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Of Thought and Rhyme

The first (and the last) time we met…

He saw my book resting on the table, and used it to break the awkward silence, “What’s that book you’re reading?”

We had been texting for a couple of days. In even the most mundane of conversations, he had a certain intellectual curiosity about him which was endearing. He wasn’t just interested in knowing how was my day, he wanted to know what was the weirdest thought I had in the whole day. He challenged my notions of comfortable conversations, often pushing me in a corner and forcing me to think harder, diving deep down and enunciating what I actually thought about a particular subject, rather than having just a cursory discussion on it. In what seemed a natural progression of events, he had proposed a date, asking me to meet him if I was reasonably convinced that he was neither a kidnapper nor a rapist. And though I had found the statement somewhat conceited, I conceded.

I had reached early. He called five minutes later to check where I was, almost offended to hear that I was already inside. I saw him walking, and there were no butterflies in my stomach. But more alarmingly, there was no smile on his face when he saw me. And that worried me a little. While he crossed the swarm of people to reach my table, I closed the book hanging awkwardly in my hands; he reached over and I hastily put it down. We shook hands. He sat down. I sat down too. There was a brief moment of hesitation, as we both were trying to match up the person sitting opposite us with the respective images we had conjured up in our heads over the last few days. I was waiting for him to say something.

“What’s that book you’re reading?”

That question filled me with an incomprehensible dread. In any other situation, I don’t consider any inquiry to be a better conversation starter than one made on my books. But here, I sensed something different. There was something not quite right with that absolutely non-threatening question, but I couldn’t name what was it.

I tried to brush off the question with a casual “oh it’s called ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’…”
He prodded further, “and what’s this about? Who’s written it?”
I asked tentatively, “Do you really want me to get into that, or are you just making small talk?”
He face betrayed his words when he mouthed, “No, I REALLY want to know what is it…”
“Okay, so this is written by this author whom I am currently obsessed with…”
He took the book in his hands, and trying to read the name of the author, asked, “But how did you find out about him…?”
“…and she writes about the post-colonial life in Nigeria… Errr, her. Not him. She is a woman. I stumbled upon one of her lectures, and then a TED talk…”
He had an obscure look on his face. And his words took a disparaging tone when he said, “But how do you even google someone with that kind of name… And what does she even talk about?”
“…titled ‘We Should All Be Feminists’…”
“Feminists?! I hate that word.” His face was closed. And it wasn’t mere discomfort, it was a disdain for the word when he said it.

My heart sank in a swift motion, tumbling down deep recesses. I felt something breaking inside me. I had scripted this date in my head. Here was a man who I wanted to be with. Who I wanted to like. Who I wanted to be the person I had imagined him to be. And he was now deviating from the script! He was exhibiting that part of himself which I knew I’d resent immediately. I didn’t want him to expose it just yet. I wanted him to keep it safely hidden, at least for now. More than that, I wanted so desperately to redeem myself in his eyes. To see the same admiration for me which he had admitted before this meeting. I wanted to be the same person who he had pronounced ‘very sorted’, and not a troublemaker activist. That admission of his hatred for the F-word made my head spin with myriad conflicting thoughts. And that foreboding feeling from earlier suddenly made sense, and stood large in front of me, threatening the image of a pleasant evening that I had envisaged.

The entire evening, I was having two parallel conversations. One in my head, trying to calm that unrest which I couldn’t seem to let go of. And the other with this man, scouring for a streak of intellectual reasoning in his hatred that would exalt him in my eyes. I kept looking, but the more he talked, the more his words came laced with mainstream prejudices. I hated myself in the same moment for trying to dumb down my own arguments, tiptoeing around his ego, second guessing at every instance what might offend and please him.

After a point, the conversation became so dragged that we both were looking for opportunities to call it a night. And when we finally turned to go our own ways, I didn’t want to take the decision of not seeing him ever again. I still wanted to overlook that part of him, replaying over and over a scenario that could have been – if not for that opening question.

But I didn’t have to struggle for too long. The next day I received a text saying, “Hey, I don’t think this will work”. I almost sighed with relief. It was truly a luxury to be abandoned the moment anything went wrong, I now knew.

Being a Girl

I don’t remember exactly when did I start seeing my identity as a girl being a constructed one, but I always had a cognizance of it being perpetuated and enforced socially. I would struggle to comprehend the restrictive gender roles, while simultaneously upholding them because ‘this is what girls do’.

It was all an individual turmoil, where I thought it was just me who had troubles accepting what were the established norms. And as the elder family members saw it, why was I questioning them? Was I being a troublemaker and rebel just for the sake of it? Weren’t the other girls behaving the way they were supposed to? Where did this urge to upturn the norms come from? Is this what they teach kids at school? All this and more, stifling me everyday, with me thinking what’s wrong with me?! Why can’t I accept it just as other girls in my family and neighborhood and school and the entire world(?) do it?

My family tells me how I should behave like a girl.
My teachers tell me how I should behave like a girl.
The textbooks tell me how I should behave like a girl.
TV serials tell me how I should behave like a girl.
Magazines & ads tell me how I should behave like a girl.

If all these experienced and mature people are telling me, a puny kid, how I should behave, why can’t I accept it? There must be something horribly wrong with me.

Years passed, and I kept suppressing the inner turmoil, trying my best (against my will) to behave like a girl.

And then one day, a thought struck me like a flash of lightning (it’s always like that, isn’t it?).

If it is how I’m ‘supposed’ to behave like a girl, why would the idea need an enforcement? If it’s a natural order, why would everybody go out of their way to make me believe so? Maybe, it is not how it’s supposed to be. Maybe, it is how they want it to be.

I might not remember when was it that this clarity came to me, but I clearly remember what led me to it. It was a text (we debated for an entire hour later in the class about whether its form was poetry or prose) by Jamaica Kincaid, titled ‘Girl’. It is not an extraordinary story. If anything, it is a story that I grew up hearing in my house, every waking hour of every day of my life. (Perhaps that’s what characterizes ‘great’ literature – resonance.) Reading the narrative brought home the realization: I AM BEING TOLD TO BEHAVE LIKE A GIRL! IT IS PART OF AN AGENDA! MY IDENTITY AS A GIRL IS A CONSTRUCT! And the biggest of all: IT’S NOT JUST ME, THERE ARE OTHER GIRLS WHO THINK LIKE THIS. OTHER GIRLS WHO FEEL OPPRESSED, STIFLED AND CAUGHT IN THE WEB!

It was an epiphany. I had found a goldmine. An answer to everything that I was struggling with. A clue to work with. A hypothesis to seek validation on. An explanation for my unrest. A balm to my agony. A question for my question.

I was unstoppable in my quest. I scoured libraries, seeking comfort in other women’s words. Another essay in another class gave me words for my realization. It was the opening sentence of the first chapter of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, that validated my hypothesis for me.

One is not born, but rather becomes, [a] woman.

While the professor went on to explain the difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, and how the former was a biological construct and the latter a social, I retreated to my corner. I had found my bible. I was in another world, delirious beyond measure, to have found it all to be a mere ‘construct’.

That one sentence validated my existence, my questions, my discomfort. I wanted to go back to my younger self and shout – NO, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU, YOU FOOL! YOU WERE RIGHT. YOU WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG. YOU WERE RIGHT TO QUESTION. AND YOU WERE RIGHT TO NOT ACCEPT IT AS THE NATURAL ORDER!

Since that day, I have been living my life a little more freely. Being acutely aware of my gender identity.

I may walk like a girl, talk like a girl, dress up (or down) like a girl — not because I have to, but because I choose to. My behavior and actions aren’t so because of my gender identity, they are so in spite of my gender identity.


This Women’s Day, I wish for nothing but for more women (and men) to see their identities for what they are, devoid of the gender constructs. Maybe we wouldn’t need a special day, if we were to break away from the constructs. Maybe.


(This post was originally posted on medium.com. You can see it here.)

Fairy lights.

image

The most beautiful time of the year is here again. The time which reminds me of the time gone by.

Diwali has been the most festive time at the Garg household, always. And now that the clan has moved on to the individual nuclear setups and each nucleus has its own little stream of week-long festivities, the onset of Diwali always takes me back to the time when the entire family stayed together, ate together and celebrated together.

Fresh flowers would adorn the house, and each member of the family was supposed to dress up in the traditional fineries. The sweet smell of rosewater, cardamom and cinnamon would waft through the kitchens, and the traditional feast of no less than eighteen dishes was prepared on the big night. Evenings were characterized by designing rangolis in every courtyard and corridor of the sprawling mansion. The two-hour long pooja session would be orchestrated by the family pundit, where the cousins retreated in the background playing pranks on each other. Pointing and laughing games would ensue when the mantras and shlokas had someone’s name embedded in them. The girls and women of the family would receive cash and gifts and status of goddesses, even if just for a day; and the little boys would stand in a corner, sulking.

Festivities would continue till late, with everyone assembling on the terrace, lighting up the night sky with an array of fireworks. And standing in a corner, far away from the maddening crowd jostling for their turn to light another sparkler, my heart would swell up with the sight of my own little piece of the glimmering sky, brought alive in my balcony by the little fairy lights.

Times have changed, people have moved on, and that balcony doesn’t exist anymore. But the swinging pretty lights are still the same – the only continuing part of the tradition. Every year, they recreate that magical time when life was a fairy tale, bringing me my own little piece of the glimmering sky all over again.

सर्दियाँ

यूँ तो सर्दियों में कुछ ख़ास नहीं
बस आब-ओ-हवा सर्द हो जाती है
पर बात सर्दियों की
गाहे-बगाहे ख़ास बन ही जाती है

धूप वो गुनगुनी
और चाय की प्याली

माँ के हाथ की बुनी ऊनी जुराबें
और रज़ाई जयपुर वाली

हवा की तेज़ थपेड़ों से फ़टती चमड़ी
और गालों की लाली

गाजर का हलवा
और पिन्नी काजू किशमिश वाली

यादों और उम्मीदों भरी आहें
और जेबें ख़ाली

लाल-गुलाबी-नारंगी फूलों की बहारें
और पीली ड़ाली-ड़ाली

कटकटाते दाँत, कंपकँपाते बदन
और होठों पे ग़ाली

कितने ही शिक़वें बिना शिकन के सुनती
सर्दियाँ हर साल आती और चली जाती हैं
यूँ तो सर्दियों में कुछ ख़ास नहीं
बस कुछ ख़ास एहसास करा जाती हैं

Unfair weather friend.

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Of course.

But is a friend *only* in need a friend indeed?

The go-to friend in times of despair. The absent friend in times of cheer.

You feel cheated. But you love them, so you keep lingering. And the pattern just keeps repeating itself. Every time there’s a problem, you’re the shoulder to lend support. But the moment things go smooth, you’re not a part of their life anymore.

Sigh.

Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of joy, you must have somebody to divide it with.

Mark Twain

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