Ask a Feminist | Q. 11 How do I argue against the perception that feminism equals to misandry? by Tara Kaushal

I answer questions that are burning your bras and run this column as a makeshift guide to the feminist way of life.

I know you say that feminism is not a fight between genders but between philosophies—of patriarchy vs equality. I'd like some more counterpoints against the 'feminism=misandry' stand. We often get into arguments about this in college, and I want to shut that shit down.

“The image of male-bashing feminists has been popularised to an extent that we heard a budding teenage feminist assure boys in the room, ‘I am not a feminazi!’ (We’ll get into the problematic etymology another day.) It shouldn’t be a surprise that, in a patriarchal setup traversing different degrees of sociocultural deprivation, the ethos of the feminist movement is grossly misinterpreted. After all, it has always been easy to discredit anything women do as disproportionate the instant they humanise the stories of their oppression. Even though we struggle on days to get through the daily quota of violation we DIDN’T ask for without hating on one guilty man at a time, the movement is about forming allies, and any form of misandry under the guise of feminism is a loophole that we strive to recognise and discourage collectively.”

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This column appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape.

Thoughts on Love by Tara Kaushal

This month, it is 10 years since Sahil and I got together. To commemorate, I’m going to take a break from my usual acerbic postings and share 30 daily thoughts about love, relationships, marriage, feminism, etc. Follow the series here, on Facebook and on Instagram.

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1. Marry your best friend

I met Sahil when I interviewed him for his first job in 2006; I was his first boss (and continue to be, clearly)! Straight off, I was blown away by the work ethic of this college student, especially since he had no financial reasons to be in the workforce so young. We promptly friendzoned each other, and became platonic best friends for two years as I dealt with the Bombay migrant experience, my father's death, a divorce and an alcoholic live-in boyfriend.

He listened when I told him the things I’d done that I was sure he’d turn away for: I had cheated on my husband, I had had abortions, I was as sexually promiscuous as he wasn’t. Once, when I had broken up with the boyfriend, Sahil tried to reach me over a whole weekend. I called him back on Monday morning. “Where were you?” he demanded. “Oh, I was with three boys this weekend.” He laughed, and never left.

I didn’t feel undeserving of his unconditional love; I returned it, as much as my heart, smaller than his, was capable of. In 2008, when his mother was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually took her this year, he leaned on me with impunity, despite knowing how confronting cancer was for me after the recent death of my father. We were lucky to have each other, then and now.

Ten years ago, as now, we are faced with a confusing dating-mating-love environment. Expectations, aspirations from and for ourselves and each other meet bewildering realities. If a healthy long-term relationship is what you seek, perhaps you should look again at those good guys you friendzoned?

2. Opposites may attract but…

As someone who has been in relationships forever (gosh, I’m ooold!), I do not believe that opposites make good relationships. The premise of this idea, from an evolutionary psychology point of view, is that the things lacking in one partner’s personality are made up by the other.

Take, for instance, an introvert with an extrovert. Sure, the extrovert adopts the role of maintainer of relationships; while the introvert, well, does what introverts do. But beyond this superficial completion is constant compromise about together time, by one or the other. When they stay in watching TV is compromise for one; when they party, for the other. Though my grandparents had a happy, easy 65-year marriage, Dadi still laments that they saw so little of India, despite the free tickets provided by their railway service. She loved and wanted to travel; he didn’t; they didn’t fight about it coz she quietly swallowed her desire. Ditto with pet lover vs not; antinatalist vs wanter of child; etc.

Sahil and I became friends because we had a lot of the same interests. In fact, when we hung out outside the office for the first time (a lovely evening, sitting on a pavement, people watching), we were mutually surprised by our mutual love of Dream Theatre and LTE. (We’ve since grown away from both bands’ music.) We each love(d) the arts, dancing, travel, friends, conversations… and so the things we do together are fun for each of us.

Should a partner complete or complement you? Sahil and I are both foodies, and I really wish one of us (him!) was one of those people who is a passionate cook. Jokes apart, the best relationships, IMHO, are between those with more shared interests than not. Of course you must have variations (how absolutely maddening would it be to be dating someone *exactly* like you); and you must grow together and individually; but the basics need to be there… Whatever you consider the basics, that is.

3. Be careful what you wish for

There are three parts of any relationship: you, me and us. At the outset, examine yourself, and what you want from a partner and relationship—and why.

You know, alongside the life stage issue, the reasons I friendzoned Sahil included wanting someone older than me (coz, maturity, Daddy complex); taller than me (coz I spent my childhood surrounded by strapping Naval Officers); who wasn’t in a conventional career (coz, left-brained therefore boring)! (Sahil is two years younger, of the same height, and was studying to be an engineer before joining the media then becoming a photographer.) While I’m happy for the magical friendship this resulted in, I look back and recognise how ridiculous some of my criteria were! (Though I endorse my anti-conventional-career stand—I knew enough about myself to know that neither the mind space nor the lifestyle of a conservative would work for me.) 

For an egalitarian relationship, what you want and what you provide should be equal or complementary. Want to sow your wild oats but want a virgin bride? Want someone to look after your parents but not her maike issues? Want to work only until marriage, then leave all the financial stress to him? Want a jealous-possessive type—until it’s too much? Uh-uh. What’s fair for the goose is fair for the gander.

… And why did I—why do we—subscribe to the cult of the bad boy? Bad boys are exciting! Doesn’t society and culture teach us that love is supposed to be a rollercoaster of drama? That the love of a good woman will fix a damaged bloke? So we don our maternal instincts and set out to change what drew us to them in the first place. Odds are, the pain will not be worth it. As I read somewhere, you can only make an honest man out of an honest man.

