Month: March 2011

If i got stuck to my chair would you notice?

There is a tiny little article in today’s paper about an obese man in Ohio who had to be cut out of a chair that he had been sitting in for two years. Two years! I don’t know about you, but I think that after the first week of not moving anywhere warning signals would have gone off in my head. Of course, with anything you read, questions go off in your head that you seek answers to in the text. You can imagine the sorts of queries that exploded like little fireworks in my brain. Who is this man? What does he do for a living? Did he never need to use the bathroom? What did he do for food? How did he keep himself entertained in that chair? Who were his friends? How did they actually cut him from the chair? What does it take for someone to let himself lose control of his health and his life to the extent that he morphs into an extension of a piece of furniture?

I didn’t get all the answers of course, since the article was only about 150 words long. I don’t even know if I want all the answers. If you want them, I am sure you can google this chap and find him all over the Internet by now, because there will definitely be lots of people in that city, that state, that country with whom this story resonates, and there will be a range of emotions expressed, from pity to disgust. And maybe even solidarity.

His skin had become “fused to the fabric of the chair”. (You’ll never again ignore that velcro-sensation when you shift in your seat, will you?) And my question about the bathroom? Suffice it to say that the multitasking chair served that purpose as well. He just went to the bathroom where he was sitting. The chair, we are told, was “covered in his own waste and maggots”. When did he cross that line that toilet training in our baby years set up? You know that line. It’s the one that makes it really hard for you to go in a bed pan in hospital, because you are so conditioned to release those muscles only in the right place and in the right position.

But my biggest problem with this whole thing is that this guy was not alone. There were people living with him, who only called the police when the man became “unresponsive”. What does that mean? They didn’t get worried when he started making them fetch and carry for him? When he refused to get up and go to the bathroom? When he started to stink? He had a girlfriend, this man! Who brought him food. For TWO YEARS! And you thought you’d never get a chick to love you. Apparently you’re not missing much by not having friends like this man had. It took him losing consciousness for them to get help.

Seriously. All three need their heads examined. There is more to this situation than a 150-word article can convey. Something about deeper problems in urban society related to mental health, isolation, and the changing dynamics of human relationships within a community.

The report as it appeared in the paper doesn’t say who actually did the cutting. They deserve medals for heroism. I hope this is not something they have to do everyday.


The Feminization of Communication

Have you ever noticed how the ways in which people communicate with each other are changing now? I wrote a post a little while back in response to a Straits Times commentary about mobile phone use in Singapore, where I criticised the writer for singling women out for their supposed overuse of the devices in what he considered inappropriate situations. My point was that perhaps new technologies that enable social media use speak to women in ways that might seem threateningly hypersocial to men.

There is a brilliant article on TechCrunch about how women rule the Internet due to their sheer numerical presence and intensity of activity. This is certainly interesting from the marketing angle that the writer takes, but from a communications perspective, I think it also points to what I have come to see as the feminization of interaction patterns. I was recently in the privileged position of being copied on a series of e-mails between my husband and his travel agent, and thoroughly enjoyed my fly-on-the-wall status. The statements were terse and functional. “Can you do this for me?” “Yes I can, but this is how much it will cost.” This utilitarian exchange was fascinating to someone who embeds her main message in pleasantries, subjunctives and conditionals. Of course this on its own does not suffice to back up my theory. After all, it’s possible that women in business situations are equally terse, and maybe I am just unusually verbose.

So I am going to introduce another observation. When I engage in text chats with men (that sounds terrible, but I really hope you know what I mean) I notice a difference between older men who are late adopters of such platforms, and younger men who practically grew up with the technology. The younger men are quicker on the draw, use more emoticons in more integrated ways, introduce more pleasantries, and are more adept at keeping the conversation going beyond the main message conveyed. It would appear that younger men have discovered, through the affordances of the internet in general and social media in particular, what women have always known. There is pleasure in spinning out a conversation, in talking for the sake of it, in using lots of words, and in expressing emotions freely. If these younger men are digital natives then their older counterparts are digital immigrants (thank you, Marc Prensky).

