Monday, 28 November 2016

The Introverted Parent Trap

Image Source: Presspack

Scenes From An Early Morning School Drop-Off:

[Dark, greyed elevator...something of a quiet place to shut your eyes in for a few seconds.]

I hop—wait, I am merely sliding in —with my four-year old daughter gleefully jumping into it first with her eight-watts smile, disturbing the whole atmosphere without even saying anything. Morning person much? A man and two other women join us, hounding and blocking what I consider my free breathing space. Each of us moves to light up our destination digits, makes brief eye contact and zones out in our individual fortresses.

I pick the dark corner that also lets out a secret vent for my benefit. Saanvi continues to intrusively study everyone, keeping her wide-eyed smile. Of course, she can't stand still even for ten seconds. She notices something and yells at me from another corner, pointing crudely at the only man in the elevator.

 "Mom! Mom! Look at him. He is wearing dad's t-shirt."

Of course, that remark is open to wide interpretations and I'm mortified. But I've learned the hard way that whatever I do in a desperate attempt to salvage is only going to backfire. So I just give her a half-smile and avoid eye-contact in general. I'm counting in my head to get the fuck out of everyone's hair when comes another uninvited remark.

"Uncle, can you give it back? Papa really likes that t-shirt."

Obviously, now I have to dive in head first with apologetic giggles that only get drowned in the roaring laughter coming from the seemingly-polite ladies in the elevator.

Kids say the ballsiest things, don't they? That's cool.

Mostly, they say things that overwhelm you and outnumber you in rapid sentences. And that's OK too I guess.

But if you're an introvert like me, it can get exhausting.

Last year, we went on a holiday to Bintan. Saanvi had just turned three that year. It was her birthday. We had a quiet dinner at an Indian restaurant so she could have her lunch staples—roti and bhindi—as opposed to Ramen and pizza. She picked the table next to a sweet Indian couple. The entire time we were there, our tables were shuffled incredibly close together with her chair facing the Indian couple. I felt sorry for them 'cos they seemed to be newly married. My husband took a picture of us from that day. The couple was downright jubilant to be in our company. Saanvi was in mid-sentence. And me - well, I had this sheepish, awkward smile.

Like I wanted to get out of there as fast I possibly can.

And that is definitive of how I feel when we're out as an introverted mom and extroverted daughter duo. 'Cos here's the thing about being an introvert. You want to be able to control the volume of conversations. So, when I'm talking to people, one-on-ones with people I know are ideal.  Group-conversations are next best cos you get to catch your breaths a lot. Of course, I love my friends! I'd meet them with their kids too, sometimes craving for a cup of coffee with them in the middle of the night, imagining the kids all tucked in with a nice classic, say Wizard of Oz, while we sit outside and indulge in some petty, slanderous gossip about everyone we know.

But the perennial introverted parent trap arises in one form or the other. Like in the following situations:
  • When you're amidst strangers in a long journey and you're forced to engage in conversations 'cos your chatty daughter won't have it any other way. And she won't even nap cos that'll get in the way of discovering new people. (New people are over-hyped.)
  • When you're in the company of society park moms who're engaging in long conversations with your daughter asking her interesting open-ended questions. And you kind of feel obligated to do the same with their kids.
  • When you've had a long, tiring day of relentless conversations with your little jabberer and you're ready to call it a night. And your daughter asks you to cook up a fairy tale from your imagination and narrate it to her. One that does not end with, "And she was tired, miserable and sleepy ever after."

I know what you may be thinking. Am I even remotely implying that my energetic daughter is making me miserable? So what if she talks a lot?

Don't get me wrong. I'm thankful each day for having a little ray of happy, bouncing sunshine in my life. And she's a good conversationalist. Not kidding. She talks like a grown-up. She'll talk about anything from fun science facts to philosophy, sometimes she'll just make up her own trivia for the sake of conversation fillers.

But for me, in order to be a functional mother, who listens to her and  nurtures her with the same sort of love and energy every day, I have some alone-time mandates. Maybe, it is a little selfish. But my me-time refuels me, sometimes more than a good night's sleep, more than my other basic necessities in life.
And that's when I knew what I need to do in order to survive motherhood. So that I can over-indulge myself in uninvited conversations. So that I can make it through birthday parties without feeling like a deflated party balloon. So that I don't go looking for a spiritual connect before letting another person into my space. So that I can flit from one group to another without having to feel like an alien. Which is the hardest part for an introvert by the way. When we find a comfortable space, we cling to it with all our might. So chances are, even when I'm out on a social spree, you'll always find me with the one person I started my first cocktail with. That is if said-person hasn't abandoned me. (I do have social abandonment issues.)

So here are some everyday guidelines I've laid down for myself:

1. Tuning out from the world completely: Alone-time is not hard to come by since we're a nuclear family. So, I put my phone on silent, sit with a book/writing pad /mindless television, whatever the need of the hour and stay put for as long as it takes to feel rejuvenated.

