Neon, neon, neon

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Bits of patchy sunlight.

It’s the 13th of April. There’s something so inauspicious about today. Sinister, almost. I’m not a big fan of this month. I’m waiting for June, desperately. The moon is hanging low tonight, uncannily orange. From my window, it looks like a gigantic bulb in the sky.

Alt-J just released the official video of their new song. It’s so despairingly melancholic. So otherworldly. I can’t believe the intensity with which I love the things (and the people) I love. It breaks my heart.

I’m writing in this weird, staccato fashion because my thoughts are too varied and disjointed, and this is a new technique I’m trying out. Seems easier, somehow. I don’t have it in me to glide from one topic to another without any effort. (It’s only temporary though).

I deactivated my Facebook account today. I feel so damn liberated. Lately I have been spending too much time on it, and the emotions I’ve been feeling have all been negative – anxiety, sadness, shock, annoyance. And yet, and yet, I was browsing through the damned site like a drug addict. My thumb would just automatically reach out for the bloody blue sign and then I’d scroll like a zombie, not really processing anything fully. Why was I doing that to myself? So I decided to detox for a bit by taking a couple of months off. (On the plus side, I can still sign in through my Facebook-enabled Goodreads account through Amazon! Thank god for loopholes.)

I just finished a writing workshop I had participated in. Lots of stories, discussions, feedback, critiques, words, long nights, crippling self-doubt and angst later, I can say that I’m finally one step closer to the actual art of writing. It’s a lot of work. A. Lot. Of. Work. But it’s something I’m willingly going to put myself through. I have to do it. I have to.

I recently met some wonderful people and warmed up to them so organically. Something that I’ll always be thankful to Bangalore for is the barrage of people it brought my way, some of them so close to me I can’t imagine the last three years without them.

Which brings me to the next point. I’ve been in Bangalore for three whole years now. When did I grow up, man? I look at my fresh-out-of-college pictures and I realize I even look different now. A little more matured, a little more flab on the hips, the youthful skinniness of the face has been squandered away (like a boss). I like it though. I feel like JD when he turns from Bambi into a third year resident at Sacred Heart. (Whuddup Scrubs reference!). There’s still a lot of uncertainties and even though I may not know what I want, I certainly know what I don’t want. And that’s an important lesson to learn.

I’m reading a lot, lot more now, thanks to my Kindle. I do watch a movie once in a while, but reading is something I did not want to lose touch with, and I’m so happy that hasn’t happened. The last book I read was Roald Dahl’s ‘Switch Bitch’. My brain feels vandalized right now. I love him more as an adult fiction writer because he’s so unapologetically edgy, sexy and bizarre. Also read ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness. A book that only fully hit me once I was done with it. It kind of took my breath away.

There are certain truths about life and existence that I’m beginning to understand, and I feel a little more stable, and a little more at peace. Just a little. A teeny bit. I’m learning how to love myself again. Baby steps. I’m learning how to meditate, how to tame my anxiety, how to learn from it, how to grow despite it. I’m learning how to accept who I am. The real me, with all the fusses and frills.

A friend shared a TED talk with me today, and it kind of changed me a little. Check it out, and if you’re someone who gets extremely excited talking about life, the cosmos, consciousness, evolution, society, (and if you’re in Bangalore), let’s meet up over a cuppa coffee and talk 🙂 I’ve realized that connections with like-minded people are essential to keep your sanity in check.

I’ll be back soon. This time, hopefully, with some stories to tell. I know they’re in there, somewhere. I wish you all the best in the world.

Lots of love. ❤

You’re not my sunshine

You’re not my sunshine
You’re the night sky
Studded with a million sparkly stars that reflect back
My own vices, doubts, fears, dreams, questions
I could lie underneath you
Awake, uplifted, astute
And if I could, I’d never let it turn into day
Because the sun could never be what you are
Every single day, just by existing
You’re not my sunshine
You’re my inky black sky.
You come and go on stormy nights
Silent, but luminous
You come to me during the witching hours of dark reason
You’re the stolen treasure I buried long ago
That I unearth day after day with my bare hands
I dig deeper and deeper till my fingers bleed and I can dig no more
You’re the shadow of an extinct tree
You’re the itch on a phantom limb
You’re the part of me I wish I could remove
But the one I can’t exist without
Because it is I, and I am it
You’re not my sunshine
You’re my dark grey cloud.

Hello, summer :)

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Seasons change slowly. It’s a process that takes days and weeks and months. But one summer evening when you’re sitting in bed, you realize it’s a bit chilly. So you take out your blanket and suddenly, winters are here!

