Category Archives: I’m An Indian Woman
We’re leading up to the grand tamasha called Women’s Day where you can expect to see the world pat itself on the back for giving half its population one day. You’ll also find a lot of men applauding each other for being so considerate of women. And congratulating one another on what good men they are for allowing women a special day. And finally, refraining from PMS jokes for that one day. Well done, men.
Here is a piece that I performed this Monday. Before I went up on stage, I was announced as
‘That poet who the women will love and the men better beware because the poetry is going to slap them’.
Once I finished, I was asked why I disliked men so much. Then a young man I barely knew parked himself next to me and in the semi-darkness during the subsequent performances, proceeded to harass me on my social adjustment issues, my hatred of men and my problematic past. Of note, said young man is also a poet who is infrequent on the scene. He also has a bad stammer and earlier in the evening, I had applauded his performance because I know how much courage it takes to go up on stage. He did not however, feel equally kindly towards me. He also felt perfectly able to attack me in a place where I’m a regular and when I was surrounded by friends. This is not the first time men have behaved in such a manner on the performance/poetry scene and every single time I protested, I’ve been told that I was taking things too seriously or that ‘he’s just young’.
Here’s the piece I performed. Dare I point out that it doesn’t mention men anywhere?
After all, feminism is only feminism when a man speaks about it. A male feminist is a hero and a female feminist is nothing more than an angry, man-hating bitch. Thank you for putting me in my place, fellow poets.
It looks like the stage does not permit me to speak my mind so let me hide on my blog for as long as it takes for the trolls to find me. Tonight a lot of you stay up celebrating a god whose legacy includes blurring gender roles, assimilating the masculine and the feminine and indeed, expressing an open need of his equal half – his female partner and side. That’s it. Think about it. You can wish me on 8th March on the one day in the year I don’t have to apologise for not being male and then congratulate yourselves for doing so. Thank you.
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I am not in dil-toot anymore. It was dil-toot, a phrase I’ve coined to denote a less-than-heartbreak, more like a heart-pinch, just painful enough for me to feel something and think about it but not so shattering that I can’t piece together a coherent thought or sentence. Did I ever mention how or why it ended?
It ended when he said,
” I don’t know what to say.”
It ended because he assumed it was all about what he thought and what he had to say. It didn’t even occur to him that a conversation is between two people and that the other person might have something to say. It ended either because he assumed that or because he did not want to face what I might have had to say.
I’ve weathered the deep sadness, the now-familiar disappointment. I’ve even been able to see how this was a life experience that bothered me just enough to learn from it and also feel very good about the good parts. Being in love really is a wonderful feeling. I have remembered something I keep forgetting when my heart shatters – that love is that undefinable experience that goes beyond attraction, logic, compatibility and shared interests. It falls in the realm of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink moment and everything that follows is an attempt to explain it. I don’t have to, anymore. And that frees me up to look at the future with the hope of more love and other adventures.
I am tickled, even charmed by the surprised wonder in a boy/man’s eyes when it first occurs to him that I’m paying attention to him. I’m not even the most beautiful or desirable woman around but just the fact that I am listening to him and could it be – I like him? What’s worrying is that a lot of men never seem to get past that. That wonder takes on the quality of suspicion, fear even. And that’s part of what turns into slut-shaming, into cheating, into harassment or treating women badly. It’s the inability to handle any reaction from a woman but her derision or fear. Men who cannot deal with a woman’s appreciation or interest – is that not a poisonous problem?
I remember the deadend expression on his face, the frantic tone of his voice in the last moments as my dil-toot‘ed. I have seen it before on many men’s faces. I’ve assumed that it’s coldness, cruelty, selfishness and many other such things. But I’ve come to realise, this is something else. It is the outer limit of a man’s ability to feel, identify and express emotion.
Last week I watched Bramhan Naman, a disturbing movie by any account. It left me deeply sad because among other things, it exposes how woefully ill-equipped the Indian man is when it comes to dealing with the world of myriad emotions that make up the framework of relationships and adult life. In the movie (and echoed in real life) the verbose protagonist yearns for an intangible fantasy but can barely speak to the woman who spawns it. He treats professed, open affection with viciousness and is paralysed by his guilt and fear. When he encounters a woman with the right mix of attractiveness and vulnerability, he cannot bring himself to even respond, let alone initiate interest. So he settles for gestures like getting her food (the last), showing off his family business (the second) and stalking her (the first). These are the actions of a socially inept child, not a completely functioning adult. That adults with their freedom and power do this, is what makes it dangerous.
I complain long and hard about how Indian men (men in general but particularly, brutally Indian men) are infantilised and stunted in their emotional growth. This is what it looks like. They are barely functioning adults who are unable to deal with normal human emotions. Unable, not unwilling.
