​A whole new world

Going back to the basics

If you’re reading this, chances are I stayed up late Saturday night furiously typing on my laptop when actually I should have been studying for my Spanish finals. Or better yet, sleeping. But I cannot put myself to sleep easily since the minute I close my eyes, I see flashes of pages and words and images jumping out at me. It’s been a while since I’ve given examinations, and at least seven years since I last found myself in a classroom. But it’s also been seven years since I’ve really wanted to learn Spanish, since I’ve wanted to read one of my favourite authors, Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the original and Federico Garcia ​​Lorca’s poems. Why Spanish you ask? Cause it sounds sexy (we’ve all heard Shakira and Enrique in their native language) and it is one of the easier languages to pick up. Relatively, at least.

On my first trip to the US, I was bombarded with a number of languages, but since I met two of my sisters-in-law, who are Spanish-speaking Latinas, I just fell in love with the language. It sounds amazing when you hear it upfront. And they speak so fast! Words just seem to fly by. So within a month of me back in Delhi, I signed up for classes, and I’ve been beaming about having finally taken the plunge ever since.

I opted for weekend classes, a total of six hours over both days, and while it was easy to manage my work, it would often get too hectic for me. To get the brain to start learning something afresh, after years of being in the doldrums became a bit of a task. But herein lay the beauty of learning a language. I was opening myself up to not just a language, but a whole new world.

Boy, when I thought the language would be easy, I was so wrong. Being born and brought up in Calcutta, my Hindi is not at its best. Gender always gets the best of me. But who knew that gender would be an even greater issue in Spanish. Here, not just people and things get assigned a gender, numbers do too when they refer to a masculine or feminine word. And when structuring a sentence, one needs to keep in mind every aspect of the sentence. Be it gender, verb conjugation and nouns. It’s called ‘concordancia’, and it sure will be the end of me. But in all this frustration over pronunciation, spellings, sentence structure and grammar, it is quite an experience to be learning something from scratch. I don’t know how much I may have appreciated my learning process while studying English or Bengali, but Spanish classes have been attended like a child with eyes strapped open wide. I wasn’t too fond of Hindi, though my writing skills always outshone my speaking skills.

Also, now I found myself facing a whiteboard instead of the regular blackboard. All this time, I would hear my mother rave about the smartboards in her school, but I barely paid attention to it. But, teaching has reached a whole new level with this whiteboard and access to the internet in the classroom. My professor, Profe D would often play Spanish songs for us during breaks, just so we could get used to listening to the language and get to know more about the culture. Also, during the Mexican festival ‘El Dia de los Muertos’ or the Day of the Dead that is celebrated at the beginning of November, the institute had put up a small tableau showcasing certain elements. Traditionally, families commemorate the transitory return of deceased family members and loved ones to earth and they facilitate the journey by laying flower petals, candles and other offerings from the cemetary to their homes, fashioning a path. They put up a table decorated with pictures, colourfully painted skulls and decked up skeletons. It was quite something to be able to see a slice of another culture right here in Delhi.

With almost 21 countries part of the Spanish speaking world, the kinds of stories, histories, personalities and cultural aspects are immense. And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t in love with this part of the world already! I am now actively keeping an eye out for cultural events in Delhi related to these countries. Hopefully I’d have attended at least half a dozen by the end of winter. And of course, I’ve gone on an online and offline shopping spree to pick up as many books as I could on the subject. It was almost like a reflex action. I couldn’t stop myself. And I can’t wait to get done with my examinations so I can just sit back and savour my recent buys.


​Headscarves and Hymens – A much-needed reorientation of society

It’s been a while since I last blogged and also almost a month since I finished Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution. But I just couldn’t get myself to pick up another book since I was ‘not done processing’ this one enough. There’s much to read, explore and comprehend fully. And I knew the best way to get a wholesome grasp on a book is to write about it.

Mona Eltahawy is as much of an inspiring person, as she is intimidating for me. An award-winning journalist, she is an international public speaker on feminism, Arab and Muslim issues. She has written hallowed publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and a correspondent for Reuters among others. Her body of work, her arguments and thinking only leave me gaping in awe and hoping to meet her some day.

As the title suggests, Headscarves and Hymens is not an easy book to get through. It strives to make people aware in the simplest of forms, how patriarchy is so deeply entrenched in us, that women have been relegated to being worse than second class citizens in the Middle East, and how they have to fight tooth and nail for even the most basic of services. Reality for men and women are exceedingly different. Mona makes the argument that in the backdrop of all the political upheaval in the Arab world, true progress will be made only when political revolutions are accompanied by simultaneous social and sexual revolutions. Women need to be viewed as people too, and not objects of sex meant only for men’s personal pleasure and procreation.

