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.
What if we were all places instead of people? Towering construction. Sweeping grasslands. A rabbit hole. A pothole. A wrought iron staircase. A treehouse. The ground floor of a building under redevelopment plans. A library. A cell for illegal aliens. The verandah of a brothel. A nursery. The last window of a factory floor. A town square. The green room of a fading star. A shop.
Aren’t we all places already? We are worlds unto ourselves with gates & doors called identity. Know me and gain entry.
Some of us are plush, luxuriant drawing rooms that invite guests to sink in and never leave. Some are spider webs, some carpets, some thresholds. Someone is a transit point on public transport, bright, always impersonal, always busy. Somebody is a bus-stop in the rain, holding both promise and fear. There’s always a person who is the most comfortable spot under a tree, perfect at a particular time and one season. And there’s the one who is your favourite spot on a threadbare sofa with creaking hinges, whose prods & pokes spell comfortable familiarity. One person is an amusement park and another is a discotheque – one lively in the day, another at night and each full of gloomy foreboding at other times. There are even those who are museums, furniture shops, antique stores.
And what else are those we envy but places we look at in a glossy brochure, wishing we were there? Ah, but they tell us, you wouldn’t want to live here.
What is the place that you are? And is it your favourite spot in the world
Gully Boy was rife with triggers for me. For one, it’s about a rapper and everything that starts with rap will always remind me of the person who changed my life when he walked (rapped?) his way into it in 2010. At a less intense but still supporting-the-triggers way, the story is based on the lives of people I have seen in their early days, within the context of the same person.
I knew these would happen which is probably why I steered clear of the massive hooplah around the film before its release. The strength of my defence mechanisms is so powerful, I even fell asleep right in the middle of an afternoon with friends because one of them was singing a song from the film non-stop. But yesterday, Manisha said it was such a good film that she’d want to watch it again and I heard emotion in her voice when she said “So many layers, so many thoughts in that slum kid’s head.” Given she knows just how deep my wounds run, it felt like the movie might still carry an experience over and above those. So today, I watched the film.
I had to step out to breathe and wash my face in the intermission, it felt like so many narrow brushes with darkness. But somehow they didn’t linger. Maybe it’s the place I am in, in my own head or maybe it’s that the movie manages a light touch with things that move me but don’t cut me.
<spoiler alert> About a third into the movie, I felt my breath catch as I began to hate Ranveer’s character with disproportionate rage. The cheating, the lying, the injustice of his greedy ambition overshadowing and nullifying all things that supported him, just because he didn’t have to care anymore. I lived through that story. I saw the face of a monster in the man I loved, when I realised that he really truly, didn’t care what happened to anyone else as long as he got what he wanted. That really was the only real trigger. I had been wondering how I would fare on my assignment to myself this week to work on forgiveness, especially after this. Luckily, the story saved itself and its characters. And it brought me to an insight.<end spoiler alert>
The man I was with, possibly didn’t hate me at first. But he enjoyed the story of his life as he had constructed it (so much pain, woe is me, much much anger, rage and burn and kill the world, tortured artist etc.). And he hated that I did not fit into that. He tried his best to by positing me to his friends as a clingy, manipulative, jealous girlfriend. He even convinced my friends to join him in steadily taunting me about being ‘high maintenance’. But those were shallow narratives as best, as person after person would meet me or discover that they knew me from my blogs or elsewhere and see a mismatch. A well-adjusted relationship didn’t fit his story of Misunderstood Tortured Soul and a feminist would and did call out his constant wokebro homophobia and misogyny which had to be inconvenient at least. How ironic that I know some of these terms because of him but not really considering he also took perverse pleasure in introducing me to the concept of gaslighting with the statement “It’s what I do to you”.
I’m suddenly realising that this may not have all been planned and constructed as I’d envisioned. He’s not as smart as that. This kind of machiavellian thought requires thinking about other people, their motivations and weaknesses in the kind of depth that he lacks. I think some people build their stories and they are very attached to them. Maybe they deserve the right to hold on to their stories. And anyone attempting to change those must expect very primal (and in the case of the monster, poisonous) attack.
It’s easier for me to see this in the light of everything I’ve been experiencing since mid-December, with someone else. He reminds me of my ex. But he is not my ex and sometimes I have trouble remembering that. I am stuck in my own story as well. But when I’m able to lift my head above that confusion, I can see there’s enough in common and one of the similarities is this. He also believes passionately in the story of his life (and it’s not a dissimilar one). While his reactions to me haven’t been as violent, parasitic or unreasonable, there is the fact that he is about a decade older than the monster was, when I first met him. It’s just possible that he’s not a monster (though my story traps me into seeing that as a ‘maybe’ at best). But the story stands between him and me. And I have no business rattling those bars.
