When I was a student, I invited a boyfriend to share a romantic sunrise on the beach with me. I always liked the cleanness of mornings. In Mumbai, it starts early but it’s still sparse enough for every waking creature to give the other space, physical and emotional. Mornings are the closest to peaceful richness (as opposed to exhausted incompletion of late nights). And beaches have always felt like home.
We sat on the sand and talked and waited. It was nearly 9am when the prickling on the back of my neck made me turn around. There was the sun behind us, high above buildings. I realised, feeling very foolish, that Mumbai is on the western coast of the country. The sun doesn’t rise over the sea in Mumbai; it sets.
Sunsets are a reminder of things unfinished, an alarm bell that it’s getting late, the mosquitoes start biting and traffic piling up. I didn’t enjoy sunsets. It bothered me for a long time after that my favourite time and favorite place didn’t coincide.
Over the next few years, I fell into the Mumbaiker rhythm of chasing jobs, deadlines and corporate goals. I spent my favorite part of the day in crowded trains, busy roads, bustling lanes. I was able to visit my favorite place rarely if ever, and only amid a lot of crowd with the residual noise & garbage.
I have since started making an effort to visit the beach more often. I’ve learnt to tune out noise, managed to make these solo trips in safety and minimal intrusion. They’re never in the early morning.
But then, I also found beauty in the fresh sunlight on a broken window pane. I found inspiration on day breaking over a defunct textile mill. Sunrises are great wherever they happen because they signal a fresh start. Wherever you are, whoever you are. It made me realise sunsets aren’t sad. The sun must set if it is to rise again.
And you know both sunsets and sunrises are illusions, tricks of light & planetary movement. The sun isn’t going anywhere. We are. And it’s never too far away. Just a few hours from the next sunrise or sunset.
It makes me appreciative of my island city, just the way it is.
I wrote this post at the start of this year. What a year 2020 is turning out to be.
This is the decade where I lost all control of the plan I made at 17. This was the decade I found myself in a life so strange, I could barely keep up, let alone hold onto my identity.
This decade, I got engaged, got hit and got dumped. This decade I wrote a book and got rejected and wrote other things that got turned into a book without my asking. This decade I stepped up onto stage and I shone. This decade I was silenced and I made that silence my most deafening statement ever. This decade I birthed a community and watched it grow and wither and hit back and die and be reborn. This decade I fought patriarchy and religion politics. This decade my world was ravaged by #MeToo and #CAANRC.
In the last year of this decade, I turned 40. The official onset of middle age. The last lap of my long-term life plan. This year I remembered Y2K after recounting it as an anecdote to slightly bemused Gen Y kids wanting a career in digital.
I truly have no life plan any more. But how well did what I had, stack up against recessions, economic busts, terrorism and wokeness? It kept me calm long enough to deal with uncertainty. It gave me the courage to venture into new things. It allowed me to carry purpose. It was a useful crutch for the lessons I had to learn and now it’s gone.
Maybe I don’t need it anymore. Either way, I’ve already lived nearly half a life and accumulated some things, not the least of all – conviction. Here’s to another twenty years. Share it with me, with dignity, joy & power?
Inside my pockets, I keep pieces of courage, to reach for when I need them.
See, life has become an unpredictable horizon strewn with landmines called memories. An accidental sighting and unfortunate coincidences. We’re so connected, we’re entrenched seamless and a chance encounter, becomes an obituary. Memory, that unreliable narrator always takes you down in the worst way possible. Courage answers to many names.
Now confidence is a good, solid coat to wear. It’s rainproof and tempered over the years. I had to put my baggage down when I pulled on the sleeves of my coat of confidence. It serves well in new battles and it doesn’t snag on bumps. But memory is a rusty blade tipped in acid. It leaves holes where it touches my confidence coat. The horrors past left seeds of themselves inside me and they rise up in response, in goosebumps under my skin. I lost my baggage but I couldn’t cut out all the poisoned parts of me.
So I keep shots of breath within easy reach. Chewing gum, lip balm, an old worn hanky. Remember to chew, remember to moisturize, remember to breathe. Swallow every fear, dam every allergy.