2. Starting my day ten minutes earlier than everyone: Sometimes, all it takes is five deep breaths,  a dose of morning fresh air and quiet to get me up and about.  The realization that the world hasn't started needing you yet  is divine energy.

3. Having a job that doesn't necessitate face-time: Because honestly, what good can come of a room full of people trying to fill up air with their own stuck-up ideas and making themselves look important? Fine, maybe greater good that can potentially change governments. But fortunately for me, I'm still trying to get all the way back to jump-starting my career and I realize that with my skills, I could potentially even work from a remote island. As long as it has WI-Fi.

4. Music: Big part of my survival kit. I can absolutely not do any sort of physical activity without my playlist. It is therapeutic. Irrespective of whether you're an introvert or extrovert, it's important to have at least one thing in your life that is meant just for your personal pleasure. My playlist is one of them.

5. Letting it go: You may try to mingle more and be more receptive to others and put yourself out there more often. But you can't change who you are. I try to accept that and not beat myself about it. I fail miserably but I try again.

Of course, it fills me with an inexplicable envy when I see bright, cheerful moms who can fill the room with their positive vibes and radiant energy. But I've come to healthy terms with the fact that I'm just not one of them. I'm happy to spend my alone-time refuelling for random play-dates and spontaneous social events that tend to drain the life out of me.

As long as I'm there in body and spirit, I'm enough.

Friday, 18 November 2016

A Celestial Brush With Sufi Music

Sama Concert - NCPA (Vocals - Rekha Bhardwaj)

I'm sitting in a crowd, a million stray faces that seem familiar one way or another, giving me a wicked sense of deja vu. We’re all waiting, wrapped up in our own anticipations, with bated breaths, hoping to be swept away to our own quarantined havens; breaths intermingled, cosmically miles apart.

And then it all began. Mystical lights and whirling prayers appear on stage to guide you on a quest to find yourselves and lose sight of everything you've come to know in the physical realm.

I had never quite known what to expect of a Sufi concert. Honestly, I've listened to Sufi a lot of times before, with an impatience and dissonance that completely discredits its trippy, transcendental quality. As a child, when my dad would put on anything even remotely sounding like a qawwali on the car radio, I’d turn it off in disgust. “Oh God, that’s depressing!” were my words for anything that deviated from uptempo pop and love ballads. My dad would spring it back on and say, “You’re way too young to understand music.”

Over the years, somewhere in the adulting journey, I found that my playlist has grown. It had ushered in new definitions and artists, representing soul-searching genres that passed by like seasons, bringing in wind, rain and sunshine to my senses— essentially music that’d be heavily face-palmed by the 12-year old me. Sufi, however, still struggled to permeate. It just seemed so severely bluesy to me for reasons beyond my understanding. 

So no one had expected me to see what was coming.

I am sitting in a concert, listening to shards of music tearing their way to my murky interior. Me, more of a cynic, liable to believe in the worst-possible outcome than in the possibility that things will magically fall in place — well, unless I'm four drinks down. But, I'm told, Sufi is not about either of those extremes. It’s neither hopeful nor despondent. Sufi music is about accepting things exactly the way they are, in that moment, in their magical realism. And I'm trying to decode that complex philosophy as I listen to fragments of soothing percussion and sensual saxophone and pained strings that come to life with whirling chants. 
When comes a voice — a voice that I have heard so many times in chart-busters before. A voice that I've come to know of as multi-dimensional, one that sets poetry to fire and follows it through to its silent ashes. I don’t know if it was that voice that carried Sufi to me or the concerto effect that unfolded its inexplicable beauty. But I was gradually very calm, erasing every thought, watching it pass as it disappeared into a corner. 

I was floating mid-air in her voice, shuffling me between desert sandstorms and green pastures, understanding for the very first time that Sufi is far from being dull and depressing. 

It is a journey. It is an unadulterated joy of finding something that you — an inbetweener — have been waiting for, right where it always was.

You can now also listen to the Audio transcript of my Sufi experience on SoundCloud.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Day When Secret Stashes and Green Zombies Rose From The Graves

The eve of 8th November 2016 was a memorable one. As residents of India, wherever we all were, whether at a raving party or sitting quietly tucked under a rock chanting our way to the non-material, there came a turbulent wave of anxiety (of a very material nature) that shook us to our cores. I was at a dance class at that very moment sitting with four other ladies when one of us announced, "Ladies, check your Whatasapp. What is this announcement that Modiji has just made?" I looked at her a bit puzzled. Why would I check my Whatsapp for a political announcement? Well, that goes to show the power of word of mouth. As social media isn't quite immune to hoaxes and uncalled-for, nation-wide pranks, we instead turned to our wider LED screens to confirm.

Our grim-faced prime minister emerged on screen, dead-serious and unapologetic.

"Brothers and Sisters,

To break the grip of corruption and black money, we have decided that the 500 rupee and 1,000 rupee currency notes presently in use will no longer be legal tender from midnight tonight, that is 8th November 2016. This means that these notes will not be acceptable for transactions from midnight onwards."

