All I really want is a Magic Carpet

I just can’t seem to shake off thoughts of travel now that I have started thinking about it. Maybe it’s a sign. Maybe the universe is telling me that I will be granted my wish sooner than I think. Or maybe it’s just my wicked mind playing games with me and sending me into a deeper spiral of unfulfilled dreams. Either way now that I am thinking about it, the thoughts don’t seem to stop.

Travel is such a living in the moment activity. I know when I travel I am more awake than I am back in Mumbai. In Mumbai I am paradoxically both breathless & somnolent from doing frightfully mundane things at a frenetic pace. Have you noticed that when you travel there’s no space for boredom? Even if you are lying on a beach doing precisely nothing you still aren’t bored.

Beaches.. What can one say about beaches and the colors and the moods of the ocean. Or the coolness of the mountains and mystery of forests. Or the dwarfing unimaginable vastness that is the Savannah. Nature is so hard to describe. Humbling, awe inspiring, spectacular are some of the many words used by people and while they are all true, I think they still fall short. It’s a feeling that only you know and that’s what makes it so unique and almost indescribable. It means different things to different people at different times. The same place revisited takes on a new or different sheen every time you see it. 

Then we have cities or towns that are like mysteries we have to unravel. You have your clues in the form of guide books & google maps but you soon realize that they are just the simple clues to the simple mystery. To decipher the real mystery, the complex one, is way more challenging. For that you need to walk the streets, sit on the sidewalks & park benches, browse at the local grocery stores, wander away from your google maps, put away your guide book, breathe in the air and energy of a monument to try and connect with the secrets it keeps. Sometimes the whole experience feels like doing a giant jigsaw. So many pieces to put together. Often you leave a place with just some of the jigsaw completed, excited that you can see part of the picture. Promising yourself as you fly away that you will come back someday to complete the picture.

Travel to me is all encompassing. The beauty, the natural and the man made, they are all parts of that whole that we call travel. Every part of it is an experience that you see, absorb and tuck away under your skin & in the deepest corners of your mind, so that over a period of time your very being changes color. It makes you whole in ways you can’t imagine and you suddenly realize that you didn’t even know that you were incomplete, until you aren’t.

Traveling through a place for the first time has got to be one of life’s most exhilarating moments. Your eyes feel like a cup that’s filling up faster than you can drink it and it’s spilling all over. You don’t know where to look and you so wish you had eyes in the back of your head! The unique smell of a hotel room or an Airbnb, the coffee maker that you spend hours fiddling over, flopping down after a long flight on freshly washed sheets on a comfy bed, too tired to even mind the unfamiliarity of the mattress. Then heading out to see things you haven’t seen before and last but not least of course the new and exciting food.

Food, food, food.. I have noticed that for some it’s the most difficult part of travel but for me it’s the most intrinsic and almost always the most delicious & memorable part of travel. Food tells a story of a place almost as much as it’s monuments & vistas. The closest you will ever feel to being local is when you eat local. If the traveller listens carefully he realizes that cuisine can often be a historical & cultural narrative. It’s a story of a culture that you absorb in the most time tested way, you literally taste it.

True travel is so much more than just seeing and ticking off some boxes on a list. It’s seeing with not just your eyes but with your mind & most importantly your heart. You learn to be brave and not fear the unknown. You learn that new & wonderful experiences are worth their weight in gold. You learn that you are just such an insignificant part of this gigantic universe. It’s humbling, it’s exhilarating, it’s a learning like no other.

I say to the universe.. Give me a magic carpet anytime.

Alice in Instaland

We are only as real as the last Instagram picture we posted or at least thats how it feels sometimes. If I haven’t posted a picture, am I even a real person?

Or is it the reverse? Maybe that person on Instagram is just a fictitious ghost conjured up by a hyperactive social media manager or one’s hyperactive imagination.
My timeline is flooded with people who seem to be as light as gossamer, so fine and delicate and so transparently unreal.
Their day beginning with freshly washed faces, never mind that you aren’t supposed to see the ‘looks like nude’ make up or filter, to the now mandatory yoga & pranayama picture. India sure has woken up late to yoga don’t you think? Everyone’s doing it now. And if you aren’t posting about it then it can’t be counted. Sorry go to the back of the class.
Then of course the picture of the organic bread and the freshly grown dill from your home garden. Or that picture of the sun peeking through the clouds. Not to forget the little lecture in the foot note or caption about the latest brew that’s going to ‘cleanse you’.
My mind is now taken over by ginger.. or was it lemon or perhaps honey?
I swear if I had to buy all the ingredients that are going to cure me that I read about in a 1 hour short browse of social media, I would need an extra room in my house.

Then there are the ‘jump on the bandwagon’ kind of folks. They jump onto whatever is the latest flavour of the season when it comes to political or social activism. So today it’s a post about CAA and their cute little banner (not sure if they know what CAA stands for) and tomorrow it’s BLM (“It’s something to do with African American people” is about the extent of their limited information).The following day it could be a pair of folded hands for some migrants or floods because, and that’s the key “because”.. it’s all part of the construct.
The construct that’s replaced the real person. It’s who they want to be seen as but most often it’s not who they are. Doing the real work to try and become that person you want to be is just too tedious!

Why bother reading up, getting context, learning, discussing and in short educating yourself, when all you really need is a photograph. All it’s worth really is just the time it takes to put the picture up and then it’s banished from their consciousness. Then it’s on to the next picture..

I wonder though, about the mental dissonance that must happen when that construct clashes with what’s expedient.
As in if the constructed persona bemoans the tragedy that is COVID-19 daily on social media with heartbreaking posts about migrants losing their jobs, and then puts his or her phone down and proceeds to cut their domestic worker’s meagre salary because they haven’t been able to come to work. I wonder if they even see the hypocrisy. Maybe they have a little cupboard in their minds where they put away all these contradictions. If they don’t, their minds might explode one day I feel.

