Monday, July 4, 2011

Some Stereotypes and a Love Story

Thanks to Chetan Bhagat, a college senior and The Husband (not necessarily in that order) I am writing this piece. Chetan Bhagat is not known to me personally.Though I am a tad bit tired of NDTV trying to get his opinion on everything under the sun, just because he wrote some popular fiction. Admittedly I enjoyed his book :Two States, which I read this week. The enjoyment purely because, I have been there and done that. My LSR college senior, because she has been putting up lovely shayari(poetry) on her Facebook status updates, evoking beautiful memories.And The Husband because without him the story would never be :)

Stereotyping is something which at times we are victims of and sometimes something which we are equally guilty of. My love story is abound with plenty of stereotyping and efforts of rising above them unscathed. Some of those incidents may seem hilarious today but were far from funny then.

Before I continue a disclaimer: I have been blessed with a great Sasuraal(Husband's immediate and extended family). The journey has been more or less smooth and I have been loved. Main Geeta par haath rakh kar kehtee hoon ki am not saying this, because someone from the In laws side may read this.

I come from a conservative Dogra Brahmin Family (as north Indian as it gets). And my husband is a Bihari Rajput (eastern India). A Bihari!!! at a time when Bihar and Biharis had unfairly become the National joke thanks to Lalu Prasad Yadav. The amnesia that Bihar has produced Chanakya, Chandragupt Maurya, Gautam Buddha,Babu Kunwar Singh, Rajendra Prasad to name a few is surprising to say the least.

When I first told my mother I wanted to marry and marry a Bihari at that, my understanding and progressive mother who had already met him, was happy. This sentiment only lasted for thirty minutes before it was replaced by an increasing sense of anxiety and panic. For God's sake a Bihari!!! How was a honest Dogra Brahmins family supposed to produce the kind of gold, cash, 'gifts' a Bihari Rajput family would expect. I told her in self-righteous anger and with LSR and TISS honed sensibilities that the mere mention of the word dowry and all hell would break loose on the boy's family. With lots of trepidation my mother went ahead with the task of informing my first love Dad!.

Daddy dearest like all the daddies, thought the guy was, a degree or two less than what I deserved. After all I was the star of the khandaan. I was a Delhi University Topper, done what no other Dogra girl (P.S. known to them) had done before...had gone to one of the Nations best college and Institute. All this at a time when my parents had to justify to the rest of the family why I could not do a 'simple' BA if that was all I wanted to do in some college in Jammu under the eye of any of my three loving but scary looking, bearded Mama's (maternal Uncles) and the loving but overly protective extended family.

I was allowed to study in Delhi with some conditions. The family also gave in because I was the 'good girl' ...I could do no wrong. And after three wonderful years of Undergrad years, I did them proud by getting into TISS, Mumbai. And that is where the brilliant track record ends. I betrayed every body's trust by falling for a Bihari in the City of Dreams!

My Dad gave in grudgingly when I said there was no marrying this Bihari, if I did not have his blessings. My dad melted and spent the rest of the following months gathering courage to break the news to the extended family, that his lovely daughter had not only, not, fallen for one of the studs from the Dogra community, but even his last name was wrong! At that stage my father would have married me to anyone from the country as long as he was a Brahmin.

The extended family (barring a few) was displeased about two facts.  One, that I had dared to choose my own life partner and two that he was not from the same community or caste. Someone even asked, if all the Brahmin boys were dead. This was more dramatically put, than it actually reads. Yes those Bollywood movies are inspired by real life and vice versa.

Not strangely enough I experienced some gender stereotyping too at both ends. If there were some in the Husband's circle who thought that I had ensnared their son, there are some in my family who have as recently as this year (after some bad blood between families) said that I had trapped this really eligible and bhola  boy knowing very well that he is a 'great catch'!

Thanks to some spelling mistake by the School authorities and thanks to a weird way that my Bihari family chose to spell, my husband goes with the last name Sinha instead of the more obvious Rajputi...Singh. Though it is one of the biggest sore points for my husband, it proved to be a great help to us. My ancestral village back in Jammu and Kashmir, still thinks, Sinhas are upper caste Brahmins from Bihar. They remain ignorant about the fact that my children go with the last name Singh...the mistake finally corrected with this generation. Ignorance has proven bliss here.

