Category Archives: Survival Guide

A woman can live in a man’s world. As herself. Here’s how…

Sorry I Didn’t Wait Till 8 March To Speak

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.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —— — —— —

*If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

Thinking Pink: Fashion As A Feminist Statement

I was at the India Culture Lab last weekend for an event called ‘Feminism & Fashion’. It was a fabulous evening (as evenings spent at the ICL usually are). Among all the wonderous sights and conversations, I had a chance to meet my longtime girl-crush Sharanya Manivannan in person and discovered that she knew me. She wore a bindi with a lacy dress and teamed heavy gold jhumkas with high heels. AND she’s a dark girl with a soft voice that speaks a lot of hard truths. Any surprises that I like her? 😊

There is a myth that dressing well and the intellect do not go hand-in-hand. As women we struggle with labels and we succumb to whichever label we dislike the least. I grew up choosing the label of Intelligent Girl over Babe, Diva or Princess. How far does that extend?

As a teenager, I hid inside grunge – unkempt long hair, oversized teeshirts, cotton pyjamas, very old jeans, boots and no makeup. It was the 90s and Alanis Morisette was all the rage. But my dressing had a lot to do with not wanting to be mistaken for ‘those’ airheaded girls who wore makeup and dressed to please men.

Then in my early twenties, I stumbled into an abusive relationship, where (among other things), he chose what I wore, basically dollface/sexpot – pastel shades, puffy sleeeves, heels, tiny handbags, clinging clothes. When I came out of that relationship, I realised that the world treated me better when I conformed to the beauty ideal and everything was a lot easier. So I embraced the warpaint.

Make no mistakes, my sojourn into dressing up was a militant move. Warpaint I call it and that is what I was. Through my twenties and even today, the clothes and makeup I wear were my armour. I am not ashamed of this because this does not rise from self-loathing. My dressing does not hide my flaws; it hides my strengths. I have faced too much for too long to believe that my womanhood will have any relationship to fairness and truth. The world (mostly men) will not let me be in peace if they see me as I see myself – an intelligent, determined, independent human being. My fashion is a statement, a ‘zor ka jhatka dheere se lagao‘ veneer over the hardness (and hardiness) of my being.

My look has evolved over the years, along with my personality and my feminism. I have started to realise that I can dress for the world’s comfort while also incorporating my own individuality into it. The I Wear series that I have been doing for years, has been an attempt to showcase just this. What I wear is an integral part of who I am and how I relate to the world.

To come back to Friday’s event, I had an sudden hankering to wear pink. Pink was a colour I gravitated to a lot as a child. But very early on, I knew that the world saw pink as a colour symbolizing ‘girliness’. This represented sugariness, princessy tantrums, weakness, dimwittedness and a general inferiority to boys/men. So I gave up pink. I went through black, blue and white before I embraced red. Red is still a very important part of my identity and will always be a symbol of strength and independence for me.

But what of pink, my abandoned desire? I think I only realised on Friday that I had begun incorporating pink into my wardrobe years ago by tricking myself. I always ‘butch’ up or turn up the volume on my dressing when I wear pink. It’s usually screaming shades of the colour such as fuchsia or majenta. If the gentleness of salmon or baby pink appear, I keep them to a minimum and contrast them with boots and dark colours or vivid prints. Well, that is quite a realisation to have.

Fashion is expression and full of powerful symbology. It affects the way we relate to each other and to ourselves. In its truest sense, it is also a celebration of the individual. By dressing up and dressing well by my own standards, I challenge gender stereotypes, oppressive attitudes towards sexuality and the moral police. So fashion is definitely a feminist statement.

Reema has had something to do with my shifting perspective towards feminism, womanhood, vanity and dressing up, in the past few years. She has been another woman who owns her wardrobe choices as well as her intelligence and it’s always comforting to have company. Neha and Sharanya were striking instances of the same. Friday evening was the first time in years that I did not feel like I had to defend my dressing or apologize for my intelligence. Without realising it, I’ve also been deeply lonely in my dressing and being around other women who carried the same attitude was encouraging.

Maybe it’s time for me to let some pink into my life and this time without needing to hide it away with noise and saturation. After all, my feminism is not all hard. My strength can also be soft.

This.

A post shared by Ramya Pandyan (@ideasmithy) on

If you’d like to see what I wore to the event, run along to the I Wear post on The Idea-smithy. Also check out what another independent, intelligent and fashionable woman wore to the same event.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —— — — — — — — — —

* If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page and the Youtube channel. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

The Curious Case Of The Newly Divorced Man

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.

Image via Unsplash/Thomas Lefebvre

Image via Unsplash/Thomas Lefebvre

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.

Image via Unsplash/Daniel McInnes

Image via Unsplash/Daniel McInnes

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

* If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page and the Youtube channel. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

Men’s Messages On A Dating Site And What They Actually Mean

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.

2. Whassup

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.

ID-100322505

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

The New Indians: 30-Something Ex-Somethings

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.”

click

Image via Steven Lewis on Unsplash

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.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

*If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

Any Earthquakes Out There?

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.

mk-anybodyoutthere

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.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

*If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

The ‘Warning Signs’ Of My Generation

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?

Jordan McQueen

*Image courtesy Jordan McQueen on Unsplash

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.

*Image courtesy Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash

Dark Girls Have All The Fun

Last week I was at a Body Shop outlet. Two women were waiting at the counter. I walked up to join the queue and smiled at them. Both of them looked me over — my short hair, the lipstick swatches on my left wrist, my minidress and they turned their faces away. I might not have noticed it. But my attention was momentarily captured by a gloss on the shelf on the side. I bent down to examine it, then changed my mind and straightened up immediately. I turned just in time to catch them both eyeing me curiously. They turned their eyes away immediately.

Fifteen minutes later, I was at a coffeeshop and the same two women came up behind me at the counter. Their reactions were exactly the same. Looking away or right through me as if I were invisible. But at least twice I caught them staring at me with a curious expression of disbelief and what? Awe? Resentment? Anger? Wonder? I know I’m not imagining it because I had a friend with me who wondered why they were behaving so oddly. They behaved differently with her — the vague half-smile one gives strangers in shops followed by casual indifference, only stopping to make way for other people but with no eye contact.

It struck me when I watched ‘Queen’ — the character of Vijaylakshmi (played by Lisa Haydon) in her glorious rejection of the Indian stereotype of womanhood. I only caught the obvious things in the first viewing — her smoking, drinking, open sex life and single parenthood. The second time though, I caught something so obvious, I was stunned that I had missed it. How could I have missed the fact that Vijaylakshmi is a dark-skinned diva? It’s the ultimate rejection of everything India believes about women — that we should aspire to be attractive sex objects and that there is only one definition of attractiveness.

Rani’s shock, fear, then awe and finally respect for Vijaylakshmi was a richer story when I realised this. Rani is the kind of girl who has grown up being awarded brownie (sorry, pun-haters) points for fitting that stereotype. It would be inconceivable for her that a woman like Vijayalakshmi exists, is not just unperturbed by it but actually proud and happy about the way she is.

If you think that might be taking things a bit far, look at another role where Lisa Haydon does pretty much the same thing to the protagonist (except the princess there doesn’t have Rani’s strength to grow). Aisha’s pampered princess is jarred by the presence of Arati, who owns her caramel skin even better than the rest of Delhi high society wears their Prada and Gucci.

What stands out about both Vijaylakshmi and Arati’s characters? It’s not just the fact that they are dark-skinned girls. It’s the fact that they wear their skin with pride, not defensiveness or fear. Neither character acts as if she needs to apologise for having extra melanin. They don’t hide behind the dull browns and maroons that get assigned to dark skins as ‘best suited for this complexion’.

How many dark skinned women do you see wearing shorts, singlets or backless dresses? How many of them have short cropped hair? How many wear colours like neon pink, bright orange or parrot green? In short, how many dark skinned women do we see in India who are comfortable enough to wear their skin and not hide it behind cloth, hair or drab colours?

