Tuesday, January 16, 2018

No kidding

I overheard two women in a conversation, telling each other how many training sessions they have done over the summer. “Two,” said each. Then, one of them added, “Person so-and-so has done nine.” She paused briefly before adding, “She has no children, she has all the time to travel for these trainings.”

I flinched at the multiple assumptions being made here, not to mention the snarky, sarcastic tone. How many times have people assumed that I will do something because I do not have children? How many times have people seen me neck-deep in work and flippantly attributed it to childlessness? I work seven days a week, I go to work on the weekends too, and I have no hesitation or guilt about that. When people are traveling or entertaining friends, I spend my weekend conducting research. I do it because I treat my work as a passion, as my identity, and not as a 9-to-5 engagement. I take ownership of my work, treat my work as a means to a better, independent and intellectual lifestyle. I watched exactly one movie at a theater last year, I have not made any friends in the new city, and I am okay with that (I have other things to do with my time now). I don’t put in the extra hours merely because I do not have children. I could be pursuing a dozen different things, including sleeping, if I did not feel so strongly about my work.

I have often witnessed people looking down on others who haven’t prioritized procreation as their vocation. I pick on these implicit biases a little better than the next person, having been at the receiving end of it many times. Notice how an ambitious woman will be shamed because she has no children (often by other women), but not an ambitious man. A man who undertook nine trainings in a summer, children or no children, will be revered, treated as a role model, and depicted as an exemplary professional. Only a woman is a childless freak if she has enough energy to pursue the same amount of work.

There is more to observe and learn from the world around us than there is from fictitious, unrealistic movies. See if your married friends who once hung out with you are treating you differently, do not invite you home anymore, but are still hanging out with other married friends. You need to get better friends in that case. See how advertisements around you are sharing implicit messages about only one kind of life as an ideal, happy life, the one where you have a spouse, a pet and multiple children. Insurance ads. Home ads. Toothpaste ads will often show large, happy families smiling together, and so will cooking oil ads (with often the woman cooking). It looks like single people do not brush their teeth and do not cook for themselves. My two cents- don’t put your money where you are being marginalized.

See if your workplace is giving you job duties they are not giving your peers who have families. See if you are repeatedly being made a victim of micro aggression. When your boss asks you to stay in office till 9 pm, but not your peer who has children, there is a problem. When you are asked to travel at odd hours but your peers are not, you need to step back and voice your concerns. It is easy to assume that women who do not have children have all the time in the world and are hence available to take on extra responsibility at work (often without adequate compensation). Keep your eyes and ears open for such discrimination. You do not owe anyone an explanation about how you spend your time at home, why you spend your weekends working (or not working), or how lucky you are to have all the extra time in the world (an ill-conceived assumption at the least). You could be caring for the elderly, you could be grappling with a personal setback, and even if you are not, you do not owe anyone an explanation.

If people are talking about you in a different, derogatory way because you do not have children (or telling you that you will not understand because you do not have a child), if people at work are taking liberties and giving you extra work at odd hours because you do not have children, if your friends are making less of you or your interests because you do not have children, we have a problem.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

The best experience of 2017

New year is a time of checks and balances. Planning for the year ahead while reflecting on memories from the past year. Earlier today, I was wondering what is the best thing that has happened to me in 2017. There are many good things, but if I had to choose one, I would pick traveling with my father for the first time.  

Traveling together did much more than show us the sights of South Asia. It undid the parent-child relationship that often manifests as worrying, obsessing or controlling long after the child has grown up and no longer needs parenting. That parents do not have to parent all their lives is a concept many do not understand. Traveling together unshackled those chains and made us equal. We were two adults, both with almost no prior exposure to traveling in South Asia, traveling together for the first time. We figured things out together, we figured out maps and meals, we negotiated our way without knowing the native language, we figured out visas and new currencies, and we picked a travel pace that is comfortable to both of us (My father is sometimes too full of energy, too restless, too eager to see everything while I enjoy sitting at a spot and taking in things more). He made dinner for me every night and I cooked breakfast for him every day. There were no assumed gender roles or parental roles. And that was the best thing this trip did to us.

Ever since we broke out of the parent-child care-giving chains, we have become closer. We talk more on the phone, and those are long, engaging conversations about our individual life aspiration and goals, and not the usual script of lists and directions like "Eat on time and don't catch a cold." I have learnt things about his childhood I did not know, and he discovered aspects of me not known to him. For example, I could clearly see the discomfort on his face when I bought a handful of fried grasshoppers (he is vegetarian and has only seen me eat chicken and mutton), but he did not stop me or preach me. Ever since the trip, he has resumed painting after years, I have gone back to learning a language, and we often exchange what he recently painted or what words I recently learnt. He was the cultural secretary of the Durga Pujo committee in our neighborhood this year and shared pictures of all the cultural events he organized with pride while I shared pictures of my talks at conferences. And there is no more " সাবধানে থাকিস " or "Be careful, live carefully" at the end of the conversation. Only, "talk to you next week" and "Where shall we go for our next trip?"


