I keep falling in love. Over and over again. With strange people. Or even ghosts, apparitions or intangible things. Yes I know it is love because of the restlessness that comes with it. That does not let me sit still. Or get anything sensible done. I remember the first time it happened. Or atleast that is the first time I remember it happening. I would be about eight and was pulled against my wish to a kirtan at our village temple. I was sitting beside my mother, twiddling with her anchal, soaking in the familiar scent of her body. When it hit me. An out of the world voice singing about a little bird struggling to escape from its gilded cage. I do not know what I fell in love with- the krtaniya with long hair in a saffron costume, the voice or the little bird he spoke of. But I remember following the kirtaniya around for the rest of our time at the village and beseeching him to sing more about the little bird. My mother tells me that I unnerved her and they had to cut their stay short. But love always found a way. In other forms. In other places. The objects differed. The cat with the broken leg. Or the old woman who lived down the lane and fed me cookies every time I passed her house. Or the happy prince who stared at me from the book shelf. Or that irrepressible ghost, that I was convinced stayed in our attic and played pranks like hiding my homework copy. I was in love with all of them. In various forms. In varying degrees. I felt strange attachments to all of these. I fought with the world(which at that time was my formidable father) to keep the cat in our house, hiding it in the attic, saving the biscuits I had for tea so that I could feed her. I sat with rapt attention at the knees of the old woman, looking at her knit together colourful yarns of wool. I had a curious fascination for the ghost which lingered in our house and made sudden ‘appearences’ or rather disapperaences because it never really appeared. As I grew older, the nature of the love changed. The first years of adolescence. And the sudden realization that you feel strangely unsettled when that tall boy who lives in the opposite house walks by. This was a different feeling, unlike what I had felt before. The restlessness remained. The similar magnetic attraction I felt to all things I had fallen in love with. But what I was not prepared for the waves of euphoria and excruciating pain. I realized with a jolt, another human being can hurt you without tripping you over or pushing you into a mud puzzle as the mean boys I played with as a kid did. They can hurt you even without being actually mean to you. Or worse still hurt you without even realizing you exist, the gawky 13 year old with braces who got all jittery when these seemingly divine creatures walked past. Ofcourse the saving grace for me I always had a thousand and one distractions and a hundred odd reasons to fall in love every morning. There were trees to be climbed and puzzles to be solved and help to be sent to little boys and girls in Somalia. And naturally you develop a fascination for the boy who spoke with such fervour about how should we be doing our bit for these little kids. You are enamored of his ideas and then you no longer feel bad that the brown eyed boy in the apartment opposite yours pay scant attention to you. As I have said before, for me love kept coming back. Like the warmth of autumn. And the colours of summer. Or the first showers of monsoon. Fervent, passionate, wondrous. It is too beautiful a feeling to not come back. Or be made to follow the rules of a prosaic society. Or be denied because it does not follow the nomenclature you can safely assign your emotions and relationships. Human beings are multi-faceted and there are various people or causes or animals or ghosts who appear in your life at different times appealing to that one sense or dimension of yours. So the poet in me fell in love with the kirtania, the nomad in me loved the banjaras I met while working with an NGO and the do gooder in me loved the activist who fought for invisible children in Somalia. Is there something as happily ever after? Is monogamy justified? Yes, I am sure. There is that one special love you want to grow old with, bickering about the frocks your children should wear or who would put the garbage out. But can life really become as monochromatic to close the gates to love completely? I cannot imagine living life without the agony, the bliss, the headiness of falling in love. All over again like the advent of a brilliantly coloured morning in spring. The reasons to live would seem too pedantic otherwise.
I remember being taken to see what the cheery guide kept referring to as the ‘whore house’. I had subscribed to a city walking tour being offered by an outfit which promised the glimpses of a subterranean city. My urban bred sensibilities squirmed at the idea of parading these women as props, the dingy quarters they were battered in as a tourist attraction. Of course beyond our suave veneers lurk the voyeur which almost enjoys the deformities of a well polished society. What caught my eye in the area was the display of colours. The quarters which looked like no sunlight ever entered them were painted in loud colours. The windows were bright green or red. The doors were covered in bright motifs and so were the walls. The women themselves wore red flowers and brightly sequinned saris. Their faces were painted in bright shades which hid bruises and despair and helplessness. The juxtaposition of the colours and the palpable sadness underneath made the place overwhelming. But then as a nation we liberally use colours as an integral component of the show that we put up for the world. Colours dominate every aspect of our life. The bright vermillion that the married women put up to signal they are now to be exempted from the male gaze. The colourful clothes that young, marriageable girls wear. The bright rangolis they put up on the courtyard. The orange turbans the men wear to signal their power. The pale cloths that men of lesser stature use to cover their heads. Colours are used to discriminate along a number of dimensions. Power, position, wealth, or the state of your marriage. The dominance of colours is so absolute that the lack of it carry inauspicious overtones. So a woman in white, her forehead sans the vermillion is carefully excluded from a ceremony where everyone else is in bright colours. In a colour crazy nation, denying a person the exuberance of colours is the worst form of segregation you can practise. So the sex workers, marginalised as they are still don the brightest of colours to signal a coexistence with a dichotomous society. Ofcouse the mandate is to notch the brightness of colours even a notch higher than that is accepted in the society. So that colours which elsewhere signify the attractiveness of women or celebrates her fertility or marital status here signals the availability of the fallen woman.
But it is not only the put on colours that you are judged by, it is also the colour of your skin. For a brown nation obsessed with fairness. Which extend beyond old fashioned villages to suave urban bastions. So dark women are doomed to pay higher dowries or stay unloved by their husbands. A plethora of fairness creams promise to make you fair and live happily ever after. Playing on the psyche of a nation which so categorically labels the good colours and the bad colours. So a dark skin is to be despised. And the white sari to be kept away. Strange that a colourfully vibrant culture denies its citizens the freedom of choosing colours. Or their absence thereof.
My dislike for women only things dates to about 20 years back when as a 10 year old, I had been stopped from entering a puja pandal with my father. The scrawny volunteer asked me to join the ladies queue. I had looked at him aghast, yet to reach the stage where you can comprehend that the sexes are different enough to be segregated into separate boxes, compartments and queues. So much so that you feel compelled to separate families celebrating a festival together into male and female members. Including 10 year old girls. You create a labelled world. With general, masculine spaces. And cloistered feminine spaces. And then you do not allow the females a choice whether she would want to huddle in a corner with other women or inhabit the larger world which in principle belongs equally to both the sexes.
So when the finance minister propounded a supposedly women friendly budget with the provisions for a women only bank, I raised similar questions again. A bank for and by the women. But then you have women running the largest banks in the country. Without the need for exclusive, reserved spaces. And you have women banking in them, deftly handling their finances. So why do we need to segregate banks on the line of gender. One line of argument is that this move is aimed at the relatively less developed strata of the society,where purdahed women do not step into banks run by the men. But would all this change if you had women borrowing from women? In places, where gender lines are strictly drawn, will women be allowed to maintain independent accounts and control her money, only because there is a woman lending to her? Instead of creating labelled spaces for women, the emphasis should be on making the existing spaces friendlier for women. Not reserve places, but break barriers. Acknowledging that the woman belongs as much to the world as the man does and is entitled to the same rights on the public space. So that I do not have to run down the length of the train, looking for a ladies compartment but can instead get into a
general compartment with as much dignity. This is where I like the western concept of equality guided largely by gender agnostic principles. Whereas our version of women empowerment seems to follow an archaic concept of segregation. So we impose curfew hours, dress codes; create women compartments and seats and create labels which almost sound like a parody – lady judge and lady journalist and lady doctor. Which automatically signals a lowering of the bar and women are encouraged to be the best lady doctor and not the best doctor. Putting an unfair cap on the capabilities of these women.
I remember reading a report in the newspapers a few days back about policewomen in Gujrat preferring to be addressed as Sir rather than madam or the patronising ben that they were often called. The preference stems from the insinuations that feminine labels carry in our country. A woman is assumed to be less efficient or effective than her male counterpart and so when madam or ben are used in the confines of a police station, they almost become pejorative. Such associations would not be eliminated by further segregation, the imbalances of a masculine society can only be corrected through integration and acceptance of women as legitimate inhibitors of the wider space. With equivalent even if different capabilities. That we should celebrate everyday rather than a labelled day in March when we pay lip service to the fairer sex. Let’s create a fairer world instead.