Monday, May 8, 2017

Soc it!

Socially Acceptable Emotional Display - I heard that in a video today. And it wasn't about something extreme like falling on the ground and beating it with your fists, it was for simple things like being loving, crying or even joyous.

I remember this trek I did years ago, along the Niligiri range. It was organized by the YHAI and as is typical, consisted of a guide leading a group of about 20 or 30 people. In one of the camps where we halted for the night, there was this session where we all sat around in a circle and a few displayed their talents. This one guy recited a moving poetic piece from a movie, one that I was an ardent admirer of. It never failed to create a lump in my throat. So, as he recited it, I closed my eyes and I found myself smiling. When I opened my eyes, mid way, there was this other guy who pointed at me and said something to the effect of 'You better stop before something overcomes this girl". He said it in the most mocking, sexist way possible; I knew what he meant. It was like I was so impressed, I'd jump on the fellow and tear his clothes off. It was one of the most powerful examples of shaming an emotional response that I'd ever experienced.

When I heard the phrase 'Socially Acceptable Emotional Display', I was reminded of that night when I came back to the ground with a thud. The guy was obviously a jerk. He probably subscribed to the 'boys don't cry' creed. But he succeeded in making me self-conscious. I became cautious about the degree of my response to people. I closed up more.

Now, I think I'm way more open. I went through a period best described as a personal crusade, a mission that focused on building my self-respect grain by grain, and in this process, I learnt to be more of who I am. But it still falls short by leap and bounds.

And that's what repression does- it makes you less of who you are. It's why I'm so horrified by the social norms we have. I touched on this on a post I wrote earlier about dignity, but in a light hearted 'cheeky' manner. This is a more serious look.

As a child, say until 4-8 years of age, there's very little we can do wrong. We can throw our bodies into the air in exuberance, run in circles when we feel energized, jump in excitement, mess up our clothes in play, pretty much use our bodies as tools of expression. Once that age bracket passes, we start cuing in socially- by picking up what the norm is, from disapproval, judgement, shaming, advice, admonishment...we start learning to 'act our age'.

I think the key word in that phrase is 'act'. ACT! It isn't 'be' your age, it's 'act' it. Isn't language such a powerful indicator sometimes? I'm blown away by the word and all its implications. Act.

As a female, as an adult, as an Indian, I am familiar with repression. If you envision the culture here as a stack, then repression is a layer that glues every layer to the other. It is an indoctrination that is  so seamlessly, thoughtlessly transferred to our psyches. "You should not" becomes "I can not."

I can't remember the last time I ran outdoors. Not jogging or training-for-a-marathon running. The kind of running that you do because you want to. Just a headlong rush at the end of which you clutch your tummy and pant. I don't think the desire to do things like that reduces with age; I think we say 'no' so many times, it doesn't make itself heard anymore.

I would understand if it were only the inconveniencing others kinda stuff- like shouting in a movie theater because you feel like it. But it isn't. It's the harmless stuff that is just pure expression and communication, that troubles no one.

I remember this video I saw online of a man playing a musical instrument in a subway. It was a catchy tune that gathered a crowd. A little girl suddenly stepped forward and started dancing. Slowly, one by one, awkwardly, people joined in, just moving their bodies to the music. Some of them let loose, many were so self-conscious - you could see how hard they were trying to just do it. Many others stood in the sidelines, arms crossed. It was like the child, who didn't have to follow the rules, had to lead these adults into something so natural. I'm sure no one would have danced if she hadn't.

I can envision this clearly- a tribal village. A cloudy, cool evening. A man darts into this hut and fetches his drum. Boom-bada-bada-boom. He jumps about, creating music that gets the heart to beat faster. People jump up, they smile and whoop as they pump their arms and legs into the air. Men with butts bouncing, women with breasts swaying, children with hair falling over their eyes. No one's thinking about anything except the sheer enjoyment of their vigor, their power, their freedom to move, resonating with the beat of the drums.

What a study in contrast! So this is what civilization has done to us. It didn't stop where it should have. It kept going until we made invisible prisons for ourselves. And now, with overpopulation and smart phone addiction. no one barely moves anymore, not even the kids.

Why do I keep going on and on about this? Why don't I just move to some remote country farm, run through a field, roll down a hill, jump headlong into a stream and sing off-key at the skies to my heart's content? I could. But it disturbs me. I think humanity is harming itself in a way that very few are really talking about, putting aside our efforts at self-destruction through environmental means for a moment. The devil within, to be dramatic. I think I want freedom to mean what it does. I want the difference between 'childish' and 'child-like' to be clear. I want the relationship between human connection and physical communication to be acknowledged.

