Don’t stop celebrating festivals – reinvent them.

Indians are a festival happy nation. And rightly so. Our culture, an amalgamation of several cultures, has been influenced by an ancient heritage, several millennia in the making. Historically, festivals in India were the drivers of community cohesion. An opportunity for a community to come together to worship their deities, celebrate, share a meal, make memories.

Festival celebrations, at least the major ones, are no longer restricted to the community they originated with – a factor of economically driven migration. Religion today has a much smaller role in these celebrations, they are increasingly an opportunity for social interaction – especially in our metros where just about every major festival is celebrated, with equal fervour, by everyone.

Though I was raised Catholic and my husband Hindu, we claim no religious identity. I’ve always been indifferent to the religious component of festivals – even as a child. Catholicism has too many roots in paganism for me to take it seriously. So, Christmas was about the presents. Easter about the delicious pot roast and marzipan eggs. And mostly about our extended family coming together to share a meal, laugh, have a good time.

When I moved to Bombay for work, away from my family, festivals became an opportunity to catch up on sleep. I never really gave celebrating festivals a second thought until my little girl, then four years old, decided she loved them. All of them. Even the outdated, ridiculous ones. And she wanted to celebrate them. Our home has always been a nature versus nurture minefield – my daughter is a determined little person with a mind of her own.

Unfortunately, a lot of our festivals have, over time, lost a fair bit of their original cultural significance. They are loud and ostentatious, very bad for the environment, and in some instances completely out of tune with the times.

Take Raksha Bandhan, for example, I’ve always found this festival patriarchal. To me, the idea that a man, whether capable or not, is by default a woman’s protector is both ridiculous and patronising.

The original rakhi, according to one legend, was a strip of silk Draupadi tore out from her sari to bandage Lord Krishna’s bleeding wrist. Deeply moved, Krishna called her his sister and swore to repay the debt – which he did when she was humiliated by the Kauravas (and her husbands). According to another legend, Krishna was bathing in a river with the Pandavas when his lower garments were pulled away by the current. Draupadi gave him her upper garment so he could cover himself – an act of generosity Krishna repaid by coming to her rescue when the Kauravas tried to disrobe her.

Both legends have a common thread – brother and sister protecting and looking out for each other – a debt repaid.

Then there’s this famous story of the Queen Regent Karnavati of Chittor. When attacked by Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat, Karnavati sent the Emperor Humayun a rakhi, asking him for his protection and help. Overwhelmed, the Emperor abandoned an ongoing military campaign and immediately set out to protect Chittor. Unfortunately, he was too late – the Shah had reached the fortress prompting Karnavati and all her ladies to commit jauhar (mass suicide) to protect their honour. Furious, Humayun attacked the Shah and reinstated Karnavati’s son Vikramaditya Singh as the ruler of Chittor.

Shorn of all emotion, this is the story of an astute political leader. Such a pity she died before she could be rescued. She would have been a fabulous ruler.

During Raksha Bandhan this year, I saw a lot of valid outrage on Twitter about this archaic festival. There were a lot of tweets from people choosing to boycott the festival because of its patriarchal construct. After all, gone are the days of the hunter-gatherer male, of physical combat, of women confined to home and hearth. The battles we fight today are those of equality and mutual respect. Much like the story of Draupadi and Krishna, Raksha Bandhan today ought to be a celebration of mutual protection. So why isn’t it? What’s preventing us from updating our festivals so they reflect the truth of our times without taking away from their cultural significance? – Absolutely nothing.

We’ve been celebrating our reinvented versions of festivals for a couple of years now: when Raksha Bandhan comes around, my little girl exchanges rakhis with her male cousins. And she promises to be there for them just like they promise to be there for her. Only she gets presents though.

For Diwali, we light diyas – no fire-crackers as they’re bad for the environment – and we exchange homemade presents. Onam is about getting together with the extended family, sharing a huge meal. At Christmas, we dust off the trusty old tree and have a grand old time decorating it. For Ganeshostav, she makes her own little Ganpati with eco-friendly clay. (We haven’t drowned any though. She draws the line at destroying her creations). We tell her the stories of how these festivals came to be, their significance, and why they matter – a little tradition of our own in the making.

