Thursday, October 23, 2014

Should our Diwali really be cracker-less?


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India is a land of festivals. And yes, i have said this before here and here. In these modern times, new fangled ideas abound everything. Including festivals. Come Ganpati and canvassing for organic Ganpatis starts. Karvachauth arrives and feminists cry out aloud against women having to fast. Come Diwali and there's hue and cry over making it cracker less. For the environment, for the poor kids in Sivakasi and also as a topic to tweet about something! Wishful thinking but there were whispers about a bloodless Eid too.

Fantastic ideas all! But aren't we missing out on something crucial here? Tradition! I am not talking about conventions or orthodoxy. Yes, we need to change traditions to suit our changing lifestyles. But do we have to kill them altogether? Can we not find a midway to meet tradition and practicality?

While we are baying for men's blood because women have to fast for them on Karvachauth and say let's skip the fast and do the rest, aren't we killing the very soul of what the day stands for? I know I have said otherwise elsewhere. But I still mean - keep the tradition alive. Fast or no fast just keep up the spirit bonding and love for each other between a couple.

Organic Ganpatis are great but why did we have to think of it in the first place. Because we believe in overdoing things. Do we have to have a Ganpati in every street corner? Can we not have organic Ganpatis AND have just a few community ones so that we don't have to immerse a few thousand idols every year? The tradition will still stay alive, which to me is more important than every individual showing off his piety with an idol each.

I think what matters the most to me is the cracker less Diwali campaign. No, I am not saying "To hell with the bleeding and burning kids at Sivakasi, go and blow your money on crackers". I am just saying that if you impose a ban on crackers on Diwali, are we not killing a very important part of what the festival is? I don't know what the history behind bursting crackers is and I won't get into it. I just know that my childhood memories of Diwali are incomplete without those smoky, noisy evenings spent bursting crackers with my siblings. I know the fumes are bad, unsafe for animals and no less than torture for the sick and elderly. But till eco-friendly crackers that emit, probably, fragrances rather than noxious fumes are made, we can exercise restraint and just do sufficient enough to keep the tradition alive!

Crackers keep the spirit of Diwali alive! Photo credit

Why I thing this is very important is the rapidly changing times we live in. The world has changed at an unprecedented pace in the last 5 years and is very different now even compared to the last 10 years. The kids born in 2000 are now well into teenage. The world they were born and are growing in is a world apart from our childhood worlds. These kids will never know inlands and postcards. They will never use stamps and post boxes. This generation can't imagine watching TV without the pause and play of Tata Sky plus. They will never know what having just one channel on TV is. And the thrill of waiting all week to watch our favourite programs - He-man or Giant Robot. The fun of bursting crackers for Diwali is something that we should not bereave them of. I know writing letters is obsolete, so that's ok. Television technology has moved and so have gadgets like phones. Let's make peace with it. But burst crackers - even if it a handful of them - for the sake of pure joy and family time that it brings with it. Let the kids of today enjoy what we did in our childhood.

We all are aware of the bad effects and people have drastically cut down on crackers compared to how it used to be! So go ahead and burst a few crackers this Diwali!

Have a Happy and safe Diwali!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

4 things I have learnt about traveling safe as a woman

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I have traveled alone a lot of times in india, mostly on work. Initially, it did feel odd going to new places and managing on my own. But through the years, I have found a few things that help, especially if you are a woman traveling alone. I thought I could put down a quick list that can help others get sorted before a trip. It isn’t rocket science and there is nothing to fear even if it is your first outing by yourself with just a few basics in mind.

Before I begin my list, I want to point out that traveling within the country is a smaller challenge compared to traveling outside it - which is the topic for another post! In India, we can blend into crowds with ease which works to our advantage. Of course, if you are a fair North Indian, you will attract stares in Chennai! But by and large, it isn’t too difficult to gel along with these simple things to do.

1. Do your research. I generally don't do a lot of research about the culture and habits of people for Indian cities. We all have a fair idea about how things work in different parts of the country. You may definitely want to go through websites like tripadvisor.com for hotel reviews before you choose your accommodation. Or check it out in case your client booked it for you. Maps and travel websites help you reach a pretty fair estimation of the location and facilities of the hotel you are going to be in. Also, remember to come back and write a review on tripadvisor because you got to give back to the community as well.

2. Know your map: This is one thing that gives me the most confidence on my travels alone. It is pretty hard for anyone to mislead you or for you to get lost with this marvel of technology called Google maps. If you don’t have a data plan, it’s a good idea to activate it at least for the time you are traveling. I always look up the distance between destinations before I have to negotiate with the rickshaw guys. If you know your whereabouts you are less likely to be cheated by touts.

3. Be confident. Act like a localite. Yes, one look at your suitcase and people know that you are a traveler. And more often than not that acts as a signal to treat you as vulnerable. My suggestion is you walk out of the station/airport with your head held high with an air of confidence about you. Nothing holds people off like a confident woman! (and the converse is also equally true!). Plus your research back home should help you assume an air of authority.
 
