About dignity

I was watching the short film Chhuri the other day and by the end I dissolved into helpless laughter. This might sound like a strange reaction to a story about adultery but there was a  dark deliciousness that was laugh out loud funny. At the same time, I found myself thinking about another very different take on this eternal triangle business.

The ghuroor scene from Bajiro Mastani is one my favourites. In my view it could pretty much be it’s own short film. The context is self evident and the rest is all just there. If you are the sort of Bhansali hater who sits comatose through his movies like my husband, all the footnotes you would need is that this scene involves an adulterous husband having a conversation with his wronged wife.

He walks in on a festival day, moved by what? Guilt, perhaps? He notes that she is not celebrating. She follows his lead of pretend normalcy but subverts it subtly so he cannot get away with it. He reminds her of an important, recurring ritual of their long marriage. She laughs and reduces it to ceremony. She is welcoming and gracious with a stream of gentle chatter that she uses to hide, thinly, her sarcasm. In her own way, she too is a chhuri. But her eyes are wet with unshed tears and the scene is played at a very different pitch. As she breaks his defences, he abandons the finesse and they come to the point. It is very clear to her that what she wants is the one thing she cannot get. So she demands the restoration of her dignity instead.

I just love this scene. And by how easy it is to search for the ghuroor scene on youtube, I am clearly not the only one. Even people who hate Bhansali’s style of overblown melodrama must surely be moved, just a little bit, by the delicate nuance and all-round wonderful acting on display here.

Chhuri on the other hand is going for something else. You know this from the movie poster. The movie begins with a short but surprisingly detailed stretch where the family dynamics are laid out. Within a few seconds you know this – The family is well off. The mother has possibly quit her job to care for her home. Her kids and the domestic help don’t listen to her too much. She does manage to work around this and get her own way. Her daughter is going through teen rebellion. Oh and her husband is cheating on her. By the time her daughter pronounces her verdict on her mom (Hopeless!!), it is definitely disadvantage mom.

But while she acts on the situation along the same lines as Kashibai above, her pretend normalcy hides no unshed tears. She is playing for higher stakes than her own dignity here. She too smiles and makes small talk. She too subverts. I would hate to give anything away since this is still a relatively new film. Just, by the time she is done, it is he who is scrambling to save some shred of dignity. Clearly, revenge is a dish best served finely chopped with a knife dipped in syrup!

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Padman – The Real Story of How He Shot to Fame by Selling Shame

Mythri Speaks

“If we want to give our daughters Sanitary Pads, we’d much rather buy the good quality ones available in the market. What do you think we are…….trying to get rid of some cheap stuff by dumping it on our girls?”

These words came from angry mothers of girls from a government school in rural Karnataka. The year was 2010. The “cheap stuff” in question was free Sanitary Napkins distributed through Rotary, made from a low-cost Sanitary Napkin manufacturing machine. The machine was the one set up by a person called Muruganathan, at Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru. The person who facilitated this free distribution was me. That was my first and last stint at distributing Sanitary Pads or any other menstrual product in villages.

Like many an arrogant social worker, I too began my work in this space 8 years ago assuming that I know better than the women in…

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A Village New Year

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We brought in the new year in the charming Hoysala Village Resort.  The resort works on a Robin Hood sort of principle, taking from us and using the profits to benefit the neighbouring villages. The proceeds also go towards educating the children of all the employees in English medium, to give them a head start in the world.

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The evenings are given over to village style entertainment with folk songs and dances.  My boys were a bit unappreciative of this till I pointed out that the performers were mostly kids like them and just like a single piano performance(my boys learn) had months of training and practise behind it, so too did a fifteen minute dance performance. After that they watched most attentively. I was reminded of my own niece who is learning Bharathanatyan and amazes us constantly with her grace and poise.

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The highlight of the menu is home-style Kannada cuisine. I have spent seventeen years in Bangalore without eating as much Kannada food as I did in the few days at Hoysala. They had Holige on the menu every single day. Holige is known in Tamil Nadu as Poli and in Maharashtra as Puran Poli. It’s my brother’s favourite dessert and we have made plans to return already! They also had several local roti varieties like Akki and Jowar rotis, Ragi muddes  and other millet based foods on the  menu. These were totally delicious but also important to serve in a resort with such an agenda. Millets are not resource intensive and grow well in drought prone areas. They are loaded with nutrients and are the staple food of our hard working farmers. Bringing them back to our tables helps the farmers and helps us fight climate change. And of course they are totally delicious!