Demonetisation was something I had read about in my textbooks years ago, on a dreary afternoon in an uninspiring Economics class. Is this really happening? Right here, right now? Am I witnessing history being made so dramatically that the roaring sound of it could be heard in every drawing-room, at chai-wala tapris and stock market rooms alike.

It felt unreal in the beginning.

But slowly began dull murmurs between us. Hushed-up calls were being made, secret congregations were happening in dingy, isolated hide-outs... Everyone had emerged from their houses to queue up at ATMs. People had stopped thinking straight. While standing in the ATM queue, a man asked my husband if he would trade an obscene, undisclosed amount of money for half its legit amount. It was hard to tell from his face if he was serious or joking.

The last four days have seen the urgent rise of pink-faced zombies and money stashes that could build lost civilizations from six-feet under. Wherever I walked, I saw people being worn down by a celestial spirit, the likes of Betal, wearing strings of 500-1000 currency notes around his neck, asking them the one stumping puzzle, "What will you do now? Pray tell." It was a question far-reaching and far from righteousness, but riddling nevertheless.

What had remained a murky mystery till now was out in the open. And I'm not even talking about black money here. No, I'm not talking about an irrational sum of corrupt money stashed away to evade taxes.  I am talking about the hard-saved secret "tijori" of women that had been cleverly hidden in kitchen jars, saree folders, lingerie and many other unimaginable safe havens and lockers that were hitherto unknown. "My husband gives me an allowance every week. I don't have to spend all of it. So I've been saving. A lot.", one of my friends confided in me.

I, being a freelancer and having an irregular income, had also got in the habit of maintaining a secret stash. But fortunately for me,  I'm also an avid shopper and cannot resist new shoe leather and hardbound leather alike. Thank God for shopaholicism! I had only 500 Rs left in my secret wallet, which I've now laminated to show my future generations what shagun before 08/11/16 looked like.

If you had a sleepless night on 08/11, the morning of 09/11 brought its own domestic confusion and catastrophes. My maid walked in, panic-stricken and heaving, "Bhabhi aap log ne hi toh diya tha woh paisa. Ab humko jail jana padega kya?" [Bhabhi, you had tendered to me 500-1000 rupee notes for salary. Now would I have to go to jail for drawing salary in cash?] Apparently all the fearmongering through Whatsapp and their own circles had got them thinking they were criminals. I sat her down and explained to her the procedure for exchanging her real-life money- that was now about as valuable as fake Monopoly cash- for legitimate cash. She still looked restless. I gave her money to make it through the day.

But calming the f-down seemed a shore too far in a country where money was being flushed down the toilet and being used as fuel for bonfires.

It's been four days since the fear of God struck the country. People are washing their hands off capitalism and embracing socialism by taking to the streets to distribute money to the poor. And for once, you witness the beggars guarding their katoras and bargaining, saying that they will accept Rs. 10 with showers of blessings but not anything that even remotely looks like 500-1000 currency notes. "Humko bhi raat ko sona hota hai saab." [We too have to sleep at night Sir.]

09/11/16 - a day when justice was blanket-delivered, when corruption began to lose its far-reaching grip. But for kitty parties and domestic India, it was the day that the most popular adage went abruptly out of style  - "Nope. Don't save it for a rainy day. Not in kitchen jars, at least."

Image Courtesy - Quartz India

Monday, 7 November 2016

Perfect Weekend Take-Out Food - Does It Exist?

Dear Readers,

As I may have already established through the rather alive-and-kicking 'Food' tab on my blog, I love to cook! For family and friends, Pammi Aunty's cats even. Unfortunately, I am a hit-and-miss sort of cook hence, for general good, I'm not in the catering business.

That said, there are days in my life, once in a week definitely (OK, it’s Friday) that I don’t want to please anyone but myself. When my mother’s home-cooked plain dal khichdi with mango pickles and papad trumps my own, hand-pulsed, spicy saag paneer. Naturally, since I don’t have access to my family in Mumbai and am not sadistic enough to torture my husband to venture into wearing a floral apron after a hard day’s work, I turn to the thriving business of take-out food to appease my senses of personal catering.

Now, I could just get myself hand-measured, pre-curated kits of frozen foods or ready-meal kits to give me the exact sense of nourishment for much less in just about a couple of minutes. But no. That won’t do. I won’t go near a steel cauldron or a cooker. Just give me meals in a box that I merely have to provide half-a-minute of heat to and set about laying on the table seductively with wine glasses and fancy blue china.

And that is exactly why, in my quest for the perfect take-out, I stumbled upon these fashionably suitable, build-to-your-palate, wok restaurants that are all of the rage in Mumbai at the moment.

