Only those denied access know how it rankles

In certain places in India, women of reproductive age cannot enter a place of worship. This is because menstrual blood is considered impure. But recently, the High Court has ruled that such practices amount to discrimination against women. Here is my post in support of the High court judgment, published on Rediff. 

 

As a child, the word puja (Durga Puja celebrated in Bengal) held the promise of wonderful things — holidays, new dresses, meeting cousins and friends — for me.

My parents sent me and and my brother to dadurbari (grandpa’s home) during the puja vacations, the summer and winter holidays. There, we climbed trees, plucked mangoes and ran wild among the corn and mustard fields. Since, throughout the rest of the year, we were cooped up either in our little flat or dismal classroom, those holidays were the only time we learnt that childhood could be carefree.

Grandma would host a Lokkhipujo (prayers to goddess Lakshmi) every year, meticulously smearing cow dung on the compound, arranging fruits and fresh flowers, and placing the humble betel leaf and nut before the photograph of goddess Lakshmi. After the diya (earthen lamp) was lit, everything looked very beautiful, indeed.

Once I was invited to a friend’s home for Saraswati Puja. As I handed over a few books to be blessed by the goddess of learning and wisdom during the ceremony, the purutmoshai (priest) asked, ‘What is your gotra (clan)?’ I stared blankly. My friend’s family whispered among themselves, wondering what my caste might be. That was perhaps the first instance when I had this feeling of beingpresent but left out — a feeling one gets when allowed into a temple but not inside the sanctum sanctorum.

I came home and enquired about my gotra and caste. My father explained that though we followed Hinduism, we actually belonged to an ancient Tibeto-Chinese tribe and our traditional god was Bathow, symbolised by a cactus plant called Bwrai Bathow.

It was not a comforting explanation. It meant I had no jaati (caste) and no gotra. And why had no one heard of Bathow? Was he, somehow, a lesser god?

I continued to celebrate Durga Puja, but gradually began to look at things from an outsider’s perspective. I still loved Ma Durga and felt saddened when she took leave of us all on Dashami (tenth and the last day of puja), but a small part of me stayed detached — especially duringpushpanjali (culmination of puja) on the eighth day, I felt as an imposter who didn’t really have the right to be there.

But my friends did not know this and continued to invite me to their homes on auspicious occasions.

Once, during Diwali, I helped a friend light diyas, participated in their family prayers and then joined in bursting firecrackers on the street. It was a lovely evening and we were all caught up in joyous celebrations. I noticed, though, that one of our cousins, who had come down from Delhi, was missing in all of the festivities. ‘She’s having her…you know…’ my friend explained.

When realisation dawned, I froze in horror. It was ‘that time’ of the month for me too, and I shouldn’t have been there. Overcome by guilt, shame and fear, I quietly left as soon as I could.

I lay awake late into the night, agonising over what I’d done; the immensity of the paap (sin) I’d committed and the curse I might have unwittingly brought on myself as well as on my friend’s family. I blamed god for not creating everyone equal. Why didn’t my other friends have to worry about caste? Why did only girls menstruate and have to be left out of holy places?

As the years passed, I understood that faith was greater than hollow rituals. It was man that had divided people into the high-born, the low caste, the untouchable and the unclean. I decided to stay away from organised religion and never visited a temple again.

 

 

And now, decades later, in a landmark judgment, the Bombay high court has ruled that preventing women from entering the Haji Ali dargah is unconstitutional — in effect, saying that women are not impure or unclean.

I am more jubilant about this victory today, than of our girls’ achievements in the Olympics. Those were glorious, but individual achievements. This judgment, I truly believe, is a victory for all of mankind. Could this be the beginning of the end of all social discrimination — against women, against Dalits, the low castes and the caste-less?

Perhaps it is time for me to visit a temple again. And I would love to go the Haji Ali Dargah too — I’ve heard it’s beautiful.

As it happened with the Shani Shingnapur verdict, reactions to the Haji Ali ruling have ranged from ‘this is a non-issue’ to ‘vested interests are at work.’ Well, there may be vested interests that I am unaware of, but a ‘non-issue’ it is not. Only those denied access, know how it rankles. And it should bother everyone, because in the eyes of the Constitution, we are all equal.

I now eagerly await a similar verdict in case of the Sabarimala temple and hope that it will strike yet another blow to patriarchy and discrimination. A male saint, or a male deity, their vows of celibacy notwithstanding, cannot be an excuse to keep out women from the inner sanctum. Neither can quoting religious scriptures justify such practices.

It maybe a centuries-old tradition to refuse women of child-bearing age entry into temples, but now is the time to question why. What is wrong with reproduction — isn’t that how every ‘high-born’ priest too came bawling into this world, a mass of flesh and bones and blood?

Some women profess that they don’t mind such customs and love to follow the tradition. It is willingly done and there is no question of discrimination. To them I would say, not everything you love may be wholesome or good. The safety of women is not the responsibility of the police or the government alone. It is our duty to change mindsets and weed out deep-seated prejudices that exist in the garb of religious rituals.

I’m glad that the youth of today have the courage to challenge the regressive practices that we have followed unquestioningly for hundreds of years.

Let the doors of every church, mosque and temple, including those leading to the inner sanctum, stay wide open for everyone. Until then, those of us who are left out will continue to knock and demand entry. It is our constitutional right.

 

Would love to know your thoughts irrespective of whether you agree or disagree 🙂

Handsome men to help you weep?

My blog is titled ‘Stories from India’ but here is a strange story from Japan that I can’t help sharing.

Japanese companies are hiring ‘handsome weeping boys’ to help their staff cry. Yes, you read that right. Click here if you still don’t believe me.

In the words of the founder of one such company: “I want Japanese people to cry. Not only at home but in the office… It creates a better working environment and people get along better.”

Employees sit together and watch sad films while a “handsome weeping boy” wipes away their tears. All of this helps people express their emotions and bond in the process. Presumably this leads to great team work and increased productivity?

What do you make of that? Do you find it a curious practice are you in fact excited by the position of ‘”handsome weeping boy/girl” and can’t wait to apply?

I sometimes like to watch sad movies myself … and yes, cry too. It has a cathartic effect (or is it plain silly behavior?). But I would be distinctly uncomfortable with a complete stranger wiping away my tears, no matter how handsome!

This reminds me of a movie that actually got me shedding copious tears in a crowded theater.

It was a Bollywood film called Taare Zameen Par (Stars on Earth), and anybody who’s watched it knows what I’m talking about!

Image result for taare zameen par

A moving story about a dyslexic child who is misunderstood by all, the film ensured that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. At least the women around me were all wiping away tears or sniffling into their tissues, so I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling devastated. Perhaps the men were doing the same but were more discrete about it.

Especially when this song came on, right after the little boy’s parents sent him off to a boarding school, I found myself practically dissolving in a flood of tears. The lyrics went something like :

I’ve never said it
But I’m afraid of the darkness, ma

I’ve never said it
But you know I love you ma

Now if you are a mother, or have ever loved your mother, it is practically impossible to stay unmoved. Chances are that even those who hate kids or dislike their moms will became sentimental!

What is the one movie that made you bawl your heart out? Please leave me a name in the comments and perhaps I will watch it on a lonely evening, when I feel like a good cry 😉

 

 

Why do girls have all the fun?

I had written about a reunion with a few school buddies some time back, and it was published on Rediff. I am glad to re-publish it here 🙂 Have you had a reunion with any old friend lately?

Ramitey

IMAGE: The girls trek to Ramitey. 

If there is one thing I dread, it is seeing a ‘friend request’ from a former school mate who I either can’t remember or don’t want to.

I am happy with my present, thank you, why would I want to journey back to the past and relive memorable events like the time I came out last in sack race?

Or when someone slyly pinned a tail to my skirt and the class dissolved in laughter as I stood up to answer a question. What was so funny?

Accept any such request, and it will soon be followed up with an invite — to join a community, made up of who else, but your school alumni.

You may think what harm could this possibly do, just another FB group — but this is only a preliminary, to a similar group on WhatsApp, whose unstated goal– you guessed it — is to plan a reunion!

It was exactly 25 years since we’d passed out of school.

To add to that, we were all turning 40 this year.

An emotional pitch was made — “Come on guys, kal ho na ho!”

“True yaar, zindagi na milegi dobara!”

But the clincher was, “When will we get naughty, if not at 40?”

A Brexit style referendum followed, where the majority voted to ‘leave’, on a short trip to celebrate our friendship.

After considering various destinations ranging from Vegas to Vadodara, we zeroed in on an obscure mountain village called Sillery, located in Darjeeling district.

Why on Earth?

Well, because this was the closest to our school and our hometown, Siliguri.

Some folks in the US and UK would not be able to make it at such short notice, but I guess there is a price to be paid for pothole free roads, safe drinking water and being able to afford recipes involving tomatoes.

A few closer home were forced to back out too — some were not given permission by their maids, others had to take their kids or dogs to prior appointments.

Finally, of the 12 original members, five us confirmed and booked our tickets — Suku, Deba, Urmi, Bash and myself.

It was on a bright June afternoon that my plane touched down at Bagdogra airport. The temperature and humidity outside felt just right — everything feels just right when it’s your hometown.

I headed out straight from the airport to meet with the others.

After strategic and tactical meetings over luchis and aloo dum, we allocated important tasks to each other — carrying provisions for jhal muri as well as Gelusil (for indigestion), packing essential items like the selfie stick and so on.

Later, we could assign the task of making mugs and collages of our trip, to those who couldn’t join us, so that they don’t feel terribly left out.

It was decided that we would leave for Sillery the next day at around 9 am.

Early the next morn, while still in bed, I had the brilliant idea of spooking everyone by sending this message to the group: “All set? Shall we leave?”

But I was the one spooked instead, when one or two responded with a “Yes! Let’s go!”!

Gathering my wits together and getting ready in record 10 minutes, I made a mad dash for the designated pick-up point, only to realise that I was the earliest.

It took almost an hour before everyone arrived and squeezed into Urmi’s Ertiga, driven by Bash’s trusted chauffeur, Daju.

We were being chaperoned at 40 and it felt like being back in school indeed! The only naughtiness I could imagine was stealing each other’s chhurpis (hardened cheese made of yak milk) and sweet-spicy titoras (strips of dried and salted fruit) on the way.

Sillery

IMAGE: A view of Sillery gaon.

It was a sublime, golden yellow day and we were soon winding up the hills to John Denver’sCountry roads, take me home, To the place I belong

This was West Bengal, not West Virginia, but the words just fit.

It was only three hours to Sillery gaon, situated at 6,000 feet. We climbed at our own pace, stopping first at Kalimpong and then Pedong, for savoury momos and steaming thukpas.

Perhaps it was the crisp mountain air, but we seemed to be hungry every few minutes, to Daju’s great annoyance.

With a blissfully sated feeling, I turned my attention to the scenery outside, admiring the snow-capped mountain peaks glimpsed through the tall pines.

We noticed suddenly that the temperature had dropped a few degrees and pulled on our sweaters and shawls, just as a cloud floated into the car. Almost heaven, indeed.

During the last stretch of our journey, the well-paved road suddenly gave way to rugged, harsh mountain terrain. The car’s chassis dragged against sharp, protruding rocks and Urmi’s heart stopped and somersaulted with each painful screeching of her car.

At one point we wondered whether we should abandon the vehicle and trek it up instead, but Daju heard none of it, and delivered us safely to our destination.

After the mentally grueling climb, we needed another round of succulent momos and piping hot chai to revive us.

We sipped our tea and stared at the drifting clouds, enchanted by so much beauty and tranquility. Then we wondered what was for dinner.

Later in the evening, Suku peeled litchis and spliced up green chilies for a special cocktail she was fixing us.

As we huddled together under a bright starry sky with our drinks and jhalmuri, giggling at silly memories from school, I had an epiphany that maybe what the lady in Sex and the City said was right– that maybe our girlfriends are indeed our soulmates and guys are just people to have fun with.

My reverie was interrupted by a chirpy female voice: “Apnara ki pancha kanya? Oof kiexciting!” To translate: “Are you five gutsy women doing this by yourselves? How exciting!”

Which actually translated to: “Are you five women of loose morals and low character, who have abandoned their kids and spouses, and are gallivanting around, (as our school Principal Sister John Berchman would say) by yourselves?”

I could see the admiration in her eyes, not unmixed with a tinge of envy and was struck by another revelation — that Hillary Clinton or Theresa May weren’t the only ones breaking glass ceilings.

Now that I thought of it, we’d been drawing envious glances all day from women who were here with their spouses, kids and mother-in-laws in tow.

Ramitey

IMAGE: The stunning view of the snow-capped Kanchenjunga.

The next morning, we trekked 3 km to Ramitey, for a stunning view of the snow-capped Kanchenjunga above and the glistening thread of the river Teesta, below.

By the time we returned to the resort, we were ravenously hungry again, but passed up rice androtis for steaming bowls of wai wai.

I’m a connoisseur of instant noodles, even if I say so myself, and have tried all sorts including Patanjali’s — there’s absolutely no match for the wai wai, especially in cold, mountainous terrains where clouds float past so close that you could reach out and grab a handful.

Daju reminded us that it was time to leave, especially if we wanted to stop for a bit at Delo near Kalimpong, on the way back.

And driving down the road I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday…

I really don’t know what took me so long to reconnect with my past.

Back again in Bangalore, I place a call to Deepu in Canada, “Hey! Do you have any idea where Rachna Behl and Ritika Punyani are?”

“You mean Rachna Punyani and Ritika Behl. What do you want with those two pasty-faced, pig-tailed, snivelers?”

A few minutes later, I am busy sending out ‘friend requests’ to Rachna Behl and Ritika Punyani (or vice versa). Next I must get hold of Ambika Vasudevan, former sack race champion, and that Shubhra something from Green House (Shakespeare)…or was it Blue (Newton)?

Another reunion is on the cards and I’m the chief organizer.