Monday, April 20, 2009

The Underbelly Part 1

I had done this post earlier. Its a part of a 5 post series on the issue of Sex Trrafficking , the area I work on. IHM this one is for you and all my new Blogger friends Manju, Smitha, Vinod ji, Poonam J, Kislay,D,Renu, Chirag and all the others who visit my blogspace.

I clearly remember my first day. The journey from Andheri to Grant Road in the local train. I was dressed in a full sleeves green kurta with an orangish yellow churidaar from Shoppers Stop. My aim was to look modest and professional without calling too much attention to myself. In my hand I clutched the address of the NGO I was to visit. I also kept feeling for my cell phone in my bag, my only sense of security. But mind you I was not worried about the place I was about to visit but my absolute pathetic sense of direction was my actual cause of concern. The lack of worry about visiting an NGO in a red light area was not due to boldness on my part but naivete, ignorance and truly being clueless about what to expect.

I had undertaken this journey because I was required to. I was doing post grad in TISS and the course required 5 days of classroom training and 2 days,Mondays and Tuesdays of field work. I was hoping to be assigned to the Narcotics Cell of Mumbai Police in VT(oops sorry, CST). I saw myself as the sexy intelligent future CBI agent clad in a pinstriped, butt flattering pant with straightened hair, hunting down the evil drug traffickers with effortless chic.
But getting posted to a NGO in a redlight area for one whole year was a big let down. The faculty concerned saying that they thought I was the most able and mature person in the class for such a post softened the blow. But I was not sure what I would really do with these women who sold their bodies for a living. They did not really need me or anyone else for that matter, did they? Oh, was I in for a big surprise.

The nature of the place I was visiting started dawning on me from the minute I got into the taxi at Grant Road station east and gave the directions to the driver. The man actually in an almost slow motion kind of a way adjusted his rear view mirror looked me over and said "you want to go there?" He was a nice guy I guess, and concerned about me because he went on to ask me 3 more times if I was sure I had the right address. By this time though his questions were lost on me because I was busy mouthing "shiv, shiv, shiv......" as I took in the scenery around me.

I was astounded, and horrified, would be the least to say. I saw a narrow street with wooden rotting structures on either side. On the doorways of these houses stood women of all ages garishly painted and in different states of undress. I saw men walking up and down the street looking at these women as if they were wares on display. Some women talked and laughed loudly, some beckoned the men who went by, while some just stood there stone faced. I went by a cinema hall which had some porno movie playing by the look of the posters. While I gawked foolishly at the men standing near the theatre someone grinned lecherously, saying something which fortunately I could not hear. But by now I was beginning to feel the stirrings of fear. I could hear the ominous sounding instructions of my faculty supervisor asking me not to stay beyond 5 pm in the Center (NGO) and in any case if I had to absolutely stay after dark I must insist on some NGO staff escorting me back to the station.

The building which housed the NGO had seen better years. It was a stone building, a relic from the Colonial Raj. The ground floor had a big, dimly lit but cool room where I saw a few young children sleeping, while some recited the hindi alphabets with heartbreaking earnestness. I later found out it was a night creche run by a NGO. A place where the mothers left their young ones at sunset, so that the children could have a good nights sleep while they went to'work'.
My NGO was on the first floor and had 2 huge rooms. One where the center in charge and a couple of more staff members sat. The second room was used by the women and children of the area to rest, hold meetings, do homework etc. There was another room on the ground floor which was used by the visiting doctor to see patients.

Even before I had settled in I met this woman whom we shall call S. She came in singing and laughing loudly. She was vibrant and beautiful - the first thing I noticed. She was completely shameless is the second thing I registered,when she lifted her 'nightie'/long gown to show some sore on her inner thigh. My delicate sensibilities were under fierce attack when she went on to tell us loudly that she had made Rs600 the previous night. I was busy calculating how many men she had to sleep with to make that kind of money. The center in charge had told me that the going rate was Rs 50 and maybe Rs 100 per 'act' if you were lucky or very beautiful. You can do the maths. But I had to admit that there was something about her so like able that I used to wait for her to visit the center and would worry over her prolonged absences. I went on to befriend her by impressing her by my knowledge of the Bengali language.

The second woman I met that day had 2 sons aged 3yrs and 9 months old. She had close cropped ragged hair and I was told she lived on and off on the roads and the brothels. She had HIV and the days she was well enough to service men some madam/brothel keeper more commonly known as the Gharwaali would take pity on her, giving her lodging and food in return of the money she made. And on days she was too sick she and her children would be found on the streets, surviving how, I don't know. She died by the end of my year there. What happened to her sons you ask? I truly don't know.

