The Devi Paradox

The Devi Paradox

Last night was spent in forced piety. I was an unwilling participant to the liturgy of a devout neighbour. His hired negotiators beseeched and bargained in the darkness. Their prayers, inspired by raunchy Bollywood numbers blared on a screeching sound system till daybreak. Tossing and turning in my bed, I desperately begged Mata Rani to fulfill his wishes. No, not a case of neighbourly love, just that I can’t afford another sleepless night!

But this column is not about the way we inconvenience fellow humans in an attempt to please God. It is also not about Jaagrans, which are all-night vigils in honour of Hindu goddesses. The issue I am raising, and I believe it is a pertinent one, is how can females be simultaneously worshiped and abused in our culture. We seek the benevolence of various goddesses, Laxmi for wealth, Saraswati for knowledge, Durga for courage. We revere them and go to great lengths to please them but maltreat real women in offices, institutes, fields and homes.

4FF8F3A5-7221-42F0-8D87-D96286F27CCCA possible explanation for this hypocrisy, this false virtue has aptly been called the Devi Paradox. It is a state where particular women are put on a pedestal and respected for their ability to lead where as women in general have much lesser rights than men. The deification of women as goddesses who are feared and worshiped, pure and powerful, gentle and bloodthirsty, emotional and stoic, forgiving and vengeful, and any other stereotype one wishes to project onto the female sex has contributed to the persistence of these contradictory ideas about women. To put it simply, the notion of woman as goddess is a set of popular cultural memes that serve to believe anything about women and justify anyway they are treated and it is prevalent because it suits our patriarchal, male dominated society.

Manusmriti avers “Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra devata” from which it can be inferred that we live in a blessed land because we worship the divine as female. But this is far from the truth. It has, in fact, been observed that the more a culture deifies women, the less rights women actually have in that culture. This deification of women could take many forms, including worshiping them as goddesses and assigning supernatural status referring to some mysterious ephemeral quality. Such beliefs help to perpetuate the notion that women need to be protected at the cost of their own freedom.

The laws of Manusmriti don’t apply because what we practice is not what we preach. Look at how women are perceived in our country by both men and women. India had a woman Prime Minister who was respected for most of her tenure as a strong and determined leader. Yet, half a century later, women are still tortured and killed for witchcraft. More and more women are reaching their potential to take up high level positions in board rooms and research labs but the sex ratio continues to dwindle. Female feticide and infanticide is still practiced to escape perceived difficulties in raising girls in a predominantly male-dominated society.

No amount of legislation or state intervention can uplift the status of women because it is a social problem. No one can help us till we, women, help ourselves. The change has to begin with us. We have to stop blaming society and start looking inwards for solutions. With women’s day fresh in our minds and Basant Navratri on the horizon lets hail our mothers when we say Jai Mata di. Let’s resolve not to consider our daughters as parayadhan and daughters- in -law paraye ghar ki. Lets educate our daughters and make them financially independent before marrying them off and ensure that they get a rightful share of ancestral property. Let’s learn to respect the daughters-in-law identity and not insist that she change her name after marriage. She should not have to shun her maternal home to become a part of her marital home. And most importantly, let’s not raise our sons like a privileged lot. Let’s inculcate gender sensitivity in them and teach them to be fair to the fair sex. Only after looking inwards and onwards should we look outwards and demand support from the state and society. These steps, that seem so ordinary can help us redeem ourselves.

As I brace myself for nine nights of ear piercing Devi Pooja, I look around and wonder why we don’t honour the Devis amongst us. From the grit and brute strength of Sakshi Malik to the poise and beauty of Manushi Chillar, Haryana girls seem to have a lot worth idolising. They are determined to succeed, and they don’t ask for much…. just a chance to live. “Mhari chhoriyan kya chhorron se kam hai?” ( Are our daughters any less than sons?”) boasts the father in Dangal, a biopic on the medal winning Phogat sisters. With our sex ratio hovering at 900 girls for every 1000 boys, sadly but in all honesty, we will have to reply in the affirmative, “Haan, kafi kam!” ( yes, quite less)

( published in my column  in the Haryana Tribune on 10/3/2018)

Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision

B83E6E9E-B35F-4C9D-859B-3E87DFCFA5D0It wasn’t a lack of effort. I was trying really hard but still couldn’t see it. A small text box on the top right corner of my screen. I was on the phone with my son and he was helping me fill in a code which would get me a thirty percent ‘first timer’ discount on a purchase. It was my first time, which was precisely why I qualified for the discount. The frustrating part was that it was my first time of online shopping ever, not just on this particular website.

