|HER WORLD||Sunday, January 19, 2003, Chandigarh, India|
Mapping the inner landscape
INTERIOR landscapes have long been considered a territory of women. It is rare to meet a man, and a successful one, who dwells as much in the domain of the spirit. I was not just surprised but supremely cheered when I met one such man recently. He was in Delhi as UNFPA's goodwill ambassador talking to politicians and activists about matters that afflict the physicality of our being like poverty, population explosion, HIV AIDS, violence and rape and abuse of women.
When it means much more than a mere name
DAY in an day out, the so-called women-oriented teleserials continue to invade our sensibilities and our living rooms with ideology which is avowedly patriarchal and smacks of prejudiced gender formulations. The mould of femininity is fashioned along traits which range in between the extremes of perverted malice to self-eroding stoicism, pernicious aggression to defeatist humility, vituperative villainy to misplaced idealism. The middle path of normalcy is simply missing in these serials. And so are the real-life aspects of sensitivity and courage, strength and piety, sturdy will-power and mature altruism found abundantly among our womenfolk. While talking to a cross-section of men and women one comes across divergent views on the portrayal of womanhood in popular teleserials:
Harjeet Kaur Virdi,
housewife: (as translated from Punjabi)
Meenakshi Malhotra, Prof UBS, PU: I appreciate the effort of the teleserials in trying to instil in us certain values unique to the Indian culture, like the joint family system which is being revived. It leads to a lot of social security and a support system which reduces stress. The media has a role to play in the formulation of a value system. When my children see the same phenomenon on TV, they can visualise the bondage inherent to familial networks. The image of the women may be negative or retrogressive but then human nature is complex and unpredictable and so is Pallavi in Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki.
Vipin Dewan, Centre for Management Research and Training:
More than being unrealistic and retrogressive, all such serials are nihilistic since these try to tarnish the image of women and destabilise family relationships. Media is a teacher and whatever is shown in popular teleserials is likely to be emulated by our younger generation to the extent that they might try to inculcate all the blasphemous traits depicted therein or even to start believing in the adage that woman is the biggest enemy of woman!
Harjiwan Kaur housewife:
All such serials portray a uniformly blatant mode of Hinduism. It is through the dress code and the code of conduct practised by most of the women characters that a whole lot of orthodox values are being propagated. The image of women offered therein is hardly progressive and fails to be conducive towards the betterment of women in any given society.
Sunita, a maidservant: (as translated from Hindi):
I like watching some serials on Doordarshan, since we do not have a cable connection, which portray the women characters standing up to the male figures and also those engaged in a fight against injustice and oppression. Some of the serials are doing good by conveying information on legal matters and legal rights of women.
I find the serials to be quite realistic, since they portray women in a state of transition from powerlessness to self-affirmation. The portrayal of family values or even family conflicts proves to be a testing ground for women even in actuality and brings out the best in them.
Rina Bhatia, housewife:
I find the serials to be quite positive, since they teach us how to strike a balance between assertiveness and submissiveness, between right and wrong. These serials hold a mirror up to human nature and show that a woman can reach almost any goal in life. One can take a lesson from them for using our strength and energy as a catalyst for self-affirmation, as well as modulate our attitude accordingly.
Poonam Gupta, Lecturer, Dev Samaj College for Women:
These serials continue to
portray women whose essence is matrimony and motherhood, or, on the flip
side, guile and gossip-mongering. There is no harm in being selfless or
sacrificing, but not by erasing oneself completely as Henna does in the
serial of the same name or the two leading ladies of Koshish Ek Asha
do. Neena Gupta in Saans was a strong, independent character till
her moment of weakness which ruined the audience’s expectations of
women’s power to sublimate their desires. It’s time we started
depicting women capable of taking decisions about their own lives
independent of fathers, husbands, brothers or sons.
INTERIOR landscapes have long been considered a territory of women. It is rare to meet a man, and a successful one, who dwells as much in the domain of the spirit. I was not just surprised but supremely cheered when I met one such man recently. He was in Delhi as UNFPA's goodwill ambassador talking to politicians and activists about matters that afflict the physicality of our being like poverty, population explosion, HIV AIDS, violence and rape and abuse of women. With the same passion he talked to me about matters of the spirit that dawned on him in a hot air balloon in which he travelled round the world in 1999. Born in a Swiss family of scientists and explorers, Picard hails from an intellectual society in the western world that prizes the philosophy of Descartes - "I think, so I am". For him though it is clearly the opposite: "I feel so I am."
