Unfairly fair

To be fair – and this word will used a lot in this blog, pun intended and unintended – I used to be mildly amused by the skin whiteners, aka fairness creams, that retail by the dozen. While the hackles of many have been raised by the product, generically identified as fair and lovely, though many other branded variants are in vogue, the fact that they were lapped up by women at large wanting to be a paler shade of themselves was reason enough for the market to develop. It wasn’t really fair, and one could argue about it on the grounds of ethics too, but it was tolerable – irritating and annoying no doubt for some people, but tolerable, and amusing to some extent.

Of course, things became even more amusing when the men were brought into the picture, quite literally, with fairness products for those carrying the XY chromosome – fair and handsome becoming the generic for its category. One can imagine Shahrukh Khan endorsing such a product – he after all is the poster boy for all the wimps in this country – but it was quite an irony to see a hulking six-footer of a man like John Abraham also get into the act. And of late, there’s Shahid Kapoor too. Guess if the price is right, these guys might even agree to endorse tampons or sanitary pads for men – if such a product were ever devised and needed by men (personally, if you ask me, I’d rather be dead before that day comes).

What however has raised temperatures – among the women quite naturally, and even among men – is the latest skin whitening product that targets a women’s private areas. Frankly, while the product and the thinking behind it can be classified as disgusting, on another plane, one wonders if such a product will even have a market and consequently, is it possible it will die a natural death – a still-born in advertising parlance?

Fairness creams for the skin usually target areas that are ‘naked’ in the public domain – face, hands, arms, legs and so it’s understandable that appearances for those areas would matter a lot. Not that one endorses such thinking, but like I said earlier, irritable, but tolerable.

One is however yet to come across a woman strutting her private stuff in the public domain – so just why would a woman even think about using such a product for a body part which will never be seen in the public? It seems like a classic case of a company launching a product without ascertaining the market requirements.

That the very idea of such a product offends women’s sensibilities is understandable – in which case, women should boycott the product, maybe even the company that manufactures it. And why just women, men should chip in too – who knows, today, these guys have launched a vaginal whitening cream, tomorrow, it could be a penis whitening product, no doubt endorsed by some Bollywood actors.

The larger point here of course is the obsession with fair skin tone – and here, it’s the users themselves who are to blame. If the very notion of using skin whitening products is offensive, shouldn’t women stop using them? And why just stop there – shouldn’t people who endorse such products be socially outcast? Not just the endorsers, even people who buy such products and use them should actually be looked down upon and maybe even boycotted from all social interaction.

As a man – and chauvinist is the accusation that’s been hurled at me time and again, maybe not without reason – just why would I trust a lady who goes to great lengths to hide what she truly looks like? For if a woman can go to that extreme to hide something as immaterial and as inconsequential as her skin colour, just imagine the lengths she could go to, to hide her true colours.

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Monkey business

Coming back to writing for pleasure, at leisure, after what seems like a lifetime of servitude to the 200-word copy that enriches my bank account month after month, makes one feel like a man coming home to his wife after a fling with his mistress. Not that I would know it personally – never had one of the two, while the other didn’t last too long!

I realised while chatting with a classmate that there’s a part of my life that seems so distant now, as if it was another lifetime altogether. And the realisation about this ‘missing’ part of my life came about through a discussion on monkeys. Yeah, right, go ahead, laugh, make those silly wisecracks!

It was, to paraphrase an old saying, not just many moons ago, but many full moons ago, about 16 years back, when life was uncomplicated. All one had to do was get up in the morning at 5, get ready for work and report for duty before 7 am and then stay on not just till the bovines came home, but even the bats came home. That, in a nutshell, was life in my previous avatar as a hotelier – again, of little repute, ill repute and no repute. Take your pick.

Given this schedule therefore, the singular off-day from work was more precious than Aladdin’s fabled treasure and more seductive than the mythological Menaka who disrupted Vishwamitra’s meditation. So there I was, waking up leisurely way past the sunrise time in the complacently paced city of Udaipur, stumbling out of my room at the hotel’s guesthouse where all the out station managers stayed in individual quarters.

The guest house admittedly was beautifully situated – right at the boundary of a forest that itself overlooked the famous lake, yes, the same that housed the Lake Palace hotel. And while the proximity to the forest ensured a continuous supply of oxygen, it also ensured regular and unannounced visits from our ancestors.

