I went on just one date in February. It felt familiar but not identical. I had had a date a lot like this one, over 12 years ago. It was with someone with a very similar background to this date. Back then, we’d spoken about our respective careers, the books we both loved. We’d drunk wine together and shopped for Milan Kundera, spending our brand new MNC high-flying incomes. We’d written to each other, for each other, about each other. We’d used poetry like swordplay, compliments as flourishes, each other as accessories. And I had thought it was fun. (1, 2, 3, are just some of that time, if you’re interested)
12 years later, I’ve made career & life choices that are braver than those two people in 2007 (and this date in 2020). I think it hit me when he said something about books, that topic that has been the metric for good dates for me. He said,
“I used to read a lot but now I’m struggling to get through books I used to love. Once upon a time I devoured Milan Kundera. And now, it just feels like, what’s the point?”
I couldn’t help but agree. I also fell in love with Kundera all those years ago. In fact, it was along with that very same 2007 date. And now I feel that way about him – faintly nostalgic, mildly tolerant but only to a point. And not even a very big point at that.
This 2020 date felt a lot like that. I’m hard-pressed to be impressed by someone with the branded degrees, the poker-playing (which is the 2010s equivalent of Kundera/Murakami reading). I don’t have anything to say to someone whose primary career ambition is making money. I moved away from that life long ago, seeking other things – creative fulfilment, a chance to make a difference in the world. On the other hand, it was nice reliving mutual nostalgia for something we both obviously sought, once. The world needs the income generators and it needs its artists and activists and plodders and players. I just don’t know that there’s anything connecting us strongly enough for me to invest in.
A part of me felt sad but that’s because this is me saying goodbye to something I once thought I loved – a certain type of person with whom I was having a certain kind of conversation, presenting a certain me that I wanted to be. It was a nice idea. But it was only an idea.
I guess every date is a lesson, even the ones that don’t go anywhere but just teach you to place a fullstop.
I LOVED a haircut I had last year. This helped me tide over my uncertainty about a new stylist. When I went back for a trim, somehow things turned out differently. She was so upset, I didn’t get angry. I could see it was an honest mistake. It’s easy to forget styling is an art that you can’t mass produce identical results. Here’s what I learnt:
1. Things not going as per plan may not mean malice (usually not). They may not mean ineptitude (this happens more often than the first but not everytime). I was faced with the choice of poisoning this otherwise great relationship with upset or whatever other option there was. The hair stays the same regardless so why throw away people?
2. I often feel like the universe has been tough on me. But I miss the ways it’s also gentle on me. Hair is a vital part of my self-expression because I have some control over it (unlike skin colour or body type). It lends itself to easy alterations with big differences in results. I’ve been blase about this gift but life has gifted me nice hair. It’s silky, straight, shiny, strong, voluminous. It also grows quickly and is still black. Which means I can afford to indulge my affectation of not using product. Even this haircut gone wrong is starting to settle nicely. I don’t say thank you enough but really thank you for my crowning glory.
3. I’ve been careless in how I think of the connection between beauty & self-worth. With all my battles, I’m not at the forefront of attack for how I look. I forgot how much not feeling attractive eats into your self-esteem. This wasn’t even an attack, just a haircut that turned out different and I still felt incomplete. This was a reminder.
4. I’ve faked-it-till-I-made-it with performance & dressing (which is a kind of performance). This time, I let my dissonance show. People have ONLY been encouraging. That’s the lesson.
5. Today I felt right in my body. Maybe it was a good swim. Maybe it was time. Maybe it was because I let myself feel before speaking or labelling.
Peace within means beauty without.
I’m so glad for the lessons.
Women. We are fed a steady diet of messages that other women are the enemy, that women can’t be friends, that women’s relationships with each other can only revolve around a man (Hello Anjali-Tina-Anjali of KKHH). The world looks at us as objects to be exploited and maximised for use. And we’re encouraged to suffer in isolation or succumb. The bonds between women are downplayed, disrupted and even villified.
