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Reflections on being a saree pacter #100sareepact

Day 69 ‪#‎100sareepact‬ Munni mausi has spent a lifetime buying Sarees from Bhopal and transporting them to her sisters, nieces and me, her bahu. These Sarees represent the richness of Madhya Pradesh's handloom culture- kosa, chanderi, Maheshwari, etc. When I got married, I got two kosa silk Sarees. One from Munni mausi, the other from Anjudi (who had asked mausi to get an extra along for her new bhabhi!). Amma, I discovered in time, has a veritable collection of Munni Sarees! The one I wear today is particularly lovely and some 30 years old. We measured the saree's age through my husband Rahul Singh Rawal's memories of it this morning.

I had a lot of fun updating my #100sareepact gallery yesterday! My heartfelt gratitude to everyone who, in their own way, has encouraged me and egged me on. I’m nearing the end slowly and steadily and people are beginning to ask if I would continue to wear sarees after Day 100 is done and dusted. A friend who wears sarees quite a bit but is not doing the pact asked me if the frequency of wearing sarees would change drastically and why that would be so….

These are very interesting questions, because they go to the core of what motivates a person like me to do the #100sareepact. Hopelessly addicted to over-analysis, I’ve been questioning myself about whether it is the adulation over social media that drives me rather than my love for sarees. What if I wore sarees and didn’t post? Wouldn’t that be enough as well?

On the other hand, I’ve made many friends, re-connected with many I knew from before, found common interests and gained a lot of knowledge because we are all sharing our saree posts. It’s the stories that go with the pictures that fascinate not just me, but everyone I know who has been avidly following the pact, whether they are pacters themselves or not.

What we wear, what we choose to wear is so intrinsic a part of who we are. It is an expression, but it also shapes our journey. By choosing to wear sarees, I make a statement to myself first and only then to everyone around. About being comfortable in my own skin. About being unapologetic about the extra 10 minutes I spend everyday choosing a saree, ironing it, draping it and accessorizing my look for the day. These acts give me that edge of confidence, bring out that inherent sexuality and power within me; they center me.

The #100sareepact has also coincided with a particularly industrious phase in my life. A career-focused phase, an ambitious forward-looking time, a time of re-invention and action that followed a rather long period of introspection, dithering and decision-making. The extra boost of confidence that wearing sarees has given me plays no small part in whatever I have managed to achieve. And for that, I shall remain eternally grateful to the pact.

Whether I will wear a saree as frequently post the pact remains to be seen, but I do know that the saree is now firmly entrenched among the regular choices I make about my attire. I think of the myriad motivations that have driven women across the world to take up the saree with such enthusiasm. I think of conversations last night with friends about how hard women are working to make a mark in the world around them, often against severe odds. I think about how desperately we sometimes need validation and encouragement and yet are too inhibited to seek it. And I know why the pact is so successful.

Anju, Ally, you struck gold with this. For all of us.

Alarming! Politicians are as obsessed with the urban dream as the rest of us!

I was researching an article about the governance of privately built cities recently and one of the experts I spoke to commented on the obsession of the Indian State with being answerable to the urban middle class, to the exclusion of other categories of citizens like the rural folk, the urban poor etc who have traditionally been the ‘vote bank’ in India. After Ayona seeded that thought in my head, I began to notice that it was indeed being pointed out by several journalists and experts in mainstream media. For instance, this piece talks about Modi’s obsession with the urban. It’s not just Modi, our nation is seeing a disturbing shift in which the youth aspire to everything that is urban. Symbolism is important and cars, mobile phones, branded clothes and a ‘liberal’ lifestyle have become outward signs of a change in outlook (not mindsets though, as we are reminded time and again!).

Sanjoy Narayan’s editorial in Hindustan Times this weekend describes how painfully aware young people are of the stark inequalities. I imagined, as I read, this sea of young people gravitating towards a lifestyle they couldn’t sustain, leaving behind a familiar life that they look down on.

At the India Art Fair, a panel of photographs from the South Indian countryside of homes that mimic urban architecture paints a clear picture of how the city is a major part of the dreams of people across the country.

Sneaking in one of my amused moments, a whole bunch of pics of homes taken mostly in Kerala representing the urban dream! All paint companies very much in business!

