Saturday, March 16, 2013

What I know about fear now that I did not know before
This is a current Huffpost series on women and fear. Women of different age groups talk about their fears, or  how they overcame fears through the years. I liked the 30 something blog the best, but it could very well be because I actually see that coming. I decided to take this thread and write about it here. 

I spent all my teenage years and twenties constantly worrying about my attractiveness. I am still not over it. I don't think I will ever be. Every now and then, a little dark cloud of doubt floats over me. But it is interesting how this complex has given me other strengths. 

As a teenager, I was probably the class clown. I had a lot to say (I still do) and I was a brat. But all along, I knew that I was not the subject of interest when it came to rose days, song dedications and dance invitations. I wasn't the class nerd either (Math! I hate you). My parents changed my school just before my eleventh birthday, so I was also struggling to establish my identity. Finally I settled for what I would like to call "the class philosopher". I look back on those days and wonder why I needed an identity so bad. I wondered why I didn't just settle into the background. I don't understand why I wanted to create my own place and I was always deeply hurt when I wasn't categorized as "pretty". Maybe it was because I am an only child. Or maybe because I was best friends with the one of the prettiest (and smartest) girls in class. I had to try hard to keep my jealousy in check and I must have been successful, most of the times, because I am still best friends with her. But I remember how everyone always talked about how beautiful she was as soon as she left the room. And somewhere I was sure that it did not happen after I left. 

From the "world" that I have been exposed to, I have learned that although peer comparisons of attractiveness sound really superficial and basic, they contribute significantly to how we turn out as adults. Most of the times, unfortunately, you compare yourself to your closest friends. It is very difficult to keep envy in check and I am slightly ashamed, but also relieved to accept that I spent most of my twenties trying to fight envy. I feel very bad about myself when I get jealous. It is the same guilt I would feel if I eat a large pizza all by myself. :)

My pretty friends tell me how they have always been conscious that they are pretty. And how sometimes, it works for and against them. How it is difficult to separate the appreciation for your work from the appreciation for your looks. How it is easy for them to get drinks if they go out. How the bias worked in their favor at work. I don't remember even a single example where this happened to me, solely based on me walking into a room. In fact, I can confidently say that it never happened to me. Gyah! These last few lines make me sound like a complete loser, but in my head, I look at it very objectively. 

I am frequently an important part of my social group. But not because I am pretty. 

That last line caused me utter anguish for about thirteen years. But only in the past few years have I realized how fortunate I am, to feel that way. I always identify with Elaine of Seinfeld. I have maintained happy, funny and completely platonic friendships with guys since the time I was in school. Sometimes, by being the agony aunt, sometimes by playing the cupid, sometimes even proof reading their sonnets (ugh!). Nobody had friend zone problems with me in high school. And for that too, I am grateful. 

This fear of not being pretty enough (or matching up to the standard) led me to do some stupid fitness mistakes (and my right knee still pays the price for those). But it is only in recent years that I have learned to be grateful to my body. And it makes me sad to accept this, but this sudden burst of positive energy does not come from demolishing my fear and complexes. It comes from the rational realization that I have been given a set of genes. Fighting my biochemistry to achieve some ideal is a waste of my time (and creative energy). No movie makeovers are going to change our lives. We have to learn to get over the feeling that our lives need to be changed.
I still consciously try to lose the extra kilos I put on. But the intensity and desperation has significantly mellowed down. And I am very very grateful for this change in me. 

I have also started cultivating sensitivity to the stories I hear from others. A casual, passing comment people make about themselves can say a lot about their lives. I ask my pretty friends if they always knew that they were pretty and how does it feel to be the focus of attention because you are pretty? My best friend from high school opened up about it one day. She told me how her parents made a point not to tell her how pretty she was. The attention she got outside was the only evidence that she was indeed someone who stood out. And flashing her million dollar smile, she confessed how grateful she was that her parents helped her keep her feet on ground!

