How 2 States glorified an abusive, toxic mother by relying on stereotypes

I first watched 2-states a few years after it was released; primarily because I wasn’t a fan of Alia Bhatt and secondly because I was going through a phase of rejection towards Bollywood. It was good time-pass, a colloquial reference used by North Indians for anything moderately entertaining. It is, undoubtedly, an entertaining film, with a dash of token women empowerment added in the form of an anti-dowry scene. However, this particular article isn’t necessarily a feminist reading of the film. 

I recently watched the film again, as I have started re-watching Hindi films for research, but more so because I’m back to being a Bollywood buff. The one character that stood out was Kavita Malhotra, Krish’s (Arjun Kapoor) mother. While she fits what one would call a ‘typical punjabi mother’ template, complete with loud bragging and incessant whining, she is also what the Indian society refuses to accept – a toxic and abusive mother. Her toxicity is constantly justified by her sufferings as a victim of domestic abuse, and her almost successful attempt at sabotaging her son’s life is finally excused by her ‘progressive’ decision to not take dowry at her son’s wedding. She uses her misery as a tool to control her son and get what she wants. As Lionel Shriver said in a debate, she “deploys weakness as a weapon”, and is driven to “maintain that weakness” because it is, in a perverse way, empowering her.

The trope of the great Indian mother aids the character as she bulldozes her way through her son’s life, her traumatic marriage acting as a shield at every corner. In one of the first scenes with her, she throws a tantrum when her son rightfully tells her to not talk about ‘sending some cartons of sunsilk’ in front of Ananya and her family. She goes on a guilt trip with dialogues like, “agar apne doston se mujhe milakar, tera impression bigadta hai, toh main aayi hi kyun hoon?”. The funky punjabi background music gaslights the audience into reading the scene as a funny one, at the same time providing identification and validation to young viewers by normalizing emotional manipulation by parents. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Hindi cinema has always promoted an equivalence between the mother and god. In the eyes of Bollywood, a mother can do no wrong. Even when she commits a crime, there is a noble and justifiable reason behind it. While the direct impact of films on society is debatable, it wouldn’t be remiss to say that they do share a symbiotic relationship, feeding off of each other for guidance. Thus, for a lot of young adolescents including myself, watching perfect mother figures on screen while living with imperfect parents in real life caused a lot of cognitive dissonance. There was no easy resolution to this conflict, especially in the absence of the alien phenomenon in middle-class homes called ‘communication’. 

In 2 States, Kavita’s character is not perfect, but the mother-praising repertoire built by cinema over decades provides enough cushion to her character to get away scot-free. We are well conditioned now. The first few thoughts that enter our minds are, “that’s just how mothers are…difficult but lovable”. This instant dismissal of her transgressions enables her to be entitled beyond measure, assuming decisions on her son’s behalf because she “sacrificed so much for him”. In the scene following the convocation, she commands Krish to choose Delhi as his preferred job location and says, “Koi zaroorat nahi hai kahin aur jaane ki”. According to her, that should settle it.

All her bigotry towards ‘Madrasis’, internalized misogyny and misplaced sense of pride in being Punjabi because of the difference in skin color pales in comparison to her role as a mother that trumps everything that is wrong according to modern standards. Even though Krish’s submissive attitude towards his mother is not the focus of this article, it does act as an enabler. He hates his father for being physically and emotionally abusive towards him and his mother as he should, but never holds his mother accountable for her abusive and damaging behavior towards everyone around her who isn’t her sister and son. 

It is impertinent to note that I don’t critique the depiction of flawed characters in films. In fact, flawed characters make films better. However, the problem is in the glorification of flawed characters by virtue of their status in society, and them never being held accountable for their flawed decision making. I had a similar problem with the film Shakuntala Devi, where her catastrophic failures as a mother were drowned by her status as a genius mathematician and the ‘a mother is a mother after all’ tag. It is high time we started giving the topic of abuse by parents the treatment that it deserves. If not a realistic lens, then at least a nuanced one.

Even during the climax of the film, it’s Krish’s father who apologizes for his mistakes (not that an apology can wipe off years of physical and emotional abuse), going from being astray to attempting to redeem himself, completing his character arc. In doing so, he is singled out as the only problematic character in the film who needed to recognize his wrongdoings. If only he hadn’t been abusive, his wife wouldn’t have been abusive either. I don’t know if this is how Chetan Bhagat wrote the characters because I haven’t read the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. Relying on stereotypes is useful in storytelling, it allows people to connect with characters easily. Having said that, stereotypes shouldn’t be an excuse to justify abuse.

All said and done, I don’t think the great Indian mother is going away anytime soon. The best we can hope for is some nuanced storytelling, where a mother is given space to be more human than a goddess. 

Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki: Everyday domestic apartheid in middle-class Indian homes

As I walked towards the kitchen after waking up at 12pm in the afternoon to ask for a cup of tea to begin my day, I saw our househelp sitting on a small stool on the floor, drinking her own tea in a steel glass. Completely unperturbed by this, I said casually, “Aunty, apni chai peene ke baad mere liye bhi bana dena”. At this, she immediately stood up, kept her glass on the kitchen counter and began making my tea. I tried to tell her to finish hers first, but she brushed it off with a “arey koi nahi” and continued to make it for me.

This was an ordinary occurrence. My attempt at being nice to her was my benevolence, an added dose of kindness that wasn’t really a requirement of our social contract. But her willingness to put her needs aside certainly was. It wasn’t anything ‘extra’ – it was expected from her to put our needs before hers every single time. Perhaps she had become desensitised to it too. This small interaction always made me feel good; it made me feel like a good person.

This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the blatant human rights abuse that takes place inside middle-class homes in the supposedly modern and developed cities of India. Right from demanding househelp to leave their slippers out of the house to having a separation in every possible space – each middle-class household screams apartheid. Unfortunately, even a scream as loud as this is drowned by it’s normalcy. How do you know it’s a scream when everyone does it? In a lot of ‘societies’, there are separate entrances, lifts and alleys for residents and domestic workers. People keep separate utensils, chairs, seating areas and bathrooms for them. Sometimes, they aren’t even allowed to eat the same food and drink the same beverages. In summers, while residents drink cold water, domestic workers have to drink regular water because cold water is a ‘privilege’ they don’t deserve. When they are employed as live-in workers, more often than not they are made to sleep in areas such as kitchens, extra rooms, living areas and sometimes even balconies. They are given the bare minimum – a mat to sleep on and a run-down blanket. 

The above are instances that I’ve seen firsthand. There are severe cases of physical mental and sexual abuse that go unreported and unheard. Househelp in most homes work over-time, are overworked and under-paid, and suffer abuse on the regular. Even the most forward-thinking, liberal people turn a blind eye to this sustained abuse. 

In a video by ScoopWhoop unscripted, the host Samdish Bhatia walks around a park in Delhi, candidly speaking to middle-class men and women who have househelp in their homes. A middle-aged woman very sincerely asserts, “We don’t let them use the same utensils and crockery as us”. She sounds completely convinced that her classist, casteist attitude should be the norm. When asked about the current scenario, she further asserts that “good people are being pushed down while people from lower castes are coming up”. This type of rhetoric doesn’t come from a place of self-awareness; it’s a form of entitlement that has been passed down generations. Most people don’t even realize that they’re being discriminatory. For them, segregation on the basis of caste and class is the right way for society to function. This is based on continued dehumanization of the ‘other’ – anyone who isn’t of the same caste, class and even color. 

I grew up listening to the women around me, relatives and aunties, brazenly bitching about their househelp day in and day out. 

“Uff, she wants a raise again. How is Rs.1500 not enough for utensils, laundry and cleaning of the house?” 

“She asked for more tea yesterday. These maids are just going from bad to worse”

“Do you know how much money we spend just on her food? We pay her salary and pay for her meals too”

“Our maid is the worst. She can’t do anything right. Ask her for tea and she’ll take years to get it”

Talking about househelp related woes was everyone’s favorite hobby. For them, people who worked in their homes weren’t entirely human. They were partly robots who needed to be pitch-perfect at everything, and partly nuisances that the ‘high’ society’ had to tolerate in order to keep their houses running. Interestingly enough, the same people who perpetually bitch about domestic workers, are also the people who unequivocally rely on them. The world that they have constructed for themselves, rests squarely on the shoulders of the men and women who take care of their homes. A single holiday demanded by a worker threatens to derail everything. In the words of a man in the ScoopWhoop video – “Humein toh saaton din sewa chahiye, isliye to rakha hai maid ko”.

What is truly fascinating is the complete ignorance that engulfs the lives of so many middle-class people. Despite their reliance on househelp, they truly feel they’re the ones on the moral high ground because they have offered full time employment to someone in need. Not just that, they have also offered to feed the poor workers while they are on duty. How much more do the poor need? Food, some money and a shelter, that should be enough for them. 

Rights? What are those?

Respect? Poor people don’t deserve respect.

Dignity of labour? That’s a joke. Anyone who works as househelp is a piece of trash.

Fair contracts? Why do we need a contract in the first place?

Men tended to stay out of these ‘homely’ discussions unless something affected them directly. However, lately I’ve seen men increasingly participate in this form of bashing, becoming allies with women on the basis of shared hatred towards the ‘other’. People who work as bathroom and drain cleaners receive an even harsher treatment, with house owners lumping them in the same category as unwanted pests. Even though untouchability is illegal, I’ve seen it being shamelessly practiced by many. People avoid coming too close to them and remain in different rooms when they’re cleaning their bathrooms. While housemaids are allowed snacks and beverages in separate utensils, people who clean bathrooms and drains aren’t even allowed to enter the kitchen. When put in perspective, it’s all very shameful. It sheds light on the shockingly low value we, as a society, have assigned to the weak and vulnerable.

Paid leaves, medical insurance, off-weekends and travel allowances should be a part of any employer-employee relationship. But the poor workers in India only get scrapes of charity, that too in the form of documented favors. In fact, anything done by the employers (in this case, homeowners) is an act of benevolence that ought to be remembered by the worker forever and repaid in kind. This is a very clearly defined, strictly enforced one-way street of demand that does not have any destination.

Body shaming in Indian Schools: A can of worms that needs to be ripped open

In one of the scenes from the exceedingly successful 2019 film, Kabir Singh, the titular character says to his love interest, “You know these healthy chicks, they’re like teddy bears. Warm, loyal. Good looking chick and healthy chick – trust me it’s a great combination. This friendship will work”. He body shames the girl and reduces her existence to her physical appearance. This is one of the numerous examples of legitimization of body-shaming in popular media, especially films, within the context of an educational institute. Over the last few years, mediatized representations of bodies, and especially female bodies, has come under scrutiny for promoting a specific type of body as beautiful, desirable and lovable. But is it only the media we need to blame for propagating and sustaining these standards?

There is a depressing dearth of research available on the culture that exists within schools in India. Like most formal institutions, the school’s aura, status and image precede it’s reality. It exists within a bubble. What happens at school, stays at school. I grew up hearing things like, “school time is the best time”, “school friends are for life” and “school memories never fade”. Never did I come across a critical anecdote, leave alone a critical discourse. Not surprisingly, as an adolescent struggling to cope with body dysmorphia during a time when it was changing rapidly, I found myself extremely conflicted between what I was supposed to feel and what I was actually feeling. I remember being overweight for most of my years at school because I was never allowed to forget this fact. “Gendi”, “Moti”, “Saand” were just some of the words used to address me. In a study published in 2020, author Rahul Gam and others found that a total of 44.9% of participants (students between the ages 14-18 at a school in Lucknow) admitted to having experienced body shaming at least once in the past year. 

