I saw a telugu film Stri which was screened on DD around International women's day. It was the story of a woman hopelessly in love with a womanising, alcoholic, gambling, good-for-nothing guy. She forgives him every time he commits a crime and tries to get him out of it, even when he sets her hut on fire while she is sleeping inside because she refuses to give him her chain which he demands for a prostitute he is enamoured with. The villagers save her but she risks their goodwill by refusing to testify against her lover. Even when she finds him with the other woman, she only blames her for trying to steal her husband while she is willing to forgive him. In the end she is about to be handed over to the police for helping him steal some cargo from a boat hoping he could have a fresh start. In her heart she knows that he would take the money straight to the prostitute while she would suffer beatings in the hands of the police. The film ends with her saying "But once he has spent the money he will have no one to go to and he will come back to me as I am the only one who really loves him."

I was angry, furious and in tears. Why was this woman shown in a favourable light? Why did this film win awards? Why was it shown in International film festivals? Was she someone to be admired? Was she a woman to be celebrated? Is this a celebration of the all forgiving, suffering, masochistic Bhartiya Naari? A perpetuation of the culture that deified Nalayani?
We all know it happens around us everyday - in the lives of our domestic helps. We know it happened in the years when women were helpless and dependent. And sometimes even to educated working women today. The other day a relative was telling me how her colleague puts up with an alcoholic husband who has lost his job and spends half her money so she has to struggle to make ends meet. Apparently when he is sober he is the most loving husband and she feels helpless to leave him, especially now that he is jobless and has no one else. She blames it on his circumstances. She consults astrologers in the hope of the stars changing and bringing miraculous changes in their life.
Why can't she see that he is exploiting her kindness and leave him and realise that is the only way he will come to his senses?! It is not a show of strength but one of weakness - one that is not willing to let go and help him seek professional help. Or do such women enjoy a sense of power in being there when they come back destroyed every time? If so, they both need psychiatric help.

Why do we need to showcase films that celebrate such doormats? I agree that it celebrates the capacity of a woman to love and forgive. But I think the need of the hour is to tell women to stand up for their rights and not be forgiving of such criminals. The girl in Stri is so drunk with her suicidal sacrificial tendencies that she requests the writer she meets on the boat to write her story. For what? Immortalise her stupidity? Does she expect to acquire the status of a Sati and be worshipped for her lack of self worth and sense?

I remember being brought up on a diet of such stories of sacrifice and masochism. Women burning themselves like camphor and sandalwood, like a lamp that destroys itself while spreading light all around. And it seemed such a romantic thing to do. Americans have a nice word for this : "losers." This is precisely the kind of anger that I feel when I see representations of Paro ( Devdas) and Lolita ( parineeta). Romanticising women treated shabbily by men. Women smothered by possessiveness - as if they are objects to be owned. At least you can justify these characters by saying they are from a period where the role of a woman was perceived differently.But Stri? Today? It is not enough to have laws against abuse and facilities for education to empower women. Women must rise above these stereotypes and empower themselves. And can we expect some help from media in putting an end to idealising doormats? Bring on the Chak de s and Dor s please. Stri s are passé and we can manage quite well without them in the sisterhood.
This post was set off by a post I read this morning in Jhumoor Bose's blog.
In a survery that she conducted for an IBN live article among her friends, colleagues and readers, 56% said the reason why a woman shows off her cleavage was because "She likes looking hot and wants to feel good about herself" and the second was 18% who claimed "She wants to keep her man on his toes by reminding him that she can get any other man she wants". From the use of the third person it seems that most people responded according to their perception of why someone else would want to show off their cleavage. I am not sure how many would flaunt their cleavage themselves, assuming they had one. In these surveys among educated people it is also the way the questions are worded that determine the response. Of the 5 questions asked, 4 had negative connotations in the sense that they implied that she was doing it for the sake of someone else and only one, the one that got 56% response was for her own sake. In today's politically correct world, that is obviously where most of us would like to find ourselves. After all those who took the survey are people who can read English and internet savvy which means people from the top 1-10% of the population.