I want to see a woman to sit with legs splayed out and not be considered uncouth, unladylike. I want to see a guy splash into a rain puddle and giggle with delight without being thought soft in the head. I want to see a group of adults play at catching each other in the park without being labeled juvenile. I want freedom to be visible, tangible, physical, real. Oh, and for no reason at all, I'd like to have the word 'social' struck from the English language. I think we've had just about enough of it.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Holy crap!

Growing up in India, I have met and interacted with many 'holy' people, since my mom, out of fear and desperation, sought out those who promised that their influence with the Gods would make desirable things happen. I still remember 'Sami ma'. Mom would travel great distances to go meet her. I went once. She was this middle aged lady with visible health problems- overweight, arthritic ... she'd sit down and start rubbing the floor with one hand, murmuring some chant. In the end, she'd open her hand and reveal a palmful of holy ash.
Many questions ran through my mind when I saw this-
Isn't that a fairly simple magic trick?
How can a holy person have health problems? What influence, exactly, do you have with the divine, if you cannot even help yourself, for something as material as the flesh?
Why do you need money from other people if you have truly renounced desire?
If you are God's child, and so is everyone else, why do you allow people to bow to you? Or else, why don't you bow to them too? And fall at their feet like they do?

This last bit is what especially enrages me when I see it on TV. It's not a matter of pride- I understand that falling at a person's feet is a matter of interpretation. Even at its spiritual best; as a gesture of acknowledgment of the divine, why is it one sided? Why do these so called holy people set themselves apart? To sit on a higher dais or chair, to allow themselves to be anointed with perfumed concoctions, flowers, prayers...

Here is an excerpt from an article written by journalist Manu Joseph-
"There is a spiritual movement among the urban affluent to understand life through a guru who is differently dressed but is not expected to do magic. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has filled this slot through entrepreneurial brilliance.
A few years ago I interviewed him at a Malabar Hill house (of course). On the floor were seated Vinod Khanna, Nagma and others like them. On a throne was Sri Sri. I was supposed to interview him in front of his devotees, some of the most influential people of Bombay. As I sat in a chair facing Sri Sri, there were gasps. I was expected to sit on the floor (a journalist before me indeed had sat that way). But then I am such a boor."

I'm not going to go into the debate of why an all powerful entity requires a flesh born mouthpiece. Let's let that one slide. Say you are a channel, a divine messenger- won't that make you even more aware of His design, His creation of all things equal, ahem, including you? 

And the people! The people! What do you really believe, if you can fall at the feet of a fellow man and believe he will make things happen for you? What kind of God do you hold in your heart, if He favors a few above others and lets them perform the miracles that he denies to you? Why is your faith so shallow and unthinking? 

If I saw an enlightened person, I'd be inspired by them. To better myself, to do more to uplift my wisdom and awareness. I cannot imagine anything more pathetic than to grab at their feet and pray fervently that some of their energy will rub off on me simply by physical contact and desperate prayer. Where is the personal responsibility in that? The basic lesson - to face one's good fortunes and bad with the knowledge of one's own will power and force of thought? 

My mom never asked Sami ma the most important questions- What is happiness? What is my purpose? How can I attain peace? Like most followers, she just wanted to know when she'd get her desires fulfilled. Don't give me knowledge, just the outcomes. It took years of being duped for her to finally realize the truth. I watched with horror when a Saibaba picture made its way into the puja room, to be adorned with flowers and lamps. "Who are you praying to, ma? What is he?" I wanted to scream. It's gone now. I'm glad. 

What a beautiful thing faith is, when you think about it. It's like trust. Like handing your child over to your best friend and saying, 'Take care of her for a day.' It's a kind of peace. And like most things, it can be bastardized. A man or woman can rise up, tweak their appearance, say wise words and just like that, can command the faith of thousands. 

If you want to find a truly holy person, here's how you can recognize one. He'll say just two words- 'question everything'.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A wonderful trip to see a truly handsome 'adiyogi', very artistically rendered, then I come back home to Salem and down the road is this goddess put up for a local festival, designed by some man with... repressed tendencies. Both made me smile :)


Thursday, April 20, 2017


Even though the sweltering heat is trying its best to incinerate all life, the plants are hanging on and so are we humans. I've stopped planting seeds, but I stumbled upon the technique of sheet mulching this month which got me excited.

