Been paying a lot of attention to lyrics today. I just wanted to write about someone who might have inspired those wondrous words.
You’d probably not have noticed me that day. And neither did she, possibly. Every guy seems to be around my height, slightly stocky, wears glasses, and everyone wears the horrendous striped tshirts I wore with jeans back then.
Fag end of a long day, the first week I was interning, and the Volvo I was getting home in smelled like an armpit, while the airconditioning whirred desolately. I wasn’t used to working this hard or commuting thirty kilometers a day, and certainly not by bus. I wilted, standing in that crowded bus, with only the promise of a chilled beer and a soft bed keeping me from falling. I needed a smoke.
Around me were other such tired men and women. The girl with an IGate badge was busy texting. Her boyfriend in Delhi, presumably. The middle-aged HR lady from NetApp was trying to solve her maid’s family problems on her phone. I would have listened usually, but my mind shut down today. The four people in the neighboring seat teased and giggled. One of them was this guy who licked his lips nervously every few minutes. I adjusted my headphones and closed my eyes.
The bus jerked me awake. Was it Silk Board yet? I shouldn’t be sleeping on an unfamiliar route. It wasn’t.
A gaggle of women got in. I checked them out mechanically. My eyes were closing, when the bus jerked again.
She strode in.
Her crinkled white saree stood out among the pinks and greens. But it wasn’t just that.
There she was, tall, and resplendent.
No, that would be doing her a disservice. She wasn’t tall and imposing like an NCC cadet, or RK Narayan’s Commandant Sarasa. There was something feminine about her height. And yet imposing. You know like when a Bharatnatyam dancer goes on stage, and you feel her presence, you feel her exuberant aura, and her body language tell you she is Shakti or Durga or Kali?
No, I didn’t just say she’s like Kali because she’s dark-skinned. Oh, did I mention that? She was dark. A cheerful, ebullient dark. The crinkled organdie of her white saree only accentuated that. Yes, I know it’s organdie, because I’d heard someone say it, and it seemed such a nice beautiful word I immediately looked it up. I’d been disappointed to know it was just a crisp material prone to wrinkling. But the wrinkles, oh the wrinkles became her, a woman organized enough to iron that beast of a material every morning, and work through the day enough to wrinkle it. And yet, her face showed no trace of fatigue or wilting. Her jet-black eyes glittered as she took in her surroundings, and parted her lips in a smile to reveal a perfect set of teeth. Here was a woman used to smiling, used to putting people at ease.
She walked with a sense of purpose, smiling all around, holding the sharp set of pleats a little aside as she walked to the middle of the bus and stood there. Was she a nurse, I remember thinking. But no, her saree was bordered with alternating rows of green and maroon. She hadn’t even pinned her pallu. The organdie stood stiffly. It would be sacrilege to even think of a pallu drop here.
Nethra Raghuraman, wasn’t that who she looked like? The lady in Bhopal Express, playing a cheery housewife, about whom Lucky Ali sang that song.
But she wasn’t like Nethra. Nethra was dusky. And willowy. She however was dark. A cheery, laughing ebony. Ebony made ebonier by the white saree, and the pearly even-rowed teeth. Ebony made elegant by her bunned hair. So dark, so lovely, the name Krishna became her. She wasn’t the well-nourished willowy figure Nethra was. She was bonier, a body that had known difficult times. And still managed to be the one that brought in light into the lives of those around her.
Try as I may, I cannot remember her breasts. Somehow, I can’t chop her down to the sum of her parts. I couldn’t then, and I can’t now. She is she, she is a woman, she is a person. She is Krishna, the ebony one. It felt abhorrent to call her my Krishna. She was her own person, her own force of nature, if their be such a thing.
Tu jab chalti, chalte badal, jhuk jaati toh girte patte, tu kehti toh diye jalte phoolon ke, dil dil se milte.
Everyone had made way for her. Even those who routinely pushed, moved away. Here she was, the world at her feet, and unaware. No, that wasn’t it. She wasn’t like a deer that did beautiful things unaware it was being watched. She owned her beauty, her persona, her aura, her light. And yet it didn’t matter to her.
Sagar ki lehron mein lehrati hai tu ghal-ghal, pattiyon ke payal mein laati khan-khan.
I tried imagining her poring over a document, or arguing with someone, and couldn’t. I couldn’t imagine her brow furrowed in concentration. I tried to imagine her making love. I couldn’t imagine her being beside herself, losing control. She was like a blooming flower in my mind’s eye, a dark, dark flower that bloomed light.
Khat-khat koi nayi aisa ek jhonka hai
She began moving towards the door. I had to too. Where did she come from, would she walk back home alone, or would someone meet her? Was she dressed that way today for a man? I had to know.
In the last second I stopped myself. It didn’t matter. Her lower incisor began seeming a little out of line. I looked away. I shut my eyes, though I wasn’t sleepy anymore. No, I wanted to remember her like that.
Kuch hai sach hai, ya tu ek dhoka hai
I took the Volvo regularly for the next eleven weeks. Roughly the same time, roughly the same crowd. The Delhi girl, the maid-problem-solver, the guy who licked his lips nervously.
I thankfully never saw her again.
Tu Kaun Hai
Ever since I’ve started blogging, or, possibly, started at NITK, April is when I’m at my most morose. I don’t know why. This year is exacerbated by virtue of being in a city known for gloomy skies. I also suspect this thing is all because I mark my growing older every April.
Today I was listening to some show where old people were reminiscing about their youth. I’m usually not moved by stuff like this. I know the past is usually seen through rose-colored glasses. I’m a crazy, crazy devil’s advocate that way, and don’t move too easily to let someone else’s perceptions of life and events cloud mine. Somehow, this time, I began to wonder what I’d say in my seventies.
Some of those men and women were talking about how spry they were. How they trained to be NCC cadets and shot rifles. The sports they played. The daredevilry they indulged in. The risks they took. The wild lives they led. How they obsessively courted someone. The hobbies they pursued. And most if not all of this in college.
Me? Well… I did none of these. Old women beat me at doing laps in the pool. I started off with a distaste for NCC, and overall, my school did everything to discourage sportsy feelings in me, not that I needed much of that, given I was already small and asthmatic and had no incentive to be running around. I’ve played it very safe when it comes to matters of life and limb. I’d be glad to Eternal Sunshine any remaining memories of obsessive courting; being on either end of that is not fun at all.
I don’t know what I could call my ‘hobbies’. My pathetic attempts at stamp and coin collection were quickly snuffed out. I wrote some. I read a lot. I watched movies and listened to music. I dicked around on the Internet. The problem with these things is you usually don’t have anything to show for it. Why couldn’t I do something more awesome like sketching or oil painting or play a sport, I wondered.
Even now, when I say ‘I knit’, or ‘I do improv’, it’s with this smidgen of doubt in my voice, as if I can’t imagine me having any hobbies, as if those aren’t even real or something.
I’ve mostly been a good girl. I went to JEE classes. I cleared AIEEE. I cleared GRE. I got an MS with a thesis. I moved on to a respectable, well-paying job.
The problem with these things is, they aren’t what memoirs are made of.
Sure, I have more than a dozen crazy stories that come of being a creepy little brown girl who talks a little too much to strangers, but everyone who lives in NYC has those. Well…. no, actually. Most Indians I met in NYC were the sort who couldn’t imagine striking up a conversation well past midnight on the N train with a bunch of drunk women who judged the Mermaid parade, and most Americans were the sort who wouldn’t catch a concert on the UWS post-8pm unescorted. Me, well, I just reaped the benefits showered by Giuliani and Bloomberg and picked fights on Bronx-bound trains with everyone from jobless teenagers to pushy moms. But it wasn’t anything to speak of.
When I look back, the past ten years has been sheer hell. It’s almost like the UPA govt had to do something with it. Well, yeah, actually, the falling Rupee didn’t help my case at all. I can’t even count the number of neuroses, intrusive thoughts, terrible experiences, near-misses and rollercoaster of emotions I’ve been through. True, I’m now more grown-up and mature and understanding and empathetic than most others I know, but I don’t recommend this route to getting there.
That said, it’s all in the little things, I guess.
Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have expected I’d be living in a nice little apartment by a lake. Or that I’d pass by seaplanes everyday that I find seaplanes boring. Eight years ago, if you’d told me I’d be pursuing researchy computer science and writing hundreds of lines of code a month, I would have laughed in your face, because I hated coding that much. The same would’ve been my reaction if you’d told me I’d hang out with a crowd with whom I didn’t actually feel a bit ‘off’.
It’d blow my mind to know, even four years ago, that I’d be comfortable with long, long periods of silence. And six months ago, if you told me I’d get a job because of a crappy hack I wrote and put online. I’d assume you were messing with me.
Until two years ago, I wouldn’t believe you could go to a Norah Jones concert for $30 or that anyone could fall in love with her voice. I once whined to a friend that all the bands I loved had only dead people in them…. how my mind would have been blown if I was told I would go watch Queen and The Doors live, and that I’d actually see Dylan and Knopfler live and hate them.
I’d believe it if I heard I’d one day get to listen to my idols talk about topics dear to my heart with me in the front row and asking them questions, but I’d be shocked that day would come so quick. A lot of my sleepless nights would be quelled if I’d only known that yes, one day I’d get to work on what I love, with people who care about the same things and who didn’t have their noses in the air.
And at age 5, I’d be glad to know I wouldn’t actually die of typhoid.
And if you told me earlier today I’d see a man loading a truck with used toilets, I’d’ve stared at you. Expectedly, however, I chatted him up.
Like Subramanian Swamy says, no one expected Deve Gowda to become the PM. And Narendra Modi for PM? Whodathunk! And they used to call Indira Gandhi a goongi gudiya.
I met someone recently who I’d spoken to last ten years ago, and he told me I’m still the same, and my writing style makes me instantly recognizable. My first reaction, of course, was “But…. so much personal growth! I don’t even feel like the same person!’. And then my reaction was ‘Wait, I have a writing style? Finally! I developed one so many years after Allen Mendonca told me to!’.
Life’s full of uncertainties. And sometimes it’s a good thing.
Maybe ten years hence, I’ll be good at playing panpipes. And maybe I’ll make Alaska my home. Or maybe I’ll be writing for SNL. Who knows, right?
So Modi wave and all that. I was growing sick and tired of all the same speeches, rhetoric, all that jazz.
And then they admitted Muthalik into the BJP.
Everyone went apeshit then. Seemed like a spectacular return to form for the BJP after glimmers of genius. The familiar sinking feeling came back.
Thankfully the central leadership had the good sense to expel him soon after.
That short while of sinking feeling reminds me of how far the BJP has come as a party. They weren’t anything like this even in 2012. Now, it’s like that old suit of armor has been dusted and oiled and is now worn by someone who fits in it well and looks totally badass. Nah, just needed an excuse to link to this album here.
So the BJP has this habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They don’t listen to their core voters. And even if they do, they have their own agendas and infighting and totally mess everything up. Always. You can attribute the 2009 loss to rigged EVMs and all that, but seriously, the whole campaign felt very half-hearted, and stout supporters were only hoping against hope that the NDA wins. There was so much that could have been done, but Advani totally hammed it. Totally.
There was this theory floating around that the Karnataka unit is staunchly loyal to Advani and wants to sabotage Modi’s PM ambitions. Which is why Muthalik was given a ticket. I’m not very surprised. It has always, always felt like the BJP messes up on purpose. The UPA gives enough and more reasons to be targeted, but the BJP always, always puts up a half-hearted attempt and does all the wrong things, and it usually ends in the UPA getting its way. It is just insane how that used to work.
When I hark back to the past few months since campaigning has started, there hasn’t been one slip-up. Sure, Modi fails in history sometimes, but no one has completely dropped the ball on any issue. They are going hammer and tongs at national security, farmer suicides, corruption, all of that stuff. If you notice, Modi has managed to successfully change the agenda from Hindutva and all that Advani rhetoric to development. He gives memorable one-liners and soundbytes in his speeches. He doesn’t slip up and leave his spokespersons grasping at straws on primetime talk shows. Neither does he let anyone else step out of line. And the coverage of issues has been exemplary.
It wasn’t always like this.
Looking back, the BJP prior to 2012 seems to have been a motley crew of people with good credentials and abilities, who either drop the ball big time or if they are of the mould of Arun Shourie, get things right but have no real power to get anything done. Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley seemed more suited to preventing Parliament from functioning and other acts of full-on dramabaazi, some grandstanding speeches in Parliament which we BJP supporters consoled ourselves with, but nothing of any real value. It was really annoying for those of us who wanted a right-wing alternative to the Congress. We knew the NDA would deliver good governance, but had absolutely nothing to back it up with. It always felt like either the Congress was up to some mischief making the BJP look bad, or the BJP crawled when they were asked to bend. Oh, and the media. They were so hostile. They still are, but they are being handled deftly and not being allowed to run away with the ball, thanks to a good choice of spokespeople so far.
When Subramanian Swamy started tweeting, in 2011, I think, most of us followed him for the entertainment. Then it turned out, he knew exactly what we wanted and played to the gallery. Our gallery. Educated, middle-class, urban, young voters. He didn’t stop at just rhetoric. He walked the talk. For the first time we saw someone take on the UPA. And achieve success. He spoke publicly, repeatedly about his concerns about Sonia Gandhi. He actually produced facts and affidavits. He made these things available to each of us, put it in simple language that you couldn’t say you didn’t follow what was going on. He was accessible as hell. He listened to us. He minced no words criticizing the NDA. And he said all those things that we had problems with the NDA about. And he was no newbie. He was one BAMF during the Emergency as well.
For the first time, it felt like my demographic had a chance, had a voice that wouldn’t not get heard. We were kind of scared, and surprised. He’s got to be making all this shit up, we’d think. But no, he’d produce affidavits, court orders, put ministers in jail. The media didn’t give him all that much coverage. He didn’t care. He spoke in colleges. He spoke in Indian associations abroad. The videos would find their way on to Youtube. And he tweeted. We heard him loud and clear.
Of course, his stance on Section 377 is godforsakenly insane. And his fanclub is retarded these days, and given the volume of his fans, it was inevitable. He plays up the drama significantly as well, and says senile things.
Irrespective, he has galvanized and filled young urban voters with confidence. We are more politically involved than before.
He however doesn’t have much power in the BJP. But Modi does. Modi doesn’t care what others say, or have considerations of political incorrectness that makes BJP leaders stop short of saying things like they are. We lap it up. We love it. We like having the UPA called out for their failings, in full measure. We like the solutions that have been proposed. We like the deft handling of the media. We like the spokespeople who are allowed to be sharp and on the offensive instead of on the backfoot as used to be the norm. It feels refreshing. Especially since the agenda of campaigns is no longer set by the Congress.
There’s a long way to go for the elections. Even if the NDA wins, I am skeptical about how this united front and seamless working of the party will stand after. Still, it’s refreshing to see some real opposition from a party that, like us, wants to grab opportunities and run with them, instead of pretending to try and failing. ‘Do you want to go through the same troubles as your parents did?’, Modi likes to ask. The answer, as always, is a resounding No. Which is why we’ve always voted Lotus. It’s just great that this time ’round, we feel like our votes are deserved.
So anyone who’s not been under a rock seems to have read the ‘cool girl’ excerpt from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I read that book, liked the passage, went on to share it, found that everyone and his sister had beaten me to it. If you’ve been living under a rock, here it is for you. Here.
And then more recently was this rant by Kalki Koechlin. It was too long, and in some sort of verse, so that made it hard to read entirely. But the people who are sharing it on my Facebook and Twitter quoted the bit where she says she wants to wear frumpy clothes and dig her nose and lick her fingers (hopefully not in that order?).
I have multiple issues with these things, and I’m unsure of where to begin, so I’ll begin at the beginning.
I’ve never been ‘girly’, I suppose. It’s not like I was Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham. I just never was good at all the things that ‘good girls’ were good at. Obviously lost interest in those things and rebelled… all that stuff. I often got this whole ‘You’re not like other girls’ schtick from a lot of people. So, obviously, I assumed I was a special little snowflake who had evolved beyond gender roles.
Guess what. Every other girl grew up thinking that. Every girl thinks she is ‘not like other girls’. That’s how we are all the same. Every girl I meet says she was a ‘tomboy growing up’, including many actresses who now have picture-perfect makeup and clothes. Every girl identified with Ginger from As Told By Ginger and Lulu from Little Lulu more than they did with Courtney and Gloria on those shows.
But that’s not to say everyone was on the same level of ‘tomboy’. Some of us didn’t know how to pick our clothes. Some of us grew up playing sports. Some of us love videogames. Some of us say nerdy things. Some of us tell dirty jokes in front of all the boys. Some of us came home with bleeding cuts because we beat up the boys. Some of us dress only in tshirt and jeans and can’t seem to keep down a saree. Some of us are not emotional.
The point is, there’s no universal ‘tomboy’. You flout one norm, any norm, they put you all in the same category. You put yourself in the same category. ‘Tomboy’ is a catchall term. Given the ideal image of ‘girl’ is so unrealistic, are you even surprised that most girls consider themselves some form of ‘tomboy’? So yeah, I’m a tomboy, even though i de-stress by doing my hair and nails, I get emotional and cry a lot, and I can carry off a saree like a boss…. just because I spend a lot of time on Reddit or something.
Now why am I whining? It’s fine, isn’t it, all of us delusionally happy that we’re better than ‘other girls’, bonding over our ‘being different’, saying a collective ‘sod you’ to gender norms…. why am I whining?
The issue is simply that we are delusional. It clouds our objectivity. It prevents us from acknowledging our own emotions. As someone who tried once to be a ‘cool girl’, I’d say one of the problems with thinking of yourself as one is that you stop complaining. If you live off the kudos of being ‘not like other girls’, you at some point stop yourself from doing things that make you like other girls. Because that’s ‘not cool’. Or something. Like, no one likes to be the ‘nagging girlfriend’. Or the ‘emotional girl’. So when it comes to telling people you have feelings and needs and they can’t step on them, you are at a loss. I’m not saying these are the only ways to put your point across, but it’s so easy to shut girls down by just telling them “What? I thought you weren’t like other girls, being all naggy and emo’.
I’d like it better if we all just ‘did things’, and didn’t do ‘girl things while being a girl’ or ‘boy things while being a girl’.
On the other side of the spectrum is the Kalki type girls. Now Kalki and Anurag Kashyap get off on being the ‘cool couple’. Him, the hairy edgy guy who makes edgy movies, does cameos in viral-type videos, and her, the petite pretty firang who is so ‘cool’, she talks about smoking, makes viral videos for her husband’s birthday, takes stances against persecution of women…. you get it.
Of course, everyone tacitly understands that we wouldn’t tolerate Kalki if she said and did all these things while looking like Vidyullekha Raman (who I consider the Rebel Wilson of Kollywood, she plays the fat best friend in Needhane En Ponvasantham… Sorry, couldn’t think of an unconventional-looking mainstream Bollywood actress), heck Mr. Kashyap might not even have left his wife for Kalki had she looked like Vidyullekha Raman. Of course Anurag justifies Kalki being with someone as ugly as him by saying she was brought up in the ‘Sawth’ where all the heroes are ugly and hairy and she likes that.
But we all love Kalki and her unconventionalness and her ‘struggle’ to be taken seriously in Bollywood.
In short, Kalki’s your ideal Cool Girl.
So in that IBN7 piece, everyone identified with the bits where she ranted about not having to look pretty all the time, and wanting the license to be disgusting. Sigh. This is the problem with these CoolGirl types. You know what normal women do when we want to eat? We eat. Yeah, some girls prefer salad, and some others have small appetites. But for the most part, we just eat. You know what we do when we want to not wear makeup? We don’t wear makeup. We have bad hair days. We feel icky on our period. And you know what? It’s all not as big a deal as it is made out to be. We can actually let our hair down and no one gets disgusted!
As for getting disgusted, there has been more than one occasion where I’ve asked a male friend to ‘not sit like that’. I routinely yell at this guy I know for blowing his nose at the table. I’d give dirty looks to those who lick their plates in public. This guy I lunched with every day for a whole year and I regularly had an exchange where I’d say “You eat sooooo much”, and he’d respond with ‘You eat sooooo little’. I don’t like it when people burp and fart in public. And if someone were to dig their nose and lick their fingers in my presence, I’d probably rub sanitizer on everything they might have touched.
And yes, periods are messy, but I don’t talk about how much I bled. Of course, if it were a cause for alarm, I might bring it up with close friends of either gender, but why would you bring this up in polite company? I’d be equally disgusted if someone brought up other bodily fluids casually in conversation.
Yes, I understand this is the sort of thing that leads women to feel uncomfortable physically when their pregnancy is showing, people being too reluctant to talk about breast cancer, and the whole stress of being proper and all. But there’s a long slope from being polite with people you aren’t besties with, to being too shy to bring a doctor’s note from your gynaec for something important… and it’s not slippery for the most part.
If Kalki feels so constrained and stuff, it might possibly be because she’s in showbiz. Those rules don’t apply to the rest of us. And George Clooney wears makeup too, so I don’t see the double standard in being forced to wear makeup. I doubt male stars have it easy, either.
So where am I going with all this? Well, all of us wish we could be more disgusting, pay less attention to our appearance and not be judged for it. Everyone wants to be able to speak their mind all the time. That’s great and all, but given we don’t like it all the time when others do the same, the least we can do is be considerate of others. I’d not like someone showing up to my wedding in a Tshirt and shorts, so why would I do the same thing?
A few years ago I had this moment of revelation. I used some impolite words, and the guy I was speaking to made a face. ‘What, you don’t like it when girls swear?’, I asked. “I don’t like it when people swear”, he said. Whoa. That was new.
Yeah, not everything is persecution. Some stuff is just propriety, and those rules apply across genders. If we’re feeling like women get it unfairly for these things, maybe we should, as a society, have higher standards for all people not talking about bodily fluids or sexually-laced comments or being disgusting in polite company. And expect better standards of appearance from men as well. It wouldn’t be a new thing.
Goodness knows we could do with a little less burping and nose-blowing and ear-digging. For the sake of hygiene and humanity.
As you might have heard, Satya Nadella is now the CEO of Microsoft. As an NITKian, I’m outraged that a guy from down the highway from my alma mater made it before any of my seniors did.
As left-leaners, some people are outraged at our need for Western validation. Right-leaners say it is the government which has failed the people by not providing them the environment that enables our own Microsofts to emerge. People are all outraged by their Facebook feeds being full of fawning articles from the Indian media. Some of the more vocal ones are sharing that other article that says Indians emerge in the global arena only after they eschew their Indian roots and hence we shouldn’t be celebrating them.
None of them are wrong.
And Satya Nadella being anointed the CEO of Microsoft is still a good thing for India and Indians.
First of all, do you realize the magnitude of Microsoft as a global brand? Yes, you can laugh at Bing and Zune, but holy hell, everyone uses a PC. Tons of people connect using MSN Messenger and Hotmail. People game on an XBox. Kinects are common gifts these days. Lumia is a coveted phone. Yes, that shocks me too. But the user base is on the magnitude of Insane.
So you have this population that’s probably roughly half the electrified people of the world. A good proportion of them, mostly in Europe, I’d wager, probably have racisty opinions about Indians. Anywhere on the scale from Australian skinhead to folks who say ‘Curry Nigga’ to folks who say ‘I’m not racist, but these Indians smell’ to folks who say ‘Say something in Indian’ to Adriana Peral.
And now they’re pretty much forced to use devices and services owned by a brown guy.
Nah, you still can’t respond to snide remarks about your rapey country with ‘but we made your phone/kinect/xbox’.
But it changes people’s perceptions. Slightly.
Like when there’s this guy chatting you up in a bar and he can’t come up with anything more than ‘I love Indian food’, you say ‘And I’m sure you like your Kinect too, Microsoft is run by an Indian’.
And when I’m doing standup, I don’t anymore have to try hard to never call my ethnicity into question because now there’s new stereotypes I can get people to recognize, not the filthy old ones all brown comedians fall back on.
And when I do improv with someone ignorant and racist, they might choose to make Microsoft CEO jokes instead of terrorist jokes.
And when my friend goes to meet his WASP girlfriend’s parents, they have something to go by other than ‘Isn’t India unsafe for women?’.
There was never any glass ceiling in the computer industry, especially not in some of the biggest companies. As an aside, I find that in the ‘biggest and best’ places, there seems to be a lot more diversity than lower in the totem pole. You meet people from ethnic groups and communities you’ve probably never run into in your entire life in those places. What Satya Nadella achieved isn’t a big deal in the software industry.
But outside the software industry, there are all sorts of barriers that come up when you’re brown. This sort of global recognition of an Indian does a lot to bring at least some of them down among some section of the populace. And you can’t ignore that.
Yes, Indian government has failed us. Our mindset is too risk-averse to consider beginning an independent venture, given the uncertainty we face about a lot of things everyday. But that is something we should fix at home. Indians doing well elsewhere isn’t an excuse to stop doing stuff at home. If anything, we should take help from our successful diaspora to achieve new heights in our country.
Coming to the point of our relentless need for western validation…. yes, we need us to have our own Indian standards of excellence. But until that day comes, you know what standards of excellence we have? Western ones. Even if you don’t think they matter, the rest of the world judges you, knows you on those. So, yes, Lagaan, though I consider it a stupid film, making it to the top 5 in the Oscars is an achievement. So is Miss India winning Miss World/Miss Universe. And Nina Davuluri winning Miss America. It made the world look at us differently. It opened up new opportunities for our movies, our actors, our models.
So no, Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams are not our countrymen; they gave up their Indian citizenship gladly, and Ramakrishnan says nationality is an accident of birth and possibly doesn’t consider himself Indian, but yes, we can claim them as our own. They are brown and visible. They make things better, if only slightly, for the rest of us.
This is one kind of ‘soft power’ India has. No, it isn’t the sole preserve of Bollywood or chicken tikka masala.
So the next time you whine about yet another article fawning over Nadella, realize this. It doesn’t probably matter to you, in India. Not right away anyway. But it matters a little to those of us in far away countries, who want to help our curious neighbors understand us better.
And NITK seniors, you let a Manipal guy upstage you?
I moved from the Greater NY Area to the Greater Seattle Area exactly two years after I moved from the Greater Los Angeles Area to the Greater NY Area. It left my nerves frayed.
First of all, I’ve never had so much stuff. Thankfully, my move was being taken care of, so I could ship as much as I wanted. However, a friend who’d just moved the same way said it took him six weeks to get his stuff. So began the mad scramble of ‘what goes in baggage, what gets shipped’. There was this endless cycle of weighing, packing, weighing, unpacking. That was a fun few days.
And finally there were six large men in my apartment packing my stuff into boxes. So the moving company had made a mistake with my address. So there they were driving around trying to see what they got wrong, my name or my address. They google my name and come across the blogpost on moving, and decide okay, we got the name right. And find me on FAcebook. They narrate to me this saga, and say ‘So there we were, on 22nd and 21st, we totally knew what you looked like, so we’re trying to find someone around there who looks like you’. Good humored, friendly people, but man was I shocked at how much people are able to glean off of a single search.
The actual flying to the Northwest was a wee bit trickier. The snowstorm had grounded all flights. JFK was a madhouse. You did not want to be behind the desk at the international terminal just then. Amid the sea of blonde, sharply dressed women and fast-talking Wall Street types yelling at the agents, there I was, diminutive with huge baggage, and I shed many tears and begged the kind lady to put me on the first flight out.
She did. One of the few advantages of being quick to tears.
It turns out Minnesota has a really swell international airport. It is definitely much nicer than the one at Los Angeles. Though, for the first time, I came across Chinese being served with a side of mayo and mustard and no hot sauce.
I’ve been exhausted with my packed days that I’m taking my time setting my place up. It certainly is complicated by how much paper has been used to pack my stuff into boxes, and it kills me to have to throw all of that away.
That said, it is insane the amount of space there is for one person in these new apartment blocks that dot Seattle. I have nearly twice the space I had in Astoria. There’s even a patio, not just a fire escape. I even have my own washer and dryer, which is great because for the first time in ten years (apart from when I lived at home for a year) that I can do my laundry in non-communal facilities.
There’s shelving and so much closet space, I really don’t know what to do with so much. I’m pretty sure though that before this week is done, I’ll find stuff to put in it.
Of course, you must never compare any city to New York City because that is always, always an unfair comparison. I’m yet to find stuff to do around here, but that’s mainly because my evenings have been spent at home, eating and sleeping and exercising. However, finding stuff to do is much harder than in NY. Everything I usually do costs a little extra, and improv clubs usually are open only close to the weekend, during which time I have other stuff to do and other people to meet anyway.So, no, I haven’t yet checked out the Seattle improv scene.
That said, there isn’t anything outside that ‘draws’ you the way Broadway in Astoria did, or like how the action around the Columbia campus draws you if you live in Morningside. Going out here is an effort, one that is worth putting in.
I was always annoyed by the people outside my window in Astoria, especially when I was sick. My window faced the street, and it was quite a happening street too, thanks to the shawarma guy at the end of the street. So there’d be a steady stream of people standing outside the apartment, talking on their phones, sheltering from the rain or snow, sharing a smoke, kids playing… and it used to scare me enough to sleep with a hammer under my pillow. I later got used to it, and yelled at some of the noisier folk and those who annoyed me on Saturday mornings.
Now however I miss the noise. It added an extra sense of the world to me. Now there’s only silence. No Vasily cooing to his Kyriaki. No yelling at Nino to come home and do his homework. No Ms. Bruno scrambling up the stairs on her crutches. No Jose cussing the landlord in Spanglish. Stuff feels less real. It feels very Kamal Haasan in Pushpak.
People dress a lot more subdued here. A scarf and beret and wool coat and nice boots, which would have been underdressed for NY looks like overkill here. Oh well, need to go shopping for weatherproof, snappy, no-nonsense jackets.
The sun rises at 8am here, if at all. It’s been rainy on and off. Seattle lives up to its reputation. The topography of Seattle makes it such that I who walked four miles on NY streets without batting an eyelid am tired from the mile walk to downtown. There’s too many ups and downs. I joke that with this I can tell my grandchildren of going to work at the crack of dawn, walking uphill both ways.
But heck, my walk to work involves watching seaplanes taking off and landing, and a host of mallards stirring and preening, and swans foraging, so I’m not exactly complaining.
It’s not even been four weeks here, and I, who doesn’t follow American football, is sucked into saying ‘Go Hawks!’. Not a bad start, eh?
There’s so much to do, just so much to do. Holiday season is so stressful, especially if you’re moving across the country during it. Especially if you have to rely on a ton of other people for it. Two-body problems are terrible. And here’s when I’m glad I don’t have a spouse or kids. I’m dreading checking my email, because it’ll be yet another person asking about the stuff I’m having on sale, or someone asking for my inputs in coordinating my move or finding me a place to live. Or my family messaging me at odd hours thanks to timezones telling me they need to know when I’m coming so that they can plan.
Life was much simpler when all my worldly possessions could fly for free on Southwest and I didn’t care if I lived in a dingy room in Harlem with an insomniac, and I didn’t have a bunch of people waiting for me on the other end, and I was the only one I could rely on. Of course, having worldly possessions grounds you, gives you purpose, and serves as surety that you aren’t going to disappear without a trace, that if something happened to you, your upstairs neighbor would notice because she hasn’t seen you take out the trash in forever or because she hasn’t heard the noisy stumbling around the stairs late in the night in a while. Or your landlord would surely have to contact your friends because there’s this question of what to do with all your stuff. Yeah, these paranoid thoughts become ‘practical’ ones each time you have to really think about whose name to put down as an ‘emergency contact’.
It’s fine, I guess. My mother says no good thing ever happens without last minute tensions, yelling and wanting to hide under your desk and hope that they think you went thataway. I want to believe her. But there’s always this nagging concern that I could have planned stuff better. It’s easy to fall into the trap of Priya sucks at planning, Priya has no foresight, Priya can’t handle stress, Priya can’t make split-second decisions. But then, Priya’s managed fine so far, so Priya’s got to be doing something right.
In the middle of all that, there’s so much to outrage about. Section 377 for starters. Then there’s this Maid in Manhattan shit going on at the Indian consulate. And also people forming governments in Delhi. Oh and Sherlock minisode. I can’t see the hype. Also the Modi wave. And Rahul is a doofus. And some weird Indian men who will only shower an Indian woman with insubordination. I also have to kiss every landmark in New York goodbye. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do that with 5pointz, they painted over it over a week when I wasn’t taking the 7 train to Manhattan, and now I don’t think I can enter it. But the question still remains. When will I have the last cheesecake from Eileen’s?
Another new city to call home. And hope I belong. And hope those stories about Northwesterners making plans with you and then not showing aren’t true. And hope the city doesn’t shut too early. And hope you find a place where they deliver Mapo Tofu at 11pm.
I know I’m never going to find a place to live in that’s solidly middleclass and happening like Astoria, and that saddens me… what has America done with its cities? A healthy twentysomething without special requirements can do well in any city in the US, but add in any other issues, and it’s hard to imagine the lengths you have to go to make sure to do well.
Moving’s an adventure. Done it several times now. Never this way, though. Never with a houseful of furniture, never with my mother in tow, never on such a tight schedule. I know it’ll be fine. But until then, I still want to claw someone’s eyes out.
More on the whys and wherefores of the move and stuff later when I’m done packing my stuff, clearing my fridge, MagicErasering my walls, transferred knowledge, answered all my emails and found a place to live on the other side.
I used to share a tiny, tiny place on the Upper East side. I knew the moment I moved in that I shouldn’t let this last.
I househunted extensively. I wanted a place not more than thirty minutes from work. That eliminated most of eastern Queens and Brooklyn, all of Staten Island and The Bronx. I wanted a safe place. That eliminated ‘East Williamsburg’, Queensboro/Queensbridge, Bed-Stuy. I wanted an affordable place. That eliminated all of Manhattan.
After a month of wild hunting, I found an apartment in Astoria.
Astoria is a charming little place by the river in Queens. It was primarily a Greek neighborhood, and now you see a lot of Bangladeshis there as well, and there are quite a few mosques and ethnic grocery stores. Steinway St has a Little Morocco, with tons of Moroccan and Turkish restaurants and sheesha places. And lots of transplants, like me.
Broadway and 30th Avenue are apparently the ‘Heart of Astoria’. You understand why when you get off the N/Q trains at these stops. Right off the bat, you can see these streets bustling with activity. The bright lights are always on. They are not dotted just by bars and karaoke spots, but also many, many, varied restaurants, and by cafes. There are mom-and-pop grocery stores, with their front displays made of fresh, cheap fruits and vegetables, a variety you wouldn’t find at any Whole Foods or Fairway in Manhattan. Here and there you find falafel and shawarma carts, most notable of which is the highly reviewed King of Falafel and Shawarma on 30th and Broadway. Walk a little further down Broadway, and the smell of frying meat hits you. You see the source to the left. It’s the souvlaki guy of 32nd st. If it’s a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll see a huge huge crowd around him, of people young and old. On any other day, you find the regulars. Pot-bellied, sharp-featured Mediterranean men, squat Hispanic men, speaking what sounds to me like Turklish and Spanglish.
I took a friend to Omonia Cafe, on 33rd and Broadway. I wasn’t a cake-and-pastries person until then. This friend’s affection for the rich cheesecakes there got me addicted too. Nowhere else have I found nutella cheesecake. Their strawberry shortcake is literally the best thing I’ve had. And once I’ve OD’ed on their cream puffs.
You walk all the way down Broadway, take a left on Steinway and a left again on 30th Ave, you would literally have counted restaurants of atleast a dozen ethnicities along your way. And all of them are great. Well, most. There’s actually a bunch of us who sample a new restaurant in Astoria every couple of weeks. We haven’t yet covered the entirety of 30th Ave.
If my memory serves right, there was an historic match between Croatia and Serbia earlier this year. There were two bars on Broadway alone which were filled with fans in Croatian gear, signs on their door in Croatian, and the street was full of excited people draped in Croatian flags. It looked festive as a Mumbai street while Sachin was batting.
But judging Astoria by its food alone is like judging The Met by the number of exhibits. I’ll come to that later.
Going further north along 31st St, you find the TriBoro bridge. What I really like there is the sheer number of basketball and squash courts under the bridge. I’ve never seen anything like it. There are endless playgrounds on both sides of Hoyt Ave, and many with swings, something I particularly love.
Walk further along, and you find Astoria Park, by the river. There’s a running track, grassy knolls, tennis courts, and endless intrusive Bangla uncles who really want to know why a skinny Indian girl lives in Astoria and comes to run in Astoria park.
And then there’s the East River. Which is kind of a mess, really. But you look across, see the TriBoro bridge on one side, and Hell’s Gate bridge on the other side, slightly pink. And Manhattan right across. Oh, and the top of Roosevelt Island too.
But that’s not the best view. You walk down Shore Blvd, parallel to the river, though you can’t quite see it. You see massive bungalows on both sides of the street, with their dobermanns and hounds. Large wroughtiron gates, through which you can see pretty gardens, with an endless menagerie of Hellenic sculptures and fountains. As you walk further down, the houses get smaller, but no less prettier. Beautifully colored flowers dot every garden, which have perfectly-proportioned Greek statuettes or garden gnomes. You see an Orthodox church or two.
When you hit Astoria Blvd, the look changes. Graffiti everywhere. Not quite 5pointz, but beautiful, original. Quite unlike San Francisco graffiti which feels very sold out. You keep going until you get Vernon Blvd.
Socrates Park. With its modern sculptures. A wall of blue plastic bags. An obstacle course. A bear eating a man. A treehouse. And a seeing tube. You look through it and realize you literally have the most beautiful view of Manhattan from the east side, and you stand by the river, or lounge in the deck chairs, absorbing every pixel you see.
And if you’re feeling particularly touristy, try the Noguchi museum. Or walk further down Broadway and find the Museum of Moving Images.
When I was househunting one dark October evening, I found there a host of vans parked by 31st and Ditmars. And tons of women in prison clothes. I shivered. There were police vans. I wanted to get back into the N train and return to Manhattan, but then I saw huge lighting units. What’s going on, I asked the man behind the lights. Shooting a new series, he said. For Netflix. Oh, he meant I could catch the series on Netflix.
Apparently you could catch it only on Netflix, as I found out less than a year later, when they aired Orange Is The New Black.
So, yes, Astoria has tons of cool stuff. But that doesn’t nail what I love about it. What I love is the ecosystem that allows these things to exist.
The small businesses that line the street aren’t a result of a Williamsburgish support-small-businesses initiative. They just exist, because the people love them, and have been patrons for years. I once walked in to a cafe on Ditmars, and as I started eating my flan, suddenly a bunch of old Greek men settled around me, at my table. They pulled out their newspapers and began discussing politics and sports. I was nonplussed, finished my flan quick and shot the waitress a look. All she would say was ‘You’re at their regular table, honey’. Who knows, twenty years hence, someone of my generation would be at the now-brandnew Astoria Bookshop at an event, lounging in their ‘regular spot’.
I’ve only been here a little more than a year, but Astoria feels very stubbornly middleclass and multiethnic. The profusion of dollar stores, the fresh produce on the streets and in the farmers market, the familiar business owners who make it a point to know all their customers add to the feel. It is what it is because its residents don’t just want it to be so, but need it to be so. A safe place for your kids to play in parks, your elderly to find likeminded friends, a store for every need and want, and all not twenty minutes from Manhattan.
The most dangerous thing in this neighborhood, I maintain, is only the chattering old ladies off Hoyt Ave who will find you and talk your head off.
So yes, it was tragic about Section 377. I was very enraged. Still am, but I want to do something more constructive than raise my blood pressure about it. If nothing, I want to be more informed about ground realities.
So here are a few questions I have. Please answer them as best as you can.
* For an average Indian in a major city, how accessible are LGBT support groups? How easy are they to find? What sort of advertizing do these groups undertake?
* How significant are Pride parades in India? For e.g. in New York, LGBT wings of various organizations take out floats to advertise. Politicians use them as platforms as well to announce their support to the community. What do you expect out of Indian Pride parades?
* What is the mentality of the average urban Indian towards LGBT causes? I see the usual arguments of ‘it’s disgusting’, ‘it is unnatural’, ‘against Indian culture’ put forth. What is the level of prevalence of these sorts of opinions?
* Which regions of India are the freest or most ‘happening’ as far as being LGBT is concerned?
* What is the mentality in rural India? Are attitudes as conservative as it would seem to my urban eyes?
* How easy is it for a gay individual in rural India to live life according to their terms?
* On average, what is the level of ‘out’-ness of homosexuals in India? I wouldn’t expect anyone to be out at their workplace, but what is the rate of being out to family? To friends?
* What sort of measures are being carried out to raise awareness in urban India? In rural India?
* What according to you is the biggest challenge in repealing antiquated laws?
* Is there an effort to liaison/lobby with politicians towards LGBT causes?
* How powerful are organizations in helping individuals facing discrimination (for e.g. at their workplace) due to their gender/sexuality?
* Is it easier or harder for a woman to come out versus a man?
* What would be the one silver bullet that would make your job easier overnight?
I understand these are a lot of questions, and a lot of them very generic with no short answer. Feel free to answer as much as you can. Share it with your friends as well, because I’d really like some perspective.
Last but not the least, have hope. It’s a long battle everywhere. Soldier on. You have plenty more support now than you previously did.
I like talking to strangers. Especially fleeting encounters. I’m really curious about how others live their lives, to the point of being intrusive on occasion. Over time, of course, that’s gotten tempered down with a grumpy ‘everyone is the same, finally’. Earlier, my heart would do an excited flip every time I realized I had something in common with someone else, irrespective of how old they are or what gender they are. Now, well, I realize you can have enough similar with people and still dislike them intensely, and if you look hard enough, you’d find enough similar with anyone… I mean, if I met Hitler, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to bond with him over our birthdays being just a few days apart, and how German is similar to Sanskrit, and would probably practice my pidgin German on him.
At Dubai, I came across a guy from Benin who was going to a conference about nonprofits and charity in Beijing. I told him to get a facemask because of the pollution. I listened to him whine about how tricky it is to actually do something lasting, and I whined about the sorry state of mental health in India. We wished each other luck, and I came away feeling there’s so much that I can actually do to make things better. It was a different, more positive feeling than the one you get when you see people suffering and wish hard that no one else suffers this way.
Not all conversations are productive or life-changing though.
Some are plain weird fun. I was writing in a comedy bar (where you watch comedy shows, and the waiting area is a bar), when this gay couple accosted me. Right off the bat, we began this slur-filled banter, the details of which aren’t that important, but which essentially was insult after insult. Good-natured, slur-filled banter, if such a thing exists. It ended with exchanging tofu recipes. We finished our ciders and went to watch the show we’d been waiting for. Turned out, these two men were the standup comedian’s plants in the audience. Y’know, like you see a standup comedian pick on people in the audience, and they are taking it incredibly well, and you’re wow’d by how awesomely the comedian improvises his jokes based on what the people say? Yeah, these people got picked on, multiple times. Broke my heart to see these people who not fifteen minutes back were giving me awesome comebacks take all the insult comedy lying down, but well, they got free tickets and a free drink after, so why the heck not.
Some aren’t even that fun.
I found myself on a nineteen-hour-long flight from JFK to DXB. I’d scored a window seat. That’s always convenient, because I lean on the window and curl up. The seats to my left were occupied by two slightly older women, who looked just like Annette Bening and Julianne Moore from The Kids Are All Right. I’ve forgotten their names, so I’ll call them Annette and Julianne. Annette was sitting next to me, and Julianne was next to her. Annette made easy conversation, and had me laughing within five minutes. In conversation, I gathered they were both heading to Jo’burg, and that Annette was a nurse, and Julianne designed aptitude tests or some such thing. And they were coming back from a duathlon in Ottawa and ditched their group and detour’d to New York City where they let their hair down until 6am.
Now if you’ve watched The Kids Are All Right, it’s about a lesbian couple who’ve been together for twenty years, and Julianne Moore is a landscaper, and Annette Bening is a surgeon. Which to my mind was not too far from aptitude-test-designer and surgeon. Believe me, the ladies looked just like this. So I assumed they too were a couple.
Soon, Annette got busy with watching Twilight. I slept. When I woke, Annette had switched to some gruesome-looking movie. Julianne caught my expression and grinned. She began talking to me.
Right away, I realized Julianne was very different from Annette. Our conversation was halting, and trite. And I must have said or implied something wrong, because at one point Julianne vehemently said ‘Oh, no no no no’, in her Afrikaaner accent, ‘No, we don’t live together’, with a nervous giggle.
I wanted to die right there.
Julianne was niceness personified, though. She talked about her being legally blind (which was why she was taking part in a duathlon for the differently abled), about her daughter studying to be a nurse, about how she sometimes felt unsafe in Jo’Burg and thank god she didn’t live there (though Annette did) and lived in saner Cape Town instead. She talked endlessly about how smart Annette was, and how dedicated. She talked about how they met and though it had been hard for them to train for the duathlon separately, they had, and they’d won. She said it was unfortunate what Pistorius had done, and was nicely dismissive when I pressed her on it.
So far so good.
And then we began talking cuisine. I mentioned I was a vegetarian. And asked her ‘What’s one vegetable or fruit I’d get in South Africa and nowhere else that I simply HAVE to try?’.
And there it began. My dear, helpful Julianne began listing fruit after fruit, vegetable after vegetable. Asparagus, beans, capsicum, drumsticks….
I tried prying the conversation away from this grocery list. I mentioned biltong. And offal sandwiches. I even dangled the Kenyan Carnivore Cafe. But nope, the ever-helpful Julianne kept listing fruits and vegetables asking if I’d heard of them. Aubergines, carrots, mangoes, oranges….
Twenty, thirty minutes passed. We were still talking vegetables. I was at my wit’s end. I didn’t know how to cut it short with such a nice woman, who’d just told me she was legally blind and that she’d need my help reading menus and asked me to take pictures of her because she couldn’t see well enough to take selfies.
I felt like a child in a fruits-and-vegetables class in first grade, the only missing bit was those Topical charts with lists of fruits and vegetables we used to cut and paste into our notebooks for homework. And there wasn’t a bell that’d ring and save me from this.
I looked pleadingly at Annette, but she had fallen asleep by now. I prayed hard for an airhostess to interrupt, but we’d just got done with lunch, and they wouldn’t even come by with juice now. I wondered if I should reach for the call button, to call the airhostess, to escape, but it was too high up.
And Julianne wasn’t showing any signs of letting up. We were still ten hours from land.
Then a miracle happened.
I sneezed. Then I sneezed again. And again and again. Until I excused myself and reached for my allergy medication.
The sneezing fit lasted fifteen minutes. I had never been so relieved to have an allergic reaction. My doctor would say it was dry air that triggered, but I like to believe I’d gotten so allergic to talk of fruits and vegetables.
At long last, we reached DXB, the rest of the flight having mainly been sleep and listening to Ghanaian songs which I didn’t really understand, except well, this one (warning: NSFW).
I began saying my goodbyes to Annette and Julianne. I’m big on goodbyes. I always like to add a ‘nice to have met you’, or some such thing that sums up our interaction. Otherwise it feels awkward, irksome, painful to me. Like a parenthesis left unclosed in printed text which you can do nothing about.
We were looking up connecting flights, when Julianne tapped my shoulder. “See there”, she said, pointing to one of the many departmental stores that dotted DXB, “There’s fresh produce there, you’ll probably find something you’ll like”, she said, in all seriousness.
For the first time in what seems like forever, I didn’t complete my goodbyes and instead scribbled down my gate info and walked away hurriedly, though my flight was five hours away.
Andre nervously ran his hands over his fake moustache, pressed the edges by his chin. He tried to brush away the lock of his nondescript gray wig away from his eye as naturally as he could as he adjusted his thick glasses. He got up and stretched. He couldn’t afford to be nervous today.
He entered the auditorium with the hundreds of people who would continuously stream in over the next hour. At the entrance were stern-looking men and women in dark glasses, earpieces and long robes. Protectors of the Temple. Reverend Benjamin’s goons. They supervised the security. Which meant, they weeded out ‘troublemakers’ from the crowd. People who might disrupt the event, interfering with the Reverend’s auras, and messing up his powers of healing and divination. They even maintained photo lists of past offenders. Like Andre.
Andre walked in tiredly, shoulders drooping, following a blonde girl in blue and her sister, past the tall, built, curly-haired Protector. Her dark glasses made it hard to know what caught her eye. Just as he was beginning to relax, he heard excited whistles and yelling. ‘Gentleman in brown!”, the curly-haired Protector was calling. “Yeah, him, call him”, she said. The blonde girl pointed to him to turn back. He walked as elderly-gentlemanly as he could, back to the Protector.
“Here sir, you dropped this”, she gave him his tickets that had slipped out of his coat pocket. He wheezed a thanks. “Careful, sir”, she said. “You take care”.
As Andre walked back in through the doors, he caught a glimpse of himself in the shiny metal panels. Even he didn’t recognize him. Showtime, he grinned.
“Is anyone here named Brenda?”, Reverend Benjamin was saying to the audience. His eyes closed and forehead crinkled in concentration. “Brenda… Margolis”. A woman far to the right got up and said “I’m… I’m Brenda Margolis”. The Reverend elatedly walked up to her. “Fear not, daughter, now that you are here, what you fear will not come to pass”.
By now, Andre had slipped in his little earphones, hidden by his wig. His hands fiddled with a device in his pockets. Soon, he could hear a voice. “She’s losing her house in a mortgage”. The reverend began to mutter “Mort….. mort…. mort”, and the crowd held its breath. “Mortgage!”, he screamed. “Your mortgage. Will be taken care of. Daughter, you will be fine”.
Andre grinned. He needed to pick his moment. “I see…… your father…”, the Reverend started, and closed his eyes in concentration, as the young woman in front of him watched with her mouth open. Now, thought Andre, and pressed the large button in his pocket. “Ahh”, the Reverend pressed his left ear in pain. The signal had jammed successfully. Now there wouldn’t be anyone whispering stuff in the Reverend’s ear.
But Reverend Benjamin was a consummate showman. He repeated his reaching for his ear. Over and over, until it looked like he was having a fit. He began to shake all over, before standing absolutely still and emitting strange noises. He then began to speak in tongues, as the whole crowd knelt in reverence.
An hour passed. The Reverend did some cold reading. Some ‘healing touch’ stuff. Some pushing-down-to-create-the-illusion-of-disease-falling-away. Nothing that was really under Andre’s control.
Then he brought out his Pièce de résistance.
Reverend Benjamin was done weaving through the audience, and had fixated on a mother and her son.
Andre’s mind went into a state of agitation. How had he forgotten this. This was an ‘exorcism’. The ‘mother’ and her ‘son’ were the Reverend’s plants. The ‘mother’ would tell a sorry tale of a ‘possessed’ and ‘violent’ son. The Reverend would pronounce the boy possessed by demons. And would try exorcising it. There would be things thrown about, flashing lights, and oh god, there would be some levitation. Andre felt helpless. No matter how tame the rest of the evening had gone, this would ruin everything. Everyone would talk about the exorcism, and only the exorcism. The rationalists would imply some trick or the other, and the devotees would hold on to their faith.
The ‘son’ was being ushered on stage. He was being given a robe to wear. Obviously it had magnets or a string or some such thing for the levitation. He gritted his teeth in frustration.
And then the answer occurred to him. It was so brilliant, so simple, he was astonished it hadn’t occurred to him earlier. He smiled. And then puckered his eyes up in concentration.
‘Show yourself, O Evil Spirit!’ commanded the Reverend, waving his hands mystically about the boy. The boy began to shake. The lights dimmed, and a spotlight shone on the boy. He shook faster and faster before letting out a violent ‘Aaaaargh!’. He whipped around violently, and reached for the lamp at the edge of the stage, like he was going to hurl it. He grabbed it, and tried to yank it. It wouldn’t budge. He tried again, with a violent growl. It still wouldn’t. His growl grew doubtful. The audience chuckled quietly, confusedly.
The Reverend looked confused for a moment before he regained his composure. ‘Leave this innocent boy! Leave!’, commanded the Reverend. He pointed a wand at the boy, a long silver stick with a pyramid at the tip of it. The boy growled. He started a mad dash towards the podium, looking to tip it with the momentum. He seemed to have misjudged the location, and ran right across it. He looked at the Reverend, confused for a moment before returning to growling. The crowd tittered quietly.
Andre had a wan grin. He felt exhausted. He wished he had been closer to the stage. But it wasn’t over yet.
The Reverend decided to get done quick. He stood across the stage from the boy, his wand still pointed. ‘Leave, evil spirit. Leave poor Richard alone!’, he screamed, as beam of light shone from his wand onto the boy. The lights began to flicker and changed color. The boy’s growls and screams increased in intensity as did his shaking his limbs around. “Leave!” the Reverend screamed, and raised his wand. The beam of light moved up. The boy stayed where he was, his growls sounding a little confused. The Reverend tried again. ‘Leave!’ he screamed and moved his wand again. The boy jumped, but largely stayed where he was. The crowd waited for something to happen.
“Mother!” the boy screamed. The lights came back on. The mother ran on stage, and thanked the Reverend for getting her son back.
The crowd cheered. The Reverend took his last bows. The curtain came down.
In the middle row, Andre slumped in his seat from exhaustion. He only registered the blonde girl in blue slapping his cheeks before passing out. He couldn’t even marvel at the lack of a standing ovation, rare at a Reverend Benjamin appearance. Or the two elderly women next to him discuss dinner and not any matter of faith.
An attempt at baby steps in writing fiction and garnering feedback. Expecting this to be something like, I write one scene, which might or might not be complete in itself. Or not. It might tell a story. Or not.
Three Dots And A Tear
“Watch out”, Arumugam said as he quickly got Selvi out of the way of the crowd exiting the train. She was still getting used to the subway, and the rush hour. She always asked if she could leave to get groceries at Jackson Heights sometime in the afternoon when the crowds were thinner, but he insisted he come with her in the morning, when he left for work. “You’re still new, ma”, he loved to say. And then he’d caress her chin, and the three dots tattooed on it.
They got off the train. He would change trains to head midtown, she’d get groceries and catch the E train back home, all the way to the end of the line.
Eduardo wove through the crowds easily at Times Square. He never did get pushed, or jostled; being a big guy did have its perks. A little child bumped in to his knee, and apologized. He kept walking through the passage to the 8th Avenue lines. There was the one-man band guy there today, and he was playing Hotel California. Ordinarily Eduardo would have given him a dollar. But today he was in a hurry. It was his first day at his new job near Sutphin Blvd. He boarded the E train.
The crowd thinned as the train went express in Queens, and Eduardo was still standing, lost in his thoughts. It had taken a long time leading to this, he smiled pleased. The job was minimum-wage, but hey, it was something, and something more than he’d had in years. He noticed empty seats all around, and just as he moved away from the door, it opened, and a crowd of people spilled in. He shrugged. He was just three stops away now.
And he noticed a frail, rather young girl, struggling with four bags of shopping. It was only Fall, and she had on a bulky winter jacket. She didn’t know to grip the long pole at an arm’s length so everyone could hold on to it; she held it with her arm, and close, and there wasn’t anyone standing around her. She seemed new. Indian, probably. She was a healthy, clear brown, a face that had known the sun. And on her chin…. good lord…
Selvi noticed the shadow loom over her, and turned instinctively, trying hard not to show she was scared. It was a big, tall man. She reached only until his waist. His face was hard, but he seemed very young. And there was a little tear next to his right eye, a tattoo. She stared, fascinated and scared, glad for the crowded compartment.
