After the first monsoon rains are over, me and mom go foraging for mushrooms in our backyard which seem to blossom overnight, similarly when a girl or boy comes of age in India there are a lot of people who seem to appear in their lives like these monsoon mushrooms. It is almost like you are graduating in life from a learner’s license to a real one and you are somehow starting to figure out which way to go but suddenly one day, you are shoved off in a hurry from the driver’s seat and they take over and drive off seemingly having discussions and arguments among themselves. You just end up being a spectator of this strange dance.
Back home we collectively call them uncles and aunts, not that our parents have so many siblings, its just a polite way of addressing a disparate group of people united by the single most aim of getting you into that wedding dress. They include real uncles and aunts, neighbors, your friends’ parents, your postman, the person who comes to read the electricity meter at your home and in a lot of the cases an astrologer.
An astrologer and I have a lot in common, we both are keenly interested in the motion of the moon and the planets. While my interest is more curiosity driven and includes a lot of Python programming, an astrologer gives out more of a Prof. Trelawney vibe. “You have the GRIM Harry arghhh”, not exactly that, but you get the picture, right?
Depending on where your parents stand on the atheist-religious-theist scale, a visit to an astrologer can have lasting effects on one’s life. A lot of my friends were married off at the age of 21 because otherwise their planets aligned only when they were 32 which is of course code for too old to to be in the wedding market.
When it comes to matters related to religion my father is a firm believer in everything and my mother is also somewhere around that ball park. Since I am 28 and as single as a person can be, they decided to take my horoscope to our family astrologer (yes we have one). He told my mom outright that “your daughter is having a lot of sex”.
Now, this is no joke for my parents and a lot of Indian parents for that matter. When you look beyond the glitz and glamour of westernized big urban Indian cities there are a lot of places where dating is still not part of the vocabulary, where talks about sex is always done in hushed tones and sex before marriage is still a taboo. Virginity is a measure of a girl’s honor and worthiness. Almost all religions celebrate delayed gratification and in this case a girl who can’t wait to have a husband for sex is deemed loose and if she has had more then one sexual partners then by all definitions of that word a ‘whore’.
My mom didn’t even ask me if I was in a sexual relationship with someone, she just assumed I was not. Because I was raised to be a good girl and good girls never dare do anything out of the behavioral checklist that society shoves on them.
Should I tell her that I stopped being a good girl a while ago?
There is an opaque sticker on top of my webcam at all times, I don’t exactly remember which year I started doing it, but what prompted me was this, one day while lazily clicking away on the internet I came across a website that promised an authentic monsoon viewing experience from Kerala if I managed to find a pair of working headphones. Since life is too short for reading the “If you agree to all these conditions you just read click yes” button, I clicked yes without a blink. With my blessing, the program turned the webcam ON, My 3am brain was too tired to notice that, and I waited through about 15 minutes for the said monsoon experience while only wearing my bra (because it was summer and because I live alone) it was scary realizing the cam was ON the entire time. It was like realizing that somebody was watching you through a peephole while you were taking a shower.
I studied electrical engineering for four years, so it is not anywhere near logical for me to assume that somebody can watch through my camera without my permission. But the footprints we leave on the internet can be traced back to us whether we like it or not, that is a fact. It is kind of scary that not always will we have a say in this. Yesterday evening I had the privilege to listen to a series of talks given by Jürgen Todenhöfer, Jeremy Scahill, Richard Wolff, Paul Jay, Srecko Horvat, and Edward Snowden (Snowden joined through video conference of course).
It left me feeling discontented and hopeful.
I have learned make-believe as a way of keeping it together. I make up utopian worlds in my imagination and try to be content with it. When you see things like, people denying climate change on a daily basis, you need something to keep your hope alive. But then I am only a lazy idealist who is in perpetual denial, what difference do I have from the person denying climate change? I don’t want to be that person anymore.
I have written here before about the skewed ideas we have about activists, the girl in a kurti with a messy bun and round glasses. Yesterday, Snowden said something that is extremely relevant in this respect. I would paraphrase it here, We should all stop putting faith in one elected person to bring on change. There are no heroes, only heroic acts. Being a hero sounds too daunting but doing one heroic act, still daunting but more doable, isn’t it?
I strongly believe social media can make a lot of changes in our society, it is the closest thing to a democratic mouthpiece humanity have today. The place where it fails miserably is when our activism begins and end there. Changing our profile pictures in solidarity for a cause is great. If it helps someone else to pause and reflect on it for a second we have already contributed to the cause, but when our activism ends there, the difference we make would also unfortunately, have a short life.
