Did you know that beneath that luminous marble, is a core of bricks?
Seriously? The Taj Mahal? This fact about the most familiar monument to Indians, and many more such nuggets about our heritage took me by surprise. But then, I should have expected as much since I was at a workshop by INTACH or the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage of the Nilgiris Chapter. The location – the YWCA building opposite the Race Course in Ooty – was itself imbued with historical and architectural significance as Dr. Suresh, convenor of Tamil Nadu INTACH, explained in the end.
Conducted over two days, 13th and 14 July, the workshop sought to acquaint school teachers with the need of and skills for starting heritage clubs in their institutions with the ultimate goal of protecting national heritage.On the first day Ms. Purnima Dutt, the resource person conducting the workshop, used an interesting mix of talk, audio-visual media and games to give an overview on the goals, aspects and methodology of running a heritage club while the second day passed in a whirl of activities including a much-anticipated visit to Ooty’s heritage buildings like St Stephens Church, the Nilgiri Library and the Stone House built by John Sullivan, the first Englishman to arrive in Ooty and hence the founder of modern history of the famous hill station. The warmth and bonhomie evoked at the workshop venue served a cheerful counterpoint to the chilly breeze and slate grey Nilgiri sky outside.
Satiated by a hearty lunch, as we began walking out of the dining room, hitherto unnoticed details like a jade green gravy boat on the sideboard and a piano with candle-holders on decorative hinges caught our attention, taking us back to dining and partying ways of decades ago. This new heightened awareness of heritage took a while to sink in and as we left on our own ways, I am certain many of us were already thinking of how best to pass it on to the younger generation.
“You mean you are actually – willingly – doing this?”
My daughter’s incredulity would’ve been funny had the scene been playing out on the TV screen, like in a Man with a Plan type of family comedy series where teens perpetually talk to parents with an arched eyebrow.
“Why should it be so strange that I might want to do a course?” I tried to keep my equanimity even as I felt fine tendrils of self-doubt uncurling in my heart.
“Who would want to voluntarily study, take an exam, go through this —?!” the last word was quite expressive of the hatred that kids have for exams.
As you may have guessed by now – this mini inter-generational drama was all about my signing up for a college course. I had a sneaking suspicion my teen daughter’s reaction was actually resentment at the possibility of not having me at her beck and call for a few months the following year when I would be in the thick of my studies. But over the next few weeks my suspicions evaporated. I found her actually happy that she had a co-sufferer now and eventually my darling even began taking on the much-despised pet-related chores off my shoulders.
The rest of the family was just relieved I had found something to plug my intermittent whining about the absence of a ‘proper’ career.
Outside, my revelation was generally met with varying degrees of interest – from an off-hand “oh really” in the middle of a rambling description of shopping in Dubai’s Gold Souk to real concern that I might be subjecting my brain cells to more than it could bear at this age. Two reactions stand out in my memory – one:
“Really – But why? What possible good can any course do now – will you even make enough to cover course fees?”
And the second was, of course, what started it all:
“I see…if you are so interested in the subject, maybe you should go ahead with it – just find a way.”
Some words, uttered by someone, in a moment of pure congruence – you never know where it can lead you.
Human lives are densely interwoven with stories – we are born as the result of intersection of two people’s stories, grow up listening to tales, acquire morals, warnings, inspiration through them and inevitably construct our own narratives – replete with sub-plots, twists and turns, climaxes and temporary resolutions till another complication begins to take shape. In fact I think our stories do not even die with us – they might figure as a prologue in our children’s or sub-plots in other people’s stories and anything else that we leave behind as a legacy.
And who best to tell your story than you?
A few days back our book club met to discuss Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Remember Liesel, and her inexplicable tendency of swiping a book wherever she comes across one? Even though in the beginning of the novel she cannot read ! Eventually Liesel moves beyond “collecting” books – she learns to read and most importantly, write. The act of writing her own story saves her – metaphorically, as it imbues her life experiences with meaning and optimism and then literally in the end as she falls asleep in the basement while writing her book and thus escapes the bombing which wipes out her foster family.
And yet not all personal narratives need be positive. The theory of narrative therapy as propounded by Michael White and David Epston, points out how problem-saturated life stories can lead to unhappiness, worry, anxiety and such psychological issues. The way ahead lies in re-interpreting, re-framing negative events and episodes to construct a positive narrative and looking for “unique moments” or opportunities to bring about beneficial changes.
Writing your story can be cathartic when emotions and feelings are raging inside you, can give coherence when you can’t make sense of your life and finally closure, when you need to get over episodes or people to be able to move on. Finally, as one of my favourite poets, Maya Angelou says,
A quilt shaking as though it has a life of its own, like an elephant in there – a pair of young female eyes is struck into silence by what she sees…
This is how the 1942 short story, Lihaaf translated as The Quilt ends which was eventually hailed as a trailblazer in women’s writing about class, gender and sexuality in the Indian subcontinent. The author was a bold, irreverent 27 year old woman named Ismat Chugtai whose liberal upbringing and a keen awareness of patriarchal politics made her take up the pen. Later in life, her non-fiction work, Yahan se Wahan Tak would read, “The pen is my livelihood and my friend, my confidante…Whenever I want I can send for anyone via the pen’s flying carpet, and when these people arrive, I can say anything, make them cry, laugh or reduce them to ashes with my harsh words.”
