I don’t think I grasped that a new normal would have to be a new idea of normal. I don’t know if I’ll ever travel by junta public transport again, the second class compartments, the trains & metros. By the time it may be safe to, I may not physically & emotionally be as blase about it as I have been. Public transport has been my life connection to the city that has defined me. It had also been a comfortable way for me to pretend I’m ‘junta’ & not really privileged. A new normal must include accepting that.
The second wave & lockdown hit me harder than the first one. I think the first time around, I was able to build a bubble of self-sufficiency & productivity, which was still some kind of denial. The second time though, that bubble popped, the veneer wore thin. I’ve had to face who I am under these as I realise the surface bustle is just skin. It’s not all hard. It is a relief to set my guard down & admit I need help. But it’s an uncomfortable space since relief isn’t familiar to me. My new normal is learning to be at ease.
New people & connections are easier with my new normal me, which may explain my current Clubhouse fascination. It’s a clean slate. But denial has had to be dropped with old me, which means I can’t ignore or discard things that are hard. Old connections have to be transformed or closed with respect & grace. Not everyone wants to do that. But it is on me to bring grace from my end. Sometimes that means saying “Okay, goodbye.” Even if it means crying on the shoulder of someone else about this loss. Crying but still walking, even if with help, that’s my new normal too.
Eventually, the biggest struggle of this pandemic is to outlast it, even if with scars & transformation. I guess survival is normal & change has always been normal. Stay safe, stay kind, stay hopeful, you.
Clubhouse has really brought home the meaning of this phrase. The ability to read a room is a fundamental social skill involving waiting, watching & listening. Any adult who doesn’t display this is choosing not to.
People wander into rooms with clear titles, raise their hands to be called up to stage only to interrupt the conversation. A staggering majority of these are men whose first instinct is to demand to be heard & the first thing they say is “What’s going on?”. Barging into a conversation is impolite in real life (yet many men do it). Manterrupting is an especially annoying form of manspreading.
But the unwillingness to read a room isn’t limited to one gender. Any event (and now CH room) is besieged by folks with no special interest in the proceedings. They stumble in wanting to be part of something. But they do not want to engage, only disrupt. Smarmy compliments & toxic fanperson behaviour substitute for personality. But they also demand attention NOW. Interrupt-and-dash is a common M.O.
Another type is adept at slithering into rooms & making it about themselves. These are the ones who turn a group conversation into an inside joke with most people on the outside, vying to get in. Toxic couples do this with compulsive “we like this/we do that” collective pronouning. And there’s usually one such person who slides into a group & employs the same strategem to divide. They don’t stop even when they notice the group fragment; that is what they want.
I practise filteration – only allow accounts with bios to stage, push back into audience if they interrupt, don’t mute or disrupt, unfollow so they can’t enter Social rooms. Boundaries help keep socialising fun & rejuvenating rather than tiring. Because people who won’t read the room are boundary violators. Clubhouse proves this because it’s really easy to start a room of your own. If a person would rather highjack or disrupt your room, then they are looking for something other than conversation & you don’t have to be down with that. The app makes it easy to say, my room, my rules; respect them or byebye. Which after all, is just a healthy boundary.
My calling card is a color. One dab gives you a peek into a thousand stories, my stories. Ugly Duckling. Slumdog Cinderella without a Fairy Godmother. Poor thing.
Wear dark colors, the fashion mags advised. So I sat in navy, black & grey boxes. You’re ugly, he said, the pretty girl’s aggressive best friend. Books & silence became my refuge. You look easy, desperate for attention. So my spine curved as I hid inside black. The heroine’s lehenga is orange, you can’t wear that. Play the sidekick in dark blue. Use Fair & Lovely for six months before you meet my parents. I learnt to fear the burn of the spotlight
I realized then that this calling card laid out cell by cell all over me did not carry the words – Pretty. Beautiful. Lovable. Desirable. No one knew me by those names. My skin, a bag stuffed with too many pointed observations & odd shaped ends. Punctured with poetry & pain. Bursting with stories that did not fit, while everyone looked the other way, politely, waiting for me to tidy up & conform.
But the mirror said I’ll be there for the rest of your life. You’ll be alone. Better get used to me. I closed my eyes, went within. Inside I found technicolor emotions. Oil paint fractals of thoughts. Animal prints of passion. Rainbow ideas
I’d found when the world stops listening to your stories, the walls turn audience. Your breathing becomes applause. What looked good on me was what looked good to me. Who plays invisible sidekick in their own life? Who can hide in shame inside their own skin? Not me. I wasn’t even good at hide-and-seek. No room for maroon & navy & apologetic beige in my skin. So I chucked them out & painted a new calling card.
With a palette Of sunny yellow vivacity Teal and turquoise rhymes An orange slash of leadership Sparkly silver maths & science Audacious words on a blazing red mouth And I came out to the world again This time, wearing me.
The world listens . My calling card is a color. A homespun, hand painted color. Of island city melanin. And experienced grey. And it says, every hue is mine.
You had me at eye contact Kind words & other trespasses But you are uncomfortable in silences In the no-man’s land of sighs & whispers In sensations that carry no words, feelings that float So you find your comfort in speed & speech
Make it quick, you tell me, this ‘we’ thing Draw us a border Or you-and-me might just stick You’re really saying hug me like it doesn’t matter that it’s not a kiss instead And what do you know, I do
Our futures plotted in terms & conditions I sign off on our mutual definitions, Friends. We walk away seeking drama & glory Hawking plastic sentiments to anyone who will fall for our words
When we pass each other in the economy class of stories Nevertheless, we wave across our borders Flashing airbrushed relationship statuses In lieu of hellos Because who needs to?
Occasionally, when we speak Our remembering collides, Our laughter & quips Flake & chip on each other We bleed byte-sided poetry We are travelling merchants of words With love however, we will still have no dealings
And now, packing trophy experiences Boarding passes in hand, we wait, Side-by-side at some airport I hope that the call that comes for me will be yours too All I ask is that you leave the door of possibility open
But maybe you won’t No baggage, no labels No messes, no fusses We’ll be amiable fellow passengers Cordial partners even But there’s nothing in our contract that says we can’t hold hands.
I’ve been quieter with my writing recently. I try to keep my presence online positive & hopeful, a big challenge in recent times. I don’t want to disrespect the listening I get from my followers by expecting them to deal with my shit in addition to their own. So it’s been better to be silent.
I have been exploring the big new fad called Clubhouse & I have so many thoughts. With all the clashing noises, I still have to say I’m thrilled to feel this charge I get from feeling the presence of other people around me. However they are, whoever they are. Because I am a communicator. I am nurtured by connection with other living creatures. And communication is my favorite form of connection.
I wish we’d stop referring to communication as a skill. ’Skill’ implies that it can be taught & expertise gained with time. It’s not. Vocabulary can be learnt. Grammar can be memorised. But communication is about who you are. It is the desire to engage with the world, to commune with the surrounding, connect with another living being.
To communicate is to approach with respect & offer a connection. It is to be open to the unknown realm of reactions that this could invite. You really cannot do this with a script or checklist of demands.
Being a communicator & especially one in the shifting, growing space of digital brings me so much insight about my own self. I find myself overrun, triggered, trolled & violated, yes. But I’m learning to build firmer & better boundaries (rather than defense systems). And I’m learning better who I am.
This is a lot of things. But who I choose to be here, is a person of hope, cheer, gentleness & fun. And when I can’t be, to not be at all here. This doesn’t reduce me. It actually grows me because I’m exercising choice. I am more than the words I say at this moment, the words I say in one place. I am also the words I choose not to share & I am my silences too. I get to decide that.
We think of firsts as one-time only things. And we assume they’re the domain of the young, the uninitiated. Maybe ‘maturity’ is just a bitter word for loss of whatever makes us find the new.
And yet, the universe is hardly finite. Time, unpredictable. It’s a lifelong journey of self-discovery. True, surprises start to land more like shocks, the older we get. But they’re still firsts of their own kind. The leaving behind of something in the past, a pruning or editing of self. But you can only edit or prune the already voluminous. Why worry that it diminishes you?
The first time you laugh after you’ve cried is cremation. It can be a shock, yes. Like sunlight hitting your eyelids even before you’re completely awake.The first time you make love after heartbreak is surgery. It’s painful. It’s necessary. You’ll heal. You’ll recuperate. You’ll be helped. You’ll learn to receive help.
The first time you fuck after being ghosted is an exorcism. We let go of our monsters with pain.The first time you trust after betrayal is a bungee jump. It’s wild & it’s exhilarating. It can hurt to feel again but it also hurts good.
The first word you speak after tasting disappointment is a purge. Let it all out. There is hunger under that & contented satiation in the future.This picture is from the first time I stepped onto sand since the pandemic began (Dec’20). I’ve known this beach my whole life. But by the time this picture was taken, I was a different person, scrubbed fresh of old worries that seemed insignificant, stripped of the baggage of midlife crisis. Only glad to be alive. I padded across the sand, tasted the salt in the air & felt the sea breeze in my hair. I was feeling, not remembering. And that is a first. Even if it’s a first after.
It’s a lesson in what trust is & what we mean when we say we trust someone.
It’s really hard to say “Trust me” to yourself. So we build up people who can say it to us. When we call someone trustworthy, aren’t we really saying we are giving them the job of taking care of us? That’s why it’s so hard to say it to ourselves. And so much easier to let someone else take the slack & the fall if things should go awry.
It’s a bad idea to treat trust as currency. Trusting someone does not ensure that they will not break that trust. Being trustworthy does not guarantee that others will. We can’t even say that a trustworthy person will stay that way always. If you saw a crescent moon one night & on another it wasn’t there, would you call the moon untrustworthy?
Why we trust may be more important than how we trust & who we trust.
In one of the lowest points in my life, after ending a violent relationship, I found one idea. “This hurts a lot but this pain IS NOT me. That means I will recover at some point.” I let that idea guide me. It meant at some point, I had to let go of identifying with pain, to release the bandages of the label of abuse survivor. That’s just something that happened to me, it is not ME.
It was my way of regaining trust in myself after letting myself down. It was my way of forgiving myself for trusting someone who hurt me. And eventually it had to become a way of healing myself from seeing trusting as a stupid or weak action. I had to re-trust trusting.
Because trusting is an act of courage. After all, what makes us mistrustful but fear? To trust after being hurt, means to pick yourself up from the world of pain, to once more see that there are things beyond you. It is to simultaneously recognise that you are insignificant & to see that this doesn’t mean powerless. To trust is to know you can always heal & that rebirth is ever possible.
Maybe you can only trust an idea, not a person. Because trusting is personal evolution & that’s too heavy to hang onto someone else. Trust isn’t blind faith. It’s active choice, knowing anything is possible and that this means freedom, not fear.
One reason I like getting older is because I know more, notably about myself. Because what else can be a more interesting & relevant topic to me? And I do like knowledge. That’s a thing I’ve learnt about myself too.
Birthdays are token days but I think tokens are important. They’re reminders of the bounty of life, a chance to celebrate all that is good about it – love, laughter, pleasure, relating. But they are not the entire essence of living & I think it’s unwise to make them so. “One day that is mine” is burdened with resentment that goes counter to the daily gratitude that makes life a joy.
I’ve realised I want a lot of love but it has to feel authentic & that’s usually not as flashy or dramatic the way grand gestures are. People feel forced to spend a lot, say a lot they don’t mean on birthdays & I can sense that jarring disconnect. I don’t like the heaviness of an expensive gift that’s a bribe to rectify time not spent, feelings not considered, love not shared. I’d rather not.
We express joy, gratitude & learning in different ways so I guess that’s why different people want different things for their birthdays. Imposing your idea of what it looks like on someone else’s birthday isn’t great. I’ve had birthdays that were lessons on who was bad for me because they did this. I guess some lessons are rougher than others. But well, a bicycle & a menstrual cup counted as birthday gifts & both came with their share of aches before I could truly appreciate the bounty they brought to my life.
Since 35, I’ve had a full health check around my birthday. It gives me direction for the year, checks my progress & makes me feel good for the things that do work. I couldn’t do this in 2019 because of a family health crisis & then 2020 due to the pandemic. But I’ve been okay so far so I choose to see this as riding without training wheels. And look, I am moving. What a joy is life!
I’ve written lots of birthday notes to myself. They’re my way of time travel. They make me fall in love with myself, cherish parts of myself I’d forgotten & give me hope for the next birthday. What’s a better gift than that?
…said an older friend over twenty years ago. It came up in a general conversation, not as a request to me. He didn’t explain but it opened up a train of thought that has only now pulled into my mind’s station.
This month Mumbai led the second wave of COVID in India. In my own close circle, many people were affected and badly. I have been trying to tell myself that this time round, we’re better prepared than 2020. We know more about the virus, there is some hope in sight in the form of the healing experiences of the past year and the promise of a vaccine, however conditional it may be. But I didn’t realise this is also a new experience of a kind. This is our first major setback after recovering from the shock of a lethal, worldwide pandemic. This is the first time it’s touching some of us closely, at a class or geography level. This is the first time many of us are having to admit that our money, gender, education, address, age or any other form of privilege neither shield us from the virus nor entitle us to healing before anyone else. And this is our first hard reminder that regardless of what we’ve faced before, this experience will not go easy into the night. It demands of us to be more, much stronger than we’ve ever been.
I’ve spent weeks in a dark daze, feeling guilty about sharing my fear with people who are going through worse, afraid of being hunted by people who are raging over their pain and worried about the things that I yet don’t know. In the middle of the week, I had a breakthrough when one friend’s COVID-afflicted parents finally tested negative and when another friend & his mother had a better day after catching COVID during chemotherapy visits. It was exactly like that first breath of burning air when you’ve been under water too long. It hurt but it hurt so good. I never thought there would be a day when hearing or reading “I’m fine” would be a reason for joy but now it is. I feel so much relief & gratitude for another day of life when someone I care about says this to me.
I fell sick yesterday with the worst acidity attack I’ve had in years. I didn’t even recognise it as acidity & mistook it for a migraine, heat stroke, allergy attack before realising almost 14 hours later that it was my old nemesis – acidity. I’ve been through it so long and so badly I should have known better but for the hours that I struggled with the acid eroding my insides, I relived the nightmare that I now know is called reccuring thoughts, depression, death visualizations. The real nightmare was not recognizing that’s what these were, even after all these years of recovery. My health is a permanent reminder of the fragility of life, of peace & happiness. Today I woke up much better, feeling the relief of having purged the acid and with it, all the things that had caused it and which it caused. Resentment, rage, shame, worry. I felt able to focus on supporting certain people in what they were facing. And replenishing myself frequently in between to be able to continue doing so.
Towards evening, something happened that made me lose my shit. This is for those of you who have only ever engaged with my content and think I’m always articulate & profound. I lose my shit abysmally often and carry more worry than is worth. Writing & performance are my ways of curating my best self as a guide to myself and I fail more often than I succeed. Maybe this rage was a residue of that acidity attack, the footnote at the end of a very important lesson. Because I was raging not just at the person who triggered it off but at least three others who pushed the same triggers in me this month.
All three of them did different things but they were boundary violations of sorts. I’m calmer now and I realised something. We are in a new state of panic in the second wave – of realising that we may live in this state of not knowing, of limbo for far longer than we thought. It’s causing a lot of idle mind-devil’s workshops. Everyone feels like they have to help. Sitting at home & staying safe feels boring & it feels guilty. What’s a way to escape that? By being useful. But trigger-happy usefulness is called a saviour complex. It’s selfish, dangerous & causes more problems than is worth. It is what drives the FakeNews broadcasting member of your Whatsapp group who one day announces that the police isn’t letting anyone out of their homes without a label and the next day that camphor is a replacement for oxygen cylinders (both of these are WRONG, please do not believe them). It powers the raging crowds haranguing doctors outside vaccine centers when stocks run out.
Remember the airline warning announcements at takeoff? One of them goes, “In case of emergency, place oxygen mask on yourself before trying to help others.” I keep that in mind. During difficult times, let me not be one of the victims needing help. Let me keep myself healthy, clean & safe so I don’t add to the rescue burden. And let me also keep myself balanced & practical so rescuers don’t have to choose between babysitting my emotions & treating the ones actually in crisis.
This is when my friend’s words make most sense to me. It’s easy, tempting really, to rush out and do something, anything. But how wise is that especially in a contact-spread pandemic, a violent political system, a malicious social media? It is irresponsible & cruel to make it about yourself. This is our new challenge. How to stand by, in unimportance, in irrelevance, in fear & guilt & worry and not add to that burden.
I know the people who pushed my triggers were pawing at me to reassure them, to find answers for them to feel relevant and not have to just stand by helplessly. It set me off because I have trouble establishing boundaries; I know this now. This is not a weakness or a flaw, it’s just something that I didn’t know how to and am learning at my own pace. Because this is so new, it takes me longer than may be healthy to realise when I need to draw a boundary. And drawing it takes out a lot from me. I physically feel ill, I have trouble sleeping or breathing right. I am trying not to resent the people who incite this so I can focus on being a better boundary setter.
Here’s what I’ve been doing to ‘not do something and just stand there’.
Housework is a good way to stay engaged & keep a functioning life & mind, even if not a happy one. This can lead to turf wars with housemates since humans are primed to politick for power. But there is always something to be done, millions of tasks that aren’t as visibly heroic as cleaning fans, repairing gadgets or spring-cleaning. There are drains to be unclogged, washbasins to be de-grouted, water bottles to be refilled…small tasks that no one notices unless they’re not done and magically need to be done again soon. It helps me feel fulfilled in quiet ways and reminds me that quiet contentment nourishes better than victory parades.
I find myself replenished by engaging with content that shows people being resourceful or productive. Leftovers cookery shows, interior redesign challenges, a design podcast that examines solutions to everyday urban problems. I am not as proficient as any of these people. But it helps me trust that I live in a world that has some proficiency. It helps me hope.
I also have a sense that I’m growing when I’m learning, however patchily, slowly or regardless of the subject. I started blogging because I was browsing a site called HowStuffWorks when I was bored & frustrated at work. And it led to 17 years of exploration of digital technology & my own identity. Right now, I don’t have the schedule stability, the direction or the funds to take on a full-fledged course. But I taught myself how to bake an apple pie from scratch. I made countless iterations, alternating baking time, ingredient structure & more. I baked late at night so I wouldn’t have to deal with criticism stemming from other people’s boredom & frustration. I repeated each success in afternoons when everyone was on zoom calls or watching TV, so I wouldn’t add to the internet load. It took me 5 months, no special equipment and only Youtube/blog tutorials to make one apple pie that held its shape & tasted good. But that apple pie represents weeks, days, hours that I didn’t lash out at hapless bystanders, didn’t violate safety norms in my boredom, didn’t add to general anxiety and didn’t need in general, to be babysat. Yes, I’m very proud of myself.
I am aware that this doesn’t work for everybody. But I’m not even suggesting that my life is a perfect formula that others should follow. The pandemic is pushing each of us to face our biggest fears, our worst responses and without any of our usual escape/coping methods. What are we going to do about it? I’d suggest starting by just standing there & not doing anything.
For the past seven months, I’ve been hosting weekly Instagram Lives – unscripted conversations with various people on themes of mutual interest. It began as a pandemic need, to feel human connection even if only via the internet. I’ve felt so shriveled and starved by the lack of conversations in the past year. I thought […]
If you haven’t already seen Bombay Begums, consider this your spoiler alert. I approached the show with trepidation and a lot of thoughts. For one, it falls squarely into what I recognise as a Netflix India formula. A cast made of a yesteryear star, a sprinkling of Bollywood also-rans and a variety of character role […]
I haven’t been writing about men or dating much, have I? The last year has forced me to sit with myself, without everything that I thought was my life but which were actually coping mechanisms. Stripped of those, what did I have? Lots of wounds. I’m glad 2020 is over. I’ve been back on and […]
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