Maybe it is enough to have beautiful albeit aborted episodes of magic. There is one in the film and that was moving too.
Once I wrote that being a storyteller was my saving grace since it meant I could edit my narrative of life. But there are different kinds of stories and different sorts of storytellers. Some find solace in the rigidity of their stories while some like me, find wings in their fluidity. No one is to say one storyteller is better than another.
When I was a child, my primary school building had a tree growing in the ramshackle courtyard outside. One had to climb a few boulders and avoid the loose stones and holes burrowed in by rodents to reach up. And once one got there, it wasn’t comfortable since it grew on a huge, sharp-edged rock. It also offered very little shade, having dwindled in foliage over no one knows how many generations of children. But the tree did allow for contact, if you knew how to reach it. And I did. To its northwest, angled towards the steep side and atop a jagged patch of rock, was a spot just big enough for my bottom to perch on, legs drawn up close. And if you were small and kept very quiet, no one would come looking for you to tease or order or threaten to tell a teacher.
I’d go there every few days, having failed to find my place in the complicated world of primary school. People were full of greed and jealousy and spite and temper. But the tree was peace. It was silent, harmonious in a way my numerous music tutors never would be. I never needed to speak words aloud, fearing correction, judgement or sneering. The tree seemed to know. In its company, my bruised little heart would feel the gentle embrace of its shadow (the only spot where it fell, right over where I sat). Trees feel safe to me. They are old and carry the lessons of time, unlike buildings which only speak of their builders money and politics.
I spotted this tree at the junction of a rapidly disappearing Mumbai (the textile mill belt) and the greedy new city emerging in its place. Flanked by the wall of an old mill and facing a spanking new skyscraper, this one holds stories that would fill history books, only no one will ever write one. But I listened and it gave me a glimpse into a thousand lives, in a single breath. I can still talk to trees and they still carry stories. Thank you, old friend.
Why do we look back when the natural way of things is to move forward? Because it’s easy? Because it’s nicer? Life never seems quite as wonderful when it is being lived. But in comparison with what we’re feeling and facing and surviving at this moment, the heydays seem like glorious times.
I know why this is so. An experience being lived is an onslaught of sights and sounds and feelings and thoughts and information hitting us faster than we can handle. Later, we examine our scars, our lint, our debris and flotsam. Sometimes, we add to it from what someone else said or something we read or learnt elsewhere. And we construct a story. We build a painting. The present has a way of being simultaneously overpowering and mundane at the same time. So in our stories to ourselves, we colour hard and deep.
The colour spectrum of life goes in the opposite direction from a ray of light going through a prism. The future is an unknown cavern of blankness. The present is a hard prism that’s simultaneously confusing and colourless. But the past, the past is every colour we choose to lay on it. We are light beams travelling backwards in time, just as we are conscious experience moving forward.
Small wonder then, so many of us spend our lives rapidly turning forwards and backwards, always worried we’re going to run into some disaster but unable to keep our eyes away from the alluring past for too long. The blankness ahead is inviting and scary and what we’ve left behind reminds us of the colour we turn it into. The past is technicolour and we are the prisms that make it so.
The 60s talked of free love. Millennials say fuck-buddies or if they want to be nice, friends-with-benefits. The term polyamory is having a day. It’s no newer than the other ways we negotiate the politics of sex and affection.
I live in compartments of emotion and logic. There is what I feel & desire and what I decide that it’s practical to say & do. The system works but love is an inconvenient fit. It refuses to stay contained to a schedule, a format, a relationship status. It screams like a ravening beast for more, more, never satisfied with the appropriate time and agreed-upon rules that it has been assigned. I don’t know if intimacy can be constructed with an easy-to-follow recipe, paused as convenient or left-swiped when it outlives its purpose. Because intimacy is not easy, convenient or of a purpose. It happens as it is built into the very DNA of human interaction.
We assign it words, weigh it with ideas like jealousy, self-esteem, ownership, patriarchy. But these are no more than nets we’re trying put around something that is fluid. Not even liquid because even that flows within the containers into which we pour it. Intimacy is air, love is plasma – moving between boundaries as if they don’t exist.
