Ms Gandhi, let’s bring in enabling policy to influence a change in gender roles
Even as Indian society remains gripped by patriarchal values and gender roles have barely changed in the Indian family, the sands are shifting slowly but surely among urban youth. I claim no statistical evidence and I’m well aware that this is just a very tiny group, but those of us who live in urban India just have to look around to see more fathers engage with tiny tots in your neighborhood park, more women taking on weekend hobbies and enjoy social engagements while their spouses take care of the home and hearth, more shared parenting overall. An opinion piece in Live Mint today refers to the growing number of men taking on or at least sharing cooking responsibilities as well. These new trends fly in the face of Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi’s ludicrous assumption that men will misuse paternity leave. Meant as a rejoinder to criticisms of the recent landmark law that mandates employers to give women six months paid maternity leave (and full marks to her for championing that cause), Gandhi’s response could have been far more nuanced.
I admit, the issue of paternity leave has been problematic across the developing world, influenced by ideas of what constitute good family life as well as economic development imperatives. The international experience shows that the Minister’s concerns over the uptake of paternity leave are legitimate. Brazil’s maternity leave program, already voluntary, was amended to extend paternity leave from five days to 20 this year, but is expected to have limited uptake. China has also extended the leave entitlement for fathers recently, with the hope it will encourage couples to have more children, but commentators are not hopeful it will have impact as most couples now prefer single children. Overall, fathers are not seen as equal partners in bringing up children, but the benefits of parents spending more time with young children (and the critical role models fathers can be) are more widely recognized. Intersected with better education among women, there is a need to revise the outlook on the role parental leave policy can play.
My submission is this: Instead of making policy that is merely reactive and a long time coming, why not think of policy changes that will reward those families that engage in more gender equal behaviour. It’s not just a question of gender equality either; bringing women into the workforce is a critical task for India’s economic performance, and preventing educated urban women from dropping out of it the low hanging fruit.
India doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel either. Many countries have experimented with parental leave. The much-lauded Swedish model offers a total of 16 months of parental leave, two of those to dads. Sweden is considering extending that to a third month. Germany’s experience is interesting too. In 2006, the maternity leave was amended to parental leave, allowing dads to have two months of the total parental leave time (like Sweden). A 2012 evaluation of the reform showed, however, that families of young children tended to take on traditional gender roles and critiqued the policy for disproportionately benefiting families that had single/one-and-a-half earners. In order to encourage a healthier work-life balance so both parents get to spend more time with young children, the parental leave policy was amended in 2014 to incentivize flexible work and also allowed parents to use the benefits in many different ways. Also motivated by the prospects of falling workforce numbers, Singapore has recently announced government subsidy for a second week of paid paternity leave.
India can also consider taking baby steps forward by opening discussions on providing a framework for:
(a) parental leave instead of only maternity leave
(b) how best to encourage employers to offer flexible work hours for mums and dads; and incentivize uptake of paternity leave; and on
(c) how parental leave laws can extend to benefit low-wage earners and those in the informal sector who are currently left out.
Through consultation and public debate on these issues, it might be possible to build a new consensus on how we could, as a society, offer more men and women opportunities to balance their careers and enjoy parenthood simultaneously.
Last weekend in Kochi, a memorable slice of time
To me, travel is therapeutic at many levels. Whether I travel for work or leisure, or even to meet family obligations, I revel in the sensory overload that travel brings. Earlier this month, I was in Kochi to serve as external jury member for 3rd year architectural students at a relatively new private college. While that was an interesting experience in itself, the highlight of the trip was spending time with one of my closest friends and her family.
College buddies, especially if you’ve shared hostel rooms, clothes, intimate secrets and much more, have an understanding of each other that is rare and precious. Both of us found we had saved conversations up in our heads for years and years for the time we would meet and have a chance to have a leisurely conversation. So that was super fun. Just as much fun was interacting with her kids; who felt familiar after only two days of time together.
The ease of being with people who feel like family seeped into the one day we had free. We visited the touristy part of town, Fort Kochi, but we hardly had tourism on our minds. Instead, we wandered through artist Paris Mohan Kumar’s art exhibition at the iconic David Hall, a restored art gallery and cafe that was once a Dutch bungalow. The paintings, which were largely monochrome revolved around the themes of nature and human relationships with an emphasis on the female form, were fascinating in their ability to be complex and simple at the same time.
We then hung out in the cafe part of the building for a while, cooling down drinking mint iced tea and gazing onto the patch of Kerala green and the pristine white stone wall, solid like they built them in the 16th century. Talking, laughing, thinking. And having some unexpected deep conversations.
