What Friendship Needs (Not Preachy I Promise)

Friendship doesn’t need effort. It needs courage. The courage to reach out and say hello. The courage to not mind if they don’t say hello back. This is not the same as not caring. It’s caring, very much but not letting that stop you.

It needs a little bit of madness. The madness of looking at a total stranger and following a spark that you don’t even know why it’s there. The madness of turning into words and actions that feeling of ‘I don’t know why but I think you and I could be a part of each other’s lives.’ The madness that turns that ‘could’ into a ‘should’.

It needs selective amnesia. Forgetting who spoke first. Forgetting how many times they snatched an argument from you. Forgetting to keep tally of who made more effort.

And it needs a generous sharing. Not just of things that are big or impressive. In fact, probably none of those kinds of things. And all of things that seems mundane, likely to not be noticed, never get the repayment of acknowledgement or gratitude back.

I guess you could say all these things about love. I guess friendship is a kind of love.

A few months ago, I exchanged DMs with someone who had only been a Twitter name since so far back, neither of us can remember (selective amnesia, I told you). On an impulse I said, “Let’s meet!” and equally impulsively she said, “Yes! Today!”. There’s madness.

Never mind what happened after that. That’s not really as significant as the two actions of courage that led to us meeting, led to us happening.

Sometimes I send her a photo, a snapshot of where I am, what I’m doing. I think she might like seeing where I am when I think of her. She responds with the kind of curious, funny thoughts that run through all our heads but we rarely share because they seem so silly or mundane. Sharing mundanities seems to be a very important part of friendship, practically the spice of it.

Every now and then she writes about her life, deeply personal things, profound insights and cranky complaints alike. And once, then twice she mentions me in the same sentence as ‘peace’, ‘relief’, ‘listening’ and ‘perspective’. Also ‘beautiful’ and ‘big ear’ (though she meant that in the way that deep listening happens :D). It makes me happy to see her grow daily. And it makes me so, so YAYYY to suddenly find myself in her thoughts.

“We all need a witness for our lives.” I heard in a movie I once saw. Now isn’t that true? I need not just watching but involvement. Participation in my life and mine in others. My cup overfloweth today. I’m so very happy. And Reema, you make it so. :-)

Sunshine Moment

Have you seen Little Miss Sunshine? It’s supposed to be the story of a dysfunctional American family. But I really think it’s a story about kicking ass. It’s the age of innocence and of wisdom untainted with cynicism. It’s about rebellion, not from anger but a sense of mischief. Let me tell you my own Little Miss Sunshine story.

It was 2001, the year of big dreams that came to nothing. Of a plane ramming into the Twin Towers bringing down a shower of bricks and employment dreams for the rest of us. I had quit a great job to get a shot at the bigger corporate scene, armed with an MBA. I didn’t get into an IIM but I reasoned that it didn’t make sense to spend two years preparing for a two year program. So I took the college that I got and figured I’d make it up along the way. 9/11’s impact was felt all over the world, not the least of it, in the lives of young people on the brink of their careers.

My life was a mess of decisions gone wrong. I was in ‘class B’ of a batch that one of our potential employers described as a ‘not even tier 3 college’. I found myself sharing desk space with a lacklustre, sluggish group of people that weren’t my ideal peer group. I pushed on, nothing deterred, the sluggishness around me spurring me on to do more, rather than less. Most of my attempts ended up as duds, (comical when I look back, much like the trials of the family in the movie). I had organised and ran for the class elections only to suffer a resounding defeat. 3 votes to 42, I discovered and a little later, that my best friend was not one of those 3 and much, much later that she had sealed my fate with a dissenting opinion. I was publicly humiliated. And my classmates did not like my eagerness in class anymore than they approved of my jeans-and-sneakers-weraing self in class.

A couple of months later, some of us were at an intercollegiate festival. Our seniors had asked us to participate in as many events as we could, to rack up ‘participation points’. So while we waited to be called in for the case study competition (which was the only ‘appropriate’ event for a management college), I signed up for the singing competition. We didn’t even make it past the qualifying round of the case study. But we had travelled across town for the festival so we decided to hang around. In the evening was the music event. With not much enthusiasm and absolutely no trepidation (you’re only ever nervous when you care about the outcome), I went up on stage and sung the first song that came to my mind. To my surprise, I won. Not just a prize for the duet but also a special mention by the judge for my solo rendition.

