I will be back soon, and be with us

The past one year has been perhaps one of my most prolific years on this planet. It has also been my first time in a space, at great physical distance from home.

I could not have felt closer.

However, this time has not been as simple as it appears. I have had moments of complex introspection, have asked newer questions, and reflected on past concerns.

In the process though, I have been fortunate enough to meet beautiful people and to be able to share these thoughts with them, to listen to their perceptions, to admire honest feedback and to nurture collective dreams of better selves.

One of my friends in my new city, who has witnessed my journey here, met me a few weeks ago. Over lunch, as  I endlessly narrated my stories, she shared that she is happy for me-she is seeing me change. I wondered what was the change. She said, “earlier it was always about others, and what you would do for them, now its all about you! You come first!”

This feedback has been most worrisome, if not jarring.

I have been unable to stop thinking about it.

Where my friend is celebrating my embracing of individuality and self-love, my conditioning makes me look at it as self-centered existence, and if I be paranoid, as sheer selfishness.

I feel both of us have binary perceptions of a condition that is perhaps somewhere in between.

While walking to work, while cooking, while standing by the river, I have been engaging with this thought about what kind of a person I wish to be. Do I want to continue thinking about my own self, regardless of what others go through? Is this the self I would admire? Or do I want to go back to an existence, where I almost ignored myself?

Maybe , stay in between.

But this does make me want to reflect upon individuality, or perhaps freedom. What is freedom? I realize, in my naive contemplation,  that many a times we borrow an image of freedom or individuality from another completely different context, and try to apply it in ours. If it does not fit in, we try and change our context, or move to the other context and adopt it. I have no judgement over this, I do not know if this is the appropriate step or not.

I acknowledge that freedom is perceived and expressed differently by different people, and in my situation, I do not assume that thinking solely about my isolated future is a form of individuality or freedom.

My freedom would be to continue to value my core beliefs and work on my dreams, while ensuring the happiness of my loved ones. My freedom would be to not be fearful when advocating for art and culture in my context. My freedom would be to say a no to a man or woman who I believe does not deserve me, irrespective of what my context proclaims, and to unabashedly love the one with whom I share mutual respect. My freedom would be to feel and give love, to provide and enjoy a spiritual security, without losing myself in it. My freedom would be to voice my opinion where there is injustice in the garb of tradition or values. My freedom would be to not be rude or angry , to not let the pace and stress of spectacular society get to my calm. My freedom would be to deny greed in a world that dazzles, to save when I am told to spend, to sleep when tired and to wake up early to hear the birds sing.

I am far from being free.

My freedom is what my innermost being wants, my freedom is to be that individual, my freedom is to be that individual at a place I call home.

I am yet to be free, but I am in the process, perhaps a lifelong process.

I also attempted at reflecting on why I seem to have only thought about my well-being in the past few months. Because I am unable to feel a sense of security that comes when you are surrounded by people you love and those who love you back. Because I am in an alien environment where I worry about my sleep so that I have enough energy to cook my food, to clean my room, to walk long distances to my work and ensure I make the best utilization of my time, alone. This makes me compromise on spending as much time with others as I would have otherwise. This allows me an excuse to not think of others’ needs above mine. This lets me think of “me first”.

Let me be honest,  for as long as I can recall, I have advocated being alone. I have celebrated and honestly cherished every moment spent on my own in that world which I am much acquainted with. For the first time in my life, in my new environment, I realized what is loneliness, and how painful it is. Don’t take me wrong, I have thoroughly enjoyed my year and new bonds, and am thrilled at the prospect of another eventful year. But even though I still cherish my moments of reflection and quietude, I deeply crave for familiar smiles, sounds, wagging tails of street dogs, ants by the window on a rainy evening, the soft sound of my father’s humming, the joy in my mother’s laughter. I miss the touch of my niece’s fingers, I miss hugging my brother. I miss my neighbor who yearned for a conversation , I miss my friends who met me at odd hours. I miss  being alone when I was surrounded by those my own.

