Monday, March 28, 2011

Not in our backyards

What angers me is the fact that Madhya Pradesh has been considering a nuclear plant in Chutka for over two decades but not with the blessings of the gram panchayat. The Bhopal gas tragedy dampened official ardour somewhat, but only for a while. In 2009, villagers found out through newspapers that a nuclear facility was headed for their backyards.

They sent letters again and again to district and state administrations, asking: Would they be displaced again? How will nuclear waste be disposed? Will the water still be fit for drinking? What will happen to the fish in the river?

It is 2011 now and the state still hasn’t bothered to reassure the people. Read more

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hearing, seeing, believing

Multiplexes have changed my generation forever and I’m not talking about hundred-rupee popcorn. I’m talking about what we see and hear. Ten years ago, I’d go to theatres with a dozen questions: Would I get tickets? Would I have a nasty fellow sitting next to me?

Would he hog the shared arm-rest? Would a bunch of brats make random remarks? Would I have to shout: ‘Shut up yaar!’? Would a large family ‘request’ me to exchange seats?

Nowadays, we take our seats for granted, stand up for the national anthem and go home without talking to strangers. Unless of course, it’s a special screening.

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What happened was that she learnt to walk

I was asked to do piece on urban women's lives in modern India, and how that has changed over a generation, for the Italian version of Marie Claire. The piece appeared in Italian, of course, so I cannot link to the actual beautifully laid-out pages, but here is an English version:

Fifteen years ago, I lived in a tiny place. The only real event there was a fete where we kids took camel rides and ate chocolate cake. My mother had moved from a capital city to the middle of nowhere to work for a school. This immediately made me unique – none of my classmates’ mothers had jobs, nor did they move anywhere independent of their fathers.

I was one of the only single-parented children I knew. Ma was the only woman who wore sleeveless blouses, chiffon sarees and stilettos. She was the only one who had no time to cook. She was also the only one who insisted that each student learn to paint, dance, sew and cook, boys included.

Ma, however, did not make a conscious choice to be a career woman. She had wanted to devote herself to a family. But life doesn’t pan out like a Bollywood film, even if you wear chiffon sarees and stilettos. For women of her generation, a broken marriage meant that life met you like a fist full on the face. Some women lapsed into poverty or dependence. Some, like Ma, caught that fist in both hands and learnt to walk.

Yet I grew up not thinking much about careers. There was a lot of marriage talk amongst girls my age and we took it for granted that it was a boy’s job to provide. I assumed marriage would not be difficult since I had many of the right qualities – neither fat nor thin, fair skin, English-speaking, soft-spoken, ‘convented’, not overly ambitious. It should have made it easy to take a step back from Ma, to live instead like my grandmother. But I had not contended with my own upbringing. Something more powerful than ambition had been embedded in my soul – knowledge that a woman could make her own money, and the love of freedom.

Independence – of thought, action, bank account – is a drug like no other. Even as a teenager, I was independent. I did not know how to ask anyone for money, nor did I like the idea of sticking with a man only because he took care of my bills. So I finally began to think of a career.

Grandma used to say there were only three and a half respectable professions for girls: 1. doctor, because there is no greater thing than to save lives (and there are nurses take care of the truly messy aspects of the job); 2. teacher, because you seem noble even if you are poor; 3. IAS officer, which means you have power and red tape at your disposal along with a big white car with a flashing red light on top.

And there was half an option called engineering. Now it was a great thing to be an engineer – you built bridges and dams, even invented things but grandma knew it was avoidable for a girl to wander in the sun, getting brown, dealing with shady contractors or recalcitrant labourers. But if you were an engineer who just sits in an office and makes plans, it was alright in her book.

Soon, however, it became clear that I was not going to be a doctor, engineer or IAS officer. Nobody suggested that I become an activist or researcher, or work in film or, worse, theatre – that was just madness. Since the only thing I did well was writing, I stooped to a slightly less respectable profession – journalism.
Even after I had my own income, I had minor conflicts at home about the usual things – traveling alone, being out late, boys, living in another city, living alone. But a decade later, everything has changed. Girl cousins and their friends are marketing executives, sound engineers, filmmakers, and radio jockeys. Many of them work in call centres and return home late at night. Some live alone. Every scrap of freedom that I had to fight for has come to these girls on a platter.

This can partly be traced to the mobile phone revolution. Once we were traceable at all times, our families began to relax. We would call home if there was trouble. They could hear our voice and be reassured. Part of the family's anxiety is also soothed by the fact that India has a tradition of earmarking spaces for working women where men are barred, such as women’s only compartment in metro trains and seats on buses. There are women-only travel groups and in some places, separate queues at ticket booking counters.

Some resistance remains, of course, both on social and education fronts. For instance, a cousin was interested in mechanics and wanted to specialize in marine engineering, but she was persuaded by her family to opt for computer engineering instead. They didn’t want her to end up as the only woman on a ship’s crew.
Still, every year, the envelope gets pushed further. When I was little, I didn’t know it was possible to join the army. By the time I graduated, my friends were taking up short service commissions. Now there is talk of allowing women in combat roles. It isn’t just the armed forces or the police that are a viable career option. All it takes is a long walk in any metropolis and you can see working women and feel the shards of shattered glass ceilings. There are female petrol pump attendants, female security guards at shopping malls. In Delhi, I once met a female auto driver who said she picked a legal battle to be allowed into the all-male auto and taxi union. Newspapers are introducing us to women racing car drivers, hiking experts, wrestlers!

But the fact that women have found new careers in the new millennium is not the real good news. The visibility of women at work is. Women with serious economic muscle are still rare. But if they achieve something, they make headlines – being on a list of 100 most influential Indians, being the first woman stockbroker, climbing Mount Everest, creating a bank exclusively for unskilled women, making a fortune out of papads. Such women are a lode star. The rest of us look at them and know that dreaming is not a waste of time.

I still remember the sharp knock of joy I felt as a schoolgirl after athlete PT Usha almost brought home an Olympic medal. It was a heady feeling to know that a woman was not just running to make a career but for the sake of her passion, and for the pride of the whole nation. Now girls like Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal who are regularly in the news for winning tournaments and the fact that they have lucrative careers is not lost upon anyone. At this year’s commonwealth games, women won models in wrestling, athletics, archery, shooting, boxing. Slowly, they are pushing open the heavy doors of our patriarchal hearts. Now it no longer matters so much that sportswomen wear tiny shorts, as long as they bring home great honour.

Successful women change all of us, especially young girls who are struggling to stay in school. For instance, I read recently that a group of teenaged Muslim girls from low income families in Mumbai has taken up semi-professional basketball. For them, sport is a way out of poverty and premature marriage.

Equality is still a distant dream, of course. Even if we do the same work, women don’t always get the same wages. And while it is true that women-only spaces set us free and make us feel safe, most of us think twice before stepping out late at night. Mumbai is considered a safe city for women – thanks to a decent public transport system and crowds that make your head spin at all hours – but most of us constantly worry about being molested on a deserted stretch. In Delhi, still called the ‘rape capital’, women worry unless they drive their own cars or can get someone to drop them home. Things are changing with the introduction of the metro and radio taxis – knowing the identity of the driver beforehand is a relief, and now there are women-only chauffeur services. But we still agonize about safety, about what clothes attract too much attention.

In that respect, one of the most visible changes has been in the way we dress. Most working women have switched to jeans or salwar-kameez, which was once restricted to parts of northern India. Those who claim ‘Indian culture’ is under threat have physically attacked young girls for wearing jeans or skirts (never mind that Indian men have switched to ‘western’ trousers) or for going to pubs. The good news, however, is that many urban working women are starting to go to pubs if they wish to. Attacks are met with howls of protest – quite innovative ones too, such as posting pink panties to the cultural police.

To tell the truth, we would be glad to wear sarees more often if they were easier to handle during commutes. In fact, we look forward to festivals and weddings so we can wear traditional clothes. But perhaps western clothes do mean something more than comfort to the less privileged Indian woman. I used to have a neighbor who said she felt like being clad in nothing but jeans all the way up to her neck! And she would have, if her life was not ruled by a disapproving husband.

An independent income is the first step towards choosing how we dress or live. But it isn’t the last. Single women still find it difficult to rent houses, particularly those who don’t work nine-to-five jobs. Landlords often have strict rules. There are restrictions on male visitors and the ‘cousin-brother’ who comes to visit is an oft-told joke in Delhi. Few women can afford to move out of their homes until their mid-twenties and as long as they stay with the family, there are restrictions on their love life. Even liberal parents usually expect a definite marriage plan, assuming they accept boyfriends in the first place.

