Monday, July 5, 2010

Thats My Girl!

I received a note from an on-line friend today, asking me if there were any gender stereotypes that I went against, and to celebrate the stereotype departures.

Stereotype departures? Hmmm, have I done those? As I look back, look at the gender stereotyping, and compare my life with it - oh yes, there have been many of departures. Most of them done unconsciously though, since I did not know what “girls” were expected to do. That’s not to say that I was/am a tomboy. No, not that. I have just been me. You see, I was raised to be just myself, thanks to a doting father and mother, who never told me to not do something because I was a girl. They wanted me to follow my heart and my sinews, and believed that I could do whatever I wanted to.

So, with no gender specific expectations given to me, what kind of life did I carve out for myself?

Well, to start way back when I was a kid, I was not one of those “Seen, but not heard” types. I was a talkative child, and a very opinionated one, normally the first and the loudest to express my opinion, never mind if it was not politically correct. I could argue with other kids and adults, and sometimes even with teachers, with a bristling manner, which caused many eyebrows to be raised against my parents and the way they were raising me.

When not playing verbal duels and yakking incessantly, I enjoyed wrestling with my brothers, muscling myself into all kinds of street games that they played with their playmates – Gulli danda, Gada gadi, Sitauliya, Langdi, Catch Catch – I was game for everything except cricket- which I hated for some reason. I caused much exasperation for my mom, who had to work hard to keep me in bounds, for I was constantly breaking rules by coming late, collecting smelly bones and feathers and reading books that were forbidden – some of them hidden under my frock and carried inside loos to the read in private, away from the prying eyes of my brothers.

Things become much more fun when I turned into a teenager. I loved sports and I quickly became a part of the school basketball team, and also joined a football club. Our sports coach spotted me and got me engaged in multiple teams – Volleyball, kabaddi and kho kho, as I was one gutsy player. I could run fast, had tremendous stamina and thought much of myself, even going so far to challenge the schools Boys team for a match – which we girls unfortunately lost. I still bristle when I remember that one!

For the record, I was never a cheerleader. Our class mate boys would often come out and cheer for us when we played the school matches, and later treated us with samosas and chais!

My mother tried hard to teach me feminine work – such as embroidery, crochet, tailoring and even doll making. She was very skilled in these arts, and she worked hard on imparting some of her knowledge to me – and though I did learn how to put down a cross-stitch, I still tremble when picking up a needle. I would rather give away a torn hem to a tailor than to stitch it myself. Ditto for cooking. Mom tried hard to inculcate culinary skills in me, and made sure I stood beside her when she did her cooking, but it never interested me. Even at the ripe age of eighteen, I did not know my daals. Tuvar dal, Chana dal, Moong dal – they were all was the same to me. Sometimes, my moms friends would give her a talking-to, and she would force me to go through the culinary skill building exercises with grim vengeance. I had to then burn rotis and create burnt sabzis to escape those sessions! I did learn to cook, but till date, have remained a half-hearted one. So much so that even today, when my daughter wants to eat her favorite dish, she is more likely to ask her father to make it, rather than ask it of me.

In studies, I was equally good in languages, maths and science, though maths was clearly a favorite. I enjoyed the beauty of mathematical equations and atomic physics as much as I enjoyed the intricacies of my favorite dance, Kathak. They both moved me in similar ways. After my high school, when I opted to study engineering, nobody was surprised, even though this was in eighties, when barely 5% of an engineering class comprised of female students. I did not even know what I could do after I graduated, did not know if women engineers were hired at all. Heck, no one in my family, or for that matter, our family friends, knew a single woman engineer! But it seemed like the natural progression of things, and nobody really objected to my choice. The objections came from a different fall out of the decision.

Not only did I opt for Engineering, I hankered to go to a top notch Engineering school, which was away from my hometown, and one which had a hostel, tucked away miles away from civilization. I wanted to be on my own, on my own two feet, forging out a life for myself. Now, sending a girl child to a hostel was not an easy decision for my parents. In fact, it was the only time when I heard the gender issue being considered as a fact during the family decision making process. Several friends of my parents and respected members of the Jain community, when consulted, expressed fears about raising a girl child in this manner. My parents were warned that they would not be able to find a mate for me if they sent me away to a remote school, where they could not directly supervise me and protect my virginity. They were warned that I would turn too independent and would not get along with my future mother-in-law, warned that I would not be able to create a home with my future lord and master with this kind of upbringing etcetera.

However, I knew my father to be a sensitive fair parent, and knew that despite his fears, he would never let my gender become an issue with him. I appealed to his sense of fairness, citing example of my brother who was sent to the same remote engg school. If my brother can be sent, then why not me, I argued. Did he really believe that since I was a girl, my claim was inferior? My parents could not but agree. After having raised me as an equal child, they could not - indeed, did not want to hold me back. Gender could have mattered, but it was over-ruled. In the final decision, gender did not matter. I was ecstatic!

