Culture of decadence

It was in the book "Reading Lolita in Tehran" that I came across the word "decadence" one too many times. This is something that's been working in my mind for quite some time and I'm writing in order to crystallize it for myself.

I'm one of those 90s kids when Middle class meant living in an outhouse in a good neighborhood. I'm of the Tam-brahm breed and my natural habitat was West Mambalam in Chennai. For those of you who can't make sense of these lingo and places, Tam-brahm is Tamil Brahmin, one of the very popular class of people in memes and trolls in India, the south especially. So Brahmins had this practice of living in an exclusive ghetto(socially it is the contrary) called 'agraharam'. It is still a very popular idea that Real estate magnates are actually launching such projects for Retirement living in a country where the right against discrimination is enshrined in the constitution. Coming back, Mylapore and West Mambalam are the neighborhoods of Chennai which more or less stay true to the agraharam concept. Coming back once again, living in the 90s also meant frugality, seriousness, striving to progress and a very modest expectation of it. It was an age where there was little money but immense sense of value. The dollar-rupee exchange rate was somewhere between 20 and 30. Back then, Uncle chips was the only form of packeted snack sold commercially. Most people would snack on the rice noodles(thenkuzhal) or the karasev made at home or bought at the local grocers. Family outing meant going to the park and having Kwality Walls Chocobar or cotton candy. The Masala Papads at the Home Life exhibitions were a popular hit too. At ten rupees, you would get a papad 4 times the size of your hands, beads of oil glistening on the surface with a sprinkling of masala. That would be the day's dinner and you would ride home happily in a bus, loving the gentle wind on your face and watching the city prepare for its brief slumber. Respect and regard counted a lot. Frivolity was unknown. Children played innocent games with stones and sticks and marble. Life was delightfully slow paced. A respectable career meant working with the Government or the Banks.

My first acquaintance with words such as "cool", "sucker", "fuck" and local lingos such as "mokka" and "kalai" was sometime in early 2000. It was the same time when we got the inimitable Nokia 1100 and the SMS culture took birth. SMS language and the many many Good Morning and Good Night messages were as much a wonder to people as the electric bulb would have been to Match-stick men. It was also the same time when people started to indulge in frivolity and make a mockery of anything and everything with scant regard to sensibilities or sensitivities. It was when "intellectual" was ostracised and deemed unfit for communion. Slapstick comedy always in derogation of a person or a people took the place of wit and humor. This culture of "kalai" is the real malaise. It's like the lantana of the forests which thrives while wiping out all other flora. The same way, "kalai" has made it impossible for any talk or discussion or conversation to take flight at all. It's cut as soon as it sprouts. Another clarification in order here. For the non-Tamil readers, "mokka" is synonymous with dry and boring and, "kalai" can be said to mean mockery. Yes, it's actually so common and flagrant to be an every-encounter affair. In tune with this social transformation, the public culture and art space has also changed to cater to mediocrity and shun excellence as not saleable. The Music scene particularly is very painful. (Disclaimer : The author restricts herself to Tamil cinema here). Songs are such that the not-trained hit the charts and the prolific and proficient have no presence. Unpolished dialogues become the lyrics and yelling at the top of your voice becomes the melody. Maybe this trend can be observed in other cultural domains too, I'm yet to verify. Good literature is becoming rare, that is a reflection of our decadent lives too, maybe there's not so much good material to talk about. Maxim Gorky could pen such terrific sentences when the world was raging in Communism and struggles of the proletariat was real, imminent and relatable. Today when Facebook becomes the popular voice and its populace comes from key tapping service professionals, there's no real struggle to talk about but for memes and caricatures such as the one here. There's some revival on the Movie front. Amitav Ghosh in his book "The Great Derangement" draws a stunning analogy between the changing world and the changing landscape of Art and Literature. More about that in another post.

The point being that mediocrity is fed from all directions. My dad once told me I was missing out many good articles by not being on WhatsApp. I asked him what they were and he talks about what he had read that day- The ill-effects of social media. How ridiculous is that? Absurdity is reaching unfathomable levels. Probably this is how the human race will die- of the mind first!

My home Chennai

After writing about Bombay, I feel compelled to write about my home city Chennai. Home is to do with the heart. You can’t objectively analyse and critically look back on your home. But still, I’m attempting this exercise in honor of what Chennai is and will continue to be for millions of simpletons like me.