4. Love in the time of feminism

One of the reasons relationships are harder today is because women seek feminist men—yes, even those who are undeclared or partly formed feminists, who don’t articulate it as such.

Newly exposed to liberation and education, we have more expectations than our foremothers did—to wear jeans, to work or to expand our worlds in other ways. Within our cultural milieus, we seek broadminded men with softness in their masculinity, and hope for more egalitarian marriages than our parents had a mere generation ago. And many men, like all privileged parties, would like to retain the systems that favoured them—subjugation through the ideas of ‘a good wife’, virginity and honour; the packed tiffin boxes; the lack of domestic load; etc.

In a poor household I studied, all five brothers had barely studied till the 10th; all four sisters were postgraduates. Trapped at home and allowed out only occasionally with male guardians, the women kept themselves busy doing correspondence degrees—in secret, until they needed permission to attend exams, when all would be revealed to and accepted by the family males. What next? “Sapne bahut hai. Bus, dekho, shaadi kahan hoti hai,” said one. As much as the sisters loved them, they hoped for men better than their brothers. Tellingly, one of their sisters-in-laws had left because: “Woh padhi-likhi thi, usne job bhi kiya tha. Shaadi ke baad ghar pe baithke unka man nahi laga.”

Not that women are entirely done with the preexisting paradigms either. Many still enjoy jealous/older and higher-earning partners—cognitive dissonance sometimes seen even in the most examined of feminists. As we’re all negotiating who we are and what we want for ourselves and from others, things can be confusing!

IMO, you are fairly set if you find a partner who believes in equality plus has a growth mentality. Because the world today is all about examining structures, ourselves and each other, and growing, changing, adapting…

5. Public display of divorce

I spoke casually about being divorced much before I got remarried, much before I found love with Sahil.

Personally, it is because I believe in being an ‘integrated personality’: being the same person in all situations while responding to context. Also, some secrets are overrated and too much baggage. I have been divorced; that's one of the things that has happened in my life. I also do it for grander sociological reasons: to help relax the social stigma around divorce, and for people to know that it's okay, even at the worst times.

I faced no stigma—I know people have it much worse. So, I ask this: what’s the big deal? A woman lost her hymen (which I hope she wasn't preserving for marriage anyway); a couple lived together, someone thought s/he'd be happier elsewhere (or worse, the partner thought s/he'd be happier elsewhere), and… So fucking what?

Of course, women bear the brunt of the social censure. And just as one of the reasons for the divorce epidemic in urban India is women's earning power and independence (we don't need to take shit anymore), it is this very aspect that will immunise you against it. Family is what it is, but generally, surround yourself with people who'll support you, or mind their own business. Grow a thicker skin; get and stay financially independent.

No gain without pain: This is not to say that divorce was a cakewalk. It wasn't. At 22, I left Chennai for Mumbai with little money, a broken heart, no job, an on-off BF and no maike as my parents were without a home during my dad's illness. But through the pain was an understanding that this was a choice. I would rather be here than back in a marriage I did not want. (And, I know this is simplistic to say about divorce, but hey, I've been through enough painful breakups to know: even if your spouse is the one who wants out and you think it's being lumped on you… would you really want to stay with someone who doesn't want to be with you?) Though times were much worse than in the marriage, I knew that, eventually, I'd be happier. Eventually.

Read my long-form piece about divorce here.

6. Towards a rainbow-coloured world

I’m jittery with ecstasy! Congratulations all around—but particularly to members of the LGBTQIA+ community! May this herald a change in your collective and individual lives! May you live happily ever after! And, so sorry this has taken so long—the verdict is right, we DO owe you an apology for the years of systemic and sociocultural persecution. Gay rights are human rights, and have finally been seen as such.

In India and other conservative countries, rights and consent are not of the individual but of the community. Particularly reproductive rights, particularly of women. This explains everything from child and forced marriages to Section 377 that criminalised all sex against the “order of nature” (ie, for pleasure and not reproduction). So when the judiciary delivers such a progressive judgement—putting the individual and their happiness above all else, making consent the heart of the matter—it bodes well for the fight for equal and human rights all around. Any justice system should pick the side of rightness and reform, because, more than we acknowledge, laws have the power to guide social mores. And it has! So thank you, Justices Dipak Misra, RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, for your legacy.

Here’s the link to a piece I wrote about the lives and loves of Rohan and Avil, Ashok and Christopher in 2014. In it, Rohan described an odd sense of insecurity: “Avil and I were celebrating our one-year anniversary at a club in Andheri, and kissed at 12. We were pushed out of the place and had to defend ourselves, and were followed by eight bouncers.” With the law finally on our side, let us as allies pledge to never let something like this happen again.

In the words of Edie Brickell: “Go where the love is, and you won’t be lost again.” India, thank you for choosing love.

7. More PDA, please

Most traditional societies and religions don’t like love. Love is blind, and deaf to reason, ‘honour’, society, status, money, norms. It beckons their young (daughters, in particular) away from their fold, un-enslaves them from ‘mummy-daddy’, and makes them—gasp—free-willed. It breeds in young, reckless minds and hearts, and feeds on Bollywood happily-ever-afters, romantic notions and lust. It grows in the generation gap like an insidious sapling in a wall crack. It is a subversive, idealistic idea, that disregards social, political, economic, religious, caste barriers like no preaching, media or education can achieve.