The engineering school that I went to reinforced my belief in being an equal sex. This school had no reservations for female students, and things were the same for all students, male or female. Competition was intense, but girls could do as well. The topper of our batch was a female, and so was the topper of the batch before us. At least, in the professional training part, Gender did not matter.

On the other part, of being the 5% female population out of the 95% male student community – Ah, there it did matter! And all for good! It gave all us girls a surfeit of male attention, so much so that even now, years later, I have never really felt the need to attract any male attention, unless it was more than a casual lust. This engineering school taught me that all I needed, really really needed, to attract a guy I wanted, was – well, I just needed to be - a female. That’s all – I just needed to be myself. No artifices were really needed. Nature has bestowed women, at least at that age, everything that is needed to attract a man. Gender does matter, but here, women really have the winning hand!

The entire cosmetic industry, I concluded back then, was based on thin air. This relieved me a great deal because I could never stick putting nail-polishes, brushing my hair, and putting mascara, etc – I found the entire beauty rigmarole irksome. The beauty skills were very difficult for me to master, for one, and for the other, I could never really get my colors right. Added to this, I hated spending money on these things. I could never really bring myself to spend money on a color cosmetic or a piece of jewellery, preferring to buy a book, or a samosa instead. Over the years, I have thought about this industry, indeed, it was one of the ways one of my employers made money, and have now agreed that it meets a need. But not to attract and retain men, as it commonly believed, but it feeds on the fears of scared women, who want to buy the belief that they can. It is sad that many of us women need to buy this confidence – if we only look deep enough in our bones, it is right there, within us and never really goes away.

So, while my parents decision to allow me to fly away from their nest made me a young girl from a child and made me confident of my abilities, my engg alma mater, gave me the confidence and awareness of my own feminine power to deal with the other gendered part of the world. And, after that, I never looked back. Never doubted that I was equal. Equal not just to the male sex, but also equal to face anything that life would throw at me.

As I graduated and walked into the professional world, I found myself absolutely at home in the factory and workplace. There were no other women engineers in the company I worked for, as it was a mining company, located in Rajasthan, a state known for its repressive practices against women. But being the only woman engineer never bothered me, and I can also say with certainty, it never bothered anyone else who worked with me. Responsibility was thrown at me by strict uncompromising demanding bosses who cut me no slack, and I delivered. I built control systems by myself, built a brand new department, negotiated with the ferocious mining workers and traveled with my male colleagues, staying at moldy rickety hotels, wherever needed, intent on what we were building and creating together. It was exhilarating, to be a part of a team, who was creating and building. It felt good to be an engineer. Though I must have been a rarity, and perhaps the only professional woman they had worked with, none of my male colleagues ever made me feel like an outsider. In fact, looking back, I think I got more respect and opportunity than I deserved, as I was still a chit of a girl, and very raw professionally. It was here that I really earned my professional spurs.

Professionally, I have since then changed multiple jobs, till the time I now find myself as an entrepreneur, leading my company, my all-male team and my business. During the journey, I have never doubted that I could not do this as I was “only” a woman. That I am a woman, and that I am an engineering entrepreneur, are two unrelated facts.

In my professional life, I doubt that I can say that I had to work 10 times more than my male colleagues to be where I am today. I had to work hard – very hard at times - every professional has to do that, but I do not think that I worked the hardest. There were many of my male colleagues, who worked harder, and just like me, their progression was governed by the market exigencies of the time, the kind of clout the bosses carried, and I, along with them rued the multiple slips possible on the corporate ladder. For as many gender related slip-rungs on it, the corporate ladder has many more which were otherwise. In a long career, gender does not really matter.

Ah, but that was the professional side of it. But how about the personal side of it? Was I not subjected to gender stereotypes here, in the great Indian Marriage, bound by the most intimate and lasting relationship of it all, the often-called stifling relationship where the men rule over the women with a iron fist?

Well, as in the other phases of my life, I am blessed to be helped with the males I find myself with. I am wedded to a man who is as committed to running an equal-opportunity marriage, as I am. In all of 22 years, going on 23 years, of my marriage, both my husband and I have pursued independent careers, and each of us has provided opportunities to each other in every way we can.

We have both taken turns at being the primary nurturer and being the primary bread winners, and everything in between. There have been times when my husband has been the dominant (read making more money in the job) bread winner, and times when I have taken on that role. There are times when he has taken on the mantle of being the primary nurturer (read keeping house, baby sitting), and times when I have dropped everything to nurture our daughter. I am both mother and father to my daughter, and my husband is the same. Each of us have a life of our own, not necessarily inter-wined with the marriage, where we have individual friends and interests, which we both enjoy with or without each other. The number of invitations we get, addressed to Mrs with spouse, are as many as the ones we receive as Mr. with spouse.

That said, over the years, we have realized that I am more suited to do the home bound nurturing, for our daughter and our close relationships, and he is more suited to doing the outside oriented fix-it jobs, and the tough negotiation jobs. It is basically a role distribution with emphasis on innate capabilities, standing on the bed rock of unflinching commitment to the family unit. In our home, Gender does not matter.

