Leaf, thorn and Bharat-Mata


There is a saying in Malayalam that goes “it doesn’t matter whether the thorn falls on the leaf or the leaf falls on the thorn– the leaf is the one that’s damaged.” The leaf here is a metaphor for all women and thorn stands for all men. Culture-conscious log kya kahenge aunties and uncles use this saying to warn young girls: do not cross the socially prescribed sexual limits, for if you do, it is you who has to suffer. It does not matter if it’s the thorn that falls on the leaf, because the thorn shall escape unharmed and the leaf, damaged beyond repair. (I’m sure there must be versions of such sayings in other languages too. If not, please lend a ear to the arguments in an average Indian household, of a girl’s parents telling her to come home before 6 PM.) Symbols and metaphors do the same job subtly, that words do overtly. Hence, the need to see how symbols are shaped, just like how words are. Using such metaphors is one of the ways how we normalize victimizing females. This proverb, juxtaposed with the idea of Bharat-Mata shows how patriarchy creates type-casted ideas of women and subtly exposes our sexist mindsets. (I will not comment on the validity or necessity of the slogan concerning the said figure here; I shall only examine the symbolism of the same.) You see, depictions of Indian women (similar to female depictions elsewhere) go somewhat like this: she is either the fragile leaf condemned to be the victim or an abstraction of a nation, seemingly powerful, but obviously unreal. She’s either the angelic face on your TV serial with inhuman mental strength or the sex-siren in your favorite Bollywood “item” song. She is never rid of extremes, never free of the Virgin/Magdalene duality, never depicted as anything remotely moderate. She is either tremendously weak or tremendously strong. No middle path. Nada.


The leaf-thorn proverb is notable for its metaphors. Notice how man is the obvious phallic symbol, apparently undeterred by contact with the leaf. See how the idea of manhood is subtly hinted at, normalized in our mind every time we use the metaphor. Woman is the “leaf”, passive and apathetic, causing no positive or negative change to the “thorn.” In a very convoluted sense, one could argue that the metaphor simply states a social reality. After all, women apparently have more to lose by engaging in sexual liaisons with men— the dreaded “P” scare and slut-shaming, for starters. So couldn’t the proverb simply be commenting on how society perceives women? But how could we continue to talk about female empowerment in a society that does not even recognize the danger of using such a metaphor? It typecasts men and women, and every instance when it’s used, you basically say “it doesn’t matter whether you have given your consent or not, it is you who have to lose everything while men will remain men!” How can we teach our women to be independent and be their own selves, when we subtly tell them that their worth is dependent on their sexual life?


On one hand, women are portrayed as fragile and on the other hand, they are exalted to larger-than-life levels. Maybe Bharat-Mata, a well-meaning unifying symbol, was conceived as a personification of land, that provides us, nourishes us. What could be wrong with that? Isn’t it an honor for all Indian women that the nation is symbolized as a female? It’s just a slogan, like how leaf-thorn metaphor is just a proverb… JUST words, symbols, metaphors…That is what I thought too, initially when I spotted these recent squabbles over the Bharat-Mata slogan.


But then I realized… all of it has meaning, have history and ideologies behind it. The nation symbolized as a mother is similar to Earth symbolized as a mother. We forget that this symbol arises from the patriarchal (and frankly tribal) tendency to exalt reproduction and motherhood. Ancient Greeks (a highly patriarchal society) recognized Earth as a mother-figure, fertilized by Father Sky when he pours down his seeds from Heaven. Vivid image, isn’t it? Over time such symbolism became a poetic way of saying that anyone who nourishes, provides and cares for is female. Quite a lot of good it did us to exalt motherhood… Truth is, while giving birth is a biological reality for women, caring and nurturing are not traits that have to be associated with women alone. Yet, women are repeatedly fit into those socially accepted roles of nurture, care and motherhood, making it difficult to even introduce the idea of man as nurturer and primary carer. Therefore when we use the Mother symbol we are implying all these nuances of birth, nurture and care and more importantly, assigning a gender role to ALL of these nuances.Do you see how we are subtly buying into gender norms of men and women by using such symbols? Do you see how it harms both men and women? The biological meaning and realities of motherhood are downplayed (think maternity leave, challenge of re-entering workforce for females, double-shift and lack of paternity leave) while the social symbolism of motherhood is exaggerated! These are strange paradoxes. While exalting the idea of motherhood and ignoring the very real consequences of it, we are relegating women into glorified roles and forgetting to recognize individuals. How can we teach our women to be independent and be their own selves, when we unwittingly hint that their worth is dependent on their motherhood and how much they value it?