Which is why we’re okay with Public Displays of Anger, Aggression, but hold hands in public and the police gets its knickers in a twist! Even in our movies: rarely does violence ever receive as much censure as the humble bedroom scene. What norms are we setting: that love, lust, happy-making things are not okay, while anger, hate, dishoom-dishoom, yeah, they’re just fine, signs of masculinity, justice, society.

For a happier society, we need to recognise, internalise and channelize the positives of love; just as we need to take a foot off the violence that we proffer as a solution to small or big, perceived or real wrongs. The Centre pays up to 50k to each inter-caste couple that has one spouse as Dalit, a phenomenon long suggested by social reformers as the best tool to weaken the barriers of caste segregation. The SC has even ruled that the police should protect a legal inter-religious marriage, and has repeatedly upheld the rights of consenting adults. Like it did yesterday, by abolishing Section 377.

Because it is for the same reasons that traditional cultures so fear romantic love that we need to protect it. So come on, do some PDA.

Here’s a longer piece I wrote on the power—and fear—of love.

8. Past imperfect

Many people have problems with their partners’ romantic-sexual pasts. Me included, at first—so ironic and hypocritical considering I had such a colourful one and Sahil had none of significance! This just tells you how insecure I was at 25; and how his love has changed me since. He has made me believe I am worthy; his love has been constant. (There’s a reason I say he has a much larger heart than I do, and that mine has grown because of him.)

Not that I have been entirely praise-less in the matter. I left the people of the past where they belonged. If you’re going to be FB stalking your One True Love <insert sad violin music> from when your eyes met when you were 16, even the most secure of partners would become insecure. Also, your past experiences serve as a pivot for your personality. To illustrate—the child of an alcoholic can be an alcoholic, claiming nurture or even nature; or a teetotaller, having seen the havoc the parent’s habit wreaked. So, I’ve been on a slow and steady journey to leave the pain and negative patterns of the past in the past. Though I was in a much better relationship than I had ever been in, I was ready to trigger my ‘flight’ response in even the smallest of arguments, until S reasoned that (and other unhealthy behaviours) out of me. “I love you like mad, but I respect myself too much to take this much shit,” he once said. ‘If you never heal from what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people who didn’t cut you.’

If you have a problem with your partner’s exes, aches and pains, like I did, can’t you see how juvenile it is?! (Unless your partner’s past is in the present, when your concerns are totally valid and need to be addressed.) Especially as we get into relationships as we are older—everyone has a past, or there’d be something wrong with them.

A long time ago, Sahil had said something very beautiful. Though he wished I'd never have had to go through the divorce and other disasters, he was damn glad I did: "It's your journey that makes you the person you are, and I love you the way you are," he said. "And, if you hadn't got divorced, you wouldn't be with me!"

The past is only as relevant as you make it. You’re here now. Make the most of it.

9. Forge your own path

There is no one type of relationship, as long as you, me and us, the three parts of any relationship, are happy.

It’s important to remember this as you are pitching all three against the expectation of conveyor-belt lives, on all fronts including romance… Find appropriate person, get married, stay monogamous, have baby, have baby, you get the picture. As if every woman is presented with an obvious choice between career and family in her mid-to-late twenties. The image of married life concludes in a fuzzy binary of powerful men who cheat on their middle-aged wives versus happy couples who settle into boring grihasti.

You may not subscribe to some or any of these norms; borne of thousands of years of relative stasis that don’t cater to our rapid evolution into multiplicities. Our palettes are exposed to newer ways of being and a world more sexualised than ever before; and the internet that connects us to like-minded people, blurring the distinction between normal and abnormal. The difficulty of actually choosing which rules to live by requires extensive self-examination. And—if a long-term relationship is indeed what you seek—a like-minded partner.

A friend says that polyarmory is his answer to the common interests and companionship I sought in one person. He does different things with different partners, getting just the best of all. Which is one way to look at it; another is that those are then fair-weather relationships, aren’t they? Sickness, depression, bad times are nobody’s idea of fun… A couple told me recently about how they are finding a way to open their 10-year-long marriage. “We love each other deeply and forever, but monogamy wasn’t created for when we lived till 85! We can’t imagine the 50 yawning years ahead…” Whatever works for you is valid.

Sahil and I live in no particular way but our own. As should you. Because if there is anything to be said about happiness, it’s that happiness means different things to different people. As does happily ever after.

10. The wind beneath each other’s WINGs

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Sahil and I end up coordinating our clothes quite often—either by choice or chance. (Today’s was a coincidence, believe it or not!) It’s because our wardrobes comprise similar colours, patterns and prints. S wore bespoke printed shirts before I met him thanks to his creative and super-involved mother; my influence is the OTT colours (and the reduction of browns, a colour I hate with a passion). He got me to wear dresses (that I once thought didn’t work for my body type but now love), the shorter the better.

In another context, a friend and I were discussing how comfortably we police other people and their bodies, especially those we are related to and/or are in relationships with, especially men to women. Don’t go here, don’t wear this, don’t meet X, don’t, don’t, don’t. We’ve grown up with these paradigms, where family serves as the primary agent of society in its conflict against individuality. When a friend tossed her burka to be a cutting-edge feminist, her grandmother ended up in hospital. When another wanted to break her engagement, her grandfather threatened suicide. (She proceeded with the wedding, then divorced when grumpy grandpa died.)

In a modern partnership, just don’t. Don’t be an impediment to the personal evolution of your partner. Commercial menswear is a sobering reminder that men are denied most of the colour spectrum and all prints that aren’t checks or stripes. (Aside: as the historically dominant gender, why would they do that to themselves?!) So when S tries nail paint or experiments with (steals!) my hair accessories, why would I deny him self-expression?