He looked right at her. She froze.
“That tattoo on your chin”, he said touching his own, “get it off. Or they will find you, they will kill you”, he said, making cutting motions against his throat. She looked around helplessly, but no one else had noticed. “Do not be scared, don’t scream”, he said, like she’d do anything other than stay frozen. “That tattoo… bad. Get it off. They kill you”. His eyes were menacing, it was almost like they didn’t know any other way to be. But his voice was soft and unhurried.
And he got off the train.
Eduardo felt bad. That lady had been so scared. And would probably not travel alone for a while. And hopefully get rid of that tattoo, or cover it up. But better him on a bright Wednesday morning than some Sureña in a dark alley or late on a Sunday night.
An attempt at baby steps in writing fiction and garnering feedback. Expecting this to be something like, I write one scene, which might or might not be complete in itself. Or not. It might tell a story. Or not.
Queen To Play
Jenna leaned back in her seat and surveyed the lady to her left. Her dark gnarled hands turned the pages of a book. Jenna waited for her to fully turn the page before spotting the name in the top left corner – Sylvia Day. She quickly speed-read the page the old woman was reading. It seemed to be some form of erotica where the characters seemed to struggle hard to speak like someone’s bad idea of what American teenagers spoke like. She turned her head the other way when the lady turned to glance at her.
Now the lady was reading the other leaf. Bared To You, the title on the top right said. Jenna made a quick mental note to google it once the train got to Times Square; there was 3G signal then on. She always forgot by the time she got cellphone signal; she hated the subway for that reason.
And she saw a tattoo at the back of the lady’s wrinkled, gnarled palm. It was a crown. It was neatly done, possibly recently, and yet looked somewhat sinister. It was pretty, though, with five pointed tips. She’d seen something like it recently. She couldn’t remember for the world of her where. The Windsors on Netflix? Nah….
The train stopped for too long at 72nd and Broadway. When Jenna looked up from the book, she found everyone had left and stepped into the waiting local train across the platform. It was only her and the lady.
She’d been staring too hard at the novel, and didn’t notice the lady glance her way and accidentally made eye contact. Anxiety flooded her being. She’d felt this way sometime recently. And then it hit her, she’d seen the tattoo in a documentary on San Quentin.
The lady pursed her lips and slammed her book shut. She then turned to face Jenna. Jenna’s eyes became round disks. The lady’s large, bulky frame loomed over her though she was still seated. Jenna shrank and looked desperately at the door. ‘…. The next stop is, Times Square, 42nd Street. Stand clear of the closing doors’ said the announcer. The door slammed with a finality. It wouldn’t open again until 30 blocks later.
The train began to move.
Was showing my mother around Queens. Inevitably, Jackson Heights was visited. For those not in the know, Jackson Heights around Roosevelt Avenue is an Indian/South Asian neighborhood. There are grocery stores where you get, among other things, packaged lotus roots and mango ginger, and raw turmeric. There is a street called ‘Kalpana Chawla Way’. Palmistry signs dot the walls. Tons of jewelry stores abound, with old men with long beards handing you out coupons for stores or pamphlets for some cause or soliciting contributions towards some mandir or masjid somewhere.
There are tons of dress shops. All of them have some variations of clothes that look like this.
‘Imagine’, I said to mum, ‘your only exposure to Indian culture was through here’. In spite of all the nice things at Patel’s she wouldn’t find in a store in Bangalore itself, and chocolate dosa at a deli nearby, she wasn’t very pleased.
Now I’m not someone very experienced in Indian-American culture. But one thing I’ve always, always noticed is Indian neighborhoods are just so much dirtier, all over the US and in Singapore as well. Indian grocery stores are just so badly organized and maintained badly always. I’ve been told strongly by relatives who’ve lived here for a decade or two to never buy milk at Indian stores, because they shut off the fridges at night to save on costs. A Hyderabadi restaurateur somewhere in Connecticut told me Indian restaurants are ‘all dirty’, and he was trying to create restaurants with open kitchens.
In regions where there isn’t too large an Indian population, it gets worse. The only store of Indian spices is one lone Indian store somewhere, with stuff that’s gone out of date, and fake MTR mixes and pirated Maggi.
Where does this culture come from? India of the ’80s and ’90s? Because heck, I’ve seen Food World/More/Reliance Fresh be way cleaner. I assume American official standards and ratings for hygiene and worthiness of grocery stores are higher than ones in India, and the system less prone to subversion. And yet…
I’ve somehow never been able to reconcile a second-generation Indian-American’s view of India with mine. They either see disease, deprivation and red tape, or festivals, food and family values. Very few among the extremely few I’ve met actually have more evolved and thought-out ideas about India. What disturbs me is that these are the people giving the world a perspective of what it means to be Indian.
I’m not denying there’s much more to immigrant Indian culture than these two things. It’s just that these things stick out to me wherever I go, and I can’t quite help being offended in some way.
Strangely, I find myself not joining my expat brethren in celebrating Diwali and Holi too often, or being involved too heavily in any such events. It’s possible festivals aren’t festivals for me unless my family is around, but overall, I don’t seem to enjoy celebrating them too much with any Indian community I’ve been around. It’s the same sort of thing each time, held on the weekend before or after the festival, with some sort of a compromise between puja and party.
I completely appreciate the need to have such events, and the fact that only by doing so will you foster a sense of community, and keep people in touch with back home.
That said, I feel as alien with these events as I feel in, say, a gathering of standup comedians in New York (I prefer improv). The form the festival takes seems new to me, the ways they celebrate aren’t what I want, the food’s not the food my family makes for the festival, the conversations, the people….. in short, I don’t feel like running in pursuit of nostalgia after something that’s so obviously non-authentic to me.
This emphasis everyone there puts on ‘being Indian’, or ‘celebrating Indian culture’ and stuff like that puts me off completely. There’s hardly any honesty on how it’s a best-effort thing and not ‘THE’ thing you have to be looking out for. On occasion it feels like I have to put up with people and places and events I wouldn’t have to put up with in India ever, just for the sake of feeling connected to my community and roots.
Overall, I’ve begun to feel why should I have to try so hard to recreate a non-authentic replica of an idea of India I’ve never bought into, the India of Bollywood and bhangra and chicken tikka masala, when I might as well have whatever authentic experience this new country throws at me. Yes, an American tradition is anything that a babyboomer has done more than once, but atleast I can make what I want of it, and it’s more opt-in than opt-out at this stage of my life at least. And thanks to cheap communication, I can keep in touch with people back home more efficiently, so I’m not growing apart from where I’m from. Of course, it’s not an either-or choice, and I can have both, but usually the crowd that indulges in one doesn’t indulge in the other.
I know two years down the line I might be eating the words I said here, and possibly be found organizing some lame Diwali event in, dunno, Wyoming, but until then, I’m going to assert that there’s plenty more in the Indian community that needs to be done. We need some darned self-respect, we need to stop trying too hard to impress non-SouthAsians, we need to organize our events for us and not for some idea of India we want to communicate. That said, we need to pull up our socks on the cleanliness thing real quick. And yes, while it is great for all of us to come together under one banner, it sure is irksome to have one idea of what Indian culture is – the Bollywood-bhangra one – being imposed on everyone. It’d be a great idea to rethink what we as Indians have to contribute to the USA and realize that it’s greater than just ‘family values’ or ‘we invented spaceships in Mahabharatha times’. For example, why isn’t jowar being marketed as a gluten-free alternative to other grains? Please don’t tell me it’s because you don’t want what happened with quinoa to happen here; I doubt you thought of that before this. Also, it wouldn’t hurt if people thought a little more about their heritage and tried to get some real perspective on the goings-on in India, which is better than what we learn from Russel Peters, religious heads from other expat communities, visiting politicians with their own agendas, and Shah Rukh Khan films.
I seem to return to blogging whenever life feels out of control. It usually manifests such that I stay up all night avoiding something I’ll have to do anyway, and in order to distract myself, I blog. Not a bad side-effect, especially if it means I put things I’m feeling into writing.
So anyway. I’ve been watching and reading a bunch of stuff.
I watched the much-hyped Lucia last week. For those not in the know, Lucia is a Kannada film. What makes it unique is that it is crowdfunded.
A year or two ago, I saw this rather intriguing trailer for this movie. They’d put out this trailer and asked people to give money on the basis of it. I had some issues with the payment gateway and forgot all about it for a while. By the time there were regular updates trickling in about the movie, the window for crowdfunding closed and the movie was soon to be released. I regretted forgetting all about it, but oh well, can’t do everything.
The movie opened in theaters just the weekend I was getting back to New York, so I didn’t have time to watch it then. It released online for non-Indian audiences last week. The site was slow to load; there must have been tons of traffic. And $10 later, I began watching it.
The storyline is taut. The acting is topnotch. It feels real and grounded. You end up relating to the characters. The music’s fun. There’s of course a twist ending that you’re waiting for, starting from the opening credits. And it’s good. But that’s not all that you appreciate the movie for.
It progresses slow in some paces, but that only suits to establish characters, make you empathize, build it all up so that you relate better to the climax and twist. Overall, it’s nicely made, well-directed, slick, and the sort of movie that puts a smile on your face.
And crowdfunding for movies seems great. As long as, of course, the movies that rely on crowdfunding are Indie and really can’t raaise funds from producers because it seems risky. I totally don’t appreciate the idea of big names using Kickstarter for their projects, just because they are too lazy to go out there and raise money the traditional way. Because it’s easier for them, and if they invade this sphere as well, where’s everybody else to go?
Oh, do watch Lucia. It’s a nice watch.
I’m part of a quarterly book club, and this time, our book of choice was Quiet – The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It felt interesting to me. Of course, the problem with this genre is the anecdotal evidence that masquerades as supporting data for any hypothesis. The issue here is, Susan Cain is a worse offender than Malcolm Gladwell.
Still, the way of thinking about things has offered me a fresh perspective on myself. I’ve somehow always considered myself an extrovert. I’ve always been the most talkative kid in class, I always speak my mind, and I genuinely like meeting and getting to know people. And I’ve always been big on sharing my feelings. So how could I be an introvert?
Over the past few years, I find it easier and easier to be by myself. I guess I always did, I just never accepted it because if you were quiet and did your own thing, my extended family considered you downright weird, and my whole thing has been about getting away from that since then. I like living in a big city mainly because it affords me the anonymity and removes the need to have to rely on people continuously. I hate littering my day with ten-fifteen things on the fly the way my mother does, and I’m happiest just left to my own damn devices, decide my own damn schedule and not be answerable to too many people.
And it’d be great if the world left it that way and stopped trying to ‘fix’ me.
How watching Norah Jones videos and Netflix documentaries gave me a movie idea
I’m a huge huge fan of Norah Jones. I have zilch experience singing and now all I want is to be able to sing like her some day, just because I loved how she held us spellbound on that tiny stage in Tarrytown last year.
So no surprise I’ve been watching her interviews on YouTube a lot. Her soft Southern(?) lilt is endearing. She’s incredibly down to earth for someone who’s sold the most records in the previous decade. Her occasional comebacks (“You’re writing lots of breakup songs..” | “I’m not the only one”) feel very ‘bless ‘er heart’. I’m this close to crawling small musical venues around Cobble Hill hoping I chance on her performing in disguise (‘I’m not a good practicer, I learn best when I perform regularly’)
Now I’m no fan of Pandit Ravi Shankar. I haven’t really listened to his music, but the whole rockstar musician misogynist philanderer narrative has never sat well with me, be it with John Lennon or Ravi Shankar. I can write a whole essay on how the Simi Garewal interview with Ravi Shankar and Sukanya from fifteen years ago made me want to throw up. But his daughters, they give such fun interviews, say such fun things. Like the video where they are both accepting his Lifetime Achievement Grammy soon after his death.
In one of those rare interviews Norah Jones actually was mentioning her father, she was talking about her ‘inner jazz nerd’. That led me to watch a documentary on Jazz. It’s multipart, and I’m still midway into part 2, but the culture, the history, the way it is shaped around America’s race relations, how it is pretty much American history itself, delighted me. It’s this warm fuzzy feeling that comes with knowing that the little ditty you hum while doing the dishes is part of something much larger than itself.
This is a sliver of culture people are born into, people die with. My rootless self would probably claim that influence to be Rahman and Raja saar, but jazz spans generations. The same jazz standards are sung everywhere, by everyone, be it at Birdland or BlueNote, by Ella or Norah.
I might be jaded about the culture around Carnatic music, but jazz…. that was exciting. And I suppose tons of people would find the culture around Carnatic music exciting.
So. How about this movie about a philandering musician? He sows wild oats all over the world, and the mothers of his children are from musical traditions too.
Can make this musician of unknown lineage, unknown origin enough to make him blend everywhere. Maybe get Sacha Baron Cohen to play the part, I don’t know.
Surely there’ll be the HDDCS-type Hindustani musician, under whose tutelage our Musician learns. And his first wife is his teacher’s daughter.
Then there can be a Mohiniattam dancer?
And then a jazz singer from New Orleans?
A heavymetal guitarist in Norway?
A Khmer singer who meets her grisly end in the Killing Fields?
A Tuvan whose wants to follow in her family’s tradition of throat singers, but is not allowed to because she is a girl, but then finds success in the west?
This would totally make for a book in the style of Rushdie’s Ground Beneath Her Feet, and if it can be written without trivia and references and nods for the sake of trivia and references and nods, it’d be wonderful.
Would be great to start off the book at the singer’s deathbed, with all his children coming in from all over the world to see him (or not), and go backwards from there.
Plus, it’d be interesting to explore what a father or the lack thereof means in all these different cultures, how a single mother is perceived, how these things change over the course of time.
Would be an interesting book. Someone do write it!
My last two visits to Chennai have been for visa reasons.
There used to be a time when that wasn’t the case.
Every summer, without fail, I would end up boarding the Brindavan Express or the Madras Mail to visit family in Madras. Occasionally, it was to visit my athai and cousins, but I most vividly remember visiting my granny’s sister. Her sons (my uncles) were not much older than me, and that household was always filled with children.
It possibly wasn’t every summer. A couple of summers, I remember visiting my aunt’s people in Anantapur. And back then, everyone visited us in Bangalore and my usually docile self would go wild. One vivid memory is of arguing with my studious uncle (who was four-five years older) about whether the colour indicated in a picture-book was blue or white. It was a page with a list of words beginning with W, and ‘white’ was one of them, and the corresponding picture was indicated in a cloud of blue. My equally docile uncle grew stubborn that it was White because the picture said so. I stubbornly maintained it was blue. Somehow, this five year old girl and nine year old boy found themselves in a fight-to-the-finish replete with punches and bites and scratches and knocking-things-over. It only ended when my strict grandfather burst in, rewarded each of us with a slap and sent us to cry ourselves to sleep. My illustrious uncle, who now is a professor in Germany, maintains he doesn’t remember this incident. And my other uncle doesn’t remember the incident when we found a beehive in Vidhana Soudha with honey dripping from it, and decided to stand under it with our tongues sticking out.
An incident nobody will deny however is my playing with my grandmother’s hairpin and a particularly low plug point, and getting excited at the sparks that shot onto the ground for minutes together, shouting about Diwali. No one else, I recall, was particularly excited. Not even my rowdy older brother, who then later used that incident to terrorize me.
Every Madras trip somehow involved my maternal grandfather. I don’t seem to ever remember a Madras trip which didn’t have me sitting on his lap and reading out every signboard out of the window. Other adults would bore easily, and ask me to count cows or something, but not ajja. There’d always be something happening. Every station had something interesting associated with it. When we’d pass by Krishnarajapuram, he’d asked me to wave to my other set of grandparents (which I religiously did, even though I knew you couldn’t see the train from their terrace), he’d ask me to watch out for the monkeys at Malur (I don’t know how that got started). Bangarpet was where my goodie-goodie cousin Sangeetha lived.
And Jolarpet was somehow exciting to me because it was where Karnataka ended and Tamil Nadu began. I’d wonder if he’d ease up on his rule of always talking to me in Kannada then, but he wouldn’t. Somewhere after Katpadi, we’d have lunch which Amma or Paati would have packed. Somehow there was so little stranger danger then, and we’d end up befriending our copassengers and sharing lunch with them. They’d sometimes be dark stocky men from Katpadi called Selvam who’d call me ‘paapa’, and I’d shrink into my grandfather’s arms while regarding them curiously. They’d mostly be families like us with a bespectacled uncle and a granny who’d speak to me in English. And they’d bring idlis with molagapodi too. When I was a little older, traveling with just my mother, I met a girl my age from Pondicherry also traveling with her mother. I was intrigued by this girl saying they had bats in her school. I asked her if she’d touched one, and she said she hadn’t the cojones, but a senior girl had and reported that it was slimy. Many years after this, I’d develop a phobia for winged mammals, but I didn’t know that and was just plain fascinated.
And we’d get sleepy. And ajja would tell me a story. About crows or cows, usually. And it always ended with the little crow/calf going to sleep. And by the time Arakkonam rolled by, I’d be fast asleep.
Madras meant heat. And endless beach visits. If it was my athai we were visiting, I’d get amnesia about my parents and not listen to anyone but my anna and akka. Anna would tell me scary nightmare-inducing stories about every single thing, and make me cry. And then my aunt would scold him and take us to Marina beach. Akka’s friends were fascinated by me and I by their grownupness, and big hair and endless giggling.
If it was my granny’s sister we were visiting, the heat would really hit us. They didn’t have a huge neem tree in their building like my athai did. Endless jugs of icewater would be consumed much to the chagrin of my mother.
And that household had an endless stream of children passing through. We ended up this huge gang, with some older children bossing the rest of us around. I was around eleven by then. We didn’t really complain. They’d take us deeper into the water than the adults ever did. And Besant Nagar beach seemed a lot more exciting than Marina beach for some reason.
I grew fascinated with their consummate knowledge of Tamil cinema, their lingo which seemed straight out of Tamil movies, eagerly learnt rude Tamil words, and relentlessly teased my uncle (he of the white-blue conflict) about his learning Russian. (Little did we know then that he’d go on to learn German, Japanese and a few other languages and do a PhD in linguistics.) We’d watch movies on VCR late into the night, with everyone whispering filmi gossip. Someone said Janakaraj had died in an accident (which I found out only the day before yesterday is not true). Someone else said Roja had AIDS (Also not true). That ended in a whispered exchange with a slightly older… cousin (for want of a better word… she was marginally related to my granny’s sister-in-law) about whether kissing caused AIDS… not ‘spread’, mind you, ’caused’, like spontaneous generation. I fell asleep that night significantly more afraid to even accidentally touch anyone of the opposite sex.
I’d return from these trips significantly older, taller, tanner, wiser.
I remember a very different trip to Chennai too. The entourage was significantly smaller, just me, my granny and my uncle. I don’t know why we went on that trip to start with. All I know is, when we got there, we found the house locked. Forget cellphones, not many had landlines back then. Granny and I sat on the front steps for what seemed like hours until my uncle returned from the public phone. It turned out, someone (I forget who exactly) got very sick and got admitted to the hospital. And everyone went. And they forgot to inform the neighbors. We came back quick, and they didn’t let me see the sick relative.
And one summer I wasn’t allowed to go. Kavitha akka, one of the older kids in our group, died suddenly. I don’t remember of what. Her aunt who’d raised her, lost it. My great-aunt told me about Krishna-maami, the aunt who raised her, having a breakdown. More than Kavitha akka’s death, it was that which scared me and gave me months of nightmares. Krishna-maami was from Allepey, sometimes wore a white saree with a green border. The imagery of her in a white saree, hair undone, bawling, along with all the horror movies we’d watched in Madras, blended to give me a nightmare of Vithalacharya proportions. I woke up screaming a lot. And was too embarrassed to tell my parents why.
Soon, Madras became Chennai. Cable operators cut Tamil channels, mobs burnt buses, no theaters showed Tamil movies… both because of Cauvery and Veerappan kidnapping Rajkumar. It seems a tiny thing now, but that along with my Bangalore-born mother’s derision to anything Madrasi made me a tad less proud to be Tamilian.
Besides, there were other holiday spots my father decided us to take us to. And my Akka got married, and Anna moved to Bangalore for engineering. My uncles were now busy with college and jobs. Kavitha Akka’s sister, the one who I ended up so attached to, had other tumultous events in her life. There weren’t anymore a gaggle of children frequenting that house.
I found more cousins closer to my age, and there were more kids my age in the neighborhood as well. I preferred burning my skin off closer home, bicycling in the heat and dodging kidnappers. I got busy with swimming.
I visited Chennai once more for my Anna’s wedding.
And then it was just the US consulate which brought me there.
Things have changed. The large railway station I remember is now crowded as hell and dirtier. The smell of the Cooum reaches it. The bookstore is now a tiny nook. I put my game face on to argue with the autofellows as I step out of the station now; I don’t ever remember exiting the station, I always was asleep in my mother’s arms when I did so.
My ajja hasn’t been around for nearly fourteen years now. My paati can’t stand more than a week in the city of her birth anymore; she ends up falling sick. Her sister has retired, and my younger uncle is now married with children. Kavitha Akka’s sister and I were close for a while before she got busy with married life.
The city seems weird without these familiar faces. And the internet has ruined it for me with the incessant jokes about Chennai weather and conservatism. I’ve had a few less than pleasant experiences with folks from there. I hate it that every Chennai Day post talks about how they love the city despite or because of its autodrivers and the Cooum river, and refer fleetingly to the music season.
I don’t find myself longing for the good old days. What I do want is to explore the city that fascinated me so much as a child, right from the pavadais on display at Nalli’s to the fishmarkets I wrinkled my nose at, and see if it still fascinates me as an adult. It might, it might not… it is just another city after all. But through the years of prejudice, emotions, jokes, and sheltered visits, I’ve always been left wanting…. I just want to know.
When you’re among too many smart people for too long, it’s easy to come to the conclusion you’re stupid.
That happened to me – JEE coaching, undergrad, first job, gradschool.
Now when you feel this way, it can go one of two ways. One, you ramp up your learning, try harder, plan better, take it as a challenge and all that.
The other one usually comes about after frustrated attempts at the first way – you give up because there’s no point.
I don’t know at which point that happened. Probably JEE coaching. The exams were so unattainable and high scores never went beyond 60%, and the average was around 35-40%. It kind of made me forget what attainable goals looked like, I suppose. Subsequently, with deadlines falling all over me for years, I never did really deal with this issue head on, and coasted along. I didn’t even put my finger on this as being an issue until recently.
The result was, I never really applied myself to anything new. I tried learning German in undergrad and gave up when the grammar got intense. It took me tons of trial and error to learn linear algebra… and that process was anything but linear. I gave up on the guitar when my fingers hurt too much. I got intimidated by everything. It felt like everyone knew better than me, and once you get intimidated, you stop asking questions and trying.
I quickly learnt though, that I couldn’t bring that attitude to a job where I am expected to own and lead projects, push my own ideas into becoming new projects, and generally expected to be reliable. I also couldn’t bring that attitude to improv class. You can’t be intimidated by the others on stage and hide, not even if they have acting credits on Law and Order and 30 Rock. What’s better, both of these things opened my eyes to everyone goofing up and owning up to it and it was all okay, so why can’t I do the same thing. And I did. And everyone noticed.
Another thing I noticed among successful people – they took feedback so very constructively, didn’t for one moment assume it was personal, didn’t for once concentrate on the way the feedback was given, just on the content. I began trying that. God it helped. Subsequently, I also noticed people take it personally, and saw how that impacted everyone around them and it wasn’t good at all.
None of these however helped me get through Andrew Ng’s Coursera ML course or Daphne Koller’s PGM course. I got so intimidated, I gave up in two weeks. That, and I didn’t really have the time for it.
A month ago, I attended Peter Norvig’s talk about online education. He was just a little older than I remembered him a couple of years ago at the Google office, and had on this cheerful Superman shirt. I went and asked him if he had any ideas for improving engagement with learners who were usually intimidated by subject matter, giving him the examples of underrepresented minorities and those who faced stereotype threats. He said the courses were more or less designed to provide consistent feedback with regular quizzes and assignments and deadlines.
Now that didn’t really help me, but articulating that and thinking about it made me realize I had reached a point where I can try harder. And that I can at the very least start small and personal – and technology helped with that.
So there were hackathons where I forced myself to just blindly code, not worry about efficiency and things like that. I came out with cool stuff, and I could do it because I was the one setting the rules, and I set the rules and goals to suit me.
Then I found Duolingo, which essentially aims to make learning fun. An app on my phone is what it takes to teach me some German. I still need subtitles to watch Der Untergang, but hey, I can tell you if my breakfast is too salty.
And then I worked up the courage to try learning to play the guitar, from a Coursera course. The course is structured well, unlike other online resources I found where there isn’t a time-based progression and doesn’t tell me how much I need to practice, doesn’t give me goals and exercises, except that I need to do as much as I can if not more, and that if I was motivated enough, I’d learn. Nope, forcing myself to make those decisions wastes valuable cognitive energy. I’d rather someone smarter than me makes those decisions for me and just blindly follow instructions. Sure enough, I can at least hold the guitar appropriately now and play two chords and hold a pick without getting carpal tunnel.
It seriously doesn’t matter to me if I can speak in German or play a guitar or sing like Norah Jones (though it does matter if I have linear algebra and graphical models on my fingertips… :)). It matters more to me that I learn how to learn. That when I come across something new, I can break it down into small achievable goals, and develop enough patience to set aside some time and do it over and over again till I kind of get it. And when I kind of get it, it motivates me to get better and better at it. I know there will be people who get it quicker than me, and others who won’t, but that doesn’t matter… besides, online education and adulthood means I can try as many times as I want to learn and take my own time and no one says anything. I’m not setting lofty goals of being able to do this for everything I set eyes on, but have enough of an attitude to know that while some things are not worth the effort, it certainly is possible, but with some time and effort, and it’s not a bad idea to do so.
I tried writing a full-length blogpost on most or all of these topics, but somehow lost my way. So here they are, summarized and all together
I went to NYC Pride a few weeks ago. Usually, when ‘Pride’ is mentioned, everyone assumes it to be a wild Mardi Gras of sorts, but NYC Pride was nothing like that. It was co-opted by politicians, political parties, big corporations and social organizations. The focus was on milestones the LGBT community had reached, and about what more they want to do. Everyone and his brother wanted to show support for the community. Google had tons of Pride-themed swag – I saw this girl on the train with a ‘Noogler’ cap, Google Pride Tshirt, a TDbank rainbow flag in her pocket, a rainbow wristband, a sticker from an athletes group showing support for the community… phew. I ran into my middle-aged senior colleague there, and he’d brought his kids to watch. I’m glad for the mainstreaming of the cause. I hope sometime within the next ten years, I’ll be able to see matrimonial ads from parents looking for same-sex partners for their children in India. Because, well, no one ‘becomes’ gay to piss their parents off. Once your choice of partner is normalized, you can focus on other things, like worrying about how they fit into your family, whether your parents approve of your partner’s caste and religion, and how to ward off your parents and aunties and uncles hinting that they want you and your partner to adopt children asap. Like everyone else.
It made me think of all the homophobia in India. A girl I know came out of the closet, and someone else I know met her once. When this someone else got to know that the girl was gay, she said ‘But… I met her just last week and she seemed so… normal?’. And that is one of the most benign things I’ve heard. I’m kind of optimistic that’ll change, but I don’t know.
- Freedom of Mediocrity
Pride had tons of couples walking with signs saying ‘Together for 35 years, married for 2′ and other such mushy things. Made me wonder, what about the ones who argued and split up? If they marched in this parade, would that somehow make the cause less worthy when it came to light that flash news, gay people had the same relationship issues as straight people. There’s just so much more pressure on gay people to make things work, if you consider things this way.
One of my best friends works and studies in France and Germany. He’s an exemplary student and employee. He works really hard at everything he does, and always has done right by any standard, professional or personal, though if you ask him, he won’t say exactly that. When I ask him why he struggles so hard with doing everything right, he says ‘No, if I mess up, it’s so easy for them to say all Indians are messups’.
When homosexuals get assaulted, a great part of the advice given to them is “Project yourselves as being more awesome than straight people’. The major complaint you hear (especially from straight men) about gay men and lesbian women is ‘Why do they have to dress so ‘weird’? Why can’t they just be…. normal?’.
It irks me that just because I possess a uterus, I need to be twice as good as Karthik (generic male name) to get the same amount of praise Karthik does. It irks me that just because Sheila and Trisha are lesbians, they need to have a more exemplary relationship to show the world that gay people deserve their unions federally recognized. Or because Reggie is African-American, he needs to dress nice all the time to prove to everyone he isn’t ‘ghetto’.
If you don’t believe me, look at the examples touted of successful minorities. The ones to look up to are always the ones at the top. Admiral Grace Hopper, gay couples who’ve been together 40+ years, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
The problem is, double standards don’t affect the ones at the extreme ends of the success spectrum too much. It affects the rest of us.
Federally recognizing gay marriage won’t probably help the couple who want to be there forever and ever for each other as much as the couple, say the lesbian one in Under the Tuscan Sun who decide to have a child and midway into the pregnancy, the pregnant partner is left literally holding the baby. Gender equality won’t help Marie Curie as much as it would probably help some nameless girl in a nameless software company who realizes she would be a better coder than tester and asks for a raise due to which there’s a huge difference in the quality of her life and in the decision of who between her and her husband stays home to take care of the child for a few months.
Also, the people at the top are really few. The people in the middle are a larger bunch. If you want to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, you’d do better to start at the middle.
Freedom to me has essentially meant the freedom to make mistakes. In some countries, the difference between taking the right route with a male escort and walking alone in the wrong street can literally mean the difference between life and death. A truly free country is where your ‘punishment’ for going down the wrong alley isn’t much, because it’s so easy to make a mistake there. Freedom means being able to say “Hey, so can you explain to me what Markov Random Fields means?’ without the fear of being thought of as a dumb blonde. Freedom means being able to realize you’ve made a commitment to the wrong person and being able to get out of it without extra punishment for having committed to someone of the same sex instead of the opposite sex. Freedom means a brown person being able to mess up on a date with a white person without the white person thinking that’s true of all brown people. Freedom is flunking your final and finding out you still have a fair way to achieve your dreams.
Freedom means being able to write bad code without wondering if that would mean you don’t prove yourself well enough and you’re going to rot in a worse role than you wanted, though that’s not really standard for the men in your industry. Freedom is to be able to cheat on your gay partner and not have the consequences be so grave that all of gaykind are seen as weirdos and cheats by citing your example. Freedom means to not be judged for the nude pictures your ex uploaded of you in revenge a long, long time ago.
Freedom is like a mother’s love that says your mistakes aren’t that worse than others, and that the world still loves you and gives you opportunities to prove yourself other ways.
- What ‘feminine’ means
So I used to think being feminine meant having feminine interests. Sewing and embroidery, knitting or crochet or cooking or makeup or clothes, or maybe singing. But apparently you can be good at all those things and still not be considered feminine enough. Gaggles of sorority girls don’t care about your consummate knowledge of eye makeup. They don’t care about your awesome recipes. Mothers-in-law couldn’t care less about your crocheted toys. Or even your hips which your ob-gyn considers ‘perfect for childbearing’. You can have stereotypically feminine skills and interests and demeanor and you can still be one of the boys. Because the notion of femininity goes beyond all that.
Being a girl seems to be more about not living life on your own terms. It’s not about being a whiz at styling your hair, it’s about having no interests apart from styling your hair, irrespective of how good or bad you are at it. It’s about deferring to someone else, irrespective of whether you need or want to. It’s about being able to let someone else make your decisions for you – No, that can be a trusting relationship, not necessarily an acknowledgement of inferiority. It’s about not explicitly controlling your own destiny, but instead resorting to guile to achieve your aims. It’s about saying I don’t call the shots in my own life. Think about it. I’m not saying ‘being a woman’. I’m saying ‘our concept of femininity’. Think about it.
- Existential Crisis
Sigh. What can I say. FOMO. YOLO. Indecisiveness. Not knowing if I’m right in being attached to what I’m attached to. Not knowing what the future holds. Wondering if I ought to have regrets. Wondering if others have been right all along. Wondering if my reasons for living the life I live are good enough or if I should have taken everyone else’s advice and done something else. Wondering if I’m good enough to achieve my lofty dreams. Stuff like that. I’ll figure it out. It’s just damned hard sometimes.
So you’re starving. Like, really starving. But you’ve kind of made your peace with it. You’ve even stopped thinking about it much.
And then someone calls you to say hey, there’s cake, and we’re giving it to you.
So you get excited, and get all ready to have some cake. You try to tone down your excitement and be pragmatic and level headed, but they call you so often in the countdown to cake day, checking if you’re coming, if you know how to get there, if you know what to bring, that you figure it’s definitely happening. So you let your guard down, dress extra-fine and everything and head there.
By the time you get there, they say ‘Oh, I’m sorry, did I say cake? I actually meant day-old bread’. Or even worse, ‘Damn, just a minute late, all we have left is stale day-old bread now’.
Thing is, you’re better off with the bread than starving. So you aren’t really allowed to be mad. But you can’t stop feeling cheated because you were promised cake. You also hate yourself for being a minute late and missing the last of the cake, and endlessly beat yourself up about what you could have done differently to have arrived a little earlier. Maybe you should have run harder to catch that train, maybe you shouldn’t have redone your hair before leaving home. But somewhere you feel it’s a gigantic prank to constantly keep you disappointed even when you have all the nice things.