Learning to be unapologetic: My own brand of feminism

If there is anything I have learnt in my journey into feminism, it is the strength to be unapologetic. Let me explain.

The experience of being a woman in Indian society is hugely shaped by relationships to men. From the time of birth, a woman is defined as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother. While relationships bind men too, men are also encouraged to develop independent personalities. Cast in the role of bread winners and ‘heads of households’, developing an independent identity is seen as necessary and assertion is very much considered a masculine trait.

For many girls of my generation who were fortunate to be born into families where women were relatively emancipated, growing up was largely about finding an identity that detached itself slightly from the fetters of those relationships but we were expected to perform the balancing act and still hold on to them.

I am not cut out to be a non-conformist, so in my student years and and as a young mother, I struggled to maintain that balance. To meet my ideals of being a good daughter (excel is academics/work, be well-behaved), a good wife (supportive, a peaceable companion), a good mother (available, involved, loving, one who prioritizes her children over all else). Of course, the ideals themselves were reflective of a certain attitude to gender in our society, but that’s how it was and perhaps still is.

But somewhere along the way, it became very tiring to toe that line, to always be in the midst of that balancing act. I realized that being constantly up there on the balancing beam only diminished my chances of succeeding at those very self-expressed ideals. Each time I yelled at my kid, or over-reacted to something my husband said, I felt something was fundamentally off.

And then realization dawned. I realized I was constantly apologizing for myself in my head. I was being so hard on myself, holding myself to some golden standard and apologizing- to myself, to my family, my friends even. That was something I was determined to change.

At about the same time, I started to read feminist texts and blogs and interact with feminist thinkers. I was fascinated by the idea of sprouting wings that would help me detach myself from bounds. But the emphasis on freedom and emancipation puzzled me. Not only was it important for me to be unapologetic about what I did and how I behaved (within the bounds of humanism and reason), it also became vital for me to challenge those notions of feminism that urged me to feel ashamed of my dependence on my spouse, my sense of involvement with my children or my unwitting endorsement of patriarchal social rituals. I became truly unapologetic. I became a follower of my conscience. I began to hold a harsh mirror to myself, but with one big rule. To never feel sorry about myself. To do what I think is right. To never allow apology and shame to haunt me, but to learn from my errors and keep moving forward.

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Discovering Feminism in the Heart of India

Why I’m working towards hands-off parenting

In a hyper-aware super connected world where paranoia is becoming the main strategy by which we live our lives, parenting has become a complex job with immense responsibility. As parents, we are constantly aware of the grave consequences of wrong decisions. We obsess over every choice we make with regards to our kids, from choosing a school to monitoring the company they keep, from the toys we  buy to the places we take our kids to.

As a mother of two reasonably intelligent and talented kids, I am constantly stuck between two distinct models of parenting. The very structured and demanding ‘Tiger’ mode that Amy Chua eloquently bats for in her book[Ref: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (2011)] and a more relaxed instinctive style that allows children to experiment and set their own pace. I’ve tried both and I’ll say this: Tiger mode is seductive for parents who are ambitious for their children and need to feel in control but relaxed mode is more fun, more gratifying, more humane. I’ll also tell you why I’ve come to this conclusion.

Children are individuals, parents do not ‘own’ them

Someone recently asked me this: “Aap apne bacche ko kya banaana chahte ho?”- What will you make your child? It’s a common enough question in Indian society. “Why would I make him anything?”, was my incredulous retort. Mine wasn’t a naive statement. Questions like these imply that parents own their children or at least own rights over their future, and I do not buy that.

Children, right from the moment they are born, are individuals. They have ideas, a sense of themselves and their place in the world. These ideas are shaped in the early years by their parents and guardians, teachers, friends, caregivers, by what they see and hear. In this, a parent plays a defining role. But to extend that role to decisions about their careers, or who their partner should be, or where they should live and what they should wear is a gross mistake and a fallout of an erroneous patriarchal construct that we need to urgently challenge. For several reasons, and I will not go into those here and now, but simply because freedom is a right. No parent wants their child to live in chains. To examine our own relationship with our children and see the chains we feter them with for what they are is an important step of good parenting. A step we should not take with a sense of insecurity and trepidation, but with a sense of empowerment, knowing this is the right thing to do.

Freedom nurtures creativity, creative people drive change

By conditioning children to over-instruction and putting in place a system of rewards and brickbats, we teach them that seeking our approval is the chief objective of their lives. As adults, they continue to work towards the approval of someone or the other. A spouse, a boss, a friend.

Pushing kids through rigid structures and pressurizing them to over achieve may drive excellence and cause success in the short-term, but it severely compromises originality, believes Wharton Prof Adam Grant. “Limiting rules,” he writes, “encourages children to think for themselves.”

