Every movie tries to teach the same incorrect lesson to all stepmothers: Don’t try to be his mother, just be his friend.

Parents talk about parenting a lot, and often the goal of the conversation is to convince you that their parenting style and techniques are superior and better and guaranteed to work but I’ve always wondered…work to what end? It never seems clear.
I’ve never had cause to cohort with parents, I mean obviously I met people who had kids all the time but there’s a difference between that and being associated with parents because you have the same thing that they do: A child. Just to be clear, I don’t, I don’t have a child. I have a step-child. Prior to having him here living with us my experience with children was nonexistent, and so when the situation (a situation that was entirely unforseen) came up, I was extremely freaked out. I reached out for advice to all the parents I knew and I asked for advice.
Almost unanimously, the advice was this:
Don’t try to be his mother, be his friend.
Solid advice, yeah?
Patch that up with the rest of the advice to take care of his needs, his nutrition, his health, his mental state, his socialization and his education, and it seemed like I had a bundle of good advice. It sounded good: Don’t be his parent, be his friend, take care of him.
Yes, good.
I didn’t know anything about parenting so I was willing to listen to anything and agree with anything too. I couldn’t exactly disagree. What experience would I disagree on the basis of? So I just asked, gathered information, and then one day a child arrived. An 8-year old child. He was small and frail for his age. He had big ears; bigger than they needed to be. My sister and I had put his room together for him. We bought some toys and balloons and many glittery things. It helped to have her there she was a very well developed relationship with children. She really enjoys spending time with them which I have always found impossible to understand. Well, she’s a kindergarten teacher, sorry..she’s an early childhood special educator, this is important to her. I should respect that.
It helped to have her around a lot then. She is able to be excited about child things and still understand that pit of extreme coldness and dispassion inside me and relate to it. She’s able to calm me down and

part of that is that I could never lose my calm in front of her. Never. If I had known better about parenting I would have considered that a far more reliable parenting tip than the one I most oft heard.
Because that night was a big moment, the night he got here, but i sublimated that into pasta and blankets. For then.
In the many months that followed — living with him on a daily basis and during that time going through big things like his father and I getting married and managing this weird thing called custodial agreements and smaller things like determining what foods he needs — I noticed something.
I noticed that on an ongoing basis I think about him and factor him into my daily and general routine. I buy things at the grocery store with his meals in mind. I’m available when I need to be and where I need to be, even when it’s a school show or a fiesta (which I enjoyed more than anyone else who attended). I listen to him when he is sad and when he asks the same question for the 600th time. I don’t break my head on a wall when I am teaching him the same subtraction principle for the 35th time in the 20th way, I’m still there to do it the 36th time without losing my cool. I help him change his clothes if he needs it. I he’ll him deal with bullies and answer his questions about what to tell people about who I am. I even discipline him and scold him and explain to him why something he did is wrong. I answer his questions about god while somehow making sure to explain that I may know more things but I don’t necessarily know better. It’s hard to explain that in 8-year old vocabulary.
These things, this is not what friends do.
And after I thought that for the first time, all those continuing bits of advice about being his friend started to feel annoying. I’m annoyed by this blasé depiction of stepparent-ing, as annoyed as I am by the vilification of step parents. I get it, I’m not his mother, I never made a play to be that. Nor do I feel the desire or really understand the sentiment behind this child is mine. I don’t want to claim possession over a person, I have no interest in that.
But I have even less interest in the method of treatment meted out to step-parents. I understand that I may not have anything worthwhile to add to the narrative of parenting because I have barely any experience and all the experience I do I have I don’t necessarily know I did it right, but I deserve not to be dismissed when expressing a view on parenting because the child is not really mine. There is no difference between the responsibilities taken by me and my neighbour who has two children of her own. So I should be as much of a right as her to talk about his?

I don’t like being dismissed as a friend while being expected to have the responsibilities of a parent. It’s annoying.

