From the Archives: Mindful of the Bond We Share in these Trying Times by Vibha Shetiya

This was originally posted on February 14, 2017

I’m sitting in my parents’ balcony in Pune, India, on a quiet morning. Well, this being a bustling Indian city of six million, it can’t really be quiet. As I sit with cup of tea in hand, I try and meditate – I’ve been practicing mindful meditation of late, and so, rather than block out the noises, I embrace the various sounds that make up this Monday morning.

I count the variety – sparrows gently chirping away while a noisy crow tries to outdo them in a contest he easily wins, a street hawker starting his day (and ours) on a rather cacophonous note, the sweeper from the neighbouring complex pouring his heart and soul into cleaning the grounds that will need re-sweeping in an hour or two, the put-putting rickshaw carrying squawking kids to the school down the alley, chirping chipmonks that temporarily develop wings as they fly from branch to branch in a cheerful chase, the honking car warning of its over-the-limit speed (reaffirming the fact there are two things we Indians especially love: honking for no reason, and breaking traffic rules), my mother’s footsteps as she peers out to see what I’m doing by myself…nine in all.

Continue reading “From the Archives: Mindful of the Bond We Share in these Trying Times by Vibha Shetiya”

On Duty and Compassion Towards the Elderly by Vibha Shetiya

At the outset let me state that this post is mostly a collection of musings, rather than having a definite thesis statement.

I’m currently in India. I had to think hard before coming here for many reasons as you can guess. I finally decided to take the risk especially since there’s no telling how long this situation is going to last. After all, I’ve canceled twice and my parents aren’t getting any younger.

My father is 89, mum 79. When you visit on a yearly basis, that which eludes the daily eye becomes quite obvious in terms of reminding one of parents’ mortality. Wrinkles, aches, pains that develop over months and years seem shocking to the interim visitor, and in recent years, I’ve always left with the hope that I get to see them again.

Continue reading “On Duty and Compassion Towards the Elderly by Vibha Shetiya”

Forgiveness is a choice-Part 2 by Vibha Shetiya

It’s been over five years since I wrote the first part of this topic. A lot has happened since then; I have changed for the better or so I would like to believe, but I guess the real question is – have I changed my mind, my perspective on forgiveness? The answer is simple: No.

Why then did I even bother to write this post, you may ask. I guess I have gotten a better, deeper insight into why I continue to feel the way I did five years ago. Of course, even now I hear what philosophers have to say, and can understand, often even agree with, their arguments in favour of forgiveness: that forgiveness is not about setting someone else free; it is about setting yourself free.

But I’m still not ready.

Continue reading “Forgiveness is a choice-Part 2 by Vibha Shetiya”

It’s All About Control by Vibha Shetiya

VibhaWhen I first moved to America, I was shocked to learn of the high rate of domestic violence here. Surely, American men weren’t like that. Besides, American women were strong – they would never take BS from their husbands, fathers or brothers. How could this be even remotely possible? Of course, I was younger then, and not quite aware of the insidious workings of patriarchy. But then America is supposedly one of the most liberal and progressive countries in the world. Being of Indian heritage, it was “natural” that I had heard of and witnessed male domination and control. After all, we Indians were “backward.” But America? Really?

I have, for a while now, been utterly confused by the inherent paradoxes within both countries, but it was Justice Kennedy’s retirement and the possibility of the overturning of Roe v. Wade that helped clarify my thoughts. Continue reading “It’s All About Control by Vibha Shetiya”

The Red Dress by Vibha Shetiya

VibhaIt was my twelfth birthday and I was in New York vacationing with my parents and brother. New York was a world away from the sleepy town of Luanshya, Zambia where I was from (and which I loved).  The noise, the lights, the gigantic stores, and oh, the people. So many of them! My heart could barely contain the excitement.

It was one of these stores that had coaxed out my blossoming womanhood. I had spotted the perfect outfit at Macy’s. It was a red dress that fell slightly below my knees, delicate flower patterns adding that extra touch to the femininity I was ready to embrace. Although Luanshya couldn’t compete with the thrill of the Big Apple, I was now ready to embark upon my own exciting journey towards womanhood. And, I would take a little bit of New York back with me. Continue reading “The Red Dress by Vibha Shetiya”

The Definition of Strength, Gaslight Edition by Vibha Shetiya

13327613_10208448645447348_6913754683590458893_nRecently when I was feeling low and a little devoid of hope, a friend of mine paid me a fabulous compliment: “Things will get better. You’re a very strong person.” I know it was a real compliment and not an underhanded cutting remark. You may be surprised as to why I am referring at all to the latter. After all, it’s straight forward – having strength and fortitude are admirable qualities and how could one possibly even think otherwise. But you may be equally surprised to know that there are very special circumstances under which the word “strong” gets to acquire extended meanings of: “devoid of feelings,” “someone who needs zero support,” “a social insult.”

