Things we take for granted

A patient came to me once, she was referred from another doctor to rule out if she required glasses. She had headaches quite often.

She spoke to me in Kannada, she didn’t look affluent but didn’t look very poor either. She was 28 years old, wore a saree, a few bangles, maybe a ‘mangalsutra’ . She had sturdy footwear too. She came with her brother, or I would rather say, she was brought by her brother.

I turned on the Kannada chart to test her vision, she said she couldn’t read. No problem. I turned on the number chart,  but she said she couldn’t read that either! I was shocked, I also felt so so sad to hear that. She was almost my age, just a few years younger.

I felt frustrated too, I wanted to help her but had no clue how to.

It turned out she never went to school. She lived in a city, free schooling was available near where she lived, but her parents didn’t think it worthwhile to send her. (But her brother did go to school, no questions there). She was made to accompany her mother to the vegetable market daily to sell their produce. “But if you were selling vegetables, you were dealing with money. Then you SHOULD know how to count, or read numbers.” She said they just had to rely on the ‘better’ nature of their customers to give them the correct amount. ( I didn’t ask her how she managed to give the right change).

The brother joins in. “She was married off at a young age”. She doesn’t work now. There was something fishy about the husband, they evaded the question when I asked about him.

There was nothing wrong with her vision or her eyes, that could cause headache. Finally I sent them off with the advice that 28 is not too old an age to learn something new; and made the brother promise that he would help her.


Sex Education with a Twist

My mother (step mother) is a gynaecologist. She was the only gynaec in the hospital she was working in. That meant, Cesarean calls at any point of the day and NIGHT. This somehow led me to believe that all kids are born by Cesareans and no such thing existed as natural birth! Anyway, I didn’t dwell much on it during that time, ages 6-9 yrs.

When I was 10 yrs old, my grandma gave my cousin a beautiful book (don’t remember the name) based on the daily lives of a family. It explained very nicely the biological aspects of family life too. The cousin was not interested in the book, but I read it avidly. It explained how a family member was born and how the baby came out from between the legs of the mother. Yippee! Now, I know natural birth exists in humans.

The book also spoke about how the mother got pregnant, about the father introducing sperm (I don’t remember if a euphemism was used) into the mother through a small hole in between mother’s legs. This didn’t interest me much. For all I cared, he used a syringe to inject the semen. I didn’t even know such a hole existed between my legs!

When I was 12 yrs old, my friend asked me, “What is sex?”. I said, “Sex is like gender, like male and female.” My friend was not satisfied. She said she had heard some boys in class whisper about ‘sex’ and giggle. So, there must be something fishy about it.

I have grown up with a lot of animals around me. That meant I had seen all sorts of animals mate. I had seen cows, goats, hens, dogs, cats, I had even seen lizards mate. Till this moment I never thought to extrapolate this knowledge onto humans too. I believed humans were a much more advanced species and baby making would involve a lot of shiny metal or plastic, clean and sterile stuff. I found it difficult to believe that humans could go down to the level of animals!

Even though my prudishness felt violated, it did sound pretty feasible and logical. I needed proof.

I turned to my trusted ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ for proof. I remember seeing an ad somewhere which said, “Have safe sex, use condoms”. So, I looked up the word condom and then I went on to look up other words like intercourse, penis, vagina etc and voila, the mystery of sex was solved!

I shared the knowledge with my friend. We decided this was too big a discovery to keep to ourselves, we must share. I told the other girls in class about my discovery, they hated me initially for it. They thought I must be really sick to have such ‘dirty’ thoughts. The worst part was imagining our parents doing it.

Slowly, everyone accepted to logic of my reasoning and the proof of course! I guess that was the only sex education we all had.

Nearly scarred !

I was 8 years old, it was summer vacations. I was sent off to my aunt’s place 4 days prior to her daughter’s wedding. The pretext, I was supposed to help with the wedding preparations. Aww come on! My parents (dad and step-mom) probably just wanted to get rid of a hyperactive kid for a few days.

The wedding house was busy, noisy, crowded, easy to get lost in. There were a few cousins, mostly older girls who treated me like a baby and discussed girlie stuff which didn’t interest me much. I wasn’t exactly a tomboy either, but I hung out with the boys and helped out a bit here and there, like arranging a few chairs, putting up flowers, garlands etc.

I remember these two guys, they were twins, neighbors, helping out at the wedding. They were 17 or 18 years old and I was always around them.

One day after the morning’s heavy work and lunch, people were settling down for an afternoon siesta. I ended up in the same room, in the same bed, with the two brothers on either side and me in between. This was not odd, I had always slept with my male relatives, cousins and uncles in the same bed and at that age, it was the normal thing to do.