"Sheet mulching is a layered mulch system that nurtures the soil and replaces existing lawns or other vegetation, eliminating the need to remove unwanted plant material. The first layer is a biodegradable weed barrier—usually cardboard or multiple layers of newspaper—placed directly on the ground.

Sheet mulch has important advantages relative to conventional methods:

Improvement of desirable plants' health and productivity.
Retention of water and nutrients and stabilization of biochemical cycles.
Improvement of soil structure, soil life, and prevention of soil erosion.
Avoidance of potentially dangerous pesticides, especially herbicides.
Reduction of overall maintenance labor and costs."

Sounds great! So, I decided upon a patch of land in the garden below. Digging and emptying a 1 feet pit took three days. With hot water baths, I managed to avoid both calluses and back aches. After that came the best part- layering the pit.

In order,
neem cake, castor cake (Kottamuthu punnakku, veppam punnakku)
cow dung
more cake
hay, dried leaves
earthworm compost
coconut husk
banana tree leaves and stem
coconut husk
Plant the seedlings.

Now it's resting. In a month's time, as the mercury lowers, and the soil is well on its way to enrichment, I'll add the last layer- another layer of coconut husk on top and plant seedlings of vegetable plants. I can hardly wait to see how it goes! :)


Digging the pit

Powdered cakes added

Cardboard, topped with dried cow dung

Paper, then more cake

Earthworm compost

A layer of soil

Coconut husk

Banana leaves

Banana stem

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Tropical Beat

In my opinion, the term 'tropical belt' is a double entendre*. Apart from the area around the equator, it's a perfect term for that region on your body just above the hips. They have a lot in common. Both have a tendency to bulge, and in summer, you wish they didn't exist. If you're not a nudist, you know what I mean. You sit down, get up and there's this horizontal stripe of sweat running around the front of your shirt or top. See? Tropical. Belt.

In India, we like to say we have no seasons. We can handle it. We don't need snow. We're tough. We chew iron and stare down lions. We walk through fire. In reality though, we're little bitchy kids. We know we have seasons. Mild summer, Hot summer and Sterilizing summer. We walk around in December (mild summer) with a smile but by mid March (hot summer), we start crying. Year after year, we talk about how much hotter it is and we look at each other in despair as we moan, "Oh my God, what's it going to be like in May (sterilizing summer)?!"

Somehow, we survive. The men start walking around the house topless, and the women stare at the men with hatred. Everybody sweats. Almost everybody, actually. But I'm not going to talk about the minority here- they don't deserve it.

Some of us are blessed with scalp sweat. This is when needlessly overactive sweat glands on the scalp produce so many liters per minute that, like Moses parting the sea, the sweat literally parts one hair in a few dozen places and rivulets stream down a person's face. What activates these glands? A hard hour of toil in the field? A hike up a steep hill? No. Turning my head 45 degrees to the right is enough. Instantly, my hair is plastered to my head, my face acquires a ghastly, ghostly complexion, my clothes crumple themselves and my posture is roughly concave, with my shoulders looking at my feet. I'm picturing this refreshing scene as I write it, and it strikes me that this should have been in my 'Why I'm unmarried' write-up. It explains a lot.

These days, I exit the shower like I'm a low-life trying to convince a cop that I'm not dangerous. No sudden movements. Walk slowly, hands spread out. Look straight ahead. Preserve a neutral expression. Even a twitch of the mouth might set things off. Just be cool. Don't be a hero.

When I see these people who look cucumber fresh after a day out, I don't feel bad. Really. I'm perfectly fine with the fact that the life is unfair. But it's hard not to take it personally. That's why I try to avoid standing next to them or talking to them. When your fingers are constantly working on your face like windshield wipers, it's annoying to have to talk to someone who sits there calmly with one bead of sweat daintily glistening on their cheek. That drop is a mockery to your very existence.

This is also why I love animals. Look at dogs. No sweating, just panting. Look at pigs. No sweating, just wallowing in mud. Or elephants. Just a bit of ear flapping. Now that's smart evolution. I could do all that, you know, instead of sweating. Pant, wallow in mud and flap my ears. Really increase my market value. Now you know why I call this summer 'sterilizing'.

*double entrende: a word/phrase with two or more meanings

Friday, March 31, 2017


A speciest, like a racist or a casteist, is someone who believes in the superiority of their own species. Like cats, for example. They have no doubts- they rule. Most of us are speciests. Even the ardent animal lovers like me, who kill ants or mosquitoes without remorse, exhibit speciesm. It's not just that we place a higher value on our lives than we do on, say an insect, we also actually value our comfort more.

