.

A day later, there was a reply: “ Hi! Thanks for accepting my request. Lets take this a step further. Please mail me at topgun@xyzmail.com . I’m also available at the same id for chat on messenger if you like’. Nishi sent him a polite reply and added his id to her messenger list.

And that’s how it began-with polite missives, moving on to friendly, humourous mails and finally to flirtatious banter on chat. Topgun, better known as Bob, was a funny guy and Nishi began to look forward to their daily chats. A week later, they were talking over phone. That’s when Nishi began feeling uneasy.

Bob on the phone seemed different from Bob on email or chat. At least his language did. He used an awful lot of profanity! That too in Hindi. Nishi was not a prude. But she did object to the use of crass language with people she had only just met. Also, somehow profanity sounded more offensive when spoken in Hindi. So she requested Bob to refrain from using profanity.

“I feel uncomfortable with it”, she said.

“Why?! Come on! Don’t be so pseudo” said Bob.

Perhaps she was being too school marmish about this. She checked with her best friend.

“Guys tend to do that Nishi”, replied her friend who had two older brothers. “Don’t give too much importance to it. Or else he’ll do it more to annoy you”.

The burgeoning romance soon took a turn for the worse. Bob seemed intent on infusing sexual overtones to their conversations. Nishi once again protested.

“Please! I feel uncomfortable with the direction this conversation is taking”

“ Don’t be so prudish. If we get married, we’re going to have sex! It’s a natural thing.”

And so Nishi kept quiet, thinking that she was being too old fashioned. Besides, when Bob wasn’t using profanity or making lewd suggestions, he was wonderful to talk to.

Later that evening, Nishi was still at office, completing an urgent report. All others had left and she was the only one in office. Just then, a chat window opened up with a ping. It was Bob.

“Hi! What’s up?”

“Nothing special. I’m working on a report which I have to send off in an hour. What’s up with you?”

“I’m in office too. Thinking about you….”

“Shouldn’t you be getting back home? The traffic in Mumbai is bad. I should be heading home soon. Others have left”

A web cam invitation popped up.

“Accept the invitation. I want to show you something.”

Nishi should have refused the invitation. She really should have. As fate would have it, she didn’t.

And there it was! She couldn’t believe her eyes! The phone rang and she answered it in a shocked haze. It was Bob.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing Bob?! Are you out of your mind!”

“Oh come on Nishi! Don’t be so pseudo. This is very natural”
“Natural?!....There is nothing natural about your behaviour. It is sick. Absolutely sick….”, spluttered Nishi when she was interrupted by Bob.

“The car is parked” he said in a satisfied tone.

Fighting down nausea, Nishi disconnected her phone and went home.

She ignored all the calls from Bob but could not escape from the text message. It was a one liner, his usual: “Don’t be so pseudo”

Nishi saw red. Enough was enough. This had to be answered. She opened her mailbox and began pounding away.

Bob,
The stunt you pulled today was sick. It is clear that you have no respect for women. And I don’t want to be with a man who has no respect for me and my wishes. If that makes me pseudo, so be it. I wear the badge with pride.
This is goodbye.
Nishi

After sending the mail, she blocked his id and shut down her computer with a satisfied snap.

The next morning, she saw an SMS from Bob. “Hey! If you don’t want to stay in touch, that’s fine. But I think you have totally misunderstood me.”

“Oh yeah?!” thought Nishi angrily. “How does one ‘misunderstand’ an erect penis staring at you from the webcam?”

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A New Series: Its A Jungle Out There

Hello All. I'm starting a new series of fiction called 'Its A Jungle Out There'. The series follows the exploits of Nishigandha, a thirty something career woman and her attempts at finding a life partner. Being female, single and beyond thirty is not easy in India. Words like 'spinster', 'feminist' and 'career woman' are used almost like insults.

The series is an outcome of many conversations and discussions which I had with my friends about marriage. Each of us had some experience or other - mostly unpleasant - to narrate on the issue of 'trying to get hitched'. Nishigandha is entirely a figment of my imagination. Of the incidents that will be narrated here, some are fictitious, many are not. But the angst, the anger and the anguish are very real.

This series is dedicated to my friends and all those women who go through so many indignities in the name of marriage. Here's to mending broken hearts and restoring hope in dreams and aspirations. Wish me success!

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Book Review: 'Amen: The Autobiography Of A Nun'

This post comes after a long break. Partly because I was busy with 'home affairs' and partly because the Muse was playing truant. Well, she's back now. And a book review it will be.

I had planned to review 'Aruna' Story' - a non-fiction account of the rape of staff nurse Aruna Shanbaug written by Pinki Virani. But when I trawled the net, I found several reviews already in place. And since most of the opinions expressed were similar to mine, I canned the idea. Instead, I am, reviewing - 'AMEN: The Autobiography Of A Nun'. Originally published in Malayalam, it was translated into English and published in 2009 by Penguin Books.

At the outset, I should clarify, that I still have one chapter to go before I complete reading the book. However, my opinion on the book is already formed and I doubt that the last chapter will do much to alter it.

Synopsis:

The book is a personal account, rendered by Sister Jesme, of thirty three years spent in a convent. Sister Jesme is a nun belonging to the Congregation of Mother of Carmel. She holds a doctorate in English literature and has served as Vice Principal and Principal in two Catholic Colleges in Kerala. In August 2008, she left the Congregation.

In her book, Sister Jesme, writes an anguished account of her experiences as a nun. She raises the very important issue of the status of women within the Catholic Church. She questions why nuns are treated different from priests particularly in the matter of the Vow of Poverty.

Then there is the issue sexuality which has caused a lot of public outrage against the book. According to her, homosexuality and lesbianism are realities within the convent. Though never spoken of, it happens and is known by myraid names like 'special love'. The book also hints at sexual exploitation through an incident where Sister Jesme has to deal with the advances of a priest.

The book also highlights petty politics and groupism which were faced by the author. It also hints at class based discrimination between nuns hailing from affluent and those from poor families. Being set in the mileu of college life and academia, the book includes in its chapters the author's opinions on poor administrative practices and bending of rules being practiced by the colleges where she served.

The Verdict:

The book is a brave attempt by Sister Jesme, who seems to be a lone crusader. It takes a lot of guts and gumption to go against the establishment, particularly one as powerful and revered as the Catholic Church. All the issues raised by her in the book are important and deserve to be brought into the public domain. Sadly, the Church has closed ranks against her. It maybe a long time before it will be ready to bring these skeletons out of the cupboard.

At the same time, I find many parts of the book confusing. For eg. There is a chapter where, during a retreat, some nuns complain to Sister Jesme that the priest they confessed to had asked their permission and kissed them. The same priest asks to kiss her too when she goes for confession. She refuses and informs him that the other nuns had found his act distasteful. He replies by saying that he did it with permission and quotes passages from the Bible. She counter quotes. At the end of all this quoting, I'm left feeling baffled. So? Did he make a mistake or didn't he?

Without sounding like I'm belittling her problems, I must say that at times, it feels like Sister Jesme suffers from a persecution complex. One feels empathy with her trials and tribulations. But at some point, it seems like the whole world is her enemy and she is the only blameless one. This is particularly true when she is describing the problems she faced during her tenure as lecturer, then Vice Principal and then Principal of a college. In fact, when I discussed the Malayalam version of the book with some Malayali Catholic colleagues, one of them remarked, that the book was all 'I'm OK. You're not OK'.