Then one of the twins took off his shirt. Even this was not odd, it was hot summer and most men in Kerala went around shirt-less at home anyway. He then started saying things like, “Your cousin, the one with the straight hair, she studies in XYZ college, right? And she stays in the hostel. Do you know what goes on in the hostels of this college?……..” Now, this was getting fishy. Luckily for me the shirted twin shushed the other, with a worried expression on his face. The shirt-less twin shut up and I don’t remember the rest.

When I look back, I just can’t help being angry with my parents. There was never any communication. There reasons may be numerous, the fact that one of them was a step parent was certainly significant. Maybe the last generation just never discussed certain things with their children. Oh what the hell! I resolve to be a better parent, that’s all I can say.

What’s in a name?

My husband’s community has this tradition I didn’t know about till we decided to get married. It’s this tradition of changing the bride’s name on the day of the marriage. By changing name, I don’t mean changing the surname/last name. I mean, changing the entire name! For example, if the girl had been named, Laxmi Kamath, till that day, she suddenly turns over to Veena Pai in an instant.

A new person is created out of the blue. It is as if the girl who walked in for the wedding (or carried in by the uncle) never existed.

When you lose your own name, you lose your’self’, your identity, your everything. People from your old life have nothing more to do with you. Your parents have no say in your life (forget you having a say yourself), you are not allowed to have any contact with your old friends.

This was how it was for my mother-in-law’s generation. She had to discontinue her studies and become a full time house wife. She moved to a new city and lost touch with all her old friends. But luckily for her, her husband (my father-in-law) who never got along with his family, became attached to hers and hence she could continue to remain in good contact with them.

Her tenth standard marks card shows her first name and the Ration card, Voter’s ID etc show a different name. There was never any official change of name (which requires publishing the change in the newspaper), just a name whispered into her ears during the wedding ceremony. This created a bit of a problem during the application for a passport.

My mother-in-law never saw anything wrong in this. She never questioned losing her identity at 19, giving up her studies, giving up her friends. It was just the way she was brought up. It was the way things were, in her world, in her community.

Alcohol affects Husband

My husband hates alcohol. He despises not just alcoholics, but even people who drink occasionally. He calls them ‘losers’. That includes me too…

He knew I drank long before we married.  We were good friends and we got married two years ago.

Things changed overnight. I was not allowed a drop of alcohol. I hated being controlled, we fought and the fight went on. As you might have guessed, along with alcohol control would come clothes/guy friends controls. Somehow the guy friends, I didn’t mind.  I had expected it, and anyway most guys kept a distance once I got married. The clothes control was expected, still it bugged me. The alcohol control was totally unexpected.

I am from a family where everyone drinks socially. It is an absolutely normal thing to do and we are all pretty decent people even under the influence of alcohol. Husband thinks alcohol brings out the worst in everyone. That alcohol makes people want to jump into bed with the next available person or fall drunk along the roadside.

We moved to Europe for a year. He began relaxing, slowly but visibly. I wore shorts one sunny day and he realized that, nobody was gawking at me. I wore a deep necked top. Nobody was making lewd comments about me. We went to friends’ homes for dinner, drank wine. There was no ruckus and dinner was a pleasant affair. Went back home for a good night’s sleep.

He began slowly accepting that things outside his ultra-conservative thought process can be normal. The freedom and hassle free life of Europe has helped. I have total freedom with clothes. He still doesn’t drink, says he hates alcohol, but doesn’t restrict me in any way. (Don’t know how things will be once we move back to India, fingers crossed.)

God and mother-in-law

Mother in law is visiting. Am about to set off for an important appointment. She tells me, “You should light the lamp and pray to God.”

I light the lamp meekly and fold my hands in prayer. But, the only forced prayer I can get out of me is, “Please God, please make mother in law stop forcing her ideas on me. I can’t survive two months of her visit if this continues.”

I stop pretending to pray and turn around to her and try to explain to her why this is all so wrong. I tell her, “I know you believe God is in the idol and photograph and praying to the inanimate symbols are the right things for you to do. But for me, God is everywhere, God exists for me in the trees, plants, animals, nature everywhere. My way of praying wouldn’t be by lighting a lamp and folding hands; but by keeping nature clean and treating every living creature with respect. I believe in communicating with God in my heart, and not with any outwardly show. That is my firm belief and if I go against my belief and start lighting lamps, I shall be doing something fake. By doing so, I shall only be bringing ill will towards me. By not being true to myself, I am not going to get God’s grace.”

It was difficult getting this message across, as we both speak different languages and the common language we both understand doesn’t come naturally to me. Still, I got the message across and she understood, but did not agree. She shook her head sadly but did not force me again for the two months…