An angry outburst

On 24th September 2014, India rejoiced as the world cheered the all-women team of engineers responsible for the launching of Mangalyaan, the Mars Orbiter Mission of India, that made headlines across the world. BBC has recently done a story on BP Dakshayani, the former head of flight dynamics and space navigation at ISRO, one of the members of this now famous team. With all the discussion about how women are discriminated against in the academia and the endless tales of harassment and abuse that women face in society, this “success story” about a woman heading a major space mission is definitely something to be happy about. I am sure the BBC considered this to be one of those positive stories, that put a smile on people’s faces and leave people with a little warm feeling. However, as I read the story, I felt upset, irritated, even angry. I was left with a feeling of bitterness in my mouth, instead of a warmth in my heart. In fact, it was this feeling that led to this article. I felt I had to write about this, to bring this feeling out in the open. I needed to share my thoughts with the world, and see how people would react to me – call me insane, hyper, over-sensitive, a reactionary? Perhaps.

Why was I feeling angry and irritated? Why the bitterness in my mouth? Because, as I read the very well written story of Dakshayani’s life, I couldn’t help recognize something that I hear all the time. I am sure we all do, those women who balance their work and personal lives and still manage to be “successful” on some count. The world sees us as women, who have not ignored their homes for the sake of their careers, and thus applaud us. The world sees us as people with special skills, who can multi-task and who manage to be good mothers and wives, in spite of having an active career to take care of, and they applaud us. We are special because we continue to be women, in the roles that are meant for women, and yet, we are a part of the men’s world, and so we deserve to be applauded. The BBC article is titled “Rocket woman: How to cook curry and get a spacecraft into Mars orbit”. Cooking curry is as important as getting a spacecraft into the orbit of Mars, as far as BBC is concerned.

The article talks about Dakshayani’s journey through life, her passion for learning, her growing interest in space and satellites and how that took her from teaching maths in a college to ISRO, India’s space research hub. Her life as an Indian woman was very much a part of this journey, and the article highlights her struggle to balance life between work and home. Reading this article, one is bound to admire the lady’s courage and perseverance, the sheer grit to stay on her chosen path, in spite of all the problems that she faced. However, this happy feeling faced a wall when I reached the part where the author describes her interaction with Dakshayani and her husband at the Bangalore home. She writes:

Asked to rate their lives with each other, Dr Basavalingappa says he would give her “10 out of 10”.

Dakshayani laughs and says she will give him only 9.5. “Because you never ever found an occasion to assist me in the housework.”

In a traditional Indian family set-up, women are expected to bear most of the burden – and in most homes they do it uncomplainingly. Dakshayani is no exception.

At this point, I wanted to scream (I did, in my head, with expletives, now censored)! It almost feels like the author is celebrating Dakshayani for being the perfect Indian wife! And of course, the husband gets on 0.5 points less for not helping with the housework!

So, what’s wrong with a woman managing both ends and being successful, one might ask. As far as I am concerned, everything! Why don’t we stop applauding women for managing it all, and start criticizing the men for not doing enough? As a woman who lives such a life, I know that it feels good to be appreciated from time to time. But, I also know, that I don’t want my son to grow up thinking that it’s the woman’s job to keep the house and cook and take care of the kids and relatives and guests while the man can return home from work and watch some TV or spend time on WhatsApp or read a book. I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that she has to do all of these as a woman, because that is expected of her. I don’t want her to be appreciated for being a woman, but for being a person. I don’t want my son to be appreciated for helping with the housework in spite of being a man. And I don’t think all of this is possible to achieve easily in a society that keeps applauding women for being women and taking more responsibility than men. We need to think as people as persons, not as representatives of genders with set roles. Yes, men can’t have babies, and we women typically have babies at critical periods of our lives which often push us a little behind the men in the career race. So, what? We are different, and we have different ways of dealing with life. We can choose to compete, or just relax and take life as it comes. Why do we need to prove ourselves over and over again, just to retain a foothold in the so-called men’s world? Who says it’s a men’s world? The world would cease to exist without the women, and we better accept this for a fact. Why should we make ourselves proud because we can cook and wear sarees and write codes? Why should a woman who only knows how to play cricket be any less successful? Why should we have to keep proving ourselves as good housekeepers for being appreciated?

