The Pedders of Platitudes…..and the Sellers of Stereotypes – Conclusion

My previous two articles on this theme are here and here

The Evil Mother-in-Law

In our Hindu tradition, some of us perform a puja (prayer ritual) called Varalakshmi Vratham. This puja is performed by married women and young girls – it is a prayer for peace, prosperity and well being of the whole family. In some places, the belief is that the women doing this prayer will be granted the same husband in the next seven births, and their couple status will transcend birth and death.

Varalakshmi Vratham this time comes on August 12th, and there is a topical joke going around in social media, on this theme of the same spouse in multiple births. Chitragupta, the divine accountant of good and bad karma performed in a person’s lifetime, tells Brahma the Creator that this Varalakshmi Vratham scheme of the praying women wanting the same husband for the next seven births needs to stop….Because while the women wanted the same husband, their husbands wanted a different wife in each birth!!

“How should we solve this dilemma?”, asks Chitragupta.

Neither of them is able to solve this puzzle. Just then Narada, the divine sage, comes along, and says they should ask a wise man named Chanakya for advice, as he was known for his ability to solve complex problems. So Chitragupta goes to meet Chanakya, and explains the problem to him. Chanakya listens carefully, thinks for a while and says there is a solution.

“Tell the praying women that if they want the same husband for the next seven births,  they will also get the same Mother-in-Law”

The problem was now solved!! 🙂

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Mother-in-law generally is the most hated-figure, coming a close second to only one other role that I will come to in a bit.

Indian television shows are replete with mothers-in-law who scheme and collude with the rest of the family to treat the poor daughter-in-law as an outcast in the family, try to separate her from her husband, treat her like an unpaid servant, expect her to put up with all sorts of abuse, and in general lord it over the poor newcomer. The TV shows feature daughters-in-law who suffered this treatment for a while and shed copious tears before finding themselves, developing their potential talents and breaking free.

The scene in urban India is a far cry from this. In my hometown of Chennai, I hear many stories of demands from prospective brides – that the prospective groom needs to have his own house and car; ideally he should not have any sisters or the sisters should be married and settled abroad. Preferably, he should be an only son who will eventually inherit all his parents’ property. The bride’s parents will live close to the bride, with the understanding that she will be a dutiful daughter and take care of them in their old age. The woman’s parents might even move in with the couple once they have children….The groom’s parents on the other hand should not live with him, and should preferably be in a different city or a whole different country.

This is the scenario of prospective urban brides of India, in 2016. If this is the demand before the wedding even starts, one can imagine how things will be once the wedding is over.

Women are the kin-keepers in any family. They keep in touch with loved ones, invite them over for celebrations, keep track of birthdays, anniversaries – and are the communicators in the family. Few men keep track of all this, leaving it to the women to handle extended family relationships. With the women being naturally close to their own families of birth, the man’s side typically gets lesser attention, and if the woman decides that the husband’s family is not important to them, sooner or later they lose their connection with the son and grandchildren. Radhika Sarathkumar says this poignantly in the film “Theri” when her son (played by Vijay) introduces his fiancee to her. She expresses her worry thus: “I fear you may not like me……And if you don’t like me, you will cut my son out of my life….Then you will cut my grandchildren out of my life”

Sad is the state of the mother-in-law who has been a homemaker all her life, who becomes widowed and starts to rely on her son for support. If there are many sons, she gets shuttled between their homes, an unwanted visitor and poor relation. If there is only one son, the daughter-in-law can feel threatened and either treat her as a marginal member of the family, or treat her like an outcast and outright demand that her husband put her in an old age home, and she is no longer welcome at theirs. With rising divorce rates, many men are afraid to stand up for their own side of the family, and many of them toe the line of the wife.

I have seen instances where an aged mother is left to fend for herself after her husband’s death – with the son initially promising to take care of his mother and taking over all her assets. Once all assets are transferred, the mother-in-law is increasingly marginalized by the daughter-in-law and finally cast out. Modern day mothers-in-law especially in urban areas are more sinned against than sinning!

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And the Most Evil of Them All

The award for The Most Reviled Figure in all of literature goes to…..(drumroll, please) The Stepmother! She wins this award hands down, across the world!

Nearly all western fairy tales feature a stepmother who mistreats, abuses and makes an unpaid servant out of her stepchild(ren) as in the case of Cinderella. Some stepmothers are outright witches as in the case of Hansel and Gretel and Snow White. These stepmothers are not just wicked and mean, they are murderers who try to poison the poor children!

In Indian puranas, we see Queen Suruchi, a stepmother who prevents young prince Dhruva, a child of about five from sitting on his father’s lap. Dhruva goes to the forest, does severe penance, and becomes the pole star. The Ramayana has Kaikeyi, Lord Rama’s stepmother – who is instrumental in banishing Him to a forest, so that her son Bharata can become crown prince.  The Mahabharata has Satyavati, who marries King Shantanu under the condition that their future son will become the crown prince and after him his descendants will rule the kingdom, passing over prince Devavrata who is Shantanu’s son from a previous marriage. Devavrata renounces his claim to the throne, and even takes a vow of celibacy so that he has no descendants – sacrificing his happiness for his father’s.

There are innumerable movies along this theme in nearly every country. “The Parent Trap” is one in the US, where twin daughters scheme to kick the gold-digging stepmother out of the home. All ends well with the stepmother being shown the door and the children getting their parents to reunite. The stepmother is widely understood to be a figure who will mistreat her stepchildren, alienate them from their father, and stake claim to all of his assets and emotions.

Few understand how toxic this type of stereotyping can be…..and how hard on the woman involved. In previous generations, men worked outside the home while women stayed home to take care of the family. Marriage was considered a necessity at the time, for women to be financially supported and for men to have a partner to run their home.

These days with women gaining financial independence, and having more choice in their lives, marriage is increasingly regarded as an option. When something becomes an option, it is a conscious choice – made out of love, and a need for companionship. Why else would someone who is otherwise independent, marry a person with child(ren)?

In many families, both husband and wife work outside the home. There are numerous demands on one’s time, and much juggling to balance all of one’s roles and responsibilities. Some days, tempers flare because there is just so much to do! If one partner in a marriage comes branded as Evil by social stereotyping, imagine the added pressure on her…..She isn’t allowed to be human with human frailties, lest she be branded as Evil! She has to put on a pleasing front all the time, suppressing her natural feelings, to “prove” that she is not evil.

Sometimes people who have a bad day at work can be moody at home. Not the stepmother, because she is not allowed to have or express such feelings. If she corrects her stepchild, she is not being maternal enough and is treating him/her in a step-motherly manner. If she does not correct the child, then she is not invested enough in the child’s well-being the way a real mother would be! An uncle or aunt can correct a child, or give advice – but stepmothers have no such privileges.

In a typical step or blended family, a stepmother is allowed to love but not discipline. She is given responsibility but no real authority. Unconditional love for the child is demanded from her, without any reciprocal expectation of love or respect from the child. Many children resent the presence of a stepmother, because to them she has replaced their own mother in their family unit! They naturally resent this change, and show this resentment in many ways….Young children act out, clinging to the father and being rebellious towards the stepmom.