It is this fire from her pen that charted a new kind of writing where women could use the form of the short story in Urdu to talk about not just female sexuality but about other kinds of discrimination, oppressions they faced on a daily basis. This however did not go unopposed by patriarchal institutions as stories like Lihaaf faced court cases and others like Angaarey were banned at various times in the subcontinent.
Apart from Lihaaf, Chugtai is today best known for her story collections like Chhui Mui, Thori si Pagal, Aik Baat, Do Haath, novellas like Ziddi which was made into a hit Hindi move of the same title but most of all for the novel, Tehri Lakeer or The Crooked Line which was considered her magnum opus. Later her non-fiction work like essays and memoirs especially Kaghazi hai Pehraan too received much appreciation and renown. Official recognition came in the form of a slew of media awards including the Filmfare Award for best Story for the Partition classic Garam Hawa on which she worked with noted Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi as well as state awards, including the Padma Shri in 1976.
Chugtai died in 1991 in then Bombay but not before she had been successful in ‘Lifting The Veil’ – incidentally the title given to an anthology of her stories – from the reality of gender and class politics in the subcontinent and offered women writers to come, new avenues in literary form and style.
After lying in bed and staring at the darkness for what seemed an eternity, I decided I might as well enjoy some coffee.
Now fortified with caffeine, I was raring to go. But rather than diving into work, I wanted to do something different – “let me use the early hour”, I thought. As I stared at the wallpaper, I realized a change was long due – soon I was browsing for a suitable replacement.
Rumi has always been a favourite voice for inspirational quotes and images. While I have quite a few of these on my phone, I hunted for an image of good resolution for my wallpaper.
But first a little about the person himself. Jalal-ud-din Rumi was born sometime in first century AD in Balkh – a flourishing centre of arts and learning in Khorasan, north-eastern Iran. Like his father, Rumi became highly respected as a teacher and philosopher, even before he turned 30.
But soon his life was to be turned upside down. At 37, he met a wandering dervish named Shams al-Din Muhammad bin Ali Malikdad Tabrizi and was deeply influenced by the latter’s mystic teachings. However Tabrizi’s fame earned the jealousy of many and the seer left without telling anyone. Though heartbroken at Tabrizi’s disappearance, Rumi was inspired to write Divan Shams Tabrizi, now considered his greatest poetic work. Eventually all of Rumi’s teachings and philosophy came to be compiled in six volumes of Mathnavi, by his loyal disciple, Hesam al-Din Chalabi.
Today Rumi’s words quite often find their way into lists of inspirational sayings and quotes. One reason why they are so popular could be perhaps that even when taken out of context, they do surprisingly well. Then again their essential mysticism means that they lend themselves to varied interpretations – depending on the inner compulsions of the reader. Finally the natural imagery, fluid verses and a sparse symbolism means that despite being translated from Persian, his words glow with hope and generosity across time and space.
This quote from a 1980 UN Report made up the first slide of the Gender Sensitization class that I took yesterday. Though women in most societies do more than men was generally accepted as a fact by my students – themselves all women – when framed in numbers, the very extent of the inequality shocked them into silence.
Over the next two hours, we covered a few theoretical concepts and then moved on to some of the ways gender was relevant to language, communication and workplace dynamics. Along the way we not only explored various ways, language posits – for example through words like ‘sportsmanship’, ‘penmanship’, ‘right-hand man’ etc – the male gender as the norm but also how popular psychology concepts like the masculine ‘report’ vs the feminine ‘rapport’ style of communication construct, disseminate and perpetuate gender stereotypes and hence inequality. Eventually we arrived at various gender issues at workplace, ending with the most traumatic of them all, sexual harassment.
Though I tried to keep the lectures as focussed as possible to the course curriculum, the ‘digressions’ were especially enjoyable. We covered possible causes of patriarchy and talked about Gerda Lerner’s social historicist hypothesis in the Creation of Patriarchy. How immensely valuable is such research – using data from anthropology and culture studies, she historicizes patriarchy which eventually frees women from the notion that existing gender inequalities are timeless and universal.
What made the class truly enriching were inputs from my students as well. Kamla Bhasin for example was pointed as one of the foremost feminist voices in the Indian context and at one TED talk, she reveals how patriarchy impacts both genders – oppressing not only women but dehumanizing men as well. What it has done to the third gender, I asked the class to reflect, on their own.
I however not only conclude the class without a mention of the person, who started it all for me – my Gender Studies professor from Jadavpur University, Dr. Indira Choudhuri. I did my best in the last few minutes of the class to share with my students her erudition, ground-breaking research as well as the sheer dynamism of her personality – while also regretting that as a student more than 20 years ago, I was barely equipped with the experience and sensitivity to optimize my learning from her.
Thankfully we all grow and come to know better – herein lies my hope for society as well!
The first time I came across her words were actually in a collection of quotes – I forget now, on what subject. But the haunting simplicity and quiet intensity of the words had me hooked:
“My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But oh my foes and ah my friends
It sheds a lovely light.”
I dug deeper and found out that this was actually an entire poem titled ‘First Fig’ by American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Edna St Vincent Millay who was famed as much as for transforming the sonnet with a new sensibility as for her independent sexuality. Her life and art are filled with instances of standing up to sexual and social norms of the time and one such anecdote that caught my interest was her struggle to claim her own name early in life. Apparently despite being named Edna, she wanted to be called ‘Vincent’ and even crossed swords with her school principal on the matter.
This biographical anecdote lent a fresh perspective to yet another favourite piece of mine from Figs from Thistles, titled ‘Prisoner’: