Storms ruled the first thousand years of life.
By the time I claimed my room, I turned into a zombie...
Suspended somewhere between the worlds within and outside...
Vaguely aware of either...
But then, existence needs more meaning, and spectacles need a windowpane...
Right here, I found mine…

Who am I? An average woman - trying to work on my share of maze through layers of haze...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Fasting Female Engineer


Our first awakening reveals that our mind,
Conditioned as it is to superstition and tradition,
Is the prison-house in which we dwell.
- Joel Goldsmith

My Dad belongs to a generation that had always seen engineering as a male bastion until their hair greyed, and then - IT happened in India. They blinked their eyes, and lo, the number of engineering colleges in the state had quadrupled! They blinked their eyes again, and their own daughters had enrolled themselves for Electronics or Computer Engineering! The third time they blinked, hosts of young lady engineers had bagged lucrative jobs with the top multinational corporates of the world! And then, their skepticism made way for claps of acclamation, and their fantasies took flight.

“What do you girls talk about when you sit together after office, Papai?”
“How did your friends react on this particular piece of news?”
“Since you girls spend so much of time together, why don’t you undertake a group project to intercept and decode the terrorist intercommunications in India?”


It was the first time I had moved out of our home to stay as a paying guest in Salt Lake with fifteen other female corporate professionals, and my thrilled Dad would ask me curious questions every time we met.

Modern, dynamic, razor-sharp, rational and informed– how else could the emerging female face of the Indian engineering fraternity be? – He thought. And when fifteen such individuals from all over the country stayed in one single building, would they obviously not brainstorm and innovate every time they sat together?

Fact check - Back at our shared accommodation (PG), Steve Jobs failed to rule our talks. News and current affairs couldn’t bother us either. The scepter was rather held by… er, Ekta Kapoor. Also, the best brainstorming sessions failed to find unanimity regarding consumption of non-veg but for Wednesdays, since on the six other days of the week an overlapping subset of otherwise-glad-chicken-lover ladies followed religious restrictions.

Also, some of us strictly fasted on certain days associated with certain Pujas. One certain Soumili often contemplated the next date of visit to one certain palmist. And a few murmured to each other - “Haa yaar – these things do happen…” - while watching an unsuspecting husband about to be run over by a truck because his bad, bad wife secretly had food on a certain day-of-fasting-by-wives-for-the-long-life-of-their-husbands on one of the many mega serials then churned out on prime time television.

So, did their brothers and husbands follow the tenets that were applicable to both the genders and abstain from non-veg on certain days of the week? No, or not as sincerely – my PG-mates stated with a nonchalance that never failed to surprise me. The guys would tag along with their chums and think nothing of hardly-secret non-veg hunts outside, while a strictly-veg day was being maintained at home.

The question is – why do the females incorporate restrictive religious or family traditions into their value system, so much so, that they wouldn’t violate them even when unsupervised?

The answer probably lies in the degree to which our socio-personal grooming right from childhood is tied to the gender we belong to.

Growing up, more often than not, is a process of realizing our individual role as an adult in the ocean of life out there. And the catch lies in the pat-on-the-back we all yearn for in the formative years of childhood. A girl child in India usually grows up in a more-or-less restrictive environment. Willing adherence to rules set by elders, rather than an evaluative attitude towards traditions - is what she discovers to be the universally favored way for her to earn her brownie points. Over the years, this over-glorifies values like obedience and conformity deep in her psychology. On the other hand, acts of defiance by the Indian male adolescent, if not child, are not only viewed as lesser blasphemy – but they may sometimes get him the status of the Columbus-spirited ant that sets the pheromone trail for the others to follow!

My friend Soujanya, usually quite a fashionista, was seen wearing shankha* and pola* with cocktail gowns on her honeymoon trip. Terrible mismatch! When asked, she stated that it was partly out of obedience, and partly - moner bepar (a matter of the mind).

And then there’s the factor of imbibing the roles you’ve seen your parents playing. Most of our mothers have been housewives who were prudent enough not to raise a hullabaloo about the worth or worthlessness of traditions in the interest of family harmony. In their circumstances, the need to fit in outweighed the urge to portray rationalism.

My childhood friend Rinku limits herself to quite a scanty veg menu every Saturday on account of Shasthi Puja*, only to pay respect to the similar sacrifices made by her Mom for decades, supposedly for the children’s well-being.

The question of believing in or doing away with superstitions seems to create a peculiar dichotomy in otherwise liberal individuals – and yet not a crisis. Take my mother. She’s someone I’m so used to seeing as a herald of progressiveness. She has done away with fasting on Shasthis* and Sankrantis*, unlike my aunts, because she values health over religious customs. She successfully persuaded my widowed grandma to continue fish in her daily diet, because the sudden discontinuation could deteriorate her already ailing health. She does wear her noya* and an aesthetic pair of shankhas* lined with gold, but has discarded her polas*. And she goes into fits of anger over the fact that I wear sindoor* only when the sensitivity of the people around me demands so. The point is, though she associates meaninglessness with religious/traditional excesses pretty vocally, she can’t take it when the subset she considers as ‘bare minimum’ is violated. She apprehends the asubh (ill omen).