My slate of life as I have led till now is wiped clean of gender roles. It is not that people have not heaped me with gender specific expectations, but whenever I have resisted these expectations if they were not in line with what I wanted, most have had no problems in accepting the role that I did decide to play in that situation. It was not that difficult for people to accept to my “No, I will not do that.” statements, and from what I can tell, I have lost no relationships or opportunities because of it. Gender does not matter. I am just me. I do things because I can and I want to, and not because I am a woman.

Being a woman, it is expected by most people I meet that I must have been subjected to stereotypes, and I must have chafed against them. Indeed, when I meet any member of the press, this is one of the standard questions, and I normally have a ready made “politically correct” reply for it, so that it is keeps my feminist friends and listeners happy. But I realize that I must, at last, speak the truth. It would be a disservice to all the people in my life, if I did not acknowledge the truth that I did not face much gender discrimination. Perhaps I was lucky, but not really inordinately so– since I know of scores of other women – fellow engineers, mothers, home makers, professionals, matriarchs, who have succeeded in being themselves and have not been stopped by the men, and women in equal measure, in being equal.

The feminist world insists that women face a bias, and that they get the raw end of the stick from men. Not necessarily. Not much in the educated middle class India. It happens, but not all the time in ones life. It depends. The world is a rough place, for men and women both, and almost as many men get the raw end of the stick than women do. My feminist friends will not like my saying so, and accuse me of being a gender traitor. But I am not. I do not believe the world owes us equality. We owe it to ourselves to find it.

But, my feminist friends scream, how come many educated middle class women have these issues? Are all of them wrong? The propensity to blame their gender by women for all the problems faced by them is a tough one to deal with. I have as seen as many women take advantage of their genders, as many being beaten up due to it. It is just that the women who get beaten up about it speak about it. The ones who take advantage of it, well, they probably snuggle up with their predatory advantage and gloat over it.

That said, how about the women who do get beaten up due to their gender? After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that wherever gender discrimination occurs, and it does occur, I believe that the responsibility lies as much as with the perpetrators as with the receiver. Women who cow down to conform at the first hint of the gender expectation, who do not insist on being equally capable and gritty, are equally responsible for the gender issue as the perpetrators.

Gender is an issue if one makes it so. I believe that reasons for women making the gender issue important one in their life, goes back to the way they were raised by their fathers and mothers, rather than the bosses and husbands they face in their adult years. If there is a bias, it is more likely to be at home as a child, as a daughter - than the one at home, as a wife or a significant other. The bias a girl child suffers at home, can make her believe that she is not equal and blight her future in ways not imagined by the parents and care givers. If a girl child is raised as an equal child, she is not likely to settle at being anything other than an equal employee, an equal employer, an equal parent and an equal partner.

How can I be so sure of what I am saying? I can, because I know. For, in the final analysis of what caused me to become what I am today, the one thing that stands out in its contribution to me is the pride that shone in my fathers face when he saw me doing things I liked doing, and exultingly cried, “That’s my girl!”

That’s all I ever needed. This one is for you, Papa, for making me the woman I am.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Coming Home

I just got back home after 40 days. It was an exciting trip to multiple places in the country. Vacation, work, visiting friends, attending conferences, meeting partners, doing review meetings - the works. And I have had a jolly good time. Enjoyed it all.

But it is heavenly to be home. Absolute bliss. Despite the fact that the place is covered with layers of dirt, there is no water in the refrigerator, there is no food in the kitchen, my household support staff is absconding, and the whole house would need at least two three days of back breaking work to get back to routine. However, I am ecstatic to be back.

After I reached home, I just flopped into bed and slept for 12 hours non-stop. Now, thats weird. I had slept well wherever I was, had eaten well, had rested well, and had travelled in fair bit of comfort. And yet, tiredness seeped out of me, in thin sheets, from my bones, my muscles and even my mind. It is delicious - this letting go and sinking into my familiar surroundings, and letting the tiredness ebb out of me.

I am taken aback by the level of tiredness I felt. I am not even aware this tiredness existed. How come I did not feel this tiredness before? Till yesterday, I was the alert professional, being swift on my feet and mind, working and networking with people, and enjoying myself with friends I was meeting after months. How come this tiredness is coming out day? Where was it yesterday, I wonder? Am I the only person who is feeling this way? And then, I saw - this was the same way it was hitting my twelve year old too. She too was just relaxing, thumbing her books, listening to music, all random, all familiar things, but her pace and languidness told me that she felt the same as I did. She was even smiling to herself as she was cleaning up her room. Unusual that.