Further, play the role of an enabler. Enable your partner to go in the direction they want, as well as open their minds to directions you think might be beneficial to them. And be in their corner. When a snarky aunty told me I was making S a girl; when another pointed out the length of my dresses; when a troll on a bikini picture told me I was “not the way (he) liked Indian women”—we stood up for each other. (The relatives got lectures on liberty, the futility of gender norms and mind your own business; S informed the troll that he, the husband himself was the one who took the picture so fuck you very much.)

Remember, be the happy person behind the happy person.

11. The love bank

One of the reasons Sahil and I moved to a work-from-home lifestyle is because I had an epiphany that we spend our best waking moments with colleagues, leaving the dregs for our favourite people—spouse, friends and family. (Oh, we work like crazy, just in the same space as each other, and at a pace that accommodates other aspects of life.) Since we embarked on this lifestyle where we’re mostly always together, I’ve had this rule—when I’m out for more than a few hours, I buy him something special from wherever I’ve been. 95% of the time it’s a food thing; sometimes it’s a shirt fabric that caught my eye or a book he’d been mentioning. These gifts, not expensive or effort-heavy, are my deposits into the love bank.

This love joint account theory is my wise Aunt Alice’s. As she explains it, you make individual and joint deposits into your account whenever you can. There are whole host of things that can go in—love letters, gifts, cakes and holidays. And your partner and you may not have the same saving strategy—as long as they value what you want to deposit, and your individual contributions are about equal. S doesn’t get me presents every time he leaves the house (that would be hard AF). One of his rules is to make me belly laugh at least twice a day, from pulling funny faces and cracking PJs to breaking into elaborate oafish dances. (Some days take more effort than others, clearly.) He also gets me flowers on most Saturday mornings. Then there’s the fact that he gave me the financial freedom to work on Why Indian Men Rape—an intangible and priceless whopper deposit.

Keep track of this account. Overlook the occasional overdraft. But also remember this caveat: I said ‘when you can’. Love is not so transactional, and one of you may end up with an illness or something that makes you lean on the other disproportionately. Life’s just like that!

Make sure your account is topped up with happy memories and moments… so when you make withdrawals, you will be able to remind yourselves: how much have I, how much have we been happy.

12. Today’s my 10th anniversary!

Yes, mine, not ours.

Tonight, 10 years ago, I told Sahil I was in love with him. On Gtalk (of all inglorious things). Under pressure to explain why I wouldn’t hang out with him that evening and had been avoiding him for over a month (it’s true—I’d gone from seeing my bestie almost every day for two years to radio silence), I told him it was because I was in love with him.

The realisation had been a bolt from the blue. I’d attended two weekends of a life-management course. At The Landmark Forum, they made us call and thank people who played important roles in our lives. My answer to almost everything—3 am friend, person who broke down a door to rescue me when the lock was stuck, nurse during a severe bout of viral—had been Sahil. Bam! 

I was mortified that this had happened and at what I’d done. Not because ‘girls aren’t supposed to make the first move’ gender crap (I’d long since received my PhD in rejection), but because this was SAHIL. We had been poster children for platonic relationships. We had told everyone and ourselves we weren’t each other’s types. We’d carefully ignored any tentacles of attraction. We knew the most about each other than anyone else in the world did. I was shit scared. There was too much at stake. This was a disaster! 

“Don’t worry, I’ll get over it,” I said.
“I’m coming to get you,” he said.
He picked me up from my office. I wouldn’t look at him and talked 19 to the dozen about everything but—. We ate a roll in the car at Ayub’s. He dropped me home.

So this day each year we commemorate my bravery. And today has been a spectacular day—chilling in Chor Bazaar followed by a fancy dinner.

13. Cultural confusion

A close friend was telling me about someone who was going to marry a woman he had met through parents. “Ewww,” I said, displaying the disdain for arranged marriages I carry as a result of being the child of an inter-religious love marriage. My parents met on a road when the dog my father was walking jumped on my mother. They went on dates and kind-of lived together before they married four years later, despite religion-based familial differences.

I had several issues—one, arranged marriage presumes that all those from similar backgrounds turn out similar; two, the social pre-approval perpetuates a conservative cultural cycle; three, there is the matter of consent and agency; and then there is the decision-making over chai-samosas as one had seen in the movies… “Those last two points are rubbish,” said this friend, who had lived with, then married a man her parents had introduced her to, “you know it’s not a forced or instant decision anymore. They’ve even travelled abroad to a festival together.” So then arranged marriage setups are now family-approved long-term dating?

Or maybe not. A friend went for a few dates with a family-introduced man, only to have him communicate, via the parents, that he would like to date for a couple of years before he made a decision. A couple of years? My friend and her family thought this meeting of the arranged and dating cultures was unacceptable, so that was that. A divorced family friend gave up trying to find himself a match on Shaadi.com: “Invariably, by the third date, the women would bring up if/when we would get married… I was seeing it more as longer-term dating with intension.”

And the varieties of love. I sat chatting with the fiancée of one of my father’s country cousins at a relative’s wedding. “So, how did you meet?” It was at a daytime disco in New Delhi, when she’d borrowed his mobile to call her home. The next day he called and asked for her. “I love you,” were the first words he said, à la some filmy hero. They’ve been together ever since.