Finally, the book could do with some tight editing. It rambles in places and events do not seem to be well connected. The language is heavy and gets tedious to read. But I would not blame the author for this. A first time writer and writing on so bold a theme, she should have been provided with better editorial support by Penguin.

As regular, serious and practiced readers, I would recommend that we put aside the flaws in the book and read it, to get an insight into the issues raised by Sister Jesme. Judge for yourself whether her story is real or imagined (as you can see, mine is not an unbiaised opinon). And think of the lives of women in religious life, belonging to other religions also. I'm sure there will be many similarities.

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A straightforward one: Sight seeing in Cochin

On the Young World trail, we spent two days in the city of Cochin. And we made use of this time to soak up the unique history of this city. My research on the net shows that Cochin had many foreign visitors over the centuries. If you wiki it, you'll see that Cochin has been influenced by the Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and the English. And of course, it is also home to a small Jewish community.



How the Jews actually came to the shores of Kerala is not clear. The ten rupee brochure I picked up in Jew Town, tells me that the Jews made their home in Kodungallur (or Cranganore)in Thrissur district of Kerala. This port town was destroyed in a flood in 1340 AD and that's how the Jews reached Cochin. There is also mention of their persecution by the Portuguese. The city gained prominence as a major spice destination. In fact, the Pepper Exchange is located in Jew Town in the old quarter of present day Cochin. (The building right behind the signpost in the picture is the Pepper Exchange)



Jew Town is a narrow street, lined with shops selling handicrafts on either side. The houses have a European feel to them. I suppose it is the Portuguese and Dutch influence. At the end of the street is located the Paradesi Synagogue. Wikipedia says that the Paradesi Synagogue of Cochin is the oldest synagogue in the commonwealth of nations and was built in 1568 AD. It got the name Paradesi, (meaning 'foreigner') since it was built under Dutch patronage and used by 'White Jews' (a mixed Jewish community consisting of the Jews from Cranganore, Middle East and Europe). The dominating feature of the synagogue is a clock tower which was built in the 18th century.



We entered from the side, after reading a board that cautioned visitors about the dress code. The floor of the synagogue was laid with Chinese tiles. At first glance they looked identical. We were later told that each one was different from the other. There should have been at least a hundred tiles on the floor!



Inside the synagogue, a volunteer then proceeded to give us a brief history. We were surprised to learn that it is being maintained by members of ten Jewish families who still lived in the area. The gentleman was extremely patient with the questions asked by the tourists. (The ignorance was palpable. Eg. Are Jews different from Christians?-not me I promise!). On the way back, we learned that mail from the local post office was post marked with the Magen David. I wasted no time in sending off a post card to my 11 year old niece. (I have a fond wish to contribute towards the broadening of her mind!)



From there we visited the St. Francis Church, famous for housing the mortal remains of Vasco Da Gama before it was moved to Lisbon 14 years later. Built by the Portuguese,it was orginally a Catholic Church. After Dutch occupation, it was converted into a Protestant Church. A sign proclaimed that this was the oldest European church in India. My husband immediately contested this, claiming that the Luz Church in Chennai was the oldest church in India. I do not know which is the real claim.

We then walked towards the water to watch Chinese fishing nets being lowered and lifted from the water. Have you ever seen these nets? They look incredible. Like giant spiders hanging over the water. Made of simple materials. Just long pieces of wood, joined together and nets strung across them, I could watch these cantilever nets forever! Local lore has it that it was introduced in Kerala by Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan. One website claims that these are the only Chinese fishing nets seen outside China. True or not, these nets provide wonderful Kodak moments!Any tourist to Kerala would have at least one picture of a Chinese fishing net against the backdrop of the setting sun.


Done with imbibing the sites and culture of Cochin, my husband and I returned to our hotel, grubby and tired but happy. Till we boarded the steel trap that is also known as the Garib Rath Express to Calicut. But thats another post!

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View From The Ringside



I've just returned from the Young World trail. I was trailing with the better half - better known to the world as (ahem!) the charismatic quizmaster of the The Young World Quiz. For those of you who don't know - The Hindu Young World Quiz is a national level live quiz for middle school children. 2009 was the tenth edition of this popular quiz.

This year, I accompanied my husband, as his assistant, to thirteen cities where it was held. Three weeks of travel from city to city-Hyderabad, Vishakapatnam, Vijayawada, Chennai, Pondicherry, Bangalore, Trivandrum, Cochin, Calicut, Mangalore, Madurai, Trichy and Coimbatore. Phew!

In each of these cities, a regional round was held. This consisted of a round of written preliminaries. On an average 250-300 teams participated in the prelims. In the metros like Chennai and Bangalore, close to 600 teams participated. Out of these, the top six teams made it to the regional finals. The winner of the regional finals represented their city at the national finals.


Here are some impressions and opinions I gathered during the past month.

Given how I'm a 'raving feminist', my very first observation is that quizzing seems to be a male dominated sport. In most cities, very few girls made it to stage for the regional finals. I can recall only one team in Pondicherry, one in Vijayawada and two in Coimbatore (Note how smaller cities had female representation and not the metros). I wonder why this is so? Are girls less informed than boys? Or is it that boys are better at retaining trivia than girls? Or are girls simply not interested in quizzing and more interested in performing arts?

Second, schools from smaller towns mostly (and I say MOSTLY for a reason) did not perform well. For example, in Trichy, teams from the nearby districts participated. Unfortunately, only the city based schools made it to the top 6 teams. This of course, could be due to better teaching standards (one hopes) in cities, children having better access to information like the internet and also more opportunities to showcase their talent.

There were two teams with whom I was very impressed. Both these teams were from small cities / towns. One was a school called Marygiri Senior Secondary School representating Calicut city and another is St. Paul's High School representing Hyderabad. These boys were amazing. Shy and bashful, they were powerhouses of information, getting question after questing right and annihilating their opposing teams. Why is this remarkable? Both these teams are from village schools. One from a panchayat in Kannur district and another from a taluka in Nalgonda district. The former went on to become the 2009 champion and the latter came as second runner up. And all done with quiet confidence and dignity. I was so impressed! And oh! The feminist in me was also satisfied. The first runner up was the girl-boy team from Coimbatore!

Apparently, youngsters of today do not read the classics. Or perhaps I should stop at 'do not read'. To this question - 'In which celebrated novel would you find the characters Bill Sykes and Nancy' - the overwhelming majority of children wrote....hold your breath...Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew!!

Then there were the cheeky ones. Here's one: 'Which common part of a building or a house would one relate to a product from a company associated with persons called Allen and Gates'. (the answer is Windows). And one bright team wrote 'Kitchen'! And my favourite: 'In Indian mythology, who is the Goddess of knowledge, music and arts' - to which one answer boldly proclaimed ' V.V. Ramanan' (that's the better half).

So that concludes my sojourn in the world of children's quizzing. Overall, a good and different experience. I'll sign off with a couple of suggestions for the organisers - next year, perhaps you will consider inviting some women as chief guests. Also, chief guests need not be from the entertainment industry alone. I know they're popular and will attract crowds. But hey! children get to see them all the time. Lets give them some other role models to emulate.

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Coming Soon!....to a blog near you....!