But women’s clothing has so few pockets. So I find other ways to hoard courage.
I paint over the skidmarks that betrayal left behind, in ink and tattoos. A penned star between the webs of my fingers. So when I walk through somewhere that calls out old memory-monsters, the inked star whispers a reminder of everything that came after. Ink stands sentry keeping new demons from allying with the old.
Bravado carries my stage fright up here and fidgets it into paper planes. And when I run short, inside a pocket, a little piece of magic, a lucky pebble kissed with hope.
Sometimes I can make a truce with memory and it lets me take pieces to call my own. A silver chain, a birthday gift, a memory to remember love, kindness and laughter. Nostalgia can also bear courage’s name.
All my nooks and crevices, my clothes, mind and dimples are packed with hoarded pieces of courage, fortifying and protecting me. I manage my pockets of courage carefully.
I’m wearing a cotton newsprint saree in a nivi drape with a red tank top, a denim bolero jacket and red sneakers. Accessories are steel – a chunky band bracelet, steel watch and etched leaves on a chain to add just a touch of shine from under the jacket. The pallu over rather than under the jacket prevents ‘the tail effect’ but needs a little more effort if you want to take off the jacket in public. I wore this to an informal business meeting at a restaurant.
We are so many feelings and experiences and memories and conversations. We refine what fits into a label called an identity, the way our travels fit into a little cardboard book called a passport. Just like a passport, that identity only contains the details of things the world deems most suitable.
I never imagined that I’d be a performer. The stage was for people with a giant ball of magic inside them. A shining sun of purity that obscured such mundane things as fear, worry, ordinariness. I did not have that sun inside me. It’s not that I hadn’t performed before. I first went on stage when I was not yet 5, singing, repeating the melodies that had been passed to me in my genes and training from my mother’s side of the family. It never took. Music was something I was made to do, not someone I was.
I stumbled my way onto stage, being thrown off the path I tried very hard to stick to – of settling down – after a partner violated my rights and identity. I could not live with his hatred, his violent rejection of me. And I didn’t know that it would be in something I’d been indifferent to, that I would find my redemption, my reclaiming of myself. But I say reclaiming as if I have taken back the person I used to be. No, it is as though I have discarded the old Ramya at the foot of the stage when I climbed those steps. And in the being formless and naked under the spotlight, I became a different me. A new personhood.
This picture was shot the night I performed for the biggest audience I’d faced. Minutes earlier I’d run into my ex and almost backed away. A friend hugged me and said GO. I knew if I didn’t I’d never set foot on stage again. So I left him & my old self behind. And I smiled when the spotlight shone on me.
It’s not that I don’t remember what it was to have stage fright, to prefer the safety of anonymity, the comfort of a glass screen to the spotlight. But that’s a story most don’t want to believe because they’d rather think I was born in the spotlight. Maybe I was, this me was. And the other me’s live in my head and that’s all they need to be. I’ve transcended the passport.
I saw this on Twitter and decided to ask Instagram because my peeps there are more responsive.
Even so, I was surprised by the questions that came in. And really touched that I was asked. Thinking about my answers helped me pry loose the heaviness that has lain on my mind and consequently, my writing in the past year or so.
I’m just reposting what I shared there, slightly paraphrasing the questions asked.
Top 3 Red Lipsticks!
Maybelline SuperStay DANCER
Faces Canada Ultime Pro REBEL RED
NYX Soft Matte Lip Cream AMSTERDAM
When I performed to a crowd of 200+ people minutes after running into my violent ex (who constantly made me feel stupid) — and the crowd demanded an encore.
When a client told me they turned the work I’d done into a book and handed me a copy. It’s for internal circulation only but that’s for an organisation of thousands. And it made me a bona fide author.
When I thought I was getting fired for a messy project but my boss said my writing skills were on par with people two levels above and that I’d been promoted.
Wash & moisturise face every time I go out & on return. Feeling clean is a big beauty boost.
Smile like I used to as a kid before I got conscious. It makes me feel good & I think it shows.
Exercise daily, even if just a walk & 10 minutes of breathing exercises. Stress weighs my face down visibly on days I don’t.
Top 3 speakers I consider my inspiration
Performance poets who can carry a crowd without ranting or gimmicks — Asia Samson (90s Love), Denice Frohman (Accents), Sonia Renee (The Body is Not An Apology)
Speakers who can share a powerful idea in a way that changes how you see the world, in just a few minutes — Thulsiraj Ravilla (How low-cost eye care can be world-class), Taylor Malli (What Teachers Make)
Speakers who don’t need traditional crutches (like presentations or even words) to bring forth their message — Marina Abramovic (The Artist in In), Salim Khan (speaking at Whistling Woods on storytelling)
Top 3 times when I hit rock bottom
Mid 2000: I got dumped by my best friend/love-of-my-life right in the middle of board exams. I felt like a planet that had got knocked out of its galaxy. Finding my first job gave me purpose. It taught me to find identity in work, not love.
2002–2003: Boyfriend assaulted me. Told me I was ugly because I was a ‘kaali’. Said the only reason a guy would be with me was because I looked desperate. That I would always be the beautiful girl’s ugly best friend. It taught me never to care what anybody, especially a man, said about my appearance.
All 2012: My live-in partner took his ongoing emotional & verbal abuse into physical. Announced a very public engagement. Wanted my family to pay for a multi-city extravaganza. When I called it dowry, threw me out of the house. I was told I should have tried to work it out somehow. Friends told me I should be ‘dignified’, not talk about it and that I should ‘appreciate his talent’. Men said I deserved to be beaten up, that I must have not cared since I looked okay.
How I managed to get back up when life pushed me down
Writing always saved me. When nobody listened to me, the pages did. Later, the internet. And even later, the audience. When I write, I’m able to remember that there is a bigger world than the people who attack me, the situations that exploit me. It’s the biggest relationship in my life now — my words & me.
Finding a different context helps. I get a new job, find a new hobby, reach out to people I don’t talk to much. It gives me perspective, which is the only thing I lose when I’m down. If these aren’t possible, a swim, a bath or even washing dishes keeps me going till I can find something more permanent. Anything with water.
This is the newest lesson of all. I ask for help and I trust that it will be given. I tell myself that it’s okay to shatter and that I will be supported in rebuilding. People have been kind.
Top 3 times when I failed (because success stories motivate but failure story gives lessons)
Not getting into IIM-Bangalore in 2000. I may never ave tried the other things I did (including writing & stage) if I’d been set on that fast track. Hurt like hell then but now I have no regrets.
My biggest relationship ended in the most humiliating way possible. It feels like a failure because I learnt early to take responsibility for everything. It may have been the reason I stayed so long. Such a devastating failure, such a hard lesson. I’m still learning.
2002-Froze on stage at college personality contest. Next round, judge made fun of me. 2007-Last day of London conference. Luggage already at airport. Entered hall to find everyone in suits. Ended up presenting to VP of an MNC, wearing bright orange top & jeans. They were nice about it. 2018-Got attacked for feminist poetry. Went on stage and stood silent for 2min. Audience clapped. Ridicule will not silence me now.
I know they’re not conventionally considered poets.But I don’t think poetry needs to be conventional. I learnt much about writing & life from their words. Isn’t that the best poetry?
Top 3 self-motivational hacks when you’re feeling low
“This too, shall pass.” — Persian adage
Read ‘Illusions’ by Richard Bach
Listen to ‘Here comes the sun’ by The Beatles
3 most amazing books I’ve read to date
‘Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah’ — Richard Bach
The Sandman series — Neil Gaiman
‘The Little Prince’ — Antonie St.Exupery
Help will arrive when I’ve given up all hope. It’ll arrive with friendship, support, respect. And it will come from unexpected sources. Every darn time.
The more you trust the stage, the kinder the audience will be.
Men are my learning opportunities, not my teachers.
My life is dramatic AF.
