India they say is a land of contradictions. I would say that Indians are a people who epitomise contradiction. A nation of souls who often seem to be living with their two feet on different paths. It’s almost like each of their lives is a film that has two different sound tracks. They say, believe, and often do things that are diametrically opposite to one another. Nowhere is it more apparent to me then when it comes to caste and inequality. Let’s take an example of a reasonably well educated upper caste Indian. Chapters and chapters have been spent educating him on what the caste system is and how atrocious it is. For all intents and purposes he has understood how horrific a system it is and how the upper castes have oppressed the lower castes for centuries. But that very same person who appears to have imbibed this lesson fairly well, still participates or attends a Thread ceremony/Upanayana/Janeu and sees absolutely no contradiction between what he or she has been taught and their actions!

He doesn’t realise or maybe doesn’t care enough (it’s more likely to be the latter) that the thread he wears is not just any old thread, worn for style in myriad colours.

No Sir, it’s not!

What it is, is a symbol of upper caste Brahmanical oppression. It’s a symbol worn by the oppressor that distinguished him from the oppressed. There was a time, not so long ago, when the sight of that thread was enough to send lower caste people scurrying about so as to avoid putting their shadow on him. It would be laughable if it wasn’t all so horribly true. I would also like to draw your attention to the fact that all this about shadows and not touching unfortunately and sadly isn’t really in the past for a bunch of our countrymen.

The irony here is that people, both men and women, happily attend & participate in this ceremony with a clear conscience, never once stopping to think about what it really means, never questioning.

Scary true fact; when you don’t question the status quo your brain finally addles and dies. I’m serious, it’s true!

Contrary to all the positive spin that people try to give it these days, by liking it to the system of first Holy communion amongst Catholics or the Bar Mitzvah among Jews, we must recognise that this is inherently different. It’s definitely not the same. Those are rituals that are done to initiate a Catholic or a Jewish person into their faith. However this, the Upanayana, is done not to initiate the young boy into Hinduism but into his Brahmanical roots. I hope you didn’t miss that I said boys and not girls. Yes, it’s only the lucky boys who get to wear the thread. It’s supposed to mark the start of a period of learning sacred texts and more for.. yup you guessed right again, for only the boy. Girls can just go stick their heads in an oven was the underlying premise there I presume. These boys everywhere in this world, really seem to have the luck of the devil. 

So what this whole rambling rant is about is why people who otherwise appear completely “normal” or I would go even so far as to say “liberal” or “educated”.. why even those people are unable to see the inherent contradiction in carrying out and participating in a ritual that is not only deeply casteist but is also deeply sexist. I’m sorry but my teeny tiny brain just cannot understand this. 

When asked point blank, I have noticed that often the reasons are; It’s just a ritual or it’s a family thing or they’re doing it to keep their parents happy or the worst one “It doesn’t mean anything”.

For purposes of this article lets just leave the “it doesn’t mean anything” because I really can’t comprehend why on earth anyone would do something that doesn’t mean anything to them!

To the rest, I ask, when will you stop doing something you know to be wrong just because your forefathers did it? When will your own will and intelligence come into play? And the deeper question; Will we understand and accept that our forefathers might have perpetuated a deeply divisive sexist system but the choice whether to end a flawed ritual is in our hands.

“My parents did it”, is not, and can never be a reason to do anything in life. 

Sidebar: All our ancestors including our parents have done things that we might think twice before doing today, and I am guessing our kids will do the same with us. It’s that wonderful thing called Progress. 

For example if our grandparents had just done what their parents had done, then my friends let me tell you that they might not have participated in the freedom struggle and you and I would still be second class citizens living in British India. Think about that for a minute. I think we can all agree that that wouldn’t be fun.

To my mind the best way to move forward is to recognise that everything in life must be repeatedly questioned and if something no longer make sense then it must be left behind. 

And this holds even more true if that thing, in this case the sacred thread, is a symbol of a system that is soaked in pain.

A teacher’s dream

I am sure we all have stories during covid, so here is one of mine.

Well the short version (my kids keep telling me my stories are unending) is that my 83 year old father’s bedroom AC stopped working on day 15 of Lockdown in very hot Mumbai. Most of us have a comfort level with our own beds, especially as we get older, me included. My dad is no exception and he can’t sleep anywhere but in his own room! It was a very real problem, 2 nights of no sleep can wreck just about everything.