Hi All! I'm behind my 'one blog per week' target. Sorry about that. I've been traveling like someone crazed and with no internet access. But the good thing is - I've come upon many ideas that would be great to write about. So I'm planning three posts (tentatively: like to keep an escape route):

1. A book review: Incessant train travel has one bright side-you can catch up on your reading. Which I did.

2. A place I visited during my travels in Kerala. I'm looking forward to doing some research on it

3. An opinion on quizzing: You will understand when you read it.

Signing off,
In anticipation
Deepa

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The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet - a personal point of view

Hello All! I'm back after a pretty hectic Diwali break. And what I have to offer is a book review. This one is titled 'The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet' by Colleen McCullough. You would be right in making an immediate connection with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

P&P is one of my favourite books. The first time I read it, I was in my teens and fell hopelessly in love with Mr. Darcy. I am fascinated by this book. Not the least because it is written by a woman in the rigid English society of several hundred years ago. I have read it many times since my adolescence and find a newness with each reading. I love the gentle irony with which Austen outlines the lives of women, the obsession with making good marriages, the entailing of property of men who didn't have male heirs, the social hierarchy and the burden it placed on women. Many parallels with Indian society! I also loved the characters themselves. The gutsy Elizabeth (I might have been her in a different life!), the vulgar Mrs. Bennet, the moralising Mr. Collins and the pompous Lady Catherine de Burgh.



The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet is a sequel (of sorts) to Pride and Prejudice. Now normally I'm wary of sequels - in books or movies. But I so wanted to know what life would have been like for the Bennets, Darcys and Bingleys after the happy ending. And this book was authored by Colleen McCullough. I had read three books by her: The Thorn Birds, Tim and The Ladies of Missalonghi. The content of each book was diverse and I had liked them all. So I went ahead and purchased the book.

A brief synopsis of the story:

The story is set twenty years after P&P finishes. Mrs. Bennet is dead. All the sisters are busy with their own lives. Lizzie and Jane are mothers and wives to rich men. Kitty is a young widow having married and buried an elderly peer of the realm. Lydia is her usual wild self. Mr. Bingley and Mr. Wickham never appear in the book, though there are several references to them.

The two older Bennet sisters are not having the fairy tale marriages one would expect. Mr. Darcy reverts to his old proud self. He is all set to become the Prime Minister of England. He is also not happy that Lizzie has given him only one son and several daughters. Jane is busy popping out babies every other year.

Miss Mary Bennet, the boring sister who plays piano and reads dull books is a 38 year old 'spinster' looking after her mother. With the latter's death, she comes into some money and decides to write a book about poverty in England. When she goes about this, she gets into all manner of scrapes which is essentially what the book is all about. And oh - by some clever dentistry and skin care, she is now a beauty equal to Elizabeth.

The Review: Disappointing

The first thing I have against the book is casting Mr. Darcy in the role of villian. Call me a dumb romantic - but Mr. Darcy thrilled my adolescent heart. Here was a rich good looking man who loved with such a passion that he underwent a complete transformation to honour his love. He embodied all that women expect from men but rarely get. So it was rather difficult for me to accept a Darcy that was ambitious, calculating and a son-preferring father.

Next - Mary Bennet. In this book she is forced, as the only unmarried sister, to look after their mother for seventeen long years. After her mother's death, she is determined to seize the chance to live life on her terms. She is very well read and wants to write a book. She has no interest in getting married, and decides to travel to research her book. She is angered by the poverty she sees around her, particularly the treatment of children who are forced into unpaid labour. Very promising indeed - till she chances upon one Angus Sinclair. After this, the book is like any other Barbara Cartland.

Oh wait! Thats not entirely true. There is intrigue also. Mary Bennet is abducted and held captive by a mad priest. She is imprisoned in some underground labyrinth of caves and tunnels not far from Pemberley. A good part of the book is devoted to her incarceration and the search and rescue. To add more garam masala to the biryani - there are half brothers, death and murder.

Final word:

I expected MUCH MUCH more from a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. P&P is a classic. It is taught to literature students. It makes a comment on the society of its time, particularly the status of women. It is also bold in its attempt to present a female protagonist who has a mind of her own and a male protagonist who makes a mistake and admits to it. Above all, it is written by a woman author in a time when women did not normally write or were allowed to write books.

I'm rather disappointed in Colleen McCullough. I thought Tim was a beautiful story. I also liked Thorn Birds which exposed the decay in the Catholic church in an epic saga. But 'The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet' is pedestrian fare. It is nothing more than a well researched Georgette Heyer novel which uses four letter profanity.

Read it at your own peril.

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Diwali Shopping With The Seniors

My parents have come to spend Diwali with us this year. My mother, in her usual over the top style, wanted to buy clothes for all of us. This was immediately followed by an almighty row, instigated by yours truly, on this 'conspicuous consumption' and ostentatious expenditure. All for nothing. My mother dug in her heels and refused to budge. So we left at 2pm for T.Nagar, the epicenter of Chennai's frenzied Diwali shopping.

T.Nagar is a bustling market area in Chennai city - and I use the term 'bustling' conservatively. The area has major sari showrooms, gold shops, home accessories, kitchen wares, vegetable vendors apart from permanent traffic snarls and a sea of humanity weaving through the traffic. I usually get serious panic attacks when I am in the vicinity. Today being Vijaydashmi - one of the most auspicious days of the Hindu calendar, the crowd had increased tenfold.

Enter me, my sister, and my parents, heading for the RmKV showroom, one of the famous sari retailers in the city. Pan to my father, looking astonished at the swelling crowd. 'Are they giving away silk saris free?' he wanted to know, unable to believe the magnitude of the crowd. My mother looked apprehensive since she is not too steady on her feet due to her brittle bones. A crowd is not a good place for her to be in.

So we abandoned RmKV and headed for Sundari Silks, another showroom located a short distance from RmKV. Mercifully it was less crowded. But not so less that we could get attract the attention of a salesman. It was like playing hide and seek. "Excuse me...! Can you please show us saris....excuse me!". When one guy appeared to look interested, we told him our budget. " You have to go over there." He pointed to the other side of the room. My sister snapped " We went there. There is no place to sit. You bring the saris here". And my dad " see...nobody is attending to us here! We should have gone to Rasi or Rangachary's" And me " Appa! Give it a rest no. We have come here, let us see what is there. Stop grumbling." And his usual refrain " I am worried about your mother..." And my mother "Konjam summa irukela!" (will you calm down please)

At last a salesman gave us his full attention. I suppose he got fed up with our squabbling. My sister and I made our choice. And just to confound our mother, we bought her a kajeevaram sari that cost a bomb. "But I don't want such an expensive sari" " We want you to have it. It is our sentiment" Ooooh! It gave me such pleasure to give her dialogue back to her! Since she liked the sari, she gave up protesting after a while.

We crossed the road and went to Murugan Idlli Shop for a snack. Managed to get a table for five persons. And waited interminably for our order of dosas to arrive. My dad, impatient at all times, ate up his chutney while waiting for the dosas to arrive. Then when it became intolerable, he got up and gave an earful to a nearby waiter. "We have been waiting for half and hour. Two people have come and gone at the nearby table. And I have eaten all my chutney!" (the last said in an aggrieved tone).