Songs in my playlist
These are at the top of my ‘Most Played’
‘How do you do’ — Roxette
‘Aap jaisa koi mere zindagi mein aaye’ (a capella version) — American Desi
‘Brand New Day’ — Sting
Top 3 novels that I love
‘Rachel’s Holiday’ — Marian Keyes
‘Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince’ — JK Rowling
‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men’ — Alexander McCall-Smith
Galactic — NYX Cosmic Metals
Read My Lips — Faces Canada Ultime Pro
Oh Put It On! — NYX Liquid Suede
I’ve already done two book-related lists on this series so I’m narrowing this to my top 3 books by women in 2019:
‘Lois Lane: Fallout’ — Gwenda Bond
‘The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society’ — Mary Ann Shaffer
‘The Bastard of Istanbul’ — Elif Shafak
Recommended self-healing books
More books? Okay, one can never have too many. 😊
Any one from the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall-Smith
S.E.C.R.E.T. — Marie L Adeline (especially if you’re female & healing from sex-related traumas)
We’re running out of things to say to each other. It seems as if you don’t like me very much anymore.
You hate my car, my home, my gadgets, my life – everything that makes me successful. You want us to go back to a simpler life, for me to work harder for lesser. But I have for centuries and millennia and time eternal. Now it’s time for pleasure. It’s called progress. You see green, it was never my favourite colour. I like steel and grey a lot better.
So you turn moody. It’s just like you to want to ruin my day. Starve me by burning it all up. You know, nobody likes someone who’s always raining on their parade. And yet I try, with I love yous and other peacekeeping tactics. Earth Hour. World Environment Day. Special days. Everyday used to be special. Do you remember? I do.
Summer days where you’d wrestle me to the ground and we’d make hard, mango-scented love. Winter nights kissing me lightly awake, keeping me up talking poetry. Endless evenings standing still on the beach so still, like God stopped breathing and look, that sliver of blood moon, the tip of his big toenail as he says Peace Out.
How bold we were, how brave to play these toxic games of evolution and success, pain and pleasure. We were baiting danger at leisure. We managed to keep love, quite at bay.
Let us try to believe that even when the eyes are cold, the visions behind them are not. We are, after all, the casualties of Life’s war against itself. But you are still angry, your moodswings have given me a cold. I’ve cried all I want to, for you. And you’ve exploded far more than you can afford. But we my love, have never learnt to speak. My poetry, I see, won’t touch you any more. It’s too late to salvage what we had.
So we’ll go back to talking about the weather and you can blame it all on me again. And some day perhaps, long after I’m gone, another lover, another child, standing with you under a different sun, another season, will find lined across your body, the stretch marks of our life together and wonder whether they were not your first love.
Let’s think about regret. Decisive people rarely seem to have regrets. As a decisive person myself, I weigh what a situation is worth & if dithering will help. Regret seems to not be worth it. Who has time to regret the past when a lesson can be gleaned for the future? FOMO life doesn’t allow for regrets.
Yet you may come upon a time when even your speediest, most decisive self isn’t able to escape regret. You call it age catching up. You name it fear or cynicism. You realise that you are no different from others trying to escape people and feelings they don’t like. Your nemesis is regret. Escapism always looks like running away, no matter what the cause.
I am sitting in a garden of regret now. I call it a garden because I’m realising this is a feeling, an emotion that grows in me, from me. I’m trying to keep from bolting. I’m looking around to examine what is growing around me. Blossoming & festering are two words for the same act.
I thought we regret the bad things in our lives. But I’m finding regret in the times I’ve trusted, the ones I’ve loved, the hopes I’ve nurtured. Honest self examination means allowing every possibility to exist. I must admit that regret grows even in the most decisive, courageous, responsibility-taking, careful self that I’ve created.
Regret means admitting there may have been better choices. It means acknowledging your decisions weren’t always best. It means accepting that you weren’t always your best self. And what of the selves that aren’t the best? They cannot be escaped or ignored. They are the bigger part of you. The ones enduring mistakes, making even more. The ones personifying the messiness of living. Of emotions, memories and navigating a way forward.
f I didn’t have these, my life would have been a straight trajectory from adolescence to death, choosing the most optimal roads, going to fixed destinations. The mistakes cost me time and effort and many rewards. In coping, I found other paths, other gifts I didn’t even consider, let alone work for.