While Bombay overpowers you with life, Chennai is a laid back city that just lets you be without having to establish your existence. Chennai is idyllic, reflective and tranquil. There is this incredible sense of liberation. It’s a place where you aren’t judged on your material wealth or display. Here, greatness is in the mind and not in the money you throw around. The rains are characteristic of Bombay, historic structures characterize Delhi. The ocean characterizes Chennai. It’s like the waters of the ocean which is witness to many a tremor but looks calm on the surface. Calm waters run deep, it can’t be truer. Chennai is an unassuming city with no big claim to anything. Our minds are so elevated that we can do without all the useless accessories and ornaments. There is a place for everyone. It’s an incredible macrocosm of so many microcosms, one not competing with the other and sometimes even blissfully unaware of the other.

The pride of Chennai is the preservation of culture. Culture not just in the form of dance and music but the culture of a people and their living. The neighborhoods largely retain the inhabitants from a century. Chennai symbolizes the popular philosophy of Live and Let Live. An orthodox Brahmin women in the typically style of draping a nine yards can easily co-mingle with college students in jeans and tees. Of course, Chennai is not Bombay or Delhi where you can see a good number of girls in skimpy clothes. In spite of being a place which doesn’t know of winters, women are almost fully clad. Classical music is still very popular and the December Music season makes or breaks career in the Arts. People go in such huge numbers that it creates an entire ecosystem of itself complete with itineraries, guide books and travel packages.

Chennai is a metropolitan city, in fact it’s the first city colonised by the British. But it carries the new and modern along with the old and time-tested with not so much of a conflict. We have the Metro but people prefer the Pallavan buses that are the source of quaint charm.

Chennai doesn’t rush to make money but has this enviable gait of leisure and contemplation. That’s what I love, that’s what everybody loves when they walk the sleepy avenues of Adyar or Ashok Nagar on a hot sunny afternoon. Every afternoon is hot and sunny for that matter. It’s truly Home, anyone can feel at Home simply because it is plain essential. It is like the simple dal chawal mom makes at home, unassuming yet most inviting and natural to one’s self. It lacks the flamboyance and precisely for that reason it welcomes you to curl up and snuggle in all your ugly but human elements.

 

Post-partum Depression: My experience

Post-partum depression – I had never heard of it until I came across the term in the book What To Expect. I read the accounts of some women in online fora. It sounded very alien because being an optimist, I had never really known what depression felt like. And bang comes this when my boy was born. My first disappointment was that he had no semblance of me. Next, there were lactation issues. My milk wasn’t coming in and I can’t explain why but I was against giving formula. So I held out against the nursing staff. The doctor told me it was going to get better in a couple of days but my son lost 770 grams in one week which was a lot. He would cry  round the clock. Everyone around me said that I was not feeding him well and he was wailing in hunger. But I refused to buy the argument while deep down .I knew there was some truth in it. When I could no longer ignore the symptoms I started him on formula, very very reluctantly. No one understood what I went through in that first week.

I was the mother, I had borne him amidst many trying circumstances, I had chosen to keep him, I had invested so much love and care already but here he was refusing to suckle, letting me down in front of everyone. That’s what I felt. I felt let down. I felt it was unfair that while I was a mother who would do anything for the child’s welfare like every mother, I was incapacitated from performing the prime duty of my existence. I hoped I would be blessed soon, that I just had to persevere and not give up. 

In two weeks time, my supply kicked in and things got visibly better. But he was still only 2 weeks old and getting shut at home constantly feeding or cleaning up potty was nerve-wracking. Until the last day of delivery, I would be out with my husband till 12 or 1 in the night. But here I was locked in a room feeling miserable and horrid all day. None of my clothes fit me, so .I make did with my husband’s shirts and some skirts. I was looking so shabby and unkempt. There was often no time to bathe or do my hair. My hair was unkempt for days on end while just two weeks previously I was this woman who cannot sleep without scribbling my legs clean and moisturizing them. Being locked up in a room in make shift clothes that would enable me to feed at a moments notice, with a wailing baby who refused to be pacified and flummoxed me with his obstinacy was Depression for me. The only bit of reading I did was the updates on the mothering forum. Forcibly kept away from my books and newspaper was Depression. Not going out is Depression. Not having a good night’s sleep is Depression. Not watching a movie is Depression. Not doing any of the things like and doing everything I abhor is Depression. Adding to this was the highly annoying unsolicited advice from all corners. I felt better about the whole thing only when my cousin told me of her own similar experience. The Motherlove pills she sent me from the US is simply the best thing that happened to me!

Living with my husband was thousand times better than with my mom. She worked so hard for me but she didn’t understand. She was taken aback when I said I was depressed. She vehemently rejected any such possibility saying that one can’t be anything but happy on the arrival of a child. But my husband understood and being what he is, he made every effort to make me smile and laugh. We tried to do “fun” things when the baby was sleeping in his cradle and now I loved my initiation into motherhood.

Post Partum Depression could very well be a new age syndrome since it’s only in the last 20-30 years that women have a life of their own beyond the confines of home. We travel, we read, we write, we go to the movies, go out with friends and do a whole lot of other things that complete our existence. We feel empty and imprisoned if not given the time and space to open our wings. Being cooped up is not for us. But that doesn’t mean one has to take the other extreme of no marriage, no motherhood and no home making. Either ways feels incomplete. There is a reason why our anatomy and biology is in one particular way. We should appreciate that while also taking care of the soul of our being.

Bombay

The moment I land in Bombay I whiff the air for all the aroma, scents and smells so elaborately described in Shantaram. It does seem to be a harmonious blend of many things living and cooking but my not so tuned olfactory sense fails to distill out the constituents. The first thing I notice in Bombay is the clamour for space – cracks are too small for the plants that sprout out from decrepit walls, houses are too small for the families, the city is too small for its population. But it is a harmonious jostle for space. Nothing or no one seems to edge the other out. This embodies the spirit of Bombay for me contrary to the Shiv Sena theory of ‘Sons of the Soil’.

Bombay from air is all blue – the blue not of water but tarpaulin sheets. A city ever ready to welcome the rains. For the very first time did I see auto-rickshaws covered over with tarpaulin sheets. One needs no further evidence of its shanty towns than what one witnesses from the sky. It’s an endless array of tin roofs broken in its monotony by tall spires of buildings here and there. It is one thing to bask in heritage but another to let the grime take over. Almost every building except the ones newly constructed have dirty scars running through its length and breadth. Is it the futility of painting what the evening rains immediately wash over? I can only guess.

The first day was a rude treatment. Coming from Chennai where railway stations have a clear cut layout for entry and exit, I had to go around the Kurla railway station six whole times – once for the ticket and many times for boarding the train and exiting the station. The rain and my dirty wet jeans made it worse. I got out on the wrong side of the city exit which is a little more than a by lane. Plodding along in the hope of getting to some main road I was told there wasn’t one for a long distance further and that I need to climb over the station to the other side to get home. Adding to it was the discomfort of having the backpack on the front as advised by a very thoughtful friend. Maybe that’s why I looked not so much an outsider except when I asked for directions.

People of Bombay are what you can call humanity. Used to the brash treatment of Chennai locals where not a sentence goes by without a vexatious exclaim, I was warmed by the compassion and brotherhood of Bombay. People address you with the familiarity of a neighbour. Help is proffered even before you ask for it. It’s like being lifted on to a boat while drowning at sea. That’s what the peculiar rains of Bombay did to me the first day.

The next day was fresh and mildly sunny. By now it was second nature to flip open the umbrella. Getting out of Dadar railway station I felt like stepping into the garden of Eden, such endless baskets of flowers, flowers I haven’t seen previously in India, flowers I didn’t know were sold in the market and all so fresh and in full bloom. It was literally a feast to the eyes. They were stranded together to form garlands and it was incredible – the finesse of a master craftsman. I was unfortunate to not have a reason to buy them then and there. Nobody I will want to buy it for lived in the city. If flowers are not perishable I should have spent a fortune buying everything my eyes fell on.

Shopping in Dadar and Bandra, my day drew to a close when I couldn’t find an auto to take me to the station. Bombay came to my rescue and two girls pulled me into an auto with them with not a moment’s thought. This happened on another occasion leaving me to wonder at the civic prudence in the act of helping. Voluntary sharing of rides helps manage the larger problem of traffic and congestion. And that without the necessity for a ride sharing service or application on the mobile. A city with compassion needs no enforcement, that’s the biggest takeaway from my three days of Bombay.