No one can be in doubt that we need original thinking to take us forward. We need new  ideas to tackle a host of problems, from malnutrition to climate change. We need innovative technology to drive economic growth and create prosperity. We need creative people to compose music, write plays and books, make films that entertain as well as enrich us immeasurably.

Easy to say, hard to implement: ‘Letting go’ is a mindset change

Even if you buy my arguments for less structure and more freedom, how do you act upon it in an increasingly competitive world that drives you to measure success instantly (and share it on your social media feed even faster!)? For a parent, taking a step back is incredibly hard. Taking the long view seems like a risk. What if it backfires? What if my child does not get through the best colleges? What if her musical talent goes wasted? We worry about the possibility of a perceived failure in the future because we are comparing our children constantly to their peers and to the best in the world.

My main rejoinder to myself when I find myself worried is that less structure does not mean apathy. It must be accompanied by an emphasis on quality interactions between parents and children and a concerted effort to create opportunities to expose our children to multiple stimuli, experiences and information sources. So the formula changes from choosing a select set of structured activities and ensuring they are done, repeatedly, till excellence is achieved to something else. Choosing fewer of these structured routines to free up time for a wider variety of less structured ones.

To make this shift happen is requiring me to change the way I think about life, about choices, about expectations. It is pushing me to place more value on the here and now and worry less about a future that I, in any case, cannot determine. Increased conversations are creating opportunities for debates within the home, often about complex and ethically difficult issues. About sex and gender, about the drug regime and politics, about the failings of the modern parent even!

I hope this journey will make questioners of my children (and push me to question too, as I learn everyday from these two and the students I interact with on a weekly basis). Those of you who know how disturbed I’ve been over what has transpired in university campuses across India these past few months may now understand why the muffling of dissenting voices is deeply disturbing for me. While I persevere in a difficult personal journey towards hands-off parenting, I fail to understand how a political agenda that envisages a nation of minions instead of one with creative thinkers will serve a nation that professes an ambition to inclusive economic growth.

A sight for sore eyes: Humayun’s Tomb

Visiting a heritage site always gives me a high. I’ve had people roll their eyes at me about my particular enthusiasm for ruins and tombs, palaces and serais, but there is a magic in the texture and aura of brick and stone that has stood there so long and seen so much change. The Humayun’s Tomb complex, so lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Foundation, is a real treat to visit. Perhaps ‘the’ showcase heritage treasure for Delhi at this time, as the city struggles year after year to get onto UNESCO’s Heritage City list (this year I hear it’s losing out to Amdavad). It’s a pity, but I do find that a number of Delhi’s important heritage sites are not well maintained, with no information to help visitors contextualize what they are experiencing and with very little connection to the city at large.

On the Saturday morning we rambled through the Humayun’s Tomb complex, we saw long lines of chattering school children, photography enthusiasts, tourists and families, all excited and many in awe. I learn something new each visit at the small exhibition set up at the entrance to the Tomb. This time, it helped me explain a bit of the history, architecture and cultural context of the monument to our visitors from the Netherlands.

Humayun’s tomb never fails to impress; its scale and proportions, its craftsmanship so perfect. But beyond its historical value and perhaps because of it, what Udai and me (we’ve both visited several times before) most enjoyed this time around were the beautifully landscaped spaces that surround the smaller monuments in the complex. Spaces that allow you to sit and contemplate life, spaces that involve a little climbing up and down and offer a sense of adventure. As I pen this post, it does occur to me that this is a metaphor for how in life side dishes are often far more pleasurable than the mains and what we consider the ‘extra’ often adds the best flavours!

Some snapshots from my iphone6.

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The beautiful restored archway is a visual treat indeed

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Isa Khan’s Tomb, particularly the walkable boundary wall, is a particular favourite. This is the ideal place to sit and watch, people and parakeets….

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When your pre-teen does not want to be in the picture with you, you find other ways…

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And then, miraculously, he consents to a twofie!!

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Some 160 members of Humayun’s family are buried in this structure. This row of tombs on the external plinth, without any covering or enclosure, caught my eye….

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Looking outside from inside the jali….there are many ways to put things in focus…

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Notes on teaching, Feb 2016

There’s a lot on my plate and yet, instead of weeding my part-time teaching work out of my already nonsensically crazy schedule, I sign up for these commitments semester after semester. Up until now, I’ve been advising students of architecture on two specific research components of the Bachelors in Architecture curriculum- the dissertation and the research seminar. This year, for the first time, the School of Planning and Architecture has introduced a research component to the final year design project, known as the thesis. This is new territory for all of us and it’s going to be challenging and hopefully interesting. Those were my thoughts this afternoon as I drove into college.