I had been waiting, with bated breath, for something that will have me eating Chinese out of a cardboard box to arrive in Mumbai ever since I started watching The Big Bang Theory. The idea is delightful, right? All you have to do is receive your food and tip your delivery man — who’s all healthy smiles with just the necessary amount of cheese — handsomely. Also, very encouraging is the fact that they give you forks and everything so no need to bring your cutlery to the party. The only accomplishment that these hand-delivered meals will have you feel is that YOU get to build your own flavours. Yes. Whip out your little Masterchef scribblings. Figure out what protein goes with Kung Pao and coriander and what veggies would subtly pack a punch without being too stringy or clingy. That’s really all there is to it. And if you can’t even get yourself to do that, just consult the most popular choices on the web and play it safe. You get to order your personal wok so no need to negotiate with your partner about just how much broccoli needs to be in there. I mean what’s a romantic meal for two where one of you has to make big sacrifices for the other? Just order what you like and you can fork off as you please. (There’s an unintended pun in there, I’m sure.)

Alas, as rosy as this picture seems, this story doesn't have a happy ending. When I started ordering these take-out woks, I was mesmerized. I tried all the flavour combinations, however ridiculous it sounded to my husband. He called me a mad scientist and stuck to his better-safe-than-sorry Black Bean wok. I, on the other hand, liked playing this game of cooking food on-line, rising up to the adventure of exploring new, tongue-twisting menu items. Who's to say, they may potentially have an equally-satiating effect on my tongue as the joy of calling out their exotic sauce names on the phone. I told all my friends to try it out. Saying things like, “Oh, it’s so convenient!” or “You get what you ask for!” or “Try something-something Bao!” No, I am not making animal sounds. For the uninitiated, Baos are the latest sensation to hit the Chinese food market in Mumbai.

It took about six drunken seasons of Game of Thrones, one of Stranger Things and another two of Scream to awaken me to what my scorched taste buds were trying to telling me.

They all fucking taste the same.

Well, not quite though. There will be at least three categories of sauces in there ranging in the level of hotness-quotient mystique. One will be soy — salty, beany, slightly bitter for those of you who can’t handle any peppers other than the bell pepper variant. One will be posing as a full-bodied sauce — tangy, sweet, coconutty, mysterious, with hits of spices that’ll have you hold you a glass of water within your reach. The last one will be a no-holds-barred spicy sauce that’ll not give your palate enough time to look out for other flavours as it’ll get burned out before you try to go all, “Hmm…I get star-anise.”

So that’s talking about the sauces. You ordered protein in it too, remember? Since there are now only eight planets in the solar system (or is it nine again), you’ll get only those numbered quantities, in tiny, dried-out chunks, orbiting your portion of wok. (Serves you right for ordering a personal wok.) With each iteration of order, we’ll take one away. (Cos it’s fun that you still haven’t figured out how we’re ripping you off.)

Oh, also since you want an entrée to go with your main meal, what are you going to order? Sushi right? Sushi at your doorstep, so why the hell not? Well, here’s a run-down on how to order your sushi. Don’t take it away! And if you do take it away, you’ll have to drown it in soy sauce and dabs of Wasabi to have it do its fair bit of artsy-fartsy talking. Even then, it’ll give you nothing to speak of…except a foul-smelling barf.

That brings to imagination the desserts and beverages offered along with these largely-institutional meals. Well, they are no more carefully-curated than your local grocery’s can of Coke. So don’t jump in there with high expectations, please.

And finally, that brings me to a wider spectrum of thought. Why do we eat take-out food? Granted, you don’t want to step out and you don’t want to sweat your pantry muscles out. But when we do, why would we choose something seemingly-synthetic and gelatinous out of a cardboard box over Shetty Anna’s special, layered Hyderabadi Biryani or your trusted Chinese Dragon’s chowmein that your cute Nepalese sous-chef tosses right in front of you and that does satiate all your greasy, unhealthy cravings? Why would you not, instead, go to Ramu Kaka’s halwai and pick up that tried-and-tested Ragda Pattice that’s been simmering in ghee just for you? At the end of the day, they’re equally calling out to your taste buds, promising you a dinner date to savour and a morning volcanic upheavel to remember.

For me, the wok restaurants charmed me with their option of personalized menus. Considering the principles of a good Chinese meal being followed — the right amount of stir-frying, crispy textures, soy, garlic and ginger and an appropriate Indo-Chinese reinterpretation, there’s got to be win-win in a personalized wok. You get to say ‘No’ to crackling spinach and pak choy and ‘Yes’ to roasted cashews and burnt garlic.
Except for the fact that what I had was far from good Chinese cooking. It was far from good cooking.
For beginners, from what I have read about Chinese food, they consider the meal staple as the rice or noodle. Everything else is a side-kick. The last wok I ordered gave me noodles running chewy and dry.

So that was pretty much the jolting click of finality to me.

We live in a world where time is scarce, waiting-lines are long and convenience is key. One of the perks of living in a big city like Mumbai, I’d say, is woman, you’re never short of grub! Whether you’re looking for something spicy and satisfying or brothy and nourishing or greasy and err…greasier, you wanna make sure that you enjoy it thoroughly when you do (even if that possibly means that you’ll be waking up with burning regret.)