As an idealist, I am learning that idealism is nothing without hard work. The bigger picture of ‘your side of the revolution winning eventually’ is a powerful image to hold on to but sometimes each day of that revolution looks insignificant and boring and banal. It is a lot of showing up when no one else does. It is being the person who stays back to clean up the mess after the party. It’s only been about six months of me trying to get a mental health NGO started and my hope is already dwindling. See, told you, lazy idealist!
But if a person forced to live in exile for the past three years can still show up for a cause, the least I could do is try.
I learned from a wise old man with a white beard that things I imagine can be real and for good or bad, things you learn as a child stay with you forever. I want to keep that child alive while teaching the adult in me to stay back for the afterparty.
I have been living abroad for four years now and these are some of the questions that I get asked a lot, they are entirely my views and opinions, not of the whole country. India is a big country that is multilingual, multireligious, and multicultural, hence it is almost impossible to give answers that fit all. So keep that in mind while you read. If I made factual errors let me know in the comments section, but be nice.
Q: Are you a Hindi? Do you speak Hindu?
A: You might have gotten that mixed up, don’t worry the words are so similar. Hindi is a language and Hinduism is a religion. I will wait while you rephrase the question
Q: I thought all Indians are vegetarians
A: Not all of us but a lot of us. To a great extent it depends on religious beliefs, we do have a very wide range of yummy vegetarian and vegan dishes, though. Detailed explanation here
Q: What is that dot on your forehead? Does that mean you are married? And, why is it black not red?
A: It is called a bindi. I am not good with definitions, so will let wiki do the job, “The word Bindu dates back to the hymn of creation known as Nasadiya Sukta in Rig Veda.Bindu is considered the point at which creation begins and may become unity. It is also described as “the sacred symbol of the cosmos in its unmanifested state….[keep reading]”
Now that you know the theory I will tell you what it means for us individually, today it has become more of a cultural symbol than a religious one, so you can see people from all religions wearing a bindi and in all possible colors and designs you can imagine. It might not be an indication of someone’s marital status either. Personally, it is something I have grown up doing and still do it because I love how it makes me look.
Q: Why do you eat beef? I thought it was banned in India
A: 24 out of 29 states in India currently have various regulations prohibiting either the slaughter or sale of cows, because cow is very much respected in Hinduism (needs further explanation). I come from a state that does not have any such regulation. Also, India is a secular country, there is a place for every religion and belief system and most importantly because I believe a nation state to not dictate my eating habits or any personal choices for that matter.
Q: You speak good English…?
A: English is one of the official languages of India. It isn’t my mother tongue but I learned it as a first language in school ( generally you have the options to do schooling in English, the official language of the state, or in Hindi) meaning all my schooling and university education was in English. But no, I don’t speak it at home. It isn’t the case everywhere, to give you a very questionable percentage it is 10% of the entire population that use English in some form.
Q: Why don’t you have an Indian accent?
A: I really do have. Maybe this needs a bit of an explanation. Because India is a very multilingual country, Indian English accents can vary from region to region and from school to school. Our mother tongue can have a huge influence, also on the fact that how early we start using English as a spoken language. Don’t be surprised if we all don’t sound like Rajesh Kutrapalli 😀
Q: Will your parents choose the groom for you?
A: Oh boy, where do I start! India is a big country and the difference in ways of life in urban and rural areas are monumental. Arranged marriages are still a thing, but the approach to the topic varies. Some parents prefer their children to find their partners on their own, we call them love marriages. Then there are love arranged marriages, that is when people find their partners on their own but then spend time convincing their parents why this might be a good match. Then purely arranged weddings, where you resort on newspaper adverts, matrimonial websites or the now outdated wedding brokers. Speaking very very generally parents rarely force kids these days and you almost always have the room to say no (there are very brutal exceptions to this of course), but they tend to get worried as we age since marriage is still a norm in the society and sometimes we might be made to make some difficult choices.
Q: All Indians speak Hindi, don’t they?
A: No we don’t.
Q: I thought Hindi was your national language.
A: So did I until a certain age. Then internet came around and I realized it was not. India does NOT have a national language. There are two nationally recognised official languages, English and Hindi. It is very commonly spoken in the northern states, but it might not be the case in the north-eastern states and the south. I come from the south and never have I ever spoken in Hindi when I was home, I learned it in school as my third language.
Q: Why do you celebrate Christmas?
A: There are now around 24 million Christians in India. In some states, there are larger percentages and hence the spirit of Christmas can spread beyond the boundaries of religion. In my state, we have ten days off from school. Mine was a Hindu household with a star, a crib and a Christmas tree fashioned out of a mango tree during Christmas and of course awesome food:)
Q: Are your weddings so grand like in the movies?
A: Movies tend to take it a bit far, it might not be as well choreographed as you see. But they can be very colourful and a hell lot of people. It is not so uncommon to have 500- 1000 guests to a wedding. It is not that people are always able to afford such weddings but somehow it has become a thing of pride which I sincerely hope will change soon.
