Monday, October 29, 2012

Poem in the dark

In the night,
Beyond the light,
Something formless peeks
In the sound,
All around,
The voice of sing-song shrieks.
A poem falls with a shooting star
Into a purple pond
It melts and fades and sinks and stays
And forgets where it’s from
The sun comes up with forgetfulness
That the night is so denied
The poem rose to remember much
Yet it came to me and lied.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

I don't quite believe it...

...that beauty magazines make one feel ugly. Something else makes one feel ugly and it's not photoshopped, glossed-over liar-ly images of already goodlooking people. And I understand how a mythical, manipulative approach to prettiness (making someone's pecs look bigger or waist look smaller or eyebrows more arched) can probably make a reader feel 'cheated' a little bit. (Like when one finds that WWF wrestlers are really faking it.) But to make one feel unattractive? I do think the problem is elsewhere and it is not going to be sorted by beauty images not being distorted.

If beauty magazines get the rap for making me feel unattractive, then travel magazines should be responsible for make me feel bored with my life too. After all, they feature all these places I haven't been to. (They do make me feel a little bad. However, I suppose I'd stop feeling that way if I actually traveled more instead of hoping Lonely Planet doesn't touch up the flamengo-hued sunset over the ruins of Peru. A disclaimer here - I don't know if they do touch-up those pictures or not. But the sunset sure looks good!)

Maybe I should feel disconcerted by the dazzling white sheets and sparkling crystal I see in the Home and Lifestyle magazines. I should also feel inadequate by reading a recipe book and knowing that those petaled swirls of that marvelous mousse will never come out of my kitchen. (To be fair, very little comes out of my kitchen, anyway.)

I'm not sure if the issue is whether magazines should be doing all that touch-up or not. Maybe they shouldn't be peddling something that isn't real. But to ascribe the lowering of my self-esteem or distortion of self-image to them? I'm not too sure about that. That's holding them responsible for a whole lot more than what's reasonable.

In the book, 'We need to talk about Kevin' by Lionel Shriver, there's a part where the character Eva is talking to her adolescent son, Kevin. Over dinner, she shares her irritation with America. I reproduce the following text, being mindful that I share the sentiment but do not think that the problem is restricted to America. I have a similar problem with today's times - wherever it may be - or rather, wherever beauty magazines are circulated.

Here goes:

"Look, one of things about this country I really can't stand? It's the lack of accountability. Everything wrong with an American's life is somebody else's fault. All these smokers raking in millions of dollars in damages from tobacco companies, when, what, they've known the risk for forty years. Can't quit? Stick it to Philip Morris. Next thing you know, fat people will be suing fast-food companies because they've eaten too many Big Macs!"

And that's my problem with cracking the whip on photoshopping or altering photographs. I feel it's a cop-out.

 Like if they didn't do this, my self-esteem would be restored? Is that the kind of restoration I even want? Seems to me that my self-esteem would still be fragile, be still precariously placed, but now, it would be someone else's responsibility to maintain. Not quite right. 

The way I see it, my self-esteem is my business. The magazine people can go ahead and make that nose look smaller.


An alternative point of view froma  friend who's a social psychologist:

Research in psychology shows that in any social phenomenon, there are two factors at play:

1. Personal - in this case, our self-esteem, our ability to make up our own minds, our immunity to pressure exerted by society

2. Contextual - the arrow presses downwards on the individual and is a sum total of our significant others, society at large and the trends that media perpetuates

We are prone to overestimating our ability to operate from the first factor and underestimating the magnitude of the second - since we like to fancy ourselves as "individuals" distinct from the "collective".

But there is a raft of research showing that exposure to thin-ideal models in media has a negative effect on body image. This applies to men as well as women. It has also been shows that the effect is less severe in grown-ups, and is muted in those that have good self-esteem to begin with.

So your point that self-esteem can make you immune is a good one. But that begs the question: how many of is have good self esteem to begin with? And if not then why not? Maybe it is because we are "made" to cultivate insecurities - and this happens because of that very arrow that pushes inward at us from our outer realities.

My POV on this is that perhaps you are underestimating the effects of being bombarded by "perfect" bodies.

Also, there's one more thing. Consider the fact that people who fit the "attractive" bill preset by the media are afforded - by regular people - the luxury of finding jobs easier, getting shorter prison sentences, receiving better evaluation from teachers, being more likely to get elected to office. The list is endless. Should we not do what we can to enhance our abilities to look beneath the surface?