Its not that I haven’t tasted the convenience and the competitive pricing of home shopping. It’s just that I never did it myself. I would send my wish list to my daughter/ son who would do the rest. I, thus reaped the benefits without the bother. With my fifty fifth birthday edging close I had set some targets for myself, cyber shopping being one of them. I was determined to be self reliant, at least for my shopping needs when I went over the hill…..

As my son’s exasperation grew I debated doing what I usually do. Post him a screenshot in which he encircles the deceptive ‘character’ lurking in some corner and sends it back with an eye roll emoticon and some snide comment about my tunnel vision. Before I could make this offer he said that he would order the merchandise and hung up. Like always, I worried that someday I might make him roll his eyes so far back in his sockets that the blacks will disappear altogether.

For a person who has been using a computer for quarter of a century my knowledge of it is painfully inadequate. Mostly because I use it as a typewriter which allows mistakes, a readily available encyclopaedia and a handy video player. After the call ended I decided to look more carefully. How difficult could it be ? So I scanned the 9.7 inch screen pixel by pixel and came upon a ‘support ‘option. Now my training from the days of Wordstar 4.0 have taught me to stay away from help and support offers. Its like getting stuck in the marsh. The more you try to climb out, the deeper you sink into the muck.

Going against all that I had learnt on those sleepy summer afternoons more than two decades back I gingerly pressed the support option and a dialog box appeared. I was asked to type my query as clearly as possible. I half heartedly wrote out my question to no one in particular. I wasn’t expecting a response but Swati appeared almost instantaneously.

She asked which email ID I had used to place the order, flustered, I typed it wrong. Without blowing a fuse she nudged me in the right direction asking me to confirm it and I realised my mistake. That sorted, she tried to help me spot the elusive text box and when I couldn’t, she offered to call. As she courteously ‘madam- ed’ me we discovered that I was on the wrong page. Then she respectfully, patiently, walked me through the process, reassuring me that what had happened wasn’t unusual….a nice way of saying that I wasn’t unusually dumb! Rid of the fear of ridicule I got it right. The process felt easy and intuitive as my son had always claimed. Transaction completed I told Swati how kind and courteous she was vis-à-vis my own progeny. She graciously shrugged it off saying she was just doing her job.

So it all seems perfect. Readily available, round the clock support without derision and sarcasm. A niggling thought has been bothering me though. Will that be one reason less to call my children and hear their voice?

( published in the Open Page of the Hindu on 4/3/2018)

All Things Nice

All Things Nice

At a conference recently I called up my husband for some errand. More used to the somewhat dry and matter of fact “854F91B4-9372-4B40-8BA3-D3C0B8AA7731Haan bolo” ( yes, speak) I was completely taken aback by the bright and sunny “ Hello ji” at the other end. My mind raced as I tried to figure out what had changed in the intervening hours since I had left home. And then I realised that I was using my friend’s phone as mine had a network problem. “ Mein hoon!” ( it’s me!) I said, a little sarcastically, revealing my identity. Without missing a beat and ably hiding his embarrassment he responded, “Haan bolo.

For those who didn’t get the joke, let me elaborate. Like most married couples we think that a secure relationship gives us the freedom to do away with the pleasantries and bare our fangs. We have been together long enough to consider niceties a needless formality, a feeling which is further exemplified by our location. Although I wasn’t born as one, I have become a Haryanvi, gradually, overtime. And like any true blue native I take pride in saying what I mean and meaning what I say. I like to get straight to the matter without mincing words. The small talk, the pleasantries, a prelude to any civilised conversation seems pointless.

Surprisingly, we reserve such behaviour for the overly familiar and the unfamiliar. For various reasons we Indians, particularly North Indians and peculiarly Haryanvis are distrustful of strangers. We don’t look at them, we don’t smile at them and we certainly don’t greet them. To the rest of the world this undue caution forms the basis of what is mistaken as our trademark haughtiness and rudeness.

