Mask

The room was dimly-lit and crowded. Tendrils of smoke curled towards the ceiling; vibrations from the beat spinning in the corner crawled through the walls. The people were masked and swaying. Sipping a drink, smoking a stick, a couple kissing against a pillar; some talking, some dancing; all lost in the beat and in the moment.

I didn’t know any of them. None of them knew me. We were masked people escaping the reality of our lives, of ourselves and converging in a nondescript location for a nondescript party.

Nobody asks for a name, for an ID. No one offers me a drink, but the bar stood by the door welcoming those who wanted it. Nobody questions me as I join the throng on the floor, swaying into their mix. I usually needed a drink to loosen up. But, that day, in that room, under that mask, I wasn’t me.

Somebody offers me a hand. I take it and he spins me around. I laugh as the Joker-masked person catches me with an arm and pulls me close. We dance the next beat together before he lets me go, I let him go and we become a mass of people again.

A dancing train was forming and I join the tail end of it matching my step to theirs. The sound of laughing makes a heady mixture with the disco beat. We stop being masked people and become our masks. The brown eyes of an Audrey Hepburn catch my eye and pull me out of the train and onto the bench.

I slip in beside her and she offers me her drink. I refuse. I don’t need alcohol tonight. I lean in close and whisper into her uncovered ear.

“Dance with me.”

I could hear her laughter. It was clear. It was tinkling. It was mesmerizing.

I place my hand on hers and thread our fingers together. I guide her to the dance floor through the crowd which had gone silent in my head. I slip my hands around her waist and pull her close. In that moment, only she and I existed. We start swaying to a beat in our head rather than the music shaking the walls. Her hands were around my neck; her face close to mine, brown eyes staring into black. I didn’t know who she was; she didn’t know who I was. But, right then, on that floor, she was mine and I was hers.

We dance until our feet hurt; as sweat runs down our backs; as lips meet lips, we dance under masks where she isn’t who she is, I’m not who I am. We dance into a night which had no place for the trappings of the day. We dance until music stops and we could hear our hearts pounding, breathing, trembling. A lingering touch, a lingering kiss…and we let go.

I make my way home just as dawn breaks through the night sky. I take my mask off, shed the sweaty clothes and crawl into my bed. For a second, I feel like a stranger in my own bed. Then, the light hits my window ending the night…my mask was off, my ID card was lazily spinning on my bedstead and I was me again.

*END*

Image Credit: Hide Behind a Mask II by Catliv (Deviant art)

02 Feb 2016: 04:45 PM

Sometimes your brain makes you a bystander to your own thoughts. Those thoughts might be scary or silly; they might be dystopian or nihilistic or they might make you feel like the eighth greatest wonder of the world; it doesn’t matter. The reins of control have been taken out of your hands and you’re only going where you’re being taken. But, in a bid to maintain a semblance of control, I carry a pen along and these words are from those travels of mine through the jungles of my sanity.


 

In the tale of Daniel and the lion, are you the lion or are you Daniel? The aggressor or the defender? This was the topic of my bath-time rumination today and I came to the conclusion that I’m neither; I am the spectator.

I like to watch. I like to observe. I like to know the inner workings of your life, of your brain and of you- as a person. What will I do with the knowledge? Nothing ground-shattering. I just enjoy knowing.

I think that is what drew me to the subject of psychiatry. When I was in school and was being constantly bombarded with the question of what I was going to be when I grew up, I was like everyone else. I answered it with a different answer each year. I went through a doctor, a botanist, a writer, a scientist and when I was fourteen, I finally settled on- I want to find out what makes you tick. The next bunch of choices were made as a means to an end. The best possible end. You see, I never wanted to be a doctor; I only went to the med school to be a psychiatrist.

What about you? Are you the lion? Or are you Daniel? Or maybe, you’re with me in the stands? Watching; cheering; wishing you were the lion; wishing you were Daniel; because they seem to be taking an active part in their own lives, while your life consists of sitting and watching them.

Maybe, you’re content being in the stands. You’re not one of those pushing against the constraints holding us back from the arena. You’re the one smirking at them derisively, glad that you’re not the one in the way of danger. I envy you. I envy you as much as I envy the lion and Daniel. I envy you your contentment, your self-assurance. I have an iota of it; but, I want a lot more. You see, I’m ambitious.

