As a child I do not remember being photographed much - of course we had the occasional group photos where we sat in the order of height or stood like a line of suspects for an invisible witness to identify. The photographer never asked us to smile - he basically fiddled with his camera until he could get the entire group in focus and then clicked. My first photo as an adult was in college - I needed a passport size photo for some reason I cannot remember. It could have been for a hall ticket or something. In a scary dark room, the photographer asked me to sit on a bench, covered his head and the camera with a dark cloth. He stuck out the left index finger and asked me to look steadily at it while he clicked. And he forgot to say 'smile'. So when the prints came out they had me looking very worried as if I might lose that precious finger entrusted to my care, looking steadily and sharply through the darkness.People who saw the picture never ceased to wonder what had engaged my attention so much - whether I was seeing a UFO land. It was unfortunate because for several years later whenever I needed a passport size picture I was told to make copies of the aforementioned much to my chagrin - but then who would give me another twenty rupees and make another set? I was not applying to be a model or anything - it was just for official records.

Fortunately this photo was not considered adequate when my in-laws - to - be requested a photo of mine for circulation among their relatives when my marriage was arranged. So I received a fresh photo allowance of Rs.30. This time I had to get it right in order to make the right impressions with the in-laws. A lot was at stake. After all, first impressions matter, don't they? So I went to a shop run by a friend. It turned out ok although my idea of a smile seemed to be to look as if I was trying to hide an oversized toffee on one side of my mouth. The right side of my mouth was drawn a couple of inches further but overall it was considered my 'natural' look and worthy to be passed around among total strangers without biasing them towards me. If there were jokes about that look I never heard about them - so far so good.

Then came the marriage album - the mother of all horrors. A group of well meaning friends had got together and bought me a make-up set to be used for the occasion and what was missing in it was supplied by a friend who was a Bharatanatyam artist. So in the June heat of Chennai I painted on foundation and 'rose' powder and eye liner and came out looking like a kathakali artist during the nischayatartam ceremony - the eve before the wedding. It was as well that the sweat wiped it off my face after a few minutes. My natural horror look was adequate for the occasion in stead of adding colour to it! Whether cosmic forces worked in my favour or it was a result of seeing me in full make-up - the main photographer fell sick that night. So there are very few photos of the wedding itself, mainly taken by a friend who ran out of film midway through the ceremony!

And then the real painful saga began - job applications, driving licence, passport, bank accounts - everybody needed a photo or three of them. I tried leaving my hair open, putting it up in a bun, removing my glasses, looking right, looking left, looking pensive, looking amused - but nothing worked. I always looked like it was the last moment before something exploded on my face - 'good bye dear life' look.

I needed to break the jinx and so I requested anita, friend and an excellent photographer to take a few pictures. She has a magic touch of transforming the most mundane scene into an amazing picture and I felt I would be more relaxed with her. Being the sweet gentle spirit she is,she readily agreed. So we were all set and happily smiling and then she picks up the camera and aims and there I freeze at the very moment she presses the shutter. 'One more time', I beg. Again, the same sequence of events. Again, again, again until she finally gives up. Either I contort my face all the time which no one notices because of my dazzling personality or this happens only when within a distance of a few feet of a camera lens. I look around and see young kids hardly out of their cradle smiling beautifully and confidently into a camera and it makes me more depressed. Why do my pictures look like cartoons of my face - exaggerating all the flaws?

The only comfort in all this is the thought that bored officials in several dark government offices just need to look at my pictures to burst into a smile and begin to count their own blessings. Probably this is the reason why I have NEVER had any problem with government offices - they see my picture, smile and then cover it immediately with the stamp 'approved'.
'Being different' may be a great tagline for advertising products and films but not for the human species. You may be different or even special but sorry we prefer normal in our systems and societies - 'normal' as we define it, 'normal' as in being able to conform to our practices. We have no use for people who cannot 'fit in' - if you are a rebel and question we ostracize you, if you cannot cope we exclude you. We, as in our systems do not exist for you.You have to make the effort. We don't have to explain anything - things have "always been done like this" and it has worked for 'normal' people. Too bad if you are different.

Tare zameen par? - Thanks but no, thanks. we don't have use for stars on this earth. Let them stay where they belong - out there, far from us. or let them become like the rocks on this earth and earn the tilte 'star' if they can excel in our systems.

While watching the film and seeing the struggle that creative young child has to put up against the system that makes no effort to understand his needs, and how he longs to break free, I was reminded of a recent mail from my friend Chitra. She had this to say

Hi Usha

Indira who is the founder of Poorna school (where my daughter studies and son did his school finals from) read this story in our last parents teachers gathering and said this story was the trigger to start Poorna 15 years ago.

