Saturday, December 20, 2014

A feminist rant

For a long time now, I've had a bone to pick with the multitudinous beauty pageants in the world and not just because I'm a vegetarian. The thought of judging a person's physical beauty that includes obvious parameters like clothes, sharpness of nose, length and thickness of lips and the ability to come up with ridiculous answers like "I want to be the next Mother Teresa," is convulsing. The desire to become the next Mother Teresa isn’t what’s ludicrous here, it’s the setting that forms an uninviting backdrop — a competition that ranks people based on what they look like and how much restraint they show when a cheese plate is set before them. The presenter is more often than not a tuxedo-clad man who is paid to ask vapid questions that beget answers of the same kind.

Sure, these contests have talent rounds and personal interviews to continually reiterate the fact that they build an ‘all-round development’ of the women who participate, but in reality the ‘all-round development’ the contestants receive is how to be fair (or white, whichever you prefer), how to parade around in skimpy bikinis and how to stay stick thin to win. Think about it. How many plus-sized beauty contest winners actually exist? For that matter, plus-sized contestants even? It’s a little obvious that these contests are just another way to objectify women and hand out prize money depending on how symmetrical their faces are. The essence of this is best captured by Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth where she writes that, “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

The reason this topic deserves a tirade is because this week, the Miss World beauty pageant decided to drop the bikini round after 63 years of its existence. Its organiser Julia Morley told Elle magazine that she didn’t need to see women just walking up and down in bikinis, that, “it doesn’t do anything for the woman, and it doesn’t do anything for any of us.” Fair enough. Bikini rounds do nothing for the woman. Then again, when have these contests done anything for women? Of course, it’s a launch-pad for those wanting to get into movies, modelling and other ‘glamorous’ professions, but what does it do for young, impressionable women who are on the precipice of achieving something big and are looking for role-models? It only expects these women to achieve to look a certain way and put pressure on their bodies to have a certain shape — it encourages unhealthy notions of attractiveness. Beauty isn’t a personal thing. Your beauty doesn’t belong to you; it, in fact, belongs to advertisers, fashion houses, diet-food manufacturers, pharma companies, cosmetic companies who all come together to make the confident woman second-guess herself. It’s a patriarchal industry that pageants help thrive. The ones that win pageants go on to become movie stars, models and in turn help endorse redundant products and ideas that susceptible, adolescent women pick up on — that women and their bodies are mere commodities.

Today, feminism is standing at the crossroads but that didn’t stop 2014 from being its year — whether it was Malala Yousafzai being the youngest recipient of the Nobel peace prize, Emma Watson’s gamechanging speech at the UN, a number of women coming forward to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assaults, Amal Alamuddin going for a trophy husband, the Rohtak sisters who gave a sound thrashing to their harassers… it’s now more than ever that we need feminism — to help us understand that beauty pageants are superficial, have undertones of racial bases and do have an impact of self-image. Because what is feminism but a movement to achieve the equality and full humanity of women and men (Gloria Steinem) and how are we going to do that, if we’re busy judging other women on how they look?

An edited version appeared in The Hindu, MetroPlus.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

No longer valid

They ate more than they went on specific romantic dates.

Between plates of pita and hummus, cheddar cheese and sometimes chocolate chip waffles, glasses of peach iced tea, pavlova or crème brûlée, three cheese and olive wraps, chicken sandwiches and chocolate mousse cakes, they spoke. Of sitcoms, work, food, sex and writing. Of other people at work, of bosses who came and went and of people they both hated. Their days of dating came to an abrupt end like the time when they found a cockroach in a plate of French fries: unexpected and too disappointed to continue.

Just like the food they consumed, relationships too have an expiry date; a date beyond which conversation and companionship becomes stale and unpalatable. Have you had milk beyond it's date? It's sour and curdled. Or cheese, perhaps? It smells, doesn't it?

Relationships are no different, except, maybe the smells vary. If it's not the conversation you run out of, it's the attraction and attachment: one person gets too close for comfort and expresses a desire to take things forward while the other had viewed this as a stopgap all along. Or the other person is 'confused' at what this has become or will become in the near future, and is afraid to venture into the realms of endless possibilities the companionship may offer. In short, everything comes to an end, whether forced or not.