My only request is this – before you dismiss these ramblings as me reading too much into a proverb and a slogan, imagine explaining all this to a child. Think of how you shall justify the symbolism in both these cases without the danger of prescribing gender roles to frailty and nurturing, or without exalting motherhood to be the overarching definition of womanhood. Tough, isn’t it?


What Kiss of Love Stands for and What it’s Doing for India

Let’s get this straight. The fact that Indians have to hold a protest on the streets for the freedom to show affection in public is itself ridiculous. On top of that, you oppose the symbolic protest that strives to broaden your mind? Now that’s getting as ridiculous as Shah Rukh Khan’s new movie Happy New Year. We have reached Mars and we still feel the need to assert our moral policing roles in others’ love lives. How typical of us. Before you jump your gun and talk about the holy “Indian culture” that has to be protected, consider what this unique protest actually stands for and what it’s doing for India.


1. Kiss, Not Sex; Love, Not Lust

Kissing is not a precursor to sexual intercourse. I repeat, kissing is NOT sex. In most of South India, especially in Kerala being seen with a guy or holding hands with a guy or God forbid, expressing affection to a guy in any way, labels the girl as a slut. The couple is subjected to harassment, in the form of looks, words and actions. Kiss of Love stands for the freedom to not be harassed by goons, for showing affection in public, i.e. if one hold hands with someone in a park or shopping mall, kiss or hug someone or celebrate Valentine’s Day with one’s loved one. The natural question then becomes, where do we draw the line? That is a matter of personal discretion and simple common sense. Kiss of Love does not stand for a show of nudity in public, full sexual intercourse in public or non-consensual show of affection in public. You want to kiss, you kiss. Two individuals showing their affection is by no means, any of your business. An aversion to PDA (public display of affection) exists even in the liberal Western world, but nobody harasses or beats anyone up for it. Get the difference?

2. Acceptance for homosexuality


Among the protests that have taken place in Kochi, Hyderabad and Delhi it has not just been a man and a woman kissing. The Kiss of Love movement recognizes that love is not just heterosexual. It is high time that gay and lesbian love be accepted in the Indian society as a form of love itself and not an aberration or perversion of heterosexual love. Even while being a protest against moral policing, Kiss of Love is also providing voice for the homosexual community in India, causing a lot of butt hurt among the RSS and Hindutva organizations who stand for “Indian culture” and the normative heterosexual love. If the controversial Section 377 that criminalizes homosexuality has to be changed, society’s perception of homosexuality should change. This is what Kiss of Love is doing in a latent way even as they struggle against moral policing and homophobes.

3. Exposing anti-female sentiments in the Indian society

Most counter-protesters (yes, that includes the state and the police who have oppressed the Kiss of Love protesters) have shamelessly engaged in shaming the women who participated in the Kiss of Love protest. Perhaps the most extreme and vulgar example of this can be seen in the Ban Kiss of Love Facebook page of a group called Kochi Freakerz, who have resorted to the despicable act of shaming a popular model and one of the female advocates of Kiss of Love, in an example of moral policing. What more, they have gone on to express “sympathy” for “such women” who are evidently seen as base and immoral. Have they seen the sculptures in Hindu temples that show our goddesses expressing their sexuality and freedom? What “Indian culture” are they talking about? The truth is, by Indian culture, they mean the cloistered Victorian mindset and the puritanism of the British that was reproduced in many ways, through Section 377 and the mindset that women are responsible for “upholding morals” in the society. There has been no other instance that has brought on such widespread anti-female sentiments recently, with some individuals even justifying rape in the context where women are allowed to express love in public! Again, Indian culture? Please understand that rape (non consensual intercourse)  is the perversion, not a consensual public show of affection.

