ANALYZING CHRISTMAS

 

Christmas stands out as a festival with universal appeal that leaves few corners of the earth untouched.  Holidaying in Hong Kong one Christmas season, it was startling to encounter the sombre Christian  symbol of death and suffering, the cross had been integrated into merry Yuletide decorations. The attractiveness of Christmas   across cultures probably lies in the charm and colour of symbols like Christmas trees and Santa Claus. A shared mythology of stars and angels that converges with other spiritual traditions gives it an added resonance.     

 

Between The Narrative’s Lines 

The Christmas narrative has long exercised those with an analytical bent of mind . Historians who go strictly by facts do not find the required correlation with recorded events. For example, the census said to have been ordered by Emperor Augustus is not documented in Roman history, but there is evidence of a small local census at the relevant time. “The Wise Men” of the East were presumably literate and scholarly but left no accounts to record a momentous trip to Bethlehem. In all likelihood, their appearance in subsequent writings was intended to give weight to Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah; their names of Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar came to be given only in the 6th century. It is also surmised that the traditional story bears little correlation to the hearty spirit of hospitality prevalent even to this day in the Middle East, that would surely have been on offer from kinsmen presumably living in the area to visiting members of the same clan sharing royal descent, especially with the poignantly contingent condition of a pregnant woman.  

 

One might surmise that scriptural accounts would have presented the birth of Christ creatively to appeal to the psychological needs of the people for a super-human figure. This process built on existing popular beliefs, often from mythologies of other traditions. Shepherds who figure prominently in the Christmas story were also present at the birth of Mithras- a deity with a large cult following in the pagan world of the time. The attendance of angels and a virgin birth were in currency to celebrate the prior figure of Gautam Buddha. A colony of Buddhist monks residing in Alexandria at the time are said to have exerted significant influence in the evolving thought process of the region.           

 

A discrepancy is noted in alignment of  the Christmas story with the life span of   Jewish King Herod who is said to have ordered the massacre of male children in order to eliminate the future leadership threat posed by the Christ Child. Mythologically, however, a parallel exists in Hinduism with the killing of Krishna’s older brothers at birth by the demon Kamsa. Vasudeva took the newborn Krishna  to  the safety of Gokul,  while the  ‘holy family’ fled into the  sanctuary of Egypt. 

 

Whether it lies in truth or myth, the Christmas story is one of exquisite beauty that has stirred the creative spirit in art, music and literature, so much so that the boundary between beliefs and imagination can effectively blur. The collective vision of the nativity scene in Bethlehem has been formed by exposure to innumerable masterpieces of Renaissance art, often reproduced on Christmas cards.  Christmas carols of singing angels, watchful shepherds, shining star and the like tend to complete the pretty picture that people seek for an important annual celebration.

 

 Origins of Revelry 

The date of 25th December is at best approximate, since there is no  precise record of the date of  Christ’s birth. The early Church celebrated Easter, Pentecost and the Epiphany, but celebrating the birth of Christ was a decided afterthought. Light, symbolizing the illumination of the soul through the genesis of a new faith was central to the concept of this new festival. At first, the Church Fathers sought to  link it with Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, but by the Fourth Century A.D., Christianity had markedly distanced itself from Judaism preferring instead the adoption of pre- Christian pagan tradition as a practical strategy to integrate the growing ranks of converts.  The date was adopted in adaptation of the Roman festival of Natalis Invinci, the winter solstice when the Sun is  at its weakest, and needs to be revived with bonfires.  It came to represent Jesus Christ, the Sun of Resurrection.

 

The earliest Christmas celebrations were probably very simple. Perhaps men and women sat at different tables after a reading of scripture and shared bread and wine. Austerity in course of time gave way to the tradition of revelry derived from memories of the frenzied celebrations of the Roman Saturnalia, which lasted from  seventeenth to twenty third December and the Kalends of January, symbolizing the first three days of the New Year. The Saturnalia was typically a feast that broke down class barriers, and in its  new evolution significantly unified the geographically diverse members of  a growing group, while maintaining  continuity with the past.   

 

The earliest Christmas trees were small blossom trees of hawthorn and blackthorn potted and brought indoors as symbolic of a fruitful year. When these delicate plants failed to flower   as was often the case,  the  household perceived itself as being under a dark omen. The evergreen trees of  Germany furnished a sturdy alternative that suggested immortality, gaining a wider popularity when Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria carried the tradition to England in the 19th century.  The holly and mistletoe of Christmas decoration have a significance as steadfast fruit bearers amidst the barrenness of winter; their boughs were hitherto sliced by the Arch- Druid with a gold- handled  knife at the winter solstice for their many  remarkable botanical qualities. 

 

The origin of the Chocolate Yule log lies in the burning logs of the Norse festival of Yule.  Flaming plum puddings and the game of snapdragon- snatching raisins from a dish of flaming brandy bespeak the legacy of seasonal bonfire revels. Little masks of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine hung at the Roman Saturnalia, merged  with Christ’s miracle  of water turned into wine at Cana for copious drinking of mulled wine and hot punch from immense  wassail bowls of silver and pewter.  

 

In short, much of what is now considered integral to the faithful celebration of Christmas in terms of diet, decoration and the like is the overflow of popular tradition rather than scriptural prescription. It is interesting to note that in the 17th century, the Puritan Protestants who colonized America followed a strict version of Christianity that for a long while outlawed Christmas as a ‘feast’ day on the grounds that it  constituted worship of the pagan God Saturn, and proclaimed it a ‘fast’ day.    