While this was happening in my family, I can imagine the fear clawing at my husband's family. I was this strange North Indian girl who had 'phansaoed' (trapped) their innocent (if they only knew) boy. The whispers doing the round were that the boy was under the spell of a Punjabi/Kashmiri girl. Some sympathized over the loss. After all the boy was fair, and highly educated, especially for a Rajput boy. Rajput boys usually choosing to look after their ancestral "zameen jaydaad"(property) and living off it. Moreover the boy was Phoren (foreign) returned...just back from a year long stint in England. The possible dowry was also estimated by some.I have to clarify that my in laws could not care less for the dowry and were more worried if I would fit in.

Horoscopes were matched upon the parents insistence and we breathed easy as it was confirmed that the stars do not frown upon inter-caste, inter-regional marriages. The planetary positions are still thankfully above (no pun intended) discrimination based upon color, caste, creed, and national/regional/linguistic affiliations.

My family with their North Indian arrogance thought my husband would be dark(as if that's a crime) ugly and uncouth. Surprise! Surprise!the husband if not fairer is the same color as I am. And is definitely not ugly, even if I may say so. The family in Bihar on their part were thinking I would be some loud mouthed North Indian Idiot (read Punjabi, by their own admission), who would not wear sarees or touch every body's feet as a mark of respect,when required).

The wedding went smoothly because as decided, since the marriage was happening in my house, the rituals were to be conducted our way. My family had successfully engaged with all the Bihari Rajputs that rained down on us that day in December. There was conversation and it was fun to hear the Dogra accented Hindi intermingling with the heavy sing-song Bihari accent. Each side thinking the other funny. We did our best with the Bihari rituals of Tilak, chaandi ki machhli, dwaar puja etc.
Our Dogra Pandit silenced the Bihari Pandit who seemed unsure of the sanskrit shlokas and wisely chose to slurp on his tea while our Pandit completed the wedding rituals. This was seen as a major victory by my side.
Along with no dowry my family had also respectfully declined to provide Non vegetarian food for the Baraatis. I understand all the young guns in my husband's family were disappointed at the prospect of 'ghaas-phoos'(vegetarian) for dinner.

Thanks to caste dynamics I had also been warned by a concerned friend and a member of the 'enemy' caste that Rajputs are known for their parochial attitudes towards women. It seems atleast according to this person that Rajputs have "Nachaniya Bajaniyas" ( dancing girls), especially engaged as part of the wedding celebrations. I had severe anxiety attacks,and visions of the husband,drunk, with strings of flowers around his wrist, and dancing around a Nachaniya-bajaniya all the whilst firing shots in the air, in the midst of the wedding party. Shudder!

I flew to my husband's hometown and cried on the way from the airport to my new home out of fear and frustration. Fear because I was genuinely scared of the Biharis waiting for me and what they would make of me, a non-Bihari. And frustration because my husband had failed to provide me with a rough sketch of the rituals that were to take place. I went in clueless and almost toppled over while hopping from one basket to another with my husband holding me from behind. These baskets lined my way from the car to the mandap where I sat down for some more Puja. The basket hopping is a quaint and charming Bihari ritual. There was an understandably added interest during the munh-dikhai. At that point the close family members walked around tense, waiting for me to make some mistake. And the casual onlookers hoping to spot the horns?
I am not sure what they expected of a North Indian Daughter-in-law...did they truly think I would be high-fiving and back slapping my Husband's Great Aunts and Uncles, cracking loud jokes, and breaking into a Daler Mehendi song. All this as I almost suffocated under the heavy wedding Lehenga and jewellery.

The third day, post-wedding as I prepared to go out to greet some guests, my Mother-in-law worriedly reminded me to touch their feet in respect and unnecessarily added that if I do not do so (as if I would dare/choose not to) they would think I was a Punjabi with no 'culture'. This brought on a fresh batch of tears, less because of the stereotype, but, more because my Mother-in-law still had my ethnicity wrong!!!

I am a Dogra for all that it is worth and very proud of my roots.I love my fellow Punjabis and Kashmiris but I was beginning to have a serious identity crisis by then. I was also beginning to wonder if the Punjabis had it worse than the the Biharis in terms of stereotyping.

The languages spoken in my husband's house are what I call the 'Bihari kind of Hindi', Bhojpuri and Maghi. The in laws benevolently spoke to me in 'their' hindi which seemed very foreign when on the sixth or seventh day my MIL asked me to get a 'chhipli' from the kitchen. I stood in the kitchen desperately wanting to make a good impression and frantically thinking of all the possibilities of what a 'chhipli' could be. In the end I did end up taking the wrong thing to her. It turned out to be a small bowl and what I took instead, better remain a secret. But I am wiser now and have another language skill in my kitty.

