Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Pressure to become Parents and its Perils

A 74 year old Andhra woman, Mangayamma Yaramati reportedly resorted to In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) treatment to give birth to twin girls, recently. The father, Sitarama Rajarao is 82. Having spent over 9 months in the hospital, being constantly monitored by a panel of experts, the babies were delivered after a Caesarean section was performed. Needless to say, geriatric pregnancies of this nature being extremely rare, there has been considerable press coverage and the couple pronounced themselves delighted, insisting this is the happiest time of their lives.
The reaction to this has of course been mixed, given that she is the oldest new mother in the world today. Many feel that congratulations are in order, but in this situation, it is also evident that the couple have been under tremendous pressure to become parents. Mangayamma clearly feels vindicated on having ‘succeeded’ after over 5 decades of trying and failing to conceive. She said that her determination to be a mother stemmed from the fact that she had been criticized and stigmatized. People in her village would make her feel guilty and look at her as if she had ‘committed a sin’.
This accusatory mentality is typical in India where too many men and women are subjected to unrelenting pressure to become parents. Those who cannot or have chosen not to become parents are made to feel like failures or accused of being selfish and self – indulgent in the latter scenario, never mind that it is nobody else’s business. Not that such considerations stops relatives and random strangers from hounding the couple especially the mother and peppering them with unwanted suggestions, tips, and assorted voodoo on getting pregnant. These include but are not limited to bizarre sexual positions, dietary remedies like seared animal genitalia, umpteen temple visits, expensive pujas, amulets and foul smelling herbal concoctions sold by charlatans, gaumutra, painful fertility treatments, and what not. It would be funny if it didn’t amount to harassment and mental torture, which sees couples go through hell merely to prove that they are ‘virile’ or ‘potent’ even though they certainly don’t have to. It boggles the mind, that in a heavily populated country like India, we are still turning on the screws to force our citizens to have more children, when less  or none is clearly the need of the hour.
Interestingly, Mangayamma was inspired to do what she did after another 50 plus neighbour successfully opted for IVF. Three years ago, Daljeet Kaur, another geriatric Indian woman, had a successful birth. It is believed that she too was in her early 70s though her exact age is not verifiable. Medical practitioners and ethicists have questioned both the doctors involved and the parents for the dubious choices involved. Extreme geriatric pregnancies like these involve much higher risks for the mother and child. There is also the question of providing a viable support system for the children down the line, given the life expectancy of their parents. As for the doctors involved, surely the ethics involved in making the decision to encourage people to opt for such treatments given their advanced years and far from optimal physical condition is debatable at the very least?
Advances in science and technology has made so much possible. But just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. 

This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Book review | Lisa Taddeo’s 'Three Women': A searing study on sex and shame

Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is non-fiction that takes a long, hard look at naked desire by inhabiting the bodies and souls of three white, mostly straight and relatively privileged American women: Maggie, who is unable to get over the forbidden affair she had with her teacher in her teens; Lina, who is a mother of two, separated from her husband and sleeping with a married ex; and beautiful Sloane, whose husband likes to watch her have sex with partners of his choosing. 
The author mentions at the onset that while there are many sides to all stories, she has chosen to focus only on these three women. She claims to have spent thousands of hours with them, even moving to their respective towns to ‘better understand their day-to-day lives’ and she does succeed in taking the reader into the intimate recesses of their minds laying bare secrets and dark desires with a voyeuristic drive that is softened by compassion and a lack of judgement. Yet the book feels incomplete without even a modicum of effort to understand the motivations of the men in these women’s lives or details pertaining to the wives and families who have been affected by the ill-considered actions of the trio. 
Taddeo’s depiction of the men as predatory, weak, and selfish makes sense from the point of view of her chosen subjects but leaves the reader marginally doubtful because they seem more like caricatures made with clumsy brush strokes of thwarted feminine need. 
Lina’s husband is a particularly vexing non-character. All his wife wants from him is a deep French kiss but he recoils from the request and his idea of foreplay is to tap her on the arm and ask if she feels like ‘doin it’. One wonders why exactly he got into a marriage where he wants to have nothing at all to do with his wife outside of providing her with a nice house and kids. Lina hooks up with Aidan who had broken things off with her when she acquired a reputation as the girl in high school who slept with three guys in one night though in reality she had been sexually assaulted. Flavour and savour is restored to her life when her sexual needs are met but her willingness to debase herself in exchange for torrid trysts made at Aidan’s convenience characterised by little emotional investment does not augur well for her. 
Taddeo is brutally honest about the desperation which drives Lina and one wonders if the point is a deeply pessimistic one about women who leave the safety of convention to pursue their desires. 
Sloane’s story is somewhat bewildering. There are times she likes having multiple sexual partners but her arc is deeply problematic because her husband chooses the men and women she has sex with and insists on being present or inserting himself into the scenario via phone or video feeds. She confesses that she doesn’t always like the partners she pleasures and it seems clear that her desires have got lost somewhere in her husband’s needs. It doesn’t help that Sloane’s passions seem rooted in past hurt and an incestuous request. So when she claims she ‘wants her husband above all else’, one can’t help but wonder if she is kidding herself.
Maggie’s story is the most affecting because she is so clearly a victim despite being so complicit in her own victimhood. Taddeo doesn’t whitewash her issues but her oppressor is a predator and it sticks in the craw that he gets away scot-free while she is all but destroyed.
Three Women is troubling and the writer’s quest for literary brilliance and use of bewildering metaphors like ‘avuncular oysters’ and ‘cool sneezes’ is distracting but it is still worth a read because when it comes to women and desire, it is best to make room on the table for discussion and dissection.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Post I-Day depression

Another Independence Day has come and gone. The Tricolour was hoisted in schools and government offices, we sang the National Anthem with ear-splitting fervour and intensity and debated whether Akshay Kumar’s latest offering of cloying nationalistic sentiment was worth the price of admission.
Some of us even made a game effort to sit through Bear Grylls’ great survival saga featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitting his wits and will against the ferocity of Mother Nature, which subjected the viewer to a lot of bull but little else, without cringing. The entire month has now become vaguely depressing.
Even the PM’s speech, where he acquitted himself better than his sojourn among the tigers who clearly took their reputation for being ‘camouflage ninjas’ seriously, did little to boost the spirits. Of course, he made all the right noises.
Regarding the revoking of special status to Jammu and Kashmir and the state’s reorganisation into two Union Territories, he explained that his government believes in One Nation, One Constitution.
It would be heartening if one were inclined to give the ruling government the benefit of doubt and construe their actions as a decisive move but one can’t help but be appalled at the swift removal of personal and civil rights the Kashmiris have been subjected to.
During times like this, one wonders if freedom is an illusion we cling to because the harsh truth is that the democratic liberties we take for granted may be taken away with a snap of the finger if Big Brother were to wake up one day feeling a little less benevolent and more inclined to be a bully and a brute.
A scary thought that makes it impossible to enjoy leftovers made from Tarla Dalal’s healthy Independence Day recipes.
The Head of the Nation also talked about the Triple Talaq Bill, insisting that his Muslim sisters were also deserving of justice and this evil had to be eradicated.
Theoretically this is a beautiful sentiment, but it is hard to get euphoric over this blow dealt on behalf of women simply because the law has also criminalised societal ills such as child marriage, rape, dowry harassment but in practice, many continue to be victimised and are considered foolish if they look to legal enforcers for justice.
Again, this is the sort of sobering thought that makes you want to flee the motherland for stranger shores where the law is actually implemented.
Finally, our PM spoke about our patriotic duty as Indians to help with his Swachh Bharat, Jal Jeevan missions and refrain from open defecation, careless waste disposal and the indiscriminate usage of water sources.
He also made a heartfelt appeal to help achieve his goal of freeing India from single-use plastic while entreating the citizens to have a care for population explosion. All fine points, but not a day goes by without a public-pooper sighting, stepping into a sea of plastic, and the news that another baby has been delivered. Jai Hind!