 

No Christmas is complete without the robust cheer of  Santa Claus. He is identified with Saint Nicolas, a kindly Bishop of the Fourth Century. His actual origin goes back to the Norse God Odin, driving his sleigh through the snows of winter, to bring gifts of wheat and corn in spring.  The American writer Washington Irving reinvented the sedate figure of Saint  Nicholas into a pipe smoking, red coated Santa with white fur trimmings. The imagery went further with Clement C. Moore’s poem  ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ portraying him as  round and jolly, with a cherry-like nose in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. The poem enormously impacted  children’s expectations of presents on the day after Christmas Eve and firmed up associations with the gift giver’s  signature red outfit. Norman Rockwell painted him thus for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1931, Santa Claus appeared in a beverage advertisement  brandishing  Coca Cola instead of a pipe. This gives us an interesting instance of how legends and popular traditions evolve, to be appropriated symbolically to fit in with  the interests of  religion and retail.

 

Cosmopolitan Character

I regard myself a spiritual explorer, guided primarily by compassionate attitude and practice for all life forms, rather than tied to a specific belief- system. What I do appreciate about the Christmas story is its cosmopolitan character. The Wise Men of the East  symbolically pre-figure later Christianity that would spread beyond Palestine and the  restricted Hebrew identity with its insistence on being a “ Chosen People.”  Christmas is thus an opportunity for enhancing universal bonds, with a focus  on commonality rather than divergence.

 

Living in a secular country like India has bestowed one with an implicit breadth of spirit in   the celebration of festivals. We look forward to our Public Holidays irrespective of the religion of their origin. Festivals have a socio-cultural dimension which make their appeal collective- Diwali fireworks and Christmas gifts evoke a common  clamour in children much as  a Diwali Mela and a Christmas Ball are enlivened by the same set of revellers. The growing power of organized Retail in India has made festivals a decidedly universal phenomenon- an occasion for consumer indulgence in festive collections and special offers that keep the malls overflowing and cash registers jingling.

 

 

My Redefined Christmas

John Grisham’s novel, “ Skipping Christmas” humorously explores disruptions in the social and economic fabric of a small American town  from a couple opting out of a traditional celebration for an overseas cruise. The celebrations around any festival have an implicit socio-economic function that over time have ensured a livelihood  to long chains of goods’ and service providers. Equally, festivals have been useful to jog the memory for those excluded from the beneficial momentum of productive cycles.  Pro-activity in helping out with whatever causes we relate to should ideally be a continuing exercise, but a festival might recreate the mood that awakens kind sentiments.

 

Christmas has been about “ Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all men.”  A worthy thought, but limited, because we have planetary survival at stake. Among other things, the foremost teaching of Christianity is to love one’s neighbour. This ought to be a much broader conception than the person next door, encompassing any fellow inhabitant of the earth  likely to be affected by the natural disasters attendant on global warming and the carelessly indulgent lifestyles that precede this fearsome phenomenon.  I am encouraged to observe and synergize with pro-active groups and individuals who have put the environment and animal welfare  firmly on the agenda in the season of giving and goodwill. It is something of a paradox that Christmas trees and their accessories end up in landfills. I myself have circulated the thought that these verdant symbols should remind one to be green in attitudes and practices on a more enduring basis than the mood of a passing holiday season.       

 

Christmas indulgences as we now know them had their origin in Europe’s weather. The cattle could not go to pasture in the snow, and had to be slaughtered to make way for lavish feasts. These dietary practices that spread to non-European societies through colonial forces are not  the real flavour of the Christmas story, especially as expressed in a touching carol that praises the role of the various animals present  at Christ’s birth, such as  the oxen in the manger whose breath kept the place warm,  the sheep accompanying shepherds, the donkeys and camels who furnished transportation at various points in the story.  The Christmas tale in its innocent spirit of living beings in harmony with a cosmic order endorses me in my chosen vegan diet and lifestyle, however disconnected from the social staples of a carnivorous festival menu. As such, my Christmas lunch would represent a stimulating exercise of expanded imagination and a true prayer from the heart for all the earth’s sentient creatures. 

 

The Christ Child has been hailed in popular thought as “The Prince of Peace, of whose government there would be no end.” The sad reality is a world where blood and carnage have historically been a fact of life. Christmas could  be a time of identifying with the broader ‘cosmos’. Its renaissance of spirit ought to expand frontiers of  consciousness and deepen reserves of sensitivity to all living beings for a true season of Peace and Goodwill.

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Inclusion and Empowerment for Indian Women

To pronounce on the empowerment and inclusiveness of Indian women, as was expected of me at a recent National Seminar on women’s issues  is to ponder on the very complex as no uniform picture presents itself . For someone who’s not a specialist in Women’s studies but a general social commentator it resembles a pyramid, with greatest enjoyment for the few  at or near the top, different degrees for those at various points in the middle  and constraints for the vast majority at the broad base. Even within a particular socio-economic class, inclusion might come with marked generational and community differences.  The encouraging thing is that those in the middle and below have shown or possess potential for upward mobility.

Though one may feel pessimistic about the Indian female’s woes, independent India has been benign, even partial to women in its policies. While voting rights came after long struggle in so called progressive democracies, Indian women have enjoyed the right to vote right from the  very first general election. India has led the world in producing politically powerful women- a woman Prime Minister,President, an astute leader of coalition politics at the centre, and highly assertive Chief Ministers. Indeed the female electorate’s strong turnout usually determines electoral outcomes. We routinely see women as powerful bureaucrats, corporate heads and eminent professionals. Fundamental rights in the constitution enshrine equality before law and equal protection of law.  The Indian state is committed to the protection and progress of the Indian female, child or adult, through laws such as those prohibiting dowry and pre-natal gender testing, combined with empowering measures like reservations, usually without equivalences for males.

Contrast that with the lot of women in certain fundamentalist societies where a woman who drives a car is regarded as a criminal or she is flogged rather than offered justice even if she happens to be a rape victim. Saudi Arabia is planning separate cities for women to work. Such women could be prosperous but lacking in personal freedom. Another picture  emerges in South East Asian countries,  where women are highly pro-active in the workforce- you would see  them rowing boats filled with male passengers, sometimes with babies strapped to their backs.  China’s growth story has largely been fuelled by a preponderance of  female workers in its factories.