But perhaps this age dichotomy is unfair because there are some immigrants who embrace their new cultures much more enthusiastically and skillfully than others. At the same time, the gender dichotomy is unfair because there have always been women who communicate more like men and men who communicate more like women. As with so many aspects of human behavior, it’s not so much a dichotomy as a continuum. Where does this leave my theory? Could it still work?

I think so, although I’d still have to find ways to test it (and in all likelihood people already are doing work in this area. There is no such thing as a completely new idea after all). What is needed is to disengage gender-based communication patterns from gendered bodies. So we accept that there are masculine patterns of communication and feminine patterns of communications, but that these don’t necessarily have to reside in male and female bodies respectively. Online social media with all its communicative affordances wraps itself around and supports feminine patterns very thoroughly, and digital natives, as well as enthusiastic immigrants, find that they are able to internalise those patterns.

There are still messy areas to sort out. Who are the people who most easily embrace the new communication patterns? What predisposes them to accept them in the first place? What are the elements of the new patterns? How do online and offline communication patterns differ when viewed through this gendered lens? Are there differences even within the use of feminized patterns between the gendered bodies of digital natives?

Yup. Very messy. But imagine how much fun it will be sorting out the mess! I have skype, google talk, and blackberry messenger on my mobile device and I’m not afraid to use them. Want to chat about it?

Where’s my village?

When I was 6 years old I tried to run away from home. All those Famous Five books I’d read in which kids led such independent lives must have fired my imagination (never mind that Julian was a parent substitute). Or maybe I just wanted some time on my own, without anyone telling me what to do. I had always had dreams of being able to fly, and it’s possible this urge to run away was an extension of my nocturnal virtual wanderings.

But runaway I wanted to, so runaway I did. I dragged my little sister in on my plan. 5 years old to my 6, she wanted to know why we were making plans to leave a very comfortable home. “They don’t love us here,” I hissed, “They’re always telling us what to do. Now come ON!” And, imposing on her the same autocracy I was complaining of wanting to escape from, I dragged her away to pack.

What preparations we made! We packed our coin-filled Donald Duck piggy banks, some clothes, a box of chocolates, and made plans to leave early the next morning before anyone woke up. Well it’s one thing to want to get up at the crack of dawn, and another to actually do it. The next day the sun was shining brightly by the time we opened our sleepy eyes and remembered that we had important things to do. I might actually have changed my mind if not for having to stridently squash my sister’s plaintive misgivings. External opposition hardened my resolve and suppressed my screaming instincts.

Surprisingly no one was out of bed except my grandmother, who made some sort of swatting movement with her hand when I recited my carefully concocted narrative about what my sister and I were going to do that morning. We left her to her cooking, and sneaked out.

Ah the feeling of freedom when we reached the gate at the top of the driveway! I almost felt like I was growing those wings I had been dreaming about for so long. But the feeling was short-lived. A few steps beyond the gate, my sister, whom I would have been prepared to swear had been born with two left feet, fell down and skinned her knee. I yanked her to her feet, dismissed the scrape and urged her along.

“But Shobha, it’s painful,” she whined, tears forming in her eyes. I hardened my heart and pulled her along. “It’ll be okay. We just have to get to the main road and everything will be fine.” Really? How? I had no idea where the main road was, much less what I was going to do when I got there. I had some vague idea of finding a forest somewhere where my sister would cook while I went out and looked for work after depositing my coins in the bank.

We had barely walked past 5 houses when she started sniffling. “What now?” I asked, resolve wavering. The further I got away from home the less sure I was becoming of wanting to leave in the first place.

“It’s REALLY painful, Shobha,” she sobbed. And that, plus the blood I saw trickling down her leg, did me in. On my own I might have stubbornly pushed on. But I loved this gentle sister of mine too much to make her suffer for my whims, and so we turned around and headed home.

Home was alive and kicking! “Where have you been?” my mother screeched as soon as she saw us.

“Out. Walking,” was my predictably evasive reply. “How did you know we were gone?”