Why Education Is The Least Important Commodity In The Universities of J&K.

I first met John Mohammed* (name changed) while on a day-trip to the popular tourist destination of Patnitop where he was the proprietor and operator of a portable paddle ride for children. It had been a few months since the revocation of Article 370 and the internet lockdown which continues even today in some form was still in full swing. While my stepson paddled around in the large inflatable pool, John participated in my conversation with my partner. He spoke perfect English and seemed well-informed, not just on political issues, but also on the subject of etymology that we had been previously discussing. Upon some questioning he revealed that he has several degrees from the University of Kashmir (including post-graduate degrees) but he chooses to work in the field of children’s rides because there are no jobs for educated youths in the state of J&K. The jobs that do exist pay far less than unskilled labour and often require connections to acquire.

“Besides,” John Mohammed said, “It is better to stay away from the university and do whatever work is there. If you say something against anyone, you become a terrorist. If you don’t have a job, then also you are a terrorist.”

John Mohammed is not an exception. In 2018, the State Directorate of Unemployment and Counselling had called for all unemployed persons in J&K who had a post-graduate degree, M.Phil or PhD to register with Employee Exchanges, 1.5 Lakh people registered with the exchanges. A whopping majority of these people were under the age of 35, which stands to reason since as per the 2011 census, 70% of the population of J&K is under 35, making it one of the youngest states in the country. It also has among the highest rate of unemployed youth in the country with 24.6% of people between 18-29 being unemployed while the national rate is 13.2%.

None of this came as a surprise because for the past few months I have been attending a Master’s Programme at the Government Degree College, Udhampur, which is an offsite location of the University of Jammu (JU). There are two major government universities in the Union Territories of J&K. Previously a single university they were split by an act of state legislature into two in 1969 namely the University of Jammu, located in Jammu and the University of Kashmir, in Srinagar. JU has 36 departments in its main campus, 7 offsite-campuses and 157 affiliated colleges. It carries an A+ Grade and was the first university in India to receive the ISO-9001 certification. The admission to the university is governed by various academic criteria including a centralised exam called JUET. While on paper this sounds commiserate with universities across the country, in reality despite having among the highest grades in the list of applicants, I was repeatedly denied admission at the main campus citing various reasons. Prominent among those reasons was that my documents weren’t in keeping with state guidelines because I was previously educated out of J&K. After an arduous process, I gained admission in the Udhampur campus. When I arrived to register, the authorities were surprised to learn that admissions were taking place, they asked me to return a week later as they were not sure about the fees that had to be charged.

Over the next month I attended college by myself and sat in a classroom hoping and waiting for classes, which finally began with 9-students in the second week of September; the delay being attributed to the chaos caused by the revocation of Article 370 and the subsequent shutdown of schools and colleges. Three months later we sat for our first semester examinations even though less than 60% of our lessons had been conducted. The medium of instruction often varied in language with advanced students in the English department being taught in Hindi or Dogribecause “that is how things happen here” which is understandable because most people who opt for the English programme do so because it was the only option left. While the quality of education would not directly impact the employability of students, it reflects in the quality of instruction. One cannot blame the professors, either, as they strive to teach as they were once taught, encouraging the use of guides and disregarding the text. Our master’s classroom often resembles a sixth-grade literature class elsewhere in the country with the professors reading a synopsis of the text or dictating notes for us to scribble. After graduating from these institutions most students cannot hope to leave the state of J&K and compete with students elsewhere in the country, most people choose to remain within the state even though there are no jobs which leads to intelligent, qualified individuals such as John Mohammad taking jobs of unskilled labour. Most fruit vendors, taxi drivers, mini-bus drivers in Udhampur have attended university, some have even gotten advanced degrees but it would be impossible to tell as they themselves are mostly unaware of what they learnt. Getting a driver’s license and your own taxi remains amongst the most lucrative professions here.

