How to be Assertive

‘Being Assertive’ was my lecture title today. Since it is a common enough topic, I planned to keep it short. Most of the slides were about how to adopt an assertive rather than passive or aggressive stance – like:

  • Ask, rather than demand
  • Learn to say ‘no’ when required
  • Hold your response till the correct time to express it
  • Check the prevailing mood before speaking
  • Collaborate rather than compete

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And yet when I tried to do a few exercises with my students, we all realized how difficult it was to come up with ‘assertive’ responses to difficult situations commonly encountered in day-to-day life. Aggression came more naturally since one could simply release the cauldron of irrationality always lurking beneath ; indeed sometimes it was even easier to be passive – just switch off and give over the field to the annoying person rather than expend time and effort in coming up with the ideal assertive response.

Part of the reason, I think, why being assertive far more challenging as compared to its two alternatives is because it requires a careful balancing act – express your own needs but also listen to others’ opinions, say ‘no’ when needed but also fulfil your responsibilities, stand up to the bully but stay calm and so on; in fact it would take a high degree of self-awareness to recognize one’s own self-worth without giving way to a sense of entitlement which in turn can easily lead to an aggressive stance.

One way, I think, that can help is to have an all-round respectful attitude – that way you can express your own needs and even if you disagree with the other person, you can do it without put-downs or sarcasm – respectfully !

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The Glow of Festivities…

With Goddess Durga bidding us mortals farewell for another year, I started thinking of what Durga Pujo actually means for contemporary Bengalis, scattered across the globe.

Being the five-day long, elaborate, highly ritualized religious occasion that it is, Durga Pujo is, these days, primarily a communal affair. In cities with large Bengali population, neighbourhoods organize their own Pujo whereas in places with limited Bengali presence, people come together to form cultural associations which then take the onus of organizing the Pujo. Though there are still some ancestral families in Bengal which organize their private Pujo, their numbers are few and gradually declining.

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Durga Pujo in Camden Hall, London

In foreign lands on the other hand, festivities have to be planned, not according to the religious almanac dates, but on a weekend when people can afford to take a couple of days off from work. even then, a thousand details need to be thrashed out well ahead, starting from the idol, priests and dhaki ( those who play the traditional drum) needed to be flown in from India to arranging ingredients needed for the ritual worship and finally of the immersion of the idol.

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Durga Pujo in Singapore

So, why make the effort – especially in places like this, where even coming across a Bengali on a street is enough to make me cross it and introduce myself in my mother tongue. I guess, it has to do with the innate human desire to connect over common cultural practices, especially when faced with the prospect of being subsumed by a different majority culture. Bonding – even for four days – over shared tastes, fragrances, language, music and visual images is deeply satisfying and sustaining. For me, there is the added interest of facilitating my daughter’s awareness of Bengali rituals and customs.  so, though she did not feel compelled enough to wade through Ashtami crowds for the afternoon ‘bhog’ of ‘khichuri’, the same evening when, the tall tiered lamp was lit with a hundred and eight lights for Shandhi Pujo, her face too glowed in wonder and appreciation – and that was enough for me!

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Durga Pujo in the Nilgiris

Durga Pujo

And so the celebrations begin

Part of the fun in following the lunar calendar is its variability. And so with the beginning of each Gregorian year – based on the solar calendar – on 1st January, Bengalis around the world first take a peek to check out when the Hindu month of Ashvin would come about – anytime from mid-September to mid-October.

Ashvin is special for Bengalis not just because it has always ushered in a much desired change in the Kolkata weather – from hot, humid days to cooler, crisper mornings but because it marks their biggest religious and social festival, Durga Pujo. Over five days, Goddess Durga is worshipped according to rules laid down in ancient Hindu scriptures though like all complex religious symbols, she means different things to different people.

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The dominant theme is of course, of the victory of good over evil. There are in fact two stories exemplifying this theme and associated with Goddess Durga. According to the story of origin, the Goddess was created by pooling up the resources of powerful Hindu gods in order to defeat the buffalo-demon king Mahishasura whose growing powers were on the verge of driving out the celestial  beings from their abode in heavens. Later the Hindu god Shri Rama would worship Goddess Durga and invoke her blessings in his campaign against demon King Ravana. Both stories end with the defeat of demons and victory of gods.

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My personal favourite however is the story which represents the Goddess Durga as a beloved daughter. Married to Lord Shiva who lives in the remote peaks of Himalayas, Uma – an avatar of Durga – spends the whole year looking after her husband and children. In the month of Ashvin though, Uma with four children makes the long trip down to her natal place where her family – and everyone else in Bengal – celebrates their divine daughter’s and grandchildren’s stay with five days of merrymaking and feasting. Indeed in the ‘Agomani’ songs which herald the arrival of Durga Pujo around a week ahead, it is this story that is narrated – and which echoes in the heart of every daughter who is always a goddess, a source of love and strength for her family – no matter how far away.