For a lot of school-going adolescents, the environment of school can be toxic. Not only are they expected to perform well academically, but also look physically appealing and ‘presentable’ while doing it. While body shaming is largely perpetrated by fellow students and peers, participants also include teachers who protect, promote and validate it publicly. While I was researching for this article, I found no recorded evidence of teacher-to-student harassment in India, which for a moment made me feel like my lived experience wasn’t real. Not just mine, but of many others who were told to just ‘suck it up’ and move on. Teachers would openly comment about students’ physical appearance. It wasn’t just limited to comments about general appearance either, the scrutiny was specific and directed. Girls would get remarks about their thighs, breasts, arms, waists, faces, necks and even fingers. Boys, too, were targets of this form of bullying by teachers. The comments were snarky in nature, which granted permission to fellow onlookers to laugh and pass more comments. 

Nothing was off-limits. Somehow, the body became the representative of the person. The body shaming became conversational, so normal that one might mistake the bullying for being a general discussion about the weather. The teachers were cruel with impunity. Highlighting the physical attributes of a student that didn’t fit into the acceptable prototype seemed to be a little less than a recreational activity for them. In a video released by Brut India on 17th February 2021, Mansi Poddar, a psychotherapist, shared her experiences of bullying by teachers that led to a nervous breakdown and suicide ideation. Many comments below the video resonated with her and corroborated that this was the prevalent culture in most school environments. 

The one friend I had in school faced body shaming by teachers too, and it led her to crash diet throughout her first year of college. It only stopped when she fainted at a metro station and realized how dangerous that could have been. She often shared with me how she remembered every single taunt she had to endure at the hands of teachers and students. I’m sure there were many others; a few months ago I wrote a facebook post about a teacher who was particularly brutal and someone from the same school reached out to me saying that she too had been body shamed by this teacher. 

The body shaming itself wasn’t just limited to fat, thin, tall and short, it included skin color, body hair and facial symmetry too. India’s obsession with fair skin (Mishra, 2015; Thappa & Malathi, 2014) doesn’t park itself outside the doors of schools. In fact, schools breed and harbor different forms of discrimination with much lesser scrutiny. Afterall, the people populating its space are products of the same social constructs that exist outside its boundaries. The purpose of education should be to empower young minds to question and eventually break the shackles of regressive social structures and practices, including discriminatory thought-processes. But what happens when the teachers responsible for being the catalysts of change collectively become the force holding it back?

After a decade of leaving school, I’ve finally gathered the courage to question its culture. Why do teachers bully their students? Why is cruelty, anger, criticism and judgement the norm rather than compassion and empathy? Why does school as an institution place so much importance on physical appearance? Why is harassment in all its different forms so normalized? 

It’s important to understand that school happens to be the place where different social, cultural, economic, religious and physical identities converge. India is a diverse country. There is diversity even within a city. Therefore, each individual comes with their own built-in configuration and way of understanding the world. Educators and practitioners of pedagogy need to be sensitive towards each individual and what they bring to the space. That of course, would require them to first educate themselves about issues that affect children and adolescents, mental health and physical wellness being some of the many. Unfortunately, teachers in India tend to become a part of the same cycle of abuse that we as a society need to be fighting against. They may not plant the seeds of intolerance and hate, but they do water them instead of trying to weed them out. They may not be the initiators of abuse and harassment in a child’s life, but they do participate in it rather than protect against it. Perhaps they don’t realize that these experiences shape children in semi-permanent ways. Some struggle to overcome the trauma they experienced in school for many years to come. (Arzt, 2019)

In an article in 2019, author Rohit Kumar wrote “In the case of the classroom, while it is imperative for the bullied to stand up to the bully and for the bystander to get involved – show solidarity with the victim and also stand up to the bully – the onus for dismantling the culture of bullying in the classroom and replacing it with a culture of care and empathy actually lies with the class teacher”

He asserts that it’s only when the teachers want it to stop, that the bullying actually stops. If they don’t, then they’re complicit in promoting this toxic culture. 

The first step to initiate any change is to engage in a dialogue. It’s time to smash the privilege and its benefits that schools at large enjoy in society, and critically question the culture they promote. They need to be held accountable for their treatment of children and adolescents far more than they are. Kids aren’t just future investments or possible toppers whose ultimate goal is to have their faces printed in newspapers for scoring well or getting a good job, they are complex, multi-layered and highly perceptive human beings who deserve respect, love and compassion, and do not deserve to feel threatened in the very environment they’re expected to excel in.

Islamophobia

Islamophobia: a term liberals like myself grew up tip-toeing around, carefully choosing our words while talking about Islam lest we slip into the territory of ‘Islamophobia’. So what is Islamophobia? Wikipedia describes it as ‘fear of, hatred of or prejudice against the religion of Islam or muslims in general…’ Does this mean that nobody can ever, criticize Islam? Does not agreeing with the idea that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ amount to Islamophobia?

One of the downsides of free speech is that you might have to hear things that you don’t agree with, or even things that offend you. You have the right to put forth your own point of view, but you can’t demand that the other person shut up. As long as someone is not promoting hate speech (All muslims are terrorists and deserve to be thrown out!) and promoting violence (We need to unite against outsiders and erase them from the map of this country!) – you really cannot do much. If someone goes on a platform and talks about how Harry Potter is their god and they would like a day to celebrate the death of Voldermort, no matter how outlandish it may sound to you, you can’t do anything about it. Similarly, if someone goes on a platform and says that they don’t agree with Islam and think it promotes bad ideas, you cannot go on a rampage, call for this person’s arrest and term it ‘Islamophobia’. If, in the eyes of Islam, free speech is allowed to the extent of praising the doctrine and singing praises about it’s teachings, then perhaps its best not to call it free speech in the first place.