Due to the lack of benefit from education, drop-out rates in schools and colleges have been increasing in J&K for almost a decade. The hostility of the GOI to students in J&K with regard to access of internet to better their chances at being able to compete nationally has only led to the situation worsening. The administrative response is to remind students that they can use libraries and other resources. They remind us that people used to be able to study before the internet too because the affordability and ease of online resources is not a benefit that students here deserve. While the COVID 19 crisis continues and students all over the country rely more and more on online learning, we are unable to do so. Some of us because we have inadequate internet access, and others because our universities have taken the lockdown as an excuse to stop functioning altogether. The truth, however, is that as a country we had abandoned the people of J&K long before usurping further power from them in 2019. We had written them off as the acceptable collateral damage of border tensions and that is what led to a culture of corruption and complacency that we now use to justify furthering a modified state of powerlessness. The government worries that restoring the internet will lead to a “disruption of peace” but the gag-order on the liberty of Kashmiri students is much older than the revocation of Article 370. The majority of students are scared to say anything and have learnt not to complain because they have been taught to be grateful for what they have. They have been taught that the lack of internet should be seen as an opportunity to unplug as opposed to the confiscation of rights that it is.

When a person in this situation speaks up, whether it be photojournalist Masrat Zahra who was recently arrested under the New Media Policy 2020 (which enables institutional oversight of what can be considered news) for “disrupting the peace” or a student protesting outside their college campus for more focus on education, they are labelled anti-national and accused of denting the image of the authorities of the area. We equivocate the students and professionals crying out against injustice and robbed opportunities with insurgents and terrorists. We laud the crackdown on militancy and use that to justify revoking the rights of the millions of people who live here. We say that restoring peace to the area will increase employment, but how can there be peace when we are at war with our own citizens? How can there be peace when John Mohammad, with his multiple degrees, is more likely to be seen as a potential terrorist instead of a potential employee?

Peace is a farce but as long as we can keep our students distracted by making education harder to access and more complicated to keep up with, it’s all good, because we know idle students are what lead to the disruption of peace. Not institutional oppression. That’s not a thing that exists and if we can keep the students quiet and under-qualified long enough, we can get everyone to buy that theory. Because look, we’re killing terrorists everyday. What more could you want?

Are you there human-created concept of god? It’s me human-created concept of woman.

Yesterday, in the parking lot of a shopping complex, I offered to carry a 10 kg bag of detergent for an old lady who was struggling to get it out of the shopping cart. As I was helping, her husband (whom I had not previously seen) came running towards us, she had just been thanking me and talking about when she was young and could bring in an entire weeks worth of vegetables back home on her back when he interrupted and said he could handle it.
I said I was happy to help but he was determined to do it myself so I let it be and just as I was excusing myself he asked remarked, “Oh are you a body builder? Normally it’s men who offer to carry them heavy stuff and not women.”
He laughed as if he had made a very funny joke and honestly I am still waiting to get it but..he was a really old man, I had had a long day so I just explained I wasn’t a body builder, said goodbye and went back to my car.
Since then though I’ve felt like I did when I was eleven and all these things were happening to my body and I had all these questions to ask but there’s no god for women. There’s no god who is able to answer for all these things that make no sense.
Insane things.
Like how did I threaten a man by helping his wife? Why did he think I needed to be a body builder to match the strength of any man? And on that note, how is it that I can work out for hours and nothing will happen, but I can sprain my wrist (and sometimes shoulder) while trying to get out of a sports bra?
I want a goddess. I want a reliable fucking entity to ask these questions to and I want answers and I don’t want the answers to be a subjective interpretation that bounces off my opinions, I want answers to these mad things.
I want to know how it is possible that multiple grown men have giggled at me when I used the term period and multiples growl women have whispered for tampons in my ears as if sharing state secrets with me! How is it possible that I have been called inappropriate for saying the word uterus in a public space in a routine conversation?
I want someone to answer these questions.