So on one particular off-day, having slept through the breakfast service at the guest house, I proceeded to the first floor terrace where the common kitchen was situated – having stored a loaf of bread along with a jar of mixed fruit jam the previous night that I had planned on having for breakfast with tea.

Being up unusually early – it was just 7:30 am – I was a bit surprised to hear some noises coming from the kitchen as I neared my destination. The door was slightly ajar, indicating some one was indeed present inside. All the other rooms, which were occupied, were closed, so I wondered who could it be. Shouldn’t have bothered.

What I saw next – and what I am about to narrate – can make it to Ripley’s believe or not and 16 years down the line, I can still vividly recall the imagery of that early spring morning.

Seated inside the kitchen were three monkeys – two on the cooking slab and one atop the refrigerator, who apparently was the leader of the pack. For convenience sake, I call him Henry (don’t ask me why, it’s just a name that stuck). The trio of course were quite obviously hungry, for Henry had led them into the kitchen and even as the other two sat, had proceeded to raid the refrigerator. Opening the door, he proceeded to take out the bread loaf and then the bottle of jam and a bottle of ketchup that was also lying there.

Standing there transfixed, more with fear than with wonderous amazement, I watched Henry unscrew the new bottle of jam, hop over to the washed utensils section and pick up a spoon, scoop out a spoonful of jam, tear open the loaf packing and apply the jam on the bread slice. Next, he served a slice each to both his friends (I say friends because they all looked of similar size and build) who relished the offering.

The next round of slices was served with ketchup applied after pouring it on the slice. Me, you ask? I just stood there, rooted to the spot – scared out of my wits having heard horror stories of monkey bites. I must have moved, for suddenly one of them looked towards the door where I was standing. I let out what I imagined was a blood curdling roar – I think it came out more as a shriek.

Henry launched himself like an ejected missile towards the door and I still don’t remember how I managed to shut the door and bolt it from outside – for the force with which he struck the door nearly sent me reeling over the ledge of the balcony. Shrieking like a mad man, I ran down stairs, waking up my other colleagues and the guesthouse caretaker. Like an idiot, I blurted out “monkeys, kitchen” before the caretaker understood and asked his helpers to get bamboo sticks.

Ultimately all of us carrying bamboo sticks and making a racket managed to scare off the monkeys. A decision was also made to keep some food on a daily basis for these rascals to prevent them from becoming too hungry and having a repeat incident.

What still amazes me – and I can’t get the picture out of my head – is the way Henry went about his business of preparing breakfast for himself and his friends, his grasp of how to apply jam on a bread slice, his knowledge of what was a loaf of bread, a bottle of jam and a bottle of ketchup and the function of a spoon. But what I remember most were his social graces – feeding his friends before he fed himself.

I don’t know what became of Henry and his friends – a monkey’s lifespan is usually two decades and it’s nearing that much time since the incident occurred – but it was something of a surreal experience to see that level of intelligence in a primate straight from the wild.

Of course Henry and I never became friends – I mean, he did ruin my breakfast. That’s unforgivable.

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R.I.P. Falak

On Jan 29, I wrote a post titled Picking up the pieces – about the infant Falak who was battered beyond recognition. Last night she passed away, ending her struggle to live. Rest in peace dear – like I said, you may be much better off out of this world than in it though one wishes you could have departed under much more peaceful circumstances.

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Last week, on March 8, as the women went ra-ra and ga-ga over International Women’s Day – and I, as is my wont, made light of it through a PJ on my FB status, which expectedly got some of the ladies’ goats – I couldn’t help but think about a woman whom I have never had the privilege of meeting, but have only heard about her from her descendant.

What piqued my interest in writing about her was a recent article, where the author seemed to suggest in her introduction that women’s lib, or more correctly, women’s education, was something that happened not centuries back but just a couple of decades back. Not her fault – the author, as I reckon, is a 20-something who’s given to popular perception about women from a couple of generations afar.

It’s often assumed that real empowerment of women came about in the post-independence era, when women started making their own choice. That, however, is just a shallow knowledge of some of the unsung and unheralded heroines of India.

Her name, well, since I am writing without the express permission of the family, shall remain undisclosed as of now. Born in the early part of the 20th century, in an aristocratic Muslim family hailing from Lucknow, to a father who was himself among the first in the family to graduate with honours from IIT Rourkee (old timers may recall it as Thomason College of Civil Engineering, Asia’s oldest engineering institute), she went on to become a surgeon from Lady Hardinge Medical College, topping in her discipline.

If that wasn’t achievement enough, she went to enlist in the Indian Army in the medical corps where she met a dashing young cavalry officer, a Punjabi Hindu. As expected, both fell in love with each other and matrimony was the next logical step.

But what particularly stood out in their fairy-tale romance was her decision – wonderfully supported by the man she fell in love with – to retain her faith, though she did change her name to a one that was more Hindu-sounding. Not because of any pressure from her new family but more, as I suspect, to avoid any untoward attention toward the family living in a society still polarised by the trauma of partition.

The couple, who later on served in the army of independent India, had a long and fruitful life, with a distinguished progeny of their own. What amazes me is the lady’s faith and her courage and also the fact that despite the social norms of the time, she wasn’t just educated, but was a professionally qualified woman with a career.

When women today scream about choices, I wonder if they even know about predecessors like our unnamed, unsung heroine, who in her own unique way, was a trendsetter for a woman’s right to live according to her own choice, with man of her choice.

And while the families concerned may have had some reservations, they probably wilted in the face of the determination of this iron-willed, plain speaking lady who, as legend has it, knew how to put her foot down ever so gently but firmly.

It would have been really interesting, and enriching, to meet this “heroine” during her lifetime.

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They were a young couple – well, it didn’t seem they were married, but very much a couple. Dressed like a bunch of college kids – the guy wearing a full-sleeved jersey and stone-washed jeans while the girl wore a half-sleeved t-shirt and a pair of crumpled jeans. Sitting in the first class compartment of the local suburban train, they were talking among themselves. Gradually, the conversation dimmed out and 40-winks took over, as both heads nodded off, nearly simultaneously.

It was just a little gesture, but it made a definitive statement about their relationship. The girl’s head rested in the niche between the boy’s neck and shoulder and every time the train lurched forward, her head slid off the shoulder, only to be caught from the chin by the boy’s hand and restored to its original resting place. There was something about this subconscious act of his that seemed utterly fascinating. Not two youngsters on a passion-drive, but just a deep-seated understanding and trust that each is there for the other.

Another day, another train journey. Most likely a septuagenarian Parsi couple, as they slowly got up from their seat and made their way to the compartment door, preparing to alight at the approaching station. The elderly gentleman held on to his wife’s hand, holding her steady while taking support of the train’s handle-bar. As the train rolled and slowed down to a halt, he got down, never letting go of his wife’s hand and then gently helped her alight, with his other hand clasping her elbow. Nothing grand about the gestures, but it just showed that not for a moment was he prepared to leave her alone in their twilight years.

Most of us are given to grand gestures and grand words – I-love-you being the most commonly used refrain. Flowers and grand gifts proclaim one’s romantic love for another, but is love just limited to these grand gestures and words, or is it about showing you care through your actions? It is when you subconsciously reach out to care for another’s well-being and comfort, that is when you are in love. Not out of some sense of duty – it’s as natural as caring for yourself, or maybe, to exaggerate a bit, as natural as breathing.

More often than not, we start liking someone, come to the conclusion it’s love (maybe it is in some cases), wax eloquent about the person’s qualities and even idiosyncracies and then when the relationship is cemented, either formally or informally, set about changing that person to match our own perception and requirement. To term that stupidity would be an understatement.

Those two couples, separated by not just one but probably two generations, showed so subtly and so eloquently, that you don’t need to shout yourself hoarse proclaiming your love for each other. You don’t need an Archies card, a cinema ticket or a candle-light dinner. All that is required are actions – they do indeed have a higher decibel level than words.

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Papaya luck

Yes, I know, it’s been a while since some verbal diarrhoea made it to this blog. Work, and some personal demons to take care of were the ones to blame for this absence. That, and the fact that my luck seems to be running thin these days. Passing phase, or permanent winter? Difficult to say.

I arrived in this city four and a half months back, initially putting up in my employer’s guest-house as they held a gun to my head – in a manner of speaking – as an enabler to my frantic personal-pad search. Which is when I started eating papaya as an after dinner digestive.

I have never been terribly fond of the fruit – mangoes, litichis, at times oranges and kinnu, that’s been pretty much my fruity universe. So what prompted me? Maybe it was the handy, small size that came for 20-25 bucks a piece, which could be finished in one sitting. And luckily, each day, I managed to pick out a piece that turned out deliciously sweet. Beginner’s luck? Maybe.

But this run of luck lasted for the next four months, even as I shifted my co-ordinates, having zeroed in on a typical bachelor’s pad. And while it lasted, each day I enjoyed this fibrous fruit which I had so hated during my childhood years. I even tried changing vendors, but the run of luck – in landing up with the sweetest piece on display – continued.

Guess that’s where I got smug. The first indications of my luck running thin came during a recent visit to Delhi, when, on the day of my return, I managed to miss my flight back to Max City. The first time such an incident happens, you are left numb with shock – this can’t happen to me, I am never late for my flights, etc. Well buddy, welcome to the frequent flyers’ club!

That the next flight had a rough ride, with an extended pocket of turbulence, did nothing to assuage the ego – as an aside though, the airhostesses aboard the Kingfisher flight were more white-faced than the passengers, many of whom just slept through the turbulence. So much for these kiddos trying to behave as adults so desperately!

Anyways, back to the run of luck – the next day, a story idea proffered by a team-mate came back with a stinger of a reply from the desk head. Ouch! How could I have not foreseen the asinine aspect of that idea?

That evening, the papaya that I bought turned out to be a dud, despite its alluring façade – it was so utterly tasteless that after forcing myself to finish off more than half of it, I was forced to give up and keep it in the fridge, contemplating my next move. There were two options – discard the left over, or wait till morning for a calmer head to prevail. Decided to sleep on it – on the two options please, and NOT on the papaya!

The next day, hit upon the idea of applying some sugar on the papaya and then leaving it for a while for reverse osmosis to take place, which at least made it ‘blindly’ palatable. Which means that one could eat it if one didn’t look at it, which is what I did.

Meanwhile, stories being sent out were being held up due to an unusually heavy news flow from other centres, with the result that after being in the cans for over a fortnight, and growing increasingly tired and restless day after day from listing them, they were eventually taken in only the local edition, and not as I had fondly hoped, in the national capital edition along with.

As if that wasn’t enough, the media-card chip in my BlackBerry konked off, with some self-inflicted virus that destroyed all photographs I had taken so far, including those of the little one. Just went kaput! No records to show for all the memories we made together.

Personally too, things seemed to be on a downward incline, as the fight for a loved one seems to be ebbing out, and fatigue seems to be taking over.

It all started with the papayas not turning out to be sweet. Let’s hope some fresh arrivals change my luck!

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Picking up the pieces

For the past several days, the story of Falak, a 2-year old battling for life at AIIMS, has dominated the media. Outrage, shock, sickening – the words that have been bandied about. Now, I am no women’s libber in male disguise – heck, if allegations are true, am a male chauvinist to the core, though please don’t call me a male chauvinist pig – the pig community might take offence!

Coming back to Falak, I am just trying to gauge the mental make-up of the person who has pushed her into that condition. Conjuring up that kind of rage to bash up an adult, who one might have a grudge against, is difficult enough for most people – I say most because I seriously consider myself to be demented enough to do it to quite a few people I have met in my life.

But against a 2-year old? That’s what has puzzled me over the past few days. How does one bring himself/herself up to that point where one can without remorse pick up an infant, bash its head against a wall or something hard repeatedly, break every bone in that little body, bite it and then just leave it to die? I mean, I am not the most sane person walking this planet, but this insanity is even beyond me.

When the news first came out, I wish I could tell that little girl: Dear Falak, think you would be better off departing from this world. There’s nothing really great about this world. So sorry you had to come and experience it for yourself. yours sincerely, leftovers of humanity.

But then, it’s not my choice to make. She’s probably destined to live and medical prognosis doesn’t give a very rosy picture of her future. So far, she’s survived enough to be taken off life support, though she continues to be critical. What she makes of her life, only the years to come will tell, but maybe, her survival is indication enough that she’s here to achieve something special in her life. Hopefully, Falak can pick up the pieces of her life and piece them together again.

But what of a woman battered by sexual abuse by her husband’s family? Was watching a TV programme, based on real-life crime incidents, of a young wife, raped by her husband’s younger brother at the family’s behest repeatedly for not getting enough dowry. Must admit when the story-line of the crime became clear, was just too depressed to continue watching and switched it off. I suppose the Indian Penal Code does not advocate death by extreme and painful torture – it would be useful for cases such as these.

And lastly, about the man who’s two young sons and wife perished in an unfortunate terrorist incident right in front of his eyes, for no fault of his, and who still continues to go about his daily tasks. How does he live – is his daily life a constant struggle, waiting for the day when he will be re-united with his family in afterlife? Or is there some hope in his heart? And what could that hope be, possibly? Perhaps the outside world will never know.

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