It could be a lot of things. Commitment. A bribe. A power game. Love? Not necessarily.
And there are things that have got nothing to do with sex. Like good looks. Religion. Rebellion. Daddy issues. Mommy issues. Alcohol.
Everybody has a problem with sex. This is because everybody has problems. We spend our lives trying to figure out how to journey through the madness that is each other. How could those not show up in our sex?
It will hurt. Physically, maybe. Emotionally, definitely. There is so much that will surprise you & continue to surprise you every minute you breathe & move around other people. The sight of someone’s forearm. The musk of a stranger as they pass. The back of a head you used to know really well. Surprises aren’t always good, even if the sex is. You’ll never realise how much your life is based on assumptions about sex, until they’re broken.
I’ve heard people describe themselves as ‘very sexual’ and mean promiscuous. I don’t like the term promiscuous because it has a whiff of judgement about it. One might say “I’m a sexual person” because there are other people who are asexual beings. And there are people who have sex but it doesn’t form a big part of their identity. I say it to mean that sex is an integral part of how I relate to another person. It doesn’t mean I have sex with a lot of people or even a lot of sex with some people. It just means that sexual awareness is an intrinsic of my identity & my connections with others.
Sex isn’t a mechanical act that can be boiled down to a precise contract or formula. It’s the very act of living & being who we are. Only living creatures have sex. How can we bring objectification into it?
There is something about living your best self that draws in other people. We call its wonderful parts, inspiration. The pleasure of watching someone achieve their dream, follow their passion, be happy.
But it also pulls in darker sides of humanity. Microaggressions like insincerity, barbs, sarcasm, condescension. Boundary violations like stalking, hero worship, objectification. Dangerous things like righteous rage & what I call themsplaining (which is people telling you who you are from their own limited point of view but as if that is the truth). Some people are in a hurry to impose on you, their scripts of what your life should look like & who you should be. It’s a lot easier than saying, what a joy to behold & what does it teach me about my own joyfulness? People tell you who they are, in the way they respond to your happiest self.
My dressing often brings in aggression. Workplace harassment for wearing a hair ornament. Bullying by a classmate for wearing sarees. Slut-shaming & prudery-shaming together. Don’t ask – hate isn’t logical. Last evening I sported a face painting, some people said was ‘scary’.
I once read an interview with Rudyard Kipling, where he spoke of the abuse he endured as a child. He said, “That experience left me devoid of the capacity to hate.” My contentment in my body & clothes is probably terrifying for some people. It’s hard to be angry at people who are scared of you. In my experience, refusing to respond with anger kills the aggression. Bullies have returned offering timid affection. It’s hard to take seriously because a guilty compliment is a bribe, a desperate plea for approval. All I feel is sad for the smallness that humanity can also be.
I go back to Kipling. And try & keep my head when all about are losing theirs & blaming it on me. This is being my best self. Doing this in big colours makes it an adventure. I am a fierce butterfly.
: Watch your reaction to what impresses you
I met Scorpio in a chatroom. Reeling from heartbreak, I blundered into a new internet in 2000. We traded barbs, volleyed rock lyrics. When I was all cried out, I wandered back. This time we chatted. Then emailed, a song lyric here, an essay there, a letter then a poem. In a new millennium, time goes by fast.
He had a girlfriend, Gemini. Things weren’t good. Then maybe they were. When she came into our chat, things got richer. More poignant poetry, more passionate declarations. A marriage proposal. To me. I told him to breakup first, then ask me. He did in a Dear Jane email, BCC me. But I awoke to an unread chat message. “I couldn’t. Sorry.” The barbs returned. So did the poetry.
Scorpio’s best friend & Gemini’s senior was Aquarius. Scorpio would ask him to keep me company on chat when he had to work late. Aquarius & I talked mathematics & architecture. He told me about the girl he pined for. Then Scorpio would login & Aquarius would swim off with a polite bye. My nights were to hold Scorpio’s poignant heart but the waiting was made sweeter by intellectual Aquarius.