Q: Do you like Bollywood movies?
A: Yes, I do. There are a lot of good movies in Bollywood, you might have to look a bit beyond all the glitz and glamour. But India has a number of regional movie industries, which produce tons of awesome movies year round and I watch movies in my mother tongue (Malayalam) more than Bollywood. If you want recommendations ask me 😀
Q: Do you ride elephants?
A: No. It is possible but it isn’t as common as the media make it to appear.
Q: Have you played with snakes?
A: NO! Where did you learn that from? :O
Q: Is it really hot everywhere?
I will get all technical now, the southern and northern extremes points vary roughly between 6 and 36-degree latitudes, so the temperature varies a great deal. We have places that have snow year round in the north, so the answer is it isn’t hot everywhere.
Q: Do you all practice yoga?
A: No, not all of us
Q: Do you think it is cultural appropriation if I wear a saree, or a bindi, or henna….?
A: Here the answer is entirely personal*, I think the whole thing of cultural appropriation needs a blog post later on. I absolutely love when a non-Indian person wears a saree or a bindi or henna… Saree is a beautiful piece of clothing and please do wear it more often and whenever you want. I can name at least ten outstanding henna artists (@bella, @joey,@maple..) who are not Indian by birth, they have contributed a lot to the craft , so please do it just make sure it is safe and naturally made and free of dangerous chemicals.
*and I am almost sure a lot of us will feel the same way
*also the fourth year of fake laughing at the Rajesh koothrapally references
“I knew you would get away from here the first chance you got”, said my mom. She was trying really hard to push in a bag of dried grated coconut into my already full baggage.
I looked at her as if asking why?
“You know you always had this distant look in your eyes, I noticed it the moment I laid eyes on you. And with all the time you spend watching the rain and day dreaming it was kind of obvious that you were not so happy here”, she replied
She was absolutely right. If somebody were to write my biography one day, it would go something like this, between the ages of ten and twenty this girl was very proficient in endlessly watching TV and daydreaming. I was just unhappy, perhaps discontented is a better word. It was not that life was bad, circumstances were actually pretty good, my family was closely knit, we always had enough money and I was never bullied, ever. But it always was as if I was waiting for something to happen, you know, like I have to get somewhere far away for my life to actually begin. Whatever was happening until then was only a prologue before the actual story began. So four years ago when an opportunity to study abroad turned up I was READY.
In retrospect, I can see why I was unhappy. I was a liberal caught in a conservative society, also the closely knit communal ways of life in our society was too much for my BPD and social phobia to handle. Mental illness was an invention of the West and it had no place in our household.
Simply put, I couldn’t be myself without being made to feel guilty about it.
Last four years were probably the most challenging time of my life so far, but also the best. This city is where I broke down but this is also where I learned to stand up on my own again. After years of looking afar and dreaming, I have found a corner on this planet that I call home ❤
Yesterday night I was going through my old journals and found what I wrote on my first day here. The situation was too good to be true that I was certain something bad was going to happen on the way.
I was waiting for the man with the clipboard to walk in on me any minute then. For the long twelve hours of flight, I was sitting on the edge of the seat clutching my passport as tightly as I could. I was certain that a stewardess would come midflight and tell me that I won’t be allowed to enter the country because something was obviously wrong with my visa.
But nothing happened, there was nothing wrong with the ‘philanges’ even. The flight landed on time.
I was afraid to look outside. If they were going to deport me, it was better if I didn’t know what the city looked like, it might be harder to go back then.
I managed to get through the pleasantries at the passport control with my broken German.
I see you are from India. What are you going to study here? asked the officer
“Space sciences” I replied
“Cool, just like Rajesh Kutrapally! Welcome to Germany. Alles Gute” he stamped my passport and extended it to me
I lingered around half clutching the passport.Is that it? Isn’t there something wrong with my documents? or perhaps a misplaced y or i somewhere in my passport? I wanted to ask, but obviously, I didn’t ask any of that, just stood there staring at him with a quizzical look.
“Nächste bitte “, the officer yelled at the person standing behind me. It was my cue to get the hell away from the counter.
So the impossible has finally happened. I am in my dream city now.
She has unbrushed messy hair pulled together hastily to a bun around the nape of her neck, thick black framed glasses, a black or grey wrinkly Kurti- with a voice that demands attention and awe, she is speaking into a microphone to a big group of people, or she is leading a protest along the streets spurting out phrases like ‘fuck patriarchy’ or imagine this, a facebook timeline that is constantly updated with snarky, well-researched opinionated posts about recent political events (here also the girl behind the words has unbrushed messy hair)- these are my images that come to my mind when I hear the word activist.