In October 2020, a teacher was beheaded by a radical muslim for showing cartoons (published by Charlie Hebdo) of Prophet Muhammad in class, talking about freedom of speech. Thousands of muslims across the world joined protests against French President Macron’s decision to protect the rights of a magazine to publish these cartoons. Note that it was not the beheading of a teacher that they found blasphemous, but the cartoons of an alleged Prophet. France is known for it’s secular fabric and discouragement of any religious expression in public. Freedom of speech is considered sacrosanct and nothing is above it. So the question is – why should islam get a special right to be excluded from this fabric? Why should, as Christopher Hitchens put it, muslims be allowed a divine right to bigotry? Why shouldn’t Islam be criticized, questioned and even mocked like anything else? What makes it ‘special’? The cartoons offended you. Well, too bad. Deal with it.

It’s ironic that muslims in democratic countries rally behind the idea of expression of religion, when their own doctrine does not permit leaving and/or adoption of another religion, or dropping of religion entirely. When questioned about laws regarding apostasy, they’re quick to claim – ‘it’s not the faith, it’s the culture!’. Well, no. It IS the faith as the quran explicitly talks of killing people who leave islam. 12 countries have death penalty for apostasy by law. Others, including Pakistan, have the death penalty for blasphemy. Ex-muslims across the world (even in western countries) fear for their lives when they leave their faith. Some are even killed brutally by their own families. Some go into hiding. Richard Dawkins very famously asked ‘What is the punishment for apostasy?’ to a Islamic representative during a debate, which he tried to dodge and avoid for a very long time before admitting that it is the death penalty. The fact that some muslims are able to talk about ideas like ‘expression of religious freedom’, ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘freedom of clothing’ is precisely because they live in democratic countries where the state is separate from religion. In most islamic countries, ‘choice’ is an alien concept that is often termed as ‘western immorality’. I can go on about the various other barbaric and regressive ideas promoted both in the Quran and the Hadith but I just might have to write a book for it.

On January 7, 2015, two french muslim brothers killed 12 members of staff of the Charlie Hebdo magazine for publishing cartoons on Prophet Muhammad. The magazine had been threatened before for it’s satirical portrayals of Islam, but it refused to back down. On January 11, 2015, Journalist Rana Ayyub published an opinion that said ‘French have my condolences, not my apology’, where not once did she mention the importance of upholding ideals of free speech and the right to dissent, something she so truly believes in herself. All she talked about was her frustration at being asked to apologize on behalf of the terrorists who did this, along with the famous ‘they’re not true muslims’ argument. First of all, it’s not necessary for you to apologize on behalf of anyone. What IS necessary, however, is that you (and others like you) stop dissociating extremist elements from Islam entirely, thereby halting any possibility of any discussion about the teachings of the faith completely. It’s quite easy (and rather cowardly) to run away from facing any criticism of the faith by claiming – ‘that’s not islam!’ – well, then WHAT is islam? An overwhelming majority of muslims across the world want sharia as the official law of the land (pew research center) – are they true muslims? Majority of the muslims believe that apostasy is wrong (to say the least) – are they true muslims? Muslim countries (and even non-muslim countries) saw riots against Charlie Hebdo – are they true muslims? Or are you the only ‘true’ muslim who understands the teachings of the faith? Read: No true scotsman fallacy.

For any other religion, or even atheism, an article such as this one would be considered abhorrent. For it to surface days after this ghastly attack and the author to take a defensive stance is downright inhumane. But, as we have established earlier, Islam has procured for itself a special right to be immune from any form of criticism or questioning. If it gets too much, people end an argument with ‘My faith is private and I do not need to explain to anybody’. In that case, perhaps it would be a better idea to not reveal your religious identity in the public domain at all. You cannot claim to be a ‘proud muslim’ and then shut yourself off of any questions. If I publish an article saying ‘I’m a proud Harry Potter fan, but it’s personal so please don’t talk to me about it’ is ridiculous to say the least. What is truly private remains private. End of story.

Ultimately, this systematic propaganda to whitewash islam is damaging sections of society such as women and LGBTQ massively in Islamic countries. They have no avenues or platforms from where they can seek help. Very few of them manage to escape and seek refuge in other countries. Their voices are lost amidst the ‘proud muslims’ debating their right to ‘wear a burqa’ when most of the women and girls in islamic countries don’t even get a say in it. What we should be focusing on is the human rights abuse that happens in the name of Islam, rather than slapping it’s critics with ‘Islamophobia’.

Hair tie

CHAPTER 1

She was walking down the hallway, lost in her own thoughts, when she bumped into someone and staggered backwards. Slightly annoyed, she looked up to see the guy smiling at her mesmerizingly. He had unkempt, longish hair and a stubble. He was wearing jeans and a short kurta. He was charming without making any effort. In about 5 seconds, she knew he was the guy she wanted to daydream about, he was the guy that would eventually fall for her. 

“Sorry..”, he muttered in his deep voice before walking away. She kept looking at him. A soft breeze started blowing and strands of her hair fell on her face. She blushed as she swept them away gingerly. At that moment, she felt beautiful. At that moment, all eyes were on her as though they had never seen such a sight before. She smiled and started to walk, unsure of where her footsteps would take her. What had just happened? Was she in love, or was she just enjoying the feeling of being noticed?

She was sure it was love. Even though she didn’t know what it was. It could be a thousand different things. Was it a feeling? Was it a physical sensation? Was it a decision? Was it an accident? Was it an attraction? Was it sex? Or was it a film plot that is designed to have a happily ever after? She didn’t have answers. She didn’t even have a reference point. Maybe her parents had loved each other at some point, but their love never looked like love. It looked like an appliance that did it’s job. Maybe her peers who were in relationships felt love. But their love didn’t look like love either. It looked like an entertainment subscription that helped them kill their boredom. Despite her confusion, she knew one thing – her love would be different. It would be real, strong and eternal.

“How many times have I told you to roll out the paratha from both sides, or else it doesn’t inflate?!”, a strong voice cut through the thick fear and anxiety in the house. It rang through everyone’s ears before making the atmosphere even thicker. “God knows how you people end up getting jobs in cities like Delhi. You all are good for nothing! I can’t even expect a good breakfast after waking up!”

Sanchi heard her mother screaming at the househelp in her room. She lay under the blanket at 11am in the morning, feeling angry and helpless at the same time. She slid under her blanket even more and tried to drift back into her slumber, where she could dream about the charming guy falling in love with her. That was the reality she wanted, but this was the reality she had to live. Something never felt right in this house. That something constantly poked at her, prodding her to accept something she didn’t want to. Sleep wasn’t her best friend, but it offered an easy escape. 

“This tea is cold and you have put too much ginger in it. I cannot drink this. Throw this away and bring me a fresh cup of tea!”, her mother continued to yell. Realizing that she couldn’t push it away any more, Sanchi slowly got up and slid her legs down her bed. She felt a strong urge to go and comfort her mother; she was clearly distressed and upset. Her hands were cold and her heartbeat was fast, but she had mastered this routine and knew how to power through it. With a deep breath, she tied her hair and walked out of the room. As she walked towards her mother, who was sitting down on a rug with her books and tea tray in front of her, she fake rubbed her eyes and pretended to have just got up from a lovely shut-eye. 

“Hi mumma, what happened? Why are you so upset?”, said Sanchi as she hugged her mother, Aarti.

“Hi beta…nothing, the usual. These people just don’t want to work. They want easy money. They’re all losers. Now tell me, how can we live among losers? How can winners thrive amidst losers?”, grumbled Aarti.

Sanchi looked down and nodded, “Hmm…when did you wake up?”

“Just an hour ago. I couldn’t sleep properly. The phone kept ringing and these guys kept bothering me each time there was someone at the door”, Aarti paused as she took a sip of her tea, “Arey Seema! Make another paratha, Sanchi is up! And make her tea too!” and then immediately turned towards Sanchi, “Did you sleep well beta?”

“Yes, I slept like a baby. What’s your plan for today?”

“I’ll hopefully get to go for a walk and do some yoga in the park if I get free from the house soon”, replied Aarti with a sneer, “What about you?”

“I have my theater practice at 6pm today. So I’ll leave around 5:30pm. We are working on that show I told you about…”. As she said that, Nirmala, the cook, walked out of the kitchen with a plate in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. Aarti looked at Nirmala and said, “Did you roll it out the way I told you to before?”

Nirmala nodded, “Yes, I did. It inflated completely”

Aarti smiled and said, “Chalo good. Sanchi, eat up. There are more parathas coming”

As Nirmala kept the plate in front of Sanchi, Aarti noticed the excess ghee on the tissue paper beneath the paratha and yelled, “What is this? There is so much ghee in this! How will she eat this? Nirmala can you do anything right? Take this away and bring another one!”

“It’s okay mumma, I’ll eat it. Leave it”, interjected Sanchi hesitantly. 

“No, why will you eat this? It’s her job to do her job well”, asserted Aarti, “drink your tea, she will get you another paratha

Sanchi tucked her hair behind her ears and began to stretch her fingers. Her chest felt heavy – as though there was a massive blob of clay sitting there. She felt like something had rendered her voiceless and immobile. She couldn’t do anything but sit and observe the events. She wanted to scream, she wanted to tell her mother to shut up, she wanted to get up and go back to her room, where she felt safe. But she couldn’t. She sat in her place and took a sip of her tea. Her mother’s attention wasn’t directed at her, but Sanchi’s entire attention was on Aarti. It was almost as though she demanded Sanchi’s attention. Sanchi feared that if she didn’t focus entirely on Aarti even for a moment, she would be harshly reprimanded for it, not to mention guilt-tripped. She noticed everything – the way her mother drank her tea, the way she looked outside at the trees, the way she shifted her weight to find a comfortable sitting position, the way she checked her phone, the tone of her voice, her words. She evaluated that the situation was fragile, and any trigger could lead to an explosion. Her words and mannerisms had to be carefully chosen. 

Nirmala walked in again, with another plate in her hands. She placed the plate in front of Sanchi, who was desperately hoping that this time the paratha was perfect. Aarti looked at it and said, “Yes, this time it looks good. See, this is how you should do it. You’re just lazy”

Nirmala smiled and said, “I’ll make more”

Sanchi had no appetite. But she smiled and started to eat, hoping the next one would be just as perfect. She desperately wanted to have a good relationship with her mother, but maybe her efforts weren’t good enough, because Aarti never seemed happy. Every morning was the same – Sanchi would be woken up by Aarti’s shouting, followed by a stretched out and slow episode of anxiety and stress, which seemed so normal to her that she didn’t spare a moment’s thought to it. Aarti would spend the rest of the day being upset at something or the other, and then hopefully leave for work without creating any drama. Sanchi hoped for a smooth evening all day, so that she could leave for her theater practice peacefully too. If things went south, she knew she wouldn’t be able to go either.

After finishing her breakfast, Sanchi observed her mother to see if she could safely excuse herself from this space. With her heart beating fast, she said, “I have to go to the washroom now”

“Yes beta, I’ll also start to get ready now”

With a sigh of relief, Sanchi got up and walked to her room. She closed the door half-way through, quickly picked up her phone and walked into the washroom. For some reason, being locked inside her washroom always made her feel safe. She couldn’t be harmed there. As her body recuperated from it’s anxious state, she looked at herself in the mirror. I seemed to have gained weight, she thought to herself. The version of me in my dreams is so much prettier. I need to be better. 