The last few years have probably witnessed greater change in the lives of Indian women than has been seen for millennia altogether. At certain socio-economic levels and age groups, inclusion has already  taken place. Today, it is reported there are more girls than boys joining medical colleges. Big IT companies employ a higher percentage of women than the 18% in Indian engineering colleges, providing enabling environments such as work from home options and excellent child care facilities. In many aspects educated urban women have never had it so good, but their ascendance comes with  attendant problems. For example it has been observed that when newly educated girls opt for urban employment leaving behind their rural communities, their independent choice of marital partners,  bypassing community boys in traditional occupations like agriculture underlie such phenomena as honour killings.

The media  reports unprecedented tales of gender violence, like the recent gangrape in Gauhati, and the murder of a bureaucrat’s daughter, living on her own in Mumbai by a watchman, or the older case of a woman techie murdered by a cab driver. There’s the  moral policing incident in our own area.  There are indications of social disequilibrium in these sexual crimes, suggesting unease in males threatened by independent women, a threat perception that could be greater if  the socio-economic gap is wide, and gender issues get merged with those of class conflict. Women in the workforce also impact families and households. Couples could often be joint breadwinners in acts of co-operation,  but changing lifestyle patterns and personal values that follow from globalization are capable of creating  discord  that sometimes leads to domestic violence. This suggests a woman may be externally independent but still rather vulnerable.

For the majority at the bottom of the pyramid, the growth story must happen with  creating awareness that removes social prejudice about a girl child’s birth, because she suffers bias even before conception. The penalties on wrong-doers in gender selective abortions must be severe. Her education must be a point of focus, which shouldn’t be difficult because the taxpayer pays a special cess for the girl child’s education. Neighborhood schools would facilitate the process so that physical security is no issue; in some places bicycles have empowered the girl child with mobility  for school travel  Once educated, her employment opportunities must also be accessible in the vicinity,  suggesting a widespread  replication of some successful rural BPO’s.  There are already more than 100 that have started up in the last 5 years, they employ between 60-100% women, and though proficiency in English can pose a constraint, they are said to be cost effective as well as efficient in data entry and non-voice services.  I find even grater merit in the BarefootCollege model of Bunker Roy, where  rural men and women of all ages, irrespective of literacy are trained for practical work as  school teachers, , health workers,  mechanics, phone operators, accountants , solar engineers, architects and designers of local buildings. They serve their local communities and apply local ingenuity for relevant solutions.

When we speak of  inclusiveness, it might be relevant to ask what constitutes a growth story. The UN has urged the US not to divert 40% of its corn crop for bio-fuel because of anticipated food shortfall, and likely sharp escalation in world food prices. China which invested hugely in infrastructure is now facing the problem of ghost towns as apartment complexes and malls lie vacant.  In this coastal region, from time to time, we hear of protests of people who must give up their fertile lands to oil refineries or whose fields are destroyed by ash from thermal plants Last month I was a speaker  at  an art exhibition called “ Rendezvous with the Feminine” where a painting called ‘ Migrations” stood out for me  with its prominent figure of a woman suggesting that women are hardest hit by displacements from the countryside to cities as urban migrants. All this points to trends in global to local  decision making that obsesses about oil, power and luxury housing neglecting the fundamental need of food security that troubles many many more people. A woman is probably most frustrated by food shortage and price rise because she is tasked with actually feeding the family.   There must be rearranged priorities in growth agendas, where the farm regains  its place vis a vis the factory and skyscraper for holistic security that also touches on food and livelihood for all. Fertile fields must perform their natural function, complemented by agro industries in adjacent areas. Women would form a major component in productivity, especially if they can also be involved and integrated with a kitchen garden movement.

There have been successful micro finance initiatives for marginalized women, the experience being that  microloans have allowed women to build household assets, set up income earning businesses like petty shops, as well as enabled reinvestment in healthcare and  children’s education. This practical poverty alleviation measure  has a multiplier effect beyond the household to the  community by naturally driving women into decision making and  participation in public life.

I was interested to learn that  rural women in Tamil Nadu trained to use video cameras are successfully capturing harsh realities and injustices. With more educated urban women joining the workforce, other women could upgrade themselves in traditional talents by providing professional housekeeping, childcare, expert culinary services so that overall complementarity and feminine synergy exists. I myself could progress in my professional, creative and intellectual life because my support system included very capable feminine household assistance.

The middle class urban woman today might enjoy work opportunities right from her home imparting independence and personal worth. For women lower down, work is a  grim necessity for survival. They require facilitation to reduce the strain of their lives.  My domestic workers tell me there isn’t enough PDS kerosene and they have to either search for firewood or purchase expensively- a common problem depleting our forests, while contributing to an environmental problem called  the Asian Brown Cloud.  Today as parties in power give away mobile phones and free talk time, it  would be a more empowering handout for BPL families to receive solar cookers  doing away with fuel woes and to set up local bio-gas facilities that effectively use local wastes. Again at the art exhibition I mentioned, there was a painting of women bathing in the river reminding one that privacy for personal hygiene is surely an issue for many women and girls. Indeed it could be an issue even for school enrollment of adolescent girls if there are no hygiene and sanitation facilities to address their special physical needs.  Again it’s usually a tiring  trek for water by females, which should be addressed with a determined push for local water harvesting measures. All these measures to better the lot of women equally serve environmental imperatives.

It seems to me that refined society is embarrassed to acknowledge women workers in certain  occupations. The bar dancers of Mumbai were rendered unemployed with a single diktat that goes against right to livelihood. Recently a central ministry went on record in affidavit saying sex workers lack dignity. The lot of these women is hard enough without  the state’s unkind moral judgements, rather the focus should be on regulating conditions and effecting rehabilitation. Generally speaking,  women enjoy atleast the benefit of policy concern and legislative interest. There is however a gender beyond genders, who are presently outside the awareness of society and suffer its harshest prejudice for an accident of birth. I’m talking of transgenders who as of now lack even a place in identity forms to be in the slightest way part of inclusive society. This unjust and cruel anomaly must be removed if development and progress must benefit all people, especially those with difficult problems.