But, a spectator has no right to be ambitious. It creates imbalance, discontent- problems that I don’t have in me to solve. So, I live my life straining against the boundary. Pushing forward and pulling myself back. It’s a daily battle between what I want and what I am. It’s tiring. But, at least, I tell myself, (I can’t help this smile), I’m doing something in my life.

When I do become a psychiatrist, I’ll know you, your deepest thoughts, your fears. Don’t worry, I’ll help you with them. Because, you see that person trying to pushing against the rope, shouting herself hoarse and trying to get herself across to Daniel (before the happy recognition by the lion)? That’s me. And I’m always there. For you.

Origins of a tomboy

When I was 5, I wanted long hair and a ball gown. I would dress in my mother’s sarees and play with her makeup and pretend I was a princess

10 years later, my wardrobe had more pants than skirts, I didn’t know what waxing was and the only thing I applied to my face was Vaseline when my lips chapped. I got my haircuts in a salon and shopping meant buying new jeans and a t-shirt once a year. And I liked it when people called me a tomboy.

I used to hide away those childhood photos where I “looked like a girl” and I would cringe at all things “girly”. I would try to hide my ample chest under loose t-shirts and daddy’s shirts and wore only those jeans that squashed any hint of an ass. It was difficult to say the least, because when you are short, busty and standing on haunches instead of hips, you are not built for squashing.

But, in the privacy of my room, in that little time between fresh from a bath and fully-clothed, I would try on my sister’s clothes and parade in front of the mirror. For that little while, I accepted my curves and gloried in being a girl. Just for that little while, before shame assailed me for behaving “like a girl” and I shrank back into my baggy cocoon.

It wasn’t just the clothes, though. Everything in my life was categorized into girly and non-girly.

Giggling- girly. Laughing loud and open mouthed- non- girly. Crying in public- girly. Crying in the privacy of my room- non-girly. Being nice to the person you think is an idiot- girly. Calling an idiot an idiot- non-girly. Getting upset- girly. Taking everything as a joke- non-girly. Feeling sad- girly. Feeling angry- non-girly.

It was a fine line that I walked. Just because I consciously denied being a girl, didn’t mean that my subconscious got the memo too and also, I was only a tomboy, not a boy.

Why was I so disappointed at not being a boy?

Maybe, it is the subconscious conditioning that tells us even before we’ve ever met a boy, that boyhood is like being a member of some super-exclusive and super-fun club; that they get to do all these things and have all these options that we, as girls, will never be privy to; that they will have all the freedom that we are allowed only to dream about.

I see my father jet-setting off to all these cities and countries that I’ve only seen in my atlas while my mother travels from the kitchen to the garden, to my school and back to the kitchen. I see my cousins who never get asked where they’ve been and why they are late returning from school. I grow up to see male relatives getting married at 28 and 30 and women of the same age cradling their first-borns. I go to a college where in a girls’ hostel, attendance is taken after curfew hour to account for our presence and the boys’ hostel has no curfew at all.

I’m not complaining. I’m just stating facts. Because I do understand the logistics behind these rules. I understand that safety is our paramount concern and that there are so many things out there, when you a girl, that can go so wrong. So, I’m not angry at these rules. No. I’m angry at the state of affairs that brought about these rules.

When did it begin I wonder? This subtle conditioning into our brains that gave one gender more power than the other. That taught one gender to dominate and the other to submit. That told one gender that it’s ok to take risks and the other to stay safe.

Because it’s almost l0 years later now and I no longer want to stay safe. I no longer want to hide behind the persona of a tomboy. I no longer wish to live in the denied existence of my “girly-ness”. I want to put on red lipstick, heels that lift up my butt and a dress that actually has a shape. I want to go out with my girlfriends at 10 in the night and party till 2. I want to giggle and laugh and get drunk and cry and call the guy who’s stalking me on facebook an idiot and get upset when I get called a bitch in return. Because, I’m sorry, society, but, I’m finally tired of the rules.

Today, I finally asked myself the question, what is so wrong in being a girl? And I answered it with- not a damn thing!

We are in the 21st century after all. Things have come a long way from a wife confined to her kitchen and girls being told to be seen, but not heard. We have the examples of Indra Nooyi and Aung San Suu Kyi and Angela Markel and Malala Yousafzai who prove that all that is required is ambition and determination and the belief that once you set out on your path, no force on earth can pull you back or push you aside.

I’m a feminist with a dream of a gender-neutral society, where on the forms you fill out, nobody asks about your gender or caste or ethnicity; where the only thing that matters is whether you are good at what you do and where we are only judged for being a person, good or bad, and not for being a woman.

So, recently, when I posted a picture of myself with my nails painted red and my friend commented with a wide-eyed smiley and a “you are becoming a girl” comment, my cheeks did go red…not from embarrassment, but with pleasure. Because, even if I do say it myself, my nails did look pretty damn good!

*END*

A war of flowers

The kids were playing with flowers. Throwing petals at each other in a shower. Their joy was a joy to behold. It brought a smile upon every face in attendance.

I too was smiling. I was impressed with the simplicity of their happiness. How little it takes for a kid to laugh…

From my superior, world-wise point of view, I condescended to take pleasure in their pleasure with this scholarly reflection: “Though it might be war, thank heavens they are waging it with flowers than something worse.”

I laughed at my own hoity-toity-ness and continued to watch children playing at war. Then, my eyes traveled to the hands waging the war and I saw the ferocity with which the petals were being ripped out. My hands clenched and my breath caught. I thought: “I’d rather they threw their shoes at each other!”

It was mutilation, a carnage of something beautiful. It was the same thing every thoughtless invader did to the beauty of the invaded. Its brutality was only enhanced by the tiny hands holding the flowers, by the delicate fingers tearing the petals, by the innocent face screwing up in intense competition. I felt myself back on the island of Ralph and Piggy and the Lord of the Flies; the severed head of a pig rose up vividly in front of my eyes; my chest constricted with fear; my breath hitched in throat; there was blood in the air!

I chided myself. I had let my imagination run riot. Again.

They were just kids, I consoled myself. 4 or 5 year olds do not know what to take seriously.  For them, everything they do is serious. Serious enough to invest their full blood and bone. It is be all or end all with them. After all, whoever talked of kindergarten kids having a sense of humor?

So, the war of flowers to them is as serious as my final year exams are to me. No, lets be honest: they are more serious. Way more serious than my exams (which are given half-heartedly and sleepy-headedly).
Isn’t that the beauty of kids? Isn’t that the very thing we call innocence? I un-constricted my chest; unhitched my breath; opened my eyes to the decorations again and let out a little laugh.

They are just kids. Playing with flowers. Waging a war with petals. And they were the reason for the smile on every face in attendance.

*END*

A reason to smile

A reason to smile on 01/07/2015

Today was a hot day and to my grandfather, for some reason, it meant bank day. I had the job of driving him around because otherwise he’d rather walk than shell out money for over-charging auto-wallahs.

So, there I was sitting in the car outside the bank, while grandpa made his slow way up the 8 stairs leading inside, holding the railing tightly with one hand, the other holding up his white dhoti and placing each step with utmost care. A few minutes passed by until my attention was captured by a young man I could see walking in the rear view mirror, a passbook clutched in his left hand.

He had a gait that was knock-kneed and off-balance. His arms were in flexed position at the elbow and the wrist and his body was flailing wildly as he energetically made his way towards the bank. He reached my car and grasped its body for support while he flailed past it. He held on to a parked auto next and then, a couple of parked scooters before he reached the 8-step staircase. He stopped here for a while and got some of his breath back. His body language screamed triumph at making it so close to his goal. Eventually, he grabbed on to the railing with both his hands, the passbook crumpled between them. He took a step up with one leg; then, lifted the other next to it. He paused. Then, repeated the process with the next step. It was a slow progress and every time he lifted a foot, I would hold my breath, afraid that it would fall short of his intended distance. It didn’t. He was halfway up the stairs now.

My grandfather came out of the door. He stood at the threshold checking his belongings while the young man paused at the 4th step. Then, at the exact same moment both of them reached the railing with their hands and their eyes met. Grandpa made to take a step back. But, before he could so much as move, the young man was down one step and then another and soon, he was back to the zero-step. He smiled up at my grandfather and waved at him to come down the stairs first. My grandfather’s face was full of gratitude and my face had a smile big enough to rip it open.

It was a simple gesture. But, suddenly, the day didn’t seem so hot anymore.

*END*

There and back again- The Second Edition

It was like meeting a very old friend. But, it had only been 1 year and 3 months. Everything was familiar, yet alien. Minute changes here and there to throw me off balance. But, the essence still the same. The smells, the feel, the air and the surroundings, the coolness of the wind and heat of the sun, the bicycles, the uniforms, the gates that were kept closed, the walls making a dead end, the grounds and the lawns, the trees that I used to look up to with dreams in my eyes, they were all the same. Only the people were missing.

