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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

What are you smiling at?


There's this photograph in an article in The New York Times, a group of people taking a selfie, smiling (some more enthusiastically than others) at the phone held up to their faces. It makes me wonder, as we sometimes do, in completely random ways, about completely pointless things, about that selfie smile.

Who are we smiling at?
What makes us smile?
What does the smile say?
What do we hope the smile achieves?

Or...are we thinking at all? Has smiling for a selfie become one of those automatic responses that we can put down to our internet-enabled consciousness?

Image result for cheshire catOur smiles then populate our social media feeds and personal digital albums, toothsome, reluctant, wistful, joyous, sometimes a bit embarrassed, crimson-lipsticked or quickly plumped and moistened, a bit crooked or self-consciously straight, even forgetful and resentful...or just automatic. Like Carroll's Cheshire Cat, they waft around to be looked at and thought about, dismissed or dwelt upon, acquiring meaning in memory even if they were nothing at the time, other than the perking up of facial muscles in the face of an upheld phone ("Hey, let's take a picture!"). The context and the body of presence disappears, and the smiles remain, to become the core of remembering. Most often we can't even figure out what we were feeling so that we can footnote TFW.

Is this any different than the smiles we produced for that old-fashioned camera stuffed with film to be exposed in the darkness of a studio and then cornered into the pages of a photo album and left to yellow and fray and come unstuck? Photographs that we knew we would pore over in family gatherings and cohort reunions, calling together the contexts from which those images arose?

Is there something different about the enthusiastically called upon image that poses for itself, that becomes one of hundreds (and over our networked lifetimes, thousands) of moments that find themselves floating in binary space, that can be rearranged chronologically to pop up, five years later, on a Facebook feed asking you to share your memory, yet again?

But back to that smile. It must be different when we smile for our own cameras, holding those not-quite-mirrors up to see for ourselves what we look like, and when we smile for another's high-handed phone, with or without a selfie-stick (they have become quite the opposite of de rigueur!). The smile in the first instance is a reminder to ourselves about who we are or who we hope to be/become, to ourselves and to our various relational circles. In the second maybe it is something like a badge of belonging, to a place, a moment, a community, a marking of our occupancy of a point in a shared timeline.

When we look back at old photographs, whether on a screen or paper, we search for those de-familiarised portraits of our selves, our eyes linger just a bit longer on the face which used to be ours, whether it is framed solo or in a group. It's as if we can read ourselves by looking into those captive eyes. To be sure, we also try to read others the same way, but there is an additional interest in trying to figure out the person we once were, within that moment that caught the smile.

So perhaps that's what we mean to do, all along. To smile at that future self, transmitting something like hope and its fulfillment in that instant... we're banking that smile, in a sense, and for a moment of pleasure in return.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Fringe benefits

It's on the edges of formal meetings (and for that matter, even informal ones) that one chances upon moments of learning of a different kind; in those unexpected overflows of energy and fellowship that escape the confines of strict agendas and constricted sessions.

So it was that I joined a handful of others at the brave hour of six-thirty in the morning, in search of birds and tiny beasts, on the quirky yet charming campus of the (hopefully named) School of Ancient Wisdom, itself a place on the edges (of Bangalore city). We were led on this treasure hunt by Suhel and Vena from the Nature Conservation Foundation.

"There are no useful lessons to be learned from Nature," notes Suhel, with more than a hint of wry humor. Meaning, of course, we should not be looking to nature for answers to human problems or to address The Human Condition. Even though we (humans) may be responsible for much of the problems of nature.


"Bird watching is a bit of a misnomer," Suhel says, as we try hard to spot the coppersmith that had flown into the topmost branches of a flowering jacaranda. "It's more like bird hearing...or listening." But then, following his expert pointing finger, we do see the creature, twisting its neck this way and that as it called out to a potential mate.

We stop under a fig tree where we get into an extended discussion about the value of the species to the forest ecosystem, including the curious way in which a type of wasp helps pollinate it. No wonder, then, the last time I broke open a wild fig fruit,  hundreds of eager young wasps scurried out of a hollowed interior. "The domestic figs are specially bred, that's why they don't carry insects," Suhel explains.

A small bridge over a goldfish pond offers us a bird's' eye view (bad pun?) of the Jesus spider, lazily skimming its way across the water. Suitably impressed, we walk further into this modest tangle of greenery, and the naturalists point out the expertly tailored nests of the fire ants and the conical sand pits where the lion ant awaits its prey (I hear: "In the jungle, the sandy jungle, the lion ant sleeps tonight"--sorry, wrong lyrics right song!)

The lynx spider 
Soon Vena directs our urban gaze to a tiny, tiny frog clambering up a rock--so tiny I mistook it for a bug. She's been hanging back, peering at tree bark and bending over bushes. She waves us over to look at a lynx spider, its six bulbous black "eyes" (I imagine) watching us watching it. 

The tiniest frog I ever did see!


On the next bush are a couple of farmer ants, minding a mealy bug (at this point I have the Ugly Bug song running through my head). "These are the original pastoralists," quips Suhel (didn't he just say there were no lessons...?).