I’m personally not in favour of reservations in employment or legislative bodies for women, We have sufficiently strong women leaders who have come up on their own, often from the grassroots, to be assured woman power  is already a fact that requires no further tokenism. It will merely create notional power shifts within the ruling class with a cynical appeasement of  women’s votebanks, while diverting attention from actual issues.   I myself made it to the civil service with all my women colleagues, a  substantial number of  women who got in on merit without the crutches and concessions of gender. Educational empowerment is generally sufficient for that kind of inclusion to happen.  An educated, able bodied woman is less in need of additional sops than a transgender or physically challenged person of either sex.

To sum up, where opportunities exist, the spotlight has to be on laws that ensure safety  and conducive working conditions to take the growth story forward. Where opportunities fall short, the challenge is to bring them about in various ways, along with  basic facilitations to ease life for the marginalized Indian woman and also other neglected sections. The growth story for women cannot be disconnected from overall indices of development for everyone, or else unwarranted  divisions, social cleavages and conflicts  will intensify, manifesting in ugly and violent ways.

I hope a day will soon come when such occasions of pondering on inclusiveness will not be necessary because a sensitive and responsive society would have done whatever is required to accomplish the just and equitable for all.

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AMONGST LADIES ON INDEPENDENCE DAY

Though a veteran of gracing functions on 15th August, this one addressing a kindred feminine circle for Independence Day 2012,  at a Ladies Club where I myself am a member was rather meaningful. Being amidst patriotic ladies reminded  one that women were the unsung heroines of the freedom movement, not only as leaders like Sarojini Naidu or Captain Laxmi but equally  holding the fort while husbands boycotted British India’s employments and filled the jails.

If you read the book “ Freedom at Midnight” there’s a vivid description of the crowd that thronged the Red Fort to hear Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “ Tryst with Destiny” speech. It comprised people of different communities representing the unity underlying the freedom movement. Sadly, this cohesive collaboration has lost its strength, as Indian-ness takes a backseat to caste, creed, region and all manner of divisions and sub-divisions. A ladies’ club struck me as a heartening entity, where a diverse cross section of womanhood represents in miniature the secular spirit of free India.

One might feel pessimistic about the Indian female’s woes and sorrows. While ground realities differ, independent India has been benign, even partial to women at the policy level. Female franchise came after long struggle in the so called progressive democracies- if you recall the movie “Mary Poppins”, Winnifred Banks, the mother of Jane and Michael spends her time at suffragette rallies fighting for women’s right to vote. Indian women have amazingly enjoyed the right to vote right from the  very first general election and indeed their large turnout usually determines electoral outcomes. India has led the world in producing politically powerful women- a woman Prime Minister,President, a de-facto leader of a coalition at the centre and unusually assertive Chief Ministers.

The Indian state is committed to the welfare and protection of the Indian female, child or adult, through protective legislations such as those prohibiting dowry and pre-natal gender testing, combined with empowering measures like reservations, usually without equivalences for males. Contrast that with the lot of women in certain fundamentalist societies where a woman who drives a car or moves without a veil is tantamount to being  a criminal and she is flogged rather than offered justice even if she happens to be a rape victim. There are miles to go for a great many Indian women in terms of inclusiveness, but it’s also a time to celebrate significant achievements of Indian womanhood in many segments and spheres.

Worthy principles of the Indian freedom movement offered themselves for reflection on relevance to Indian women. Foremost in my reflections at the gathering was  Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of  Swadeshi- pride in Indianness, especially with a focus on Indian dress. A surprising shortfall of saris found in the old clothes sent in disaster relief suggests that  urban Indian women now find traditional dressing cumbersome and it could altogether have disappeared from  young wardrobes. Undoubtedly, modern life demands convenient apparel, often with global styling. High priced foreign designer brands  are usually of plain clothing whose notional value lies in the label. ( Ironically, global couture houses often claim Indian inspirations with exorbitant pricing of what can be easily procured in India with better workmanship) .  Indians are inheritors of a priceless heritage in textiles and crafts, imposing an obligation to keep alive appreciation for beautiful weaves, textures, drapes,embroidery and embellishment of all kinds. This heritage of crafts and workmanship must be patronized  for their unique aesthetics which suffer a threat of extinction, while also ensuring livelihood of talented artisans who often happen to be women.

Even as the wide world also beckons with variety and opportunity it’s appropriate to recall being heirs to a fabled ancient culture. Our unique practices- Yoga, meditation, ayurveda, Vaastu Shastra etc are enjoying a resurgence and global interest. As a writer, I feel especially gratified that Indian writing in English is seen as a conspicuous  example of “The Empire Striking Back”. The true test of independence, I feel, is the confidence to absorb and assimilate the world’s relevant offerings and equally contribute Indian richness to the global melting pot.  One should ring with the awareness that India is more than a nation, it’s a civilization!

The concept of Mother India was inspirational in the freedom struggle; it was an idea that represented the collective identity of Indian women. On the other side of the coin, every Indian woman is a Mother India in miniature, with a potential or actual expression of  the nurturing spirit, while  linking a precious past, dynamic present and exciting future.

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“Rendezvous with the Feminine”

July 8, 2012 presented me with a stimulating morning; an opportunity to ponder on the feminine in art at the solo exhibition ” Rendezvous with the Feminine” at Orchid Art Gallery. It was a heady moment to share the dignitaries’ space with iconic litterateur and filmmaker- Gulzar.