I don’t want to worry about my mere existence, I want to be occupied in thoughts and exchange with all these beings who form my community, who enrich my life with meaning and purpose. Like stories untold, their lives unfold and add color to mine, together we create narratives of a lifetime.

As if the universe heard my queries, the other day I received a message, that an elderly mentor of mine, has been thinking of me. Dear Bhagwan Das Ji, I have been thinking of you too, of the depth in your eyes that speak so much when we often sit in silence.

I would be back soon, for you do give me a reason to channelize my energy and life towards a constructive outcome. I would be back soon, because you and all my nodes back home,  cause me to write from my heart and soothe my soul. Your words and actions cause me to weep and smile, to laugh and fight. And in experiencing these plethora of emotions, you all make me alive.

I will be back soon, and be with us.

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Are you obsessed with my hair cut?

Are you obsessed with my hair cut?

Even if you are not, this post might be interesting.

Last month I cut my hair. And I cut them short.

(I am certain I am not the only human to have done this ever, but appears to be so by the amount of queries and comments that have traveled my way, some in the open, but most in personal or sheepish encounters.)

In public interest, no it was not an impulsive decision, it was well thought of, and in fact quite delayed. It has nothing to do with New York, and everything to do with me.

Kaise?

Janaab Aise-

I have usually had hair that fall on my shoulders and in the past one year had allowed them to grow longer, slow and steady. I did not care about their shape, their volume, their color, I just let them exist, in resonance with the pace and character of my life, moving with time, no pruning, no control.

It annoyed me. I deserve more attention from my own self.

When I would look in the mirror , I would feel that I am doing a disservice to myself by letting them be- I am doing a disservice to myself, by letting life be. I need more control. In order to live, I perhaps need to be like a gardener, to nurture and shape different segments of my life.

So I decided to begin with the most visually effective aspect of my being, my hair.

Not for anyone else, but to get my own attention.

Would that directly translate into a change in my entire way of life? No.

However!

I feel that these mornings ( post hair being cut)  when I look at myself, I find an imperfect self but alive. And that propels me to enjoy each day a little more- to break a few more self-installed barriers, to smile for no reason. I see possibility of experimentation, of taking a risky decision and facing the consequences- I see possibility of mischief and laughter, of dreaming and falling, of living. Was it not present before? Possibly yes. But I wasn’t seeing it.

I am thoroughly enjoying questioning a predominant expectation from me- that I should look and behave in a certain way. That I should be aligned with a certain image. No, I am not trying to rebel, I don’t need to do that through appearance or appearance alone, but I am also defying a sense of belonging to a forced identity. I don’t have long hair, I can still be respectful, have my set of self-defined values, and treat you well-as long as you respect me and are honest. Even if my haircut does not appease your sense of aesthetics, that does not bother me, because it pleases mine. I am learning to stay above  feedback from irritants and humbly accept appreciation. I am also learning to not immediately react to dissonance. And this, I do believe, would transcend to other activities in my daily existence, perhaps consciously or maybe silently without my apparent knowledge.

{I am wary of using terms such as “freedom” or “power” because I feel they are way too complex and I would not want to have their juvenile usage in a hurried expression. Maybe later? Until then, I would request you to not associate “feminism”, “journalism” or any other “ism” of your imagination with a petrified hair stylist’s tryst with scissors, and, my hair.}

Reflection after watching “Dum Laga Ke Haisha”

Having completed my finals and several other quotidian tasks, I finally decided to give myself a break through India’s most cherished form of entertainment- Cinema.  (Please forgive the exaggeration, if it appears so.)

Now that I am in the ever expensive new shahar of mine, where I would not want to spend on a visit to a movie hall, I managed to watch yesterday on a much smaller screen, the movie, “Dum Laga Ke Haisha”.

This movie features as its protagonist Bhumi Pednekar, who plays the role of Sandhya, a newly wed bride in middle-class* North-Indian context, and through her brilliant portrayal of the predicament of a plus-size woman , I could reflect on prevalent issues that many of us face in our societies.