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4. Better safe than sorry. If you are a woman traveling alone, it’s not a good idea to pick up a very low cost hotel since it will reflect in the quality of their service and level of security. Here too, make sure that you act like a pro during check in. Keep your door bolted from inside at least when you go to sleep at night, just as a precaution. I usually put up the DND tag outside, when I am in the room to avoid anyone ringing the bell and also when I step out because I do not want anyone to get into my room when I am not around. And most decent hotels will respect your wish to remain undisturbed. (smaller cities have the facility but the staff is not polished enough to understand what it means and housekeeping will get into your room in your absence anyways). When not in your room, make sure you do not leave valuables like gadgets, watch, money etc and leave temptation staring up at the staff. Lock them up in the room safe or just zip them away in your bag.

I think I have covered the most important points that come to my mind. Are there any more that you can think of? Feel free to share your travel experiences in the comments below.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Would you sell your fertility to your employer?

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Finally, huge corporate giants like Apple and Facebook have ushered in a level playing field. After free laundry, unlimited vacations, baby care facilities, the two corporates have come up with an unprecedented perk of freezing the eggs of their women employees. This move should enable them to continue working undeterred by the cruel, ever-ticking biological clock. Both companies have generously offered to pay a whopping $20000 to cover the cost of freezing the eggs and storing them. It’s a day of victory for American women and Indra Nooyi stands vindicated. The dream of motherhood and an excellent career - women can finally have it all!

Or can they?

The move is being touted as an attempt to bring in parity between the workforce which consists of men and women. Women tend to take breaks to have and nurture children setting them back in their career. So, the companies have now decided to free them of this crushing worry. Women employees can now happily concentrate on their careers while their employers will take care of the cost of preserving their fertility.

It’s a great move for the organizations who get the best years of a woman’s life working for them. But are they not encouraging women to delay having children by dangling a sense of false complacency about motherhood in front of them? Are they trying to say that work comes first and parental instincts can wait? Is this a call to compromise on the best phase of a couple’s life nurturing for their child, which translates to better quality of personal life? It’s like saying that since women’s absence while having babies is an inconvenience at work, let’s just take babies out of the equation. Perks to entice talent is great and desirable. But managing the fertility of your employees is taking it a bit too far! To me, it just exposes the sinister desire of companies to win employees’ commitment and cut down on hiring and training costs by giving out a false sense of welfare.

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Let’s look at it from a woman’s perspective. Women have already been meted out a raw deal by Nature and society. They have enough on her plate juggling home and career. The fact that child birth sets them back in their career leads them to postpone it, anyways. But the companies are now offering the delay as an incentive which forces women to hedge on a future possibility which has a very meager chance of success. At least the ticking of the biological clock gets them to consider babies before it is too late. But this perk might ensure that it is too late. Women in their 20‘s, which is the best time to have a child, are hardly thinking about motherhood and fertility issues.

Whether a woman wants to have a baby and when and how she wants to have it are deeply personal issues. Leave alone the company they work for, I don’t think anyone else, except the couple involved, should have the right to decide this critical issue. The employer has no right to tell a woman what she should or should not do about her fertility issues.

Also, are women better off if they postpone motherhood and don’t take breaks? Are they as successful and well paid as men? You wish! There is research to back up the fact that no matter what, women are paid less than men. Even at the cost of postponing motherhood. So who’s losing again? Women! If you want to treat women equally, a good start is to pay her what she deserves. Don’t rob her of it just because of her gender.

Even if a woman chooses to delay pregnancy, how can one be sure that a she will be in a better position to take a break in her career to have kids at 35 than at 25? By that age, wouldn’t she have given up everything she had, including the joys of motherhood, for her career? She is more likely to be in line for promotions she worked hard for all her life. Would she want to give it all up and use the damn frozen eggs because her employers planned it that way for her?

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Okay, given that freezing eggs in lieu of a worry-free, flourishing career is a fair deal. But medically, the process is not a party women would love to go to! It’s a 6-week long, invasive, hormones-induced process which makes the ovaries produce multiple eggs, sometimes upto 15, in one cycle. A woman’s body is injected with high doses of hormones to induce the ovary to produce so many eggs in a single cycle. So it’s like dialing up the pressure of hormones multiple times to achieve the results. The eggs are then removed through an invasive procedure and frozen for future use.

Someone i am close to went through the process for IVF, recently. She told me that the process is so long and painful that she wouldn’t wish it for anyone else go through it. Her advice - the best thing for women to do is conceive naturally by planning babies at a younger age.