To share my perceptions of the artist Wilson JP’s work gladdened me, because I could  discharge a debt of gratitude of my own. I recall that having completed writing my novel “ Blossom Showers” my next concern was a book jacket that would complement my writing. Sometimes the best things happen unexpectedly. Strolling through Orchid Gallery one day, my gaze locked on to a canvas whose image illustrated what I had conveyed in the crucial words of the novel’s last few pages.  I had never before met Wilson the painter,  but in an inexplicable  creative space, my thoughts and his images converged in unconscious synergy. .Wilson’s painting which I bought suited my vision for the cover when the book was in the publication process, fusing with my thought that an original art work would be unique. A book is a complete package- an author knows that even as the inner content must engage the eyeballs for a long time, the jacket has to grab a potential reader’s eyeballs in the first place. I’m glad to report a  successful combination, because of the  accompanying appreciation for the arresting cover. It was also an unexpected pleasure to gift a copy of my novel to Gulzar.

“ Rendezvous with the Feminine” is a great theme for an exhibition, because  a woman has always been an inspiration in art. Though not a definitive list, I’m directed to which depictions of woman stand out for me.  I think the Renaissance painters- Raphael, Titian, Botticelli gave us some exquisite  madonnas and mythological figures, my own favourite being Sandro Botticelli’s “ The Birth of Venus”. The Spanish painter Goya left us with riveting images of the luscious Duchess of Alba. From the Impressionists, Degas’ paintings of ballet dancers enchant, Toulouse Lautrec brings alive the women of Moulin Rouge,  Paris’ red light district; innocently voluptuous Tahitian females define the exotic canvases of Paul Gauguin. Beautiful women figure very prominently in the works of Raja Ravi Verma as the apsaras and devis of Indian mythology.

Wilson’s work is not on or about a particular woman- rather it is about the very concept of womanhood, the universal idea of the feminine. In doing so, his approach is undoubtedly bold given the usual constraints of a social milieu. He has often painted women in their suggested or bare essence, not with a view to titillate, but with a stated aim to uncover and access truths of a woman’s deepest inner self. His forms are very fluid and often gracefully blend into each other or their surroundings. His palette of colours includes both the vibrant and soothing for some notable effects. If something is too abstract it defies general understanding; if it is too realistic, it fails to stir the viewer’s imagination.Wilson’s paintings have achieved the balance where symbolism and reality can fruitfully meet.

To an extent, all of us possess a third eye- the capacity to see beyond the surface of things for deeper insights, but this is probably more active in creative people.Wilson’s third eye has undoubtedly been active to capture the many moods and circumstances of his subjects.  He displays empathy in portraying the sufferings and sacrifices of  marginalized women. He shows that for  an economically deprived woman, a  purchase from a roadside bangle seller is a moment of rare indulgence. “ Migration” poignantly depicts disrupted lives, with an underlying story perhaps of developmental projects or natural disasters, implying a woman’s  burdens in such dislocations of keeping the fragile family together.

A painting that stood out for me was of women bathing in the river in the afternoon, which must illustrate a multiplicity of  the painter’s ideas. We glimpse a lesser known but relevant feminine problem- of finding privacy for personal hygiene that one takes much for granted but is elusive to a great many. The depicted figures display unself-conscious  feminine bonding. It ties in with an ecstatic interface with nature foregone and forgotten in urban living. The ripe portrayal of the feminine form highlights a nurturing essence- of the body being nature in miniature.  The river is a sacred concept often visualized as a goddess in the Indian tradition, for sustaining agriculture and thereby human life.  A woman and the river are mirrors for each other, because both embody  the life giving spirit.

A woman’s biological role is a noble and unique thing; her body has been perfected by many million years in evolution to perpetuate the species. But in the last few years, women have expanded in persona beyond the biological for some meaningful explorations and discoveries. One would agree that women are  strong,  fascinating, versatile  and powerful in their various ways. ( India’s various women leaders would be a prominent case in point). Alongside trials and sufferings are their general triumphs and successes. I would like creative works  of various kinds, including my own to give due credit to the complexity of a woman and consider her multiple dimensions. Wilson’s brush has given expression to many of these aspects in the sizable collection he has put on display. I see him venturing even further on this vast theme for a truly varied composite.

A painting is an exclusive and often expensive object, because a buyer appropriates the artist’s vision  for himself and his circle. When I put Wilson’s painting on my book jacket, I moved beyond such an exclusion zone to share that vision more generally, as synonymous with access to my book. There ought to be many who opt for an intimate relationship with Wilson’s vision by picking up and possessing his  compelling paintings. William Pais, writer and dynamic art entrepreneur needs to be lauded for bridging the gap between gifted artists and art connoisseurs in Orchid Art Gallery’s initiatives.      This  impressive solo exhibition fuses a  tantalizing theme  with admirable aesthetics. ImageImageImage

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A Score of Wedded Years

On the 14th of June, my husband and I crossed a milestone of 20 years as man and wife. Contrary to all the jokes and jests about the wedded state, we took a serious look at the precious bond we share.

Together we’ve enjoyed two eventful and fulfilling decades – our lovely children top the list of life’s delights. We mutually support each other in the many challenges and endeavors of life.

Those who’ve observed us comment our relationship is founded on complementarity- two very different people who bring out the best in each other for a harmonious whole.

It’s also founded on open minded adaptiveness- that neither of us has stood on the rigid one-upmanship of imposing the perceived superiority of a particular lifestyle on the other, as a result of which we have voluntarily evolved an immensely rich meeting ground. The colors of our tapestry are in the threads of diversity, not only of our different backgrounds but anything interesting and relevant the wide world has to offer. Consequently, the word ‘ boredom’ never enters our  vocabulary as we are constantly in exploration, discovery and sharing mode.

We have evolved hugely as persons with each other’s informal mentoring, learning to embrace interests and concerns that may have once been alien to the native self, but perfectly in line with a couple’s conjoined persona. After twenty years, one has expanded ‘Passion’ for the other to embrace many joint passions as an expression of the constantly growing self that importantly includes various examples of general sensitivity and responsive action.