It is so much effort to erect and maintain walls that will anyway fall. Therein lies the nub. Love and intimacy are not hard; they’re terrifying. It’s a horrific prospect to go along with something to an unknown destination, knowing that it will transform you, take away from you and possibly give nothing in return. That’s not an adventure, that’s a horror story. It’s easier to run in a maze of our own making than fall into the wide unknown. So we work this together. Failing together, even in different places is a form of intimacy too.
“We are undercover passion on the run
Chasing love up against the sun
We are strangers by day, lovers by night
Knowing it’s so wrong, but feeling so right
I guess that two can play the game
Of part-time lovers
You and me, part-time lovers” – Stevie Wonder
Sabu, an alien muscleman under the friendly stewardship of the moustachioed Chacha Chaudhry was an integral part of every Indian childhood. The caption that accompanied a panel preceding a fight scene said, “Jab Sabu ko gussa aata hain, to Jupiter pe jwalamukhi phatata hain” (When Sabu gets angry, a volcano erupts at some distant place in Jupiter). It was fun to imagine the drama of a planet far away responding to what was happening right on Earth. Sabu is the the primal, muscled alter ego to the mild-looking, benevolent senior citizen whose mind nevertheless works faster than a computer. As an alien, he is not as subject to Earthly rules and his primal responses were used for laughs as Chacha explained how the world worked. But even with Sabu, rage was a displaced emotion, bearing consequences in a far away place.
I painted this on a teeshirt for a former love. Curiously telling, since that relationship was pockmarked with suppressed rage and every form of twisted anger possible. The manifestations of rage happen up close and personal, inside our own psyche and everyone nearby. Yet is our anger any different from other emotions that we own more proudly?
Anger rises from grief, from fear, from caring even. It happens to us all. If you live in a busy metro, you’ve probably already felt it already today. Annoyance at flapping curtains. Disproportionate rage at the alarm clock. Irritation at fellow commuter. Mild venom at the colleagues/teachers waiting for you on Monday morning. These are you as much as the laughter that tickled you on Saturday night, the contentment of a good Sunday meal that you ate. Yet, you plod on past the grief, the micro-hurt, the frustrations because that is the way the world must work.
You my friend, carry both Chacha Chaudhry and Sabu in you. As do we all. Let them share the panel. They’re good for each other.
Today I didn’t feel cool, collected or in control. I left home less put together than usual (hair still wet, no lipstick). I impulsively changed my Saturday plans. I stumbled into things, upturned a glass of water into my plate, dropped my phone, pulled a chair onto my saree and bumped into people. It prompted my friend @shaunwilliamsi to remark that he’d never seen me this clumsy before.
I gawped at beautiful women wondering if they were judging me or laughing at me. I froze with a stiff smile at a acquaintance who had never spoken to me before, hugged me and asked me to dance.
My wise @deveshm told me to just let go and enjoy being the teenager that I never was. I remember why I never was this – because I hated it. It’s hard, really hard to stand in that place of vulnerability, without the defenses of perfection or control. It’s terrifying and I’ve never stayed in it a second longer than I had to.
But the kind of strength that one projects with grace, with style, with articulation is just that – a projection. A performance. A mask. A wall. Real courage is to stand as your messy, uncontained self and face the world with it saying, “This is me. I have a place here too.” Today I was messy. Today I was brave. Today I was me.
This was also published to XX Factor awhile ago since it deals with gender politics. But this post is also about who I am becoming or maybe who I’ve always been or maybe that doesn’t matter.
Last week India’s #MeToo / #TimesUp movement rose (again), sparked off by Mahima Kukreja’s outing of standup comic Ustav Chakrobarty sending unsolicited dickpics and badgering underage girls for nudes. It set off a chain reaction examining the complicit parties, the enablers and patterns of predators. Thread:
Since then it has spread to other performance spaces, to advertising, to media, to journalism, to publishing and more. All these alongside Bollywood’s own filth outing with Tanushree Datta’s allegations against Nana Patekar. And across the ocean, the US is grappling with the same issue over a man named Brett Kavanaugh. Sharing this video here as the only positive note of this story:
On one hand, I am so glad that these stories are finally finding their voices. I cannot even begin to comprehend the trauma of carrying these toxic secrets for so long and there are so many, so many of them. Every morning I’m waking up in fear over which man I’ve known, read, watched, applauded, appreciated, spoken to, smiled at will be outed as the next sexual predator. We are in so much pain.