And on that count, I'm bidding farewell to build-your-own wok restaurants.

What are your favourite take-out options? I’d love to know more about what you’re eating this weekend. Especially, if you’re eating from the suburbs of Mumbai. Pray do tell :).

Monday, 24 October 2016

Miss Vanity Insanity - When Did You Leave The Building?

Dear Previously-Vain Mom,

I know exactly what’s happening with you of late. It’s shopping season and yea babe, of course, it’s time to treat yo’self, to go back on all your Pinterest highlights and your impractical wishlists to pull them out of their wretched misery. It’s time to approach the pent-up towers of day-time fantasies that whizz you on the streets with your little daughter. You’re wearing matchy-matchy, hot-off-the ramp fall outfits, even though deep down you know there’s no such thing as fall in Mumbai. I can feel your dizzying excitement, your shaky hands reaching out for that icy blue, one-shoulder cape-top that you’d wear to theatre, friendly cocktails, brunches, what-the-hell, maybe even your kid’s cramped school parties, just to add a touch of wonderland to the whole meh set-up. I am with you woman, striding along with lace-up boots with pom-poms that nobody would really understand, even though I've taken care to make everything about them (and not the boho-tassled jacket that I almost got my spidery shoulders wriggling in).

I know love. As unlikely as it sounds, you haven’t had the time (or the inclination) to go to the salon for months at a stretch, growing out your eyebrows hoping that they’d be as “on fleek” as Carla Delevigne’s in the bargain. (Upper lips? What, isn’t it Movember already?)

We've all been there. A clumsy stack of wishlists and to-do beauty appointments all neglected — taking a hard blow with the ever-changing indices of time and money. You cross by a salon in a mall while getting your groceries and you’re wondering, “Oh can I go in there for five minutes, just for a pep talk if nothing else?” And if the pretentious stylist with the mermaid hair insists, perhaps a new haircut and whatever else will get your game face on.

Pff…just keep walking. Fast!

I know you think just how risqué it seems to place yourself above your family — even in your mind. Maybe you haven’t even had the chance to think about what your kid’s Santa wishlist is or just how much your loving husband needs a new laptop. You don’t want to even get to your “pocket-size” realities, wincing at the mounting holiday bills that won’t look the other way even while you do a furtive swipe.

So you do the most parent-thing ever.

You make a futuristic-looking budget sheet with Draconian red highlights for where you should be cutting back and cutesy green stars for where you just can’t. You make amends to your lifestyle. For that week, there’s gonna be no takeaways and no wine. Insufferable yes but you gotta suck it up. We’ll call it detoxing OK. You’re now close to blocking your favourites on your shopping destination. “Know what? I’ll go right now and swipe my credit card just to show just how much I want to marry you, red block heels.”

With bated breath, you get to the store, cross-crossing and shoving your way to your trophy. You’re through with the two stages leading up to a purchase -
1. Getting down on your knees and proposing.
2. Justifying your unadulterated love to an imaginary jury, one that features Morgan Freeman just for his intimidation quotient.

But then, out of the clear blue sky, there comes this creepy voice that sounds so much like your mom, “Drop the reckless heels and turn back right now!”

In your mind, you’d imagined a 5-piece orchestra to celebrate that moment when you get your hands on those seductive beauties. I mean just look at them. They’re elevating your naturally-distressed tee to glam rock status in one awkward slip. But that voice — uggh — as always, it’s a party pooper, right? Blinking back tears, you step away from the counter — dishevelled, sweaty, brow-growing, unhappy mom leading the way to a sweet teen, blinged to perfection.

Meanwhile, your cute little princess has wandered off to find impractical furry boots for herself. Now, it’s your turn to be that menacing voice. You look at her sternly, thinking, “Yea, yea, drop the act, Droopy. I invented it.”
“We’re not getting you furry boots!”

And you have the jury on your side. In a trice, her adorable pleading yelps have turned into blaring screeches in some kind of supersonic alien frequency. Everybody is staring at you. You’re a haggard mom who’s had her candy snatched away from her. You have every right to be made of stone. That sweet girl from the queue is now strutting towards you with her “Aww. Have a heart” look. You fight the urge to run with her shopping spoils. Before she can say anything to you, you say to her, “Wait till you have yours.” You vaguely expect her to giggle in understanding but she looks at you and says the last thing you’d want to hear, “Come on Aunty, it’s Diwali.”

Wait, what? Yes, you have a kid so you’re an Aunty. But biologically speaking, that girl was old enough to have a kid the size of yours. Arrrgh! So now you’re gritting your teeth violently and looking more and more like an addict OD-ing in broad daylight. Your kid continues to stare at you, clutching tight to her furry bunny boots, with Bambi eyes.

This was supposed to be a happy, self-pampering, shopping bags-swinging-in-arms sort of day. And there you are. Having a breakdown.

