Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book Review: How to get filthy rich in rising Asia

It has been a long time since I posted here- blame it on life and getting busy! Or maybe, blame it on having nothing to say. Or maybe, too much to say and do and not enough time for either. Blame games aside, I have been doing a lot of reading despite the busyness, maybe one of the few things that still keeps me sane.

Apart from my usual cache of romantic trash and chick-lit, my other passion is books related to/based in South Asia (as regular reader(s) of this blog know). I am a bit late to the party when it comes to Mohsin Hamid, not having read his first two books, especially The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is really famous and now a movie. I chanced upon his latest book, How to get filthy rich in rising Asia, at the library recently, and spent many a midnight reading it. Despite my best intentions not to while away nights reading, and sleep instead, this was one book that defied my ideas. I don't know how to describe the pull of the book, it wasn't enthralling or thrilling or mesmerizing. But it was unputdownable. It pulled me in slowly but surely into its web, till I was caught deep within the lives of its characters. It spun its web around me, holding me captive, involving and engaging me till I lived and breathed with the protagonist. It made me care.

The book is written in the second person with no names, just our Hero ("you" in the book) and our Heroine ("pretty girl") living out their destinies in an unnamed expanding cosmopolitan city in Asia. Both are driven by ambition to get out of their poverty stricken neighborhood, and adopt all possible paths to achieve their ends. Hero wants to be filthy rich, Heroine wants to be rich and famous. And off they travel on their paths. The book illustrates these paths, which are specific and peculiar to the socio-cultural-political dynamics of Asia (India, maybe?)

He holds up a mirror to current society in India (if it is indeed India- maybe because I am Indian I could see India in every word that he had written). The politics, the bribery, the violence, the cheating, religious and social divides, caste and class schisms, gender dynamics... yes, he shows what current India is all about. He shows how our Hero and Heroine traverse these minefields of class, money and power as they go about making money, making a name, getting rich and richer.

It is hard to describe the story- maybe the story is not as impactful as the manner of its deliverance, the prose that is so powerful and eloquent. Hamid is clearly a master of the craft of penmanship, almost every sentence in the book is like a gem. These studded sentences come together to create a piece of sumptuous handcrafted jewelry. Yes, I guess that is where the book's spell comes from. Not from the story, but from the prose. It is the joy and wonder and enthrallment that comes from reading something so wondrously written. Hamid uses the English language to create his massive web, that entangles and engages endlessly.

Is that what great writers do? Is that what great prose is? I remember the story, but loved the writing. He may have effectively shown the state of India/Asia, but the manner of doing so is way more fascinating. There is such depth to his writing, wherein one can jump in and explore the prose. Or maybe, savor it. Put each sentence on your tongue and let it melt, as it explodes with hidden meaning. Layer upon layer of prose unfurls to create new sensations, new emotions. Yes, maybe, I wasn't reading the book, I was eating it!

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Marital Advice?

No, this post is not about what you think it is, given the title :-) I've been thinking about what would be the best advice to give to an Indian woman about to get married. This thought hasn't come out of the blue, my niece is getting married in the next two days. I am not able to attend the wedding given the distance involved, and I'm pretty sure that I'm the last person she would approach about advice as she enters this new phase in her life. And yet, I was wondering, what would I tell her from my lofty experience of having been married six years?

I still remember the advice I got six years ago, none of which I followed and all it did was make me angry enough to fight with the advice-givers! Here's the gyaan I got:

1. Have kids immediately!
2. Give whatever you earn to your husband and then ask him for spending money.

As you can well imagine, I did not follow the first piece of advice, and ended up getting into a major fight with my dear Aunt who gave me the second bit of wisdom :-) To think, she was trying give me genuine heartfelt advice and honestly believed that giving everything I earn to my husband would make me and my married life happier.

Coming back to the topic at hand, given that I am the dear Aunt in question this time, what would I say to my niece? How does one condense one's experiences into a few pithy sentences, to convey what I think is important- advice that my niece and (and given the example I just gave you) most of my family might not agree with? But anyway, here are the two bits of wisdom that I would pass along:

1. Always have a job and earn your own money
I cannot stress this enough. My niece does not work, and I also realize she will not be working after she gets married. Yet, I want her to. Work gives you a sense of self-worth and confidence. The fact that you earn money makes others respect you. It makes you an equal in some ways- ways which are very important in this already lopsided view of women that Indian society holds. Money is power, make sure you have some!

2. Don't give up your sense of self
Whether you work or not, always be your own person. Don't change your thoughts, beliefs, friends or dreams to accommodate other people and their beliefs. Value the things that are important to you and don't give them up. It is very easy to get swept up in the euphoria of marriage, and slowly give up on your own hobbies, likes and dislikes and dreams. Marriage is meant to nurture you and your growth as an individual, not stifle it.