“You are NOT my mother!” is a common refrain.

Teenagers act sullen and passive aggressive, or become destructive/disrespectful of both parental figures in the home as a way of expressing displeasure at the change in family unit. Many children hold on to fantasies of their natural parents reuniting, and try to break up the relationship between their father and the stepmother.

In all this, pressure from the couple’s immediate circle can be unrelenting. If the child resents the stepmother and acts out, it is seen as stepmom’s fault – because she is not good enough and hasn’t made enough of an effort to win the child’s love. If the stepmother expresses frustration at the lack of acceptance from the child and in many cases lack of support from her spouse, she is unfit to be parent, and it was a mistake for the father to have married her. If the child reports anything negative against the stepmother, typically the child’s words are believed over anything the stepmother has to stay. It is a very challenging role, with a high incidence of depression and anxiety

For those who believe stepmothers are inherently evil, imagine yourself in the following scenario: Your best friend  wants you to take care of their child for a year.

Will you take on this responsibility? Why or why not? If you answered ‘yes’ out of love for your best friend, pause and think carefully about each of the questions below:

  1. Do you expect to love the child as much as your own from the get-go, or do you expect a relationship that evolves and deepens over time…..?
  2. Given that you – instead of their parent – is parenting them for a whole year, do you expect the child to be happy about this situation that they didn’t choose?
  3. If you scold the child for a mistake and the child calls and complains to their parent, what types of reactions do you expect from the parent? If the parent were to automatically believe anything the child says, and not even hear what you have to say, what will your feelings be?
  4. What if the child rejects you because they resent the change in their life, or they miss their parent?
  5. What if the child feels (and is given the subliminal message) that that they are not required to love or respect you, while you are required to show love, affection and patience regardless, while juggling your other responsibilities such as work, home care, and family responsibilities?
  6. What if the child has grown up with fairy tales stating that surrogate caregivers are inherently evil, and is suspicious of your intentions? What if society is suspicious of your intentions and actions, simply because you have taken on the role of caregiver for the child?

Tough, isn’t it?

Adoptive parents are not branded in this manner. They are allowed to parent the child according to their values and principles, and lauded for taking on the care and responsibility of a child that sorely needed a parent and didn’t have one in their life. Adoptive parents are treated as angels, and respected as much as biological parents. Stepfathers don’t have a negative societal label – conservative societies applaud a man for stepping in to parent his spouse’s children. But stepmothers somehow are viewed with extreme suspicion and have to deal with negative labeling, simply for trying to do their best in the face of rejection from nearly everyone!

Many libraries ban books that use derogatory and discriminatory statements against a group of people or a race. Books with the n* word to depict Black Americans are banned in some libraries.

We are required to be politically correct and not brand a group of people with a broad brush on the basis of religion, race, or region. Yet, Grimms Fairy Tales continue to be popular and the myth of the Evil Stepmother is fed to people over and over again, starting from childhood. Is this fair?

(Concluded)

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The Peddlers of Platitudes…..and the Sellers of Sterotypes – Part 2

My previous article on this topic is here

How many of you have heard the phrase:

“The love of a good (wo)man will…”

I don’t quite know how that phrase ends but we know this theme, which goes like this: no matter how difficult a person or situation maybe, no matter how thankless relating to them maybe, if we just provided enough love, the person will come around and become what one hopes they would become. If time after time there are no results it must mean that one is not loving enough, patient enough, giving enough, or kind enough…..with just that little more love, anything can be fixed.

This is the central premise for many romance novels, and unfortunately an abiding theme in many abusive relationships. Seriously, what if the person we are trying so hard to love is a narcissist? No matter how much one does, how much one tries to please, how much one tries to keep happy, the person is unimpressed. Worse, they make you feel responsible for their moods and proclivities, that change from time to time. Nothing is ever their fault; life is all about their wants, needs and happiness. It is the job of the person living with the narcissist to provide all they need…..without any hope of reciprocity.

And what about those who dangle love as a carrot, while trying to use it as an instrument of control…? Do as I say, and I will shower love. Else, I will emotionally abuse you by cold behavior, silent treatment, screaming fits, passive aggressive behavior, disrespectful treatment….

I’d say the romance novel premise is an epic fail. Sure, if one is a saint and is unruffled by such trivia as human behavior, and doesn’t depend upon emotional support from anyone, this kind of infinite love is possible. For people who have to deal with control freaks and narcissists and interact closely with them it is a daily struggle to find peace, let alone strength to carry on. Without outside support or community support, the person will crumble internally and become a shadow of him/her self.

A dear elder in the family once told the story of a teacher, who had a group of students living with him. This was in ancient India, where the students lived in the home of the teacher, and helped with daily chores while learning their lessons during different times of the day. Strict obedience to the teacher (guru) was the norm in a gurukulam, as such schools were called. This particular teacher was excellent, and had a reputation as a perfectionist. He would start his lessons early in the morning and take a break in the afternoon. He had a fondness for card games, which he indulged in each afternoon with other adults in the community. During this time, he would ask one of his students to make sandalwood paste for the next day’s prayers.

Fresh sandalwood paste is made by rubbing a small wet log of sandalwood against a flat stone, periodically removing the paste that has gathered and re-wetting the log. The student doing the grinding would bring the paste to the teacher in a plate to test for the desired consistency.The teacher liked the paste to be of the consistency of butter, and the student had to keep grinding until it reached that consistency.

One day, the teacher was engrossed in a card game and the student kept bringing the sandalwood paste in a plate for his approval. The teacher kept sending him back, saying it had not reached the consistency of butter. At one point, the student observed that the teacher wasn’t even looking at the paste…..fully engrossed in the card game, he simply extended his hand, took the paste in his fingers, and tested the consistency.

After repeated attempts at appeasing this teacher, the frustrated student brought actual butter in the plate. The teacher as usual extended his fingers, rubbed the butter and said it still wasn’t buttery enough. At which point, the student quit, packed his bags, and left for his village!

Sometimes love can be the sandalwood paste that never reaches butter’s consistency!

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“Domestic abuse or intimate partner abuse happens only to women”

This is commonly accepted as truth. The term domestic abuse conjures up images of a battered and bloodied woman, who suffers beatings (or worse) at the hands of a physically abusive male partner. One thinks about Ray Rice, Chris Brown, and O.J.Simpson…..and in the Indian context, about brides physically tortured and in the worst case burned for dowry.

But what about the abuse that shows no outward scars? Where the person is slowly but subtly losing his sense of self, at the hands of a mentally and emotionally abusive female partner? Those who think women cannot be abusive as intimate partners either haven’t lived long enough or lead an idyllic existence where such things do not happen to those close to them.

In his sensitive Tamil film, Solla Marantha Kathai, director Cheran talks of financial and emotional abuse of a man who, by force of circumstances, has to make a living working in a restaurant run by his father-in-law. He suffers many hardships, constant verbal abuse, and at one point has to separate from his pregnant wife, who now lives with her parents. The parents continue to berate him in her presence and she being a young village girl, doesn’t know what to think. She starts to believe her parents, that her husband isn’t good enough. The spouses continue to miss each other and are finally reunited when the man finds gainful employment elsewhere and returns to take his wife: the wife takes their child and runs away from her parents home. The man holds his child and his wife after months of separation….his tears say it all.

