Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The Freedom in Freedom of Choice

This morning I came across an article on The Economist about the plummeting rate of female employment in India in the last 20 years and, were India to rebalance its workforce, the country would have been 27% richer according to IMF estimates. Ahead only of Saudi Arabia among the G20 countries, women labour force participation contribute to a meager one-sixth of our GDP which is less than even half the global average. It further stated that in a recent survey, 84% of Indians agreed that men have "more" right to employment than women when jobs are scarce. 

That India fares poorly by global standards in female employment and employability conditions both in the formal and informal sectors despite rising girls' education is no news. The reasons cited are also often conventional, and take into account quantifiable socio-economic hindrances as well as non-quantifiable human factors and freedom of choice. As much as I agree about the deep-rooted patriarchy and conservatism of our society being a huge deterrent for women employment, it got me thinking whether choice in a society as ours is "really free". When women with good education, women who are equally capable at their workplace choose to be homemakers by exercising their own free will, are the choices entirely devoid of inherent patriarchal conditioning and historically assigned gender roles? Keeping external/family pressure out of the picture, does rising stability in family income by the male bread-earner especially in the urban setup play a role in the decision making process rendering women workforce participation redundant or secondary? How accurate are choice arguments when the very choices are pre-determined and any deviation from the "status quo" (for example, choosing career over reproduction) attract criticism? Is democracy and freedom of choice then not just a hidden manifestation of male dominance? The questions are unending and while measuring such cognitive aspects of human decision-making is difficult, they are intriguing nonetheless... 

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Kerala solo travel

Of all the exciting things I accomplished last year, my year-end solo trip to Kerala would be the foremost. The seven days I spent exploring the kaleidoscope-esque state gave me reasons to believe that it could be one of those places where I would happily breathe my last. The perfect mix of blue and green, lyadh and liveliness, abundant sunshine and moon-kissed beach walks, sound of waves crashing and tranquillity of solitude, travelling solo in Kerala pulled me out of my comfort zone and changed the way I looked at things. It urged me to find my abode of peace and I returned home with a happiness my heart was incapable of holding and a smile I had forgotten I smiled. 

From rolling tea plantations, peaceful beaches, mystical backwaters, plethora of national parks and a cuisine that engulfs all the five senses, Kerala has it all and more. There is something for everyone, with very little scope for disappointment. I found Kerala to be almost therapeutic, soothing my restless mind and taking me back to long lost eras when lives were simpler and hearts pure. Its laid-back charm and unhurried pace of life constantly reminded me of old Calcutta and Anjan Dutt songs, and made me realise how easy falling in love is. But what struck me the most about the place was the humbleness of the people around, their ever-smiling faces and the warmth you would feel in their presence. This also reminds me of a brief exchange had with a female shop owner in Thiruvananthapuram, where I had gone to purchase a "Kasavu" saree. She didn't speak English, I didn't speak Malayalam or any of the Dravidian languages she was familiar with. So at last I gathered all my courage and hesitantly asked, "Hindi?". She looked at me in mock horror and said "Aiyyyoooooo" and we both burst out laughing. I managed to purchase the saree in the end, but her glass-shattering hysterical tone and the laughter that ensued will stay in my mind for a long, long time :D

*Thiruvananthapuram*

My Kerala trip started off purely academically in Thiruvananthapuram where the conference I was attending was being hosted. The three-days event, apart from being very well received by researchers and practitioners alike, provided ample introduction to the Malayali way of life through traditional Keralan delicacies, mesmerising Kathakali dance performances, sight-seeing to nearby beaches, and finally a trip to the famous Padmanabhaswamy temple. 

Kathakali and Bharatanatyam being performed. 

Padmanabhaswamy temple 

Personally though, I felt that Trivandrum was more like a commercial capital and shopping hub of Kerala which might do little to quench your wanderlust. Instead, it could be a convenient starting point for day/weekend trips to Kanyakumari and other places in Tamil Nadu. Alternatively one could take the coastal route, visit Kovalam/Varkala, move north to Alleppey for the backwaters and finally proceed to Munnar and/or exit from Kochi. You could easily spend two weeks in Kerala, if not more. I, however, was short of time and therefore decided to spend a couple of days in Kovalam, visit Alleppey for two days and finally take the flight back from Kochi. The first part of the itinerary went as planned. One could easily avail Uber or private Autos for a relatively cheap fare to reach Kovalam from the capital (a distance of about 14 kilometers). The rest of my itinerary, however, went haywire when the heart fell hopelessly in love with the golden sands and palm-lined beaches and decided to take matters in its own hand!