Then there are the people I call the ‘Wisdom givers’. These are not to be confused with the once a year social activists described above.
So right after the yoga post, is the wisdom or what we call ‘Gyan’ colloquially in Bharat.
To give the wisdom you need the right picture. You really need the green of tree, the blue of the ocean or the varied hues of the setting sun. (That sentence feels quite full of poetry, maybe there’s scope for me to be a ‘Wisdom Influencer’)

If you don’t have those photos then despair not. You could make do with a picture of some steam rising above your coffee cup, a book, or better still any blurred awkward angle picture of any mundane thing around you. The rule of thumb is: the more mundane, the greater the level of enlightenment. Is wisdom really wisdom if it isn’t accompanied by the requisite slightly out of focus photograph?

However remember if it’s a book it can’t be a thriller or some top of the charts fiction. No sir that won’t do. It has to be a self improvement book or something esoteric. Always non fiction.. After all you are trying to appear intelligent here.
These folks give life’s little pearls of wisdom every other day, primarily to complete the picture of being Buddha reincarnated.
With all the little Buddhas filling up my timeline, I can just sit back and get enlightened by proxy these days. Who needs a Bodhi tree when I have Instagram right?

Then finally and by far the worst in my humble opinion, are the advertisements masquerading as real life experiences. At least back in the day I knew an advertisement when I saw one. There was a product, a model, a story, a jingle and a tag line. Clear as day.

Nowadays every Instagramer worth their salt is selling you something. The problem is that you wouldn’t even know that they are sales people. They don’t have the designation or the visiting card but let me tell you, they are the best sales force. Even though some might argue that what they do may be bordering on the unethical.
Let me explain.

So here I am happily scrolling through my feed and low and behold yet again I come across a friend or acquaintance who’s telling me about the superlative results of this magical cream that she just discovered or this magical property he stayed in. It could also be that 100% natural diet tea that’s going to take off those love handles, or that fabulous Vacuum cleaner that they are using (never mind that that the person has a domestic staff of 4 and wouldn’t know where the power button is on that appliance). Or maybe it’s the magical fat free, gluten free, sugar free, everything free protein bar they just ate.
It’s all magical and the magical truth they neglect to tell you is that they are getting a more than magical amount of money to say what they’ve said. In short it’s a paid promotion and the paid bit is often conveniently left out of the narrative.

It’s just so confusing to sift the wheat from the chaff. My mind becomes like sludge in the process.
It’s so hard to know the truth, the reality anymore.

It’s also true that every human since the beginning of time has always sold a version of themselves to others. That’s not a new concept. We have always put our best foot forward for public consumption. That’s human nature. However nowadays it’s not limited to putting your best foot forward. It’s creating a proverbial best foot. It’s constructing a persona that doesn’t really exist and selling it not to people in your life, but to an audience who you don’t know at all.
Earlier you wanted to impress people who you knew and whose opinions had an impact on your life. Nowadays you want to impress an audience who you don’t know at at all.

It’s life in reverse and I fear a whole generation will wake up someday and find that they aren’t real. That all they are is a set of pictures and a whiff of air. No matter, no substance and ultimately no real identity.
That is my fear..

LETS TALK ABOUT THE THREAD

India they say is a land of contradictions. I would say that Indians are a people who epitomise contradiction. A nation of souls who often seem to be living with their two feet on different paths. It’s almost like each of their lives is a film that has two different sound tracks. They say, believe, and often do things that are diametrically opposite to one another. Nowhere is it more apparent to me then when it comes to caste and inequality. Let’s take an example of a reasonably well educated upper caste Indian. Chapters and chapters have been spent educating him on what the caste system is and how atrocious it is. For all intents and purposes he has understood how horrific a system it is and how the upper castes have oppressed the lower castes for centuries. But that very same person who appears to have imbibed this lesson fairly well, still participates or attends a Thread ceremony/Upanayana/Janeu and sees absolutely no contradiction between what he or she has been taught and their actions!

He doesn’t realise or maybe doesn’t care enough (it’s more likely to be the latter) that the thread he wears is not just any old thread, worn for style in myriad colours.

No Sir, it’s not!

What it is, is a symbol of upper caste Brahmanical oppression. It’s a symbol worn by the oppressor that distinguished him from the oppressed. There was a time, not so long ago, when the sight of that thread was enough to send lower caste people scurrying about so as to avoid putting their shadow on him. It would be laughable if it wasn’t all so horribly true. I would also like to draw your attention to the fact that all this about shadows and not touching unfortunately and sadly isn’t really in the past for a bunch of our countrymen.

The irony here is that people, both men and women, happily attend & participate in this ceremony with a clear conscience, never once stopping to think about what it really means, never questioning.

Scary true fact; when you don’t question the status quo your brain finally addles and dies. I’m serious, it’s true!

Contrary to all the positive spin that people try to give it these days, by liking it to the system of first Holy communion amongst Catholics or the Bar Mitzvah among Jews, we must recognise that this is inherently different. It’s definitely not the same. Those are rituals that are done to initiate a Catholic or a Jewish person into their faith. However this, the Upanayana, is done not to initiate the young boy into Hinduism but into his Brahmanical roots. I hope you didn’t miss that I said boys and not girls. Yes, it’s only the lucky boys who get to wear the thread. It’s supposed to mark the start of a period of learning sacred texts and more for.. yup you guessed right again, for only the boy. Girls can just go stick their heads in an oven was the underlying premise there I presume. These boys everywhere in this world, really seem to have the luck of the devil. 

So what this whole rambling rant is about is why people who otherwise appear completely “normal” or I would go even so far as to say “liberal” or “educated”.. why even those people are unable to see the inherent contradiction in carrying out and participating in a ritual that is not only deeply casteist but is also deeply sexist. I’m sorry but my teeny tiny brain just cannot understand this. 

When asked point blank, I have noticed that often the reasons are; It’s just a ritual or it’s a family thing or they’re doing it to keep their parents happy or the worst one “It doesn’t mean anything”.