I could not leave Bombay without a visit to the famous Yazdani bakery and there again the chai master treated me like I was a regular. A mad man at the table across bought me a biscuit. One cannot escape feeling humbled by the spirit of Bombay. Though I couldn’t go to Colaba and the many places spoken of in Shantaram, I could recognise the Bombay of the book. I can now understand how it’s not so difficult to strike a conversation with a stranger and the very high probability of it maturing into a long lasting relationship. I can feel the pace of the city and how it chokes out any tendency to idle. Bombay is a place where the one rupee coin finds existence and purpose. Though I continue to find Chennai more liveable, Bombay offers a lot many lessons to learn from. The roads retain not more than ankle deep water and that mostly at its margins even when it is incessantly raining. It’s respect and pride in the colonial heritage, the preservation of the buildings and the substantial use they are put to and importantly, it’s people who are human, who are aware of their neighbours on the road, in the train etc, who are human to pause and help even when running between places. The people more than make up for the insufficiency of the city. Bombay, I salute you!

Other too many

Why are there only narratives of feeling ‘the Other’? Of social tags marring the persona of the individual in front; of community ghettos in our cosmopolitan cities? This is not to trivialise or dismiss blatant discriminations and injustice but the dominant narrative comes to vitiate the atmosphere. The malady penetrates deeper though with well-meaning intentions to the contrary.

I was always proud of the diversity of my country but felt deprived of its experience. Born and brought up in a homogeneous locality and having studied in the neighbourhood school I yearned for a Muslim friend. I wanted to know Islam, of what it was to be a Muslim; of why in a country of many religions does Islam become the face of antipathy to the majority faith. Luckily, I did get a friend who was a Muslim. In early adolescence and particularly in an all girls atmosphere, petty quarrels erupt which dissolve as uncharacteristically as they arise. On one such instance where my Muslim friend was on the other side of the dispute did she comfortably take recourse to her “Otherness” and charged me with discriminating unjustly. Thus was a puerile confrontation blown up to communal proportions. I’m sure she wouldn’t have steered in this direction if she had been a Christian or Sikh or Jain or Parsi. That was my first experience of communalism in our society. I don’t blame her. That’s how she had been taught to perceive the world around, that’s how entrenched her religious identity had gotten into everyday affairs. I wasn’t lucky a second time. I did cross path with many Muslims in life but none progressed to a concrete association and I was mindful of not looking at them as exotic beings out of an innocent curiosity.
As I started reading obsessively, layers of Islam and the Muslim identity drew me closer filling me with awe. Best moments in company have been the times spent in relishing Urdu poetry with a friend, with the help of our Hindi and the Internet. We have deeply regretted not having been schooled in Urdu and not having a Urdu scholar to guide us into the enchanting world of Shayari. We have marvelled at the depths of surrender that a believer of Islam can go to. The trailing breath of ‘Fida…’ throbbed our hearts more than any poem of love.

Why don’t we have narratives of the likes of Sardar Singh and Manto anymore? Why don’t people take the cue from a small report tucked in a corner of the newspaper about a Muslim family securing a Hindu marriage in the thick of the Khishtwar violence? Rushdie wrote of a Hindu-Muslim romance in Kashmir not as an exceptional event but as one very natural occurrence. Why do we hail Dr. Kalam for being a liberal Muslim who reveres the Bhagavad Gita? Countless Hindu families in Punjab pray to the pirs buried in their villages. I met a Hindustani musician who had a garlanded image of the Hindu goddess of learning Saraswati at his home, not to mention that his faith was Islam.

Of course the pen draws from reality and the literature of every period in history reflects the then existing scenario. But the written word is potent enough to create an intellectual and social climate. It’s a cyclical relationship. What we need is an atmosphere of normalcy that’s not self conscious. Isn’t everyone a human being first before getting ascribed to social identities handed down by birth? So Salim is Salim and a man wearing a white cap is A man wearing a white cap. Right to dignity implies to be respected for the individual we are. By emphasising on Muslim identity we are only alienating those of our Muslim countrymen who have faith in humanity, who proudly sport the Indian flag on August 15, who value the nation for what it has given them and who believe there’s not a better land to live in. May all fortunate people tell the story of vibrant syncretism in their lives to drown voices of cynicism and truly celebrate the richness of this land.