While some of us in urban India date and mate at will with wanton Western abandon, the newspapers are bursting with stories of vengeful jilted lovers in small towns, unable to accept that women are seeing futures for themselves beyond the men who covet them. (And a BJP MP recently offered to kidnap these women for them!) Desperate men flock to Tinder in the hopes of meeting some wild women, asking for pictures of ‘vagine’ and ‘bobs’. Not that the consensual dating-mating is simple either—what do I really know about this person? How much does texting count? Sex on the first date or on the third? What if it’s bad sex? Just casual or is there something here…? Are we a couple? The ‘L’ word? How does one break up?

As these styles of relationships with their unique protocols meet in blaze of cultural chaos, we are bound to fumble in our interpersonal dealings. The trick is to be kind, empathetic and simply polite, and communicate the in best way possible.

Read the longer piece I’ve written about this here.

14. Long-distance love

I am in Goa for a week before S joins me on this working holiday. Being here alone brings up memories of the year apart we did in 2010 as he studied photography in the States and six months earlier this year as I wrote in Australia. We have an almost co-dependent relationship; being without him is like having my heart beating outside my chest. I miss him like crazy; worse because I’ve fallen quite ill with the flu here.

Long-distance is fucking hard, especially if you’re aiming to be monogamous. S’s parents started dating in architecture college in Bombay, then spent four years apart as Dad went to the States for post graduation and work. Dad often laughs about the brevity of his letters to Ma, the letters that would take three weeks to traverse continents: “I was doing SMS before it was a thing!”

While there are so many more ways to communicate today, nothing makes up for Sahil’s smell; the rise and fall of his chest as I lie draped inelegantly across him; gazing at his grace as he goes about his business… Towards the end of my time in Australia, I had forgotten the colour of his eyes—calling them brown instead of the jet black that they are—something he still teases me about. Besides, the world is a lot more sexualised as well, so temptation lurks at every party, a swipe right in your vicinity… but these are your choices. I’ll say this, though: monogamous long-distance is only worth doing for IMPORTANT relationships.

The truth about being apart: this is life, this is love. If one of you needs time and space for your own growth and self-actualisation (or less romantic reasons, like a sick parent, visa issues, job, whatever), take that time and space. For the other, it can seem like an act of extraordinary strength and sacrifice to give space to the other when all you want is to hold them close. At another time, your roles may switch. To quote Kahlil Gibran, “Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

15. Romance and rejection

Although I knew so much about Sahil, and—if we could look at this love business objectively, like his mother and my ex-boyfriend did—we were exactly perfect for each other, I was terrified of rejection. Oh, not rejection in general, but of being rejected by him. Rejection and failure are essential by-products of trying, and any dynamic person has faced their fair share in life and love.

Truth is, there are so many varieties of and expectations from love. Besides, someone can be madly in love with you and still not be ready (I mean, he was 23, for goodness sake)! They can love you with their whole heart and still not take the leap. And then what? Were we to leave this magical friendship? How would we overcome the confusion in our equation? What when he found someone? What would we do?

My mum arrived from Australia the day after I told S that I was in love with him. In person in Bombay, and on the phone as I travelled to Delhi and Goa with her, S and I flirted wildly. It was weird, it was awkward. Was he interested? If he was indeed interested, what was taking him so long to say ‘let’s do this, let’s give it a shot’? I would find out what had been going through his mind a few days after we started dating…

But in the meantime, my fear simmered. We’ve been brought up to think that love is once in a lifetime, happily ever after. It takes a bit of adjustment to accept the reality that it is not. It’s a hard balance to strike, admittedly. The ‘fall’ in ‘falling in love’ implies a lack of control, a sweeping off the feet, a deep investment. Multiple loves and rejections require both, restraint and it’s opposite, recklessness. Restraint, because you want to try and try till you succeed (with the same person, aka stalking). Recklessness, because you have to stand up, start walking and be ready to fall, again. How do you stay excited and engaged while not letting yourself feel those peaks and valleys too deeply?

Love shit’s complicated. And that’s a good thing. Because if was too simple you’d have no reason to try.

16. Conscious coupling

Sahil arrives in Goa this morning! (Unfortunately, I’m too ill to pick him up from the station.) I remember another time he joined me in Goa… The year was 2014. I had been shooting here, and had stayed back so he could join me and we’d make a holiday of it. I’d finished early in the morning, around the time S’s bus was supposed to arrive. But it was many hours late, the AC had broken down, he’d had a miserable time.

I was waiting for him as he stepped off the bus into the blazing noon sun at Mapusa. When we talk about that trip, both of us remember the feeling of acute relief that washed over us at the sight of each other. So long as we’re together, who cares about the weather…? As we drove home in the cab, he asked to stop for something to drink, for Thums Up and Kings. “Don’t worry, baby, it’s all waiting for you at home.” And it was. I’d gone out with a pilot rider that morning; and had bought him the soft drink that he was then a drinker of and beer that is a quintessentially Goa thing. I’d left the AC running.

I felt a sense of joy and accomplishment to have *exactly* anticipated what he would want. Being in a relationship doesn’t mean you put another before you—no. It is mutually seeing happiness in their happiness, and therefore anticipating and, sometimes, prioritising their needs. But it’s important that it works both ways. If you’re constantly depositing in the love bank, and the other person isn’t, there’s a sense of disquiet and unhappiness that sets in. Ask me, I know.

S is a great, gentle, kind human being, as an absolute; with the bar set so low for what we consider ‘good’ men, he shines in comparison. This also meant that when we first got together, he thought he could just show up and be. Lives, however, do not run on love and fresh air. To receive you have to give; equally important, to give you have to receive. Don’t take each other or yourself for granted.

Anyway, he’s almost here. Looking forward to another great holiday over the next week.