Maybe regret is a reminder that living is never going to be a simple sequence of right decisions.
Ten minutes ago I looked up from the Netflix show I was watching and the calendar screamed a date at me. In a few hours, it will be 9 years since I made one of the few impulsive decisions of my life. It is a decision I’ve been punished for over and over again. It keeps coming up no matter how many times I try to finish out the sentence, heal it or bury it. It gets used as a hydrogen bomb by nasty, dysfunctional men trying to hurt me for their low self-esteem. It slips out in the lashing out of friends who find this easier than accepting their own fucked up lives. It shows up in the judgement of relatives, of ex friends and even future colleagues. And it gets co-opted by people trying to prove their crusader status. It just refuses to die.
In 2010 I met someone at an Open Mic, a newish event in the city that happened just once a month, which I began attending as audience and slowly, tentatively, as a reader. I’d missed a couple because of personal issues and that day I’d decided to venture out seeking some joy for myself. I spotted him at the door and remembered him from a previous event. Chances for fun, pleasure are so rare when you live your life feeling burdened by duty, responsibility and imposed labels. How could I let this one pass? I struck up a conversation, pushing away my own natural shyness.
In ten days, we’d walked the beach, attended two concerts, shared a bottle of wine, eaten at a hole-in-wall joint and exchanged hundreds of messages. And then he told me he wanted to be with me. “A real relationship, not this open relationship shit” and “Brutal honesty, no plan Bs, jumping in with both feet” – his words. I told him I’d take a week to think about it. The next morning, 17th of July, I woke up with a single thought.
What was I going to learn in a week that would change the way I felt?
I knew it was uncharacteristic for me to jump in on impulse. I hadn’t been impulsive with my affections even at 16. And after the tumultuous 20s (heartbreak, assault, two recessions, unemployment, MNC politics, sabbatical) I had walked into 30 embracing the future and leaving behind old expectations. The new me I decided was strong enough, not too afraid to, to say yes. And I did.
I was so wrong. In the following week, that very day in fact, he told me things about himself and his family that any honest, decent person would have put on the table BEFORE suggesting a relationship. And then he said I was free to walk away if I wanted. Generous? No. He told me this at the airport on his way to a funeral. I did not want to feel like a monster dumping him hours after I’d said yes, and just before he went to a funeral.
So I told him to set that worry aside, to be there for his family and that we could talk more when he got back. This never happened. I’ve run this over and over in my head. There were so many lies caught out later, so many omissions of truth surfacing only when they absolutely could not be hidden. Always too late, always in situations when I would not have been able to walk away.
I am aware that I fell into the clutches of a monster. It does not matter whether he was himself a victim or not, what the state of his mental health must have been at the time. None of those matter because none of those were my doing. And I’ve spent nearly a decade trying to repair a life that he systematically and brutally shattered. I’ve struggled with so many people rushing to support and enable him, many of them people I’ve loved and trusted. And I keep taking on attack after attack.
I keep trying to leave this memory behind in my past and then find myself having to deal with people trying to bring it back. I also struggle with the weight of this decision. What is the lesson? What is the lesson? I can hear myself screaming inside my head. It’s very hard to remember to tell myself that life is not a school and that lessons are things we tell ourselves to feel like enduring hardship was worth it. The randomness of this horror is too much to bear. So I persist in seeking out the lesson.
Nine years ago today, I went down a path that has taught me only things I wish I did not have to learn. I have learnt to fear men (something that did not taint me even after facing child abuse and assault by a partner). I have found a self that prefers the company of books and silence to a life of being pawed and mauled and attacked. I have learnt that I must look with suspicion towards anybody with even a hint of mental illness, of sexual dsyfunctions, of violent backgrounds, of claimed childhood traumas. Because any one of them could destroy a decade of my life and not even care.