Abuse in situations of financial hardship is difficult to live with. But the cycle of abuse can be broken if the man has high self esteem otherwise, sees the abuse for what it is, is able to get to a better financial position, and is able to stand his ground eventually.

But there is another type of insidious abuse, of men who are otherwise smart, successful and project a capable image to the outside world. These men in many cases hold high positions, and have well-paying jobs. They may even be nice enough to support the wife’s parents. Yet they lead a double existence, of high respect in the workplace, and abuse in the home that happens without anyone’s knowledge.

Before discussing this, let’s think for a second about schoolyard bullying. You picture a small child being surrounded by bigger and older boys. These older children threaten the younger/smaller person with beatings and often carry out their threats….and we, who are accustomed to think of abuse in physical terms think of only this when we think of bullying.

Girls bully differently: by spreading canards about, isolating and excluding the unwanted girl. They organize into cliques, with a ring leader and a bunch of followers of varying rank in the clique. The other girls’ status is constantly shifting, defined by their closeness to this leader. A person is “in” or “out” based on certain unspecified criteria; perhaps dressing a certain way, or acting a certain way. Those that defy this state of affairs are shunned and made to feel like an outsider. Overt remarks and covert gestures in the presence of this person serve to further isolate and exclude the person. Gossip is another powerful tool: a few carefully placed lies – and voila, there goes the person’s reputation!

Those who have experienced this at some point in their lives know how painful this is…..The more confident girls steer away from such girls, calling their bluff and preferring their own company; some may seek the company of other misfits and square pegs. Some who are tomboys, have friendships with the opposite sex, becoming “one of the boys”. The less confident girls, or those who are awed by the bullies, keep on trying to fit in….and losing the battle. Some children in this process of trying to fit in, are driven to end their lives.

Note that for abuse to thrive, there has to be secrecy; if the abuse is exposed, it will end right there. So the female bullies know how to put on an act around authority figures. They can act extremely nice, so much that no one suspects them of bullying. The bullied person is threatened enough not to expose the abuse, and in severe cases, is made to think it is all their fault. Children with low self esteem and a need for external validation, are often brainwashed into thinking they deserve the bullying.

Intimate male partners are abused along similar lines. There are no cliques in this case – the clique may come later. But it always, always involves an insecure woman, and a man who tries to keep her happy, often at the cost of his quality of life and health. And just like the schoolyard bullying, it involves isolation and secrecy.

The woman starts out falling in love with a generally nice man – in some cases a talented, empathetic and kind soul. Perhaps a naive, people pleasing soul. She acts extra caring and charming at first, being all that the man wants her to be and sweeping the man off his feet. So much that he feels that she is the Goddess incarnate, and he will find no one better. Once the relationship is firmly established, the games begin. First, she finds faults with his friends: they are all good-for-nothing wastrels, and time is spent more productively doing other things. Sometimes, she pouts that she never gets enough time with the man and he prefers the friends’ company to hers.

As time progresses, she will want to spend more and more time with the man, and prevent him from meeting his family and friends. Ostensibly, this is because she wants to spend every moment with her beloved, and loves him so dearly that she doesn’t want to share him. This of course, is very flattering to a man newly in love.

At this stage, he still is a very social being with social needs and isn’t fully in her grip – yet. So he has a natural desire to meet his family and friends in social settings. She initially accompanies him to gatherings with friends and family. But at the end of every gathering, the man realizes something is wrong – his partner isn’t happy. His beloved may indicate that she didn’t enjoy it, or that the people were not good enough for whatever reason. As time progresses, she may behave in a very cold, detached and erratic way in such settings. In time, it is clear to him that she is uncomfortable in the company of his friends and family. Gradually the time spent in such company is reduced, and the man is increasingly isolated from those close to him. Sometimes he avoids the gatherings, as he either doesn’t want to expose her erratic behavior, or doesn’t want to feel caught in the middle.

For a while he may try to meet those close to him on his own. But his partner may try to prevent him from doing so by scheduling other activities, or calling him so often on his cellphone that he is embarrassed. She may fake some emergency, and make him return to her early. Or she may try to make him feel guilty for spending time away from her, or have an existence outside of her. Any questioning of such pathological behavior is met with extremely emotional and obstinate stances, and the man realizes that there is no point in arguing with such a person. He is attempting to reason with her, and her objective is to control, not reason. She may try to make him feel guilty for breaking her heart, threaten to commit suicide, or claim he doesn’t love her enough. Or make his life so miserable through the silent treatment, erratic crying, threats of returning to her parents’ home, threats to harm herself as he doesn’t “understand her love”….she acts so despondent that it leaves the man dazed and confused.

At this point, the man may rationalize that the partner is just having a bad day, or that her irrational behavior is stemming from deep love.  She after all, has been so charming and nice to him all along. He may try to put the behavior past him, and move on. But by now, well-meaning friends and family try to caution him, saying he is not who he used to be. That the woman is not good for him, that she will make him unhappy.

A wise man may see the red flags by now, but an empathetic, naive or completely smitten man may not. He may ignore the warnings of friends and family, or get extremely angry when they bring up the subject of his partner. His partner blows hot and cold, and he is confused. She claims that her bad moods are because of his behavior. He starts to believe her, doubling up his efforts to please her.

In time, he may realize the abuse, but is not able to get away from it for any number of reasons: the couple may have children together; she may be very attractive and he is loath to end the relationship, or there are financial dealings which could get complicated. He tries to look on the bright side, denying even to himself the abuse that is happening. Everyone has good and bad days, he reasons.

And there are good days too. Abuse, after all, happens in cycles…… The man during such times thinks his lady is an absolute angel and loves him to the ends of the earth. All she wants is my company, where is the harm in that? The woman feeds this fantasy by saying their relationship is so special and no one understands it, that they need to protect this relationship at all costs from people who may try to break them up. She may claim that she is the only one who truly loves him and understands him, and his friends and family are liars and fakes who only pretend to care.

In time the man loses himself, his birth family, his friends’ circle and is a prisoner to her wants and needs. But ironically, she continues to maintain relationships with those close to her. Her family becomes his family, her world becomes his. Any children that are born to them, are also made to align with the mother. The father will be berated in front of them, his authority constantly undermined. Children are astute beings – they realize quickly who is boss!

The abuse does not stop there. It usually escalates. The woman continues to berate the man and acts as though he is nothing without her. She calls him naive and unfocused, and claims she is the one trying to better their life and if he only listened to her and did what she said, their life would be much better. He may take the bait and increasingly do things and commit acts that he wouldn’t normally do, to keep her happy. In some cases, her family is in cahoots with this – after all, now that he has been cut off from his own family……

Financial abuse is next, where his money and expenses are kept in close watch. Early on in the game, she only managed his accounts and watched how money was spent. She may now make him buy assets in her name, or sign over his properties and assets in her name as part of her grand plan to “take care of him, allow him to focus on work and save him from the stress of dealing with all other matters”. Now in addition to being isolated from family and friends, he has no money of his own, despite being the one making the money! Her control over him is complete.