You take a deep breath and take the boots from her, white-noise in the background. You make a beeline for the counter. One short click and paper-rustling later, you’re on the other side. Without your block heels.
But strangely, you feel a heavy weight shedding away instantly. And when you look at your daughter now, you don’t see an annoying, clinging predator raiding your shopping lists and personal ambitions. You see a little girl, so much a part of you that her radiant smile is the only thing that matters. Sometimes, even before yours.

It’s Diwali and you may not have got even close to getting what you want for yourself. You may have had spells of longing and mood-swings thinking about how much you need to refuel your fashion and beauty lusts. You may even cut the detoxing short — it’s not your best “Happy Holidays” version but you do what you need to cope. Sooner or later, your husband offers to take you shopping, and you’re back to feeling loved and wanted and sane.

And one day, most likely during a Diwali wardrobe cleanse, you will stumble upon a completely impractical, utterly gorgeous, chiffon halter with choker beads. Wearing with pride an expensive price tag. Hesitantly, you’ll take the trip down the memory lane. You will chance upon the the impulsively-broke girl version of you in her early twenties with an empty wallet and a closet full of secret clothes she’s still to wear for her dreamy fairytale moment that’s yet to happen.

You’ll smile to yourself, hold the weightless relic from the past to the sun and wonder, “Miss Vanity Insanity — when did you leave the building?”

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Indian Parents, You Need To Talk To Your Kids About Sex

I've never had “the talk” with my parents. You know, the one about birds and bees. My mum passed away just as I hit puberty so I don’t quite know if she would've been the one to make me wiser. I do vaguely recall my older sister taking me to a quiet corner and telling me it’s time I know about the red river and its periodic flow and why it all happens, scientifically speaking. But I don’t think she went on to tell me about the parallel journey of an egg down to the fallopian tube — which may just happen to meet any random bloke of a sperm if I'm not too cautious. She merely gave me a hazy metaphor to suggest that I'm no longer a little girl and on to becoming a woman. Which to me read as “OH, I get to wear bras, revamp my wardrobe and put on make-up!” The cautionary tales of love and lust reached me in my family circle only in my twenties.

If you’re not from India, you may probably be wondering why. Were my parents negligent or perhaps, was it the idea of a dad talking to his daughter about sex just too awkward and bumbling to approach? I mean yes, we all know how awkward the talk is. Nobody wants to get a sex talk from their parents. We’d rather sit through the torture in school with our friends, mocking and pointing at each other’s ovaries. (Well, I got my first sex ed in a girls’ convent.)

But if you’re from India, you would know that this is absolutely normal. Parents just don’t look at their children as sexual beings and vice versa. So you wouldn't usually find homes where you see your dad briefly stealing a kiss on the lips from your mom. And you wouldn't find daughters or sons inviting their lovers to the dining table and holding hands with them openly. (Of course, that’s not a rule of thumb and things are beginning to change but speaking statistically, such seemingly natural behaviours are reserved for the liberal upper classes only.)

If you grew up in the nineties in an Indian household, you’d remember the family TV time memories where you’d stumble upon a condom commercial. Since you had no idea what that is but it looked interesting, you’d ask the only people whom you consider as encyclopaedic. But when you asked your dad about it, he was just being weird, mumbling words to the effect that it’s for grown-ups. Of course, when you grew up, it was your turn to blush during a condom commercial.

That’s the way it is. When I was growing up, all our sex education came from older kids. But they either glorified sex as something one should experience with someone you really care about or condoned it as forbidden fruit. Nobody gave you any insightful inputs to practical every-day dilemmas such as:
  • What do you do when you, as a girl, have all these urges to really go at it with just about anyone and because you've heard about pleasuring being just the terrain of boys, you think you may be a lunatic or a tramp for having such thoughts?
  • Should you, as a boy, be staring down directly at a woman’s breasts and drawing all kinds of conclusions about her from the way she’s dressed, whom she’s out with, and where she gets her dinner?
  • What do you do when you find yourself in a situation when you're in a relationship and one of you is ready and more than willing to go all the way while the other one is not?
  • What do you do when someone touches you in a way that makes everyone think that they’re only being affectionate when, deep down, you know that there was something seedy in that touch?
So in the absence of your parents offering you a practical word on a subject that is as taboo as the Nazi swastika, when you encounter the situations above, there is one dominant feeling, one that precedes over any personal harm that you may be unknowingly causing yourself by keeping mum about it. The feeling that you've let your parents down. That you’re doing something so sinful that if word got to your parents, you’d lose face. So you go on with your life without confiding in your parents as if nothing’s wrong, learning your own value lessons through mistakes and taking advice from your peers. 

As a young Indian girl, you must've probably been through this. An intrusive aunt first compliments you on how you’re blooming. And in the next sentence, she asks you if you’re getting some. Well, she doesn't exactly say that but the most popular euphemism used is “Is it love or is it Dove?". Then, she’ll give you “useful advice” on how you should concentrate on your studies now and that love is a waste of time and when the time is right, you’ll find your dream man — the one your parents like. But to your brother, she’ll jokingly say, “Beta, abhi time hai. Jitne maze karne hai kar lo par soch samajh ke.” [uproar of laughter] “Son, have all the fun you want now but be cautious.” Of course, there are many ways that a statement like that can be interpreted but something in the laugh that follows tells you that it was laced with a hint of coitus.

