The Problem with Perfection

32 26 32…. That’s the magic number right?

Who made this the magic number?

Who made fair, tall, thin, doe-like eyes, rosy lips is the ideal beauty, right?

Who set this standard?

I bet you desperately want to know the answers to these questions. I do too.

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do know that you have a greater problem with people around you who believe in these standards of beauty more than the people who made the norm. You probably have a problem with yourself too for believing these unrealistic standards of beauty and failing at achieving them.

Every new person you meet and of course the old acquaintances have an opinion about how you look, about the colour of your skin, your eyes, your nose, your lips, your pimples, your eyebrows, body hair, weight, height and what not. Strangely enough, these opinions are almost similar. We have all been culturally conditioned into believing these standards of beauty.

The problem is that we believe these stereotypical notions and examine ourselves on the basis of the set standards. We then tirelessly try to achieve these standards, go on diets, beauty treatments, ridiculous fitness regimes, sometimes even surgery. But then we end up feeling bad irrespective of whether we’ve achieved these goals or not, because this internal negative critique has transformed into a habit. Even when one fit into the perfect size, the happiness does not last, as the body image issues have become an integral part of people’s self-definition and anything else seems unfamiliar. 

Why does perfection need to be a punishing routine, leading to obsessive, rigid behaviour? Why should it rely heavily on judgement, and exclude normal life? Obviously, it isn’t meant to be a human trait. Human beings are designed to have flaws; perfection is meant for the Gods.

Usually we strive toward being perfect to compensate for a sense of inadequacy. People who want to be perfect usually have an exaggerated sense of their own shortcomings. They typically received messages earlier in life that they weren't good enough. So they decided that only by being perfect would they be beyond reproach. Perfectionists tend to think that other people are somehow better or superior to them, so they need to be without flaw just to catch up. 

Yesterday was one of those days when my urge to look appealing won over my common sense. So I finished all my household chores and went to the parlour. I am not the usual college going or young client so the look the hairdresser gave me told me everything he thought about me. I said that I had come for a hair treatment. He showed me to a chair. And then my ordeal started.

He started by saying that my hair was completely damaged and that nothing could be done. My hair lacked moisture and strength according to him. I felt that I had wasted a trip and was ready to leave since he said that there was nothing he could do.
He stopped me and said that he would try to do the necessary corrections (yes, that’s what he said). I sat there for two hours and all the time he was just telling me how bad my hair was. I listened to all of it and didn’t want to say anything while my hair was in his hands.

When he was done, the look he gave me reminded me of the ugly duckling story. I paid the bill, said thank you, and me being me, could not leave without telling him what I thought.

I told him that my hair was dry and unmanageable, which was the very reason for which I came to the parlour. I told him that he was giving me a service for which he was charging me and he should stop giving unsolicited advice. I said that I was well informed about the condition of my hair and also the remedies available. I tipped him nevertheless and walked out.

It is not the first time that this has happened; every time we go to a parlour, the beautician will reveal so many imperfections in our faces, bodies and hair that sometimes we may end up believing that we are really very ugly.

I know they are trying to promote their business and sell as much as they can but sometimes, even if rarely, it may dent our confidence.
It’s about time we too stop torturing ourselves and others with these unrealistic standards of the ideal beauty. Because hey, there is no ideal! So let’s start by accepting and loving ourselves. Let’s change the definitions of beauty; beauty is something very abstract anyway. Make a conscious effort not to judge people by their appearance and judge all ads that reinforce the irrational standards of beauty. 

And always remember that the character of your mind and internal being (soul, if you will) can never match the outward appearance, so turn a deaf ear to those voices that tell you about your bodily imperfections. So let’s flaunt the hairy and waxed limbs, flabby curves and bony edges, fair and dark skin, scars and dimples alike devoid of all filters.

Kolkata Book Fair - a potpourri of memories

My association with the Book Fair goes back to the days when I had just started bearing the idea of what books were. I was born in a typical Kolkata family where books are valued and archived. This is one of the many common things which run in the households of my city, the others being a compilation of Tagore’s works, immense love for all culinary delicacies  and an album of Mohiner Ghoraguli.

“Book Fair! So it is an entire fair dedicated to books?”

