Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Subtle Rebel


“I always thought eating was a ridiculous activity anyway. I’d get out of it myself if I could, though you’ve got to do it to stay alive, they tell me.”
Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman

Often I get this irresistible urge to just run – run away – and there is no substantial reason. The kind of life I’ve been given is a blessing. I must not complain! But the urge is there just the same. In all the while that I have looked to reason this irrationality, I’ve only felt like running away some more. And then I found The Edible Woman.

This 1965 ‘pre-feminst’ novel by Margaret Atwood challenges gender stereotypes. A correlation is drawn between the protagonist losing her self and losing her appetite, all due to her engagement to an ultra-suave, chauvinist boyfriend Peter.

In a beautifully incorporated narrative, the author Margaret Atwood shifts from first person to third person as Marian, the protagonist loses her identity; and shifts back to the first person when Marian regains her sense of self.

Marian’s loss of appetite is a metaphor for her perception of herself as the prey, her fiancé as the hunter and also as a rebellion towards accepting the stereotype of being the perfect wife. She detests her passive being. She begins identifying herself with a piece of steak which is hunted or with the raw materials that are shaped into her fiance’s new flat.

If Marian’s loss of appetite is a metaphor for her hunger to find herself,  my running away is a metaphor for what?

As Marian struggles to find out what she wants, she meets Duncan, a man who defies every stereotype possible. His character is described as disjointed, unemotional, morose, mundane and gloomy – a complete contrast to Peter’s extravagant, genteel life.  Their affair is as vague as their conversations are and their meetings are usually in a laundromat and their affair reaches it’s climax in a cheap, sleazy lodge. But, the influence of Duncan’s subtle defiance finally tells Marian what is eating her – it’s Peter all along!

At this stage of the book,  I begin to wonder what fuels my urge to run. I was just beginning to strangely identify with Marian’s messy head, and she had found her solution?

When I paused to think, it struck me. I run away because there is a rebel sitting in my head. A rebel whose existence I do not want to acknowledge! It rebels against roles I need to play, things I need to do, ways in which I need to behave. It rebels against what I want people to think of me. Further, it’s rebelling against the conformist that I am. The thought seemed funny to me! I enjoy being this boring conformist. This rebel was forcing me to become an active being. Am I then running away from myself?

Marian’s struggle was easy to identify with because her body is rebelling for her, against the same things my mind is… in fact, most minds or bodies hate such constraints.

As Marian begins to regain her sense of self, she decides to make her conflict physical. She bakes a cake, shaped like a woman, with immense detail – the hair, the eyes, the lips – and feeds it to Peter saying, “This is what you really want.”

I can’t bake a cake to save my life, it doesn’t solve this inherent conflict either.

Even actually running does not help. I only end up with sore feet at the end of the day.

But, Marian resolving her conflict made me feel good about having that rebel sitting in my head. The conformist in me will not resolve my conflict, but The Edible Woman helped reason the irrationality.

That’s what you call a good book!


Madras in pictures


That old book smell


Nothing can smell better than an old battered book. What’s better? The smell of an old battered book from an equally old book collection – right off the streets!

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The old book store, in Mylapore, opposite the iconic Kamadhenu theatre is a treat to book lovers and students. On a mountain of books sits a woman busily throwing at her customers the books they want.

The piles of engineering textbooks can be slightly unnerving for a non-science person, but when the clutter is cut through, the variety of classics and comics this mountain spews at you is amazing.

This platform book shop was started by Alwar nearly 50 years ago, now an old, bearded, almost saint-like man. Today, his smart assistant Mary runs the shop . Perched atop the mountain, Mary first curses us for interrupting her during peak time. But as we wait and simply watch her in action, she warms up to us.

The rains in the city have ruined some of the books and given some others a brilliant odour. As I wait for our elusive subject to talk to us, I come across an ancient copy of The Awakening, a novel by Kate Chopin written in 1899. The novel itself was explosive in content for the time and age that it was published in.  This feminist classic was made more precious by the notes of a previous owner.

The old book shop wasn’t merely an experience of street shopping. The shop itself is a story waiting to be discovered – stories that the books tell of the hands they’ve passed and the lives they’ve seen.

For more on this story, click here

Your waste is my waste


Stepping stones, green grass and a pond… on the surface, the scene is beautiful. But look deeper, actually, sniff deeper and you’ll know the water is really standing sewage waste and the stepping stones are for avoiding the muck.

Stones that help wade though the muck.

This is a scene in a city hospital in Taramani.

Stagnant gutter water floods a garden of a house in the hospital.

  Every monsoon, gutter water from the hospital’s sewage lines, along with waste    from Pallikaranai, a wetland area behind the hospital premises, drains into the hospital, as it is the lowest point in the area. This is not only a health hazard to the patients here, it is a nuisance to the hospital’s senior citizen wing.

