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What they told me

Living alone is a skill, like running long distance or programming old computers. You have to know parameters, protocols. You have to learn them so well that they become like a language: to have music always so that the silence doesn’t overwhelm you, to perform your work exquisitely well so that your time is filled. You have to allow yourself to open up until you are the exact size of the place you live, no more or else you get restless. No less, or else you drown. There are rules; there are ways of being and not being.                                                 ~ Catherynne M. Valente, Palimpsest

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Pic courtesy The Daily Mail

Somebody shared this on Facebook and I died. Even though I have never lived alone, it’s what I think about – at least once every day. Two months ago, I did a bit of research to find out what women think they need to do to become/feel independent. This is what a few of my favourite women from 2015 had to say:

NV:

  • Live alone
  • Travel alone
  • Walk alone
  • Masturbate
  • Cut men down to size
  • Say the words Vagina and Clit in public

NM: Learn to cook

SR:

  • Flip water-cans
  • Develop a tolerance for loneliness
  • Buy Condoms

ZG: Live alone

IA:

  • Read
  • Travel
  • Have a hobby

SA:

  • Save money
  • Eat/drink alone

I keep borrowing the final image of my living alone from movies. Konkona Sen from Wake up Sid! Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz from The Holiday are the absolutest. What continues to be the deal-maker however is this quote:

Then there’s the deep contentment of turning the key in your own front door on a Friday night, slamming it behind you, pouring a glass of wine and settling down to watch a favourite movie.

I found the quote here.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that the older I grow, the farther the dream seems. My fears grow horns on their own when I travel with my family. And really really scary horns. Like I start feeling I will somehow be pushed into their dreams and when that happens, I’ll be too paralyzed to do anything about it.

I want to say I haven’t made any resolutions but nobody will believe me. Not even my blog. It may just delete itself off if I lie to it on it. So maybe resolution number one should be to stop traveling with the family.

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On my 27th Birthday

I’m afraid I must write this quickly — before I get used to this, before Hyderabad and its roads, EFLU and its trees, its quiet corners become so remarkable that I cannot write about them anymore. So here goes.

At the pre-paid taxi kiosk in Hyderabad airport, the man with the lisp said eeeflu and corrected my efflu when I told him where I wanted to go. I took my slip and waited calmly near Healthy Bites. Goa has done me good, I thought. I started counting the number of ways I could get raped in only after I climbed into 4417 – my ride for the evening. But I stopped thinking about it because I was distracted by the driver’s good looks. When we left the airport, he was on his phone, arguing with his friend to book movie tickets at the PVR in Banjara Hills. I focused all my energy into paying attention to his delicious Telugu. I forgot Allu Arjun, I forgot Arundhati and I remembered how much I love listening to Telugu. Even the empty, stretching highway in the midst of nothingness and the occasional tall building couldn’t distract me. I continued to listen, praying he wouldn’t stop talking.

Within minutes, they had settled their ticket issue and he went back to driving and I went back to being the dog I become when I sit by the window.

A cracker burst somewhere and I saw the orange and the blue throwing their arms open in the air before falling down into a million little arms, and then dissolving into blackness.

I saw actor Nagarjuna on a billboard advertising Kalyan or some such jewellers and wondered how often he saw himself. Later, I imagined him in the back of his long, black car, returning from shooting abroad, sitting a little apart from his wife with nothing but 20 years of marriage in between them, mumbling something to her in the way Telugu men do — their lips barely moving and the words etching out of the corners of their mouth and forming little shapes of clouds and bells.

Little by little I saw Hyderabad from the window. The last time I came here, dad took us to Ramoji Film City, Charminar, and Golconda Fort. Everytime the guide who was showing us around called me Shahzaadi, my dad looked like he wanted to throw something at him.