The other woman who made an impression on me that day was a young girl whom I had seen from the taxi. She was beautiful in a way you wondered what she was doing in a place like this. Mind you this is Grant Road/Kamathipura, a place where human life is cheap, beauty is mercilessly crushed by abuse and exploitation and disease so great that you age beyond your years if you manage to remain untouched by the ravages of TB and HIV and cheat a miserable and lonely death.
This girl was dressed in a blouse and lehenga/petticoat playing the innocent game of kitkit while waiting for a customer. She looked so out of place..a very North Indian looking girl in a population mostly consisting of girls from Maharashtra,AP,TN,Bangladesh and Nepal.
After a month or so when I knew my way around I went searching for her. But I never saw her again. There were rumors that she was sold and sent to Dubai or Sharjah but no one could tell me for sure what became of her. Memories of her still haunt me.

Thus ended my first day. I went back to the safety and comfort of my home bewildered, and confused. The only thing I was certain about was that I was very wrong in thinking I am not needed here. I still didn't know what I could do. But I knew, do something I must....well that is a beginning right?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gender Discrimination

The title suggests yet another story in the countless instances of how women are treated differently and unfairly. But it is not. It is about how sometimes men are in a spot which does not do justice to them or to their families.

It all began today evening or rather night around 9 p.m which is around the time hubby darling flies back to our nest. He was especially drained tonight and told me he had a tough evening. It is the time of the year when appraisals are done and he is responsible for 30 appraisals. When the appraisals are made public the employee concerned are free to agree or disagree with the evaluation. Out of 30, 3 disagreed. One was a genuine case of technical glitch. That leaves two out of which one is and has been a problem case. It is the case of a woman whom we shall call Madam X.

Madam X has been having problems with her appraisals since last year and maybe even before, who knows. She according to my husband has 9 years plus experience and her work is not in accordance to her years in the industry. In an industry where working hours are anywhere from 12 - 14 hours and sometimes more. Working on weekends is also not unusual. The offshore-on site model leaves you with hardly any personal time since after work (US hours in this scenario) , these guys are on the phone after 10pm talking to India office. In such a setting Madam X works for 6 hours. She does not take any extra responsibility considering her experience. She is also not a team player and teams under her have complained and do not want her as an appraiser. Even the 6 hours she puts in are lacking in the effort and excellence expected from her.

She also has a history of turning any discussion about her appraisal nasty. This time when she realized her appraisal was not going to be changed (for all the right reasons), she turned hysterical. She started crying much to my husband and his boss's horror. She went ballistic and even cursed them and their families (shudder shudder). She has a child and is expecting her second one. She went to the extent of saying that they, as in her appraisers, were trying to kill two people: her and her unborn child. She talked about her family and how difficult it is for her to manage home and work. She left the office threatening one and all of dire consequences. More drama ensued even after she left but I will give it a skip.

As a woman I understand how difficult it must be for her to manage home, be a mother and be pregnant too. But as a wife and a mother and someone who is almost single handedly raising children considering hubby's working hours, I am angry. As a person with a professional degree who could have had a promising career but chose to give it all up, I feel angry. As a wife who misses her husband, who works long hours not because he is a workaholic but it is the demand of his industry and such are the times, I am angry. As a mother of children who get to interact with their father for just 1 hours or a little more on weekdays, I am angry. As my husband's best friend who sees the amount of hard work, both mental and physical, my best friend , my husband puts in, I am angry.

As a woman I understand and support women friendly work policies. I understand and demand the need of maternity leaves , day cares etc. And anything else that is needed for a conducive work environment for women. But there is a limit to everything. How can we sing the song of equality when these women want to walk off with equal wages, perks etc. while putting in less hours and even lesser quality of work. Working while pregnant or as mothers to young children is a choice they make. Do I need to bear their burden? Should my husband and others like him give up what they deserve because a woman struggles between her work and home. Should women have it easy because they are women and mothers and juggling work and children requires superhuman efforts?

It is a choice she makes and she should learn to live with it. Should she not understand that you cannot get everything. If being a mother and wife are also important it may come at a cost. It could mean lesser pay, fewer promotions. Working by the industry standards could mean coming up short as a mother, wife , homemaker. I am not here to judge the choices. But I do feel and strongly so, that it is high time for women like Madam X to take the bitter pill and accept facts. I as a woman , mother, wife and someone with a sense of justice think , this is taking the concept of equality in a different and totally wrong direction. Fairness is something at stake here.

