Swati Vakharia is an IT expert, who has started her website with a vision for women

Swati Vakharia is an IT expert, who has started her website with a vision for women

One good thing about blogging is you get to meet like-minded people in the virtual world. Swati Vakharia is an IT expert based in Baroda, with a company of her own. When I came across the website www.womenpla.net started by her, I quite liked the mix of content in the site. We got talking and here are the questions I asked Swati and her replies are interesting and thought-provoking…

What according to you is the biggest challenge Indian women face right now?

In India, we have a list of challenges actually! But the biggest one I feel is “safety”. Why is it that we never feel safe when we are stepping out of our homes? I have visited few other countries and I have seen women safely stepping out, in some places even at midnight.

India is our home and it really feels bad if we do not feel safe in our own country. I have seen many Indians do not allow their daughters, wives, sisters to work or study in other states of the country as they are not sure how safe that place would be for them. This situation constantly curbs the freedom of Indian women.

From the issue of rape in India, to Indra Nooyi’s confessions to Satya Nadella’s remark on pay hike, do you feel that the social scenario for Indian women is turning out to be really morbid?

I feel really bad that India is the 4th most dangerous country for women in the world according to a survey conducted by TrustLaw Women. From safety to self-respect women are always walking on the road of compromise. There is a need in a change of mentality in our society. It’s high time we all take a stand. 

Why did you want to launch a website like Women Planet?

Well, Women Planet is an attempt to get all those (and not only women as the perceived notion might be) together who believe that women hold immense potential to make a real difference. We are looking at this website as a platform to get not only like-minded people but people from different walks of life to share their experiences. The content of the website aim to educate, empower and entertain.

I love the way you write www.womenpla.net beta then cross it into beti. What’s the idea behind it?

Indians most often prefer a boy child over a girl. This is our way of showing that the girl child is equally important. We redesigned and re-launched www.womenpla.net few months back and as it is working in beta mode, we planned to write it as beti to pass on our message in a little different way.

Swati campaigning against female foeticide

Swati (left) campaigning against female foeticide

There are so many websites on women, how do you plan to be different?

I am happy that people are really coming up with something or the other to support women. I am not attempting to be different but I want to give genuine and usable information to my readers so I have a panel of experts where we have doctors, nutritionists, make-up artists, mind healers, psychiatrists, astrologers and more.

You are also having an annual magazine. When most of the bigger magazines are folding up how do you plan to survive?

The annual magazine is our attempt to get connected with more and more people and spread awareness and happiness. We are thankful to some corporate firms who supported us in our first edition of the magazine. The magazine is an extension of the website at the moment and that is why we are giving out free copies. Link for magazine download: http://womenpla.net/annual-booklet

What next from here?

We would like to conduct seminars, workshops, events to debunk myths around women and create new perceptions. We have many ideas and plans and with our expertise in online media, our initiatives in print media and our charitable trust womenplanet.org coming up soon we will be able to execute our plans in a bigger way.

For instance we want to come up with a hand booklet on health and hygiene and distribute them in rural areas where girls really lack the education and information in tackling these things.

 

Lit up balconies during Diwali in Dubai

Lit up balconies during Diwali in Dubai

Diwali in Dubai is truly a festival of lights. More than a week before the festival the balconies in numerous apartment buildings, in predominantly Indian neighbourhoods like Bur Dubai and Karama, look resplendent in beautiful lights and you cannot help but stop in your tracks to gaze at the breathtaking displays. On Diwali the diyas are lit at the doorways, sweets exchanged and colourful rangolis created.

And Diwali is also a time when people, you may not know too well and might not meet a lot during the entire year, call you over to their house to attend puja and aarti. It’s all part of the bonhomie that the spirit of the festival represents.

It was one such family home I stepped into this year only to leave with the feeling of sadness.

This family owns a sprawling apartment with a yearly rent of  at least Dhs 120,000 (Around Rs 2 crore), in an upmarket locality in Dubai. The extremely well-educated lady of the house was decked up in a saree and gold jewellery. The children and the man of the house, who is equally educated and holds a top post in a big company in Dubai, were wearing jazzy ethnic too.

Among the guests thronging the puja I noticed an elderly lady in a simple saree which was a stark contrast to the dress code in the household. She was occupying an inconspicuous corner among the last row of guests. Through the minimal interactions the family was having with her, I realized she was the mother-in-law.

As the puja started the family rattled off the shlokas (hymns), all from memory and I shifted in my place uncomfortably, thinking that I can’t chant a single shloka beyond the first line.