As an architect and urbanist, I clearly see how people with “one foot in the city and one foot in the village” (am borrowing these words from Rahul Srivastava of URBZ), carry back home the symbols of their city life, recreating in villages and small towns across the country the palatial urban-style homes of their dreams that the city doesn’t give them space for! Often times, no one lives in these countryside palaces!

Mohan, a passionate and inspiring young man I know quite well, built such a home back in Odisha while he made money running a grocery store in Gurgaon. His aging parents lived in this large home by themselves for many years. Mohan’s frustration with the anomaly of the situation has been growing for a year or so and he recently made the brave decision of moving back to start a business in a small town near his home. I sincerely wish him well. His brothers refuse to move away and they are absolutely certain Mohan will fail and the relatively big bucks in the big city will bring him right back (his tail between his legs!).

Everyone, politicians and bureaucrats as well as educated people regardless of caste and class, have fallen for the urban dream hook, line and sinker. The few who, like Mohan, dare to dream different are laughed at. We’ve bought our own bullshit, literally. We believe that an industrialized future is the way forward. We prefer not to think about how the food will get to our table, where wild animals will live, where we will go when we want to escape the city, where our water tables will get recharged….. it’s too painful to think about, we hope that there are rules to sort that stuff out!

The truth is that most of us are entitled to live in our own imagined worlds or urban prosperity. It alarms me, however, when politicians do the same. That those in power and those in line for power propagate this imbalanced situation as a dream we must dream, it’s worrying indeed! Cashing in on the urban aspirations of rural folk, politicians are shamelessly painting a false picture. They are showing us dreams that will never be fulfilled and that will push us further into environmental disaster, food insecurity and sharpened inequalities.

Sobering thought, if you needed another one- To be able to vote in people who see the whole picture at some point in the future, we would need to see the whole picture for ourselves.

No resolutions in 2013, only a wish to keep dreaming….

Last year, I was all about setting targets and making resolutions. I set myself up to blog each day of the year, I made a list of resolutions and blogged them so everyone would know. I was constantly making lists, pumping myself up, re-evaluating my progress.

This year, I have done none of those things. Yes, I do have concrete plans and some not-so-firm ones, but all in all, I have a much better grip on life than I did at the beginning of 2012. Conclusion? Making public promises to myself is certainly my way of pushing myself out of a place of self-doubt and inertia and into a phase of action. Setting up small goals and achieving them is my way of creating a situation where I can pat myself on the back every day, every once in a while and feel god about life.

So don’t I need that level of reassurance any more? Probably not. 2012 was a defining year for me in terms of resolving doubts about my larger goals in life. Of course, one never knows if the answers you have are the ‘right’ ones and you may realize years later that you were meant to do something else entirely….but I don’t believe in that stuff at all. There is no right answer, if you feel it’s right today you gotta go with it!

I don’t know what 2013 will bring, but I am not anxious about it in any way. I know I will see many dreams come true, even if I don’t know what those dreams are. And so, I have decided that instead of putting down a list of resolutions, I will strive to dream a new dream everyday. And I will not make these public, yet. These are what will drive me to have a larger appetite for life, to think bigger, to not be satisfied with what I have but egg myself to do more, want more, achieve more. It’s a totally new agenda for me, as I have until now held on to the mantra of satisfaction and believed in being happy with whatever I have. Let’s see how this pans out….

Traumatized by my baby girl! How crazy is that? April 11, 2012

Aadyaa’s been unwell and clingy for a week. She and me suffered the same infection, so it’s been draining out for both of us. Yesterday, she threw a tantrum and wiggled out of school. This morning, we were relieved when she was bright and chirpy and raring to go.

Happily, she hopped and skipped her way to the bus stop, after negotiating that she would come back home by car and that mum (that’s me!) would come to get her. The big, white bus draws near us and stops. She’s smiling, but it’s a frozen sort of smile. Kids climb in. Udai and his friend Anisa wait, wanting to help Aadyaa by letting her get on before them. Then she freezes. I carry her inside, the parent on bus duty offers to seat her next to him, the conductor and others speak kind words. But nothing works, nada. Before I understand what is happening, she and me are off the bus. I wave it away and stand there, defeated, dazed.