"When we think we are in the past or in the future or in another place, we are not connected with ourselves," he tells me his small blue eyes glinting with a clarity of thought that springs from knowing. "Feeling and being alive inside of our body makes these connections alive." To come to this realisation has been more than just a fun journey in a hot air balloon. It has been a life-long mission for Picard that began when he was a young man of sixteen. Hang-gliding became for him a psychological laboratory as the hot air balloon for his grandfather, a friend of Einstein, a physics laboratory. "When I was hang-gliding I was taking the risk of connecting to myself. For the first time there was a rupture in my normal life that is full of habits. I realised how much more aware we could be of ourselves when we are feeling not just thinking," he tells me as the car speeds its way amid honking trucks on the Delhi airport road. "What changed me more was ballooning. It was the unknown, the unpredictability of the winds in which I was being pushed in my balloon for days and nights."
Picard's first big adventure with the balloon was across the Atlantic ocean in l992 when his balloon won the race. Extending the balloon adventure brought him in touch with Brian Jones and the round the world balloon flight that exploded for him new horizons. "When you don't control the elements, when you don't fight to have the power, when you accept the doubts, when you accept the unknown and the question mark it stimulates one's awareness and creativity, helps one gain concentration," says Picard with an animation that seems breathless but is not. "You become a prisoner of the winds and are pushed toward the unknown. The only way to change one's direction is when one changes the altitude. And when you change your altitude you find another wind that will take you in one direction or another. In life if you want to change direction you have to change your altitude."
Ballooning became, for Picard, a metaphor for life unfolding spiritual and philosophical dimensions. How can one stay alone in life as one can up in the balloon I wondered. Isn't life on earth different from life in the air when one is alone with the elements? How can the same purity of thought emerge on earth, how can the same serenity be achieved on ground amid the pulls and strains and contradictions that confront one every day? Questions rose and fell in my mind. Picard had the answers.
"It is not easy to achieve serenity in the sky," he tells me. "Sometimes you don't have good winds, sometimes you have thunder storms; sometimes there is turbulence, sometimes you fail in what you are trying to achieve." Picard failed in the balloon in the first and second time. The balloon became for him the symbol - of going with the winds, becoming sometimes a prisoner of the winds. Life assumed the challenge of the changing winds. "It takes us by surprise and pushes us toward the unknown," he says. "And we are not used to trusting the unknown. We want to control, we want power. But if we change our altitudes in the winds of life we can change something in our direction and life becomes easier."
He feels the same about population issues, the reason which brought him to India. "Population is growing, growing, growing and will bring catastrophe. There is not enough food for everybody, not enough schools, not enough jobs. If you want to have a change of direction you have to change the altitude mentally, spiritually, psychologically, philosophically. We have to change our patterns of thinking and behaving. We have to give better education to the adolescents, to the women; bring about a better partnership between women and men." Women empowerment feels Picard is one way to change our altitude in society. Fighting AIDS is the same. "We have to aim for a more respectful way of dealing with other people, dealing with differences. We need more respect for nature, for animals, for people."
A goodwill ambassador in a real sense of the term, Picard believes passionately about he in his new role has the power to change things. Meeting dozens of heads of states and prime ministers, giving speeches and press conferences around the world has helped him formulate his ideas with clarity in order to change things. A medical doctor and a therapist, he believes that the outer world can only be interesting if one can explore the inner world. The western world, he laments gently, explores the inner world in an analytical, intellectual and theoretical way.
They believe that everything comes from the brain, from the way we think. In the Oriental philosophy there is less of a divide between the body and the mind. The two philosophies which have affected him deeply are Buddhism and Taoism. "What I like about Taoism is the idea that the human being must resolve the extremes inside of himself. The world is dual. All creation is dual. Only awareness and the search for unicity can bring the extremes together and this can only be done inside the human being. So the goal is not to change the outer world but the inner world."
How is he able to do this living in the western world? "It is not just in the West but also in the East," says Picard. "Here you have so many pressures of population, the struggle to find enough to eat, to go to school, to find a way to earn a living. If the material base is not secure it is difficult to think of spiritual issues."
For Picard, spirituality
is a way of bringing man to the level of god. "I believe the god
that can be described with human words is not the real god. It is the
god that human beings have created not the god who created human beings.