Then in my mind I started blaming my parents for my unawareness of the puja rituals and the sacred hymns because they never had a puja at home and my mother always said, “Be good to people. God resides in them. That is how you perform puja everyday.”

I ended up being different. I like going to temples, churches and dargas to pray. But yes, my mother has managed to pass on her beliefs to me to a great extent – I respect all religions, hence all human beings.

So here I was at the puja, arms folded, hoping for God’s blessings. The family took turns doing the aarti. First it was the lady of the house, then her son, then daughter, then husband. What about the mother-in-law? I thought it would be her turn next. But her turn never came. She performed pushpanjali and silently left the room.

I later came to know she was not allowed to perform aarti because she was a widow.

After all the education, all the money, all the veneration for God, they make an old lady stand in one corner and don’t let her perform aarti because she lost her husband?

I thought of my friend who lost his father at 12 and ensured that her mother ate non-vegetarian and wore colourful sarees, and lived a life away from these archaic Hindu customs. He stood up for her during his sister’s wedding and ensured that his mother was present at every ritual. I thought of my father and uncles, who had done the same with my grandmother more than 50 years back.

I felt thankful for what my family taught me and felt less regretful about not knowing the shlokas. I felt thankful that they instead told me about Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the man who introduced the Widow Remarriage Act in 1856.

As the prashad was being distributed I left their home wondering if God would be able to deliver them from darkness into real light one day.

diwali3

In our entire life we probably haven’t met one of them, and chances are we never would, but as soon the word “Devadasi” is mentioned to us our mind gets transported to the era of the Maharajas, to the Nat Mandir (dance hall of the temple) where a beautiful woman, resplendent in gold is dancing in front of God, in a classical dance style Odissi or Bharathanatyam.

Devadasis in ancient India

Devadasis in ancient India

But the adult and the enlightened mind knows that behind this beautiful picture is also the picture of a young girl sacrificed to the service of God, shackled to a life of sexual exploitation that throws her into a vicious cycle of social manipulation where a Davadasi’s daughter has to become a servant of God.

In fact, this post that I am writing today is about a few Devadasis in Karnataka who refused to continue to dance to the tune of Goddess Yellamma, to whose service they were dedicated at the age of six or seven. They wanted a way out of the system and send their children to school and its people like you and me who have shown them the way.

When the NGO Milaap – you must have noticed them appearing in pop ups in numerous websites asking you to loan (mind it not donate) Rs 2500, to someone who needs it to change his or her life – claimed they have been helping Devadasis find a new future I wanted to know more. I came to know Milaap has joined hands with Mahila Abhivrudhimathu Samrakshana Samsthe (MASS) a collective of former Devadasis, and has been giving out loans to Devadasis to build a life for themselves.

I wrote to Sourabh Sharma, founder of Milaap.org and wanted to know real stories. Sourabh immediately got back with the relevant information. I realized the success stories are heart-warming and what is more fascinating is so many people have played a part in these success stories just by lending a part of their own income to the people who need it more.

A former Devadasi herself, Mahananda has employed four former Devadasis in her sewing business

A former Devadasi herself, Mahananda has employed four former Devadasis in her sewing business

Success story 1: Mahananda

This 34-year-old woman now employs four former Devadasis in her sewing enterprise. Her younger daughter studies in class eight, and plans to pursue a career in science. “Girls should prosper. I have painstakingly brought my daughters up so that they are able to live a good life and I want to see them prosper,” she says.

Shobha could not find employment for years till she started on her own, raising buffalos and selling milk

Shobha could not find employment for years till she started on her own, raising buffaloes and selling milk

Success Story 2: Shobha

Every year she made a promise to herself that she would find some job to earn a legitimate living but every year she realized no one was willing to employ a Devadasi. Every year she went back to selling her body but she was determined none of her four children would see the life she had seen.

So Shobha registered for help from MASS and Milaap and learned to raise buffaloes and sell their milk. She applied for a loan, and used the money to buy a buffalo. She saved, repaid her loan, and requested another. She bought more buffaloes, earned more. Today, she is securely out of the Devadasi system and her children are in school.

After Mangal's grocery store took off she got a marriage proposal which she accepted

After Mangal’s grocery store took off she got a marriage proposal which she accepted

Success Story 3: Mangal

Mangal’s success with her grocery store not only gave her and her teenage children a new life of dignity – it also got her a husband (given that no one marries Devadasis). They have a child together. And Mangal, who realized the importance of financial independence, continues to grow her business.

Here’s what I found out about the Devadasi system:

Does the Devadasi system still exist?

