A steady gaze is also a cocked gun. This gaze makes the world go silent, words dropping away, identities falling away, sounds melting away and all that exists is that tenuous link held by eye contact. They say the eyes are the windows of the soul. These windows pull you in just as much as they penetrate your being. You cannot touch without also being touched. This touch your skin won’t feel but everything inside you will.
There is a wealth of perceptions that lies buried under good manners. There is yearning, unreasonable. There is rage, unconscionable. There is desire, filthy, savage and uncontrollable. There are screams that merge need and satiation. There is worry, seeping into the cracks between the best laid plans. There are war cries that are claims of identity. They lie shuttered behind blinking eyelids and wavering gazes. And when you make eye contact, you will see your pretty covers taken down to wash. Laundry day for your insides. You will feel the rain and you will be the clouds and you will see it all.
It will be hard to remember the boundary between you and me and the world and them and sense and feeling and structure when…when you look straight into these eyes and they look back at you. You are simultaneously witness and the witnessed. The audience and the performer. The existence and its perception.
It takes two to create and not even a fraction of a second. And it takes one to break it and we always do. Because this game of identity & eye contact is one that we all like to play. Just until we remember that when those eyes shut, there is only darkness.
I’ve written reams and reams about home – going away from it, running in search of it, how it defines me, how I define it. I am a Cancerian, after all. We make this world feel like home. Maybe not entirely coincidentally, my contribution to International Poetry Day 2019 was also titled HOME. This video was shot and produced by the fab team at kalArt (who also produced my GODDESS video). Please watch and if you like it, leave a comment here or on the video.
When I came across this performance a few years ago, I was moved to tears. I knew even then that it had lessons for me that I was not yet ready for and would need to keep returning to, to embrace them.
Some time ago, I incorporated this idea into one of my performances myself. It gave me so much emotionally and in my understanding of the art of performance and of living.
Recently, the difference between thoughts and emotions have been occupying a lot of my mindspace. What constitutes intimacy? How do I justify feeling this for person 1 and that for person 2? What is one to do when logical thinking tells us that wrongness has to be ascribed to a person or a relationship? Are those feelings to be cancelled and if so, how?
I went back to the original experiment, inside my own mind-theatre. I imagined myself sitting, the way Marina is as a crowd of people pass in front of me, each staying for a minute in silence with me. I know now that I am quite capable of spending an entire minute with a stranger in silence because I’ve done two minutes of it on stage with a roomful of people I couldn’t see, some of whom wished me harm.
It got complex when I imagined the people I knew. People who came up in my mind were past lovers, former friends, family members. I started crying when I thought of one person. Crying because there were such complex and conflicting emotions and I know (have always known) they experience the same. I realised the world was never going to understand all the things that happened between us, labels did not adequately encompass it. I have not forgiven their actions because forgiveness is too simplistic a term – I know their reasons, they know mine, we both wrote the story that was us, what is there to forgive? I was able to just stay in that feeling and then pass to the next in time (like Marina did with Ulay).
Then I thought of another person. This one was never that important to me. They did something malicious to me once and I’ve never liked them since. What they did won’t be considered that evil by most, yet it profoundly hurt me because it hit on one of my early traumas. Each time I’ve seen them after that, I’ve felt a gut reaction, my stomach contracting, my face clenching. I know their reasons for doing what they did (not justification). I’ve spent a lot of time telling myself I’m wrong for having such a disproportionate reaction, trying to tidy it up. It is a lot of effort. And even inside my own mind theatre, this experiment doesn’t allow you any of the masks of words or lies. I knew if I actually had to do this in real life, I’d either throw up or run away, no control over my limbs. If somehow I was forced to stay in that chair (maybe restraints, physical or my own stubborn will), I would not, not be able to smile at them or even look at them impassively. I would burst into tears and not the kind I’d have cried for the previous person. Those were relieved tears in comparison. These would be frustrated, angry, hurt-animal-raging-painful tears.
I allowed my mind to go all the way there. And realisation settled over me. I feel what I feel. I am still me. My logic, my ethics (which are in the realm of thinking, not feeling) still stand and they watch as another part of me – my feelings – flow around uncontained. That means I am more than the beliefs I espouse, more than the stands I take, more than the ethics I champion. I am not made less strong or less woke or less anything because I choose to dislike the second person and allow the first person to be what they are.
This was a big thing for me, realising how much of my reactions have been peer pressure influenced. Only I can decide what/who I like and why. I may not be able to explain why and I do not have to justify it to anybody. When it comes to actions, yes, I may need to take a stand (such as ending a friendship with a MeToo perpetrator). But I do not have to negate whatever I felt for that person (meaning don’t have to question whether our past friendship was genuine and don’t have to think of myself as stupid for trusting them). I may be required to act and speak in certain ways out of consideration and respect for the world around me. This is not lying, this is merely adhering to the ethics of maintaining the integrity of the universe I inhabit. This is also not nullifying whatever else is inside me because those emotions that seem to contradict – they have their place too, inside me and inside this world.
Minimalism. Colour pops. Office beanbags and gym balls. Ironic teeshirts & cause-stickers for formal wear. Technology slimmer than our desired waistlines. Value systems bigger than paychecks. The planet. The economy. Endangered species. Endangered morals. Flexible schedules & flexible boundaries.
We survived Y2K (of which an entire generation exists in blissful ignorance). We listened to Angry Girl music and the shattering of software powered dollar dreams. We watched optic fibres bring calls, jobs and international credit cards into our homes. We taught the generation before us that love really was blind because we could fall in love, lust, friendship and even careers over a glass screen. We saw the dotcom bubble grow & burst. We weathered one, then two then three recessions. We were blamed for killing everything. And we did.
We killed hierarchical structures. We killed paychecks-as-value systems. We killed corporate irresponsibility. We killed sexual harassment as common rite of passage. We killed unrealistic real estate prices and marriage rituals. We killed legalised homophobia & systematised racism. We killed the world as everyone knew it. Because the world changes every day but it flips over a new millenium only once in a thousand years. Maybe that means absolute annihilation of dinosaurs. Maybe it means creatures of water & earth learn to fly.
We aren’t done, not even half-way through. But who knows what is midlife crisis anymore? We also gave the world the concepts of quarter-life crises, of burnout & sabbaticals, of life-changing career flips. While we’ve seen the threat of nuclear weapons and much human devastation, we haven’t yet allowed a World War.
We aren’t the fresh new kids anymore and the millenium is now fully (and freshly) an adult. This means the generation after ours, are ready to pick up from our mistakes, move into our gaps and maybe build new things of their own. But don’t forget, WE KILLED IT FIRST. 😊
Ever meet someone you’ve felt inexorably drawn to? Maybe it’s the way they say your name. Or the number of times they blink. The angle they crook their head at, in thought. The pause between their words and breaths when you feel they are really looking at you, knowing you.
It’s magical. It can also be scary. Especially if they are the wrong age or wrong gender or wrong relationship status or wrong geography or wrong body type or anything other than what you think someone who can cast a spell on you, should be like.
What does a good actor or a talented artist or a brilliant writer or a magical singer do? They make us feel seen, heard, recognised & voiced. They make us experience things we have no clear names for. There are boundaries of time & space between creators and the audience. What do we do when the person sitting next to us, or a friend, or a stranger makes us feel that way? We’re quick to assign wrongness to this discomfort we feel about someone holding us spellbound, because it makes us feel vulnerable.
Consider this. This spellcasting is the magic of being human. It’s the witchcraft of intimacy, the delicate mystery that draws people to each other, the moody dance that keeps them in tandem. Every one of us is practising this magic, in our unique ways. Some of us are holding a world spellbound with our words. Some are changing lives with a single kind glance that happened to appear when it was needed the most. Some of us show up ravishing, dream-come-true to people in need of starlit hope. Some of us breathe in gentle sighs that spell rescue for those in hell’s own fires. Some of us are creating hell for people because dark magic is also a form of magic.
We cast spells by being us and most potently by not doing so consciously. We make others fall in lust, in like, in love, in passion, in rage, in despair with us, with themselves, with the world. We do this, as we get zapped by other people’s spells. We navigate the magic we feel of each other’s existence.
This is the fabric of the human experience. It is rich, it is tattered, it is ancient and it is fresh and it wraps us all. We are all spellcasters.
She says it doesn’t look quite real to her. It’s so many people; nobody knows anyone else. So anonymous, so cold, she surmises.
I say yes. And no. There are so many lives and so many stories happening this minute in this one corner of the city. We do the math and guess at 400 occupants of the building opposite. It mirrors the one we are in so that’s 800 people and their stories. Including I tell her, this one you and I are in.
Look there, someone sitting down to early dinner. And there, she pokes at the grill, gesturing her question. Someone loves plants. A teddy bear on a bed. And expensive furnishings, she observes. An old length of pipe too precious to throw away, so it’s stuffed into a window grill.
How many people do you think are having sex right now? I see her grin from the way the side of her face lifts. She says, I think about that a lot. We all do, I tell her and we laugh. And it’s not cold.
It will take you some time, I say. You’re new to Mumbai. But I like it here, she reassures me as new people drawn to this island always do. I know, I say but it is not you yet. Mumbai is a friendly stranger you’re getting to know, maybe you even have a crush on. But for me? Mumbai is me.
Remember that broken mill we passed? That’s me, my history, my scars. See this glitzy building, these shiny lights that waste more energy than my toxic relationships? Also me. And that train chugging along and every single life in there, chopping vegetables over gossip, staring longingly across the grill between coaches, hanging on uncomfortably wedged grateful for a place to stand? That is also me.
It will take time and you will also not see it coming. You’ll go along for weeks, maybe even years hating these hard things the city throws at you. Mumbai doesn’t make love easy. One day you’ll open your eyes or even before you do, mid-blink, you’ll realise. The anonymity is your identity and your community. The city is one with you. And it is everything. Everything but cold.
When we leave the balcony, she shuts the door with the slightest of shivers.
When was the last time you saw a 30- something look like this? That’s a 30-something pretending to be 20 and you bought it.
We have a mental picture next to each age number till 25. ‘Kid’ gets bigger till it hits ‘Grownup’. ‘OLD’ is a white-bearded, balding man or a toothless, hunched crone leaning on a stick. We are quick with the statement “You don’t look that old at all! You look YOUNG !”. We mean it as a compliment as if being a certain age is the ideal way to be, instead of a natural life stage that everyone passes through for exactly the same time. We decide that young and old are about age bands, rather than a set of factors like experience, exposure, financial independence, emotional maturity, physical fitness, metabolic health, mental stability and attitude. We assume that a ‘Not Young’ person suddenly has a slower pace, less dramatic body language, tighter frame of movements. We assign a limited ABC book image to the binary labels of ‘Young’ and ‘Not Young’. Anyone different may gain temporary membership to the coveted Club of Young.
Being told I look younger is not a compliment. I don’t look 17 because at that age I hadn’t learnt how to manage my allergies & my periods and it showed. I don’t look 24 because then, I was severely underweight from being assaulted and had stretch marks. I don’t look 28 because then I was strapped into a corporate life, weighed down by appropriateness & stress greying. I don’t look 33 because I had water retention & dark circles from an abusive relationship.
I look every minute of my 39 years. The lift in these dusky skinned, bony arms was hard won. The smooth lines of my hair were the result of many negotiations between beauty standards & personal preferences. That tilt of face is measured in the slaps I endured to keep me down. The grace in awkward, clutching fingers took years of accepting my traumas and learning to do so on stage. The feet planted firmly apart have warred against manspreaders and slut-shamers and managed to stay standing. 39 is the story of many wars survived.
Don’t erase my history and tell me that it’s a compliment. 39 looks like this.
Some of us like making plans. We are list makers, time trackers, note takers. We are both rule makers and rule breakers because we are constantly testing the structures of our world. We poke, push and yank incessantly. When something gives way under our scrutiny, our watchfulness feels justified. So we amp up our defences, build even stronger links and test our security net again. Because that is what plan-making is about – reducing risk, feeling safe.
Making plans does not change risk much. Life has too many variables and our minds not big enough to encompass everything. But having a plan keeps us occupied till the time reality must be faced. It keeps us from stalling, giving us the illusion of moving.
I have stage fright. ‘Fright’ doesn’t encompass my traumas, remnants of abusers linked with music (my first stage experience). I have poor rote memory and when traumatic fear raises its head, I forget my name and begin to lose words, then breaths. With notes, the always present traumas make me clumsy and clammy, escalating all things horrible. So how do I cope?
I plan. I write what I want to say (knowing that I will forget). I practise (aware that the reality of that moment on stage cannot be paralleled by anything else). I tap into well-honed skills of language, persistence, focus – all things I call INTELLIGENT. Then I leave my notes behind and get up on stage. The plan does not go up with me. It allows me to get up from my seat and walk to the stage.
When I am up, I close my eyes. Remembering that the plan is just a suggestion. That life is full of many things, both wonderful & horrifying. That intelligence is only one of the tools to help one get through. So maybe it’s not a bad thing when someone says I’m not being intelligent because it means I’m setting one tool aside, allowing room for other things. And in the absence of the plan, the safety net, there is still a me. Untouched, light, crystal. Standing, breathing. In, out. Easy, easy, easy.
When I open my eyes, there will be a new world. Life awaits. So planner, you are okay. Just remember you are more than a plan.
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