What I saw tonight is a Hyderabad I didn’t see then or didn’t think to see then. Tonight I saw Hyderabad growing dramatically outside the airport into its Bawarchis and the Mustafa Sweet shops, and its Dulquer Biryani Take Aways. Then I saw it shrinking before we reached Secunderabad in its little Bata shops, and its charming Urdu on the walls. I watched with envy as the driver took sharp turns, avoiding a dozen dividers. The streets were quiet and the shops were busy. There were no addresses written on the shop boards. But then I saw Lakdikapool and remembered the big lake dad took us boating to.

When I entered EFLU, I knew I would like it immediately. N cursed when I told her how beautiful the campus is. She said that when she studied here, the campus was greener and freer.

My red bag, safely tucked under my right arm, I parted with the good looking driver. I saw students walking along the length of the narrow road, singing. I saw a girl laughing with a group of boys, I saw two North-eastern girls standing outside their hostels, wearing knee-length nighties, hugging their friends goodbye. As I made my way into Amrita Pritam Hostel for Women, I glanced at the notice board. One flyer announced the advancement of a Phonetics class. Another said ‘Students to be in their hostels by 11:00 PM’

I let out a silent whoppee and imagined studying here. I had picked out the classes I would take in 5 min, and had prepared my daily schedule in ten. In the lift, I made small talk with the warden. She looked happy when I told her I was from Bangalore. The lift opened and she took me to my room. The walls were white and the marble floor looked wider and brighter because of all the tube lights. She handed me my keys and I made friends with the blue key chain that said ROOM 223.

In the room , there are two tables and I pick the table closest to the balcony, obviously. I throw my bag on the bed, and check out the rest of the room. I already know which the geyser switch is and which lock on my door doesn’t work. I know that my side of the bed has a book shelf on top, which I am already learning to mind when I rise to get up. I am not even thinking about the roommate I may have to make polite conversation with tomorrow.

Sitting here, my legs stretched out, my laptop plugged to the socket on my left; I am already growing used to the noise the Maroon LG fridge is making in the corner.

When I told S and I about this on Whatsapp, I used more exclamations than I have in the past two years.

 

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Homecoming

There is a strange melancholy that hangs around my neck these days and I feel it most strongly when I am riding back home, when what needs to be proven hasn’t been proven, when the day has ended and the city is hurrying its people back into homes and its long arms of wait. I feel it in the wind speeding by my ears, I feel it in the red light that’s bouncing off from surface to surface, I feel it when I pass by buildings that have no business looking the same as they did 9 years ago, I feel it in my throat before I feel it in my eyes. It’s a heavy lump that I find hard to swallow but when I do, it drops down to my stomach in a whisper and then my eyes are wet. Before long, I am trying to disengage with whatever it is that has made me cry but I don’t seem to have the resolve it takes to say no to pain.

Hands from my past put their weight on my shoulders and urge me to look back; his hands left bitterly in my hair are no longer part of my face, but they are there until I learn to disown my smell from me. As a child, I clung to objects, to things more than to people. I liked making memories so I could keep them, save them, to be recalled later. A perfume bottle that I really liked on him is there somewhere in my cupboard now. Ticket stubs from movies stolen between classes are tucked away neatly in a box. Old journals recounting how and why I felt betrayed by people, why I liked somebody, why I hated myself — all pressed onto paper, sealed into a past that I see now and then in the rear view mirror of passing cars and their noises.

There is sand in a small bottle, there is a big stone, the sort of perfect stone that catches your eye during imperfect visits to beaches and all you can think about is how lucky you are to find a perfect stone. It’s perfect because it looks like the way stones are supposed to in your head, where there is a perfect shape for every word heard. There are sea shells, there are umbrella sticks in a pen stand, there are all my notebooks from MA classes and chocolate wrappers in between these notebooks.

I spend a lot of time in making sure these memories seem real to me at a later time when perhaps I have forgotten to look where I most looked. I have always been afraid of things coming to an end, goodbyes and departure and all. It’s crazy but they are what make memories possible. In my head, the memories are curves inked with trees I have seen in my childhood. Mostly big ones you see on your way to City B which your mother deceived you into believing, was only an hour away. There are also fields which come and go like the sound of slow moving vehicles. A truck or lorry on the highway. That is what I usually come home to and what I miss the most about childhood — sounds and smells.