I cast my mind back and remember many such home-comings. And yes, there is a pattern to this. No matter where I have been, no matter with whom, no matter how much I enjoyed being there - it has always been great to come back home. And always, I have slept for hours, with no care in the world, even when there were chores to be done, clothes to be laundered, stuff to be put back into shelves - pressing routine household chores that otherwise would keep me awake - but no, all that waits on the homecoming day. Homecoming is always that, a day to rest. Really really rest. Put all your bones down in a sack and sleep kind of rest.

I wonder, why is this so? I am not overly fond of my home, nor am I emotionally very invested in it, rented as it is. I run a simple household, and most stuff is there for its functional use, rather than its sentimental value. Maybe moving frequently has something to do with it. There is not much in my home that screams me, except maybe my books and some photographs. And still, why is there such a strong feeling of comfort with this place I call as home? Why does my mind, body and soul feel rested here, more here than anywhere else in the world?

I have a theory on this. Maybe we, as homo-sapiens species, have more territorial instincts that we are aware of. Whenever we move out of our territories, our age old, deep down primal animal brain, stiffens up, and tenses up to deal with all the unfamiliar sights it sees. Our gut screams caution, much like it must have done, thousands of years ago, when our brains were figuring out how to survive in the world. Whatever was unfamiliar could be dangerous, and we get into full-alert state to deal with whatever comes in the unfamiliar situations. And wherever we travel, this deep down animal brain of ours refuses to buckle down, and lower its guard. Its like a unseen watchdog, which is constantly looking out for lurking dangers. It stiffens up the muscles, gnarls up the gut and squares up the shoulders as well, all unknown to us.

It does not matter apparently to this watchdog brain that we are amongst friends, or that we are amongst places that are probably even safer than home. This watchdog brain also has little value for comfort - better springy mattresses, heavily carpeted floors, air conditioned environs et al mean nothing to it. It just knows it is in a territory that it has not seen too often, and is scared about it. This watchdog primal brain of ours does not communicate well with our rational, verbal and senses dominated aesthetic brain, and does not give a damn to it - and despite the pleasure signal that the aesthetic brain gives to it, continues to look for lurking dangers. Just in case.

And then, when we return home, our watchdog brain now sees the old familiar territory it is in, and now, releases it guard. It now knows all the dangers here, it knows every visual image, it knows every sound, it knows every smell - and this place is safe. Now, it packs up its scared feelings, and lets all the tension go from the muscles. And then, it sleeps. A sleep that it has not known for the days that were spent in travelling, in laughing with friends, in drinking in beauty and moving about in luxurious hotels.

At home now, our watchdog releases our muscles and our guts, and sleeps. And we relax. We feel blessed that we have come home. Not because it is the prettiest, nor because it is the nicest, or it is the most comfortable, or even that it has people we love - but simply because it is familiar, it is the most well known territory that we know on this earth. And now, at home, we rest - in a way that we could not rest earlier. The kind of deep rest that nurtures, rejuvenates and uplifts.

Being home is sweet, indeed, in a primal way.


Some dreams die early. And that's a relief. The ones who die, even loved cherished ones, can be put behind and one can get on with life.

The ones that I am tormented with are dreams that refuse to die. Dreams that hold me in their bear hug and refuse to let me go. Dreams that do not let me accept reality the way I find it. Dreams that continue to keep me awake at night even though I by now know that they can be just that - dreams.

There was a time in my life when I loved dreams. They were visions of what could be. And they were mesmerizing, seductive. I used to surrender to them whenever I was at leisure, and I used to hatch plans of making them real. Some of them did turn into reality - some by those hatched plans, some by benevolence, and some by providence - and they promptly lost their seductive appeal as they turned real. In a way, they died for me, even though they technically did not die.

And then there were the ones who died. Died because they got killed. Some of them were killed by loved ones, some by destiny's cruel turns, some were born weak, and some of them were killed. By me. The ones I murdered are the ones that I sometimes still remember, the rest now have been forgotten, as they were the ones who I had to wrestle with, and kill them before they killed me.

And then, there are these dreams that live with me now. Some of them I think I still cherish, though I am not sure, not all the time, anyway. Some of them I have tried killing at some time. For some, I have fought for them for years, with back breaking passion, with loved ones, not-so-loved ones, and downright evil ones. Some I have fought with - days and nights on end, sometimes with hard reason, sometimes with brilliant harsh reality, but they have survived. If I kill them, and thats only if I could - Lord knows I have tried - they would kill a part of me. Not leave me whole. Or they may just take me down with them. They are too strong.

I am tired of these dreams of mine. They used to be pleasant to me earlier, not anymore. Maybe they have waited for too long for some action from my side - an action either I could not, or would not do, or providence would not let me do. These days, they do not let me be happy. Lately, they been hollering for attention, screaming for action, and worse, have sometimes made me drop perfectly acceptable situations to run after them. They have me work for them, slavishly, desperately, ruinously. They mock me when I see myself in the mirror, they laugh at me when I laugh on small triumphs, they kick me out of comfortable sleep... Oh, they are demons who feed on me!