Very close to the resort are the 12th century temples of Belur and Halibedu. I visited the temple at Belur but missed out on the trip to Halibedu. The Belur temple took 103 years to be completed and you can see why in the enormity of the structure combined with the delicate detailing of the carvings. The temple was built by King Vishnuvardhan for his dancer wife Shantala. It is amazing to see such a celebration of the arts as an integral part of worship. And of course the laddoo prasadam is not to be missed!

The touristy outings aside, the children enjoyed the simple pleasures of bullock cart rides, board games (painted on tables) and hours of playing chaos tag and chain tag in the open grounds with not a single second of device time.

Final Summary:

  • Green Quotient – Well there are the millets! And there is the free availability of unbottled water. But multiple tiny bottles are also supplied daily, plastic bags are used to dispose of waste and there is no waste segregation. They had recycled tyre planters and claypot bins, which were charming but more needs to be done to preserve the pristine village setting!
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  • Food – Delicious and unique. While there is some generic north Indian curry style food on the menu, the real focus is on promoting local fare. The live counters where they dish these up tend to get crowded so need to factor that in.
  • Accommodation – The architecture and the flooring all have a strong local flavour. Everything is clean and nice, but not in-your-face luxurious.
  • Getting there – Hassan is a three hour drive from Bangalore. The roadworks increased our travel time but this is an easy place to get to, not only from Bangalore but also Mangalore, Chikmagaluru and Udupi.
  • Corporate visits – There is a board room, lots of rooms and eating space to make it eminently suitable for official events. But always with the village touch! Look at this meeting space with beautiful murals.
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  • The entertainment – They had a well equipped recreation room. Also, I loved that they had planned shows every evening. Tables are also set up in advance for each room which avoids the sort of chaos we experienced on our trips to Mahabalipuram(will post soon) and Dumduma lake(don’t plan to write about that trip).
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    The only negative here was the New Years eve program for which they had a compulsory charge that we paid for per head – not per room –  and the show had no variety and several repetitive performances. The snake dance was frankly unconvincing and looked like something choreographed in Bollywood.

The loud drums were more believable, since a lot of evening village entertainment is focused on keeping wild animals away. However, they were so loud and so relentless that we retired to our rooms long before the midnight countdown. My ideas of bringing in the New Year in a rural setting were greatly at odds with what was going on and I thought it best to retire early and pursue the quiet New Year plans in the morning, which my husband and I did! A quiet early morning walk in the village with not a single other human being around was how our year started and it was a good beginning!

’tis the season to be jolly

It’s almost time for Christmas!

I am a Hindu and this is technically not my festival. Although one could argue that in India, all festivals belong to all of us. But I have always loved books and Christmas to me is about all of this:

  • The March girls giving away their breakfast to a hungry family.
  • Hercule Poirot solving a murder.
  • Dickens
  • Buying plum cakes from Wenger’s Bakery in Connaught Place – which has nothing to do with books at all!

But these days, it seems to be mostly about shopping and stress.

Our Diwali celebrations are very homey. We make sweets and savouries. We draw rangolis and light lamps. It is the one day of the year that we all pray together. And then we take our pot over to a potluck with our friends and eat and play cards. Because Diwali is not just the festival of  lights but also dedicated to Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and winning at cards on Diwali is considered super auspicious.

But just as crackers and pollution are to Diwali, shopping is to Christmas.

Of course in our consumerist world all festivals are mostly about these things, but Christmas more than all others seems inextricably linked with shopping and gift wrapping. For most of us bystanders at least. But the other day, I got a taste of a real Christmas celebration.

It was the last day of school before the kids started their winter break and their school had planned a Christmas party. We moms then got together and put one up of our own. We pot lucked it, and gathered in one child’s home. We sang carols and the children played. We all ate lots of healthy, home cooked food, played secret Santa with only one gift per child and went home. Sounds like nothing much but it felt like Christmas. And a big reason for this, was the venue.