After going through the arduous process, can a woman stop worrying and fearlessly go back to work? Scientists unanimously agree that the answer is - no. Frozen egg is not equal to a baby in the future. With the advancing years, the success rate also plummets considerably, sometimes dropping to just 35% in the 40's. Hence, the logic that the facility of freezing eggs can preserve the fertility of women to be used anytime in the future is a myth. Freezing doesn’t guarantee children. What do the employers intend to do if 5 years down the line women are unable to conceive through those eggs? Any answers?

Also, are we bidding adieu to the natural process of conception? Is sex, which is also important for deeper bonding between couples, being sacrificed at the alter of professional success? Freezing is supposed to be the last resort and the norm of having babies. Are our conversation in the future going to be - “Honey, it’s time to have a baby! Let’s defrost!” If nature meant babies to be conceived in a particular way, who are we to question and worse still, defy it?

What about men? Why are women being discriminated against here? Are men not going through fertility issues due to long working hours, stress, lack of physical activity and reduced intimacy? Or is it conveniently been ignored in the scheme of things? What if women have frozen their fertility but men lost it in the game? I guess the male fertility preservation can be the perk offered for next year!

If companies care for their employees, both men and women, they should encourage them to have well-rounded lives which don’t expect them to cut back on family life. If corporates indeed want a level playing field for men and women, enable the woman to balance the responsibility Nature entrusted her with. Don’t manage her fertility for her. Accept her the way she is! Encourage her to have children at a biologically safe age without the fear of losing out in her career. Don’t tweak her biology to ensure steady workforce. If you really want to be a caring employer, assure her that you will treat her equal to men when she comes back having fulfilled her personal duties. Give her the power to decide when she wants to enjoy motherhood and not worry about being penalized for it. Give her the right to love her child freely and indulge in her maternal love, not deprive her of motherhood.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

What's the big deal about Karvachauth?

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Come Karvachauth and men bashing starts. i don’t know how much of it is justified and i wont get into it. i take this opportunity to reminisce about the day through different stages of my life.

My earliest memories of Karvachauth are of my mom. That was the only day she would be all decked up even though she was at home. She would drape one of her best sarees - which weren’t many considering she had 3 kids to raise on one income. She’d put on her jewelry set, lots of bangles and vermillion in her parted hair. She said this is how women got dressed up on this day since it is a sign of being married. This information was our only window to the world of Karvachauth since we had no other reference point in the 80’s in Bangalore. The tradition hadn’t swept the whole country like it has now and was celebrated by only the Punjabi women. She would do the rituals for the day by herself in the evening. And by night, my brother and i would be making frequent trips to the streets around our house to see if chandamama was out. And no, the concept wasn’t Bollywoodised yet and my dad wasn't supposed to feed her the first bite. My mom would just walk out with her pooja ki thali and sieve to finish the ritual. She would first drink water because that was a more immediate need. And the day ended without much hoopla.

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When we shifted to Delhi in the mid 90’s, i got to see the glitsy and glamorous version of the day. With some commercialization, some Bollywood and some Delhi’s high-class culture, Karvachauth was a whole new concept here. Mehendi on both hands was a must and the mehendiwali made a killing at the exorbitant rates. Women turned out in their most expensive finery for the communal pooja where women from the whole building gathered to do it instead of doing it alone in their homes. My mom had stopped fasting by then due to health issues. So, we would just watch all this from our home and feel glad that we didn’t have to be a part of this pageant!

i looked forward to the time i could play the Bollywood-style wife, draped in traditional best and do the look-at-your-husband-through-the-sieve-ritual! But the ultra rational person that my darling husband is, he said i could do all the decking up i wanted to make myself happy. But the wife being hungry for the resulting long life of the husband was pure ‘buhawkee’ to him! In hindsight, i am also relieved at some level. Films like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham have totally made the whole thing so filmy and melodramatic! i'm sure i'd imagine one of the scenes from films i was doing my own pooja and it just wouldn't seem real at all!


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Sometime around the same time, i became aware of the feminists’ angle to the story. Why should women fast? Why should only women fast? Aren’t we equal in a relationship? Poor men! They also offered to fast. Yet, the bashing of men begins every single here. Even if women fast voluntarily.

Here’s what i think about it. We all have just become too hyperactive thanks to multiple avenues we have of venting out our sense of rectitude. To me, Karvachauth is a beautiful festival. In today’s times, when women hardly have the time or the inclination to dress up traditionally, i think it is great opportunity to do it even if it is just to keep up with the spirit of the day. How else will we keep the traditional in us alive? Also, add one more day to birthdays and anniversaries when married people can take time out to strengthen their bond with each other. If fasting is the bone of contention, lets do away with it. i know it’s like hacking at the most important part of the festival but don’t we change so many other things to suit our convenience? Fasting can be optional since women have equally demanding careers. But with equality being the flavour of the times, there can be a different dimension to the festival. Earlier, women did everything like a dutiful wife. Now, men can help cook, take care of the kids and generally take time out for the wifey! Why create controversy over something that can be turned around to for the better! Don’t you agree?