There's an ant epidemic in my house. The fiery tiny red ant with a bite that's worse than an injection. The chalks and the pastes have proved ineffective; they simply take a different route. Once they got into my clothes cupboard, I bought a can of bug spray and unleashed it with all the fury that only a person with itchy bumps in unmentionable places can muster. I felt better, for a while. But you see, I stood and I looked at the surviving ants running around later that day. I remembered everything I've read about ants- their highly social nature, their dependence on each other, their hard work and commitment to their colonies. I also remembered why I killed them; the seeming impossibility of coexisting with these creatures who invaded my food, clothes and bed sheets. I kept zooming in and zooming out. Let me explain what that means-

The thing about human beings is that we not only evolved intelligence, we evolved perspective. This gives us the unique ability to 'zoom out' or to see the big picture, as some would say.

What happens when you zoom out? The details become unimportant and invisible, the edges begin to blur and fade, generalizations become easier, priorities jostle each other and a few emerge victorious. Zooming out is the single most used technique to sway entire populations into following propaganda. That Hitler could create an army of wanton killers was because of his skill in helping them zoom out and see what he saw. That empires flourished at the cost of mass killings, slavery and oppression was because men and women, with families, with love in their lives, zoomed out and saw a form of twisted success that they wanted.

That's what zooming out can do- it can absolve you of responsibility, of having to think about your power and the individual you wield it over, of his pain, her anguish, its freedom. If you zoom out far enough, you can justify anything. You can be selectively numb. And you can be very dangerous.

When the jallikatu (bull-taming) issue swept over Tamilnadu, the media guided the people beautifully into zooming out. Suddenly, even animal lovers were supporting the cause, citing the dastardly evil intentions of foreign corporations. What the media neglected to mention is that the species, which existed in about 30 different varieties had already dwindled down to just a handful of surviving strains, mainly because the use of bullock carts- the horrid cruel practice that the same afore mentioned animal lovers hate with a passion- have dwindled due to vehicles. Almost all villagers today utilize artificial insemination to impregnate their cows. So the extinction was already happening at a fatal pace, thanks to the altruistic attitude of our brave and glorious Tamilians who don't keep things around if it serves them no purpose. But let's gloss over all that- it's a detail that becomes invisible when you zoom out. The foreign 'milk invasion' theory may very well have been true. But in that issue, as in others, what about the individual in question?

So, let's do what I did with the ants.

Zoom in.

You're an animal with five senses. You eat, sleep, procreate. You are capable of giving and receiving affection. You feel fear, you feel love. Suddenly, one day, you're guided to a wooden enclosure. All around you, you smell the sweat and adrenaline of hundreds of humans. You hear their noise. You are agitated. You are slapped in the rear and in an instant, you are engulfed by this mass of humans pressing against you, hands grabbing your body, some not letting go. You run in fear, terrified by your inability to understand what is happening to you. Are they predators? Will they hurt you? Will they kill you? You try to shake them off your body- you don't like being touched and grabbed like that. You try to protect yourself, swinging your horns this way and that. You are violent, because you are so very afraid...

But all that is okay. Because the solution to shutting down those evil corporations lies only, only, only, only, only with continuing this practice. Big picture! The feelings of the individual don't matter, especially when they're of the four legged kind. You see - it's for their own good. Not the individual, but their species. It's for their own good. Big picture, see? Congratulations. You've zoomed out.

I think we would have a very hard time living with ourselves if we zoomed in all the time. We'd all have to be committed. If we could feel the anguish of an ant that walks over the ruins of it's entire colony, going from one body to another to see if someone, anyone survived; if we could feel the pain of a chicken that has never touched soil, sitting in a coop so tight that it cannot move, injected with hormones, eggs whisked away even as they fall; if we could feel the helplessness, the hunger and misery of the homeless and the destitute....

...if we allowed ourselves to zoom in, I think then, and only then, would our evolution continue. Until then, as we have daily proof, we are all numb. And dangerous.

Monday, March 6, 2017


Sci-fi isn't a far-fetched genre. Most of it is becoming fact. We see the seeds in technological advances and inventions, a few of which have already left the drawing board and are in the prototype stage. Too many unrefuted, credible reports of alien existence have been making the rounds for people to scoff with any certainty. There is a growing sense of interconnectedness that humans are waking up to. Besides all this, I am fascinated by the cultural, socioreligious aspects of this as well.