*Kovalam*

Kovalam is what dreams are made of. The crescent-shaped beaches, abundance of coconut trees, coppery haze of the tropical sun, the wind in the hair and sands between the toes will leave permanent footprints in your heart for years to come. The red and white Kovalam lighthouse situated atop a large rocky promontory in the southern stretch of the beach is a sight to behold, where one could just spend hours and day-dream! The leisure options are endless here. You could sunbathe for the most part of your day, take a long relaxing dip in the calm waters of the Arabian Sea, indulge in Ayurvedic treatments and herbal massages, read a book or let the mind wander into uncharted territories while sipping on coconut water. December is not a peak tourist season in Kovalam which allows you to sufficiently soak in the peace and quiet of the place without much disturbance. The entire Kovalam coastline is packed with numerous curio and beachwear shops, restaurants, heath centres, resorts and hotels. Accommodation facilities usually range from five star luxury and specialty resorts to budget hotels, while the diverse palate of continental, malabari and south indian delicacies will spoil you for choice. I personally would recommend the Kingfisher restaurant at the Lighthouse beach for malabari-styled fresh seafood and the Palm Beach restaurant for a wide variety of sumptuous breakfast/brunch options. 

Kovalam beach


View from the hotel restaurant

Lighthouse picture postcard

Up, close and personal

Skyline

From up above the world so high

Wall-art

Of blue, green and everything in between

Stunning landscapes aside, there was something unsaid about Kovalam that calmed me in a way Ma's oiled fingers massaging my tresses did when I was a child. Sitting there, the world seemed transparent and frozen in time. At the end of the first two days, I just couldn't bring myself to leave and spontaneously decided to skip Alleppey and spend a couple of days more before heading off to Kochi. One word of caution though, particularly if you are a solo female traveller, would be to ignore the constant stares of random men at the beach and be stern in your responses if they try to communicate. Unfortunately, most would assume that you are available and looking for hookups and might approach you for phone numbers or pictures. Do not let it leave a bad taste in your mouth and be rude if you have to. Keeping yourself safe is your responsibility and therefore do EVERYTHING in your capability to ensure that. 

*Kochi*

Moving on to Kochi was a mixed bag of emotions. A part of me wanted to stay back in Kovalam never to return, while the other pragmatic part wanted to explore new places and eventually return to the mundane. The nearest railway station from Kovalam is Trivandrum central, from where there are frequent trains to Ernakulam Town (North). Choose to stay in Ernakulam and take the ferry for INR 4 to visit the old town of Kochi, or stay directly at one of the many budget or luxury hotels near Fort Kochi. All the major "tourist attractions" of Kochi are located in the old town and are accessible by foot, which make day trips quite convenient.

If I have to describe Kochi in a word, it would be "anachronism". Kochi does not belong to the era of smartphones, electric cars, fast-paced life and complicated emotions. Kochi is a celebration of the bygone era. A world not as seen through rose-tinted glasses or Instagram filters, rather, a world that is utterly imperfect yet astonishingly simple. Start off your Kochi tour with the old township of Fort Kochi, wander about the backstreets lined with the famous Chinese fishing nets from centuries ago, inhale the warm concoction of salt, raw fish and earth in the air, and fall captive to the old world charm. Leave the beach road and walk inwards and you will discover a diverse collection of Portuguese and Syrian churches, Dutch cemeteries, Indo-Portuguese museum, Mattancherry palace and a Jewish town nestled between tiny alleys. Visit the old and neglected Dutch cemetery and then walk up to St. Francis church which is the oldest European church in India and the original resting place of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. Continue walking through canopied streets and pastel-coloured villas and reach Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica. It is one of the heritage edifices of Kerala, endowed with Gothic-style architecture and colours. I visited the Basilica just before Christmas and found it beautifully decorated and blushing under the winter sun. I decided to make a stop at this point and randomly found one of Kochi's hidden gems, a tiny road-side European style cafe called Loafer's corner. It captured the essence of Kochi perfectly, and you could just sit for hours on end and watch the world go by. After lunch, I proceeded towards Mattancherry and spent a considerable amount of time at the multicoloured and uninhabited Koonan Kurishu Syrian church. The Mattancherry palace and the adjacent Jewish synagogue were down the road, but unfortunately were closed in the afternoon. So I decided to roam around the Jewish town and discovered several craft stores, jewellery shops and spice market that sold authentic Jewish items. Finally as dusk fell, I made my way to the jetty that would leave behind a town wrapped in century-old history and ways of life and teleport me to the present :(

