Tuesday, November 15, 2016

My Father's Take on Gender Diversity - Part 1

Ever since my father's hospital stay in Jul-Aug this year, he has been slowing down. It is visible. And palpable. Our conversations are short and simple. And, of course, repetitive.

The last month has also been the time when our new venture, Diversity Dialogs has taken shape. I have been chatting with Anna on many aspects of the business. From the mundane to the intellectual. These conversations have been spread over many days and many hours. I find his perspectives revealing - not just on the issue of gender diversity, but also on what he sees as simple actions to include more women.

Here are some snippets of our dialogs.

Snippet 1 - All Humans Are One

Artist: Vivian Zapata, 2005. Commissioned by the
Ford Foundation project
Documenting the Differences Diversity Makes

Me: Anna, Rosita and I are founding a company called Diversity Dialogs.

Anna: Sangeeta, what is diversity?

That is tough one to answer simply.

Me:  It is the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas. It can happen when we classify and segregate a natural group into more than one category.

He looks at me strangely.

Me: Anna, for example when we use different ways to classify people, we create diverse sub-groups. Diversity is recognizing that there are differences. But they are part of a whole. And it is the "the whole" that works.

I continue to get a strange look. So I decide to use examples.

Me: Anna, people are really one group. When we classify people by religion or gender or caste, we have diverse groups of people. Essentially one group split into more than one.

Anna: But they are still one group. They are of the same parent.

"Yes", I think. If we could all just think of people as just people and not as categories of people.

Snippet 2 - All It Takes, Is One Good Man

Me: Anna, we are starting with helping companies improve Gender Diversity. Pause. How to ensure more women join and stay in the workforce. Help them to grow and lead organizations.

Anna: That's not the first thing to start with.

Me: Why Anna? Should we start with something else?

Anna: It starts with educating all girls.

Me (understanding what "start" means for him): Yes Anna. But not all young girls are sent to school.

Anna: But they should be. All it takes is one good man in each village.

Me (jumping at the word "man"): Why one good man? Why not one good woman?

Anna: OK. All it takes is one good woman in each village. Then every girl will go to school. Pause. But men are the dominant group. Pause. They have to take the lead. Just one good man per village will do it.

Snippet 3 - Marriages Are Based On Sharing 

Anna: I did my part at home.

Me: Really Anna? Amma did most of the work.

Anna: I always washed my clothes.

Me: Yes Anna. Why did you wash your clothes when we had a washing machine or a washer woman?

Anna: I wash clothes the best!

Me (smiling broadly): And you have a Phd. in how to use blue to make your white clothes really white!

He smiles and sits for some time thinking.

Anna: When we got married, your mother and I had to learn to do a lot of things. I continued to wash my clothes to give her more time.

Me: So why were you always the one to make coffee in the morning? And boil the milk?

Anna: I love my coffee in the morning. Why should Amma wake up early in the morning to make me coffee. I could make it by myself. And your Amma could sleep a little more.

Me: Is that why you always did the grocery, vegetable & fruit shopping?

Anna (smiling broadly): Yes. And cooked when Amma went to your grandmother's on holiday.

Oh yes, I remember those days. Anna would cook, using us as his "fetch" and "cleanup" slaves! Till we learnt to cook. It was far less work!!

Anna: Amma had so much work to do with you four children. I shared in the housework as much as I could. I wish I had done more to make her happy.

.... More snippets as our dialoging continues

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Firecrackers in Anna's Childhood

Since early October, I have been telling Anna that Deepawali is around the corner. He has no recollection of last year's Deepawali.  He was unwell enough to be in hospital, on a nebuliser for 5 hours. So this year, he has asked me when Deepawali is, twice a day, for the entire month!!

Like most South Indians, we celebrated Deepawali for Anna on 29th. Normally the puja, crackers, and Deepawali feast is all finished in the morning. As Anna is sleeping most of the morning, I decide to do all this in the evening. He is tired and disoriented, and he can not even strike a match to light a deepa for puja. He gives gifts to all his staff (including their children).
We then light a few sparklers, vishnu chakras (Anna's favorite) and flower pots. I know we want to reduce the amount of pollution shrouding the city, but, Anna has a few pleasures in life and 6 sparklers, 4 charkras and flower pots adds only a soup├žon of pollution.

He can't sleep on 29th night as the fire crackers keep him awake. So on 30th (Deepawali day in North India), he sleeps most of the day and is groggy, disoriented, and slurring with a low response rate to even direct question. 

Photo: www.indiatimes.com
As expected the firecrackers are even worse on 30th night. It starts with my father's neighbor solicitously inquiring if I have given Anna a sedative so that he can sleep while they burst crackers, right outside his bedroom window, for a few hours! Seriously!?! I know it is going to be terrible when I see Mr. Neighbor take crackers out from the overflowing boot of a Maruti Esteem. 

I am dumbstruck. At a complete loss to understand what this neighbor is thinking.

Anna sleeps all morning again.

On 31st evening Anna is quite a chatty-cathy with me. He tells me about the Deepawali fire crackers of his childhood.

Nov 2015: Anna in front of the
sparkler exhibit at Saket Select Citywalk
First there were the hand-made wire sparklers. It seems that they would buy thick wire and cover it with a paste of sulfur, aluminium powder and local glue. This sparkler did not need a high temperature to burn (just ~400C vs the minimum of 1000C). It was a cheap solution as there was never really any money to spare to burn in their family.

Then there was the atom bomb! It was a large iron rod with a hollow bolt at one end. This bolt was filled with a mixture of sulfur and potassium permanganate, packed down and tied with string and cloth. Then they would run around the village hitting it against walls (including temple walls) to create a huge bang! The iron & hollow bolt contraption was safely hidden after Deepawali to be taken out for the next Deepawali, as the village blacksmith made the contraption for a couple of annas. 

Photo: wackystuff on flickr.com
There were also match box burners. It seems that they spent all year (from one Deepawali to the next), collecting matchboxes. They then built a matchbox snake. A matchbox was inserted about 1/3rd the way into another matchbox to create a snake-chain. If they wanted to have a bigger fire, pieces of wood were inserted into the matchbox snake. Then this was lit at one end and watched as it burnt, flames suddenly jumping when they hit the dry tinder in the snake-chain.

He says the most fun he had was with box trains. It seems that he and his brothers would save every box they could lay their hands on. Then tie them with string to create as long a train as they could. These were just boxes tied with string that they dragged around the house making steam-train noises. Then at the end of the day, all these trains went into a big bonfire.

It takes a lot of patient questioning to get the details from him. I am fascinated as we chat for nearly 2 hours of simple pleasures at a simpler time.

I leave him exhausted and asleep on the sofa.