Go away, Dreams! Go away. Yes, I no longer need you. I don't need to run after your grand visions, your unquenchable thirst and your deep desires. Go away and leave me in peace. I am too old a woman now, and I now just want to be. Just be what I am, and not what I could be.

Please just go.

Friday, March 5, 2010

No longer surefooted

I used to run well earlier.

All I needed was a stretch of soft springy earth - sometimes even a concrete road would do, and my feet would come to life. Break into a swift sprint. I would easily transform myself into being a human powered moving machine. I would exult as I ran, enjoying the steady rhythm of my heart as it beat harder, pumping blood to the extremities, wind running through my hair, and the delicious feeling of blood beating against the temples. And when I would stop and drop on my seat, I would hang my head down, enjoying the slowing down of breath, feeling the sweat trickle down and the warmth settling down, from my heart to finally the tip of my fingers.

Never a marathon runner, I loved running for running sake, and though I did not mind walking, many a times I had to restrain myself to walk sedately as I went around doing my chores and study routine. I would run up stairs, jump down from fences, slide on banisters, simply out of the joy of being a bundle of muscle. I would never ever walk down staircases, one step at a time, I then felt sure of that. I am sure I stumbled and fell down several times, but I don't remember those events. I just remember the running.

Back then, I used to wonder why people walked. Why don't they run, when they can't walk - was one of my Marie Antoinette style thoughts.

I miss running like that. I miss the hot breath and the coolness which would come on the limbs on drinking plain water. I miss the spring in my step.

I am growing old, I whisper to myself, when this desire takes over me. I am now meant for the gentler joys of contemplation and appreciation and applause. Meant to amble slowly, watch the flowers bloom, smell the road side fragrance from the bushes, and watch the squirrels crunch their nutty meal. These sights and smells are better, since they linger much later after the leisurely walk, I coax myself. I never saw them when I was running, did I, I argue. And there are many like me, who don't run anymore, right? So why this urge?

Try as I might, I am not able to shake this need off, of wanting to run again. To once again launch my body into space.

Age, alas, tells me that I am surefooted no more. I don't know think I agree completely, as I know it is not just about muscle, it is really about the fear that has settled down on my chest, of falling down, of hurting my ankle, of pushing my heart over the edge, or some other such nameless terror. Fear of something I could do very easily, with pride in my skill, without a thought of failure earlier, is now upon me, making my heart crumble and my gut cringe.

Surely I can do this again. I want to run.

I won't. I can't. You see, I am not surefooted anymore.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Time Stopped By

Time stopped by today, and stayed for a snuggle. It had been a while since I met him. He was in the neighbourhood, he said, and could not resist dropping in. I am glad he did.

I was in the middle of a call when he rang the bell, hesitatingly first, and then, loudly and insistently. I used to love unannounced, surprise visitors earlier, but not any more. I had half a thought to ignore the bell. Whoever it is, if he/she does not have the courtesy to plan beforehand, perhaps I should give them a miss, I thought, but my old self kicked in, and made me relent.

He came in, looking different that what I remember him. He used to have a lazy, langrous, dreamy look about him, with eyes that smiled and loved. He now looked anxious, almost feverish, his teeth clamped under a determined jaw, and I almost did not recognize him. Just then he smiled my name, and it came back - the redolent look - and blood coursed through me, reigniting the love and fierce protection I had always felt for him. I found myself smiling back, forgetting the call I had put on hold, as I took him by his hands, and sat us down on our favourite love seat by the French window, our breaths mingling, hands barely touching.

“How have you been?”, he asked.

“Er… I have been ok, I guess. “, I quivered, as I devoured the familiar look about his eyes. I wondered if he knew that my knees had turned to water.

He looked long at me, his eyes touching every corner of me. I felt myself blossoming under his eyes, and sighing, stretched out on the couch, enchanted by his presence alone.

“You look weary.” he said, looking me deep in the eyes.

“Ah, yes, perhaps I am. You are not with me much anymore these days”, I had to tell him I missed him so.

“You wanted more of me?” he retorted, his gaze now caressing my lips. “For what? Haven’t you used me enough?”

“Used you?”

“What else would you call doing what you do? Running from one place to other, making money, making investments, smiling at strangers, talking to crowds..”, he accused, his eyes still riveted on my lips, making them burn with longing.

I snuggled closer to him. And ran my fingers through his hair – they felt the same. Curly, thick. I could spend hours like this, I thought.

“Be with me tonight.” I whispered, dropping my head on his shoulders, suddenly aching for him inside.

“I am with you now, just as I have been before. You just stopped noticing me’. His voice smelt of unshed tears, smoked dreams and half-forgotten desires. “But I am going away soon. That’s what I came to tell you. I am running out.” he blurted out in one breath.

“Running out?”

“Yes. There will be fewer tomorrows than yesterdays”, he whispered, his eyes now on mine, soft and luminous, my face reflected back in them. “Do me a favour, will you? Do what you really want with me. And be quick.”