Memory is that far away truck, its headlights casting distorted shadows on the road ahead, a game I am trying to win that nobody is aware of, not even the truck driver, not even my parents in the back seat who are talking about relatives, some of whom I don’t even know. Memory is also a craving I feel in my gut to go back to those godawful ambassador cars from my childhood and sit between silence and boredom, listening to the quiet language of trees outside.

At the end of one such long journey, by which time I had forgiven my mother, I remember a basket of chocolates waiting for us by the bed. For two days after that I was left with a disgusting after taste of chocolate, the kind that you think will make you hate chocolate forever, finally christening you into adulthood where chocolates aren’t eaten. But then days later, somebody gives you Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and you don’t want to be adult anymore.

My shoe size has always been 4. And I notice it thrice a year when I am buying new shoes. They look weirdly at me in the store but that’s maybe the only thing about myself that I like to admit I am proud of – that I have tiny feet, that when I put them on a stool at my desk, I like seeing that they don’t take that much space.

There’s a white shirt with unreadable memorabilia scribbled in marker pens. When I think of it, I think of how the dean was upset because we had touched each other’s backs and written how much we would miss each other. So upset that he made a big guy take his shirt off in front of us. I remember feeling frightened that day. He said he was going to call our parents and tell on us.

So much of homecoming is also standing in the ugly kitchen and telling my mother that I failed math again and she is looking at me, murder in her eyes, her lips, quivering in grave silence, her nose ring becoming bigger and bigger with everything she is not saying to me. So much of homecoming today is also never having to tell parents that you failed or passed.

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Of Old Homes and New

Today, I saw time slip from between my fingers and hide behind familiar trees and houses and shops and their shadows. Balling up to finally start riding the two wheeler on the main road is the first best thing to have happened last year. I don’t say this to myself often but it has enabled a certain kind of freedom that can only come from being responsible for my own transport no matter where I am or where I have to be. Not that I don’t miss the one and a half/double meter hassling with auto drivers, but it is a strange pride, this one. Getting around the city, knowing certain short-cuts, knowing what routes to avoid at what hours- these, for a long time remained parting wisdom and long prologues to farewells only among grown ups and friends who had vehicles. I would listen with intent, hoping they would make a mistake so I could catch on and instruct them about this other road that nobody knows about and how closer it is to our destination.

I make the mental map myself now. I stop, ask for directions, use GPS and everything and it is bloody intense. But today none of that happened. I rode to the other end of the world to deliver a cheque and caught myself smiling at the prospect of visiting my old house. I took the correct turns and noticed that nothing much had changed. I was pulled 8 years back into Jayanagar 7th Block. I saw Channel 9, Coffee Day, the Government hospital which, I was surprised to see, still functions. The street looked narrow somehow. It was wider in my head, and perfect. It’s like somebody squeezed into my memory and narrowed the streets down. Young boys playing cricket and all, I couldn’t remember if they had always been there, playing cricket, screaming, making way for vehicles. How could I not have remembered this tiny bit of detail?

The house looked the same, thankfully. It stood the way it always has, in my head. White and 3 floors. The owners have now added layers of grills. I tried peeking into the window of a room which I remember now as the most neglected room. I re-winded to when I was 16 and in love. Walking the length of the corridors, making sure my feet were stepping on the insides of the box tiles and not on the lines, whispering into the phone, sitting with books around me and watching snowy make his way into my arms. Snowy was my first dog. I found and lost him within a month in that home. A lot of firsts happened in this house. I remember them all.

I rode slow until the dead-end forced me to look for the bakery my brother would be sent to so often. Bread, cheese, butter, chips and pepsi. The footpath was painted yellow and green. I remember walking there, earphones plugged in, drowning my head in imagined miseries, none of which have come true btw.