This is typically a very insecure woman who seeks security through control. The more she controls, the better she feels. And the more he allows her to control, the deeper the man sinks into this abyss….. If you see a once joyful, lively and loving man who is now completely bereft of life or joy, and who is not the social creature he once used to be for reasons that aren’t entirely apparent, there maybe a questionable partner in his life.

Why doesn’t the man break the cycle? When the Janay Rice incident happened, twitter was afire with two hashtags #whyshestayed and #whysheleft where many women described why they stayed with their abusers for so long, and why they finally had the courage to leave.

Many of the same reasons apply to men. In addition to this, there is social pressure for men to be strong and self-sufficient. First, larger society doesn’t believe men can be abused by women; it is hard to open up before an incredulous audience. Men may be afraid to be seen as weak, as a victim, as needing help and support. The culture places high regard on strong, silent men after all.

But some of these men may be silently suffering. They may rationalize that in time, with enough love and patience…..well, you know the rest. This is the “love of a good woman” scenario I mentioned earlier, with the gender reversed.

To be continued…

The Peddlers of Platitudes…..and the Sellers of Stereotypes

You know when someone talks to you and all their thoughts sound borrowed? Or when we accept certain phrases as truth and do not even examine them…..and those phrases masquerading as truth colors our perceptions and prevents us from seeing what is real? I list some of them below:

“Time is a great healer” (alternatively: “All things heal with time”)

“Big girls/boys don’t cry”

“The love of a good woman can reform…”

Consciously or unsconsciously, we have bought into these cliches and it has colored our perceptions. Sometimes these cliches help us categorize things and proceed with life. Sometimes they offer solace , perhaps even strength…..even if by a false sense of hope or courage.

But there are times when these very cliches need to be examined and gotten past, or we will face roadblocks in life and interpersonal relationships. Cliches keep us locked in patterns that are unproductive, and we remain stuck in places without knowing how to extricate ourselves from tight spots. Mental and relational issues are not given the weight they deserve, and our hearts and minds, and eventually bodies, will feel the wear.

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Early last month, most of my town was flooded. A bridge collapsed, and some roads ended up being seriously eroded and requiring repairs. The town planners got to work, and once the rain stopped, went about cleaning up flooded areas, repairing bridges and busy thoroughfares, and making sure that traffic will flow smoothly in as less time as possible. Nobody waited around mouthing words like “time is a great healer” or “all things heal with time”.

In this case, it was understood that time in fact, is a great eroder. Continuing traffic on damaged (but still usable) roads will lead to more wear, perhaps more accidents, and more expensive repairs. And collapsed bridges needed to be fixed, or traffic from the bridge would spill over to surrounding smaller roads, leading to traffic snarls, commuter stress and more accidents.

When a person has a broken limb or deep cut, we seek medical attention immediately. Waiting around for time to heal this wound may lead to infection, and in severe cases gangrene or blood poisoning. Perhaps smaller cuts and scrapes will heal with time, but even for those we make sure we clean the wound and make sure it gets air. We do not pick at the wound while healing….and apply ointments if the skin gets tight and dry. Some care and action is taken, even if not much.

But when it comes to mental and relational wounds, we believe that time will heal the wound with no action from our side. When we experience a loss of a relationship through death, or emotional strains put on it, we believe things will heal in time. Grief from the loss is brushed under the carpet, and we try to replace the lost relationship with other relationships, or in the case of a death, by trying to focus our minds on something else and hope that the pain of the loss is not felt. Some people even steer clear of the person facing the loss, unable to face the person and mouthing – yes, the very same platitude: all things heal with time.

There are families where siblings do not speak normally to each other, or are not on speaking terms. Even if one extends a hand of friendship, for whatever reason, the gesture is not returned. The other person says they need time, and sometimes add that platitude – “time heals all wounds”.

Nope, it doesn’t. A person could feel isolated and get depressed, not knowing how to grieve a death. A fissure in a family or significant friendship can deepen with time, if the original issues are not dealt with and gotten past. A misunderstanding will never be repaired with time alone; both parties need to take efforts to examine what led to it, and honestly fix it. We all grow up with a history, and some relationships – such as those we have with parents, siblings, childhood friends, or spouse – can never be replaced. This is a loss felt forever, that shows up at unexpected times and places. We may think we do not need this person, but we do. And allowing time to pass without taking actions to fix what was broken will be like waiting for a heavily trafficked bridge, that is now broken, to repair itself given time. Except in this case, instead of the roads getting clogged, it is our arteries. It is pain that we hide and repress, and try to distract ourselves from….that causes a lot of stress-related illnesses. Worse, we carry this baggage with us to other friendships/relationships – and become guarded, suspicious, and snappy. The overall quality of life suffers.

Reminds me of a story from Tolstoy that I read as a child: “Little children wiser than men”. The gist of the story is this: two neighborhood children get into a fight, the parents of the respective children intervene and it ends up becoming a fight between the parents. The next morning, the children who fought the previous day are back to playing as friends again, while the parents’ neighborly relations are forever lost.

As children, we had the innocence and trust to get up, apologize and honestly try again. As children, we had the forgiveness to look past flaws, accept the proffered hand of friendship, and go forward to play more, and live in the moment. As children, we had the boldness to offer comfort to a person who is in pain, or intervene when two friends have a misunderstanding…….And as “mature” adults we somehow lose this ability to say sorry, to try again, to accept a hand of friendship or a kind gesture, to accept a genuine apology and allow a person to make it up. We forget that we are all fallible and imperfect. That we need each other to play, or life will be dull.

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“Big boys/girls don’t cry”

This is another of those platitudes that makes absolutely no sense. Yes, public decorum prevents us from displaying all emotions in public. But there are people who carry this to the extreme, equating lack of tears to strength. They do not seek comfort or support during a time of pain, and think strength is all about stoicism. Seeking comfort from another makes us vulnerable, and open to being hurt, and so we do not seek it. So in effect, we are afraid to be vulnerable…and clam up due to this fear. Lack of tears isn’t a symbol of strength after all. It is a symbol of a fear to connect – be it with another in the act of seeking comfort, or connecting with our own selves and allowing ourselves to experience our emotions, and lead authentic lives.

Nature has given us this wonderful mechanism to release stress….which we choose not to use. Some of us do not even cry in private. I remember being “The Stupid Stoic” when I lost a person dear to me, to death. I refused to cry, and went to work that day. There is a need to be strong in front of those who depend on us…..we tell ourselves that in order to do so we should not give into our feelings. Yet, in the process of repressing sad feelings we get to a point where we are are barely functional………. The sadness eats at our hearts, our minds, and when we prevent ourselves from expressing it, it turns inward and doesn’t allow us to concentrate. It destroys sleep, and turns functioning adults into irritable zombies. Steadfastly refusing to seek comfort in tears at the time, or in the arms of a caring friend (after all, I did live away from family who were in another continent), I didn’t feel very strong. I felt like a mess who somehow had to pretend to be normal, and who was failing miserably at that.

And one night, deep in the middle of the night, the tears came, and with it an inexplicable sense of relief. After weeks, I could breathe normally again. The sorrow was allowed to be experienced, to be released from the system. Such release made room to examine all that was lost, to mourn, to grieve, and get a grip over the loss. That was the day I understood that the only way to get away from grief is through it.

I know people who to this day, complain about breathing issues when they are stressed…and this breathing  difficulty  hasn’t had a medical reason attributed to it. I suspect at least some have long repressed feelings of loss, sadness, rejection, and abandonment. They may have immersed themselves into activities and stayed busy, to distract themselves from feeling and owning those “inappropriate” and hence uncomfortable feelings. Nature, and our bodies have a way of releasing strong emotions but in the process of civilizing ourselves we have turned away from our own natures. Feelings that have nowhere to go continue to erode our bodies…..and our lives and health are the poorer for it.

Big girls and boys who need to get on with lives and live true to themselves need to have the occasional cry – and find healing through tears. Ipods, social media and pets can only provide so much relief. We as a race need to find deeper connections with each other, even if it means occasionally being vulnerable.

To be continued…..

Mother Earth and her inheritors

Samudra vasane devi, parvatha sthana mandale

Vishnu patni namasthubhyam padasparsham kshamasva me

This is what people of my culture chanted on awakening, before their foot touched the ground. It is a hymn and an ode to Mother Earth that is translated thus:

O Mother who wears the oceans as Her garments,

One whose bosoms are the mountain ranges

O divine Mother who is protected by Lord Vishnu himself,

Kindly pardon my touching you with my feet

With that, one respectfully places one’s palm on the ground, reverently touches it to one’s eyes, and then places the foot on the floor. It is a reverence built into the daily routine, an awareness that we are mere inhabitants of our glorious planet that gives us life and provides daily nourishment. It is a way of life filled with awe and gratitude, and aware of our place among other living creatures of this planet.

In the Hindu faith, reverence for every living creature is built in. Lord Ganesha has the mouse has his mount, Lord Shiva has Nandi the bull, Lord Vishnu has Garuda the bald eagle, Goddess Durga the tiger….Shiva even wears the serpent as an ornament, and entire rituals are built around the serpent.

Some trees and plants are regarded sacred, and cutting of a tree was done only when necessary. Before a tree was cut, a person said a prayer apologizing for cutting down a living tree, and ensured that they planted 10 other trees soon after….. Wanton destruction was never part of the psyche. I remember growing up listening to a story about a mango tree that was a boy’s best friend from childhood through the time when he had to cut it down to build his house as an adult. The story always made me sad. I had mentioned in a previous blog about the place the Tulasi plant has in the Indian way of life.

In many states of India there are special areas marked as serpent groves – where vegetation is left to flourish wildly, nourishing flora and fauna. These are called variously as “Nagara havu”, “Sarpa kavu” depending on the language – with some small idols of serpents placed respectfully over there. People are forbidden to alter the vegetation or enter it except at specific worship times, to preserve the silence of the grove and allow the animals there to live undisturbed. Legend has it that if one disturbs a serpent grove, ponds will dry up. Please see article by Mr.Udaylal Pai on such groves: http://udaypai.in/?p=849

In my state, it was said that if the serpent habitat is disturbed, ill luck due to disturbing the serpent (Naga dosham) will befall a person and will affect many generations.

It is easy to dismiss these as mere superstitions, and make fun of such practices. But if you think about it, the worship of various animals as mounts of the Gods, and the preservation of serpent groves speaks of a reverence for Earth and all her living creatures. It bespeaks an attitude that says that every creature has its place in the grand scheme of things, and is deserving of respect and a right to live freely.

Serpent groves were places where entire eco-systems flourished, with predator and prey in balance. Farmers particularly liked these groves as the serpents kept rodent and insect population in control, and emerged during nocturnal hours when the farmers themselves would not be in the fields.

Serpent groves were places where the jungle took over, preventing soil erosion, serving as traps for rainfall, and purifying the air we breathed. What about the ill luck that befalls the one who disturbs the serpent grove and will affect future generations?? Well, if the air is not purified and the ecological balance is disturbed, will it not affect the generations to come? How did cancer rates climb so high if not for such wanton destruction in the name of “progress” and “development”?

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In my ancestral home in the village, there was a cowshed in the backyard. Animals were taken to graze for a few hours during the day, and brought back at night. There was always a haystack nearby, to help feed the cows. Many people have seen a cobra glide nearby, going about its business. Perhaps its home was in a nearby field or grove, and it frequented areas where it knew that prey was available in the form of mice that can be usually found where grain is stored (ancestral homes had a granary where harvested rice is kept).

The cobra was left undisturbed, as it never came near humans and kept mice under control. Many people in the villages of Tamil Nadu call such snakes “vaazhum paambu” (thriving snake) and do not disturb or kill them. Man and snake live in harmony in this manner.

Cows in the cowshed lived well unto old age and died of natural causes. They had their pasture hours and resting hours. The shed had a thatched roof and was cleaned a couple of times each day. Cowdung was dried and used as fuel. Cow and calf stayed together until the calf was old enough to be weaned. Vegetable peels were given to the cow, as was the starch from washing the rice each day, along with some peanut or cottonseed cakes. And we got fresh milk everyday.

It was a peaceful eco-friendly way of living.

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The way of looking at Mother Earth is slowly changing in India, where the western way of seeing Earth is taking root. This foreign, and different way of life looks at Earth and her resources – her flora and fauna – as something that is available for mankind to freely use, abuse and exploit at will. From an attitude that sees us as one of the types of creatures inhabiting the Earth, there has been a shift to an attitude that says Man is superior, and animals are at his mercy.

This attitude dictates that plants and their genes can be mucked with at will, to suit the tastes of man. Factory farms are coming up, to suit the demands of KFC and such places, which dictate that western farming practices be adopted in Indian poultry farms, to “increase productivity”.

Those of us living in the US know about the cruelty of factory farms. Such farming practices include placing hens in battery cages where movement is limited to sitting and standing, and extending neck to partake of the feed. The birds cannot even spread their wings! Hens are debeaked, and male chicks are squashed at birth. The birds’ movement is limited to fatten them up fast. I believe there were even experiments conducted to see if hens can be made to lay eggs in a form more suitable for packaging!!

As for cattle and hog farms, the poor animals are confined to small crates and live in such inhumane and unhygienic conditions that they develop infections, needing antibiotics. 80% of antibiotics in the US are apparently used in animal farms. Rampant antibiotic use creates superbugs, resistant to antibiotics and making medical treatment difficult for infectious diseases. Had the animals been allowed to live freely, and pastured, they would not have needed antibiotics!

It is one thing to consume meat, or even be part of the meat industry. It is entirely another to make the lives of animals a living hell and prison by confining them to small cramped spaces reeking of their own waste! Such waste collects in pools, polluting ground water and creating an environmental hazard. All in the name of development and increasing productivity!

Another area of exploitation is the growing Beauty industry. Where shampoos and various cosmetics are tested on animals, causing untold agony to these poor creatures! Some of these shampoos are marketed as “derived from plant sources”.

When I was growing up, we used shikakai and soap nut to wash hair, and ground hibiscus leaves as conditioner. Sometimes henna was used. All natural, derived from plant sources, no animal testing. Coconut oil was used to control frizz. None of the spray chemicals that need to be tested first on animals! I look at the array of products I use (admittedly, many from cruelty-free brands) and feel shame that I’ve moved so far away from the way I was raised.

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This attitude that the Earth is ours to exploit and destroy at will, is also seen in the form of building multiple residences for families that have become smaller and smaller. Previously large homes were there but they supported an extended family where multiple generations lived under one roof, as one big family. Now families have become nuclear, with one family trying to own multiple residences as a way of building wealth. The size of these residences has increased, and each such residence has become a possession to flaunt.

Previously in the US, there used to be a trend of downsizing and moving to a smaller house when the children grew up and had their own families. This was done because the aging couple didn’t want to maintain a large house once it became just the two of them. Those who did not want to downsize simply kept and maintained their home.

Now there is a rising trend of “upsizing” among non-resident Indians in the US, where people move to far larger houses once children are grown. One reason cited is that they are making an investment in such a house, and that investment will appreciate. I have heard of families where the couple bought a 6000 sq foot home. That is 3000 sq foot per person!

Trees were destroyed to build such a spanking new, large home where people needed to communicate through intercoms to talk to each other, and cannot easily find one another if in different parts of the house. Central air and central heat consume more of Earth’s resources in maintaining the lifestyle the family is accustomed to. This is considered an asset that the children will inherit, an asset that appreciates.

The same excuse is given for people buying and keeping homes in multiple places. Some are holiday homes, that are kept idle for most of the year, until the family chooses to vacation there for a couple of months. Some are just bought as assets to buy and sell. This propels the building industry to build more and more, and for investors to speculate, sending prices through the roof.

If we look at India, speculation has pushed home prices well beyond the reach of the common man in most places, with metro cities expanding outward, and non-resident expats wanting the western lifestyle in India building large villa-style homes. More forests are destroyed and the way of life that said all living creatures deserve their place on Earth is giving way to the new way of life that says the Earth and her resources are available for grabs, for the highest bidder who can do what they please, and destroy at will. Farmlands are becoming home-building plots.

Of course, due to lost ecological balance, clean air is hard to come by. We need more and more pesticides to control insects and rodents, whose populations would have naturally been in check through natural predators, had we chosen the path of conservation. Cancer rates go up and up due to all this. So more hospitals are being built, and a previously rural and peaceful area becomes increasingly urbanized, or “developed”.

This “development” through building homes is done ostensibly so that future generations can inherit the assets. Parents feel more secure with such assets…..Do we stop to wonder: with such plundering of the Earth, what are they inheriting? Dirty air, lost biodiversity, genetically modified plants and food, polluted water……and an attitude of further plundering our precious planet, to see if anymore resources in her womb can be exploited and bought and sold? I hear gold is a hot asset and Amazonian forests are being destroyed in search of gold that will then be hoarded as an asset….

Among all living species, humans are the only ones who take more than they need from Earth, and leave a legacy of destruction.

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Can we change this attitude, and how?

PETA and animal welfare activists will tell you that the only way to be humane is to adopt a vegan lifestyle. This may not be possible for everyone. Perhaps people can move away from factory farm products, and buy milk, eggs and meat from humane farms with pastured animals? While doing so, also stop patronizing fast food chains that source their meat from cruel factory farms?

Perhaps limit purchasing anything made of silk, leather or wool  (I used to think wool was cruelty-free but my environmentally aware child asked me to read about merino wool and how it is produced. Enough said).

For those who believe in buying real estate for wealth-building: instead of a large 6000 sq foot home, how about buying a tract of land as an “asset”, building a house just enough for one’s needs and some wants to ensure a comfortable lifestyle. And having a yard with a large garden…? Plant some trees, grow some vegetables and fruit….If backyard is large enough, leave some of it to grow wild and attract bees and butterflies. If you are really wealthy that you can buy several acres of land, perhaps preserve an area as a forest?

It will be a start. Our children do not need to inherit anything except a good work ethic and a pristine planet….

The cult of invisibility

My friend Meghana pointed me to the Mindy Kaling superbowl ad on a woman of color being invisible, and asked “do you feel invisible?”

I had to pause for long and think of an answer. So many unarticulated thoughts, so little coherency….

I grew up in a time when being invisible and “quiet” were considered laudable traits. The quieter you are, the better it is. The less you know, the more of a good woman you are. Why, to this day my mother brings up her goodness by remarking about how her extended family knows the way she has lived, her pure heart and the fact that she “didn’t know anything”.

This “quietness” is so prized in my Tambram (short for ‘Tamil Brahmin’) community that some men have fallen in love with and married downright psycho women, having been fooled by the initial ‘quiet’ appearance. But that’s another story for another day 😀

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Growing up as a woman in India, or anywhere for that matter, women’s feelings always meant less, counted for less. Unless you are a powerful man’s mother, daughter, sister or wife. THEN you would matter – by association with the man.

“If a person makes sexual remarks on the street, ignore and walk on. Wise girls pretend they didn’t hear it”

“If the first child is a boy, you can rest easy for the next one and not worry about it. If the first child is a girl on the other hand, the anxiety for a boy will be tremendous”

“So sad – this child too is a girl. This poor woman is cursed with so many daughters!”

“This woman is really mean! No wonder she gets one daughter after another!”

“Ponna latchanama vaayai moodindu iru!” (be a good woman and shut your mouth)

I grew up hearing such expressions. There were other things too, that one heard. A woman asked for her share of the property after her husband passed away. The in-laws refused to give. Her family threatened a lawsuit – and she was labeled as a terrible person and shunned by her in-laws (who paid up her share of the property).

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Good women stay silent and on the sidelines, never making waves. A good woman supports her husband in attaining his goals, without expecting anything in return. A good woman foregoes her share of the family property. A good woman never raises her head while walking – she walks with her eyes downcast. A good woman always smiles, and tends to others first, never making her wishes known. A good woman always makes her man look good, and never talks back to him. A good woman instinctively senses what others in the family want, and molds herself accordingly. A good woman is flexible, and “adjusts” to different situations and to terrible abusive spouses. A good woman takes responsibility for everyone else’s feelings and has to make everyone else look and feel good.

Women always served men food and ate last – in large extended families, by this time most of the good dishes have been consumed already. When a man of the family falls sick, people nursed him, prayed for him and tended him back to health. When a woman falls sick, she still needs to care for the family – in extended families, other women may take pity on her and help out. Girls put aside their studies and tended to family duties, while boys were free to pursue their interests, play on the streets and so on. Girls were chided and scolded for not doing more, but boys were prized as future carers of aging parents.

The Tambram cult of female invisibility (which I interpret as silence, taking a one-down position, never standing up for oneself etc) is very strong and powerful. It is held in place by women who believe that they must always be in the good books of everyone, particularly male authority figures.

“Oh but these are ancient stereotypes….girls have come a long way!”

Yes they have and that is by fighting for what they believed in. By not falling for the good woman stereotype and never letting themselves be defined by others. By throwing off the invisibility cloak and daring to defy. And for wearing their battle scars proudly. They were helped by progressive fathers and father figures (who else will offer such unconditional support and encouragement – and make their voices heard even when other ‘good’ women are trying to silence them?). But the women did face and fight a lot of battles alone and have the scars to show.

I have broken a lot of stereotypes of good womanhood, as defined by the society I grew up in: by standing up for what I believed in, never mincing my words, talking back when needed, protecting those I love, and speaking for those who as women in the family and in my surroundings felt they had no voice. And I had often taken flak from a lot of places for trying to be anything but invisible – sometimes even from the people I am trying to protect. I have altered between understanding the women who turned on me, and being aghast at their attitude. And have had an inside look at the manipulativeness that is a by-product of female silence and invisibility.

Indira Gandhi, India’s first woman Prime Minister, once remarked that the way to handle men is this: women should pretend to listen to men and then simply do what they wanted to do. If someone that powerful needs to resort to such subterfuge, then God help the ordinary woman!!

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When you cast off that cloak of invisibility, the gloves are off. The men show you a grudging respect but attack you in every possible way when it comes time to give you a fair share of anything – recognition, respect, share in property, equal access to opportunity be it walking alone on streets or advancing in the job, equal respect for your work when you get home, you name it. They will use name-calling, attack your choice of attire, attack your lifestyle choices, and here is my favorite one: talk about how they are really “not upset at what you say, but the way you said it”. Right, these men are too big to be upset by such trivialities as your opinions, just that the way you stated them was totally uncool.

Time after time out will come the correctors of the “way you said it” when the same thing stated by a man would’ve sounded rational and logical. These same people would’ve said far worse things in far worse ways, and some of them being downright dishonest, deceitful and disrespectful. And you would’ve patiently countered every one of these with facts, stated plainly and honestly. And yet we will see these Correctness Police, saying they don’t really object to what you say, but how you said it.

I once saw a comment on a Facebook page: “If I cannot win an argument, I correct their grammar”. I smile, thinking about the various times I’ve had to deal with the Correctness Police.

Here is Mindy Kaling:

Attention fashion designers….saree blouse speaking

Yesterday, when I tried to wear a saree for a function, I realized the blouse didn’t fit me as well as it used to. Enter the safety pin, and some time-consuming unraveling of stitches to “adjust” the size so that I could get into the blouse again.

Once upon a time, I had a tough time gaining weight. Was always slim, until the years started taking their toll. It used to be that eating more salads, exercising more, and avoiding desserts when I could – could make the pounds go away. But even that is not enough anymore…..if I think of dessert, the weight starts to creep up. Yo yo weight and yo yo dieting….sigh! End result is an hour’s time at least going by in search of the right blouse, or ‘adjusting’ blouses that refuse to fit! And trying to shut out the negative voice and counter-voice in the mind:

You should’ve exercised more.

But I did. 

Not enough.

I ate right too.

Then what is this? (holding up blouse, wagging it insinuatingly)

Well, I’ve been lifting weights and the blouse cannot handle my biceps and triceps anymore!

Waa haa haa! You my friend, are pathetic!

Oh shut up. Let me adjust the blouse! (furiously working with safety pin)

I do not belong to the category of people for whom shopping is a hobby. Am bored, let’s go shopping.…Not my style. I do not simply buy sarees for the sake of collecting them. Living in the US, the sarees get so rarely worn that they are as good as new anyway. Plus people gift you sarees when you visit them in India. You take gifts for them, they give you sarees.

What if the size of the blouse goes past the few stitches that help ‘adjust’ it a little? What if the wearer goes up or down sizes……?The blouse will either lie in some corner of the closet, to be replaced by one that fits better, or be donated away….

What a shame, given that some blouses are cut from the same saree cloth, many sarees coming “with blouse” of late? Or let’s say the saree and blouse are from a sentimental time…This is the saree I wore for my wedding or, this is the saree my family gave for my bangle ceremony when I was pregnant with my first child….or in a more somber turn of events, this is the last saree my husband gifted to me before he passed away?

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A woman’s blouse hugs her body like second skin, serving as a perfect foil for the free flowing, graceful, breezy, flirty wrap that is the saree. While the saree can hide a woman’s imperfections and her moods – in some cases, literally – by covering her face, a blouse is prized for its fit, and an ill-fitting blouse will make her look worse: folds of skin sticking out under the sleeves, or at the back, begging for air. Her movements become restricted due to thoughts like this – what if I raise my arm, the blouse tears? Shucks, I cannot even breathe in this blouse….unprintable words come to mind every time one tries to move.

This is not so much a problem in youth but in middle age and later, we deal with such predicaments. There are days when one feels like a punching bag for everyone in sight and the only unconditional hug seems to come from a blouse…..feels like the last straw when even the blouse doesn’t fit ;D!!

Makes me wonder…..and like an engineer, I start to think of this like a design problem. What if, a blouse were to be constructed so as to become a woman’s second skin, and stay intact even as she ages, and goes through physical and emotional changes? The eternal unconditional hug at last!! The nice, snug blouse she wore at her wedding, if only could be stretched to accommodate a few pounds as she goes through pregnancy and childbirth, and life’s ups and downs? As she ages, the same blouse should have enough elasticity and tensile strength to expand and contract as she goes through middle age, and into old age  when the pounds start to drop again for many.

Perhaps fabric can be designed to stretch and shrink with the woman, and blouses from significant and sentimental times be made of this material. Or have some special stretchable material in some places, with the rest of the blouse made of regular material? Say, strategic placement of such fabric around the blouse seams, that do away with the need to ‘adjust’ the size with a safety pin…..Even if the blouse is priced a bit more for this material, for special occasions, people may be willing to pay the price for it.

The design problem comes with challenges: if the material can be stretched far more than usual, then it’s got to be thick. Breathability in hot, humid places becomes an issue. The blouse may become heavy, and cumbersome. The fabric will probably need to be made of synthetic materials, so those of the organic cotton school of thought will lose out. The blouse should be designed for comfortable fit and wear – i.e, it cannot be hard to get into and shouldn’t grip one so tightly that it hurts (blouse made of elastic bands, anyone?). All of these are challenges which, with the right fabric designer and/or fashion designer, can be overcome.

If I was a fabric designer, I would not only measure elasticity, tensile strength and porousness (breathability), but will also define ratios, such as “Stretch/Comfort Ratio” (SCR) or “Snugness/Comfort Ratio”. We want something ideally with high snugness and high comfort, but with current fabrics these two factors have an inverse correlation…..Never mind, I went off the deep end there ;)! Suffice to say, even if I don’t have the design expertise I would love to be one of the beta testers of such a blouse. Will gladly write ad jingles and help market the blouse!

If such a fabric were to be developed, the uses will be manifold. Even snug-fitting western dresses could be made from it. Anything of sentimental value that one wants to keep around for a long time…..will now be created with this fabric. Every blouse will have a story to tell from then on, and be around enough to tell it!