I want someone to explain to me how I can know with absolute confidence that I do not want a child, until I am pregnant and then I have to fight myself to make the choice I have always known was the one I make. How is that I can have a mind of my own and fight for its autonomy but also biology so strong that it makes my sanity less reliable? Why is it that I know to be offended when someone calls me a function of my biological needs but I know to understand it when I feel like that? How is it that I can’t say I had an abortion without making a political statement about it? Why am I constantly being made to justify my choices?
I want someone to explain why my career choices and endeavours are often casual jokes to men I meet in yet another role I am cast in. I want to know why I have to fight to be seen and when I do I am called loud, arrogant and bossy. I want to know why I am taken more seriously by women around me since I became wife. I want to know why I was taken less seriously before. I want to know how the fuck I somehow made a legal decision on a practical and somewhat sentimental basis that led to the creation of an identity for me that I had not even begun to consider.
I want someone to be answerable to me. To us.
Someone needs to tell me why I can eat 300 calories and put on 4 kgs. I need someone to explain why the fuck I must go through this insane intensity of emotional variation on the basis of hormonal variation and I must do it month after month forever and some fuckwit will tell me I should see the beauty of being a woman in bleeding out and shoving cylinderical cotton bullets into my vagina on a monthly basis until I’m chafed and questioning my existence and shoving sweet things in my face. It’s a always a guy who wants me to see the beauty in the physical experience of my womanhood through my period. My ex got legit mad whenever I complained about my period or having cramps. He got mad at me for disrespecting my femaleness. I want someone to explain exactly how I can reject all gender based expectations yet embrace the part of being female I enjoy. I want to know why the fuck it is so hard.
I want someone to answer for that.
I want someone to explain why I am stronger when I have suffered and endured pain? Why I am I prettier when I am thin? Why do I paint my lips red and hate that I do it but like that it looks pretty and worry that I may be representing as someone who believes women need to do this?
I need a fucking god.
But I only have feminism. It’s all I have in this regard. It’s the only place I’ve found answers that are remotely reliable. It’s where I learnt to ask my questions better. It’s how I met people who were asking the same questions as I am. Honestly I am amazed I am constantly made to justify my feminism. Shouldn’t you justify your lack of it?

The Immigrant Teacher

My sister has been on my mind all day. It’s not surprising given we had one of our two-hour long conversations this morning. I called her, not that I need a reason to call her, because today is Teacher’s Day, and while I am loath to celebrate any religious holiday, I am fine with the holidays that commemorate people, independence and fundamentals. This one is celebrated in observance of the birthday of the second president of India, Dr.Radhakrishnan, who was a professor of comparative religion and philosophy for decades. I am fine with holidays like these and I am especially fine with this one because not only am I one of those “teachers are heroes” people but also because my sister, is a teacher.

She’s very passionate about what she does and if anyone is of the belief that teachers don’t do enough work, they should just take a look at her daily schedule. She’s a special needs educator of preschoolers and her work-life looks like an investment bankers. When the pandemic hit and the schools went into lockdown, she immediately made need-specific art and activity packages for each one of her students and had them sent to them because a lot of them are from low income families and have specific needs. She makes clay toys for students who respond well to those in the shapes of all kinds of shapes and sizes. When the murder of George Floyd caused protests she sent out packages on how to talk to your toddlers about race in a healthy and growth-oriented way. When their funding was cut she scoured Goodwill and every garage in the city to find ways to get the students everything they needed with her own money. She keeps detailed folders on each one of her students recording their progress and growth from the smallest things to the biggest. She changes diapers and makes up toilet-training games. Her job is insane to me. I don’t have a single thing to say to a three year old. She couldn’t have enough things. More to some than other, because I have inside information now, and yes, teachers do have fucking favourites! I knew it.

