Thursday, 20 December 2018

Ghost Town

In ten years, these roads will be walked by ghosts. Memories will hang from the once green trees and the voices of Aachi and Potte and Ayya will float in with the wind, boundless, undefined, united. There will be no hierarchy or stratification, no proper place and appropriate behaviour. There will only be History, the ghosts of a time gone by.

Today, there is a skeleton of a town that once was. Perhaps village is a better word for the one street that constitutes their world. We ask of other worlds and other peoples, and we are pointed in a vague direction. They are There and we are Here. The world goes on. Heads rest where they belong.

There is a temple huddled away somewhere, behind that wood there, to the right of those trees. Scooters make their way on a path once meant only for feet, unsandalled. Yet today, they speak of locks and gates and property names. The temple is quaint. The Sunshine plays hide and seek with trees unnamed, probably a few generations young. They sway with the barely-there wind, almost as if to say Welcome, this is Here, where you belong. Here looks like white dhotis and holy strings cast across shoulders. Here smells of nei-abhishegam and panchamritam. Here sounds like bells tolling too loud too near, ringing in the spirit of all things holy. It feels like the flame under your palm, the grains of ash that adorn the forehead, the cold gold on wrists and necks and deities ahead. It speaks the dialect of belonging, inviting no one, drawing boundaries in blood and righteousness. It is the way it is over Here, no questions asked.

Every once in a while, the gatekeepers of Here face a little trouble. There is a noise or a skirmish, something to remind them of There. Someone shows up, standing a little too close, trying a little too hard, acting a little too comfortable. Reminders are given, loud and clear. Lines are redrawn, thick and bold. And even if There comes Here, it is reminded that it does not belong. It should go back There. It has no place Here.

Thatha was from There. So were Aachi and Potte. They stood, heads bowed, clothes ragged, hands poised to receive. In their faces was etched Distance, Difference, Deference. They knew they were from There. They knew they had strayed Here. They knew these streets and these footsteps were not theirs to keep.

Aachi called out in a feeble voice, stick in hand, unable to walk. Are you well, she asked, her memory clear as the water she used to wash their doorsteps with. Do you have children? Where are you now? What took you so long to come by? Ayya, she called. When did you come? Why didn’t you come sooner? What took you so long to look me up? Amma, she said. Are you well? Do you remember? Do you remember?

Aachi stood just outside the door. In her hand was a stick, picked off the ground and smoothened till it didn’t hurt her roughened palms. On her shoulders, a towel, once-white now dotted with the brown of poverty. Her sari was closest to blue, if you had to pick a colour. Her hair was silver, her lips red from paan, her demeanour filled with gratitude. I’ve missed you, she seemed to say. If only she had the words. If only There could miss Here. If only the rules had spaces set aside for emotion, age, relationship.

When I heard the story of Aachi, they told me the story of Potte too. No one knew Potte’s real name, the storyteller chuckled. She was just Potte. She couldn’t see from one eye, you see, so it made the most sense. Just like Umacchi, they told me by clarification, calling upon another ghost of another village at another time. Not that that made it better. 

Potte slept at the foot of the door I had just walked through. Or perhaps it was the other door, or the one next to it. There was a chance it was the one on the other side though. After all, all of it was ours, I was told. It was all ours. She slept at the foot of a door, woke up when the clock struck 3, and worked her way through all the doorsteps. Sweep, sprinkle, cleanse, decorate. Perikki, thelichu, saani, kolam. Again and again and again. Till the street sparkled, the air had that peculiar smell of dung and cleanliness in equal measure, and the ants of the village had a feast awaiting them. Again and again and again. 

The storyteller smiled as she told me of Potte, her eyes glistening in the memory of the woman who used to count the chimes of the clock before waking up. She told me Potte would demand her way into the house at the strike of 5, peer closely at anything she needed to look at with her one seeing eye, and worked like “that”. You see, in the local tongue, working like “that” was the ultimate compliment. Apdi vellai panniva. The certificate had been given, the story had been passed on, the memory had been kept alive.

The last of all, there was Thatha. He didn’t belong, you see. Definitely not from Here, but apparently not from There either. He was from Outside, a place even farther away from There. He looked different, stood away, seemed nervous. He said he’d been cheated of his wealth by two men, his brothers maybe? They’d hurt his son, chopped off an arm, and beaten up another. He’d sought refuge in the powers that be, travelling from town to town, temple to temple, until he hit a thousand. Until he landed up here, in the quaint temple of a sleepy town where the sunshine played hide and seek and the wind whispered of memories gone by. He said he sought refuge, blessings, an end to this constant rollercoaster he had been on. He seemed to expect the brashness, the cruelty, the consequences of being from Outside.