On April 23, 2012, the essay ‘Why do they hate us’ featured on Foreign Policy. In this feature, which is the first chapter in the book, Mona dissects the rampant misogyny in the Middle East and how it stems from hatred towards women. She puts an entire political and economic system in focus, “one that treats half of humanity like animals” and how it must be destroyed. Mona talks of her own personal revolutions that took place while she grew up in Egypt, the UK and Saudi Arabia. The stark contrast in her family life and what she saw in others’ homes left her conflicted, but nothing could compare the struggle she had with her identity of a hijab-wearing feminist, till at last she set herself free. It was in Jeddah as a young adult when she came across feminist texts in the university library, and then there was no looking back for her.

“SO WHY DO THEY HATE US? Sex, or more precisely hymens, explains much.”

Tackling sexism in the Arab world is a task not for the faint hearted. There are obstacles for women at every level, be it at home, on the streets, workplaces or even in schools. While we in India too have our own issues to worry about, situation in the Middle East and Egypt is much worse.

Families impose curfew on daughters and women since they could get raped or assaulted, but no one tells the boys and men to keep their hands to themselves. From parliaments to mosques, women and girls are groped, assaulted and relegated to being mocked by men.

She mentions how as a child, which is true for even me, girls would resort to wearing baggy clothing so that the curvaceous contours of the body are not defined and do not give more fodder to men and their perverted minds and gallivanting hands. I remember as a child how I would not like travelling by public transport. It would make me cringe because I always had to be on guard. I was at an age when my growing sexuality and changes in my body and mind were still at a hazy stage, and in the absence of any ‘conversations’ with my mother, I would not want to be all primped up and pretty. I was a rough oddball.

And reading accounts in the book that resonated with mine, made me pause and think how society in general made me squash my sexuality and I had no way to express myself in the way I thought it best.

So while Mona was a hijab-wearing feminist for a while, confident she could do justice to both, she soon realised how while wearing the hijab helped hide her body from men, in the end it only hid her body from herself. How true. My own mother made me wear loose and ill-fitting clothes, making me supremely conscious of my body. And with society’s eyes on me all the time, whether I wore jeans or a dress, it made me withdraw further into myself.

Another aspect she talks about is the ‘purity culture’. This is extremely toxic. While men can be forgiven for indecent dalliances, sometimes even expected of some, god forbid a woman walks down the same road, and suddenly every man feels emasculated and angry. In many countries in MENA (Middle East and North Africa), purity tests are still conducted. Sometimes randomly, and against the wishes of the said person. Doctors, or any official in the absence of doctors, shove two fingers inside the vagina to check for the presence of the hymen. Sometimes parents get it done on their daughters. Often these experiences are so traumatic, since they’re so young when they have this done on them, they often don’t recover fully from them.

Female genital mutilation or FGM is another devil plaguing women in the region. While it may be rampant in some of the countries of MENA, it takes places in India too. Genital cutting is the total or partial removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is believed to reduce a girl’s sex drive and make sex for her an extremely painful ordeal. It is followed by Muslims and Christians in Egypt and it must be a horrendous thing to make your own child to go through.

It’s been centuries of hate and spite that men pile up on women, everyday, day in and day out. There is little respite. From the little things to the greater scourge, women and girls continue to suffer.

“Why do those men hate us? They hate us because they need us, they fear us, they understand how much control it takes to keep us in line, to keep us good girls with our hymens intact until it’s time for them to fuck us into mothers who raise future generations of misogynists to forever fuel their patriarchy.”

This book is like an unending whiplash of sorts. Mona does not let the reader get away with ease. She makes the reader uncomfortable and forced to face facts, forced to face the truth, the truth that many shy away from, turn a blind eye and which many believe to be lies. There is no getting away from her and it is heartening to feel that it’s alright to be struggling with one’s own personal revolutions. Feminists aren’t made in a day. Sometimes it’s slow progress. We, as a society, have become so used to the misogyny that we don’t even realise it when it happens to us or to someone we know, or even if it happens right under our noses. These are issues that make people uncomfortable, and many would rather stick their heads in the ground that face these head on.

Mona handles all doubts that might creep up silently, and she explains basic concepts so well. Even I once thought if a person should want to wear the veil, she should be free to do so. But Mona changed my thinking. And from her unique position of a woman who is a feminist and a Muslim, she gives to the reader a true perspective on the Arab and Muslim world. “I insist on the right to critique both my culture and my faith in ways that I would reject from an outsider.”

Courtesy – Feminism in India

Hillary Clinton once said. “Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me…But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.”

