Thursday, August 26, 2010

Belgrade

Lights from the home on a hill
pierce the still lake water
in jeweled spears. Two stars
dot the immense sky. We hold
hands, talk about a sunny
day behind us. Two days later
the clouds lift and picks me
up. I have sunk to the depths
of despair, feared drowning and
breathed again. You are there
waiting - arms outstretched,
harboring me, my spiraling
hopelessness, my magnificent
inertia to change.
The sun warms
my spirits, your smile and
touch. I start to uncoil
hesitantly fearing I
may be visited by pain.
I am learning your alphabet
of love so unlike my own. In
the early days we spoke the
same language - the relationship
argot of our time. Marriage
morphs the meaning of familiar
words in ways that only
you and I will understand.
We want to understand and
be understood without
effort as a measure of
our love. Often we fail.
Lying on the dock
wrapped in your arms, silence
broken by the lapping of water
against smooth, shiny rocks -
we learn our first words.
We teach each other - meet
in puzzlement sometimes.
Really ? Is that what that
means ? Then there is the
compendium of gesture
and touch. You signal affection
I read indifference. I try
love and you hear disappointment
or frustration.
We drift apart buffeted
by head winds of misunderstanding.
At opposite shores we consider
the distance between us.
I crave your touch but
fear to reach out. At dusk,
you turn to me - offering peace
ask for time and patience.
The neighbors are enjoying a
showing of Mama Mia! We join
them - we expand our vocabulary
to become a couple among many
others. Our child makes us one
of other families. They smile
at us, stop to ask if they can
take pictures of us. We smile
back, ask where they are from,
buy coffee, wild blueberry
scones and chat with them about their
day. In parting, they leave
us with words to add to our
lexicon - words we may shape
to be our own. The night after
may be just as dark, daybreak
bleaker and yet in time clouds
do part, you hold me in your arms
call me your girl as we dance
slowly near the kitchen sink.
In time, the happy moments will
stand out like jewels spearing
the dark water - the water itself
or its darkness hold not much meaning.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Spectator Sport

It was the summer vacation my last year at high school and I was in spending a few weeks at my Grandmother’s in Kolkata. On the evening which this post is about, my aunt and I were at Gariahat shopping. A young man who looked like a college student had been following us around for a while and then it happened. I was “eve-teased”. I told my aunt right away and she asked “Are you sure he did that ? He looks like a boy from a good family” and I replied “Yes. I am absolutely certain”.

She suggested that we give him another opportunity to be sure that I was right in my assessment of the "incident" and give us the chance to catch him in the act if I was. A few minutes later, we had reason to accost him, beat him with our bare hands with my aunt was livid enough to go at him with her umbrella berating him as she did for being a common lecher while pretending to be a student. He kept repeating “I’m sorry. I won't do it again”. As far as I could tell, he did not appear particularly contrite but was definitely taken aback by this unexpected attack by two women in a public place.

Soon enough, in true to form Kolkata fashion an audience had gathered around us in a circle. Several men suggested that we let him go because it was his first mistake – I was not sure how they could have known that to be the case.Yet other men said that he had been punished enough and we should stop now. But for the most part people (men and women) asked us “What happened ?” (clearly all that my aunt was saying in her rage to the man and his reaction to her accusations was not conveying the message clearly enough to our audience).

Some went as far as to wonder “Are you sure he really did something ?” or ask " How bad was it ?" (suggesting that us two women had recently exited a lunatic asylum and had got it into our deranged brains to beat up a random guy walking down the street minding his own business. If the lack of our mental faculties  was so painfully evident, they should have called the authorities to strait-jacket both of us to prevent further destruction of life and property. Instead they stood around watching and asking these questions).

Not one man or woman said anything in our support - let alone demonstrate it in any useful way. Some stayed in the side lines and bemoaned the state of society where a young girl duly accompanied by an aunt was not safe from the undesired attentions of street side Romeos. They were the first to walk away from the scene anxious not to get involved in any of it. It was clear they held both my aunt and I in very dim view - just the kind of women that Bengali "bhadralok" should steer clear off. Imagine causing such a racket over a small thing like "eve-teasing".

After a while both my aunt and I stopped from sheer mental and physical exhaustion. Anger and the public mockery that my humiliation had turned us into was enough to want us both to vanish without a trace. The young man got up, collected his text books that had fallen out of his bag. He walked away and so did we. The audience left with as much haste as they would exit a movie theater when the closing credits start to roll. I would imagine it had been a "paisa vasool tamasha" (spectacle worth the money) for all of them - and it didn't cost them anything.

