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Monday, June 11, 2018

Taxi to Airport

The journey back to airport in New Orleans was very interesting. I met Vitaliae. He told me that he was from Maldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe. He has been in NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) for about 3 years now. He had ‘only’ 3 boys (11, 8 and 3 years old) and his wife took care of them along with working part-time. ‘I couldn’t give her a girl,’ he chuckled to himself. He believed that his wife was to take care of his boys but had studied science enough to know that she wasn’t responsible for bearing boys. A clear mix of patriarchy and break-down of masculinity right there!
Vitaliae is from Roma community and his family settled in Maldova after World War II. Being from Roma community, Vitaliae was severely discriminated in school. ‘I was made to sit at the far end of the classroom. No other kid would sit with me or talk to me except while teasing me; calling me a gypsy.’ His wife is from Maldova. ‘Now, my children do not look like ‘gypsy’ and hopefully they will not be teased at school’. Or so he thought. He came to U.S. in search of a better world. ‘We were only second in Maldova. Always the ‘other’, he struggled to tell me. Roma identity is not claimed, often by the educated ones since it still holds a lot of stigma. ‘I had bought a home in Maldova but still it didn’t feel like home. So we moved’, he tells me.
Roma community or Romani people faces a lot of discrimination in many spheres including education. Although they are about 12 million members in Europe, about 90 percent of them live in poverty. A 12-country program called Decade of Roma Inclusion was found to be successful in access to education but it’s not just access which keeps children in schools. Only 20 percent of children complete primary school. The numbers for girls is even lower. The ones who make it to schools due to awakened or conscious parents, are alienated from their peers due to their ethnic identity and racism in classes. They are over surveyed in school due to negative stereotypes against them. The formal education system does not include their history or language in their curriculum. No wonder the Roma community feels the education is ‘not for them’. The opportunity to jobs is also very scarce as is housing for them.
In U.S., Vitaliae drives taxi during the day and works as a bartender at night to sustain his family. Escaping from one discrimination into another. Discrimination exists in U.S. society as well for him but it is not the discrimination being associated as a ‘gypsy’. He has escaped that as he moved from ‘his’ country. Being part of a diaspora here, has liberated him in that sense. Although, he has landed into discrimination of class, race and immigration status in U.S. ‘I do not want to remember that time from my life. It was too sad, ‘Vitaliae tells me as he smiles. ‘This is better’, and prints a receipt for my travel.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Active Bystander training- a fresh start for me!

You know that feeling when you have been waiting for something for a while. Not like a sharp wait which cuts through you but a wait which remains there, somewhere submerged in your mind. And you wish that it is responded, to equip one better to deal with situations. Situations which are not imaginary. Situations which occur and you don’t know how to react, what to do finally ending up a guilty conscious of inaction. This training was my answer to that wait. Active Bystanders training organized by Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies (PAX) and Sociology department at Brandeis University facilitated by Quabbin Mediation was worth going to even at the end of my day.

What does being an Active Bystander mean to me?
Someone who is not lost when a situation of discrimination or abuse occurs. Someone who proactively takes action to confront, diffuse or respond back to the situation. As a truth, I have not been one many times in life even though I have wanted to be one every single time the situation arose.

At the very beginning, the training program set up the stage that we have all been ‘target’ as well as ‘harm doer’ to others in our lives. Thus, being any one of them does not make us any ‘good’ or ‘bad’ respectively. Doing harm can be anything, verbal or physical abuse based on a certain identity- of race, caste, gender, sexuality, ability, class or most often intersections of them! This harm is perpetuated intentionally or even unintentionally in the society due to our behavior patterns and privileges. We have also been ‘Bystanders’, probably more than the above two categories in our lives. Being active or passive is a choice though- which depends on our own positionality. Our identities make us privileged or vulnerable to say something or shut up!

