Monday, 1 December 2014

Lyra's Painting

2 comments:
This piece of fiction walked out of this picture on instagram and stayed with me.



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Lyra’s Painting

After Lyra left him, he didn’t get out of bed for three days. Work calls came, friends texted him, his phone buzzed with the determination of a cheery firefly who wanted him to chase it. No one had ever known him not to respond, even if he owed them money or had to meet a deadline.  The morning of the third day, a couple of friends decided to come round with beers to see if he had lost his phone or if he had suddenly been inspired by impulse, and spirited himself and Lyra away for a few romantic days somewhere. He hadn't let them in. 

Saturday morning stood stoutly in his living room, a room that was neat as a pin, as sunlight and order bounced off the walls. All morning, this room harvested the benevolent sun, past heavy curtains that were drawn aside to let warmth and light in. The shock-white rays fell on a perfect rectangle patch of carpet, rough-hewn and tribal in motif, from his travel to a distant village in the Turkish mountains.   If you were to stand with your back to the window, the sun warming your yearning, then to the left of you would be a book case, one that stood till your waist if you were a tall person. The books, curiously, were arranged with abandon. The short ones stood guard over the taller ones, the thin ones had a wanton time between two thick ones. Nothing in alphabetical order either: the Ns followed the As, the Ss slacked off after the Hs. Genre? No. Biography sat in all its lofty seriousness with a shy, leather-bound volume of short stories; and science deigned to hobnob with plastic-encased issues of comic books.

Directly opposite the bookcase, on the other side of the room stood a bicycle; one bicycle and a hook where Lyra’s hung till a few days ago. His bicycle, red, sleek and perfectly steady against its hook on the wall looked like it had never been touched, when, in fact, all he ever used was that to get around the city. Just above his bike, was the ghost of Lyra’s.

In the space between the bikes and the bookshelf, two feet away from the carpet stood an undisturbed green sofa. No one had sat on it for some time. The cushions looked startled into being equidistant from each other, and there was no trace of a depression or crinkle on the seats.  No one, indeed, had sat on it for some time.  On the carpet was a minimalistic table that he had made himself -- from picking the wood to curing it and bringing it to still life.  The top of the table was covered with a carefully careless collage of coasters, the kind you place your drink on. If you looked a little more thoughtfully, you could see the coasters were placed, to a crazy scale, in the vague positions of where various countries were placed on a world map. To a far corner sat a coffee-table book on style and fashion in the 1920s, neatly angled, elegantly placed.

Everything was in its place and the house was just right, as it had always been. Nothing was missing, everything was as it always was; everything, except Lyra.  As he lay in the two feet of space between the sofa and carpet, blindly watching maniacal dust fairies in the streaming sunlight, he idly wondered what she had been wearing when she left. Maybe the green dress she had sewn herself, but that dress had come apart a long time ago and he didn’t remember her having mended it but he was pretty sure he saw her wearing it recently or was that another dress of a similar shade and he hadn’t noticed because he was largely colour-blind as most men are Lyra used to say but then she said a lot of things about men like they couldn’t find the things they were looking for even if they were right under their nose just like he couldn’t find Lyra all this time when she was right under his nose as he taught her month after month how to become a better artist than he was and he couldn’t see her limpid eyes, crooked smile and razor-sharp chin because what she created on her canvas was far more than he ever could have imagined doing himself or teaching his students. Teaching had never been what he wanted to do as he had always been told those who can’t teach, do but these aphorisms, what were they in the real world but methods of pigeonholing other people and circumstances and sometimes just making yourself feel better at the cost of others and that is exactly what he had been doing with Lyra for a long while though she hadn’t complained and he didn’t know if she actually believed that or if it was just his imagination that she had been a dissatisfied because he constantly made himself feel better by being associated with her because oh the places she would go with her art! Even in the year that she had lived away from him after her lessons her work had been marvelous and talked about and that is how he had found her again; all he thought he wanted was to be with the things she created, the things he couldn’t read in her eyes (not for the want of writing but because he was so unread) he could see in her art and soon her heart came pouring out of her eyes and heart and mouth and everything she made, she said, was inspired by him and how she loved him and she had loved him the day he taught her how to look at yellow truck and see an entire city in it. Or so she had told him and he had trusted her, he had chosen to trust because he couldn’t believe someone like Lyra, with the beauty of the sky and the heart of lark could be his, that all the art she created stemmed from her love; he knew not if it was love for him or love in general because that is all she was and now there was no warmth in the house but that of the morning sun which was oh so cold –

The bell rang and he came right back to the dust fairies, cold from his thoughts and the morning sun. It was day four, he realized since Lyra had gone and if he spent any more time away from the world, he wouldn’t be the one Lyra fell in love with. He got up off the floor, straightened his light sweater, ran his hand through neat hair and rubbed his shaven face.Yes, he was okay to open the door. At the door, stood a boy with headphones and mouth chewing in askew circles, presumably according the beat that filled his head. He held forward his hand which had what looked like a handwritten note. Not letting go of the door jamb, the bereaved man took the note from the boy. Before he could offer him a tip or say thank you, the boy walked away, completely immersed in the music that his red headphones piped into his ears.

Coming back to sit on the sofa for the first time in days, he took a deep steadying breath, opened the note and read its contents. Cold fire iced his veins and his hands shivered, making the letter paper seem afraid of being held. He put it down gently on the table he had made, sat for a moment with his palms on the sofa by his side. He heaved himself up steadily, went into the bathroom, washed his face and picked up his razor; methodically yet swiftly, he changed his clothes – a pair of red pants, a beige shirt, a sweater and a white hat. He went to the door, got his keys, bag, umbrella and a book and left his apartment.

Outside, the world looked like it had stepped out of one of Lyra’s paintings. There were umbrellas on the lampposts and the sky was a parallelogram that hadn’t died, the trees were lashing wildly, rejecting being strangled by each other, even though there wasn’t a wind, the men and women were 10 feet tall and everyone wore benevolent smiles, the sea stood like a large rock, at least a foot taller than the men and women, vertical and immobile for a good five minutes before it receded gracefully, gradually instead of being tropical and messy by crashing into waves; stray cats had spindly legs and they trod drunkenly, children walked in dizzying circles, revolving and rotating, like little earths around their parents, the flowers were singing and the sidewalks rose and fell in gentle waves of sighs. A seamstress, a guy on his phone, a tuba player and a motorcyclist all played cards and talked loudly till the 10-feet-tall passersby had to tell them it wasn’t allowed to talk in public if they didn’t want to end up without a sewing machine, a phone, a tuba and motorcycle respectively. They talked some more, loudly, and continued to laugh.

He walked across the square and looked at the ground to see if it would steady him and tell him if he was in his city or in Lyra’s painting. His head spun when he looked at ground, so he looked up again and looked back. Up in a sunlit window, he saw a man in a spring sweater watching him, watching a man walk across a square that was filled with geometric, intersecting lines, neat lines that were fast filling precisely with the red of his blood, or was it the red of his jeans.


*****

Sunday, 30 November 2014

What do you know of love?

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How impossible are the things you ask of me.

Ask for the moon, I say, or the stoic, boring sun
Let me write your name in blood, I offer,
A wild flourish on this vast, ever-changing sky.