On the other hand, I also know many women in their late twenties or thirties who are not married and are refusing to ‘settle’. They focus on their own work and their own pleasure. Besides, once we become independent, we force others to reassess what they can expect from us. This is reflected in the matrimonials (yes, we still have arranged marriages, though now girls often voluntarily join matrimonial websites).

Increasingly, middle and upper class men prefer a career woman as a bride, a qualified professional. Skills like cooking or sewing are not considered essential. This doesn’t translate into gender parity, of course. It is still women who do most of the housework, but most middle class women in India can afford to hire other poorer women to do the harder work. Domestic workers play a big role in setting better educated women free to pursue other professions.

Parents too are changing their attitudes since daughters are taking better care of them. In certain communities, parents would not even eat a meal inside a girls' marital home, and they would never accept money from a daughter. Women of my generation are rejecting this old notion of ‘giving away a daughter’; they don’t stop being daughters when they become wives. Nowadays we even have television advertisements where the daughter is shown driving a family far, or gifting cars to her old parents.

Recently, I had a conversation with an older man who was complaining that modern girls (like me) are not ‘soft’; we are too much like men. I remember thinking at that time that what he really means is that he can no longer talk to us like we’re clueless. He can no longer boast of how hard he fought the outside world, how bravely, while we ‘soft’ women hurry to undo the harsh effects of his big battles.

Sadly for him, I knew all about the big, bad world. And I like a bit of a good fight myself. I too feel the thrill of a new deal or a bonus. I put bread on my own table. I deliver lectures. I report the news and sometimes, I am in the news. Who knows, some day, I might even go wrestling in the mud. Because even though I like my heels to be soft, I like new experiences even more. If I have to choose, I know what I'll pick.

Above all, I like to be my own person, even if it means being tougher, harder, less attractive.

And so I am grateful for a mother who has showed me how to survive as a woman, alone. And it isn't just me who is grateful. Fifteen years later, her ex-students, both girls and boys, call Ma up to tell her that she changed their lives in some way. Perhaps, she did it just by being who she was – a working mom, a beautiful woman, a good teacher who helped them take baby steps towards equality and modernisation.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

In other news

I've just started writing a column for DNA. The first piece is about a tree.

There’s a gulmohur tree outside my window, along with a bunch of other flowering plants, most of which I have managed to kill. Each time my mother leaves town, she tells me I must remember to water the plants. Each time, a few plants die. But the gulmohar survived both my negligence and a parasitical attack.

It wasn’t easy keeping that tree alive. My mother fought hard to save its life.

Read the rest here

Friday, March 04, 2011

Our stuff

A piece I did for Femina a few months ago, on women's inheritance rights in India. Read on.

A room, a field, a place of her own.

One little cottage in Ooty – that’s what triggered a sibling tiff in 1965 and over the course of a quarter century, changed the law of the land. The legal battle began in 1984 when Mary Roy (writer Arundhati Roy’s mother) went to court demanding a fair share of the family property, and wasn’t fully resolved until recently when a civil court in Kottayam ordered the implementation of a Kerela High Court order in her favour.

Brief background to the Mary Roy case:

Mary Roy had been living in the cottage with two small children after her marriage fell apart when her brother asked her to vacate the place so he could sell it. She refused and went to court. But the law was stacked against her at the time. Under the provisions of the 1916 Travancore-Kochi Christian Succession Act, in Kerela, a daughter could inherit only one fourth of the share of the sons in her father’s property. In fact, the law stated that ‘a daughter shall receive one-fourths the share of a son or Rs 5,000 whichever is less’.

Mary Roy went to the Supreme Court and in 1986, the apex court ruled that Christian women are entitled to an equal share. Mary then approached the Kerala High Court and secured a judgment in her favour but her brothers raised several objections that delayed the implementation of the court order. All the objections were finally over-ruled in October 2010 when a Sub-court in Kottayam ordered the execution of the verdict.