With that, he yanked his eyes away, and in one swift movement, got up from the love seat, wore his anxious look again, and before I could assemble my feet to entreat him, opened the door and walked out.

I continued sitting on the love seat, dazed with what he had said, still feeling his presence warm next to me, as waves of regret washed over me. He had to run out, I knew that, but how did I know that it would happen so soon?

I am glad Time stopped by today. I managed a small snuggle – it is not much, but it is something.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

My shoes and I

Hillary Clinton had a mishap recently. Her shoe refused to walk with her and greet the French President. She moved on while her shoe stayed back, sulking, it’s mouth angry and wide open. Maybe it did not speak French. Maybe it did not like 50 year old men who divorce their wife to marry a model. Maybe it did not like the slippery floor. Maybe it was not happy with Ms. Clinton that day.

You can never really tell with shoes. I thought I was the only one who was misunderstood and disliked by shoes. But watching Ms. Clinton being maltreated like this by her shoe, made my heart go out to her. She is a soul-sister. Just like me, her shoes do not understand her, and do not work with her.

Ms. Clinton and I are in the minority. Most women I know get along very well with their shoes. Shoes are their friends. Their shoes go merrily with their wearers, with a flourish, looking great with matching trousers and saris. They never look angry, never stay behind and sulk – and certainly not with their mouths open, the way they did with Ms Clinton.

Yes, people’s shoes are nice and affectionate towards their owners. Not like mine. Mine routinely misbehave with me, bruising my skin around my ankles, pinching my toes, and occasionally, when in particularly nasty moods, giving me blisters on my last toe finger. And once, in violent anger, they made me trip and fall when they opened their front long tongue, and I was laid up in bed with a twisted ankle for days on end. There have been times when they have stayed behind while my feet have moved on, just like Ms. Clinton’s. In other times, they have got stuck in weird corners, slotted floors and once even on luxurious carpets, when they did not like where I was going. They have ruined several of my professional days, when they have choked my feet, refusing to let them breathe, while I was in the middle of conferences they found oppressive - and have forced me to sit awkwardly bare feet on such events. They have cut short many a social evening for me when they have broken a strap, or a heel, on sighting some person they did not like, and have forced me back into the car, carrying the broken screaming shoe with me. I have observed that this is invariably accentuated when I am wearing red.

There was never been a shoe that did not hurt me. Scars and bruises on my feet tell the story of the long battle that my sensitive skin has fought and lost with the shoe’s leather. I have got used to the sympathetic glances of beauty assistants as they take my feet in their laps for a pedicure. The scars are not pretty at all. Of course, for the rest of the world, I just hide my feet. I do not want to discuss the relationship with my shoes with all and sundry.

It is not that I have not tried working with them. I have used intermediaries when the friction between us became too much – wearing peds, socks, and nylons, but the intermediaries could not give me much protection from the callousness that we treat each other. I have also tried various types – the snooty stilettos, the so-called comfortable pumps, the ugly clods, the elevating platforms, the pseudo suedes, the airy sandals – everything. But nothing, nothing works for me.

I must confess though that I do subject them to some rough handling. But it is not anything more than a slight yank to a strap. Sometimes in anger, I have hit their exterior with some surface causing them to scratch, and sometimes, I am sorry to admit, I have torn apart a loose heel. Some have called it abuse, but I don’t think I agree.

I think, my fault is – if there is – is my carelessness with them, and nothing else. For example, my propensity of watching stars when I walk has often resulted in my shoes doing a head-butt with sundry stones and rocks. I have always been yelled back and punished with blisters whenever this has happened. Sometimes to relieve the pain in the small of my back due to high heeled shoes, I have bent my shoe heel the other way, causing the heel to yowl in pain, sometimes even causing it to break. I have surreptitiously worn other peoples shoes just to see if they were more comfortable, and this no doubt, has been the cause of much jealousy and heartburn. I have always come back – sometimes early, and in rare cases, with some delay - but I have always come back to my shoes. I have a suspicion that the toe-pinch behaviour arises out of incidents like these. There have also been times when I have neglected them, as I have mistakenly worn other people’s shoes, not realizing that they did not fit me. I also remember once bending the shoe dangerously, so much so, that the shoe looked like a hoe when I was done with it.

Worse, I once had walked with one of a different pair in my feet – but hey, that’s just me! I meant no deliberate disrespect. I never did mean to separate the pair and leave the other behind, and I always did come back and reunited the pair. But oh, the anger I had to encounter later! It was excruciating!

There is no point denying it. I hate my shoes, and they hate me. We have never been comfortable with each other. I cringe when I have to wear a shoe, and I am sure my shoes cringe when they see me approaching them with an intent look on my face. We have lived with each other as couples do in bad marriages – resentful, full of complaints of past hurts, and balefully straining at the binding yoke.

I have not given up hope though. I have given myself another 6 months, to find my perfect shoe. I will do whatever it takes, spend half of my household budget, if that is what it takes, so that I can find that perfect shoe, the one that would not bite me, would not embarrass me in public, and would be kind to me. This is not an easy search, nor is it an inexpensive one.