Personally I have no issues with people who indulge in cleavage display as long as I am not forced to join the club. They can show but I am not looking. If they feel good in a particular kind of dress, so be it. But I do find it funny when they justify this under the label of empowerment. How exactly does the display of parts of one's body qualify as empowerment? Because you have the power to buy those uplifting bras that are awfully expensive (I am sure) or because they have large breasts or because it makes you obsessed with the way you look and what you wear, or because you can handle the lecherous stares of men without being bothered by it? What about all those women who wear it because their men like it, they want to look good for the sake of someone else - are these also a signs of empowerment? Is being enslaved to a concept of what constitutes "looking good" a true sign of empowerment? And finally how come people who are visibly empowered - the ones running countries and corporations and the ones who are entirely in control of all their decisions and their lives don't feel the need to make a statement of this by showing off their figure or curves?

Early feminists discarded the bra as a symbol of objectification of a woman - they didn't want to pad or prop up their breasts in order to look good. It was liberation in more than one sense. But how does the entrapment of your body in some numbers dictated by the fashion world constitute liberation? An added irony is that the very same people who support cleavage-display when the mammaries are aesthetically showcased , object violently to breast-feeding in public, the primary purpose for which they are there! So what is it? breasts can be shown but nipples are a definite no no? If you are about to tell me that a cleavage doesn't constitute display of breasts, a cleavage does draw one's attention to the breasts whether it was intended or not.

And finally, it is scary. Scary that 8% among this elite who took the survey thought that women show off their cleavage because they like men to lech at them. Here is a country where women have to prove that they did not invite rape. Here is a country where society judges you on your dress norms when you have been the victim of eve teasing, physical assault and rape. We have to walk among them, their bad looks and bad intentions. Is the display of one's cleavage worth risking all this? Are our women empowered enough (in terms of laws, self-defence and societal understanding) to handle this jungle and its creatures? Is it that difficult to look good, confident and empowered without a public display of one's mammaries? or is that what differentiates looking "hot" from plain vanilla "looking good"?

P.S: For those of you who are getting ready to throw stones at me, I am not judging anyone. Nor am I advocating the Burqa as an insurance against men with evil designs. I am just trying to see if as a society we are cleavage-ready. And to get your opinions on an issue which I don't seem to understand. How many of you parents are ok with your adolescent daughters in a low neck dress? How many of you men are ok with your wife/ daughter wearing a cleavage displaying dress in a mall for instance? Would you feel fine if they wore such tops to work? And ladies, are you truly comfortable in such dresses or is it just peer pressure? I sound totally clueless, ya? Blame it on generation gap, agelessbonding notwithstanding.
I'd be very interested to hear the men's views on this. I am saying this not because I think a man decides what a woman should wear but because I know some men who say that they love to watch a woman's cleavage but they would not like their own family to dress that way.
Anonymous comments are acceptable as long as they are not obscene or offensive.
Looking in the basket for onions, my eyes fall on a bag of tomatoes left to rot and I quickly rush to suppress the evidence. I tilt the trashcan a little, place the incriminating evidence in the bottom of the can and tilt it back so it is covered. Just to be sure I take an old sheet of paper and cover the contents and hope she won’t notice. My hope is short lived. A few hours later comes the dreaded question:
“you left the whole bag of tomatoes in the basket and forgot about it? Why didn’t you keep it in the fridge? You just buy, let them rot and throw them”
I pretend not to have heard her, all the while seething inside. Why the hell couldn’t she have kept it in the fridge? or told me they were outside? It is almost as if she waited for them to rot so she could score over me.
Sound familiar? Your MIL/ SIL has done that to you or something similar? Ok, not the same thing in this case. It is NOT my MIL or SIL ; it is my maid, my domestic help.
When you have had someone working for you for over 20 years, I suppose some amount of role confusions happen.