My husband too suffered likewise. He was at the receiving end of all jokes when he went to Jammu. He showed-off his Dogri speaking skills and repeated the only line I had taught him " Main eda mundu aan" pointing towards me. What he really was saying was that "I am my wife's servant", much to everybody's amusement and my utter delight.

Food was another story. As I braved the bland and super healthy food in his house (not particular to all Bihari homes), he stoically ate tons of paneer, rajma and nandadu (lotus roots) drowning in oil. I spent the first week throwing the too sweet Awla ka murabba out of the window, into the kitchen garden.He on the other hand had nightmares of being chased by Rajma and giant gulaab jamuns.

If I was amazed by the bright red nailpaint every married Bihari woman lovingly wore on her toe nails, irrespective of age they claimed to be blinded by what they called the garish colours and heavy embroidery, women from my community adorned.

Even after a year of marriage my MIL dreaded to introduce me as a Non-Bihari girl and would tell people I was from Ranchi which was technically correct since I grew up there. But the deliberate attempt to skip over my Dogra identity was insulting.

The stereotypes are not even restricted to our respective home states. In Mumbai everybody from UP and Bihar (I dont think they know the difference there..oops stereotyping) is a 'Bhaiya' ...a term more deragatory than complimentary. Once I told a girl, a Mumbaikar and a total stranger, who was in the midst of giving me a facial massage that I am married to a Bihari, and she shrieked "You married a Bhaiya!!! I was too shocked to give her a coherent and rational response and just managed to stutter " Nahin Mera wala Bhaiya achha hai!!!"

My husband has it easy at times, since the expectations are set so low for a Bihari that he always comes out with flying colors, impressing the skeptics with his knowledge, courtesy,and friendly and polite ways. For the still doubtful, my advise is to check the IIT and UPSC list of successful candidates. Education and hard work is not something the Biharis lack, most definitely.

I have it tougher, for being from Kashmir means, I am expected to be a stunning beauty with nothing less than our National favorite "milky white complexion"! Sigh. Thankfully it ends here and very rarely do I have to bring to life the image of a me in a shikara with flowers and a santoor, humming a melancholy mountain tune. Yes it has happened where I have been asked if I get off at the Jammu Railway Station and take a Shikara to my parents residence!!! And no that is not even an option!.

I am not sure which is easier for a Jammu and Kashmir state subject... being suspected to be Anti-National and terrorist or expected to be a raging beauty!!

With all the misgivings and amidst all the one upmanship games, the husband and I have largely remained unaffected barring when we fight and I blame the entire state of Bihar for what I percieve as his stubbornness and my resulting misery. Yes we can be petty too...the pretty mountain girls.To his credit he rarely brings in my regional status into a fight. But our accents can be amusing for him much to my chagrin.

What it means for my children is yet to be seen as they are already under pressure to do well academically because of a stereotype that children of mixed marriages have a higher IQ. They also have the added and misguided responsibility to justify their caste DNA. Well read, academically and spiritually inclined like Brahmins and brave and heroic,to justify their lineage to the warrior caste of Rajputs.

But it has been a decade of a marriage between two families,states,languages,litti-chokha and rajma-ambal, Madhubani and Basohli paintings, holi and lohri, sarees and suthan-kurtas and more. It has definitely made us less judgemental and increasingly tolerant of differences and more loving of all people.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Another Lesson Learnt

There will always be inequality. Some will be rich and some poor. Some blessed more than the others. I know all this not just because I read the news and am aware of economic and social conditions, but also because professionally I have a degree in Social Work which enabled me to work in situations which were far from perfect and with people who obviously are less lucky than most.

But the perspective on what life is gets a different hue when I go to my children's school everyday.
I have children going to a school which is part of the public school system in England. To put it in the Indian context I have children studying in the English version of "Municipality School". The education is standardized so they are in no danger of losing out in terms of quality. They could possibly be getting more if they went to a Private School but I do not think I can or want to spend that kind of money for 2-3 yrs. of my stay here. The Grammar Schools are comparable to the Private Schools, and substantially cheaper are for 11+ yrs old children. Children going to Public Schools is perfectly acceptable and the norm for even my 'class'.

