Tag Archives: taboo

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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Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Arabian Night(mare)s

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 27th June 2011.

Once upon a time, in a book rife with lies, Princess Scheherazade spent one thousand and one nights in bed with Prince Shahriyar… talking.

Poor child. Not a single glass of cool sherbet was offered to soothe that lovely throat that may have gone hoarse as she spoke to save her life.

Princess Scheherazade. Of noble birth and noble poise. She gladly gave herself up to satisfy the prince’s twisted sense of humour where he took virgin brides to bed one night, and had them beheaded the next. His reason was fuelled by a fear of infidelity on their part. Notice how he sacrificed virgin brides after he had deflowered them. Ironic. No one ever questioned the prince’s virginity. Or, sanity, for that matter (I wonder if he was afraid that he wouldn’t get his seventy-two virgins after death, and was trying to make up an equivalent in human numbers).

But Scheherazade? Did her heart pulsate wildly as she made a careful note to appeal to the prince’s mental libido, while keeping his physical libido at bay? Did the imagined swish of a sword at the guillotine haunt her dreams, as she struggled to maintain the veneer of an artful storyteller, with apt tincture pauses at the exact moments in order to create an illusion of drama and mystery? Or, did she just inwardly maintain a running record of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” as a talisman against fear?

Was it perhaps a girlish infatuation that led her to his bedroom of doom? Did she secretly hold a special place for the prince, to willingly walk into a death trap? Or, were her motives more selfish and lay in her desire to be immortalised in history? Perhaps, she lost herself in the somnolence of a utopic fantasy where her tormentor would fall hopelessly in love with her storytelling skills (and… other things).

I wonder if even once in those one thousand and one nights, she regretted her decision. Did she ever daydream of taking the prince by his beard and shaking his face, out of frustration and rage?  Or, was she one of a perverse mentality whose kink lay in a masochistic self-torture where she fed off from the dread evident in the flutter of her heart? Did she ever in those long, long nights mistake that flutter for… love?

Love, indeed. The bane of life. Look at Sita. She insisted that Ram come save her from Raavan, and what did she get? Two counts of fire acrobatics to prove her chastity.

Look at Europa. Ovid’s Metamorphoses etched her “rape” by Jupiter for centuries to come. But if Jupiter’s fulfillment lay in plain ravishing, then why make Europa his queen? Why choose her to rule Crete, with a special place right next to him? What if “love” was all they really had?

Tabitha Vevers' "When We Talk About Rape" (1992), based on the myth of Europa's rape by Jupiter

But Scheherazade and love? Was she in love with a murderer who had a trail of massacred damsels on his hands?

Myths and historical myths are often interpreted (and misinterpreted) at will. I could give you a lecture on the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi controversy manipulated by political parties that led to unnecessary bloody communal riots. But let’s stick to simple things.

Think. For once.

If just like Ovid’s possible misinterpretation of a possible love story, there had been no pointy sword hanging over Scheherazade’s neck? Maybe, her stories were just sweet nothings between two lovers after a very “sexy time” in bed (a commonplace substitute for the modern-day post-coital cigarette, perhaps?). Then, the massacres could have been a lie. A cover-up made up over time to spice up the origin of the one thousand and one stories. Spice sells. And, love stories are trite and common, anyway.

But let’s ask an expert on relationships. Freud, darling? What do you think?

He takes a long drag of his pipe, strokes his beard, and says, “Love, shove, nothing! What really happened was: once upon a time, a woman fell in love with an infantile man, and told him bed time stories to fulfill an unfulfilled Oedipal complex. By being able to do so, his love for her was unshakeable. And, tell me this, how could he let go of that mother figure, once he had her?”

Maybe, the guy has a point.

So Scheherazade, forgive me. But your tales are all you have. The rest will be reworked again and again in an infinite loop, till we have exhausted
the possibilities of your life. Truth comes in many versions, and maybe some day, we will hit upon the right one.

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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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Marriage Aaj Kal*: An Ultra-Feminist Take on Arranged Marriages

From the Kamasutra

*Today and Yesterday 

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 3rd March 2011.

Chanakya of the Mauryan dynasty, and a prime minister of his time, is said to have remarked, “A good wife is one who serves her husband in the morning like a mother, loves him in the day like a sister and pleases him like a prostitute in the night.” It’s impossible to confirm whether he actually said this, but it isn’t too difficult to imagine based on the time period he hailed from. What I find strange is that after all these centuries Indian men still harbor a similar attitude. This attitude can be traced to the Kamasutra as well that he allegedly wrote (many historians assert that Vatsyayana, author of the book, and Chanakya are the one and the same). As mistakenly understood by many, the book is not just about the art of making love, but also about the male art of making love to women without committing sin. According to the ancient text, it is perfectly ok to sleep with another woman if there is an ulterior motive involved. For example, in an English translation by Deepak Chopra, a rule states that: “I love another woman, who is this woman’s best friend. If I sleep with this woman, I can get to the one I really want.” Another example, “By winning this woman over, I can kill her husband, whose riches I covet”. Note that these rules apply only to men, and deem it tolerable to objectify women in order to satisfy personal again.

But I don’t want to refer to ancient texts (or their translations) to give you the picture of unrealistic expectations of Indian men. Gayatri Gopinath, a queer theorist of diaspora, in her article “Nostalgia, Desire, Diaspora: South Asian Sexualities in Motion”, points out that patriarchal attitudes of men towards women not only exist in the homeland (India), but also in the diaspora. The female gender is viewed as “the symbolic center … [for] … “home” and “family””, and heteronormative female sexuality can only exist “within the familial and domestic space”. Thus, it is acceptable to be sexual if you are married and only with your husband, while homosexuality is either criminalized or ignored. Gopinath cites a real-life example, where the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) was denied the right to march in the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) sponsored annual India Day Parade, in New York City, both in 1995 and 1996. Consequently, the FIA is run by a group of Indian immigrant businessmen.

