Finding the Feminine: An internal shift.

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Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony
Feminine: An internal shift
Finding the feminine.

Feminine in English (Oxford Dictionary) is defined as having qualities and an appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness. In German, one of the definitions of feminine is too soft/weak. In Russian, a set of characteristics traditionally associated with women come under the definition, and one of the characteristics is readiness for sacrifice. In Arabic, a synonym for the word feminine is not strong enough, along with delicate, classy, beautiful.

As a single woman in her forties who has left youth behind, and who has and never had an “innate” desire for motherhood that seemingly comes naturally to our lot, I see myself turning time and again to the question about what is feminine and what is femininity? Is the feminine in me linked to my appearance, a set of qualities, or to missed motherhood?

At a social visit, where I went wearing a new and radically different look—from decades of long hair to a short-cropped haircut, it wasn’t just accepted or commented upon, not by my female associates. I was told that celebrity women cut their hair short in the forties to look young—a trend in Hollywood, apparently.

It just so happened that I had turned forty-one that year and crossed the line that justified this new look—justification is usually a longwinded denial of reality, and short hair of ageing.

Till then it hadn’t occurred to me that I needed to look young now that I was in my forties. That’s when I decided that if I cannot age comfortably then appearance as a concept linked to femininity is one that I shall not accept. To imagine youth and being young as beautiful, and anything other than that as a reality that must be denied is subscribing to propaganda of the beauty industry.

One part of my question about what the feminine in me is linked to collapsed like a melting glacier, shrinking my dilemma by one third. While shedding part of a problem is welcome, losing sea ice is not! If we wish to refer to the Earth as Mother Earth and feminise nature then this analogy is appropriate.

Assigning characteristics to nature, to women, or to any group of individuals for that matter is a way to subscribe to generalisations and to straitjacket diversity. That’s why the trouble with accepting people who are transgender, queer, or homosexual.

We romanticise nature as being beautiful, pure, nurturing, healing, and therefore feminine, while we ignore that nature is also furious, destructive, violent. Does that make her masculine at such times? For one who has lived through a tsunami or an earthquake, nature is not beautiful and healing.

I see purity and beauty in me, as much as I witness in me fury and violence. This either makes me both feminine and masculine, or it renders characteristics redundant in describing gender.

This left me with the third part of my question—motherhood. Across the world, motherhood is celebrated as the pinnacle of a woman’s life. By giving motherhood a miss, was I shortchanging myself, or was I defying nature by not fulfilling the role it had assigned me in the cycle of life?

I like children and I enjoy their company. A child’s wonder and curiosity are more enchanting than the self-assured worldliness of us adults. They keep the simple as it is, while we take the joy out of the simple with our complexities.

Despite this appreciation of children, I was not inclined to motherhood—whether through adoption or childbirth. I am not an anomaly; there are others like me, and this makes the desire for motherhood in women a questionable belief: Another generalisation that makes it hard for us to accept our diversity. Black lives do matter; LGBTQ is a gender; He is human first, an African migrant later; She was a girl till we made her a Dalit girl.   

Without appearance, stereotypes, or motherhood to define femininity, where lies the link with the feminine? Perhaps, in being afeminine—no, this isn’t a spelling error.

The afeminine woman does not strive for equality with men, she endorses equity (fairness) towards all beings. She does not punish or pardon a criminal, she helps develop a culture of inner-transformation (example: Kiran Bedi, who the NY Times called an idealistic reformer). She shows that courage lies in resolving differences, not ignoring or perpetuating them.   

When she—the afeminine woman—calls out to her daughter to clear the table, she tells her son to do the dishes. She teaches both her daughter and her son to respect modesty as a virtue. She does not try to be the linchpin of the family, but instead encourages tolerance, interdependence, and moral sustenance. Dignity of labour, for her, encompasses her role as a homemaker, and the kitchen is as emancipating as her desk. Motherhood is a matter of personal choice, appearance is a happy countenance, and qualities that matter are those that help develop her character.  

