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.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

In defense of nostalgia tripping

Journeys of any kind—physical, mental, virtual—are multilayered things. There is the experience of the present, in terms of the stimuli of the immediate; then there is the remembrance of the past, the paradigms and the vocabularies that frame the way we see and respond to these stimuli; and there is the anticipation of the future, the steps we need to take to further immerse ourselves or shift direction, along with the wondering about what it all means.

Further we are all constantly narrativizing our lives, plugging moments of existence into a storyline, imagining the way we will be read on social media, and shaping the retelling of our journeys to provide coherence to the ongoing script of the self.

Maybe the yearning for coherence and meaning forces such a perspective, and who am I to argue with that, being as culpable as anyone else in this project of self-making and self-presenting?

These past few months have been particularly poignant for me in relation to this project, having had the luxury of time and solitude to think through and about the various moments that have made up my own life—personal, professional, political. I have had the opportunity to discover new people and places and rediscover old ones, some unearthed from distant memory formed more by photographs in an album than by tangible experience.

Pasadena, 1966
Thanks to the indulgence of my nephew and his wife, I was able to drive through the streets of Pasadena and find my kindergarten school. Two old photographs, now lost somewhere in the detritus of multiple moves, along with the remembrance of my teacher’s name and a blurry sense of her face, are the only things that tie me to this spot. I have the vaguest memories of that first school year in this CalTech neighborhood: Mrs Nevra’s 1960s beehive hairdo, a girl called Maeve who walked with me a few times and told me never to “step on the cracks”, and the privilege of banging dusters in the backyard at recess. Yet, for some (not-so-inexplicable) reason it was important to me to find the yellow building and recover the reality of having been there, half a century ago (groan, the years, the years!).

Pasadena, 2016

And then, the Grand Canyon. I always said I had never been there, but that was only partly true. I could not remember having been there, despite the images in that same old photo album and my mother’s occasional references to a cross-country drive that we undertook in a blue-and-white Chevrolet in 1966. Fifty years later, a dear old friend and I spent a wonderful day riding on a bus listening to a garrulous driver-cum-guide educate us on the history-geography-culture-ecology of the Arizona desert. Apart from the warmth of really good friendship, I rediscovered bits of sandstone-etched images that were now busily acquiring a second layer of remembering-in-the-making.

Grand Canyon, 1966
Grand Canyon, 2016

Many people say that nostalgia is not only useless, it is counter-productive, particularly in political and social change projects. Reminiscing takes time and energy from what needs to be done. But we might also argue that it provides a motivation for movement, a template for where we might want to go, or a framework for what we might want to recover. Maybe, nostalgia adds meaning and perceptual depth to our personal stories. It is in the journey to recover our past that we sometimes find ourselves, and in the process are given—in a more conscious way—a means to curate our memories and reclaim (or discard) elements that give us pleasure, or that define our pain. Maybe, it allows us to map our lives in a way that redeems those of us who feel like we’ve stumbled through the maze of existence. Maybe, it gives us an appreciation for where we are now and the things we’ve lost or gained along the way.

I’m certainly not arguing for wallowing in the past. But once in a while there may be something to be learned from taking a quick detour from the present and pause at instances—and places—that can give us clues to that inner self.

 Although some might say that the best place to find that self is in the here and now

Thursday, December 29, 2016

One hundred cups of coffee

It's been raining through the afternoon and even now I can hear the wind rush through the streets as it makes its way to or from the sea, carrying with it the varying moods of the New England winter. My landlady, Vera, told me this old regional joke: "If you don't like the weather in New England, well--just wait a minute!" And each of us travelers must discover the import of that in the gloves and scarves we carry in our bags and refrain from discarding too early, or, for that matter, putting away our short sleeves and sandals before the leaves turn, just because the calendar has announced the advent of cooler weather.

I've been packing all day--make that two "all days". Stuffing things I can't bear to leave behind and things that seem to have grown arms and legs and girth. Books that probably would have cost me less to buy on Amazon and delivered to India than to box and ship--clearly, sales at the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse do not carry a warning sign on bargains (they should have said--"THESE BOOKS HAVE WEIGHT AND DO NOT TRAVEL ACROSS SEAS LIGHTLY OR CHEAPLY!"). I tell myself that books are priceless anyway, and if I've saved them from being left on the shelf, un-bought and probably in the long term, pulped, well, then I owe it to them to take them with me.

So the books have been boxed and the suitcases have been stuffed, and I am sitting here feeling somewhat in limbo. Goodbyes have been said and notes put away for future reference. As I rummage around the corner of my living room known as the kitchen, wondering if I should take the trouble to cook something that will get left over or just snack on an apple and a tub of yoghurt, I pick up the box of coffee filters to check how many are left.

There's just one.

Just enough for my last cup of coffee tomorrow morning.

I've been through several cartons of milk/half-and-half, and a few pounds of coffee grounds, but I haven't had to buy another box of filters.

It's like Trader Joe's had it perfectly packaged for my stay here, taking into the reckoning absences from Boston, and accounting for all the rest.

We often have the impulse to take stock, to tote up our gains and losses and see how far we have traveled between then and now. Four and a half months is not a long time by most standards, and, like most experiences, it seems long in the living and short in the recalling. I've had plenty of time to read, reflect, weigh new ideas and discard some old ones, look out windows of libraries and walk under the gold and russet leaves of oaks and maples, and just think, and be, without the disciplining frame of a routine. So here's my tally:

20 blog posts
8 interviews
4 presentations
2 articles
1 course audited
...and countless enriching conversations

And yes, 100 cups of coffee (not counting the ones served up by Starbucks and Peet's and the like).

When I open up that brown box tomorrow to take out that last paper filter, it will seem so final, so...over. Maybe that's why I haven't been able to pull myself away from the desk, or this uncomfortable chair on which I have sat typing one post after another, looking out the window where the old church stands solidly in the light of a single street lamp. I realize that while I've been thinking, the rain has stopped and the wetness on the road has turned into a slick, shiny layer of ice.

Less than a day before the New England iciness yields to the mild Hyderabad air.

Less than a day before my coffee comes strong and thick and aromatic, dripping through the perforations of my south Indian steel filter.