Talking to Thatha, there was a woman, child in hand. Don’t stand here, she said. Go to the back, stay there, come at the end. Don’t touch anyone, don’t go near anything, just be. Do as you are told, don’t ask questions, be grateful for setting foot into Here. It wasn’t the first time Thatha had been told all this, it seemed, or maybe Outside was a harsher place with stricter rules and more rigid allowances. He listened, Thatha did. He stripped down to his underwear for a short while, a pair of maroon shorts that had seen too many wears. A few minutes later, a towel wrapped itself around his waist, decorated by a hole for each time he had been asked to stay in his place. When he did tell them parts of his Life written by his Fate or his God, they claimed it was Fiction, dictated by a scheming, plotting Human. Thatha waited his turn, sought holy blessings when the time was right, unmindful of human intervention and ire, and then he made his way back to the Outside, to wherever he came from, to wherever he was going. No one asked him where or how or why. They didn’t ask what happened to the one-armed son or the one lakh spent. They looked the other side and turned a blind eye. No one
wanted to know the way Outside.

Today, there is a skeleton of a town. It has a Here and a There. It has an Outside that no one wants to know. It has rules and boundaries and ways to be. There are things to wear and distances to keep and foods to eat. There are hymns to chant and songs to sing and prayers to murmur. There are people to meet, others to greet, and yet others to ignore. Today, there is a skeleton of a town. Its bones are made of diktats from an era gone by. It is held together by the threads of Tradition, the strings woven in the language of Ought and Should. It is oiled by Fear, fed by the need to Conform. Today, there is a skeleton of a town from an age gone by. 

Tomorrow, there will be none. It will be a Ghost Town, walked by the footsteps of Aachi and Potte and all the Ayyas that ever were. Maybe they will hold hands as they step across the slush to visit Ayyanar. Maybe they will banter merrily as they watch the Perumal abhishekam together. And maybe, just maybe, the ghosts of Ayyas and Ammas of many generations past will decide it is time; time to walk from Here to There; to see what lies beyond, to break a few rules, and to remind the ghosts of Aachi and Potte and Thatha that they are missed too. 

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

TN 3066

This was a piece written in August that I just never thought to publish, for some reason. Given that I've revisited it twice in the last two days, now seems as good a time as any.

A story about an auto ride a fair few months ago. :)


TN 3066

His name was Manikandan, and he drove an auto; TN something something 3066.

It was dark when he pulled up in front of me, a few minutes past 9 PM. I wasn’t scared per se, just a little wary, the same cautiousness that rushes through the veins of any girl travelling alone after dark. I climbed in, told him that haloed OTP number that would let me get moving, and began fiddling at my phone. I was coming off a work day that was running at 13 hours and counting, and just about getting used to the concept of a commute. Spending over two hours a day on the streets was not my idea of fun, and I was figuring out how to be “productive” in this time. I sat there, in the sat behind him, checking if there was anyone I had to call and say hello, wondering if calling my fiancĂ© (preferably called boyfriend) at this hour was a wise idea or if I should act pricey some more and hold off for a few more hours. My beautiful indigo sari tied specifically that morning to make a point at my workplace (yes, I am the only girl; yes, I wear kurtis without dupattas; yes, I can wear a sari too; yes, I can play billiards with you boys in this sari; and yes, you wait and watch I will show up in pants one day) was a crumpled mess just about hanging on to my body enough to get home. My brain was whizzing with everything that needed to be done – I was fresh to full-time, “regular” hours employment and yet had not given up any of my side “projects.” I had kept telling myself that they were not too many, did not take too much of my time, and were not demanding too much attention, until I had counted the previous evening. There were seven projects. Seven. And, as a friend mentioned, a wedding to plan and physiotherapy to be on and a diet to focus on. Half my brain was constantly thinking about how many litres of water I had had so far and the other half was conscious of the possibility of back aches, pains and general skirmishes being just around the corner. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I was trying to keep a handle on work, other work, the other work work, and life in general. So just that moment at 9:07 PM on August 3rd 2018, Manikandan and Auto Number 3066 were not at the top of my mind.

Manikandan had other plans though.

It all started rather unsuspectingly. He asked me if there was a “cutting” on the road ahead, a local phrase to ask if there was a side street that would help avoid the madness that is North Usman Road at any time of night or day. I told him we could only get out through the main road, he doubted my expertise, asked me again, and got me to admit I was not sure. I could have sworn he clucked his tongue at me for a second before revving up that vaahanam of his and hitting the roads with an unquestionable confidence. To be fair, I should have seen this coming. I had made the booking after a work meeting (that was after a work day, on a Friday, yes, I know) and he had picked up to ask where I was. I told him exactly what my hosts told me – North Usman Road – Croma showroom – and the rest of it. He asked me if this was near the railway lines and I said yes on a hunch, guessing off a previous conversation we’d had. He announced that he wouldn’t be following the GPS directions, he’d come through the back streets, and it would be faster. I put the phone down and unintentionally foreshadowed the rest of my evening. “Theliva irukkaru,” I said. A few minutes later, Manikandan was here on 3066, clucking his tongue at how little I knew of the back streets of T Nagar.

I don’t remember how we began conversing. In the beginning, I was explicitly uninterested, caught up in my own head untangling my own web of thoughts. I must admit I quickly felt guilty and wrestled with myself about what the “right” thing to do was – was I meant to be present and engage with this man, an evidently chatty soul who needed nothing more than the mash-up of Hmm-Rightu-Correct-Aamam-Oh to keep talking, or should I use the time for more “important things”? After all, I’m likely never to see the man again and I do have so much to do and it has been a long day, but presence and engagement and humanity! Very quickly, I realised my voice was doing the Hmm-Rightu-Correct-Aamam-Oh rotation while I was neither paying attention nor doing my own thing. Soon enough, I gave up. Manikandan and TN 3066 won.