Change always occurs gradually, it’s the realization that hits all at once. This happens in life too. You’re sitting at your desk working, and out of nowhere, you feel like you’re a different person than you were a few months ago. You’re a little more grown-up, a little more in control, a little more responsible. (Okay who are you kidding? You’re still lost and clueless most of the times). But you’ve finally started accepting who you are. You’re not trying to change yourself anymore. You may decide to keep certain parts of yourself stashed away, but you’re not pretending to be someone else. It’s such a liberating feeling. To let yourself go, to be vulnerable and honest to your own self. To cry into your pillow if you feel like it, and not berating yourself for it.

You know how little things cause a lot of pain? Rude remarks. Unspoken words. Cold shoulders. A neglected friend. A trip you’ve been meaning to take. Not stopping to breathe. Tiny little regrets that you keep living with till they make your shoulders droop and shrivel like flower petals out in the summer sun.

It works similarly the other way round. There may be things not going very well in your life, but you’re at a stage where you can do something about it. So you get up, bundle your uncombed hair up in a scruffy little bun (that really works when you’re trying to get some serious work done), you play some Milky Chance, change your bed sheet, stow away your fluffy blanket, clear out your drawers and desk, throw away those cartons you keep hoarding for no reason, re-arrange your books on your bed stand and you realize that little things go a long way. Things like telling your cook that you really appreciate his food for the first time ever. Like standing in your balcony and enjoying a cup of tea you made for yourself with a lot of effort. Because you deserve that tea. You deserve all the tea in the world. Because you’re just a regular person, trying to be nice, and good, and you’re just fine the way you are. Being cool and sarcastic with a touch of ‘swag’ is something you can’t handle. Because that’s not you. Stop trying to fit in. Be that wobbly little, oddly-shaped piece in the jigsaw puzzle. There are more puzzles out there, waiting to be discovered. You’ll see.

And even though you know this new-found love for life is temporary and will pass soon, and it’s probably being caused by your overactive ovaries and your hyperactive hormones and overenthusiastic sweat glands), you accept it. You welcome it, and let it wash over you. You’re happy being human. But you also know those overbearing thoughts will come back soon to haunt you. But that’s the price you pay for being creatures with a higher consciousness. You feel extreme pleasure, and you feel extreme pain. That’s just the way it is. So enjoy the sunshine on your face for a while. Stop and take in the smell of summer. Breeeeeeathe. Lock in your feelings for now, so that when you come back to them on a bad day, you can remind yourself that seasons always change. Gradually, slowly, and then all at once.

A letter to our families

mayaangelou

It starts when you’re young. When you’re really, really young.

It starts when you’re just a toddler and are asked to wear a dupatta over your salwar kameez. You don’t even have breasts, but how does that matter? Guys have wild imaginations. Have some shame.

It starts when your cousins don’t allow you to be a soldier during playtime, because who wears a frock during war? You’d just look idiotic holding a gun, standing there with your billowing pink skirt and lacy bloomers. Just use that cardboard box as a stove and make them some dinner.

It starts when your brother receives a remote-controlled car for his birthday, and you get a kitchen set. To be fair, you played with all his toys, but they were never given to you, were they? No, because they were never meant for you.

It starts with Raksha Bandhan. You need to be nice to your brother so he protects you from goons when they tease you. Don’t you want his protection? Let’s all just overlook the fact that he’s seven and you’re fifteen. Shh, don’t be sharp. Your brother is your lifelong bodyguard. Now smile and give him your chocolates.

It starts when even as a tiny kid, you’re told that your saas (mother-in-law) will not accept you if you don’t learn how to cook. It’s all in jest, of course, but you grow up with a constant nagging thought: if you don’t know how to cook, you’ll fail at being a woman.

It starts when you have guests over, and all the little girls serve water, lay the table, and smile sweetly. The boys? Oh, they’re outside playing cricket and yelling at each other like hooligans. Just a bunch of boys being boys, you know? Hehehe. Why don’t you wear those pretty bangles your uncle got for you and show us?

It starts when you’re barely ten, looking for a second-hand school book in a busy market, and a man grabs your butt. You laugh and tell your sister about it, because it seems funny to you. Because it’s so absurd in your head. You don’t know what that even meant. But you both keep quiet about it. Because maybe it was your fault. Who asked you to wear jeans and expose your butt like that?