At the end of the six months, if the search of a perfect shoe still eludes me, then of course, I have no choice. I will simply grow a thick hide, which can ignore horrified stares from well groomed hostesses, and will start my bare feet existence, freeing my feet from the shoe fetters for all times to come.

Or maybe I will get in touch with Ms. Clinton. She may have a trick or two for telling me how to mind an errant shoe.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Following a dream....

"I have a dream
A song to sing....."

That is one of my favorite ABBA songs. I and scores of others, respond to its call, as we sway to its tune, and surrender to our favorite fantasy, of following our dream, of singing our songs, and attaining Nirvana. It is very seductive - this call to living your dream.

After watching 3 Idiots, the much talked about movie, the one which exhorts students to follow their dreams, Nidhi, my 12 year old approached me with a serious look on her face. "Mom", she said, "You have asked me many times what I want to be, right? I know what I want to be. I want to be a dancer." Rebelliousness on her face, she murmured, "And, don't force me to do equations."

I squirmed internally, tore away the exasperation from my face, and made myself wear a interested and tolerant expression, "All right. What kind of dancer do you want to be, child?", I asked.

"Ummmm.... I am not sure. Like Katreena Kaif"

"Katreena Kaif? You think she is a good dancer?"

"Yes, mom. I like Kareena Kapoor too. You saw the white dress she wore when she danced on Zubi Zubi..? I loved that dress." Her eyes sparkled as she said that.

"Seems you liked the dress better than the dance."

"I love that dress, mom! Can you please buy me that dress, please, please, please, puhleeze... Alright, I will study for 2 hours every day, but puhleeze?"

The conversation ended. How could I discuss career and life dreams amidst craven desires?

I sat her down later to talk about what she meant. "Beta, you want to be a dancer. Alright. I had put you to a dance school, had'nt I? But you never worked there. You never even wanted to go there."

No answer, except an irritated look. "Not again, Mom! Sir used to make us work so hard....I don't want to talk about this any more. I have a History Project to do."

End of conversation. Hmmmmm.....

Nidhi is a good dancer. A really good one. I can tell - I have always loved dance and dancing. I have danced for years, too far back in time, but the love has stayed with me. I can tell the difference between a good dancer, and a forced one. I can tell who is a superficial dancer, and who is a natural. And I can tell when the movements are intrinsically beautiful, or made beautiful by the settings and the dresses that the dancer wears. I just know dance.

Hence, I know that Katreena Kaif is a pedestrain dancer. Kareena is not bad. They both have pretty faces and pretty dresses - like all Bollywood heroines, but their dance is nothing to remember. Bollywood has popularized dance all right, but it is no way the standard for dance. Not by a long shot. And Nidhi wants to emulate what goes around as being as dance by two bollywood actresses. Ah Well...

Nidhi is a natural dancer all right, but she has miles to go before she becomes an excellent one. She chafes at working hard, and I know it would be very difficult for her to reach excellence. Further, even if she is excellent, if she follows her dreams of being a dancer, I don't know whether she would have a shot at being a memorable, successful one.

Why do I say that? Lets take Kathak, a dance form I am passionate about. In all the years of my adult life, Birju Maharaj has ruled the roost amongst Kathak dancers. And he is still at the top. No doubt he deserves it. But how come this is so? Have there been no good dancers in 25 long years? Has he guarded the seat jealously and pushed others away? Even though he is close to 75 now, there is no good second line of dancers, who comes even 50% close to the audience he can get, the money he receives and the fame he has.

In the world of art, the cliff is a very steep one. There is a place for only the first. If there is. And then, in the pecking order, positions start from 50th to 100th. There is nothing in between. Either the artist is opulent, or the artist is barely surviving. There is not much of a middle ground. From the 50th to 100th, the dancers have to prostitute their art to just survive. Maybe take dance classes for small kids - who in terms of art, do not come even 5% close to what they can teach, or marry a rich man, or better still, get divorced from a rich man!

For every Birju Maharaj that we see on the cliff, there are thousands of wanna-be Birju Maharaj's who died trying. And none of them have lived to tell the tale. We see only THE Birju Maharaj, and we hear the bards who sing the story of a young kid who followed his dreams, and made it big on the stage. Yeah, right.

As for becoming someone like Katreena Kaif, I do not even want to hazard a guess to what happened to thousands of other Katreena wanna-be's. The thought itself scares me. No way in hell a daughter of mine will find herself on that route.

Contrast this with, lets say, investment bankers. There is nothing glorious about the jobs they do. Most of them are just trained to find suckers, and they drive around in big cars, hold soirees for the Birju Maharaj's of the time, and wear expensive dresses. But - and here is the key difference - they are a veritable tribe! Further, there are no cliffs in investment banking. They all jostle on a plateau, which has a small hill of excellence on it, which one of them climbs every so often. None of them stay on the hill for not long, but most do get a shot at the hill, however brief, if they try long enough. Even mediocre bankers make enough money to live well, none of the keep-the-body-and-soul-together business here. Also, what a star banker makes and does, and what a mediocre one makes and does, is not a the difference between survival and opulence - it is only of degree.

