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.
I crossed a birthday last month. Being born near a decade switch, my every ten years seem to align in personally with the defining traits of the decade.
At 20, I was a newly minted adult in a newly minted millenium, a forerunner of the generation that would come to be known by this word. At 30, the millennium & adulthood had taught me tangible lessons about money, employment and stability. Now, at 40, what do I have to show as a human representative of the 2010s?
I found this photo taken last year in a green room minutes before I’d go up on stage to tell a story of love & flamingos. It had been 3 days since the second heat of the #MeToo movement began, bringing down men of repute, men of my acquaintance, men I’d liked, men I’d performed with, eaten with, laughed with, clapped for. It was amid stories of assault by women I knew, women I admired, women I wanted to protect, women I related to. Earlier that day, I had dragged myself out of bed having spent yet another sleepless night of trauma. I’d judged a poetry event. I’d performed at another venue and collapsed on stage. I’d changed at a friend’s house, tried to laugh and lighten up. And I’d made my way here.
I think the MeToo movement is the most significant thing in my mind about this decade, blowing the cover off things I’d never thought I’d see exposed in my lifetime, traumas I assumed I’d experienced alone. It is also a metaphor for my decade. I began it surprising myself by getting swept into what would turn out to be an abusive relationship. Before I knew it, I was in my 30s with a failed engagement, which sounds much worse than ‘Single at 30’. I’ve weathered much since then and things did eventually settle. They keep getting stirred up again. All I have is this breath.
I look up at my reflection, seeing a tangle of stories. Then I take a deep breath and remember,
The capacity for joy will not be lost to me When I look in the mirror It will be all I see
When I open my eyes again, I’m in the green room alone as outside a crowd cheers for me. I walk out with a story about flamingos in a big city.
Today is the last day of The Thirty Diaries, a series I started a little over a decade ago. Tomorrow, I turn 40, a number that brings its share of weight in the form of platitudes and stereotypes, some of which I’ve already encountered and battled. I am not sure if there will be a Forty Diaries. For starters, I don’t know how long I will continue to blog and in this manner. I don’t know if anybody else will be interested in the ruminations of an over-40 single woman. I’m not sure that journaling my ageing is going to serve the same purpose it did when I was in my 20s or 30s. And most of all, I don’t see any reason to start a new decade with references of the past.
It has certainly been a hard decade. It only became clear to me in the last few weeks that the past ten years of my life have been marked and influenced by three major relationships – one romantic, one friendship, one professional. All three of them were toxic in exactly the same way. They all started with people who were seemingly enamoured with me suddenly and dramatically. People who did not have a pattern of such behaviour (or claimed they did not). The attention, affection, adulation was heady. It turned my head every time.
In the second phase of this pattern, I fell headlong into some kind of close involvement with the person. Every one of these people told me about what a strong person I was, how they admired/looked up to me. And in every one of those cases, I let that adulation lull me into letting them drive the other parts of my life. I let go of other people because they didn’t like them. I changed my appearance, my dating habits, my ideologies, even my health regime to please them. And some part of me still struggles to see these as bad – don’t we all do things like these for the people we love? Maybe I do it too much and for too long. I am aware of that and how that gets labelled toxic. The thing is nobody is able to tell me at exactly what point it stops being accommodating and starts becoming toxic.
The reason these three relationships stand out as a pattern to me is because of how they ended. Every single one of them involved a violent and sudden betrayal by the other person. Certifiable abuse, lying, exploitation and in one case, physical violence.
The first relationship started when I was probably in the best place in my life till that time. I was 30, financially independent, had quit a successful corporate career and had ventured out into something I felt a lot of passion for. I was also single and not joint at the hip to any friendship the way a lot of women are, being that the one person that might have happened with had got married and moved to another continent. This one I’ve analysed over and over again and I conclude that I fell prey to a carefully planned trap by somebody whose only intention was to exploit me – specifically my gender to keep away social pressures. The plan worked well – charm, isolate, gaslight, control, violate and finally exploit. I guess it wasn’t really that sudden after all if the intent was always to go down this path.