It starts when you’re not allowed to wear shorts when you go outside. You’re not even allowed to wear shorts when you sleep. Because don’t you know the house help’s eyes are gliding over your legs? Don’t you have any shame? Why are you attracting his attention (even though you’re completely oblivious and unconscious in that state?)

It starts when you’re barely twelve, and a bunch of boys pass lewd comments at you and all you get to hear is “isi ne kuch kiya hoga.”

And so it continues.

When a salesman runs his hands over your back when you’re trying out a sweater, and you storm out, livid. Why were you not careful? If you giggle and make small talk with him, obviously he’ll get the wrong signal, no? Just be quiet. No need to be nice to strangers. What kind of a girl does that?

When your driving teacher grabs your breasts shamelessly, and has the audacity to flash his tobacco-stained smile at you. You rage, cry silently, and then you quit. But nothing is done about it. Because “baat ko aage badha ke kya faayda?”

When you’re followed by a bunch of guys on your scooter, but you’re told to not do anything about it. Ignore. God knows what they might do if you retaliate? You know about these acid attack victims, right? Oh, and always wear full sleeves. And tie a hankie over your mouth. Don’t grab their attention with your face.

When your entire family wants you to get married, not because you want to, not because you feel ready – mentally and emotionally – but because “this is the right age for girls. Boys ka kya hai? Wo to late shaadi kar sakte hain.”

When you’re questioned (after being in three long-term committed relationships), “We don’t trust you. Tu kisi ek pe tikti hi nahin hain. What if you run away from this one too?” Do you have any idea what the boys in the family are up to? No? Thought so. Because it’s irrelevant, right?

When you’re told “Thank god you’re not like those new year party type girls. Why do they drink and celebrate every year when they know what happens?”

To be honest, I could have been one of them. Heck, I am one of them. And I live every single day of my life looking down at my body like it’s a curse. To see whether any part of exposed skin may incite some dirty look, some snide remark. I look down at the road and walk. Because I don’t want to witness anyone gawking at me, chewing their paan, scratching their crotch, undressing me in their head. My fists are always clenched, senses on high alert, music volume turned down so I can be prepared in case of an unfortunate event.

Sometimes I feel like wearing a skirt, or a nice summer dress. But it’s not worth it. Who knows? Maybe that means I’m an adventurous little wild cat, who is just asking to be groped? Why take that risk?

So, parents, dadas dadis, kakas kakis, mausas mausis, and all other random relatives and well-wishers, there’s something I want to say to all of you. I’m not questioning your intentions. You obviously know it’s a big, bad world outside and you’re only trying to protect us. You mean well. You’re looking out for us.

But these are the little things that have made us so timid, so scared, so afraid of the world we live in. By asking us to ignore every situation and every insinuation, you’re allowing them to thrive, become bolder, more evil than they already are.

It’s years and years of conditioning that has turned us into angry, frustrated, hapless victims that are desperate to be heard, respected and treated equally. In fact, it only seems like a distant dream. Something we pine for, but something we have all accepted we may never actually witness.

We’ve been asked to stay quiet, look down, cover up, obey, bear, tolerate, adjust, listen, and never, never answer back all our lives. It’s because of this that we feel inherently weaker than men. It’s because of this that we are always targeted and accused. Please, don’t let us grow that way. Don’t take away our shine. Don’t ask us to hide, to bow down, to suffer silently.

Teach us how to fight back. Teach us not to feel limited, helpless, or inferior in any way. Tell us that this world and its pleasures are limitless and we should run, unfettered and free, to experience it all. Tell us we deserve every bit of freedom that boys have and that we should get it and enjoy it without any shame or reservations.

Let us be. Set us free. And maybe, someday, slowly, bit by bit, we can create a world where we don’t have to feel stifled. Where we can begin to love ourselves for who we are, where we never have to cry and shout to the skies, questioning why we ever had to be born a girl.

My Safety Net

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(L to R: Me, Mangu, Didi)

It was a chilly December morning. Mum got out of the cocoon that was her blanket and carefully pulled the foot-rug towards herself with her toes. Stepping on the cold floor made her sneeze unstoppably; and her sneezes were always loud enough to wake the entire neighbourhood. Which would actually be of help to her, given that she had to extricate three sleepy kids from their snuggly beds on a foggy morning for school.

Like all usual mornings, she got up, tottered around in the kitchen and had a cup of chai in the living room. Those ten minutes were rightfully hers. Silent. Peaceful. Then she sighed, mentally preparing herself for the hullabaloo that was to follow. She had to wake me up. There was a reason my grandfather called me Kumbhkaran ki nani. 