“Yes, lots of books from home and abroad.”

My father had a rather simple way of explaining the concept of a fair dedicated completely to books to me.

That was many years ago. Since then, many things have changed -“Calcutta” is now called “Kolkata”, the venue of the fair has moved from “Kolkata Maidan” to a much more organised and environment friendly “Milan Mela grounds” and I have outgrown a grey hair or two.

In between all that, the book fair has managed to become something that I look forward to, every year. Not only because it is about one of my favourite things – books, but also about a few of my favourite people.

The Book Fair was not just a matter of a few days; it was months of preparation and hard work for the the organizers as well as the writers. Way back in the late 90s, when Facebook and Twitter were a near future, the writers and translators depended on these fairs as a platform to get known to the world.This annual cultural event is actually potpourri of books, friends, nostalgia, music, food, people and of course, ‘adda’.

My first memories of the book fair relates to buying “Nonte Phonte” comic books or Chinese short story books translated in Bengali while holding my father’s hands. He was the one who introduced me to the world of 'Calcutta' Book Fair. During those days, the fair used to be held at Kolkata Maidan. I was barely six or seven and the mighty gates, huge crowds and the sight of the imposing Victoria Memorial nearby, sketched a picture of molten warmth wrapped Kolkata winter in my mind. Somehow, that is one imagery of Kolkata that has remained with me always.

I used to stare at the huge volumes of “Sarat Rochonaboli” or works of Sunil Gangopadhyay on the racks while my father said – “Ogulo na boroder boi, boro holey porbey, kemon?” (Those are books for grown-ups. You can read them when you are a grown-up too.)

Time, they say, waits for none. While ‘growing up’ I still visited Book fair religiously with my father every year but I also went back several times every year along with my friends. I progressed from Feluda to a more mature Byomkesh or the complex Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot on the ‘detective’ stories front.

My annual trips to book fair also gradually turned out to be ones where I would buy new novels of Suchitra Bhattacharya, get acquainted with the classic works of Jane Austen and Ashapurna Devi.

I was not living anymore in Kolkata when the venue shifted to Milan Mela grounds. As I read the news, my heart longed for the the Benfish stall right in the middle of the fair. Okay, I confess. I ate all of them. Because one should never book-hunt on an empty stomach. Or discriminate between the Coffee House laddoo, the Rollick ice cream, the Fish Fry from Benfish and the Paan from Mantu’s.

I did not attend the fair for many years in between. When I returned to live in Kolkata again, many a fancy new book stores had opened up in the city while the eternal College Street was always there, yet the joy of smelling a bag full of fresh new books bought at the book fair had not waned a bit. Just the way, the ritual of holding hands with your first love and gathering at the book fair to share your story with a set of trusted friends never gets old.

The eternally youthful city the continues to discuss which stall has the biggest queue, which new author is asking the most uncomfortable questions through the pen or just breaks into a new song of hope, every now and then.

Kolkata Book Fair is actually a celebration of our lives, of good old charm of Kolkata, of winter afternoons, of books and old friends and first loves – first loves which were about old Bengali classics and the fragrance of the ‘forbidden’ hidden inside the first read Saratchandra novel.

Body Shaming – The Ugly Humor

I’ve come to terms with my body: I will never be skinny.

I was never naturally skinny. My bones are huge, I’ve had big muscles since I was five years old, and I put on weight eating anything that enters my body, healthy or unhealthy. Over the years, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. I’m not skinny anymore, but I’m also not fat. I’m just normal ME.

I’ve done it all: exercise and diet, only diet, diet pills, water bloat pills, only exercise, starving, starving and exercise, and eating like a completely normal person.

I’m tired of fighting my body. It’s a constant battle to fight how it wants to look with the way I want it to look. I could sit here and name hundreds of celebrities that I wish to look like, but I will never look like them. I won’t give up on eating healthy, I won’t give up on exercising, I won’t give up on taking care of my healthy, but I will give up on false hope, false imagine, and false goals.

Being judged is never nice. It is harsh and cruel and can lead to so many lasting damaging results; you wouldn't call someone an asshole to their face because you understand how hurtful this could be, so why is it any different to see someone over weightweight and say the same thing?

My answer? society. On a daily basis we are inundated with juice fads, new diets to try, new instagram filers and apps to remove any flaws. We are bombarded with ways to make our lives, our bodies and our social media accounts 'perfect', without giving a second thought to what 'perfect' actually entails.

I’d tried

to look like people that I will never be. Telling myself I will look like someone if I eat this or do that is just a lie I keep telling myself to validate my actions. I want to look like the best version of myself, not anyone else. I’m going to stop posting “inspo”, or “fitpiration” of other girls. I could eat the same diet, do the same workouts, but I will never look like them. Everyone’s body is different and we forget that sometimes. We just get upset with ourselves when we don’t reach goals or see the results we hoped for.

A number, whether on a scale or on a measuring tape, cannot quantify the value that you have. It cannot count all the ways this world needs you. It can't define your health or project your success. Your weight does not measure your worth.

Fat-shaming is the reality of the world we live in. There are still huge numbers of people in the world who feel good about themselves by shaming other people’s bodies.

And, when a woman’s body is in the question, the majority have their own view of the “perfect body.” Unfortunately, the definition of the perfect body has no room for what the body-shamers like to call, “the ugly fat.”

A fat woman, a thin woman, a short woman, a tall woman, a fair woman, a dark woman, you have left none outside your body shaming loop. If a woman is fat, you say she is very fat, if she is thin, you say she is very thin. If she is fair, you say she shouldn’t have been that fair, and if she is dark, you say she can’t be seen in the night! But you have made it certain that your comment has to be passed on every woman you encounter. And when I say “passing the comment,” it doesn’t necessarily imply eve-teasing. It also includes you judging her, solely on the basis of her body, albeit in your own minds, or whispering it to friends of yours.

It’s as if we as a society are not happy with the way women are. We always try to find flaws in her, however trivial or imaginary the flaw may be. It seems that we are searching for something out-of-the-world, some imaginary “perfection” in women’s bodies. And if a woman doesn’t possess this imaginary “perfection” in her body, she is not considered as “beautiful”. This herd mentality of judging a woman, based on her height, skin colour, body shape and size, has grown into a mass hysteria wherein young boys and girls, not older than 12 or 13 years of age, start having these notions of the ideal body and pressurize themselves to the extent of going into depression, just because they are constantly mocked at by their peers, or the society in general.

The next time you see a friend stressing over a couple of extra kilograms, offer her a compliment. Tell her about how beautiful her smile is or how her strikingly pretty eyes are a dream. Or put your arm around her shoulder and rave about how sharp her dressing sense is, would it be possible to snag a consulting session? The way we talk to our girls will go a long way in defining what they grow up to be like, it’ll matter, it’ll leave behind an everlasting impression.

Banter of a Lazy Mind

Poo-nah became Pu-nay. Along the way, the hobbling pensioner town turned into a dancing, trancing, blond sanyasin, and then a preening IT girl.

Getting on the map now also means getting into the jihadi’s crosshairs. Pune recently learnt that there are many ways of being global. Just as Mumbai did, or Bangalore, Hyderabad, Jaipur, or any in that bloodied litany.

In the simpler ‘Poonah’  times,  if you were a Parsi growing up in Bombay, you treated this salubrious little town as your  ‘monsoon capital’ much as the Presidency colonials had done. You played amidst the ancient trees in your getaway bungalow, pigged out on high teas at the Club, or later, in as obligatory rite of passage, varroomed up the
ghats on daredevil motorcycles.

But even in faraway Calcutta, the loveliest mothers of my friends had all been ‘Poona girls’. Little did we know of its Peshwa glory, its literary fame. Less did we care. ‘Poonah’ was a state of mind before the big C’s of commerce and concrete ate into the idyll with carcinogenic greed. And ruined the climate too.

I had a Wordsworth moment the other day.

It was a warm, sleepy Pune afternoon at my society's park. With my headphones on, I went for a lazy stroll. Everybody in the park was happy, mellow and relaxed. Even the icy expression on Aunty Victoria's statue seemed to have thawed a bit in the afternoon breeze.

