Italy Nuggets: The Surprises

When we met Karishma and Adrian in Italy, Adrian asked a simple, but an evocative question: What surprised us in Italy?

It was difficult to answer. These days we travel after so much research and have already been exposed to so much imagery of famous places that very few things can really surprise us.

Still, a few things did.

Capuchin Crypt in Rome

I knew there were burials there and had planned to visit it. But somehow, I hadn’t found out what the real attraction of the crypt was. And when I saw them, my mouth literally opened wide in surprise. The crypt is really elaborate artwork made with – ahem – human bones.  Morbidly beautiful. I don’t know how it has the religious sanction. Isn’t human body supposed to be sacrosanct in Christianity? I need to read up on this.

The Unchanging Latin Script

A while back Jandré (a South African working and living in Madagascar) had sent me a message expressing surprise that the language Georgian had its own script. It didn’t surprise me at all. Then I realized that in India we are used to the fact that every language has its own script (actually, many don’t, but still enough of them do that you get that impression). Not so in other parts of the world. Latin, for example, is the common script for a variety of languages in a large part of Europe and also in many former colonies.

InsscriptionA related surprise I received on our Italy trip was the realization that the Latin script has not changed in 2000 years, and even more. You may not know the language, of course, but you can read the letters in the ancient inscriptions. I tried asking a guide about it, but she didn’t seem to understand my question and didn’t comprehend my surprise. In India, Sanskrit is written in a dozen different scripts, modern Kannada readers can’t read Halekannada, modern Hindi readers may not be able to read older versions of Nagari script, nobody other than experts can read Brahmi and Prinsep lost his mind and life in deciphering the older Brahmi script.

What kept Latin unchanging and constant, while Indian scripts mushroomed in all kinds of direction in the same period? If you know of a book I could read on this, please do recommend.

The colossal-ness of colossus statues

TreviThey did build big. Whether it was the buildings or the statues. Romans, and then the Renaissance folks inspired by the ancients. Sometimes only a foot or a hand of an emperor’s statue is available, but you can see what their size would mean for the entire statue. I had seen the images of many of the famous ones, but seeing the size for myself was awe-inducing.


Italy Nuggets: The Sense of a Loss

PompeiiRoadThe idea of preserving the archeological remains is as much a 20th-century phenomenon in Italy as it is in India. Despite that, it is such a treasure trove for archeologists and historians. So much of history is still available – in the buildings, in the works of art and in the writings – that thinking of India we suddenly felt a little poorer. We have a lot of history as well, but it just isn’t preserved or accessible at the same level. In Italy, you can walk through the Roman buildings right below the current ones, you can visit Etruscan tombs and most fascinating of all, you can visit a city like Pompeii, practically frozen in time – with entrances of its homes sporting “Beware of Dog” and “Welcome” signs in mosaics. And while the task of understanding the history continues, a lot is already well-understood with a fair degree of certainty. We almost never get that sense of understanding while traveling in India.

It helps to have a stable population, I suppose, that you can still live in and walk on medieval neighborhood and streets respectively. In India, the preservation of past so often seems to be in conflict with the needs of the present. There also seem to be gaps in history. Periods of which nothing survived archeologically, or those where the archeological remains can’t be understood well because written sources are non-existent or beyond understanding.

Italy introduced a sense of a loss about history in us. A strange thing to happen.

Italy Nuggets: Naram Garam Sorbillo

Our research of eating options at Naples sprang up the name Sorbillo. Apparently, THE place to have Neapolitan pizza (the city claims to have invented pizza – the margherita pizza). After having walked several kilometers in Pompeii and then visiting Naples Cathedral, we collapsed on the stairs in front of the Cathedral and considered our eating options. Google maps showed that Sorbillo was close by. It would be crowded, we knew. But it was just the time for it to open. So we decided to try our luck. If it was crowded, we would eat someplace else nearby and then take the metro back to the hotel.


When we went there, we realized that our bet of reaching just at the opening time had paid off. Tables were available and filled up only after some time. The pizza was indeed good. We enjoyed our meal, complete with drinks and dessert.