This outer-limit expression comes after bewilderment and panic. It’s not even resignation since that requires an ability to see that something is bigger than oneself and experience giving up. It’s literally like a very small baby who has not developed sight yet, running into a wall and being stunned, unable to figure out whatwherewhyhowohisthispainshouldicryuhwhatwait. Most men live in that place the whole time they are in love or a relationship. Boy, that’s scary. Add to it such nuanced, problematic ideas such as guilt over sex, Madonna/whore syndromes, mama’s boy dependency and toxic masculinity. No wonder Indian men are such a mess.
I cannot help but feel deep pity for them. And then great sadness for us women and the kind of futile relationships we have to endure as a result. Is there any hope for us all?
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I wore a saree to a poetry event today. Unlike the last time, it was a rushed drape of an unstarched cotton. I look like an amma. But I was on my way to a new poetry event. And I thought it would be nice to do gentle romantic piece. But on the train, there were three women who were travelling with an adult height male being. When I protested his presence in the ladies compartment, they abused me. The last time I tweeted a picture of such a male creature in the ladies compartment, I got abused by women on Twitter. It made me mad enough to bring out my vitriol from last week. Truly, mothers/sisters of men in this country have to be the most irresponsible, self-absorbed, cussed group ever. My deepest derision is saved for you. Here’s Mother’s Day, performed at Kulture Shop.
When I finished, I felt somewhat incensed. This country is what it is. And as a bona fide uterus carrier, I will live the rest of my life with men hanging their insecurities on me and blaming me for it. Where I can, I will shoulder that burden womanfully (yes, what is manfully? that to me, just means in a weak, undependable and entitled manner). So here’s something that I do do well – offer comfort and solace. Lullaby for your listening pleasure.
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A few years ago, I wrote about navigating the boundaries of a friendship with a married man. My first guest contributor, The Single Married Man shared a firsthand account of the confusion of being in transition from ‘married’ to ‘divorced’.
I am finding divorce in every by lane of my social circle these days. Over the years, I’ve bemoaned relationship breakdowns with girlfriends and together we have learnt to deal with it. For some reason, when I was in my 20s, we tended to seek solace from others of our own sex. But these days I find myself in more conversations with men about their failing/failed marriages.
Perhaps it’s because the boundaries between the sexes are blurring. Maybe it’s because marriage is a complex universe involving families, landlords and the law so one can’t afford to be picky about where one finds one’s support. Or maybe like I once predicted would happen, the men of my generation are just finding it harder to cope with the realities than women.
They are all men in transition. They have been independent and intelligent, they’ve believed in gender equality and love and commitment. Now with their worlds tattered, they’re rebuilding how they see the world, life, the opposite sex and themselves. I can see them struggling to fit me into relationship models familiar to them.
One of them propositioned me. I deflected him gently so it wouldn’t bruise his ego. “But you’re the one who told me to get out and have some fun!” he said. I meant it would be good for him to loosen up and experience the lighter side of interactions with the opposite sex. That could include casual sex. But I didn’t like his taking it for granted that I was offering myself up.
Married people, especially those who were not single for very long, often tend to take a superior stance on the single life. Marriage is a lot of work, they tell us. What they don’t realise is that being single is a different kind of battlefield. It’s not all days of How I Met Your Mother/Sex and The City style apartments, hitting the town each night and regular Tinder hookups. It’s constant loneliness and never being sure, it’s eating for one, knowing total strangers have the ability to hurt you and constantly evaluating how lonely you are versus how little your options appeal to you. Recently divorced people have a lot to learn, this is true. Welcome to the world of ONE.
One friend threw a tantrum last month because he felt like meeting me for dinner and I said I was busy. I had to be firm, patient but also subtle in conveying to him that I was not obligated to meet all his needs. It really hit me even more painfully then.
Many of these men, even the most independent, thoughtful ones, by virtue of our Great Indian Family Culture have never been allowed to deal with difficulty on their own. They have been mollycoddled from disappointment and insulated from Nos. They have no reference for what to do in a world that does not have time to meet their every demand. Their families are older and possibly less able to be their shields. Often, the families are showing their humanness in bringing in their own prejudices. What is this boychild in a man’s body to do?
I am also noticing some of them lapsing into cynicism and active hatred of women. It’s a scary thing to be around. Most women know that a man who doesn’t get what he wants, is a dangerous man. At what point do I stop being supportive and decide to walk away? When does one decide that this person, this friend of so many years is more dangerous beast than friend?