As I was heading back to my now home, I took a left instead of right because I wanted to go see my school. It was still there but I expected it to be bigger. It was sad to see it shrunken down in size. I almost felt bad for it. Somehow all the resentment I had against the school and its people seemed to peel away from me. I thought of all the things I hoped would remain permanent when I lived in this part of the city. I looked fondly at the shop in front of a former home and remembered a birthday I tried hard to make perfect. How I wanted to give a box of chuckles to classmates and how I convinced the shopkeeper to get a whole new box for me.

So much has changed, so much more is going to. It’s probably only now that I am not as afraid of change as I was when I grew up in the other part of the city. The city that I spend time in now, is carefree and I don’t want to know why and how but it is making me unafraid of change.

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Weekend Woes

I am 3 days away from standing before a crowd to present a paper I haven’t started writing yet. This was not how I had seen it. Yes, I was writing papers, attending conferences, traveling by air and other cool things in my head. Sadly, my head did not see that to be doing all this, I need to have my bloody paper ready. This week has been written off in my calender as Mega depression week. Biffes was the only force that kept me spirited in some gross way. I already miss the loud Inox -theme promotion music, the muticolor screen with yellow and white subtitles, buddas trying to get to the last row and disrupting pleasant movie watching experience and other things. The Post Biffes scene is usually sad like this. I am off to Pune tomorrow. I would have been looking forward to this like a drunk chipmunk if I had written by now atleast one paragraph. I am not thrilled.

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When in Goa, watch Magadheera

I was watching Magadheera. I was minutes away from sleeping all by myself for the first time in my life and I was watching a movie so lame, it was that good. The cottage was lovely. It wasn’t too far from the beach so I could listen to it and wasn’t too close so if a Tsunami came swimming by, I could make a quick exit. I think Magadheera will be my favourite movie for a long time now because it kept me company when I was trying to postpone the grand event of finally switching all the lights off to sleep. That yellow bottle of pepper spray could only do so much. I kept it close by at all times, but I knew when the time came, it would not be able to do much. I was able to forgive its uselessness sooner than I thought. I didn’t need it though. The occasion never arose. But I was scared, my toes kept feeling it all night. There were strange noisy men around the cottage. Their noise kept me up and I slept restlessly. The morning was innocent, like all mornings are. As if my toes hadn’t curled up at all, as if the men and their voices hadn’t reminded me of all those rape and revenge movies I had binge watched long ago, as if the morning was a different morning, tail to another event-less night at home. It wasn’t a memorable night but it was my first time alone away from home.

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Thiruvananthapuram

Traveling with the family has always been a messy affair for me. Dad has unhindered access to me and what I wear and what I eat and how I live; the comments ensue, the match begins. But this happens only now, although oddly enough it seems like there’s a history that’s older than me when I think of all the disagreements we have had. Our travel sprees were a lot different when I was younger. And so were the disagreements.

Back then, I must have been crouching in the back seat, playing referee to the two voices in my head – one his, one mine; making them disagree. In short, waiting to grow up so I didn’t have to travel with them to temples and other violent places children should never be taken to. 

Traveling all of South India with a joint family in a matador will therefore only remain a blur that I accidentally found while groping in the dark, looking for something else. Somebody mentions a beach, a temple or a hotel and I find myself donning my best cat behavior trying to locate the blur in my memory, now whizzing like a housefly to be caught, an answer to be found, a page to be filled up.

We covered the temple cities in less than 4 days, stopping very briefly at Trivandrum, which until last year I firmly believed I had never seen. Last November, I discovered the blur in my memory that was Trivandrum and everything did not come rushing back as I had hoped it would. It took me a while to realise that I was seeing 2 versions of a city. One of which is imposed on you by temple going freak shows in the family who turn a blind eye to everything else the city offers. The other is when you catch a passing glimpse of yourself, in a moving vehicle, a showroom, a granite wall, and you smile in whispers and curse your family, when you are out exploring the city all by yourself.

I saw myself, away from home, away from temple people, away from the prying eyes of my father, wearing shorts, carrying nothing but a little bag and waiting to be lost. I walked around the hotel, smiled at all the slopes, coconut trees and little brick homes that gave me all kinds of Mangalore flashbacks. I took random turns, and found out that it is not easy to get lost in this city. Either that or I was too scared to go all the way out and be lost. 

At the turn of every corner, I smelled fish curry and coconut oil, a smell that I shamelessly associate Trivandrum with even today. The city made me see and feed the small foodie I was beginning to take note of in me. It outperformed the beach person that I was throughout my life.

I gorged on idiyappams and Kerala chicken curry in Statue hotel, downed jars of Pankaj Island Ice Tea, scooped chemmen fry with mounds of red rice and fish curry at Mubarak, judged soggy bits of meen pollichathu and forced its taste to match with the taste I thought it ought to have had, wolfed down puttu and prawn curry at Black pepper, all the while trying hard to drown the voices and faces of my part mallu-part mangy mother and her relatives. I could hear them echo loudly behind me. ‘Ti amgel vari khaoche’ – ‘She eats like us’.

Trivandrum’s streets are a marvel in themselves. An India coffee house, that looks like the leaning tower of pisa parked hazily around buses and bikes comes zooming back when I try to retrace my tour around the city. The buses looked easy to climb into unlike the whistling, red ones in Bangalore that are hostile bloody dynamites. At the far end of the street that I call Trivandrum is a little place that serves Biryani chaya – butter beer if I may. At the risk of getting kicked, I am going to say, drink it to know it. 

So when I go to Trivandrum, it is also to devour the best rice and kerala fish curry in the name of all that is fancy at Hotel Villa Maya, which, true to its name stands tall and quiet; unknowing of the city bustling all around it. I am no food expert but the food there is both sleep-inducing and exploding with taste.

This is how I remember Trivandrum, in its streets and food, in its friendly looking buses and pankaj island ice tea, but surprisingly very little in its beaches. However, nothing screams more Trivandrum than that familiar smell of fish curry and coconut oil when I check into its hotel. 

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K – Kashmir

It looked like any other north Indian city when I arrived that summer morning in 2010. Except that Srinagar airport looked thin of people and structure and devoid of welcoming presences altogether.  I found out later that this was because of the curfew that the city was thrown under. I wondered how the airport looked on non curfew days. Was there more sunshine? Were there more women? More vendors? My parents looked worried so I didn’t bother them with questions.

Ashfaq, our taxi driver greeted us with a sombre yet an earnest face. And as is customary on all our family travel lore, I bargained with dad for a full 5 minutes for the seat next to the driver’s but he wouldn’t budge. He was adamant about the damn seat. He had eternal dibs on that seat. Mother later told me that he was worried that someone would throw a stone on my face, destroying forever therefore my chance at marriage and kids. Big loss and all.

I cribbed and occupied the back seat but my mood changed consistently after what I saw outside. Srinagar is in the middle of mountains, that much I was convinced about. After the great Matheran fiasco of 2007, I was careful in expecting vast differences between internet pictures and the actual place. According to the pictures that I gorged off the internet, Matheran was supposed to be dipped in greenery and Vanilla Mountains because of some godforsaken white mud, which turned out to be bullshit of course because there was mud alright but brown; brown mud, brown dust and brown air.

Srinagar, on the other hand didn’t need Google images to promote its hills and mountains and their greenery. It did need promotion, however, on the people front. Owing to curfew and its very many delights, the roads were empty, banks closed, schools and colleges closed. It did make for a splendid first visit. I had never seen so many trees up close before; either that or I haven’t noticed trees in other cities because of the people hovering around the city.

Anyway, Srinagar looks tired; like it cannot put up with having to balance between 2 extremes. One, that is its alluring ambience and then the disturbing – almost killing silence that it is surrounded by. It’s not a silence that one sighs and takes deep breaths in. It is a silence that one foretells danger in. Like a premonitory sign that something bad is about to happen. Scary, murderous silence.  And these silences were peculiarly more haunting when I was around the hills. 

Our first stop was at the Shikhara on Dal Lake. It was biting cold but the lake was ambushed by mountains from all sides so I couldn’t really focus much on the cold. The views were enough to keep me warm.

My first lunch in Kashmir taught me that rice is to be avoided at all costs in and around Kashmir, the way you would avoid Ragi rotti in Chinese restaurants. Have at all the localised momos and other fresh veggies here. The special Kahwa tea is refreshing and slightly addictive especially on cold mornings. The roti-sabzi combination is probably the only other substitute for a diet that cannot digest fat rice. But that’s all about the food that I can remember about Kashmir.  I may regret saying this but what the hell, there is a chance I may wake up in a foul mood one morning, read the crap here and just delete the whole site. Here goes anyway, Food, just like anywhere else is the same everywhere, even in Kashmir.

But food is hardly what brings Kashmir closer to me. I found Kashmir in the sheep and cows. I have never developed long lasting bonds with animals so the fact that I remember the animals in Kashmir so vividly, is surprising.

The cows and sheep there are lovely. But what makes it lovely maybe is that Kashmir is just like anybody imagines it to be, or like they show in the movies. The cows are white or proportionately black and white, the grass, greener than your neighbor’s, the sky you can almost reach because your head is literally in the clouds. That’s how I thought Kashmir looked like and that’s how it actually does.

 

 

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T – Travel

This is a special one because there is nothing in the world I love more than traveling. And writing. And tea. But let’s get to that later. My earliest travel experiences are all located deep within my mother’s desire to kidnap us during vacations regardless of college work/assignments/internships. Nothing was ever a good enough excuse to not travel. She was a stubborn woman alright but when it came to vacations or weekends – her enthusiasm to pack and take off with the family was simply villainous. It didn’t have to be vacations all the time, the woman would grab anything – a two day weekend even, to force us into uprooting ourselves from home to some godforsaken place on top of some hill that she ‘discovered’ in ‘Top vacation spots this season’ in Femina magazine.

Before I very humbly start giving credit to this woman who shaped in me a desire to travel, it must be said that back then I dreaded these trips. I would have a ton of school/college work that even if I hadn’t the faintest intention of doing I would still have liked the option of doing. Plus it cut into all my time of sitting at home all day in front of the TV. Also, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about sharing all that space with the family for 6, sometimes 8 hours in the nausea producing ambassador cars. It continues to smell stuffy and guilt-like, these ambassador cars.

The one good thing that seems to have come out of these forced travels is my resistance against travel related sickness. And that I love traveling, so there, two things. Also, traveling now as opposed to then just means time away from home and people and home-people. Just the anticipation of list making and packing makes even bad travel experiences seem worthwhile. I love packing. It makes me feel independent in some really sad way. I like looking for small plastic containers to put shampoos in. I like rolling my clothes instead of folding them because that means more space in the suitcase. Yay. I like that all the money that I need is with me, in my wallet. I feel responsible for myself. I like taking care of myself. I like that I only have to worry about my bags and my things. I like that the seat next to the driver’s seat will always be mine. I like that I can stay out as long as I want without having to worry about curfew and phone calls, I like that I don’t have to look for another person’s toothbrush because I know exactly where mine is, I like that I can stare at bookshops and booze shops and other shops for hours together because I don’t have to worry about anybody else getting bored.

In short, traveling is very liberating because all the time in my day is mine and I can spend this time wearing spaghetti tops and shorts and nobody will so much as glance in my direction. I can eat beef and bacon and drink like a pirate and nobody will ask me questions. Sadly, I have never traveled alone. More sadly, it is not because I can’t.