One night, Scorpio didn’t login. Aquarius & I building a connection over design, barely noticed. Before I logged off, he typed..and stopped. I was used to his keyboard fidgeting. “Goodnight or is 3AM good morning?” The reply surprised me. “I love you. I know you don’t feel that way but you should know this. Goodnight.” I never told Scorpio.
Months later, Gemini found me. She’d tracked my phone number down, something two boys who said they loved me hadn’t been able to, in a year. She was walking out on her family for Scorpio. “You have to tell me if something’s going on.” So I did. Scorpio lied. I served up the emails. Did they count? I let her decide.
Aquarius raged & called me a relationship breaker. I said it wasn’t my job to keep Scorpio loyal. I received an apology email. “What would you do if you were me?” I asked. He said, “Forgive me.” I did.
A new millennium lay ahead of us. It was just the internet.
I hide when we make love
I hide the way refugees hide in their own country
I hide inside my body
It’s a nice body
It has the right curves, the perfect inches
It gets a part in every male fantasy that auditions it
But it leaves no room for me
He kisses me hard on the mouth
His hand reaches between my legs
This body responds on cue
It opens at the perfect angle
Makes the right sounds
All the while
I’m making space for him
Because a man
As a guest or an intruder
Is still an outsider to this body
He moves in at will
Overpowers my inside & my outside
I’m pushed into corners
Making things easier, softer,
more comfortable for him
When he finishes, I think it’s my turn
To recolonize my body
I start to reclaim my sensations
But his hand reaches for my breast
Once again the body obeys his command
So I tell myself
I will find my being in words
I’m a writer after all
But he rolls over & breathes peppermint-and-sex laced words
into my face
BABY YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL
BABY I LOVE YOU
This question rises like a bubble to my brain
Explodes like a 100 firecrackers, bombs
It poisons my endorphin high
DO YOU KNOW ME? DO YOU SEE ME?
But he doesn’t answer because he’s asleep
He didn’t hear it because I didn’t say it
The last time he said I love you, I said why
And he said
Baby, you are wise, you are wonderful
You’re Superwoman with your red lipstick, your angry words
You’re my baby
These are his words
They leave when he does
My red lipstick smeared all over his body
What happens when he takes a bath?
Does this Superwoman run in the wash?
And this body that’s programmed to answer to his command
That responds on cue to his comments
Is just a colour-by-dots mass of cells
In his answer, in his words
I’m not me within my own body
But his hand reaches around this waist
And I’m scurrying to the crevices of my knees
Because those are places he never goes
This beautiful fantasy of his is pushing me into dark corners
And I’m a refugee, I’m hiding
Sometimes I bleed salt from my eyes
He pats my back, decides it’s PMS
And tells me it’ll be alright, baby.
That’s who I am
Hiding in the bylanes of my body
When he says
BABY I LOVE YOU
Let’s do the dating thing. I say Coffee? You say YUP. I spend the next hour wondering what Yup means
before deciding it’s a version of Yes.
On time, wondering if it’s desperate, we meet. We talk of things slight acquaintances say-Mumbai weather. Andheri traffic. The waiter interrupts to take our order. We order & return to “You were saying?”
Then you or I will say or do something incredibly wrong. Can you take the saying wrong part please? I’m rather proud of my words but I have no illusions of grace. That’s settled then. You can say something slightly politically incorrect, while I fidget on the sofa making those sounds. Embarrassment comes to our table like unwelcome friends when you’re out on a date.
You charm me by not even noticing while I impress you with my intelligent jokes that are about people like us but not you & me. That done we settle into the comfort of I like this person so much! Before realising it’s only a date. Not even that, it was just supposed to be coffee.
We go back to staring at our drinks-not-coffee hoping to forget this companionable bridge that we almost built. This time you knock over the glass while I say something stupid like doesn’t beer taste just like piss? Beer is what you’re having.
We laugh the laugh of people who’re nervous together. Or maybe we just like each other’s laughs. It’s hard to fall in love over coffee & pretend that’s not happening. But we’re working it so an hour passes. We really do get along quite nicely.