4. A show of love, not violence


Rapes happen in broad daylight. Murders and assaults happen in public. What is so wrong about kissing in public that irks the Indian society so much? How does a bunch of youthful protesters gathering to kiss and show affection tick off the violent goons of RSS and the police? In a world where wars and terrorism reign, where violence and gore is only causing numbness and less and less indignation, in a world which desperately lacks empathy, why does love and not violence offend you?

5. Conversation-starter within families

Families, being the basic units of society and where most of socialization starts, the Kiss of Love protest capturing national attention contributes to more conversations within families about moral policing, freedom of expression and perhaps even homosexuality. In a context where such a protest is a mainstream discussion topic, there is no better time than now to have a conversation with your family members about what their take is and why they think so.

When I began having conversations about the protest and started showing my support for the movement, more than two male friends expressed their interest of whether I would have gone for the protest if I were in India. Their tone clearly showed the mockery for the nature of the protest. Some others expressed their concern that we should be focusing on other pressing problems such as lack of sanitation, rape cases and corruption. To them I want to ask, is there a priority list somewhere that the society should follow in order to solve issues? Why not appreciate the effort to redefine personal freedom in a repressive society? I don’t know how long this movement will last or what the results will be. But judging from the rapid spread of the protest from Kochi to other parts of India in a matter of days, the youth’s sentiments against moral policing certainly seems like a force to reckon with. In this context, to those protective brothers,sisters, uncles and aunties, who are concerned for their neighbor and “Indian culture” than for the protection of individual freedom, Mwaaaahh! Get well soon 🙂

Monsoon @ IPM – Discovering Palliative Care

This summer I met exceptional people, spoke at colleges for the “Because I Care” campaign and met Jaanu, who didn’t know to read the name of the tablets she was supposed to take. 

The rain kept pouring on my first day at the Institute of Palliative Medicine in Calicut. The building with its airy architecture seemed to encourage flying. Many a times I wondered at the branch that invaded through the window of the Medical Library, where we sat discussing everything from fundraising to the possibility of psychological issues in Suarez. The branch swayed and thrust itself inside, as if it had a part to play in the proceedings. Maybe it did.

And through all of that, it rained. Endless, with whispered secrets, trailing a wetness of memories over the leaves, intransient, unlike the lives on the edge of oblivion – lives of the patients lying on their beds downstairs in the Inpatient Unit. The contrast was heavy. We joked; they took morphine. We worked to get money to raise their “quality of death”; they gave us invaluable smiles. All in the same building.

Institute of Palliative Medicine, Calicut.
Institute of Palliative Medicine, Calicut.
During one of our chats in the Medical Library at IPM
During one of our sessions in the Medical Library at IPM 🙂

Maybe the most significant was my first day of Home Care. Two old Muslim men- one was a cancer patient- were suffering from bed sore and pain. I remember feeling deep respect for the nurturing family members who smiled through it all. Their otherwise listless eyes shined with a faint gratitude for us, mixed with a steely resignation. On the same day, I met a teacher who would rather chat on phone than clean up after her old mother who had fallen down in the bathroom, wetting herself. In another family, the daughter in law made sure the Emergency Light was bright enough for the nurse to change her mother-in-law’s catheter tube. Her 12 year old daughter was suffering from eye problems. The star of that day however was Jaanu. She had diabetes and had only two toes on her right feet. Her mistake in having had the wrong tablet was discovered. We realized that she couldn’t read, even though she never admitted it. Jaanu complained about the lack of water in her house and I noted that her house was right next to the emerging Cyber Park. It stood like a dragon rising sleepily from its lair and Jaanu’s house seemed like a hermit’s hut about to be burned. The promise of “development” from the recent elections came to mind…

I was happy when a whole class (BCom Final year in MAMO College) signed up for “Because I Care” after we spoke to them. I was happy when our online campaign including my article on Baby Fathima garnered enough attention. I was happy when one of the patients invited me to eat with him during Iftar. I will miss the philosophical talks with Lakshmi, Gautam and Anwarji in our very own “Shed”.:) The promise of social service is satisfaction, an unmatched degree of it. It is as much a discovery of yourself, as it is the discovery of the society. I used to tell myself that I possibly can’t matter enough to make a change in society. Well, here’s some truth for you – if you can’t, nobody can.