I guess I was primed for another exploitative person who definitely saw me as a trophy. This one was interesting because it made it clearer how a toxic woman operates differently from a toxic man. First the mirroring that made me think we had a lot more in common than we actually did – ideologies and interests. Then the subtle(r) transition into controlling my actions – people and activities. Suddenly there was no one who remembered me from before I met this person, because they had all been distanced. And everyone who I was in constant contact with, had been introduced into my life by this person. They had been chosen for how quickly they’d turn on me with complete control by this person – or perhaps they were also being similarly ‘managed’. I never had a whiff of how I was being manipulated. I can’t believe how completely I was fooled. For instance, this person made astrology a daily part of our conversations, referring to people in conversations as ‘You know, that Taurus thing’ or ‘Typical Scorpio behaviour’ or ‘Piscean? Has to be terrible’. This person’s own sign is known for manipulation and lies and still I went along, semi-indulgently and perhaps because it felt comfortable and easy to do so. I feel like an idiot and a lazy one at that. It really only struck me when during this person’s exit, one of their attacks was “Everything has to be astrology for you. Get over that and take responsibility for your own life.” Libra sure knows how to gift-wrap deceit and spray perfume atop callousness.
My third mistake even warned me that they were going to hurt me. Mental illness is the latest buzzword the way gay rights was about a decade ago. Make no mistake, I believe there is a need for each of these causes to exist. I’m aware (as I was ten years ago) that misinformation and co-opting larger causes for personal agenda are par for the course. And it is still true that there will be people who use their existence in the cause to justify their terrible behaviour. A decade ago, someone stalked and harassed me (including suggesting that I’d change my mind about being straight if I spent a night with them) and when I said no, they put it out that I was a homophobe and lost me some friendships and work. Most recently, I’ve been called insensitive to mentally ill people, systematically harassed out of a space that I introduced the above person to and had strangers sicced on to me claiming that I’m saying terrible things about them. The reason this relationship makes it to this list is that this one also followed the adulation-mirroring-identification-control-attack model.
I’ve spent the first half of this year allowing myself to sit in the wreckage left behind by these people. I have been afraid to speak to anyone or even write because each of those brought on a fresh assaulter in the past ten years. But seeing them in a pattern gives me courage. Patterns have always felt like a safe space to me. This is going to sound odd but recently I’ve been involved in a discussion about how mathematics is perceived and communicated. It made me reflect on what about the subject appealed to me. And it is part of what let me tap into something that I’ve always been good at, something that has given me a profession and an emotional bedrock through things that would have killed me – patterns.
I don’t necessarily know how to break a pattern once I’ve spotted it. But maybe plugging the gaps where a toxic person like this finds a way to get in, is a start. I don’t trust adulation anymore, which probably explains why I’m not as interested in going on stage these days. The trouble is it’s difficult to separate adulation from simple admiration or even affection. It took me long enough to break the terrible pattern of love = insults (no thank you, years of gaslighting Hollywood and rape culture Bollywood). So…I don’t know. But that’s okay because it just means I still have work to do. Maybe accepting that is part of owning being 40.
It occurs to me that there is a cheesy kind of symmetry in there being three major mistakes in the third decade of my life. I also wonder what my life would have looked like without these people. I did a lot of things in this decade but all of these things are inextricably linked to these people – because they participated in these, because they pushed me to these or because I took these on to escape/heal from these people. I suppose there is a lesson there about how they happened for a reason but I don’t want to glorify the existence of toxicity. I am done doing that and I deserve to be happy and successful without having to deal with abuse, manipulation or violence to be so. I guess I’ll never know. Can someone invent time travel already? Maybe by 2029.
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.
Of all the ways human beings meet and interact, we only remember the two extremes of love and war. But conflict and alliance are inseparable, interchangeable even in the constant ebb and flow of human relating. We know that moving forward needs collaboration among the diverse. We throw about platitudes like ‘Opposites attract’, a statement that only focuses on the superficial drama of early meetings. So there is firepower. So what? Without direction, that’s just fireworks that fizzle out in a few breaths, burning oxygen, making it harder for everybody to breathe. Look up to the sky to remember what you are becoming or what you could be. A firework or a cathedral.
Trust? How is that to be built between people primed to see each other as foes? ‘Friendly opponents’ is a temporary white flag one may wave but maybe some differences run too deep for the truce to last very long. And then, it’s back to the stomach of a volcano, combat to death, anything goes. We do this with words now and with silent actions that leave invisible wounds science still can’t heal. We cheat, we snipe, we ghost, we block, we brag. We hold up our perfection as a way to slice the other person’s flaws. And they retaliate, not with swordplay but with a cup of sweetness, already poisoned beforehand. Who bears blame for this war? We may as well live in blood-stained medieval times then, for all that we remember about collaboration, respect and growth.
Love is a taboo word in our times but it’s the only solution proposed in every text, every wise truism, every question asked about how to deal with conflict. Maybe it is an inadequate answer or an outdated one or a silly one but it is the only one. It takes two to start a fight and only one to end it. But maybe you are not strong enough to be that one, maybe the other person isn’t whatever they need to be for it to be more than fireworks. It doesn’t really matter. The rules of engagement are very clear. Either you survive together. Or you both burn.
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
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