On my overseas jaunts I have always found their little courtesies artificial. The “how are you doing, have a great day, nice sun today, enjoy the weather, stay safe, have a nice weekend, etc “ seem meaningless coming from complete strangers. I have felt that most of these wishes are mechanical with no feelings involved, some are superficial accompanied with smiles that don’t reach the eyes, only in a few the genuineness comes across.

I started doubting my stance after a recent conversation with a friend. A pedigreed Haryanvi he ‘converted’ when he visited San Diego for a short term fellowship. Initially wary of the niceties floating around, he noticed that these seemingly inconsequential greetings spiked up the entire environment. He started feeling more upbeat and happy. After some days he was uttering these “niceties” too, and emphasises that on many occasions his eyes did light up while delivering them. He has since realised that feeling a feeling is not enough, communication is paramount, whether it is love, gratitude or greetings.

Back from a road trip to Rajasthan where the musical “ Padharo mhare desh” reverberates from every nook and corner and Gujarat where “ Kem chho ?” is not a question but an affirmation I have been thinking. Are we, in our misplaced notion of being forthright and straightforward missing out on social etiquette? Is a fake smile worse than a sullen face? Isn’t a insincere greeting better than no greeting at all? And lastly, can we alter this behaviour which is ingrained in our persona ? Ordinary questions….but worth pondering.

The problem is if you are drilled to not interact with strangers as a kid it is difficult to suddenly change when you attain adulthood. Historians blame our suspicious attitude on the loot and plunder that our ancestors endured as foreign invaders made their way to Delhi. But isn’t it time to let bygones be bygones and ask a perfect stranger “Sab raaji khushi ?” ( All is well, I hope?) It isn’t totally risk free though, for he may respond with a “Ghana angrez se ke?” which is a rhetorical question reprimanding someone for being too anglicised!

( published in the Tribune in my column ‘ So Ordinary’ on 24/2/10)

Gymming Shimming

Gymming Shimming

Gymming karta hai ji” accused the mother of my patient, a young boy with vague pain abdomen. Suppressing a smile I told her that she should be happy that he is active and cares about his health. My words unleashed a deluge of emotion. She wondered why he ran for an hour on the treadmill but used his car for errands in the neighbourhood, why he thought lifting a sack of rice would strain his back but barbells won’t, why he preferred to sweat out in the stuffy gym instead of a refreshing walk to the fields

12740054-6808-4EE1-A5F7-19413041E417Her lament makes sense in rural India where the outdoor air is still crisp and gym hygiene is questionable. As more and more Indians join the to fitness crusade every vacant hall has been transformed into a gym and everybody with a ‘body’ has become a trainer. Since this sector is unregulated there is no science and little art involved. The result is young boys and girls pumping iron and thumping treadmills, toiling for that perfect body without a clue. Using ridiculous amounts of protein supplements and even anabolic steroids to hasten progress. Exercising without proper form and technique can do more harm than good, specially when unprepared bodies are forced through its rigours. It can wear down knees, pull muscles and strain spines. Moreover stuffy rooms without proper ventilation are a breeding ground for infection.

But all is not bad. With few cycling and pedestrian tracks, vanishing open spaces and untamed beasts ( natural and man made! ) on our roads, some indoor activity is better than none. It is heartening then, that fitness is trending. More encouraging is the fact that the clientele of gyms is changing. It is not only the teenager vying for the chiseled body or the bride-in-waiting striving to lose extra pounds before matchmaking begins. It is not only the desperate new mom trying to shed the extra tyres or the balding man with a lifestyle disease. It is also the apparently healthy people who have made it a part of their routine. It is about being a part of a community, a little me time away from life’s responsibilities. An empowering cocoon of privacy, of self indulgence.

It is because of this trend that single sex gyms (read female only) are a rage in smaller towns. A place where women can bare their batwings and jiggle their tummies without self consciously worrying about the male gaze. Although more and more women opt for trendy sportswear it is not uncommon to spot them sweating out in their night suits or the more acceptable salwar kameez. The impromptu social networking is an escape from domestic drudgery, somewhat like a hen party, but with health benefits. Mindless chitchat intermingles freely with grunts and heaves over shoulder presses. Common goals and shared post-workout snacks further sweeten the deal. Part kitty group, part muscle shrine!