Before going further with this story, however, I need to tell you another one.

There used to be a famous, but shabby and small, dhaba next to the Gurudwara near Ulsoor lake. It was called Bobby Da Dhaba, but didn’t even have a signboard with its name. There was no space to sit. It was always crowded. You had to wait for a long time to get the famous paranthas from a hole in the wall sort of an arrangement, which you ate standing by the road. (It has shifted since then, and now has space as well as a signboard, but that is a story for another day.)

Next to the unmarked Bobby Da Dhaba opened a bigger place, with enough seating and faster service. It also sported a big signboard. It was called Naram Garam Dhaba.

When after years of hearing about it, we finally went to Bobby Da Dhaba, we quickly realized that braving that queue was beyond our ken. We could have gone to some other place, as we knew that the Naram Garam Dhaba next to it is really an imposter. But we were hungry and not in a mood to figure out and go to another restaurant. So we decided to eat there. The food wasn’t bad, but we were not to know what the fuss over Bobby Da Dhaba was about.

Since then we call every imposter of famous outlets their Naram Garam versions.

If you travel in India you must be familiar with this phenomenon. If there is a shop or restaurant that has become famous, there will be tens of others with the same or similar name on the same street, but with shinier façade and better service (the trick to locate the right one in such cases is either to follow the locals or go for the one that looks the shabbiest.)

By now you have put two and two together and know what the twist in our story is. We stepped out of Sorbillo in Naples, satisfied with the food and happy with our initiative and good luck. Until a few hundred meters ahead, we found another Sorbillo, with barely discernible light over the signboard and a huge crowd in front of it.

The worst part is, on our way to Sorbillo, we were discussing this Naram Garam phenomenon and wondering if it happens only in India. Apparently not.

But then Italy (and Naples specifically) is perhaps the India of Europe.

यहाँ सोचना गुनाह है।

यहाँ सोचना गुनाह है।

झुका सर, नपे कदम,
उनकी राह चलें जो हम,
वही सही राह है।

यहाँ सोचना गुनाह है।

तुम्हारे दिमाग के कीड़े
उनके नाज़ुक दिल को ना छेड़ें,
लगती बुरी उनकी आह है।

यहाँ सोचना गुनाह है।

पूछो ना कोई सवाल
तुम ठहरे जयचंद के लाल।
उसकी किसे परवाह है?

यहाँ सोचना गुनाह है।

पत्थर चुभते नहीं,
बर्फ पिघलती नहीं,
जो उन्होंने कहा
तो आग जलती नहीं।
तलवार उनके हाथ में
मगर मज़लूम वही हैं।
तुम्हारे सुबूत ओ सुराग
किसी काम के नहीं है।
मुक़दमा चल चुका है
फ़ैसला फरमाया है,
पूछो नहीं कि कौन सी
अदालत ने सुनाया है।
बस इतना काफी है कि
उनका इतिहास गवाह है।

यहाँ सोचना गुनाह है।

Confessions of an Ex Non-feminist

I don’t remember when I got over my hesitation and started calling myself a feminist without reservations. But I do remember that in my younger days I was hesitant.

I see the same hesitance in many other women. Do you believe in the equality of the sexes? Yes. Are you a feminist? Not really.

What does that even mean?

So, I was forced to think back to the days when I had the same hesitation. Why did I feel the need to disown feminism? It took some time but I managed to solve the puzzle of my own making.

How does the express idea of the need for gender equality enter your head? In most cases, it happens because you see that certain things are considered belonging to the boys’ domain and certain others to the girls’. Girls do the household chores, while boys get time to study and attend tuitions. Girls are expected to cook, clean and take care of their families when they grow up; boys are expected to go out, do well professionally and earn. But it isn’t just the differences in the expectation from the two sexes that pique you. It is also the status differential that comes along with it. The distinction implies not just that girls and boys are different, but also that girls are inferior. So the idea of gender equality translates into your head as ‘girls are as good as (or better than) boys’.