Just because I trust her with the house in my absence and tolerate her eccentricities in consideration of her loyalty, she has begun to assume more rights than she is entitled to.
I do not believe in constant supervision and tolerate a little shoddiness once in a way because I understand that her job involves doing chores that we try to avoid the moment we can afford it. Cleaning/ dusting etc. can be fun and cathartic if you don’t have to do them for a living and in someone else’s house. So I don’t make a fuss if I find dust in some places; I just pick up the duster and clean it myself. And some days while I would have happily lived on left over food , I make the effort to cook for her. I do it because she is there working in my house when it is lunch time and I also do it because I feel it is my responsibility to see she gets her nourishment as it is her only meal of the day. No big deal – just a sambar and a vegetable with rice.

I do not know if I have sent the wrong messages to her with my attitude and behaviour. Of late I think she suffers from a delusion that I look upon her as the mother in law I don’t have. While she will implicitly follow orders if it is from the male members of the household, she will always have something to say if I ask her to do something.
“Yellamma, use this polish for the brass things.”
“No ma, this is no good. I will use pitambari powder. And I will do it tomorrow ”
“Why not today?”
“Today is tuesday.”

What has tuesday got to do with polishing a vase? She thinks she is a pundit and I am some vagabond gypsy unlearned in the way things are done. Don’t cut your hair on tuesday, don’t plant something on new moon day, don’t pay money on friday.

“Water those pots in the balcony. they are drying up.”
“Oh they aren’t drying. I water them on alternate days so their roots will get stronger.”
“says who?”
“Oh, I was brought up on a farm and grew up with plants. As if I don’t know.”
(With a sigh I water them myself after she has left for the day.)

“Can you give a bath to Munni?” (Munni is my 1 year old hyper-active dog)
“No, She might catch a cold if I give her a bath in this weather. May be tomorrow if there is bright sunshine.”
“Ok, can you get her brush?”
“How do I know where you have kept her brush. You keep it all over the place and forget.”

And this is when I snap and tell her “ So that is why I pay you. Please go and find it.”

She is stunned. This is not how the game is supposed to go. She knows that she has crossed a line and the game is over. It is back to the employer/ employee relationship. At least for the moment.
Next day, I start boiling milk. Something distracts me – a phone call or door bell and then I forget the milk and go sit with a book or wander elsewhere. In a few minutes I smell burnt milk and come back to the kitchen. Only to hear her mutter:
“You do this every time . I rushed when I heard the milk rise up but it had already boiled over on to the stove.”
Sigh. Mummy returns!

I know I have to lay down the rules. I have to dispel her delusions rather than play along. My husband sometimes says that I am in an abusive relationship with her and feel helpless to get out. But she is old and she may be unhappy in another house where she will be treated like a domestic help. People tell me how lucky I am to have someone as loyal as this. 23 years, they say they don’t find people to stick around for that many weeks. And they see that I leave my jewels all over the place and they remain there untouched. And if my son has chicken pox or jaundice, she prays to the village goddess as a proxy for her employer who doesn’t “know” any of these things. When I grumble about her impertinent ways to my aunt, she tells me that I do not know how lucky I am. She should know because she has had three maids in the past three months.

So ok. I decided to cut her some slack and exercise some patience for the sake of all the pluses she supposedly brings to the job. But last week she stayed back one night when I was alone and sick. And I realised a scary truth about her. She watches the Saas-Bahu serials in Tamil and Kannada with total involvement and she has a television in her house with cable connection. And here I am , totally ill-equipped to audition for a daughter in law’s role, never having lived with a mother-in-law.
The choice before me is clear – fire her forthwith or pick up some DIL offensives and counter manoeuvres by watching them myself. Since I have been counselled against the former, I think, just to get my revenge, I will watch a couple of them over the week end and launch a pre-emptive strike on monday.
Can’t wait to see her expression. Bwahahaha.*