Take socially sanctioned male entitlement, sprinkle in a vague flavour of independent thinking, throw in some outraged sense of betrayal and mix liberally with confused East/West value systems — that is the brain of today’s recently divorced Indian male.
I do not intend to fall into the common trap of playing mommy to any one of them. Life and the system has extracted its own pound of flesh from me. But they are becoming different people because of their divorces and our relationships are changing too. I guess I’m afraid of what that could mean for them, for us and ultimately, for me.
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There is a new breed of people out there and they are a helluva lot better to be around than the others. They are the 30-something war veterans of relationships. They are divorcees. They’ve lived in without marriage and borne the backlash from family, landlords, friends and service people. They’ve been engaged and sent out wedding invitations only to have to retract and learn to say something no one in their families had to say.
“It’s over. I’m sorry. No, umm, it didn’t work out. No, there’s no wedding. Sorry.”
It used to just be me and one or two of the other local urban legends (“There was something wrong with him always”, “She was always a fightercock”, “He must have cheated”, “She must have had something going on with the neighbor”). Now I’m losing count of the number of people starting to drift into this group.
We are different. Our battle scars don’t just define us. They’ve made it necessary for us to shape lives that have no references. We are the generation of Indians that had limited career choices imposed on us. We are the ones who began speaking English earlier, went abroad earlier, dressed ‘like MTV and Hollywood and don’t you know that is not our culture??’. We celebrated Valentine’s Day and got into political trouble for it. Then we succumbed to arranged marriage or love marriages with twenty thousand rituals borrowed from Bollywood and ageing family matriarchs/patriarchs. We sank or swam in the open sexuality of new media which swept away the prudish touch-only-spouse-and-only-in-private attitudes we had been brought up with.
The compromises we made in our twenties, were supposed to be our prodigal returns from the rebellion of our satellite TV/internet bedecked 90s adolescence. Things were supposed to turn out fine. We were not prepared for dowry disguised as expensive rituals paid for by the girl’s family. We didn’t expect to have to compete with pornography or gaming, for our partners’ attention. We didn’t think we’d need to decide between dual-career-no-marriage or single-career-resentful-marriage. We didn’t forsee that mismatched libidos and opposed political views would enter our kitchens, our bedrooms and our relationships.
And we are dealing with who we are becoming in the dealing of these things. We are so different.
Yesterday I asked out to dinner a woman I had met a couple of times. “Just you and me?” she asked. “Well, why not?” I replied. We talked about mothers who called if it crossed 11PM and we weren’t home. We spoke of bitchy colleagues making our lives miserable when they heard about this. We discussed unsatisfactory exes and what made a woman good in bed and why this should mean we had to do things we didn’t want to. We brought up menstrual cups and younger men and how wonderful it was to have a conversation with someone who used the word ‘schism’ casually and correctly. And then we clinked our Cosmopolitans (what a throwback!) and went home.
Last week I met a man who once wore the tag of ‘boyfriend’ and has always brought along an air of fresh cologne and protective warmth to our friendship. Right now he’s walking around under a cloud of messy divorce and alimony induced gloom. I hugged him. He shrugged and told me,
“I’m looking at it as the price for my freedom.”
I hugged him again. I understood and I know he knew I understood. Only someone who’s been in that war will ever understand all the nuance in his statement. Then we went out to the shops. He helped me pick out a new pair of shoes. I stood with him while he smoked an only-during-bad-times-cigarette. And we enjoyed our meal more than the hundreds we’ve shared in the past decade. Because, who knows what poison might infect his system or mine soon?
Yet another friend has climbed his painful way out of that abyss, quit his corporate job and gone off to chase a longtime dream. Last year I asked him out. He didn’t say yes. He didn’t say no. Now, he may never return from the place he has moved to. But he sends me photographs of his life there. We both know something that people who aren’t like us, do. There is relating and that goes way beyond relationships. It took divorce and abuse and alimony and broken engagements to learn that.
We’ve seen too much to believe that rituals are romantic. We’ve borne too much to pretend that families always know what’s best for us. We’ve been through enough and more that something deeper in us, even the least aggressive of us, has sat up and said, “Enough.” It’s the amiable friend who remarried and didn’t invite anyone because he was done with the tamasha. It’s the ‘good wife’ who shed her burqa for a high-low dress and finally got herself a business card telling the world about the business she had run for six years. It’s the quiet colleague who moved to another city to start a bar and live with two bachelor friends.
This for me is the new India. It didn’t have to live through Independence or Emergency or most of the big wars. But it has had to make its way through outdated social rituals, oppressive familial references and being thrust into a volatile international economy that it was not prepared for. It has been on Shaadi.com as well as Tinder. And guess what, it hasn’t crashed as yet.