The Mary Roy dispute has been settled finally but this was just one case – an exceptional case where an angry sister and single mother chose to fight all the way to the Supreme Court and back for her constitutional rights. “By the time I actually started my legal battle I was an independent wage earner. The family and society did not matter,” Mary says. Even so, her community in Kerela, including the Church and the tea and coffee estate owners, have been reluctant to act on the judgment. “Society reacted with joy at first. When they realized that there was a retrospective angle to the Judgement, there was consternation. The Syrian Christian Church encouraged the fathers to write wills which in effect disinherited daughters.”

She adds that subtle changes have been taking place in society. “Educated women with jobs generally don’t get kicked around.”

However, women must still run to court to be acknowledged as equals by their families, colleagues and even the government.

Take the recent court case where a government employee lost her job because she got married! The state has provisions for offering jobs ‘on compassionate grounds’ to the sons or unmarried daughters of government employees who die or retire prematurely. Medha Parkhe from Pune had applied for such a job since her father was a cancer patient and had to retire prematurely and she was placed on the waiting list in 1999. She finally got a clerical position in 2003 but two years later, the Maharashtra government threw her out, saying she was not eligible since she had gotten married in the interim.

The case went to the industrial court, which ruled in her favour, but then the state appealed higher. Finally, the Bombay High Court also ruled in her favour. The judge put it best when she ruled that: ‘It is impossible to accept in this day and age that once a woman gets married she will cut off her ties with the family she is born in and will leave it to suffer the vagaries of life in penury.’

It is indeed ridiculous to assume that sons shoulder all financial responsibility in a family. If a married adult man is entitled to a job so he can care for his parents or get on with his own life, there is no reason a married woman should not have the same right. Besides, studies have shown that daughters often spend more time caring for elderly or sick parents than sons. And time is money too.

Unfortunately, despite a constitutional guarantee of equality, it has taken a series of legal battles before Indian laws became a little more equal for women.

The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 came about after decades of discrimination. According to the Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative, matters began to hot up in the Delhi High Court after a slew of cases wherein the wife was claiming a share in family property. The law commission then set up an inquiry to ensure that daughters are not denied a share in the coparcenary (joint inheritance) property. It consulted judges, lawyers, scholars, NGOs etc. Amongst other recommendations, there was one that suggested that a person’s unrestricted right to will away his/her property should be abolished. Paroma Ray, a research officer at Lawyers Collective, explains, “Usually, sisters are not willing to file cases against their brothers. If they do, they often end up settling out of court.”

However, not all recommendations of the commission were accepted by Parliament. But at any rate, daughters were given equal rights over family land. Bina Agarwal, author of ‘A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia’ was one of those who helped draft the recommendations for the amendment. She says that her work on inheritance of land is rooted in the three decades that she has spent researching livelihood and inequality. Gender was just one part of her work but once she began to study technological change in agriculture, she found that women farmers’ access technology and other inputs was constrained because they didn’t have land titles. Ultimately, her research began to focus on land inheritance and included five nations in the region.

“I mapped patterns,” Bina says. “In Sri Lanka, I found that irrespective of religion, women had strong land rights. In northwest India, there was very little access, but this was closely linked to marriage. In communities where women marry closer home, or within the extended family, their rights to land are greater.”

There is the age-old argument, of course, of dowry. The fact that women take away a huge chunk of family wealth when they get married is used as an excuse to disinherit them. That argument, however, is quite insidious because firstly, dowry itself is illegal. Secondly, dowry wealth is often in the form of consumer items – cars, motorbikes, clothes, electronics – meant to appease the groom and his family, not to secure the daughters’ economic future. Bina, who is currently Director of Institute of Economic Growth, says that immovable property like land or houses cannot be compared to dowry since a daughter is always more vulnerable without fixed assets of her own.

She has recently undertaken a study, along with a colleague in Kerela, that found a link between domestic violence and property ownership. “We found that if a woman owned a house or land, the risk of her facing domestic violence went down. If she owned nothing, the risk went up to 49 percent,” says Bina. She adds that it is a pity that so much work has been done on issues like domestic violence, but so little research or advocacy of women’s property rights in India.

It is a pity indeed. In the last century, Virginia Woolf had famously said that a woman must have a room of her own in order to become a writer. We could safely paraphrase her and say that a woman must have a room, or a bit of land, to call her own in order to be a full citizen.


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