Sanchi Agarwal was a 17 year old girl, who wasn’t very fond of herself but dreamed of true love. She was in class 12th, hated school and only wanted to spend her time at theater practice, but felt disappointed each time she didn’t score well in exams. She constantly sought validation from people for every little thing, especially her mother – but hated being the center of attention at the same time. 

Sanchi was, in a nutshell, a conflicted girl who wanted to go far, but was still stuck at sipping tea in front of her mother.

Love vs Career

I feel a little small writing this at a time like this, when our country is slowly being set on fire by fascist forces. But nothing I write will ever do justice to the suffering and pain being inflicted upon scores of people in Delhi. Honestly speaking, this was a volcano waiting to erupt the moment BJP came into power. This is what they wanted. This is what their entire machinery was gearing towards..

Coming to the topic at hand – Love vs Career; it seems to have become the most important and relevant question for our generation. What do you choose, when you are a crossroads such as this? What matters more?

But my question this – why should one have to choose only one? The truth is, neither of these choices alone can bring you complete fulfillment and happiness for a lifetime. If you choose love, and completely sideline your career, it will haunt you forever in the form of resentment. You may also feel like you didn’t achieve your highest potential and let go of the chance to do something great. Nobody wants to feel like that, especially if you derive a great part of your self-esteem from your career or ambition. Eventually a relationship in which one sacrificed his or her career completely, is going to tank. On the flip side, if you choose career over love, it will all feel pointless and hollow after a point, when you will have nobody to share your success with. Happiness is best experienced when you have someone who feels it with you, someone who understands you completely.

A lot of times, couples find themselves in situations where they find it impossible to balance the two. One may have gotten an opportunity to go abroad (or a different city) while the other may want to stay back or one may want to settle down while the other may still want time to build their career. There can be many examples. So what should one do? After years of torturing myself over this question, I came across the answer one fine day in my therapy session. It’s called finding ‘common ground’. Let me explain. The idea that all we go according to our plan in life is the biggest farce. The truth is, there are a lot of factors in life that are completely outside your control. I have learnt that the only two things you can truly control in life are your actions and your reactions. You can’t control the outcome.

My point is, the only time people think they have to make a hard choice between love and career, is when they want to stick to the plan they have made for themselves. No, I don’t say that having goals is pointless, all your goals are achievable. But, the journey may not be as you mapped it out to be. It can meander, change, take U-turns and even offer massive roadblocks. Which doesn’t mean you won’t get to your goal, it simply means you’ll find a different way. I am a massive control freak and like to plan everything in advance, so accepting this concept was like climbing Everest for me. A lot of this acceptance comes with letting go of the imaginary control we think we have over the outcomes of our decisions.

Coming back to the term ‘common ground’. Now I think a lot of us live our lives with the either-or theory. I surely did for the longest time. The thing is, no matter where you are in life, certain adjustments are inevitable. Happiness isn’t a magical island where you’ll arrive one fine day after all your hard work. It’s a choice that needs to be made every single day. To make that choice, you may need to sometimes put others’ needs above your own, sometimes your own. For example, it’s your loved one’s birthday, but it’s also an important day at work. So what do you do? Instead of sacrificing one for the other, you find an alternate solution – you call your loved one to your workplace so that you can be with each other while you work and then go out and celebrate his or her birthday.

In another situation, you may have got an opportunity to go abroad to study or work, but your partner either 1) wants to stay back or 2) still needs time to figure out an opportunity for themselves abroad. In the first situation, you can either figure out an equally lucrative opportunity in your homeland or discuss the feasibility of a long distance relationship. But while discussing that option, you must also know the end goal. A long distance relationship succeeds only when there is a plan to get back to each other in the end. If both agree to work towards that end, then it can work. (I, personally, do not subscribe to the idea of long distance relationships. But that’s just me) In the second situation, you can surely put your partner’s needs above your own and defer your admission or joining date until your partner, too, figures out an option. This way, you don’t sacrifice anything.

I firmly believe that relationships sustain only when you put in hard work. The moment we start taking relationships for granted, they slip away. If you think your relationship will work out on it’s own or your love will survive the distance no matter what, then you’re wrong. We need to prioritize work and relationships differently in different situations. You cannot put your career on the #1 spot for your entire life and expect your relationship to flourish, and vice versa. And quite honestly, there is no support system in life like a strong relationship. If you have a steady, honest and real relationship in your life, it will help you scale heights that you couldn’t have done alone. Your partner will become both your anchor and your wings.

Let’s not forget, it’s only when we’re happy and content in our personal lives, that we can find happiness and meaning in our professional lives.

Landlords ki dadagiri

Most of us have had a relationship with a landlord (or landlady. Here I use the term ‘landlord’ for both) at some point in our lives (unless you’re super privileged and have lived in your own house forever) – and I am yet to meet a person who did not have a single issue with his/her lanlord. Renting a house in India isn’t easy, not to say that it’s easy in other countries, but here it’s not just the legal paperwork that’s exhausting, it’s the tyrannical and dictatorial attitude of landlords towards their tenants that’s even more exhausting. As a tenant, your life doesn’t become easy the moment you sign that lease; the misery continues for as long as you live in someone else’s house.