She’d started calling out my name before she even entered the room. Different variations of “Chinkyyyy” that had somehow found their own rhythm and progression over the years. She switched the light on and saw that I wasn’t in bed. This had never happened in the entirety of the five years I had spent in that house.

The mosquito net – fondly known as the machchar daani – was still intact; securely fastened by four pieces of scraggly strings tied to random hooks around the room. There was a gaping hole right in the centre on top, conveniently covered by a stray piece of paper.

She went inside the washroom, expecting to find me lolling on the seat, asleep. I wasn’t there. Was I in the other bathroom? Nope. She asked my brother. He didn’t know. She went to my sister’s room. I wasn’t there either. Maybe I had sleepwalked all the way to the kitchen. (I did that once). She checked all the rooms, even the most unlikely places – the store room, the aangan, the porch. After a brief panic-striken fifteen minutes, Papa came out of his bed and calmly pointed out where I had been all this time.

Have you seen house-flies stuck in spider webs?

I looked exactly like that. Having rolled off my bed in the middle of the night, I landed in the safe lap of the machchar daani. Found hanging between the net and the side of the bed, I was oblivious to the world, still deeply ensconced in the evidently heavy slumber I was in. (Thanks to Papa’s shoving-the-net-deep-under-the mattress prowess). Yes, I was that light. Yes, I was that tiny. Yes, I was that escapable to the eyes.

All this while, I’d had no inkling that I was being frantically searched for by the entire household. When I woke up, I had a mosquito net imprint on my face that stayed for an hour or two. Everyone laughed – not at me, but at the ludicrousness of the situation. I laughed with them, but all I wanted to do was go back to sleep.

It has been over twenty years since. A couple of days ago, in the feverish aftermath of a nightmare, I found myself in the throes of one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I rolled off my bed, fast asleep, and woke up mid-fall. My heart jumped out of my ribcage. I gasped, broke into a cold sweat, and sat up in bed. It had knocked the air out of me.

The dream was fading away fast, but it had left a bitter aftertaste. I sighed. I felt a twinge. I missed my house, my Mum, my safety net.

I got out of bed to make some chai. It was a chilly December morning. Silent. Peaceful. I had ten minutes before I had to start getting ready for office. I stepped on the cold floor, and started sneezing uncontrollably.

My first lesson in hope

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We were sitting – some of us almost lying down – in the garden on a chatai, soaking up the winter sun. First Step kindergarten school’s class of ’93. Our class teacher was engaged in a lively conversation with a fake parrot perched on his forearm. Every now and then, he’d touch his finger to the bird’s beak and shriek out in pain, twisting his face into animated expressions of mock pain. The class was in hysterics, some of us literally rolling over with laughter.

I still remember how white his beard was. Not grey – speckled with some whites and a few blacks – but pure white. It looked even whiter out in the sun. I guffawed along with the class, but I was careful not to laugh too hard, or for too long. I had to focus on sulking, and looking solemn.

I’d had an argument with mum in the morning. All I had asked for was a packet of Crax. Those divine rings made of corn. The ones you could place around your fingers, and eat with abandon. One finger at a time. She knew it was my favourite snack, and I knew she had it. After I was done whining, stomping my feet all over the house, refusing to wear my socks, and hiding under the bed, I accepted my fate. As I sat grumpily drinking my milk and honey, my mom handed me my Little Mermaid backpack. She said she didn’t have any Crax at home, but if I prayed hard enough, I will find it in my bag. But only if I honestly, truthfully prayed with all my heart.

The entire time I sat in front of Papa on the scooter, I was fraught with pressure. I closed my eyes shut, squeezing them tightly, praying to the only god accessible to me. As I entered the gates of school, I knew I had to focus all my energies and work really hard at being good. No mischief today.

After we were done with the colouring lessons (where I was extremely careful about staying inside the lines by the way), we moved on to the rhymes. We learnt a new poem about how fish survive in the ocean. We also learnt that if we place one hand on top of the other and wiggle our thumbs, we could make our own fish come alive. What a fascinating world school was!

When the break was announced, I devoted five full minutes of intense and focused praying with a lot of earnest dedication. This should work, right? How could it possibly not? I was on my knees and everything, chanting a silent made-up mantra like a fanatic. Then slowly, I opened my bag. There were my books, my hanky, my name-tag, and my tiffin box inside. My face fell.