As I look at these two pieces of advice, I realize how antithetical these are to what Indians call the good "bahu". One who serves her husband's family and becomes a part and parcel of them. One who gives up her dreams for the sake of the husband and his family. One who gives up her career and life because that is what is required. Well, you know what, you can still be a good, no, great bahu without giving up what you think is important for you. Giving your new family respect is essential, giving yourself up is not.

So that is my bit of advice. Here's wishing you a wonderful life ahead!

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Monday, December 24, 2012

The half hour before dusk is safe. Or is it?

I told myself  I would not do this. I would not write about the atrocities happening in Delhi. I told myself that I needed to separate myself from the pain. Yet, as I read and reread what was happening, I have not been able to sleep peacefully for the last three days. What this has released inside me are all those memories, that have come back to haunt and taunt. Of those hundreds of minor insults that add up to growing up female in India. Yes, it is not a single incident that has fueled this rage- mine, or any other Indian woman's. It is a lifetime made up of a million incidents that happen everyday. I have been reliving them for 3 days now. And then I realize, the only reason I am reliving them is because I am in the US. Otherwise, I would still be living them. Everyday.

One of the most horrific ones I remember was when I was very young. Young enough not to have grown breasts. A friend and I were playing in the park in front of our house, and then were walking home since it was getting dark (maybe around 7'ish). Not a long walk, we only had to cross the road. This in a small town, small campus residential neighborhood. In those few moments, the electricity went off, like it does all the time in India. We were plunged into utter darkness. Out of nowhere, a cyclist came by, and a hand grasped my breast tightly. Then it and the person was gone. Before I could even realize what had happened. Only the memory of that 10 year old me remains. 

Another one was when I was even younger, around six years old or so. We were traveling, and as trains in India are always overflowing, there was no place to sit. An 'uncle' kindly offered to squeeze a bit and my parents plonked me next to him. This uncle then placed his hand under my thighs for the remainder of the journey. 

Of course, things only got worse and I grew older. Some of my worst memories and experiences come from the place I studied in, for undergraduate school. Flashers on the roadside next to the lake, grinning at us and masturbating in open view of all of us group of girls. Flashers in the small park that we had to cross to reach the hostel safely. If it was even remotely dark, the peril of staying out was your own. Thank goodness, our hostel was locked at 7:00 PM so that we were never "out late".

I don't think anything can equate to the terror of walking on Indian roads, streets or parks as of being a girl alone. The fast beating heart, surreptitiously looking around, walking really really fast to get to one's destination as soon as possible. Because you never knew what could happen. Because a hand could come out of nowhere, touch you, pull a dupatta, caress a bum, fondle a breast and leave you stunned. Shocked. And promising yourself that you would never stay out after dark again.

I was one of those who always carried a safety pin when traveling in public transport. I always traveled home from school in state transport buses. How many of you remember (in the case of men, even noticed) that there was a small gap where the seatback ended and the seat began. That small gap from where toes and feet and hands could enter and grope and touch your backside? Yes, I carried a safety pin to prick those hands and toes. Another slightly worse one was when we were, by some unfortunate chance, sitting on the aisle seat. The guy(s) would come and rub their "private parts" against our shoulders. Perfect height for it, you know? All you could do was sit silent and hope the "thing" atleast wouldn't get hard.

For those of you who blame western clothes, I was one of those who NEVER EVER wore "western" in India. I think after I reached 12-13 years of age, to the time I came to the US at 26, I must have worn jeans probably 3-4 times. If even that. Yes, I only wore Indian suits and was always covered head to toe, with my dupatta firmly in place. And no, that did not stop anybody.

Once, a friend and I went to visit the yearly Flower Festival, celebrating the coming of spring. And as we boarded a rickshaw to take us back to the hostel, a group of 'celebrating' men pounced on us. Yes, I do mean pounced. They started touching us everywhere, and both of us were screaming. The stupid rickshaw-walla wouldn't move. We screamed at him, "Bhaiyya, chalo" (move!!), he was just sitting there staring at the tamasha. Finally, he started and these men backed off, catcalling and jeering at us. We both were shaken but so happy to get away safely. I think we mostly forgot about this incident later, it was so run-of-the-mill. And after all, we got away, didn't we?

A friend was once groped at by a passing motorcyclist, but in his haste he got his location wrong. He smashed his hand into her face, and shattered her glasses in the process. The shattered glass injured her face a bit, but atleast did not enter her eyes. She very narrowly escaped blindness that day.