So what's the solution here? Is there a solution at all? Perhaps not. But as one enjoys the company, comfort and the fleeting love that food offers, relationships are quite similar in nature: ephemeral and warm.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It's all in the mind

Your eyes are tired and so is your brain. They probably want you to sleep more than you do. But your mind, it is the culprit. It keeps you awake than you should be. Voices circle in your head; they go back and forth. You lie awake wondering why it happened even though you know exactly why and what happened. You then wonder why it happened to you and then are momentarily distracted by the problems faced by starving children in Somalia or even those at the end of your street. The aged woman who begged for money at the traffic signal and the girl who got raped in a remote part in India come to your mind. You whisper a silent prayer and then think: to each his/her own. Unfair, but valid. You get up and write. Write, to erase the pain and the extreme sadness in your heart. But the words don't pour out of your fingers and onto your phone as they did easily from your mind to your sub conscious. You are aware of what is going on, wide awake and cursing your mind of sabotaging your sleep. There's nothing you can do but perhaps clutch your pillow and gently rock yourself to a deep sleep. A futile promise, it does sound good nevertheless.

You do finally sleep, but it's three hours later when the birds have started to chirp and gentle sunlight streams through your window and hits your face urging you to wake up because sleep, beautiful sleep, is nothing but a farce. A lie that helps us calm down when nothing is alright. "I'll sleep on it," you say, when you have to make a tough decision but have no idea what you're going to. When you want to put things off, hoping to be in the clear when you wake. Unfortunately, none of that happens. Because time, my friend, has gained in that blink of a situation. You have lost, but you are none the wiser. The cycle repeats again and you are left staring at the darkness, hoping to see some light. You do finally see, because it is morning again. And you haven't slept.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

On running

You know what should actually get a bad rap? (no, it's not rep. I checked.) Raping, sexism, stealing, anger... Instead, running has suddenly become a vice. I write to dispel that wayward notion that has been put into your heads.

Running has increasingly become my go-to choice for comfort, second only to anything chocolate. Music and books, I see you to(w)o. At this point forget everything you've heard about running and by that I mean, "ew so sweaty," to "In Chennai and outside? Har har, good luck," or "You wear sports bra no? Or two normal bras?" or even "Carry pepper spray I say, like dumbbells but with protection." Clean slate? OK, now listen to me.

Running is like therapy, but costs less and only involves you. Two, if you count your iPod. There are days when I've had to take decisions - some tough, some easy but equally tormenting - and I've always turned to running for an answer. It hasn't disappointed me, yet. I'm going to go out on a limb and say - running is a state of mind; it relieves stress and makes one feel good about oneself, while making you sweat. (Haven't you heard of "comes with a price?")  I've made better decisions after a run and I'm almost always happy with them. I've had my terrible days as well, but who doesn't? I have to admit, I did start running with an aim to lose weight and so far that hasn't happened. Surprise, surprise. But what I am amazed by it is for something that involves frantic movement, the end result is quite calm. Like charming opposites that attract.

I know many of you think that running borders on masochism, a concept that also explains why some women wear high heels, and yes your body does hurt but I have an analogy that might fit the bill. You know how when you really want to pee and you have to hold it for long but when you do finally relieve yourself, the feeling is out of the world? This is quite similar to that. Of course, I'm not suggesting you actually hold your pee all the time. Or consider slaving over a dish that you've been making for hours and the end product looks like it is right out of the Food52 kitchen. Or a story/website that you've been working on but what you end up with is something you've never imagined because it's too perfect to be explained. That. Running itself is perfect.

The beautiful thing about running with my headphones on is that I truly believe I can do anything. It gives me a sense of what life would be like with the right background music. Perfect.

But what do I like most about running? The fact that there are more than a dozen Pinterest boards to endorse it.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

I'm sorry

She could see him see her through the crack of her barely opened eyes; he was staring at her intently. Should I wake up and startle him or do I go on with this charade till he leaves, his train is in an hour after all Sowmya thought. She switched sides while scratching herself suddenly, a trick she always deployed while pretending to be asleep. (Show the right number of movements and the interested party will think you're having a disturbed sleep and will go away.) After what seemed like minutes later, but actually an hour, Sowmya woke up to find him at the door with a grey-blue backpack on his shoulders, a plastic cover with food for the train journey and a duffel bag with neatly pressed clothes, all double checked by his mother and dutifully triple checked by his wife (on his mother's insistence). Sunanda was on the sofa lazily flipping through channels while keeping an eye on her father who was ready to leave. Sowmya emerged from her room yawning wildly and stumbling all the same.

"OK I'm off," he said.

"Bye pa," chorused Sowmya and Sunanda. "Please call me when you reach the..." the girls' mother's voice trailed off. It was drowned in her mother-in-law's shrill tone. "Check again for your train tickets, eat on time, call us, when will you hear about your transfer, should I ask my brother in Delhi to help you?" the matriarch went on, oblivious to everything around her.

"I will take care. You please take care of your health," he said while bending down to touch her feet. He smiled at his wife, "I'll call, bye." She smiled, she was used to this. Sunanda's attention went back to the television, Sowmya was searching for her glasses. "Thud" went the door and what followed was silence. Not the pleasant kind but an empty, lonely one. Upset that she couldn't find her glasses, Sowmya went back to sleep.


She woke up with a start. Squinting her eyes, Sowmya looked around to see blurry images of people around her talking in hushed tones. Irritably she yelled for her mother only to be hugged by Sunanda.

"What happened, why are you hugging me this early in the morning," Sowmya asked. Sunanda just remained silent. "What is it? Is it appa, did something happen again? TELL ME," she exclaimed.

"Appa met with an accident Sowmee. But it's nothing serious so go back to sleep," Sunanda pleaded.

Sowmya tried to speak but for some reason she found that she couldn't. Lips were moving but she couldn't hear herself. "OK where is he now? Still in Hyderabad?" Sowmya questioned. Sunanda just nodded, adding that he was all right now and that amma was flying there in an hour.

"Su, how did this happen," Sowmya asked. Sunanda paused for a while as if gathering all the strength in the world to give her company to narrate the story. "He was on his way to work, on his motorbike when a guy tried crossing the road. But Sowmee, appa is always careful na. He saw this guy yet still almost ran him over!" exclaimed Sunanda huskily. "It was like something was on his mind, maybe he was still upset about..." Sunanda stopped abruptly realizing that Sowmya had understood what was going on.

Running out of the room, Sowmya searched for her mother. It wasn't too late, she could still squeeze in an apology. "Sowmee, amma has left. Look at the time. They'll be back in two days, please stop pacing around. It's not your fault," Sunanda cried. Sowmya, giving up after a while, sat down and stared in front of her.

"They'll be back soon, you can apologize then. There's plenty of time," smiled Sunanda.


Four months. She stirred her coffee briskly, went back to the other three cups. Apologize? Never, Sowmya thought. The first sentence that came out of his mouth was, "It is time for you to get married before I die." How could she apologize to a man who was bent upon fixing her marriage to a person she didn't know? How could she apologize when that was what they fought about in the first place? Sowmya thought that they could sit down, have a conversation about her life and come to a conclusion amicably when he returned. But her father was determined to make it a monologue, a short one with a curt ending. Never, never, never, she whispered. And now the guy's family were arriving in 10 minutes and she had to carry cups of coffee and serve them. How humiliating for a women's studies major.

And after a whirlwind hour, it was done. Her wedding was fixed. With a twist she never expected! Her father actually talked to her boyfriend and made it happen. Before she could even apologize, he did something that made her want to thank him. Suddenly she couldn't breathe. People were hugging her too tight. Too much happiness, she thought. "This isn't going to last Su," she yelled. "Oh shut up, why must you be so negative," demanded a visibly excited Sunanda.


Flipping by the pages of what looked like a new diary, Sowmya wondered if her father had ever used it. "Sowmee didn't we give this to him for Father's Day a long time back? Looks like he's kept it safe na," commented Sunanda. Sowmya nodded, there was nothing she could say anymore. Especially not her overdue forgotten apology.

Sunanda relieved her of the diary for sometime while she went through appa's other belongings. "Sowmee look! Look what appa has done. I think it's for you though," Sunanda screamed. God, no one can yell like Su, thought Sowmya.

Right there in the middle, where the pins held the pages together, were photos of her and Sunanda smiling awkwardly. And below the photos was a line in her appa's neat handwriting "I'm sorry".
Sowmya could only feel Sunanda hugging her tightly as she drenched the diary in her tears.