17. Yeh under ki baat hai

My social media photos and the way I look when I’m dressed up belie the fact that I usually look quite awful in my usual jhalla makeup-free state (and when I’m sick, I look like hell on earth). Oftentimes, when I’m dressed to the nines, people will call Sahil “lucky” for scoring a woman who looks like me. Yes, a stranger did really call us “beauty and the beast”! Recently, an acquaintance we bumped into after a long time called out S’s greys, and laughingly told him he would lose me. (I know, right, WTF! Why would you erode someone’s security like that?!)

This really bothers me, for several reasons. For one, it assumes that beauty is only skin deep—mine and his. When one acknowledges that it isn’t, one has to further acknowledge that S has a lot more of it than I do (as all our friends know well). It also puts a premium on female beauty, our ‘erotic capital’, so to speak; a depreciating asset that must be traded at its prime (usually for wealth and status).

But it’s a lot more than that. How do you—how does anyone—know the dynamics of what is going on between a couple? The things that make each other’s hearts go boom…? His voice whispering in the sheets as he tells me about his day. His soft masculinity that has been a balm for my battered heart. His laughter—and the silly things he does and says to invoke mine. His openness. His sense of style.

Us Indians are really nosey people with an abject disrespect for privacy, borne of our cultural tribalism, living in cramped spaces and the stay-at-home aunties who have nothing better to do but comment on other people’s lives. I’ll say this: don’t give a shit about what others who don’t know you think of your relationship. If it works for you, that’s all that matters.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t listen to people who have observed you closely and can tell you what you can’t see. It was my father who first pointed out the flaws in my previous marriage. “Why are you so afraid of him?” he asked, when I told him not to tell Shiv something. It was an epiphany—here I was, so brave and brazen in other aspects of my life, afraid of my husband’s temper in what was supposed to be the most important relationship. But, I digress…

Don’t let nosey parkers with their own axes to grind determine how you feel about your relationship. And, obviously, don’t be one yourself.


Struggling with relationships? Send me an email if you need to talk.

Archived! Success! by Tara Kaushal

Today, I have finally finished uploading most of my body of work—10+ years’ worth. Phew!

Here are my articles on gender, sexuality, equal rights and sociocultural issues, and interviews. (Well, most of them, the ones that I could find.) Some are so bad it’s embarrassing, but they’re here anyway, documenting my journey as a writer (and, indeed, as a person).

I have not uploaded here what I consider ‘content’. So there isn’t a single piece from the four years I was the Editor of BBC GoodHomes India; or from the Taj Hotels’ website, of which I was Content Head; or from any of my other media consultancy projects.

I promise to keep my website updated henceforth. Thank you for spending your time here.

Tara*

Imran Khan & Women's Rights in Pakistan by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: “I can’t believe there’s Indian liberals on the Internet celebrating the victory of Imran Khan in the Pakistan elections,” read a friend’s Facebook post. As a member of the Congress, he proceeded to talk about his politics, the politics of the BJP, etc. Hiya Harinandini and my reasons for dampening the celebrations are more feministic.

Dear well-intentioned liberals: if you think the suave, Jemima-Goldsmith-marrying playboy cricketer must surely be People Like Us, and he will surely bring some of his personal values to Pakistani politics, here’s a newsflash. He’s not the man you thought he was in the ’90. And the politics of his party reflect his current ultra-conservative avatar. 'He’ll improve women’s rights in Pakistan.' Er, no he won’t.

In Politics, the Personal is Professional

If the recently released book by his ex-wife, British-Pakistani journalist Reham Khan is to be believed, Imran Khan has lived a life full of “sex, drugs and alcohol”, and has several illegitimate children. (He also believes in black magic, but that’s besides the point we’re making.)

This is in stark contrast with the ‘sadiq and amin’ (honest and righteous) image he has now donned in the Pakistani media, which can mean one of two things. One, that he is a closet liberal, conducting his life and sexual liaisons in a free love, Western way. Or that he is really a good ol’ conservative man, on whom patriarchy bestows the rights to rights and rebellion, as well as to hypocrisy—to have a white wife, to sow his wild oats, to have three wives, to perpetrate domestic abuse—that he has exercised. With his recent jibe at Western feminism, we struggle to give him the benefit of the doubt and are inclined to believe the latter.

“Feminism Degrades Motherhood”

In an explosive interview to Hum News (Pakistan) in June, Khan denounced feminism and painted a problematic picture of his idea of motherhood in one swell swoop.

“A mother has (the) biggest influence on a person... a real mother, that is. I completely disagree with this Western concept, this feminist movement... it has degraded the role of a mother... when I was growing up, my mother had the most impact on me.”

Considering its not Imran Khan’s first utterly complacent and grossly ignorant take on anything factual or ideological, anger seems a little worn out to pursue. While he triumphed as the mouthpiece of the conservative lot with this comment, he is no different than others who have a patriarchal misunderstanding of what feminism stands for, that it is anti-motherhood.

Let’s first explore the outrageous things Western feminism says about motherhood, things that could have pissed off a conservative. Most important would be the feminist assertion that a woman’s identity doesn’t just lie in rearing a body other than her own. She’s also a person in her own right. Feminism has challenged notions of traditional motherhood because it has fought for the choice of motherhood. Perhaps it is the recognition of paid maternity leave. Or, maybe, it is the longstanding battle for legal relaxations and financial compensation for new and single mothers. Maybe it’s because feminists fight for the recognition of the woman’s unpaid labour at home as much as a man’s labour in a public space.

Are these the reasons that have prompted Khan to state that some feminist movements have degraded motherhood? Perhaps. It does seem utterly ridiculous that women be given rights to their own lives. The pitting of feminists and mothers is an inherently patriarchal act and misses multiple nuances of feminism and its development.