It’s forcing a mirror to all of society and not just its toxic males. A few men I know have been outed at predators. Did I know? Did I suspect? Was that action that I shrugged off, actually an indication of something more sinister? Should I have laughed at that joke? Should I have warned this person? I introduced these people; what if one person took that as a trust guarantee and do I carry some responsibility if anything happened? What am I missing in the world and about the people around me, today?
So many of the stories I’m hearing have not even made it out yet because the victims fear that they are too young/unimportant/powerless and that their predators are too famous/rich/powerful. I am grappling with recognising that the victim of an assault or harassment can build an unreal sense of the perpetrator’s power while trying not to invalidate their feelings. How can you say “I believe you” and “No, that’s not true” at the same time?
Then there was the outing of someone I knew slightly and hadn’t really liked (though not because I had an encounter of this kind with him). He was outed by someone who in the past, has enabled my own abuser despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The question that hung over me was ‘Should I support someone who did not support me?’. It was a time of personal reckoning, figuring out who I wanted to be. I’d thought these aspects of my character would be set and figured out by this time in my life. Clearly, character is a lifelong process of testing. I passed. I don’t know that I feel good about it. Is feeling like I was denied justice, a better feeling to live with than guilt and vindication?
This same person, along with a lot of other people also put out a call asking to be told if they were friends with an abuser. It made me really angry at first. And then I realised, people don’t know what they’re asking for, when they ask for that door to be opened. When the sheer magnitude of this truth hits them, many recoil and their reaction is to assume they get to judge whether they should take action or not. No, I say. The minute you ask for the truth, you are asking for the victim’s trust. And the minute you bring judgement in, you are violating that trust. Complete trust in return for total lack of judgement is the deal. Here’s my thread on this matter:
Having said this, I’m realising that maybe I invite confessions and sharing from people just by talking about these issues. Over a decade ago, when I wrote this post about child abuse, it provoked a volley of reactions that I did not expect and did not know how to handle. I considered quitting blogging. A friend told me that I had stood for something and that mattered to the people who were sharing with me and that I had a responsibility towards them. I interpreted that to mean I’d have to be a space of listening (since I’m not qualified in any other way to advise, heal, police or protect). If you read the above post, please also read this as the conclusion of that. I am rethinking this now.
I asked a close friend (a survivor and an activist) for advice. This person asked me how many people who were spilling their truths onto me and expecting me to rescue them, showed up for me back in 2012? I could argue that some of them were too young, some too married (like this is an illness that renders one incapable of logical and just thought towards unmarried people), some not strong enough (as if strength is a talent some are born with and which becomes public property to exploit). My answer was…NOBODY. I have tried hard not to become cynical about people since then and I’ll admit I often slip up. I cannot forget that I live in a world that enables and applauds my abusers for the same things that they attack and condemn me for experiencing. It is so hard to feel empathy for enablers, even harder than feeling it for the perpetrators.
And finally, I am realising how easy it is going to be vomit, to dump, to offload resentment and rage. Neither of these are logical or fair-minded. They just are — powerful and unstoppable. I’m trying hard not to talk about my own experiences partly because I do not want to co-opt the narratives of the people speaking up for the first time and partly because it might become a case of Chinese whispers with people blaming my perps for things they did not do as part of the pervasive ‘Men are trash’ feeling. As justified as that feels, I know I cannot live with those feelings. I just can’t.
Mercifully a friend who’s been away from all this rescued me in a single conversation last evening by asking me to remember to retain my capacity for joy. That’s all. We each have to live with the consequences of our actions, our emotions and our words. What’s most important in the long, long run of life? I choose joy.
If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I’ve been swimming pretty regularly of late. I love swimming. It’s my favorite physical activity of them all. Yes, ALL. Proof that swimming is the best thing to happen to human beings and in short we should never have gotten out on land. #swimlife […]
There’s a certain kind of man who gets off on sad women. It’s an entire trope – The Depressed/Tortured/Troubled/Damsel-in-distress that the guy ‘rescues’ with minimal emotional investment by clowning around. He is not a Manic Pixie Dream Guy. No, the original in that trope is not a person and only exists to further the male […]
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, […]
This piece is a writing experiment. Tell me what you think. ==================================================================== They pause in the middle of the restaurant. Then he walks off towards the toilets and she chooses a seat. She sits on one side, checks her phone camera then moves to the other side. By the time he returns, she has settled in, […]
You should smile more, women are told, it makes you look good. This is said as a compliment but is erasure of the person & her emotions. What if she doesn’t feel like smiling? If you’re not a woman, try smiling at someone you don’t like or in a situation that causes you distress. Smiles must […]