Brothers of kin, Hindi Reconstruction

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I would like to thank Nandini Patodia for her sensitive reconstruction of Brothers of kin in Hindi. Our hope is the message in this poem reaches far and wide across India. The original poem in English is available on: Brothers of kin.

ओ मेरे देश के पुरुष, भाई हमारे, स्वजन हमारे
एक बार फिर तुमने तहस नहस कर दिया है
अपने अन्तर का सुकून.
स्त्री की आत्मा का हनन कर तुमने
कलंकित खुद अपनी रूह को किया है
शक्ति के प्रदर्शन में, लिप्सा और लोलुपता
भरी जहालत में, क्या थी ख़ुशी तुम्हारी ?
तुममें भी तो है एक स्त्री
शर्म से सिकुड़ गयी होगी तुम्हारे भीतर की वह माँ.
रो उठी होगी वह, कि वह थी जन्मदाता, एक पुत्र 
एक भाई, एक पिता, एक दोस्त की.
ओ भारत के पुरुष, हमारे आत्मीय बन्धु
आहत किया है तुमने, तुम्हारे ही अपनों को.
क्या तुम अब पहले से बेहतर नींद सो पा रहे हो?
ह्रदय में हाहाकार मचाता गीत सुन पा रहे हो?
व्यवस्था का इंसाफ, शायद हार भी जाए ,
लेकिन तुमने तो, न्याय के शिकंजे तुम तक पहुंचें,
उसके पहले ही कर डाला है अपना विध्वंस
अपनी करतूत से बच नहीं पाओगे तुम
हो तुम अब बस अपने घुटनों के बल पर,
उठ सकते हो तुम, या गिरना चाहोगे…
निर्णय तुम्हारा है.
स्वजन बन्धु, याद करो तुम्हारी गर्भ के भीतर की धड़कनें,
दिन पर दिन जब बीतते जायेंगे
वही, हाँ वही धड़कन गूंजेगी तुम्हारे कानों में; जब
लहू का कतरा कतरा तुम्हारा बहता चला जाएगा
और साँसें छोड़ देंगी साथ, फिर कभी न लौटने को.

उठो, उठो…और दिखाओ वह पौरुष जो हमारे सम्मान का हकदार हो.

इसी आशा और विश्वास के साथ-
—स्त्रियाँ, हम सभी

Brothers of kin
Brothers of kin.
Photo credit: Firstpost

Women Speak. Take Heed

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We women speak. Hear our voice against the injustice of rape. Take heed of our words oh brothers of kin, for they will save you from your own downfall.

To all girls who have been raped, and brutally beaten and murdered, your voice is ours; In these words are your words, because our flesh and spirit is one.

Oh men of India, our brothers of kin,
Once again you have destroyed
The peace of your mind.
In destroying the spirit of a woman
You have disgraced your own.
What joy lay in power displayed,
In lust and greed and ignorance?
You too carry a woman in you
The mother within you cringed.
She cried for she gave birth to a son
A brother, a father, a friend.
You hurt your own, oh men of India
Our brothers of kin.
Do you sleep a better sleep now?
Do you hear your heart sing?
Justice in a system may fail
But you failed yourself even before justice could deal its hand.
You can’t escape what you have done
You are on your knees now
You can rise, or you can fall. You choose.
Oh brothers of kin, remember your heartbeat in the womb
As you pass through your days
For that very heartbeat will echo in your ears when your blood drains and your breath leaves never to enter again.

Stand up and be the men that we can honour.

With hope and trust
–Women

Brothers of kin
Brothers of kin.
Photo credit: Firstpost

At Sea–Looking for a place to call home

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At Sea
Generosity is…extending a heart-shaped buoy
Photo credit: mvlouisemichel.org

Introduction

At sea is a story of a migrant girl, Ngozi, and her journey from Nigeria to Libya, and from there to Italy. Like my previous stories, it is a work of fact and fiction. I have researched interviews with migrants and weaved parts of their experiences and personal stories into Ngozi’s story. At Sea gives an outline of the existing political and economic reality of migrants in Libya, Africa; however, the story has been written for older children. Each child is different, therefore I will let you decide the age of the children you wish to share it with.