Soon enough, phone calls came in, errands were run and appointments were rushed towards. The afternoon went by in a tizzy of sushi tasting, professional commitments, shopping and driving around a city temporarily scarred by the construction of the Metro line.
A week later, I’m still carrying that slice of time at David Hall with me. Memories are not necessarily made of a famous piece of architecture, high culture or amusement parks. Nor of expensive meals, cruises and moonlit walks. They are equally made of ordinariness, of words exchanged with an 11-year old child wise far beyond her years, of time spent with someone who understands you better than yourself. Of laughing over spilt cold coffee and of counting ants climbing up a tree. And in the day of smart phone, of taking a goofy selfie.
Let’s improve museums, but also create shared spaces to experience culture, explore identity
I started bemoaning the condition of Indian museums very early in life. I may have been eight or nine when I found myself peering through a stained glass at an exquisite Ming vase at Hyderabad’s Salarjung Museum. I remember being horrified and declaring an immediate ambition to become a ‘museumologist’, a term I was offered in an attempt by my bemused parents to add some vocabulary to what was clearly an emotional moment! Of course, my attitude of despair must have its roots in what I sensed around me, chiefly mum’s constant critique of how poorly Indians appreciated their own cultural heritage.
Today, as a mother of two eternally curious children, I am a vehement museum goer. No matter how dowdy or dusty, we go to as many as we can, as often as is possible. Not only to museums where collections are formally housed but also to archaeological sites that I see as museums of a different kind. Sometimes there is some interpretation offered, other times we have to do our own reading and research, but it is always interesting. And yes, with children now better traveled and exposed to international standards of preservation and interpretation, the questions on the quality of Indian museums are sharper.
Interestingly, they come with less angst. I don’t think my kids see life from the lens of Indian nationalism nor do they have that same view of India as an under-resourced nation fighting for its place among the cultures of the world. Instead, they seem to take things for what they are. ‘They could be better, but if it isn’t here, we shall see something else somewhere else!’- that’s what their attitude seems to suggest. Simply put, being Indian does not seem to be the focal point of their identity. Being city-bred, educated, English-speaking, internet-savvy, politically aware- these attributes seem more pronounced, and so they fit in easily with children of friends from other nations and contexts who are from similar backgrounds.
A few of my SPA students have taken up museums an other sites of heritage interpretation as their final design thesis projects. We have had intense discussions; for instance- Whose heritage are we choosing to interpret? Are we commodifying heritage? Is commodification ok if we also benefit communities? And then deeper issues about the self-perception of communities about what is their cultural heritage. All of these discussions highlight the vast differences in how people, across cultures and generations, perceive their identities and how sensitivity to a wide range of identities is crucial to nearly everything we do as interventionists- whether as architects, engineers, social workers, policy makers, lawyers and what have you.
To come back to museums and specially the debate after the pathetic and tragic case of Delhi’s Natural History Museum, clearly much needs to change in how we manage our museums. Whether the fix is in devolving management or in bringing them all under a single umbrella, the fact is that museums and all sites of heritage interpretation must be given the utmost importance in our public culture. I’d vote for bringing a larger number of sites into public use for a variety of uses, of course with attention to safety and long-term preservation. The Purana Qila hosts a dance festival in Delhi, as do the Khajuraho and Konark Temples. The Lodi Gardens is a fantastic urban space where families picnic, couples embrace, theatre groups rehearse and fitness enthusiasts work out and the Nehru Park is known for music performances and food festivals, where kids in keds holding badminton rackets will sometimes tumble into a Bhakti music concert! Many other spaces that are now being considered obsolete, like Rewal’s Hall of Nations in Delhi, can be refurbished and used practically even as they serve as markers of our modern history. Instead, they are being demolished and petitions to save them seem to be currently unheeded.
There are similar sites across the country that offer a chance at cultural education through osmosis, that offer the freedom of expression and exploration, that are in themselves spaces of interpretation. These must be better integrated with the city fabric through transport, branding and the seeding of activities as and when appropriate. A strategy that works on improving the quality of museums as well as opening up the idea of cultural interpretation through the creative use of heritage-rich public spaces can achieve two important objectives. First, they will open culture out to a much larger number of people and in this, keeping spaces and events free and open to public is key. Second, the new and varied interpretations of culture born out of these new experiences will impact how young people view their identities; indeed, this will generate some much-needed thinking about the question of identity in our society. I can see this ruffling feathers too, but that’s part of the social churn and I believe the more space we give for this churning to happen, the better off we might be!
Remembering the poignancy of the ‘Fallen Leaves’, Judisches Museum, Berlin
Ah June! To be grounded while I could have been traveling the world…that isn’t a good feeling. But then, there’s nothing bad about it either. As much as travel is about moving around and seeing things in the flesh, it is also about making journeys of imagination, reliving past moments and recreating them for your own pleasure.
Last year in June, we were in Europe on an idyllic vacation. The city lover in me was taking my family through some of the most spectacular sites of urbanisation in the world- Amsterdam and Berlin. Traveling in these two cities has offered me some of the most poignant moments of my life. At 16, I remember visiting the House of Anne Frank in Amsterdam and being moved to tears by what I felt inside.
At 38, I had a similarly intense moment as I turned a corner inside the Judisches Museum in Berlin to be surprised by the spectacular work of art, Shalekhet or Fallen Leaves by Menashe Kadishman. I remember gasping in surprise as I saw before me a sea of faces cut out from sheet metal. Sad faces, agonised faces, screaming faces, horrified faces, faces of despair, blank faces, tortured faces…thousands of them right there before us stretching out to what seemed like infinity.
To put things in context, a visit to the Judisches Museum designed by architect Daniel Liebskind was on my to-do list. But I’d heard extreme reactions to the building and I didn’t know what to expect. This is a structure of blacks, whites and greys. It is stark and has used sheer walls of concrete to express a deep anguish over the fate that befell the Jews at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. But what I liked most about the building were the unusual voids- triangular spaces, spaces out of proportion, spaces with giant cut outs, spaces of deep darkness and sharp pins of light, spaces that held me spellbound.
The Shalekhet occupied one such space, very very tall and extremely narrow, as if life and happiness was being squeezed out of it. I stood there spellbound. And then, the children started to walk out onto the fallen faces strewn on the floor. I remember making a sound of protest, reaching out to stop them. But they were following an older child and I soon realised this is what the artist intended. For us to hear the clanking of the metal as people walked over the faces of all those who suffered and died, to feel that tortured sound of being in chains, of being walked over, destroyed.
For some reason, the Fallen Leaves made me think of the innocent children all over the world who are victims of violence, not just war and terror, but also beaten inside their homes or emotionally abandoned.
We’re letting them down, I thought. A year later, I’m still stung by that thought.
Through a child’s eye: Our ‘vaddo’ in St Cruz, Goa [1 of 2]
I’ve written before about our stately, though slightly crumbling family home in Goa. It’s been a constant part of my life even though I’ve always lived outside Goa and I’ve blogged before about my nostalgic associations with the home, our vaddo (neighbourhood) and family.
Today I found a set of really interesting pics taken of our vaddo by my children a couple of years ago. Udai (then aged 8) and Aadyaa (then aged 4) were a bit bored. We had a few hours of lull in the midst of the hectic Ganpati celebrations and they wanted to explore. Our home is at the end of a narrow street and they wandered off, with me behind them. I remember trying to keep them occupied by giving them my iphone for 10 minutes each. These are the photos Udai came up with! I’ll post Aadyaa’s in a consecutive post simply because I am struck by how differently they captured the same spaces.
And finally, back to our home…
I’m amused by his obsession with tyres and happy with his eye for landscapes and interesting roofs (that’s the architect in me speaking)! What do you think?
To read more about Ganesh Chaturthi or Chavath celebrations at our Goa home, look at the posts below:
Chavath in Goa Day 0: Matoli time!
Chavath in Goa Day 1: Dedicated to Gouri-Mahadev and easy bonding!
Chavath in Goa Day 2: Ganapati Bappa arrives!
Chavath in Goa Day 3: The joy of Au revoir, till we meet again!
Keep the faith! In support of 17000ft’s incredible efforts in #education
My life is truly enriched by a few passionate friends. I’m not only driven by their energy and dedication as seen through Facebook updates and media coverage. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in their journey, be the listening ear to their struggles and sometimes, like now, a helping hand as well. Take the case of 17000ft Foundation, started by Sujata Sahu and Sandeep Sahu.
Sujata and Sandeep were my next door neighbours. In the the two years or so that we shared a floor, I was thrilled to be occasionally admitted into the fun and frolic in their menagerie of a house (5 kids, 2 dogs, and some more in the nooks and corners). Somewhere between the chatting and eating and drinking (oh yes!), we discovered a shared passion for the social sector and I saw in my friends a will to change the status quo that most of us simply accept.
Both of them were passionate trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts and I remember envying Sujata her solo trek in Ladakh. Then the flash floods happened there and talk changed into action. Sujata, then a teacher at Shriram School, ably partnered by Sahu, plunged into Mission Julley. I’ve written before (read here) about how they came in with a refreshingly practical perspective to ‘aid’, throwing existing systems out of the window and adopting a hands-on approach that directly and effectively reached remote communities. By the end of this endeavor, the duo was hooked. Despite all odds, they decided to look at transforming the experience of schoolchildren in the remote areas of Ladakh. 17000ft was born!
From mapping schools in the State to bringing in infrastructure, from setting up libraries to training teachers, 17000ft Foundation has worked hard to bring meaningful and practical value additions to how Ladakhi children learn. They also run a successful Voluntourist Program that helps bring a little revenue to the Foundation, but more importantly, leverages on the enthusiasm and knowledge of trekkers and vacationers to contribute to the development of this remote mountainous region.
17000ft, which already reaches out to 25,000 schoolchildren and covers Leh district is now expanding to Kargil district as well. Behind the success of 17000ft, I know, has been the anxiety and toil of its founders, who have braved personal uncertainties and risks to make this possible. Like any other not-for-profit, funding challenges and the need for recognition are two sides of the same coin and I see Sujata and Sandeep struggling to keep that coin in circulation even as they work on logistics and operations on a day-to-day basis. Sujata pinged me on Facebook Messenger yesterday with an astute obervation. “More than anything else, people need to talk about and write about the not for profits they know,” she said. “It’s not just about visibility and funding, endorsements helps me keep the faith, something I’m in the danger of losing every now and then.” I, for one, am not about to let Sujata lose her faith!
Help 17000ft keep the faith!
While I do my bit by blogging about their incredible work, Nalina Suresh, a friend and ardent supporter of 17000ft has been running marathons to raise funds for the Foundation’s work. On the 23rd of this month, she is running the Delhi Airtel Half Marathon for this cause as well. Click here to donate and help build libraries for schools in Kargil!
To remain connected, do like their FB page and follow them on Twitter
Lego madness! What kids loved in #Berlin 1/3
Udai is crazy about Lego. He has been that way since he was say a year old. He made the choice to visit Berlin, inspired in part by the German lessons in school that are still a novelty and mostly by my mention of a Lego Discovery Centre in the city. We found ourselves at the stunningly beautiful and modern Potsdamer Platz at the end of our excursion to the Berlin Wall. It was evening time and we dashed to get into the Lego place, barely stopping to admire the architecture of the Sony Centre, in which the Lego deal is located. Rahul opted out owing to the high ticket charges (Euro 18 per person, unless you book in advance) and I spent two hours with my super excited Lego-crazy kids.
What was inside? Well, I really liked the lego reproductions of Berlin city. They were amazingly detailed and vibrant. I didn’t care much for the Star Wars section and even the kids weren’t captivated by it, though there were spacecrafts moving around and everything was made with Lego. There was a dragon themes ride that puts you in a car and takes you into a castle, with ogres and dragons and knights, all mads of Lego again. There are Lego figures standing around- batman, Hagrid and Harry, you get the drift…
It’s a small place and the highlight for Udai most certainly was the zillions of Lego pieces at the workstations and time to sit and make stuff. What did he make? Airplanes…duh! Aadyaa just ran around and explored the place. And we topped this all off with a short Lego film at a built-in theatre they had inside.
It’s not a very large place and perhaps not exciting for grown-ups, but little detours like this is what keeps children engaged. Especially when we travel to cities that are high on culture and sightseeing, we’ve found to useful to mix it up a little. Once the kids know that we’re willing to do ‘their’ stuff, they are quite happy to do ‘ours’!
PS- I did get some shots of the Sony Centre plaza once we got out of the Lego place, and here they are….
Remembering Haarlem #1: Of music and dancing
One of the highlights of visiting my uncle and aunt in The Netherlands is the trip into the heart of Haarlem, the city where they live. Haarlem is a quaint town, the capital of the Noord Holland province and preserved beautifully in a manner typical of Dutch towns.
Haarlem has been in existence since Roman times and grew to become one of the most populated and influential cities in the Medieval times, a centre of trade inundated by Flemish merchants. Haarlem lost its prominent with Amsterdam’s rise during the Golden Age (17th-18th Century). Today, its essentially medieval layout and the visual richness of Gothic architecture is experienced strongly when you walk through it. We enjoyed getting lost in its streets, especially closer to the centre where many streets are quaint, narrow and exclusively pedestrian.
As you must do in a town like this, we gravitated slowly towards the Town Square or the Grote Markt. We knew we were close to this epicentre of Haarlem as soon as we began to hear the distinct music of the street organs and spot them, positioned on a corner or in the middle of a courtyard, people smiling at them as they walked by while some stood to appreciate their intricate facades. The Dutch street organ is a quaint sight, usually family owned and intricately decorated. They used to be all manually operated by an organ grinder but tend to be automated nowadays. I’ve seen them here and there in the cities of Holland before, but never a profusion of street organs like we saw on the Monday we decided to walk through Haarlem. It happened to be a long weekend thanks to the Christian festival of Pentecost or Pinkster. Through the morning, we watched residents and tourists descend into the centre of the city, and the organs seemed to swell in number too! The pictures below are each of/from a different street organ and all from the streets of Haarlem.
Haarlem’s Grote Markt is a delight. The beautiful open space is dominated by the towering St. Bavo Cathedral, which you can see for miles around the city, and the beautiful Town Hall or Stadhuis at the other end. When we first reached, we thought the Cathedral was shut because of Pentecost (it wasn’t though and the St. Bavo experience is the stuff of another post!) and so, we sought to enjoy the activity in the square. And I’m so glad we did!
The most fun thing we did was dance in the Silent Disco. You put on headphones and dance away. Those who watch could think you are crazy and will most certainly have a laugh. The kids and me went in, and then the kids did a second round once more, so kicked were they with the concept and experience! Udai kept wanting to bring the concept back to India (no noise pollution, wow!), only to be told they already have it on the beaches in Goa!
A band was performing in the middle of the Grote Markt, belting out mostly Latino music. As we sat there, sipping our drinks and trying out Poffertjes (A Dutch pancake with toppings, the most popular in summer being strawberries and cream!), a crowd began to gather. And dance! In a jiffy, Aadyaa had dragged me in and there we were, jumping about, surrounded by beautifully dressed couples doing the salsa and the meringue. Udai took the opportunity to polish off some new herring at another food stall.
Then came a church visit, a much-needed ice cream and a giant serving of the Dutch frites topped with mayonnaise and a long, long walk back along the canal and the forest till we reached home. A day well spent, steeped in music and dance, sunshine and conversation!
And before I wind up this long long post, here are my two ‘crowd’ clicks that I really like!
What the kids loved (or hated) in Shimla
It’s a very simple list, seen from the eyes of 6-year old Aadyaa. Along with her friend Myrah who is a year younger, the children’s’ perspective on the vacation was an important one for us, for keeping them in good humor was the vital ingredient in our holiday! Here’s my attempt to reconstruct our day out in Shimla from their perspective!
#1 The mandatory horse ride
Yes, the mandatory horse ride must be ticked off the list in a place like Shimla. I did it in Mussourie when I was perhaps the same age and here is Aadyaa astride Badal, the horse who wore her “kathak ghungroos” around his neck!
#2 Roadside eating
From pastries to the local phalsa fruit, the kids had fun demanding on-the-go food at regular intervals. Besides the energy shots, the food served as able distractions from the changing weather!
#3 Picture posing
For some inane reason, the kids would yell “Aaloo parantha!” and “Pasta!” each time someone asked them to pose for a pic. It gave us all a hearty laugh each time and I loved the way they infected us grown-ups with their wonderful inanity. Check out their wide grins!
#4 Battling the winds and the rain
I don’t think the children expected the cold winds and the rain. Aadyaa had a windcheater on to help her out, but she found the wind quite uncomfortable. Her legs were cold in the rain and she has to ask me to buy her new pajamas in the mall. Myrah too needed to buy a thicker jacket.
We spent quite a lot of time walking in the drizzle and then taking shelter wherever possible when the rain increased. One time it was the crowded porch of the post office, another time the porch of the church. Yet another time it was a long long wait under a sturdy old tree. They didn’t mind the latter too much as they had space to stretch and play and we passed the time singing rhymes and laughing!
#5 The monkey menace!
The monkeys were everywhere. Despite several instructions about not looking at them, ignoring them, not being scared etc etc, it was hard for the children to not worry about the monkeys. I was scared that Aadyaa might try to be too friendly since she loves animals. In the crowded part of the city, we managed to avoid the monkeys, but on a lonely stretch they managed to terrorize little Myrah and snatch away a bag we were carrying. From then on, monkeys became Enemy no.1 on the trip!