He spoke about so very many things, more things than any stranger should talk to another, definitely more than a middle-aged man is encouraged to say to a young girl at 9:20 PM at night. He began talking of Saravana Stores, I forget why. Ah yes, we were on North Usman Road, and he began talking of how there are two Saravana Stores in T Nagar now, that there is not enough parking for either even despite designated spaces, and then went on to give me a map of all the Saravana Stores in the city. Two more in Velachery, one in Porur…I decided to take a breather from my Hmm-Rightu-Correct-Aamam-Oh rotation and contribute to this conversation, realising all he needed was a little nudge to keep going. I sighed about how there is a perennial demand for Saravana Stores anyway, and they seem to be doing well, so of course they are crowded. He jumped right on the bandwagon. He told me how he used to buy shirts there for Rs. 5 but now ends up paying Rs. 375. He told me how there are two types of players in the textiles market – the RMKV, Nalli, Pothys and Kumaran types (he repeated these four names three times, they seemed important) and the Saravana Stores types. “Andhe naalu irukke, ange pona perukkage poraange. Rate-ukaage ille. Evlo velai irundhaalum vaanguvaange. Raasiaane kadai nnu nambivaange. Saravana Stores kku vandheenge naa enne model, design, elaam paaka maataange. Rate mattum thaan mukiyam.” (Those four, people go there for the name of it. Not the price. No matter how expensive it is, they will buy. They like it is lucky. If you come to Saravana Stores, they will not look at model, design and stuff. They only look at the price.)  To him, “ooru-kaarange,” or villagers, were defined by those whose colour palette was limited. Oodha, violet and such were outside their comprehension. To them, there was only pachai (green), nilam (blue), manjal (yellow), sivappu (red). At best, mittai colour (pink). That was all they cared about, that was all they knew. But his wife was not like that. His wife was the rare breed of people who shopped at Saravana Stores but also asked about models and designs and also knew oodha colour. She bought all his clothes, he never went even if she called him.

You see, she’d ask him to leave his vandi and join her to shop, but this was a rented vandi, and if someone turned the steering with a jolt a couple of times, the cycle lock would break and who would be responsible for that? And anyway, he only wore those carefully selected clothes a couple of times a year. Pongal Deepavali maadhri. For every other day, there was the trusted khaki.

We were barely out of T Nagar by now and had a long way to go. It was then that I got a sneak peek at the inner lives of the auto driver community. He told me he only ever drove in khaki. If he wore the carefully chosen clothes his wife picked out, he wouldn’t be able to drive, he said. I had a flash of an image, Manikandan in a bright oodha shirt turning on the auto and forgetting how to get it running. He disappears for a second, comes back in khaki, and all his knowledge comes rushing back, almost like if Samson’s hair had grown back in a second. But even as I was drawing up Samson-Manikandan comparisons in my head, he had gone on to tell me about others of his clan. How some of them could only drive if they were well dressed, how some of them had a “lucky” shirt, how some of them complained if the shirt got them Rs.1500 rupees one day but near nothing the next week, how that led to jovial digs at how maybe it wasn’t washed right, how that let to less jovial digs at how washing is done quite well in my house thank-you-very-much. All just to tell me that Manikandan likes his khaki and some others like their oodha. Got it.

Now that we were talking about the wife, we may as well talk about the rest of them. Manikandan has two children, I learnt. A girl in the 8th grade (who writes exams very fast and yet still cannot finish them, because theriyale ma, varale. I don't know, I just can't.) and a boy who is in the 10th grade (and is very self congratulatory about getting 35 in exams even as others chide him, muppathi-anju elaam oru mark ah! Is 35 even a grade?). The boy next door to Manikandan drives Uber while Manikandan drives Ola. Why? Because the Uber app is largely English based and Manikandan does not know how to read it. In fact, Manikandan did not know how to read Tamil until he was 18 years old.

When Manikandan was an 8-year-old child, the neighbours convinced his illiterate parents to send their second son to school. The Nungambakkam government school refused to admit an eight-year-old into grade one, saying he will face the brunt of bullying, so they got him into Grade 2. The neighbourhood children promised to ferry him to and from school every day and keep him safe. Until on Day 4, they didn’t. They left him somewhere and the child lost his way, going straight instead of taking a right somewhere. (He told me where, but of course I don’t remember). A stranger saw this child carrying a bag and crying down the street, deciphered the pictorial markers that he gave to identify his house, and brought him back home. Those were the days of child kidnapping, Manikandan says, where they would take “chinna pasange,” (small children) put them in a “koode,” (basket) pour acid in their eyes and force them into begging. His mother, seeing her second son walk in with a stranger, got frantic and demanded an explanation. The stranger was thanked and education was forgotten about. In the words of his father, “padippu oru mayirum vendaam.” (roughly, no bloody need for education) And that was that. The eight-year-old Manikandan began to work in the “companies.”