I moved to England 8 months back and it is clearly a country much less richer than my previous country of residence the US of A. Thanks to over-subscription of London schools my children got admission in a school which is not in our catchment area (catchment area schools being the closest to the residence). By the English and the American standards my kids actually travel quite a distance to go to least 35-40 mins. by public bus and 15 mins. by car. The school also happens to be in a Council Estate. Council Estate is public or social housing.

In all honesty I was a little anxious to begin with regarding the fact that the school would have a lot of children from the Council Flats....children of single mothers, political asylum seekers, dysfunctional families etc. As they say it here children from the 'working class'.
And as someone who has worked with 'different' social groups...far removed from what is defined as "normal" by our society, I surprised myself thinking like this.

Oh! I have never judged the people I have worked with...women in prostitution, their children, juvenile delinquents etc. We as a family also have never treated the driver and the maid (back in India) and their children differentially. We have been kind and non-discriminatory.
Though now I ask myself have I been proud of a behavior which merits no special mention because that is how it should be. Economic disparity will always exist but someone from a different class merits the same treatment as anyone else and it should be a natural behavior.

I got a lesson or two and continue to learn as I now get a chance to deal with different 'classes' on a truly equal level. And I am wiser for the experience. It is changing me. Judge for yourself as I give you 2 scenarios:

Case 1: Children going to a school where most families are like us (finance/IT) : I would be having the same conversations with the same group of moms I meet socially. Planning and working out birthday parties, play dates, extra-curricular classes, trips to the Museums/theatre, pot lucks, parties etc. Trying to outdo each other with respect to the child's academic skills. After all we are Indian Moms and it is in our blood to want to excel and slave at everything. We would be cribbing about the same domestic help issues and life in general...husband, children, in-laws, career-home balance,weather. Dicussing parenting skills and trying to seek approval or appreciation for our 'methods'.
Having said this I must add that I see these as perfectly harmless conversations and I am a party to such discussions myself.

Lessons learnt: None

Change: Not much. I would still be 'aware' of all the social issues. Still hope to do something about something one fine day...sometime in the future. Life would go on as it is....self-contained and self-absorbed.

My children would be just what they are... privileged children unaware of the life outside their artistically done up rooms.

Case 2: Children going to their present school where the profile of the students is varied and so different from ours :
I see my children coming back to a loving mother, hot food, a safe home and I see my son's friend going back to a home with violence, less food and much less love. I see my child high-five a kid who has been to the woman's shelter thrice already in his young life because his father almost beat his mother to death. I see my son play with a boy who goes back home with a mother who smokes like a chimney and has seemed stoned on many afternoons she has come to pick her child up. While my children play happily in their rooms I know now of children who are restricted to some corner in a cramped 1 room tenement with a family of six.
I know of a child who has run up to my friend and said he wished she were his Mommy because she always gets snacks for her son to eat on the bus ride back home.

I have seen mothers forced to leave children home alone because they must work to put food on the plate vis a vis mothers who have the luxury of leaving their child in fancy day cares and with hired help because they cannot stay at home or want to spend whenever and on whatever they want or genuinely believe that their self-identity is linked with their jobs.

Lesson Learnt: Plenty and with a huge dose of heartache.
Wants me to stop complaining about everything I have ever complained about.. for they seem so trivial.
I have felt like kicking my own *** for the spoilt brat I have been at times complaining about the 35mins. bus ride to school and back and about my supposed "stressful" life!!

I am more aware each day of how blessed I am for being able to be with my children..nurture and nourish them. I am also conscious of how lucky my children are for all that they have.

Everyday the fact that I am so lucky is like a slap across my face...I say a slap because it makes me ashamed of all my petty issues and a slap because it demands that I think and act differently!

Change: I am filled with an increasing restlessness to give back what I have received. I count my blessings everyday. I want to protect each and every child. I know that may not be possible but can I not act upon all the existing possiblities, as an actor in this drama called life. The deep sense of Gratitude I feel overwhelms me at times.

My children could not have been luckier to get this experience.
They are gradually and will become more aware of the existing differences and become more sensitive and responsible.
They are less demanding and I tell them that giving is much more fun.
They will hopefully soon see that they it owe it to themselves and not to anyone else to do the best that they can...after all they already have a head start in life.

As a parent I wish to see my children healthy and happy. The last thing I want, is for them to grow up with a sense of entitlement.