It won me a few ‘cool’ points. The next thing I knew, was that I’d been slotted as ‘the college singer’. And so I became a regular on the college festivals scene. I made a lot of friends, lost track of the number of events I represented my college in, and brought back a few certificates that would never help further my career. My more intellectually-inclined friends would occasionally attempt a case-study competition and scoff at the time I wasted on ‘these silly music competitions’. But come lunchtime and someone would turn to me and ask for a song. I had found a place in the peer group as well. This was a time before iPods or even personal MP3 players. I was the batch’s personal jukebox. And on the larger circuit of city colleges, people were starting to recognise my name.

But my luck was running out there too. After that first win, I seemed to keep hitting dead-end. Ask me sometime about college audiences. If you can survive one of those, you can survive practically anything. This audience will rip you apart and hang up your carcass if you make the slightest mistake. I saw people get booed off stage. Once the entire audience stood up and turned their backs to the performer, mid-song. Another time, a large group of people interrupted the singer with a loud, raucous rendition of the Lifebuoy jingle, drowning out the person on the stage. I thanked my good luck that that never happened to me. People sat through my renditions and clapped nicely but the prize-winner was always someone else. And I started to wonder if I was losing my killer instincts to win and settling for what I got.

At every single competition, I got beaten by a girl with a Runa Laila/Ila Arunesque voice. Her entire repertoire was Mast Kalandar and Lambi Judaai. That was it; no one had ever heard her singing anything else. If you closed your eyes, it would sound like you were listening to the original. But, I’d seethe silently, it’s supposed to be a contest among singers not tape recorders!!! Where’s the individual style, the creativity that one must expect from an artist? No one else thought so and my much-wider repertoire went unappreciated. I had a new song for every contest (or two or three at least) but I’d always end up having to go over to congratulate her on yet another win. While she smirked back. No, she didn’t actually, but allow me a brief moment of loser bitchiness…

A few months later, I had given up. I would never defeat her and the elusive Best Singer title would never be mine, no matter how hard I practiced or how well I sang. It was time for my own college festival, the last of all of them in the city. My classmates had given up expecting a win and one of them whispered to me before I went up,

“At least if you lose this time, you can blame it on the college wanting to play good host and award it to someone else.”

I walked up on to the stage, nervous as always. I felt like I had let everyone down, even before I had even began. Then I looked out at the crowd. They had sat through so many of my performances, in classrooms, in the canteen, the parking lot and on stages around the city.  They even knew how long I’d take to overcome my anxiety and start singing. I closed my eyes for a long minute. And they waited. And when I opened my eyes, they were still there. I was going to perform and they were going to listen. That was all. The competition melted away.

I opened my mouth and belted out a song none of them had never heard before (not even my friends who had sat through my daily canteen riyaaz). It wasn’t the kind of song anybody was expecting to hear at the singing competition of a management college. It didn’t showcase my ability to span a range of notes. It did not pay allegiance to a classical raag. It wasn’t playing on every television and radio channel as ‘Top of the Pops’.

The crowd was silent for a whole twenty seconds, the entire length of the opening bars. One of my classmates, who had accompanied me at the winning duet at the start of the year let out a loud, piercing whistle. And the crowd exploded. When I began the second stanza, the compere (who was also my arch nemesis through the college years) danced up onto the stage and did a little jig behind my back. By the time I reached the last note, every single member of the audience was up and dancing, I kid you not. I ended the song but the crowd was still cheering and kicking up a storm of dust in the seats. I ran back into the audience to a wildly enthused bunch of classmates cheering. Inside of that performance, I became one with them.

A day after this festival, someone from the nearby pharmacy college stopped me on the road to congratulate me for ‘a really great performance’. In another college festival a few days later, as I walked off the stage, a lady stopped me. She had been one of my lecturers in undergraduate college. She asked me how I was. I told her I’d just finished performing. She started laughing and said,

“I was inside correcting papers when I heard this song. And I just had to come out and see the girl who had the nerve to sing this on stage. When I saw you from the distance, I just knew it was you. No one else I know, would have done that.”

There are words that hurt and haunt you all your life. And then there are words like this, which you treasure always, because they make you so proud to be you. I did not win a prize that day. Nobody told me that I had a lovely voice, for singing it. I wouldn’t have been able to list it in my portfolio of musical accomplishments. But the audience enjoyed it as much as I did. The moment paid for itself. And it reminded me of something I forgot when I signed up for b-school. I was an ambitious go-getter but I was an artist, first. Joy, living it and creating it, would always be my biggest success story.

That song went on to become the anthem of my batch. The ‘not even tier 3, not winning but having so much fun’ class B of 2003. Every time we met after that, every alumni meet, every single get-together, someone would request this song and we’d forget our ‘adult’ differences for that moment and just lose ourselves to the wild abandon of our own class anthem. I finally understand why that song and that performance was so special. It was a Little Miss Sunshine moment. It made ordinary, special.

This is the song I performed:

*An earlier version of this post is here.

#AndheriGirl: Auditions

IMG_20140304_172809

Good girls go to heaven.
Andheri girls go to auditions.

#AndheriGirl
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The Phone Call

My truth comes calling, on an international phone call
Sounding exactly like every other person who thinks
They have something important to say to me
Except this one always does
For sure, her words are truth, her truths truer.

She thinks I need to be better, work harder, be smarter at my job
I know, I know, I haven’t done it all yet
“Oh, didn’t they promise you that last month?”
I hate her for saying that
Hate her even more because it was 6 months back, not last month.

This was five days ago and I’m still frowning in my sleep
I know because when I wake up, my jaws hurt from clenching them
Every hour from midnight to seven, she reminds me,
“Wasn’t that promised to you 6 months ago?”
Every night she invades my dreams and every day she dogs me.

I won’t take her calls anymore, I decide, I’ll block her, delete her number even
Who needs this constant pressure?
And I plunge into being better, working harder and being smarter at my job
And hope and pray that it’ll help me forget
That she only ever remembers to call once a year.

Cheese Fondue

This is a slightly improved version of an old post. But the sentiment remains.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

What do you do when you see the person who broke your heart, sitting at the table next to yours in a restaurant? Cool as ever over cheese fondue.

You:

  1. Hide.
  2. Scoot.
  3. Walk over ultra-cool and strike up a conversation.
  4. Pretend that they don’t exist (and hope they do the same).

Frantic thinking. You can’t do a. since they’ve spotted you already and are trying to figure out if you really are who they think. Hence b. is ruled out as well…besides you’d have to pass them when you walked out, thus giving them a perfect opportunity to confirm what they’re thinking.

You wonder if you could pull off c. but your feet refuse to move and you desist out of fear of doing something incredibly unpardonable like stammering, blushing furiously – or worst of all – starting to cry, right into that silly cheese fondue.

And you suddenly know that you can never meet their eyes because just locking gazes with them will make the tears start. All the years of discipline, behind defense mechanisms will crumble the minute they look at you. Why is it that you’re the one being embarrassed over what happened and unable to meet the gaze of the person who performed the heinous crime of breaking your heart?

In an instant the years fall away. The person you’ve built yourself to be, vaporizes before your eyes. And you’re back to where you were years ago, feeling small, unloveable, weak and helpless.

Some scars continue to itch, long after the wounds heal. Distance may prove to be some balm but when that’s gone, you’re back to bleeding. Back to bewildered, hurt, confused, scared. Back to wondering whether the years in between were just a figment of your own imagination and learning to live and laugh and love again was just a dream. Back to the horrific moment, breath stuck in your throat, forgetting how to be happy, forgetting about anything mattering at all, forgetting how to live a half-life like you’re still you but with some vital organs missing.

Then somehow, slowly, you remember how to breathe. Exhale. Out with all the bad stuff in your head. Inhale. A new world. A new life. A new you. Life, one breath at a time. Love, one memory at a time. Cheese fondue in time too. And when you get up to leave, you notice the table next to you is empty.

Ladies Compartment: The Myth About Mumbai’s Gender Segregated Spaces

Mumbai is considered India’s safest city for women. All public transport facilities include spaces allocated for women only. Mumbai trains have 2 coaches reserved for women only. Buses have a two-seater bench for women only. And the recent addition to public infrastructure, the Mumbai metro has recently announced a separate coach for women only.

Less than a month since its introduction, the resentful murmuring has already begun. I heard a friend complain about women who were travelling in what he called the ‘men’s coaches’ since there were designated spaces for them, already. This is something every female train traveller hears often.

Today, I took the metro and spotted this message emblazoned across the seperating tape.

“We know you are special, so an exclusive zone for you. Ladies Only.”

 

Mumbai Metro — Ladies section

I’d like to say thank you to the Mumbai Metro for putting this up. It highlights the problem and makes it easier for me to explain.

The point is not that women are special. We do not believe we are. How can we, when the whole world, starting from family, to classmates, to fellow commuters, to strangers on the road, to colleagues let us know that we are not? Being subjected to 24×7 scrutiny and moral judgement does not make us ‘special’, it makes us prisoners. Ajmal Kasab’s every move was scrutinised and you know who he was.

What is worse is that this differentiated treatment is neither our fault nor under our control. I have refused the ‘ladies’ seat’ on buses several times. I have waived ‘special rights’ offered to women in lines. Only to be told every single time that I am imposing and intruding into men’s territory. Whether it is a physical boundary or a mental one, gender seggregation does not come from women. It is a restriction imposed on us, under threat of moral censure and physical danger, if violated.

The common myth is that trains are divided into ‘ladies compartments’ and ‘gents compartments’. No, they are not. Mumbai trains have a ladies compartment among several other ‘general compartments’. Buses have ‘ladies seats’ among general seating.

To come back to the accusations of life being easier for women because of these gender-seggregated spaces, and that hated label of ‘special for women’ — why should I feel bad about an inelegant solution offered by society to my sex because of the crimes of your sex?

I would also like to point out that the city is not really safer because of these gender seggregated spaces. Women have been attacked and pushed off these very trains. Every single woman who travels by buses has a story of being rubbed up against and even groped by bus conductors and fellow passangers. Anyone who has travelled regularly by the ladies compartment in trains will know not to stand next to the separating grill, since intrusive hands and fingers come groping through them. Last year’s gangrape at Raghuvanshi Mills and the almost daily reportage of horrific rapes, acid attacks and crimes against women in this city should dispel any notions of how ‘safe’ Mumbai is for women.

Gender-seggregated spaces do not exist because women are special or consider ourselves so. They exist because certain MALE miscreants consider themselves special and deny us access to a safe, respectful space. Can we please stop acting as if it is a privilege extended to women and see it for what it is — a consolation prize for the actual human right to safety?

#IdeaStory: Sea of Words

Sea of words

I’m drowning in a sea of words, she says
You don’t want to be rescued, he observes
So she asks if they can write a story together.

The Completely Bearable Lightness of Being 35

35. I’ve been that for a month now. It tastes, smells and feels much better than I thought. I feared the implied mundanity of the phrase ‘settling down’. But I’m learning that it’s not mundane when it happens naturally, when you want to do it.

I met someone I had a crush on back when I was 13. We didn’t meet often so it stayed what it was — a mild fluttering in the stomach when I saw him, the beginning of a blush when he glanced in my direction. I saw him off and on over the years but always from a distance, like from a bus window or across the street. And a quick nod of recognition is all that passed between us. I was young and surrounded by too many distractions to give it much thought. And even if I had, I think I was not confident enough in myself to have done something about it.

So much has happened in these twenty odd years to each of us. We are past the panicky gawking of adolescence, past the frenzied social rituals of the twenties. Now, I think we tend to be okay with not always knowing what we feel. We’ve learnt to not let the awkwardness of a situation stop us from moving, from talking, from responding.

That doesn’t sound like the conventional definition of ‘settling down’ but in a way it feels like it. It’s the feeling of solidness (I wouldn’t yet call it unshakeability) that comes from knowing an uneasy situation will not stop your life.

Oh, another thing that has happened with 35. This was probably seeded in my mind a little earlier but it has grown into being me only now. When Jinal was here, I was talking about my close friendships. I told her I loved one of our common friends and that I liked her. She tilted her head and said,

“Don’t you love me?”

I grinned and told her,

“I do! And I thought it. But as I started the sentence, I thought you’d find it a really weird thing for me to say. That’s why I changed it to I like you.”

“Silly,” she grinned and added, “I love you too.”

And I realised that the weird thing is NOT telling people who are close to us, not telling members of the same sex, not telling friends who are not spouses or partners, not saying ‘I love you’ to them. Love is not bounded by relationship status or gender. It’s a free emotion, a good, nourishing one. And it only chokes and turns into other weird things when it is forced into restrictive expressions or not even that.

I say ‘I love you’ much more easily and more often now. :-) I say it to a lot of people and I think that doesn’t make me a bad person; it makes me a lucky person. Every person I identify that I love, reminds me of how much abundance there is in my life, of support, warmth and affection.

Oh, here’s something about being 35. Everybody is nostalgic again and wanting to reconnect with their past. It’s now twenty years since I finished school, a decade since I finished b-school. I think nostalgia goes in 10 year cycles. And because of this, it seems that ageing happens abruptly rather than gradually. The skinny girls sported post-pregnancy fat when I saw them last and now they’re back to looking the same (we are at a health-conscious age now). And the men? Most of them look exactly the same except, without hair on their heads. 35 looks the same as 25 but minus hair. :-D

Then there is the being okay with fighting and anger. I’ve tried to be all zen about violent expressions, especially after my break-up. But I realise I am a high-strung, emotional person and I attract people like that too. Friction and clashes are bound to happen. I’m realising it’s okay to not always resolve the fight. And I’m realising that disagreeing, however violently, need not have to do with how much you care about the other person.

I had a rather raucuous argument yesterday with someone that I have a complex relationship with, but whom I care about (now why should this description even be a surprise?). We sat in stiff silence for about 25 minutes. Then, just before it was time for me to leave, I realised I didn’t want the heaviness of not knowing the right way to say goodbye. So I just put my hand on his shoulder and said,

“Hey.”

I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to say after that and I think I started off with some version of

“Go home safe and sleep well. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

But before I could finish, he hugged me. And just like that, all the animosity vanished and what we had been arguing about, seemed like nothing more than hot air left behind in the place we were at. The situation has not been resolved. But our friendship has not been impeded because of it.

These are fun things to discover about 35.

A Tale Of Two Cities: My Proverbial Krishnadom

Here’s a post from a long time ago. I’ve tidied it up but the memory remains (anyone get that reference?). Here’s to my discovery of myself, to my finding home.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

When people ask,

“Born and brought up here?”

I have to pause to think how to answer. I’ve tried various versions of ‘Born in the Capital and grew up in Island City’. That’s so pretentious, isn’t it? But it doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel fair to either city to say anything else. I could just nod my head. After all, who cares where you spent the first month of your life, if you’ve lived elsewhere after that? But it is the first month of my life (actually more, if you count the months my mother was pregnant with me). It’s the place on my birth certificate. It’s where my mother hails from. How can it not be important to the question of where I’m from?

It’s an odd feeling to belong to two different places simultaneously like this. Just like our relationships with people, there are invisible bonds that link us to places too…places that contain strong memories, places we’ve experienced life most in..

Each visit to the capital brings up parallel voices inside of me, conflicting, contradicting and highlighting the differences in the two places. If a city could be the motherland, I’m the proverbial Krishna, originating from one and flowering in another.

Mumbai has left an undeniable chappa on me, shaped my thinking and attitudes. Visiting Delhi however, invokes odd feelings that I’ve never quite been able to explain. I suppose it is a symbolic return to the womb, a reminder of how life could have been, still could be. Having a birth certificate from a city links you to that place for life. Mumbai is in my every waking moment and movement, in my brisk ‘lets-get-down-to-it’ attitude, my indifference to crowds and noise and precision-honed efficiency. Delhi however, whispers its hidden influences in my intellectualising, my love of the good life and long conversations.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

It’s cold. But not coooooooooooooold. That’s the first thought that hits me as I alight at Nizamuddin. I remember the dire warnings I’ve received over the past week about the winter in Delhi. Sure, everyone looks plumper (and that’s saying something….the average figure pays testimony to well-fed stomachs) and brighter draped in woolens and feathers (And I always thought these were the grey things that pigeons shed!).

As the day progresses, I can’t help reflecting that in Mumbai food takes longer to cool than to heat up. And oh, what an odd feeling to keep feeling hungry every hour! Mom is delighted and hints that my weight-gain plan might succeed if I shift here.

Shopping is always a great experience in Delhi, even for shop-a-phobics like me. I love the colour, the sheer feel of the ‘arty’ look, kurtas, jholas, mojris and trinkets. Idly I muse that I’ve never seen Delhiites wear any of this, though its considered the ‘Delhi look’. And oddly enough I’ve only seen all of this stuff on Mumbaikers who proudly say “I picked it up on my last visit to Delhi”.

The people look different; even their skin ailments look different. I can’t see any of the familiar pimples and acne that adorn Mumbai faces. There are instead, red splotches and little bumps which I assume must be a combination of colder weather and skins endowed with far less melanin.

Every single person I arrange to meet offers to pick me up or drop me back or both. Hmm, I think, I can’t imagine my Mumbaiker friends doing that any more than I can imagine my permitting them to. As always I hate not being able to travel around freely but I take note of the gentle solicitousness it seems to invoke in people here.

Books, books, BOOOOOKS!!!!! I’ll never be able to hate Delhi so long as it has its books. Mumbai’s workaholism drowns out any possibility of culture appreciation. If Mumbai is the place to make money, Delhi’s the place to spend it. I also see a band playing in one of the corners of Connaught Place. Intrigued I stand and listen to the music belting out of the makeshift speakers. How wonderful, the drummer’s a girl! I can’t imagine amateur musicians making music at street corners like this. Come to think of it, where would they play….Churchgate station?

I gape, all open-mouthed wonder at the neat manicured lawns, shining signboards and broad roads all through our jaunts. I make snide comments about how Mumbai pays at least 1/3rd of the country’s taxes and gets so few benefits in return while the Delhi lives off the rest of the country’s earnings in splendour. I remind my co-passengers of the meaning of the word ‘parasite’ and get muttered threats for reply.

No trip to Delhi is complete without the mandatory visit to the chaatwala. Yum, yum I drool as I watch potatoes and unidentified stuff being mauled in as unhygenic conditions as possible. Oh, to hell with hygeiene I tell that nagging voice and tuck into the ‘halka masala mixed fruit chaat’. My mouth was on fire for an hour afterward. Grr, Delhiites must have cast-iron cauldrons for stomachs.

Somewhere in the back of my consciousness floats pictures of homeless people, victims of the tsunami. I wonder, if a natural disaster had struck up north, would Delhi have been so complacent and matter-of-fact? Out of sight, out of mind is a phrase that springs to mind.

Not that there aren’t conversations. Politics, politics, does every single Delhiite from age 7 upward own a degree in Political Science??? I feel woefully ignorant in all this chatter. That’s until someone mentions a movie and the talk turns to Bollywood. Then I inform them that I’ve stayed within a kilometer from the Big B’s residence and that Vivek Oberoi was my senior in college. HAH! I love the grudging admiration that shines in their eyes as I throw out these facts with an air of disdainful nonchalance.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

Saturday and its time to leave. As the capital gears up for a weekend (what’s a weekend to a city that seems to be either lazing or partying during the week?), I pack my bags. I’m so relieved, so relieved, so utterly delirious to be coming back to Mumbai. On my train I’m glad that the other family in the cubicle is from Mumbai and I won’t have to endure declarations of ‘Dilli sabse number one city‘. I spend the journey reclaiming my Mumbainess. I take an almost devilish delight in graphic details of Mumbai trains to a group of youngsters on their first trip. I see one gulp and I smirk. I chase every stereotypical notion of Mumbai and wear it almost desperately to prove my origins. As the train whizzes into Borivili, I sigh, home sweet home. Nothing reminds me more about how much I belong here, than a visit to Delhi. Yeah, Delhi does that. It’s never very far away and I’m afraid it’ll claim me someday. But for now, my Island City holds me safe.

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