When I trace all these little casual sexisms that unconsciously set the wide gap between the vague and confusing love/sex lessons offered to girls vs the ones offered to boys by elders, it elucidates an important dichotomy. My parents may have surely not intended to raise me any differently from my brothers, giving us equal opportunities and undivided attention. However, there was a vital gap in one department that became clear as I was growing up. Sure, the elders were not comfortable with the sexualized nuances in our swiftly-changing personalities. But they could still get used to the idea that my brother was having premarital sex, or having a life that didn't strictly adhere to a traditional moral code as long as he wasn't causing himself or anybody else any harm.

But for me, as a girl, that was a total abomination. And not just to my parents. To everybody who knew me. Even when my dad didn't strictly define different social rules for my brother and me, the neighbours did. Or the extended family offered advice on how I should not be frequenting places where they serve alcohol or smoke or dance for they’re no place for a girl from a good family to be in. Or someone anonymous suggested to my dad that if he let me come home late at night after partying with friends, he wouldn't find me a good suitor for marriage and that I would be a “lost cause.”

I think of all the times I was told by even the most random of people how to dress, how to talk, and how to sit in a lady-like manner. I think of the times when I was coming home late, alone on my bike, and the entire journey, I kept thinking, “You know this wouldn't have been half as terrifying if I were in my brother’s shoes right now.” I think of all the cautionary tales that came with a moral that girls should never make the first move and girls should never give themselves away freely.

And no matter how progressive a nation we are in the path to become, no matter how much we laud our girls for doing us proud, no matter how much we march on the streets with anti-rape culture slogans, it is this very absence of sexual freedom that’ll continue to be a contributor to sexual frustration, sex crimes and a deep misogynistic culture in India. 

Until we develop a sex-positive atmosphere in our homes, talk to our sons and daughters openly about their sexuality, they will continue to phase out important themes such as rights to their body, consent and personal responsibility. In the absence of sex-positivity, the boys of the family, who subconsciously grew up with women-morality themes will butcher a girl’s character by the way she dresses, where they meet her or how open she is with them. They will draw the line between the girl they take home to meet their parents and the girl whom they openly flirt with, stare lewdly at, stalk, harass, abuse…cos, well in her case, she was asking for it. And the girls of the family will have two options. They’ll have to put up a fight against all that to be labelled as feminazis or “lost causes”. Or they’ll lead a dual life, develop self-esteem issues, use sex as a weapon, trivialize the right to their own body and complain about falling for assholes, well, if they’re lucky enough not to get physically and emotionally scarred for life.

I recently watched a movie called Pink that’s got everyone take to the social media to rave about it. As a film, it brought forth the sharp divide between the way the society looks at a rape victim and the accused perpetrator of the crime. It shone a torch on the questions that run through the mind of most men and women alike when they hear of another sexual crime. “When and where did it happen?” “If in a hotel room or an isolated place in the middle of the night, what was a girl from a good family doing there?” “In whose company was she?” “Was she under the influence of alcohol?” “What! She lived independently. OK, so we don’t really what goes on in her life. Maybe she’s a prostitute.” Pink is an important movie because it has started a dialogue about the divide between the way girls and boys are raised in India. I watched the movie with my mother-in-law and we discussed about everything that was wrong with our society. We talked about sex of all things! For me, that was a novelty, even though I'm a grown woman now with a sex life of my own.

While in rural places or very conservative families, a dialogue around sex may not even be an option, it helps to see that in urban India, families are opening up to the possibility that girls and boys in their adolescence are most likely going to enter into relationships and explore their bodies. It helps, if you, as parents, talk to them about the roadblocks they will encounter and the tough or tricky choices, especially around consent, they’ll have to make, no matter what the situation.

To reject the notion that your children are going to have sex before marriage is not protecting them, it’s failing them. It’s failing humanity as I don’t think there could be a greater education to a young child as the right to one’s own mind and body. And that education — it has to start from home.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Start From Scratch - With Cardamoms

For Lalitha, there was hardly every any time for an uninterrupted cup of hot chai in recluse. One would think that for a woman of over fifty who lived alone in her self-imposed exile, it shouldn't be such an ordeal to find alone-time. Surrounded with lush mango trees and mogra bushes in blooming white and yellow clusters, she rarely found an urge to leave her idyllic environs. Everything from dairy to vegetables to expensive silks and rare-blue china found its way to her doorstep. Lalitha was an avid buyer with an eye for details. She had learned early on in life the art of buying from her mother, a shrewd, poker-faced lady who never let an emotion surface while haggling with hawkers. It was this heirloom quality that had served Lalitha more than anything in the world - the ability to keep a calm exterior in the presence of the most turbulent tempests.

