8 February 2009

Zealous Reformers, Deadly Laws

I have finally finished a most remarkable book by Madhu Purnima Kishwar. I met Madhu in Seattle and had the opportunity of interacting with her personally for a few hours. So, while reading the book I felt I had a face and personality talking to me, which added a richness to my experience.

The book has some fantastic reviews (The Hindu is one) out there and I won't expand on it, instead as usual, I'll give you my personal take on the book. The reason I picked up the book was because it was about women's laws in India. My knowledge on this issue is scant and I was curious to understand her opinions. In this book she covers laws on a number of women's issues like dowry, sati, harassment and inheritance. She illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of these laws combined with a powerful analysis of its usefulness in the real world. Each law is dealt as a separate essay and was penned during her tenure with Manushi, her journal, so it's not current news. Although, it is highly possible that these laws have changed little in the past decade so you can't entirely be dismissive of her perspectives.

The book is intellectually heavy and stimulating. It is also supremely informative, coherent and darkly humourous. I did indeed learn about most issues pertaining to women's laws. Perhaps, the most startling feature is Madhu's honesty - she clearly admits that the strategy her organization initially had to protest dowry harassment (public outcry outside the husband's home) did not help. It created a stir but still left the wife estranged and helpless. That is a laudable feat: the ability to say that something didn't work and re-focus your effort on the bottom line viz., how do you ensure women are not harassed for dowry? She now feels that changing inheritance laws and encouraging parents to take married daughters back into their house coupled with better education for girls, might work better. We Indians love belonging in a society and she rightly identifies that strengthening the society safety net for married daughters while providing them asset-generating dowries (FDs in her name, property etc) empowers them more, instead of asking for more stringent anti-dowry laws that create strife and are easily abused (by women and men). I have elaborated on just one of her essay topics. But all essays are similar in vein: they provide rich detail on the situation and then she provides what she thinks are better solutions.

I found her informative on inheritance laws as well; I didn't realize how poorly we women come out in the laws for inheriting ancestral or self-acquired parental property. She also has a zinger on Deepa Mehta's Fire, which caused a major social upheaval in India. She trashes the movie not for the concept, but for its execution and the film directors' lack of not presenting a more real situation. I honestly didn't like the movie, just as a movie and never really felt strongly enough to debate about its merits or demerits, so this was a highly amusing piece for me to read.

Overall, the book has provided me a wonderful framework to understand women's laws in India and help me contextualize any recent blurb I read about it in the news. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in women's issues in India.

Why I run

Yesterday, I stepped out into the London morning and began my run. A few minutes later I entered Regents Park. After half a mile, my breathing settled down into a routine and my legs started following their own rhythm, leaving me feeling absolutely in bliss. Recently, I have also started a meditation practise but it pales in comparison to the feeling I have when I am running. It's the only time I feel I am living in the moment - there exits no past, no pain and no future. Truly peaceful. The only other time I have felt this "oneness" is while I am dancing and I am wondering if its something about a physical activity that makes me feel 'in the zone'. Adrenalin, perhaps? Hard to say, but any analysis is quite academic because I feel good doing this and am going to continue unless that status quo changes.

Running a marathon was not on my list of things to do but it became an idea when I cheered on the thousands at the NYC marathon. Then an opportunity called Asha presented itself and I just resisted. Everything felt like a bigger priority - PhD, the logistics of training, the fear of injury and the overwhelming anxiety of being unable to finish. So that year I balked and told myself that when my life settles (what a useless term, I now think) I will train. The next year the marathon coordinator called again and I was impressed that they followed up. I caved and went for my first run to central park. I woke up at 5, drove into manhattan, was late, had to park in an horrendously expensive parking garage and worried my outfit/ shoes weren't right. I was greeted by a smiling coach and 20-odd runners of various capacities. We started running and I haven't looked back since. The whole training has transformed the way I look at myself physically and emotionally. In fact, its been so transfomative that I would recommend running a marathon to anyone with self -esteem issues. Of course there were other incentives - I ran for a cause which made motivation easier, had a fabulous support team (friends who reserved parking for me in mid town and had meals ready later! etc) and a generous donor base.

Running has helped me in several ways. It has given me the confidence to accomplish anything; all I need is a good plan and dedication. It gives me something to do and talk about. It allows me to enjoy parks, running trails and water fountains like never before. I have had several "flashing lightbulb" ideas while running and its changed the way I think about packing such as, "how many shorts should I take?" Lastly, its helped me become more spiritual, strange as that may sound.

It has also taught me that I had a lot of prejudices and ideas about an activity without even trying it, which is not always the best way to enjoy life. Our mind is a powerful organ and if it has the will, you will feel like a Kenyan even though you might be running like a tortoise. So go out there and experience things for yourself. If you would like to get started with a marathon training program, please do consider running for Asha.

(P.S. the team asha webpage is looking funny on my computer right now, but the individual links are working fine)