It was when he was 18 that he landed in the last of his companies, leather. You know the type that makes handbags and purses for women? The ones that lets you open them and keep credit cards and such? That is where he worked, in the company of many many “ladies.” It was those ladies who realised he didn’t know to read. Anything. Not even ka nga cha njya, the Tamil alphabet. And it was those ladies who fixed it. They taught him the alphabet at an age when “mandai le onnum aeraadhu,”  (nothing would get into his head) and the rest of his education was the Dina Thandhi. Every day, he invested in the newspaper. Every day he read. Every day he got fast. Now he could take care of himself. Indira Nagar, Tiruvanmiyur, Mamallapuram, he demonstrated as we turned left from Tidel Park. When he was 19, he learnt to read the time.

Manikandan grew up with no sense of the world around him. The Three Ladies were responsible for his education and emotional growth. They’d take him to work every day (he didn’t know which bus to get on) and he’d land up at their houses two whole hours before they were due to leave (how was he meant to know?) and on weekends, they’d introduce him to the world of cinema (Udhayam theatre!). Many years later, he drove an auto, struggling against the market forces that gave offers and discounts and incentives to the customer, but cut a commission from his every ride. He’d drive through side roads and dug up streets and suffocating traffic, you know? For a savari (ride) that was priced at Rs. 46? And when he checked his account, he’d only have Rs. 41. Why would they need my five rupees, he wondered. Sitting at the back of TN 3066 heading towards the ever-red Tiruvanmiyur signal, I could sense the weight of age and memory and struggle. The khaki collar and salt-and-pepper head that made up my view were streaked with the colours of experience, hardship, and stories that bore witness to it all. And that night, for a reason I will never know, he chose to share them.

In those seconds on that street that connected OMR and ECR, the minutes that led up to a house so far removed from his own, there were many memories that were shared. An eight-year-old boy scared on the streets. A father who didn’t understand the spirit of education. A stranger who made him independent. A large corporation that seems too vast to fight. A struggle for the dignity of daily life. The weight of many years and many battles, all cloaked in a choked voice, a pause just a second too long, a conversation from T Nagar to Tiruvanmiyur with a stranger in an indigo sari who thanked her stars she finally paid attention.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Ms. Matusoff-with-two-Os and her kind

My mother texted me this morning.
3rd grade. 4th grade. Her captions read.
Old report cards, she said.
And then there was another.

“Yash shows interest and curiosity in all areas of her learning. She is organised. Yash works and plays cooperatively with others. She shows leadership and helps others. Next steps for Yash is to continue reading and writing stories to explore her imagination.”

Below this document, about 18 years old
Was a signature
In that classic North American crawl
M Matusoff
My mother said she wanted to email this
M Matusoff
I told her she did not know
M Matusoff
‘s first name.

M Matusoff
A Ms prefixed to her name
At an age where
Were all the same
M Matusoff
Who didn’t teach me
A-B-C or
But walked into class that first day
To a host of little
On a carpet, blue
With a flip board, white checkered paper
And a marker, black I think
And told us this
My name is
Ms. Matusoff
It has three small words in it.
Can anyone tell me what?
she got us to chorus
But the ‘us’ is pronounced
With a double-o
Like ‘moo’
Or ‘coo’
Now who knows what
‘coo’ means?
Or why ‘pronouce’ is
Such a difficult word to

Ms. Matusoff tried to
pronounce my name as well.
Yaash-aas-weenee will take the attendance today, she’d say.
Until I told her I was not
Yaash-aas-wee-nee but
Like they say in India, I told her.
She decided Yash was good enough.
It rhymed with rash.

Ms Matusoff told us stories.
I remember one from
One of those last days.
There was a lady with a cookie tray
1-2-3-4 cookies in a row
1-2-3 rows
Ms Matusoff told us this was
A big word
No, not cookies, she said.
4 cookies times 3 rows.
Count them all, she said.
12 we chorused
All us little people.
And I learnt three times four was?
(Not three fours are, mind you. Or three into four is.
But three times four.)

Ms Matusoff got us to do
(with a capital P, like all big words ought)
Mine was on volcanoes.
I used plasticine like a
Big girl!
She invited the principal
(I don’t know her name)
And they all clapped for me.
I remember I looked at
Ms Matusoff
To see if she was proud
And she nodded at me.

Ms Matusoff gave me a
big fat blue book.
Advanced Math, she told me.
(Not Maths, just Math.)
And when she taught everyone
three times four
all over again
I sat on a desk
on a blue plastic chair
and worked through this
Big Fat Blue Book
until she told my Amma
I was good at my work.

Ms Matusoff
didn’t teach me
A-B-C or
1-2-3 though
That was Mrs. Shade.

Mrs. Shade
with her
old wrinkled skin
her soft touch
her sandboxes and
stencilled letters.
Mrs. Shade who
taught us to make
sandcastles and
Halloween masks and
Mother’s Day soap.

Mrs. Shade who
asked me why I
never told her
you got a baby brother!
Who whispered to my
Amma to make sure I was
really okay.

Mrs. Shade who
taught me to
roll up your mat,
set your own table,
always take a napkin when you serve food.
Mrs. Shade who
asked me if I would like
to use purple or blue
food colouring for
Father’s Day?