Many of the sci-fi plots that touch on this dimension envision a society of the future that have elements of what we have today, but that have morphed and combined with each other in numerous ways.

As Wikipedia so beautifully puts it-

"Science fiction will sometimes address the topic of religion. Often religious themes are used to convey a broader message, but others confront the subject head-on—contemplating, for example, how attitudes towards faith might shift in the wake of ever-advancing technological progress, or offering creative scientific explanations for the apparently mystical events related in religious texts (gods as aliens, prophets as time travelers, etc.). As an exploratory medium, science fiction rarely takes religion at face value by simply accepting or rejecting it; when religious themes are presented, they tend to be investigated deeply.
Some science fiction works portray invented religions, either placed into a contemporary Earth society (such as the Earthseed religion in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower), or in the far future (as seen in Dune by Frank Herbert, with its Orange Catholic Bible)." 
I've read these books and others which touch on this, and I cannot emphasize enough how much they expand the mind even as they fascinate it. When I stated in the beginning that these concepts are not far-fetched, I meant it. Not only does our past provide innumerable examples, our present itself is proof. I am thrilled to be able to see an example of this for myself, which is what prompted this write-up.

It's a phenomenon that's creeping into the poorer sections of the population. A religious amalgam of sorts. These are 'recent Christians', if I may call them that. Usually, this is how the conversion happens- These people are traditional Hindus. They go through a tough time and a neighbor tells them to go pray in the church. 'Good things will happen,' they are told. They do happen. Full of gratitude and relief, the family starts going regularly and begin to identify themselves as Christian. However, generations of Hindu customs and rituals cannot be given up in a wink. They follow them to the tee. But ingeniously, they tweak it just enough so that both Gods have no cause for offence. Also, the extended family is usually still Hindu.

I've seen many families who have 'converted' in this fashion. My family usually employs individuals from them in some capacity. When they say they've been to the temple on Sunday, they mean the church. The word 'church', you see, is still too new and full of diagraphs (ch, fl, tr) to be comfortable. They still wear holy ash on their foreheads in a decidedly Hindu style. Most of the women wear a bindi and their marital symbol is still the thali, though they do exchange rings.

I went to a funeral recently. The father had passed away. As the relatives started pouring in from remote villages, they brought with them garlands, plates of rice, legumes, coconuts and other offerings, clothes for the family- all according to Hindu custom. Then right at the end, a Christian priest turned up, did his blessings etc. and they put the body in a coffin and buried it in a Christian graveyard.

If this isn't sci-fi turned reality, then I don't know what is! A 100 years, 500 years down the line, these religions are going to be so blurred, it's going to be hard to differentiate them. It's what's happened throughout our civilized history.

Alchemy was practised for centuries before science evolved. They co-existed for a long period of time before science, having absorbed the most logical parts of alchemy, discarded it completely. Shamanistic magic, similarly, was assimilated into festivals and branches of medicine, and then shunned.

Touching on custom in this context, no other example is as powerful to me as the evolution of the Indian sari. Let's pretend civilization started with women covering their torso in some fashion and begin there. Down south, the sari was worn over bare breasts. My grandma still refuses to wear a blouse. Let me tell you, however securely she wears it, it bunches up or loosens from time to time... which means she flashes the world occasionally. Even if she doesn't, her arms, her stomach area and most of her back are still uncovered. Funnily enough, not one 'traditional' man bats an eyelid at all this, and yet tank tops, evening gowns and such 'scandalous' Western clothes have 'degraded' 'Indian culture'. Decades from now, I predict it will be seen as primitive to want to cover oneself completely. Full circle. Let's repeat that for effect. Full Circle. Human memory is that easily corruptible, and that short.

Granted, times are different. Our history was more malleable to change because it could be conveniently forgotten: a universally accessible database of rules did not exist, nor did a reliable method of recording facts or customs. Even the most sacred religious texts have been obviously modified at different stages.

Today, though, we have the Internet. However, I think that even with the internet and it's factual, almost unforgiving recording of what is and isn't, change of this nature cannot be arrested or prevented. Time WILL create change, for as much as human stubbornness seeks to retain belief systems as they are, progress will push through and open too many windows. Inter religious marriages and the children they produce, conversions that are incomplete (retaining the flavor of both religions), people who wish to rise above the restrictions of a single religion and embrace more than one faith, people who create their own path by borrowing from established ones... The present that we live in is not just the 'now', it's a fascinating, breathtaking unfolding of the future, where anything is possible. Let's savor that.