Solitude by the Ganges

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For the last few months, I have been based out of Ludhiana on a project. Although I can go home every other weekend, I decided the exercise isn’t worth it given a 10 hour journey and regular flight cancellations due to the heavy fog that has engulfed the North of India and holding on tightly. So I decided instead to take a 5 hour long train journey to Haridwar. I always had a great desire to see the Ganga, and this was probably the best time to do so due to low pilgrim footfall in winter. A tough few months also meant that a break was needed, and what better than one of the holiest places in India?

This trip marked the “first time” of many things. It would be the first time I would travel by a train by myself. It would also turn out to be the first time I would travel in a train ticket-less. It would be the first time I would bribe an officer to get a seat on said train.

The first time I explored a city alone all day. And that’s where things got exciting. I expected to be overwhelmed at the Ganga’s beauty and sheer enormity. Instead, I was met by the sight of large piles of wet clothes on the stairways, men wearing small nothings that were also soaking wet, children crying because their parents insisted on dipping them in the freezing waters (parents who would otherwise bundle them with so many clothes that they would run the risk of rolling away), sellers shouting out to buy their wares of plastic bottles filled with the holy water and garlands, and families having lunch picnics. I ambled around, soaking in all the sights and sounds, and soon found myself in the midst of small shrines which nestled marble statues of Radha & Krishna, Hanuman ji and Shiv lings. Each shrine had a pandit who called me over to take prasad. And this is when my experience turned refreshingly unexpected.

In the South, where I have done most of my temple visits, any hint that a 27 year old is single is followed by a blessing that she quickly finds a suitable husband. Not just temples- I have had playful arguments with my grandmother who would do the same, urging her to instead bless me to get a good job or grades. Married women are promptly greeted with a blessing that her husband outlives her, because of course.

But not by the Ganga. The pandits’ first reactions when I approached them was to politely enquire if someone would join me. After I would answer in the negative, they would proceed to chant mantras and guide me to make offerings of flowers and ganga-jal to the deities. When it was time to customize blessings, I was asked if I was married. Newly single and overcome with pain, I would pull myself together and say that I wasn’t, waiting for the familiar Sanskrit words urging God to find me a suitable boy to marry. But that’s not what I heard. I was asked to stretch out my right hand to have holy thread smeared with vermilion tied around my skinny wrist, because if I were married, the thread belonged on my left hand. Being a girl with a childish face, I was then asked if I was a student or a working professional. On answering, the pandits would recite a chant interjected with wishes that I progress well in my career and receive peace and prosperity.

The entire experience was a very refreshing one. My solitary spiritual experience was contrary to my expectation of one fraught with gender discrimination and judgment. And considering we were all by the Ganga, also made complete sense. This mighty river, revered as a Goddess, has single-handedly nurtured civilizations for centuries. She flows on, deep and silent, despite the many abuses she is subjected to. She needs no one, but without her, the millions of lives that depend on her would cease to exist.

What an irony it would be to tell a daughter of the land, standing besides the mighty Ganga, that she needs another for her well-being?

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Why are we different?

lady doodle

This post was originally written on January 27th 2013, in wake of the Delhi rape incident

A lot has been said, spoken, ranted and abused after the case of the horrific rape in Delhi recently. I have seethed in anger and frustration as I watched news reports of the incident, and was rocked with rage as I watched the barrage of insensitive, shameful and acutely distressing comments made by people of prominence in our country. There have been several articles and blogs about the incident and the social problem that plagues India, and I didn’t really feel the urge to pitch in myself. For one, I haven’t written much besides B-school essays over the last few years, and I didn’t think I had anything more intelligent to offer than what was already written so well by so many others. Yet, today I felt like putting pen down to paper although I have a million other things to do, mostly because of observations made off late.
A month ago, I moved to Singapore for my MBA. One statement that I heard ever so often by everyone who lived here and knew the city was that “Singapore is safe!” For someone moving out of home for the first time, this comment was of great comfort, and I now know after a month that it is completely true. Although Bangalore is relatively safe compared to the more notorious north India, the safety and feeling of liberation that I feel here is incredible. I have come home at midnight alone, using public transport on several occasions, and I have not felt unsafe even for a moment. Women here are dressed impeccably and appropriately to the hot and humid weather, and not once have I noticed a single man give her a looking-down.
I have the privilege of sharing a flat in Singapore with a single Singaporean male and a Singaporean couple. At this moment, I would like to add with sadness that it would’ve been unthinkable for me to live under the same roof with a strange Indian man. Moving on with my point- I have had the opportunity to observe the couple at close quarters, since I now consider them friends. Both of them are working professionals, and seem to have erratic work timings. In a country where it is not affordable to hire help to do the laundry and clean up, I watch with admiration and joy as they both share the housework seamlessly. They take turns doing the laundry, cooking, or buying home the dinner. It is simply a matter of convenience; the person who gets home earlier takes care of the housework. This is not what I have grown up watching in any Indian family I have known closely. I believe things are changing, but when they have, I have heard of mothers-in-law complaining that their sons are now being made to do housework.
What makes the society so different from ours? Why does India treat its women the way she does? (Isn’t it an irony our country is deemed to be of the feminine gender?) This question obviously isn’t an easy one to answer, and is probably due to extremely complex and deep-rooted issues that go back a long way. One observation I have to make, however, is that Indian men seem to have a fixation to associating all women to their mothers, sisters and sometimes, wives. How often did we hear references to mothers and sisters during the protest marches in Delhi? I don’t really have a problem with it, and really, if imagining all women as sisters and mothers is what prevents someone from committing a rape, then please do so by all means. What I would like Indian men to do, however, is regard women as fellow human beings, as an equal. Not someone who simply needs to be your sister or mother, but a person with the same aspirations as you have – of a career; of education and learning; of the same ambitions you have- money, peace and good health, even sexual needs. A sister and mother invoke feeling of compassion and protection- of a weak person who needs you. Women do not need anyone; they need respect and an equal chance.
I have often heard myself be called a feminist. I do not agree. There is certainly nothing wrong with being one, but calling me a feminist is akin to calling a man who does not rape a paragon of virtue. Just because something that is wrong is so commonplace, does not make it right. Seeking equality of gender is not feminism; it is simply demanding the right thing when status-quo is so wrong. It is time that every one of us do our bit- and do the right thing.