Thinking through the research requirements for my group of eight final year students is a time consuming task. I listen patiently (that doesn’t come easily to me), understand each student’s motivational landscape and then offer targeted advise. Some students are very high on motivation, others are blessed with clarity and the ability to structure; still others are completely under-confident and lost. While guidance needs to be offered to each individual, I find students face similar problems regardless of their abilities and some common guiding principles are very valuable. So is the opportunity to cross-learn from each others’ struggles.

Three basic tenets have served me well in my short sojourn as a teacher. One, treat students as responsible adults. Assume that they know what they are doing. Remind them that their action and inaction has consequences that they must be responsible for. Of course, this does not mean that they always take responsibility or produce work of quality. No, that varies. But it does mean they are more responsive to what you are trying to say.

Two, show genuine interest in their motivations, however banal. I find judgmental attitudes towards students only puts barriers between the teacher and the taught and impedes progress. Sometimes the starting point is not an indication of how far the kid can go.

Three, approach teaching with a sense of humour. Making light of embarrassing mistakes and using funny examples to illustrate situations go a long way in breaking the formality of the teacher-student relationship.

An additional, and perhaps defensive strategy, is to keep expectations low and build them as you get to know students better. I teach students at the end of their time at SPA. By this time, its hard to change their self-perceptions or push them to break out of habits already formed. One can try, of course and instead of worrying about falling standards and changed levels of commitment, I consciously choose to appreciate how increased exposure can create inter-disciplinary linkages in how students now look at issues. If even a handful emerge the ability to tackle problem solving smartly and sensitively, it’ll be gratification enough!

 

A morning at Marine Drive

Making the most out of quick work trips is an art. I’d like to say I’m rather good at it. In the first week of January, I made an overnight visit to Mumbai for a meeting. I was fortunate, since the meeting was in Cuffe Parade, to be out up at the quaint old-world Sea Green Hotel right on Marine Drive.

Bombay, especially the central and southern parts of the city, is a big part of my growing up years and always has the effect of sending into a wave of strong and happy nostalgia. Marine Drive and Worli Seaface are those iconic places in the city that are on every Bombaywalla’s list of favourites. Mine too.

The Queen’s Necklace is regal and sweeping, its panoramic view and feel having the effect of slowing down your heart rate and making you open your eyes wider as you feel your face ease into a broad smile. And so I found myself waking up in eager anticipation early enough to get in a morning stroll along Marine Drive before I needed to leave for work.

From eager fitness enthusiasts, to cavorting canines. From excited shattering tourists to practiced office goers who looked like they had just stepped off the train and were catching their moments of calm before plunging into the madness of the day. And lovers, everywhere. Young couples lost in themselves, their backs to the world, their gazes out at sea. Exchanging gifts and silences. Sharing conversations.

A city of love, a city of excitement and noise and energy, and of poignant silences too. Bombay, it’s impossible not to love you.

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Ruminations on blogging, looking out to 2016!

Why do we blog? Because we have something to say, perhaps. Or a lot to say. Or something we think only we can say. Or because we want to find words to express what we think and observe.

Why do I blog? My blog has been as much a journey into myself as a documentation of what I see and do. It’s been an exercise in self-discipline or a mechanism to unravel and see patterns in the complex and intertwined conversations I have with myself.

I’ve also used my blog to set goals for myself and monitor them. Fitness, self-discipline, my journey in dance, travel targets and even career goals have found mention on this blog. New year resolutions too (2012-1, 2012-2, 2013) have been made and then assessed here. The blogosphere has been my confidante, my sounding board and my shoulder to cry on board, but it has also been my gauge!

Despite my blog’s pre-eminent place in my life, I haven’t written a lot on it this past year. A little over a year ago, I realized my posts were crossing several distinct themes. So I re-arranged my blog thematically, hoping to make it easier not just for visitors, but for me, to understand my own blogging behaviour. It’s been interesting to see that posts with a personal take are most visited, followed by those linked with my work in urban planning and policy.

Today, I’m at a crossroads and wondering where to take ramblinginthecity. Should it continue to be a personal exploration or take on a more knowledge-based position? Should I open it out to more voices or hone my own voice to be more powerful and much sharper? Should more academic content be on it at all, or find a new space elsewhere? Lots of questions!

As the first month of the year draws to an end, I can see 2016 is going to be the busiest and most exciting year I’ve ever had work-wise. I do hope I’ll be able to take my blog along with me on my new adventures. I fear it will be hard. I fear it will drop off on the wayside. But if it’s really come to occupy that space of the voice-in-my-head, I’m confident it will find new and interesting connections with my life! To another year of blogging……..

Kolkata’s delights: Eclectic Fairlawn Hotel

I’d only been once to Kolkata before, a long time ago. And I’d been dying to go. Our team at work had been engaged in a field study on auto rickshaws in Kolkata and a consultative workshop in December was the perfect occasion for us all to go in an engage with the project a bit more.