This is quite different from the swanky gym chains of metropolitan cities with qualified trainers, nutritionists and counsellors. Equipped with modern machines and boasting of latest exercise routines, they are impersonal but perhaps more effective in unleashing the lean, mean you. And for those city slickers who don’t know where to begin, Physiogyms are the newest addition where the body is prepared for the gym, a sort of preschool to fitness.

And now the million dollar question, do we really need gyms ? Don’t we Indians get enough exercise throwing our weight around, running around in circles and dodging responsibility. The sad truth is that with our cities becoming gas chambers, we desperately need gyms to shape up an unfit country. We are facing an epidemic of lifestyle diseases like hypertension and obesity. India has the highest number of Diabetics in the world. Indians need gyms, to workout and be fighting fit…….so that they can throw their weight around, run around in circles and dodge responsibility with greater strength and ease !

Dr Manju Gupta is a gynaecologist who plays doctor in Gharaunda, a small town of Haryana

( published in Metro Plus of the Hindu on 10/2/2018)

The Cell Theory

The Cell Theory

Reams and reams have been written trying to explain why men and women are the way they are. From claiming that they are from different planets to going into their traditional roles in prehistoric times everything has been tried. I am a gynaecologist and would like to present a theory based on reproductive biology. There is no medical-ese ahead and you won’t get lost in long winding words. Anyone who has read this far knows that a baby is made by the union of the mother’s ovum and the father’s sperm. So let me take it from there.

BD639AC7-CC5A-4A6F-9500-C2CAACDABA58First a little on the development of the ovum. There are two ovaries in a women’s body and at the beginning of a menstrual cycle both gear up to form follicles which house the ova. Many follicles begin this journey but once one outgrows the others and becomes dominant the rest recede. This allows their chosen representative to get enough nutrition and grow unhindered. Such is the sense of purpose in these follicles that if per chance more than one matures there is a risk of conceiving twins, triplets and more. Now, once a month, at the designated time, this mature follicle ruptures and releases the ovum in the peritoneal cavity. For those who don’t grasp the enormity of this statement lets just say that it is a space big enough to get lost in. But this ovum with single minded determination finds its way up the funnel shaped end of the fallopian tube and travels to its cavernous ampulla for its rendezvous with the sperm.

On the other side, in what can only be called a colossal waste of protoplasm, billions of sperms are released with each ejaculation. Such is the mob mentality of this overzealous tailed cell that it cannot function without its peers for company. So much so, that although it takes only one sperm to fertilise the ovum even millions of them are said to be too few to get the job done. These sperms, teeming with nervous energy , are deposited quite close to their destination but get lost in all types of crevices and spaces because they are too arrogant to ask for directions. They run amok, driven by a sole purpose but, sadly, with no game plan . Finally a few thousand, more out of good fortune than anything else, catch sight of the ovum and race each other to reach it.

Biologically speaking only one sperm is required for fertilisation and the ovum knows this. For that matter, the sperms also know this but don’t care. Once a sperm enters, the ovum tries to make the sperms see sense by making its walls impregnable , the equivalent of hanging a house full board. But the sperms cannot take no for an answer and keep trying anyway. In the process many are beheaded and maimed. Their fate does not stop more from banging against the walls and getting killed too.

Now sometimes, due to a freak accident of nature, persistence pays off and two sperms manage to fertilise the ovum. In such a scenario two things are known to happen. Sometimes the maternal nucleus excuses herself and leaves the sperm nuclei to their own devices. In their misguided notion of self sufficiency the paternal nuclei try the baby building business on their own and end up with a bunch of grapes called a molar pregnancy. At other times the sperm nuclei force the maternal nucleus to stay and do the job. This union results in a pregnancy which is partly molar and never viable. There is a limit to what coercion can yield!

Aristotle averred that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We can infer from this cell theory that women are determined, smart, organised and know what they want……… Men, are just men!