Apparently a neighbour had seen us from her upstairs window and phoned my mother to tell her that her two little ones were walking out of the estate carrying bags. I wondered why my mother hadn’t come looking for us as soon as she’d got this news but wisely kept my thoughts to myself. As my mother scolded us, worry and then relief apparent on her face, my father sat silently next to her, shoulders shaking with barely suppressed mirth. Only when I became a wife and mother myself did I realise how much this must have infuriated my mother!

Two little girls ran away from home and a neighbour spotted them. The same neighbour would give us a drink when we played in her garden some evenings. When we rode our bicycles, cars driven by our friends’ parents slowed down to make way for us, the drivers calling out cheerful greetings and warnings to ride safely. If my mother couldn’t pick me up from school some neighbour would be there in her place.

It took a village to raise me. I wonder what happened to it as I grew up. Today my son is roaming Singapore, trying to find people who will give him a job to do in return for donations for the Scouts Association. It’s Job Week, you see. I remember the Scouts coming by my house when I was little, and my mother giving them something to do like dust a bookshelf, before sending them off with a chocolate bar each in addition to the donation. My son says it’s getting harder to find people who are willing to open their doors to kids and give them work to do. Kudos to the Scouts Association for trying to hold on to a sense of community, but I’m afraid it might be fighting a losing battle. As my village disappeared, so too did the feeling of communal accountability and shared responsibility that it nurtured.

Where goes my village there goes my nation.

To dance, perchance to LIVE!

My favourite Sunday afternoons are the ones where the whole family sprawls on various couches, cushions and armchairs to watch Hindi movies. As much as people like to make fun of these movies (make another running-around-the-coconut-tree joke and I will punch you) it is an undeniable fact that they are extremely popular all over the world, with their special brand of emotional storytelling, beautiful people, happy endings, and complete detachment from reality. For me the main draw is the dancing. I love the way the characters keep breaking into dance. I will admit it: it makes me want to dance too. I am so envious of people who live in cultures where it is a habit to just start moving whenever there is music playing. For people outside of the Indian culture, all Indians might look the same. But we are very, very different. And our conception of dance is one of the ways in which we differ.

In the South (where my roots lie), dance is something only certain people do, and even then in a highly stylised, regimented way. Classical dance forms like Bharatha Natyam are highly evolved, and embedded in them are rules of mathematics and logic that have been passed down over generations. Bharatha Natyam is a spiritual art form that embodies ideas about the cosmic order and our place in it. Even those of us who learn this dance form understand only a fraction of the complex coding that has gone into it. Other forms that have evolved from Bharatha Natyam, like Kuchipudi, are less formal, but no less carefully choreographed. You train for a lifetime and still cannot say that you have mastered these dance forms. And there is no way that you spontaneously break out into them when you are looking for a way to physically express deep emotion.

But in the North, dance is more accessible. The body is free to move, and no training is required. Only the ability to feel the melody and the rhythm. Is this any less spiritual? I don’t think so. Being able to throw your arms in the air, to move your feet, to toss your head back – this unbridled show of joy is as spiritual, but in a much more individual and primeval way. It is not that there are no classical dance forms, but that dance does not only belong to the trained dancer, and is not confined to the stage.

This was brought home to me very clearly during my sister’s wedding. Unlike me, she married a North Indian guy, but they agreed that the wedding would be held in the South Indian style. His relatives came for the wedding, and politely sat through most of the very solemn rites and rituals that go on for hours (sometimes even days) in a South Indian Brahmin wedding. They started out eager to learn about this new culture that they were being exposed to, but soon began to wilt. At one point they all disappeared, and the rest of us went looking for them. They were outside, dancing! Having had enough of the seriousness, they had decided to celebrate in their own way. They felt the need to dance, so dance they did.

I love to dance. A good beat can always get me going. But I move in the wrong circles. The kind where they look at you funny when you get up and move in public. Dancing spontaneously is something you do as a child. Why are you drawing attention to yourself? In the privacy of my home, I carried my babies and danced until they begged me to put them down. Even when I am angry or tense, dance is my outlet.