Further, he asserted that teaching the children in their mother tongue is the mother’s job, “especially if she is a good mother”—making it very clear what he considers ‘right mothering’ while simultaneously absolving men of the responsibility toward their children. A feminist thought of motherhood is the understanding that the role of the mother—as it has been traditionally described—is a societal conditioning. What is the job of a ‘good mother’? And what about ‘good’ fathers? Oh wait, they do not exist in Khan’s limited worldview. A ‘good’ mother, then, is whatever a man such as Khan wants her to be, which includes the martyrdom of not demanding anything from the father. Because, god forbid, a mother think of herself as an individual first and then responsible for her offspring. Agency and identity are Western feminist concepts, after all. They poison the beatific, self-sacrificing Eastern mother’s instincts to put herself last.

Journalist and author of the blog, The Married Feminist, Kiran Manral’s take on the issue is two-pronged, “To begin with, I think we’ve put motherhood on a pedestal for too long. Point is, motherhood is sold to us as a package, which demands to be glorified, like any underpaid job. I believe that in this pursuit, the realities of motherhood shouldn’t be undermined by all the excessively rosy, sloppy morality that we smudge all over it. Having said that, the feminist movement is about equality among genders and embraces fluidity of agency and thought. In this scenario, declaring the institutions of motherhood and Western feminism as unpalatable is rather unfair on the part of Khan. Motherhood is not seen as a liability by the movement but as an empowering choice, as much as the choice of women to employment, marriage, property, etc. It recognises women as the sole agents of their own reproduction and is inconsistent with the patriarchal notion which deems the woman as simply a baby-making machine.”

Wannabe PM of An Islamic State

That Khan has promised to make Pakistan an Islamic state—that has, in the past meant heightened restrictions on women and a poor women’s rights track record—is also cause for concern. In a CNN article, author and columnist Rafia Zakaria asserts: “If Khan keeps his pro-military stance and wants to appease the militants within the country, his Pakistan will not be a progressive country committed to gender equality. Religious hardliners in Pakistan have, in the past, opposed legislation that criminalises domestic violence, saying that would ‘Westernise’ society. They are unlikely to change this stance.”

The enforcement of “authentically Islamic and doggedly anti-Western law…. will destroy the legal and political progress Pakistani women have made in recent years. When women’s progress is seen as a Western concept, the result is unending suffering and retrogression for all Pakistani women who want to move toward gender equality.”

Is there hope? Perhaps, if Khan chooses to sideline religious hardliners and panders instead to those seeking a more progressive Pakistan with women’s rights at par with international standards. We must wait and watch. Until then, though, as liberals, as feminists, Imran Khan’s victory is not cause for celebration. Please, think before you tweet.


This article appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in July 2018.

The Purpose of (My) Art by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: My artistic manifesto.

I’m half-a-book old (less, if I’m being honest). I started reading for Why Indian Men Rape—a multimedia gender journalism and activism project spanning two books, a documentary and a blog—in 2013, but working on it actively since last year. It’s been a challenge on every front—from the funding for my research, to identifying and going undercover with my subjects, and the writing. Almost every day, particularly after nightmare-filled nights where I cry, blabber and thrash about (if I manage to sleep at all), I lament about why I couldn’t have chosen an easier first book.

So when I had a humbling conversation with someone who works in the gender-violence space a few months ago, I was quite shaken initially. In essence, she said: We know all there is to know about rape; what do you think your books are going to do?

“Well, for one, I wouldn’t presume the limits of our knowledge,” I replied, thinking on my feet. “More importantly, while the conversation about rape may be nuanced and evolved among academics, that’s not the case for most people. Maybe my project will broaden the discourse.” And maybe that’s all my blood, sweat and tears for all these years will amount to—nothing new, just bridging the gap.

Not that that would be a small feat in itself. ‘To make the important interesting’ was legendary Outlook editor Vinod Mehta’s mantra, as it has been mine since I started my non-fiction writing career over 10 years ago. I’d like to make my readers see what they hadn’t, and inspire them to think, examine, question, grow.

Take, for instance, our experience in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light area the other night. My last subject was a regular, and I was eager to visit. My spouse, Sahil, and my friend, Ajay, who is intimately familiar with the place, volunteered to take me. (Before you get ideas, ha, I must clarify that Ajay’s worked there as a doctor of public health.) A bunch of policemen noticed us when we got off the taxi past midnight; as we were preparing to leave an hour later, two of them intercepted us. We were expecting this.

To the boys: Why have you got her here? Who is she to you? Why did you take her to that all-male bar? We just gave the owner a dressing down.
To me: Have you been brought here on the promise of a movie role? It is an unsafe area. What if a drug addict had attacked you? Why couldn’t you come in the daytime? We’ve been following you all along. Go home!

Around us were lakhs of women treated worst than chattel, the worst of human suffering. And yet, here the cops were, protecting me, a (recognisably) high-class woman. Ironic. Or not. Privilege is invisible to those who have it. Do we realise just how many spaces are inaccessible to us women? Was the suffering of other people around me less than mine? Was it because my taxes pay the cops’ salaries? It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

But I’m making a broader point. Even when my writing doesn’t live up to some ambitious ideals (it’s often crap), even if your art has none (and that’s perfectly all right too), it’s your art, your expression. Just do it. Do it for yourself, for your voice from within. People will question it, who-what-when-why-how? They will process it through their own lenses. Find your balance. Be open to feedback, to growth. But stay true, stay convinced. It won’t be easy, and I admit to leaning heavily on my circle of supporters-not-sycophants in the face of trolls. In the words of Margaret Atwood: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don't let the bastards grind you down.”