When I read the note that UK-based artist Banksy sent to Pia Klemp, activist and captain of several NGO boats that had rescued migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, I was inspired to research the struggle of migrants and refugees in Africa.

In his note, Banksy wrote: “I am an artist from the UK and I’ve made some work about the migrant crisis, obviously I can’t keep the money. Could you use it to buy a new boat or something? Please let me know. Well done. Banksy.”

With splashes of pink and Banksy artwork—a young girl with a heart-shaped buoy (similar to his famous Girl with Balloon mural), The Louise Michel makes a statement just like Banksy’s graffiti. The boat and crew rescued approximately 350 people in less than a week since they set sail.

The Louise Michel’s rescue work is an expression of solidarity and responsibility, as is clear from Banksy’s note and is evident in Pia Klemp’s outlook on rescue missions. She said: “I don’t look at sea rescue as a humanitarian action, but as part of an anti-fascist fight.”

Fascism isn’t just a political ideology, it is deeply rooted in greed. No more than the greed of capitalist and mixed economies that in their hunger for natural resources (aka oil, gas, and minerals) feed fascist regimes and militia.

Generosity may be the only qualified response to greed—both fascist and capitalist. Generosity in thought, in stance, and in our choices, as exhibited by Banksy and Klemp, not to be confused with humanitarian handouts that are at best charity from the haves to the have-nots.

When we allow greed to destroy the dignity of all, by taking away the right to live safely and securely, we pull apart the fabric of life—our life included. We need to take a stand, not by embracing a particular ideology, but by moving beyond ideologies to extend a heart-shaped buoy.

Click on the image above to access the e-book. It’s for all to read.

By the Bay – The night Earth quaked.

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I don’t need to read the news to learn about the effects of climate change. From my window, I regularly watch sea waters bulge and come far out onto the back shore, much beyond the high-water line. Where I used to gather shells as a child, today I see discarded plastic waste spewed by the sea. I see oil deposits in low tide. I look at skies oppressed by heavy smog, and I take a deep breath only to be appalled by what I inhale–the repugnant smell of chemicals.

I hear the voices of scientists who know that humanity is in big trouble, and have been saying it repeatedly since 2004 or about, when they recorded that permafrost in the Arctic has begun to melt. I hear the voices of those who care, and tirelessly keep trying to remind others of why we all need to care. And I hear voices of ignorance, so engrossed in chatter that they believe, without foresight, a pandemic can erase the imprint that we have left on this planet. It makes me sorry to think that this is how we cope with both the climate emergency and the pandemic.

My own voice, where amongst all can it be heard? At first, it sounded like an echo–I was repeating what scientists had to say, then as I started to feel the heat of a speedily warming planet, I started to sound like those who were tirelessly trying to remind others of what’s important and urgent. And then I grew silent, because neither worked to change anything around me. From silence came this short story, a modern-day fable. Through a mix of non-human characters–aquatic, avian, terrestrial, and even celestial, I have tried to focus on the innocence of life, while exploring its diversity. It’s a bittersweet story, accompanied by a long and interesting fact sheet.

Please do read, By the Bay–a short story of seven pages with a fact sheet that’s four pages long. I request you to read it also to your children and share it with children who you may know. Click on the image below to access the story.

Earth, the blue dot that we call home, needs us to stop and listen, and change: By the Bay--on the night of a waning gibbous the Earth quaked.
On the night of the Waning Gibbous the Earth quaked.
Image courtesy, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Geometrically seen.

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Geonetrically seen

The lines that join are the lines that divide.

Beliefs that connect, separate us too
They are a point of view—a perspective at most
Shaped by perceptions
Coloured by tradition
Inherent is natural variation – a fact accepted by a mere few.

Rain is an inconvenience for a commuter
Of importance to a farmer
A blessing to an animist
A forecast for a meteorologist.

Seen from the side of the line that joins
Rain is droplets of water that fall
Rain is atmospheric water vapour condensed
Rain fills Earth’s lakes and wets its soil.