Our little girl wants to grow up aware of her country’s glorious cultural heritage, and we want her to be mindful of the bits that must evolve to reflect her present. Our decision to reinvent festivals allows her the best of both worlds.

(This post first appeared on Women’s Web on 12th September 2014.)


When stupid is passed off as logic.

I haven’t been able to get this aberration out of my mind. I haven’t been able to get out of my head that two people sat across each other and discussed the pros and cons of what amounts to the genocide of my sex. That a ‘well respected’ anonymous someone made irrational statements cloaked in a veneer of ‘logic’, and the person in conversation with him, instead of laughing at him or shutting him down, invited counter arguments to defeat his ‘logic’.

This post bothered me enough to show it to V, who is by far the most dispassionate, logical person I know. He laughed. A whole lot. Words like attention seeking, pseudo-intellectual, stupid, sociopath and other less polite words I won’t repeat here, were said. “This is like one of those ridiculous ‘Is there a God?’ debates we used to have in college”, he said. “We had nothing better to do with our time. Seems like these guys didn’t either.” I laughed. It helped.

As a student of history, if I’ve taken anything away from the histories of nations and madmen, it’s that there is something very seductive about this form of irrational thought. Through the centuries, it is this sort of faulty reasoning that has been used as a premise to kill one or millions.

That people in my frame of reference believe the systematic annihilation of female foetuses deserves a logical counter argument, is to me, the scariest, sickest thing in the world. Especially when all you need is an internet connection and Google to tell you that almost without exception, countries with higher (or normal) female to male ratio have much lower population growth rates.

To the ‘well respected’ anonymous sociopath, I have this to say: you belong in an asylum for the insane.

And to Tarun, who enabled this aberration, unwittingly or otherwise: You’re right, I don’t know you. You’re probably the nicest guy on the planet. But I can’t help but judge you for what you’ve brought into my frame of reference – the company you keep.

Lost in pro-noun-ciation

“But K, this is not a June 9 entry. How can you say it is?”

As I sat and tried to figure out which June 9 entry Mr M was referring to, he went on about how there were other entries that didn’t seem to be June 9. The sheet I had in front of me only had the one entry for June 9 and it just didn’t make sense. Inside my head was a recurring scream, Which June 9 entry are you referring to, you crazy finance man?

Finally, B, his assistant took pity on me and whispered softly, “He means genuine, not June 9”. It took me a full 5 minutes to comprehend what B was saying and the only response I could manage was a semi-hysterical giggle. Laughter of any denomination was not wise at that point, so I frantically excused myself and ran out of the room just so I could let myself go.

We live in a country with many languages, many accents and many, many variants of spoken English. And with these variants come moments of unexpected hilarity. I remember a new-to-India firang friend calling me up frantically from a restaurant one night because one of the businessmen in her dinner party kept insisting she try the ‘Snakes’. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and she didn’t know what to do. You told me these guys were all vegetarian, she wailed.

There’s nothing quite like our fabulous Indian accents. A shop assistant asking if you want your gift ‘raped’ doesn’t so much as raise eyebrows anymore. Only in India does a Doctor tell you, you need a ‘chaste’ x-ray; while a friend responds to your wishes with a ‘Shame to you’. Then there’s my cousin asking me to please pass the ‘choss’ that makes me giggle like a crazed idiot every single time.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that English is not a first language for any of us Indians or even a second. And because of the diversity of mother-tongues, we’ve all ended up with accents and pronunciations that are unique and sometimes, unwittingly funny. In some instances, it’s helped people get famous even.

I’m sure you all have ‘lost in pro-noun-ciation’ stories. Do share them with me. It would be ‘zimbly aamacing’.

P.S. This post is a result of a series of tweets exchanged with my friend RAT. He’s also the first non-family person who told me I should keep writing. He thinks Indians are non-violent by nature. So if you don’t like my stuff, find him on Twitter and get ‘voyelent‘.

An eulogy on the demise of a friendship.