Although states like Orissa, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka claim that they have done away with the Devadasi system, Karnataka even passed the Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act in 1992 the National Commission of Women found out that Andhra Pradesh had 16,624 Devadasis within its state and Karnataka has around 22,941.

Mala took her first leap out of the Devadasi system when she opened her pan shop

Mala took her first leap out of the Devadasi system when she opened her pan shop

Who is a modern-day Devadasi?

French-American author Catherine Rubin Kermorgant spent four years researching among Devadasi women in Karnataka. She interviewed five women and wrote her book Servants of the Goddess: the modern-day Devadasis.

In her book she mentions Ganga who was dedicated to the Goddess because her father had promised to do so if her mother recovered from a serious ailment. Her mother recovered and she was made into a Devadasi – one woman’s life was finished to save another’s.

Although dedications are banned now but these are still carried out surreptitiously as the girl is bathed in neem and turmeric and taken before God and told about her duties which includes never retaliating to abuse and “giving shelter to strangers”.

Ganga further said, “Some landlords consider it a matter of prestige to deflower as many young girls as possible. In Mumbai, virgin Devadasis fetch a high price. By deflowering a Devadasi, a man can cure himself of disease. He can purify himself. If the goddess wills it, then it is possible.”

“And what about AIDS?” Catherine had asked
“It is said you can get rid of it by giving it to a client,” Ganga said.

The National Commission of Women say that women still become Devadasis because of dumbness, deafness and poverty. Women who are deserted by their husbands, widowed, or living with AIDS dedicate their children as Devadasis when they find it difficult to get them married. They subsist on the money that their daughter earns. In fact, most Devadasis now hail from poor families and are responsible for earning for the entire family.

So far the life expectancy of a Devadasi has been low. She usually does not live beyond 50.

And even if she get’s out of the system it’s hard to make two ends meet and lead a good life. Read Ratnamma’s story.

Kallava became a Devadasi at six, gave birth to three children in her late 40s and now pays her children's school fees from her goat rearing buisness

Kallava became a Devadasi at six, gave birth to three children in her late 40s and now pays her children’s school fees from her goat rearing business

 

Former Devadasi Kasturi is in the textiles business

Former Devadasi Kasturi is in the textiles business

If you want to help another Devadasi to break free from the oppressive system go to www.milaap.org and give a loan. You will get your money back along with the satisfaction that you have changed somebody’s life.

If women are expected to dress decently in Kolkata men should be expected to do the same

If women are expected to follow a dress code in Kolkata men should too

Bidhannagar Police recently came up with tips to keep women safe in Kolkata, but they were criticized for being regressive and sexist. I think it is perfectly fine for the police to come up with tips for women to follow to ensure their own safety but the same ones should apply to men also. I have interpreted the same 12 tips for men and here it is….

1. Dress decently: Men should avoid wearing those sleeveless Ts with their underarms screaming for a shave, avoid those micro under wears while taking a bath openly right on the main road at community tube wells and avoid those lungis …about which the lesser said the better.

2. Have emergency speed dial numbers in your phone…so that you can be a real man and help people if they are in a difficult situation and not walk away thinking it’s none of your business.

3. Self defense…yes, more precisely martial arts. Learn the values of honouring women and protecting the weak and poor that these art forms stand for.

4. Be aware of people around you…and not keep scratching your crotch in public or urinate in public places, smoke on people’s faces, use the choicest expletives while conversing loudly in a public place with friends or over your mobile, huddle together in front of “FL Liquor” shops and drink openly.

5. Avoid late nights…this is a must. Inebriated men, motorbike gangs, men on the prowl, should retire to bed early.

6. Carry pepper spray...then you will be aware of the fear and the desperation that drives a woman to carry a spray.

7. Be well behaved… ensure that you do not stare at the breasts and bums of every passing woman, don’t pass comments and cat calls, don’t attempt rape, molest or commit rape.

8. Stay in groups…Grouping sensitized men with insensitive ones will help in halting moral degeneration. Ensure you stay with such groups.

9. Avoid travelling in crowded buses or trains…because this way you get into a situation when you can’t keep a check on your libido and your hands start wandering around. Avoid it.

10. Avoid going to isolated places…once again if you spot a lone woman in an isolated place your urge to show your power and manhood might get the better of you.

11. Walk in well-lit and frequented areas…this way people can see you and you can keep your animal instincts under check.

12. Be street smart…Urban dictionary interprets street smart as: “A person who has a lot of common sense and knows  what’s going on in the world. This person knows what every type of person has to deal with daily and understands all groups of people and how to act around them. This person also knows all the current things going on in the streets and knows how to make his own right decisions, knows how to deal with different situations and has his own independent state of mind.” Every man should be this.