When the order arrived at last, my dad, wanting to avoid another delay said " Ok. Now get us some bondas" "No bondas on the menu saaar!!" "What?! You told me there were bondas. And now you say there aren't any bondas! What sort of establishment do you run?!" "Aiyyo thatha! He said pongal. Not bonda!" "Did he now? Well I dont want any pongal" said my dad, put out at the loss of bondas.

And then we took an auto home. Surprisingly without a squabble with the auto guy about the fare.

Is mein fight hai, romance hai (saris are romantic), emotion hai...standard outing for the Familie Sundara Rajan.

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Political Parties Election Symbols: My take on it

As I was watching some political news the other day, I got to wondering about party election symbols. What is the etymology of election symbols used by various political parties? A closer look shows that the symbols of some of the major parties reflect party ideology, or turning points in the country's or the party's history that have shaped the way the symbol looked. I've picked a few party symbols for this post...



1. DMK symbol - The Rising Sun: The DMK, with its roots in the anti brahmin / self respect movement in Tamil Nadu, broke the Congress strong hold over the state and heralded the 'dawn of a new day' - hence the Rising Sun symbol.



2. Indian National Congress symbol - Hand (right): The party of which Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and other leaders were members had the symbol of a charkha inside the tri colour. So when and how did it change into its present day 'Hand' symbol. According to some accounts, Indira Gandhi, visited a temple in Palakkad in Kerala, and was inspired by the deity. To me, it is the 'Abhaya hastham' which roughly translates into 'the hand that protects'. Now, I'm a Congress supporter, but this is a bit too paternalistic for my taste.



3. Bahujan Samaj Party - The Elephant: The Buddhist symbol of strength of mind. The BSP claims to represent the interests of the Dalits of the country. The Dalit cause is intricately linked with Dr. Ambedkar, the Father of our Constitution. Under his guidance, thousands of Dalits had embraced Buddhism as a way of throwing off the shackles of exploitation they bore due to the caste system. The Elephant thus has a the dual symbolism of linking with Dalit identity and mental strength through Buddhism.



4. Bharatiya Janata Party - The Lotus: OK - so I tried to do some research on this one. But did not have much success. So here is my personal take on it. As we all know, the lotus blooms in muddy waters. It is also an important symbol of the Hindu religion. Several gods and goddesses hold the lotus flower in their hands. The BJP is a Hindu right wing party and its logo unequivocally establishes it as such. Though the party keeps harping about a Hindu nationalism as a complete Indian nationalism, these symbols have a vedic / sanskritised etymology, thereby indicating an alignment with upper caste, upper class politics and an alienation from the Bahujan or Dalits - my take purely based on symbolism and not political strategy.



5. Shiv Sena - The bow & arrow: I'm going to go beyond just the party symbol and look at other symbols of this party. It is very interesting, since the symbols are violent in nature and mirror the ethos of this party. The bow and arrow - symbol of war. The Marathi manoos going to war with the migrants entering Mumbai. The party symbol - a snarling tiger. The violence and destruction they have been inflicting on the poor Mumbaikars over the issue of 'outsiders' in recent times are explanation enough of this mascot. Lastly, the name of the party itself. Sena or Army. Again the reflection of violence and menace.

These were a few which interested me. So I did some research on the net, added my own interpretation as garnish for your enjoyment. There were a few others which I found bizarre and funny:

- Rashtriya Lok Dal - A hand pump
- Muslim League Kerala State Committee - A ladder (which doesn't seem to be going anywhere)
- Indian National Lok Da - Spectacles (!!)
- Mizoram People's Conference - A light bulb.

I realise these symbols might have been chosen because the better ones were taken. But a party election symbol should be more carefully considered and reflect the manifesto of the party - be it paternalistic like the Congress, right wing like the BJP or far right wing like the Shiv Sena. What do you think?

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Teachers Who Flunked

This post should actually have gone out on Teachers Day. It is not one of the feel-good posts that one usually sees on such occasions. I read many tributes to wonderful teachers and really, I do agree that teachers can inspire you. But what about those that didn't? The bad apples, the eccentric ones, the one's who should never have been allowed near impressionable minds. Don't they also deserve some mention in blogosphere? So here's to the mean ones, the ones that made my life difficult and who I remember purely for how nasty they were to me!

I'll begin with kindergarten and tell you about Mrs. R. Back then, I had all this restless energy and didn't like sitting in class for nearly four hours every day. All that nervous energy led to a rather peculiar habit of shaking my legs. I mean I shook them like I would if I were operating the pedal of a sewing machine. Mrs. R noticed me doing this. When her admonishing me to stop had no effect, she hauled me up to the front of the class along with my little pink chair. Sat me down in front of the whole class and asked me to shake my legs in front of them. Naturally I was petrified and couldn't move a muscle. The habit was instantly cured. But the humiliation of it has stayed with me to this day.

Then we had this interesting geography teacher in middle school. I forget her name. Now she HATED us. I mean with a vengeance! I have no idea why. She just hated all her students. She'd yell and scream at us during class 'You muff!' or to a friend of mine who had the misfortune of having an older sister in the same school (and who did better than her at studies)- 'You dolt! Look at your sister and look at you!'. With hindsight I realise that she was a pretty good teacher - when she was able to set aside her hatred of us!

Cut to college and up looms the terrifying figure of our department head. A real dragon lady. Not a shred of compassion in her. When she walked down the corridor, we instantly hid behind our textbooks. You were in her good books if you got good marks and fared well in exams. If you didn't, needless to say that she made her displeasure felt.

I remember one year, she raised a huge ruckus because the students didn't wish her on Teachers Day!!! She made a big fuss that we were all ungrateful wretches who didn't think of doing anything for the teachers blah...blah..blah. She managed to gather support from other department heads as well. And so there was a hastily organised general body meeting called by the students union. They begged us to put together some sort of a cultural show and give them some gifts. I kid you not! This really happened.

And so we did just that. Collected money from the students, bought snacks, gifts and rehearsed a song and a dance. Cordially invited her and the other teachers (who looked a bit shamefaced actually) and put up a gala show, all the while cursing her in our hearts. Come Children's Day two months later - what did one get? Zilch!

I didn't write this post to pillory the teaching fraternity. Far from it. I've had some wonderful teachers who have influenced my thoughts and I owe a debt of gratitude to them. But when I saw so many blogs about 'gurur bramha...' and 'to sir with love' I thought - lets flip the coin over and look at the other side. Drona may have been the world's best teacher - but don't forget, he made Eklavya forfeit his thumb.

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Coconut shells and Horse Hooves

In college,I was part of the Indian Music Club. As part of the cultural life in college, we had the Mount Holyoke competitions. These were basically inter year competitions. It was the time when juniors tried to assert their suzerainty over the seniors. And seniors of course, fought back aggressively. As you can imagine, the competition was stiff. Each year was determined to win Mount Holyoke. The club membership divided itself into first, second and third years. Club leaders went into overdrive choosing the best songs, choreographing the best dances, organising the best events and slave driving club members. Life for a week was all about club meetings and rehearsals.

IMC in the second year stands out in my memory. All the second years in the IMC congregated and the assistant leader (elected from among the second years) took charge. We were going to do one Hindi and one Tamil group song. Then there would be a duet and a solo.

My gang and I were the 'Hindi gang' consisting of two tamilians, one mallu and one bengali. We were asked to come up with a fantastic number that would have the audience up and dancing to our tunes.

So what was this great number to be? It had to be catchy. It had to have melody. Should sound good when sung in a group. And it should also have that special something which was all 'US'.