Bharatha Natyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi – I have done all three. The movements are choreographed, ritualised, stylised. But ultimately customizable once you have had enough training. I bring my joy to the stage and I make the dance my own. I am alive when I dance in a way that I never am at any other time. There was a long gap when I was raising my kids but I am back now. I will never be a great dancer. But I am a passionate one. And that is enough for me.


Never let it be said that I keep my readers in the dark about the contents of my posts! Why not say it like it is? Yes, people, this post is about HAIR.

I think we spend too much time thinking about it. How to grow more of it on some parts of our bodies and how to remove it from others. I also think hair (I’m now talking specifically about that which sprouts from your scalp) is a cultural artefact. Why do I say this?

Remember Samson, whose strength lay in his hair, so that when it was cut off he grew weak? Remember the Manchus and their pigtails which were signs of servitude and how they cut them off to signal their freedom? Remember Rapunzel, whose hair formed first the reason for her continued imprisonment and then the instrument that started her on the path to freedom? In all these situations, fictional or not, the hair is not just hair. It is an important symbol that encodes cultural messages which get transmitted everytime the stories are told.

In Singapore in the 1970s, I used to see signs in post offices to the effect that long-haired men would be served last. It was a signal of disapproval of all that the long hair represented – lack of respect for authority, disinclination to conform to social norms. At that time I just wondered about the logic of this, considering that new people kept joining the queue all the time. My modus operandus under the circumstances would have been to enter the PO just before closing time! Hair, I learned very early, is not just hair. It is a zone of contestation that does not seem to only belong to the person on whose head it is situated.

This was brought home to me in a very personal way over the years. Growing up Indian in 1970s Singapore was not easy. You stood out. Big time. A brown spot in a field of Chinese people, you got called names. People didn’t want to sit next to you on the bus. And this was just the external discrimination. Far more damning was the prejudice that you internalised, based on the differences you saw between yourself and your Chinese classmates. Of course you saw them as representing the standard, and yourself as falling short. Their fair, yellow-tinged skin was your ideal. So your healthy brown tone was ugly. Their short, straight hair was sporty, fun, convenient. Your oily black plaits which hung to your knees made you stand out like a sore thumb.

Growing up, I hated my hair. All I ever wanted was to cut it as short as it would go. But my parents had come to Singapore in 1960, and brought with them the cultural values of 1960 India. And, as with all immigrants who find themselves rudderless in a new land, froze those values in order to preserve their culture. Apparently, one of the ways in which those values were embodied was through the hair. Indian girls, it seemed, did not cut their hair. Every weekend my mother would wash my hair for me. I was 13 before I was able to do it myself. She put so much effort into maintaining the tresses of her four daughters, a symbol, I suppose, of well brought up Brahmin girls who would make good wives.

I had a stable home, a loving family, a good education, a wealth of social capital. At that time, I would have traded it all in, in the blink of an eye, for the freedom to take the large pair of scissors that was always in the kitchen and chop that hateful braid off. Ungrateful child, yes? Poor parents

I begged and pleaded as I grew up. I cried angry tears into my pillow after every argument with my parents. I dreamed of losing all my hair in an accident. Finally, when I was 15, I cut a little bit of it off, and felt dizzy with the liberation. No one noticed it. I kept cutting it a little more everyday. Of course it helped that I had an older sister who started the trend. She got into so much trouble that I sort of slipped into her shadow unnoticed.

And so started a pattern. Everytime my hair grows beyond a certain length I feel the need to shorten it. It is irksome for me to have any reminder of a time when I couldn’t make the choice for myself. My husband likes my hair long, but even for him I cannot bear it. If he cannot be happy for me when I cut my hair then he will just have to be unhappy. It took me a long time to come to this stage. Many arguments, many tears, many moments of disbelief that I could be so educated, so strong, so articulate, and yet so imprisoned by my hair and the meanings that other people felt they had the right to attach to it.

I am happy to report that my husband likes my latest hairstyle. It has taken 40 years for me to feel free.