The house where our party was held started out in life as what in Delhi, we call a barsaati. One room on the terrace. This terrace now, was watched over by a giant tree. And fringed by plants growing in every sort of recycled container including discarded commodes and old shoes! In the middle of all this was a wooden table with a bench on either side where the kids ate their lunch. And there were baskets to shoot into and punching bags and all manner of things for the kids to play with.

Meanwhile the house itself, seemed to have grown organically one room at a time on a need basis. The only rule I could see was that the house should accommodate family. So the kitchen was big and opened onto the dining room which had one big wooden table for all the family to gather round and maybe do their home and office work and chat with whoever was cooking that day. The living room had no ornaments, no paintings, nothing whatsoever that could be broken. And the bedrooms, we were told, were added as the family grew.

What a completely wonderful way to live! I could not do it. I don’t think I am acquisitive or very materialistic, but I do like buying keepsakes when I travel and I have always been very house proud. I don’t think I could be otherwise but I wish I could. Because what a brilliant way to live. Keeping things so very simple. Figuring out what matters to you the most and making it the most important thing to centre the rest of your life around.

We learn something new each day and for all my blabbing about minimalism and the environment, this is one thing I could work on. But no more preaching.

Just Joy to the World! Sing along, folks.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Turned ten again (The story of my activism)

About a year back, I wrote about my older one turning ten. This was all the more special to me since it was a double celebration. My son was ten years old. And we had been parents for ten years. My mom told me that child birth used to be considered a rebirth at one time. She spoke in reference to maternal mortality. If you ask me, it is still true. You leave your younger, carefree, selfish self behind for good the day you realise you are responsible for this tiny new human being. Becoming a parent is to be born again.

But ten years ago, I had another rebirth of sorts. Around that time Bangalore began its struggles with the ‘Silicon City’ identity. All at once there were so many jobs. So then lots of office buildings came up. As opportunities grew, people flooded in. Soon living in the tiny places let out by the pensioners of Bangalore began to feel passe  to those of us getting paid little dollar (but big rupee) salaries. And so the tall apartments came up. And then we wanted the cool wheels. And the narrow, tree-lined streets just could not keep up. One of the early casualties was the stretch of the Sarjapur Road from St. John’s hospital to Madiwala Mandi.

They bit into my hunting grounds when they cut those trees. Because for me and my group, fresh out of the green IITK campus, St. John’s with it’s leafy grounds and college canteens (because it is also a medical college) felt like home. And that road was lined by the most beautiful rain trees with their perfect symmetrical canopies meeting at the top. All along the length of that road. I LOVED it! And just like that, it was gone. It was a shock but what hurt the most was that my son would never know.

People feel for the planet when they hear about the great barrier reef or drowning islands. For me, it was that road. Also the heart breakingly lovely mango tree in front of gate 4 Chinnaswamy Stadium but that’s another story. Anyway, that was my turning point.

My son would never see the Bangalore that I had fallen in love with. He would only see the travesty it has become. A place infamous for traffic and pollution and garbage and tree stumps. It was more than I could bear. Suddenly I felt like I had a stake in the future that I had not given a thought to upto that point. It became intensely personal.

I started by searching the net for environmental groups in Bangalore. My first engagement was with Hasiru Usiru and ESG. But marvellous as their work is, I realized very quickly it was not for me. I do not debate the importance of what they do. They were talking about lake conservation and waste management ten years ago when they were much smaller problems that we could reasonably be expected to solve. But their engagement with the law and political authorities was frequently frustrating and the confrontational style was not for me.

At their suggestion, I began volunteering with Trees for Free. Started by the indomitable Janet Yegneswaran by the simple process of walking up to people and asking if she could plant a tree at their door! I planted over 300 trees with them, on occasion being the only volunteer who had turned up for a drive and planting everything all by myself. It never felt frustrating. There might have been a million trees felled elsewhere but with every tree I planted, I gave myself and my child hope. Finally we reached the point where there were no more drives happening within the city. Bangalore was shutting its door on new trees and it became increasingly difficult for me to join drives farther off. So I stopped planting trees and began composting!