Tuesday, January 09, 2018

50 shades of patriarchy

There is a uniformed cop at the gate of CCU (Kolkata's international airport) who checks each person's passport and airplane ticket before letting them inside the airport. Since my father is standing ahead of me, the cop checks my father's passport and ticket first and nods an approval. Then the cop looks at my passport and ticket, looks visibly confused for a few seconds, looks at my father and then me, and turns around again and hands my passport to my father. In a split second, I know exactly what is happening. I grab my passport back from my father and say loud enough for the cop to hear, "My passport needs to be with me, not anyone else."

I wonder what you will call it. My father thought that it was misjudgment and confusion on the cop's part. Same last name and same destination is usually for married partners (especially if the destination is Bangkok), but I am not sure one gets to see many father-daughter duos headed there (without a mother or a son-in-law in picture). However, I am convinced that if this scenario was randomly repeated, say, a thousand times, one would observe a binary trend one could confidently predict given the power of numbers. That trend is not confusion or misjudgment, as my father thinks. It is called patriarchy. It happens when I take my father to a vacation, yet my passport is handed back to him because he is assumed to be my caregiver. It happens when I treat a male friend to lunch, yet the waiter comes and confidently hands over the check/bill to my male friend.

Patriarchy is not necessarily always practiced by men. This cop happened to be a woman. 


Sunday, January 07, 2018

New Year 2018

New year is a time when many people make resolutions. One of my new year resolutions was to take one nice, well-framed picture of something every day. But in the first six hours of my new year, I learnt two important things. One, those resolutions do not matter (for me). And two, when it comes to basic survival, my crazy, weird, eccentric ways of being and doing things do not matter either.

I did not book my airplane ticket to Seattle until the very last minute. Even then, I made a deal with myself. I had a writing project I had delayed for more than a year now. If I did not finish that by December 31st, I will not take the plane on January 1st. I will sit at home and feel bad for missing my trip, but finish my project first. So I worked diligently for the past two weeks to finish it.

Looks like the flight was delayed by many hours. Rather than arriving close to midnight, it would now arrive very early in the morning. I was exhausted to the core from finishing work last-minute. I half-packed my bags, set the alarm at 4 am and fell asleep.

When I woke up, I was horrified to see that it was 5:45 am. Somehow shaking off a gripping, paralyzing fear, in 15 minutes, I had brushed, packed whatever I could, and left the house. In my mad rush to not miss the plane, I left without taking a shower, still wearing my sleeping pajamas and woolen socks, I had forgotten to pack many essentials, I had not taken a blanket or pillow, but I had miraculously managed to catch the plane just on time.

What is the big deal, you were able to take the plane after all, one would rightly say. Well, I am the OCD kind who reaches the airport two hours before required, diligently packs everything, checks the cooking stove and the heater twice before leaving home every day, packs enough dry food during travels to last any crisis for 24 hours, stores quarters (25 cent coins) at two different places in the bag, boards a bus with exact change in hand, and so on. I am quite mental that way, I like to have things figured out beforehand.

This time, I forgot my pillow and blanket and shivered through the long plane ride (and ended up with neck cramps too). I let people see me in mismatched pajama and blinding red woolen socks with a rip in one of the toes. I forgot my entire camera bag home, something that has never happened before (so much for my new year resolution!). I forgot to put things away in the freezer (but I checked the cooking stove and the heater, only once though). But it did not matter. My constant need to micromanage things around me and feel like I am in control of the environment did not matter. Taking those DSLR shots every day did not matter. What mattered is that I was able to hop onto the plane just in time, spend part of the new year with the kids, inhale deeply Seattle's warmer air when I arrived, eat pongal from Thiruvadarai pujo that G had cooked, eat mutton biryani, and leave behind all my work, worries, writing projects and new year resolutions for the time being. This house, my room, this bed has so many memories for me that spans over years.

Baby Kalyani (who is a baby no more) excitedly told me the names of all the country capitals that she has recently memorized rote (and I asked her to memorize all the countries that constituted former USSR before 1991). Her baby sister spotted me from afar and screamed in delight, squeezing some more toothpaste on the bathroom counter top. G taught me funny new Tamil words like Thiruttuthanam while I sat on the hardwood floor in the kitchen (my favorite place) and ate hungrily. And finally, I hopped onto my bed at the end of the day and slept peacefully without the worry of alarm clocks and missing airplanes.