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The Politics Of Smile

You should smile more, women are told, it makes you look good. This is said as a compliment but is erasure of the person & her emotions. What if she doesn’t feel like smiling? If you’re not a woman, try smiling at someone you don’t like or in a situation that causes you distress. Smiles must blossom on their own, not be demanded.

I grew up with dental issues – protruding, misaligned front teeth, overlapping canines, horizontal molars. I knew I was ugly. Nobody had to tell me, it was in how people responded to my smile (pity, disdain, awkward looking away, mean nicknames). By age 11, I knew I needed dental intervention if I wanted any hope of a better life. “It’ll change the way your face looks”, the orthodontist warned me. “Exactly”, I said and traded all the foods a child loves for years of painful metal braces, rubber bands, mouth plates, retainers. What a world we live in where a 11 year old believes that her worth is only in her smile and is willing to endure pain & sacrifice for it.

I know my good angles now & how to make others interesting. I have mastered the range of things a smile can convey – polite, charming, gracious, shy, confident, welcoming, impersonal. I am a woman in a culture of “Hasee to phasee”. This is why it is unwelcome intrusion when a man decides to advise me on a smile. I have a Ph.D. in the politics of smiles.

In my InstaStories conversation on #PeopleWeDontKnow, 2 men mentioned being complimented on their smiles.  We overburden girls with an identity-price tag on smiles. We never let boys/men know that their smiles matter. We give them role models that are angry, brooding & unsmiling. Look at any film poster featuring a macho hero. We suggest that smiling is only aesthetic and the domain of the female, as if to smile is to not be male.

But a smile is a universal expression of all’s-okay. It’s one of the earliest forms of communication we learn. It transcends the politics of gender, age and geography. Finally it expresses joy and creates more joy. So, when was the last time you smiled just because you felt like it?

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THE POLITICS OF SMILE You should smile more, women are told, it makes you look good. This is said as a compliment but is erasure of the person & her emotions. What if she doesn't feel like smiling? If you're not a woman, try smiling at someone you don't like or in a situation that causes you distress. Smiles must blossom on their own, not be demanded. I grew up with dental issues – protruding, misaligned front teeth, overlapping canines, horizontal molars. I knew I was ugly. Nobody had to tell me, it was in how people responded to my smile (pity, disdain, awkward looking away, mean nicknames). By age 11, I knew I needed dental intervention if I wanted any hope of a better life. "It'll change the way your face looks", the orthodontist warned me. "Exactly", I said and traded all the foods a child loves for years of painful metal braces, rubber bands, mouth plates, retainers. What a world we live in where a 11 year old believes that her worth is only in her smile and is willing to endure pain & sacrifice for it. I know my good angles now & how to make others interesting. I have mastered the range of things a smile can convey – polite, charming, gracious, shy, confident, welcoming, impersonal. I am a woman in a culture of "Hasee to phasee". This is why it is unwelcome intrusion when a man decides to advise me on a smile. I have a Ph.D. in the politics of smiles. In my InstaStories conversation on #PeopleWeDontKnow, 2 men mentioned being complimented on their smiles.  We overburden girls with an identity-price tag on smiles. We never let boys/men know that their smiles matter. We give them role models that are angry, brooding & unsmiling. Look at any film poster featuring a macho hero. We suggest that smiling is only aesthetic and the domain of the female, as if to smile is to not be male. But a smile is a universal expression of all's-okay. It's one of the earliest forms of communication we learn. It transcends the politics of gender, age and geography. Finally it expresses joy and creates more joy. So, when was the last time you smiled just because you felt like it? PC: @lumographer07 #theideasmithy

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“I Love You If….”: The Transactional Nature of an Indian Man’s Love

I’m finding that there’s something extremely transactional in nature, about the Indian man’s love. Let me explain ‘transactional’. Indian men can be loving and supportive. They can be romantic, soulful, understanding, patient. They’re protective, chivalrous, generous even. They can be all of these as long as it is within a defined universe, to a very specific kind of woman.