The ant minds the mealy bug

The short walk gave us glimpses of bulbul, golden oriole, magpie robin, swallow, crested heron, and several other birds I can't remember the names of.  Suhel tells us about the long and arduous journeys of the migratory birds and others chip in with pieces of naturalist non-trivia.

As we near the end of our circuit Vena chances upon an orb web in the making, its creator quivering in slight nervousness as the ground beneath vibrates under some half-dozen trampling feet.



We ooh and aah as silently as we can, watching the faint outline of the concentric circles of spider silk catch the light of the speeding sun, before we turn our steps softly towards breakfast.




Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Feminist Mom-ent

I hadn’t heard the term “feminist parenting” until I was way past the age of raising kids, and well into raising young adults who thought they were well past the age of being raised. But I’ve been a feminist ever since I can remember, even before I knew the word or grasped the full implications of the feminist fight. I’ve never regarded myself as anything other than perfectly capable of doing the things I wanted to do—whether it was the short-lived dream of becoming a world renowned molecular biologist or a drug-designing organic chemist, or the other one of writing that killer investigative story that would win me the Pulitzer—or at maybe the Ramnath Goenka Award. And not for a moment did I attribute not being able to do the things I wanted to do to my gender. Looking back, of course, with a keener—and more critical eye—I can see the points at which an unconscious response to deeply entrenched expectations on my part and a structural orientation on the part of society, nudged me in one way or another, or made a certain choice easier—or more acceptable--than another.

So when my children were born, one lovely girl after the other, there was no question that they would be raised as human beings, first, and human beings last. This is not to say that there were no gendered paraphernalia in their lives; given the plethora of adoring aunts, uncles and grandparents, they had their share of little-girl gifts. At different points they wore pink and purple and lace and frills, they fantasized about being princesses and mermaids, they demanded Barbie dolls and glitter, which I gave in to reluctantly and always with a bit of a deconstructive lecture. But they also had swimming and soccer, karate and cycling, and were encouraged to climb trees and when possible, mountains. They watched me and my husband share tasks and responsibilities, they watched him defer to me on some things and me to defer to him on others. Yes, we also found ourselves and our ideas often hemmed in by the expectations of a traditional South Indian family structure, but despite this, there were spaces for conversations that steered around and through these constraints, acknowledging them yet offering possibilities of resistance and change.

It helped (and helps) that they are surrounded by female strength of different kinds: grandmothers with a strong sense of self and their own respective passions; aunts who laughed heartily, unafraid; cousins who had made unpopular choices and those who had adopted convention but retained a measure of choice. And it also helped (and helps) that there were many men in their lives who never used the words “you’re a girl, so…”.

It's never easy being a parent, and it wasn't easy for me--who had strong feelings about the ills of the world and what to do about them. It's even harder when you are constantly trying to resist conventional wisdom while keeping the peace. I’m not a natural non-conformist, and I hate to rock the boat…I’m the kind of person who will nudge it sideways, a little at a time, believing firmly that the course will eventually change.

But ideology has not really been a conscious part of the parenting approach—although, one might argue, our political beliefs form the subtext even of our domestic lives. They surface occasionally in our interactions with family members, run through the arguments we have in spoken and unspoken words, the ways in which we treat those who work for and with us, and in the manner in which we approach the market. But I suppose the ideology would have been evident in the books we bought for the girls, the activities we enrolled them in, or the ways in which we dealt with the ups and downs of life, or in our interactions with people and the world.

So it was no surprise that daughter number one made choices that were fiercely her own, challenged only in relation to how they spoke to her mind and soul rather than their “value” in the employment market, that there was no question that she would follow her heart no matter where it took her and how long a journey it would be. And it was no surprise that daughter number two found her passion in sports, that there was no question that she too would stumble through those highs and lows in her own way, that we would neither shield her from disappointment nor set any ‘external’ standards.

What I have done is try to be (pretty much) transparent. I’ve talked with them about my own uncertainties, frustrations, hopes and dreams. I’ve shared with them my vulnerabilities and my anger. I’ve also done things I’ve enjoyed, and taken my space as and when I’ve needed it. But there is one thing I haven’t been able to do, and that is, to lay down my own guilt in the face of not meeting imagined expectations. Fortunately, though, they see the futility of that guilt and often try to talk me out of it. It’s in the middle of those conversations that I stop and think, “Wow, they have grown up, indeed!” 

Perhaps in the final analysis, feminist parenting is really about creating a space where there is both conscience and consciousness, a space where self-concept is untethered to the limitations imposed by expectations of [gender or other] roles. It's not to say that things have been ideal. They still have to deal with the [gendered] anxieties that arise when they're out late or in unfamiliar contexts. They still need to offer justifications about being safe. But I can see that the same anger I feel simmers in them too. It's an anger that leads one to uncover narratives of oppression in popular culture and the other to rally against discrimination in sports.


But still, twenty-seven years later, when my daughter admonishes me fondly upon my asking if my dangly earrings look “too young for me”, saying, “Ma, what sort of a feminist are you?” it makes me smile inside.