I don’t have any facts and figures for that but I am a dark skinned woman. I do all of the above and I get noticed more because of it than because I’m striking in any other way. Fair skinned women often react to me in one of the two above ways — either with secret admiration growing to respect or with undisguised resentment. In the instance that I mentioned at the start of the post, both those women were milky white. My friend is what we call ‘fair skinned’ too. I was wearing a pair of bright yellow shoes, maroon shorts and a singlet. I also had on my trademark blazing lipstick and short, cropped hair. None of these speak of a woman who feels like she has to hide her physicality. I imagine that comes as a big suprise to most people.

I didn’t grow up being told I was nice-looking. I often got told how my dark skin was a liability. It still gets told to me, by beauticians, by fashion bloggers, by Bollywood songs that deify the ‘gori’, by fairness cream advertisements, by distant family members, by an ex-boyfriend, by well-meaning friends who suggest that I quit swimming. At some point of time, I realised nobody was every going to think of me as beautiful. But I had to live with my own body  and see my face in the mirror every damn day. I couldn’t live with hating that for the rest of my life so I decided that I’d learn to see myself as beautiful. And I did. Now I find I’m past the outrage of being discriminated against for my skin colour. I know I look good. I feel it in my head. I just know with utmost certainty that something looks good on me because it looks good to me. Everyone else’s opinion is just that. But I realise that this self-knowledge scares a lot of other people. Their cruel words and angry gestures come from a place of fear and that’s something I have to pity. It can’t be easy living your life inside an constricting view, then discovering that someone who doesn’t do that but looks happier than you feel.

I’ve discovered a secret and there’s no going back on knowledge. Instead of fewer colours ‘suiting me’ as the beauty magazines say, I think a lot more of them do. Colours that usually get called ‘outrageous’ don’t jump off my skin like they are plastic/amoeboid life forms. My unfashionable skin colour carries vivid violet, bubblegum pink and Fanta orange in exactly the same way as it does muted browns and maroons. This is great for someone who enjoys colour the way I do — like the company of a close friend. And finally, this knowledge gives me the confidence to wear what I like, which I believe is the only real ingredient there is to looking good. I think this knowledge was for me, a breaking free of one of the invisible boundaries society places on women’s bodies & minds. There’s nothing but freedom beyond that.

collage_20150429153040488_20150429153145043

Me and my love of colour

If you’re a dark skinned woman, lock away your browns, maroons and greys and pick up a tomato red, a sunshine yellow, a tangerine or a neon green. I dare you. You’ll thank me when you join the party of dark divas laughing at everyone else who is conforming. I think I’m beginning to understand Arati’s cool composure and Vijayalakshmi’s laughing nonchalence. Dark girls really do have all the fun.

Wake Up And Smell The Bruises

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:
    domestic-violence-300x128

    *Image courtesy ADaring.

    1. Calls you names, insults you, puts you down and does not allow you to go to work or school.
    2. Prevents you from seeing your family members or friends.
    3. Is too possessive and jealous and constantly accuses you of infidelity.
    4. Gets angry every time he consumes alcohol or drugs.
    5. Threatens you with weapons or violence.
    6. Hits, kicks, chokes, slaps or torchers you or your children or pets.
    7. Forces you to have sexual relationship with him/her.
    8. 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:

10488172_10152189618540868_3227182394864148616_n

Why Digital Dating Means Nothing New For Indian Women

Tinder. OkCupid. Secret. Anonyfish. Even Couchsurfing. India is on the digital map and we of the brown-skinned, spicy-food-eating ilk are exploring digital dating too. Here’s what I found though.

On one end of the spectrum, we find the matrimonial sites. They were the original Indian dating sites, pre-dating the recent apps by a good ten years at least. What, you don’t count those? Matrimonial sites are parentally-sanctioned ways to meet members of the opposite sex, with a view to forming a sexual/romantic relationship with them. Aside from the parental sanction, how do these differ from the average dating service?

All services

At the other end of the spectrum are these dating services that have everyone commenting on the new India. Here is what is actually happening. There aren’t that many women on them, which won’t surprise anybody. There are fewer women in the country and less of us are connected/digitally savvy. Most women don’t enjoy the kind of independence/freedom that dating requires. Women are also less open to these services. I found they have good reason to be.