How do I stop being friends with you? Is such a thing even possible? I’ve shared your hopes and dreams and joys and sorrows for a long time now. I used to think I knew you better than anyone else. I used to believe you knew I only wanted the best for you – that you knew I had your back. How egotistical of me make such assumptions.

I’ve tried in my heart and in my head to make sense of what happened between us. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to understand it all, if ever. I used to think your neuroses were silly and cute. But that was until your neuroses found a new target – me. Then they became frightening and scary, especially since they had no foundation. I chose not to offer you an explanation, because your accusations, spoken or silent, merited none.

I hope we can move on from this. I want to. But something tells me things will never be the same between us again. There’s a gaping hole where unconditional friendship existed. Hopefully, in time, we’ll be able to cement it over.  Until then, we’ll have to take each day as it comes and hope we can make it through intact.

To deserve a great friend, you have to be one. By that reckoning, I wasn’t what you deserved either, and for that, I am truly sorry.

Why I choose to stay in India and always will.

Yes, this post is a response to the post by Sumedh Mungee. No, it is not an angry retaliation or a tirade against Indians who choose to make their home in other countries. Nor is it a rant about the ones who stay but have given up. This is simply my story. It is why I choose to stay and fight.

I’m not much of a patriot, I don’t have strong opinions about our politicians or our rightful place in the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world and see how things ought to be – the beautiful, pot-hole free clean streets, drivers that don’t have their palms stuck to the horn, suburban homes that have lawns and gardens, brilliant infrastructure (Tokyo Metro is heaven compared to a Malad-Churchgate local), polite, friendly people. I could go on, but you get the picture. Yes, I know what we’re missing – but I choose to live in India despite all this – because I want to change things.

There are many Indias, as Mr Mungee says, but there are a lot more than the three he talks about. There’s the mother who rents out her womb so her family is fed, there’s the super spoilt middle-class brat who’s never had to lift a finger his whole life, there’s the farmer who kills himself because he can’t stand to see his children starve, there’s the teen whose only mission is to party and spend daddy’s millions, there’s tired, exhausted working class India that only wants to make it from one day to the next with a modicum of dignity and self-respect. But in this multitude of Indias there is one simple underlying truth – if we want these Indias to change, we’re the ones who have to change things.

The disparity in income, the cultural differences, the dehumanised maid – they’re ills we live with every day. I’ve heard all the arguments before: You can’t fight the system, nothing changes, the corruption is never ending. We bribe our way through red tape because it’s easier to do so; we break traffic rules because everybody does it, we throw trash into the street because ‘where are the dustbins?’ I get it. India ‘sucks’ on a number of levels. But one of the cruellest blows is that people like you and me, people with educations, consciences and common sense choose to say: What can one person do? So we give up.

Who do you think is going to make the change if not you and me? It’s already obvious that the vast majority in this country refuses to acknowledge there is a problem. Someone has to make that start. I know it’s tough to be the change. But being the change is definitely braver than running away and infinitely more fulfilling than ranting about it on a social forum.

Cultures evolve when its citizens stand up and hold themselves accountable for their own actions first. A friend who runs an NGO once told me how he never used Social Media to recruit volunteers. It’s easy to press a like button, he said, but tiresome to give up a Saturday of fun. So true.

We’re turning into a race of defeated armchair activists. And the only people losing out are us. It’s time to ask, what have I done for my country today? And you really don’t have to do all that much to contribute. Start small – throw garbage into a bin instead of the road, use less plastic, volunteer to teach someone, help out at a women’s shelter, create entrepreneurs by microlending. The list is endless.

If you need a more concrete example – this one is tried and tested and one I can vouch for: Give your maid a day off every week, pay her an equitable wage for the work she does. Get her health insurance. Give her holidays for festivals. Treat her like a cherished employee. Is it tough? No. Will you always succeed? No. But you will change things – at least for that one person. You’ll make a difference. You’ll get to look yourself in the eye every morning. Best of all you’ll get to look your kid in the eye and say, This is your country – cherish her. Be her change. Be her champion.