( published in Vidura – a quarterly magazine by the Press Institute of India)

Taking Offence

Taking Offence

A disclaimer first, I am not qualified to say what I am about to, but will say it anyway. It’s a free country after all. Not only am I entitled to an opinion based on half baked information, but I can use brute force to impose it on others. If some citizens can threaten to kill, maim and self immolate without actually seeing what is offending them then I retain the right to say that the cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful, Deepika looks ravishing and Ranveer has outdone himself. I base my opinion on past records, hearsay and some snatches I have caught on the net…. because Padmavat did not release in a cinema near me!

It was just a dream that became a nightmare. Somehow, someone, somewhere dreamt that in the upcoming film Allauddin Khilji has a dream about being intimate with queen Padmavati. Despite vehement denials by the director Sanjay Leela Bhansali that no such dream sequence was being shot, all hell broke loose. The film set was vandalised and Bhansali was slapped for his alleged impudence. Things didn’t end here. The story gained momentum and grew bigger as did the public perception of injustice. So by the time the movie was ready for release last December , Deepika Padukone’s nose was at risk of being cut short and so was Bhansali’s life. Blood thirsty mobs were ready to kill, maim, deface and destroy to restore the honour of a queen whose very existence is debatable. King Ratan Sen’s descendants were out on the streets demanding a ban on the film.

For those who don’t follow Bollywood, a little background information first. Padmavat, one of India’s most expensive movies, is based on a 16th-century Sufi poem by the same name. It is about Alauddin Khilji, the sultan of Delhi, and his obsession for Padmini, the wife of King Ratan Sen who ruled Chittor. The story of Khilji’s attack on Chittor, the slaying of Ratan Sen, and the mass self-immolation ( Johar ) by the women of the kingdom is part history, part legend. While Khilji and Ratan Sen are established historical figures, Padmini’s existence is more of a myth, this poem being the first known reference of her. But fact and fiction have a tendency to merge for the sake of a good controversy and an excuse to unleash the monster within.

So despite being duly certified by the censor board after following its recommendations, including a name change from Padmavati to Padmavat many states chose to ban the film, Haryana being one of them. As I watched the enraged mobs going on a rampage for the sake of some misplaced sense of honour I wondered why such sentiments are not stoked when real women are abused and disgraced. Haryana has an ugly track record of crime against women, most of which are much worse then innocuous wet dreams. Salman Rushdie’s famous inference offers some insight into this matter, “Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved, perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.”

The Supreme Court direction that the state should ensure safe release of the film did not help matters. When people take law into their hands, the law of the land has a way of not working. So instead of the grandeur and razzmatazz associated with Bollywood, the opening Thursday of the film presented another stereotype of modern India to the world: violence, intolerance, and the diminishing space for free expression. Movies did run into trouble over their content in the past too, but this protest was based on mere public perception much before anyone saw it. Hundreds of supporters of fringe groups like the Karni Sena ran amok across the country, blocking roads and burning buses, ensuring that the film was not screened. The most shameful incident occurred closer home, in apna Gurugram, where they stoned a bus full of school children.

Perhaps I am not as enlightened as the protesters hence not so acutely aware of my rich heritage. Whatever be the reason I have never felt compelled to protect a glorious past at the risk of ruining the present and endangering the future. And although I am just a lowly aberrant, I would like to further my case with some Haryanvi folk wisdom. It’s an oft repeated saying about damage control “Ibay kimay na bigdaya , ibey toh beti baap ke ghar seh” . Roughly translated it means that a situation can be resolved till the daughter is at her parent’s home, after which reputation suffers. In a world where news travels at the speed of light, images of petrified children cowering in a school bus while an unruly mob pelts stones at them does more harm to Brand India than Deepika’s bare belly in some Jhoomar sequence. We should be more careful of what leaves our home and how.

A few days ago, a friend joked, “ At least we Haryanvis don’t believe in gender discrimination. If it was a no to Padmavati it is a no to Padmavat.” A perfectly ordinary comment, made in jest….but with the worst sex ratio in the country I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

( published in the Haryana Tribune on 10/2/10)

Too close

Too close

At an Airport recently, I was standing in queue, minding my own business when the lady in front of me turned around and gave me the look. A little confused at first, I realised I had inadvertently crossed an imaginary line and wandered into her territory. A matter of cultural differences and personal preferences, the dimensions of this space change as we cross international borders. It is the largest in the USA where people like to keep strangers at an arms length, a few inches less in Europe and much lesser in over populated South Eastern Asia. The affluent require more space and so do the aged. Also, men need it more than woman.