This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.


Recently, a 2:20 minute video depicting an Indian family attempting to make off with pilfered items from their hotel in Bali and getting caught went viral on social media. Not only had they stripped the hotel room bare of accessories and items like hair dryers they had even taken the hangers. In typical cringe – inducing fashion, they tried to brazen their way out by screaming at the staff who by contrast were polite but firm. This boisterous and badly behaved lot were held, their luggage examined to gather evidence of the theft and the proceedings were recorded at which point, these charming folks simmered down, put out a few faux apologies and offered repeatedly to ‘pay extra’ so they could be let off the hook. In response, one of the staff pointed out that they he was aware that they had a lot of money but this was about their lack of respect.
The collective opinion of those who saw the clip was one of humiliation and shame, which is surprising since we can hardly agree on anything anymore. The consensus was that the family’s behaviour was a disgrace and had ruined India’s image. There were calls to have this uncouth lot arrested on their return to India and revoke their passports. The internet reported similar incidents featuring the ugly behaviour of Indians in comparable scenarios in different parts of the world. Industrialist Harsh Goenka even shared a notice issued by a hotel in Gstaad only for their Indian guests. We all hung our heads in shame and condemned the actions of ugly Indians who fail to represent India with a modicum of respectability on foreign shores.
I was also reminded of the time when the semi – luxury train, Mumbai - Goa Tejas express was completely vandalized with passengers attempting to unscrew LCD screens, stealing headphones, trashing the compartment and making the loos bio – hazard zones. The problem is that as a nation we have become used to getting away with reprehensible conduct. Again, it is a question of respect. Too many don’t give a crap about the laws of this land or her people. We see evidence of this all around us. There are always those who misbehave with the staff in hotels, flights, sports arenas, theatres, etc. because we have a firmly rooted class and caste system which teaches us to look down on people who perform services for us without a shred of appreciation or gratitude.
As a nation we don’t bother with playing decent wages to the maid, tipping the waiter, waiting for our turn, driving with a care for the safety of others, keeping our surroundings clean or even doing the barest minimum for those condemned to manually clean out sewage and latrine pits with no protection. Instead we teach children to be even more entitled than we are and do whatever we think we can get away with, since we are willing to pay bribes and all. Forget about working on our image abroad, the need of the hour is to improve our behaviour right here at home, so that we learn to conduct ourselves with decency and decorum wherever we are and even if there is no accusatory camera pointed at us with the view to blame, name and shame on social media.

This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

The Conundrum that is Choice

There is so much by way of choice today, it is hard to make a choice. I spend a big chunk of my free time, trying to figure out what to watch on Netflix and sometimes I can’t make up my mind and end up watching nothing at all. It is the same in restaurants. I put in so much effort to make the right choice when it comes to the hundreds of varieties on offer that invariably I order something funky and the memory of a jellied scaly fish swimming in a foul smelling white sauce, described by food critics as sex on a plate, haunts me the next time I find myself in a similar predicament. 
It is the classic paradox of choice described by Barry Schwartz. The overabundance of choice has put so much pressure on us to make the perfect choice that we are unable to choose anything at all. When we do choose, it is impossible to be happy with the decision because we are convinced that there is something better out there, that impossibly perfect thing we must have in our lives and which we have missed out on because we didn’t keep looking.
While it is hard enough to wrestle with personal choice, we compound matters by criticizing the choices made by others in order to feel better about our own. Of course, everybody is entitled to make their own choices, just the same as us, but we prefer it, if everybody makes the same choices so that we can all be miserable together. If not, we will judge and shame while viciously condemning those who do the same to us.
We will attack not just the makers and Shahid Kapoor for the admittedly problematic Kabir Singh but those who watched it and dared not to hate it, because they found it to be engrossing cinema and brand them as flag bearers of toxic masculinity.
We will not respect Zaira Wasim’s decision to disassociate herself from Bollywood. How dare she? Here I am praying fervently before the Karan Johar bust in my puja room hoping he believes the definitive proof that my great aunt was a stunt double for Hema Malini when she danced on broken glass and gives me a glitzy launch and this teenager throws it all away because acting interferes with her religion! Of course I am going to natter on about her foolishly regressive choice or if I am Barkha Dutt, worry about ‘the indoctrination of religious conservatism.’
What about Virat Kohli’s inexplicable decision to keep backing Dhoni? Sure, the legend has contributed his mite to cricket but he is done damn it! We twitter warriors have begun a crusade to get the legend dropped and we urge you to join in.
Given the chaos over choice, I am convinced that the solution is to let our mothers take all decisions. They will always be happy to do it and we can have the comfort of blaming them when life becomes crappy. Or we can find a way to live with our choices and make even the dubious ones work for us. But that is sensible and deserves to be rejected outright since it is better to stew in discontent while laughing ourselves silly over the foolishness of others. 

This column was originally published by The New Indian Express.

Gem of an Emperor: Maharaja Ranjith Singh

Born on the ashes of the declining Mughal dynasty, the Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh enjoyed a dazzling period of glory. The king successfully united the warlike Sikhs who had consolidated themselves into Misls or confederacies for the purpose of resisting invaders and preserving their autonomy.
Despite making common cause when threatened by the Afghans or the British, these were given to much infighting and petty quarrels.
Though he belonged to the Sukerchakia clan, believed to be one of the weaker Misls, Ranjit Singh managed to rise to absolute power, and brought peace to the realm in troubled times, earning renown as a wise and canny ruler who was strict but fair.
More importantly, he knew when to bare his steel and when diplomacy was called for. Having concluded a treaty with the East India Company, he secured his eastern boundary, giving him the freedom to expand his kingdom in other directions.
Sarbpreet Singh’s The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia: Stories from the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is a tasty treat for history buffs and all who nurse a passion for the glories of India’s complex past.
Filled with colourful characters who made their mark in Ranjit Singh’s famed Lahore Durbar, the juicy stories provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of the one-eyed monarch with his zest for power, life and the pleasures both afford. It is a captivating narrative, allowing the reader a bird’s eye view of the intrigues, scandals and plots that rocked his court.
Mata Sada Kaur, Ranjit Singh’s mother-in-law, with whom he shared a complicated relationship is a remarkable figure. It was she who was responsible for propelling the young Ranjit Singh to power by boldly speaking up in a time of confusion and indecision, urging the Sikhs to fight and make their bid for glory. She was an active participant in the wars that were subsequently waged and helped carve out an empire that all too briefly, held out against the British.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the mystical Sikh faith had loudly proclaimed the equality of the sexes, and Sarbpreet Kaur makes it a point to highlight the stories of the brave as well as capricious women who stepped forward and danced with destiny as they strove to leave their mark on history.
There is the dancing girl of Lahore, the queen who overdosed on opium furious over an ungallant slight, and another blessed or cursed with robust sexuality, as she played the ‘Game of Thrones’ with deadly intent and endless intrigue.
The Kohinoor is yet another player which changed hands many times and bears testament to the abiding avarice of humans.
The trials and tribulations faced by mighty warriors and schemers with courage as abundant as their prickly pride such as Hari Singh Nalwa, Akali Phoola Singh and the Dogras make for a riveting read. Shortly after the death of the great monarch, his kingdom imploded a victim of murder, foul play, treachery and avarice delivering Punjab straight into the hands of the British.
Through these charming tales, Singh subtly highlights the high points of a glorious chapter in Indian history while gently pointing out the foibles of race pride and greed that has so often resulted in untold loss and tragedy.