The writer’s voice in me was stilled, Until fond faith in me instilled, Full throated flowing confidence The onrush of new eloquence”So runs my dedication to him in Aerial Roots, my volume of poems. I have also dedicated my novel “ Blossom Showers” solely to him because it was he who launched me on the odyssey of re-discovering my literary self, reposing faith in me beyond even my wildest self-belief, and furnishing a needed counterforce to a writer’s volatilities of temperament.

Our marriage has been doubly blessed- with beautiful  rituals to represent where we each came from. When I circled the fire with him 20 monsoons ago, I didn’t wholly appreciate the symbolic meaning of that ancient rite. My subsequent understanding is reflected in lines from my poem “ The Seven Steps” -“ Before the leaping nuptial flames, We jointly pledged our different names, Not for just this life but those before Or the rest of seven yet to go’. In life, many of us go through the inexplicable experience of spontaneously gravitating to another, like one has known that person from the memories of another life. The seven steps or ‘saptapada’ symbolize the seven lifetimes of a wedded couple. Life may have offered other choices, but certain people are simply meant to be. I don’t know how many we’ve already done and how many are to go, but I’d say seven lifetimes are probably too few for the longer togetherness we’d undoubtedly  prefer. The art of the ‘now’ urges us to focus zestfully on the present moment. At this scintillating score, there’s immense gratitude for the ongoing gift of tender togetherness.

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“Small Things That Matter Much”

Greek mythology gives us the word ‘ protean’ to describe versatility after Proteus, the constantly changing sea god.  ‘ Protean Professional’ was the perception that suggested itself for the multi-tasking medical student whose book “ Small Things That Matter Much” was released by me on 31 may 2012. The 21 year old author , Edmond Fernandes was a former champion footballer, whose present studies in medicine go alongside writing, journalism, motivational speaking and entrepreneurship.

I recall the proverb based poem I learned as a child- “for want of  a nail the shoe was lost”, then the horse, the rider, the army, the king and the kingdom- all for want of a horseshoe nail. Likewise, the book’s title implies  the small things that affect the big picture of the healthy and integrated individual personality.

Some months ago, at the first release of my novel “ Blossom Showers”, I recalled that one of the things that kept alive my passion to write fiction  was the dream to turn out sensitive work like Somerset Maugham, who interestingly started out as a doctor. In seeking to be an author, Edmond joins a fraternity that includes doctor- writers like AJ Cronin, Frank G Slaughter, Richard Gordon, and new age Guru Deepak Chopra.

A vast number of people undergo experiences, but a writer discerns and shares insight that escapes others. I regard it as a meeting point between the external happenings of the outer world and the inner world of one’s personal make-up.When the powerful idea of a writer reaches the reader, it subtly influences that individual’s inner world. At a critical point, in terms of numbers or intensity of reaction, collective change for the external world is possible, such as when the currency of the novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ spurred action for emancipation of slaves in America, or when Mahatma Gandhi acted on Henry David Thoreau’s writings on civil disobedience. I gauge the young author’s eagerness to positively influence the way people conduct their lives. From his relevant readings and personal encounters, he offers practical prescriptions for the healthful spirit and the achievement of personal equilibrium.

In zen philosophy, the concept of “ Bodhisatva” assures humanity of  the  wisdom of awakened minds, because the title Buddha equates with the Sanskrit “ buddhi” or mind. Evolved souls might also come as writers, fostering understanding  through the communicative process. Interestingly,  a day after I accepted Edmond’s invitation, I landed on a random page of Thic Nhat Hanh’s  influential book“ The Art of Power”, in a chapter unusually focused on writers. His counsel is for an author’s creative focus to be trained on  real value- the quality of  insights in wisdom and compassion. A book succeeds even if it effectively reaches out to a few who internalize its spirit and pass the message around with relevant actions; also if it can still ring true after a hundred years. The stress is on nobility of intent that then informs content.  Edmond’s book makes apparent his sincere purpose, to share his version of correct living in a compact and easily comprehensible work..

There are many motivational books on the transforming power of the positive attitude.  Edmond’s book responds to this need and reflects this popular trend. However, the onus of solely generating the  positive spirit is lessened on the individual by additionally placing it  in a framework of faith. The one way paean to positivity is mediated by a realization of the somber realities of disease and death he has seen first hand as a medical professional. I found it heartening to find a young person  advocate the joy of service in  our  self centered times, also that he touched on the problems of excessive  networking with a  stress on the fruitful usage  of time for the young to realize their dreams.

The thing about a book like this, especially its arresting title is that it stimulates each of us to ask ourselves “ what are the small things that matter much to me and why?”Edmondhas generously shared his vision; we are implicitly  encouraged to examine our own.  His focus is on the individual, but the closing sentence of the book’s opening paragraph rues the earth’s degradation from human greed. Surely a worthwhile thought, when simultaneous with the stressed out individual is a planet in peril. Human society cannot be disconnected from the animate and inanimate environment. For example, the book is more than the author’s thoughts and sweats; it’s more than paper, ink,  glue, computer and printing machine.; it is also the tree, sunshine, rain and innumerable elements of the universe that went into them. There is an inter-connectedness of being that cannot be ignored by the evolved individual. Another small example- the numbers of a certain African bee are dropping, and people may well ask how this at all matters to the might of human existence. Quite a lot, because this tiny creature is responsible for crop pollination, its diminishing numbers through negative human intervention underlie some crop failures and famines.  We have grown up on such tenets as “ love thy neighbor’which today extends beyond the person next door or an intimate circle to a planetary import. Wasteful excesses are warming up the globe with resultant floods, tornadoes, droughts that hurt the earth’s inhabitants elsewhere and  everywhere, with equal potential of harming us and our descendants.  This mandates greater thoughtfulness in configuring comfort levels- minimizing consumption of fossil fuels, airconditioning, plastic, paper, power, wood, water  could be the small things that matter for an endangered earth and all its species, including human society and its individuals.( Among other measures, I think of polar bears drowning on ice melting from global warming as I desist from personal use of air conditioning; I eccentrically lug around my carry bags despite the store assistants’ smirks when I decline their generous paper and plastic offerings).