Although I have had and heard many horrible experiences, I’m only going to focus on the ones that enraged me the most. Technically, once the lease is signed, the house belongs to the tenant for the time period mentioned. The landlord cannot enjoy the freedoms that he/she used to in regard to the house, i.e, cannot dictate the tenant’s schedule, who they meet, what they eat, who comes to the house or ask to keep a spare key to the house. Let me reiterate – this is illegal. Infact, even to visit the premises the landlord needs to give a 24-hour notice to the tenant, and make a visit only if it is convenient for both. However, in reality, this does not happen. Recently, a close relative of mine shared her horrific experience with her ex-landlord with me. Initially when they (she and her friends) rented the apartment, the landlord and his family seemed nice, but life became hell for them when they started living there. They kept an eye on everything they did, and poked their noses whenever they could. “Too many friends are visiting”, “Too many get-togethers”, “Too many boys”, “Too many beer bottles” etc. This bickering and interference became a daily routine. Note that a landlord cannot impose social or moral restrictions on the tenant. They can only raise concerns if permissible noise levels are being crossed, or if severe damage is being done to the property. That too, has to be communicated in a respectful manner. Trying to moral police a tenant simply because he/she has rented out one’s premises is not just illegal, it’s plain wrong.

The landlord also charged them more on the electricity bill than he should have. If the government electricity bill states Rs. x/unit of electricity, he charged them Rs. x+3/unit of electricity. Which, once again, is illegal and also a form of bullying. The point that is being made here is – ‘it’s my house, so I will do what I want, when I want and how I want’. Eventually, they decided to vacate the house, but on the day they were supposed to vacate, he locked them inside the house until they cleared all the dues. All this amounts to harassment, and ideally they should have filed a police complaint against him. But due to our conditioning and social pressures, we generally avoid getting involved with the police.

In another instance, a girl was refused to be given a house on rent simply because she is muslim. Rejecting someone on the basis of their religion sounds unfair, disrespectful and shameful, but then there are also people who reject prospective tenants on the basis of the food they eat. Some landlords don’t want tenants who eat non-vegetarian food. Some don’t want single men/women. Some have a problem with drinking and smoking. Some have a problem with the company people work at. Some have a problem with caste. Some don’t want friends of the opposite sex to visit. Some don’t want pets. Some have a problem with skin color. Some have a problem with living.

What irks me the most is the amount of entitlement that exists within every landlord. Most of this behavior is illegal, and if not illegal then just plain wrong and disrespectful. But unfortunately we live in a country where owning a property makes you a king (or a queen) and automatically grants you powers you ought not to have. If laws were implemented properly, and tenant rights were taken seriously, then a lot of us wouldn’t have to compromise on a daily basis with our self-respect and way of life. Unfortunately, even the cops side with the landlords in most cases. It is always the tenant who is harassed and bullied.

I am not trying to dismiss the fact that even tenants misbehave and sometimes cause destruction, but the problems I listed above are not a result of bad experiences, they’re a product of a shitty mindset propagated through generations. Patriarchy, misogyny, racism, classism, casteism, ageism, colorism – they all exist in our society and are deeply rooted. So naturally, these social evils come out even in transactional relationships like the ones between a landlord and tenant.

You would think that it’s 2020 and we might have made some progress. But in reality, we’re decaying as a society everyday.

No support for artists?

I have been talking about this for quite some time now. There is absolutely no support infrastructure for budding artists and companies. If an artist wants to put up a show, the biggest challenge they face is to gather an audience. They can somehow manage to find a space to rehearse, other artists to collaborate with and look after other logistics. But what does one do when it comes to attracting audiences who would be interested in consuming their art? There is of course the most obvious issue – the social one. We in India, simply don’t have a culture where audiences are interested in paying for art (of any kind) Our mindset is still stuck at… arts mein kya rakha hai. Engineering karo. Mind you, there is a huge difference between arts and entertainment. Unfortunately in our country the two are always used interchangeably. We simply do not think that dance, theatre and/or any kind of performing arts is worthy of our money. We would rather pay to watch Bigg Boss on television.

It will take a lot of time for this kind of mentality to change. It requires a revolution. Some people are constantly making efforts to change it, and will continue to do so. However there are certain other issues too that contribute to the lack of development or betterment of our Industry – one of them being lack of support from the corporate sector. A platform like BookMyShow, that holds monopoly over ticketing, offers absolutely no support to small outfits who are trying to organize events independently. We recently organized our event, and decided to tie up with BMS for ticketing because of their huge market. Obviously, we agreed to their terms in regard to the commission. But it doesn’t end there. They also charge a “convenience fee” or “Internet handling” fee which is to be paid by the end user during the booking process. Basically, they earn revenue from the organizer as well as the customer. Now, as per the information released by RBI (thanks to an RTI filed by Vijay Gopal), this internet handling fees is, infact, not legal (falls in the grey areas) and is in violation of MDR regulations. This charge needs to be paid by the merchant to the bank, and not the user (Trust me, as a business we pay it too) but organizations like BookMyShow make the users pay it.

This aside, we also wanted to do some extra marketing in collaboration with them – for which they said their minimum package was for Rs. 25,000 – in which they would merely promote a facebook post and it would run until the budget exhausts. No featured posts. No mention in the newsletter. I respectfully declined because, quite frankly, we just didn’t have the money and running a promotional campaign on facebook is something we could have done ourselves too.

Basically, (a) their additional charges are a deterrent for audiences to come watch live shows, (b) organizers think a hundred times before buying their promotional packages because they’re so damn expensive and (c) organizers also have to pay them a share of the ticket sales revenue as commission. Oh, and if its a free event, you have to pay them a fixed amount per seat because they don’t host events for free on their website.

All in all, not a very good deal for smaller outfits. Profit to door ki baat hai, aise toh costs bhi cover nahi hongi. And absolutely NO guarantee that a minimum number of tickets will definitely be sold. You could do all this and still be performing in an empty auditorium.

Other big corporate houses do have CSR, but they only offer their schemes to NGOs or companies, not to individuals. Its very difficult then, as an individual, to get any kind of support from these organizations for any venture. So many artists in our country are suffering everyday, working for a measly amount of Rs. 1200 for a 12-hour shoot. They end up scrounging for work in places they don’t want to – wedding choreographies, corporate events, school events, ad shoots etc. Some of these dancers are extremely well-trained and have invested years in their training. Yet, they end up struggling for a very long time.