The most interesting aspect of the training for me was the categorization of ‘inhibitors’ of active Bystandership. Unless we recognize what stops us to take action- we won’t start taking action. Right?
These inhibitors included a wide range of behaviors including Masks (ignoring that a harm is happening), Who me (Diffusion of responsibility), Confusion (unsure if harm is happening), Fear (Fear of disapproval) and Danger (Possibility of revenge or retaliation against you). Breaking each of these down with examples and brainstorming within small groups was a powerful exercise. Sharing of examples and some honest conversations made me feel that I was ‘part of a flock’ and taking action in certain situations is not always possible. On the other hand, various actions taken by people in difficult situations also gave me a feeling of hope. My small list of things for active Bystanders to do as a take away is as follows:
·         Call out or name the problem. If you are afraid to reach out alone, name it aloud to catch other people’s attention. For example, Oh, the lady is crying/ bleeding/ or needs help? This will get somebody’s attention and you will be an active recruiter.
·         Recruit allies. Don’t do it alone. Recruit others in the task. Use phrases aloud like; Did you see that? Should we do something? Sometimes designating someone to do something while you do another part of the job is also helpful. For example, ‘You call the police while I attend to the first aid of the victim’. Together we can do more.
·         Be the first one to act. This will break the mask. Most of us are empathetic poeple, we just don’t know how to start acting in that way. If you are unsure or in confusion about whether harm is actually intended, ask a follow up question. For example, if you hear a racist or sexist comment at workplace, ask ‘Can you explain why you think so?’ This will let them recheck their stereotypes and give courage to others to speak up as well!
·         Reach out to the ‘victim/ target’. Sometimes just asking the target ‘Do you need help?’ can guide us about what to do or clear our confusion that some help is needed.
·         Reach out to the ‘harm doer’. Sometimes just going up to the harm doer can startle them and give chance to the target to escape. For example going to someone who’s causing harm and saying, ‘Oh, are you alright. Did that person do something wrong to you for you to behave like this with them?’ Though, this can depend on the context. Approaching the abuser at a scene of domestic violence in South-East Asia might not a good idea! They may not be startled at all!
·         Getting your body in-between. This might not be possible (or safe) always but it’s a good idea whenever possible. It does require a lot of courage though.

With these action points, the conversation shifted to courage. Each of us shared moments of courage or the lack of it in pairs! There were plenty of stories shared by participants during the training of denouncing racism, acts of Bystander courage and even what to do when perceived as a harm doer! 

With my paired partner, LaQuasia’s permission, I am sharing this beautiful story of courage.
One night, LaQuasia and her friends were out dancing. She saw a girl come out of restroom onto the dance floor. Seeing her alone, a guy approached her and was trying to act funny with her. She seemed visibly distressed and was looking out for her friends who didn’t seem in sight. No one seem to have noticed the distressed girl. LaQuasia, who does not usually like confrontation, gathered all her courage and walked up to the scene. She put her arms around the girl saying, ‘Oh gosh, its so great to see you here. How are you doing?’ She pretended that she knew the girl. There was a look of bewilderment on the face of the girl. Drawing close, LaQuasia whispered in her ear, ‘You needed help right?’ As she understood LaQuasia’s intention, she started weeping out of gratitude. The guy was surprised to see that his target was not alone and stepped back. In this beautiful moment of courage, LaQuasia was able to put her body between the two, preventing further harm to the target.

What struck me about the story was the attitude of ‘inclusive care’ by LaQuasia. She practiced ‘care’ about people other than she closely identified with! This is what builds a community. Just acting as a Bystander may change our lives and others as well. ‘When a person harms another, they change. When a person helps another, they change’ is what we learned from the training. We can choose what to do! 

I DO NOT claim that I will do take action every time I witness something happening. I will still have my mask, my fears and my sense of danger. But at least I now have an idea where to start!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Men and babies; Women and dogs!