P.S.: As the tranquiliser was taking effect, I heard a distant voice say: “she seems to be under severe stress. Will be alright when she wakes up.”
I know weekends are not meant for one to sprawl on the couch and watch TV. And if you still insist on it like I do, it is at your own peril as you will be treated to the most boring programs particularly during the day. On the so called entertainment channels it is usually the replay of the saas-bahu serials or one of those singing competitions – every channel has its own either to select the Golden voice of India or the Indian idol or the Chotey Ustad or Li’l champs and their regional versions. There is a lot of good singing, even more of drama and glamour and hype and plenty of tears in the elimination rounds. What is distressing about these is that many times it is not the children but their parents who cannot handle it when their child is eliminated. The extent of the pressure this must put on the kids became clear when a little girl stopped her song midway and announced that she wanted to leave the competition. Reason: the previous week another child had been eliminated and on hearing this her father had a heart attack and had to be hospitalised. Fearing a similar fate for her father were she to be eliminated in future rounds, the girl decided to opt out of the competition.

Why can’t the parents be a little more relaxed about these contests and their results? After all their kids are on television, they are selected to perform because they are among the top 30/40/50 contestants. Isn’t that good enough? Of course it would be great if their child tops but there can only be one winner right? Does this make everyone of the others a loser? And it is not like it is the final concert for them – this is just the beginning and if they do not see realistically where they stand vis a vis the best, how can they improve?
And if parents do not have the right approach to a competition, how can they inculcate in the child a sense of balance in the face of failure and to learn from every failure.
I understand that it is natural for a parent to feel that their child is the best but then to work oneself to a heart attack when the child loses?

If this is the case with a singing competition, one can imagine the kind of pressure on children when it comes to studies. No wonder bright kids who feel that they have not lived up to parental expectations commit suicide. An article here in the Times of India today says “In 2006, 5,857 students — or 16 a day — committed suicide across India due to exam stress. And these are just the official figures”. And I assume it must have increased in the past two years. And what is even more scary is the what the president of the Counsellors association of India says:
“for every student who commits suicide, there are 10 others who have attempted it.”

I do not have any figures from the past to compare and decide if there has indeed been an increase in the number. It could be true that the percentage of teens breaking under examination stress is the same or even less considering the total number of teen population today. And it may also be true that all these may not be cases related to examination stress. But we do have these numbers now and we do know that at least a large proportion of these happen around the time of examinations and results. And today’s parents are more educated and more informed and more conscious about parenting. Some children perform well under pressure but most don’t. And why should there be this kind of pressure anyway? So that they can be called “Ravi ki ma”? have you seen that Bournvita advertisement? I think Ravi ki ma should go get a life and have her own identity than try to get it vicariously through her son’s achievements.

Is it possible to help these children overcome their stress with some support from the teachers and parents? Or is it our examination system that needs to be changed so that there is more continuous assessment rather than assessing a one time performance in the board examination? It is also sad that the 12th standard children have multiple pressures from the board exam, the entrance examinations for IITs, Engineering/ medical colleges and what not. This is really the most difficult time of their lives. Certainly this stress can be eliminated by using the board results as the criterion for admission. or let there be no board exams . Let the children finish school after 12 years and then enter college based on a competitive examination depending on the discipline they choose.

All that means government and committees and many years to decide. in the meantime, whether it is a school exam or a competition we need to impress upon the children that it is important to give one’s best but there is life beyond the results, however bad they are. And it is important to learn from one’s failures and not be devastated by it or run away from it. And this shows the complete failure of our educational system to build their personality and to instill in them the ability to
“dream--and not make dreams your master”,
“think--and not make thoughts your aim” and above all
“meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same”

Oh first we must teach these to the parents so they don't get heart attacks if their children do not top. SIGH...
On March 8th I saw a couple of Bengali films on Women – ‘Charitra’ which focused on the issue of rape and 'Diu konya' which showed the success story of two women who changed a poverty stricken hamlet into a prosperous community through their spirit, initiative and hard work. The films were part of a festival sponsored by , a women-centric online magazine. Please visit and join hands in their endeavour by writing on issues you feel strongly about.