Identity is a tug of war between a world hellbent on erasing me and one fragile body, one delicately built identity, one sensitive set of senses, one limited brain. I work very hard to keep my sense of self alive. It’s hard, bloody hard work. Every nasty barb, every attack by a rejected man, every thoughtless word by a distracted friend, every malicious act by a stranger who doesn’t care reminds me that the world doesn’t see me as a human being – only a charity box to take from, without thought.
I’m replenished every time @kavanchheda28 sends me a song in voice note, each time @sensorcaine tells me about a great book or building, each time @natashanoel001 says seek the orgasms you deserve, each time @shrinkfemale shines a gentle light in my dark mood.
It’s a toxic (traditionally masculine) idea to see strength as a solo trait. This validation between women doesn’t say anything about how strong we are. When your personhood is under constant attack, even before you have a fully formed body, let alone mind, every bit of reinforcement helps, even if it’s just a phrase we’ve heard before.
You deserve to exist. You are good. You are beautiful. You are love. You are power. You are joy. You are peace. You are all. The universe has a place for you.
We all need reminders. We all need solid golden words to combat the darkness. We all need each other.
I used to think of myself as ‘one of the boys‘, because I didn’t identify with how femininity was practised around me. I wanted to own my intelligence, my independence and strength the way I saw only boys do. I walked, talked and dressed in a close approximation of my male peers – dirty jeans, chunky boots and a loud voice steeling myself to incorporate crude speech. I didn’t get a lot of acceptance because gender roles are too deeply embedded in people’s minds. Other girls still saw me as competition for their boyfriends and the boys treated me like I was a defective female.
Once I started working, I was able to experience my personal power without having to dress it up so much. People took me seriously and held me as accountable. Through my 20s, I was able to embrace my softer side – sitting with my legs crossed, caring for my appearance, smiling over snarling, compliments instead of sarcasm. I had discovered I could be/do these without giving away my power.
Now I meet more women who practise my kind of femininity. Not the coy, simpering, bitchy-to-other-girls, defining oneself by one’s boyfriend/husband kind. But smart, independent women who don’t feel the need to hide it or tear me down. They’re also emotionally aware, not just apeing ‘maleness’. This kind of femininity is more acceptable now.
Occasionally a woman expects me to be her knight in shining armour – this is the old toxic femininity, acting helpless + expecting women to do all the work. It’s not perfect.
But I have more fulfilling conversations with other women now than I did before 30. Careers, health, poetry, architecture, sexuality and yes, men too – we talk like two humans would, not like scripts mouthed by strictly controlled prisoners.
Men, in comparison are rarely this interesting. There are exceptions but they’re a scant few. Conversations wth men often have to be ’emotionally dumbed down’. It’s tiring and not worth it when there are other more evolved humans called women.
I’ve come a long way from ‘one of the boys’. Right now I’m every bit a women’s woman. Or maybe, I’m my own person.
Navigating A Feminist Identity
Last evening was a series of odd events. It started when I was hosting an open mic. One of the performers ranted about being friendzoned, spewing vitriol on the woman and ended up calling the audience boring because nobody would applaud. While this person was still performing, someone tapped on my shoulder and said, “You’ve got to call this out. This is problematic.”
This was heartening to hear. I’ve soldiered on alone for so long, being called all kinds of evil names, it just felt so good to know someone else found this outrageous and demanded action. When he finished, the silence of the audience was deafening. My god, this is what I touched when I did a silent performance. The whole room voiced their discontent with this problematic piece without making a sound. It was more powerful than anything I could have said or done because the community policed itself.
As a vocal feminist in this very space, I’ve endured hostility & harassment for calling out shit like this. It has also become my calling card, with ‘Have You Met My Feminism?’ getting much more recognition than any of the other pieces I worked harder on. SXonomics was my middle ground, learning to temper my fire to be more sustainable. So I wondered how to handle the problematic performer. I was, after all hosting and it’s my responsibility to hold the space as safe and diverse with minimal silencing or hate.