I took my lunch box out. It was light green and shaped like a long-ish dog. Probably a dachshund? Can’t say for sure. Mum had tied it up with a rubber band so it would stay in place. She had given me jam and cream sandwiches, with the sides cut off. I sat there munching slowly, stung. Maybe I hadn’t prayed hard enough.

After we were done, I kept the empty box inside. School was over, and all I had to do was wait for Papa to pick me up. I fiddled with a stick and made shapes in the sand. Suddenly I sat upright. I grabbed my bag, undid the zipper, and reached into the other side of the bag. There was another section! I slipped my hand inside. It was there. I saw it. I felt it. A shiny new packet of Crax that had been waiting for me all this time.

At that moment I was so utterly, completely blissful. I honestly believed that it was my fervent prayer that had brought the packet into my backpack. Only because I wanted it so bad. How could it get there otherwise?

Maybe it wasn’t such a smart thing for a parent to do. Maybe I believed in something that wasn’t real. But I was only three. And miracles took place all the time when you were three.

That day, as I happily sat clutching my hard-earned Crax packet close to my chest, I learnt my first ever lesson in hope. Which till today, I believe is the loveliest, most powerful emotion. One that can move mountains. One that helps you swim across the biggest tides, jump over the deepest abysses. One that makes you look out for the smallest traces of light on a cold, dark night. One that lets you believe that good times will return, no matter how bad life seems to get.

In fact, I believe hope is the mightiest of emotions. Because it can make packets of chips appear magically in little girls’ bags. I mean, what could possibly ever trump that?

We are.

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My little brother and I played many imaginative games with our toys as kids. Some involved high speed car chases, while some were tear-inducing family dramas. In the evenings we rode our cycles around the neighbourhood, or climbed the kachnar tree or played in the park.

Mangu (as we all loved to call him) and I were inseparable. On days we felt extra adventurous, we’d climb the forbidden laal chhat (the red terrace). We weren’t allowed to go there, because it was too high and too slanting. But we were fearless, unfettered, emboldened by each other’s company. So we climbed. We played. We ran. We giggled together, happy with our little shared secret.

Some of my earliest memories are of him stretched out on the floor bawling, asking my parents to let him wear my frocks, my bangles, my hair-clips. I loved to share them with him, and even offered to tie the ribbon at the back. Sometimes I even took the liberty to raid my mom’s make-up kit and applied a bright coat of red lipstick on him.

At night, he wouldn’t fall asleep unless I took out my ‘Song Diary’ and sang to him. The lyrics all misheard, misspelled, misinterpreted.

When our pet dog Cherry passed away, we kept her photo between us and wept silently. The pain united and comforted us.

When we were younger, he would take out his picture books and insist I read to him. I was too young to read myself, so I just practised the art of fake reading. I’d open the books, point to the pictures, and spin senseless but vivid stories. I’d make the bunny rabbit eat dal chawal before he bounded off to play, and I’d make the frog finish his Hindi homework before he went to catch flies. The stories always had happy endings. But he was mostly never awake to hear them.

Most days when I’d wake up in the morning, his head would be buried in my back, or his hand would be clutching my pinky.

Sometimes we’d just lie on our backs on the terrace, and look at the clouds. Most of them looked like dinosaurs to us. Some of them were imaginary. Sometimes during profound moments like these, we would ask each other this question.

“Tereko kabhi kabhi aisa nahin lagta, ki hum hain?” (Don’t you sometimes feel like, we are?”)

“Lagta hai. Bahut zyaada. (I do. A lot.)

Hum hain. Par yaar, hum kaise hain?” (We are. But, how?”)

There was no answer. We both knew what we were feeling, but we couldn’t explain it any further. And we didn’t need to. It was an intense feeling of awareness. Of existence. The fact that we are alive. We are here. We are human beings with sense and feelings and free will.

For several years, at unexpected moments, we’d repeat this to each other. And we knew exactly what it meant. It was so easy to communicate. To understand. To connect.

Hum hain.

Little did I know that this feeling would only grow with time. That I would read articles and books about so many other people feeling it. That it would be so intricately discussed, debated and described by thinkers for so many years. That this would be my point of conversation with so many people, many of whom will not even pretend to understand. That this feeling would go and wedge itself in the core of my being, become my centre of gravity, determine the way I think and feel all the time. That I would feel intense consciousness at odd moments. That existentialism would become a way of life.

Though it’s not as easy to understand anymore, I still think of him when those moments come back to me.

Sitting on a swing.

Climbing a tree in the park.

Skating on the street outside.

Taking Cherry out for a walk.

Hum hain.

We are.

We are.

We are.