 (This post is not meant to generalise men in Kolkata but it has been written to make a point.)

Swati Singh worked with designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee for four years

Swati Singh worked with designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee for four years

I was meeting my old school pal Swati Singh after more than a decade. But I don’t know why sitting by the window of Café Coffee Day on Ekdalia I was filled with anticipation. Maybe this was because the Swati I knew was one of the prettiest girls in our school, she was a great dancer, a superb singer and a fantastic painter and I was waiting to see how she’d turned out after so many years.

Swati was working as an assistant designer with Sabysachi Mukherjee, the man who probably commands the highest price in India when it comes to his creations, and gets away with it too.

But during our conversation over the phone when we were planning our meet Swati told me, “I have quit!”

“Why…?”

“I will tell you when we meet,” was all she said.

I waited for Swati looking out for her red Maruti, the car in which we had travelled to so many movies, birthday parties and luncheons, not realizing that it probably hadn’t stood the test of time.

Swati emerged from a white car in a bang-on-trend black and white striped maxi dress looking like a dream.  When it came to complimenting her I did not know where to start and where to end.

“It’s all make-up yaar. If I want to convince others to hire me as a make-up artist the first thing I should show them is my own make-up, right?”

Swati likes to work on her own make-up to give people an idea of what they can expect

Swati likes to work on her own make-up to give people an idea of what they can expect

She told me she wanted to start off as a make-up artist on her own so she tossed up her four-year-old job with Sabyasachi that involved overseeing the production at his Topsia workshop and ensuring that each piece met the standards he had set.

“It was a wonderful experience, I learned a lot and I am grateful to Sabyasachi for giving me this opportunity but I wanted to pursue my own creativity.”

While she was excelling at her work at Sabyasachi’s workshop, her personal life was all about dealing with ups and downs. Being in an unhappy marriage for several years and later on dealing with the consequences of a separation was draining for Swati. But she believed in fighting it out.

“I knew that I had to start my life from scratch. I had to stand on my own feet, I had to move on. So many times I was on the verge of having an emotional and physical breakdown but I didn’t give up. While dealing with the mental trauma of a disturbed personal life I struggled to keep my creativity alive…”

Swati with Marvie at her hair and make-up academy in Mumbai

Swati with Marvie at her hair and make-up academy in Mumbai

She’s taken a professional make-up and hair styling course at the Marvie Ann Beck Make-up and Hair Academy in Mumbai and she is all set to step into the glamour world as a make-up artist. Swati’s also got back to painting, something she always wanted to do but never had time for because of her busy schedule and she is selling her work through her Facebook page which she has aptly named Colours of Hope.

“I know I am setting foot in a tough profession as a make-up artist because here nothing but word-of-mouth publicity will work for me and it won’t be easy but we have only one life and I don’t want to live with any regrets. It’s never too late to pursue your dreams,” she said with conviction.

She is starting off with bridal and party make-up but she wants to test her creativity with photo shoots and ramp styling too.

A Bengali bride before make-up

A Bengali bride before make-up

The same bride after Swati worked her brush strokes

The same bride after Swati worked her brush strokes

“I am taking one step at a time. I don’t want to rush things. There are some well-known make-up artistes in Kolkata and I respect the work they are doing. I hope and believe I will be able to make a space for myself here,” she said.

When I left CCD that day I kept thinking of the Swati I knew – a talented girl bordering on the shy sometimes, who never believed in breaking any rules and I thought of the Swati now – brimming with confidence, not afraid to live her dream.

Life has put her through the tests but she has transformed her negative experiences to emerge a positive person. She has mustered the courage to be what she wants to be. I couldn’t help but admire her for that.

Swati at work

Swati at work

Some quick questions I asked Swati and here’s what she said:

What’s the biggest make-up mistake we all make? Not blending the blush-on well which makes it look patchy and also neglecting the neck while applying the foundation only on the face.

One make-up item that can alter your looks drastically…..A well defined kajal or eye liner

A quick fix for unruly hair…Hair pulled back and tied into a tight ponytail at the centre or on one side of the neck. Taking small sections of the loose hair, twist and pin up forming a messy bun. Spray hair fixer generously. It looks very chic and works with every look.

A Bollywood actress you want to work with…Kangana Ranaut

A Tollywood actress you want to work with…Swastika Mukherjee

A model you want to work with…Noyonika Chatterjee

A challenge you want to take up…Life is full of challenges but the biggest and toughest challenge is to ‘maintain your smile’ at all times. I just want to keep smiling.