I decided to let him finish rather than disrupt a performance and then call it out. When I went back on stage, I explained why friendzone was a problematic idea, keeping it as personal attack-free as I could. And then I moved on. But I wondered if I had been too mild about it. It’s hard enough deciding which battles to fight and the decision of how hard to fight is even worse. As I explained it to some of the others who were enraged, later, as a host I sought to encourage anyone performing and helping them navigate their problem areas (including gaps in thought). Many of them thought it was pointless but I figured it was always worth engaging until the other person made it absolutely impossible.
After the event was over, a girlfriend commented on the incident. And then she said another performer had told her she liked performing when I was hosting because I was especially supportive of women performers. But, my friend said, I managed to do it without belittling or neglecting the men. So up my spirits lifted again.
I closed the evening catching up with a male acquaintance. I started to tell him about the incident. “You get why friendzone is problematic, right? No? Okay, let me put it this way. Men are the ones who complain about being friendzoned.”
He interrupted to tell me women got friendzoned too. I said, but the complaining is by men. He agreed and fell quiet….for about 3 sentences before interrupting to mansplain what these guys are like. I asked if he knew who incels were. He didn’t but it didn’t stop him from interrupting me and mansplaining about what men like these were like. I managed to get a word in about the shooters in the US. But not before he started talking about his roommate, yelling about how lots of Delhi guys were nice people. The next 4 minutes (the time it took to walk the road) he kept shutting me down, interrupting, his voice getting louder and his stance getting more aggressive by the minute.
When it got to him shouting (yes shouting) about how everything about me was gender, I just went very quiet and then told him to drop it. You see, this person is not a close friend. He’s someone who contacted me based on my writing (which has all been very strongly feminist and about gender politics). I didn’t even want to bother dealing with this kind of disreputable behaviour anymore.
He didn’t seem to realise I was ending the conversation. I reiterated, “This is over. Go home. It’s late.” He sputtered and said, “You say I’m mansplaining? You…you are woman-shunning!” I walked away before he could say anything more. Angry men are dangerous men. Half an hour later, my phone was beseiged with foaming-at-the-mouth messages from him. I told him if he ever contacted me again, I would report him. And I blocked him.
I’m aware that there will be a lot of people who think I should have patiently heard him out and explained to him. Because after all, I did take that stance with the first problematic man. I even told the others who were angry with that guy, that the only hope we have is in engaging and keeping conversations going. But I also have to draw my boundaries and definitions.
Tolerating men’s bad behaviour till they decide to be better human beings is NOT my job (or any other woman’s). From experience I know such men never will make that decision. Engaging with someone who wants to learn – there’s some merit in that but it is still my prerogative to decide I don’t want to. And I have decided not to engage with anyone who throws tantrums or silences me – I don’t do that and I deserve better than to be treated that way.
And finally, I don’t have to do all of this alone. Maybe the world is changing or maybe I’m moving to parts of it that hold more solidarity with my values. The respect and camaraderie of several women (and some men) who feel the same way versus surviving lots of toxic men – it’s an easy choice when I look at it like that.
Patriarchy is a shutdown, silencing, a one-way order. Feminism is a conversation. And a conversation can only be two-way (or multi-way). It can only be between people willing to listen to the other. Anything else is not my business.
Play a game with me. Ready? Pick any one answer:
QUESTION: What do you call a guy who makes a call at 1:30AM stoned and drunk to a girl who said she was having a bad day at 11:30PM?
A. A thoughtful, considerate, caring person who is taking time off partying to help someone in need.
B. A booty call.
If you picked A, you’re either a) a guy or b) a girl who has been told by a lot of men that you’re a princess who will be looked after so long as you’re patient because all men are brave, thoughtful and here to serve you.
If you picked B, you’re a woman. You may have once been the princess detailed in A but you’ve been disappointed too many times.
There is a fundamental difference in how men and women construct a story based on the same sequence of events. The thing is the women who pick B are doing so based on undeniable patterns they’ve lived through. While the men who pick B are doing so, wilfully ignoring patterns they’ve themselves contributed to because it’s inconvenient. Well, maybe I’m just biased and that’s not a good thing for a game designer or a quiz maker.
I’ve had a few conversations this week with men I’m close to – articulate, thoughtful, intelligent men. One of them insists on tailoring our interactions to contract-level precision, complete with ‘Clause B states this’ style references. This is how he understands boundary-setting. He’d be appalled if I called it a loaded term like ‘tone policing’ but that’s how it feels to me. Another apologises every time he doesn’t have a solution for something I share. He thinks this is how he should be a feminist ally. I don’t know how to explain the distinction between empathy and blind agreement, between taking a stand and playing hero.
All of them say “I didn’t realise you’re waiting for me to do this.” about while also asking me to trust them. How to do this without opening myself to accusations of being controlling and mistrustful? I thought we’d agreed on this, now I’m supposed to deal with their disbelief that I’d actually expect them to follow through?
When I talk to one of them about the communication breakdown I’m having with another man, thinks that man is immature, emotionally limited and other such things. It wasn’t till I heard this denigration of the same behaviour in other men that I realised these statements were being made only to please me.
How do you talk to someone who is eager to please you but can’t hear a word of what you say? Me? I’ve screamed and yelled and raged. It is frustrating, especially when it feels deliberate. How is it possible for intelligent humans to completely miss what you’re saying? It seems like that can only happen if they’re not listening.
And yet, why does my validation and pleasing me matter so much? Please don’t comment telling me that these men want to sleep with me and will say what they have to for that. For a fact, that’s not true of some of them and I don’t care to explain how I know. Oh and also, that’s what one of them says about every other man exhibiting the exact same behaviour as himself.
All I know at the end of this frustrating set of interactions is that men and women don’t understand each other at all. It’s like we’re speaking two different languages that just happen to have the same alphabet. We’re coming away with entirely different conversations in our head. How then, can understanding happen?
Anybody? I’ll wait.
Last week, I was trolled about my looks. Some men friends said they liked how I look. The troll’s attack is based on the idea that a woman’s worth is in her looks and that anyone can boost/undermine it with words. My friends, however well-intentioned, were reinforcing that idea. Strangers like salespeople have felt entitled to comment on my dark skin and suggest ‘cures’. Romantic partners have been able to establish authority over me by calling me ugly, desperate and in need of their validation.
These were possible because my body has been seeded with fields of shame, ripe for whoever wants control over me. My nose shape, my bony frame, my foot size, my rounded tummy, my skin colour – these have been snatched from being my body organs/traits and turned into free access areas for other people to rule me. I say NO. My body, my rules.
My body image & self-esteem are not based on other people’s opinions. My body is mine, the only thing that truly is. It is my home, my vehicle, my canvas. It works in a way that enables me. It is beautiful because I say so. I refuse to let shame be a guest in this body. This is how I get to walk out of my home wearing bold lipsticks, sarees & hoodies, colours deemed too bright, hair considered too stylish, dresses called too slutty or young. My femininity, my beauty, my sexuality, my identity – these are not for anyone else to judge. They are what I say they are. Body Pride because it is my right.
When you feel shame over something that you can’t control (like your body), remember it is external. It’s a festering wound someone else inflicted on you. Wash that wound of foreign bodies like other people’s words. Clean it by distancing yourself from people who would wound you (deliberately or not). Tend it to it by remembering the ways your body serves you well. Heal by honoring all that you are and have, just as they are. Cauterize your vulnerability to other people’s opinions because yours is the only one that matters.