What is the best way to contribute to the fight for gender equality then? It is to prove that girls are as good as boys. It is to prove that you are as good as boys.

When you are in a slightly emancipated situation, like when you are attending a good college or you are employed at a modern workplace, the gender distinction and the assumption of female inferiority may not be that blatant but it is always lurking around. In the form of rules (protect the girls in the hostels and control their dresses), jokes (do I even need to enumerate every day sexist jokes?), salary differential and systematic biases. And once again what is the best way you know of contributing to the cause of equality? It is to prove that you are as good as the boys. Your focus is on your achievements. The best way to go about it is to pretend that jokes are just jokes and that anything else potentially debilitating is either non-existent or immaterial. For you anyway. You are out to prove yourself, not to whine and crib about the problems in your life. Because if you do that, people get another opportunity to say that girls are weak and not as good as boys.


Enter the feminists. They talk about systematic biases, they object to sexist jokes, they demand equality. When you mouth their lines, it feels like you are making excuses for yourself. As if you are saying that if you failed it isn’t your problem, but society’s. That doesn’t make sense. That isn’t a great way to prove or achieve equality. So, you don’t mouth their lines. You don’t even like them mouthing those lines, because it feels like they are making excuses on your behalf. Excuses that you don’t need. Excuses that you don’t want. You can prove yourself, and you are doing that. Why are these so-called champions of women and gender equality spoiling it for you?

So nope! Feminism is not for you. It isn’t the right thing to do.

That’s where I was. So, what changed? Why am I an unabashed and unapologetic feminist now?

What changed for me has nothing to do with my being a woman or the issues of feminism and gender equality. What changed was that, as a person, I stopped feeling the need to prove myself to others. And then it became possible to see beyond what I can or cannot do.

I realized, over time, that in individual cases, some other advantages may trump sexism and patriarchy. The nation didn’t really boycott Indira Gandhi for her estrangement from her husband, as it would have done to a middle-class woman in those days. Power can make patriarchy immaterial. In other cases, privilege and money can. In my case, the fact that I managed to get into an IIT helped me transcend a lot of societal restrictions. Achievement surpassed patriarchy. But that isn’t the solution to the basic problem of gender inequality. It isn’t me. It isn’t the specific individuals who managed not to be affected by the systematic gender biases. It is what we are as a society. It isn’t enough that a woman educated in an IIT doesn’t feel weighed down just because she is a woman (many do, but let’s keep that for another day). What is essential is that an ordinary woman from an ordinary background wanting to live an ordinary life happily should not be discriminated against because of her sex either. Not even if she is illiterate and poor. What is also essential is that a woman from a privileged background should not feel silenced. Just because she has money and material comfort, it doesn’t mean she should not seek her political voice or financial independence or the right over her body or equality in every sense of the word. What I also realized is that it isn’t only about women. It isn’t only about women taking some power from men. It isn’t only about women breaking the stereotypical mold of femininity. It is also about letting men break free of the unfair ideals of masculinity. To use a poetic (and by now clichéd) expression, it is about it being okay for men to cry. It is about them not feeling ashamed or threatened if their wives earned more than them. It is about letting them be stay-at-home dads. And even with men, it is about changes spreading across the boundaries of class. I remember seeing a television program with some proud stay-at-home dads as panelists – all equivocally claiming that they didn’t face a problem in being one. They were all from privileged, urban backgrounds. Confident men who had achieved something in life and wouldn’t be bothered by societal pressure. But feminism is about providing this choice even to men from that fabled middle-class – the most potent upholder of all things patriarchal. Feminism is about providing this choice to everyone.

So yes – that’s how it changed for me. It changed when I accepted that it isn’t about me, my achievements or my weaknesses. It is about a system, which affects everyone. Besides, every feminist may not be cut out to be an activist. Every feminist may not even like being an activist. But everyone can be a feminist.

Not everyone needs to reach this point the way I reached at it. But irrespective of where you are in your life, whether or not you are trying to prove yourself, if you are ‘not a feminist’, please stop for a moment and think if your reasons are similar to mine. If they are, please review them.