Even though Clinton said it perfectly, she still supported many misogynistic despots, and this is something we’re currently seeing in India with the #MeToo movement that has taken over social media like a wildfire that refuses to come under control. And it should be given free rein as for once women and her thoughts, her emotions, her experiences and pain are being shared on public forums, and the men who for years have treated women with disdain are being brought to the fore, their hidden secrets come tumbling out and, being named and shamed for the whole world to see. Men, women, boy, child and girl…everyone, in general, need to know that it is NOT OKAY to behave in a certain way, to conduct oneself with impropriety and it is time that the world understands the meaning of NO, not to abuse one’s position of power, and the importance of CONSENT.

​The Met – At heaven’s doorstep

“If I had to choose a single destination where I’d be held captive for the rest of my time in New York, I’d choose the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Tim Gunn, fashion consultant , television personality, actor, author, and also a former mentor on Project Runway​, isn’t far from the truth. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or The Met, is an exhilarating place to be. It took me an entire day to go through just one of its museums in New York City and yet I couldn’t cover the entirety of it. It is MASSIVE and needs probably days and weeks to be able to relish the historic pieces with time and understanding. If I had more time, and by gawd I wish I did, I would just scribble away in my notebook, making quick sketches and marveling at the many slices of history displayed.

The stunning facade of The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue

Located at 1000 Fifth Avenue, The Met is one of the largest art museums in the US and is home to collections of art and history over the 5,000 years. That is quite something, isn’t it? There are three main sites in the city, The Met Fifth Avenue (which I had the pleasure to visit), The Met Breuer and The Met Cloisters. Founded in 1870, The Met is a must-visit spot in the city, not just for kids to gawk at artifacts from the Egyptian Civilisation (my heart jumped with joy) or amble through the plethora of paintings that left me mystified, or even more by the ancient Chinese and Japanese sculpture, paintings, and a thousand different things to beguile me. I was nothing short of mesmerised at this museum.

This year, the key exhibition, among the many on display was the new Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibition, ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’ that opened in May. Most of you will remember this thanks to the annual Met Gala which is a fundraising event for the museum, hitting all the main headlines that day. And this year, the dress code was Sunday Best, in line with the launch of this special exhibition.

I did not know what hit me when I walked down those majestic, pristine marble stairs and entered an underground space that sparkled. Since photography was prohibited here, I have no pictorial representation to explain just how the papal robes and vestments glittered and shone under those focus lights.

There is no way I can merely describe how their clothes were stitched with hands of the divine, the textures and variety of materials used, the rubies, sapphires, diamonds and emeralds that adorned them probably gave them a natural halo. Imagine the finest of clothes made of silk and silken thread, gold tinsel and studs, opulent robes befitting the king or queen of England. It was ethereal, and shocking. This exhibit​​ion was on loan from the Vatican, I think that would be a correct term, and it gives the world a peek into the plush life they probably lead/led.

I could digress into a monologue on the Catholic Church but that is not what I wish to focus on. I want to focus strictly on these earthly riches. But this is exactly what fashion or art is meant to do; it is meant to get us talking more openly, discussing issues that makes us uncomfortable, and try to draw connections between two not-so-seemingly mutually exclusive aspects.

Catholic icons and symbols have always inspired designers. The collection at ground level showcases the designs by Coco Chanel, Valentino, Versace, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Dior and countless others.

Religion has shaped the world in a remarkable way, be it for good or bad, and fashion through the ages is testament to how much we have been influenced by the Catholic Church and its icons. Be it the silhouettes or the opulent over-the-top adornments, fashion has been heavily inspired by the celestial.

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Museum of Sex – A look at human sexuality (part 1)

(This post contains graphic content meant only for those 18 years of age and above. Also, it is NSFW – Not Safe For Work.)

Clearly one of the highlights of my recent trip to the US was my visit to the Museum of Sex. Ending a day’s trip gallivanting across New York City, walking an insane number of blocks to get to it – visiting MoSex made me supremely happy and satisfied (pun not intended).

Continue reading “Museum of Sex – A look at human sexuality (part 1)”

Brooklyn Bridge – Reliving Godzilla’s last moments

I just couldn’t help myself. I tried and failed. Every time I found myself at certain locations in New York City, I would squeal with delight if I recognised it from some movie or television series. Greenwich Village or Central Park, Times Square or the Empire State Building…I managed to get my cousins giggling all the time.

And as Godzilla is one of my favourite films, I knew I could not miss crossing the Brooklyn Bridge across the East River, right from lower Manhattan to the borough of Brooklyn, braving the sun and enjoying the breeze. Remember the last scene from the 1998 film, how the suspension bridge buckled and bent under the massive weight of the monster and eventually died near it?

Continue reading “Brooklyn Bridge – Reliving Godzilla’s last moments”