This summer, I met Shaki (coolest boss ever), Saif (trainer,traveler and our very own Kajjang President),Lakshmi (Josephite power!) and Suresh sir (kind, assertive; the man behind it all). Special thanks to Gautam aka GSK aka Jon Snow, who not only responded with “Of course you can come!” when I asked him if I could volunteer, but also gave me rides to and fro through that godforsaken Thondayad – Medical College route. There are many other wonderful people and this post would not end if I talk about all of them; you know who you are :).

In our very own "Shed"! :)
In our very own “Shed”! 🙂
The Iftar dinner at IPM organized with the help of Students in Palliative Care :)
The Iftar dinner at IPM organized with the help of Students in Palliative Care 🙂

Before you shift your attention to another random article on the parasitic web called Internet, let me end this with a loaded question.

How would you like to die?

There are only three ways. You could die of old age. You could suffer from a chronic illness. You could have a sudden death. Third option? Thought so. Only 10-15% of people in the world die suddenly. Which means you and I are probably going to need palliative care too, at some point. Get it?

Nannygate : Who is wrong – Indian diplomat or the U.S?

ImageSo the last few days my Facebook newsfeed and the Internet on the whole have been blazing with indignity regarding the arrest of an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade by the U.S. Those who are little aware of the issue have also jumped on the bandwagon of how an Indian diplomat has been “strip-searched” and disrespected by the U.S officials after being asked for money by her maid/nanny, Sangeetha Richard.

Now let’s be honest here. The diplomat here is accused of two things- of not paying the maid as per the minimum wage law of the U.S and for forging fake VISA information for the maid. The fact that the maid was paid less than 3$ an hour, while the minimum wage in the U.S is 8$ an hour is what an American will find appalling. What the Indian finds appalling is that a diplomat, a high status individual, a representative of a country of billions like India was strip searched and treated like an “ordinary criminal”. The double standards in the latter argument is that the Indian media which has jumped on the bandwagon and highlighted the “strip-search” has downplayed the fact that Devyani broke a major labor law of the U.S. Of course had it been a U.S. diplomat who had broken an Indian law the Indian Govt. could probably not have the nerve to do something judicially about it. We treat the guests with respect, dignity and we expect the same from the West. Interestingly what is important to the U.S is that the little person, Sangeetha Richards has not received her minimum wage even while living in a society with a lifestyle that requires not 3$ an hour but 8$ an hour! Now why does India ignore the truth that one of their diplomats has broken a major law and only focuses on the way she was treated? Because one would expect a diplomat to be treated with more respect than a common criminal. The U.S. is certainly in the wrong if she was treated disrespectfully and if it’s true that her claim that the Indian Embassy had informed the U.S representatives that Richards had been complaint against. We might never know if Devyani was lying about the strip-search, but we do know that her salary, paid by the Indian government was not enough to pay her maid the U.S minimum wage! Now whose fault is that? Devyani’s or the Indian Government’s? Or the whole rupee-dollar divide? It’s evident that paying an Indian maid an Indian salary in the U.S just won’t do… That’s against the law and also against the interests of the maid who will only struggle to live in a lifestyle that demands more.

Is it wrong to have treated a diplomat the way the U.S. officials allegedly treated her? Yes. But is it wrong that the diplomat dodged a major labor law of the country she was living in? Absolutely, yes. The question is whether the Indian government is going to accept the diplomat’s mistake graciously and then demand an apology for the uncalled treatment she allegedly received. Because we certainly don’t want the West to think that its okay for us Indians to treat maids without respect while its NOT okay to treat a higher class diplomat without respect. No, we certainly don’t want to be accused of perpetuating slavery or being insensitive to the little guy. Before making it an “international” or an issue concerning diplomatic ties between nations, its perhaps more prudent to look into why and how a country’s judicial system affects another country’s diplomat. Evidently, ‘patriotism’ is bubbling over in India while the INDIAN maid who was wronged by an INDIAN diplomat is still being ignored. It’s the classic example of the accusing index finger while the other four fingers point back at you. Both sides are wrong here.

More info: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/12/19/india-demands-thatusdropcaseagainstdiplomat.html