Tinder, the hot app of the season, picks up from your Facebook profile and lets you see who you have in common with the other person. You can’t imagine the number of married men I found there. A male friend tells me he is equally astounded by the number of married women he finds too (wedding photos as profile pictures!). I can’t tell whether it’s dumbness (“Maybe they thought it’s a chat service,” he thinks) or sheer arrogance (“People will hit on me anyway.”) that makes married people sign up for a dating service. Not all of them are that easy to catch though. I imagine knowing how to navigate the net and mine information from the social media is a skill that helps. At least four conversations proceeded with interesting men before a stalking session revealed their marital status – a Facebook picture tagged here, a forgotten social network profile with their status as married, a photograph carrying a baby followed by comments like ‘Congratulations on becoming a father!’. Really, why are these people here?

We come up against a different issue on OkCupid. This service has been around for ages and it shows, in the dated design and early millennial interface, even on the app. You’re required to fill in an entire profile and there are no privacy settings, no filters on who gets to approach you. The minute I began the lengthy sign up process, my inbox was flooded with messages. This before I had written a single word or even uploaded a photograph. All these people had to go by, was the fact that I was female. I decided to brave it and weed through the crowds for an interesting connection. It has proved to be an arduous exercise. Indian men do not like hearing no. They believe persistence to the point of stalking, is a virtue. Rape culture is alive and well as long as the Indian man exists. Yes, I said that. I was stalked from different profiles (same photograph) and abused for saying no or even for not responding.

Now let’s come to Secret, the uber-hot-hot app that only us digital hipsters have caught on to. Secret lets you post messages anonymously. You can see secrets posted by Friends (anyone on your contacts lists – phone and email) and Friends of Friends but no one can tell who has posted what. I actually uninstalled it in three days because I couldn’t bear how depressed it made me feel. The conversations and a lot of threads about known women. The secrets were usually about one person ‘having the hots for’ or ‘being really turned on by’ such a woman, while the comments would include various versions of catcall responses such as tearing the woman down (“Are you crazy? Total thunder thighs, man. Everyone gets to see them.”) or lascivious jeers of agreement.

I signed into Secret again two weeks later and I find there is a little more variety. Now people also confess to cheating and being proud of it. Comments calling them out result in abuses and versions of ‘You must be such an ugly bitch, nobody wants to fuck you’. There’s also an occasional secret that may be posted by a woman. All of these, plus comments get others begging for a contact with them. This, even to comments that are outright nasty towards men. I know Indian men in large numbers may be like this, but it’s disheartening to see so many people that I know, behave this way too.

Digital Dating2*Images courtesy David Castillo Dominicio and sattva on FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Now, let’s step back from the obvious problems. There must be some worthwhile men, right? Right. There are men who are articulate, intelligent and educated. They quote pop culture, read good literature and work for respectable MNCs. These are the same men who refer to the dating apps as pick-up services. One of them asked me what kind of a woman clicked on such apps. Another told me he respected me because I said no to his booty call (after one conversation). Welcome to the modern Indian man. He believes that women’s liberation means booty calls and dutch dates with women who wear short dresses.

Now, for the hookup culture, that scary thing that’s got everyone above the average digital citizen age in a flutter. Where does that fit into India? I’ll tell you. It’s married people using the fact that they were forced to marry, as an excuse to explain cheating. It’s people who are too ‘respectable’ to buy sex, seeing an easy unpaid option. It’s ‘modern men’ who treat the woman in a hookup as a hooker who won’t charge them. I thought hookups were just about having sex with a person you barely knew and both parties not thinking too much about it later. When did gender-biased judgment and bad behavior come into it?

All in all, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the dating/mating services. The trouble is the people and the attitudes that populate these services. Dating in India is only highlighting the fallacies in the Indian culture. As an Indian woman, my options are to be packaged like a doll, on a matrimonial service or objectified and discarded on a dating service. We haven’t changed in decades. The only difference is it’s all digital now. No wonder women don’t seem that interested.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —— — —— — —

*If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Save

%d bloggers like this: