To Bombay from Bombay

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I must return to Bombay for several reasons. One because I tricked myself into believing that a poem is enough but it never is and two because I am reading Vivian Gornick.

Seven years between you and a city of your childhood is enough to make you want to give up everything in its honour. Even if a great deal of this childhood was spent stuck in an apartment on the 8th floor. Even if Bombay was a two- month long vacation in a house full of singing aunties, a toothpick of an uncle whose only connection to the house, and his solitude was the wheezing AC in the only bedroom of the apartment, and an OCD prone grandmother who washed the floor and the TV with equal amounts of Surf Excel and madness.

This is all that Bombay was. This and the shopping bags from Linking Road that amma lugged into big suitcases every evening. These bags had what my sister and I wore for the rest of the year – pants in the gaudiest of red, purple, and pink. Jackets in Amrutanjan yellows, and night dresses with cows and moons on them.

She really did shop for the whole town, as dad would often say. She got bags with 20 compartments for various sisters-in-law and their cousins. Back in Bangalore, during functions, ‘Attige Bombay inda tandiddu,’ (Aunt got from Bombay) was muttered approvingly.

The evenings were hot and sweaty only because we stepped out of the AC room then. As I remember Mahim – its street walls  were permanently blackened by building after building of factories. Blue carts stood idly on the footpath- and behind them – bearded old men in off-white shirts selling vad-pav. We’d hit Icy Spicy for Chinese and the good old Shobha for North Indian and Kulfi.

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When I found myself in this city seven years later, I asked the nearest taxi driver to show me the way out and he mumbled something from his swollen red mouth, pan juice overflowing.

In the taxi, I was glued to the window, inhaling the formless, moving shapes outside. Big billboards with Deepika Padukone’s face on them told me that it has indeed been seven years. I think back to the time when long ago, returning from a film at 8 in the night, my aunt suddenly announced that Rani Mukherji and Karan Johar were sitting in the car next to us at the signal. I poked my head out the window, in between our car and theirs- and gaped at the horrified couple who were not Karan Johar and Rani Mukherjee.

They were then visibly upset and my aunt proceeded with all shamelessness to make it clear to them that even she wasn’t all that happy with them for not being Karan Johar and Rani Mukherjee.

Bombay hadn’t changed or if it had, I was happy to note that I didn’t care. The air was hot and smelled like it always had – Like the fantasy I had of going to Juhu Beach or an open drainage and blinding myself with a pair of binoculars, having set upon myself the task of finding the sea smell. I say binoculars here because of Garcia Marquez.

In Living to Tell the Tale, he mentions a night he spent with some friends. His brother couldn’t sleep properly because the goat next door was giving birth and the persistent moans of labour disturbed him so he said that the goat’s noise ‘is as annoying as a lighthouse’

That Lighthouse is my Binoculars.

Marquez later says that he would never forget this moment. And as it turns out, neither have I.

Bombay smell is like petrol smell. Not everybody appreciates it. There are takers and then there are abusers. I take it whole-nosedly.

It’s what I imagine I’ll smell if I stand at the edge of a flyover and open my nose out to the sea –  and it’s the same smell that follows me, away from the flyover, past Kamathipura and Andheri and into Marine Drive.

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In my room at the hotel next to Bombay hospital, I sneak into the small, parched balcony that is barely holding itself along with its hundred pigeon-droppings and the blackened floor. I lean out and leaning out, I reached into the corners of the mind where Bombay was tangled like the numerous black wires on the clotheslines outside the Loreto building in Mahim.

***

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The next morning, I was walking up and down the Marine Drive beach assuming I’d get to see Shah Rukh Khan’s house somewhere. It was only after fishing out my phone and keying in my destination did I realise that that was in Bandra. You know how when you are young and if you are going to a city of film-land; you are positive that you will ‘run into’ a famous film star or at least catch a passing glance — à la Fan in Fan.

What is the point, I felt like asking after Google told me how far Mannat was from Marine Drive. I was sad for a moment and then I realised that I was in Paro Devi’s city and immediately felt like I do when I’m in love. I felt hopeful and alive from the pit of my stomach. It was 7:30 in the morning. I was a little drowsy, mildly hung-over, and no Shah Rukh Khan anywhere. But I realised that just being in the same city as your favourite writer can save you in ways even Shah Rukh Khan can’t.

Did Paro Devi come here often, I wondered. And through the rest of my stay there – it’s all I asked myself.

I was in the same city as another Shah-Rukh lover and that seemed enough. I was in the same city as a writer whose work I’d stalked for years. And there – standing in Marine Drive smiling sheepishly at all the joggers, I was able to rescue Bombay from Bombay.

I returned home with Two Bombays. One is the Bombay of my childhood and there it will remain happily for the rest of my life. The other is a borrowed Bombay – one that you know through someone else, one that comes alive in someone else’s writing. And because of some one else’s love for the city, you consume it and learn to love it.

Elena Ferrante said “When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities.”

When I first read this, I shook my head. I didn’t agree. For a long time I believed that  cities come out alive when one is not in love. But maybe I should have just read it more carefully. She is not saying anything about being in love, she is saying when there is no love. Very different things. And back in Marine Drive that day, if I hadn’t thought about Paro Devi who had taught me so much about love through her writing and her documentaries — Bombay would have become sterile.

Feminism is about Love and kindness, she says in so many of her interviews. And as I have come to realise, it really is the closest definition of Feminism.

But what does Shah Rukh Khan have to do with love or feminism?

Now only I will start writing next post.

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Laugh like Sumitra

For as long as I can remember – I have always been a stalker, first, a writer second. Even when I am not writing, I am stalking. It isn’t worrisome because if stalking happens then can writing be far behind?

I have spent some spectacular nights on my phone jumping from website to blog to YouTube interviews of women writers I’m madly in love with. It’s usually the kind of night that spreads itself neatly on my bed till 4 in the morning – my body gently breaking from all the postures I have been trying, my eyes tired and watery, and my head brimming with inspiration.

So what am I trying to learn from them?

In the beginning it was mostly about learning how to say fuck off. Even now, I’m afraid, I’m still learning the same thing. But please understand that at various points in life, women need different degrees of being able to say fuck-off. The fuck-off that you imply at home for instance is a lot different from the fuck-off you want to scream outside. 

Beyond this is another freak show behaviour on my part. I’m obsessed with a strange desire to know everything about these women’s lives – who were their bullies in college? How did they fight back? How old were they when they first fell in love? When was the last time they cried? Do they use napkins or tampons or cups? Do they decide what to wear for work every day or do they just throw something on? How did they begin writing?

In the early 2000’s – the idea of a working woman in my family was radical. Her education, on the other hand was not radical because it was necessary to keep an engineer bride ready for a double-graduate groom. It was maybe more than necessary – it was meritorious.

Today, unmarried women in their late 20’s instinctively learn to show their middle-fingers at people who bug them about marriage and babies.

In the urban space therefore, even if I know many, many working women – it gives me a kind of high when they have work problems. My sister Bubbly’s work involves numerous conference calls when she is at home. Sometimes she sits with her laptop, her eyes scrunching at all manner of squiggly codes. I derive an odd pleasure from watching her work. One such busy morning, she was on a conference call when she was interrupted by a brother trying to wave at her. She shot him one killer look before going back to her call.

I love this. It’s incredible to see women being busy in a world that is just theirs. Kind of like a Bechdel pass. Bechdel fails are almost heartbreaking to watch- where female friendships are compromised because playing out to male fantasies or impressing men becomes more important. This is where Ferrante wins. In her world, there is neither any place for male fantasies nor for women who make everything about men.

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I’m wondering also, if things in my past could have been handled better – meaning- without losing calm and foresight. I’m not going to get into the details here because I have already written about it in several other posts. But just what is a decent response to bullies?

My friend says that being unavailable to attacks or the attackers is one way to go about it. You don’t give them space – either in your life or in your head. It’s the only response that merits many degrees of coolness in my opinion. The unavailability isn’t physical. Although that’s a good beginning. It’s mostly emotional, intellectual even. When you don’t talk about them or about yourself in relation to them and their attacks – you outgrow them, you take away power from them. They become small when you focus on something else – your work for instance.

Being unavailable doesn’t mean not caring. It’s this rock- star ability to make attackers cringe by laughing at them. Which means that you care but just not enough to satisfy them – you care, but only enough to laugh at them.

Say a co-worker has an opinion about you and your competence, and has said shitty things about you to people who are directly related to your work – like students maybe, or clients, or people you are in a business partnership with – what do you do then?

Do you call them out for being unprofessional? Do you do major drama? Or do you just ignore it?

Here is a thing I wish I had done – I wish I had laughed at them. I wish my body had filled itself with an untamable Dalit energy and I’d laughed in their faces. Gogu Shyamala’s Saayamma has this energy. So does Devi’s Dopdi. 

A short-story I once wrote has a woman named Sumitra leaping wildly, beating her chest and laughing at a man she hates very much. I don’t know where the energy to write Sumitra came from. It was based on an incident narrated to me. I gave her mad things to do because by then, somewhat of a mad woman was living inside me. 

I’d like to believe that all Dalit women are naturally equipped with a capacity to laugh menacingly. How? I don’t know but they just do. Someone once said that a good, strong laugh is one that shrinks cocks down. It is true. Nothing shrivels a cock and savarna pride more than the loud and ‘vulgar’ laugh of a Dalit woman.

*******

On Elena Ferrante

Finally, finally, finally. Sat down and wrote about reading Elena Ferrante. This is my first piece for The Open Dosa and I’m thrilled that it’s about Ferrante. My students and I were just dying to talk about her at Meta this year. The following picture is from the day of the panel.

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For Drishti, Ila, and Vismaya. With Louu.

This is my favourite picture from Meta. These girls and I have bonded over many other things – struggling with writing, reading, life, classes, clothes, and shoes. Now that we have Ferrante in common, these peeps will always be a part of me.

Read the piece here.

Gestures

I was 12 when I taught myself to be angry. When I refused to make tea one afternoon, dad picked up his leather belt and whacked my thigh. It left a thin line of red that I sat and traced all through the week. That evening when he took us to Pizza Corner, I sat in a corner and sulked. But I made sure he didn’t see.

Every time after that he asked for tea, I hid in the bathroom and faked menstrual cramps. It was in the bathroom that I learnt to sense his demands and navigate my way out of them. When I wore capris another day, he threw a fit and yelled at ma. Ma drew a blank expression on her face — it was calm. It is the same face that will meet me every time she knows that he is wrong but can’t do anything about – at least not right away. The doing anything about it will happen in private – when she will explain to him why he needs to back off. Like the time she took him to Jain College one day and showed him that he should be grateful that I am wearing capris and not halter necks and minis. That’s what she says but I am sure nobody who went to Jain College wore minis and halter necks. Not then, not now.

When I was 20, I sat with all the men in hall waiting for food. I had decided that the only way to kill patriarchy was by being the men. I didn’t like that every time there was a Pooja at home; the women would sit in the kitchen – even the ones who didn’t have to be there while the men poured into the hall and made loud small talk. Women I had occasionally seen at other poojas would turn up quite early to help in the morning. Their husbands and fathers and brothers would come later in the day- an hour or two before dinner. Two bed sheets would be laid out in the hall and they made a neat L.

That evening, I sat in the corner next to my cousin Prashant. Nobody said anything and this made me very angry. I had practiced a speech that wasn’t needed now. Crueller than that perhaps was the realisation that when the women started bringing in vessel after vessel of food, I didn’t quite feel the way I thought I should/would feel. It wasn’t liberating to sit with the men and eat food while the women served. But I also didn’t want to help the women. This continued to be a very big, very real dilemma for me. I would find myself asking this question to a whole lot of people – in classes, conferences, seminars, and in conversations. But there is no set answer to this question.

Until one day when I read NS’s piece on Feminism. It’s called ‘Feminism is why I don’t hate men’. When I finished reading it, I felt like I had just slapped all the assholes in my life – one giant slap across all their faces in one quick motion. It didn’t matter that I didn’t write it, it didn’t even matter that some of these assholes aren’t even in my life anymore. It was just comforting to know that at some point, she too had the same dilemma that I did.

Sitting in the auditorium at NGMA one day, Z asked me if I often wonder what NS would do in certain situations. I rolled my eyes – ‘all the time’, I said. Over the years, we have come to see NS as a rock star of sorts, somebody who has answers to everything. This may not be fair to her but I want to believe it’s true.

At 27, I have learnt more about feminism from stalking her writing than from any of the theories I was given to read. For somebody who believed aggression to be the only suitable response to assholes, NS’s ability to use humour to piss people off was both unsettling and intimidating. This was an approach that was new and confusing to me. What can be more aggressive than humour? What can the assholes say when you have taken a nice, long fart in their faces?

Over glasses of brandy in K, I pester NV to teach me to become independent like her. She lives alone, walks alone, rides like a maniac, cuts in between heavy vehicles, says no just as easily as she blushes and drinks like a fish. ‘Parents need to be taught how to grow up ya’, she says. In five years if I am anywhere close to living my life like NV, I will be a proud feminist.

The list of women I am trying to catch up with is growing. I don’t know some of these women personally. But I stalk their blogs and read them more than I read anybody else. The women that I do know personally are harder to emulate because I don’t want to freak them out. The child in me will only want to buy bags like theirs and clothes like theirs. In a simpler time, feminism just meant looking like the women I wanted to be like. And maybe now that I can look back without anger, it’s ok to derive inspiration from looking like them.

NM walks like she owns not just her body but everything and everybody around it. ‘Dress well, laugh and let them see you laugh’, says NM.

S and I often talk about Goddesses. The Goddess is an independent woman. She laughs sensually and cuts men down to size with humour and sometimes just a killer look. She isn’t beautiful but she has personality. Every time we deal with a situation using humour, personality, aggression, and style – we call ourselves goddesses. So far, we have never been able to do that.

I have doubted myself far too much in the last couple of months than I have in all my life. I have pondered over meanings and meaning -making, gestures and behaviours and how seriously I should take each of these. I have, at various occasions chided myself for over thinking and then wondered if I have in fact been over thinking. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am tired. I am tired of wanting to become the woman who knows exactly how to deal with assholes. I want to be that woman already.

My First :)

My favourite film in the history of world is this Telugu film called Arundhati. It’s a fantasy/horror movie. I was thrilled to write about it for The Ladies Finger.

Arundhati I am happy to finally cross something off my Long-Island Ice Tea jar list 🙂

You can read it here.

Girlfriends

Too often I have had girlfriends in my past I couldn’t stand to be around. They were all kinds of dreadful and the only defence I had against them was to be mean to them or ignore them completely. I just wish I had done something I have learnt to do only recently– Laugh and laugh loudly. There were so many of them. I resisted, fought, cried, got insecure, pitied myself and kept doing it repeatedly until they disappeared from my life. Too much was at stake then. I was trying to balance my new found feminism with going gaga over a man I loved whose approval I strongly sought. Things fell apart– I slapped one of his friends because he was a sexist hog and spent months crying over it. Now I look back and laugh because all it took was one tight slap and he was gone from my life.

The cooking girlfriend made my life difficult because she cooked and believed all women should cook. She pampered all the men around, including the love of my life, whom I didn’t mollycoddle usually but when I saw her doing it, I got sucked into the madness and pampered him crazy. Yes, I was insecure. No, I don’t feel stupid now because I am convinced I had to cross all of that to stand here and laugh.

I am a different person now which doesn’t mean I am less insecure about stuff. I just wish I hadn’t spent months fussing over my reactions to each of these shitheads. When I look back at the women I fought with, I miss them. Because minus feminism is important, I had a nice time with them. I was so busy trying to give them gyaan about how they should instead live their lives, I didn’t realise how nicely they would fit into my stories. I could have written then, when my anger was less funny and my writing, forceful and lame yet ambitious in a way it is too scared to be now.

I wish I was more invested in their lives and how they came to think the way they did. Despite all the irritation they harboured for me, which would come out only in moments, they were nice to me in a motherly yet real way. One of these women I am in touch with now is married and has just given birth to a boy. Around 8 months ago over a fury of whats app chats, she told me she didn’t want the baby. She was confused. She thought it was too early but was too scared to tell her husband. The final verdict came from her mother who convinced her that a year into the marriage is not too early to have a baby and that in some cases; it is the perfect time, especially if you have been living abroad.

This got me thinking of the many things I had chosen to ignore over my squabbles with her. Even so, I am not in a very forgiving place right now. I just wonder what she is doing now, at this moment. Feeding the baby or trying to shut it up because it has been howling all day.

Then there was another bored housewife up in arms against the F word, whom I laughed at 3 months ago on Facebook. That was fun but I felt really bad later because she was paavam and struggling with marriage issues, you know like spellings and stuff. Not fun.

I am listening to the soundtrack of Amelie now and wondering whom to think of fondly while I smile shyly. Not that there are many. It’s just that I want love to be perfect only in these moments — when I am listening to a nice song and don’t have to fret over whom to think of. This is the only time where Polygamy = 0, Monogamy =1.

Dedh Ishqiya aur Ek Lihaaf

This year’s general rule has been limited consumption of all that is good. Good food, good movies and good weekends. That explains why after Dedh Ishqiya, I haven’t watched a good Hindi movie this year, well except Queen. Somewhere in the middle of January this year, I caught Dedh Ishqiya at Rex. I hadn’t watched its prequel but that wasn’t a strong enough reservation to not watch the sequel. Real problems like tickets and transportation were the pain and bane. Somehow, a bunch of us made it a full 10 minutes after the movie had begun.

I caught it again on Sony Max today. Apart from rekindling forgotten desires for Huma Qureshi, I finally understood why I liked the movie so much. It’s what they say to each other in the movie. So much like watching a live version of ‘Sex without Love’, only better, because of the language. Launde for guys, and bang in the middle of this Hindiness, Qureshi says, “Yehi toh problem hai tum aaj kal ke laundon mein. Ishq aur sex mein farak nahi karpaate na tum?” Immediately after this, I noticed how he slapped her, pushed her hard on the ground, beat her. I also noticed how neither the women nor the movie spent much time in reacting to this violence. It didn’t need to. For all the ‘junoon-oons-ibadat-sex-mohabbat-ishq’ dialogue between Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi, the women spend very little time talking about love.

That and Chugtai’s Lihaaf scenes. Shah casually slipping intelligent lines to Warsi – ‘Thand lag rahi hai, lihaaf maangle kya’? The yellow backdrop working itself out like the lihaaf behind Naseeruddin shah as he sits tied up and slumping while the two women in front of him become one shadow.

Something very unburdening about not being in love with the opposite sex. It’s like being in love with yourself. I don’t know what that means yet. But maybe it’s finally a relationship where you don’t have to bargain for anything with anybody – either for commitment or for space. A very mellow in-between-ness that isn’t certainly removed from insecurity but strongly grounded in real conflicts.

As the men are left to fend for themselves, the women drive off into the sunset in a red maruti, just like that. Something about strongly encircling their lives without the need for anything male. I missed the Lihaaf bits when I watched it the first two times, because I was too distracted by Arshad Warsi’s brilliant comic exploitation on my jaw. But now that I have watched it again on a more personal level, I feel unburdened every time I remember Huma qureshi’s quizzical expression after Warsi declares love for her or the way she doesn’t fall off track after a night of passionate heterosexual sex.

Here is a link to ‘Lihaaf’ – the short story by Ismat Chugtai –

http://www.manushi-india.org/pdfs_issues/PDF%20file%20110/9.%20Short%20Story%20-%20Lihaaf%20%5BThe%20Quilt%5D.pdf

And here is a link to Lihaaf – the short film based on Chugtai’s story-