Category Archives: Survival Guide
A woman can live in a man’s world. As herself. Here’s how…
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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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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1.I don’t know how to say cheesy lines so I’ll just say hello.
Means: I’m lazy AF and I think I’m so awesome that even my saying the world’s most common word since the invention of telephones makes you fall in love with me.
Means: I’m actually 12 and I think dating equals making friends with a girl equals treating her like I’ve known her forever equals nothing new bro, wassup with you?
3. U der? Hello? Hi
Means: I got stuck in cryogenic freeze in a chatroom in the 90s.
4. Sexy gril
Means: OMG I just spoke to a girl I just came usually that happens only when I hear that lady who says “The number you’re trying to reach is switched off”.
5. M new to this place….wanna chat….howre you?
Means: I hit on receptionists, call center operators, movie ticket sellers and tour guides because I think women exist to help me.
6. Hi dear
Means: I probably think I mean no harm and this true even though I just opened a conversation with a total stranger, with a creepy endearment (literally). Or maybe I didn’t know how to spell ‘there’ and I misspelt it creatively.
*Image via atibodyphoto on FreeDigitalPhotos
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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It’s 6:30 and I have an hour to go before I get to start a webinar. It’s one of a series of things I’ve taken on that warned me that November would be a demented, mad, crazy month. Maybe subconsciously I took it on realizing it would be my last chance to let my demented, masochistic side out this year. 2015 has been otherwise so peaceful.
Yes, I know how that sounds, after all my whining and raging. But there have been no earthquakes thus far.
I’m taking a breather break between books — by reading an ‘easy’ one so to speak. This being the last few weeks, I’m making the final dash to putting a dent on my reading list and my books-to-read shelf. But even I deserve the comfort a known earthquake, I guess.
I’m reading Marian Keyes’ ‘Anybody Out There’. And on the first page I’ve inscribed,
“8 March 2009,
It’s Women’s Day. I’ll be 30 this year and my answer to the above is “Not on this planet.”
Well. There’s always room to be proven wrong.”
Now I remember buying this book using the gift voucher that someone had sent me as a Valentine’s Day gift. Someone who never spoke of his interest before and didn’t even tell me about this gift until I arrived and only observed once that it came in on February 14th for a reason. But this is not about him. He was never even a shudder, let alone an earthquake.
It’s hard to know why I find this book comforting. The story is not exactly a happy one and neither is it is highbrow, self-help or inspirational. But it allows me to cry a little bit, to grieve the things inside me that are broken, a little easier. We need those earthquakes.
Have I been proven wrong, per the book’s inscription? I really don’t know. A few months later I met a man who would go on to shake my life so much that its reverberations are still being felt.
Last week in one of those deep, intimate conversations with total strangers that I find myself in at such times in my life, he asked me if I was currently with someone I was in love with. My mind immediately sorted that into two ideas and pulled up the signboard ‘NO’ to both of them. It would be wrong to say that I don’t remember feeling that way. I can remember with precise clarity what I was wearing, what I was thinking and how I was feeling the day I met him. And the earlier him as well. I remember the rush of hormones and blood surges and the creak of my bones, innards, organs towards each of them. I remember it like I’m holding a glossy picture in my hands. What I don’t remember is what that feels like from within, right now. I have no sympathetic feeling to those incidents, those moments. They don’t recall the same feelings inside me.
And I wonder if I will ever feel that way about anybody ever again. I know, I know, it’s the kind of thing people like me always say after they’ve been heartbroken and then they go on and get over it. Each time I’ve been in a relationship, especially in the horrific last dregs, I’ve wondered how I could be so careless, so flighty, so blase about the peacefulness of singledom. Every single time, I remember that with alacrity the way a person trapped in a desert probably remembers drinking water and spilling some on their shirt and laughing it off.
This time round, I’m recalling the brutality of people frequently. Each time a ‘new prospect’ rears its head, this thirsty desert swings into view. Do you feel earthquakes in a desert? I imagine it’s hard to tell with the sand blowing over you in every direction. And after sometime, it’s easy to lie down and let the sand take you. And the sand starts to feel like home. Maybe the age for earthquakes has passed.
People around me keep telling me ‘to get over it’, to ‘stop whining and bitching’ and that ‘he is not worth it’. Of course he wasn’t. No one is. But this is not about him. It’s about grief buried so deep inside my soul that I have to plummet to depths that are raw and burning. I cannot carry earthquakes inside me buried deep and walk around in a stable state. But it’s okay. They don’t understand. Many of them have never been uprooted in the same way and that’s fine. Just like survivors of abuse, of near-death accidents and of trauma are changed forever, so have I been by the earthquakes that have already been. There are and will be butterflies but this life is spread over a broken, bruised planet.
And I must go get to my webinar now. November can throw its tantrums.
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Last month I had a conversation with a friend I was meeting after a long time. My failed engagement came up. It would, of course, it’s one of the biggest things to happen to me in the past ten years. The good thing is it’s not THE biggest thing, only one of the big ones. Others have been quitting my job, writing two books and a column, going freelance, losing a grandparent and an uncle, getting a business partner, being an entrepreneur, changing professional streams, becoming a spoken word performer and moving houses thrice.
I talked about all the things that I thought might have gone wrong. Then he asked me something that stopped me midway through food as well as through the “I’m okay” trajectory I seem to have been on since the breakup. He said,
“All these warning signs. Why did you go through with it? Why did you stay with him?”
I sputtered at first and said, what what warning signs? I can’t see them. But I know what he sees as warning signs. An abusive childhood. A product of a broken marriage. Dysfunctional relationships with the family. The angry activism. No, I’m still not seeing it. These are not a person’s fault. Would it be fair for me to walk away from someone because these things had happened to them?
Yet, after everything I experienced, I often wonder whether this relationship was my punishment for being empathetic, for wanting to look beyond a person’s past and family and love them for who they were. It’s convenient to say that it’s not. But I’m left with a broken relationship with someone who doesn’t have the capacity for respect, let alone trust or love. And none of that is my fault, so why should I be bearing the social stigma, not to mention the humiliation and heartache of this?
Then there’s the other side of it. Let’s say I start heeding the ‘warning signs’. Where shall we draw the line on what comprises these? A person who has had many relationships before? A manipulative parent? (Hah! Find me one Indian with ‘family values’ who doesn’t have this). How about a fluctuating career graph? Well, I’ll need to blacklist myself then.
Suddenly, I’m finding a lot of people in my age-generation are getting divorced. They were living the ideal dream of my generation. This is the breed of people that emerged into adulthood in the millenium, grabbed up the professional avenues that the internet, IT, offshoring & mobile telephony offered and married in their mid-20s. A lot of them had been ‘average’ or even underachievers but the millenium brought new promises in the form of foreign shores, multinational employment, early entrepreneurship etc. It brought its own problems too — displacement, several culture shock, stress, opportunities and motivation to cheat. So, I’m not actually that surprised at this happening.
Many of them are friends and there’s even an old boyfriend or two in there. Suddenly, there’s a new pool of people available to me for friendship, relationships and more. I say friendship too because this group of people just like their more traditional counterparts sunk their lives and time within their marriages, leaving no room for other interests and associations. But they’re all citizens of the world and they’re surviving the shocks in a multitude of ways. One has reverted to the bachelor lifestyle, sharing ‘a pad’ 90s Friends style with two flatmates. Another has gone on a rampage of the classical wildchild sort with red hair and serial hookups. In addition to these so-called vices though, they’re also starting up new ventures, quitting deadend jobs, taking off on solo trips, signing up for marathons and rallies. The flash-and dazzle has not gone out of my generation yet.
A part of me is heaving a sigh of relief at this happening. Obviously, I’m not happy that something like divorce is happening at an individual level to people I know. But I feel a little less alone in my own unconventional choices. I have people around me who suddenly understand that relationships are not bedrocks of reliability and that life is too short to waste on one company or profession.
In addition, the twenty-somethings I’ve been dating for years are starting to feel like a compromise I’m not required to make anymore. There is nothing wrong with them. But they’re working towards goals that are not mine, struggling with life choices that I’ve experienced enough to know they’re not important. I cannot impose my lessons on them. These are experiences one must live through and be shaped by, on one’s own. But people who’ve faced these the same times as I have, they’re coming back into the space of being available and accessible.
We’re a new kind of people with our own never before seen problems and challenges. We’re having to redefine who we are, let alone what relationships and other people mean to us. Now, what are the ‘warning signs’ I’ll need in order to navigate these people with care? I can only tell you after I’ve been down the road and put down the markers for the ones who come after.
I was with a friend last evening, driving around within a residential area’s bylanes, when we saw something. A couple was standing by the side of the road, clearly arguing. The guy, who was much taller and broader than the girl, was holding both her hands, while the girl seemed to be feebly protesting and trying to shake him off. They were both dressed well and looked like they were in their 20s. The girl was not shouting, screaming or crying. But she was not smiling or laughing either, which is what made me think that this wasn’t friendly fooling around.
My friend noticed it as well and after a few seconds hesitation, we doubled back. As we watched from a slight distance, the pair seemed to join in a hug, after which the girl broke free. I saw her push him back roughly and quickly cross the lane. The guy didn’t seem perturbed and the girl didn’t run. But she turned several times and the look on her face was one of fear. It was past 11 at night. There were several autorickshawallas on the road as well as stray pedestrians.
My friend had a brainwave. Instead of outright butting in, he stopped and asked her for directions to a restaurant close by. She seemed startled, then collected herself and shook her head and said she didn’t know. The guy, who had been watching this, crossed the road immediately and demanded to know what happened. My friend repeated his question. The guy just turned and walked away. We waited till the girl walked on and turned into one of the gates in the lane. The guy continued walking further down the road.
