Everything passes. It has to.
Lunch hour at work is always interesting. Aside from the few times when everyone’s attention is monopolized by the television or there are too many laconic types in the group, I have found that my team does discuss quite a few interesting topics ranging from the future of mushrooming startup enterprises to the intricacies of Game of Thrones characters to home cooking hacks…basically everything under the sun!
For instance, today one of my team mates, let’s call her “R” – a lady known for her conservative views – related one of her weekend experiences. While visiting a popular mall in Bangalore that weekend, she saw a guy having his forearms and feet mehndi tattooed. Now for those of you who don’t know what mehndi tattooing is, let me elaborate before I go back to the story of my colleague’s rendition of the mehndi-ed guy. Mehndi or Henna is mostly a paste made from the leaves of the henna plant and applied as intricate decorative designs on the palms sometimes extending up to mid-forearm and feet. When the paste dries, it is washed off to reveal dark reddish-orange tattoos that last for a few weeks before fading altogether. The effects are temporary lasting a few weeks which is long enough before one tends to get bored with the same pattern, but while it lasts, the visual appeal it has is absolutely incredible. So mehndi is a definitely hot pastime amongst most womenfolk in India.
It was probably introduced to India by the Mughal dynasty and has ever since been a part of the Indian heritage – be it weddings or social gatherings or even just for the fun of the experience when girls get together for a fun night out. Seeing a mehndi tattoo on a girl can tell an onlooker either she is a newly-wed (coupled with other tell-tale signs of wedlock, of course, one does not just run to conclusions on one sign alone) or that she has recently attended a wedding function or has had a fun time with her girlfriends. But sometimes, it’s hard to tell for sure. Go to any popular Indian malls these days and you will definitely find a kiosk that offers mehndi tattoos. So yeah, it’s quite common a sight but no matter what, it’s super awesome – if you are a girl!
Somehow, it is an unwritten rule in the mehndi culture that it is exclusively a girl thing to get mehndi tattoos. True, some guys prefer to dye their hair and whiskers red with henna but that’s considered hair-dying, period. A guy having his limbs tattooed with mehndi would be quite unheard of – and invariably looked down upon – like he was effeminate or unhinged or worse still, deviant. Like guys who wear pink are labelled “gay”. Such is the state of social stereotyping in our world. Do something different or wear something different, eyebrows shoot skyward in no time.
So going back to my colleague’s story about a guy having his forearms and feet serviced this way was somewhat of a shocker for the onlookers. “R” scrunched up her nose daintily while relaying it to us, clearly disgusted at the recollection “He was just sitting there, you know, oblivious to how weird he looked as he had first his palms done, then his forearms and then his feet too! Just like a girl!” She gasped, relishing the gossip. “I mean have you ever seen a guy do that..?!”
“May be he was responding to a dare or something…” I ventured “That wouldn’t be so bad, then, would it? Quite gutsy, on the contrary!”
“Yeah…That could be an explanation. Otherwise, why would a guy be crazy enough to get mehndi tattoos like a girl?” Another guy snickered, disgust writ large on his face.
“Whatever..!” R rolled her eyes, reluctant to let go of her homophobic theory.
“Anyway, funny isn’t it how we wouldn’t bat an eyelid if it was a girl in the same scene. But since it was a guy, it was weird…right?” I said. “I mean think about it. It’s the same everywhere – social conditioning and stereotyping.”
“What do you mean?” R cocked her head to the side, eyes challenging.
“I mean how we as humans are conditioned so early in our lives by our families and the society in general – to fit in. And we do it for the fear of being labelled deviant… What does it matter if a guy was wearing mehndi tattoos? Or chose to wear pink? Or a little boy prefers a doll to a transformer robot toy? So what? It’s even worse for girls in most closed societies. An Indian teenage girl chooses to wear shorts in summer and her parents frown in disapproval. She has “boys” as friends and she is labelled as ‘morally loose’. On the contrary, if a young boy in India has many girlfriends, he is given stud status automatically or said to be going through his legitimate rite of passage into manhood.”
I paused, looking at them all… “My point is that society always tends to define what is “becoming” of a guy and a girl” I said.
“It’s all genetics – that’s how we are hard-coded.” Our new manager, a hefty lady who prizes her opinions most and sidelines those of others, pipes in immediately. “Say majority of little boys will opt for macho toys over teddy bears or pink-laced dolls or kitchen sets. So that’s accepted as the norm. The very few that opt for the dolls or pink shirts are treated as the deviants. And when it comes to moral policing, society has every right to lay down what wrong or right for a girl – for her own safety”.
I raised a skeptical eyebrow but let the last comment pass. That would open a whole new can of worms and was perhaps a topic for another day’s discussion.
“Look” I said, “I agree nature does play a crucial part in defining us as human beings – as male or female. There will be physical and anatomical differences, as well as differences in the thought process of any two human beings” I said. “But what about nurture? Is it nature Vs. nurture? I think society plays an even greater role in deciding what we grow up to be. From a very early age, we are taught to be a certain way, to do things in a certain manner, make some choices and not others. Be it family, teachers, peers, neighbors, newspapers, television programmes, commercials, religious leaders, political leaders, employers and just about everyone and everything around us define the way we think and shape our personalities. So nature goes up to only a certain level. But everything outside of our DNA is just as responsible in making us who we are.”
“Still…” Madam Manager maintained her stance “Society is not always wrong. If they didn’t lay the rules to maintain order in the society, there would be anarchy – utter chaos.”
“I agree.’ R nodded vehemently, not one to give in even if her theories didn’t hold water “The rules society lays down for us are very important and they should not be pooh-poohed at. That is why they have stood the test of time.”
“I know. That’s true. But some things are illogical and should be questioned. Where does logic step in?” I countered “Do we follow rules just for the heck of it, just because society demands it, even if it makes no sense whatever? There should be rationality behind expectations. Blind beliefs and superstition have never flown for long. Civilization can only advance by questioning established norms. By looking for reason. Otherwise everything would spiral downward and civilization will devolve over time, right? And the hypocrisy is what’s jarring”
Another guy (let’s call him ‘S’) said in a neutral tone “True. We are primed way early in our lives, accepting rules unquestioningly because our elders say so ‘for our own good’, because they want us to lead conflict-free lives. We can’t blame them – they are as much the victims of social conditioning. The cycle goes on and on. Only a few outliers choose to break their shackles and question established norms. They are promptly branded as troublemakers. As eccentrics or madmen. They face social ridicule and are even punished in many way. Jesus drew the wrath of the Roman Empire with his then “deviant” teachings and paid with his life. Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church for refuting the geocentric theory and propounding the heliocentric theory. But look what happened…” S paused. “They gave the world the gift of knowledge with their persistence. It’s worth the trouble, isn’t it?”
“But, what if…”
“Well, I’m not sure…”
Anyway, the long and short of it is that the debate went on till our thirty minutes were up and it was time to return to our work. The traditionalists held their ground on social norms being sacrosanct. The liberalists were more open minded to possibilities.
A brief lunch hour debate is nothing compared to ages of trying to find reason in meaningless social rules. Even so, lunch time discussions are my favorite for all the food for thought it offers.