19876A7D-220A-4838-B222-ED0E0C5C0D44For us Indians this concept doesn’t come instinctively. This is because we spend our lives in crowded places where body contact is not unusual and someone breathing down the neck is normal. We are conditioned to ignore the unintentional brushing of arms, even the occasional push and shove.

Sanctity of boundaries is a alien concept and is scientifically called Proxemics. It is the study of use of space and the effects of population density on human behaviour, communication, and social interaction. Personal space is the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. This imaginary bubble is created in childhood and its size varies with location. Permitting a person to enter it is an indicator of familiarity. According to Edward T. Hall a pioneer in this field, the space can be divided into four zones. An intimate zone of 45 cms is reserved for close friends and family members. Outside this is the 1.2 metre friend zone, the acceptable distance for interaction with friends and associates. Further away at 3.6 metres is the social zone for strangers and new acquaintances. The outermost is the audience zone and is the distance to be maintained for speeches, lectures, and theatre. While Hall insists that these measurements are not strict guidelines I was surprised to know that such numbers exist.

As I delved deeper I found the reason for ‘Elevator Facies’, the body language we encounter when forced to share confined spaces with others. Personal space is considered the most inviolate form of territory so most people feel discomfort, anger or anxiety when it is encroached. When cooped up with strangers, people desperately fight this violation by using dehumanisation as a tool. So in places like public transport and elevators they imagine the intruders to be inanimate. This is achieved by avoiding eye contact, keeping an expressionless face, standing rigidly stiff and acting preoccupied. So it seems that staring at the ceiling or acting engrossed in your phone while using the lift is just an inborn defence mechanism.

Being a Haryanvi by choice I tend to forget this unwritten rule of modern society. I have spent most of my life in this state where personal space is neither expected nor extended. If people are interested they will look, not just a furtive glance but the unabashed gawk. If they are curious they will ask, not just a discrete question but a detailed interrogation. If they have an opinion they will give it whether or not you have asked for it. Packed like sardines in tempos and buses the idea of empty space between individuals is incomprehensible. To them maintaining distance means being aloof and perhaps uncaring.

Things are changing though. As unbelievable as it seems there was a time when patients would walk into our living room to watch Ramayana on Sunday mornings. Now there are few occasions when we watch TV together as a family. With diverse viewing preferences and individual screens everyone is trapped in their own bubble. Perhaps we need to define the thin line between being obnoxiously intrusive and completely self involved. The trials and tribulations of human existence cannot be seen from a distance. Proximity brings emotional attachment and empathy, the prerequisite for any functioning society. As Charlie Chaplin famously said,”Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot. “

One of my patients said something similar a few days back. It happens rarely now, but some of my elderly patients still touch me to show me where it hurts. When I told her that she could demonstrate on her own body she innocently said, “ Nyu zyada bera paatega “ ( You will be able to understand better like this). Ordinary….yet so profound!

( published in my Column ‘ So Ordinary’ in the Tribune on 3/2/2018) 



Characteristically dry, somewhat condescending humour is an essential ingredient of any verbal exchange in this part of the country. So ask a passerby, “ Yeh sadak kit jaugi.” ( Where will this road go?) and his likely answer would be, “ Sadak toh yahin rahugi, Jayega toh tu.” ( The road will stay here, you are the one to go). If you are nearly run over by a vehicle its not Haryana if the driver doesn’t roll down his window and shout, “Marega ke?” ( Want to die? ). Seemingly rude and harsh, the language still conveys a wide range of emotions in minimal words. For instance a “ Yo ke?” ( what’s this?) can express surprise, anger, exasperation, resignation or concern depending on the tone and tenor of the speaker.

I learnt the importance of tone and tenor as an eager third year medical student attending my first clinical class. Our teacher, a very sophisticated Delhiite with an army background was explaining the importance of speaking in the patient’s native tongue. Checking for sensory loss, she touched the patient’s back with a tiny cotton wisp and asked, “ Tau, bera paate ki nahin paate” (uncle, can you feel it or not). The old man kept silent but his agitation grew with each passing moment. As the doctor patiently continued the examination repeating her question in a highly accented, singsong voice, the impatient patient, looked at us students and blurted, “ Man ne nahin bera yeh madam kay keh rahi hai!” ( I don’t understand what this madam is saying). This, basically is the essence of our language. It’s not what you say but how you say it which matters. Take out the surly tone, the undue stress on soft consonants and its not Haryanvi any more. Sans the swag it is nothing.

Nevertheless, I have slowly discovered a treasure trove of folk wisdom and philosophy in the local parlance. My all time favourite is this rustic gem that an old patient said about friends, “ Zindagi ne badhiya banane khatir do unche, do sucche or do lucche dost chhahiye.” ( for a happy life you need two well placed, two enlightened and two unruly friends ). My unmarried, professionally driven friend who was pursuing super specialisation was at the receiving end of another astute observation. Hinting at the short shelf life of overqualified young men a chemist had said, “ Jo dava ghani mehangi hove, susri ki expiry date bhi nu aa jave, marha dhyan rakh lio .” ( Pay some heed, expensive medicines have short expiration periods ). Seems the message hit home for he got engaged within a month!

Haryanvi is a rough language, there are no two ways about it. To the untrained ear a normal conversation may sound like an argument. But that is not always the case. Once I asked my driver what was the need to admonish an already shaken boy who had accidentally stepped in front of our car while chasing a kite. And he said, “ Tadna jaroori hai ji, khud toh marega, mabaap rotekalapte raivenge.” ( Scolding is imperative, he will get killed and leave behind grieving parents). So while the words maybe brash and insensitive, the concern is endearingly real.

Happily, the roughness and toughness doesn’t end at the tongue but is reflected in the entire persona of the natives. So besides toiling to grow food for the country Haryana has given India courageous army personnel and medal winning sportspersons. That’s not to say that it’s inhabitants can’t be sophisticated and stylish. The poise and eloquence of the recently crowned Ms World is a case in point.

Gharaunda, my hometown means nest in Hindi, a poetic name for an idyllic place, you would think. Sadly, that is not how it is pronounced. The soft ‘d’ is overemphasised, converting it into a harsh ‘dh’ almost a ‘rh’ robbing the romanticism from the word and rendering it meaningless. But then, what’s in a name? It is still the perfect place to be, as is the state it is a part of. Although a little rough around the edges, Haryana remains my favourite, the land which adopted me, the land of harsh words and soft hearts, where I make a living and hopefully a life.

So ordinary? I agree. But what else can I say ? In my adopted mother tongue I could add “Man ne toh kehli, eeb tu bol “

( published in the Haryana Tribune as a part of my column ‘ So Ordinary ‘ on 20/1/18)

The Land Shark

The Land Shark

CEA762A9-7F0E-41E2-AE03-89CF84152477I am not sure why his brethren disliked him. Maybe it was his superior strut, the way he showed off his fancy accessories or perhaps they just hated his guts. Whatever it was, they made no bones about it. Once he tried to join a group discussion but was summarily dismissed. Another time he was walking down the street, minding his own business, looking debonair in a red scarf when a rival grabbed him by the neck and rattled him like a rag doll.

I think they detested his ambition for he relentlessly strived to increase and consolidate his land holdings. As his empire grew so did his troubles. All territories had to be guarded against invasion and took up most of his time. He would take a round of his empire at the crack of dawn and once again before retiring at night. After a vacation he would rush to assess any loss and reclaim lost ground. It was surprising how he would be dozing peacefully in the car and would switch to high alert as soon as we swung off the highway. Maybe he could sniff it in the air, the smell of betrayal. In any case he had a sixth sense for his native land. He would gaze out of the window, his body taut with tension, ready to pounce on any squatters. As soon as the car stopped, he would rush out and push encroachments back.

On our outstation visits he frequently got into arguments with the locals. Once I dragged him away from a street fight and he spent the entire night plotting revenge against those who had tried to ridicule him. At the first sign of daybreak he ran out to settle the score. Unknown to him, his rivals lay waiting. They surrounded him and tossed him around till he was miraculously rescued by our driver. I thought the incident would change him, slow him down, stop him from taking risks, getting into scuffles. But that didn’t happen. He was shaken, not subdued by the experience and continued to take on adversaries larger than himself.