When she first moved to the the United States of America, she did so because she believed that was where she would get the education she truly wanted. That’s where she would be able to have the kind of schooling system budget and structure that would allow her to genuinely work with children who had developmental disabilities and learning disabilities. She believed she was making the right choice despite the educational loan that could buy her a house here. She attended a SpEd course here but she was in love with the university she eventually went to a lot before she went. I don’t quite understand that, personally, I have never had a dream university but dream-subjects I wanted to study. She wanted that university. She moved. She got her graduate degree and it was everything she could have every imagined. Her inner-nerd was so consumed for those two years that she had one disastrous 1-month relationship after another. Ultimately she just started sleeping with her roommate and now they’ve been together for a couple of years and it turns out my “cannot-really-multiply” sister is best suited for a mathematician. Who could have guessed.

Over the years living away, she grew more professionally accomplished, she’s been gone almost five years now, she also grew more mousey. She became more reserved. Less likely to make friends or go out. With each passing year she grew more and more stressed. Every six months there’s a dagger looming over her head — visas, contracts, people asking if she can speak English — she lives in this constant state of unknowablility and over the last year she, along with many other immigrants, has lived with this uncertainty of her legal status hanging over her like a guillotine. Her life is there now. Her boyfriend who is also an immigrant from a different country, is there. Their home is there. Their cat. Her students. She pays taxes there. Yet she fumbles in calling it home because with each passing day she feels less and less entitled to the space she occupies there. She feels scared to speak up when she’s treated unfairly by parents, the administration or just random people who feel it is okay to talk down to a person of a different race. She never calls racism if it affects only her personally because deep inside she doesn’t feel like it will end well. She believes, with example, that ultimately she’ll be told to go back to where she came from if she didn’t like it somewhere.

In her place, maybe I would. I can’t move out of my country because I feel already committed and attached to my causes here, I don’t think I would be able to feel as rightfully motivated elsewhere. She did. She wasn’t geographically limited by what she wanted to do in the world. She decided to do it elsewhere and somehow the mere act of legally coming from somewhere else in the world made her feel like less of a person. She does things to deal with it. She and her boyfriend make plans to move elsewhere in the future. They take up hobbies like kayaking and watch documentaries about cults and crazy people. She keeps making her toys. She makes bakeries and farmers’ markets in miniaturist detail and sets them upon her mantle. A world small enough to take with her wherever she goes whenever she knows that she has to go. A world of her own. Entirely in her control. She talks to her therapist about this uncertainty and deals with her anxiety about it.

She does all that because she loves her kids and the school where she teaches. She loves them. She loves teaching them. She loves when one of them tells her a story. She loves when they are aghast at the idea that she has an actual home and doesn’t just live at school. She loves their squabbles with one another. She talks about them constantly. She thinks about them constantly. She loves everything she does.

In a few days my sister, the preschool teacher, will don a doctor’s armour and go teach two classrooms of three to four year olds who absolutely do not understand the concept of social distancing or pandemics. She has no choice but to quit her job if she doesn’t want to do that. She would never do that. So she talks to me instead about the sanitation practises that she will follow and how she will teach the kids about masks. She wrote a little story about an owl and his mask or something. She talks about how she will just sanitize for the second batch on the lunch break because there is no time allotted for that. She makes jokes about socially-distant diaper changing and how that may be achieved. She’s worried but she’s weirdly excited. She’s nuts. She says to me all the things she wouldn’t say to her directors and administrators because she doesn’t feel she had the right to complain because they might take away her right to live in her home. She has already had to fight for that so many times.

Instead she buys materials and protective equipments, she prepares materials for in-person learning and separate ones for the online classes she also has to take. She makes her toys. She does her job with excitement and joy even as she’s reminded repeatedly that she may not have the right to her life or job. She laughs off teaching in person in the midst of a pandemic and says she’s so happy to see her kids again. I worry but I don’t say that because I respect her so damn much for what she does. For what she’s doing. Instead I tell her everything will be okay.

But I need someone to please tell me, will it?