Because if not one thing then another, right? Daily Dump was one of the early players in the composting business in Bangalore. With the beautiful earthen Khamba, they made composting less about waste and more about aesthetics. The minute you took your composter home you knew it was about petrichor not filth. And this in the days before EM solutions and remix powder! I struggled with fruit flies and lack of dry matter and the futility of attempting to make do with shredded newspaper. Months after I had put them in the bin, I could still read the date! I had a few successful batches but then I got pregnant again and lifting the huge pots became too much for me and I stopped.

There was a break of a couple of years when I was a mother and a worker in my little self contained and happy world and had no time for anything else. But the outside world would not stay out and came knocking in a rather horrible way.

ESG has been fighting for the rights of the underprivileged people that Bangalore dumps its waste on for the longest time. And it is really as bad as it sounds! As people grow richer, we don’t care about stuff. We just throw what we don’t want away. But where’s away? Away is a place. Away has a name. For Bangalore, away was called Mavallipura. A village not that far from us. Had to be for economic reasons. A poor village. Again, had to be. Populated with people who no one really cared about. And for years we had dumped and dumped and dumped. They lived with a huge mountain of trash in their backyard. They ate their meals sitting under mosquito nets in a desperate attempt to keep the flies away. They lived in perennial stench. And suffered from skin problems, respiratory problems, dengue and depression. As ESG spearheaded their fight, it all boiled over to a day when one villager stood in front of the trucks and said ‘No more of your garbage in my village. Kill me if you must!’ The truck drivers thought to call his bluff, only he wasn’t bluffing. That man died. And then suddenly the Mavallipura story changed.

I wish I could say we mended our ways and stopped trashing our world. But we really only found a new dumping ground – Mandur. But the story became news and garbage has never since been out of Bangalore news since.

It was a wake up call for me and I started again with my khamba. This time I was not alone. A lot of ordinary Bangaloreans were feeling like I did. And they were thinking of solutions. Facebook was here and there were so many forums online. The simple but sufficient waste segregation plan 2bins1bag was born. There were many more composting solutions. I bought a Bokashi kit which took all the guesswork and indeed the work out of composting!

I had more compost than I knew what to do with and with the help of an active online community I began to grow some of my own food. And because I am before anything lazy, if what I planted would not grow, I was happy to eat whatever my compost gifted me! There are quite a few guava trees in my building that owe their existence to leftovers that made it to my Bokashi bin.

And in the process I discovered soil building and learned about natural farming and permaculture but more about that another day.

Things began to look up. Now when people visited they were eager to see my composter, smell the compost. Then they began to take home seeds. Gardening became cool. All my household took to it. My cook would compare harvests with my maid. My friends were starting kitchen gardens.

Sure there was traffic on the roads. But only because people would not stand by and let trees be cut for flyovers or wider roads!

There is garbage everywhere, yes. But only because the pourakarmikas – our waste workers – now refuse to pick up unsegregated waste in black plastic bags.

There is drought and there is too much rain. But there aren’t floods as bad as Chennai or Mumbai because our lakes are being revived.

Where other people see black clouds, I only see the silver lining. And I believe it will push through yet. You know why?

The other day, me and a couple of my friends signed up for a tree planting drive. There are more tree planting groups now in Bangalore and more drives within the city, but this one was a bit far and on a Sunday. We were a bit lazy. But it was a huge drive, over a thousand trees, and we figured it would take them time. But when we showed up, there was nothing left to plant! After a lot of searching we found one small sapling and the three of us planted that because having come so far we had to plant something! And then one green kid saw the three of us messing around with one sapling and ran up yelling ‘a sapling is being destroyed here!’ I wanted to say, ‘back off kid, I was planting trees while you were in school!’ But inside, I was so thrilled. What a long way to have come!  From being the only volunteer to watching a forest come up around me in no time. Kids, adults, older people all turning up early on Sunday morning to plant trees. People teaching their kids to mess around in the mud instead of playing in a clean mall. There’s hope for this city yet.

And there’s hope for me and my children. Because that is all it boils down to finally. That is how it began. I have a stake in the future of this world. I don’t want my child growing up in a place where winter uniform means smog masks! I want them to have all that we did and more. And if it means taking a bus instead of driving or remembering to carry a bag, that’s surely part of the whole unselfish parent gig?