After much debate and disagreement, we decided upon the song 'Yelo Yelo. Yeloji sanam hum aa gaye' from the film Andaz Apna Apna. It was the song of the moment. The movie had been released recently, it had AAMIR KHAN (drool! drool!), had that lovely O.P.Nayyar feel without being old and was totally US! What a wonderful idea.

There was a small fly in the ointment. Our pianist was in the first year. This meant that she could not play for us. No one else among the second years could play an instrument.

We were crushed. That song begged instruments. The original had the beautiful strains of a violin, guitar and castanets. In the movie the song was sung by the hero on a horse drawn carriage and the castanets gave an impression of the clomping hooves of a horse.

But never let it be said that we were defeated by this. We were a creative bunch and we hit upon a creative idea. That is to say, I hit upon a creative idea and the rest of the group thought it was a fabulous one.

"We can use coconut shells na?" I said. " We will beat it rhythmically to the required beat and it will sound just like horses"

"Wonderful! Wonderful!" A day ski in our group immediately volunteered to get the coconut shells. Everything fell into place and we started practice in right earnest.

The day of the competition arrived and we eagerly awaited our turn on stage. While we waited, I noticed that the second year group was the largest. I mean we had to be around 15 girls at least. Thats one thing about the second years, I thought. We know how to show solidarity. Look at us. Everybody is singing!! 'Everybody' is correct. When we filed onto the stage to sing, we were so many that the entire stage, some 10 feet wide was covered!

The song began. Out came the coconut shells and the audience collapsed with laughter. Yet another day ski had thoughtfully brought a tambourine (which she had omitted to mention) and she was cheerfully banging away at it. Oh yes. One more thing. We had not practiced previously with the coconut shells. So it was being banged away, in a valiant effort to imitate horse hooves, the tambourine girl was still going strong and the audience was in splits. Added to the mayhem was the fact that the group was way too large. The right end of the line was singing faster than the left. The icing on the cake was when some of the girls in the group, seeing the mirth among the audience, started giggling themselves. I even have a photograph of this.

The song ended and we walked off the stage. The audience wiped its eyes and moved on to the next song. We left the auditorium for the post mortem. Once outside, there was a general silence in the group. We looked at one another not knowing what to say. Then everybody started laughing. It was too much. Coconut shells?!! 'Whose idea was it?' they wanted to know and I tried to make myself invisible.

We went back in to hear who had won. We knew there was no chance it could be us. And it wasn't. But surprise surpise! We got second place?!!! WHAT? HOW? WHY?

Maybe we got points for creativity. Maybe we got points for 'echo effect'. The right hand not knowing what left hand is doing seems to have worked well for us. My theory is that we got points for full wholesome entertainment!! What say?

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Jungle mein A - Mangal

On a weekend trip to a college campus in south western Tamilnadu, I was shocked to learn about some gender discrimination being practiced in the name of 'Protection'. Being located at the foothills of the Eastern Ghats, far away from civilisation, all students are hostelers. Having been a hosteler myself during my college days, I was curious to learn what hostel experiences were like in recent times. So I asked a group of girls about it.

To begin with they were shy and hesitant. Said the facilities were superb and they loved being in hostel. 'So when is curfew?' - That opened the pandora's box.

Let me explain the meaning of the term 'curfew' in the context of this post. Back when I was in undergrad, there was a 'curfew time' for hostelers. This meant that you could roam around the college campus till 11pm. At the stroke of eleven, a bell would be rung signaling that you had to return to your room from whatever corner of the campus you were in. If you didn't return, you ran the risk of being locked out of your hostel. Being locked out was not really such a bad proposition, if you didn't count the mosquitoes and Lord Clive's ghost. But that's another story.

Cut to present day...these poor girls had to return to their hostels at 6PM! And there they had to remain till the next day.

'But what about dinner? Don't you have to go to the dining hall?'

'Our dining hall is inside the hostel'

'But what about the boys? Do they have curfew?'

'No' said the girls sadly. 'The boys have no curfew. They can roam about as they feel like'

This was too bad! Prohibiting the movement of girls around campus after 6PM! What if they wanted to go to the library? What if they wanted to surf the net? What if they simply wanted to hang out with their friends? Yes, their guy friends! Separate dining halls? It was outrageous.

When I was doing my masters, we looked forward to mealtimes when we could eat, laugh and hang out with ALL our friends. Privacy and protection was limited to the hostels. Which basically meant that you could not go beyond the reception areas of the men's or ladies hostels. A rule we respected and everybody was happy.

Poor kids. I felt bad for them. I thought GenNext was so cool and in charge of their lives. Perhaps we had a better deal after all.

And you know the unkindest cut of all? The guys got wi-fi access whereas the girls didnt!!

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From Hell

I have just returned from a trip to Hyderabad. As the title of this post suggests, my journey was from hell.

I had booked my tickets online. Wonder why IRCTC asks for a berth preference when the moment you enter an age below 60, you're given the worst berth? I had the worst case of bad luck. I got side upper berth for both onward and return journeys. Giving them the benefit of doubt, I supposed that I should have booked my tickets earlier. With that thought and a sigh, I mentally prepared myself for the journey.

The horror began with the onward journey. For starters, I almost missed the train. The scheduled departure time was 16.45. I left my home at 15.35 thinking it would give me adequate time to take the local train to Park, walk the subway into Central station and board the train. How wrong I was!

The line at the ticket counter at the sub urban train station was long. With the line inching ahead and the minutes ticking away, my anxiety levels began to rise. Just as I reached the ticket window, this jackass cut in from the adjacent ticket line. I snapped.

"Hey! Join the queue"

"No.The guy at that counter said my ticket is issued in this counter"

" Whatever! Join the queue"

"No!"

What?! I couldn't believe this. And nobody else in the queue said a word!

"Well then you can buy your ticket after me." It was the best I could do given my time limitation. Plus, he was holding a five hundred rupee note. It would take forever before he had his ticket and change.

Finally I boarded the local train. But as luck would have it, I had boarded the slowest local train in the world. It chugged along amiably at a leisurely pace, even stopping once when no station was in sight. Must have stopped to let an old lady cross the tracks I fumed.

You think this is bad? Wait till you hear the rest. I somehow made it to Central station with five minutes to spare. Locating my third AC compartment, I wearily made my way to my (shudder) side upper berth.

Remember how they had introduced a 'side middle berth'? Now consider the engineering aspect of it. How do you think Indian Railways managed to accommodate a side middle berth? Well, they raised the side upper berth a few inches and stuck the middle berth in the newly created space between the lower and upper berth.

Now the side middle was so excruciatingly uncomfortable that even the Railways relented. Public displeasure for once did not fall on deaf ears. A decision was made scrapping the middle berth. And so they were. Expect that the smart cookie that took out the side middle berth, didn't think to lower the upper berth back to its original position. The result was that you couldn't sit up on the side upper berth. You either had to lie down or get off it. And when you lay down, the roof of the coach was barely inches from your nose and the wall curved just over your shoulder. The net effect, you felt you were sleeping in a coffin.

And such was the prospect that lay ahead of me in the 14 hour overnight journey from Chennai to Hyderabad. To make matters more interesting, twin babies and their parents were my co-passengers. I don't suppose I need to mention that traveling with babies is right next to traveling on side upper berth in my list of dislikes on train journeys. Of course, in a moment of charity, I did sympathise with the couple who had two side lower berths (to my one side upper). I suppose their journey was worse than mine.