There are more of us and we are all around you. You’re related to us. You’re dating us. You’re working with us. You’re falling in love with us. You’re living next door to us and borrowing daal from us. You’re sharing parking space and theatre seats with us. You’re asking us for advice on what to wear, which college to go to and if we’ll give you a reference at your next job. You’re selling to us. We are not the others anymore. Many of us are the ones making pathbreaking choices and while they’re not comfortable, the generation after us looks up to us because we’re displaying the rebellion they’re losing in their twenties.
Divorce is not an evil word anymore. Living in is not a sin punishable by death. Sex is not a bad word. Virginity is not a prize. Men are not freer than women. Women do not make better parents. In-laws are not the same as parents. Big weddings are nothing more than expensive PR campaigns. Older people are just older people, not wiser people. Rituals do not ensure happiness. Intelligent people are not sorted-out people. An IIT or an IIM degree does not guarantee a good spouse or even a good life.
It’s time you revised your myths.
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I was at dinner with three male friends yesterday. We were at a tiny, local restaurant known more for its cheap, tasty food than its ambience or refinement. All around us were people in groups talking, laughing and eating. The proprieter sat at one of the tables counting money while the waiters buzzed in and out of the kitchen door, mingling their words with the diners’ conversations. The place was so tiny, that we could practically hear the rumbling of stomachs from nearby tables. Yes, that kind of place.
I only became conscious of it about half an hour into the meal. The friend who was wedged in next to me would keep going,
“Shh! Shh! Softer! Don’t talk so loudly!”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. I have a loud voice and a personality to match and when I’m excited, it tends to rise. In addition, I live in a very noisy part of a very crowded city. Most of my conversations have to be conducted at a high volume just to cut across whatever cacaphony the restaurant/cafe deems is ambience music, the bandwidth my phone service provider is able to give me at peak hours and horns blaring on roads where one’s importance is expressed by how loud and often you can honk. Wait. I don’t need to explain. I’m loud. Period.
His relentless shushing had its effect and I fell silent for a bit. It is like being slapped hard on the face everytime someone turns to you and tells you (politely) to SHUT UP. And the noise around me immediately crowded in to cover any possible space that had opened up by my falling silent. That’s when I realised it. The others at the table were talking just as loudly. The people at other tables were talking loudly too. We could even hear the horns from outside. But I was the only one being made to shut up.
It took me back to many, many years ago. I had a boyfriend/friend who was a lot like me — gregarious, popular, enjoying attention and revelling in it. He was fun to be around. He said I was fun too. But when we started dating, something new came up in our conversations. It was the word SHHHH, alternated only by SHUT UP. It even led to some truly terrible fights.
Fast forward memory. A friend telling me that I should wear more muted colours, and oh, lower your voice please, it is considered very ill-bred to speak so loudly.
And finally back to present where I realised that the man who had asked me to SHHH had gone silent. I realised he didn’t have a lot to say. But he wouldn’t let me speak either. I tried again, this time a bit more watchful. Entering conversations, starting one with the person sitting across. And there, as I had anticipated, it came again.
“SHHH!!!! Everyone is looking at us!!”
“Where?” I asked him, “Who is looking at us? Who can hear us in this bedlam?”
He fumbled at that, obviously taken aback as he realised we weren’t sitting in the Queen’s court. Before he could come up with an answer, one of the other men added,
“THE OTHERS ARE LOUDER THAN WE ARE!”
Our man nodded but offered up a feeble,
“But…if someone complains…?”
Now here is the thing. I don’t like being apologetic for my existance. I find it hard to respect people who are apologetic for theirs. And it’s infuriating for someone to be apologetic on my behalf. It is obnoxious and degrading.
I don’t think this man any more than the boy I dated all those years ago, realises he is doing this. I chalk it down to yet another one of those sins men commit against women, while talking loudly about how much they respect women — mansplaining, interrupting, gaslighting and just not taking us seriously. Shutting women down is yet another of those things that men seem to do instinctively in our culture, without realising they’re doing it. This man is a nice guy and my friend. But he did not dare to or care to shut down any of the others at our table or at the other tables. The guy I dated had no qualms being the OTT foghorn himself but he had a big problem with his girlfriend being the same.
I am not arguing for obnoxious behaviour. I am displeased when a stranger complains or asks me to be quiet because I’m disturbing them in a public place. But I apologize and comply with their request. Because that’s a stranger and in a place like a library, bookshop or a movie, I have no call disturbing them. But shutting me down in a raucous environment, especially when the same muffling isn’t happening on the men around, is not acceptable.
I am a woman with an opinion and a loud voice. I don’t feel the need to apologize for that. And if it embarasses a man, he probably has no business hanging around me.