Spoiler alert! I am writing after a long break so its difficult to gather my thoughts. However this writing may not ring well with everyone; my apologies to ones who are offended and assure that this is only my opinion and written in a lighter vein.
With the increasingly popular rat race of achieving high in life, our life styles have undergone a huge change in the way we perceive things ; especially our feelings! It is not a surprise that in order to pursue a career of our choice, we have placed starting a family as our second priority. Both men and women.  With the fluidity in relationships, we have also grown with the way we deal with our expectations from each other. Although marriage with opposite sexes still remains a norm for many in our society.
As a person heading for my thirties, the thought of having a child does cross my mind. And during these moments, I tend to look not within but outside. May be looking within is another answer to my questions but at this time it’s not proving a convincing answer. On my wonderful long walks in the evenings, I have increasingly seen men carry babies (infants) in a kangaroo bag close to their chest. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see a man who breaks the stereotypical norm of gender roles. Grown in a patriarchal society, my heart appreciates the way things are changing at least here in U.S.
The stereotypical role of a caregiver is not only imposing for a woman but is also dangerous for the psyche of a man. This breeds the reinforcements of women’s role in economy as ‘secondary’ to men. At the same time, it would be unfair to categorize men as ‘irresponsible’ for the child since mother is biologically responsible for giving birth. In my opinion, the tendency and need to have a child is far more greater in a man than a woman. The idea of the man’s lineage being carried forward by a child, a male child at that, has broken hell loose over many traditional patriarchal societies. The declining sex ratio in many countries like India and China is a testimony to it. The balance in cycle of life requires greater balance of our roles in society.
The decision to have a child, biological or adopted is not easy. And nor is bringing up a child. There are many socio-cultural and economic dimensions to it. It would be unfair to deem any couple selfish or capitalist before understanding their psychological state about the decision to have a baby. It is solely at the discretion of the couple, no one else. My close associates who have been either having babies or in the ‘thinking process’ share that it is a constant state of emotional turmoil.
All human beings have the inherent tendencies of caring. The maternal and the paternal instincts also needs to be fed. Here is when I think about woman and dogs. It is perhaps more common to see women with dogs on my walks than men with babies. Here by dogs, I would mean any pet that you care about. I have seen dog people, cat people and the ones who love both! It doesn’t matter. What matters is that our pets are there to fulfill our emotional need. Sometimes the need of having a child. Although increasingly realizing that they are not economically and socially easy ‘investment’, they are lesser of a work than a child. At least one doesn’t need to worry about their education or what they would finally grow up to be!
I have also seen friends transition from having a pet to then finally having a child. And to me, it makes perfect sense. When we can realize that we are capable of taking care of another being (your pet), we become more and more confident of being able to take care of a new life (your baby). Perhaps it is unfair to compare a child to a pet but its not uncommon for most people to call their pet as ‘their kid’. And their most loved child as their ‘pet’! Living in U.S. for a while, I have realized that people love their pets like their children. If you are a person who don’t like dogs and tend to show it in front of their dog, they get offended with your behavior. Further, I understand the physical and psychological aspect of having pets, especially dogs. One of the studies mentioned that having a dog in the house, maintains your blood pressure level beside giving you company and guarding your house. However, I also would maintain, having small dogs (which you carry in your arms or lap) tends to fulfill your desire of a baby. No offenses to the cat people!

Thus, the trend of men and babies; women and dogs is perhaps healthy to lead us into the transition where our society stands today. The ability to decide whether we are ready for bringing a new life into this world to our ability to balance our gender norms for our next generation, all go hand in hand.

Thanks to the internet for the perfect pic!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A heart-breaking story

Intersectionality studies are more important to understand Gender than I thought! A heart breaking poem by Zoya Zaidi is what I wish to share in this post about the Devadasi system.

Devadasi’s Saga

 I could hear the temple bell
Ringing in my ears,
The day I was born
To an unwedded mother, or rather
My mother was “married” to the temple!
The Temple was not my father!
I could hear the temple bells
Ringing in my ears…

I could hear the temple walls,
Heaving sighs in the dead of night,
Sighs of satisfaction…
I could hear my mother’s sobs,
Intermingle with the sighs,
Sighs of dissatisfaction…
As I slept on the cold-rough stone,
My cradle in the darkest chamber,
Where light hardly ever entered,
I missed a father’s loving touch,
When I asked my mother,
She said:
The temple was my father!

Then one day, through the
Half shut doors, I saw:
The priest heaving and hawing,
Full of sweat…
The pained surprise in my mother’ eyes,
(On being so exposed),
Silently beseeching me
With helpless tearful eyes:
“Go away! You’re still too young!”

But one day, I grew up!

I felt the “touch”,
A creeping crawling, lustful touch,
The expression in the priest’s eyes,
Matched the touch,
As he held me in his clutch…
Nausea welled up in my throat:
It was not a father’s touch,
I could feel it in my innocent bones…

Then Another, and Another…

Now, I am “My Mother”…

Like her, I do not know,
The father of the baby in my womb…

Like my mother, I am going to
Tell, my daughter:
“Temple is your father!”

This has gone on for centuries,
And still goes on…
This will go on forever…

I am the Devadasi of the Temple…
Temples may crumble…
I will go on

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The 'Fall' diary!

 The colors are here. You can see them all around you. And No, its not Holi time. For my friends from U.S. it is a festival when we throw artificial color on each other so that you cannot make out one from another! But THIS I am talking about Fall! I wonder why is it called 'The Fall'- yes the leaves do fall down but they turn so beautiful before that- why not call it after that beauty? Why do we make it sad- the beautiful beautiful Fall in U.S.! The leaves turning from green to yellow, to a light crimson, then red and few of them are already brown. In one tree, you can see different hues of color; they amaze me to no end! I am reminded of the diversity of the human beings. Of all races, colors, ethnicity, nationalities- we all are humans! I wonder if there is a hierarchical structure between leaves as we have created between humans. If ever it is for the price of the wood- it is still man-made! We have a way of creating differences between ourselves by overshadowing our identities by many hues- wonder if we could keep it a little simple? It is interesting but after coming here, I realize I share more similarities with many people from far away countries than I would from my neighbor back home!
And back to my fall diary- you can mistake them for flowers very easily but they are plain leaves turning into different colors, just like magic! Exceptionally beautiful is the time when you spot ‘red trees’ between the whole lot of green ones. They simply stand out- the most fashionably dressed ones! People advised me to see the colors in different places here- but I can see them each day, right outside my window, walking through the university campus which has turned into a fascinating canvas for me nowadays. Its like a painter at work- slowly turning the greens into yellow and then to red. It seems to me as if she cannot decide which color looks more pretty and is trying out her own variations!
Winter is just setting in. She is trying to give us a feel of how harsh it could be! This weather is the peak winter of North India- maybe a few degrees lower. But, here in U.S., it is Fall- a time to be out and to enjoy the sun! Charles river flowing right through the heart of my little town, Waltham (yes, it has become mine at least for 2 years) makes it beautiful beyond words. You can spot a variety of birds here- Canadian goose, Greater Scaup, Gargeney, Tundra Swan, Brown Pelican and Seagul in and around the river is the list I have made in these past two months. The wild white lotus are lined up on the river beds, opening their buds with a mystic beauty! Life is giving me an opportunity to hold my breath and breathe in the beauty around me. However the assignments make sure I do not float away into my dreams, constantly bringing me back to reality. I can quote Robert Frost aptly here,
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
  But I have promises to keep,
  And miles to go before I sleep,
 And miles to go before I sleep!”                                  Photo Courtesy: Hamsa Hneide

Monday, October 13, 2014

Our Wedding!