The sunlight filtering through the treetops made beautiful dappled patterns on the duck pond. It reflected off the oiled heads of a lone couple under a sprawling banyan, and brought the bald pate of a man asleep on a bench, into dramatic focus. A bunch of burqa clad women were busy picking fallen leaves out of their lunch boxes as they sat in a circle, giggling.

Everything was just as lazy as it could get. Then it suddenly took me back to my...well Calcutta days.

I still remember those lanes that led to my school, and a friend's house next to the school, where I've spend hundreds of lazy afternoons. I used to wait for the school bus, standing in front of a shop that sold hot "kochuri" in the morning, and it was always crowded. The school bus gave a short tour through the crowded South Calcutta streets as it picked up my friends waiting at different stops.

And then, stepping out of school and landing up in University opened the door to a completely new world for me. It was during my college days that I actually started exploring the city, got closer to her, and fell in love with her every now and then.

Walking down from college to home was something I loved, and I had numerous reasons for enjoying the walk...The friend who accompanied me and the conversations we had, the Benfish bus that offered Prawn cutlets in front of Dakshinapan, the Elaichi-chaa at Gariahat.

There were countless days when I bunked college and roamed around Nandan, or took a walk around the St.Paul's Cathedral. Tibetan Delights, a shabby restaurant in the dingy Elgin Road lanes, serving excellent momos and soup was my favorite. A friend, who came from a far away land, used to insist me to get my books and to sit and study at the gardens next to Victoria Memorial. We hardly read a line, and spend the afternoons laughing and gossiping. It seemed that she knew Calcutta more than I did, and I often used to wonder how she knows all the details about the places. Perhaps that's the way things unfold - we are always more eager to know about things that are distant to us. Surprisingly, she showed me a lot of Calcutta that was unknown to me. It was more fun to explore with her because people (autowalas, shopkeepers mostly) got amazed when she used to speak in Hindi and at times broken Bangla.

I think am aging. Wait. No! I think there's so much that Calcutta has to offer, I guess I can never pen-down everything... Now that I've moved out of the city, I look back and cherish all of that. All the memories are intrinsically weaved with certain people - those people who added colors to my life. May be it is only when you cease to do the things you have to do, and do the things you like to do and you want to do, that you achieve the highest value of your time.

Last time when I was in Kolkata – which I still think of as Calcutta – and am glad to report that it’s much as it’s always been. The old Howrah bridge is there, and the Victoria Memorial, and the Maidan with its vendors selling spicy jhaal moori flavoured with mustard oil, and puchkas – what north Indians called golgappas – flavoured with something you really don’t want to know about. But what pleased me most was that the most Kolkatan thing about Kolkata – or indeed, all of Bengal – was not just in evidence but was obviously going from strength to strength: the institution of the adda.

Other communities pass the time in idle chatter and gossip. Not so the Bengali. There is nothing idle about his chatter or gossip, which goes by the local name of ‘adda’. For the Bengali, adda is not mere time-pass; it is a timeless passion. It is a conversation devoutly to be wished, and the Bengali spends hours at it, convinced of the profound truth that adda is not a waste of time, but rather that time is a waste of adda. What is the topic of discussion at an adda? Anything and everything, from mountains to molehills, from the sublime genius of Manikda (Satyajit Ray to you) to the stepmotherly treatment meted out to Sourav Ganguly by the raskails (rascals) who run the IPL.

Oh! Calcutta.

Snap! Back to reality. As I turned back, I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Nothing quite prepared me for what I was about to see. An ocean of roses. Of every colour and shape. Some as big as two palms cupped together. All in bloom, all at once.

I spotted the old favourites that my grandmother had taught me to name: The baby-pink Eterna, the lavender Whiskey, the delightfully fragrant yellow-and-red Double Delight, the blood red Prince Edward. And hundreds of nameless but astoundingly beautiful others. Absolutely breathtaking.

Like "Amchi Mumbai", there's "Apla Pune". There's nothing more beuatiful than a quiet spring afternoon in Pune. The city has its own charm. So I put on my headphones back and start humming...

"I'm sitting here in the boring room
It's just another rainy Sunday afternoon
I'm wasting my time
I got nothing to do
I'm hanging around
I'm waiting for you
But nothing ever happens and I wonder."