When the bill arrives, an awkward shuffle but the waiter hands it to you because they always do that. I hope you know then worry you think I’m cheap so I insist more forcefully than needed that I asked you out. You stare. I know this is no more a fun game of emotional hide-and-seek.
When we leave, you don’t hold the door for me. I wonder if you did before. It doesn’t matter, still I wonder. You search my face for the same thing I was looking for a minute ago. 1 min off sync.
We book our cabs. Mine arrives first. Grateful, I get in. You say I really did have a nice time. I smile & say YUP as my cab zooms away.
I was 19 when I met him. He was too, just a day older, a fact that would serve as a bridge for us, looking for a way to say hello. I spotted him in a crowd outside an event where I was looking for someone else. He turned at that exact moment, saw me & smiled like he’d been looking for me. I recognised that look. It said “I’ve been waiting for you and here you are!”
Later he invited me to his college. I waited at the gate at the appointed hour, being stared at by other students, wondering if my cargo pants were too loose & my striped teeshirt too tight. We went to the newly opened Macdonalds, the first in the city. I punctuated every word with Sorry as ketchup & mayonnaise squirted with each bite. He put down his burger and said, “Say Sorry 100 times. Done? Now eat. It’s junk food. It’s supposed to be messy.” I didn’t even know I’d been waiting for someone to say that.
I introduced him to a close guy friend. I was relieved they seemed to get along. Later he asked me how close a friend this guy was. I worried that I was going to be asked to choose between boyfriend & friend. He said “Because when you were at the counter, he asked me how far you & I have gone, physically. I told him she’s your friend. I think you should ask her.” I tried to process this & asked what I should do. He said, “Your friend, your decision.” That’s the kind of level-headedness I don’t see in 40 year olds today. This was a 19 year old in 1999.
There were other men, other more brutal realisations in the years to come. He & I stayed in each other’s lives, without being in every frame. Every few years we meet & he lectures me on eating better & I joke about nothing tasting as good as that first burger. Or I nag him about relaxing & he chuckles. I’ll always be his first girlfriend and he, my first boyfriend. I’m well versed in the role of a date today, the smart lines, the sharp look etc. But I’m glad that this brand of romance, with its sweetness, trust & respect was my first.
🎶: PEHLA NASHA: JJW OST
#IWear: Cotton saree with fish applique + halter blouse with bicycle print + clear belt + denim sneakers
(This post was written in October 2020)
I got a haircut! As I navigate into the new normal, this was the first thing I wanted.
The pandemic has been full of lessons, many uncomfortable. I’ve liked to think of myself as unworldly, a being of the mind rather than the body. But even as home haircuts & DIY styling became the 2020 look, I found myself reluctant to take scissors to hair. Even through a horrific summer minus AC, household tasks with needle-sharp hair on my neck, plastered to my face, drifting into my nose & eyelashes. I didn’t cut my hair.
I had to admit that this part of me is quite worldly. My hair is my vanity. I like it luxuriant, clean , sleek & free. And in matters of my hair, if I don’t like something, it drains the very quality of my mood, my thinking, my efforts & hope. Even if others tell me it looks ok.
My first purchase after lockdown was an epilator to replace one that stopped in the hemmed in months. I felt guilty, questioning of my own feminism. I didn’t even have the excuse of being a swimmer. I realised that was an excuse. I like my limbs smooth to my touch. I like how they feel when I lie down at night. Guilt comes via other people & there’s no room for that in me.
Vanity has been hijacked first by patriarchy, letting men dictate how our bodies look, then the media to sell us more. But vanity at its core, is a form of self-worth, of valuing the physical self. When I swipe on lipstick, when I run my hand down my other arm, when I toss my hair or tuck in a perfect saree pleat, I feel a burst of energy. It comes from within, even before other eyes can offer validation (or judgement). It feels like acceptance, like rightness, like the mantle of life sits easy on my shoulders.
That’s why vanity is my superpower. It grounds me in me, my best self.
: @rikhilasrani at @rikoshesalon
: Wear a mask. Support local/small businesses.
: THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT: Beegie Adair
: waiting for @aparna.andhare for #GirlTalkXXFactor: Lekhak Life