I have also learned not to share this vulnerability with the wrong people and not to fall into the trap of being "saved" by others. You don't have to get completely cured. Sometimes, focusing less on yourself works wonders. But nothing works as good as learning how to take deep breaths and visualize the flow of life through your healthy body. I am also grateful for that choice. :)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Tree Hugger

I want to talk about trees today. I was sitting in the backyard in a rocking chair, at about 1600 hrs, this afternoon under this Shirish tree. Which by the way, belongs to the family Fabaceae . I realized what an absolute pleasure it is to just sit under a tree. And since I absolutely suck at all that transcendental stuff, I went back in time to see all the trees I have met growing up. My first favorite tree was a crooked palm tree which grew at an angle of about thirty degrees to the ground. It made an excellent slide and was perhaps the only tree I could climb up for a long time. Then there was a tamarind tree that threw itself over a really deep well in my uncle's farm. It was so inaccessible that it was somehow more enticing. Close by, was a big mango tree. We used to try and swing upside down from it, with our knees locked firmly on the branch. The girls usually got an earful if the group got caught doing that, mostly because we never bothered to change from dresses into trousers before we set out for this adventure. I liked walking down the street to see the Parijat flowers fall on the ground, very early in the morning.  If you collect enough flowers and squish their red stems on your hands, it faintly resembles the color of henna.

And the ugly jackfruit trees we saw as kids on a trip to the beach, in Konkan! I always wondered what kind of desperate circumstances could have led humans to explore the insides of a jackfruit. And how pleasantly they must have been surprised! My grandmother had a special place in her room (and her heart) for Bakul flowers. We used to go to the temple and get strings of bakul flowers and use them as bookmarks. Later I saw these enormous trees in the gardens of the Red Fort in Delhi. Summer always reminds me of the Gulmohars. On those unfortunate days when you have to step out into the scorching sun, an eyeful of Gulmohar can soothe your mind. But the best Gulmohary memories I have are from the Jacaranda lined streets of Brisbane. It was a treat to the eyes to see the streets burst into purple every summer.The road to my school was lined with these Yogi Banyan trees. They were all sacrificed for bigger roads. But they still have a place in my heart. I remember driving under many tree-canopied roads around Kolhapur. It is one of the best kind of journeys. On those kind of roads, it is really easy to forget where you are going.

Uff! And who can forget Frangipani flowers? They used to be my favorite accessories when I played "Seeta in the forest". Gardenia flowers, jasmine flowers thrown into the water pot in summers, and the Jui flowers that covered an entire balcony in the rainy season -- stars holidaying  on earth. Fall in the US was second best only to the sunset in the midwest. I was fascinated by the weeping willows in the first few days of my life in the US.

It is funny how memories too have themes. And sometimes, your life so far flashes in front of your life with a theme. In my everyday life, Tree Hugger wouldn't be the first adjective I would use to describe myself. But all I have to do is sit in a rocking chair and stay away from my phone (except when I need to use Instagram to take that picture). :)

Monday, March 11, 2013

The psychology of rape and domestic violence

Recently, I have become a fan of Aljazeera. It first caught my attention when I watched the coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict on CNN and then on Aljazeera. Their analysis is well researched and their journalists come from all over the world with many perspectives. Their documentaries make an honest attempt at gathering views from both sides, without too much "reporting" involved.

Their recently published documentary 'It's a man's world' delves into the psychology behind rape. I was a bit disappointed that India was not chosen as a subject country for this study, but the focus is on Cambodia, where the percentage of self-confessed gang rapes is 5 -- much higher than the other countries that were studied. Gang rape is so common in Cambodia that there is a word for it. The men who confessed show a range of emotions but no empathy, or guilt even. The study is innovative in this area because it was based on a "ridiculous" assumption that rapists would actually talk to a reporter, let alone permit rolling cameras. But, they did.  Here's an excerpt from the story.

“What are they like?” A friend of mine asked when she contacted me during the filming of this difficult story, “Are they like a pack of rabid dogs?” While many would like to think that gang rapists are in some way psychopathic, they are actually just like other men. They have mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, girlfriends and every one of them told me they would not want the same thing to happen to the women in their own families.  