I visited my college after an year and 3 months with excitement fluttering in my chest and anticipation stretching my lips. I walked in with a swagger that is born of that place and immediately felt enclosed in its warmth. For a moment, I was back home. Then, the faces turned and gave a look of scrutiny. A stranger in their midst, walking in wearing ankle-pants and a slept-in t-shirt in contrast to their creased, cream-colored uniforms and smart maroon ties. I was once in their shoes, the very same brown oxford shoes. Not any longer. My swagger dropped and my heart felt exposed for the entire world to see its fibrillating anxiety. I was back, but maybe, I was not welcome.

Then, I realised that these new faces were just old faces in new light and I, too, had once belonged here and walked these roads like I owned them. I remembered what my college taught me, that to bow down to fear is to surrender and in army, we don’t surrender. I might not be in the army anymore, but I still had the cadet in me. I straightened my back and lifted my head and put the swagger back in my walk.

The faces that stared then understood that I’m an old hand, that I was once their comrade and their stares creased into smiles. At that moment, I owned the world and everything was once again the right way up.

I settled into the little guest room they gave me and prepared to enjoy my visit to this old friend. I wanted to walk from one end to the other and reassure myself that my misgivings at the gate can be left at the gate and my beloved place was still the same as it was.

I began to walk. I walked for a long time, past the tennis court where we cheered for a friend, past the squash court that I waited outside of for a boyfriend, past the computer club where I spent hours working on a 2-minute speech, past the library where we drank more coffee than was worth the pages we turned; I walked past the canteens where conversations went on forever, past the classrooms where I should have been, but wasn’t, past the parade ground where we practiced drama and shared realities and past the mess about which we complained regularly. I revisited the grounds where we cheered for our teams, the anatomy building that played the first role in disillusioning us about our career choice and the medicine department that played the final role in building those illusions back up. I saw so much that day. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face nor the tears in my eyes. I rushed back to my room to have a good cry and analyse why it is that my happiness feels especially heavy that day.

As I dried my face and drew a breath, the answer came to me in a flash. I might have straightened my back and lifted my head and put the swagger back in my walk, but, the shard of loneliness embedded in my heart in that first moment, it hadn’t shaken itself loose yet. My college is beautiful and yet, it was not just the trees and the lawns and the smooth-paved roads that made it so, it was the people that I shared them with. And like I said, in my first few lines, so many things were the same. Just the people were missing.

A knock came on the door and a bunch of juniors walked in with a smile and a laugh. We caught up on our lives and bitched about the new rules at college. A warm camaraderie born out of a few shared experiences and a sense of duty- I was thankful for it, all the same. Two days I spent reliving my college days, not by myself, but through the talks and teases and warm friendship evident among my junior friends. I saw myself and my friends in them and felt for a few minutes that things were right back to where they started. Two days later, I packed my bags and said my goodbyes; it was time to take that train back to reality.

As I walked out of the guest room and into the garden, trailing my suitcase behind me, I heard a dull thunk. It was a tiny mango from the tree in the garden, fallen in my path. For a moment, I stopped and considered picking it up. Then, I realized that the college which was once mine and my people’s- its time was up and had been up for some time. Once upon a time I would have picked up that fruit without any hesitation, but, now, I have to move on. So, I left the fruit for those who own that world now and like it had let go of me 1 year and 3 months ago, today, 1 year and 3 months later, I let go of the college.

*END*

Picture Credit: Akshay Kothari

A Place…

It is a place where birds fly low over my head and just for a moment, the sky feels so close, that maybe if I jump just a little higher, the tips of my fingers would graze its nothingness.

It is a place where the wind blows through my hair and I forget the temperatures touching 40 degrees every day and re-visit those nights spent sleeping on the porch.

It is a place where a calmness stills my heart because for those few minutes of the day, I’m back in a campus where there are a few more trees and a lot more space.

It is a place where a shrine to Shiva stands just a little ways away from a shrine to Allah and maybe, if I’d looked further I’d have a found a shrine to the Christ as well.

It is a place where for those 30 minutes or so, everybody focuses on aching muscles and sweating skin and enjoy a peace of mind that rarely comes from thoughts of food, family or finances.

It is a place that reminds me that the world is a small place after all, in spite of my fears and worries and in any case, I have a lot to be thankful for.

I went running this morning (though most of what I did was walking) and when people started looking at me for smiling at nothing, I sat down to pen these thoughts.