P.S Objectivity is possibly not a USP of this post since it affects me personally. Would love to hear your opinion on this.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

No Apologies for being Religious

I am the New Minority. I am young and I am deeply religious. I am not God fearing but God loving.
I am a little weary of the ongoing litany, that non religious is the harbinger of peace and religious means trouble. I agree with the seperation of the religion and the state but fail to see the reasoning behind distancing the individual from faith. I need to make a case for myself and people like me.

I was born religious, then I became indifferent and then rediscovered my faith and became religious again. Religious and secular are not two opposing forces. Though this holds good for those alone who understand and practice the tenets of their faith in all honesty.
I am not in a position to write about this journey or my faith in absolute terms because I am still learning. I will touch on some things which change color and content for me as I slowly discover.

My Approach: "Sarvasya Chaham Hridhi Sanni Vishto" Bhagvad Geeta, which translated means: All are equal since He resides in all of us.
I believe in One creator. Hence everyone irrespective of color, race,religion,caste or creed is a creation of that One Supreme Being.Will I hate/kill another human being because they belong to another faith.? Never, because I believe in Divine Brotherhood under the Fatherhood of God. And it is my religion which teaches me that God is within me as well as in others.

My Temple: My Temple is certainly not one for which I stand in line for hours and could, maybe cut that wait short by bribing the priest or making a handsome donation, where they have a separate line for people based on the amount being donated, where one jostles amongst unruly crowds and is afraid of one's modesty and wallet, where the Idol is adorned with gold and diamonds and Rolex watches when there is a line of starved beggar children outside.
My temple or 'Amrutalayam' is Vedic in its concept and character. It is made of local materials and by local resources and is a socio economic center too.A place where all are equal in the eyes of God. It is simple and peaceful enabling a conversation with God and fellow human beings. Its a place where one could study the Geeta/Bible/Koran. Its a temple where the 'Brahman' teaches and simplifies the scriptures for me and not just chants Sanskrit shlokhas which make no sense to me.
It is a place where people donate because they believe the wealth they give is Gods share and that wealth, then is given to those who need it as Prasad, most likely in the dark of the night,anonymously.The concept of this impersonal wealth leaves no room for any feelings of superiority/inferiority between the giver and receiver.

My Caste: 'Brahman/Kshatriya/Vaishya/Shudra'...Caste was not an adjective but an adverb. I am not a Brahman because my father is...I am not born into a caste category , I become one due to my 'work'. I am a Brahman if I selflessly teach, I am a Kshatriya because I am responsible for the socio-political running of the city/state, I am a Vaishya because I am an entrepreneur, and I am a Shudra if I am a service provider...a engg./doctor etc.
When the scriptures talk about the glory of a Brahman, it is not the Brahman they talk of but "Brahmanatva"...a quality...a teacher who selflessly teaches the scriptures, an educationist who moulds the future generations, imparts life skills and not livelihood skills alone. And all this and more is done as a non commercial activity. Hence the Vedic society protected and cared for its Brahmans. Gurudakshina was not a compulsion yet something everybody did. A child would not be refused admission to a particular Gurukul because of a paucity of funds. State interference in the education system was unthinkable. The brahmin was free and independent and hence the best teacher. The society provided for him because he did not ask anything in exchange of what he gave. Our education system is a failure because it is a commercial enterprise, because state interference is the norm of the day. Because as a society we fail to take care of our teachers and as people we confuse education with livelihood training.
All varnas/castes are interdependent and there exists no hierarchy.

My Feminism: The Royal Guru Vashishtha saying that Sita is the most able to rule Ayodhya, in the absence of Ram, is my idea of feminism. Sita choosing to follow her husband into the forest is love. I did the same I left my work, my life to follow my husband across the globe. Does that make me a weak woman? Is my worth measured only by the amount of money I bring in at the end of the month? I do nothing, if I do not have a pay slip/fancy designation to show for it? Do I need to abuse my body by drinking ,smoking, showing my cleavage to prove that I am emancipated? Must I leave my 6 month old baby with hired help/day care to prove that I got an excellent education.Those are choices and definitely not a show of my freedom.
"Stree Shakti/woman power has been recognized and worshipped in my faith. I am an 'Ardhangini' or an equal half in the partnership of marriage.The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world is amply visible in the stories of so many great women...Aditi, Anusuya,Jija Bai etc.
Vedic theology conceives God as bipolar, having both male and female aspects.Vedic religion treats man and woman as equal.
P.S do not waste time reading the countless and completely wrong translations (sanskrit is a language in which 1 sentence could be understood in 3 different ways) and interpretations (there have been both conscious and un conscious efforts to malign vedic philosophy and literature). I can only suggest,get a Teacher who is well versed in Sanskrit and is a Vedic Scholar.