It was 7:45 am. As I glanced at the clock near the wall of my dressing table and then into my own reflection in the mirror, I nervously took empty gulps a couple of times. ‘You do not look good enough for a bride yet’, said my reflection and I was supposed to be at the Gurudwara about a good 15 minutes ago! It was one-of-the-life-time events and I was already running late. My would-be husband was already there waiting for me, probably feeling as nervous as he could be before getting married in an unknown surrounding.
The pressure had started building around me from early morning when my relatives hadn’t turned for a ceremony (haldi and vatna) and my mom had ended up doing that for me alone! Though I loved it since it was such a loving moment when your Mom rubbed haldi on you; it reminded me of my childhood!
Further, the ‘chura ceremony’ in the morning had taken a little longer than I had expected since the bangles needed to be set in order by someone who had handled those a very few times in his life before. As my Mamaji got instructions from my Mamiji, my cousin and sister-in-law, he looked confused- increasing my frustration inside since I was running out of time. I had just had bath, and was yet to get ready for the biggest event in my life; getting married to someone I had been waiting to tie the knot to for the past two years, amidst a lot of persuasions. 
Finally after a lot of permutations and combinations, with still unsatisfied noises from the background, we completed my ‘chura ceremony’ and believe me I was perfectly happy with its look on my hands-shining maroon and white combination of bangles with a lot of crystals on it! I had bled a little bit from side of one hand, since the rough plastic bangles had cut into my hand while wearing but the sheer beauty of them made me forget my pain. As my husband now rightly teases me that I got a full-fledged wedding done for the love of the ‘chura’ when we were otherwise ready for a simple ‘court marriage’ ceremony! Well, all brides have their own versions of madness and this was my own!    
As I was putting final touches to my make-up and setting my duppatta, I saw the reflection of my Mom in the mirror. She looked so perfectly beautiful in her light pink suit with minimal make up, all set up gracefully for the occasion-to get her daughter married in another few hours! I wore a little deeper color of pink than hers as she had suggested, ‘A brighter color would look better in the wedding pictures’ and you bet it sure did! As the relatives slowly started dropping into the room, I lost my peace and decided to just finish off with a final touch of kajal in my eyes. I was a bride ready in just 20 minutes-all by myself. I wonder why I didn’t opt to go to any beauty parlor to get dressed for my special occasion; ‘Parlors don’t open so early in Ambala’ was my reply to all who wondered about the same. But I know the truth was much deeper than that. I had seen and read so much about the grandness of the weddings and craziness of brides in parlors that I wanted to keep myself away from all that fanfare. For the special day of my life, I wanted to dress myself in what I would define as ‘Keeping in my own character’ which I definitely like, than to step into someone I would not be able to recognize later on in the wedding pictures! I turned out to be the most simplistic bride that my relatives could imagine! There was just one more thing that was left! 
My sisters and sister-in-law were supposed to tie me ‘Kalire’ on my chura which turned out to be true joy to me. Apart from the ones brought from the market, a special one were hand-made by my Grandmother for me with big dried coconuts beautifully decorated for the occasion. They looked so very unique and definitely made my day! I have hung them near my bed-side since after the wedding as they remind me of her love every single moment showing the effort she had undergone to make them.
My school and graduation friends had finally made it to the wedding which doubled my happiness; seeing them after many years and more so at one of the most important events of my life! As I entered the Gurudwara and caught a glimpse of my would-be husband, we both went into the spiral of how we had ended up here-starting right from being debaters of everything around us a couple of years back; of course marriage too includes a lot of debates day in and day out! The beauty and simplicity of the ceremony in the Gurudwara (literally in our front yard) where all of my dearest people were present including my old grand-parents (who were a primary reason as why this ceremony was conducted apart from my love for chura; they didn’t believe court marriage was a true marriage!). The marriage ceremony was conducted by the old familiar bhaiji at the Gurudwara who told me, ‘I have seen you since you were not even one year old’ and then blessed us!
Earlier, we had been apprehensive about the two families coming together but it was perfectly woven together in a single thread- with love. All of my ‘new’ family seemed super excited and beaming after the wedding in the Punjabi style. My youngest new sister-in-law gushed at me and said looking at my kalire, “Wow! I had seen these in the hands of actress Karishma Kapoor in her wedding, they look superb!” She is surely a complete movie buff and a cute one at that, keeping her charm with two kids at her side now! We had our touch-ups of Punjabi style with ‘paranda’ and ‘punjabi jutti’ for me and a bright red turban and cream sherwani for my hubby!
Post the Gurudwara wedding, I did the tradition of breaking the ‘kalire’ over the head of my friends (unmarried ones) so as to hasten her wedding. But it was something which could break her head as one of the big dried coconut fell on her; bringing huge laughs from the onlookers! Thankfully she survived the tradition to someday get married on her own! 
We then came back to my grand-parent’s home in order to pay a ‘ritualistic farewell’ to them. Believe me, it was nothing like the usual ‘vidai’ where a sad song plays in the background and people break down crying everywhere! I wanted to break down that image of a vidai; after all it is not that I would never come there again! I wasn’t the one who was given away- we daughters are not commodities to be given or taken away, I believe so! I was a bride who smilingly bade a farewell to all. 

We both being majorly non-religious enjoyed the ceremony, not as a mark of any traditional following but as a way of bringing two families together with harmony and bringing to light the truth that ‘not always’ a patriarchial way of life is followed in a society like ours! I am so glad our lives began with prayers and blessings of our elders rather than any kind of malice. When life becomes an adventure, new experiences bring awe; and that’s what our wedding surely was! An adventure in today’s world; cutting across race, region, class, religion and caste- a superb example of two families with pure hearts coming together for a beautiful beginning for both of us!