Well, I care. It is my life. Sometimes I think the only thing that saves me from the things I experience, is my ego. Ego rescued me from the devastation I experienced at 20 when I told myself that my life mattered more than a man who didn’t care if I lived or died. Ego decided for me that a rapist was not going to dictate how my body functioned. Ego even allowed me to say to myself with remarkable clarity on the day this monster threw me out onto the street that,
This is happening to me. This IS NOT me. This will not define me.
Maybe it’s bravado. But I’m still alive. It doesn’t make remembering dates like this easy though. I thought I was on safe ground after I nullified the effect of his birthday and the day he proposed (also Valentine’s Day). Seventeenth of July ambushed me.
But another thought creeps in, one that has been at the back of my mind for a couple of days now. In a few hours it will be the birthday of a man I met at a WordPress event a few years ago. I was there to organise an event of Alphabet Sambar, one of my proudest endeavours taken on in the life I built post monster. This man has met me only once but we’ve exchanged dozens of emails and messages over the years. He has a curious knack of not being at the top of my mind at all but showing up just when I need a little brightness in my day. Sometimes it’s a song recommendation, sometimes a painting that his daughter made. Sometimes it’s a message asking how I’m feeling that day, friend? And sometimes it’s a little Bible truism with a reminder that Jesus loves me too. Even my radically non-religious self feels comforted by this.
In a few hours, it will be his birthday. I say a few hours because where he lives, it is still the 16th. The day of the lunar eclipse, an event of prime import to all Cancerians (him, me, so many others). I guess that’s all I need to say to myself. The seventeenth of July is a lot of things. I hope my fortieth takes me into a future self of wisdom, not fear.
Much gets said about the frenzied pace of a metropolis and its coldness. But every big city is an organism of parallel layers, bubbles even, that jostle along, seemingly oblivious to the others’ presence. My city is Tinsel Town, it’s the financial capital, it’s the safest city, it’s a port, a tropical island, an organised crime base, a place starved for time and space and a mental border between South and North India. I inhabit a few of these bubbles and only occasionally, with great effort, do I cross over to the others. Because they are all Mumbai and anything that is Mumbai is mine to witness, to touch and experience and love.
In 2009, the BMC, Mumbai’s civic body invited citizens to come paint the walls of an arterial road abutting the railway track. I jumped at the opportunity to splash paint and spend a day on the streets. A lot of friendships were made that day that we spent whitewashing, priming and rendering street art on the rough wall of Tulsi Pipe Road.
The paint has since worn away and been covered and recovered with other such wall projects. The pavement dwellers who were displaced for this day of fun for the more affluent, have eked out their homes again too. Bollywood posters come up now and then and in the past year, election campaigns as well.
The city grows and breathes with every newcomer here. I just got to lay my handprint on it for a day. Even if it lies buried under layers of others, the city and I communed that day in September.
The sexes need each other and define each other. Patriarchy rejects this by deeming any form of need or interconnectedness as weak/feminine. But all society and relationships are built on the joint and collaborative strengths of human beings needing and fulfilling each other’s needs in balance. I’ve been asked why I insist on reading or […]
Don’t I look like all the sins you’re going to commit tonight? I felt it too. Because feeling flows through me the way water runs through the planet, within it, over it, above it and into every creature that lives on it. It feels good to dissolve. It feels peaceful to let go and drown […]
Some time ago, I watched a woman walk into a coffeeshop. She was dressed in a neon yellow jacket, neon yellow sneakers & microshorts and sported a ponytail on either side of the head, held back with – you guessed it, neon yellow ties. She looked like she was in her early 30s. I was […]
How many things shall I grieve? I was watching THAPPAD. I thought about the people who have hit me. In plural. I had experienced enough of it before I touched adulthood. Yet, at 23, when a man I loved hit me, I knew something was wrong. Was it the force of his blow, right across […]
In a conversation with new cup users, I went looking for the chronicle I knew I’d written and realised I’d never published it. So here goes for my menstruating peeps, hope it helps! This is a recap and my learnings on my cup journey. I am very happy, now that I’ve figured out how to […]