Day 3 I wake up and see that one of our staff, Vasuda Didi, who has over the last 20 years seen countless AC technicians come and go, has decided to give it a go. As in she decided to try and repair it, and here’s the climax of the story.. she succeeded.

The back story here is that she’s a super bright woman, who in another life might have been an engineer, but instead is now a domestic worker. A wasted resource, as many are, in this country of ours.

So the point of this story is that it made me think about opportunity & specifically opportunity in Education.

Now I am sure that all you enlightened folks know and believe in equality, I know I do. We also know and can agree that humans are also inherently not equal in terms of abilities, drive, intellect, physical strength, talent and a host of other things. Each one of us is unique. But when we say we believe in equality, we mean that we believe that all humans should be treated equally and have equality of opportunity.

Now I finally come to my main point. I know what you’re thinking; my kids were right about my never ending story telling.

The question is: If your special talent, ability to work harder than others or just plain good luck helps you to be more successful & therefore earn more money, then would it be fair for you to be able to buy a fancier car or go on an more luxurious vacation than your neighbour? I would say the answer could be a..YES.

What I mean is ..I could live with that.

But.. and this is the header question; If that same wealth that you earned, gives your child access to better education or your family access to better healthcare than others.. would that be as fair? The answer to that in my mind should be an unequivocal NO.

I strongly believe that Education & Healthcare cannot & should not be differentiated in terms of grade and quality, with higher quality sold to the well heeled buyer & substandard quality sold to the poor. It is morally & societally wrong.

In a ideal or perfect world you shouldn’t be able to buy a “better education”. Every child should have access to that “better education”. The onus should be on the state and private enterprise to ensure that there is parity between each and every school and healthcare centre. A perfect world is what we should be striving for and working towards. That should be the goal post don’t you think? A truly just society requires that.

If we really want to change the landscape of this country we have to understand that education for educations sake; as in to a send a lower income group child to a substandard poorly funded school has absolutely zero value. That epitomises “unequal opportunity”, does it not ?

For education to have value, it must be, of the exact same quality (staff competency, teacher student ratio, infrastructure and so on) for every child in the system regardless of the income bracket the child’s family comes from.

“Same to same” as we like to say in India.

In short, every child most definitely and without a modicum of doubt deserves a level playing field in education. It gives him or her the best shot at changing the narrative of poverty and inequality that they find themselves in.

Now how can we make that happen?

A bold move to address this was made via the Right to Education Act 2009.

I quote here

“It requires all private schools to reserve 25% of seats to children (to be reimbursed by the state as part of the public-private partnership plan).”

However, and sadly no surprises here, the very idea of private schools taking in kids from low income group families was and continues to be met with so much resistance by upper class India. It literally sent the whole population of private highly funded schools into a major tizzy. “Knickers in a major twist” as one of my friends is fond of saying! This resistance was across the board; from parents, school administrators & faculty.

The resistance is never outright. As in it’s never “We don’t want those poor kids in our school” (subtext is: dirty kids)

That is because we, the upper class of this country are so damn good at appearing woke and empathetic and caring, making many go to great lengths to demonstrate that this is not about their kids and that they aren’t classist.

“It’s not about us” they argue vehemently with voices full of sincerity, “it’s about them and their feelings!”

It’s a very a compassionate resistance you see. It focuses on how out of place a poor kid will feel hanging out with the rich kids! How those lower income group kids will develop a sense of inferiority! How they wouldn’t want that for those ‘poor kids’!

Never once stopping to think that maybe, just maybe, nothing could be worse than what they are already going through. What could be more inferiority building than their very hard lives! Always looking in & never able to touch.

I honestly think nothing could go wrong with giving that lower income group child a seat at the table? To my mind there’s only an upside to that. Isn’t that what equality of opportunity is?

So I for one don’t buy this myth of ‘they will feel bad’ & ‘it’s for their own good’. By saying that, we are in essence endorsing segregation. We are saying let our rich kids hang with their own kind & let the poor kid hang with his own kind. And in that way we maintain the status quo where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The very same logic should apply to healthcare too. No one should ever be able to buy better quality healthcare because they can pay more.

Sure, you can buy more or better bags, jewellery, clothes or gadgets, because you are smarter than me or you worked harder. But what you shouldn’t be able to do, is get a better education or a better hospital for your child. Those can’t be commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.

For any society to be truly civilised, that has to be a non negotiable or at the very least we should be working towards making it a non negotiable!

I am well aware that this is not an easy problem to solve. I don’t claim to have the answers. I also know that wanting it might be a Utopian dream but I do think we have to try.

Why not be the one to ask your child’s school about RTE? Check if they are complying. If not, then ask why. Speak to other parents. Maybe ask your elected officials what percentage of the GDP is spent on education and healthcare, and advocate for increased public spending on both.

Equal access to quality education is one of the best ways to help a child rewrite the story of their poverty and that’s an opportunity that every child without exception is owed.

Like I said I don’t have the answers but I have the questions and I am allowed to have dreams aren’t I?

Fly me to the moon

Soft murmurings, the clattering of forks, the ringing of a teaspoon against a cup, a gentle hand on my back as I open my bleary eyes and find my cheek pressed against the too soft too tiny pillow that’s kind of wet with my medicine induced open mouthed sleep. Open my still unfocused eyes & brain and see the beige uniform and a smiling face. She’s saying something but it takes a few seconds to comprehend that she’s asking me if I want breakfast because we are going to land in a short while. That in short was my dream last night and has been for quite a few nights. A recurring bit of ecstasy that’s hard to wake up from. “Just a little longer please” you tell your sleeping self!

That magical feeling when you are both dead tired and also paradoxically filled with energy as you land in a new place, far away from home. The place could be one that you have been to before or it could be a brand new place, whichever one it is, both are bursting with new experiences.

If there’s one thing I have realised I miss through this nightmare that the world is experiencing, it is that feeling of spreading your wings and flying away on a vacation. It could also be spreading your wings and driving away.. just leaving for new horizons is exhilarating.

The days leading up to travel day, the packing and the repacking. The endless internal debates on what to carry. The googling of the weather of your destination followed by some more internal and external debates with family members on the kind of clothes and accessories to pack. Heated arguments on how many bags we should each take and whether someone really needs that extra pair of shoes or that sweater they just love. The night before travel predictably brings with it a mild degree of insomnia. Lying in bed going through all those imaginary and real lists of things to do before heading off to the airport. Jumping out of bed in a panic at 1 AM wondering whether you’ve packed your spare kindle charger and of course your “more precious than gold” kindle.

The day of travel passes in a flurry of chores and instructions to everyone around. The same instructions repeated so many times that you can see people around you wondering if this is just an adrenaline rush or something more sinister! They soon remember that they have seen this game being played out before and they collectively start rolling their eyes. I see them but I pretend not to. ETD is discussed a million times. Loud arguments erupt again between the risk takers vs the safety net folks. Finally a compromise is reached.

Suitcase loaded, handbags checked for the hundredth time for passports and for me in particular..my most important air sickness life saver medicine Dramamine. And there lies a contradiction.. I have absolutely horrible, incurable & just have to ‘grin and bear with it’ motion sickness. It’s really at a level that is incomprehensible to most people. You have to have lived it to know it. Most people thankfully don’t have to live it, but I do. Inspite of that I love getting on a plane. It’s really a hard to understand paradox.

Airports and the inevitable lines and the cribbing that follows. The fake complaining overlaid with smiles and very real bonhomie. The excitement building as one wanders through Mumbai Airport. Predictably as always we discuss how lovely it is now and then of course the mandatory reminiscing that goes along with it, by us, the so called ‘elders’ about travel and airports of days gone by. More eye rolling and reminders by the youth in our group of our tendency to repeat ourselves!

Finally boarding, settling down, reading the menu, discussing what we are each going to have.. someone debating the pros and cons of eating shellfish on the first leg of a long journey, others wondering aloud if they should have wine or something stronger. Someone else from the family already slouched in their seat perusing the movie options and asking in a sotto voce from across the aisle if we have any recommendations. I can always be found struggling with the complicated buttons of the seat that I can never seem to master despite having flown a million times. I have accepted that seats and buttons on planes are clearly not my forte. I do try I must say but eventually always give up and have to ask one of my daughters for help, or more embarrassingly the crew if I am on my own. 

That feeling when the wheels leave the ground is like an invisible switch going off in my brain. The first 5 minutes I am tense as the aircraft lifts its face up to the heavens & the whole world seems to tremble, but as it equalises and steadies, my shoulders relax, I sink deeper into the seat, my eyelids seems heavy and soft and that invisible switch pulls my facial muscles into the widest smile. When this happens on my solo flights I am sure my co passengers must doubt my sanity. Or perhaps they all feel the same way. 