I downloaded it for my reference and it hit me hard that nothing has changed from 1918 to 2008.

Read it, if you havent and if you can write about it in your blog, please do. Indira and I would truly appreciate it.

Many of you may have read it - but I reproduce the story - Tagore's "The Parrot's tale" (totaakaahinI):

Once there was a bird. It was an utterly foolish bird. It sang songs, but did not read the scriptures. It flew, it jumped, but did not have the faintest sense of etiquette.
The King said, ``Such birds! They are of no use at all. They only eat the fruits in the orchards and the royal fruit-market runs a deficit.''
He called the minister, and commanded, ``Educate it.''

The King's nephew was given the responsibility of educating the bird.
The scholars held long discussions, the subject being -- ``What is the reason behind the foolishness of this creature?''
The conclusion was: much learning could not be stored in the tiny nest that the bird could make with just chips and twigs. So, first of all, it was necessary to build a good cage for it.
The scholars got amply rewarded and went home merrily.
The goldsmith started building the cage. The cage turned out to be so exquisite that everyone under the sun rushed to see it. Some said, ``Education indeed!'' Others said, ``Education or no education, at least the bird has got the cage! What a lucky bird!''
The goldsmith got a bagful of rewards. He set out for home cheerfully.
The pundit came to teach the bird. He took a pinch of snuff and said, ``A few books won't do.''
The nephew summoned the scribes. They copied from the books and copied from those copies and made an enormous mound of such things. Whoever saw it, said, ``Bravo! Learning is going to overflow!''
The scribes got cartfuls of rewards. At once they rushed home. None of their descendants faced any poverty ever since.
The nephew was always busy, doing endless number of things regarding the surveillance of the precious cage. Repairs were quite frequent. Apart from that, there was the washing and the cleaning and the polishing of the cage. Everyone admitted, ``Sure signs of improvement.''
Many people were employed and to supervise them, many more people were employed. Each of them got a handful of coins every month and filled their chests with them.
They, their brothers, sisters and cousins began to live in great luxury and happiness.
The world lacks many things; only fault-finders are there in plenty. They said, ``There are improvements of the cage all right, but nobody cares for the bird.''
The words reached the King's ears. He called the nephew and said, ``What's this I hear, dear nephew?''
The nephew said, ``Your Majesty! If you want to know the truth then call the goldsmith, send for the pundits and the scribes, summon the repairmen and their supervisors. The fault-finders cannot make both ends meet and talk nonsense.''
The situation became crystal-clear to the King, and a gold necklace adorned the nephew's neck.
The King wished to see for himself the lightening speed at which education was proceeding. So one day he came to the education center with his entire entourage of friends, companions and courtiers.
As soon as he reached the entrance, there arose a chorus of bells and drums and harps and flutes and lyres and lutes and cellos and violins and cymbals and mandolins and trombones and bassoons and harpsichords and clavichords. The pundits swung their pig-tails and started chanting hymns at the top of their voices. The repairmen and the laborers and the goldsmith and the scribes and the supervisors and the cousins greeted the King with a huge uproar.
The Nephew said, ``Your Majesty! What do you think?''
The King said, ``Amazing! This is a non-trivial amount of sound!''
The Nephew said, ``It's not just the sound Your Majesty, there is also a non-trivial amount of money behind it.''
The King was extremely pleased. He started back. He came out of the front door and was about to ride his elephant, when a fault-finder, who had been hiding in a bush, yelled, ``Your Majesty! Have you looked at the bird?''
The King was startled. He said, ``Oh! I forgot. I didn't see the bird after all.''
He went in once again and told the pundit, ``I want to see your method of educating the bird.''
And he saw it. Very pleasing indeed. The method was so overwhelming compared to the bird that one could hardly notice the bird. It seemed it was rather irrelevant to look at the bird. The King understood that the arrangements were faultless. There was no corn in the cage, no water either. Only heaps of pages had been torn out from heaps of books; and with the tip of a pen, those pages were being stuffed into the bird's mouth. There was no room in the mouth for the bird to squeeze out a cry, let alone a tune. It was really a terribly pleasing sight.
This time, before mounting the elephant, the King ordered the ear-pulling expert to pull the fault-finder's ears severely.
In a rather respectable and predictable way, the bird became half-dead as the days passed. The guardians understood that the situation was hopeful. But still -- as its bad habits were -- the bird looked at the morning sun and flapped its wings in a very objectionable manner. Some days it was even found to make an attempt to break the rods of the cage with its sickly beak.
The administrator said, ``What audacity!''
Immediately, the blacksmith came to the education department with bellows and fire and hammer and chisels. His hits were absolutely spectacular! An iron chain was manufactured and the wings of the bird were cut off.
The King's relatives shook their heads gravely and said, ``In this land, you see, the birds are not only stupid, but ungrateful as well.''
Then the pundits came with a pen in one hand and a spear in another and did something which one could really call education.
The blacksmith became very well-to-do. His wife got gold ornaments. The administrator gained a title from the King for his alertness.
The bird died --- no one knew when. The infamous fault-finder spread the news, ``The bird has died.''
The King called the nephew and asked, ``Dear nephew, what is this that I hear?''
The nephew said, ``Your Majesty, the bird's education is now complete.''
The King asked, ``Does it still jump?''
The nephew said, ``God forbid.''
``Does it still fly?''
``Does it sing any more?''
``Does it scream if it doesn't get food?''
The King said, ``Bring the bird in. I would like to see it.''
The bird was brought in. With it came the administrator, the guards, the horsemen. The King felt the bird. It didn't open its mouth and didn't utter a word. Only the pages of books, stuffed inside its stomach, raised a ruffling sound.
Outside, where the gentle south wind and the blossoming woods were heralding spring, the young green leaves filled the sky with a deep and heavy sigh.