As a parent, what would you rather have your child do? Be an artist or an investment banker? Let her follow her dream, of force her towards the beaten path?

As an artist, she would have to work hard, very hard. Truth be told, even harder than the brightest investment banker. And then, she would have to play the fate game. Competition would be intense. Only if she is lucky, she would be recognized and celebrated. If fate cries foul, she could even struggle for survival. Yes, she would have followed her dream, but she could easily die trying. Her tale would not be told, and no bards would sing about her. Worse, she could be begging for work, from dirty opportunists who would not be above using her, in any which way they can. This is a dangerously risky business.

And as an investment banker, sure, she would have to work hard too. Not very though. On dark dreary stuff. But for a short while. Then, she would join the thousands of positions available on the investment banker plateau, and have a decent routine to live to. Her uncertainties would reduce to a large extent, she would have food on the table and a decent roof on her head, even though she may not be a stellar banker. True, no songs will be sung about her work, no press would spend time reviewing her. Routine, non-aesthtic, non-excellence oriented jobs do have their compensations.

As a parent, what road would I advise my daughter to take? The steep, uncertain not so travelled road to the cliff, or the motorable much traveled road to the plateau? For, the road less travelled is often a cul-de-sac, or worse, leads to a cliff. Look hard, you would find all the bodies lying next to it. Do the probability math. As parents, thats our job.

So, what am I saying? No dreams for Nidhi, just the beaten path?

No. I love her, how can I turn away from her dreams? Could I convince her not the take that leap of faith at this time, and continue on the beaten path for a while at least? Work on two roads at the same time. Try out the road-less-travelled and see how it goes, as she works the regular road. See if she can take the other road. See if she has the smarts and the brutal hard work required for this unbeaten path. Work with her so that she can gather strength in her wings, so that she can have a safety net to fall into, if the cliff proves to be a death trap.

After all, no one does bungee jumping without a chord on the feet, do they?


Insignificance. Isn't that what all of us fight against, all our lives? And even if we do become significant, to maybe some people or some animals, would it really matter in the long run? In the great scheme of things? To the cosmos? To the universe?

All Izz Well

This line is very popular these days. My daughter says it to me before going to school, her friends say this to each other, youngsters tap on their chests as they walk jauntily, and yesterday, I even saw a T-shirt emblazoned on it.

The "3 Idiots" fever is upon us. I enjoyed the movie too, immensely. A tale entertainingly told, about the most primitive deep rooted desire of ours - to make meaning with our lives. And this is in India, where making meaning is something that several of our country folks can only just dream of, most managing to just about survive. The setting is the young India, the youngistan, as they call it in the bubble gum kitshcy vocab that goes around these days.

Young people will dream. As they have always done. Always should. Always would. And every generation dishes out these feel-good movies, where the young are told that what they do, can and will, matter. Feeding them optimism and idealism. Thank God I am not young anymore. All this "All Izz Well" chant does not generate a fervor in me.

Most of our lives, All is not well. For most of us, what we do, does not really matter to anyone, except our immediate family, whom we feed and clothe. Most of us do not find what we love to do, leave alone being competent to do it. Most of us just survive.

The odds of finding the one thing that one was meant to do in the world are stacked against one. There are so many things in the world to do, how does anybody know what they are best at? Who defines best? How does one know that one is good at building bridges when one has never built one? Or even seen it?

I am not sure why this is so. There are people who DO find what they love, indeed, I am one of the fortunate ones, as I love what I do - not all the time, but most of the time. But only I know how long it took, the knocks I braved, the search that it took, the work after it, and even when I am here- my moments of doubt. So many of them. When I run into stone walls, barren fields, abusive team mates, irate customers, I despair still, and wonder if it was worth it all. This fleeting feeling of love for what I do -will it matter to me, really really matter, in say 5 years from now? In ten? Would it matter to anyone else?

How many of us really find what we love to do? And how many of us are sure that this is it, the thing that we really were sent to this world to do? How many of us really know what we want? How many of us even know how to go about finding out what we want? And when we do find out, how many of us make a mistake? How many of us make a mistake, and then get stuck there, like a helpless fly in a spiders net? There are divorces in marital lives - but none in the professional life. Once an adult takes up a profession, he can never really shrug it off. Why isn't there a notion of divorcing your earlier-acquired-profession? If people make mistakes in finding mates, and give a name to it (divorce) for correcting their mistake, why is there still no word for changing ones profession?

Oh, don't give me that hogwash of the universe conspiring to give me that I really really want! Just tell me how I can figure out what I really really want, and what I am good at. And that too early in life, in youngistan days... the rest will fall in place.....