Let me pledge my first-born to you, and make you
An unwitting Rumpelstiltskin.  Let me tattoo our love
On every wall, door and window of my vision.

Ask me for an arm, an eye; any organ that you don’t already own
Ask for my flowers, my words and my thoughts
Demand that I lay them out as a carpet for you to tread on.

Amuse yourself as you throw me a challenge
Pepper it with a kiss, as I tell you I’d do anything for you
Ask me to part waves, ask me to be abhorrent.

I place these offerings, scented with incense and sincerity
For you to pick and choose, so I may prove my love
Even though you’ve never asked.

How much more can I offer, I ask, as you reject
Hyperbole, and laugh, albeit lovingly, at the drunkenness of
My soul. What more can I give you?

None of this is enough, you say; Or did you say too much?
Pretty words are just that. Instead, you say,
Give me your understanding, give me a world without you.

How impossible these things that you ask of me
How small, how devastating.



Sunday, 2 November 2014

Litany

6 comments:
I've loved a poet, a dreamer, a boy who never grew up,
He loved me with kisses on the forehead,
Strung poems in my hair
As I lay against his warm skin, on a bed on the floor,
While a Madras moon stood guard outside my window.

I loved a magician once
With dancing feet and a crooked smile.
He claimed my shoulder as his own one night,
As he made the stars rain with his sleight of hand;
His vanishing trick, an unmatched act.

I've even loved a bore, a nice guy who couldn't see
That I would be best when I lived free
He gave me trinkets in silver when I ran
A bribe, an imploring or a slave chain.

Totems for each of them, a horcrux for all.
A radio song for the magician,
Scars for the poet,
The bore, books and patience.

My evening  settles, gentle and low, a houseful of silence
Knocking at my door.
I open up a magic box, the magician's gift to me
Take out a poem, yellow, old and rusty

A caress here, a paw there, a hard yank of my hair
A memory, a moth, an unused black quill
They clamber out of the poem, and sit on my hands,
I greet them, gentle and slow
Where have they been, I ask
To the poet, the magician, or with the bore?


*****


Sunday, 19 October 2014

On touch.

8 comments:
The thing about living largely on your own, without another adult in your home, is that you get the bed all to yourself. You can wake up looking like a platypus and the only thing you have to face is the mirror. Pretty much everything you do becomes a thing of freedom and joy. And yet, that freedom is something I suddenly have too much of.

For about five years now, it's just the kids and I who have been living together. With kids around, the snuggles are quite a few. What's more, however, is them bumping into you, them wanting to be picked up, them stepping on your toes shod in new shoes, their elbows digging into the soft flesh of your thighs, their feet on your faces, their heads crashing into your PMSing breasts, their grubby, food-hands on your arm, them clambering on your shoulders for a better view when all you're trying to do is sit quietly in bed and find some peace. To some, that sounds romantic and sweet, and in all fairness, it is quite cute. I know I'll miss it when they grow up and stop touching me so much. I started to wonder, though, why was I so conscious of their sense of utter claim over my body. Why, like most mothers, wasn't I taking this for granted; in a sense why was I even thinking about it.

The answer came to me a couple of weeks ago, when my parents were visiting. My mum, mostly reticent about physical expressions of love, casually stroked my back. At any other moment in my 20s, that would probably have translated to me as a warm assurance of something she was thinking about. This time, however, that touch electrified me. It made me stop what I was doing and tell my mother, I like it when you touch me like that. As is my wont, I said it before I thought about it and the more I thought about it, the more absurd it sounded to me. That a little motherly touch like that would awake all my nerve endings. From there, thought was but a giddy spiral and things that I hadn't thought about it years, or perhaps ever, emerged.

For someone who thrives on touch, who actively likes all forms of physical affection, I realise I haven't had the comfort of touch in years. A quick hug these days has become like shaking hands, but sharing a hug with someone who genuinely loves you -- as a friend, as a lover, in a filial way or in a fraternal way -- has healing qualities that one cannot ignore. Holding hands with a woman when words are not enough, sitting in the crook of a man's arm as you watch a film, being hugged by a caring, affectionate friend, feeling strength and love in that embrace -- those things have come rarely and intermittently to me in five years. And I didn't think about it till recently, when I realised each nerve ending in my body was screaming to be touched, to be told in more than words that someone cares enough and likes you enough to hold your hand, kiss your cheek, ruffle your hair, and not just get into your pants.

I argue, then, with myself, as I am prone to doing. Isn't the touch of my kids enough? After all, I am always cuddling them, kissing them, holding them, touching them in a sense that is complete and natural. They reciprocate too. Little imprints of wet tiny lips stay on my cheek for hours after I've had a kiss. And what kisses they are: the kids put everything into them, their entire body arches up into mine, and they pour every minute of their existence thus far into kissing me, hugging me. That should be enough, I think, and yet I find it isn't. I cannot understand why it is so, but I know it isn't.

I do not miss the sexual touch at all. In fact, I miss it least of all. There is warmth and comfort in that, no doubt, but I don't find its lack big enough in my life to go looking for it. A loving hug, hell I'll walk miles for it. I lose words sometimes, I am severely limited by the fact that I can only think in two languages, neither of them my official mother tongue. I find English severely limiting when I want to express the overflow of love I feel for some people. I find it frustrating that I can't say anything beyond I love you so much my heart feels like it's drowning and bursting at the same time. In a non-platonic relationship, that feeling is easy to translate. But in a friendship that's pure and simple about love, what does one do? Invariably, then, I express with my body and skin. My skin that revolts belonging to the rest of me and rises up in a life of its own, my arms that love hugs and being filled up with the form of someone I love.

In moments of intensity, I observe my skin like a layer of ghost. It separates from the rest of me and between itself and the next layer of flesh forms a raging, roiling river of energy. It lifts in a blue, restless wave, crashing against itself because it has nowhere to go but back in the channel formed between my skin and flesh. I know this energy is calling out for soothing. I know this cold fire that my skin is on is willing to be doused, but all around me, most times, is the freedom of space, and air and the wind. Too much of everything.



Friday, 5 September 2014

Stop with the "I am really sorry, but..."

1 comment:
I grew up reading popular literature about how a sorry is so hard to say, an apology so difficult to make. But even in the face of that, apologise we must. Set egotism aside, put pride away and apologise with love and humility. Great advice, except that, personally, I've never found it difficult to say sorry. To strangers for knocking them over or to those I love for hurting them. Maybe because I screwed up so often. Maybe because I didn't think it took away anything from me to say sorry. Maybe because all that mattered to me was reconciliation and peace. Whatever the reason, an apology had never been a problem.

But time goes on, and then you grow up and you realise the weight of an apology. You realise to most people it means you won't do again the thing for which you apologised. For others, it means you respect them. For one reason or another, I noticed I was making sincere apologies to people I loved and down the line, repeating the action that hurt them. It was then I realised I was apologising for hurting those people, not necessarily for the act itself. Some were within my control, others were the twisted result of my lack of it. But in very few cases did I actually feel bad about the act itself. What worried me was that I had hurt someone. I thought, well, this is good, I am genuinely apologising for the hurt I caused, it means I care, it means I continue to live in my own image of a loving, caring person. And so, subconsciously, I let myself off the hook, believing I was doing the right thing by apologising for hurting people, patting myself on the back for making the fine distinction. Oh, lovely hindsight.