Take the time when I got divorced several years ago, undoubtedly one of the most difficult periods of my life, compounded by the fact that I found myself despondently alone. Continue reading “The Definition of Strength, Gaslight Edition by Vibha Shetiya”

Breaking Down the Concept of Arranged Marriages by Vibha Shetiya

13327613_10208448645447348_6913754683590458893_nOne of the first things my American friends and family ask me when they learn I used to be married to an Indian man is: was it an arranged marriage? I understand the intrigue, the bewilderment and even horror that the phrase “arranged marriage” can conjure up in unfamiliar Western minds. Images of forcing women to marry strangers encountered upon the street or child betrothals or women being dragged to the wedding site to be married off to mustachioed men are likely to flash before one’s eyes. While such incidents may have occurred from time to time, and in the past, as with child marriages, the long-established concept of “arranged marriage” is very different and not as frightening as may seem.

Traditionally speaking, proposals materialized through word-of-mouth – family and friends recommended a good alliance, or a parent would approach someone directly or indirectly to ask for a daughter or son’s hand in marriage. Even then, personal histories were well researched into, before both parties decided to “see” each other. Marriages in India continue to be alliances between families, and so it is important to check into family background – what are the parents’ and siblings’ occupations? How much does the prospective groom earn? After all, he may be the sole earning member of his family and may not be able to provide for his own family once he starts one. Is there a history of crime or mental illness? This investigation makes perfect sense in a society that is community and family-oriented, and wherein joint family situations are still the norm, especially in smaller towns and villages. It is thus imperative that everyone try and get along. “Arranged marriage” is certainly not synonymous with an “Oh-let’s-just-get-rid-of-our-daughter” arrangement.

Continue reading “Breaking Down the Concept of Arranged Marriages by Vibha Shetiya”

The Cracked Glass by Vibha Shetiya

13327613_10208448645447348_6913754683590458893_nI haven’t shared this story with too many people, yet it is one that has always remained on the back burner of my mind.

I was almost thirteen and as boy-mad as an almost-thirteen-year-old could be. I remember me and my then best friend coming of age in Zambia, our experiences manifested in squeals of “Oh my god, I think he’s looking at us” or in the life-and-death decision of “Ooh, should we really walk past them?” for the ultimate target of a not-really-necessary packet of crisps, the “them” referring to equally silly, starry-eyed boys.

I thought these were universal expressions of puberty; shyly glancing over to catch someone’s eye, wanting to look your best while Jello-ed legs and a temporary loss of voice inhibited your ability to say a simple “hi” to the object of your very existence, the raison d’etre of your life, well, at that particular moment anyway.  Or deciding to spend the afternoon at the movies, never mind what was running, so long as cute guys would be hanging out for pretty much the same reason as you were. Of course, all of this was accompanied by the attention span of a freshly pubescent brain with expressions wrapped in innocence, with harmless and fleeting murmurings of the heart. Continue reading “The Cracked Glass by Vibha Shetiya”

Mindful of the Bond We Share in these Trying Times by Vibha Shetiya

vibpicI’m sitting in my parents’ balcony in Pune, India, on a quiet morning. Well, this being a bustling Indian city of six million, it can’t really be quiet. As I sit with cup of tea in hand, I try and meditate – I’ve been practicing mindful meditation of late, and so, rather than block out the noises, I embrace the various sounds that make up this Monday morning.

I count the variety – sparrows gently chirping away while a noisy crow tries to outdo them in a contest he easily wins, a street hawker starting his day (and ours) on a rather cacophonous note, the sweeper from the neighbouring complex pouring his heart and soul into cleaning the grounds that will need re-sweeping in an hour or two, the put-putting rickshaw carrying squawking kids to the school down the alley, chirping chipmonks that temporarily develop wings as they fly from branch to branch in a cheerful chase, the honking car warning of its over-the-limit speed (reaffirming the fact there are two things we Indians especially love: honking for no reason, and breaking traffic rules), my mother’s footsteps as she peers out to see what I’m doing by myself…nine in all.

In the past I would have tried hard to block these out, straining to keep my mind on my breathing, worrying I’ll never find a quiet enough spot to help me master (hah!) the art of meditation. But today, I am grateful. Grateful that I am a part of a larger picture. And as I scan my body from head to toe, feeling the tension most in my shoulders while the cold mosaic tiles below keep me momentarily grounded to the fullness of living, I remind myself that I am just a speck in this montage called life. Continue reading “Mindful of the Bond We Share in these Trying Times by Vibha Shetiya”

The Chandravati Ramayana: A Story of Two Women by Vibha Shetiya

vibpicAlthough “the” Ramayana is a fluid narrative, scholarship has traditionally recognized the Sanskrit Valmiki Ramayana as the most authoritative of Ramayanas. But recent studies have brought to light the hundreds of regional stories of Rama and Sita which are more popular with the masses. These would include Krittibasa’s Ramayana in Bengal, Kamban’s Tamil Iramavataram in South India, notably in the state of Tamil Nadu, Tulsidas’s Ramcharitamanas among the Hindi-speaking belt of northern India, and so on. But even here, a pattern seems to emerge; all the above-mentioned authors are male. Within this scenario, a rather unique text stands out, and that is Chandravati’s sixteenth century Bengali Ramayana, for its author was a woman. Even more fascinating is the double-toned nature of the narrative – through Chandravati’s own voice and through the voice of its tragic heroine, Sita.

