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Wallpaper: Week 19: Blogging for survival.

She is in the hardware store. A well known Australian warehouse chain. She is looking for something in the plumbing department. What she needs is not a regular item, so she approaches a young male retail assistant and asks him for just that, some assistance. He can’t help, so he wanders off to find someone who can.

All good so far.

While she waits, another customer starts searching around in the same area for a piece of plumbing equipment and can’t find what he is looking for either. By the time the shop assistant returns with the answer to her query, the other customer is standing idly next to her.

The shop assistant sees this and makes an instantaneous leap in cognition, leaving behind many decades of feminist toil, the evolution of humankind and whatever training in customer service he was subject to. In answer to her original query, the shop assistant now addresses the man standing beside her. Telling the hapless fellow that they don’t have the item she wanted and will have to order it in.

A couple of things happen.

The man gives the shop assistant a blank stare. The shop assistant returns it. Seconds pass. Then the man begins to tell the shop assistant about his own plumbing equipment problem.

She stands. Looking at both of them.

Angry. Disappointed. Humiliated.

Then she turns to the shop assistant and in a voice that could refreeze the glacial melt says, ‘Young man, don’t you realise that in this country, women have been allowed out in public with their own money for at least 100 years.’.

My mother is a feminist Trojan horse. To the unwary she looks like a little, not- so- young lady. She probably blends in with a certain shopping demographic that large retail chains think they understand, appearing as if she chanced upon the plumbing section of the store on the way to the nursery. Seeming like a lot of other mothers.    

That’s the kind of thinking that spelt the fall of Troy.

Describing this encounter to me, weeks later, she was still incensed. I asked her what it was about the experience that still bought angry tears to her eyes. And it was not that she didn’t count as much as the man standing next to her, or that the shop assistant assumed he was her husband and therefore would be doing all the talking, or that they thought she wasn’t that smart, or that she couldn’t possibly be buying plumbing supplies. It was that her presence didn’t even register. It didn’t count AT ALL. She was invisible.

Recently my daughter told me about meeting an amazing woman who has been a high profile activist for many years. She spoke of how galling it now was to walk into a room to begin negotiations and not even be noticed or greeted. Barely listened to. Once she hit a certain age, she became wallpaper.

And so I’m tossing this around. Thinking it through. Some say it is pheromones. That once there is a whiff of those hormones on the turn some primal light goes out inside the brains of men. Maybe. Really?

And it’s not that I give serious thought to the monastic life to come, to no longer being considered attractive to others, to roaming the streets as a homeless cougar. No. Not really. What I really fear is no longer having a voice. Not being able to stand up for the things I believe in. Not counting.

In the western caste system, ageing women are the most repellent. First an object of fear, then the subject of satire and then the victims of cultural amnesia. With a whole society forgetting that we are each unique, unrepeatable. And that wild law demands we do the work of caring for the planet, and each other, together.

I don’t feel afraid for my Mum, or my daughter for that matter. They have shifted their shapes when the wildness called them. Bending so as not to break and becoming winged when they needed to soar. No. Beyond hardware stores, they have a secret life.

It is the world I feel afraid for. That the threads that create a reality are too thin to carry the weight of this dignity, this love, this story in the making.

And we will all be left. Staring at the wallpaper.




No cows were harmed in the production of this blog: Week 15: Blogging for survival

Knee deep in the smoky water of the Ganges they sieve through the earthly remains of every body cremated here. There are teams of six, working in shifts around the clock. Scooping, sieving, flushing, scouring. Their job is to collect the jewelery of the dead. It belongs to the owner of the Ghat. It is the work of the untouchables. Except they don’t exist. Anymore. They say.  

Our jeep hurtles along a dusty outback track. Attempts are being made to seal sections of these roads. By hand. It is women who do the bulk of this work. The dry horizon is dotted with saris in every colour. Labouring in 45 degree heat with baskets of rubble on their heads. Their job is to pave the way of the future. The future that belongs to all people. Because the caste system doesn’t exist anymore. They say.

Returning from a night of feasting, our guide insists on stopping for a Jaipur delicacy at a road side stall. Our tuk tuk pulls over and he jumps out. I move to follow him and see that next to the stall is a small child, naked, sleeping. She is vulnerable and unprotected. His foot lands precariously close to her tiny form. I recoil, hiding in the shadowy darkness. Wrapping my sadness and indignation around me. Because this doesn’t happen where I come from. Anymore. They say.

I’m in the modest kitchen of the Gurdwara Sikh temple in New Delhi. Volunteers move around me. Stirring, chopping, mixing, rolling, serving, washing, measuring. Working. Without clamour, a mountain of food is being prepared and served. It is aromatic and nutritious. I ask how many are fed here on a daily basis. 20,000. Per day. I ask again. I cannot comprehend the arithmetic of this generosity. Because this doesn’t happen where I come from. If 20,000 people needed feeding in one day we would declare a state of National emergency.

And then I’m striking a deal for a beautifully embroidered kurta. It’s a well choreographed dance. He sets an astronomically high price and I say ‘I got two for less than that elsewhere’. He asks me where. I name another Indian city. He says ‘it’s different here’. ‘Not so much’ I say. ‘People are still people. Everyone is still trying to get by’. We move out of the temporal momentarily. ‘Ah yes’, he says, and nods his head. ‘But it’s not really about the money is it’? And he eyeballs me. ‘It’s about the dignity of the exchange’. And I nod my head and say, ‘yes, it is different here’.

And I’m losing my place in the dance. Because like Marion Milner says “Everything that one thinks one understands has to be understood over and over again, in its different aspects, each time with the same new shock of discovery.”

And I’m shocked. That doesn’t happen where I come from.

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