Then you grow up some more. You grow up and suddenly, you're being hard done by. Perhaps that was always the case, but when you're younger, you're quicker to forgive, to let go, to understand and give room. And the apologies are coming your way. The things that hurt you, and the things that were offered apologies for are being repeated. Someone else was now being you. And someone else was offering you the same distinctive apology that you had been offering others. An empty, meaningless mollification that fooled you and the other person into believing that it really mattered to you that they were hurt. 

What, then, was an apology, I started to ask myself. What if I was doing the right thing, and as a consequence, hurt someone I love? What kind of apology do I tender then? And what responsibility did the apology put on me, if I did find a way to apologise? Who in my life deserved apologies that, when offered, would bind me to a lifelong responsibility? How much of myself could I preserve by sticking steadfast to the ramifications of the apology?

As with all things that confuse me, agitate me, I figured what I decided about an apology was what it was going to be. For me, an apology has meant to fix the situation as best as I could. I say the words, I undo the things that can be undone, and work bloody hard to make up for the things that can't. I find I am fairly unpredictable, and not in the most charming of ways, so I carefully avoid the inclusion of, "This won't happen again." I realise it is a cop-out and that that is me giving myself room for the things that I have, in my opinion, little or no control over. Dangerous, skiddy situations where I may resolve to not screw up, but invariably do. An apology to me, then, was a firm and solemn promise to do anything from that moment on to make the situation a little less hurtful, to make the other person genuinely believe and feel that she or he was special, and important to me. That, really, is the key to my definition of an apology. To introduce, remind and reinforce the fact that the person who was wronged is indeed integral to my life, that I care about the person. Because, you see, that's what I'd like to know when an apology is acted out: that yes, someone screwed up and will make things better. So that the next time it happens, I know and can trust the promise of the effort to make it better. I like to think it is what I do.

Which brings me to the modern apology. my pet peeve. More and more I hear apologies that sound like this: "I am sorry I hurt you, I acknowledge that you're hurt BUT this, this and this is why I did it. And if you can't understand that, there's no point in explaining further." To me, this negates the entire apology. Why am I being told why it was done at the moment where I am too hurt to process this? Isn't that a different conversation for a time when emotions are sorted, when the hurt subsides a little, when love and support are reinstated as protection devices? To me, an apology with a "but" is no apology at all. Furthermore, it makes me, or the receiver, feel petty and like a fool for feeling hurt in the first place. Because, you see, we place logic and reason so high up in the way we are supposed to process things that when something is explained according what the offender finds reasonable, it appeals to us, overriding what we are feeling. Emotions are just as important, no? If you were to act by logic alone, all of the time, where is the space to love and cherish? 

Adding insult to an injury by explaining your reasons while you tender an apology dimishes greatly the experiences that the person one has hurt is feeling. If not outright invalidating that persons's upset, definitely cutting it down to borderline silliness, wherein that person feels like they overreacted. In a true apology, there's no place for reason, there isn't place for explaining. There isn't also any place for a "this is it, I gave you an apology and you must accept it because it is heartfelt." What are these but words? A righteousness that slips into an apology is far more damaging, I feel, than no apology at all. 

Accepting an apology, too, is fraught with threads of greys. Accepting an apology immediately is a graceful thing to do but what if, in that moment, there is no grace in you to give? So now, you're not only hurt but also seen as petulant and ungracious; and in most relationships where important apologies occur, the receiver knows that this is how they're being perceived. To insist on accepting an apology, when the hurt is too great, or the incident too close, is yet another burden the giver of an apology places on the receiver. In return, the receiver places the burden of guilt, and subsequently, anger on the giver. I try and limit myself to a heartfelt apology and the promise of making something better. Acceptance, while it may ease my conscience immediately, is something I know will come in time. Because, by the time you reach my age, the ripe old age of 34, there are very few conflicts by which you lose a person to the lack of an apology. Most people you've built your life around, or are in your immediate circle of fellowship, are those you want in your life even if there is no immediate apology or acceptance of an apology. We talk things through, and eventually an apology comes or is accepted. It is why we are adults. 

I can't apologise for my future mistakes, but I can do my darnedest to fix my current ones. In essence, an apology to me is a promise of upholding love and respect for the person you are engaged in conflict with. And that promise is long-standing, firm; to be reviewed and reminded of when the goig gets tough so that the person who is likely to be hurt the next time (as much as you'd like to avoid it) is sure that it isn't just words that came to them the last time, that there is a promise that will follow to meaningfully make it up to that person. 

Unless of course you've broken their phone or lost their pictures. Then just go into hiding. 




Wednesday, 28 May 2014

How crochet saved my life and other stories of mental health

51 comments:
Crochet is as feminine as you can get. It uses thread and a hook to create extremely beautiful things, a skill that's been handed down from one generation of nimble fingers to another. Folks ask me, sometimes, how I started to crochet. It was a bored summer vacation, we hadn't gone anywhere that year. I was in class eight or nine, or in between and possibly getting on my mother's nerves. A neighbour offered to teach me crochet and my mum jumped at it. I was a non-indoors kid. I wasn't interested in sewing, cooking, working with hands (or any of the other things that were thought generally "girly" or non-cerebral) but I am also extremely polite and couldn't say no even though I wanted to. I made some really ugly pen-holder covers and coasters in bright red and yellow acrylic yarn. Safe to say I was nowhere close to being hooked. I let it go after that summer and didn't pick it up again till I was 27. From then on, I crocheted intermittently till last year where I launched into it rather feverishly. It saved my life, and not just literally.

Recently, a flight attendant had a job offer withdrawn by Emirates when they found out she had once been treated for depression. I was angry, saddened and outraged by this in equal measure. People with mental illnesses have it tough as it is, without them being at the mercy of unemployment. In light of that, the following post is about mental illness, two of which I live with. If you'd like to stop now, you should. Because, I know, one story of mental illness sounds like another story of mental illness. And it might be exactly the same thing. Because illnesses are a great leveller. But every time a story is told, two things happen.
1. The person who tells the story feels, I think, better, in varying degrees.
2. Some lonely old soul, ill herself, might find hope in the fact that there is another one like her, and that help is possible. 

In the summer of 2012, I was diagnosed with one mental illness. I remember the diagnosis making me laugh. Such an inappropriate reaction, I thought to myself even as I laughed and I couldn't understand it. But apparently, that's how most of us react to news we don't understand. Since forever, I'd been told I was mature far beyond my age, I'd been told how strong I was, how even my grandmother felt stronger because I was around, how my female friends felt the same. My bane, funnily enough, is that I'd never been told I can't do something.

I sat in the doctor's office hearing her say, "I wish it was bipolar, (as suspected) it would have been easier to treat." (A little lacking in her bedside manner, I thought, fleetingly.) I laughed, sought to understand the condition a little more ("I urge you to read online about it.") and asked her what I must do next. I was diagnosed with borderline personality disordera not very well understood disorder, and fairly new in terms of research and ideal treatment. I now knew why I was screwing up so badly for the few years before that. My life, almost literally, was unravelling. If you don't mind a little personal information, read on. I was underperfoming at my job, made worse by the fear I'd get the boot. I was living in a (second) ruined marriage, I was angry all the time, or sad. I had been sleeping for perhaps two hours a night, or not at all, for about three years. I was yelling at my kids, I was overcompensating for it by stretching beyond my means to give them things and experiences. I spent money badly. I was alienating everyone in my family, parents and brother who genuinely love and care for me (although in their own definition of it) and I gradually stopped reaching out to close friends. I kept new friendships superficial, albeit genuine. Nothing, in short, was going right and I came to a point where I felt everything was spinning way out of my control. 

If you've ever played the fun game of imagining what it is like to be in the middle of a whirlpool trying to gather loose pages of your 800-page manuscript, while wanting to save a couple of somersaulting kids, and your favourite shoes, tying up your hair, drinking your last glass of wine, then you probably know what it felt like to be me then. I'd fix one thing and another would fall apart, I just couldn't keep up. I ran and ran, I struggled to keep it together but somewhere a leak sprung, then another, and another. I was tired of it and in October of that year, even though I had started on anti-depressants, I tried to end my life (obviously unsuccessfully). You'd think after drinking a solution of finely-powdered coal mixed with water (what they gave me in the hospital to clean my stomach) and being made to solemnly promise to the police (yes) that I would never do such a thing, I'd have better sense than to try it again. You'd be wrong. Because about eight months later I did it again.

My self-worth, my sense of how dispensable I was, sense of having done nothing right was so deep that even the presence of my kids didn't stop me from wanting to end it all. So when the nurse asked me why I did it and hadn't the thought of kids stopped me, I found myself saying I was convinced that anyone who took charge of them after I was gone -- their father, my parents, my brother -- would do a better job than I did or would do. It was after my second episode, when my medication and the therapy was going r.e.a.l.l.y slow, that I was diagnosed with bipolar-disorder as well. While the borderline personality disorder explained the intensity of joys and sadnesses, when I felt them, my inability to maintain 'normal', peaceful relationships, my constantly-slipping world and my irrational anger, this one explained better my erratic swinging between great highs and great lows. The latter was easier to treat, I was told, because it had more to do with chemicals in my brain than with my very personality. 

The first time I tried to commit suicide, my folks were around and enlisted the help of their friends who were also their neighbours, for moral support I guess. In hushed tones, this lady told me consolingly that their daughter too had gone through a rough patch some time ago and needed help, though they mostly keep it quiet. I was too spaced out to ask why, and grateful that they were there for my parents, but I remember thinking why. Moving on from there, I remember thinking, if more people knew about mental illnesses, panicky, desperate cases like me would be easier to spot. 

It would be safe to say mental illness is as debilitating to your life as cancer is to your body. It isn't easy to spot, in yourself or in someone else, because we all have different ideas of what is normal. Perhaps there is no normal, but I am sure there is happy, there is peace, there is love, there is gratitude and there is contentment. If you find none of these in your life for long periods, then you need some level of help.

I belong to a Facebook group that has women as members. It's all kinds of things from a place for networking to seeking support, apart from being a place to meet other like-minded women. The number of difficult, sad, painful stories on that group astounds me. For each real story of pain and depression, I want to reach out and hold that woman and tell her there's no guarantee that things will be any better, and all we can do is try. Their posts, strength, dilemmas all make me cry. Many others, within and outside that group, don't have the kind of support I do. I don't even want to imagine what their challenges are like. 

Today, I live completely broken. I say this as a matter of fact and admission. It is not an attempt at pity, from myself or anyone else. I say it as a matter of truth: I live with the generous financial support of my parents, the support of my counsellor, the deep, miraculous kindness of my friends and the everyday reminder that I have kids touched by the best of the universe. I am thankful for it every day but the truth is nothing works in my life, right now, in the way that will make me independent and secure. I struggle for companionship. I struggle to live a life that is fulfilling because many times, I can't do the things I want to -- either for mental or emotional reasons, or financial ones. I struggle to do everyday things on some days: be civil to my kids, bathe, eat, answer calls, meet deadlines. I do more things in one day that I hate myself for than a whole month-ful of things for which I like myself. I am terrified to join the work-force again because I feel I might get in my own way of success, or even functioning. I still cry a lot, I am still deeply sad, I still fly into terrifying rages, I still feel the strong clutches of hopelessness and despair and I continue to have suicidal thoughts. 

But the counselling has brought back a modicum of self-awareness and preservation. I am able to keep the suicidal tendencies and thoughts at bay, but with great, great difficulty. I fight hard when I fight back against the desire to end it all, but it's usually touch and go, like a really close, really equal arm-wrestling match that you don't know which way it is going to go. I can't stress enough the importance of getting help, of sticking to your counsellor till he or she tells you, no matter how much better you're feeling. 

One of the things I discovered through the most difficult phases in the last couple of years is that depression, a huge part of many mental illnesses, is deeply seductive. It loves holding you in its cold, lonely womb and you feel safe there, because you can continue to beat yourself up over all the things that you think you did wrong. Why is beating yourself up so comforting? I don't know, because it is natural, I guess. As kids, we aren't taught to feel good about ourselves, we aren't taught to feel proud of our achievements. Our small triumphs are always compared with the bigger ones of others, and so the natural thing for us to do is to self-flagellate, to berate ourselves till we can shed responsibility for what we do. 

The other thing I discovered was not everyone will believe you, understand you or try to understand you. Family members will be in denial (my father and brother still are, constantly challenging my explanations of why I am the way I am or blaming me directly for my "failures".) Friends will say, "oh, that's the latest fad, everyone seems to have it". (I don't blame them for thinking that, though, India has very very large numbers of depressed people alone, so I can't imagine the numbers for other mental health issues.) Others will quietly listen to you and make sure they don't get in touch often. But then there are others who will put every bit of kindness and gentleness their soul can summon and shower it on you. In my estimation, none of this is their fault. We talk too little about mental health issues in India and the reason I write this fractured, and possible uninteresting post, is to contribute to the small number of voices that talks about mental health issues to bring it out into a less shameful, more supportive space. (In fact, even as I write this I hesitate to post a link on my Facebook because, you know, how will it affect my family. I don't even know if this is worth sharing, in fact.)

And this is where I will come back to my crochet. The mindless hours I spend doing the work of crochet, of repetitively using my hook, of constantly being surrounded by my yarn, helped me see some things. First of which was to see how working with your hands gives you some level of focus and clarity. I found out making beautiful things that people like is deeply gratifying, but there also lies the trap of validation and seeking approval. Doing hours of crochet allowed me sit at home, be asocial and yet be productive. I understood why many, many treatment systems use occupational therapy. Seeing all the colours of my yarn, envisioning a product, designing it and finally finishing it all give me varying levels of satisfaction, and joy. It's a great tool to shut my mind down and not think about the bad things, and by the time I am done fighting the darkness in my head, I've created something that's beautiful and usable. 

I don't know where I am headed. I do hope, though, that I'll live to see my kids grow up into happy adults, that I'll find companionship again, someone I can fall in love with and someone who might feel the same way about me. I hope I'll ease the pain that I cause my family. I hope I'll leave a mark in this world in some small way, find my own place in the sun. I have a long way to go, I am nowhere close to taking complete control of my own life, and at 34, that makes me feel all kinds of terrible things. On good days, I have great hope and optimism. On bad days, like today, I can't even write a decent blog post. All I can do is continue to focus on my one reason to not crash the car the next time I drive. A photograph of my kids on my phone's lock-screen helps me do that.

*****

If you think you might be suffering from depression or any other mental illness, here are a few things that I hope will help. 

1. Go to a good counsellor any way. You could come away with an all-clear. My suggestion would be to go to a counsellor instead of heading to a psychiatrist first. I find the latter, in India, are all too eager to prescribe medication, and have generally found them less willing to listen, and use alternate therapies. A good psychiatrist or psychologist will usually suggest a combination of medication and what is informally called talk-therapy. I was lucky enough to find it at NIMHANS.

2. I regularly told two people in my life that I think something is wrong with me and that I need help. They were in denial and didn't make much of it. (I don't blame them, I was a fully functioning individual.) Don't be afraid to tell someone you love and/or trust that you want to seek help, and badger them over it. Enlisting support to go to a counsellor is a good idea, the diagnosis can be a bit sudden and quite possibly, a shock to take.

3. Don't overread or take pop-quizzes and self-diagnose. We all have traits of most "disorders" in us. Only when they start affecting the smooth functioning of your life can it be considered a problem.

4. You don't have to be ashamed, afraid, cynical. You might be extremely intelligent, extremely self-aware and you might think no counsellor can help you. I did. I was wrong.

5. Find a hobby. 

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

What the internet gave the Kerala man. (Apart from porn.)

124 comments:
I am often at the receiving end of, "Oh but you are Malayalee. You come from a matriarchal society," when I talk about anything from feminism to food preferences. I take great pains to correct that statement. I patiently start with correcting the term (matrilineal, and not matriarchal), then I gently point out it's just one community in Kerala that was so, and Kerala has many communities, and the usual mix of religions. I then ask what that has to do with the price of fish. Because, while in some ways it might be empowering and perspective-altering to receive your mother's name, and her property, (technically, traditionally it is the maternal uncle's property that used to get passed down to his nephews and nieces among Nairs), for all practical purposes a household used to be run by a man, usually the maternal uncle who decided everyone's fate. Matrilineality, therefore, in my observation helped with one aspect of independence and liberation: financial security. But it did nothing to empower Nair women with the self confidence that is so needed to get out of an oppressive relationship she might be enduring in her domestic sphere. 

Laying that down as context, I zoom out a little and look at the larger Kerala with its rich, textured and varied ethnic groups, and communities. A society that's arguably progressive, and educated, Kerala is a place where with this coexists a patriarchy that is, at an immediate glance, as surprising and confounding as it is deep rooted. In a state where communism (whatever its avatar today) thrives, where women work just as hard as men -- if not harder -- to sustain their families, the incongruity of the existence of male chauvinism and blatant patriarchy worries and fascinates me. If educated, financially independent women still struggle for justice, safety and equality, then what hope do those without the above-mentioned privileges have?

The evidence of a sexually repressed, frustrated people is all over Kerala. On the streets, on TV and online. Take the streets, for instance. Young women, and sometimes not-so-young-women, get flashed at regularly. I bet a whole lot of women in Erna-flasher-central-kulam have seen their first erection right in the middle of a busy street on a dreary old work day. Fathers still decide how the women in his family will behave, husbands still stay a mile away from child care, and running a home. I regularly hear women in my age bracket say if they wear a (moderately) low-cut blouse with their sari, their husbands will "pack them off". It is said with laughter and camaraderie but it isn't a joke at all. 'Decent' married women don't do things their husbands don't like. 'Decent' single women don't do things their fathers and brothers don't like. Anyone who decides to not be 'decent' has then crossed over to slut territory. I suppose this could be said for the rest of India.

Enter TV presenter and actress, Ranjini Haridas. A 30-something presenter who wildly successfully anchored a reality talent show for six years on Asianet, a Malayalam TV channel. Haridas is possibly little known outside Kerala. And so is the hate that she inspires. People of both genders criticise what they see as an inauthenticity when she speaks: heavily anglicised Malayalam is Haridas's trademark, a chip she wears proudly on her shoulder. She is quoted as having said in an interview that the few years she spent in the U.K. as a Masters student were responsible for her forgetting her Malayalam. (I can't verify the authenticity of this statement.) That may have been a young woman's knee-jerk reaction, wet behind the ears as she was, to the criticism she received (in droves) when she first began hosting the show. But over time, more and more interviews quoted her as saying she didn't care for what people said, this is the way she chose to speak and that's the end of it. 

She wasn't spared: pilloried on mimicry shows (a still-hugely popular genre in Kerala); blatantly and publicly told off by respected senior actors; guests on her own show and other women anchors have all taken pot shots at her. She's a classic template for poking merciless fun at girls who decided to be "modern." Men hated her. But the women, ah, here was a fascinating story unfolding. Young women, ripe for rebellion and finding their wings, all over Kerala felt here was something they could point to in case of crisis. "If she can, I can." Haridas wore sleeveless clothes, body-con dresses, knee-length shifts, off the shoulder blouses, see-through ensembles, stuff that no anchor had worn on Malayalam T.V. hitherto; she did her hair experimenting with high glamour; she didn't shy away from adventurous make up; she wore exactly what her free little heart desired and she did it with confidence, not letting criticism of her clothing or her speech cramp her style in the least bit. Men kept hating, she kept working, laughing all the way to the bank in her designer high heels.

She was in stark contrast to the Malayalee TV presenter that bored the hell out of viewers till then. These women wore a look of innocence, a certain... freshness one associates with the "untouched". Her makeup was traditional with pink (ish) lipstick, and kohl-lined eyes, made up and yet not so much that it would make an impact. Her hair was tucked away in demure braids, or a little bun at the nape of the neck, and imprisoned in jasmine. She didn't use her hands much, and smiled idiotically a lot. She was a vision, a girl-you-gawk-at-in-a-temple vision. Beautiful, efficient and tameable; completely devoid of impact, a threat to none of the men who ogled, and aspirational for none of the women these men lived with.

If a channel was targeting a younger crowd, you'd find young women dressed in jeans and a perfectly unremarkable top, with requisite hair and make up, and personality that was even more unremarkable than the T shirt. Usually, there was a guy who co-hosted and hogged all air time. 

You see, us Malayalee women look down on those who wear make up, although secretly we wished we could carry it off too. We think we are natural beauties (and I must admit some are) and to do anything with a tube of lipstick is to enter slut category. So most girls from middle class homes will wear lipstick on occasion and blot it till it very nearly disappears because good girls don't wear lipstick. (For those of you who are going to come at me saying "but I have Keralite friends who aren't like that," I am going with a middle class majority here. Not those who have lived in cosmopolitan places or cities outside Kerala.) Until a few years ago, we didn't wax our limbs; not because we believe in our feminist right to do what the hell we want with our body hair, but because salons are the dens of the devil. You could end up in a porn video on the interwebz if you went to a salon. I suspect that isn't the case in the bigger places in Kerala, like a Cochin or Trivandrum or Trichur but most of Kerala still believes a salon will sell you off to pimps. And even those who do go to a salon and get all smooth, tend to do it very quietly. It's not a thing we're comfortable talking about.

It was into the households of these women that Haridas with her open hair, loud laughter, gender-irrespective hugs reached. With her beauty-contest-winner title, her U.K. masters degree and a sense of fashion that was more confidence than style. Which, I suppose, is true style. Suddenly, there were Haridas clones all over Malayalam TV. Open hair, clothes that edged away the ornate salwar kameez, or the graceful sari. Suddenly, and hilariously, perfectly ordinary girls were speaking Malayalam like it was a foreign tongue; and men were mercilessly skewering them over it; women were touching and hugging boys on screen and bantering with celebrities without the usual deferential tone. Just like Haridas. Just like normal young women do off camera. And men hated it. 

Till my mother recently pointed it out to me, I didn't realise how much. I am a Haridas non-supporter; my mother, a woman of great wisdom and gentle confidence, is pro-Haridas. My objection is simple: I don't like that she has distanced herself from her mother tongue, but that comes only second to the fact that she does it in the most inauthentic way. My mother's reasons are also simple: she loves the show and says no one can carry it off as engagingly as Haridas. And that she lives exactly how she pleases, no matter what the rest of the world is saying. 

This conversation led my mother to direct me to Haridas's fan page on Facebook. A regularly updated, selfie-heavy, hate-filled page. If that woman, (Ranjini Haridas I mean, not my mother) reads the comments on a regular basis and still continues to post as she does, she has all my respect and then some. Because, omg, there's an army of perverted, hateful and angry men spewing venom there, doing what they can, from calling her slut in different ways (I had no idea how many words Malayalam had for slut) to offering her a screw so she'd ease off. 

They abuse her ancestry, they call her a slut, a corpse, a cunt, a eunuch, ugly. I was repulsed by almost 700 comments collectively in the first few posts on her page. (I didn't see any threats of rape, the favourite hate-tool of men use to intimidate women online, thankfully.) But the sheer volume of hate, and all from men, was appalling, and fascinating. Why were all these men hating on her? A middle aged man called her the South Indian Sunny Leone (because a porn star is not an actor but a whore, correct?) going on to abuse her in Hindi, English and Malayalam, so great was his objection. Another one posted a picture of a firecracker, the Malayalam word for which is apparently colloquialism for, guess what? Yep, whore. They leave no aspect of her untouched -- her makeup, who she is with in the picture, her clothes, her smile, teeth, even her being single, or being raised by her mother, having lost her father early. She's ripped apart like a carcass in a butcher's shop would if you let a hungry mob in. 

This one, for instance, has a misspelt speech bubble to make it sound like Haridas's Malayalam. It basically says, "I know very little Malayalam." 

Or this, where the insults are heaped high, all basically tiresomely calling her a whore, (or a variation of it), or old, or ugly, including a comment with a picture of her with an African person, an intended insult I am afraid to explore. 
This one below basically asks her to die, now that she's old. (She isn't 35 yet.) The comment below that is captioned "who is prettier?"

 And this below is our firecracker guy. Under which is a private photo of Haridas that went viral a few years ago and brought her under another deluge of filth.
In reply to this, and much much more such harassment, Haridas posted this on voting day recently, telling her detractors exactly what she thought of them, in classic tongue-in-cheek Ranjini style. (The comments on this one heap more abuse, more firecracker, more I'll fuck you, more you-ugly-whore hate.)


I decided to explore a little and checked out the pages of other presenters/actors/professional celebrities who are women in other places. I found very little abuse, very little misogyny addressed to those in the public eye. My observation is that harassment and misogyny is directed more at regular, non-celebrity folk. Posting numbers, abusive language, lewd comments, direct hate are all directed mostly at women who aren't in the public eye. But in the fan pages of actresses/models/TV personalities, there was more empty adulation than outright misogyny. There's the odd deviant pimping his services, or some creep posting a name and number of a girl (:/) but this kind of rampant bile, this kind of utter disrespect was rare, if not almost absent. 

To me, it says many things, this hatred from men in Kerala young and old, educated and not, married or single. The insults are almost always sexual in nature, the language is highly disrespectful, (apart from being abusive itself): the use of nee, the informal word for 'you' in Malayalam is the only way she's addressed. Her lack of hypocrisy is another source of anger. Unlike many women who care about their reputations, Haridas tends to live life rather candidly and if that threatens the Malayalee man, then so be it.  

The way I see it, the anger these men feel is directed at her being happily single even though she's ... gasp... nearly 35! Anger at her being unfazed by the barrage of biting criticism, at her completely normal way of behaving even on screen (she hugs, touches, gesticulates and uses her body freely that way you or I do). The anger is towards her success -- six years of calling her a whore and she's still the top rated, and possibly highest-paid, anchor in Kerala. The anger is towards her completely ignoring the very men that hate her; they just can't seem to get a rise out of her. But I think the thing that threatens them most is that she is an aspiration: she is what a lot of their daughters, sisters and wives would like to become. Glamorous, articulate, successful, confident, and assertive. Everything that these men don't want in their women, lest they get left behind; lest they get dragged to a police station for raising a hand; lest their women leave them after finding self-worth. 

If I were to say just the way Haridas dresses and talks is what's causing the outpouring of misogyny, to anyone who looks at it superficially, I might be right. But if you look around and see another instance of hate, I'd be proved wrong. Manju Warrier, arguably one of Malayalam cinema's best actresses, returned to acting after 14 years of staying away from the industry. She had a daughter with her actor husband, who incidentally, continued to act with women half his age, she made a home and never gave a single interview in all the years she was in the background. 

This last year, she has separated from her husband and has made no public statements about her marital situation. Her husband, actor Dileep, has gone on record to say he doesn't like women working after marriage, while all these years he has insisted it was Warrier's choice to give up acting at the height of her successful career. Their daughter, a teenager, lives with the father. 

Warrier, too, has a Facebook page that updates her fans about her news. She posts happy personal pictures, pictures of her shoots, travels and messages about causes. And yet the hate spews. As she fits better into the mould women are expected to fit in Kerala, the language is a lot more toned down. Clearly, having been married and proving to the world you are fertile is cause for people to be more respectful when they talk. And because Haridas dresses the way she does, and talks more English than Malayalam, and basically flips everyone off, she deserves to be spoken to disrespectfully. 

The hate on Warrier's page manifests itself differently; she's called a bad mother on the basis of the interview her husband gave in a woman's magazine. She is wished ill-luck with her come-back film; she is condemned for leaving her marriage and husband, a man that much of Kerala adores and considers a great actor. Outside of these three things, apparently, Warrier doesn't exist or rather, shouldn't exist. Women too join this criticism of her, openly posting judgemental comments on what they think of her decision to leave her husband, criticising her bitterly for being "negligent" of her daughter, for seemingly classifying fame, career and money higher than her daughter and husband. Mind you, all this while not knowing anything else but that the two are separated. 

There's scores of advice on the page of this 36-year-old artiste urging her to go back to her husband, to stop being selfish, to "realise" that beauty, fame and wealth won't last forever. The denigration is endless and by the looks of it, hugely one-sided. You see, Dileep's fan pages are full of people kowtowing to his talent, looking forward to his new films and the usual fanboy drivel. No advice to him on his personal life at all. Even newspaper reports have been inherently sexist in reporting any developments on the divorce/separation.  

This duplicity emerges repeatedly in Kerala, in conversations and in mainstream media, and now internet hate: It's okay for a woman to work, bring home money and support, either single-handedly or as a second income, her family. But the minute she decides to pursue a career, as opposed to keeping a job, and chooses to go after it ambitiously, she's just turned into the devil. The second income (in some cases the only income) she brings in is very welcome, but not the success or the sacrifices that she has to make. Among all the different kinds of men I've met, no one hates a woman's success more than a certain kind of Malayalee man. 

I started this off as internet hate piece among men in Kerala, the internet as a new place to flash and wave figurative penises at women they couldn't go anywhere close to; successful, dignified, articulate women that threaten their glaringly obvious chauvinistic attitudes. Internet hate towards women in the public eye isn't particularly new, and takes on different forms, as Amanda Hess's explosive essay earlier this year in the Pacific Standard illustrated. But the issues in Kerala that lead to what is clear misogyny are so much more that I had to digress a little. 

The truths that this kind of internet misogyny reveals to me are scary: Malayalee young men continue to be sexually frustrated; traditionally thought to be a sexually permissive society, Kerala, in the last few decades, has seen a huge change in morality, with patriarchal attitudes towards sex becoming more prevalent, where virginity as a virtue is priced highly and sex is seen as corruption. 

If these men are a sampling of most men in Kerala then it would seem Malayalee men are inherently crude, disrespectful, and have no finer sensibilities with regard to equality, individuality, racism, or sexuality. But perhaps the most disturbing thing of all, to me, is the fact that all this is juxtaposed with education, that it exists in a society that for decades has upheld socialist values of equality and respect between genders. How does one reconcile the two? What is the point of an education if it hasn't helped you cultivate a respect for the girls you go to school with? How badly has education failed us, if men still consider sex and sexual insults the best way to attack a woman? Authors and artists, both male and female, have stood at the forefront of progressive feminist attitudes, writing, art and debate. Why has education failed to integrate their work and contribution towards building a society that is more respectful towards women?

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

I cut off more than my hair

17 comments:
I once bought a beige shrug, a snug, long-sleeved number that did all kinds of things for me that I liked, including covering me up. While I have never been actively ashamed of my body, no matter what my weight has been, I've had -and continue to have - body image issues that sometimes get in the way of one way of expressing myself: the way I dress. This shrug allowed me to wear whatever I wanted to work and that was all kinds of freedom. I worked in a conservative country, in an environment where I stood out for no other reason than that I wasn't a middle aged malayalee man or a local. 

Once I bought it, I wore that shrug everywhere. Everywhere. One night, on an evening assignment at a hotel, I took the shrug off (in a minute I was transformed from safe office dressing to a slightly more glamorous version. Oh I loved that shrug). And that was the end of it. In my usual absentmindedness I left the shrug at the hotel and went back home, and I never found it again. The 10 days I spent after that almost felt like grieving. And not just because it was relatively new. You see, as a person with breasts, I get stared at. As do most owners of breasts. And as with most of them, I too had developed indifference, and gotten on with life. Till this shrug arrived. The shrug gave me a new sense of freedom, and in epiphanic moment I understood what many hijabi Muslim friends had told me: that their hijab gave them a greater sense of freedom than when they didn't wear the hijab. While that freedom has largely to do with the world outside and how it viewed women, it made a huge difference to their own sense of confidence.

For a week or so after my lost shrug, I was acutely aware of my body, my movement was awkward, I didn't want to inhabit the space I was taking up. I used my hands less freely, I walked a little more folded into myself. I realise it sounds strange, even superficial maybe, to equate the religious hijab with a mere covering but there it is. The shrug offered me protection and I suddenly understood the hijab.

At the end of last year, which is about three weeks ago, I lost a figurative shrug again. This time on purpose. I tonsured my head in the last week of December and it was just like losing the shrug. At first. Back in June, to mark my daughter's fifth birthday, I wanted to donate her very long hair. I talked to her about it and told her we'd shave our heads together, if she was uncomfortable doing it alone. But the vain little miss she is, she refused outright and I was left with a vow to myself that we'd donate hair. There began an everyday nag. Every week, if I were to put an average to it, I'd think I need to do it now. I need to go cut my hair and shave it all off. But cold feet were fast coming, and vanity still sat strong on my shoulders. Ever since I grew my hair out as a teenager, I'd been told it was my best feature. I started believing it myself, and maintained at least waist-length hair at all times, if not longer. But since June, the thought refused to go away. Every day, it would enter my consciousness and be driven out by fear and vanity. How would I wear a sari with a bald head? I didn't have the bone structure to carry off a bald head. How awful would my chubby face look without hair framing it and taking away the width of my jaw a little? All questions of vanity, of course. Luckily enough, I have an accepting family. Or perhaps a resigned one, considering the things I put them through. So it never occurred to me to find out from them if they'd have a problem with it. It was my hair, after all. 

The last Sunday of December I woke up and magically knew that day was the day. I decided I would go for it, and waited all morning to turn chicken and put it away for another time. But this time no doubts, no cold feet, no voice telling me I'd regret it in a week, as I have done the few times I've cut my hair short. Out of habit, I'd gather all the hair to make a bun at night and there would be not enough length to twist it. I'd feel a sense of regret, a faint flurry of loss, put my hair in a ponytail and go to sleep. But today, the path to the salon seemed bright and clear, my resolve shone like my shampooed hair. 

The first snip after the sectioning felt like finding out unexpectedly that you're pregnant;  there was no turning back from here. The hair is partitioned into four or six sections, depending on thickness and length, and then bound in bands. The scissors then go deliciously through a lock of hair where you want it cut. In my case, an inch from my scalp. I saw the first bunch in the stylist's hand, in the mirror, and loudly said "ouch". I couldn't take my eyes off that bunch he was holding, freshly shampooed, dried, (required before donating) and 18 inches long. The other five sections were a blur and once they came away, I was left with an inch or so of hair on my head and my very worried stylist said, "Ma'am, funky banadega. Shave mat karo." But I'm not a funky woman, and I don't know how to carry off funky hair. Besides, any change in action apart from the one I had decided on would result in my crying bitterly into a jar of Nutella two days later, so I told him to stick to the plan. The rest of the work, a very close buzz leaving almost nothing on my head, was a quick process.

I walked out of there with my hair neatly wrapped and put away in a plastic bag and wondering what the hell I'd just done. I had those big shades on and I remember wondering if I looked like The Fly from the movie of the same name. The repeated stares from people on the street was no help. But I'd asked for this, so I chinned up and went about like I was an everyday bald woman. I went home. I waited for it to hit. Two, three, four days and I still wasn't missing my hair. Waking up to a bald head in the mirror was strange as hell, sure, but did I miss my hair? No. Three weeks later, I still don't. What has happened inside me, however, is huge. 

One of the reasons I have body image issues is my arms. Ever so conscious of all those slim, chiselled, perfect arms I see around me, I've always semi-hidden my upper arms in the length of my hair, when I wear clothes that don't cover them. They're heavy, and they carry stretch marks, as a kind male colleague once pointed out so helpfully. On warm days, my hair was the perfect cover-up. On the days my skin looked tragic, and no matter what I did to my face, I still looked like I'd been sitting in a room breathing in cigarette smoke as a beauty treatment, all I had to do was wash my hair. Instant glam. Love bites? No problem. Undo that bun and let your hair curtain that treacherous neck. Women know these tricks. In bed, a toss of long hair that splays across your back, or a cascade of gentle waves down your shoulders, sexy. After a blow dry, the luxury of the silk that you keep running your hands through, the satin that slips onto your shoulder. The twist that you give it when you want to reflect a certain mood or style of dress. Hair makes all this possible and I'm probably limiting its uses by quoting from personal experience. 

As my days played out, I found more and more ways that my hair added to my (now i realise) massive vanity. I wasn't sad it wasn't there anymore and I didn't miss it but I was aware of all the things it did to me, for me. Through this process of realising what I had only read about, ie. what hair means to women, vanity and beauty, there was another transformative experience occurring subconsciously. One that I realised as I laughed a little more freely, as I chose my clothes less carefully, as I found a greater liking for myself. Somehow, and I cannot explain clearly, though I will try, I was becoming more me.

 I remember discussing cutting my hair before shaving it all off and saying, "I enjoy having long hair and it is very me." I honestly believed that, that the ... romanticism, if you will... of long hair was me. I don't think I'm traditional but the idea of beauty and grace I associated with a woman always included long hair and by choosing to keep it long, I was trying to emulate that image of grace and physical beauty. But having taken it all off, the hair that is, I felt as if I'd shorn off layers of myself. Last year was tough, and it affected my confidence and my self esteem to such great lengths that I found it difficult to like myself. With this act of mine, I found a person from three years ago emerging: the person who didn't hide, a person who spoke without worrying too much if she'd be disliked for it, a person unafraid to make mistakes. I liked this person because I felt she was closer to my knowledge of myself than the person I'd been living with for the past three years. 

I had nothing to hide behind anymore. My blemishes, literal and figurative, were there for everyone to see. No hair to hide my bad skin days, no hair to cover chunky arms and stretch marks, no hair to look elegant in a sari. No hair. The past three weeks have been a revelation to me. I've seen how much I've hidden for the fear of being less than perfect. I've also seen what I've hidden. And it didn't deserve to be. Even as I write this, I sense I haven't been able to do justice to the transformative experience this has been. I realise I haven't been able to describe the slow emergence, sunrise-like, of the person that I like more. This change, this slow, steady washing away and emerging of clean, bright river stones, has been as much about my body as it has been about my mind, soul even. I cannot tell you how liberating it is to say I am not afraid, again. I wish I could do better than this because I want to take you with me on this incredible trickling that I'm caught in, this gentle current of cleansing and revealing. I want you to feel, selfishly, this joy and clarity and freedom. It isn't fireworks. It isn't loud and ecstatic.

It's something else. It is the golden light of an oncoming dusk in the monsoon, where the afternoon sun gives way to a gold that is molten and diluted, losing it's brilliance but still gold. It is a gentle light, a gentle transformation that I hope is permanent. 

That said, man, the thing that annoys me the most now is being asked if I went to Tirupati.


Thursday, 26 December 2013

triptych

1 comment:

i

are shells feminine or masculine
what about firecrackers
and labels 
pigeonholes
and stereotypes
are they this or are they that?

ii
considering an alternate handle
for my alter ego
to tweet alternatively
in my altered states
to worship at the altar
of all terminated thought.

iii
tentacle around an ankle
insistent like only sex can be
my mind is on a bookmark
twisting searching penetrating
patterns form behind my eyelids
muscles contract and find an orbit
i become crochet comet dust as i come


Monday, 9 December 2013

How to ride on the back of a serious issue while not really saying anything.

1 comment:

This is the unedited version of the one publicised originally in Hindustan Times. 


http://www.hindustantimes.com/lifestyle/books/of-farmer-suicides-and-bitter-nris/article1-1155786.aspx


Foreign

Sonora Jha

Random House India

Rs 399

 

After having read years of journalistic prose about the searing,  tragic epidemic that is farmer suicides, which has a relatively indifferent India in its grasp, it came as a thing of curiosity when Sonora Jha’s debut novel Foreign announced itself moored to the issue. The scope was vast, the data staggering and the numbers never ceasing. How then, I wondered, would this communication professor from Seattle handle this frighteningly large issue in her first attempt at fiction.

To answer that, first off, Jha does it with grace and earnest attention to varying points of view. The books begins with the point of view of Dr Katya Misra, an academic from Seattle, much like Jha, who hasn’t visited India in 14 years. Katya’s moment of academic celebrity is cut shot when she notices 17 missed calls on her phone from India, where her 14 year old son Kabir is on vacation with his maternal parents. Katya calls back to find out he has run away. Here starts her return from a self-imposed exile back to India where she left many things behind, including, as she sees it, much of her Indianness.  Katya’s return is, in fact, a kind of coming full circle. When she lived in Mumbai, Katya wrote on issues that helped change government policies and was involved in journalism of truth. But when her relationship with her then lover Ammar Chaudhry ends, Katya is bitter and disillusioned, leaving her homeland for good. Her return to India brings her in contact with Ammar and Katya realizes it is time she stayed back and finished the work she started and gave herself to many years ago. At least for a while. This point of view is alternated with that of Bajirao Andhale and Gayatribai, a family that is a ticking suicide bomb. Katya’s return compels her to stay with the couple and it is from here, a dusty, rain-starved village named Dhanpur, that the stories told in Foreign are told.

Jha likes her stories neatly tied up with a perfect little bow at the end. From her chapter headings, which aren’t as obscure as they may be perceived, to the way she ends the book,  the first-time author doesn’t leave anything to imagination or conjecture.  Her academic past may have probably helped her in her research of the suicides in Vidarbha and about the lives of cotton farmers, but you’d be hard pressed to tell. For the most part, the petulant Katya gets in the way of telling the larger story, that of the suicides, with her NRI bitterness and her acute self-consciousness. Her contempt of India, her dread and anger at the past and her final reconciliation with the country and her yesterday form the backbone of the book, with the farmer suicide almost, but not quite, seeming incidental.

Of the many characters that Jha has focused intently on creating in detail, only two people actually emerge as rounded, progressing characters: Katya and Gayatribai. While Bajirao, Ammar and Kabir are all fairly amiable characters, they seem as serving a purpose of bringing these two women to their life’s mission, in a manner of speaking. Gayatribai goes from doggedly devoted village wife to a quiet, desperate “activist” who grabs the attention of the chief minister and media alike, in what seems like record time in the book. Katya herself makes peace and stays on because she knows this is what she has to do now, to save this family and if she can, other families that have been gripped by the suicide epidemic.

The ending is far too cosmetic for an angst-ridden reader like me with Gayatribai becoming the ray of hope, and Katya renewing her commitment to the cause. It asks no questions, it provides even fewer answers and arrives at a solution that fits in best with a hindi film ending. And this is why the book is deeply flawed. With journalism and academia in Jha’s repertoire, one would expect Foreign to strike a deep chord, to cut viscerally. But the book asks no questions at all, leave alone those that would make you search your soul. Your heart goes out to the poverty-ridden farmers but when you shut the book, none of the ghosts of their dead stay with you, a situation which a subject like this one would have a scope to create. Into a few pages, when you’ve formed certain impressions without actually thinking about them, Foreign surprises you with two things: touching prose in places and the rooted, confident portrayal of the relationship between Katya and Kabir. Nuance, dialogue, love and worry all emerge beautifully in this dynamic.