Moments later, panic sets in. I know I can’t afford to let her miss another day of school. She has missed many days, there have been holidays in between and every passing day off school is making her feel awkward and maladjusted at the thought of facing schoolmates and teachers, distanced and out of sorts with any sort of regular routine (it us weeks and weeks to get her started at school, that’s the history!).

So there are hot words, trauma and we manage to rush and drop her to school. More clinginess, loads of patient handling (I swear I have no idea where those kind words came out of, all I felt like doing was howling!) and finally, she let me go. Its four in the afternoon now, and the clinginess has persisted after I picked her up and got her home. I have barely been able to go to the loo! Have managed to be at my computer only with great difficulty.

If I am so traumatized by Aadyaa’s clinginess, what must be her state of mind to be so clingy in the first place? I do understand there is some deep sense on insecurity, an inability to deal with changes in her life, that manifests in her wanting to keep her parents always before her eyes.

And me? Why am I so impacted by her behavior? I’ve been thinking about it the past few days and I see how hopelessly intertwined my ambitions, need for space and my expectations of support from my family are. I see her clinginess as another form of fetters; I lose hope that I will ever be free; free to be creative, free to follow my dreams, free to be me.

It’s a scary thought, to realize that I see my children in this way. I don’t want to think like this, but I cannot control my thinking either. I take a deep breath. I say to myself; this too, shall pass. And I remind myself that this world, its crazy pace, its pressure, the beckoning of fame and riches, the ego, is all an illusion. In reality, I am but a speck of dust.

Do you really feel as good as you feel? Feb 5, 2012

Today’s blog is following up on yesterday’s post about salons and looking good and after reading Nupur’s comment about how salons are about making us feel good, much beyond the looks……I would go as far as saying that the popularity of parlors, gadgets, retail therapy and a zillion other status-related things we crave for in modern, especially urban (but not strictly so) societies have a lot to do with our shrinking confidence in ourselves as people.

Looking around, I suspect we all seek confirmation in our success from external sources and hence the dramatic increase in material consumption, but also consumption of another kind–the spiritual. Whether stress therapy, spirituality, religion or a pursuit of mentors and gurus, more of us are attracted to the idea of being guided by forces we perceive as beyond us and more powerful than us.

Is it because we don’t want to ask ourselves the tough questions and worse, not take decisions for ourselves?

Do we really need to be in the rat race, or do we need the rat race so we have parameters by which we can compare ourselves with others? Isn’t it comparison that offers us a basis for considering ourselves better, improved, more successful? And if so, what when we find ourselves lacking? We perceive that as failure and go into a cycle of guilt and low-esteem. Which brings us back to the point of seeking easy solutions to break out of that cycle all over again!

I’m as much a victim of this repetitive cycle as anyone else. And I must confess that as long as life is good and the status quo acceptable, I do not feel a particular desire to break this cycle. When the chips are down though, the doubts return…..and I do know the tough questions need to be asked!

Does Oprah’s solution to poverty apply to the urban poor in India? Jan 23, 2012

I kept hearing about Barkha Dutt’s interview with Oprah all day. I just got around to seeing a part of it myself. Her’s is a hugely inspirational story, rags to riches, from a nobody to one of the most influential people in the world, etc etc.

Coming from poverty herself, Oprah pointed out today that very few people who live in poverty (that is without money, running water, 24X7 electricity, etc) know that they are poor, till they are in a position to compare their lives with that of someone else.

I had the opportunity to do some community consultation work in the slums Sundernagari in East Delhi a few months ago and I tried to review Oprah’s statement in the light of my experiences. We (as in mHS) had been engaged to involve the community in the process of developing an in-situ redevelopment scheme in which their families would be allocated housing units in the same location where their slum stands today.

The cheerful youth we met in Sundernagari had no apparent aspirations, seemed strangely secure in their poverty. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

We worked in two slum blocks, one predominantly a community of scheduled caste shoe makers and other a majority-Muslim community engaged in  buffalo-rearing, embroidery and metal work.  Both communities are extremely poor. Our survey shows about 31% of the households in the first community and 32% in the second have a household income of less than Rs 5000 per month (with an average household size of about 5). The highest reported family income in both blocks was about Rs 15,000 a month!

Of course the people we worked with in Sundernagari are acutely aware of their poverty. Its hard for them not be, not to compare themselves with the more fortunate while living in Delhi surrounded by middle income neighborhoods. Many women from these slums work as domestic help in the middle income colony nearby, entering every day more fortunate homes and observing closely a life of relatively much much more. I find it hard to believe that Oprah’s statement can be true of any community of the urban poor anywhere, in fact.

While aware of their poverty, I do not think these slum dwellers live life in a depressed or dejected fashion. They simply live, focusing on finding jobs (mostly in the form of informal labor, skilled or semi-skilled) and spending their money wisely so as to feed their families and educate their children. Their grievances are not with living in a slum, in poverty. They simply ask for basic services and security for their children, no more and no less.

Which brings me to Oprah’s other point about poverty. She sees education as the only way out of poverty, something that opens the door of opportunity. While interacting with young people in the slums, I was struck by their cheerfulness and complete lack of ambition. These were people who attended or had attended school, but did not believe that education would give them the opportunity to progress and find their way out of the poverty they were born into. So they simply lived in a status quo fashion, doing whatever work they could find, if they could find it (sadly, many young people didn’t appear to take on the trades of their parents, finding show making or buffalo rearing to be derogatory work).

Instead of offering them opportunity, the government has made these poor households dependent on subsidies and pro-poor programs. They now believe there is a certain power in their poverty. They believe the government will never throw them off their land and that they will be able to endlessly leverage their poverty to eek out survival for themselves and their future generations.

Of course, many we spoke to did dream of a better life, did see through the falseness of the security these programs offer; but in the collective mentality that is at work here, few offer a dissenting opinion. And life goes on….

No Big Picture! Hoping the short-term targets will take me through…Jan 18, 2012

I drove home with a friend last evening; we were catching up after a long time. As it happens with people you have known for long, the discussion journeyed from comparing jobs, kids and hobbies to ambition. Something Maneck said during the course of the evening said struck me. He said he wanted to change the world!

Change the world, make a difference, leave a legacy…. Now I haven’t had that kind of grand, sweeping, idealistic thought in a long, long time! Maybe I have succumbed to the humdrum routine of day-to-day living or maybe nirvana has not happened to me yet.

Thinking it through, I realize that every time I have tried to set myself such any long-term goals, it has been a disaster of an exercise. When I set short-term targets that span 6-12 months, I find I am much more focused and geared towards fulfilling these. Of course, as it happens in life, sometimes you change direction as well, but its possible to look back and view your achievements in the light of what your expectations were, in the short-term.

Yet, the general message we get from the world around us (parents, teachers, peers, all play a role in getting this through) is that it is important to have a plan in life, a general direction in which we move and its best to have a burning, higher ambition. The sub-text is always that this will help us achieve success, which in itself is a super -loaded concept (I could go on and on about what success even means, but that’s for another day!).

For most people, ambition is interpreted as a more practical set of broad rules to live life by–like ‘I want to get rich’, ‘I want to save enough to buy a home’,  ‘I want to see my children settled’ or ‘I want to perform on stage some day’. But to leave a legacy, in my view, it is important to look beyond the self-centered, material perspective and examine how your plans will change the lives of other people. For those burning to become successful entrepreneurs, this may be about introducing new products and services that impact people, or about building a successful corporation and benefiting future shareholders. For creative people, it could be about bringing audiences pleasure through music, dance, theatre, film, art….. For architects, it’s about creating spaces that are functionally or aesthetically excellent or innovative. Increasingly, many of us are highly motivated to impact what the economists call the ‘bottom of the pyramid’; find solutions to improve the lives of the poor.

Whatever it is that pushes your buttons, drives you, its impossible without the counterpart of the ‘ambition’- the action plan! It’s a bit like cities that want to become ‘world-class’ but have no short-term action-oriented guidelines to achieve that long-term vision. Sometimes, the vision itself is also not crystal clear and motivated by a competitive streak and not really by a desire to improve the lives of citizens (I’m wondering if Kamal Nath’s dream of a high-rise Delhi considers how this will impact the man on the street, for instance!).

For those of you who do have a driving ambition, I’m sure you are already on your way to translating this into reality through shorter-term targets. As for me, I don’t have the big picture yet, but I’m happy setting short-term targets and ‘going with the flow’. It’s hard, but I tell myself everyday that I am destined for greatness, and focus myself on the week, month and quarter ahead. Stick around for another ten years and I’ll tell you if it worked 🙂

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