Because the purpose of art is all the lofty things critics say it should be—to communicate, to elevate, to stimulate. What is often overlooked is the self-actualisation and happiness the act of creation creates in the creator, and the value of such individuals in society. The purpose of your art is personal.


This article appeared on Kalampedia in July 2018.

Ask a Feminist | Q. 10 What exactly constitutes bad feminism? by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: I answer questions that are burning your bras and run this column as a makeshift guide to the feminist way of life.

What exactly constitutes bad feminism?

“As severe a misnomer as the term is, we cannot deny how it sits in popular consciousness. The compartmentalisation of the feminist movement does not only trivialise the discourses that it aims to empower but also debunks the movement’s claim of being a safe and inclusive space by making participation extremely conditional. The politics of feminism has no set route, and no one is ‘bad’ just because it isn’t tapered according to another’s watertight perception of the same.”


This column appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in July 2018.

Ask a Feminist | Q. 9 Why are feminists so angry? It's putting off. by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: I answer questions that are burning your bras and run this column as a makeshift guide to the feminist way of life.

Why are feminists so angry? It's putting off.

“Hell, yeah! We’re angry. We’ve been hysterical with rage for centuries. (But what is also equally imperative is to recognise anger as only one of the many legitimate ways to feel or act, and not pedestalise it in a movement which must be all for inclusive righteous expression.)In the face of everything that plagues feminist life one violation, misrepresentation and injustice at a time, are you surprised? Among other tropes of seeking justice, anger is a choice we are entitled to. Unless, of course, your privilege strokes you long and hard and you expect us to grin our way through our rampant oppression.”


This column appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in July 2018.

An Ode to My Mother-in-law by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: Roopshikha Mane | 07.10.58-07.07.18 | No more, no less

Sahil and Ami's mum lost her long battle with cancer yesterday, after a few particularly hard last months. She'd told us she would go when her children were ready; when we rushed her to the hospital struggling to breathe the last time, we were. For someone so full of life, a life bereft of life was not living. Love truly means letting go, in the end.

You know, mothers-in-law in India get a bad rap that they often deserve. Mine was one of my favourite people in the world; I know I was one of hers, one of her three children.

Some of you know that Sahil and I met as colleagues who became best friends for two years as I dealt with the Bombay migrant experience, my father's death, a divorce and an alcoholic live-in boyfriend. My first interaction with my future MIL? She got Anshuman and I, new friends of her son's she had not yet met, these cool mugs from the Kala Ghoda Fest. "Why is your mum getting presents for some random friends of yours?" I asked S, confused. "She is like that only." And she was, bursting with life and love and laughter that touched everyone who had had the fortune to know her. At her funeral, I stopped counting the number of people I consoled with the words, "I know how important she was to you."

Shortly after, on Valentine's Day 2007, Anshuman and I met her when we went to their home for dinner. When Sahil and I finally got together 1 1/2 years later, I would find out that Ma had told Dad that night: "She may be divorced, older, living with someone, etc (other things that made me ineligible as an Indian bahu), I don't care. I know that this is the girl that will make my son happy." And she tried, sometimes not so subtly, to orchestrate this eventuality. Once, she told me, "Our Guru has said that it doesn't matter if the girl is older than a boy or taller, if they love each other they should get married." (I'm both, older and taller.) "Aunty, I am not interested in Sahil, he's like my brother!" I protested, struggling to find a word to describe our intense platonic friendship. (Six months later I would have to justify this statement in light of new developments, obviously; that it had been true at the time.)

Not that it was all smooth sailing. I live a highly feminist—therefore atraditional—life. I wear clothes much shorter, travel much later, live much more dangerously than she would've preferred. I am apathetic agnostic, in contrast to her strong religious beliefs. Although she knew all this from the get-go and saw me for me, outside a social lens, it was easier said than done to swallow it all at once. We've tread on each other's toes quite a bit. But she established, from the beginning, that love was the guiding principle of our relationship. 'With friends and family, you fight, forgive and forget' was her motto. And, whether or not she approved of what whatever you chose to do, she enabled you to do it and was firmly in your corner. Once she shut down this snarky aunty trying to rake up an issue with what I was wearing by saying, "But I bought it for her!" (She had.) She taught me that you have to love people the way THEY need/want to be loved, not impose on them your idea of who you'd like them to be. She was the biggest supporter of WIMR, financial and otherwise. That uncomfortable position that sons are often put in, to side with/choose either their wives or their mothers? That never happened. Her children's happiness was above all.

She'd hate me for saying this (because she really wanted grandkids!) but she's also one of the reasons I don't want to have children. Ma ho toh aisi, and I don't have it in me to love as selflessly as she did. She set the bar for motherhood too high.

... Maybe not only motherhood, but awesome-human-being-hood in general. In Ami's words, she did more in a week than we did in a year. Apart from the passionate love she showed so many people and her devoted religious service, she continued her architecture career, even correcting some drawings the day before she died. And what can I say about her incredible sense of style? Her love for Indian textiles showed in the houses she designed and her legendary saree collection. When she was dressed up—saree, hair pin, accessories—she was a sight to behold. Then there was her cooking, her (very bad) humour, her fabulous marriage, her everything. There is a giant Neeru-Mane-shaped hole in the universe.

Bye, my beloved Ma. As a spiritual seeker, you sought salvation that I hope you have received. If not someone as otherworldly as you, then who?


This piece was written in July 2018. Read the obituary I wrote for my father here.