Translation courtesy:

Yes Chitra,nothing much has changed from 1918 to 2008. And shall we make a wager if it will in the next 90 years? Unless we have many more Poornas and Ram Shankar Nikhumbs
A few months back I wrote about a problem that was weighing down my legs literally and my battle with matters of the flesh, actually matters that were building my flesh. OK it has been four months since and I went for the review. I cheerfully explained to the doctor how I had fought temptation during these four months staying away from chocolates and chips and how I did not miss my daily walks and more importantly, my leg pain was a distant memory. Finally I had nothing to be ashamed of when he asked me to step on his torture instrument, the scale. What has weight to do with shame you ask? While I am not obsessed with being thin, it does feel a bit greedy and selfish when you know you are building up more fat layers than is required to keep you warm in weather like the one in Bangalore - I mean what with people living on just one meal (not even square, sometimes just a small circle of chappathi or a sphere of ragi or rice ball) in parts of this very country. And don't ask me how, but it does seem like you are somehow responsible for their deprivation.

Anyway, I stepped confidently and waited smugly for felicitations to gush out of the physician's mouth. Nothing. He went back to the table and started writing on my sheet and then went on a panegyric about my excellent blood pressure levels. But what about my weight - that for which I had made so many sacrifices- all through the diwali/christmas/ new year time, hadn't I abstained from sweets and cake and wine? And it must have helped that I was down with viral fever for a couple of weeks - people normally lose weight after these episodes, don't they? So this was the moment when my physician should be tell me how proud he was of me and pin that gold star on my file; and yet, here he was solemnly writing out the prescription. Something was wrong with the script or he didn't get it.
So I asked, "erm, what about my weight? aren't you happy?
He looked up and said 'yes, you should start doing something about it."
I looked at the sheet and there it was the number: 68.5!
4 months of torturing my flesh and all for 1.5 kg!How? what?I mean,how?

An article in the WSJ here speaks of incentives for weight loss by monetising it. The startegy involves contracting with someone to pay them a certain amount ( quite significant) if you did not lose specified kilos in a specified period. The obligation of payment is assumed to act as an incentive to lose weight.
Well, these people who came up with the theory don't know me. I would rather pay than be under compulsion to do anything. And in any case what do you do if you are blessed with a system like mine that won't metabolise a normal diet and stash it under my skin in layers. Starve? Move to Somalia?
I think I know what to do about this - NOTHING. yes, you heard that right, Nothing.I am going to embrace this figure (yea pun intended) and feel comfortable about it - apparently this is the comfortable body weight for me as I feel good, have no discomfort in any part of my system. I eat balanced and healthy meals. I go for my walks and can climb 5 flights of stairs without panting. So I guess the ideal is not for me and my body has its own standards. Like they say, 68 is the new 58 for me now. That is it, end of story.

I may never fit into chic clothing which I anyway don't fancy and may not look like the groom's sister at my son's engagement but guess what? When there is a famine, I will have reserves to last much longer than the lean and hungry types and that is what the game is all about - survival of the fattest!