Sadly, many of these men feel no shame (their insistence on anonymity stems more from fear than shame)  in accepting that they have participated in a gang rape, because it is like a sport to them. Men are likely to accept that they have forced a woman to have sex with them, than women are likely to accept that they have been raped. It is funny how even the stigma associated with these crimes works against the victim than against the perpetrator. 

But kudos to Aljazeera for presenting a perspective that actually answers the WHY behind rape. It will take at least an entire generation to see the kind of parity we want to see between genders as far as this issue is considered. That estimate also assuming that the stigma around reporting rape is reduced by the work of media, the women and most importantly, the 4 in five men who don't rape. 

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The first Muslim

A few days ago, I came across an FB post with a Wikipedia link stating the "fact" that "Hinduism" accepts "atheism". Although the post was apparently intended to educate people, in the comments that followed, a discussion about believers and non-believers ensued. In that, the author mentioned how there is no equivalent word for non-believer in Sanskrit (synonymous to Kafir) and how, the priests in Kashi would never issue Fatwas against various anti-Hindu acts. 

Religious facts can be obtained from various sources with little or no perspective, or worse, with the wrong perspective. The inclusion of atheism in the Hindu philosophy has been explained beautifully by Prof. Amartya Sen in the Argumentative Indian. It is also true that there was a time when education of women was not only accepted in the Hindu society, but also appreciated. Women were allowed to perform religious rituals along with men. The concept of  "Swayamwar" (where a woman chooses her husband) was accepted. For that matter, there are people who are now going back to those principles. The Dnyan Prabodhini foundation in Pune has ordained female priests. Their weddings are a far cry from the mainstream Hindu weddings. All the vows are explained to the audience in their language of choice and the girl can choose the "Swayamwar" ritual instead of the Kanyadan (where her father gives her away). 

BUT there was a time not very long ago (compared to the age of Hindu civilization) where women were married off at the age of under ten years, without education, without any means to support themselves, to men much older than them. Usually, these girls ended up being widowed at a very young age. Their heads were shaved, they had to give up all earthly pleasures (ornaments, sweets, flowers) and were reduced to maid servants of the house. It was not long ago, that we actively practiced untouchability. It was not long ago,   that women were burnt alive on the pyre of their dead husbands. Changing these customs was considered the hobby of the "ultra liberal", educated men, and was always met with strong opposition from the contemporary Hindu society, especially by the higher castes. One of the most fortunate outcomes of the evolution of the Hindu society is that we think of women as well as men, when we think of feminism and emancipation of women. The shoulders that we stand on belong to both genders. 

The point I am trying to make is that religion is just like language. It is open to influence.There is always a spectrum of followers in every religion. I heard this talk on NPR the other day about a book titled  'The first Muslim" by Lesley Hazleton. It is a book on the life of Prophet Muhammad -- the first Muslim. Ms. Hazelton is an agnostic, born into a Jewish family. She went in "search" of the first Muslim and found something that contradicts the image of modern "sword/bomb-wielding" Muslims. She talks about how Islamic fundamentalists follow a "highlighted" version of Quran, where everything is taken out of context. Prophet Muhammad was in a happy monogamous marriage for twenty four years. For most part of his life, he was an active proponent of non-violence. He tried to make common people aware of the exploitation they faced at the hands of the rich. He advocated respect towards women. He shared his early thoughts about Islam (which was not really labeled Islam yet) with his wife.

Her TED video (above) has over 700,000 views (please watch it till the end). It makes me wonder why some of the most eloquent and thought provoking religious commentaries I have read/heard have been made by agnostics.