For purposes of this article lets just leave the “it doesn’t mean anything” because I really can’t comprehend why on earth anyone would do something that doesn’t mean anything to them!

To the rest, I ask, when will you stop doing something you know to be wrong just because your forefathers did it? When will your own will and intelligence come into play? And the deeper question; Will we understand and accept that our forefathers might have perpetuated a deeply divisive sexist system but the choice whether to end a flawed ritual is in our hands.

“My parents did it”, is not, and can never be a reason to do anything in life. 

Sidebar: All our ancestors including our parents have done things that we might think twice before doing today, and I am guessing our kids will do the same with us. It’s that wonderful thing called Progress. 

For example if our grandparents had just done what their parents had done, then my friends let me tell you that they might not have participated in the freedom struggle and you and I would still be second class citizens living in British India. Think about that for a minute. I think we can all agree that that wouldn’t be fun.

To my mind the best way to move forward is to recognise that everything in life must be repeatedly questioned and if something no longer make sense then it must be left behind. 

And this holds even more true if that thing, in this case the sacred thread, is a symbol of a system that is soaked in pain.

A teacher’s dream

I am sure we all have stories during covid, so here is one of mine.

Well the short version (my kids keep telling me my stories are unending) is that my 83 year old father’s bedroom AC stopped working on day 15 of Lockdown in very hot Mumbai. Most of us have a comfort level with our own beds, especially as we get older, me included. My dad is no exception and he can’t sleep anywhere but in his own room! It was a very real problem, 2 nights of no sleep can wreck just about everything.

Day 3 I wake up and see that one of our staff, Vasuda Didi, who has over the last 20 years seen countless AC technicians come and go, has decided to give it a go. As in she decided to try and repair it, and here’s the climax of the story.. she succeeded.

The back story here is that she’s a super bright woman, who in another life might have been an engineer, but instead is now a domestic worker. A wasted resource, as many are, in this country of ours.

So the point of this story is that it made me think about opportunity & specifically opportunity in Education.

Now I am sure that all you enlightened folks know and believe in equality, I know I do. We also know and can agree that humans are also inherently not equal in terms of abilities, drive, intellect, physical strength, talent and a host of other things. Each one of us is unique. But when we say we believe in equality, we mean that we believe that all humans should be treated equally and have equality of opportunity.

Now I finally come to my main point. I know what you’re thinking; my kids were right about my never ending story telling.

The question is: If your special talent, ability to work harder than others or just plain good luck helps you to be more successful & therefore earn more money, then would it be fair for you to be able to buy a fancier car or go on an more luxurious vacation than your neighbour? I would say the answer could be a..YES.

What I mean is ..I could live with that.

But.. and this is the header question; If that same wealth that you earned, gives your child access to better education or your family access to better healthcare than others.. would that be as fair? The answer to that in my mind should be an unequivocal NO.

I strongly believe that Education & Healthcare cannot & should not be differentiated in terms of grade and quality, with higher quality sold to the well heeled buyer & substandard quality sold to the poor. It is morally & societally wrong.

In a ideal or perfect world you shouldn’t be able to buy a “better education”. Every child should have access to that “better education”. The onus should be on the state and private enterprise to ensure that there is parity between each and every school and healthcare centre. A perfect world is what we should be striving for and working towards. That should be the goal post don’t you think? A truly just society requires that.

If we really want to change the landscape of this country we have to understand that education for educations sake; as in to a send a lower income group child to a substandard poorly funded school has absolutely zero value. That epitomises “unequal opportunity”, does it not ?

For education to have value, it must be, of the exact same quality (staff competency, teacher student ratio, infrastructure and so on) for every child in the system regardless of the income bracket the child’s family comes from.

“Same to same” as we like to say in India.

In short, every child most definitely and without a modicum of doubt deserves a level playing field in education. It gives him or her the best shot at changing the narrative of poverty and inequality that they find themselves in.

Now how can we make that happen?

A bold move to address this was made via the Right to Education Act 2009.

I quote here

“It requires all private schools to reserve 25% of seats to children (to be reimbursed by the state as part of the public-private partnership plan).”

However, and sadly no surprises here, the very idea of private schools taking in kids from low income group families was and continues to be met with so much resistance by upper class India. It literally sent the whole population of private highly funded schools into a major tizzy. “Knickers in a major twist” as one of my friends is fond of saying! This resistance was across the board; from parents, school administrators & faculty.

The resistance is never outright. As in it’s never “We don’t want those poor kids in our school” (subtext is: dirty kids)

That is because we, the upper class of this country are so damn good at appearing woke and empathetic and caring, making many go to great lengths to demonstrate that this is not about their kids and that they aren’t classist.

“It’s not about us” they argue vehemently with voices full of sincerity, “it’s about them and their feelings!”

It’s a very a compassionate resistance you see. It focuses on how out of place a poor kid will feel hanging out with the rich kids! How those lower income group kids will develop a sense of inferiority! How they wouldn’t want that for those ‘poor kids’!

Never once stopping to think that maybe, just maybe, nothing could be worse than what they are already going through. What could be more inferiority building than their very hard lives! Always looking in & never able to touch.

I honestly think nothing could go wrong with giving that lower income group child a seat at the table? To my mind there’s only an upside to that. Isn’t that what equality of opportunity is?

So I for one don’t buy this myth of ‘they will feel bad’ & ‘it’s for their own good’. By saying that, we are in essence endorsing segregation. We are saying let our rich kids hang with their own kind & let the poor kid hang with his own kind. And in that way we maintain the status quo where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The very same logic should apply to healthcare too. No one should ever be able to buy better quality healthcare because they can pay more.

Sure, you can buy more or better bags, jewellery, clothes or gadgets, because you are smarter than me or you worked harder. But what you shouldn’t be able to do, is get a better education or a better hospital for your child. Those can’t be commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.