Chandravati (ca.1550-1600) was born in a village in eastern Bengal, today in Bangladesh. It is impossible to ignore the tragedy of her own life which perhaps played a role in her re-fashioning a well-loved epic; her Ramayana is built on a recurring theme that defines women’s lives – the theme of sorrow. Born the daughter of a poor fisherman, legend has it that on the eve of her wedding, her fiancé ditched her for another woman. A devastated Chandravati vows to never marry, instead becoming a devotee of Shiva, and at the urging of her father, takes to re-writing the Ramayana. But rather than simply recount the traditional tale, Chandravati, through the Ramayanathat symbol of Hindu patriarchy – turns the story into one lamenting the pitiful lives of women by centering it on Sita. That it is a story by a woman and for women is evident in the fact that Chandravati addresses her narrative with the vocative, “Suno Sakhijana!” or “Listen, my girlfriends!” rather than to members of the court as was the traditional salutation for stories involving mythological characters. Continue reading “The Chandravati Ramayana: A Story of Two Women by Vibha Shetiya”

First Time But *Definitely* Not the Last by Vibha Shetiya

vibpicLike many others, I too have been thinking of this election the past month or so. A lot has been said about the repercussions a Trump presidency will have on immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community, non-Whites…the list is endless. But in this post, I would like to talk about personal matters, and what it meant for a first-time voter like me to vote in the US elections. I have been living in the United States for over seventeen years, but only recently – in April this year – did I apply for citizenship.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t know much about Hillary Clinton or American politics. But the good thing that has come out of this cycle is that it has made me want to learn more about governance, elected representatives and what they are doing (or not) for the people they claim to represent. It has made me want to learn about why people hate Hillary so much. I don’t understand the refrain, “She’s a liar”; why she has been singled out for so much hatred when clearly the opposition isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue.

Despite being relatively apolitical prior to this election season, however, there was one thing I was really excited about – the fact that, for the first time in American history, a woman was running for president as a candidate of a major party, that too with a good chance of winning. Now, of course, being from India I was cautious about what this could actually mean for the ordinary American woman. After all, did Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s rise to power necessarily create a dent in the patriarchal nature of Indian culture and society? Continue reading “First Time But *Definitely* Not the Last by Vibha Shetiya”

Sex, Death and the Gods (Part II) by Vibha Shetiya

IMG_20160112_101035This continues my reflections on the Devidasis in Part 1.

The overall picture that emerged from the documentary “Sex, Death and the Gods” was that, in its current form, there were many layers to the Devadasi system. For one, the most heartbreaking of all, there were the helpless, underage girls protesting such an existence, pleading that they would rather be in school, instead of being trapped in what was essentially a form of sexual slavery. But then we also see the older Devadasis, women who had been dedicated as children themselves.

Within this latter bracket, there were two groups.Those that viewed the practice as evil, and those that saw it as empowering – they earned their own income and they didn’t have a man or mother-in-law to lord over them; in short, they were in-charge of their own households. To them, married life was akin to a life of servitude, sex was something they enjoyed, and they may have shared a more or less equal relationship with the men who were their customers, men who enjoyed their company and preferred being with a Devadasi rather than with spouses they never chose or couldn’t get along with. In the words of one Devadasi – “I am the boss.” Continue reading “Sex, Death and the Gods (Part II) by Vibha Shetiya”

Sex, Death and the Gods (Part I) by Vibha Shetiya

Vibha I recently re-watched a BBC documentary my students and I had discussed in class last Fall. “Sex, Death and the Gods,” directed by Beeban Kidron, takes a close and rather intimate look at the Devadasi system as currently practiced in Karnataka, a state in southern India. In its ancient form, young girls were dedicated to temples, and their duties included dancing and singing to the deities, a form of worship in itself. Delivering on its provocative title – one that describes how prostitution and sexually-transmitted diseases such as AIDS intersect with the realm of the divine – the film sheds light on how a practice once sanctioned by religion came to offend public sensibilities because of changing mores regarding sexuality, ultimately leading to its being outlawed in twentieth century India.

Despite the ban and denials by government officials, however, the practice continues to exist in some villages and towns, albeit watered-down from its historical form. In the first part of this post, I present the background of the system; in the second, I discuss how “Sex, Death and the Gods” problematizes the concept of women’s agency, a thorny matter especially when issues of morality enter the picture, as it almost always does with “problematic” professions that involve an exchange of money for sex. Continue reading “Sex, Death and the Gods (Part I) by Vibha Shetiya”

Naked and Unafraid: Mahasveta Devi (1926-2016) by Vibha Shetiya

Photo credit: The New York Times

Mahasveta Devi died last month at the age of 90 in Kolkata, India. A widely acclaimed Bengali writer, she identified as an activist first, clearly evident in her meticulously researched “fiction.” Most of her stories champion the cause of those living on the margins of society, particularly the Adivasis or original inhabitants of India; poor, unemployed and itinerant, they traditionally subsisted off the land, and continue to struggle against exploitative upper caste landowners.

I cannot claim to be an expert on Devi or her activism, but there is a story I read a few years ago, which never fails to haunt me, whether because of the rawness with which she describes the harsh reality faced by tribal people or because of what can be seen as the violent but ultimate triumph of its female protagonist, I cannot tell. Perhaps because of both, or because of more complex emotions which are hard to capture as they manifest in goose-bumps and a deep pain in the inner recesses of the chest when reading it for the seventh or eighth or twentieth time. Continue reading “Naked and Unafraid: Mahasveta Devi (1926-2016) by Vibha Shetiya”

I’m Every (Bit A) Woman by Vibha Shetiya

IMG_20160112_101035I often recall the time many years ago when a relative sympathized with the fact that my kittie had been spayed. Pigou was one of five girl cats we had and rather than face the difficult task of having to find homes for all of their offspring, or worse, put their lives in danger for lack of adequate care, we decided to get Mama Cat along with her four daughters fixed. My aunt’s words still resonate in my ears: “That is so sad. After all, every woman nurtures a desire to be a mother.” I remember feeling terrible. My parents and I had just committed the grave sin of severing Pigou (along with her sisters) from her identity – her natural role of mother. As I have gotten older, my views on Pigou and her lack of choice in the whole matter have changed, although I acknowledge that it may remain an ethical issue for some. Much as I empathize, however, Pigou and animal rights are not the center of this post, although a related topic is – that of motherhood.[1]

I don’t have children. It is out of choice. I’m not sure when exactly I consciously decided to forego being a parent, but I suspect the seeds were sown sometime during my teenage years, the result of looking at the world around me. In particular, the memories of my mother turning from the self-assured, even independent woman I knew as a child to someone who was forced to limit herself to home and family later in life and get nothing in return; a picture which probably made me think that was what motherhood was really all about. Continue reading “I’m Every (Bit A) Woman by Vibha Shetiya”

The Self is Not the Territory by Vibha Shetiya

VibhaAs a teenager, I grew up wondering where exactly I belonged. Aside from the confusion resulting from straddling two entirely different, perhaps even opposing, cultures, my main concern seemed to center on which country was I from – India or Zambia? Or was I inherently British because of an education and upbringing enveloped by things English – values, books, magazines, not to mention people? Was I American because I grew up on TV shows like Charlie’s Angles, Wonder Woman, Six Million Dollar Man and Dallas that played a major role in fashioning my idea of the world around me? Perhaps I was Zambian because I had been living in that part of the world since the age of one. Or maybe I was from India because that was after all the land of my birth, to where I returned as an utterly confused and disjointed teenager who believed she now had to be “Indian” even though I could not relate so much as an iota to my immediate surroundings.

Looking back, I realize I felt the need to identify my sense of self with nationality. Ultimately, I reasoned, I had to be Indian due to many factors. For one, I looked Indian; I was brown-skinned with black hair and dark brown eyes. I now lived in India amid Indian people, Indian values (oh, so confusing), Indian music and Indian TV shows. And I was “born” a Hindu. So there I was – an Indian Hindu and so had jolly well behave like one. Of course none of this came with a manual on what exactly being Indian or Hindu meant. And so I looked to people around me, people I loved and whose approval my teenage mind so craved, and decided being Indian meant being who they wanted me to be. After all, how many times had I heard the phrase – “You’re in India now, so be Indian.”  And then as an adult, I came to America accompanied by even more potential for confusion; at times I felt the need to cling to my “Indianness,” at other times, I wanted to jettison it for fear of being denied entry into the great melting pot. Continue reading “The Self is Not the Territory by Vibha Shetiya”

Two Lives, a Marriage and a Plate of Samosas by Vibha Shetiya

VibahRecently, a commercial made by the clothing line, BIBA, hit the Indian market. Its significance lay in its “Change the Convention, Change is Beautiful” tag. The message was straightforward – we need to change Indian attitudes regarding gender roles. At the outset, let me say there are many things wrong with the ad, especially when one stops to think how it could possibly bring about a change when the young woman in question is voiceless. In fact, when I first watched it, my own reaction was: “And just what change are we talking about here?” Upon deeper reflection, however, I realized why the commercial may indeed be a step forward, albeit a tiny one. Continue reading “Two Lives, a Marriage and a Plate of Samosas by Vibha Shetiya”

Women First, Rivals Later by Vibha Shetiya

VibahSita, as many know, is the tragic heroine of the Ramayana who gets discarded by her husband Rama because he doubted she had remained chaste while in his arch enemy Ravana’s captivity. Moreover, she is the “ideal Indian woman” in popular imagination because she remains loyal to Rama no matter how unfair his treatment of her. But there is another female character in the epic who meets perhaps a far more violent fate.