Swati's all-new visiting card

Swati’s all-new visiting card

 

Salman Khan (photograph from the internet)

Salman Khan (photograph from the internet)

Controversy’s favourite child Salman Khan has done it again. This time he has rubbed the media the wrong way. At the promotion of his film Kick, his bouncers roughed up a few photographers while Salman added insult to injury saying that those who wanted to stay back, could do so and the rest could carry on (read details http://www.ibtimes.co.in/after-shraddha-kapoor-photographers-boycott-salman-khan-kick-actor-says-he-respect-their-604409)

While the photographers have come together and put a ban on clicking this Khan till July 25, the date of release of his film, many Khan friends and associates are putting the blame on them for being too aggressive and high-handed.

While reading this report my interaction with Salman Khan in 2009 came to my mind. He had come to Dubai to promote his film London Dreams. He was supposed to make a late night entry and the PR who was coordinating with us accordingly, even told us that we might have to hop in to his hotel as late as 11pm or even midnight. Salman never arrived and the PR stopped taking calls.

A couple of days later another PR informed us that he would meet the press at Grand Hyatt at a more reasonable time, 12noon, and he was willing to give one-on-one interviews. When I arrived, we were told that he was running late so all journalists were asked to gather together as an informal press conference.

I was particularly keen to meet Salman because most of my journo friends said that he was a delight to interview. One even went on to say that in the explosive quotes department, Salman might just take second place to Rakhi Sawant if he was in the right mood.

I was disappointed that there would be no one-on-one interaction, but I was more than happy to see that I had been given a chair just next to Salman’s empty one.

I always thought among the Khans, Salman was the only one who had really shaped up like good wine – he had become more handsome with age, more entertaining, a better dancer and a better person, considering that when he broke up with Aishwarya he went and broke down her apartment door and then when he broke up with Katrina he let her have a life with Ranbir…or whoever…minus the threats and the persecution from him.

I had really started liking his Being Human endeavours and wanted to ask him a host of questions on that.

Salman entered the room, looking as handsome as ever, his long hair tied back with a hair band – a fashion statement not many people could carry off. He came and sat next to me. Then my troubles started.

Salman lit a cigarette. I was three months pregnant then but wasn’t showing or hadn’t broken the news to my other journo friends present there. And I felt odd breaking the news like that in order to stop Salman Khan from smoking. So I started thinking quickly.

I told him, “I am acutely allergic to cigarette smoke. Can you please not smoke?”

Salman did not say a word but kept looking at me unapologetically as he took another drag from the cigarette.

My mind was racing. I thought that just for sitting next to Salman Khan I could not expose my unborn to cigarette smoke. I quickly got up and told him that I needed to sit far away from him. He just shrugged.

I found a place at the farthest corner of the room. I shouted my questions from there and he shouted back his answers. I even managed to snap him out of his disinterested mood by asking questions on Being Human, the only thing he was ready to talk about apart from London Dreams of course.

Later on I thought would Salman have stopped smoking if I had told him that I was pregnant? I have my doubts. Because allergy to cigarette smoke is a grave enough reason to make anyone stop smoking. In fact, it’s basic human courtesy to stop smoking if anyone says he/she finds it uncomfortable to inhale cigarette smoke for health reasons. I feel this basic courtesy applies to film stars also. And I have met many stars who are actually courteous enough to ask, “Can I smoke?” before they light up.

But Salman treated me with the same attitude he extended towards the photographers at the Mumbai event – stay if you want to, go if you want to. I came back with a very bitter taste in my mouth but I was happy I could take my stand and not expose my baby to the smoke toxins.

PS: It’s another matter that my 4-year-old son is now a big Salman Khan fan.

 

amritaspeaks:

A beautiful short story by fellow blogger Fiza…

Originally posted on insaneowl:

Kasha: The love of a Hijra

by Fiza Pathan

DIGITAL CAMERA

My name is Lily and I am a Hijra belonging to the Hijra or the eunuch community of Mumbai. My Guru baptized me with this name after my operation, when my private parts were chopped off from my body infront of all my Hijra friends and elders, as a sign that now I had become one of them. My Guru named me Lily, for she felt that I was as pure as a lily flower and because I spread the fragrance of my love all through the shambles of the shanty in which we resided in.

After my operation I started to wear a sari like a woman. My Guru taught me the body language of a Hijra, and after a few months, I was acting like a regular Hijra. I would spend my morning and afternoon at signal stops begging…

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