The rushing for connections at transit airports or the leisurely coffee and meals at those very same airports, they all weave their magic that make up an unforgettable experience. Some of those airports as familiar as Mumbai airport that you stride through confidently, others strange and new that you negotiate carefully, always aware that you are out of your comfort zone. It’s that feeling of being out of your comfort zone that makes you hyper aware and sensitive to the sights and sounds around you. No time for day dreaming here, it’s all systems on and you truly feel alive.

And finally the wheels thudding down on the tarmac, your hands poised and ready to open your seatbelt, your handbag all set to go. Surrounded by a hastily folded blanket, pillows squashed behind your back, empty water bottles, chocolate wrappers. All around you signs of a journey taken. A journey that is both ending and just beginning.

I miss that little red cap on the heads of the smiling cabin crew as they welcome you on board and as they wave goodbye. I want that feeling of excitement again as the wheels land heavily in a place, bringing with it the promise of new adventures. I miss it all. I want that invisible switch that makes my mouth stretch and curve upwards. I want to find myself smiling idiotically again.

Just another opinion

In the last decade or so I have sadly seen a steady rise in the level of prejudice that is openly displayed by people both in my immediate circle and in the wider world in general.

This has lead to a peculiar set of circumstances for a whole lot of us. One where we frequently hang out socially & professionally with people who we now know don’t share our value system.

This has lead to a huge internal dissonance in many minds and hearts. Speaking for myself, I can definitely say that it has in mine.

Often when I am venting, angry or disturbed about it, I am told that I should learn to take people as they are. That they have an opinion just like I do and that they are entitled to it. That they are old friends or relatives. Or that they are essentially “good people” and other things along that vein.

It set me thinking..

Are racism, casteism, classism, islamophobia, homophobia, sexism, fascism and so on really just opinions?

How am I supposed to defend the indefensible even if only to myself?

I personally don’t think any of these extreme prejudices are truly just opinions. They are so much more than that. They are values and values are what define us. Values are about character. They essentially make us who we are in a sense.

An opinion for me, as in “I have an opinion”, would be on a film or on a holiday destination or whether I prefer milk or dark chocolate. If I like donuts more than cupcakes, it doesn’t say much about me as a person. It doesn’t describe me or my value system.

Whereas if I was prejudiced against people from the LGBT community or Muslims or believed in racial segregation, that would say something about me and my character. It defines who the real me is.

Prejudice or extreme bias goes way way beyond an opinion.

It disturbs me when we legitimise these prejudices by telling ourselves that’s its ok to hang around with racists or bigots of any kind because they are entitled to their opinion. We all have “flaws” we tell ourselves and isn’t that what being a good friend is all about.. acceptance? We pat ourselves on the proverbial back for being non judgemental. We don’t see it for what it really is, which is looking away & not caring enough to call it out.

Flaws to me would be characteristics like selfishness, greed, insensitivity or having a bad temper.. you get my drift. But bigotry, blind hatred or extreme prejudice, those aren’t just flaws are they? They are belief systems and belief systems are the heart and soul of a person.

The million dollar question we should be asking ourselves is why we are we so comfortable with this and if we are not then the bigger question is why do we keep tolerating it?

The answer I guess would be that sometimes we just have to because the social situation requires us to. Maybe we are related or we have known each other for a long time, but I do think that it should definitely make us deeply uncomfortable.

If we aren’t uncomfortable then maybe there’s something we haven’t understood about ourselves.

Maybe it’s about the self. Why are we not more disturbed?

Maybe we can start by not defending it to ourselves and to stop telling ourselves that we accept another person’s racism, sexism or any other kind of prejudice as just an opinion.

That compartmentalising a person’s values as separate from them is just not possible, especially if those values are abhorrent to you and go against everything you hold dear.

What we should be doing is accepting that we now clearly see the person for who they are. That we know that our relationship has changed irrevocably.

That we might have to tolerate it but we don’t have to accept it. The moment we say, even just to ourselves, that we accept it, we in a sense legitimise it, we condone it, we OK it. Telling myself “she’s a nice person” or “he gives to charity” or “he’s a good father” is letting myself off the hook.

If we are not uncomfortable then we have to ask ourselves why? Is it because those values are not important enough to us?

Speaking for myself the answer is self evident. I have realised that for me it’s extremely important, it’s a critical component of my value system and therefore when I encounter that bigotry in others it deeply impacts my relationship and changes it permanently.

It’s the reason why I can’t and refuse to accept the bigotry and why I often take many metaphorical & physical steps away from it.

It true that it sometimes leaves me sadder but here’s the dichotomy, it also leaves me at peace.

I then stay true to myself and I stay ME.