But while her power of negotiation helped her pluck the choicest of material possessions by merely a stretch of a hand, it came to no avail in relationships. After her husband passed away prematurely to malaria, she had provided all of the hands in raising her son, Viraj, who was at a tender age of nine when they were struck by the blow of death. Perhaps, it was this callous shadow cast by an early loss of a life partner that made her distant to the family that lived on. Slowly, she had moved away from her husband's family as well as her own to find sanctity in the house she had built lovingly with her husband. But to her son, Viraj, she clung on. He was the last relic holding her close to her husband, the memories of whom were waning, as if he had never existed in her life, not even in her large bed.

Eventually, Viraj too moved on to pursue his higher studies abroad. He fell in love and married, slipping away little by little to the prolific milestones and ambitions of life. Lalitha, even though embittered by the prospect of loneliness at first, took the blow of it in a stride. Viraj urged his mother to follow saying that a new life awaited her with open arms.

"I may be getting too old for you to understand me, Veer. But for me, life stands where I am. Right here, right now."

With those words, they had drifted apart, to meet every year with nostalgic warmth and presents on Christmas holidays. Every year, she knitted for Viraj a red sweater, for his wife a tasteful crocheted blouse, and with a new addition to the family, her grandson, she had gone far and beyond to include blankets, shoes, socks and everything that she could get her ageing eyes to carve out for her only remaining flesh and blood.

She had made some close friends in the neighbourhood, all of whom, flooded her house on the weekends for an extended sangeet sandhya, her signature freshly-made buns and butter chicken , and house-sangria smelling of a gorgeous blend of citrusy, jasmine hints. Her house to her friends was a welcome haven. Even though bare of the sound of the hustle-bustle of family or the noisy chuckles of kids, her house had this impeccably clean, non-judgemental sort of aura and the only foul odours that would cross you were those that came from her pets.

"Ramshankar, you're really not yourself today. Work with me, will you? Veer is on his way from Nashik. He should be here in the next half-hour." Lalitha's voice boomed across the vacant two-story edifice that was looming with a touch of ghostliness as the podgy neighbourhood set about quietly to retire for an early afternoon siesta.

"Yes bhabhi. You don't worry now. Sit here and relax a bit."

Ramshankar, Lalitha's loyal man-servant and overseer of things, lightly held her hand and escorted her to her armchair resting by the white wooden porch that ran all the way across the entrance to her house. This arm-chair was Lalitha's favourite spot in the entire house. In the day, it was awash with combed sunlight that also delicately dazzled a small pond set right across the front yard of Lalitha's  bungalow. The trees, with its leaves touched golden, swayed erotically to the light breeze that made this sultry part of the day bearable. Lalitha reluctantly sat down to catch her breath and dry her dark, wavy hair with red tints where it should be grey. Her hair was glorious when it was drying so she never fussed about it that much.

She made an attempt to awaken to the cause for celebration that was evident in the lavish fare that she'd been slaving to prepare for her son since dawn. She'd taken care to tone down the spices, keeping in mind Veer's metamorphosed palate that could neither handle a generous hand of spices nor her favourite herb, coriander.

It was perhaps the intoxication of the predictability of solitary life, that made her miss Viraj less than she cared to admit. Moreover, as the years went by, she realized she couldn't permeate through the profound barriers set since Viraj's resisting adolescence days. She accepted the gulf between them as fate and let him go, replacing his slipping youth with friends, plants and pets.

Lalitha heard the sound of tyres on gravel before she saw the taxi come to a dwindling halt at her doorstep. Her first instinct was to run to her son, bare-footed and expectant. But a sinister feeling of being a victim of fate took over and she continued to sit. With palpable breathing, she craned her head to see Viraj. She could see, even from a distance, his lion-like, slanted eyes, blazing with fire in the sun. His thin lips set into a wide smile as he waved to his mother. She couldn't help but blush as she found herself staring directly at a ghost from the past - her husband. Just as he ran towards her, the kheer that had been simmering in the kitchen, sent a loving whiff of sweet cardamoms to usher him in her memories. In that moment, her hostility faded away a little at a time, forever. She was unsuspectingly sailing towards the long-abandoned shores of the past.

Veer was seven years old. It was a Sunday. Her husband and Veer sat by the family table, manipulated to be directly in front of the TV. Mahabharata was showing the episode where Bheem was going to wolf down an entire vessel of kheer made by Kunti. Just as Bheem wiped the vessel clean, Viraj would also sit with his cauldron of kheer. She watched in disbelief, cheering violently, as her son emptied the contents of a family portion of kheer in less than five minutes. He emerged from inside the vessel, bathed in milk and cardamoms, with a victorious smile.

She didn't know how long she sat in the gleaning arms of the past for when she pried her misty eyes open, she saw Viraj, kneeling before her, holding her hand tightly, never wanting to let go of her again.
This short story was written as my entry to the Tata Literature Live MyStory contest. If you enjoyed reading this, I request you to vote for my entry here on or before 2nd October:

Thank you readers! XOXO