Unlike Sita, however, Shurpanakha gets little sympathy from the readers because she does not stick to her socially assigned roles. I would like to talk about Shurpanakha and how she comes to symbolize all women who transgress societal boundaries, while also stressing the fact that although she is often presented as Sita’s opposite, the two share far more in common as women; both Sita and Shurpanakha deserve our compassion and empathy.

In the traditional Sanskrit text, Valmiki describes Shurpanakha as “maddened with desire” when she first beholds Rama’s beauty. The poet then goes into a rather lengthy description of what she is not by comparing her “unsightly” presence with Rama’s exemplary beauty, thereby affirming the fact that she does not deserve to be visible because of the physicality of her body. Upon his enquiring, Shurpanakha tells Rama that she, who roams the forest alone and according to her own will, is the sister of Ravana (who later kidnaps Sita), and she makes it a point to add that she is more powerful than all her brothers. She then declares her undying love for Rama and asks him to be her husband, after which the two of them could seek adventure amid the forest together. Continue reading “Women First, Rivals Later by Vibha Shetiya”

Fair and (Therefore) Lovely by Vibha Shetiya

VibahAccording to the Great Indian Cultural Lexicon, being light-skinned or “fair” translates to being “lovely.” A look at commercials that promise a make-over, courtesy of Fair and Lovely skin lightening cream will attest to this. [1] The definition, of course, applies to women, for that is where a woman’s identity begins and ends – within the realm of physical appearances. When the product first came out some three decades or so ago, it was mostly about being able to draw the attention of a (very often ordinary-looking) guy; the fairness/ beauty rule does not apply to men.[2] These days, things have “progressed”; the attention has shifted from the need to getting hitched to finding success in the workplace, as these messages scream out:

The last one is especially cringe-worthy. The lengthy commercial, meant to be a public service message of sorts, targets women in villages and smaller towns, and goes into great detail about issues of women’s empowerment, about how they ought to think of a career now that they are done with college rather than go the usual marriage route. One of the young ladies, Manju, aspires to be a Collector, a high-ranking government official, a post usually limited to males. She works hard, and she also gets Fair and Lovely to work hard, as she happily lets us know. She eventually achieves her dream, all thanks to Fair and Lovely, of course. You decide what the audience is to get from this. Continue reading “Fair and (Therefore) Lovely by Vibha Shetiya”

I Am Queen by Vibha Shetiya

VibahI started this post just after getting back from an India trip, always very challenging because of memories that haunt me not only through their high negative recall value, but also in that I often find myself reverting to the diffident, fearful person I used to be while living there. In fact, palpitation is the first to greet me at Bombay airport even now after nearly seventeen years of being an expat. But with every trip, I also find myself evolving as a person, as a woman. And of course, it is always fun to meet up with family and old friends, all of whom I hold very dear. But the highlight of this trip was Queen.

Queen is a Bollywood movie unlike any other I’ve seen. As mentioned in a previous post, B-wood cinema if you can call it that, is made mostly of predictable, formulaic themes centering on impossible flights of fancy, not-so-subtle patriarchy, and gendered stereotypes. The good news is that in recent years, film makers have been trying to push boundaries in their own small ways, no doubt a laudable attempt in an industry where success still depends on mass consumption; box office success over critical acclaim. Queen, however, stands out in its portrayal of the protagonist Rani Mehra, a middle class young lady from Delhi (“rani” is “queen” in Hindi). Even more remarkable is that it portrays Rani’s female friends – “scantily” dressed women and prostitutes – without judgment, as human beings who are far from detrimental to Rani or the plot. Continue reading “I Am Queen by Vibha Shetiya”

Forgiveness is a *choice* by Vibha Shetiya

VibahSomeone I dearly love recently lent me a very sensible piece of advice: “You should forgive.” I know he resorted to these words out of love because he didn’t like seeing me in pain, a sentiment for which I was and remain grateful. I also know he wasn’t judging me when he brought it up, nor was he pressuring me into doing something I wasn’t ready for.

I truly understand how forgiving someone who has deeply hurt you can set you on the path to freedom. In the sense that forgiveness can loosen the chains that bind you to the past, the anger, the deep sense of betrayal, helping you learn to live again; that forgiveness is not so much about the other person but about the self. I have watched shows in which victims of horrific crimes or their family members have chosen to forgive, not always out of a sense of human bonding towards the aggressor, but because they could not live with the debilitating anger and hatred festering inside, and so chose to forgive to set themselves free. Continue reading “Forgiveness is a *choice* by Vibha Shetiya”

Wifehood Redefined: The Twentieth Century Sita by Vibha Shetiya

VibahIn 2003, I picked up a collection of essays on little known Ramayanas. Buried within was a poem by Pathabhi Rama Reddy. Pathabhi, a rebel of Telugu literature, defied not just conventional rules of grammar but also those of popular thinking, best exemplified by his poem, “Sita,” the subject of this post.[1]

Rama’s harsh treatment of Sita in the Ramayana epic when he first doubts her purity, compelling her to undergo a trial-by-fire, and then banishing her despite the fact that she had proved her loyalty to him, has attracted criticism from all quarters – how could the “perfect man” behave so callously towards his own wife who had been Ravana’s helpless victim? The fluidity of the story has ensured a visibility for Sita, no doubt. Continue reading “Wifehood Redefined: The Twentieth Century Sita by Vibha Shetiya”

Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 2) by Vibha Shetiya

VibahContinued from Part 1.