My colleague Manish, who is never satisfied with the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, bullied us all into booking what he called “a quaint heritage property on Sudder Street”. It’s only when we got there that we realized this was the famous Fairlawn Hotel. With its interiors painted a bizarre green, its walls cluttered with newspaper clips, photographs and paintings, and its rooms full of eclectic curios, Fairlawn is a sensory explosion indeed!

We spent quite a few amused and excited moments recognising famous faces, including Patick Swayze and Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor (who apparently spent their honeymoon here!), several photographs of British Royals (I’m not they ever visited though!) and some very detailed water colours of Fairlawn that I particularly liked. Fairlawn’s infamous owner Violet (Vi) Smith, who was well known as a talented racconteur and host, passed away at the ripe old age of 93 only in 2014! One could see, standing there in those rooms full of atmosphere, that Fairlawn had seen some really interesting times! The building, I gather from news reports online, is over 200 years and was inherited by Vi from her Armenian mother. Through its history, it has been a home, a barracks and mess for Canadian airmen during the World War II and finally, a hotel that was a must-visit for foreign visitors in Kolkata for years. Vi’s daughter Jennifer runs it now.

Amid our busy work schedules, we managed to sneak in some crazy pictures of ourselves in Fairlawn as well as some moments of leisure chatting while standing in its historic corridors.

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Manish and Persis lunching in the outdoor area of Fairlawn’s restaurant, a popular hangout for the hip and cool young of Kolkata

 

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The dining area….green is the signature colour of Fairlawn!

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Persis, all ready for our workshop, in the hotel’s breakfast room

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Post-workshop goofiness! Ming vase? Ooh la la!

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And the Bankura horse too!

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Lovely water colours, my favourite wall art in Fairlawn

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Another one…

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The upstairs living room where Vi held court

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The stairs going up to the rooms

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Outside the rooms, hangout space

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The goofy selfie- Moi, Persis, Manish and Shamindra

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Grins in the mirror

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Nostalgia for Republic Day celebrations of yore

On the lawns in our residential complex, an excited crowd gathers for the Republic Day celebrations. Several commercial establishments promote themselves. Free pizzas and burgers, discounts on coaching classes and real estate ads. One corner has a line-up by the talented child artists of the colony.

Centrestage is the bunched up flag, waiting to be unfurled. And when it is unfurled by a senior citizen known to us all by sight, the crowd cheers and claps. Then takes selfies. Several moments later, someone remembers that the national anthem is yet to be sung. Voices pipe up. Many of us join with gusto. Kids shuffle. People slouch. Others stand cross legged. One mother walks right across the lawn in the midst of the anthem to fuss over her child.

I have to say I was shocked. And then I stood there mentally reprimanding myself at how out of tune I am, how old world, how judgmental. Yes, the world has changed. Standing at attention to the national anthem is no longer a measure of your patriotism. Heck, you don’t even have to know the anthem by heart any more! Following up the anthem with Honey Singh numbers is absolutely fine. Who wants to listen to those boring ‘desh bhakti’ songs three times a year? ‘Saare jahaan se achha?’ Again? Why?

I’m filled with nostalgia for the simple celebrations of yore. Nothing commercial. Standing together and singing simple tunes that everyone could join into. Kids showcasing a multitude of talents. People of different classes joining in. Simple sweets, usually laddoos and small samosas, being distributed to everyone. People dressed smartly, even traditionally. A genuine sense of community.

Of course, those who turned out to celebrate together today are also upright and patriotic citizens who love their country and work hard for its development. What then does this mean, this giving up of the rituals of patriotism that served us well for decades? What does it say about us, our creativity, our attention to detail and our sense of occasion when Diwali and Lohri and Republic Day are all celebrated in the same way?

I don’t have answers to these questions. But I do have the questions.

And they burn inside me…… As I raise my children into young adults, as I make important decisions about my future and theirs, as I experience the tremendous social changes that mark the India of today. And I wonder, what’s the connection between what we do and what we are.

 

 

Today’s food experiment: Pancake Tacos

So much when you cook and before you can say ‘Jack Robinson’, it’s on the kid’s blog:)

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Our breakfast this morning was an innovation by our mother and it evolved from the constant demands from me and my sister.

Pancake Tacos: Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 2 cups whole-wheat flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 eggs
  • Milk (as required)
  • Apples
  • Any cheese
  • Butter/Olive oil

Method

  1. Put everything except butter/olive oil, milk, apples and cheese in a bowl. Stir and add milk until the batter flows back into the bowl when you tilt a ladleful. Leave the batter to rise for an hour.
  2. Peel and chop apples finely then set aside
  3. Heat pan and spread butter/olive oil on it.
  4. Put a heaped ladleful of the batter on the pan move the pan until batter is equal everywhere.
  5. Put a lid on the pan until one side is cooked.
  6. Then flip it and on one half put the cheese and the apples. Then carefully put…

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