Radicalization of any religion comes with its institutionalization. Gautama Buddha never wanted to label his journey as "Buddhism". In fact, attaching an "ism" to Buddha's philosophy is its greatest defeat. Buddha walked along alone to realize the "truth" for what it was for him. It is HIS realization. And his teaching is not as much in the eight fold path as it is in following the source of your suffering, detaching yourself from the causes of suffering and attaining happiness that does not cling to your circumstances. The guiding principles of Buddhism may help this process, but it can also be done without thinking of Buddha, by just being honest with oneself. For every radical, there is always a reformer. Sometimes, the reformer comes in the body of a fifteen year old Afghan girl

If you think about it, we can talk about everything that religions stand for without talking about religion. We can talk about compassion. We can talk about respecting each other as human beings. We can talk about non-violence. We can talk about charity, kindness towards all living beings and protecting the environment. We can also appreciate what religions have given us (apart from faith and messiahs) without fastidiously attaching it to the religion it comes from. Anyone can practice meditation, anyone can appreciate Sufi music and poetry, anyone can appreciate the wide range of art, music and culture that emerged out of religious devotion. We can believe in God without believing in religion. Going further, we can create our source of divinity. It doesn't have to come from the "menu" that has been passed on to us. 

But it is a grave disservice to any religion when its teachings are used to proclaim its superiority to other religions. It only creates more polarization and hatred. 

Friday, March 01, 2013

Chocolate frosted sugar bombs

That's one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips. There is nothing like waking up to a sickeningly sweet breakfast. Although processed food industry has taken it to a whole new level, I do remember some really happy summer vacations, which included a sickening overdose of sugar. We used to eat fresh "cream rolls" with tea first thing in the morning, at lunch we would have a scary amount of Indian (or Maharashtrian?) version of mango jam (मुरंबा). And I cannot hide my regrets over growing up, when I begin to describe the procedure we had established for eating a bourbon biscuit . It had to be opened first and then the chocolate cream had to be eaten. The left over cookie was usually dunked in extra sweet tea. In summers, we had special clothes to eat mangoes. We were locked out with our mangoes on the balcony to avoid paw prints on the walls. There was sugar available at every meal. No ration. No guilt. 

BUT, all the sugar we consumed was "obvious sugar". There was other food and then there was sugar. It was easy to go off sugar if one wished to do so (who would ever have such a wish!). However, the processed food we consume now comes with a lot of latent sugar.  The food industry in the United States is driven by a wonder sugar -- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). HFCS has made its way into almost every kind of cheap processed food (burger buns, yoghurts, nutri bars, breakfast cereals, ketchup, pizza, even roasted peanuts!). Proponents of the use of HFCS argue that it is just as bad as eating cane sugar (which by the way is not true). However, the problem arises when HFCS is used in foods that usually don't need sugar. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, this omnipresence of HFCS is a result of persistent lobbying by the corn industry of the United States. Corn growing is heavily subsidized. And the biggest beneficiaries of these subsidies are not just the multinationals that are directly involved in the use of corn but also the leading soda and fast food corporations. Increasing the amount of sugar in any food adds to its, for the lack of a better word, "addiction quotient". The insidious sugar packets that are delivered to us through ketchup and burger buns actually help in getting us hooked on. The manufacturing costs of cane sugar would not accommodate such rampant use of cane sugar in foods such as breads and yoghurts. Hence HFCS just adds an excess amount of sugar to an everyday on-the-run diet. 

This  is an enlightening piece about HFCS. It is often argued that the human body processes HFCS in a process identical to cane sugar. But it may not be true. HFCS consists of unbound fructose and glucose (in a ratio of 55:45), while cane sugar or sucrose consists of bound fructose and glucose (in a 50:50 ratio). Unbound sugars are absorbed rapidly by the body. Moreover, fructose is absorbed more rapidly than glucose, and is converted to fat by the liver. However, it has not been rigorously studied whether these biochemical differences would lead to increased risk of liver and pancreatic diseases. So essentially, the food industry is using its consumers as an experiment. 

Going beyond the details of sucrose Vs HFCS (interesting slide show there), it is not the kind of sugar that poses the bigger risk. It is the amount of sugar, and more importantly the amount of latent sugar, which is a bigger concern. No matter which culture/nation you come from, in order to eat healthy, you have to be in a position to control what you eat. And being able to cook your own food is the best way to control what you eat.