All this only leads up to the question of ‘why’. Why would these men be so hind sighted to ignore that women nowadays are free, independent agencies, who are not confined to traditional gender roles whether in India, or outside of India? The only answer, in my opinion, is their false sense of entitlement. They appear to believe that they have this ancient right to have these equally ancient expectations. As the SALGA example would suggest, men outside the “homeland,” have been unable to evolve beyond their view of traditional gender roles, as applied to women back in the homeland. Maybe, it can also be attributed to parental and societal pressure that plants the seeds of such inane ideas into their heads at tender ages, so that they grow up having expectations that only become more traditional with time. For example, this summer, when I was in Calcutta, a neighbor subjected me to a volley of questions. She is currently on the prowl for a bride for her younger son (who never wants to leave India). Some of her questions were:

Do you know how to cook?
Don’t you want to settle in India?
Do you know how to wear a sari?

All her questions were addressed with a smile. It was as if she hoped I wouldn’t see through her façade of “innocent” questioning. Instead of being mortified, I was faintly amused. Really? Do I represent the ideal future daughter-in-law for your “modern” son, who also expects to have a very traditional wife at home (ironically, chosen by his mother. Really, you can’t get more traditional than this!)? I had some questions for her too: Does he know how to cook? Doesn’t he want to settle abroad? And, why on earth does he talk with that put on accent? It sounds neither British, nor American. Just an Indian trying very hard to sound “foreign”!

Source: Meera Sapra's blog at http://lifesacomicstrip.blogspot.com/

However, don’t castigate me yet. I don’t have a problem with arranged marriage. On the whole, I find the concept very gratifying. It’s really very similar to set up dating. You say ‘yes’, only if you feel you are compatible. Yet, with the unrealistic expectations of Indian males (and in this case, their mothers) all around, it’s difficult for us women to find someone to “live” with.

To assuage the attitude of men here in Canada, I had a discussion with some of my male friends on the topic of marriage and what kind of qualities do they want in their future wives.

“She must know how to cook!”
“She should keep the house nice and tidy.”
“She should be a virgin!”

I was faintly aghast at such pronouncements. These were Indo-Canadian men living here in Toronto for the past ten-twelve years. Were they actually hoping to find the “wife” described by Chanakya? The irony was that not all of them were virgins, and none of them had any experience with cooking or cleaning.

In the case of my parents, I believe they got lucky when they found each other. Their’s was a love marriage. And, even though, my father is not exactly the most liberal man alive, he definitely didn’t hope for the ideal Chanakyan wife. And, since my mom works hard at home, and at the office (she is my dad’s business partner and they work together), I can only imagine her staring scornfully at Chanakya, if he had made the mistake of making that comment in her presence.

In my case, I too have the image of an ideal man in my head. He may not be THE ideal man, but ideal enough for me. He would be someone: who looks decent (this might appear a little vain on my part, but if I had to choose between the frog and the prince, the frog would probably end up dead face down in a pond somewhere); can clean, if not cook; and has a tolerant nature, since I tend to get impatient and lazy at times. He need not be a virgin. Most people I know of my age, are not. He need not be super intelligent. However, I wouldn’t tolerate a super idiot. And definitely, he must not have too many unrealistic expectations of my abilities. I cannot speak for other women, but my girlfriends also harbor similar “attainable” attributes within their future spouses. Yes, I do believe that we are the more rational gender, but that’s my personal bias.

So, I ask you, where do we women expect to find our men? And, where and when exactly do these men of today expect to find their women? With distorted realities clashing into each other, the answers may be “in our imaginations” and “never”.

I think I have come to terms with that reality. The question is: have you?

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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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Pride Parade 2010 (part 2 of 2): South Asians Are NOT Gay

An edited version was published on 9th July on the SouthAsianParent.Com website.

This year’s attendance on my part at the Pride Parade was a revelation in more ways than one. Don’t get me wrong. I have many friends who are allies and whom I support wholeheartedly. But despite being in Canada for six years, somehow, I always ended up being out of town during the Pride Week. This year, though, I made it a point to keep this particular weekend free specifically for the parade.

The parade itself had few South Asians marching with different organizations. For example, there was a South Asian female cop marching with other cops, and a South Asian volunteer from Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention (ASAAP) who was marching on behalf of the “Free Speech” group. And, even though there were groups representing different ethnic communities, I failed to see even one group marching on behalf of South Asians. This was something I had noticed at the Dyke march a day ago as well, where women from different ethnicities were marching proudly on the behalf of the queer women of their communities, be it Hispanic or Asian, among others. Except South Asians. I wonder whether this exclusion of South Asians of themselves from their community is deliberate or accidental, and whether it is exclusive to Toronto.

This evening I had a conversation with my dad. He stands by his “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He knows what I do. Who I hang out with. And, what I believe in. Occasionally I try to make him see that being queer is ok. It’s NOT a deviation of the mind, or non-existent, as many South Asians would like to believe. In fact, wasn’t homosexuality an accepted practice in ancient India, before the British took over and slammed the Sodomy law onto us? If we didn’t make homosexuality abnormal, it would not be such a taboo. Can we atleast promise to learn and educate ourselves?

These are arguments I use. Sometimes, I win. But I think till we change our attitudes, the South Asian representation will always be little to non-existent, as those who need the courage the most, will keep away in fear of being kept out.

Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur

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