When India successfully launched Malgalyaan, the image of the all-women team behind the mission flooded the media. There were a lot of comments on social media about the women in sarees, with flowers in their hair, cheering and celebrating. What was the world awed by – the fact that this was an all-women team, or that they wore sarees (thus were typical Indian women) and flowers in their hair (highly traditional Indian women)? When we applauded the ladies for the fantastic job that they had completed, were we not also insulting them a bit by recognizing them as women first, successful engineers and scientists later? Would an image of male scientists in nondescript suits or t-shirts celebrating a similar success have drawn an equal amount of attention from the social media? Perhaps not. Or perhaps I am biased and hyper-reactive. Nevertheless, the questions remain, as does my irritation and anger as a person, whom the world always sees as a woman first.

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Gray Winters

I love the winter. All my life I have lived in the plains, far away from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, and I have often longed for snowy winters, my imagination fired by my reading and in the later years, Bollywood scenes with the majestic Himalayas in the backdrop. In the plains, winters are mild and enjoyable. To me, winter is a season of bright sunlight, the smell of oranges, homemade sweets and blissful afternoons of lying in the soft sunlight under a blanket with a book.

Last year, the winter was very erratic, with phases of warmth disrupting the chill, and gray, gray skies. The sunlight was half-hearted, lacking the cosy warmth of the winter sun, and there was smog all around. I hated it. I had this urge to take a mop and wipe the sky clean, to get a glimpse of the blue beyond. I looked at the gray sky and wondered if we will ever see the blue again. It made me feel depressed, and I wondered what kind of a world our children are inheriting.

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Relatives and friends often ask why we don’t have air conditioners in the house. I tell them that we want our children to feel the weather, to get habituated to living in all kinds of climate, to have robust health. We let them play in the dust and mud, we let them run outside in the sun and in the winter chill. We do feel the summer heat, which can get extremely oppressive in Bengal. Many accounts have been written about the horribly humid summers of Bengal. In spite of two fans, we find it difficult to sleep on some nights, but we never think of getting an AC. One would need to step out of the room eventually, and the summer would be waiting outside, ready to attack with redoubled vigour. But our children are the minority in our socio-economic class. Children today grow up away from nature, cocooned in comfort, and compromised on immunity. We earn to live in comfort, and as parents, we want our children to live well. We take pride in keeping them safe and comfortable. We live in air-conditioned houses and drive in air-conditioned cars. We keep our gardens well watered and our premises clean. Beyond our walls, people live in darkness, without sanitation and clean drinking water. We keep our children away from their children, and we keep our dogs away from their dogs. The darkness grows, and smoke envelops the sky – smoke from our cars and smoke from their fires. The blue hides behind the gray, and the winter loses its charm.

I hate gray winters!

Time – turned

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Looking through some old files on the hard disc, I came across this image from 11 years ago. Time is such a magical thing – it keeps slipping away like sand through your fingers. You try your best to hold on to the grains, but they escape – sometimes surreptitiously, one grain at a times, sometimes in a slow but steady trickle, sometimes gushing forth like a mountain stream. Like the Red Queen said, we have to keep running, just to stay at the same place, and yet, time leaves us behind most of the time. We have run twice as fast to get anywhere. And yet, time keeps coming back to us, all the time. Time comes to us, wrapped up in our memories, in artefacts, in records and documents, in our tales and anecdotes, in photographs and letters. This image was a tribute to this ever elusive, esoteric, yet so familiar abstraction that is such an integral part of our lives. We picked up the clock in an antics shop at Kodaikanal, on our first trip with Ujaan, when he was just 4.5 months old. This clock remains with us, as one of the many trinkets of our household. Decades ago, in another century, it must have ticked in some other home. Does the clock remember?

Flying high

On the flight from Dubai to Budapest, I had dozed off after a nice breakfast. Suddenly the sunlight on my eyes woke me up, and I was completely awestruck by the scene outside. We were flying over a beautiful terrain, which looked like undulations made in the sand by the little hands of a child. Only the colour of the soil was dark brown, and the undulations were not tiny mounds but mighty mountains, many with a large helping of snow capping them. We were flying over Turkey, and I was, in all probabilities, looking down on the Armenian highlands, which are a range of mountains near the Turkey-Iran border. This range includes Mount Ararat, which is a peak of great historical and mythical value. At 5137 metres, this dormant volcano is no minor hill, and yet, from a height of nearly 15000 feet, they looked like undulations made by a child’s hand in sand! After a while I could make out roads along the mountains, coiling around them like thin ropes. Settlements that looked like clumps of tiny dots could be discerned here and there. As I watched the landscape move and give way to the Mediterranean, which looked like a sea of cotton balls, I pondered about perspectives. The mighty mountains appear insignificant when seen from an airplane, and yet, to the man who has to toil in a village at the foot of such a mountain, walk up and down its slopes tending sheep to earn his daily bread, these mountains are an immense reality.

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Looking from above, nature appears so fragile, so puny, and yet, we are but puppets in the hands of nature, in spite of the great advances in technology that we have mastered. In spite of technology and science, tsunamis kill, famines happen, viruses create havoc. In spite of all our brilliance, we are but specks in the immense landscape of nature, and yet, we mock this immensity every day, flying our machines high up in the sky, and looking down upon the world from our glass domes.

Looking back 11 years

mukhOsh, our theatre group, is gearing up to celebrate its birthday for the first time on 25th June this year. The countdown has begun, and we are spending our days in a frenzy, busy with the rehearsals and last minute preparations at various levels. Sets, costumes, lights, music, publicity, PR, everything needs to be taken care of by a handful of us, as usual. Ayan and I are leading our dual lives of scientists and thespians while managing the holiday homework of the children and keeping track of everything else. All this seems so familiar yet so unfamiliar. I can’t but help thinking of the past, of the “good old days”, when mukhOsh was just an infant, and we were novices in the field of both theatre and science.

25th June 2006, ADA Rangamandira. A bunch of young people, all budding scientists, were preparing for their first ever “public”performance as a newly formed theatre group. We were staging Parabaash, a well known play by Manoj Mitra.

parabaash1This team had been doing theatre together for quite some time by then, as amateurs, in IISc (Indian Institute of Science), Bangalore. We had tired of seeing the same set of faces in the audience and had decided to explore wider pastures. We had officially become mukhOsh (the mask), then the only Bangla theatre group in the city of Bangalore, and had decided to be professionals in theatre. By then we had quite a steady audience among the Bengali community in IISc, and through networking via emails and Orkut (Facebook was yet to be born, and of course, there was no question of smartphones), we had reached out to quite a large number of Bengalis in Bangalore. We had even found a couple of sponsors to cover the costs of the show. The preparations had been on for over a month. We had been rehearsing post-dinner, late into the night for two weeks, and during the day, my battalion of mukhoshdhaaris (mask wearers is what we called ourselves) spent hours putting up posters in various eateries and cafes in the city, distributing tickets to some outlets, running around first to find sponsors and then to get them to hand over their material to be printed, chasing the printers, procuring the props and last but not the least, selling tickets to friends. I was the taskmaster, pushing and prodding them, allocating duties and keeping everybody busy. Everyone in the group had specific workloads, and none of us got much sleep for the two weeks gearing up to the show. In the middle of all this, we had our twists and turns – quarrels, fights, patching up, it was all part of the game. After all, we were all young, and we were all passionate about mukhOsh, and we were all a family.

Everyone in mukhOsh knew that I had a short temper, which I tended to lose when things got terribly busy. They were used to Ayan getting more and more nervous and me shouting at him, telling him to let me handle things my way. This had happened every time we had done a show in the past, and that day, people were getting nervous because I appeared extremely calm and Ayan did not keep bothering me with questions of how much longer the make-up would take and if the props were all in order. Debu and Mama had been telling me to stay calm and not to lose my temper since the morning. Finally Debu came and asked me to shout at him “a bit”. Apparently, nobody was finding the energy to gear up fully because it was all so quiet backstage. “Please give us a bit of a bashing, but carefully, don’t shout much!”he said. Everybody was being extra careful because I had to go up on stage in a while, and I was 4.5 months pregnant.

……. to be continued