What we need is a massive overhaul in the overall social outlook and corporate social responsibility. We need more support from the government and society as a whole to flourish. Performing arts is in India’s fabric, let’s not let it die.

Skeletons in the closet

We all have our demons that we battle with, every single day. This battle takes away a fair share of energy and mental peace. We live in times where it seems everyone is at unrest. Everyone is struggling with too many things humanely possible to handle. But somehow we do. Every single day.

I have been dealing with anxiety since I was a kid, been taking medication for almost 8 years now. I was also recently diagnosed with Borderline personality disorder – an illness that is debilitating and draining at the same time. Needless to say, I live with a lot of weight on my chest every single day. This weight doesn’t just come from my illness and anxiety though – it comes from certain bad decisions that have stayed with me like ghosts under my pillow. Their shadow follows me around everywhere, never letting me forget the error of my ways.

Certain situations become so messy and complicated that they render your ability to differentiate between right and wrong completely useless. You feel numb, almost like an inanimate item being flung around without truly understanding what’s happening. It’s only once the dust settles that you realize what the storm destroyed in it’s wake. What can you do then? Besides looking around and lamenting at the fact that things went wrong? How do you undo a bad decision?

This is very hard to write about, but I need to start acknowledging what has happened so that I can find ways to overcome it. Also because – hiding and living under a rock does no good when you’re trying to deal with the ramifications of something. It’s best to face your fears, actions (good or bad), feelings and thoughts head on. Fearing them will only make the burden worse.

It’s hard living with this burden. After years of mulling over it and thinking about what to do, I finally decided to do something to undo that bad decision. Will it work? I don’t know. I am not sure. But I will go to bed every night knowing that I tried to retrace my steps and fix it. If there is a silver lining, it it this – I don’t stop fighting for the right thing until the right thing is done. It has been long overdue. If I want to shed some of the weight off my chest, I will have to make sure the right thing is done.

I will keep trying.

The problem with Kabir Singh (and it’s director)

Kabir singh

Kabir Singh has become a smashing success, owing to it’s insecure and misogynistic massive fans. People who derive great pleasure from watching a man toy with a woman like she is an object, and direct her life as per his wishes. What’s more, to watch the same woman actually dance to his tunes happily and then call it love, was the cherry on the cake. According to the director of the film, that’s true and passionate lowwee. Because afterall, if you cannot touch your woman wherever you want, slap each other casually – then is there something even there?

Any mentally healthy person will advise this guy to go get some help, and get his ideas about love straight. But then I went onto twitter and youtube and read some of the most vile comments I have read in my entire life. I realized then that this country is full of people like him, and actually consider this heroism and bravery.

What exactly is so wrong with Kabir Singh and Arjun Reddy? First of all, let me make one thing clear – there is absolutely nothing wrong with the portrayal of flawed characters. In fact it makes for a much more interesting viewing. What IS wrong though, is the validation and glorification of such characters. To depict these characters through the template of a “hero”, is a problem. When people clap at his assholery, bad decisions, wrong choices and horrible behavior – it IS a problem. And most people will take away validation from the film – not the fact that he is a flawed character whose traits are not to be emulated.

There are a few arguments in support of the film saying – What about films like Wolf of the wall street? There, too, the protagonist was an asshole and got away with his wrongdoings with minimal punishment. Well, quite honestly, I don’t know about others – but the way the film had been made, it made me absolutely hate the character. I didn’t think the gaze of the film glorified him or his actions. The film itself was good, but the character was deplorable and the film made sure he was hated, because that’s what he deserved. Most of the people who watched Kabir Singh absolutely loved his character and felt he was “ballsy”, “honest” and “brave”. In fact it’s the feminists who are now being abused and trolled (yet again) for having issues with the film. Not a single supporter of the film has a problem with the character of Kabir Singh. So how is it not problematic when a sexist, sadistic and mentally unhinged character is worshiped?

Another argument in favor of the film is – so what if Kabir slapped Preeti? Preeti slapped him a couple of times too! Well let me say this loud and clear – they’re BOTH wrong. Nobody in a relationship has the right to abuse the other. Even when you’re in an intimate relationship, there is a certain boundary that needs to be respected.

When I started watching this interview, I couldn’t watch it for more than 5 minutes. Seriously, what is this man on? This is an unhinged guy who casually justifies domestic violence and physical abuse and calls it “love”. This is a guy who has absolutely no regard for any critique of his work and calls everyone who has a different opinion than his own, ‘psuedo’. He body-shames people and attacks them personally simply because they didn’t like his film. I don’t think he even thinks that Kabir Singh is a flawed character – as per his ideas, he is the personification of the purest form of love! These are the kind of people who are going to make mainstream films now?

I don’t say such films or such characters should be depicted on-screen. That’s the whole point of freedom of expression – to be able to express one’s ideas without censorship. But I do think that glorification of such toxic masculinity is a problem, especially since Indian audiences are so impressionable. If there were ever a society that had difficulties in differentiating between cinema and reality, it would be ours. We are so heavily influenced by what we watch onscreen. We believe the character IS the actor and vice versa. If Kabir Singh hadn’t been depicted as the hero, or if he didn’t end up with the girl in the end, or if he actually faced the consequences of his actions in the end – it wouldn’t be such a bad film. The film essentially gave him the clean chit for everything he did PLUS a happily ever after too.

P.S – Is it true that this kind of toxic masculinity and warped sense of romance is commonplace in the south Indian film industry? Perhaps that is why Arjun Reddy wasn’t met with so much criticism? However I do remember watching OK Kanmani in 2015 and thinking that Bollywood has a long way to go!