When we got home, my Grandma flew into a panic fueled rage when she heard what had happened. She gave my aunt a mouthful for setting a bad example and behaving “like that” in public. What’s a young girl going to learn ? Next time a man does something to her (clearly this would hardly be the last time - she seemed confident of that at least), she’s going to try and beat him up and only bad things can result from that. Is that my aunt wanted to see happen to me ? Did she not know that women from respectable families did not call unpleasant attention to themselves in public ? I hated to see my feisty aunt, my hero be treated so unfairly but it was just not the time to argue with Grandma.

We had to deal with her withering statements disapproving of our conduct for a good hour before she finally stopped. She agreed it was hard to not become furious under the circumstances but should we not worry about not stirring up even more trouble. What if the guy had decided to strike back – he was over six feet tall and well built – what would we do then ? What if he had followed us home an decided to extract a revenge even more horrible ? No matter what there would always be crowd around us inquiring into the details of the incident and do nothing. Had we considered any of that ? Had my aunt taken leave of her senses ?

She decreed that for the rest of my stay at Kolkata I was to be accompanied by an uncle (if not both) each time I needed to go out somewhere. I asked my Grandma if she wanted enlist their friends as well – I could go out boldly with a dozen men forming a phalanx around me. Should I still get “eve-teased”, I had a better chance of fighting back. She was not in the least amused.

I did not fail to notice that my uncles (both my aunt's brothers and her husband) did not compliment her on her courage. They look just as concerned as my Grandma. I was disappointed to see that. Is that they best they could do - say nothing at all ? It took my some years to understand their predicament. They could not realistically take on all the bad guys that we would meet in the world outside a la Superman. With their limited resources, the best they could do is to keep us out of harm's way

To that end, they accompanied us whenever possible, ran errands for us when it was not considered "safe" for us to do so. Refused to let their teen-aged daughters to go out wearing clothes that some pervert on the street may find provocative - the list was endless. These are the men in families just like mine who believe they are doing their best to keep the women out of harm's way. While they mean well, they also enable the crippling cycle of fear, diffidence and dependence among women and there is a steep price to pay for all of it. That was my life growing up in India - a life that I have in common with most Indian women I know.


That incident has some of the most remarkable parallels to my experience writing a post (including the comments and emails it provoked) some time back about the lack of freedom for women in India and my hesitation to return there from America specially with a young daughter.Some of the  commenters reminded me of the audience that had gathered around my aunt and I at Gariahat many years ago.

They were those that convinced that I was over-reacting and nothing had really happened - India was not nearly as terrible for women as I made it out to be. Some were passers by with no desire to take sides one way or the other - it happens in India and around the world - maybe it is a little worse in India. No big deal. Yet others acted like men often do in India - go into full-throttle denial of the issue itself so they can continue to feel like "real" men. They focus on assembling a battery of evidence to show how India is no worse than any other country instead of being positive agents of change.

However, those closest to the subject - Indian women remained largely silent or vaguely dismissive. Their own experiences did not match mine though I was probably right and somewhat justified in my concerns and opinion on the subject. There was a welcome difference too - in the on-line world some were able to take a position on their own and stick with it - it was refreshing to see some solidarity from the sisters for a change. What I remember most vividly about that evening is the general attitude of the women in the audience – there was no sense of sister-hood with me (the victim) or my aunt (my defender). They mostly wanted to know the scoop – like it was some great mystery that only I could reveal unto them.

The subliminal message being that I had done something to cause this to happen and had it been them, the same man would have not reacted nearly the same way had it been them. Something was inherently wrong with me - what else do you expect with a firebrand aunt like that - and I was merely suffering the consequences of my less than satisfactory upbringing. They were so glad not to be at the receiving end of unwanted attention that they had forgotten that it could be their turn the very next moment.

None of them paused to think why it is that a man suspected of picking a pocket could  even get killed at the hands of a mob without any questions being asked but when it came to a woman being molested, a trial by fire was needed to prove she was justified in making the claim of harassment. It did not bother them that men could minimize or even deny what they had to go through when they had no right or business doing so. It did not strike them as ironic that they were participating in this kangaroo court proceeding alongside men - that they were their gender's worst enemy.