I am sure a lot of us would like to live in a post racist, post sexist, and global-warming-and-psychiatry-believing world, but a lot of us also feel helpless in the enormity of the task ahead to build the world like that. Also, with the myriad responsibilities that come with adulting, it is sometimes a bit difficult to pause and care about a war happening on the other side of the globe. So we feign an indiffernce and go about living our lives . Its not that we don’t care but we don’t know where to start or what to do. We just wait for someone else with a messy bun and a microphone to lay the bricks for building a better world.
There is a quote that I came across sometime ago, it goes something like this “A writer is important to a war as a writer”. Does it mean it is to possible to fight a war without being in the the battlefield? Fight may be not, but prevent? we can try our best. Art has the extraordinary capability of connecting people and transcending boundaries. There might be as many ways of activism as there are people.
100thousand poets for changeis a movement spanning the globe that aims at the transformation towards a more sustainable world. They have a global event happening every year in September where poets, artists, musicians, are all invited to share their original or inspired works and to reach out to fellow artists locally and globally to form a community working towards peace and sustainabilty. I have been taking part in this event for the past two years in collaboration with a local bookstore. And this year the event date is September 24th Saturday.
This might be a starting place for a lot us struggling to find an answer to the questions, what can we do and where can we start?
How can you participate?
You can share a piece of music or writing or art of any form that symbolises the kind of change that you would like to see in this world.
Check out if there are already any events happening in your area. The website has an exhaustive lists of events all over the globe.
You can host an event locally.
You can host a web discussion group focusing on topics like sustainabilty and peace.
Start a hastag and encourage artists to join and share their works online.
A brief description about the event we are participating in this year locally,
With climate change in the news more and more, we often tend to ignore the issue or to succumb to numbness or fear. What’s needed is accurate information and clear thinking. As a start, we can remember and celebrate our connections to the earth and our interactions with and dependence on the natural world.
We invite poets, prose writers, singers, musicians and dancers to join us on Saturday, September 24 to share their original writing and compositions inspired by or featuring the natural world and human connections to the earth.
I encourage all of my fellow bloggers to use this powerful platform we have, on saturday the 24th to write, be it about race, culture, mental health, feminism, freedom of speech…..It doesn’t have to be a long piece with intimidating jargons and statistics and numbers, we have enough of that already. Let us bring forward personal experiences and stories. If it is just two lines of an unfinished poem, so be it. If it makes it easier for you I am going to share a short story of a talking frog.
” I did it, your brother did it, then why can’t you?”, asked my mother holding up the photo of a prospective groom in her hands. “Come on, look at his face, tell me one thing you don’t like about it? ”
“ Amma, it is not about this guy, I am just studying now, what if I don’t…..? “, I started talking hesitantly, but by that point, she had taken off her headphones and was trying to bring the photo of him so close to the webcam, that all I could see then was his extra red tie!
I tried yelling at the top of my voice to get her attention for a couple of times and then got tired and hung up!
It was a typical Sunday morning Skype conversation with my parents, a conversation that does not move an inch without bumping into the topic of my wedding!
I have seen successful arranged marriages up close, my brother’s for instance, he had talked literally for ten minutes with my now sister in law before saying his capital Y-Yes! I am sure he wasn’t apprehensive, he said it with gleaming eyes and a smile he couldn’t wash off! And my parents, even after thirty-two years of arranged married life they cannot seem to spend even a day apart.
So don’t get me wrong, my disagreement is not towards the concept of arranged marriages, but towards a system that shows utmost hostility to anyone who refuse to follow the set rules of a religious, patriarchal society. A system where it is considered okay to break ties with a child because he/she did not think religion has the power to dictate their love, a system where a girl is asked to give up her studies or career at the glimpse of a rich, qualified husband, where a boy is not given the choice of pursuing his passion because having a ‘steady’ job is prerequisite for boys to enter the wedding market.
I got a call from my best friend this morning.
“What are you doing”, she asked?
“It is 6.30 in the morning, what do you think I am doing?” I replied half asleep!
She was unusually chirpy, “Check your WhatsApp! You are going to love this, she couldn’t stop laughing.”
I hung up and checked my WhatsApp, she had sent me a screenshot of a newspaper column, I zoomed into the picture to read.
Hindu Parents invite proposals for their daughter 26 years, fair, 5 ft 1′, doing Master’s abroad seeks good alliance from well to do and settled boys .
There it was, I described in 20 words or less.
I am here waiting for the love of my life to take a scan through the pages of his Sunday newspaper, and get swept off his feet.
The above text is an excerpt from one of my older journal entries. In India, along with the Sunday newspaper, there is a supplement sheet where you can give matrimonial advertisements. Giving a picture below so you can get the gist.