As Indians, we live in very tightly defined social structures, even today. It doesn’t actively occur to us in our daily lives but we are governed by a complex maze of social norms, conditioning and rules. I realize this fully only because I question and defy a lot of them. Doing this is a fulltime job, practically a lifetime, an identity by itself.

How do other people react to someone who doesn’t live by their rules? That’s the oldest story in human behaviour, of course. The thing is Indian society is mired in a labyrinth of heavy, conflicting, sometimes obsolete rules. It’s like being caught in a house full of naked wires, broken steps and crumbling ceilings. A single misstep could be fatal and there are so many possible that the living is no more than survival, just barely.

Snapping out of that gristly metaphor, how does this translate in everyday life? People do not treat you well if you do not follow the strict rules. Deviations are seen as aberrations.You get treated badly, not because you have behaved badly (lying, cheating, being mean or rude to, being selfish). You may treat people around you with respect, gentleness and affection. But none of that is considered if you do this while breaking a social rule.

It is considered perfectly acceptable to be mean or rude to someone who has defied a social convention (“What does she think of herself, dressing that way?”). It is fine to treat a woman less than respectfully if she does not dress and behave the way a ‘good Indian woman’ should behave. It’s not that a woman who makes different choices about her life, does not need affection, love, support and yes, protection from unsavory elements. But since she chooses to flout those rules, all of these get increasingly restricted to her. Affections and respect are paid out in direct proportion to the adherence to social norms. That is what I mean by transactional.

This may be as seemingly minor as the major she pursues in college, never mind that she is getting an education, a conventional one at that. It may be as inconsequential as choosing to keep her hair short in a family/community where women usually keep their hair long.

It may be a little more complex such as refusing to sit in a certain seat or room because of her gender. Doesn’t this last one sound ludicrous? After all, the Indian law does not see us as a gender segregated country. But family functions, even wedding banquets appear to be places that you must only socialize with people of your gender. Down to today’s modern-day get-togethers and dinners, notice how the women crowd into the kitchen or into bedrooms while the men sit in the living room and discuss politics, sports, business and work? I’m talking about Mumbai in 2013, not Madurai in the 1800s.

It may be something as personal as her own beliefs, not even as major as the religion she follows but that she chooses to not let religion get in the way of her political views or her friendships. How do you think an agnostic woman who believes that Muslims are being mistreated, is treated in a religious family? Or if she is vocally supportive of gay rights, why does that affect her prospects of being in a (straight) relationship?

Now certainly both sexes are equally guilty of this kind of a rabid reaction to defiance of convention. Female cliques are alive and kicking and the terror mother-in-law remains very much a key character in Indian drama. However, I am thinking about an emotion that goes beyond logical distinctions, defined rules and intellectual discourse. We love people for who they are, for who we become when we are with them, for that unique something that they and they alone bring to the universe. It may be harder to love someone who is different from your notions of what a human being should be, but it’s not impossible. What’s more, those notions being so tightly, suffocatingly defined, are any of us likely to find real love?

In the many patterns I see in the men around me, there is this. I’ve experienced love and loyalty and friendship, all my life. But they’re all contained in these tiny spaces of time when I’m being who they expect me to be. Put one foot out of place and all these things appear to vanish. They are supportive (extremely so) when they see me falter and fail. But they are nowhere around when things are fine and I am not a tender creature that they need to protect. They are there to chastise me when I slip up but almost never to bounce ideas off as equals and hardly ever to applaud me when I’m successful.

There’s the praise that comes my way when it is in a setting that follows convention. An academic achievement in a traditional school/college, a promotion in a steady job – these things are celebrated. But a more unconventional achievement that nevertheless brings joy is not seen as something that deserves acclaim. The new age Indian man may be openly proud of a very educated woman in his life, who has a high-flying corporate job. How often do you catch him boasting about a woman in his life writing a book, going on a car rally or starting up an e-business of her own?

Aren’t love, support and loyalty 100% things? There’s the support you need when you’re down but there’s another kind of support you want from your people when you’re just fine and when you’re great too. I find that severely lacking in the world around. And I think, my world loves me only when I’m miserable and down and begging for help. It’s transactional, indeed.

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