From what I’ve taken in ofEdmond’s profile, he is dynamic and determined, which is significant when so many young people are either unaware or rejecting of their talents and aptitudes.Edmond’s is an early start, a commendable endeavor given his youth. His confidence and initiative deserve particular applause. He has sought not to be one of the crowd, but to lead it through the vehicle of his conveyed ideas. The pathways to the good life are many, depending on one’s personal conception of goodness.( Some of us might also rely on the mind-body- spirit connection through meditation/ avoiding cruelty to non- human sentient beings/ reposing greater faith in the self’s ability to achieve personal and external good.) What must be appreciated is the passion with which he  passes on beliefs and practices that have anchored him so far, in the hope that it will arrest the drift in others and re-direct them, or re-inforce firm values in those already of similar mindset.

Engagement with ideas is a continuing process for all, and quite imperative for thinkers and writers who intend to be prolific. Completing a book for an author is like leaving the familiarity of a personally constructed structure to start another from scratch. This is however completely feasible because life pops up new stimuli to trigger thought process- it could be new knowledge, new experiences, deeper introspections…( I know I  gave deep introspection to “ Aerial Roots” my volume of poems that reflected a mindset at a point of time. My novel “ Blossom Showers” represents a further growth in the continuum of life. As  I now work on other writing, I find I have evolved even further as a person from my interactions with life and new bodies of knowledge.) A writer’s aspiration is to perennially progress to taller heights of vision, further depths of insight and wider breadth of concerns. The resolve should be to keep oneself open to multiple stimuli for expanded consciousness, that  new maturities ever enlighten and enliven creative work.

My good wishes for the wide reach of “ Small Things That Matter Much”. Young Edmond Fernandes, I’m sure will touch many lives even as he rises to the challenges of versatile  ventures and vocations.

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Thoughts At Lit- Sems

{I enjoyed the mental stimulation of being a Chief Guest at two national seminars : one on Indian Women Writers and another on  Female Portrayals in Indian Fiction. A sum-up of my general thoughts( excluding detailed individual author critiques) on both occasions.}

Virginia Woolf’s famous  lecture “A Room of One’s Own”  presents the poignant fictional archetype of Judith Shakespeare to elucidate prior suppression of the intelligent and creative woman.  As the famous playwright’s sister, she imagines the likelihood of her being reprimanded each time she picked up  a book in preference for household duties. And while William Shakespeare’s genius is idolized by the world, an unfulfilled Judith Shakespeare ends her life in lonely suicide.

Literature is an  evolving  zone where new themes or their expanding dimensions keep pace with events and ideas.  It is also an expanding zone which  accommodates writers from many more  places with distinctive stories to tell. These processes of evolution and expansion inform our consciousness with newer insights and illuminations. They  are evident, for example,  when the same tale is told with  different viewpoints in two iconic books, with a different time period and situational foci of the writers.    Charlotte Bronte’s 19thcentury novel “ Jane Eyre” has been hailed a triumph of   feminist liberalism, highlighting a young woman’s  search for identity and love amidst the patriarchy of Victorian England. In the course of the novel, Jane encounters  Bertha, the first wife of her husband- to-be Mr Rochester.  In “ Wide Sargasso Sea”, Jean Rhys makes us re-imagine the West Indian madwoman of Bronte’s classic with its racially biased stereotype, for a sympathetic look at Bertha. We discover her identity as Antoinette in Jamaica, and the oppressive circumstances that make her the insane arsonist in Jane Eyre.   Published in 1966,  Rhys draws on her experience of  the West Indies to depict the cultural confrontations between the islanders and colonials on a 19th centuryCaribbean landscape. Incorporating  modernist, feminist and post colonial thinking  it  exposes the narrow literary canon that presumes a homogenous White western  heritage in its readers and espouses a racial and cultural pluralism.

Women writers are usually attuned to  psychological realities and  social process, qualities  highlighted in the continuing popular appeal of  Jane Austen’s “ Pride and Prejudice”, contrasting with the niche academic survival of iconic poetic works by Shelley and Byron published the same year. One may discern in women writers sensitivities and sympathies that spotlight social inequities. Though many may call it a novella, Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoco” written in 1688 is sometimes credited with  being  the first English novel. Aside from this pioneering distinction,  Behn’s experience of a sugar plantation in Surinamcaused her to sympathetically touch  on the plight of the Negro slave, a theme that later resonates in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”– the influential book  that would inspire the emancipation agenda of the American civil war. Though both writers were white, it did not impede a plea to  review  oppression of another race, paving the way for those emancipations that would one day enable Toni Morrison to write as an actual person/ woman of color.     

The large market in the West allows women writers to occupy the literary space from the frivolous to the serious, the Mills and Boon’s to Nobel Prize winners, and also like Agatha Christie and JK Rowling to shine in niche genres like detective fiction and fantasy. Most Indian women writers are  concerned with serious issues, because in many ways they are interpreting Indian realities to the world. Societies in the West have reached a point of being  homogenized, whereas in India the socio- cultural reality is both very complex and diverse, which can make some simple themes very profound. An innocuous theme like normal heterosexual love can take on very explosive connotations in the conflict- ridden contexts of caste, creed, region and economic disparity. Even those works primarily written for entertainment value, in the Indian context  serve as sociological record of a country in transition.