Fort Kochi and Chinese fishing nets

Dutch cemetery

Red-tiled houses

St. Francis church

Canopied streets

Santa Cruz Basilica

Loafer's corner, wall-art and daydreams

Syrian church

Jewish town shops

If you ask me, I did not find Kochi to be visually spectacular. But, it tugged at my heartstrings in more ways than one. In fact, that in a nutshell was Kerala for me. I left a part of my heart there, perhaps to come back and collect it some day. This is why my first solo trip in India will be special, very very special. Because it will always remind me of things, places and promises to come back to when I shall breathe my last.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Between Right and Wrong

As the national capital makes a mockery of the Indian legal system on Diwali with its shocking nonchalance to Supreme Court's cracker ban, it is time we address the elephant in the room: the utter negligence of most people towards sustainable environmental practices and their deep-rooted self-centeredness.

Source: Internet
"The city wakes up to a better air quality than 2016", the media reports. While this should be sufficient consolation for many, do we ask ourselves what is BETTER? Does better mean the picture on the right? Does better mean going down marginally by a few points on the air quality index yet remaining in the "severe" zone? Does better mean people will not suffer from respiratory problems and lung cancer on account of prolonged exposure to such air? Does better justify wrong only because it is done by many in the name of tradition? The English language does not allow for quantifying comparative adjectives, but fortunately Statistics does. The numbers are out there, for all to see. To see the grave danger we bring upon ourselves. Yet, we are busy endorsing irrelevant communal and religious arguments by illiterate celebrities and political leaders and crying our hearts out at the violation of "birth rights". We are busy overlooking facts and outdoing each other in the "best Diwali pic" race on Facebook. We are busy prioritizing own entertainment over bigger and critical concerns and conveniently putting the blame for all things bad on the next-door neighbour, the government, China and so on.

Growing up, bursting crackers on the night of Kali Pujo gave me joy like none other. The lights exuding all sorts of multicoloured hues, the night sky breaking into thousands of stars and the happinesses on the faces were unparalleled. The lungs gave out after a while, yet innocent pleasures went on unabashedly. So did things like littering on the road, on railway tracks and not caring about the environment in general. The first time I was asked not to throw empty tea cups on the road, I gladly obliged because it was important to the friend who had asked. It was purely based on emotions and not on own realisations. But maturity changes us no? Giving us the ability to introspect, to distinguish right from wrong? To think beyond ourselves? To "be the change you want to see in the world"? 

Yet, on days like today and most other days I am left wondering if compassion is just a word. If altruism exists only in Economics textbooks. And if self-righteousness has indeed driven us to the farthest corner of humanity.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Life and the Box of Crayons

For all the cumulonimbus moments life threw at me last week, it compensated with a silver linings playbook of realisations. Realisations that provided my aching body and soul with the comfort of a কোলবালিশ, tied my spirits to hot-air balloons and let it soar high up into the clouds. Realisations that made me giggle like a two-year old being chased across the room with a bucket placed over the head. Realisations that reaffirmed my belief that just a few people are capable of changing one's world in the most beautiful way.

So last week, a severe bout of food poisoning happened that left me three kilograms less within the first two days and induced an urge to throw up and poop every few minutes. The husband being away in the hometown, the burden of taking care came upon myself and needless to say, as health fell down and broke his crown, mood came tumbling after. To top it all, parents started freaking out, considered impromptu visits, sandwiched the brother, informed everyone who would care to listen, and made themselves sick from worrying. After three days of no change in condition and all sorts of "I-have-lived-alone-for-five-years-and-able-to-take-care-of-myself" arguments falling into deaf ears, I was threatened with dire consequences to visit a doctor. Meanwhile, the two besties decided to intervene and convinced me to stay with one of them for a night or two. The international one virtually hovered around day in and out, while the physical one mothered relentlessly. In the end, what was intended to be a day stay turned into a week, soul-sisters turned into mothers, family turned into backbone and the heart melted into puddles of joy.

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This is not the first time that life has bestowed upon me selfless care and love from the people around. People I call my own, my home. People I can count on one hand. I have known my two "sisters of spirit" for a very long time, from a time when sharing a section and being able to sit on the same bench were perhaps the biggest achievements of life. The memories we three share are endless, and documenting them would put Chitragupta's book of records to shame. Yet, there are events the mind remembers distinctly and fills the heart with unfathomable affection. Events when we have loved fiercely and fought vehemently. When we have been judged by the other disturbingly accurately. When tears have rolled down from all three sets of eyes for one broken heart. When love for food, Jacques Kallis, Roger Federer and jewellery shopping at Esplanade/Gariahat have been shared in a heartbeat. When the sisterhood became life's guardian angel and biggest strength. 