Let me be direct in approaching the subject, I am going to talk to you about shaming and how that has affected me and many of my friends, particularly women, but I think it is almost impossible to refrain from the larger structures of power that encourage such shaming.

I would provide some consciously selected context from the movie itself-

Sandhya was teased by her younger brother for her size, and publicly humiliated by her arranged husband, who chose not to love her due to his disapproval of her shape. She had to bear with undue taunting by her husband’s paternal aunt  along with her husband’s sense of regret, whose erratic and juvenile behavior was found justified by her own parents- they were surprised at her voicing her genuine concerns. In her divorce petition, Sandhya claims that her husband’s behavior caused her mental harassment, while he admits that he does not love her and married her under family pressure- her degree would enable her to teach and earn for the family.

There is lots more that I would like to recollect and share, but I would pause for now and write what I could relate these cinematic instances with. There are several intertwined and complex societal attitudes at play here, which would seem most obvious and apparent to many, yet we choose to mostly accept these in silence.

Calling names to people (plus-size or otherwise)- it’s acceptable

I have grown up being teased, being referred to as a “Buffalo/Bhains”, “Bull/Saand” and even “Haathi ka Baccha/Elephant’s child”. I do not have a tail, horns or a trunk. I do not even walk on all fours. These adjectives were showered upon me by my nearest and dearest, because I have never been skinny and because I eat food when I am hungry.

I have grown up believing that I am not good enough. I was called an elephant’s child by a much cherished person in my life when I was once running, I was teased for my evident puberty by a close friend when I was running on the school playground, I do not run.

Body or appearance shaming must have been experienced by a majority of people I know, it is not limited to current obsession with size-zero or white skin fairness creams- it has found its place in biases, racism and heinous injustice, in slapstick humor and cartoons, in stereotypical imagery and characterization across boundaries of space and time. While this harassment is much prevalent, its subtle implications on a day-to-day level might not always be discussed.

Just as Sandhya’s disapproval of her husband’s disrespect towards her body is considered strange by both families, I felt the same throughout my growing years when I could not muster the courage to initiate a dialogue with my acquaintances. Sandhya’s brother believes that her husband did no wrong by insulting her in front of his friends since she is indeed a “Saand”.

Many of us must have come across an over-hyped ideology of being strong and not being affected by such irritants in life, a logic that many of the perpetrators would themselves offer  as their justification for their thoughtless judgmental remarks and sadist tendency. Bullshit! What do you even mean by asking someone to not be “so sensitive“?

If you are told that you are a buffalo by someone who is  at a higher position in your family or societal power structure, chances are that you would not only be affected by it at that moment, rather  internalize it for a much longer period. This distorted self-perception would affect your confidence, your relationships, your sense of style and expression. At the cost of sounding paranoid, it is a damage for a lifetime, and most self-help books or advisers  that ask you to love yourself and accept your uniqueness, sound mild and serve as meek protestants, in front of the loudness of those obnoxious negative remarks.

I must admit, I have in the past accepted some strange people in my life, and had to bear with their completely avoidable presence, due to a lingering sense of shame on  how I must be perceived by others  or that I do not deserve any better . Funny that something so external, would have left me so weak internally, but it did, and I face its consequences even today.

It’s alright for males to tease females- the divine treatment for the male child

Sandhya’s brother reminds her that she always looks like a “Chudail/Witch” after her having spent time in grooming herself and hoping for a positive reaffirmation.

I have heard this before, and have often cringed at the sound of this word. Why would you call me a witch? Because I choose to wear a casual t-shirt and pajamas? Because I am loud? Because I do not fit into your ideal of innocence and nauseous cuteness? But then why do I seek your approval at all? So ingrained is this desire to get an approval in me, that even after 26 years with an awareness of my socially inflicted low self esteem, I am unable to fight it. I remember not grooming myself out of shyness, wondering if the very people who remind me of my shape, my dressing sense and my graying hair would make fun of it if they see me taking care of myself.