There are of course some places whose insiders can neither break out, nor is there  access for outsiders to share their searing stories. Paradoxically therefore  some stories of victimhood are better imagined than narrated.  If  narration happens, whether the author is male or female, the emergent understanding is profoundly moving. Khaled Hosseini’s “ A Thousand Splendid Suns” highlights the horrific oppression of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan, and could be equally true of women in fundamentalist fortresses elsewhere. I remember a particular episode  where a pregnant woman  is turned away from the general hospital because it has been turned into a men’s only facility. The new women’s hospital has no facilities or medications; she must endure a ceasarean surgery without anaesthesia, performed by health  personnel hampered by traditional veils. Compared to that institutionalized oppression, even women figures in Indian fiction with perceived  emancipation agendas  suffer internal   conflict and confusion rather than violent subjugation. Their identity issues are mostly about resolving complex  psychological baggage.  Individual ground realties may differ, but the Indian state is committed to the welfare and protection of the Indian female, child or adult, through protective legislations such as those prohibiting dowry and pre-natal gender testing, combined with empowering measures like reservations, usually without equivalences for males.

A glance at paper abstracts told me there was often an automatic equation of Indian female author with feminist author, of general themes with an empowerment agenda. In a few cases, this could be true, and of course it is heartening to note that readers look to literature for empowerment messages. However, this could also diminish the import of other pertinent general messages. It could ignore the fact that mature writers might be  gender neutral, portraying individual characters as members of a universal human species rather than representatives of a particular sex.

To illustrate, in a Booker prize winning novel, a socially marginalized lower caste male is  weak compared to  the innately  powerful  woman who exploits her  upper caste, economically superior status to instigate his death  in the lock-up . A man’s gender is no power statement when grosser inequalities exist. To  read it in a feminist  light is to downplay its wider humanist and political concerns: the core critique of conspiracy between communist  ideology and religion, tacitly   denying individuals  at different places in the caste hierarchy the personal autonomy that  demolishes social barriers and inequality through the intimacy of sexual intercourse.

Generally speaking, Indian women authors have boldly covered a gamut of themes and issues. Their writings comprise  piercing post- colonial statements, sensitive socio-political economic critiques,  engaging explorations of  the Indian experience in foreign societies, and  perceptive works of psychological or philosophical depth. They must generally  be complimented for  mature gender portrayals that fit the needs of individual books, where neither  sex can claim a monopoly of martyrdom or villainy.

As a novelist, my primary aim in “ Blossom Showers” is to tell a powerful story and explore some pertinent themes. Readers’ feedback lauds some gender portrayal innovations, especially in conveying convincingly the inner life of male protagonists, two of whose first person narrations drive the novel.   My female characters at each point over a time span between 1902-2010 are constructed to be interesting and compelling. Their personas exert powerful influence on the men around them. Their approach to love and marriage could be expedient, and their initiatives unconventionally assertive. Each actively seeks relevant self- realization. The feminine psyche might determine certain behavioral outcomes, but there’s a linkage with a larger sense of individual and collective destiny. I have avoided the cliché of male characters in an oppressive macho mould, showing the masculine psyche to be perfectly capable of intuition and empathy.

A society in transition is a stimulating place for an author to write in, and for a researcher to figure out. The young, for example have their own chick-lit prototypes, whose bold and assertive heroines negotiate the terrain between middle class mores  and the growing sexual freedom found in their globalized workplaces. This is certainly a time when the Indian woman has woken up to the opportunities of education and empowerment, perhaps with accompanying dilemmas of a work-life balance and evolving gender equations. It may happen that when individual and community empowerment are not concurrent, the clash between modernity and the orthodoxy of caste and creed  witnesses conflicts on new social battlefields- the emerging violence of honor killings.

There’s scope to examine post- empowerment phenomena in present and future writing.  Cognizance may be given to the strengths and powers of women rather than stereotyped ideas of victimhood that are often  premised in  women’s writing. For example, practically speaking we know that a woman who possesses beauty or hails from a high social status enjoys her own terms in a relationship, and today, you might add superior academic and career credentials for interesting behavioral dynamics. It’s time to acknowledge that a woman can be an independently interesting, often fascinating individual, perhaps with her own behavioral ambivalences.

The dynamics of human  relationships are often obscured in the  convenient catchword of patriarchy. This can be puzzling because psycho-analytic theory posits the gravitation of children and parents of opposite sexes to each other, and practically speaking we know of fathers who dote on daughters and its parallel. These are relevant issues when we are talking about female foeticide, for example, when it is the woman who submits her body, willingly or unwillingly for the exterminating act, sometimes with unfortunate collusion of women health personnel. This  places an onus on writing and popular creative works like film to alter  internalized or inherent biases – to awaken both men and women to the promising possibilities of a girl child.

I assert it is equally possible for men to  write supportively about women. The ancient Greek dramatist Euripides wrote with  feminist empathy to understand a complex character like Medea who murdered her own children. Ibsen’s “The Doll House” makes that forceful plea for a woman to be treated as an individual rather than as a plaything.“ A Thousand Splendid Suns” strengthens the idea that the powerful tie binding women  overcomes  the sternest patriarchy. This theme is noteworthy, because women should enjoy the assurance of “a conspiracy of cohesion”- of supportive bonds between members of their own sex and also in alliance with empathetic men to counter archaic social forces.

“IAM, therefore I write’,  is my personal writing philosophy,  believing the individual interface between inner make up and external reality directs the imagination and  determines  the nature of output. There are probably other writers who may well say “ I AM NOT, therefore I write”, treating the literary impulse as a weapon to address either the marginalization of the self, or the multiple marginalized individuals,  issues and injustices that a writer identifies with. Gender could be a metaphor for other identifications, as when particular authors  equate the feminine psyche with nature, nurture and conservancy. Both kinds of conviction,  must animate a composite literary scene, so that sufferings and sorrows are balanced by  selfhood’s strengths and successes, in the likelihood that triumphs surpass travails in the longer time scheme. There are probably a great many miles to go for a great many, but the substantial mileage of personal growth achieved by a significant number can never be discounted and deserves its due in fiction.

 

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