Speaking of which, brings me to the one who has been mistakenly born to a different set of parents, in a completely different culture and country, yet somehow managed to become the soulmate. The one who is my analogy for the saying "what we seek is seeking us". As she continues to ping me on Whatsapp at this very moment, I smile at the infectious energy she brings into my life with her mere existence. In the last six years, our talks have evolved from formal acknowledgements to discussing human excreta and bathroom habits, which I believe is the final test of security and comfort in a relationship and proof enough that it will last forever :D. We have taken time to love each other, laugh at the idiosyncrasies, and share every embarrassing detail of life. She is a thousand times better version of myself, my role model at being organised and disciplined. She scolds me unabashedly for skipping a conference session or for not drinking enough water when sick, yet defends me with all her might as and when the situation demands. She is a roller-coaster, crazy and garrulous just like me. Yet she fits in my life like that one piece of missing puzzle. I could go on and on, but I refrain. Not because I have nothing more to write about her, but because she knows :)

These people are as much family as the one whom I call my anchor. The only person except myself who amuses me to no extent with his weirdnesses. The one who gives me thousand instances for wanting to kill him. The one who speaks sarcasm as the first language. The one who criticizes favourite actors knowing it bugs me to no extent. The one who makes the blood boil with snide remarks about almost everything and then tries stupid tricks to pacify. The one who makes "grudge" sounds in the dark just to scare. Yet, the one who gives thousand-and-one reasons for loving him. The one who stays up all night over phone while I wait alone at a deserted platform amidst drunkards thousands of miles away. The one who holds my head down as I throw up in the toilet after a crazy drinking night. The one who refuses to be vocal about emotions, yet whose voice echoes care and concern when there is no water supply in the flat. The one, who is like none other.

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Some people change one's world in the most beautiful way. People who I call my box of crayons and happily-ever-afters :)

Friday, 31 March 2017

Denial

A class 12 student goes missing from a locality in Greater Noida and is found dead a day later from drug overdose, and community residents barge into the flat of his Nigerian neighbours accusing them of cannibalism and drug dealing. An angry mob of six hundred locals come out on the roads to protest against the death and severely injure five innocent Nigerian students. Random attacks take place in the heart of the city, racial abuses hurled, men and women ogled at supermarkets, and we the citizens discuss instead the xenophobia that exists everywhere in the world except the perfect country we live in.

I wonder at what point in time we would get over the ultra-nationalistic bullshit and accept the double standards and deep-rooted stereotypes we have towards the skin colour. Travel to major tourist spots in India is never complete without noticing the extreme preferential treatments white tourists receive. They are admired wherever they go, stopped on the road to take pictures with, idolised even. But, ugly name-calling and prejudices towards black students and immigrants doesn't even raise enough eyebrows. When Indian techies are shot in the U.S. or Indian students are attacked in Australia, we are appalled by the hate crimes and discuss at length how we are racially victimised in these foreign countries. Yet when we do the same, beat up innocent students on account of their skin colour and baseless accusations, the Government condemns it as an isolated incident that has nothing to do with racism. Talk about the country becoming intolerant, and you are ridiculed. Talk about jingoism, and you are an anti-national. Talk in favour of the religious minorities or criticise the rise of Hindutva, and you are called a pseudo-intellectual. Apparently, the new wave the country is riding high on is called "being in denial forever"!

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Of new beginnings

Calling any city other than Calcutta "home" wasn't something I had planned on doing while growing up. And then, life happened and all the plans went for a toss. The warmth of home was found in a far-away German town amidst strangers who turned into soul sisters, love made its "P"ermanent residence in the heart, and some of life's biggest lessons were learnt.

This time too, moving to a city I am not particularly fond of wasn't part of the dream dreamt since long. True, the transportation system fascinates me and leaves me in awe. The chai makes me want to lick the cup over and over again when no one is watching. The academic job market looks straight in the evil eyes of unemployment and winks. But, the city isn't passionate enough when I look at it (yes, "it" and not "her"; I have my own sets of rules and reservations) through my Calcutta-esque glasses. It does not let the mind sit on a time machine and visit nostalgia-land. It does not provide the warmth of pithe-puli, nolen gurer sondesh and Gariahat. The pollution slowly awakens the dormant migraine. And, it makes me realise that "নদীর ওপার" is indeed a real place that I can visit not everyday. 

Yet, it gives me reasons to be happy. Dancing-on-air happy. It fills the heart with puddles of joy everytime I walk along the lush green sidewalk of the famed institute. It transforms me into a starry-eyed kid in a candy-store as I ogle the entry gate, the widespread graffiti and buildings that had once housed my dreams. It pulls a P. C. Sorcar act on all my tears and fears and replaces them with hopes, prayers and promises. And, it makes me realise that the best things in life always take the longest to happen.