Rape can be traced to several underlying causes – sexual frustration, perversion, an act of revenge and as an exercise of power. The revenge and power elements are born out of the social stigma that attaches itself to the victim of rape. She is considered ‘defiled’, ‘fallen’ and unchaste. She is a symbol of dishonour for the family.
So if you want to shame the family rape their women. If you have a caste dispute, go rape their women and subdue them and show your power.
If the community thinks a woman has not been following their rules, punish her by rape and have her head shaven off. She will be brought in line.
If a man rebels, rape the women in his household and mangle his pride forever.

Ok all this happens “out there” not in our families – more in uneducated, caste- dominated societies steeped in prejudices . We are educated, urban and more broad minded . So what is our attitude towards a rape victim?
We all show the right reactions when a rape is reported – we are outraged, we condemn the criminal and agree that he deserves the harshest punishment . We feel sorry for the victim. If we encounter one in the course of our daily life we would help her as we would any disadvantaged person.
I don’t wish this for my worst enemy but just for the sake of this discussion, if it were to happen to us or someone in our own family, would we be able to treat it as an accident and get on with life as before? Can the husband treat his wife with the same level of respect and love or would it somehow be tainted? (remember the film Ghar?) What about the rest of the inner family and extended family? Would they treat her without any reservations – would she still be treated as the Patni , the Grihalakshmi? Or does an accident somehow make her less of a woman. In the film, a victim who has been accepted by her family is asked this question if everything is normal between her and her husband and she breaks down and says : "no, what is broken doesn't get mended forever." The equality is gone. She is somehow inferior.
How many of us would go public and report the case? and how many families would think of family ‘honour’, sisters and sisters-in-law to be married and try to hush it up?

Among other dimensions of rape, the film explored if it is the besmirching of her character which makes rape so terrible for a woman even more than the physical violence she experiences. This actually works in two ways – first to keep all women submissive and if she is a victim, to keep her quiet for fear of social stigma.

What are the normal noises one hears from the ‘system’ when there is a rape?
Girls who dress with modesty don’t get raped.
If you are too aggressive you tempt men to rape you thereby exercising power over you.
A woman invites rape by venturing alone in the dark in lonely,less frequented places.
You cannot control what others do but you can be careful for your own safety.

Standard devices for keeping women submissive and dependent. When I was growing up, I constantly heard this statement on why a women needed to be extra careful :
Whether the thorn falls on the cloth or the cloth falls on the thorn , it is the cloth that gets torn so protect yourself.
The tear that they were referring to was the damage to one’s reputation and consequent damage to life.
It is bad enough that she has been physically violated and subjected to a crude form of violence. But she must prove that it was not consensual intercourse , that she did not do anything to invite this . And even after all this she is deemed a “fallen” woman – fallen from the high standards of chastity that a woman “must” have. She is defiled - she has to live with the stigma of a fallen woman.

And to prevent rape, we want to restrict the movement of our women - don't walk here, don't stand there, don't dress like this or that, don't go out after sunset, don't , don't, don't. It is simple logic that you cage the animal that poses danger to others but here we let the animal roam freely and cage the potential victims. Restrict a woman’s right to walk freely, talk freely, laugh freely and dress as she wishes.
Elementary, huh!

When a policeman asks a rape victim , as in the film, “what were you doing there alone at that time?” should we not be turning back and asking him why people should fear to go to any place when we have a paid police force. Isn’t every rape in a dark alley a sign of failure of the police system? If I have to stay locked in the safety of my house after dark why do we have the police? To provide security to the ministers ? Is the legal system all about punishment after the crime?

If you see the reports of rape there doesn’t seem to be any common reason – the victims are from all age groups, all social strata and there are cases where girls are abducted from outside their houses and taken to these lonely spots and raped. You can observe all the don’ts and still end up being a victim because it is not about what and who you are; it is about who THEY are.