Mrs. Shade who
was so everything-we-needed
that we never for once
who was Mr. Shade?

Mrs. Shade who
fell sick one day
and needed an ambulance
so that every time
for years after
when that scary siren swung by
I would tell my Amma
maybe Mrs. Shade is inside?

The next year
there were two of them.
Ms. Miller, she was
A big lady, she was
who taught us
‘hug’ before ‘fat’
who never let us
leave the school
without sitting in the corridor
to wrap us up tight
Like a present, she’d say

Who told us her name
Robin, like the bird
and then taught us
all about robins.

Ms. Miller who
I imagine in
Black pants, black shirt,
her long black hair always
worn down, like a curtain.

With her was
Ms. Camilla Fourino-Vierra.
I still don’t know
if I spell that right
but I can hear her voice,
the words tumbling off
her tongue as
she told us her story.
From Mexico, I think?
Not from here, she said.

I remember her in browns -
a beige dress that
didn’t quite hit her ankles
with brown flowers
and brown eyes
and brown hair
and a soft, lilting voice
talking to a group of
my own mini-United Nations kids
she told us,
long before we knew

I think Ms. Vierra
fell sick too
I am not that sure
but I do know
how she treated
that Chinese boy
who did not know
English, to speak
You must help him
You must teach him
If you teach well, he will learn well.
That day, I must have been sitting next to
Hyra, from Pakistan
or Naureen or Shazma or Pritita
or maybe Jackie, of Malaysian blood
I don’t remember.
And we all nodded.
Yes, Ms. Vierra.

I do remember what
Ms. Vierra said though
of work ethik and res-pon-si-bi-li-ti
at an age when
only phonetics made sense
I do remember what
Ms. Miller taught though
of body positivity and acceptance
at an age when
her hugs spoke the language of
recess and cold winter afternoons
and space for allllll of you.
I do remember what
Mrs. Shade showed us though
How to roll mats and
how to serve cake and
how to make presents from scratch.
Effort is love is effort
at an age when
I never realised
My Amma never used the
bath salts I gave her
(She saved them
In cupboards out of my reach.)

My mother is still texting me.
This morning is filled with
the language of adults -
nostalgia, she says,
upbringing and growth.

But for me
this morning is all about
the Small Brown Girl
who sat in classrooms
far away -
a confused desi-NRI cross
(before coconuts became fashionable)
who didn’t realise
the lessons coming her way
in the spaces in between.

For me -
the not-so-Small Brown Girl -
this morning is all about
Mrs. Shade and
Ms. Miller and
Ms. Vierra and
Ms. Matusoff with two o’s.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Stories of Grassroots Education in India

In a desperate attempt to keep all my writing in one place (ish, kind of), here is something that came out today. I like to think of it as a consolidation of all the thinking and talking in very many classrooms these past few years. In other words, here is a long-ish piece on what the classrooms can teach you even if you are not the student.

Thank you, Off Campus Class, for the space and the prodding. :)

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Travels. Travelled. Travelling.

They say memory wilts around the edges with time.

March 2011. He wore a khaki blazer and faded blue jeans, the quintessential wardrobe of a seasoned traveller. I don’t remember what I wore, probably my Superman t-shirt, slightly dulled with age, the blues and reds not as bright as they once used to be. His bald-by-choice head glistened in the mid-morning sun (mere creative license for airport tubelights) and his eyes were kind. He asked if I needed help and gently pointed me in the direction of the right gate. I was at Rome International Airport, and the air tasted of steely, sterilised air-conditioning.

May 2012. I see her in a white tunic, I am not sure why. I see all of them in white, almost like the children from The Sound of Music leaning against the bed, and that just cannot be right. The room had dull, moss green walls, and the wallpaper was a floral print. The roof sloped down above us, outlining the shape of a once-Russian-spa-turned-convention-centre in the middle of the hills. She told us about ‘bride-stealing,’ a practice in the awkward limbo between tradition and discomfort. Her audience spanned a colour spectrum, from the creaminess of the Philippines to the earthiness of Egypt and India, all the way through the chocolatey textures of Liberia. I was in Bavaria, and the air tasted of embraced diversity and the chilly nip of a late spring.

May 2013. He had blue eyes and brown hair speckled with the dust and dryness of the mountains. I feel like he was dressed in a black-turned-grey t-shirt but it could barely be seen under the sand-coloured sweater punctuated by stray thread, unravelling with experience and age. He seemed perpetually bewildered, trying to make sense of this phenomenon before him, a single girl travelling thousands of kilometres from home. Yet even the confusion couldn’t dull the instinctive hospitality and the well-intentioned attention. You must come to Kashmir, he told me. That is where the real beauty is, of lakes and carpets and shawls. I was in Ladakh, and the air tasted of strangeness and unusual amounts of salted chai.

July 2014. Her starched cotton sari was adamant in its solidity. It just would not move. I see it in pastels, either a pale blue or a soft green, maybe with a hint of pink. She stood by the door of a crumbling classroom that posed a picture of contradiction. Strewn about the cracked tiles and hung atop the peeling walls were ‘learning resources’ from a different era, a newer time, and there she stood representing all that was the Indian Classroom. She told us about her experience, a career that had spanned longer than my life at the time, and we pretended to live up to our image of authority, our conversation punctuated by the occasional cry for attention from the toddlers who made up our audience. I was in rural Tamil Nadu, and the air tasted of adjustment, experience, and the government Mid-Day Meal.

June 2015. She wore an apron, the kind that belongs in a cafeteria, and stood behind the billing counter. The name tag on her chest has pixelated in my mind. Was it a Violet? Or a Viola? Or perhaps there was no V at all. The boy ahead of me in line swiped his student card and traipsed out with a couple of bananas and what looked like noodle soup. I handed over a lemon poppyseed muffin. She paused the checkout to look me up and down. Is this your lunch, girl? I muttered an apologetic acceptance, my mind already back in my cabin and the afternoon’s tasklist. For Viola, for that is what we shall call her, there were other more important things. She told me I ought to eat more, take care of myself more, not neglect my health so far from home. She reminded me of my grandmother, many miles away. I was in small town Canada, and the air tasted of random acts of kindness and French Vanilla.

September 2016. The car was maroon, an Alto I think, and the man wore a blue t-shirt. We flagged him down to ask for directions, and he offered us a ride. Six of us tumbled into his car, a confusing knot of limbs and voices as we tripped over our sentences to introduce ourselves. You have the entire country in your car, we told him, almost a little pompous of this bubble of diversity. We asked to go to the taxi stand, he took us to town. We asked if there was an ATM, he made calls to local bank officials. We asked him if he was from the village, he told us its history. I was in rural Arunachal Pradesh, and the air tasted of the mustiness of showers not had and whiskey offered straight from the bottle.

They say memory fades over time.


Travelling is a shape-shifter. Commuting is a clean box; the expected scanning of airport displays and the impatient tapping in security lines. It is the feigned nonchalance that rattles off the next month’s itinerary, the glazed nothing-surprises-me-anymore look as cities blend into one another.  Family vacations are a knotted tangle. It is the carefully orchestrated dance of I-love-spending-time-together against the rhythm of give-me-my-own-space. It is a choreographed coexistence slightly rusty yet oiled by the emotional guilt that accompanies avoidance. It is a rigmarole of commitment, expectation, and obligation. But true pleasure? True pleasure lies in the solo. Real excitement is built in the evolution from grey, many-times-mended, inappropriately unwieldy suitcases to the just-as-grey but comfortably old, super-convenient rucksacks. It is hidden in the growth from packing a grossly unsuitable and overly large wardrobe to chuckling at anything more than two pairs of jeans and un-wrinkle-able t-shirts in dark colours that don’t show dirt. It lies in the quiet moments, atop side upper berths on the Indian Railways when I look around me and no one looks back, when I am a Nobody and I couldn’t be happier. Travelling is a shape-shifter, but the traveller, it would seem, is shapeless.

But don’t for a minute think shapelessness is easy. It is complex, complicated, sometimes confusing. Time and space, those deep philosophical categories that pose such layered challenges to the academic, become disposable on the road. When you wake to the sun and eat when you are hungry, when you walk a path just simply because it appeared before you or choose a destination only because it is so far away, what is space and time but mere romanticised words to throw out in travelogues and personal essays? Yet even amidst this romanticism, this willingness to move past categories and boundaries, there is the lurking need to acknowledge the very same containers we are so quick to dismiss. I wake to the sun and eat when I am hungry, yet I do not lurk after dark or take a midnight stroll. I choose a path because it appeared and set out to a destination far away, yet I look behind my shoulder to make sure no one else made the same decisions. I tell the world I will be unavailable, that the only-too-familiar speech bubble notification will not reach me, that I will not be refreshing my Gmail page. Then I call my emergency numbers and tell them I will be unavailable except if… There is always an ‘except’, a ‘Conditions Apply’ clause to my disappearing act, an asterisk to this suspension of time and space.


Of all my travelling memories, my worst is always walking out; of airports, railway stations, even just hotel rooms, towards someone waiting some feet away. Walking in smells of expectation and adventure mixed with the artificial steeliness of air-conditioning. Staying in feels like long waits and carpeted floors, each one taken refuge in till the automated voice announces final boarding calls. But walking out? Walking out has an awkward stance, an uncomfortable glance to it. It feels self-conscious, acutely observed. Walking out reeks of a person on the other end, standing, while you shuffle out of the automatic doors, trolley first, towards them. They wait, you feel weird. You shuffle. Even today, I breathe a sigh of relief when, in the odd chance that someone picks me up, they call to say they are late. Even today, I avert my gaze, pretending not to see them as they walk towards me to save them the awkwardness, the acute observation.

Walking in smells of happenings. Waiting smells of happenings. Walking out? It stinks of finality.


Travels, that quintessential Indian English word, denotes transportation; late night buses with reclining seats, and if you are lucky, an old 1990s movie. Travelling is an exercise in grammar, present continuous suggesting movement, a line segment that stretches between the start and the end. To me, though, the true form lies elsewhere. Travelled, in past, hinting at a certain finitude, a completion. When you travel, you always end. When you start, you always stop.

Yet every time I travelled, it is hardly a straight line. There is neither a home nor a destination. Instead it is a snaking path through foreign geographies and unchartered conversations, exploring personal boundaries and shared memory.

hitchhiking in a lorry
in Ladakh
drinking in bamboo
in Arunachal
closerto (elusive)
fluency in Tamizh
                                people and places and…
                                mine all
                                if only in narration
                                                                                a tangle of
                                                                                newly minted

Every time I travelled, it is defined in plural all at once, hardly a straight line. Perhaps it is a maze. Better still, perhaps it is not travelled at all.

Travelled is a verb, in past, complete. Journey is different. Journey speaks of a serendipitous stumbling coloured in the hues of promise. Journey is a noun, timeless, spaceless, always present.

I do not travelled. I journey.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

#KochiBiennale: The art, artist, art-ed

This past weekend, I gifted myself a little getaway, running off to Kochi (blessedly only four hours by train from Coimbatore) for the Kochi Muziris Biennale. Every few exhibits, every few hundred metres, every few minutes, I'd find myself perched on a parapet, a footpath, a rock of some sort. 

This past weekend, I wrote my way through the Biennale. I scrawled in a notebook that was falling apart, in handwriting that was near impossible to decipher, trying to make sure my hands kept up with my head. What lies below is an excerpt of these notes, cleaned up and spruced up for readability. 

I climbed ladders today, in a skirt, to get into a huge kaleidoscope, a swirling mass of colourful pieces of glass. I waded through water today, in a skirt, all the while reading rhythmic free verse memorializing a dead Syrian bo(d)y. I walked till my legs were numb today, in a skirt, in and out, in and out, in and out.

A man lying down, lighting up through infrared heat sensors. Another man, also lying down, gold beads popping out of his bellow button, critiquing the ability to create and earn from thin air. A wall covered with picture from an iPhone – ephemeral, useless except in the moment, except now memorialised for eternity. Another wall covered with layers of butter paper, fluttering in the wind as the artist adds layer after layer, commenting on complexity, transparency, multiplicity. A third covered in a ten-metre digital picture juxtaposing groups of giggling girls taking selfies against a medieval trading Chinese scene (was it medieval trading? It was Chinese for sure…), talking of the contrast with history and how far we’ve strayed from our roots.

Walls and walls and walls, pictures and paintings and posters. Wherever you turn, there are walls, there are paintings, there is creation. Wherever you turn, there is art. 

A slightly longer version of these assortment of thoughts can be found here.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Dear Man who followed me,

Dear LoverBoy who followed me,

When you brushed by me on a busy main road yesterday, I instinctively thought it was an accident. You walked by me, moving in the opposite direction. I was walking towards home and you, maybe you were heading to catch a bus? I felt your hand on my thigh, felt it through the layers of my sari, and I turned around. You did not look back, and I walked on, merely chalking it up as yet another experience of the streets. I had been thinking about something else, a sweet New Year’s message a boss had sent me, allowing myself two seconds of distraction when on a public road. For affording that luxury, I apologise.

I turned into a marginally quieter lane, using you as a convenient continuation to a conversation I was having. Some dude just brushed up against me, I texted, in the same indifferent tone as I would use to describe the car that just drove past or the movie poster that was blaring out at me. But of course, the reply came, and we went on to speak of more interesting things. For thinking that was the end of it, I apologise.

Halfway down that road, I heard your voice behind me, just that then I did not know it was yours. Stupidly enough, I thought it was one someone talking to another someone on the street. It was New Year after all, and everyone seemed to have somewhere to go and someone to talk to. I focused on not tripping over my sari in an effort to get home. Vathakozhambu and carrot curry were my only thoughts just then. After all, it was my penultimate dinner at home. Of course that had to be more important, right? Right? For not giving you any importance, I apologise.

And then you spoke. Hello madam, you said, and I turned around on instinct, checking for a stranger who was too close. You couldn’t have been talking to me, I thought. You were a stranger. Turns out that does not matter. My legs decided they had a mind of their own, and I found myself moving forward faster. I stepped across deflated tyres on the street, around autos parked in the middle of the road, all the while wondering whether it was better to walk into oncoming traffic and risk getting run over or towards the darker shadows on the side of the street. Would you follow me there? Or would you get bored and walk away? For not accounting for your persistence, I apologise.

Hello Madam. Wait, Madam. Give me five minutes, Madam. I want to talk to you, Madam. I just want your time, Madam. Why are you walking away, Madam. Just five minutes, Madam. You kept talking, I kept walking. You kept pursuing, I kept planning. What if you reached out and grabbed my sari? What if persistence gave way to frustration? Would that fuel aggression? Was I better off ducking into my neighbourhood departmental store? But what if I got caught in an empty aisle with you, a stack of pickle bottles behind me and just you in front? Was the street safer than that? What if I followed the rules of a self-assured confident woman and caused you pain? What if instead of reeling in shock after that, you decided to retaliate? For not having any of the answers, I apologise.

You were barely a step behind me. I couldn’t cross the road without walking in to you. I couldn’t stop walking without you bumping in to me. I couldn’t do anything but keep going. Reflexively, I picked up the phone. Did I make the call to ward you off or to calm me down? I don’t know. Lady Luck decided to take a nap just then and my first two attempts weren’t answered. Finally, when the phone was answered, I spoke a little too cheerily, trying to hide how much my hands were shaking just then. So, I am being followed, I said. The response was measured to the point of being scary. Oh ok, I heard, what are you going to do? For expecting a reaction more violent, I apologise.

You were still behind me, asking me to stop. In a last ditch effort to ward you off, I did. Enne thaan venum, I asked. What do you want from me? Pesanum, you said. I want to talk to you. Ungale pudichirukku. I like you. So what, I shot off. Ungalukku pudichirukku nna naan nikkanuma? Why should I stop just because you like me? I stormed off again, you followed again. I paused to avoid traffic. You spoke again. Nillange, you said. Stop. Do we know each other, I growled, and even as the words slipped off my tongue, I knew the words I would hear in response. Therinjikalaame, you said, in what I am sure you thought was a smooth comeback. We can get to know each other. I rolled my eyes, told myself off for not pre-empting that, and kept walking. For giving in to those few lines of conversation, I apologise.

You see, that entire conversation was at 7:30 in the evening, at a junction so busy that we used to crib about traffic jams in an otherwise quiet neighbourhood. I was aggressive in stance, angry in tone, and standing in the middle of the street. Why didn’t you call attention to yourself, people asked me later in the evening. Because of the half a dozen people who made eye contact with me in those few minutes, no one as much as paused. Diverted glances, awkward eye contact. For not having the confidence that I would be helped, I apologise.

And then you gave up. You threw a few choice words at my retreating back, and took the other turn at the junction. You cursed at me for rejecting you, yelled at the illogical prospect of my ignoring your advances, and swore at any possible relationships, present and future. I didn’t stop walking at a frenzied pace till I got home. All the choice words I could have thrown back at you just propelled my feet farther and farther away from that junction. For not opening my mouth, I apologise.

A friend called me back on that last stretch home. I couldn’t take the call ma, I am sorry, he apologised. It was fine, I told him. What’s up, he asked, and for the next few minutes he was assailed with a rather intense response to a safe opening question. But I am fine, I breezed, just walking into the house. And then it hit me. The minute I latched the door behind me and breathed in the confidence of being in a safe space, it hit me. For underestimating how much you could get under my skin, for believing I was numbed to the experience, I apologise.

Dear Stranger on the Street in your grey graphic t shirt and blue jeans, I remember your face much too clearly. I remember the swagger with which you walked next to me as I tried so hard to get away. I remember the casual confidence with which your hand brushed my thigh as you walked by near the busy-as-hell bus depot on New Year Day. I remember the entitlement in your tone as you told me off, your vocabulary choice describing various characteristics of me and my body. Your scruffy beard, the black thread around your neck, the red string around your wrist, the belt with the too-big buckle on your jeans, they have all been stored away as the latest addition to the Vermin file in my head. And for even having that file, as I am sure most other girls do, I do not apologise. That one is not on me.

You see, Stranger, I have the theory to back this up. I could rationalise this plenty, tell myself how you probably saw every Tamil movie on the face of the planet where the hero stalks the heroine into submission, and they love happily ever after (no, not a typo). I could explain it away as something you’ve deeply internalised, the laws of patriarchy and gender norms dictating that you chase, I refuse, you chase some more, I refuse slightly less vociferously, you keep chasing and I swoon. It isn’t your fault, is it? I could explain it away in big words with multiple syllables that roll off my tongue with an ease only born from habit. But I refuse to give you that leeway, and for that I do not apologise.

When I finally let it all hit me, lying on my bed just before heading to a shower, I was shaken, frustrated at myself. No, I did not ask for it and what I was wearing was immaterial to the moment. No, it was not my fault and I knew enough to discount anyone who suggested it. Why must it be a luxury to feel safe, I fumed, a righteous anger threatening to overwhelm me. Yet even that I understood. What I did not get was the speckles of thankfulness. Thank God you didn’t touch me, I found myself thinking. Thank God your idea of wooing did not involve reaching out and tugging at my sari. Thank God you did not decide to show me how much you loved. Thank God you didn’t follow me home. Thank God all the ‘it could have been’ horror stories remained just that. And in that moment, I felt a deep sense of disgust, at the world for teaching us to expect this on the streets, at you for blindly buying into these tropes, but mostly at myself. For having it in me to say thank you for how this panned out.

Dear Stranger, I will apologise for a couple of things from yesterday. For allowing myself a moment of distraction. For not slapping you or yelling or creating a scene at a busy junction on a Sunday evening. For not being able to control the quiver in my hands and the shiver in my knees the closer you came. But you, in the kilometre and a half that you walked with me, behind me, you showed me how much I had internalised. You made me ask myself difficult questions. So maybe next time this happens, for there will most definitely be a next time, I will be better prepared. Maybe next time, I will not automatically dial a guy’s number, as if the only source of strength in that situation can be male. And maybe the next girl you stop on the streets because you know, pudichirukku, would have fought these battles already.

Happy New Year from the girl in the white sari.