Archive for April 2009

Patriarchy And The Twice Born

Last week I participated in ceremonies to honour the memory of a beloved family member. The ceremonies went off well to the satisfaction of friends and family. This blog post is inspired by a few incidents that took place during these ceremonies. Rituals and traditions are generally considered a normal part of the Tam-Brahm life style. But, to those who believe in an alternate way of life - one that upholds equality, equity and inclusiveness, it is a bitter pill to swallow.

For starters, one needs to understand and respect hierarchy. Lets start with women. In the best of Brahminical traditions, the older women hold all the knowledge (and therefore power) about the intricacies of rituals. You see, though men PERFORM the rituals, women ARRANGE it. And in order to arrange it, one needs to be well versed in the requirements of the ritual - what flowers and fruits are required, on which side should they be placed, which direction should one be facing and so on. Here it should be noted that dowagers are the most aggressive in wielding their power, since their true source of power has departed the world. More on that later.

Next there is the idea of 'purity and pollution' or 'madi' as is known in Tamil. I have come to the conclusion that the Tam-Brahm obsession with madi is the single most significant reason for water scarcity in recent times. Clothes must be washed in readiness for rituals the following day. The washed clothes must not be touched by anyone, else they become 'polluted' and must be washed again. You cannot perform rituals unless you are 'madi'.

Now let's talk about the whole concept of 'Sumangali'. Literally, it means ' a married woman'. Hindus are obsessed with the sumangali. A woman's sole purpose in life is to become or remain a sumangali. Being a sumangali completes a woman's identity. She is always expected to wear the symbols of sumangali-hood on her person: vermilion, thali (mangalsutra) and toe rings. A sumangali is thus, self actualised in her lifetime, and a candidate for sainthood should she pre decease her husband (which is highly recommended)!

During last week's ceremonies, I committed the ultimate sumangali faux pas, of pottering around sans thali/mangalsutra. I was pounced upon by an older female relative and severely reprimanded for my oversight. I oscillated between yelling 'Its my neck and my thali! I decide if I should wear it or not!' and strangling her. Alas, coward that I am, I contented myself with a mumbled reply and swift exit from the room. I spent the rest of the day avoiding her.

Cut to serving up meals. Meals have a pecking order. Old timers will tell you that it is the men who should eat first, though children can also join in the first service. Food is served on banana leaves laid out by women. This is followed by an elaborate ten course meal with the women (usually older) fiendishly pressing more and more food on the hapless eaters. After this, the men retire for a brief respite leaving the women to clean up after them.

Finally, the women sit down to eat. This eating also has certain objectives. The minor one is to fulfill nutritional requirements. The main one is to ensure against left overs. This is because cooked food (especially ritual feasts) may not be refrigerated nor eaten for another meal as per the tenets of madi. Regardless of whether your belly is full, food may be piled onto your plate if it is in danger of being left over. Any protests that your belly should not be treated as a garbage bin are ruthlessly brushed aside.

To say that I was stressed out is putting it mildly. I have always held the view that women bear the burden of tradition while men are its beneficiaries. To be pulled into the quagmire of rituals and tradition as an active participant was unpalatable. The unequal and gendered division of labour for a cause that holds little meaning to me, went against my core beliefs. But, being my marital home, there was little I could do, except fulminate to my husband.

The silver lining in this circus was my husband. He did me proud. Among all the men present, he was the only one who ventured into 'women's turf'. Though he was shooed away many times, he did attempt to help. He served the women when they sat down to eat. Though he was teased for wanting to 'take care of his wife', he soldiered on, giving as good as he got- shoveling huge quantities of food onto the leaves of the senior women, insisting that it should be eaten since food cannot be left over! Once I even came upon him on all fours, cheerfully scrubbing the floor after the previous batch of people had eaten. Now tell me - isn't that a prince among men?!

Perhaps all is not lost yet. Perhaps things will change. Despair is not an option for those in the business of social transformation. Another world is possible. Let us hope that it happens in our lifetime!

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Three Cheers for Indlish!


Part of my job requires that I review and edit reports. A task which, over the past few years, has become a source of mirth and entertainment. Just like teachers relish howlers their students give them in exams. I delight in the faux pas that I have come across during my 11 year professional life. If you view them from a creative and humourous point of view, they have certainly made the tedious task of reviewing reports bearable.

Indian languages are phonetic in nature. What you hear is what you write. Enunciation has unique regional flavours, marked by mother tongue. So the East Indian would have trouble saying 'vacation' simply because the syllable 'va' is absent in their lexicon. The best you would get (with due apologies) is a 'Bhay-kay-shun'.

So here is a tongue-in-cheek collection of words, terms, concepts recounted with the deepest affection, for those that have written (created?) them, for the purpose of your enjoyment.

Here's something from the report of a drought project. Ever heard of 'vermin compost'? Normally known as 'vermi-compost' and refering to the conversion of organic waste into fertile soil by the noble gesture of earthworms. Perhaps here it has a more sinister meaning - perhaps destructive, annoying rats and cockroaches. Or maybe the product of a mind that moves faster than the hand over the keyboard.

There is a clarion call for Bread Improvement I understand. The stuff they sell in supermarkets these days is atrocious. Daylight robbery! Before you get on the soapbox, the nearest Gujarati will hasten to clarify that this could perhaps be a reference to the need for Breed Improvement - you know of livestock?

Then of course, there are the assorted tap recorders, leddies, and redeemed spellings ( I will not even attempt to explain this one).

But the crowning glory is rather adult in nature. I've heard of Acid rain, Purple Rain but Erotic Rain? For the ignorant, it refers to pattern of rainfall in semi arid areas. Leave your guess in a comment box.

With love to those that propogate Indlish!

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Traffic control comes of age

Kudos to the Chennai Traffic Police! They're really trail blazers in putting mobile technology to innovative use. I learned this on my drive back home this evening - at the traffic signal past the T. Nagar bus stand - (yes....the area does seem to be the stage on which the drama of my blog unfolds!) to be precise.

So there he was, a rotund traffic cop, standing right at the center of the traffic junction. He cut an interesting figure, reminding me of Mr. Goon of Enid Blyton fame. A chubby dravidian version of Mr. Goon amidst honking buses, cars and swearing drivers (my irate self included). And behold! Mr. Goon was busy speaking into a mobile phone as he ably directed the traffic around his ample self.

Well! Talk about multi tasking. Perhaps he was filing his daily report over voicemail or issuing instructions to his subordinates at the control room. Or maybe he was directing traffic at another junction through his mobile. The possibilities were mind boggling. The digital age made another world possible.

What a role model. I'm sure drivers of vehicles that passed him, took a leaf out of his book and multi tasked with their mobiles as well. I am filled with admiration! And for those of you who say its illegal to talk on mobiles as you drive (and / or direct traffic?), I say this: Stop splitting hairs and think of how you can embrace the myriad possibilities of the digital age.

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