The city is special, therefore. Not because of the infinite number of things it doesn't have or give. It is not Calcutta, it never will be. First love can happen only once right? But, it does give the comfort of home-made Espressos and long morning cuddles. It compensates for the heart-aches with the company of best friends and family. Most importantly, it makes the dream of doing what I love and sharing the address with the favourite roommate, a reality :-).


Thursday, 5 May 2016

Unchained melodies

As John Denver continues to magically transform my thoughts into songs and make the heart ache a little more, I look outside and realise it is raining. I run to the balcony, barefoot, and try to smell the rain. There is none. I am disheartened for a tiny second. The strong wind tangles the hair and I try to brush it off the face. But then I strain the neck out and let the rain caress my face, feeling the corners of the lips twisting to a familiar shape. And then suddenly, I see them. 

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I see them, lost in conversation, walking along the lanes of their hometown as the Kalbaisakhi continues to make her presence felt. I see them going back and forth several times on the metro and chatting the hours away. I see them spending the entire evening looking for the perfect flower-bouquet for her parents' marriage anniversary. I see them sitting for hours in cafes and restaurants, eating cakes and pizza quattro formaggis and later complaining about how much they have eaten. I see him making "grudge" sounds in the dark to scare her and she almost waking the neighbours up with her screams. I see him calling her on a Saturday morning while she sleeps, asking her to open the front door as he stands outside, having travelled for hours just to give a surprise. I see him going down on one knee in the middle of the crowded food-court, taking her hand and slipping on her finger a ring. I see him waiting patiently for her tuition classes to end so they can walk back home together. I see an obese her, running across the Dhakuria bridge to catch a bus, and him waiting in front of the door and stopping the bus until she has reached. I see him pulling her leg constantly about NGOs, and later strangling her body with the arms in an attempt to pacify her. I see him baking his first cake and writing her a long testimonial in an attempt to compensate for fights. I see him running wild with excitement as she shows him around her second favorite city in the world. I see her reading out loud to him lines from the Bengali book that she reads, as he works on his laptop with the head on her torso.

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I see them lying in bed, watching "Bariwali" perhaps for the umpteenth time. I see them decorating the room with tiny Christmas lights and traditional Rajasthani dolls and their wedding pictures. I see them enjoying a quiet birthday dinner at a small Fondue restaurant atop the hills on a gloomy day and later taking a lazy walk by the lake. I see them talking sadly about things and people who continue to hurt. I see him preparing coffee each morning so to let her sleep a few extra minutes. I see him insisting on buying her that expensive silk scarf on their honeymoon because he likes it on her. I see them holding hands tightly while walking around the holy fire, as he puts the vermilion on the parting of her hair. I see him being on the phone with her the entire night as she waits for the night train at an empty railway station amidst drunkards. I see him behaving like a kid-in-the-candy-store when she gifts him the ONE ring and those tiny Minions. I see him calling her every couple of minutes to get updates on the tennis matches that Federer plays. I see her waiting at their familiar meeting point, while he secretly buys roses for her from the corner shop. I see them in the kitchen, cooking together and talking about his excessive use of garlic in anything and everything, with snippets of romance thrown in here and there. I see them video calling and taking snapshots, her blabbering away to glory and him checking himself out on the video the entire time. I see them trying to "Moonwalk" at Michael Jackson's songs in the middle of the night and giggling endlessly afterwards. I see him holding her head down as she throws up in the toilet after a crazy drinking night. I see him teaching her a "little Physics" and her staring blankly the entire time. I see her balancing on the training ropes at the jungle resort and him carefully standing at the back for support. I see the look on her face and the lumps in her throat as he gifts her the solitaire on the wedding night. 

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I see them on their good, bad and ugly moments, when they love fiercely and fight vehemently. I see her watching a movie alone in the theater without informing him, only to stay away and punish him for his mistakes. I see her leaving the house and going for a long walk after a fight, and him nervously asking what took her so long as she returns. I see him not talking for an entire night, and in the morning, leaving his sim card for a phone-less her to use during the day. I see the disappointments, the tears and arguments, all the flaws and complaints. And then I see them growing up side by side, choosing to stay together till the end of time. I see the support they give to each other, in good times and bad, realising that is how love should look like. I see the look on their faces as they meet at airports or railway stations after months, realising that is how happiness should look like. I see them having moments of small insignificant happinesses, realising that is what life should be all about. I smile, realising, that is how the feeling of "home" should feel like. Magic, in the mundane :)