Today is Shivratri. Millions of devotees will pour millions of gallons of milk on Shiv Lingas across the country. I have always found the ritual of pouring milk over stone deities deplorable particularly in a land where millions go to bed hungry every night and thousands of children die of malnutrition every day. 5013 to be exact. This is no exaggeration, it is the sad reality substantiated by cold and harsh statistics. Nothing to be proud of. And the milk devotees will pour today will find its way to a gutter.
A Facebook messages urges us to offer only a tablespoon of milk on the Shiv ling. In India 1000’s of children die of malnutrition, donate the milk to children and gain blessing from their families. I could not agree more. I am a Hindu and proud of being one, but I also feel that my religion gives me the flexibility of interpreting rituals with sagacity and keeping in mind the reality I live in. So if I am asked to offer milk on this blessed day then it could be a teaspoon or even a drop or why not just touch the packet to the deity and then give it to one of the innumerable children that crowd the lanes of temples. I am sure God will approve and send the sought blessing.
My mind goes back to the teachings of Ramaksrishna so lovingly taught to me by my father. Ramakrishna coined the term daridra-narayana, God in the form of the poor, and asked us to serve Him: ‘Where should you go to seek God—are not all the poor, the miserable, the weak, Gods? Why not worship them first?’ And what better way then by giving the milk we earmarked for a stone deity to the first hungry child we come across.
It is time our rituals got revisited. The situation in our country is alarming: 42% of all the underweight children in the world live in India. 5000 children die every day due to preventable diseases and about 47% of adolescent girls in India are undernourished. Keeping this in mind waste of food of any kind is unacceptable be it the honey and milk of our religious rituals, the waste at weddings and other celebrations or the grains rotting in the open. True we can blame the government for not having sufficient silos or for not implementing pertinent legislation but the buck does not stop there. We as a nation are also responsible and must do our bit. Perhaps we could start today by donating the milk pledged to lord Shiva to hungry children who are the true image of God.
This picture was sent to me this morning. Look at it well. The picture was taken in a Government run school in, hold your breath: Delhi! You may recall the fact many schools are bereft of desks. This school is not. But the desks provided to the little ones are too big so the poor dears have to study standing!
This is yet another aberration doled out by our rulers. One wonders why they always get it so wrong. It is a known fact that many state run schools are in an abysmal condition. The only asset they have is a piece of prime property. I guess someone did get it right once upon a time. But then it all fell apart. Instead of enabling buildings many schools are still run in ramshackle tents that barely protect the children from the vagaries of the weather. Then if building there is then these are often poorly maintained. The loos have no doors. The classrooms have no bulbs and so on. Then comes the furniture. Many schools have children sitting and learning on the floor.
One hoped that if furniture was provided it would be at the least fit to be used. Alas the picture above shows you the sad reality: desks that are far too high for small children and with such desks who needs chairs. The kids can learn standing. While I can still see the logic of children sitting in the floor and learning- we do that at project why- I can not begin to comprehend how anybody can think of children learning while standing at their desk. One would have thought that had the desk been wrongly made, the school authorities would reject them rather than put them to use as we see in the snapshot. I presume a carpenter could have solved the issue for a few rupees.
Such an absurd situation makes one see red I agree but also raises many questions. Do those in authority not care about the education of poor children as seems evident? Poor children have no voice and neither do their parents. Try doing this in an upmarket school and see what happens. Is the Right to Education only for a chosen few? Seems so as no one cares about the condition of state run schools, particularly those in the poorer areas of the city. Schools should be centres of excellence where a child can learn and grow and carve her/his future. With such desks it almost seems as if someone is playing a cruel joke on innocent souls.
Strange but gender bias has hit me hard. Perhaps it was because of a recent invitation urging women to ‘look pretty‘. I must confess it did bring the point home. I was in combat mode. The anger had barely subsided when another aberration was heard on the news. Women demand mobile phones, they are not demanding toilets stated our esteemed Environment Minister. Now what does that mean, I guess only a man can enlighten me. Needless to say the women activists are up in arms. The polemic will be fun to watch! I will just say that I cannot see what phones and toilets have in common. Beats me.
However gender bias raised its ugly head in another way altogether. I was asked by a funder to provide details about the number of children we had at project why. I asked my staff to give me the latest figures and was astonished to see that at the women centre the number of boys in the primary sections had fallen. This was very surprising and led me to ask the coordinator why this happened. The answer was most astonishing. It seemed that parents were enrolling their sons in private schools. These ran in the morning and hence the boys had stopped coming to the project. The schools in question were what I call teaching shops that have mushroomed all over the city, particularly in less privileged areas. They run in small buildings but boast grandiose names like ‘Rose Valley’, ‘English Academy’, ‘Sundar Public school’, ‘SK Convent’ etc, each stating that they are ‘English medium public school’. My forays into some of the them revealed that English was barely spoken by principal and staff. The fees in these schools range from 300 to 500 a month. The parents who are eager to send their sons to such schools are reluctant to send their daughters to the English stream of government schools for reasons better known to them.
Public school is the name private schools go by in India. The lure of these public schools was first brought to light by Kiran in the most candid way possible when she asked me whether my daughter had been to one! Kiran now studies in a swank public school. Her admission was nothing short of a nightmare. Kiran is also the one who told me last week that there were only 10 girls in her class though the number of boys was 35. In her matter of fact way she added: parents send their boys to better schools. Yes you are right darling child this is a sad reality that cuts across society. Boys get a better deal. Girls have to fight every step of the way. Time we did something!
All ladies to look pretty
were the words inscribed on the bottom of an invitation to dinner next to the usual ‘dress code’. Needless to say it made me see red. The invite in question was from highly respectable, well educated etc people. To many it may seem innocuous. To others a tad cheeky. For me it was yet another sad reflection of gender insensitivity. Women are meant to look pretty. Full stop. Never mind their intelligence, ability, skills. Eye candy, that is all that is important. I was livid. That such words should come from educated people made matters worse. What is the point on harping over gender issues if people do not walk the talk. Some may argue that I should have taken the words at face value: someone trying to be trendy. True I could have, but somehow they disturbed me deeply as they were directed at me. Gender bias had entered my home.
My mind went on overdrive. How could anyone write such a thing? In spite of women having conquered every field imaginable with success, what mattered was whether they were pretty or not. And what does pretty mean: well dressed, well groomed, well proportioned? I do not know and do not care because my canons of beauty are quite different. But I am digressing. Let us come back to the main issue: gender insensitivity.
Gender bias is rampant in our society; why else would we mourn the birth of a daughter and celebrate that of a son. I can never forget how the film Matrubhoomi was shunned by one and all and what disturbing questions it raised. When I did manage to see it I felt physically sick just as I had after viewing Leaving Las Vegas. You and I may not realise it but being a girl is a curse in large parts of our society. A girl is unwanted in the very land she is worshiped in. We even fall so low as to kill her in the womb if we can. Statistics are proof of this. And if she is allowed to live, she is never made to forget that she is only a girl. We see this every day in our work. Girls are not fed the same as their male siblings, their schools fees are not paid, they are never send for tuition and as soon as they are old enough, their childhood is hijacked and they become mother’s little helpers. When they grow they are married to someone and their role widened: cook, clean but also produce children and preferably a boy. I still cannot understand why family planning programmes do not include awareness on gender determination which is the sole prerogative of the man. How many women are abused for not giving birth to a son! It is time the equations were set right but how is the question. We are trying to do this every day but it is not easy task as we need to deal with deeply seated mindsets.
One would have thought that things were different across the fence. But the words on the invite proved me wrong. In high society too women have their role defined: in the present occurrence to be pretty. True money has freed us from the cooking and cleaning roles. In lieu we have been given a new avatar that of looking good. How many girls suffer for not meeting the standards. The growth of the slimming industry is proof of that. The new credo is cosmetic surgery and Botox mornings that have surreptitiously replaced the Tupperware ones. The look pretty industry is on the rise.
I am not one of the burn the bra brigade. I like my femininity and am proud of it. To be a woman is a wonderful journey I would never trade. Yet I am a person first with hear and brains and would like to be respected for that. I guess I speak for many.
Valentine Day has never meant much to me. I have not been one to be swayed by hearts and red roses. I have fond memories of making cards for my father as a little girl but that is where it ended. The rank commercialisation of the event has led me to shun it and to me 14 February is simply another day. Quite frankly I had even forgotten today was St Vs! On the other hand though I do not quite understand the hype attached to the day, I feel indulgent towards the young ones who celebrate it and let us not forget the flower vendors who make a killing. Celebrating love can do no harm.
As usual I came to my office in the wee hours of the morning and switched my computer. A quick check of my inbox and then a browse on FB. There was a comment addressed to me that read: reading your book. was an absolute delight. Thank you so much for penning it and teaching me so much as I read through the letters. I was pleasantly surprised as it had been some time any one had mentioned Dear Popples let alone write about it. I clicked on the link provided and stumbled upon a write up entitled: coffee, a book and some love. I read on and was overwhelmed to see a review of Dear Popples the book I had written a couple of years back. It was a perfect Valentine treat as Dear P is a love story written with abundant love. Revisiting it made my day special.
The author of the article has summed up better than I could ever do the essence of this book: Dear Popples is a favorite evening ritual, reading, re-reading and understanding. It helps me imagine a future for love, selflessness and happiness. It shows me the importance of being human, and understanding that every child is a miracle born with dreams. It awakens me to the beauty of growing up, and guides you with a motherly compassion: an ageless whisper urging you to make a difference, to bring a smile, to join hands. Thank you Lakshmi.
I browsed the thousands of images of Popples I have and selected this one. I must admit this heart sways me.
If you wish to read dear Popples you can order it here. And should you read it and enjoy it do let me know.