But many from the “practical” brigade would suggest that my claims here must be unfounded, why am  I blaming  relations so dear for a crime they certainly did not intend? I think I would blame the structure and an inhuman level of tolerance accepted out of women in this case. How dare someone tease a woman on her physical attributes and how dare the erratic behavior of the male child, whether husband, brother, or son, be acceptable? If my son would do that to my daughter or vice-versa, I would initiate a dialogue on accepting differences and nurturing empathy, on being aware and mindful of words and actions, on knowing the difference between playfulness and hurting. I would teach children how to love than how to silently accept pain. I would request my children to never allow such an irrelevant negative remark to have any significance in their lives, to question and raise their voice, if they ever find themselves unduly targeted.

The taunting vamps and the woman’s fault

There is no dearth of taunting women in our lives. From our neighbor’s cleaning lady commenting on my eyebrows, to a stranger’s remark on my walk, from sisters worried about my lack of prospective boyfriends,to friends wondering when I would look more  “girly” (really, what do you mean by girly?), I have faced them all, at times with courage and at times with a broken heart (You are meeting me after a year, after my hard work on a cause I believe in, and all you want to discuss is my nail-paint, thanks!)

Sandhya’s husbands’ aunt is quite a sadist. Having suffered injustice as a woman herself, she leaves no stone unturned in snide comments on Sandhya’s size and appearance. Her nephew’s denial of sex to his wife  is also Sandhya’s fault.

Its always the woman’s fault right? I am aghast at how women themselves catalyze patriarchy and support its many conventions, the most prevalent being an uncanny silence, generations living in denial, or celebrating sacrifice as some form of divinity, only to be practiced by women.

Comparison

Sandhya’s husband compares her with his friend Nirmal’s much thinner wife and fails to appreciate her for herself. 

I feel that comparison is an absolute disregard of a person’s being. Why should I compare A with Z, they are different, they both exist, and have their particular character and place. I was once compared with my two year old niece, I thought that it was the death of sanity.

Intellect vs. Body

In the movie, Sandhya had power over her husband because she was educated, she could answer back because she felt confident in her future, she knew she could work.

At times, I have compensated for my negative impressions of myself thanks to body shaming, by performing well academically, in fact its almost an obsession, I always want to do well and try not to compromise on it for anything. Every other source of happiness could be secondary during a deadline or examination, because that gets me a different approval and respect, that makes me feel better about myself and feel a certain power, a certain liberation, a higher self-worth. As much as I respect education and would always advocate for it, I do not think that my sense of self-worth should be limited to it.  Just as denying myself respect due to my appearance is nonsensical, so is an undue significance to so-called accomplishments, both are over-rated.

I think I would want to think of myself in terms of the person I am or become, in terms of how much love I give and get, in terms of how much happiness I can spread, how many memories I can cherish, how many mountains I can kiss and how many stars I do count.  I know I have come a long way, and so do Sandhya and her husband in their understanding of the complexity which influenced their relationship, but there is still so much to talk about on this, maybe another post, or maybe over a cup of chai and parle-g biscuits?

* Middle Class in itself is organic, complex and most diverse

A letter unsent to a friend: A letter to no one

Dear …………

Hope this letter finds you well. I thought of writing to you because I like to write and I like the thought that you , with that calm on your face, would be reading it. That the depth in those eyes would scan across the length of it, and probably lead to a knowing smile.
In a way it is like a conversation, just that your response would be delayed, thoughtful or probably silent.
That actually does not matter, not over the years, not when we shall meet again after travelling across the skies, the oceans, the moons.

It is a letter, a letter which makes you realize that the response does not matter, what matters is the process of writing the letter itself, to feel the words appear before you as an inner voice dictates your fingers. It is almost cathartic, or perhaps I wish for it to be so, we all do things with a selfish purpose indeed. I think I look for happiness through expression, I also look for you.

Then maybe- I am just voicing a random thought- maybe those Communication Models are to be blamed, to be blamed for building that desire of a tangible response. Such cunning strategy forcing us to surround ourselves with that which can give us a conspicuous nod.

Even when we travel, we travel with the hope of re-connecting with what we are born connected with. Are you not connected with the tree whose branches sway above you, are you not connected to the squirrel that darts across the road? We are all connected, shall always be.

At times, I accept that loneliness is a myth, no one is alone ever, it is just a make-believe so that the societal structures would sustain. But then, don’t we work so hard, put in conscious efforts to be lonely? To live, to eat, to sleep, to travel in cabins, in boxes, that separate us even from our soul. To live in an isolated luxury, a poisonous privilege indeed. We seem to have forgotten the company of the insects, the birds, the clouds, Oh yes, the clouds! The clouds do tell us much, so many stories, so much that is beyond and hidden from the naked eye.

The clouds, my friend, reveal bit-by-bit, but we do not wish for this ethereal company, neither of the leaves, nor the water. Do you ever hear the ocean as you stand in the midst of great noise? I do, it tells me of the vastness of that which I don’t understand but am a minute part of it nevertheless, I influence it as much as it influences me.

I just wanted to remind you, that you are freer than you think you are, so am I, and even if you never write back, I would know your response, I would hear it without your having uttered a word. For if we wish to be connected, we stay connected, I choose to have you in my life still.

I have reached a point where I don’t know why I am writing this, primarily because I thought of you.

You might not want to understand this and dismiss this, you must, no one is to be forced to have an accurate understanding of another’s rant.

Love Always

Poornima

Warm Deeds- Daily Musing

I was humbly moved today, by the actions of a man and two dogs.

Having volunteered as a school tour guide at the National Museum, Delhi, I was attending their Orientation Programme. While taking rounds of the museum and listening to an excited volunteer guide sharing information about various objects, their contexts and stories, I suddenly felt sick.

By the time I left for home, I was in immense pain and was finding it difficult to walk. I thought I would faint. I threw up and could feel the sweat on my face. I panicked.  With great difficulty I asked the auto rickshaw drivers- who had been waiting outside- to take me home, none agreed. It was too far. I could feel the sickness in my mouth, but managed to hail another rickshaw. The driver stopped and before I could say where I wanted to go, he asked me to sit and said he would go, wherever.

He dropped me home, he drove fast with a sense of urgency, I was grateful to him. When we reached, I asked him where he stayed. He told me it was the opposite end of Delhi. I was surprised, why he came to drop me here then, he said he had to, others would not have, and I had looked unwell.

I turned to go towards the house, only to realize that it was locked. In my haste I had forgotten to inform of my time of return. I lacked the willpower to climb three floors and go to my neighbours’ house. So I just sat on the ground. I was immediately joined by two dogs who stay near our house, are often fed by us and play with me every day. They sat next to me, as if in solidarity. When I moved to a shaded bench, they followed and slept next to me. I felt humbled by their sweet gesture, at times, when you feel horrible, it is nice to have company of friends.

Everything but the room on the roof

Unlike my childhood hero Rusty, I never exactly had the room on the roof, I did however move from room to room.

Some of them are recalled here:

Balcony mein room:

It was the funniest setting ever; basically we were to now live in an extended balcony covered with boards and asbestos, only to freeze in the winters. If it wasn’t for the bread omelette and momos, and of course innumerable cups of chai, I don’t think we would have managed.

The fan rested not too far from our heads and forbade us from standing on the rickety bed. The lizard on the ceiling was not a very welcoming sight, considering the proximity, but in due course of time became our third roommate. She was extremely considerate and managed to stay behind Sai Baba’s huge framed photograph- most of the time.

We had shifted to this room with a sense of urgency; we had been dying to vacate our former pg accommodation where the landlady seemed to have gone to the dark side, well I’ll elaborate some other time.

Through our new room passed the staircase to the terrace, so basically we were residents in the passage to the terrace, which was used only by the landlady and her daughter, who otherwise kept it locked, lest we create havoc on the terrace, the ferocious nature of which (havoc) can only be described by those two, who imagined it in the first place, we would only fantasize about life on the terrace, apart from the view it wouldn’t be much different, we were anyway just as exposed to the elements.

In the initial days I pretended to be Heidi, but for how long can one eat watery daal and pretend that the bathroom does not stink. Soon enough we realized that it was time to vacate, yet again, and moved on to spend a year or so in a flat in ruins. It was at the top of a building which could be leaning, or maybe floating, or maybe…

Khandahar mein room:

We were on the fifth floor, and our much revered balcony would often be flooded with overflowing tankiyan which belonged to our MANY  neighbours-all (tankis) mounted on the top of our flat- they (neighbours) were generous with their motor usage.

As if the ghostly charm of the broken window frames and the cobwebs in kitchen wasn’t enough, our balcony also had a peepal tree. Not those to be dissuaded easily we left no stone unturned in making it our home. For some inexplicable reason we also got a huge letter box, which sheltered air and maybe insects with passage of time. We even cleaned the refrigerator frothing with fungus, and made it usable all over again. Now when I look back at it, I did work hard then. However, things did turn incredulous, and it causes me much discomfort to recall the events in the latter part of our stay- including a heartfelt prayer one fearful night (to Obama’s photograph) to save us from an invisible thief-so I jump across to my next stop, another PG Accommodation. (The tone gets serious from here onward)

Prithvi ki gahraiyon mein room:

“It is the smallest room we have, but then this is the only one with single occupancy”

Even though it seemed only slightly more than an enlarged closet, I paid the rent and moved in.

This was to be my room from now, my own room, an underground hole, with light coming in through a small window at the top. This very window would let the moonlight in when there was a power cut. In either case, I was grateful for its existence in the months to come.

The next day was spent in making the room mine, in adjusting my belongings in the tiny space, decorating it, stamping my existence, my ownership.  Old photographs, posters, test prints of artwork, magazine cut-outs, and souvenirs. After a long but troubled stay in a flat bustling with people, decay and fear, this was the greatest comfort to my tired self.

I had rented a room in a paying guest accommodation, the room had a bed in which I did not completely fit, a table and chair adjacent to the bed, one slim but elongated cupboard, and for some reason, as if to magnify  the room by its reflection, a huge mirror. The room was painted white to further elaborate on the illusion of space, it did not help, but the room did not dampen my spirits, only my clothes, in the rainy season.

I allowed my fatigued nerves to relax, for me to be one with the space, where there would be no intruders, not even the mouse troubling my neighbours, not even the loud music from the room separated merely by a board, this is my space, I would tell myself until sleep would take over my frayed senses.

In the months to come, I found myself thriving in the smallness of the room; it was cosy, warm and personal. I cut my hair short and thanked my stars for the mirror; I even learnt to work on 3d Max software! What else do you want out of life!

It was close to my institute and there was a park right across, the tiff in they gave did not suck, the tea in the evenings was not bad either. So what if at times there was long term water shortage, it was my room, my room under, much under, the roof.

Meerut: Post 1: Bakri Mohalla

I was born and brought up in Meerut. But to be really honest, I don’t think I ever lived as a part of Meerut, I never tried to connect with my city, never tried to learn of its history or be a part of its future.

I feel that this apathy that many like me live with is also one of the reasons that the place deteriorates and its stories are lost unheard.

I now have decided to slowly begin to listen to those stories, to document them. For what, you ask.

Well, for nostalgia a bit, but more so for reclaiming the space, reclaiming my role in its larger narrative and for others who have lived as disconnected and sans  sense of belonging as I did.

I begin with nostalgia though.

We used to go to study in a tuition centre called Auora Classes. Vinod Sir is one of the most interesting and passionate Physics teachers you would ever come across. Now this centre was in a locality known as the Bakri Mohalla, and the one question I guess each one of us must have joked about, is , Yeh bakriyan buffalos kaise ban gayin? So the place was a hub for buffalos and scooties belonging to students. What I wonder now is why did we never try to find out what got this place its name?

So thats my next agenda.

In the meantime enjoy this quick piece made in the honour of Bakri Mohalla!

Bakri Mohalla: artwork: Poornima Sardana

Bakri Mohalla: artwork: Poornima Sardana

In case you are confused:

Bakri- Goat

Bhains- Buffalo

These are buffalos made here because the colony though named after goats was visually a buffalo haven