After leaving her home and her children in order to take refuge with her guru, in no time, Rukmabai won over hearts. Her guru, Siddharood Swami “with his divine sight” discerned that Rukmabai was no ordinary being. In fact, just before his death, upon realizing that his principle disciple had attained moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth), he left to her his mission of guiding others to salvation, directing his followers to now address her as Mother Kalawati.

And so it came to be that at the tender age of twenty-one, Rukmabai had a large following herself, and as an intense devotee of Krishna, she almost became synonymous with the god. As many like to point out, she had already internalized the attitude of non-attachment, whether towards individuals, possessions or food or drink; she was already enlightened.

Her disciples were both male and female, although she dedicated herself to the well-being of women. But while directing minds towards god, Kalawati Aai – a high class and high caste woman – also dedicated herself to uplifting the poor and backward Bohari community of Belgaum, Karnataka. It is said that the men used to wile away their time drinking and gambling leaving the womenfolk to run the household. Because of Kalawati Aai’s intervention, some order was brought to their lives; the men stopped drinking, which in turn put an end to the physical abuse they had heaped upon their wives, as well as the neglect their children had faced, who earlier had no choice but to turn to vagrancy. Stability in the homes through prayer and piety – in other words channeling their minds away from vice and towards god – in turn saw not just an economic change but also a change in the lives of these women and children, for the better.

But – and this is interesting – her message to women was not one of directing energy towards god in search of inner peace or salvation, but towards the family, of being a virtuous wife and mother. In fact, she urged women to put aside “just one hour a day of your life to the service of god”; the rest of the time should be aimed towards serving the family. And her advice to women unhappy on account of their domestic life would always be to look deep within themselves to remedy the situation, rather than to blame their husbands. Moreover, at no point should a woman ever neglect her duties towards family on account of her own well-being for that would be tantamount to selfishness. I find this most interesting because she herself broke norms in order to serve a personal calling. Continue reading “Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 2) by Vibha Shetiya”

Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 1) by Vibha Shetiya

VibahI recently assigned my students an article by Kathleen Erndl – “Is Shakti Empowering for Women? Reflections on Feminism and the Hindu Goddess.”[1] I’m sure, like Erndl, many have been fascinated by this question, especially within the Indian context. Does the presence of an abundance of goddesses necessarily translate to social empowerment for women? The answer is indeed complicated in that one cannot reify all goddess worshippers under one static rubric.

Having said that, however, I would like to posit that generally speaking, it would be fair to say Indian culture is a patriarchal one, and that the presence of a goddess tradition does not translate to independence for women. Firstly, the kind of goddesses worshipped by both men and women, are not necessarily the assertive, independent kind. They are often those such as Lakshmi and Saraswati who are maternal and nurturing, and important in their own right. All too often, however, these virtuous traits have been used to disempower women, to keep them in their “socially assigned places.”

There is evidence from early Hindu literature that the above goddesses may initially have been independent forces, but they soon came to be tamed as consorts of male gods; Lakshmi as Vishnu’s wife, and Saraswati as Brahma’s. Second, fierce and independent goddesses such as Kali and Durga may have a large following, but it is only in certain cases such as in Tantric theology specific to the goddess Shakti, identified with Kali, that ritual practices may do away with gender roles, that both male and female members have equal access to Kali. But the important question would be – outside of the ritual context, how do practitioners of Tantra regard women? In other words, do women have equal social – and not merely equal ritual – status? I am not an expert in Tantric discourse, but judging by various commentaries, I have reason to believe that this does not necessarily translate to gender equality in the social setting.

My quest here, however, is to provide an example of what a community with a strong, female leader may look like. I thought of this example because I have been intrigued with and fascinated by my own family experience regarding the cult of Kalawati Aai or Mother Kalawati (I do not use the term “cult” derogatorily as “a group with a powerful and controlling leader” but in the classical sense of “practices centering on an object of reverence”). My aim is to provide a picture of often conflicting ideals within the Hindu setting, to shed light on how this can play out on the ground. My information on Kalawati Aai – considered a saint by her devotees – comes from hearsay and hagiographical accounts for I never met her; she died almost forty years ago.[2]

Continue reading “Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 1) by Vibha Shetiya”

Epic Drama and Epic Confusion, Courtesy of Bollywood by Vibha Shetiya

VibaI love Bollywood. The colors, the over-the-top drama, the singing and dancing, the suspension of reality for three hours…I see how it can provide a break from the challenges of everyday life for over 700 million Indians living below the poverty line (and then some). But Bollywood movies also have a frightening side to them. On one hand they transport the viewer to la-la land; on the other, this very fantasy world has the power to set social norms. And yes, it becomes confusing – no kissing, no nudity, yet vulgarity is on full display when camera angles capture the fully dressed heroine’s chest heaving to pulsating music, while she is soaked to the skin in pouring rain, dressed in white, mind you. Sometimes there is no need for the rains. Katrina Kaif’s Chikni Chameli “item” number will attest to this.