These are but a few (or maybe the more horrifying ones) incidents that I have written down here. Because you know what, we can't remember each one of them otherwise day to day living will be an effort. This happens in every single train journey, every single bus journey, every single rickshaw ride, every single walk, every excursion outside, to EVERY WOMAN in India. I know so many of them, and I don't know anybody who has not faced this, to a higher or lesser degree. Yes, I even know of some really bad cases- where a classmate never came back to school again- but lets not even go there.

What is worse is, most Indian men- even the liberal, educated, 'open-minded' ones, don't get it. They don't know the extent or the all-pervasiveness of the problem. They grow up in a different India, an India that does not tell them to be home before dark, to make sure that no body part is showing, to never walk, breathe, talk  freely. In my early days after landing in the US (when the horrors were still fresh), I was talking to a guy about this. And he said "Does this still happen? I don't think the problem exists at all. You are making it all up." I stared at him, aghast and open-mouthed and angry! Much much later, when I got over my anger, I realized the truth of his statement. He really did not know! He had no idea, because he did not grow up in the same India as I did. He grew up as a male in India.

Yes, most people don't get the sheer helplessness of growing up female in India. Nobody who has not faced the relentless multi-headed thousand hands of the monster that is Indian misogyny will ever get it. Be it a male growing up in India or a female growing up in most other countries of the world. You know what it means? I have been in the US for eight years, and I go for a walk most days. Every time a guy crosses me on the sidewalk, I automatically raise my hands and cross my chest. The habit is so deeply ingrained that I can't stop myself. Eight years, a few thousand walks and I still do it. Because I need to protect my breasts. That is what it means. 

Yesterday, I was speaking to a friend and she had studied and lived in Delhi. She said it was really bad there, since she took public transport everyday. I said no, the city I studied in was worse. Or maybe the cities we both grew up in. Or maybe, just maybe, it was everyplace. When terror climbs up your throat and stays there every evening after dark. When panic seizes you if you overstay at the party/park/library by half an hour. When helplessness is an accepted way of life. Yes, that is what it means. When every single decision is made based on where you will be at dusk. When a half inch tighter or shorter dress, a half kilometer detour, a half hour bus delay, a half hour of working extra can mean the difference between safety and assault. And you never know which half hour. Yes, that is what it means. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

TV and Me

I was thinking about my general disinterest in watching TV, and wondering where it came from. Given the kind of television programming there is, I am not surprised at my current loathing of TV (in general). But the fact is that I have never been a TV fan since my late childhood. I would always rather just read a book.

I am old enough to have grown up when TV was not as ubiquitous as it is now. In fact, my family got our first TV when I was around 6 years old, and then our first color TV when I was around 10. At that time, all we had was Doordarshan, with limited programming. Cable TV came to India when I was probably in my teens. It was an awe inspiring jaw dropping deal at the time. So I guess the really young age when kids get addicted to cartoons, I did not have a TV at home. And then later, there were books to read, and games to play, and gossip to gossip, and lastly, studies as well ;-) TV kind of took a backseat in my life.

I went to undergrad hostel, where there was enough squabbling at any time about what to see on the one TV set in the entire hostel- in our TV room. While the majority always won, I was never invested enough to sit there in those uncomfortable plastic chairs and be a passive observer. Besides, this was college- a whole new life to be lived, and a whole new set of people to gossip about. The same more than held true at my graduate school too.

At home, my mom ruled the roost when it came to TV viewing. I could not bring myself to see all those regressive saas-bahu/ joint family soaps that dominate Indian television. Ohh, I tried, but found the tripe indigestible. Then I came to the US, and did not own a TV for the next five years.

It has been a mixture of not having access or having limited access to TV, coupled with a general dislike of what is being aired, coupled with a love of books- and I now have very little interest in actually watching TV. I feel it is the most massive passive waste of time. TV is usually my last resort, sometimes not even that. 

I have tried being interested in shows. But nothing captures and retains my attention long enough. I can read books big enough to weigh a ton, but can never sustain interest in a half-hour TV show. That is how I am. Which is lucky in our house, because there are no fights for the remote!

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Siren Song of the Beauty Salon

There are uncountable websites, forums and blogs dedicated to R2I. People have innumerable reasons to go back to India, or stay in the US. There are miles-long debates on how much money to make before going back. Heartrending accounts of helpless parents that need to be taken care of back home. Endless discussions about children growing up here versus there. Scary stories about immigration hassles and visas and legal complications. Heated arguments about spouses and meddlesome in-laws and food and grocery shopping and family vacations and even Indian vs. Western clothes. In my quest to understand the challenges and issues of R2I, I have read them all. And yet, not one has talked about one of my primary- and very important- motivators to go back to India. The cheap cost of the beauty parlor!

It was effortlessly easy to get all my beauty needs met in India. Homemade beauty parlors have sprouted in every gali-nukkad in most every city there. Usually, some enterprising woman has converted her verandah/outhouse/ garage into serving as a makeshift beauty salon, where inexpensive, but almost always great, service was rendered. Body hair irritating me- step in for a quick waxing session. Need eyebrows done in an emergency, walk around the corner to the parlor. Ladke-waale coming over to meet without prior notice - one quick phone call, and the parlor lady cycled home. Within an hour or two, I was transformed from a hirsute disheveled mess into a well-groomed gleaming specimen of womanhood.

I was so used to taking these luxuries for granted. Imagine my shock when I landed in the USA and found out that eyebrow threading would cost me $20, as opposed to Rs. 20 in India. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. As a poor grad student, I quickly learnt that waxing, facials etc. would now be done once a year- on my yearly trip back home. I became adept at using tweezers (or as we call it in India, the plucker), for everything from stray eyebrow hair to my budding moustache. I managed to survive on that one solitary yearly facial, umm, two now, one the day I landed in India and one the day I flew out.

However, as I grow older, I find the need to add more and more stuff to my beauty regimen. Regular hair coloring, for one. My growing beard, for another. Monthly facials to firm up that sagging skin. Bi-weekly eyebrow threading- can’t turn up in office looking like a frowning bear. Not to mention the manicures and pedicures to have decent looking hands and feet. Cleaning up hairy arms and legs (this atleast gets a brief respite in winter).Throw in an occasional massage, a few bleaches, a couple of face scrubs, and the bill can run to hundreds of dollars.

Yes, aging is expensive business. But it is all the more expensive in this country, where I have to spend $300 to look like I did naturally 3 years ago! Women in India, count your blessings and thank your stars. Last time I was there, I spent a total of Rs. 2000’ish for everything (yes, you got it. Every single thing mentioned above, and a few unmentionable ones as well ;-) ). The joys of living in a small, inexpensive town in India! I would have spent upward of $500 for all the same stuff here.

I know that as more time elapses, my reliance on my beauty parlor will only increase. As age spots show up on my skin, more grey hair gives me minor strokes, when I see crow’s feet emanating from my eyes, all I will do is run for help. Straight into the nearest beauty salon!

Which is why I wonder, why is such an important topic not being discussed? Given the high cost of living in the US (I live in Silicon Valley, CA, which is ridiculously expensive), every little thing matters. When we talk of saving money, how can we not account for the fact that this aging business will make us spend much more over time (ever noticed how expensive hair color is)? This is the one thing that will matter more and more as time goes by.

Cheap beauty salon services are not to be derided at. Spending that kind of money in the US always feels criminal to me, because in my mind I am always comparing it to the costs in India. Yet, I have no choice at the moment. So this just might be the tipping point for me to R2I, if not right now, a few years down the line. But maybe, by then, I’ll be comparing the relative costs of Botox!

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Cross-Posting from SCN

I just recently published a self-introductory blog post on SAP Community Network. So head over there to read it! Here it is:

And let me know your comments here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ladies' Driving Agency

A number of my posts here focus on women, and what empowers/disempowers them. As I was driving to do some chores yesterday, I realized that driving, or being able to drive, is such an important source of power. It gives you the ability to do things, go places, get stuff done, without relying on anybody else! I love driving in the US, with Hindi songs blaring in my car, as I sing along loudly (and often get strange glares). It gives me a feeling of empowerment, ability, control!

It is almost essential to drive in the US, as public transport is often not very time efficient. Sometimes, it does not even exist, and a car is the only option. However, this is fast becoming the case in India as well. Driving yourself gives you so much power to do things on your own, you don't have to wait for unreliable drivers to show up, or get groceries or even go meet friends. Even though one can always take a rickshaw/auto, it is often safer to have one's own transportation.

Yes, driving gives us all Agency, men and women alike. Agency, that one thing that most Indian women have to fight for, or live without. So all of you out there who drive- what are your stories? I was chaperoned by my mother, who would sit in the back seat for all my driving lessons. After all, I could not be allowed alone with a strange man, even if all he wanted to do was finish his driving lesson quickly and go to his next paying customer.

Isn't that true? For every triumph that Indian women make- be it as small as learning to drive, or going swimming (yes, I was chaperoned for that too), there is a small fight, a small victory or a small surrender. That is what life is as an Indian girl/woman, a series of victories and surrenders, against a society and a culture that does not believe in women's agency.

For all that, I'm grateful I learned to drive. And learned to swim. Because I don't need somebody to drive me everytime I need to go get some groceries. Or get some clothes, get a pedicure, get a life. I can drive and get it on my own!