The remaining hours of my journeys were filled with travails and indignities which you will no doubt find amusing. My chimpanzee imitation - hanging and swaying while hoisting myself onto the side upper berth, the wailing of the babies when lights were switched off, the consequent burning of the lights all night (right on my face) - the night it seemed would never end. I arrived at my parents bleary eyed and in a bad mood.

"Side upper eh?" , said my dad. "Too bad". He then went on to express his opinion of what the Railways should do about this problem. "If they allot a passenger a side berth, lower or upper, they should give them a discount for the discomfort". Yeah! Right. Like that was going to happen in my lifetime.

Gloom descended as my return journey neared. Side upper again. But wait! When I boarded the train, I noticed that the upper berth was not placed high as Everest. Some kind soul had lowered it back to its original height. Praise the Lord! Perhaps I would get a good night's sleep after all. But....(yes, my life was turning out to be one obstacle course!), three giggly girls just out of their teens were my co-passengers. I eyed them with trepidation. However, if you discounted the constant giggling, texting and whispering into mobile phones well past midnight, I suppose it wasn't such a bad train experience.

PS: But even after this tirade about the journey from hell, I should tell you that I love the Indian Railways. It is a total paradox. With its beautiful train names (Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Amrapali, Hussein Sagar Exp), filthy stations and perpetual wait lists, to me, it is a symbol of the diversity and plurality that exist in my beautiful country. I'm a railway child. And I suppose that's what gives me the right to criticise!

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Know More Tag

A lazy friday afternoon....feel like a siesta. I came across this tag while browsing a blog and thought to try it myself. Here goes...

Copy the following questions to your own note, erase my answers, enter yours, and tag your friends. Use the first letter of your name to answer each of the following questions. They have to be real and nothing made up! If the person before you had the same first initial, you must use different answers. You cannot use any word twice and you can’t use your name for the boy/girl name question.
Some of these were really tough and I HAD to think!

1. What is your name: Deepa
2. A four Letter Word: Dawn
3. A boy’s Name: Devavrata
4. A girl’s Name: Deeksha
5. An occupation: Driver (he! he! maybe its formula racing !)
6. A colour : Deep blue (there is NO colour with D - I googled it. What? You're not supposed to google?!! :D )
7. Something you wear: Dress (Ok. Predictable. But my options are limited. If my name began with M, I'd have more to work with. Like 'Mekhla')
8. A food: Dhokla (viva Gujarat!)
9. Something found in the bathroom: Dressing table (mine is in the bedroom
10. A place: Denmark
11. A reason for being late: Drunk!
12. Something you shout: Damn *X@#***
13. A movie title: Drohkaal
14. Something you drink: Daaru
15. A musical group: Doors (yes, I know there is a THE, but I'm taking some license here)
16. An animal: Dog (my favourite animal. Absolutely love them)
17. A Street name: Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg (this just popped into my mind. Is it in Delhi?)
18. A type of car: Daewoo (couldn't think of anything else)
19. A song title: Dil hoom hoom kare
20. A verb: dusting

Who will I tag? Anyone who comments should(can) take up the tag, if they haven’t already! C’mon people tags are fun, and they are a sureshot blogpost, if you have the bloggers’ block. Also, tags are a good way to know each other! What do you say? Do I have a good sales pitch?

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Sound and Fury

A theatre festival was announced in Chennai by The Hindu, a leading English daily. Being interested in drama, I was naturally excited and did not waste time in booking tickets for the opening play - 'Antigone' staged by Motley, a theatre group started by Naseerudin Shah. But this post is not about the play. It is only inspired by it.

The English daily I mentioned before had decided to dispense with the usual critics review of the plays and instead announced a 'Citizens' Review'. I thought it was a clever way of getting art out of the clutches of the intellectual elite and democratizing it. Get it out to the lay person - let the people decide what they liked. Excellent going so far.

The play didn't really ring a bell with me to tell you the truth. So I looked forward to the Citizens' Reviews wondering if others felt the same way. Come Tuesday, I grabbed the supplement and poured over the reviews and was stumped. I couldn't make sense of what had been published as reviews! Did they like it or did they not? One particular reviewer - let us call her MS - had me flummoxed with words like:

"The blind prophet is ably replaced by an overarching prophetic vision of doom that hangs heavily over the play itself"

"...held the play together tautly, despite a tangled and prosaic discourse."

"Ratna Pathak Shah as Antigone is remarkable in her portrayal of an essentially ambiguous character. Antigone has confused readers for centuries with her tendency to be both gentle and violent, but Shah’s rendition bears a translucence that makes these shifts both forgivable and credible."

"Anouilh’s adaptation seeks to make Greek tragedy accessible and ends with a post-modern notion of resignation, disaffection and the pain of continuity,... "


What were all these high sounding words? I was bewildered. Call me stupid, but if I like a play, I say: " It was good! I loved it! Naseer was superb. He has a great presence etc" Simple ideas, simply put.

When I thought a bit more, I realised that this was no 'Citizens' Review'. It was a great con job. Of pretending it was a reviewed by lay persons when actually it was done by a professional. I mean just look at the writing - disaffection? translucence? prosaic? Do ordinary people speak and write like this?! As the Bard said, these were words full of sound of fury signifying nothing. Now I got mad. I had to do something about it.

So I wrote in to the newspaper via email and expressed my outrage at their blatant attempt to dupe me. And guess what? They got back to me! It came as a surprise and I suppose it goes to the credit of the newspaper for wanting to set the record straight (though I didn't really buy their explanation). They had been accused of writing only good reviews in the past since the festival was organised by them. So, to uphold their impartiality, they decided to hand over the stick (or pen) to their readers.

The editor was very professional in explaining that they took care to have a representative cross section of people among the reviews they published. Also, they could not disqualify a person for writing professionally. MS was not a professional critic, but a person who acted in plays. Everybody, even members of the theatre fraternity, was allowed to write their reviews and space allowing, the paper would carry it.

Well said indeed. Except that it was all humbug - ably demonstrated when MS reviewed the last play titled Citizen Josh and was featured in a separate box item. Excerpts from it include

"‘Citizen Josh’ is rife with interesting moments: there are moments of startling clarity that are surprisingly insightful; there are moments of genial good humour that provide bursts of relief and familiarity; there are moments of blunt straightforwardness that lull you into a warm sort of intimacy with the artiste on stage; most importantly, there are moments of poignancy that give you reassurance and disquiet simultaneously"

I learned a lesson from this. One: Do your own review. Read other reviews only for comic relief. Two: Never expect newspapers to admit having made a mistake or even attempt to take corrective measures based on feedback from readers.

If you're interested to read the Citizens' Reviews, try this link: http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/mp/2009/08/17/index.htm. Go to the Chennai edition and read the reviews published between 10th and 17th August.

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Jai Bajrangbali!

This story is actually my sister's. Several years have passed since it took place and there maybe factual inconsistencies.

When my father was still in service, we lived in the railway colony at Lancer Barracks, Secunderabad. A really nice colony. Lots of open spaces, trees, birds and...monkeys. With their habitat being fast destroyed, the poor creatures had no choice but to head for the trees in our colony.