When the Earth twisted and turned…

As news of Mexico devastated by a massive earthquake hit TV headlines, exactly on the other side of the world, I was getting ready to retire for the night. An endlessly running the TV ticker tape mentioned intensity, number of casualties and the epicentre but the news, as though, skimmed the surface of my consciousness in a similar loop…

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Photo Courtesy: ABC News

It is only now, with the lights turned out and the TV on mute that I really think of what is going on there…families grieving, struggling with loss, so many searching for loved ones, not knowing whether they are alive, injured, lost or gone forever.

And so many homes destroyed – with shelter goes safety, privacy, protection apart from destruction of assets, comforts and necessities. Women, children, babies, the sick and old find themselves forced out of their familiar surroundings and at the mercy of the outdoors, or at least in the grip of uncertainty. Even people who can fall back upon support from relatives and other resources, find getting back on their feet enormously daunting.

Worse still is the unpredictability that erupt with such disasters in human nature – if at one extreme, there would a person willing to risk his/her life to keep digging away at the rubble to rescue a stranger, at the other end might be familiar faces not thinking twice before snatching away that bottle of drinking water from your child’s hands.

 

Can I actually imagine – with my family safe, warm, peacefully sleeping by my side – what unimaginable difficulties such disasters  bring. Possibly not. And yet, some images arise from the dusty crevasses of my mind, taking shape of Eliot’s Wasteland,

‘Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.’

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Ooty Literary Festival 2017

On a Saturday morning pleasantly refreshed by a light drizzle, I drove down the winding hill roads towards Ooty. My destination was the Nilgiris District Library which over two days was hosting the Ooty Literary Fest. Just in its second year, the Fest had already attracted several famous literary names from various parts of India, especially the southern states.

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As I parked my car in a corner of the ample Library compound, I could not but help but admire the elegant colonial structure before me. Though founded in 1858, the Nilgiri Library moved into its present building in 1869 which continues to impress with its high Gothic arches and stately Victorian architecture. Its striking red and white exterior conceals a warm interior boasting of wooden flooring and several pieces of claw-footed antique, dark teak furniture.

I proceeded towards the central reading room where a panel discussion on “Feminisms of India” was scheduled to begin shortly and found myself a comfortable chair. The hall soon came alive with discussions of various strands of Indian feminism, expressed through stories, mythology and art. Maharashtrian writer Urmila Pawar described how Dalit women suffer double discrimination while Bama recounted how gendered constructs like “mothering” and “maternal” affection actually shackle women to weakness. Samhita Arni on the other hand talked about various lesser-known versions of Ramayana which explored the predicament of characters like ‘Angad’ and ‘Mandodari’ who bear the brunt of the King Rama’s war on Lanka.

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What emerged was the realization how Feminism can be more than a cry for women’s equality – a tool to chisel away at other forms of discrimination like casteism just as it can liberate men from equally oppressive gendered expectations, of “macho-ness” and “masculinity”.

As bell hooks, says

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Hidden Histories…

How little we know of our own history!

In Kerala for a holiday weekend, this realization struck me with wonder and a tinge of regret. In the north Malabar city of Kannur, or the erstwhile Cannanore, is located the Arakkal Museum. Though rather plain looking to eyes used to Mughal glamour and Rajput grandeur, the traditional architecture of the Museum building  – with its low long structure, laterite tiles, gleaming wooden beams within and pearl white walls without – blends beautifully with the palm-fringed verdant landscape.

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The Durbar hall of this former Arakkal-kettu or palace complex has now been transformed into the main display area where a visitor can glimpse various objects associated with the royal family, ranging from the original handwritten letter to the East India Company to weapons, utensils, furniture – right down to an antique telephone which still has instructions for use.

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What I found most interesting though was the presence of so many women in the photo gallery of the Arakkal rulers. Kerala has a history of matrilineal social instiutions – where lineage passes through the mother. Even then it was more often the eldest male member in the maternal family who would be the real power centre. The Arakkal famly is not only the sole Muslim royal family of Kerala but also has the distinction of having the senior most member – whether a man or a woman – as the ruler. While the male ruler would take on the title of the Ali Raja, the female ruler would be known as Arakkal Beebi.

Queens and female rulers have been less of a novelty in India than mainstream historians would like to believe. And yet only few writers and researchers have bothered to find out how such women negotiated deeply entrenched patriarchal institutions to fight and rule. Who knows, some day the Arakkal royal history may yield fascinating new knowledge not just about the country’s and state’s past but about its women rulers as well.

 

 

A Prayer for India…

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On the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of India’s freedom from British colonial government – celebrated as Independence Day in the country – no other poem feels more relevant today, than this one from Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize winning anthology, Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

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