It pours and we take shelter
In a gentle shower we pause
In a drizzle we persist
Like the crow, the egret, the parrot and pigeon
We respond.

No time for belief, perception, or point of view
When the rains come, we do what needs to be done.
Such it is, at all times true
Yet the thread of perception, we hold onto.

What happens when the thread breaks?
I and you, and us, and them
Are our experiences, a series of many
Not much more.

In light of this view
There is no point to be made
Acceptance is best chosen
Because I, like you, need shelter in the rain.

So the story goes

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I woke up this morning before the darkness of night had faded. All were silent, except for the wind. It howled while it made its way through gaps between my room windows, quietening as the light of dawn transformed silhouettes into objects.

A gentle rain began to fall—a passing shower really. It washed all it touched, a morning ablution that seemed more ceremonial than seasonal (it’s monsoon in India right now). It cleaned the dust on the pinnate fronds of the Coconut Palm in the garden, leaving the feather-shaped leaflets to glisten in the morning light of the tropical sun that shined as the clouds dispersed.    

This sequence of events is not part of a story. It does not lead to a connected event. The following event was rather incongruent: I walked away from the window, and stood head bent, staring at my phone screen.

This is really how our days are, aren’t they? A sequence of events that are stitched together by our mind. Some events energise us, some enervate us, we forget some and some we hold on to, weaving together our personal stories. We pick and choose the most self-aggrandising events to build our social reputation. We use the sensational ones to create news, and we keep ourselves entertained by repeating the ones that involve others. That’s how we roll—making stories out of events. But, your life, my life, and the lives of all those we read and speak about are not stories. Is the heartbreak you experienced at losing a loved one a story, or can you feel its numbing pain somewhere deep inside? Is the joy you felt at a random act of kindness a story, or does it soothe your weary mind when it replays itself in memory?

Life then is not the narrative in our head. It is being lived through our experiences. Your experiences can caution me, guide me, inspire me, and mine can do likewise for you. This seems like the only worthy exchange between two individuals. Where then is the conflict? We learn from each other and we support each other. Or, we could if we tried, especially given our interdependence on this mutual exchange.

Maybe my experience of the transition from darkness to dawn to sunrise will inspire you to see the lyrical beauty of an ordinary morning, and then we will move on, grateful that we could share an experience. Nothing beyond. Because there’s really little else that can be shared.

“There are those who do not realise that one day we must all die, but those who do realise this settle their quarrels.”

–Dhammapada 1.6   

So the story goes
An ordinary morning

What kind of kind?

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What kind of kind? Click on the cover image below to access the free e-book.

The story is a combination of facts and fiction. It explores the virtue of kindness and it teaches us a little about the behaviour of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles, and about the behaviour of us humans.

The main protagonist of this story is Shanti Sofia, the daughter of Yajaira Vargas, a park ranger at Paso Pacifico, an organisation that works with local communities to help protect and restore biodiversity where people already live.

Yajaira Vargas works on Paso Pacifico’s initiatives at Playa El Ostional, at the La Flor Wildlife Refuge in Nicaragua and Shanti Sofia is engaged in their junior ranger programme. Like her mother, she is inspired to help protect endangered sea turtles. She spoke some insightful words, which I have used in the story—‘Turtle eggs are supposed to hatch in the sand, and not in the mouth.’

I thank Shanti Sofia, Yajaira Vargas, all the other rangers, and Paso Pacifico, for their commitment and for inspiring me with their work and their words. Their experiences and their approach to resolve the problem of human predators, with empathy and understanding gave me the background that I needed to write about a virtue as delicate as kindness.

So often misinterpreted and misrepresented, kindness is not just about friendliness and generosity.  Kindness requires the development of a kind heart—a heart that cares.

One million species are on the road to extinction. Can we stop this from happening? Perhaps, if we begin to care.

It is for us to choose what kind of kind we would like to be.

Thank you,
Neha Mundhra

What kind of kind? Book Cover
To the virtue of kindness that heals

A gift to share

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Hello everyone:

I wrote and published my first book Kyo and Obi in 2018. It’s a fable about friendship and discovering the joy of self-acceptance.

I wish to share the story, and the beautiful line drawings and artwork with everyone. At a time, when we all need a little more joy, the story may (at least for some of us) inspire the search for the source. At a time, when we are reminded of our shared humanity, it may restore in our minds the importance of patience and acceptance.

Below is the link to the book, and the description of the story. Someday, when the situation permits, you may want to order a copy, and feel the texture of the recycled cotton paper, made from waste cotton; you may want to reflect on the thought that not a single tree needed to be cut to make the paper, and that the water and electricity used to produce the paper did not deplete the earth, because the water was harvested rainwater, and the electricity was solar-generated.

The story and the book were reminders, for me, of what it means to nurture loving care. Every word and every decision was a lesson in learning to consider collective well-being. This book is a gift I gave myself, and now I pass on that gift to you.

Click on the book title (highlighted text below) or the image to access the book.

the dog and the dot

Kyo and Obi – Read it, share it, enjoy it.

An unusual friendship develops between a dog and a dot (a speck of dust)–man’s best friend and an ignored particle of matter. Despite being together all the time, they cannot be similar. Their dissimilarities are rather evident. Can their friendship sustain even with dissimilarities? Maybe, if there is patience, understanding and acceptance. Can acceptance be learnt? The dot tells us that it can. Let’s peep within, with the dot and look at where acceptance begins. 

Best Wishes,
Neha

In search of strength

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In search of strength

Paul Nicklen: Floe
Image courtesy and rights: Paul Nicklen Photography

Nearly four weeks back, shades of green, yellow, purple, and red started to disappear from our refrigerator, to reveal the cold glass of empty shelves that reminded us of translucent ice sheets. We began to long for colour, like those living through a monochromatic winter long for the onset of spring. Frantically, we called local vendors to organise fruits and vegetables.

Our resolve to be content with what we had, changed quickly into doggedness to make sure we get what we need. We needed fresh produce that would be delivered to our doorstep every week. In a city, where humans reside like penguins in a rookery (colony), stepping into a marketplace was not desirable or sensible.

Penguin colonies show that strength in numbers is a reflection of unity. Where then does our strength lie?  

A question asked, begins with an assumption that there is a definitive answer—one that is absolute. In our search for the absolute answer, we traded solitude for socialisation, only to learn that we must separate ourselves from each other. We made economic activity our purpose, only to discover that our pace of life is killing us. We allowed for inequalities to feel more powerful and secure, only to realise that we are as strong as our weakest link in the chain of co-dependence that we call life.

We tried to make urban habitats our penguin colonies, without the unity, but with the numbers. Now urbanisation is staring at us—the vacuous stare of a child with mangled hair and face covered with snot, squatting alongside the railway track with no bushes to hide the nakedness.  

Our doggedness and our fast disappearing produce made us stare back, looking into unregulated food markets, at faces of marginalised workers that have become familiar. At faces of people, who have the right to vote but not the right to be heard: A unique combination, where your life counts but it does not matter. This social and political reality affects their life but not their attitude—their resolve proved stronger than ours: the resolve to disallow discontent from creeping in. It is different from being content with what you have. Both are of consequence in the game of roulette that we call fortune.   

Living in homes, where there’s room to turn from the left to the right for a change in sight—the face of one roommate to the face of another—did not deter them from welcoming new roommates. A practical solution to unaffordable city rents at a time when income is scarce, and a human gesture that acknowledged their common predicament.

The scarcity of joy in their situation did not stop them from sharing the joy of small things: four clarified butter, flour, and sugar laddus (Indian spherical confectionary) shared amongst ten people. And the unpredictability of their daily routine did not stop them from being dependable. We tried to help them during a market crackdown by the police, and they reciprocated by delivering our orders despite a long day of uncertainty at the police station.

Maybe life doesn’t require us to be strong; it requires us to be generous. The question then is can generosity be learned? There is an answer—absolute or not, we shall only know when we find it.