The unspoken graffiti we etch - staring in our eyes and yet part of the background

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Anytime I visit my childhood hometown, Chennai, I walk across the street on a short pilgrimage to a cart. The isthriwala (loosely translated ironing man) had ensured that my school uniforms have always been pristine. The Monday white school uniform gives me memories — the immaculately pressed white shirt and trousers.

He welcomes me with his signature broad smile — undiminished through the years. Only perceptible difference in the ambience– the graying hair gives away the years rolled by. He still uses coal to heat the iron to press neighborhood clothes. When the topic veers around kids -his smile becomes thousand watts beams. The last of his children — a boy — is now in college.

His emotions came gushing back when I saw this ad — aspirations of the dad inside a taxi driver. It pictures the feelings better than any words I could frame.

While I marveled at the director’s perspective, a tinge of regret remained — why can’t it be a daughter in the back seat?

Great ads are a microcosm of societal trends. What I did not share yet, the isthriwala shared with great delight — his two older daughters are married and well settled.

My instinctive reaction, who am I to judge his delineation on gender? We have our own evolution blind spots as the next example reveals.

Attention Deficit around ‘Run like a girl’

In the early 1980’s, my paternal grand mom had one wish in her bucket list. She wanted to travel to North from the South Indian peninsula where we lived. She wished to dip in the waters of River Ganga (Ganges is the name in text books) as the gushing waters from the mighty Himalayas calmed through the flat plains.

I remember asking her, “what will you do after the dip?” She said something along the lines — “I will give up something.” I never fully understood it then. Now I do. It is a metaphor for self-awareness and the self will to course correct even later in life.

Her metaphor came to mind when I first watched this video about words said without a lot of thought and long term impact on young minds.

As parents, we huddle to converse about attention deficits of generation next. How much attention do we give to the true import of words like — ‘run like a girl’ ?

Symptoms worth pondering over. Here is why.

An example from Malcolm Galdwell’s book, Tipping Point stands out in my memory. New York subway train system had a major problem in late 1980s. They were considered unsafe. Rather than trying to stop the carnage on the subways head-on, NY authorities focused on the environment: the walls were painted every night to remove graffiti and focus was on the fare beaters. The clean trains and holding commuters accountable for fare brought about a dramatic drop in the crime rates!

The parallels with gender parity for women are striking.

The preposterous mocking of ‘run like a girl’ is like the graffiti in the trains — staring in our eyes and yet part of the background.

The first obvious question is: Can we paint over the graffiti? Irony of learning is that unlearning is the hardest part. We can always course correct the societal edifice, but the scar marks are always there. So, the better question is: when do these graffiti get created and what can we do about it?

Moments when the graffiti gets etched

A scene from the stirring movie 42, the jersey that was retired across major league football, comes to mind.

A father and son are seated at the baseball park. The father is yelling slurs at Jackie Robinson. The boy is initially jolted, perplexed and confused. Then the stress in his brows gives way and he joins his dad and mirrors his screaming. In those fleeting moments the graffiti is etched.

By today’s prevailing wisdom, this is uncouth behavior. At that point in time, it was the prevailing thought among the majority. Similarly, by tomorrow’s standards, our association with ‘run like a girl’ could be a moot point.

For that to happen, we need to be self aware when such graffiti’s get painted in the minds of generation next. The challenge — just like the situation for the dad at the park, these graffiti are socially common place today. It takes contrarian thought and astute observation powers to stem the symptoms.

Here is an example from my younger days. Very proud of mom for doing that in my life.

Growing up in India, there was a movie director — a doyen of South Indian Cinema who weaved wonderful tales on human relationships with very inspiring and very laudable messages. The state populace loved his craftsmanship. She would share this contrarian thought — “His movies may be epitome of story telling with great messages. Yet, many of his movies use one man in relationship with two women in the background. That I do not approve.”

That made an impression on my supple mind.

Parting thoughts

“Where you stand depends on where you sit?” Great words by Nelson Mandela, very apt for me from where I sit. Seated between two delightful daughters, I wonder what their future beholds for them.

Gender should be celebrated for who they are, not for what they do.
That nuance, seems like a big wedge now.

My hope is that when my daughters step out into this world to make it their own, they are looked at as bright, well-groomed human beings first. It takes generations to change first impressions and many of that take root in our own homes — what each one of us share with our kids.

That is my aspiration as a father of two daughters — seems tangential, but the power of progress lay in the foundation built on small, yet strong bricks in every home.

Are you with me?

Karthik Rajan

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Stories to fuel your mind. Theme: life’s hidden treasures in plain sight. Goal: Warm tone, solid content, crisp stories. About me: one google search away.

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