So why bring up issues about a woman’s character when she is the victim of rape? Why does an accident have to become a lifelong cross she has to bear? The way a society views a rape victim can itself go a long way in helping her - to heal, to get back to her life with less emotional trauma. Above all it will encourage them to come forward and report the cases and not suffer in silence and also ensure that the animals are brought to book. And detach the notion of honour from rape and you take away the sense of power that these perverted men derive from a rape.

In the 60s , Jayakantan wrote a story called “Agnipravesam” where a college girl is raped in a car on a dark rainy evening . On seeing her state when she reaches home, her poor widowed mother immediately senses what has happened. She takes her in and simply pours water on the girls head; then she tells her to treat the water as fire and feel pure again and forget the incident.

Agnipravesham indeed - being through the horror of a rape is worse than passing through fire and surviving it. She is a victim, a survivor and there is nothing dishonourable or fallen about her. If anybody should feel fallen, it is the entire system because every incident of rape is a sign of the failure of a system to protect its constituents.
Some of us friends were discussing the new trends in baby names. First it was Arvind, Aditya, preeti and Neha; then it was Sachin and Rahul and Priyanka and Aishwarya.All these seem passé now so we wondered what was the decade’s flavour. There seems to be a preference for unique names rather than the names of popular heroes. Achintya, Bhadraksh, Adiyaman, Poongkuzhali, Aghanasini, Ahladita, Anarghya are just a few of the new baby names I heard recently. All so beautiful and sweet sounding but some are such twisters even to the Indian tongue. Imagine what might happene to Achintya and Ahladita where Padma can become bathma and mohan become a Mowgun! Recently I asked someone what his daughter’s name was and he said Ahila which I thought was Ahalya but it turns out that the child’s name is Akhila! Now some of these Anarghyas and poongkuzhalis are kids of NRI parents. I shudder to think of their fate in American mouths. They cannot pronounce simple names like Usha and kamala without making them into oosha and Camilla so why even think of names like Samarapungavan or Gnanambika. Mince meat is the term that comes to mind immediately – If you are a Tamilian think of what Udit Narayan does to Tamil in his songs. Kapisch?

I had a classmate in college with a really beautiful name – Tamizharasi. It means Tamil Queen but invariably the north Indian girls converted it to Tamilarisi making it Tamil Rice ( arisi: rice; arasi: queen)
If that was the result of inability to pronounce or ignorance of the language, there have been wanton abuse of names in the name of love . People try to shorten official names into short, cute (?) ones for daily usage and in the process end up distorting them. In our family and among our acquaintances and friends we had some classic examples of beautiful names totally annihilated:
Karpagam – Cuppu ( cuppa?)
Shivapriya – sheepri ( baa baa)
Padmini – Puppy (woof woof)
Kowsalya – Cow see ( mooooooo)
Meena lochani – Low chee ( can it get lower than this?)
Baghirathi – Baki or Bagee ( balance of what?)
Radhakrishnan – Rakittu/ Rockettu ( high flier indeed!)
and the Srinivasans who became Cheeni (cho chweet) .

And then there were those names that made you an easy target for ridicule among friends when they wanted to settle scores. There was a boy in the neighbourhood with a lovely name : Lokabhiraman. But when his friends wanted to tease him he became Lokapi (low kaapi?) and sometimes kakapi ( meaning crow shit in Tamil). Then there was a boy with a majestic name like Kulothungan ( the name of a famous Chola king ) but people insisted on calling him Clothu as if he was a piece of fabric. And Poor Savithri in our class was always called Savi one or Savi two but never Savi three.

I am not a great fan of shortening names and mangling them . But I must admit that I was impressed when I heard about two sisters named Ramya and Ranjini whose father shortened them to Rum and Gin! I bet you have seen similar creativity applied while destroying names. Please share.