For any society to be truly civilised, that has to be a non negotiable or at the very least we should be working towards making it a non negotiable!

I am well aware that this is not an easy problem to solve. I don’t claim to have the answers. I also know that wanting it might be a Utopian dream but I do think we have to try.

Why not be the one to ask your child’s school about RTE? Check if they are complying. If not, then ask why. Speak to other parents. Maybe ask your elected officials what percentage of the GDP is spent on education and healthcare, and advocate for increased public spending on both.

Equal access to quality education is one of the best ways to help a child rewrite the story of their poverty and that’s an opportunity that every child without exception is owed.

Like I said I don’t have the answers but I have the questions and I am allowed to have dreams aren’t I?

Fly me to the moon

Soft murmurings, the clattering of forks, the ringing of a teaspoon against a cup, a gentle hand on my back as I open my bleary eyes and find my cheek pressed against the too soft too tiny pillow that’s kind of wet with my medicine induced open mouthed sleep. Open my still unfocused eyes & brain and see the beige uniform and a smiling face. She’s saying something but it takes a few seconds to comprehend that she’s asking me if I want breakfast because we are going to land in a short while. That in short was my dream last night and has been for quite a few nights. A recurring bit of ecstasy that’s hard to wake up from. “Just a little longer please” you tell your sleeping self!

That magical feeling when you are both dead tired and also paradoxically filled with energy as you land in a new place, far away from home. The place could be one that you have been to before or it could be a brand new place, whichever one it is, both are bursting with new experiences.

If there’s one thing I have realised I miss through this nightmare that the world is experiencing, it is that feeling of spreading your wings and flying away on a vacation. It could also be spreading your wings and driving away.. just leaving for new horizons is exhilarating.

The days leading up to travel day, the packing and the repacking. The endless internal debates on what to carry. The googling of the weather of your destination followed by some more internal and external debates with family members on the kind of clothes and accessories to pack. Heated arguments on how many bags we should each take and whether someone really needs that extra pair of shoes or that sweater they just love. The night before travel predictably brings with it a mild degree of insomnia. Lying in bed going through all those imaginary and real lists of things to do before heading off to the airport. Jumping out of bed in a panic at 1 AM wondering whether you’ve packed your spare kindle charger and of course your “more precious than gold” kindle.

The day of travel passes in a flurry of chores and instructions to everyone around. The same instructions repeated so many times that you can see people around you wondering if this is just an adrenaline rush or something more sinister! They soon remember that they have seen this game being played out before and they collectively start rolling their eyes. I see them but I pretend not to. ETD is discussed a million times. Loud arguments erupt again between the risk takers vs the safety net folks. Finally a compromise is reached.

Suitcase loaded, handbags checked for the hundredth time for passports and for me in particular..my most important air sickness life saver medicine Dramamine. And there lies a contradiction.. I have absolutely horrible, incurable & just have to ‘grin and bear with it’ motion sickness. It’s really at a level that is incomprehensible to most people. You have to have lived it to know it. Most people thankfully don’t have to live it, but I do. Inspite of that I love getting on a plane. It’s really a hard to understand paradox.

Airports and the inevitable lines and the cribbing that follows. The fake complaining overlaid with smiles and very real bonhomie. The excitement building as one wanders through Mumbai Airport. Predictably as always we discuss how lovely it is now and then of course the mandatory reminiscing that goes along with it, by us, the so called ‘elders’ about travel and airports of days gone by. More eye rolling and reminders by the youth in our group of our tendency to repeat ourselves!

Finally boarding, settling down, reading the menu, discussing what we are each going to have.. someone debating the pros and cons of eating shellfish on the first leg of a long journey, others wondering aloud if they should have wine or something stronger. Someone else from the family already slouched in their seat perusing the movie options and asking in a sotto voce from across the aisle if we have any recommendations. I can always be found struggling with the complicated buttons of the seat that I can never seem to master despite having flown a million times. I have accepted that seats and buttons on planes are clearly not my forte. I do try I must say but eventually always give up and have to ask one of my daughters for help, or more embarrassingly the crew if I am on my own. 

That feeling when the wheels leave the ground is like an invisible switch going off in my brain. The first 5 minutes I am tense as the aircraft lifts its face up to the heavens & the whole world seems to tremble, but as it equalises and steadies, my shoulders relax, I sink deeper into the seat, my eyelids seems heavy and soft and that invisible switch pulls my facial muscles into the widest smile. When this happens on my solo flights I am sure my co passengers must doubt my sanity. Or perhaps they all feel the same way. 

The rushing for connections at transit airports or the leisurely coffee and meals at those very same airports, they all weave their magic that make up an unforgettable experience. Some of those airports as familiar as Mumbai airport that you stride through confidently, others strange and new that you negotiate carefully, always aware that you are out of your comfort zone. It’s that feeling of being out of your comfort zone that makes you hyper aware and sensitive to the sights and sounds around you. No time for day dreaming here, it’s all systems on and you truly feel alive.

And finally the wheels thudding down on the tarmac, your hands poised and ready to open your seatbelt, your handbag all set to go. Surrounded by a hastily folded blanket, pillows squashed behind your back, empty water bottles, chocolate wrappers. All around you signs of a journey taken. A journey that is both ending and just beginning.

I miss that little red cap on the heads of the smiling cabin crew as they welcome you on board and as they wave goodbye. I want that feeling of excitement again as the wheels land heavily in a place, bringing with it the promise of new adventures. I miss it all. I want that invisible switch that makes my mouth stretch and curve upwards. I want to find myself smiling idiotically again.

Just another opinion

In the last decade or so I have sadly seen a steady rise in the level of prejudice that is openly displayed by people both in my immediate circle and in the wider world in general.

This has lead to a peculiar set of circumstances for a whole lot of us. One where we frequently hang out socially & professionally with people who we now know don’t share our value system.

This has lead to a huge internal dissonance in many minds and hearts. Speaking for myself, I can definitely say that it has in mine.

Often when I am venting, angry or disturbed about it, I am told that I should learn to take people as they are. That they have an opinion just like I do and that they are entitled to it. That they are old friends or relatives. Or that they are essentially “good people” and other things along that vein.

It set me thinking..

Are racism, casteism, classism, islamophobia, homophobia, sexism, fascism and so on really just opinions?

How am I supposed to defend the indefensible even if only to myself?

I personally don’t think any of these extreme prejudices are truly just opinions. They are so much more than that. They are values and values are what define us. Values are about character. They essentially make us who we are in a sense.

An opinion for me, as in “I have an opinion”, would be on a film or on a holiday destination or whether I prefer milk or dark chocolate. If I like donuts more than cupcakes, it doesn’t say much about me as a person. It doesn’t describe me or my value system.

Whereas if I was prejudiced against people from the LGBT community or Muslims or believed in racial segregation, that would say something about me and my character. It defines who the real me is.

Prejudice or extreme bias goes way way beyond an opinion.

It disturbs me when we legitimise these prejudices by telling ourselves that’s its ok to hang around with racists or bigots of any kind because they are entitled to their opinion. We all have “flaws” we tell ourselves and isn’t that what being a good friend is all about.. acceptance? We pat ourselves on the proverbial back for being non judgemental. We don’t see it for what it really is, which is looking away & not caring enough to call it out.

Flaws to me would be characteristics like selfishness, greed, insensitivity or having a bad temper.. you get my drift. But bigotry, blind hatred or extreme prejudice, those aren’t just flaws are they? They are belief systems and belief systems are the heart and soul of a person.

The million dollar question we should be asking ourselves is why we are we so comfortable with this and if we are not then the bigger question is why do we keep tolerating it?

The answer I guess would be that sometimes we just have to because the social situation requires us to. Maybe we are related or we have known each other for a long time, but I do think that it should definitely make us deeply uncomfortable.

If we aren’t uncomfortable then maybe there’s something we haven’t understood about ourselves.

Maybe it’s about the self. Why are we not more disturbed?

Maybe we can start by not defending it to ourselves and to stop telling ourselves that we accept another person’s racism, sexism or any other kind of prejudice as just an opinion.

That compartmentalising a person’s values as separate from them is just not possible, especially if those values are abhorrent to you and go against everything you hold dear.

What we should be doing is accepting that we now clearly see the person for who they are. That we know that our relationship has changed irrevocably.

That we might have to tolerate it but we don’t have to accept it. The moment we say, even just to ourselves, that we accept it, we in a sense legitimise it, we condone it, we OK it. Telling myself “she’s a nice person” or “he gives to charity” or “he’s a good father” is letting myself off the hook.

If we are not uncomfortable then we have to ask ourselves why? Is it because those values are not important enough to us?

Speaking for myself the answer is self evident. I have realised that for me it’s extremely important, it’s a critical component of my value system and therefore when I encounter that bigotry in others it deeply impacts my relationship and changes it permanently.

It’s the reason why I can’t and refuse to accept the bigotry and why I often take many metaphorical & physical steps away from it.

It true that it sometimes leaves me sadder but here’s the dichotomy, it also leaves me at peace.

I then stay true to myself and I stay ME.

It’s all about Fairness

Fairness and I have a long, complex and ongoing history. We are joined at the hip and not in an optimum way or quite in the way you think. If you know me or have seen me you would get that. From my earliest consciousness to the present it’s a word and an idea that I feel I have always understood. Understood because of a whole life filled with careless words.. careless words of too many adults that I came across, careless words in the Hindi film songs I listened to on the radio, careless dialogues in films I watched on Doordarshan as a child growing up, careless words flitting around my mind space from a time when I wasn’t even considered a real person. I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reminded, time and time again by the big wide world that it’s something I lack, something wanting, a big minus.

It took me years to understand that I wasn’t a minus. That my colour isn’t and never will make me a minus. Other things might but not the colour of my skin! But like I said it took years and caused immeasurable angst that I am sure impacted and continues to impact my behaviour.

But this is not about me. It’s about this society and it’s obsession with color. Where did it start and will it ever change?

Where did it start is probably irrelevant, the more important & relevant question would be to ask whether it will ever change.

Recently the beauty brand “Fair and Lovely” magnanimously & with much fanfare changed their brand name to something else, ostensibly demonstrating their commitment to the fight against racism and colourism. The whole of social media in India went into loud and sustained applause. Twitterati predictably gushed “Wow what commitment to the right values” and so on and so forth. I wonder if this is because we are naive or plain foolish? Most of us just seem to take things at face value maybe because we aren’t invested enough in the cause & bringing about change.

Let me remind you here that they, as in Unilever (the company that owns the brand Fair & Lovely) didn’t change the product one bit. The product remains a skin bleaching/lightening product. It’s one of the company’s top revenue earners and they had no real intent to change their cash cow.

A rose by any other name..

In short pulling the wool over our eyes!

This rebranding of “fairness” products to “brightening products” is however sadly not limited to Fair & Lovely. Every second skin care brand has one.

I have yet to walk into a skin care store and not be asked (in a overtly solicitous tone I might add) if I want something to “remove my tan” or to “brighten my face”.

If Unilever and other skin care brands were really committed to ending colourism and racism they would disband and stop selling bleaching and fairness products. When you sell a product that’s inherent nature is to bleach your skin then you by default are making white or fair skin seem aspirational. Changing the name of the product is just an eyewash, an eyewash I might add that social media lapped up and how!

To be fair it’s not just these companies. It’s rampant in every sphere of life in India. Everywhere we look we are constantly reminded that being fair is the goal. That fair equals beauty. That fair equals success. That fairness gets you jobs. That fairness gets you a spouse. That fairness makes you a boss. That fairness is the key to your best life.

From Bollywood film songs that praise fairness, to dialogue in films that associate beauty with fairness over and over again, to Bollywood & the advertising industry predominantly casting only fair people. To the racist advertising campaigns run by reputed corporates that blatantly spin the narrative that being dark is the only thing standing between you & success. From the subtle and not so subtle constant barrage of advertisements that have only fair Indian models or Caucasian models to sell products to brown skinned Indians. The irony of that is not lost on you I hope.

Obviously the underlying premise is that we Indians conflate beauty & self worth with fair skin and the advertising & media industry knows, understands and capitalises on that. For most of them it’s only about the bottom line, societal change or just plain morals be damned!

I think it’s also not just limited to beauty, I think our colonial past makes us revere and trust a fair person more. The way African visitors and students have been targeted and harassed in this country, while Anglo Saxon and Caucasians visitors are fawned over by every strata of society, is testament to our deep rooted racism.

We placed the white man on a pedestal for 150 years or more and that’s what the ad agency is targeting.. Our hangover of colonial subservience. But I would also be simplifying it if I say that this is just a hangover of our years of colonisation. This fair skin obsession predates the British. I think it’s safe to say that it’s intrinsically linked to Brahmanism and the caste system. The upper castes playing their part in perpetuating this narrative.

I recently watched Indian matchmaking, a show on Netflix and I lost count of the number of times the word FAIR was mentioned in the context of marriage. So obviously this obsession with fair skin isn’t going anywhere. It’s still here and seems to be here to stay.

But how does this obsession work in a country where the predominant skin colour is brown?

What are the long term repercussions of making more than half of the population feel inferior I wonder? Whether we like it or not there is a repercussion. It impacts confidence and confidence is often linked to success.

When one is constantly judged and found wanting based on one’s skin colour it can have a cascading effect on other areas of one’s life. And when this happens right from childhood it’s hard to overcome those feelings of inadequacy.

Fairness has become almost aspirational, a way to move up the ladder of life.. be it your career, the partner you find, the circle of friends you make. It’s why kids and young people are told countless times not to go out in the sun and get a tan. It will be a setback to all your plans is the implication. It’s why the biggest market for these lightening products are in the 21 to 35 age group with kids as young as 13 using them.

Coming back to me, I can say that it made me more introverted, definitely less confident and probably hindered me in reaching my true potential. All this I know now with the benefit of hindsight.

Even as an adult, the system or society still fails me. The racist jokes that I have had to laugh along with at parties just to be seen as a “sport” or the multiple well meaning Aunties who within earshot of me make disparaging remarks that go somewhat like this “she is so dark, not like her mother at all” or a friend who refers to another friend in your presence as “Dark but attractive”..”Dusky but beautiful”.

Sidebar here: Raise your hands those who have heard themselves described like that multiple times by friends who think they are paying you a huge compliment! They just don’t see the racist “but’ in their words.

Also raise your hand if you have felt the urge to smack them in response.

The countless times I have been advised by friends and relatives not to let my daughters play in the sun or go swimming too much or home remedies of turmeric face masks to lighten their skin.

The friends and family I know who regularly bleach every visible part of their body because of the pressure to be fair.

Dermatologists & Cosmetologists whose claim to fame is their famous “skin brightening treatment”, who have an appointment schedule that I swear is longer and packed tighter than the Prime Minister’s.

All this and more, the direct and indirect bombardment of your value and worth based on the colour of your skin is something that often stays with you forever.

This colourism is in our homes, in our families and engrained in the psyche of more Indians than you or me can imagine and I despair of things ever changing.

I don’t see miracles happening in my life time and I have made peace with it on a personal level.

But I still wish that it wasn’t that way for countless young women and men out there, just starting life, who face this discrimination at every juncture of their lives.

I believe Bollywood & corporates cannot abdicate responsibility for perpetuating this mindset. They do influence opinion & therefore they should and can be purveyors of change.

However at the end of the day the real change has to happen within families & the community as a whole. We have to work from the inside to understand and spread the word that our stunning world is full of colour in more ways than one and that each colour is so valuable and beautiful.

As someone said..

“I see no colour is not the goal. I see your colour and I honour you..That is the goal”

The hard truth about hard work

I can’t count the number of times I have heard people including myself say that hard work and ambition takes you places. Or that there is no substitute for hard work or “I worked really hard to get where I am”. “No one gave me anything on a platter” I have heard people say. People also say that when big dreams and hard work are combined then the sky is the limit.

All the above is undoubtedly true. Hard work, ambition and dreams are all valuable character traits, no doubt about it.

A lot of people work very hard and all of them without exception have dreams & ambitions.

But is it really true that it’s only your hard work that got you where you are?

Let’s take a moment now to consider 2 hypothetical situations

Let’s call it: Family A & Family B

Family A:

A family of 4 living in Bandra in a 3 BHK.

Mom and Dad both work outside the home and work bloody hard.

They are either high or mid level salaried corporate employees or they run their own family business.

Kids go to an expensive IB school that parents work hard to send them to.

They have a domestic staff of 4: 2 home staff and 2 drivers.

Everyone leaves the house between 7 and 8 am and the parents come home only after 6 or 7 pm.

Mom and Dad are busy all day, in back to back meetings, answering emails, work calls, managing their clients and their bosses.

When they come home they interact with the kids, help with homework and maybe answer a few work emails.

They go to bed around 11 pm dead tired after a long, productive and hard working day.

They have big dreams for the future.

Both parents are well educated, come from middle class or upper middle class backgrounds. They have either started their careers as trainees and are now successfully climbing the corporate ladder or they trained in the family business and are now taking it to greater heights.

Combined income: 80 lakhs to 1 crore per annum

Cover: Good health insurance & P.F

Debt: Some credit card debt or maybe an EMI on a car or house.

Work hard and you will be rewarded

Family B:

A family of 4 living in Bandra in a 80 square foot room with no indoor toilet.

Mom and Dad both work outside the home and work bloody hard.

Mom is a domestic worker.

Dad is a driver

Both kids are in the local BMC run school.

Dad and Mom get up at 4 am to fill water.

Dad takes kids to the shared toilet that is about 300 metres from his house.

Mom finishes filling water that they need for the day because they don’t have any running water.

Mom bathes both kids and gets them ready for school.

Dad gets ready for work.

Mom packs leftovers for Dad to take to work while Dad feeds kids breakfast.

Dad has to leave his home by 6AM to reach work by 7AM.

He walks to the crowded bus stop and waits in line.

Mom walks the kids to the bus stop that will take them to school or they go to school with other kids from their neighbourhood in a shared auto.

She goes back home & finishes her home chores.

She then walks to the building where she has multiple jobs.

She cleans and sometimes even cooks in about 3 to 4 homes. She gets a meal at one of the homes and maybe a cup of tea in another.

She works tirelessly, rushing from one home to another, always on her feet.

She comes back to her own home in the middle of the work day to feed her kids who have come home by 1pm.

Mom leaves her last job around 5

On the way home she stops to buy groceries for dinner.

She can’t afford to buy too much as she has no place to store or refrigerate food.

So she buys just enough for a day or two.

Mom reaches home at 6 & starts cooking dinner.

Dad meanwhile has reached work at 7AM.

Dad makes many runs throughout the day.

He drops his employer’s kids to school, drives his employer to work and to various meetings.

He drives up and down all day. Running errands for both Mom and Dad of family A.

He eats his carried lunch wherever he is, it all depends on where the employer happens to be at lunch time.

Finally his tired & busy employer calls it a night and heads home around 7 PM.

Dad parks the employer’s car and heads for the bus stop, reaching home only around 9 or 10.

Most times the kids are asleep by the time dad comes home.

Dad and Mom eat dinner.

They go to bed around 11 pm dead tired after a long, productive and hard working day.

They both have big dreams for the future.

Both had similar backgrounds.

Both had farmer parents, who were not stakeholders in the land they tilled.

They both dropped out of school in grade 5 and 6 respectively so that they could earn & help their respective families survive.

There was no money in farming so they fled to urban India for a shot at a better life.

Combined income: 4 lakhs per annum

Debt: Owes his employer or the local money lender 1 Lakh for medical expenses of his parents back in the village.

Cover: Zero health insurance or P.F.

Medical expenses depends on the largesse of his employer.

Work hard and you will be rewarded.

I think we can agree that all the adults in both families work hard. I would in fact argue that the adults in Family B work a bit harder.

Their hard work is compounded by the fact that they know they are just one Jenga tile away from collapsing and self destructing.

The key difference between the two families is that the people in Family A are going to grow stronger and grow upwards. Like a well nourished tree. They have all the resources needed for upward mobility.

Family B on the other hand are probably going to remain stagnant. Akin to running in one place and getting nowhere. Doomed to remain where they are crippled by lack of opportunity and the circumstances of their birth.

No amount of hard work is going to bridge the gap between Family A & B.

So clearly it’s not just hard work, is it?

Wouldn’t you agree that luck plays a huge & integral part of who and what we are today?

Chances are that the people who are reading this are similar to Family A.

People like me, who have had the advantage of opportunity, education and the good fortune of being born in a certain well heeled strata of society.

He or she starting the ostensibly 100 metre race, 50 metres from the finish line.

Family B starting what is meant to be a 100 metre race, 5000 metres from the finish line. No amount of hard work is ever going to be enough for them to get to be within viewing distance of their competitor, let alone be at par with them.

In fact in India, just having an good education in English automatically takes you streets ahead of everyone else. And chances are that if you had an education in English you would have had all the other advantages of your socio economic class. “Roti, Kapada aur Makaan”.. Fed, Housed & Clothed.

So when we go on and on and brag about our hard work, we must also understand that economically & socially disadvantaged people are not any less hard working. That in fact they work twice or thrice as hard. The farmer, the woman who comes to collect the trash, the food delivery guy, the driver, the plumber, the factory worker, the mine worker, the carpenter, all of them work bloody hard but the difference is in the size of the reward.

The reward most often isn’t proportional to the level & quantum of work.

The reward is in fact, many a time even inversely proportionate to the amount of hard work.

The fact is that hard work actually plays a very teeny tiny part of your or my success story.

The bigger and greater role is played by good luck.

It’s time we begin to understand and appreciate that lack of dreams, ambition & hard work are not the reasons for the poor remaining poor. Its bad luck and our knee on their backs. To my mind luck shouldn’t play a role in a person’s basic right to earn a salary that will give him or her a decent quality of life.

The poor are poor because the rich keep them poor. It’s as simple as that. Inequality is caused by each and every one of us, we have all been and continue to be guilty of perpetuating this inequality, me included.

If we really believe that hard work will be and should be rewarded, then its time we as a society take our knee of the back of the poor and reward hard work across professions more equitably and fairly.

Right from conception & the health of the pregnant mother to the present day, members of Family A & Family B have radically different and unequal experiences. These experiences fortunately or unfortunately chart the course for the rest of their lives.

Where you are born is where the story of your luck begins, and it’s about time we recognise that.

Speak up..Speak out

Small intimate gatherings in Mumbai are just wonderful places to observe people.

Sit around with a drink in your hand and your ears wide open and you will hear things that tell you so much about people.

It’s my favourite thing to do. The less you talk the more you see.

Some of that could be inspiring, like a person’s fitness routine that makes your jaw drop at the dedication required or the work someone does that sounds so incredibly challenging and demanding. Sometimes though, the things you hear can be the complete opposite of inspiring.

Have you noticed that people in these small groups or comfort zones, tend to be somewhat different to what they claim to be? Its like pulling off the mask.

Sidebar: In today’s time with COVID, pulling off the mask at parties isn’t even an option, but back in the day I meant.

So let’s take this person who postures as secular but the moment he’s in a group that’s minority bashing or minority mocking, he not only partakes in the bashing but is clearly also relishing it. If you dont believe me just look at his animated face and the reams of “facts” that he conveniently has at his disposal, and I rest my case. Suddenly he’s an US and they are a THEM.

Or how about the acquaintance who laughs uproariously when someone cracks an inappropriate joke about LGBT folks or dissects a gay relationship in a mocking tone, or uses the word lesbian as if gay people were another species altogether!

Or the rape jokes, colour jokes, fat-phobic jokes, the casual sexism or just the way being politically correct is dissed & laughed at..

It got me thinking. Is it that we need to fit in and that’s why we sometimes join in the laughter or the digs? Are we afraid to take a stand and call it out?

Or is it the opposite and we really don’t see anything wrong with it and that what we put out there on public platforms is not really who we are.

Maybe we don’t see the contradiction.

Speaking for myself I feel that there have been times in the past when I have not called it out because I didn’t want to appear negative or angry or that party pooper who is unable to “take a joke” or horror of horrors have to face the ultimate insult “Lighten up! Why do you take everything so seriously?”

I have also realised that I feel so rotten & angry at myself, whenever I stay silent when someone says something inappropriate, either seriously or camouflaged as a joke. In fact, me thinks the truth is often masked as a joke.

Many a time people feel that these intimate gatherings are a safe space, where they know the ins and outs of everyone. Where they can be themselves! Knowing everyone basically seems to mean that you don’t need to be “politically correct”. The underlying thought seems to be that, “since I know that there are no gay or black or Muslim or Chinese folks, no “Thems” in that gathering then why do I need to mind my words?”

As a side note I want to point out that you really might not know, as much as you think you know, about everyone. For example: No one walks into a party with their sexuality printed on their forehead, or you might not be aware that the person sitting on your left has a son who is dating a Muslim, or a best friend who is gay or a sister suffering from depression..and so on and so forth. I am sure you get my drift!

My point is that the phrase politically correct is there for a reason, isn’t it? It’s a phrase that means “Don’t cause pain and hurt with your words”

It’s not about you, and how you have always spoken that way, (which is often what people say when they use words that are politically incorrect) it’s about the other person. It’s about being mindful and sensitive.

In short I would think that the rule of thumb should be, if you wouldn’t say it in front of “them” then don’t say it ever. Because if you are aware enough to realise that something is inappropriate & hurtful in some settings then you should also realise that what you are saying is clearly not right. You can’t be politically correct (sensitive) when it suits you. It’s not a contextual thing. It’s an absolute.

The second rule of thumb should also be to call people out. Every time..call them out.

It’s time to ditch your fear of being called the serious one, the drip, the wet blanket, the over sensitive one.

If the price one pays for being called all these things is a clear conscience and a life that’s lived in accordance with one’s beliefs then I say it’s totally worth it. In good conscience I must also warn you that you will probably lose a couple of pals along the way but to my mind, I’m quite sure you didn’t need them in your life anyway.

I think we often underestimate the true value & power of speaking up.

Try it next time.

Trust me, it’s liberating.

The world as we know it

The world as we know it is crashing right in front of our eyes. We are all isolated inside our walls longing to go out and catch it before it hits the ground but our feet are frozen, almost nailed.

Is this even real? Will we wake up and find ourselves back in our beautiful world of indiscriminate consumption? With our high walls that are our sunglasses against the glare of poverty & discrimination, our blue screens that we live inside, our gigantic fridges & our insatiable appetite for self gratification. We humans are masters at that aren’t we?

How did we get here? Was it when we divided our world into little boxes and spent the rest of the what seems like infinite years trying to destroy not only other boxes but many of the people in our box too. Racing against each other to see who could do it better and with more finality. Was it when everyone became an outsider, a competitor, an enemy?

Well we aren’t waiting any longer to be woken up, because guess what, we are actually very much awoken and this is it.

The crashing you hear is the sounds of the walls that you built coming down. The sound that tells you that this world is full of humans that are essentially the same. In the ways that matter, we are no different from one another. Our frailties, our bodies, our weaknesses and our strengths, our ability to love and hate is the same across families, nations, continents and across all of time.

The crashing is telling us it’s time now to leave the walls down. To let people in, to let ourselves out of the box we are in. To share resources, to share each other’s joy and more importantly each other’s pain, and finally to look inward and outward and realise that our very survival depends on the strength of our neighbour, and his on his neighbour.

This is the chain of survival that crosses oceans, rivers and deserts.

The enemy of this chain of survival was never and will never be that man who’s skin is another colour or the woman who prays to another god! How stupid is this species we belong to? An ignorant species that wasted centuries and sacrificed countless members of its tribe fighting an enemy that exists only in the mind! When the real enemy turned out to be a microscopic virus, which even though you can’t see is so much more real than those enemies you thought were hiding on the other side of the wall you created.

If only we had put all of the considerable resources of this stunning world that we were given, into recognising the real enemy, fighting that enemy and building walls against that enemy. If only we had worked on protecting, strengthening & empowering each and every member of the species so that they could stand tall and strong against that enemy.

If we had done that, the enemy would not have stood a chance. The enemy might or might not have come but our ability to fight it would have been considerably better if we put our resources into healthcare & education. Into strengthening our tribe of humans and not in tanks and guns & grenades that ultimately have only diminished our tribe.

The tragedy is that we were given warning after warning, in every part of the world, time and time again for years, lifetimes and centuries!

But did we heed it?

It seems to me that if you look at history carefully, these warnings seem to stick out in bold. The plagues, the flus, the viruses, the bacterias, repeatedly shouting alerts from different corners of this earth. Some from years just gone by, others from a century ago. But how quick we are at forgetting!

That’s another most marvellous fact about our species, our inability to learn from the past is almost as great as our ability to selectively forget. And forget we did.

Instead of using our past to shape our future, we focussed on what’s really important, which is kicking the hell out of each other. I must admit that we are incredibly good at that. And that is the biggest tragedy of all.