I would be so proud to see them as individuals who give back.
I would hold my head higher if they passed on all the good things they have received.
I will know I have achieved some measure of success as a mother, if they don't simply talk of change but "do" and "become" that change.
Most of all I want them and me to be grateful and then do something about it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Moments of epiphany are and should be a part of life, lest we stagnate and not grow. I recently had some of those moments and what better time than the beginning of a new year !

I have been introspecting thanks to two friends. A, is someone I have always admired for seemingly, effortlessly managing both work and home.
And the other S, (whom I thought I had lost to work, home and life in general) is on a sabbatical and we have been catching up, much to my delight.

A has surprised me by her honest and fair analysis of the life of a working mom.
Her perspective :

S and her life experiences got me thinking. And I realized that though working and stay-at-home mums apparently lead very different lives there is a common thread which binds them.
Their choices to stay at home or work outside home maybe personal, circumstantial or otherwise but they possibly share the same sense of restlessness if they have not 'found' themselves.
If their choices are influenced and motivated by anything other than an understanding of oneself, the assumed happiness that accompanies their decisions and choices in life will be short-lived.

Take a SAHM (stay-at-home-mom) for example. If she has been motivated by a sense of self-righteousness and is forced by circumstances, then frustration will be her constant companion. . If the decision does not come from a certain understanding and reasoning, she will soon feel trapped. A lack of a strong sense of self will lead to doubts and a shaky self esteem. For obviously a society which associates success with a pay check and some fancy title will not let her rest easy.

She is in danger of:

  • Suffering from feelings of inadequacy and inferiority
  • The WM (working mother) arousing envy in her
  • Feeling like a total failure if God forbid the WM happens to outdo her in housekeeping or child rearing...she is supposed to be flawless.. for what else does she do, being at home?
  • Overly attaching herself to her role and falsely thinking that she is the most important thing in her children's life and will remain so.
The WM (working mom) on the other hand has the trappings of a successful, independent and confident woman. But the moral high ground of the SAHM might be unnerving for her. She maybe attached to her working status for all the wrong reasons. If the need to work is to apply all the "training" as I call it, and not education, she went through, it can be dissatisfying.
A wrongful association of self esteem and personal growth with her current employment status, can only lead to a let down later.

She is in danger of :

  • Being the victim of the super-woman syndrome where she is supposed to juggle work and home perfectly
  • The SAHM arousing guilt and doubt in her
  • Suffering from supreme guilt and regret if God forbid her child falls sick or does not do too well in school...for what else if not her selfish desire for a career is to blame?
  • Finding comfort and suffering from a false sense of importance in her job and title where she is dispensable and replaceable (like any of her male counterpart)

All of the above is such a waste of energy, a cause for anxiety and time spent worrying. It makes joy fleeting and elusive.

I have gone through some and all of what I have written. Only time and introduction to some fundamental questions gave me peace. I thank my new found spirituality and say whatever it takes to this tranquility and self confidence is welcome and necessary.

I have realized that much angst is due to us confusing our role in life vis a vis our purpose in life. Our role in life is something which is dependent on circumstances and and personal choices but our purpose should be above it all and much higher.

Roles change as time passes. Today my sensibilities stop me from leaving my children with strangers and hired help and take up a job, but tomorrow is another story. My role today is of a SAHM, tomorrow it may be that of a WM.

My role is extremely important in the life of my 6 yr. old but it will change in nature and intensity down the years. If I confuse my role with my purpose in life I will feel betrayed and bereft when in my 28yr. old son's life, his wife will become more important than me (the root cause of all the MIL and DIL drama). I cannot be substituted, but, will not hold an exactly similar position that I enjoy today.

If as a WM, am overly attached to my job and position, and do not see it as just a role I enjoy playing for the time being I will not be able to come to terms with my job loss for whatever reasons. I may also not be able to give up my job when it becomes necessary to do so for all the right, children, caring for an old parent etc. etc.

It helps to come to terms with the fact that with each stage in life we have a role to play and perform the ensuing duties....daughter,student,wife,mother,career woman... The earlier this dawns on us , the better we play that role. With time the role shall change. Hence doing justice to the role will always be satisfying.

A regular job cannot be the purpose of one's life. I envision no personal growth or evolution in it. I also do not see how I can limit myself to the role of a wife and a mother and justify my potential.

And when I say potential, growth, evolution, my reference points are my philosophy in life which says we were born to do 'something'. We are born to live and to learn. We ought to have a purpose in life which transcends time.

So each to her own but a purpose and a sense of self to all.