My Environmentalism: The Tenth Adhyaya of Geeta talks about the presence of God in the mountains, rivers, trees, land, air, water. If we only understood this without just casually brushing it off as nature worship/pagan religion, we would not be wracking our brains to reverse global warming and climate change. We need to look at the deeper thought than getting put off by the idea of watering a Tulsi and doing circles around a tree or worshipping a cow. Doing it mindlessly of course, also serves no purpose.
My religion teaches me to take nothing for granted and certainly not abuse what is a precious gift.

My Self Worth: Ishavasya Upanishad warns of becoming a victim to "vishay". Subjective happiness versus objective happiness.I am not incomplete because I do not have a fancy job title. I am not incomplete because I do not earn a jaw dropping salary. I am not incomplete if I do not own a fancy apartment or car. I do not become less if I am not vacationing in Europe. Should I wallow in self pity or spend thousands for plastic surgery if I do not meet the ever changing societal standards of beauty. List is endless and from the society's perspective I cannot please all and never will...and since the society at large is misdirected, should I care?
I am complete and I strive for subjective happiness ( easier said than done, but I am practicing...and God, is it tough or what Phew!!!).

My Fasts: The many fasts where people eat more than on reguar days are senseless. My fast is a way to detoxify and to not waste time on cooking. That time is to be used for doing God's work which of course does not mean bhajan keertan and prayer beads. It could mean amongst other things going out and meeting someone for no reason at all. Connecting with another human being, where no 'len'den'/ transaction is involved.To develop a relationship with another human being and to do something for them selflessly. Try it out... I was surprised by what doing for others,did for me.

There are many more things...........but I am still learning and loving every step of it. I am religious and deeply so and I am not sorry for it. Do I seem like a threat? And yes years and years of contortion and corruption will not stop me from researching and re-learning. I have a brain and I can distinguish between ritualism and religion. Thank God for an excellent teacher. For how do I learn my religion if not from a teacher, a true Brahman. My parents could not teach me all. I saw rituals and no religion around me...everywhere. Thats was and still is very unattractive.
My religion teaches me reverence for everyone and everything. This reverential attitude towards the world is a direct and natural result of acceptance of God who resides in one and all. Some fools who do not understand and practice my faith in its true essence, cannot stop me from doing so.

True Bhakti for me is a powerful positive social force which inspires me to pray everyday for universal peace and happiness.

"Sarvetra Sukhinah Santo Sarve Santo Niramaya
Sarve Bhadrane Pashyantu Ma Kvashchit Dukhmapunyaat"

Meaning :
"Everybody here should be happy. All should be free of pain and problems. All should see only good. No human being should suffer."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

When Gender Matters and Not

When Gender Matters :

1. My 4 year old son has threatened to disown me if I wear as he calls it 'yucky' nail paint and come to his pre- school !!!!. I am amused that though his father dare not challenge my life choices in any way, this pint sized genius is already dictating terms. My 2 year old daughter on the other has threatened to disown me over the same commodity but for a different reason...she wants to me to paint her tiny nails pink or else..........

2. My son couldn't care less what I dressed him in. The occasional Thomas T - shirt does light up his eyes but it really does not matter. My 2 year old already has a mind of her own and a distinct style. She wants to be dressed in only frilly pink things which she believes transform her into a "pitty pinchesh" (read pretty princess)

3. My son does not know where and why the mirror exists. My daughter checks herself out every time she is changed, hair accessorized, dressed or simply... for no particular reason at all... running to the mirror saying "dekhna hai or lemme sheeee"

4. My son owns 2 pairs of shoes. My daughter has at least 4 at any given point of time .

5. If hubby and I hug in front of the kids my son will stick out his tongue and squint, a sign that he is embarrassed or pretend he is not seeing what he is really daughter on the other hand runs and hugs her dad's leg vying for and successfully managing an immediate transfer of affection.

6. My son hates to talk on the phone and my daughter hates to hang up...already.

7. My son ends up fighting with the girls he likes, not knowing how to please them and emote correctly. My daughter charms, and bedazzles anyone into submission.

And sometimes Gender Matters... not :

1. My son is more likely to come home crying after a fight, and my daughter more likely to send her opponent crying.

2. Though my daughter loves to think of herself as a 'pinchesh' she plays with her brother's cars, trains and trucks, barely giving a second glance to her dolls.

3. Sometimes its the order of birth which makes a difference I am told. My son the first born is a perfectionist who shed tears even if he gets 1 wrong out of 10. My second born is brimming with confidence and even the attempt to do something, forget success at it, qualifies for her running around in circles singing 'I am the Winner'.