There is one more animal in this story - our dog Sheru. A mongrel who wandered into our home as a pup and adopted us. Sheru was a free spirit. Not for him the slavish devotion to humans seen in other dogs. He came and went as he pleased. Hung around the house in unexpected nooks and crannies and was only mildly apologetic if you went flying across the room because you had tripped over him in some dark corner.

Due to the constant threat of monkey invasion, we had some ground rules in our home. The balcony doors were to be kept shut, if the adjoining room was empty or if its occupant was not armed with a stick. A rule we all adhered to for the most part. The few times that we did not led to some "incidents".

My sister was student extraordinaire. She was the teacher's delight - perfect combination of brains and hard work. Watching her go at her books was like watching someone do an aerobic workout! She usually favoured the dining room for studying - the table itself forming the sun around which she orbited.

And so it happened, that one day, she was alone at home and busily flexing her brain muscles. During the course of her circumambulation around the table, she noticed a shadow. Thinking it to be Sheru on one of his home visits, she did not pay much attention to it. The balcony door was, however, open and alas, my sister did not connect the shadow with that fact. It wasn't long before my sister came face to face with our simian visitor.

All hell broke loose. My sister flung down her textbook and sprinted for the front door. Crashing out of the door, she slammed it shut behind her and bolted it, lest the monkey followed her. So now she was safe - outside our house with the monkey locked inside!

My memory fades at this point. I'm not able to remember what followed after that. I think my sister called upon our neighbours for help. As they also had monkey-phobia, I am not sure if the help was forthcoming. It is likely that the monkey lost interest and left the premises - after kicking over a few items of furniture or rummaging in the kitchen. I'm sure my sister can fill us in.

Why did I write about this you ask? Two reasons - we have monkey neighbours at our current residence also and I was reminded about the monkeys of yesteryear through a link in Facebook. Check it out at the community titled 'Marredpally Days' and see the thread on 'Marredpally Monkeys'

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The 15 book tag

The rules are: "Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag up to 15 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose."

1. Swami and Friends (R.K.Narayan) - Warm childhood memories...lazy sunday afternoons..and Appa reading about Swami's exploits from the book....
2. Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier) - Eerie and mysterious. The imagery was very powerful. Red rhododendrons?
3. The Hungry Tide (Amitav Ghosh)- The first (and probably) the only book I have read set in the Sundarbans. It was a great experience.
4. The Glass Palace (Amitav Ghosh)- I learnt a great deal about Burma
5. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)- My first 'romantic' novel. Fell in love with Mr. Darcy
6. The Lord of the Flies (William Golding)- Literature text in +2. Analysed it to death! But it was great.
7. Sybil (can't recall author) - Wonderful story about a girl with multiple personality disorder. 16 split personalities. Nothing can beat that!
8. To Sir with Love (E.R.Braithwaite)- am a sucker for emotions.
9. Srikantha (Sarat Chandra)- totally deconstructed the structure of a novel. No intro, no body and no climax. Story went in a straight line. Interesting!
10. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens) - Again - middle school literature. Loved the story.
11. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseni) - My first exposure to Afghan society. I found it is very similar to Indian society - same class/caste system and many words are similar to Urdu.
12. A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseni) - Wonder at how a man could capture the lives and feelings of women so beautifully.
13. Memoirs of a Geisha (can't recall author) - loved the exposure to Japanese culture
14. The Thorn Birds (Colleen Maccullough) - I just love stories of forbidden love
15. Riot (Shashi Tharoor) - See point no. 14

Completed in 7 minutes!

I must admit that these books arent all the ones that will 'stick with me' - I was just racing against time!

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Not 'Rakhi' but a 'Swayamvar'


The name Rakhi Sawant usually evokes a grimace and shudder of revulsion from me. I try not to make uncharitable statements about other members of my sex. But Rakhi makes it very difficult not to do so. For starters, its her face - hard and coarse. Then its her voice - loud and coarse. The whole image is one of coarseness. And it has little to do with her bare and dare act.

The latest among her exploits is that apparently, she's tying the knot. And being the attention seeker that she is, it is going to happen on national (possibly international) television. Teasers are doing the rounds on TV with Rakhi trying to act coy, barely managing to tame her silicon implanted twins in a low neck choli and asking viewers for their 'ashirwad'(blessings). An almost-obese Ram Kapoor looks fondly on (perhaps at the twins), talking about his 'friend' Rakhi's marriage. Its so sweet I could just barf!

It was interesting to note the profile of Rakhi's suitors. If the media is to be believed there were 12,500 suitors who have now come down to a more manageable 16. The average age of these guys is 25 years - when guys are known to be wet behind the ears. The youngest is 21 and runs a poultry business. See the 'chick connection'?! (Sorry, couldn't resist that one). There is one who is in law enforcement in J&K. It would be safe to assume that he has a pronounced death wish (remember how Rakhi walloped her then flame Abhishek on Valentine's Day in front of the whole world?) 50% of these suitors are from small towns like Saharanpur, Raipur and Kanpur. Their professions range from fitness trainer, stuntman to vastu consultant. And of course, the romantic 'NRI'.

Two things are obvious from this. These young men see marriage to Rakhi as a means to an end. The end being a foot in the door to the glamour world. Second, it seems that the producers of this reality show have picked suitors who are mavericks - the type who could be the hero of a Hindi movie. Figures, since Rakhi has been quoted as saying that she wants a husband who is: " as smart as SRK, with Salman’s build and Aamir’s attitude"-Think of the roles these gentlemen have essayed in their films. SRK-quintessential NRI. Salman Khan evergreen tapori (stuntman, fitness trainer et al), Aamir Khan - a bit of everything.

Rakhi Sawant is actually a great choice for a reality show. She loves being the center of attention, doesn't mind compromising her dignity to gain fame and loves giving madcap quotes like: "I have full faith in Jesus. Duniya bhar se heere aayenge auditions ke liye... (‘gems’ from across the world will come for the auditions). God will help me choose the right person"! Add to it her penchant for getting into controversies (Mika you listening?) and you've topped the TRP rating. If in the process you have further commodified women - who cares about them anyway? They are an essential commodity in marketing. The means and the end. Its the moolah that matters right?

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Sex Ed 1-on-1

My niece is 11 years old. She's growing up, an intelligent, observant and articulate girl. I like to think I'm a doting aunt. I am very protective of her and can do serious bodily harm to anybody who tries to hurt her.

One Saturday, my sister dropped her off at my place. I was to help her with her latest project - research for an essay on a nearby animal shelter. So we set off, aunt and niece, to the Blue Cross close by.

We had a great time at Blue Cross. She loves cats and cooed over the orphaned kittens. I'm a dog lover and played with the adorable puppies. Together we wondered if we could take one (or 10) home. She interviewed the caretakers and they answered her questions patiently. An afternoon well spent.

As we walked back home, I noticed a car with tinted windows parked on the left. A man, who appeared to be the owner,was standing near the bonnet. I sensed something was wrong and immediately moved my niece over to my right and away from the guy. As we neared, I realised that the jerk had stopped to flash us! There he stood, with his fly undone and his thing exposed. I turned my head away in disgust and quickened our pace.

A while later, still shuddering with distaste over the incident, I wondered if my niece had also been 'exposed' to the view. I looked at her as she walked by my side, quiet for the moment. She seemed ok, but I realised I should say something. I had gone through a similar experience as a child. I remember the fear and confusion I had felt. I did not want history to repeat itself.