My words don’t prove conclusively that the guy was harassing the girl. But I know what I saw. I know the sense of danger I felt emanating from the situation. I know that unmistakeable instinct that women develop, that I felt, about trouble. There was definitely something off about the situation. The girl’s expression and then the look of relief on her face even in answering a simple question were one clue. The guy’s instant intrusion, demanding to know what was going on and then his turning and walking away, as if he had only wanted to check we weren’t interfering and that done, he could walk away – that’s another clue.
It’s possible that they might have been a couple and arguing. The girl did not ask for help. And none of the people around offered or even seemed to notice that she might need it. But this is a problem. I have been in that very situation. Just because a man is your boyfriend, friend, lover, colleague or acquaintance, does not mean that he might not pose a threat to you. In all the autorickshawallas around who were watching the ‘tamasha’ when it got a bit louder, I saw the same thing. I sensed it in my own self in those few seconds before my friend and I decided to turn back to see if the girl needed help. It was this thought:
“Why interfere in a couple’s problems?”
I am glad that we did. I am glad that I had a male friend with me. I don’t know if I would have had the nerve to interfere otherwise. If I had done so, I don’t know if I might have courted further danger for myself and for the girl. And finally, I’m very glad for my friend’s diplomatic but careful management of the situation. His action registered in a non-threatening, unobtrusive way, that somebody was watching. I’d like to think that’s why the guy rushed to find out what was happening and then bolted, albeit feigning nonchalance.
I’d love to believe that all of this was in my mind and I was seeing evil where there was none. Unfortunately, I see too much violence on a daily basis and too much unseeing all around. Something else occurred me, right when this was happening. I remember seeing this video about a social experiment, which revealed people’s unequal attitudes towards violence against each gender. It showed how people noticed and offered help when a woman was attacked by a man but didn’t care or laughed when a man was being attacked by a woman.
What struck me even then, was that in India, it wouldn’t happen. In India, people do not interfere even when they see a man committing an act of violence against a woman. It’s not even equal opportunity violence tolerance in India. Violence against women is actively encouraged (what, you haven’t seen the latest Salman Khan movie?) and nurtured. It’s cherished as a show of masculinity. And the reverse, no, I’m afraid it’s not tolerated. The same all-influential Bollywood movies also show how a hero loses his head, after he is slapped by a woman, in a justified manner since ‘she must be put in her place’.
I have been beaten, slapped and punched by men, men who were supposed to be close to me. Some of these have happened in public. Not once has a person ever interfered. I’ve even been told that I should not be such a feminist, that I should learn to forgive and forget. And memorably, two so-called friends badgered me for a month about my hostile attitude to men. When I told them that I had been subjected to violence by men, both of them shrugged and said, “So?”
I don’t want to end this post as a rant. But let me propose a few ideas instead.
- If you know a woman you believe to be strong, do not assume that she is invulnerable to threat. Do not judge her for needing your help. The world is not an equal place. I might go so far to say that the more openly ‘strong’ a woman is, the greater her chances of falling victim to violence. There just are that many men around who are threatened by a woman’s strength or independence.
- Do not feel that it is not your place or job to interfere. A crime is a crime, regardless of who commits it. Rough handling of a human being, without their consent is a crime. If you see it happening and you allow it to pass unchecked, you are accessory to that crime.
- This is one place where you can, should, err on the side of caution. If you interfere, the worst that happens is you are insulted or ridiculed. If you do not interfere, a human being might suffer violence and damage, something you could have prevented by didn’t.
- If you are not in a position to interfere for some reason, don’t give up. Be innovative like my friend was. The ‘Bell Bajao’ campaign was based on this idea. Disrupt the situation, make it clear that somebody is watching. At least, it should diffuse the situation at that moment. It always helps to have the police station’s number. Call and report what you’re seeing. The police do respond. They will not make life miserable for you, for reporting it.
- If it feels rough, it is violence. Don’t overthink the boundaries. It’s not that difficult. If the person does not seem to be enjoying it or looks distressed, assume it is an attack. Here’s an indicative list I found on ADaring which defines domestic violence: You are facing domestic violence if your partner:
- Calls you names, insults you, puts you down and does not allow you to go to work or school.
- Prevents you from seeing your family members or friends.
- Is too possessive and jealous and constantly accuses you of infidelity.
- Gets angry every time he consumes alcohol or drugs.
- Threatens you with weapons or violence.
- Hits, kicks, chokes, slaps or torchers you or your children or pets.
- Forces you to have sexual relationship with him/her.
- Blames you for everything and says that you deserve being punished.
I ask you this, as a woman who lives in a world that is dangerous for her. I am asking to share in the privilege you enjoy. I am asking you to help me have my basic right to safety. And just in case you need a reminder of how ‘normal’ domestic violence can look, here’s a Violence Awareness campaign that Norway is running: