Tag Archives: Indian

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

“Synastry” from my “Afternoons in Varanasi: A Series”. Taken in March 2012, it’s on the cover of Barely South Review (September 2012 issue).

My official artist’s statement:

Photography is not my main medium of expression. Writing is. Yet, I have found that it is photographs that express what I am unable to find words for. In photography, I try to capture the randomness in the mundane, the unexpected in the predictable, the carpe vitam in the commonplace. Some of my clicks have a voyeuristic quality, since I have found that being a single brown woman, there are certain lines one cannot cross. I trespass those lines anyway, but from a distance.

These photographs are from a series set in Varanasi, India, and were taken on the ghats (or, the riverbanks) earlier this year. They were taken in the afternoon, a time most popular for siestas in India. I have tried to capture a side of the city that is not immediately visible to touristy eyes.

I have four photographs from “Afternoons in Varanasi: A Series” in Barely South Review.  Check out “Synastry” (cover), “Communion,” “Affinity” and “Rainbow” here (see pages 93, 94 and 95).  

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Eenie Meenie Minie Mo

When I was a child and couldn’t make up my mind, I would close my eyes and resort to the popular eenie meenie minie mo. It was easy for my pre-adolescent self to let chance decide for me.

Of course, these days, even grown ups indulge in the occasional eenie meenie minie mo.

My flash fiction, “Options,” is now in Crack the Spine. Read it here (I am on pages 21 and 22).

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Crossing the Lakshmanrekha, with impunity

A still from Sita Sings the Blues (2008), directed by Nina Paley

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 22nd October 2011 .

“You know your Lakshmanrekha. Don’t cross it.”

Err, mom. Where exactly are the boundaries again? Spell it out, will you?

Any Indian (Hindu) woman growing up will attest to being subjected to this refrain. The meaning of the Lakshmanrekha of course, depended on how “liberal” one’s parents were. It could mean anything from not talking to a guy, to PDAs, to dressing in a certain way, to indulging into sexual activities, to taking drugs, to… anything that symbolised that a nice Indian girl was going out of control. For some reason, the rekha, or line, is mostly seen as a reference to interaction with the opposite sex, and only applies to women. None of my guy friends have even heard of this rekha business.

Yesterday at lunch, Mom was grandly telling me, “Sure, date. Just don’t cross the Lakshmanrekha.”

“What is the rekha? What is it that you don’t want me to do?”

“You know.”

“Umm… no, I don’t.”

“Well, you should.”

See what I mean? The actual boundaries are never spelt out. I mean, honestly, where does the damn thing begin and end? The ambiguity of the rekha is rather baffling.

I think the trouble started when a bunch of Indian Hindu men decided to come up with the Ramayan (Yes, I believe it’s a myth. They call it Hindu mythology for a reason.) that spelt out ambiguous rules and regulations to overlook the Indian Hindu women’s behaviour towards the opposite sex.

[Insert Indian accent]

Man 1: We must do something to protect our women’s chastity.

Man 2: You are absolutely right!

Man 3: Our women must be under our control!

Je-sus.

Think about it. Lakshman, Sita’s brother-in-law, draws this protective rekha (a boundary, if you will) around her to protect her from the lustful nazaar (or, eyes) of unknown men (here, Raavan). Not only is it a warning tale to young women about the consequences of defying the rekha (I mean, poor chick gets kidnapped, then disowned in a pregnant state despite proving her chastity through fire acrobatics… twice!), but the rekha itself symbolises the many boundaries imposed upon female sexuality while growing up.

In my case, the “rekha,” or the allusion to the sacred line drawn by Lakshman to protect Sita, changed meaning as I grew older. In fact, even as recently as 2007, I was not allowed to stay out all night. Even though it was on New Year’s, I remember cabbing it back from Niagara Falls all alone back to my suburban home, just because staying out all night would have been crossing the rekha. And yet, I have been at a crazy bachelorette party at the same Falls in 2010 doing things that would have certainly fallen outside the sacred line. Irony ahoy!

I think parents forget that just like boys, girls will be girls. Seriously, now. Do you think we do not get up to mischief? That we do not cross the goddamn rekha that you have not specified for us? You are wrong. We do. All the time. We are just too damn clever about hiding it.

But why should we go undercover? Why pretend? Why is it such a taboo to flaunt our sexuality? Why can’t I kiss a boy openly if I like him enough to? Do I become a slut? A whore? Such tired comparisons. Why can’t I be compared to a classy courtesan for a change? Or, one of those talented geishas? Hats off to those women for owning their sexualities.

So, when my dad said, “We should not have to spell out your boundaries for you. You should know them by now,”

I said, “If I can face myself in the mirror unflinchingly and without shame, I have no one else to answer to.”

I draw my own rekha. Lakshman can keep his.

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Good Indian Girls Do Not Waste Time Writing Books

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 24th May 2011.

*FYI: Beti = daughter, Samajdar = sensible, Thik hai = Alright, Jaldi = Hurry

“You want to do whaaat???!!”

Write a novel. Now calm the eff down.

Ever wonder how it would be to take a hiatus from life to follow that one niggling dream that dances on the edge of your consciousness day-in and day-out? I do. All the time. And, being an Indian girl let me tell you, it isn’t easy. An Indian girl is a ticking time bomb.

“Do you want to be the only thirty-something to marry the leftovers? Life isn’t Sex and the City.”

Jeez. Leftovers. That’s what my dad calls the baldies and the divorcees, since that’s who you will get if you decide to get married post-thirty. Why, thank you. That does mean I have a neat little bracket of five years left, right? Right?

Wrong. If you are a brown girl baby, you will know that we have two very neat choices (no, infanticide is not one of them): academics or marriage. Ever since I started my stint at grad school with my Master’s in English, daddy dearest laid off with all the “beti*, don’t you want to get married?” Now that my year is winding down, and I have to decide for either the PhD route, or the working girl route, there it is again. I am reminded of my expiry date, my limited shelf life, my doomed future as a single brown girl. See, Indian parents do not hand you a Kit Kat when you decide to take a break from life. A break from life is a luxury that does not exist in the Indian dictionary.

I don’t ask for much. Just want to be a Mistry or a Roy. Maybe, a Lahiri at least. Just not a contrived cow. “A contrived what?” you ask. A contrived c-o-w. Now what is a contrived cow? The market of fiction is filled with contrived cows. In other words, books that pass for literature but are instead filled with superficial plots driven by clichés and contrived platitudes. Books that are great for mass market sellouts, but won’t be remembered twenty years down the line.

There is nothing wrong with being a mass market writer. To each his own. The books sell. You make millions and then you are forgotten. If you like money and fifteen minutes of fame, you might consider the route of mass market. But some mass market writers know how to write and make money, while some are just contrived cows who end up making money by chance. Jeffery Archer and John Grisham belong to the former category. Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon also belong to the former category but to a lesser degree, while Twilight series writer Stephanie Meyer is a contrived cow who just got lucky.

I don’t want to become a non-contrived-cow mass market writer either. That is taking the easy way out. I want to create literature. Get short listed for a Booker, if not win one. I want people saying my name with a hushed reverence within literary circles. (Small dreams, sigh.) Or, atleast give it a try. See if I can. How on earth can I concentrate on creating history if I have small versions of myself crawling around me, tugging on my t-shirt and competing for my attention? So, here I am. Dreaming of taking off for a few months and writing my first novel. Yes, you read that right. I am still at the dreaming stage. But even that comes with restrictions.

“No, no. You can’t write on that… it’s too controversial!”

Err, dad. Are you a realist fiction expert? No? Didn’t think so. Back down, maybe?

“But, but, BUT! Can’t you write on something else?”

Hmm. Can I? Sure. Do I want to? Nope.

Now if I had said instead, “Daddy dearest, I want to get married. Here are some high resolution photos of me in an Indian and a Western outfit (you know, to show the purrrfect blend of Eastern and Western values. As if it can be discerned from some lousy pictures the high blends that I am made of!) that you can put on Shaadi.com. Jaldi!* I am so ready to give up my freedom and make babies,” I would have been rewarded with the aren’t-I-lucky-to-have-such-a-samajdar-beti* look. Now, who doesn’t want to be one of those samajdar betis? Do I see hands? No? Shy, are we?

Instead, this not-so-samajdar-beti decides to take a year off from academia, fly off to the city of her birth and start working on her first novel. Yes, he says finally. Thik hai, go. I am sure you will meet someone in India.

Indian parents, I tell you. Will never change.

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Good Indian Boys Do Not Cut Hair for a Living

Posting an old interview that was published by South Asian Generation Next on 7th July 2010.

Gay, Proud and Successful: Sunil Prakash on his Life as a South Asian Hairdresser

What happens when your first-born son comes up to you and says, “I want to become a hairdresser”? Do you blink rapidly like a goldfish and wonder to yourself that maybe he is joking? Or, do you balk and then give in to your urge to scream?

Then...

Suave, sexy and a true gentleman, Sunil Prakash, the co-owner of ‘The Lid Lounge’, a high end salon in downtown Toronto, and a hairdresser himself, had the following reaction from his Indo-Canadian father: “Any idiot can cut hair!” Not one to take things lying down, he answered, “Well, if any idiot can cut hair, then you go cut mum’s hair, and we’ll see who’s an idiot!”

... and now

With a far-away look in his eyes and a tiny smirk, he says, “I got cut off financially… I didn’t know what [my father] was trying to do at that point… I got student loans, did my own thing… and (with some pride creeping into his voice) [have] been quite successful ever since.” And, indeed he has, since his salon boasts of famous clientele like Shyam Selvadurai (author of Funny Boy).

Of course, becoming a hairdresser and admitting his desire for an alternative career (as a South Asian) was not the only concern for his parents. When asked if he had a difficult time ‘coming out’ to them, he glibly responds, “Yeah, absolutely… and, as a first-born son too!” He admits that his relatives back in India were more “okay” with it than his parents. He further goes onto explain why most South Asian parents may be reluctant to open up to the idea of homosexuality as a reality within the South Asian community, “Most South Asians here [in Canada] are immigrants or have come with an immigrant mentality, meaning, their socialization has sort of stopped… They are not socially current as Indians [in India] are. You go to India today and Indians of the same age as my parents are far more liberal. My dad left India in the 1950’s and his Indian values are of that someone from the 50s. But (he adds hurriedly) [he is] all cool enough… now.”

However, he admits that it wasn’t easy for his two younger very-straight brothers either, “When they started to go out with their [girlfriends,] my parents started with ‘These Canadian girls’. They had a problem with that too… I don’t know why! (Laughs)” Thinking for a second, he offers an explanation, “Think about it. My father’s Indian. Mother is from England. My brothers and I are all biracial. [We] are both of our parents and neither of our parents. They could relate to us on many different ways but in some ways they couldn’t relate to us because we were slightly culturally different from them.”

Talking about his partner, with whom he co-owns his salon, he says, “My partner and I have been together for twenty years… My parents really respect us for being together for so long. We owe the longevity of our relationship to the example which my parents set for us. And, my partner’s parents have been together for… forever [as well]. We have pretty strongly rooted families… Time is a great leveler, so it all worked out in the end”.

And, are you guys married? He shakes his head and replies, “By the time they changed the same-sex legislation, we had already been together for such a long time that [it didn’t matter]… The commitment is to each other. [Marriage] would be an afterthought at this point”.

Sunil ends with his words of wisdom that maintains its hold on me as I walk alone to the subway to catch my train back to Mississauga, “Never be afraid to be yourself. I haven’t and it’s worked out for me”.

For more informaton on Sunil Prakash’s salon, visit www.lidlounge.com

Photographs: Copyright Sunil Prakash

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Mom Says I have to Date a Brown Man

 

Source: Lovecrusader.com

 

An edited version was published by South Asian Generation Next on 10th February 2011.

The day my mother found out I was dating K.B., she threw a fit, “But he’s white!” It did not matter that he was well-read, funny, had a great job with a well-known pharmaceutical company, was a true gentleman and had never once tried to get me into bed. And, when the relationship fell through, she said, “It could have never worked. He was white.” That is not why we broke-up, I reminded her. Sure, I remember getting stares while walking with him, holding hands, but I think that was mostly because he was 6”1 and I reign under 5”. 

In retrospect, it was not his colour my mom was referring to, but to his culture. She always insists that I marry someone from an Indian background so that I can connect with him on different levels. Sure, K.B. loved Bollywood movies. We even went for Om Shanti Om. However, while I remember enjoying the movie, he was busy speed-reading the subtitles. And later, he complained of a headache as a result of his speed-reading. 

Tasnuva Rabiyat, however, does not believe that a cultural difference is the problem. She firmly believes “[t]he biggest problem is where we grew up and how we grew up rather than cultural”. According to her, environmental conditioning differs from person to person, and regardless of race and background, if two people hail from the same environmental conditioning, they have a better chance of having a successful relationship. Born in Bangladesh and brought up in Canada, Tasnuva has been dating her American boyfriend, Justin, of a Polish-Italian descent for the past two years. For her, the “biggest problem” she might face with Justin is that of political differences, “It’s not [a] problem between chicken curry and fried chicken… It’s really a problem with the environmental differences…He comes from a very conservative political family [and] I come from a very liberal brown family.”

Justin and Tasnuva

For Reshma Dhrodia, on the other hand, it was a difference between belief systems (of the parents) that created initial hesitance on both sides. A former Phd student at York University and the current chair of the collective board at Toronto Rape Crisis Center, she has been dating her boyfriend, Tony, of  North Korean descent, for the last two and a half years. She smiles as she reminisces over how they met, “[We met] on Lavalife!” I squeal with surprise, “No way! Does that even work?!” She laughs and reveals, “I joined because I was trying to get over some guy… He was the first Lavalife date I went on.”

Tony and Reshma

And, obviously it worked for both of them. But what about the parents? Reshma smiles and continues, “My mom was a little hesitant and then she met him and really, really liked him. Tony was more nervous about telling his parents because they are… also very, very Christian.” Being a former Ismaili Muslim, and now an atheist, this was more of an issue for Tony’s parents rather than Reshma’s race. “It took him a while to reveal that he was dating me. Since then I have met his mom and [s]he still wants to me to accept Jesus… and she wants us to pump out kids. But I have told her to hold her horses on that!”

Both Reshma and Tasnuva admit that there has been an integration of some sort of the two cultures. Reshma reveals, “The biggest part of our cultures that we have each latched onto is food. I make curry on a regular basis. I have grown to really like Korean food. I have got recipes from his mom… I really enjoy spending time with his family and friends, who are primarily Korean… When I get invitations to weddings, they include him. We even went to Gerrard [street]… and got him a kurta”.

Tasnuva also mentions spending family holidays with Justin’s family, “I have gone over to his place and spent American Thanksgiving with them. I have never done that before and it was amazing. And [I have spent] Christmas and Easter [with them]”. I note a slight tinge of regret in her voice when she adds “and I want [Justin] to experience Eid and Ramadan… and Bengali culture”. She divulges the dilemma of being a South Asian woman, “Initially [my parents] had concerns just like any parent would. In fact, if I was dating anyone from my own culture… they would still have a problem because that’s how parents are [but] he did a great job in showing them respect… There is a problem with my parents. [They are like] ‘what do we call him when he comes over? I cannot call him your boyfriend’. I understand the kind of mindset they come from, and I will not change that. I will respect that.  He will be exposed to [my culture] when we get married or engaged”.

 What stood out of both relationships was that it was the eventual acceptance of both sets of parents that allows for these relationships to flourish. Tasnuva sounds grateful when she mentions that “[My parents] have had a love marriage. They basically accepted it on the fact that [Justin] is a good person. My dad is a super liberal person. I really got lucky with that.” Reshma also echoes similar sentiments, “No one really has blinked at [Tony and me] because of our relationship and I feel fortunate to have experienced our relationship that way. There was really no drama… A little bit of resistance on his side but I think both of our sets of parents are really supportive because they see that we love each other, support each other and are good for each other.” She laughs and adds, “[And a] couple of times we get told that we would make beautiful babies!”

So, mom, I know you want the best for me and want me to be happy, but if I happen to fall in love with a man from a different cultural background, all I have to say is, “But we would make beautiful babies!” Atleast you can take comfort in good-looking grandchildren, if nothing else.

Update: I wrote this article back in June 2010. Since then my parents have modified their attitude towards who I date or end up with. In fact, being with a brown guy is not as much as the issue as being with someone who can make their daughter happy.

Photographs of the couples: Copyrights belong to the individual owners.

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In Perfect eHarmony

An edited version was published by SouthAsianParent.Com on 1st December 2010.

“You are not getting any younger,” my mother reminded me for the—I’ve actually lost count—umpteenth time in my life. “Don’t I know,” I wanted to retort. But well-brought up Indian girls don’t shoot questions back at their parents. Apparently, I had only one choice now. Shaadi.com. I couldn’t imagine the horror of explaining to my feminist friends in the future that I had found my husband on an online wedding bureau.

So what did I do? I turned to eHarmony. A dating site that boasts of matching individuals based on 26 personality factors. Twenty-six! I would be lucky if I found someone who matched me on three or four.

It was last summer. I had plenty of free time on my hands. So I signed up. The process took me three hours. I had to answer ten questionnaires that would pin down my 26 personality factors. Then I had to cut down my matches by other factors: religion, ethnicity, education, height, weight, food/lifestyle habits, and so on. All this narrowing of search didn’t leave me with a lot of choices. I was matched with quite a few individuals but they were all situated miles away.

An interesting part about communicating over eHarmony is that you have a guided communication process. And it is just that. A long process. You generally start off with five close-ended questions: “What would you do on a Saturday night?” types. Then you graduate to 10 must-haves and can’t-stands in a partner. I find this part very helpful. It exposes a person’s inner insecurities.

The third part is about answering three open-ended questions: “What is your greatest fear?” types. This part is great for assessing a potential partner’s writing skills. And if ‘bad grammar’ is one of your pet peeves (like it is mine), you will probably end up eliminating communication at this point. The last part of the process is open communication via emails.

Most of my contact with eligible bachelors lasted up to step three. It’s not only bad grammar that did the trick but also the kind of questions that were posed to me. You would think in the 21st century Indian men would have matured beyond clichéd traditional patriarchal views. Apparently samples such as these, who cannot score in real life, somehow end up at eHarmony too.

However, after a month of being on the website, I found someone in Kansas City. He was an IT professional with a keen interest in photography. Before long, we were chatting on gtalk for hours.

Before you start sighing, and imagining a beautiful ending to a possible Bollywood-style love story, let me warn you it lasted only a week. He realised after hours of exchanging our deepest fears and desires, that Toronto was really far away from Kansas City. He was deeply apologetic for wasting my time. And I was deeply apologetic for putting so much faith into a website. Let me also add, he is still single. But so am I, and what does that say?

Luckily, I had a back up plan. I got into graduate school. Miraculously, my family backed off for a while. I got off the Internet and decided to meet people the natural way: by socialising. I haven’t met him yet, but I am not giving up. If nothing works out by the time I am 30, shaadi.com is still out there. Meanwhile, I have to keep reminding myself that even though I am not getting any younger, I am at least getting a little wiser.

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