God is all around us but is incognito!"
When it means much more than a mere name
"I remained with my parents, brothers and sisters for over 25 years or so and got good samskars from them and I value them a lot. These samskars have been a guiding force for me till now and they will continue to be so throughout my life".
"After the marriage I, or for that matter any other girl, is supposed to change overnight. It was unnatural for me. How could I forget whatever I had learnt from my parents who had also made so many sacrifices to bring up me?"
These are the words of a senior bureaucrat, Rajeshwari Kahlon Sabharwal (name changed), who commands respect in the state services. She prefers to write the caste of her parents as well as her husband.
She says: "It is not possible for a girl to change overnight. In a way, it speaks of continuity with the parents from whom she had learnt a lot. It also guides you to be good to both the families. In fact, the girl is a sort of bridge between the two families and she is supposed to maintain a delicate balance. There is nothing unusual in this."
Using the surname of both the parents and in-laws by women, particularly by working women, is due to a variety of reasons as this writer found out while talking to different women who had adopted this practice. All of them gave their own arguments. Broadly speaking, the common reason, which can be deduced, is that before marriage they are known by their parental caste and then it is late to change altogether. Hence, they prefer to fix the caste of their husband because they want to have their identity as well.
It is also a practice that the women officers use, unlike men officers, like to spell out their first name and then add the caste. In fact, it is only by writing the first name in full that gives the indication that the person concerned is a woman.
Another senior bureaucrat got married when she was already in the service for five years and the people knew her by the first name. Anamika Chander Chugh (not the real name) says that dropping the caste of the parents clearly signifies a break from one’s past which is not desirable. I retained the maiden name and added the caste of my husband."
Perhaps, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the first to adopt this practice. She said that the women in service, other professions, artists, journalists were known in their circles by their maiden name. Adding the caste of their husbands did not affect their personality. Anamika says: "Even if any of my friend meets me after a long gap, she will recall me". However, she said one had to be prepared to face such a situation when, due to ignorance, people just address her as Mrs. Chander. She felt that this was much better than a situation where the woman only uses her maiden name and her husband is called by his parental caste. However, Deepa Jain Singh, a financial commissioner in the Haryana Government feels that it sounds nice to her. "No doubt, I was known earlier by my first name but it came naturally. I, in fact, never thought over it this way or that way. It looks splendid. It did not make any change in my identity."
Replying to a question, she said that adding or subtracting the caste would have involved the same exercise in getting the changes made in the official papers. Another senior bureaucrat from Haryana, Keshni Anand Arora, says that it gives her a sense of individuality. "I was known as Keshni Anand, especially Keshni, before marriage when I entered the service." Hence, retaining the parental caste still gives her a sense of belonging to that family also. She feels that by only adding Arora would have needed many changes in certificates as well as service records. A lecturer in Panjab University, Surinder Kler Shukla, says: "I was Surinder Kler till January 1976 for more than 20 years. By marriage I wanted to add a new dimension to my life. The new dimension was to make addition and not erase the earlier part of my life (which had helped a constructive formation of my very being).
"By retaining ‘Kler’ I was able to maintain a contact with my father. Right from school friends had addressed me as Kler and sometimes Lady Kler. Dropping Kler would have amounted to a loss of identity. Surinder Kler Shukla further says that "it was indicative of the national integration aspect of life in India and in my life for anyone to see—any one who cared to notice. The Sino-Indian war, it had evoked strong nationalistic feelings in me. Religion took a subsidiary place. The daughter of an engineer, I grew up with some understanding of science and a corresponding strong disbelief in the charismatic impact of religion. Writing "Kler-Shukla" would also be an apt rejoinder to all those who told me that after all I had married into the majority community. ‘Kler’ was to show my ‘alive’ link with the minority in which I happened to have been born.
Such names also reflect one’s attitude. Perceptions are changing. Gone are the days when women were told only your ‘arthi’ should come out of the house where your ‘doli’ is going. I was never nurtured on the ‘paraya dhan’ notion. I feel my parents’ house is and will remain my home. For me, marriage does not mean breaking ties with my parents or giving up my maiden name. Also, marriage entails adopting your husband’s family and his surname. But one should not lose one’s identity in the process. I wanted to be a part of my husband’s family so I use his surname. I did not want to give up my maiden name so I retained it", she concluded.