A translation

शहर बसाकर, अब सुकून के लिए गाँव ढूँढते हैं,
बड़े अजीब हैं लोग हाथ मे कुल्हाड़ी लिए, छाँव ढूँढते हैं..

To find peace of mind, we fled the cities that we made*
Armed with our sharpest axe, in search of the nearest shade


*A translation. Not my own. Just an appeal for responsible travel

A Question of Identity

I saw this joke on Whatsapp the other day:

A potato was interrogated by the cops. After 3 hrs of torture, it gave in and said “Main batata hoon! Main batata hoon!”

If you got that joke, you’re probably an Indian. If you didn’t, I hate explaining jokes but here goes.  In Hindi ‘Main batata hoon” means “I will tell” whereas in Marathi it means “I am a potato”.

We speak a crazy number of languages in India and not too many speak Marathi but everyone who has heard of the batata vada (most everyone) would have caught this pun like a shot. We wear our cultural diversity lightly most of the time.

But once in a while the whole language issue blows up. This was very confusing to me  growing up as a Tamilian in New Delhi. When people would be shocked that my siblings and I did not attend the Tamil school and had not been taught to read or write in Tamil. How did it matter, I would wonder. No one around us read or wrote in Tamil anyway. We could speak and understand. Why was that not enough?

As a grown up, I can see some merit to their thought process. Language is definitely more than a means of current communication. It is a means to communicate with your own history. A link with your past. And if you think history is only kings and invasions, think again. I wrote once about the formidable Meenakshi Ammal. If someone had not translated her masterpieces to English, I would never have learnt to cook the smallest thing that I had grown up eating. Or books! I have never read Ponniyin Selvan or the Thirukural. It is amazing to know that my mother tongue is a language that originated in 500BC and is still alive and relevant! But the wealth of literature and theatre and cinema are largely inaccessible to me. That’s a pity!

It is hard to obsess over that these days with so many cross cultural marriages. My husband is a pahadi who grew up in Hindi-speaking Uttar Pradesh. My sister got married to a man who has two mother tongues! His mother being from one state and his father another. At least three of my cousins are married to people from Andhra Pradesh and one to someone from Kerala. Fluidity and flexibility of language is very much a part of my family’s mental make-up. We often switch between three languages, sometimes in one sentence! But how or why to force the children to walk only one road?

It has been on my mind of late. It all started while in the market in Titisee when a Pakistani man reproached me for speaking to my son in English. He was all hamara desh and hamari zubaan which is very sweet to see but nothing could more forcefully represent that we were not the same desh than his ignorance of how many Indians there are for whom Hindi simply is not their first language!

Then I thought some more about it when the Metro boards were defaced for carrying Hindi signage. And then when a man lost a limb wading into a  crocodile infested pool because the warning was in Kannada (It should really have been skull and crossbones). And finally with all the unrest in Catalonia.

Language was invented as a means of communication. A link. When did it become a divide?

Strangely, my guess is that it is globalisation that is to blame. The more we mix and the more we homogenise, the more desperately we want to establish our uniqueness. The Pakistani in Titisee, Hindi was so important to him! Important enough to make a countryman out of someone who was traditionally supposed to be held in dislike, only because he was away from home. In a place surrounded by a different culture and language, he didn’t mind clutching even at straws. For me in my own country, not such a big  issue!

When our gated communities  start resembling suburban America and you cannot tell one city apart from another, we start giving undue importance to the little stuff. Paneer in Bangalore is not like in Delhi. Oh but our idli is softer! And language becomes a similar casualty.

This is also what I felt instinctively when I saw people in hijabs in Paris and when I saw Islamic flags all over Kerala. Was the leaning on symbols fanaticism or simply a desperate bid to hold on to an identity being swept away by larger forces?

If we can globalise and still localise, not trample over the little guy when we make big changes, we can maybe calm down and get over that prickly identity thing. And I have no better ideas!

Finally, on a lighter note here’s the hugely funny and trilingual Biswa Kalyan Rath’s take on language. Oh and this is adult language – discretion advised!