Choli mein dil hai mera, chunri mein dil hai mera

Ye dil mein doongi mere yaar ko, pyar ko!

Tulasi in the tundra – love does not grow in cold, dark places

I took the bunch of basil carefully out of the package and started making my pesto – this, along with jam-making and baking, are my “go to” happy activities. Someone must have watered this basil, made sure it got the sunshine and nutrition it needed to grow, and harvested it tenderly so as not to damage the delicate leaves. And here it lies….fragrant in my hands, ready to become pesto for my family, filling my kitchen with its aroma.

I remembered the Tulasi plant of India, also known as holy basil. It has some similarities to the Italian one, though it is more pungent in taste, has a different fragrance, and medicinal properties. Many families in India have the Tulasi in a special raised pot, watering it, ensuring it has good sunshine, and having a prayer ritual built around it. The Tulasi, as per Hindu beliefs, is a special being blessed by Lord Vishnu, who has come down to earth as a plant to heal us. It is offered to Lord Vishnu in prayer, and used in several herbal home remedies.

The Tulasi will probably wither and die in the harsh winters of the US and northern India. When I think of the Tulasi, I remember a distant aunt of mine, who is no longer in this world. Her husband is related to us in a very distant way. She was a very pious lady, so generous and warm of heart. Every person who crossed her threshold was greeted with warmth. We called her “Chitthi” (maternal aunt or wife of father’s brother is called thus in Tamil) and I have never thought of her as anything else. She wore jasmine flowers in her hair, had the most radiant smile, and no matter how busy, a kind word for everyone. Village farmhouses in India were large sprawling affairs, with a large backyard and cowshed, for fresh milk. Along with her family and visitors, Chiththi lovingly tended to the cows in her backyard as well. Her only son had inherited her sunny temperament, and was our childhood playmate. Such sweet human beings, both.

Her husband though, was made of different material. Stern and unsmiling, he would literally shout at us when we entered the house. “What? Why are you here? Who invited you?” etc., and as children, each word would send us backwards one step at a time, until we were a safe distance from him, and then we would turn and run.

Chiththi didn’t seem all that bothered by it, and so we did not let him bother us too much. Village streets were open spaces to play, and we had a large ancestral home too where her son could join us. But the son rarely came to our house (perhaps if the dad found out, there would be trouble)?

When we wanted to play with him, one of us would gingerly walk past the house to see if  Mr.Iceberg was there, and if so, the person would pretend they forgot something, and retrace their steps. The days he went out of town were great for us, we could make as much noise as we wanted, and Chiththi would laugh right along with us. Some days she played cards with us, and we really didn’t mind an adult joining us. She was like another mother, and every child in the village and every visiting child loved her. She made the best homemade south Indian filter coffee, with milk from her cows.

We often wondered what made Chiththi so sunny, and how she could live with Mr.Iceberg, day in and day out. Wouldn’t that drive a woman crazy? Maybe Chiththi was so sunny a being that she was immune to his temper and his coldness. Maybe he wasn’t cold to her (but his behavior suggested otherwise). As we grew older, we rationalized that her son must have been the saving grace, his laughter and antics the solace for my beautiful aunt.

The son went to college, completed his education, and moved abroad. I did not get to visit Chithi after I finished college, we rarely went to the village by that time. Few years after the son moved, I heard she passed away from cancer. My vegetarian, pious Chiththi, who lived in a village with clean air and clean habits, full of love in her heart, died of cancer when she was in her late forties/early fifties. Relatively young!

I wonder how much the absence of the son may have caused the illness – perhaps she missed her son. All the more, because he was the one saving grace in that cold house with Mr.Iceberg, where all she was, was a being who cooked and kept the house, ironed the clothes and made sure Iceberg got what he wanted when he needed it. She was Tulasi in the Tundra, a thinking feeling smiling vibrant human being – denied the most basic of needs, human affection. She scattered her affection like pearls….and filled people’s lives with joy….until she was left with only the proverbial swine. The stress must have killed her silently.

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Why would somebody ration this freely available resource, called Love? Why the stinginess with imparting this most basic of emotions?

Some close their hearts after a bitter experience. Perhaps someone broke their heart, and they are fearful of trusting again. So they lock themselves in a loveless prison, and build high walls. Some others ration love, using it to gain control over an unsuspecting person, as a “carrot and stick”: display of love is used as a reward, and withholding this love is punishment for the person. Such rationing makes them feel powerful and smart, yet they do not know this: when the relationship is a close one, and the person is conscientious, love and freedom give better rewards. They think control will get them what they want in life, and for a short while it does. In the longer term, the person they try to control would either wise up and learn not to rely on such conditional love, or they will lose the person to illness.

Some act loving when they need something, but then disappear after they get it. They trade in love, like a commodity: need something, give love; need is done with, no need to be loving anymore. Some even deem this behavior “practical” or “street smart”. As if they are managing a limited resource with care!!! Some deem more loving, caring beings as fools.

On the one hand, we read and hear that God is love. Pure love is indeed a most peaceful and happy emotion if left to itself. It makes the world go round and life worth living. But the lovers, healers, and caregivers of the world are deemed fools and used and abused at will……This is a baffling world indeed!

Then there are the gate-keepers of love – who “own” their loved one and decide whom the loved one can interact with and how. A friend of mine used to exclaim that such people dictate “whom to love, how to love, how much to love and when/how to express this love. F*** this sick love that sucks one’s life breath out of a person!” (his words, not mine)

Granted, exclusivity is the hallmark of some relationships, such as spouse. One cannot, in mainstream society have multiple spouses, or partners. Even with such social norms, there are people who decide to “possess” the loved one, and prevent them from interacting normally with friends and family. The possessive person can be anyone – a best friend, a spouse/partner, a parent, or even a child – a significant relationship in one’s life that one does not want to lose, but that is binding them with these terrible chains. If the loved one acts loving towards anyone else, all hell will break loose, and the person either has a choice of playing by the possessive person’s rules, or lose other significant relationships in life. A choice will be made of course due to the difficult circumstances – but the choice will not be a happy one. “அன்பிற்கும் உண்டோ அடைக்கும் தாழ்?” – is there a door that can block out love? Can the holy Ganga be stemmed by a dam?

Yet, shutting off the free flow of love from/to a significant relationship is bound to adversely affect the person, disturbing their peace and turning them into automatons in some way…..They might become hard as a result…. A living, thriving, vibrant portion of them is forever lost, and the possessor can only possess the rest…..It is a hollow victory!

***

Love is a precious resource, but also a plentiful resource. We can choose to open our hearts to love and laughter, sunshine and soft breezes. Or one can choose to ration the sunshine, allowing small amounts in case they will “be taken for a ride otherwise”; one can be afraid of the sunshine and fresh air, shut oneself in a dark room, possibly lock others in it as well. They can use the sunshine like a resource, putting solar panels on the roof to power the house – yet, never step out in the sun and let the light fill their being, or the breezes blow away the dark, dank air in their shut-in spaces. Their loss.

Sad though, is the Tulasi that is left to grow in the Tundra.