A letter to my boys about being a man, and not a chauvinist.

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Dear boys,

All my life, I grew up listening to the elders around me say how difficult and anxiety ridden it is to bring up a daughter. I’ve heard every parent with a daughter say “Don’t squander! you have a daughter to marry off” or “I am so worried when she is out alone” or “you can’t go for that trip”  or “Why can’t you put the duppatta properly?”  or my mother (just like any other Indian mother) concluding the long drawn arguments with the overused punchline “you will only understand when you become a mother to a girl child”

So yes, I was conditioned to believe that having a boy is a good thing. See my dears, I don’t have to worry as I don’t have to marry you off with huge dowries; in fact you are expected to bring it in by marrying a wealthy girl. And your only chance to do that is  if you are an engineer or a doctor; not a rock star. That’s another story and I will tell you about it another time. With you, I don’t have to worry about misplaced duppattas or you wearing jeans and t – shirts. Obviously you are allowed to wear whatever you want to. You can even walk around in your Jockeys, but if you were a girl, I will have to send you swimming in burqas and salwar kameezes. I don’t have to worry about you being ambitious or spontaneous. I don’t have to worry when you stay out late or go to nightclubs or bars or down two drinks. I don’t have to worry when you decide to back pack and hike your way up the lonely hills of Himachal Pradesh or trek the unknown tracts of Brazilian rainforests. I don’t have to worry when you push your limits. Because that’s okay! That’s okay when you are a boy.

Today when I write this, you – my elder darling is seven and my younger sweet heart – you are still in the womb. I think I am too young to be writing this, and you two – well, ridiculously young to understand it.But, on the day when you do understand, I hope this will mean something to you. Around me are stories of innumerous rapes with sometimes shocking accounts of fathers and brothers violating their daughters and sisters. Every day, I hear another story where a woman is raped and the man proudly blames it on the victim.  when the news came to me that I am going to have another boy, it struck me that raising a son perhaps is much more tougher than raising a girl child.The more I thought of it, the more I think girls are pushed further and further inside the ridiculously small boundaries because of men. Somehow son, your kind is to be blamed. Every time I see those rapists, those woman- blaming hypocrites, the men who take women to be sex dolls – I am scared. It scares me to think that you would grow up to be one of them. I don’t want you to, and I honestly don’t know how I would teach you both to be better men when you grow up.

The first advice to me as I hit puberty came as  a story. The story of the leaf and the thorn! My mother told me that every woman was like a leaf and every man a thorn. It did not matter whether the thorn fell on the leaf, or the leaf fell on the thorn; it was the leaf who always had to suffer the consequences. In simpler words, consensual or rape – the blame – darling is always on the woman! After all, there has never been a virginity test for men, Was there? Every woman grew up hearing this story. But I don’t remember any anecdote that was passed on as puberty advice to men. It’s sad that we still pass it on to the daughters. I want you to know that there is no way the leaf has to take the blame if the thorn tore it into pieces. No leaf goes around looking for the thorn. If I had a girl, I would ask her to look out for herself, be aware of the dangers that are around her, But I will never ask her to take the blame for a man’s violations.

You might already know that a pair of jeans with a casual tee is the most comfortable way to go around. I love it too. I will sleep in it if I had to! When I am at the Abu Dhabi airport, I often forget what I’m wearing. I feel myself at ease. But when I reach the Trivandrum International airport,  I feel stark naked even if I pull a jacket over. It feels as if my breasts and butt just appeared out of nowhere. If reading this makes you cringe, imagine how uncomfortable it makes a woman to go through it. You’re a man and being attracted to a woman is natural.But there is a difference darling, between ‘stripping someone off their clothes with your eyes’ and checking out. There is a point where it becomes lecherous. I hope you would never be one of them who makes her feel as she is being stripped off her clothes in public. I hope you would grow up to understand that if a woman’s dress slips, it’s not something for you take advantage of. I hope you know when to avert your gaze and respect her privacy.

If you like someone, do ask her out for a coffee but please don’t act as if she is just a body that you find attractive. Just because she accepted your request doesn’t mean she is there to make out either. It just means she likes you and probably wants to know you better. And being an English teacher myself, let me tell you that there are adjectives that you can use to let her know that you like her, and ‘hot’,  ‘sexy’, and ‘something about her ass’ are definitely not among them. ‘Beautiful’, my sons, will always be a good compliment.

When I wear a dress, all I think of is how good it makes me look. I make sure that the dress flatters my skin tone, my body size and shape. Well, I bet that’s what you think of too when choosing something to wear. I want people to look at me and see that I’m pretty. When I wear a red lipstick, that is because I love red, and I think it looks nice on me, not because I am a slut. I might get my hair coloured, my body tattooed or pierced, because I like it. When I wear a knee length skirt or a sleeveless blouse, it is because I like it. May be she likes wine. May be she loves hanging out with male friends or going to night clubs. It means she likes having fun. None of these my darling, is in anyway an invitation to sex.  Your mind is your own – I hope you are it’s master and you would understand that nothing she wears or does says she wants sex unless she herself says it.She has the right to do what she wants. If something she does, doesn’t appeal to you, Move on! You guys don’t click, that’s all. It doesn’t mean her way of life is wrong.It’s not your job to judge or dictate someone’s life. I’m not saying that there are no women who lounge in the depressing ditch, there are. Just the way there are men who lounge in the same ditch of degradation. Do not judge an entire sex by the few.

The first time I heard of those bastards in the bus was when I was in college. One of my friends came crying and told us that she was groped as she was getting on to the bus. She yelled at him, but no one responded and the man just walked on through the busiest bus station in the city – unconcerned, unquestioned. We were in a bus another day when a man kept on bothering a woman who finally responded. But she soon became the victim as everyone around her (including the shameless me) did nothing, but watch her being insulted by the man who called her a liar. Then came another time, when I jumped off a bus teary eyed, too scared to respond. Three or four college boys got off the bus with me. All they said was “If you had said something- anything, We would have put the bastard in place” I was in college back then, but I guess that was the last time I responded with tears. I knew it was better to open my mouth and say something. To actually respond. After all, as people would rather believe, it is not our fault. I want you to be one of those men who respond, not the ones who stand and stare shamelessly, thinking of it as none of their business. It doesn’t matter that she is not your sister or your mother. You don’t even have to know her. If you see a woman being harassed, I don’t want you to turn your head away. I want you to react. I want you to step up-to him in any way you can and not leave it alone.

From a very early age, the society that I grew up in asked to keep my dreams small and contained. Although, I’ve broken off the constraints in my growing years, I can’t say that I am completely free of them. When you my dear, once commented that, it was the mother’s job to cook and stay at home, and that women didn’t do much, I felt myself die a little. I wondered whether I’ve in some way given you the wrong idea of what women can do. But then, your father had corrected you saying that there was nothing of that sort and women can do anything they want. When I left my job during my pregnancy, you said that you loved your mother – the working mother. Every time, you asked me where I was going to work next, I felt as if you had bigger dreams about your mother’s career plans, than me myself.

I want you to know that we have a mind of our own and in that mind we have dreams of our own. I want you to remember that a girl has her own perspectives, opinions, aspirations, ideologies and life style. If someone says that these things do not count in our culture, then tell them that their culture of gender inequality is not yours. If someone says that something cannot be done by a woman, don’t listen to them. A woman can do anything as long as she believes in herself. The problem is that the society teaches her to not believe in herself from the moment she is born. It tells her that she is weaker, helpless and incapable of pushing the limits. I want you to know that there are women who will beat you at soccer and pull you out of sticky situations which you cannot handle, and debate with you on politics and culture. There will be times when she will be the stronger one of you two, even helping you stand straight up in times you cannot. I want you to learn to see them as your equals and not some’thing‘ inferior to you.

“Don’t talk to a man like that. You are a woman” Another classic! If you can talk like that, so can she. If you disrespect her, so can she. Respect is mutual, darlings. If you don’t give it, don’t expect any. Respect her opinion. Respect her privacy. Respect her. When you have a girl friend, or if you fall in love or if you get married – remember that she is still a person. She has her own likes and dislikes. Don’t expect her to give it all up – who she was, her memories, her beliefs, her habits, her likes, her dislikes, her priorities, her dreams and aspirations. If you can’t, probably she can’t too!

I hope when you are reading this, you are living in a different world from mine. I hope the streets are safer for women and they are not discriminated. But if it still hasn’t changed, I want you to remember that being a man doesn’t give the right to ill treat women. It doesn’t give you the right to be a dictator. It is you who can make it a better place for the women. If that means you have to stand alone from the rest of the masses, so be it! I hope you two would grow up to be men, whom a woman would not be scared of being with alone, even if it is in a dark, deserted alley. I hope you would be a man whom a woman would love to spend her life with, for the one reason, that you let her be!

Love

A consolation

Last year, this month, I was happy that I was going to be a mother. I was expecting. Three months and counting. But one cruel morning stripped me of my happiness and I was rushed to the hospital. Two days and as the third day waned into the night, I was twisting in pain, tears rolling down my eyes as my body ripped off the final thread and made my body and soul empty and devoid of the life it harnessed.

I did not go for work. I was at home. I was depressed. I didn’t want to talk. My spirit had vanished and nothing remained. I was angry. After some days, I went back to work. I was working at another school then, teaching fourth and second grade students. I couldn’t drive the dark clouds away. I didn’t talk much. I broke out into sobs now and then. Sometimes, seeing those second grade children, I broke down. I had to try hard not to cry and push down the lump in my throat.

At that time, there was this seven year old boy who was autistic. I used to handle his special education needs. He would never look at anyone. He was always lost in his world. He will not talk to us as well. It took so much effort to make him speak. He muttered to himself but never replied to our questions. He hated anyone touching him and would shrink away as we tried to touch him.

The day, I went back to work, we had some practice in the school courtyard and the students were standing in a line. I was standing behind the boy. He suddenly turned and tugged me. As I stooped down, he touched my cheeks and silently looked into my eyes and smiled. After a few seconds, he turned and went back into his own world. I felt my eyes burn. That was the most beautiful “It is ok. Smile” I had received. Unspoken, unheard, yet felt. I will never forget him

The judges of happiness

42262There has always been a love story that has passed around; mouth to ear and from there to another ear in my husband’s family. The story, not a rather pretty one features an uncle of his, who is in his fifties now. Although he is now happily married: a third time without any particular reason, he blames his first wife for triggering off what he calls as a series of rather unfortunate events. That first wife who, one fine day ran off with this uncle’s sister in law’s brother as his then lushly haired head sweated under the heartless sun of the Emirates. Although the heartless sun and his toil in a strange city abroad makes him look like the victim, the fact that the eloped first wife is still with his brother while he has jumped twice and my personal experiences with him made me rethink my sympathy which pointed to certain other traits of this protagonist which makes him appear not so innocent after all. Whatever it be, what I am concerned about is a comment I have often heard of the first wife:

“(a very disrespectful salutation to the so called woman) she suffers with that poor(very disrespectful salutation to the man she eloped with). Serves her right. How he treated her – like a rajkumari and now she lives like a tramp…. Poverty and suffering’ and the usual tsk tsking follows.

Which set me thinking. How do these people assess happiness? Is it through the number of zeroes on the right side of the salary? Or is it by assessing the square feet of a house? Or is it by checking the flooring of the house or depending upon the car someone has? Do they mean that the rate of happiness is directly proportional to the number of diamonds, or tolas of gold in the locker or the stacks of fresh currency in the bank accounts? May be it’s their concept of happiness. Are we all so materialistic and disillusioned by the status symbols that we do not see the happiness in the small things of life? Is it tough for them to realize that prosperity in marriage cannot be equated to all of this but to the bond shared by two people and it doesn’t matter how poor they are or how rich they are. Are they so blind to the fact that love makes someone happy even when they are immersed in poverty? And don’t they see that this ‘uncle’ is not superior to her just because he has got a bulky Wallet.

I remember a Syrian friend of my husband who worked for a top of the class company with a fat paycheck. She quit this dream job(of others) and went after ‘her’ dream to become a makeup artist. We made small circles with our pointers at our temples and called her a perfect ‘nut case’. However it turns out that she never really regretted her decision. She went on to work with even Tom Cruise it seems.That brings me to the second question – What about success?

Years later, I knew why she did that crazy thing. For me, it took several years to realize myself or my career goals. I want to work as a professor or a publisher. I know how these professionals are paid. I know for a fact that they are not exactly glamorous. But it makes me happy.

Today I know that being happy with a job doesn’t mean the salary or the perks but being in love with that job. I know that a happy married life means not how well off that couple is but how much they hold on to each other and how they stand by each other even through the darkest hours of life and I sincerely hope people would stop judging how happy others are and stop looking down on others with their imaginary scales of happiness. It just shows how these judges are feeling sorry for their own lives. Really!