The "beautiful is good" stereotype hurts. There is no doubt about it; the connection between media portrayals of beauty and self-image has been scientifically discovered a hundred times. (I looked it up - there seriously are that many formal studies that have found a link.) The first step in undoing the damage is buffering our self-esteem, sure. But it's much harder to do, as a society, with the rampant contradictions we find around us, day in and day out.

As for how travel magazines may belittle me for not having sailed to a myriad shores or beauty shots of food may mock me for not being a gastronomic prodigy. Well, it's a question of how close to your skin the phenomenon hits. Ask a kid, deemed highly unattractive by society, to pick one: being popular for a day or taking a trip to Disneyland for a week.

As I end this, allow me to say: your piece is well-written and humorous to boot. However, as a psychologist, I find it tough to find mirth in this particular issue within myself. It is indeed grave to me.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Rough night

There's a scary moment when you get a call in the wee hours of the night. There's an even scarier moment when you make the call. Not because you have anything to say. But because you were drifting off on the couch and suddenly felt abnormally cold. You sense something is wrong. So you call up home and mum says, "I was just about to call you. Uncle X passed away in sleep this morning."

I'd just finished reading a sad, disturbing book then. Portions of the story floated in my head like half-chewed food in a clogged sink. Then this news. I hadn't met Uncle X in over 5 years but he was a very sweet and affectionate person. He was generous with stories and anecdotes about his garden plants. He was a very, very good man and I hadn't imagined we were close. Yet news of his death - it's been hard to take. I couldn't sleep last night and today I am very fatigued. I won't be going to work and ideally, should be on my way to Bombay. But I am very sad and very tired.

Will do something when I get some strength in the course of the day.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Monday this week

This Monday was beautiful. The day before, my parents and Ahad left after staying over a couple of days. I woke up with the house all to myself. Although I absolutely love having my folks and A over, I marvel at this house when I’m by myself. It’s rented with square rooms – but it has such a sweet, rounded ‘tale’ aura about it. I love it when it’s just those walls and me. I love my curtains. Ahad bought me a couple of panels in pale yellow satin-y type of material. Monday morning, I sat with my cup of tea and traced all the leaf-motifs on the buttery smooth fabric. For some reason, I have become besotted with leaves. I usually find them more beautiful than flowers. If I ever host a formal dinner, I’d have centrepieces made of leaves. I’d like clusters of thick, large glossy leaves with a few wispy, delicate frays – all bundled and tied together with a bright pink rope or cyan twine.
Outside, the clouds were gathering. It was cool with spots of sunlight here and there. The sun felt so good, though. It was delicious and warm and the world looked as if it had finally found the perfect balance of light and shade.
That day, as I walked to work, I couldn’t take my eyes off the sky. (A tough day for my guardian angel to keep me from sliding into potholes or trundling over doggy tails or getting run over.) The sky was an even shade of cool silver. It looked meditative, reflective, peaceful. It looked accepting and kind.
When I reached office, I worked with a ferocity that scared me a little. In a couple of hours I was almost done with the whole day’s work. So I decided to head over to TED. (I love that site!) There were a couple of talks here on mental illness that really moved me:
Much of the talk is how the speakers tackled their personal horrors of mental illness. In that struggle, also, is a dogged search for dignity. So many researches are cited today, so many statistics are paraded around – it’s easy to forget that it’s all ultimately a plea for kindness.
To be treated with it. To be valued for it. To be capable of it.
This Monday was good. The sky was kind.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Little things

The other day I woke up to some disappointing news. I saw the text message, closed my eyes, felt a tear run down and wondered how the rest of the Durga Puja season would pass. A is here and we had planned to go somewhere for lunch. But I was in no mood to even get out of bed by that time.

The doorbell rang shrilly. Loud, clear, insistent - but above al,l shrill. I thought I'd just wait for the caller to go away. But callers on the other side of doors are usually not that perceptive. Thankfully.

Because the caller was my neighbour who had come calling. She wanted to show me some treats in her home. I was just about to decline but her face was positively shining with joy. So I put on my best 'What the heck' expression and shuffled across the floor to her house. One of the prized rose bushes had bloomed. It was a deep, luscious maroon rose with, what looked like, a hundred large petals. They were unfurled as if the bud had been prised open by a master artisan's fingers. The bright crimson-and- black melt of the petals lay soft and sweet, like a mousse topping. Part of the flower was peeking out of the balcony railing. It looked cheeky and naughty and a relatable kind of stunning. My neighbor also showed me a couple of her newer plants - one is a small shrub with mustard-yellow, tiny flowers. They have a spicy, sharp fragrance that gives the impression of being in the kitchen when tawa pulao is being made. She also had a large pot where a tall waterlily grew amidst a flickering shoal of bluish-silver fish. She'd recently bought Turtu, a tiny Singaporean turtle who lay in a bowl of water - the picture of peaceful placidity.

The hour I spent at her place was so grand. So much quiet, dignified, purposeful growth. Indefensible in its stance. No twittering type of existence, fumbling on a list of what-ifs. Just a clear, surrender to the day's portion of the sun and light and air.

I'm glad I opened the door.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012


In the early days of my job, I had a lot of time. That's when I'd surf with something of a gluttonous streak and keep making folders to store my finds. Then work started and I forgot. Today, in one of Osho's essays, I came across a simple, stark, beautiful poem.

Here it is:

The Bridge
I didn't believe,
Standing on the bank of a river
Which was wide and swift,
That I would cross that bridge
Plaited from thin, fragile reeds
Fastened with bast.
I walked delicately as a butterfly
And heavily as an elephant,
I walked surely as a dancer
And wavered as a blind man.
I didn't believe that i would cross that bridge,
And now that i am standing on the other side,
I don't believe i crossed it.

- Leopold Staff

Monday, October 15, 2012

Joy so perfect that it breaks the heart

Parents came over this weekend and it was the most soaked-up, squishy happy time ever! Last couple of months have been very hectic at work. A major portion of that ended on Friday. So I came back home, free. Mentally and emotionally free. I wasn't tallying up work done versus work pending in my head, I wasn't jotting down to-do lists for officeand for home hurriedly as I scraped together time to complete the assignment. The project was done for the most part and Friday evening, when I left office, I left office.

Folks had started preparing dinner and I had a tasty dish of spring onions and thinly sliced potatoes stir-fried in mustard oil, mustard seeds, and a robust handful of spicy green chillies. I love onion and potato fry, especially with soft, white fragrant rice and yellow daal. And a smidgeon of pickle Ma had got from some niche store in Vashi.

Over the weekend, parents and I went to Inorbit. Mum and I had our nails done (mine look pretty now in cherry-red nailpaint and mom got tangerine.) My father...I don't know what he was doing in the one hour that we spent in the salon but he looked all happy and informed about all things pertaining to luggage when we met next.

We watched Aiyya, disliked great portions of it, loved Rani Mukherjee nevertheless, and came out feeling hungry. Parents tried the lunch buffet at the Inorbit mall (that comprised of dishes with many syllables and no taste) but I ate 3 donuts with coffee. I love donuts (so much so that, at this point, I have come to resemble one). I love the cute whimsy of its shape, the good, custard filling that spills out when you bite into it(like a baby's joy at seeing a balloon), or chocolate or vanilla cream smearing the fingertips - like smudges of something tell-tale when you've been sinful. I wonder if there is anything as happy-making as a freshly-made, tasty donut.

Anyway, my weight situation is a little worrisome but I hadn't started worrying about it until Isaw the ex-ce-llent pair of faux leather pants Ma bought me from Zara. So excellent in fact, that I mentally scratched off the large box of big donuts I'd planned to get that night. I again scratched the 'absolutely no donut' plan to 'not more than 2 donuts' plan. After much heaving and shoving, I squeezed into those pants though, and my legs looked like the legs of a person who'd run past a donut shop to grab the last piece of celery from a vegetable stall. They charge the big bucks for illusion.

This morning, though, the work week begins and my folks left really early. I was asleep then. But I woke up when I heard the car revving. It was too late, though. They'd left.

My home looked so gorgeous at six in the morning. It looked rested for two days of wholesome, sweet love. I sat in the balcony for a bit. Orange-candy stripes bent and moulded around mountain peaks in the distance. Patches of clear-blue sky floated around tree-tops. Not knowing what else to do, I took out my yoga mat and did a few stretches. Pune air has started getting a little nippy.
By the time I was done, the world had sunshine. Large slants of it peeped into my room. I threw open the curtains to let it in.

I then made myself a cup of tea and sat down to tell the world - that its important to exercise so that the heart gets strong. It's the only way it can hold in all the joy there is to be had.