But let us move away from the “purely entertaining” angle and return to the idea that Bollywood not only reinforces cultural stereotypes but also has the potential to influence behavior that governs everyday attitudes.

I recently (re)watched Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (And the Truelove Will Carry Away the Bride) with an American friend. DDLJ (1995) as it is fondly called is one of India’s all-time beloved movies. So much so that soon after taking office in 2014, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi declared it a show-case of Indian tradition. I can see how it touches a patriotic chord: the story centers on an Indian family living in Britain, but still “Indian at heart.” Well, the father decides that his daughters born and raised in London are Indian at heart. Of course things go terribly wrong when the older girl, Simran, falls in love with someone dad doesn’t approve of. Raj is Indian, but not a bona fide one in that he has adapted to “the shameless and derelict ways of Westerners.” The family packs their bags and moves back to India where Simran is to be immediately married off to the father’s jigri dost’s (dear friend’s) son, Kuljit. Now as one can imagine, when the film in question is a Bollywood one, this is not drama enough. There’s plenty more to come. But I’ll leave it to you to decide how much drama is drama enough… Continue reading “Epic Drama and Epic Confusion, Courtesy of Bollywood by Vibha Shetiya”

Translating the Self by Vibha Shetiya

VibaOne of my favourite tasks is translating works from various Indian languages into English. I developed a love for this while enrolled in a graduate seminar on translation theory. The challenge of it all was mind-boggling – how do I reduce the jaggedness of despair running within the depths of someone’s soul into two-dimensional, Times New Roman, 12-point font? How do I convey an intangible phenomenon such as a believer’s union with god without losing the intensity of his or her experience? I loved the exercises, but it is only now I realize how much the concept of translation had also been intertwined with my own fiber of being.

When I lived in India and for many years afterwards, I went by Vib-ha, the usual pronunciation of my Indian name. I didn’t realize then that I didn’t identify with Vibha. A few years ago, I reverted to the Vee-bah of my childhood, the Anglicized pronunciation. It wasn’t so much as being picky, as it was about getting involved in the search for who I really was.

Growing up in an English environment since not quite the age of two, I automatically internalized the label of Vee-bah that my teachers and friends addressed me by, along with developing a “foreign” set of ideals and sense of self. “I’m Veebah,” would be a natural extension of myself; without thinking I had adjusted the complexities of being a little brown girl into one neat word: Veebah.

But by the sixth grade something wonderful was happening. I began to literally feel more comfortable in my skin – I no longer felt like I had to hide my Indian snacks from the rest of the class. I no longer felt I had to apologize for looking different or having a weird sounding, albeit Anglicized, name. And by the time I turned twelve, my changing mind and body soon began to embrace Veebah. It was like I had finally begun to own Veebah.

A year later, however, I moved to India, the land of my birth. My parents had come back “home,” but I had just acquired newly found status of “alien.” Could years of growing up abroad simply be undone by a one-way ticket and an unsigned contract between my father and Zamefa Pvt Ltd.? It got worse as time progressed. There were too many things to deal with. I sounded different; my ideas about music and movies were different; I was too outspoken; I looked much older than I was, and worst of all, I had a certain precociousness about me when it came to the birds and the bees. By the time I was fifteen, however, I managed to figure it all out. With a bit of help from others, I smoothened myself, rough edges, “over-smartness” and all into a two-dimensional being who, in turn, was soon transformed into an echo of everyone around her. An echo called Vib-ha. I was now in India, and had to go by Vib-ha, was what I told myself. With that label, I found myself pushing Veebah more and more into the background; I smothered her with my Indian sounding name and all the Indianness I thought ought to go with it. Continue reading “Translating the Self by Vibha Shetiya”

Sita Sings the Blues. Literally. by Vibha Shetiya

VibaOne of the most exciting times of the semester occurs when we watch “Sita Sings the Blues” in class. This film by Nina Paley – one she has made available to the public by withholding copyright – is a wonderful addition to what has come to be known as the Ramayana tradition. Unlike a few decades ago when scholarship focused on only pan-Indian literary Ramayanas, scholars today are beginning to acknowledge that most people get to know of Rama and Sita through folk and oral tales, women’s songs and local and regional tellings.

But the thing about “Sita Sings the Blues” that struck me most was how, in 81 short minutes Paley masterfully reflects the complexity of the tradition; the Ramayana in its various forms has been questioned, adapted, revered and challenged by commentators and devotees alike in the two millennia it has traveled across space and time, from north India to Bali to New York. But what scholarship has elaborated over three decades and endless research, Paley has managed to show in less than two hours.