I had felt that evening, that the eve-teaser was probably a better man than any other male in the audience. He took the public beating and the abuses my aunt hurled at him without protest and left without a whimper. As much public sympathy he had with the men in the audience, he could have well used it to his advantage and tried to turn the crowd against us. Other than my aunt, not one woman assembled there to watch the tamasha felt the indignation a woman should - to realize that was as heartbreaking as it was frightening. As far as I was concerned my aunt was the only woman who had a woman's heart and soul.

When I wrote that earlier post, I was disappointed to see very few female readers come up and voice their opinion on that post. If that knot of people around the three of us in Kolkata was a petri dish in which to observe Indian society in a test environment, so was the post. While a lot of time has passed between the two events, fundamentally very little has changed. In a sense I was alone with a circle of spectators once again.The tragedy of the Indian woman is not about the men out to exploit, abuse and manipulate her when they find her in a vulnerable position, but it is the lack of solidarity with other women. We are a people divided against ourselves in more ways than can be counted but the price of women being divided between themselves in the face of so much social atrocity is possibly the highest.

In this country, every American woman (black and white) in my acquaintance who has been a single mother herself or knows someone who has been one has gone out of her way to help me in any way they possibly can. I have yet to see an exception to this rule. These are the women that made my life in my single parent days relatively simple. My experience in India had been the exact opposite - my marital status turned me into a social pariah almost instantly. Yes, there were exceptions to this rule but not nearly enough in number to make it a comfortable social existense for one such as myself. For this reason alone, I had been able to work it out for J and I so far away from family - far more comfortably than I was had been able to in India.

My friend A, who has spent half his life in Europe and America and the other half in India, wrote this to me back in the days when I was dithering between staying back in India to raise J with the support of family in surroundings I was familiar with and taking the plunge into the unknown in this country :


"America is country of second chances, there is no stigma attached to failure (and I mean in a social sense). You will find it very liberating in your situation and it may be worth all the trouble. India is a great place to live - people are warm and friendly but only as long as you don't "fail". Once you do, the facade falls off and you see people for who they really are. From what I can tell from talking to you, you are in a state of shock at the difference. Don't be. Accept it as a chance to find out who your "real" friends are. When you come here, you may have no friends at all but you will get by with the help and kindness of strangers".

It was good advise and I am glad I took it.

A lot has been written about the position of women in India and the endless list of impediments on their way forward. Much can be accomplished merely through cultivating a sense of sisterhood - you would think the experiences they have in the public space would make this easy. Class, social and economic status mean absolutely nothing to the average "eve-teaser". Every one is just a female gender - for better or worse that should facilitate a stronger sense of kinship between women but surprisingly enough it does not. 


That aunt is close to sixty now and on most days completely wiped out after babysitting her three grand-kids. My daughter will be a teenager soon and had I been back in Kolkata, I may have needed to do for her what my aunt once did for me - that is a sobering realization.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Move


After the marriage, a move happened. I used to think I lived simply, had very few belongings and could leave everything behind when it was time to move. In reality that is not quite how it worked out. The detritus of a decade clung to me a gooey mass of memories. The pack and move was the easier part - a couple of meltdowns notwithstanding. 
It is only when I started to unpack my belongings in the new closet that I was hit by the dead-weight of the old. In an ideal world, I would throw away everything from the past in lieu of being able to undo the past itself. But doing that is like peeling an onion - the past is laid layer upon layer and if I discarded enough of it, there would be nothing left of me or my life. I experienced an enormous sense of emptiness. Shorn of the baggage, memories and experiences there was no substance to me. I would float away like an soap bubble and the dissolve into nothingness. 
DB has yet to unpack his belongings but I doubt he will experience anything like what I did. He is simply cut of a different cloth. Unlike me, he lives in the moment and looks ahead. No matter what happened in his past, he never allows it to drag him down. On a bad day, DB will be down for a few hours and bounce right back. He is not the kind of person who will remember in painful detail when he last wore a particular article of clothing, the events of that day and allow those memories to intrude into the here and now. That is one of the things I love about him. 
He would be able to relate a lot better to the feeling of oneness that I experienced with him when I blended the spices from our kitchens together. As I did that , there was a sense of things of disparate provenance coming together very harmoniously. Unlike the closet, where the past engulfs and envelopes me, the kitchen is where it blends effortlessly into the present. I wonder why that is.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Coming Into Sunlight

Marriage after divorce and single parenthood for close to ten years is like coming out into glaring sunlight after living in permanent semi darkness. 

Until recently, the need to conform to societal expectations had been minimal if at all - I could focus exclusively on a couple of things without having to worry about that taking away from other obligations that are intrinsic to a two parent household. Raising J in the way I wanted, getting better at what I do for a living and being able to take on more challenging assignments - was all I cared about. Then there was the blog that I fed  a lot of my energy into, instead of seeking out or nurturing real life social relationships.

It was a very much cocoon - closed, sometimes rather suffocating but almost always safe. I did not have to compare against the standard benchmarks of relative to peer group success. They were "them" and not in my situation. What applied to "regular" people did not apply to me because I had challenges like they did not - at least that was my way of explaining my off the grid existence. More likely than not, I needed an excuse to not deal with the additional pressures of conformity and this seemed a perfectly reasonable one.

Now, that DB, J and I are a "regular" family unit, I feel like I have been propelled into the real world after a long hiatus. The "excuses" that served me so well for almost a decade ring a little hollow. A random Linked In or Facebook Invite can force me to take stock of my life, answer the question "Am I where I should have been by now ?" and worse begin to think about how to make up for the ten year lag in short order. 

While I lived in recluse for a decade, what used to be my world has moved on. Seeing as it is now is almost Rip Van Winkle-esque to me and there are days when I get overly anxious about making up for lost time forgetting to realize that no time was lost that has to now be made up. I just happened to use the time differently and am none the worse for it.

This is like meeting at an intersection after a long journey that took two travelers through entirely different routes and experiences along the way. Who they were at the time of parting ways and who they are at the time of reunion is determined by the journey each undertook. Mine was different than "theirs" and I can't trace back the path they traveled just to know what I missed while on mine. 

As easy as it is for me to process this logically in my mind, getting the heart to accept it sometimes a lot harder.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Anti Rules

S was telling us when we were out to lunch one afternoon, how she and her boyfriend B started dating. Ordinarily, this would not be the most riveting topic of conversation - everyone has a story some less boring than others but S is outside a couple of standard deviations in personality so hers promised to be an interesting one and she had our collective attention.
Instead of playing coy, calm and collected waiting for the man to make the first move, following The Rules book and not call him unless he called after the first date - generally being hard to get instead of "needy" and "clingy", S took a completely non-traditional approach. She walked up to the guy and asked him if was interested in getting some lunch.
Apparently, the unexpectedness of it all nonplussed him and before he knew, they were sitting in a restaurant. The lunch went well and S kept a steady flow of emails going until the next time she asked B out for a date. She does not believe in waiting for things to unfold or for men to discover what they are seeking. Instead, in the right circumstances, she takes control of the situation and assumes the leadership role.Clearly, it works for her.
Now, we've all met B and think he is a very nice guy. With a less assertive woman, he may have been dithering to this day wondering how to make his next move (if at all) and may not have been the stable relationship that he has now been in for a while. He has S to thank for setting his house (literal and figurative) in order.

S the probably the anti-hero - the woman who does everything that dating and relationship coaches caution against and achieves what she wants. It could be argued that her strategy would only work on one such as B who she has on occasion emailed or called twenty times in a day until he responded only to say "Hello". According to her, it is what she felt like at the time - she was just being her natural self. No book of Rules will cramp her style.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Gamestorming


I have grown into my current role of business architect following a path that has taken me to almost every role in an IT shop at least a couple of times. The perspectives I have gathered along the way have proved invaluable in doing my current job but every so often, the process of getting a team's to articulate in clear, actionable terms how they would get from their current state to the desired future state can prove to be very challenging. Every traditional method of eliciting requirements and mapping as-is or to-be process in my experience has it limitations and does not readily fit the needs of the team or project at hand.
Gamestorming- A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers introduces the reader to some off the beaten path ideas for brainstorming, process mapping, prioritization, customer persona definition, problem scenario identification, requirement elicitation and much more. The games are uniformly interesting, well defined and easy to play. More importantly it is a large and diverse tool-set that one can pick and choose from. In acknowledging that business processes don't always follow a linear path from current to future state and may indeed have a largely fluidly defined end-game, the authors make a very compelling case for practitioners in the field to try their idea of using games to accomplish where traditional methods often fall short.
One game I found particularly thought provoking is The Anti-Problem game. It proposes a way for teams to "get unstuck when they are at their wit's end. It is most useful when a team is already working on a problem, but they are running out of solutions". The objective is to find a problem that is the exact opposite to the problem that needs solving. The more extreme the opposite the more likely the team is to solve their actual problem.
I would highly recommend the book to anyone whose role involves understanding complex processes and systems, building consensus among team members, generating creative ideas to solve an existing problem, designing a new product or concept and root cause analysis.