" Were you afraid?" I asked, opening the discussion.

"Of what?" she queried

"That guy"

"Oh you mean the guy near the car? I forgot." She tried to gloss over the incident obviously uncomfortable at having to discuss this with her aunt. But I did not intend to give up.

"Its not your fault ok? He's sick" I said, hoping I was helping.

"What?" she asked

"Next time somebody tries this with you, I want to you pick up the biggest stone lying on the ground. Look around for an escape route. Then throw the stone at him. Make sure you hit his pee-pee (that's what she called it)" I told her, hoping I was equipping her with essential survival skills.

"Ok." She said and dissolved into giggles. Equilibrium restored, we walked on home.

As we turned into our lane, we saw a little guy, about 3 years old, pee-ing onto the road.

"Look Chitti! He's showing his pee-pee! Shall we throw a stone at it?" exclaimed my niece.

Ah well. At least she got the message.

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All That Glitter - And It's Not Even Gold!

Last week we were invited for dinner to a distant relative's home. So, armed with a bouquet for the lady of the house, the four of us arrived at the posh M.R.C.Nagar residence of said distant relative. Since I cannot keep saying 'distant relative' all the time, let us name the poor man. Let us call him....Raja.

Raja stood at the gate to welcome us. We exchanged greetings and warm smiles before proceeding inside the house. Being a shy and retiring sort (you're laughing?), I hung back and entered the house last. Only to have my senses (mostly that of sight) assaulted by blinding light. Once my eyes had adjusted to the light, I realised that it was not any supernatural phenomenon. It was the living room. It looked like something out of a crazy Arabian Nights movie.Let me explain.

The largish boudoir...er, living room, had two double sofas and a small divan type with two single seats. All these items of furniture were made of black leather. Sexy you say? There's more! Upon them were thrown, rugs in black and gold. The double sofas had shell shaped cushions, again in-you guessed it-golden colour. Strangely, the cushions did not nestle in the corners of the sofas, but sat perched precariously on the sofa backs, threatening to topple over, but defying gravity by some miracle. The divan, on the other hand, was adorned with heart shaped cushions which were embroidered with red sequins. To achieve a 'cute' effect I suppose. The whole seating arrangement was pulled together by a massive glass center table set over a tiger skin carpet. I have no idea if it was real.

One corner of the room was done up in a jungle theme. It had this large tree trunk with 3 branches. Upon the branches sat a variety of stuffed toys, including a stuffed tiger. Over the "tree" hung a chandelier, only the second in the room. The first and more prominent one hung over the massive glass center table mentioned previously.

Another corner attempted an Oriental theme. There was a huge golden (need you ask!) laughing Buddha. Above it was a marble shelf of sorts, upon which were arranged several more laughing Buddhas in various sizes. All golden of course. Oh! But I stand corrected. There was one which was not golden - not entirely anyway. An Indonesian Buddha made of green glass and wearing golden ornaments. All other spaces which were not covered in gold, leather or sequins had mirrors. You were faced with an image of your bedazzled self every which way you turned.

Polite conversation, in this setting, was a challenge. The room and its adornments were really the only options available, in terms of conversation pieces. So sitting under a large fur lined Japanese fan that hung on the wall, we tried our best. "Where did you buy this trinket" and "It must be a full time job to take care of this house" and the most insincere one " How lovely. You have an artists eye"

My sister-in-law and I were eventually overpowered into silence by this vista. My husband was bewildered by it and kept looking around in slack-jawed wonder. Only my brother-in-law seemed in control - but then he had Dutch courage to fortify him. We also forgot the real reason why we had come. To get fodder for the family gossip mill-on forbidden tales of love, money and live-in relationships.

Disclaimer: All persons, places and shiny objects in this narrative are fictitious. Resemblance to any living person, place or shiny object is for me to know and you to guess!!

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Assaulted - Provoked?

Ever since I've started blogging, I've developed an interest in reading what other bloggers write. Particularly on subjects which are of interest to me. So I wander from link to link, eagerly perusing what others have to offer. If the post moves me, I even leave a comment.

So yesterday, I chanced upon a blog written by a Mumbai based gentleman. He seems to be quite a prolific writer, poet, and what-have-you, having 7300 blog views to his credit. He's interactive and responds to each and every comment that readers leave behind. His responses are positive and respectful. Needless to say the blog is very popular.

A post by this blogger titled 'Indian Male Libido Going Haywire?' caught my eye. The blogger refers to an article in the Times of India about the rape of minor girls from affluent families. He then goes on to wonder why these crimes occur. Is it because the Indian male is frustrated?.

The post seemed harmless enough. Even socially relevant. Rape is after all a very serious crime that affects the lives of women. But the comments were another issue altogether. One comment in particular concerned me. I paste an extract here: "...girls are equally accountable by being so sexually arousal..they are found arrayed with so meagre outfits..that u can;t help shunting ur eyes from her...". (Pardon the poor english!)

I just had to retort to this. Here is what I said and also the response it elicited:

Deepa:

Hi John. You have raised a very important issue about violence against women. However, I am a little concerned about the last comment that Prasun made - that girls are equally accountable by dressing sexily. It is like saying that one should blame a woman for not taking sufficient precautions to prevent her rape. Ours is a democracy. Society and the State have a RESPONSIBILITY to ensure safety of women especially from violent crimes. Safety and protection are a RIGHT of women. Besides, as most feminists will tell you, rape is not about sexual arousal at all. If it was, how does one account for children being raped? Old women past 60 being raped? Young boys getting raped? Rape is about wielding power over the powerless.

Blogger John said...

Deepa,

Thanks for your comment, I respect your view that rape is about power, but disagree with that contention.

Rape may be about power, that I don't know, but rape is also about arousal. I read somewhere that a man can get aroused once every eight minutes. Unlike in the middle ages (with more women working and all) he lives in a society where women have right to work and earn a living he is surrounded by women everywhere he goes. Imagine a man being aroused every 8 minutes in the office and on the street by a sexy figure, a revealing dress, a show of undergarment (all of which openly happens in today's society), etc. and a man would become something of a sex fiend if he doesn't have a wife or cannot restrain himself.

In cities like Bombay around half the population consists of men living alone. That's all the more reason for women to exercise caution while dress, and not following the trend of wearing sexy clothes advertised to sell products. Because if a man is aroused he will exercise his libido over an innocent minor or someone who is not in a position to fight back.

I guess this fact of men's sexuality has not been understood (rather has been misunderstood) by women's libbers. Hope to put this aspect in the right perspective.

J


I am really at a loss how to deal with this mindset! This is from a man who, going by his writing, seems to be highly educated, erudite and well informed. He probably represents the mainstream thinking on this issue. That it is not the responsibility of the state to provide a protective environment for women. A man will do nothing to 'control his libido' but a woman must give up her freedom of choice and wear conservative clothing to prevent getting raped.

This opinion is just a polite and polished version of what girls at a Mangalore pub were subjected to at the hands of the Shri Ram Sene not long ago.

Oh! How will women ever throw off the shackles that enslave them if men do not partner with them in the endeavor?

I was so distressed by this exchange, that I just had to write a post about it. I would really like to know what my readers think about this. Or better still, please visit the blog: http://johnpmathew.blogspot.com/, read and leave a comment for the author.

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