One day as we emerged from a friend’s house he marked it and then dashed across the road to lay claim on the other side. Enroute, he was hit by a motorbike but luckily escaped with just a bruised ego. I was so angry by his recklessness that instead of asking if he was hurt I scolded him. That was enough to disillusion him. He refused to look at me. He withdrew, became disinterested in food and stopped the territorial marking. Eventually the little land shark recovered, forgave me and resumed his task of sniffing and pissing. Then a couple of months later he vanished, never to be found, leaving a dog shaped hole in my heart.

Pogo, my lost Lhasa, was an embodiment of dreams and doggedness. He taught me the basics of Ambition, Bravery, Consistency and that the size of the fight in a dog matters more than the size of the dog in a fight!

( published in Spice of Life, Hindustan Times on 16/1/2018)



There were three of us in the car, an oversized SUV that seemed to house all the worldly possessions of the driver. At the wheel was the topper of our class and I was designated co- pilot. On the backseat was the better half of the person who was known to occasionally better her in the race to the top. It was October, I was in august company and enjoying every moment of it.

We were returning home from Rohtak after attending the marriage of a friend’s son. All of us were on a vacation from the stress that inevitably engulfs quinquagenarians of the female kind. As we talked about our personal and professional problems we steered off course. The issues remained the same but our tone changed and instead of moping we found humour in our situation. And so we laughed, and then we laughed some more. We recounted funny anecdotes and the guffaws became louder and more carefree as we realised that there was plenty to laugh about.

The last sane memory I have is of a road sign saying that we were 10 km away from Panipat. From there we had to get on to NH 1 and head north towards Chandigarh. As we talked and laughed we lost track of time. My friend in the back seat glanced out and remarked that the roadside eateries were as big and impressive as the ones near Murthal on the way to Delhi. An observation that all of us agreed to before returning to a hilarious anecdote. A while later I saw Kanak Garden next to Sheesh Mahal and marvelled at the coincidence, lamenting how people shamelessly copied names and exteriors. Once again we concurred and continued with the more lively discussion at hand. A few minutes later I noticed a Haveli restaurant and we momentarily digressed to note that Haveli had lost its exclusivity and was opening outlets everywhere. It was only after I exclaimed, “Sukhdev Dhaba, with the usual jam packed car park and Hotel Amrik Sukhdev behind it, just like Murthal ” that our driver reacted, ” This is not ‘ like’ Murthal, this is Murthal!” Having realised our mistake, we made a quick U-turn and laughed all the way home.

And now, some background for those of you who are not familiar with the geography of the region. Grand Trunk Road or NH1 connects Chandigarh to Delhi and the newly constructed highway from Rohtak meets it at Panipat. The aforementioned places are famous eateries of Murthal that any self respecting North Indian would recognise. And now the disclaimer – We were on familiar terrain in broad daylight and not drunk, that is, if being drunk on happiness doesn’t count. The Medical college at Rohtak is our alma mater so we have been on the route hundreds of times. Still we had somehow taken the wrong exit on to NH 1 and drove towards Delhi for 40 km before realising our mistake. We were so ecstatically engrossed that we had overlooked famous land marks and ignored signs screaming in our faces.

Although this story makes us look rather dimwitted I am sharing it because we didn’t feel unintelligent, irresponsible or embarrassed. On the contrary, we joyfully told this incident to anyone who cared to listen, even our most severe critics, our spouses! This adventure of being blissfully unaware continues to intrigue me and the only explanation is the gay abandon with which we embarked on the journey. We were so sure that we were on the right path because metaphorically, we were. The ability to enjoy the scenery on a ‘wrong turn’ is the sign of true happiness. After realising our faux pas the mood in the car did not change one bit. We didn’t look for scapegoats or make excuses, the joie de vivre continued unabated. Why is this possible only with friends, why can’t we regress, destress and unwind with family?

A year later, memory of our ‘longish’ detour still makes me grin. For those few hours we had let go of the many balancing roles we play and were just ourselves. Three giggling golden girls trying to cope with our changing world with a good old jaw wag and some chuckles. And if in the process we had to drive an extra fifty miles, it was totally worth it. For it was the day we got lost and found ourselves.

( published in the Open Page of the Hindu as ‘ The road less traveled ‘ on 14/1/2018)