Again, my friend Monali, an IAS aspirant, whose attitude and relationships have often howled “I’M A REBEL”, would mock about the superstitions her Mom tried to impose on her and take pride in being a staunch believer of three superstitions ‘only’ – a cat crossing your path brings evil, having egg before an auspicious venture spells trouble, and the third one – um, I’ve forgotten. I could hardly make her get the point - if you mean to shed off superstitions, shed them off in totality. Shed them off because you trust in logic, and not because shedding off some at your own convenience makes you stand apart from your more obliging friends.

Now, are superstitions really an issue? What’s wrong with being a fasting female engineer if that’s what keeps the world at peace?

The issue is, unless you engage your mind in constant war against the irrational, it hacks into your core belief system unnoticed and manifests itself at its worst in the weakest moments of your life. You fall prey to god-men and astrologers while your common sense surrenders before your unhelpful fears of destiny’s conspiracies.

The issue is also this, that through your choice to refrain from questioning traditions, you indirectly rationalize denial of an honorable marriage to the lovers with a horoscope mismatch, or the denial of an invitation to the widow for an auspicious social ceremony. You contribute in making life harder for the ones who have chosen not to believe in the unscientific, for YOU form the wave they have to swim against.

Not to mention the existential crisis you face when your numerous visits to the temples and fasts and mannats* fail to secure you the desirable. I remember one more friend of mine, a guy this time – Ranajoy, who’d invest in shares based on numerology or date of conversation with persons whom he deemed lucky. Luck didn’t favor him.

It is important to understand that many of our traditions and superstitions were started by prospective gainers as propaganda of supremacy of a class of people (say, the priests, or the Brahmins, or the male members of the family). Many others, genuinely well-meant, were prescribed by influential socio-religious reformers in times when science hadn’t made much progress and the societal structure was different. Their need may have run out.

“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players” – a bang on proclamation by Shakespeare. You may indeed consider it your priority to play your role as a tradition-obliging member of an amicable family - and otherwise-benevolent authority figures may demand so. But do not internalize it. Discard the fa├žade the moment its need is over. Do not propagate it on to the next generation.

Open the ring with that stone-of-luck your mother’s favorite astrologer has thrust upon you as soon as you step out of the house - daily. Do not give it the chance to claim half of your glory the day you maneuver your way to success. Build up trust in the rational. Engage in self-help.

Why? Because YOU as an individual are of immense significance; YOU form a node of the Tree of Humanity that will continue to grow beyond you, and the nourishment YOU provide to it through YOUR thoughts and actions will continue to spread. Let YOUR contribution to this tree unflinchingly uphold the supremacy of reason.

As Gandhi put it - “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” [ By Antara Kundu ]

Some Notes:
a. Did the interchangeable use of the words superstition and tradition raise your eyebrows? Well, I’ve locked my horns primarily with the traditions backed by superstitions, and then, not many fall outside this bracket!
b. I’ve masked my friends’ names to avoid being stoned to death by them, which in any case, I’m afraid will happen.
c. Shankha, pola and noya are auspicious bangles worn by Bengali married women.
d. To know what are Shasthis and Sankrantis, better refer to these pages: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shashti_(goddess), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shashti and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sankranti.
e. Mannat is the commitment of making a sacrifice to a deity in return for having one’s wish fulfilled.
f. Sindoor is obviously the vermillion applied by Hindu married women in the parting of their hair.

10 comments:

  1. wow! what a post! never had thought on this subject

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  2. I am so happy to see you back in form :) This is another wonderful article from you. Gives a lot of food for thought. To tell you the truth, I somewhat believe in astrology, but that is not the kind of blind belief generally associated with it, rather as statistical probability. Will tell you about it sometime

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  3. Anonymous1:02 AM

    nice and accurate observation! :)

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  4. write something about cleanliness freaks..:p

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  5. So, when are you going to intercept the terrorist communications? :)

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  6. @ExcitingSongs(ES) - Ha ha :D! That's a good question!
    @Tatai - Not in a position to! I'm turning into one :O!
    @Anonymous - Thanks a lot :-).
    @Riddhiman - Thanks Riddhi :-). Hope no one is going to take it as a personal attack as I do not intend any.
    @Ishani - The first reader of this entry :-) - thanks a lot!

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  7. Wonderful post. We are simply too scared to break the mould, face our illogical fears or dare to defy what the entire community believes in. I like your suggestion that we don't ever internalise it and simply adhere to some of it out of respect for our loved ones.

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  8. @KayEm - Thanks a lot for your appreciation :-).

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  9. [Jishnu] Excellent read... bravo! As a rationalist myself, I just loved the way you wrote - "The issue is, unless you...".

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    Replies
    1. Jishnu!!! Didn't know that you're into blogging as well! Thanks a lot for hopping into this page and appreciating rationalism :-).

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