Ladakh -unforgiving beauty

Ladakh – Uninviting, grotesque faces of the never ending mountains to a magical stretch of white sand that seamlessly merges with mounds of snow. Gory land where nothing is as how you know it. Every element totally defies rules of the world. One can’t tell between clouds and fog, snow and white sand. A phantasmagorical land where you can watch clouds form from the floor of snow capped mountains and your senses seem to belie you. It’s a place where one has to unlearn and relearn. The sun beats down hard on the bleached land and the whooping wind is unsparing; you cannot but flit between indoors and outdoors like a fly. You could say it’s not a place for the faint hearted but I say that’s an inappropriate usage. No man can duel with nature in all her rawness;- she’s unmatched, unforgiving and relentless beyond human competence or comprehension. Nature, untamed and unconquered is no Mother, she’s an unfathomable, pitiless force where to think of duelling is suicidal.

Pangong Tso, a body of spectral colours, too beautiful to be real is indeed a devilish fairy. She is kept out of bounds with two contrasting and equally formidable barricades of stifling heat and chilling winds. The blazing sun suffocates if the wind is shut out but out in the winds is not where a tropical frame can hold its own. The night sky is how it would have been on the whole of earth when man had not known of the engine. But you can’t get more than a peek at it. It’s not wind but a tornado raging all around. But that stretch of water with zillions of blues and greens whose equals the computer can’t produce was mesmerizing. The one thought I penned down in that moment was this – The vast world feeds the hunger for ever widening vistas of the ravenous mind that is akin to a famished leach sucking up the very last drop of blood. The more I saw the more impatient was I to see. Numbed fingers but all the more keener mind. It was all consuming but I felt born anew like a Phoenix. “Very many fantasy worlds spun but not one as close to what I’m seeing now.” The intoxication was of a nature I had never known before and so deep and strange to be scary.

I’m not a mountain person. I did not expect to feel at home but the tortured face of the mountains completely sanitized of anything living felt like a dreadful prison hole, only that it’s not a hole and much worse for that. The lone bird you see far far away is pitiable for it is denied communion. How would it feel to be the only representative of a specie and not know what one looks or feels like? But again, habituation makes even captivity feel like home. How is it beauty that which is lifeless? Not to me, it’s strange, magical, a wonder but not beautiful. There’s no certainty. All five elements keep you constantly on tenterhooks. You are always gripping your seat in trepidation. The loose earth portends to give away any time, the rocky mountains threaten to hound you any moment, the sun disappears behind clouds giving full rein to the biting winds, the sky is unpredictable in its precipitation. There’s not one thing dependable, it’s like being on the lurch and hopelessly bracing yourself up.

That was Ladakh to me, the so called paradise land but nothing short of a stricken desert.

Squirmy situations

I just read an article titled “Mind your own womb”. It spoke of how different women have such elaborate reasons and stories for having or not having children.

So often, the questions that are but a casual enquiry leave you in a fix where you don’t know how much to lie and how much to reveal. Particularly in India where there is no one sense of what is personal. Starting with the simple “How are you?”. I agree it’s a routine civil enquiry meant in all goodwill but is the question ever meant as seriously as to elicit a honest response? No one is fine all the time. But are you ever prepared to hear anything but that?

People always ask me why I don’t smile. When it’s actually more a rhetoric than a real willingness to know, I can’t be explaining my inability to. There is more to things than meets the eye. I can’t smile because though I might appear as normal as anyone, I suffer from facial palsy which means that not all my facial muscles are in my control. This is not a fairly known thing so it’s not as easy as saying that I’m deaf or blind. The mood of the answer is diametrically opposite to the question which comes amidst a crowd as a light remark. Answering in earnest would make the atmosphere an irrelevant sorry state which is not a desirable thing to do.

Similarly there is this colleague of mine who refused to come out in front of us all and demonstrate marching. Everyone thought he was just being arrogant. But I only later discovered that he had problem of coordination between his lower limbs. This made me realize how many of the things we think are casual enquiries end up prying the deepest recesses of one’s life. Many times have I asked my friends why they aren’t having a child yet. Reading the article I wondered how many sore wounds I might have scratched.

India can’t be India if not for its teeming humanity. We care much for our neighbors and friends and colleagues. That’s why we talk but we should be careful to not pry. Not everybody is comfortable talking about their self and their problems. In fact, people feel embarrassed without sufficient cause. Nonetheless, employing some caution would help in not hurting someone unintentionally.