The Ramayana as my last post explained acts as a blue print for daily living for millions of Hindus worldwide. There are various problematic episodes in the epic, one of the most controversial being Rama’s unceremonious treatment of his own wife, the ever loyal and faithful Sita. Paley like so many others who have joined the debate over Sita’s treatment – one that began in antiquity – gives Sita a voice of her own when she ingeniously has the tragic heroine of the Ramayana singing to Annette Hanshaw’s songs; Hanshaw was an American jazz singer whose success soared in the 1920s and 30s. Throughout the film, her melancholic voice reminds us of the universality of the story, one of a woman scorned by the man she loved. Paley herself could feel Sita’s pain, for amid the various layers of the film, is woven her own experience of love and betrayal. But Paley is present throughout the story in another way – the animation, design and editing is entirely hers. Continue reading “Sita Sings the Blues. Literally. by Vibha Shetiya”

And Then There Was Sita by Vibha Shetiya

VibaWe have been hearing a lot about Kali and Durga lately, manifestations of the great goddess (“Kali Ma,” by Jassy Watson, July 3; “What Would Durga Do?” by Barbara Ardinger, August 2). Nancy Vedder-Shults’ three-part series on Kali (August-October, 2014) too helped shed light on an often misunderstood deity. Both Kali and Durga personify the power or shakti within women, a force that can be empowering and terrifying at once. Kali represents uncontrolled female energy, whereas Durga is portrayed as one in control of her abundant power. These images, especially the one of Kali are double-edged; they can prove problematic for women insofar as – from the male perspective – they confirm the fact that women possess an alarming energy, especially a sexual one, which in turn justifies the need for men to subdue them.

Sita's abduction by Ravana. Artist: Raja Ravi Verma
Sita’s abduction by Ravana. Artist: Raja Ravi Verma

Within this context, I would like to talk about Sita, who, one could argue, is the antithesis of the two. Sita is the gentle wife of Lord Rama, hero of the Ramayana, a two-thousand year old Sanskrit epic. In the Ramayana, Rama, the crown-prince of Ayodhya, is exiled to the forest for fourteen years. His loyal and faithful wife, the princess and goddess Sita, insists on accompanying him to the wilderness. There, the demon king, Ravana kidnaps her leading to a battle between Rama and Ravana. Almost a year and thousands of casualties later, Rama succeeds in slaying Ravana and reclaiming Sita.

But alas, Rama rejects his wife in the presence of the hundreds of onlookers, eagerly awaiting the reunion of the couple, on the grounds that her chastity was suspect; after all, says Rama, surely Ravana couldn’t have resisted her ravishing beauty? If she is to be worthy of Rama, Sita has to undergo a trial by fire to prove that she had indeed remained chaste throughout her captivity. Although she passes with flying colors, Rama eventually gives in to gossip and banishes her to the wilderness a few years later – while she is pregnant with his twins – where she is left to die (she, however, does not). Continue reading “And Then There Was Sita by Vibha Shetiya”

The Guessing Game by Vibha Shetiya

VibaMy husband, who is American, first introduced me to the word “negging.” Although I hadn’t come across it before setting foot in America, I soon came to realize it was a concept that knew few cultural bounds. The Urban Dictionary (UD) defines negging as “[when] you use remarks to tap into female insecurity; shake their confidence…neg is a negative remark wrapped in a back-handed compliment.” In the West, as I have learned, negging tends to target a woman’s physical attributes, often as a pick up line. Thus, as the UD again illustrates: “You are nearly as tall as me. I like tall girls (LIFT). Are those heels 4 or 5 inches (DROP)?”[1]

I’m from India and thought I’d provide an example of negging to illustrate its varied and glorious forms. Back when I was growing up, dating wasn’t socially acceptable in my culture – it often had to be done on the sly which probably explains why negging as a pick up line wasn’t the smartest choice. But we South Asians had and continue to have our own cultural equivalents of underhand methods specifically designed to erode a woman’s sense of self.   Continue reading “The Guessing Game by Vibha Shetiya”

Four Days of Bliss (or How I used The System to beat The System) by Vibha Shetiya

Vidha SI’m not particularly fond of my periods – they’re painful, full of cramps. But they are a part of who I am, and I’m not going to apologize for them. We women, especially those of us belonging to the sub-continent, have been shamed or embarrassed into silence, while being reminded that motherhood is the most exalted position a woman could ever hope for. I mean, isn’t that paradoxical – if it weren’t for the bloody nemesis (pardon the pun), we would never get to experience motherhood.

I grew up in a Western environment (in southern Africa) where “period” wasn’t necessarily synonymous with repulsion. But when I moved to India, the land of my birth, soon after my “life-altering” experience, things began to look different. I came to realize that I ought not to be like the neighbour girl who was so besharam, or shameless, that she insisted on announcing her monthly ignominy to the world by refusing to conceal the fact that she had indeed been at the pharmacist’s to buy sanitary pads. Why, the pack of pads, sealed in newspaper and carried in a little black plastic bag was right there for the entire world to see on her ten minute walk back home! I gradually came to understand that “those four days” were taboo – do not speak of “it,” do not make it obvious even if you are writhing in unbearable pain, do not contaminate sacred space with your womanly profanity. Continue reading “Four Days of Bliss (or How I used The System to beat The System) by Vibha Shetiya”

%d bloggers like this: