I’m talking to you. That part of you behind closed eyelids. Inside a deep inhaled breath. Tucked away into a memory so intense, you don’t look at it often so it becomes a secret. Who are you in that darkness?
I think we’re all the same. The same disproportionate halves of a body. The same anxious uncertainty. The same disorganised desires. The same imperfection that makes comfort and poise look like two opposites.
Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be seen away from the light? Is there something slightly magical about the eyes adjusting to darkness even as the mind adjusts to incompleteness? Is it intrusion to be seen in the dark?
I guess that depends on you. Me, I crave being understood. I am terrified of being misunderstood. I fear being miscounted, being left behind or being carried along with a people and to a place I don’t belong. I burn to fit right, to find my tribe, my home, me.
I also know the tricks our minds play on us (before each other). I know about camouflage. About defence mechanisms. About confirmation bias and seeing only what one is looking for. About becoming fluid, chameleon, mercurial and being whatever the eye demands. And I know these are the endless games of living, the repeating charades of relating. Maybe clarity is possible only when a story is over. Or maybe not. Thank the universe for a sun that shines on us all equally.
Hey you, with the bored shadows rising in your eyes. Hey you, fallen into the cracks of your own fractured dreams. Have you looked my way lately? I exist.
Have you been hurt badly? Betrayed? Fooled? Discriminated against? Violated? Injured? Destroyed, ruined, shattered? So have I. So has every human being on the planet. This doesn’t nullify your pain or mine. It doesn’t make it bigger or worse or more worthy of attention, consideration, empathy, respect. It doesn’t make it easier because contrary to popular belief, misery does not love company. But how you respond to it, is up to you.
If you choose vindication, you let the person who hurt you, be a continued part of your life. If you think revenge, you add to the pettiness, the fear and hate that no doubt, drives the person who violated you. If you hate because of this, you make this hurt your identity rather than one of the many things that happened to you.
And if you lash out and attack those around you, you add to the weight of injustice in the world, except now you are also a perpetrator. You live in this world. This is your home. And you’ve just added to the garbage that someone else dumped in your living room. Who lives with the stink?
I’m not saying ignore your hurt. No, acknowledge it. Give it the respect that profound emotions deserve. Don’t be in a hurry to convert it into bitterness, rage or cynicism. Wars came from hurt but poetry also came from hurt. You get to decide what you want to create with the stone you’ve been given – a weapon or a statue.
Courage/strength are not appendages one is born with. They’re active, conscious, minute-to-minute choices. Not to treat the people who’ve hurt you in the same way. Solutions over one-upmanship. Healing over revenge. Growth over gossip. Being yourself over being toxic. Choosing constantly. It’s tiring too.
The high road is a choice one makes for oneself, regardless of circumstance, background, gender, caste, class, age or any of the things we hide behind. No one else can rescue you or carry you up that road. You don’t do it for moral brownie points. You do it for yourself. Walk the high road because that is the path that YOU deserve to walk on.
Who are you when there isn’t anyone around to recognise you? Do you know this person? Even if it is but a few brief moments (and it can’t be anything but that because other people have a way of fixing us into specific contexts). Say you’re in a new place, waiting for someone who hasn’t yet shown up. No one knows you. Nobody looks at you or talks to you. You can be and are being ANY PERSON. You start to relax into the ambiguous ether of no labels, no definitions, no judgements, no decisions, no frames, no scripts. Savour that moment. It’s what liberation feels like.
I experienced such a moment three years ago when I was waiting for a friend. I knew the minute she arrived, we’d launch into a vigorous conversation, deep in ideas and rich in nuance. We’d play out dramas and they’d all be great. I paused, taking in a slow breath I realised I may not remember to, once she was in the picture. And I noticed the bird on the wall. And that it matched the flowers on my top. That friend isn’t in the picture anymore and neither are the things we used to bond on. But this moment has stayed.
I’ve played with identities my whole life, most recently and deeply as IdeaSmith, a largely online and occasionally onstage avatar. Each time it began in a place of ANY PERSON. My first blog was even called “A faceless voice. Just a statistic.” Much came from this. Sometimes I find myself weighed down, trapped by the burdens of identity. Then I remember I’ve always got wings. I just need a minute outside the labels.
The universe makes room for us in so many ways we never even notice. It recognises us before our identifiers and our stories. It’s all good. There’s room for you even if you don’t know who you are.
I love this city in a way that I have never been able to love a human being. Even to call it love feels facetious because it feels silly to say I love myself in a way I’ve never loved another.
I live inside a body and a name and a lifestyle that people identify as me. But these are mere identifiers, a hat & spectacles placed over an invisible being as a visibility courtesy to other people. These are not me, they merely symbolise me. Ostensibly, they protect me from the universe running over me by mistake but really, they protect other people by alerting them to the scary presence of another.
ME – this is what I know in an innate sense that defies words and expression. The closest I can come to it is this geopolitically defined, this culturally denoted, this statistically demarcated, this verbally described experience called Mumbai.
In 24 hours, this city (and I) go to vote for one of the most shouted about elections in recent times. Relationships have ended, allegiances wrought & broken and people have even died for this. And after that, true to our name, we’ll go to work, to school and to places we must be so the system runs. So we run.
What is a city, after all? It’s more than its people and its buildings and its location and its numbers. It transcends what is written and spoken about it. And if it is a city that you have lived in your whole life, it defines you and you in loving harmony, define it back. Just like every drop defines the ocean and the ocean is every single drop. I feel the way Mumbai feels, every second.
I feel most at peace in the nights here. One of the labels hung on my city is after all, the city which never sleeps. I am awake and watching the city’s nights as its noise transitions from tinny, metallic horns and the tang of concrete to deep bass breathing and the rumble of machines coming to a stop. The night is defined by my wakefulness and by the sleep of every one of the others who are it.
Sleep, my place-self. Sleep the sleep of island magic and moonlit sonatas. Mumbai sleeps.
I’m saying this to men, to women, to married people, to gay people, to colleagues, to acquaintances, friends, family. I’m going to treat every meeting with you, like it’s a date.
If you were going on a date with someone you liked, you’d prioritise making it happen. You’d be too excited about the prospect of meeting them to keep them hanging. Work, life, health and other people would be valid justifications but you would make sure they didn’t become excuses. You’d ensure you didn’t need an excuse. You’d be on time.
You’d treat the meeting like it was conscious manifestation of what you wanted. Not a tolerable alternative when you had nothing better to do & didn’t feel like the effort of saying no. You’d not turn it into free therapy or professional advice to be more productive because meeting them would be gift enough.
You’d bring your best self. You’d dress nicely. You’d speak with consideration and thought. You’d care about their wanting to meet you again, not assuming that it would be default. You’d make the effort to be good company.
You’d care about their opinion of you. You’d show them. You’d acknowledge the effort they made to please you. You’d be respectful of the thought they put in and that they could have been elsewhere but they chose to spend this time with you.
I promise to treat every meeting with you like this. I expect you to do so too. If you don’t, I can write you off as a bad date rather than internalise your inability to treat me well, as reflection of my abilities. This means I will not have as many dates but that’s okay. I’d rather have one great date with you in six months than ten lousy ones in a month.
My time is precious and so is yours. My emotions are valuable to me. I invest both carefully. If you do as well, maybe we’ll have a great date soon!
It seems like I’ve healed every few weeks or months or years. “You’re sounding a lot better since that one conversation of ours in the coffeeshop” says one friend. And I believe it because I want to. I must. Forgetting (somedays I call it self-deluding) is an integral survival skill. I don’t know if it is actually healing but most times I suspect it isn’t. Not really.
Right now, I’m remembering. And when I do, as at other times, it’s as fresh and real and vivid. I’m surrounded by clouds of words like ‘triggered’, ‘therapy’, ‘moving on’, ‘self-respect’, ‘gender politics’, ‘intimate partner violence’. Words. They are powerful but in the way of sedatives. Not healing. Not making wounds disappear.
I know there was never love. I know that now. But there wasn’t even friendship. Not kindness. Not empathy. Not respect. Not even human consideration. He treated me like a public toilet. All the things that one does in and to a public toilet. Yes.
I’ve never based my identity on my looks. It’s always been my mind. And he eroded that, one brick by brick. With words like ‘social whore’ and ‘fucking bitch’. With auteur opinions about what a pile of shit the Kala Ghoda Art Festival that I was a part of was, and how he as a Kolkata person had seen far better and how this was just Mumbai’s pathetic attempt to pretend at being cultured. With derision about my friends because they didn’t deserve basic courtesy. And eventually me. Because mistrust in a relationship is like bringing a sword to a friendly party. I did not do that.
I fell down deep into a black hole of his violent derision. I couldn’t find a foothold to claw my way back. I couldn’t remember what other people sounded like, let alone what compliments, support and affection felt like. It was as if those things ceased to exist, like they never had existed. All that was, was a pathetic WRONG that was my existence. Yet, my breath continued and I woke up every morning. Struggling to deal with the guilt of being alive though I was so WRONG to do so, coping with the punishment he heaped on me daily.
And this was way before the physical violence begin. When I’m asked why I didn’t leave (and I so often am), I have no answer. Why doesn’t the slime clinging to the sides of a well no one has used, leave? It’s going to be destroyed eventually anyway. So why doesn’t it leave?
In the years since then, I’ve built a stage called a personality. I’ve run so many stories on it. Of a performer. A writer. A community manager. A poet. A lover. A friend. A player. A swimmer. A gardener. A consultant. A thinker. A talker. A listener. A patient. An emergency contact. I work very hard to keep this stage up and beautiful. I am obsessive about maintenance and repairs.
But when the story closes, all I can see is the slime, the mold hidden under the stage’s foundations. I know the stage is always precarious because what can balance atop slime for long. I can’t clean it no matter how hard I scrub.
Because I am that slime. And each time I cry, it gets more runny and unstable.
I was fascinated by the saree as a child. Unfettered by stitches, lacking the artifice of buttons, a saree was freedom.
I’ve struggled with gender boxes my whole life. Every damn thing, a fucking war. Short hair. Tattoos. Red clothes. Short clothes. Boots, not sandals. Science projects. Marketing jobs. An analytical mind. Single status. Silver, not gold. Diamonds I paid for. Sci-fi. A love of graphic novels. English poetry. Silent performance. A business. A band. A breakup. A failed engagement. Boundaries. These became my trophies.
Warriors don’t wear shyness, they wear war paint. I RAGE, oh how I rage. I rage with the eloquence of Alanis Morissette. I rage in the shriek of Gwen Stefani. I rage with the mellow harshness of Tracy Chapman. I rage in all the ways of women who refuse to be pretty.
But sarees, these speak of modesty, of tradition, of maternal memories, none of which identify me. I’ve struggled to find my self in a saree. Should a love of this garment mean I trade in my warrior card? Must I pay for the respect accorded to a saree with my right to rage?
How do I not lose the essential me in the drapes? How do I keep a palluv from stifling my scream? How can my inner supernova burn through the folds? How do I keep my steel from drowning in cotton? Always a war. I found my saree self in the bitter eloquent long locks of Alanis Morissette, the dark chocolate wrath of Tracy Chapman and Gwen Stefani saying don’t speak in red lipstick.
My colours are clashing screams. My patterns are silent drama. My folds are parodies of shame. This is who I am, in a saree, in a dress, on stage, on screen, on a page, in relationships, in my sleep. It looks like in the next second, I’m going to turn & run sat you so you want to get out of the way real quick. You won’t want to be caught in the fire gaze of those eyes. Someone called this a superhero pose. I’ll name it Angry Girl of the Indie Rock Persuasion. I wear the label, it doesn’t wear me.
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