   According to Radha, a voluntary employee with the hospital this is not a new happening. The hospital has been flooded with the waste of the region every monsoon season for over ten years. “Earlier, the entire hospital would be inaccessible during the monsoons. Now, a road has been constructed with a proper gutter. But, this has increased the height of the roads, and therefore our houses are even lower,” she says.

  During the monsoons, the gutters of the hospital along with the waste of Pallikarnai collect in theselow-lying areas, most of which are residences of employees and doctors.

The standing water makes for a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes, toads, snails and diseases. The stench of the waste makes living here impossible.

The solution however is a simple one – connect the hospital’s drain lines to the main drain on the adjoining road. However,  permission for this from the corporation has been pending for five years.

Taramani’s monsoon woes have been reported about extensively in the media, yet every year the rains seem to bring residents the same host of problems.

More on this from blogger Demystifying Ungodliness

Where God is made


Amidst the noise and bustle of Madras city is a small winding street that took me into Koyanvan Pettai meaning ‘Potters’ Lane’. Every year, much before the festivities of Ganesh Chaturthi begin in the rest of the city, the potters of Kosapet (as it is now known) gear up to make thousands of Ganesha idols.

 The lanes are spotted with many idols, in various stages of improvement, each stage carefully constructed by different members of the family.

 The streets look like a painting, stained with colours from previous seasons. I entered one of the houses. The lady of the house Vasantha invited me in. A transistor played old tamil songs in background as Vasantha and her three children deftly shaped the idols. The process is complex but yields beautiful results.

The making of the idol

 The variety in the shapes, sizes and style of the idols are fantastic. In these houses, Ganesha becomes a cricketer, an IT geek, a tailor or a student and the artisans have learnt to adapt tradition to modernity.

 Idol making is a community tradition, passed on through generations, in every household of this locality. The kids of the community pride their knowledge of the art, the women carry it forward.

There was a time when making these idols was a family occupation. The men however have been forced to look at other avenues as the community receives no aid to keep their art alive. “It is frustrating,” said Vasantha. “We don’t have money or facilities, but we are trying to save our tradition,” she says.

 As I left, Vasantha asked me to come back for the festival this month, and come back every year after that, as she hoped her art will live on.

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Absolutely low class


Kancha Iliah is a Dalit Bahujan activist. During a lecture in Chennai, he challenged everything I considered normal. This is a conversation that made me rethink about my roots that are firmly planted in this city and its culture . 

“Exceptions cannot be history”, started off Kancha Iliah – a man known for his radical opposition to caste hierarchy. His views on the futility of high caste communities can be downright offensive. His take on most issues is highly contended and his struggle for an equal society can turn the world around.

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India is a very regional society. Despite all the liberal thinking and doing, a Tamilian, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Kannadiga and all the other multitudes will always put region, language and state first. With this strong regionalism – religion and casteism are inevitable. And the farther away one is from their roots, the more vigourous this obsession is. No, I am not talking in sociological terms; it is merely a distinction that we all draw in our heads.

A Brahmin is acutely aware of the ‘superiority’ that the caste system has ‘gifted’ him. Like a popular joke goes, a Brahmin is so proud of his prosperous belly; his sight fails to go beyond!

I am a ‘tambrahm’, as we are classified. It is a broad and misleading stereotype that labels us all as prosperous, brainy and even snobbish. My parents however have given me the most liberal childhood. In fact, they never introduced the concept of caste to me – That I am a Brahmin, and that my caste gives me ‘super-rights’, was never told to me. Even my name doesn’t have the slightest indication of my caste or region. I have never had such a distinction in my head. People were just people.

Then we were taught the caste system in school, the historic role of each of the four varnas. When I found out my caste,  I was proud of being at the top of the ladder. Wasn’t school supposed to educate and not corrupt? But, learning had to be accepted blindly.

So when Kancha Iliah challenged high caste attitudes, rituals or even habits like vegetarianism, my rigid mind resisted. How dare he? This is my religion, my rituals. Who is he to comment on them? Well, he is exactly who should comment on them, for he wasn’t offered basic rights like education on a silver platter as I was.

When he supported the removal of the controversial Ambedkar cartoon from school textbooks, I disagreed. I felt students in class 11 and 12 were old enough to be given such a perspective, that they should be allowed to construct their own opinions. While I ideologically disagreed with Mr. Iliah’s speech, I was amazed at his ability to make me think.

For once, I stopped being a tambrahm, proud of my rasam and filter coffee and began looking at a world where rice was a luxury. True, I have not grown up in a caste-rigid atmosphere, but that does not give me the right to be blissfully oblivious of the lives and struggles of other men and women my age.

We can love the man or hate him, resist his thoughts and detest his ideas. But we cannot do any of this without thinking about what he said. For more than just a fleeting moment there, my caste makes me guilty.

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