Waiting, Venting

I often think of dystopias. Who can avoid it these days. Recently I decided if I were to ever write a dystopia, it would have a lot of waiting. Meaningless, senseless, endless waiting. 

You would have to wait, nearly every day, for an uncertain number of hours in a grey non-descript room. There would be nary a painting to brighten up the walls nor a wallpaper whose patterns you could mindlessly trace. Instead everywhere you looked, a blank greyness would stare back at you. You would see other people there; their shoulders bent, eyes vacant. You would wonder if they felt the same frustration that was slowly unfurling inside you, but you wouldn’t dare ask. Occasionally the silence would be cut by a throat-clearing, or even a cough, but no matter how much you hoped, the sounds would never turn into words. You often saw people who entered after you, leave before. But there would be no one present to help, no one willing to explain the mysterious rules governing your waiting. I’m not sure what exactly you would be waiting for, but it would be something crucial to your survival. Maybe there would be some posters, with phrases like, “Good Things Come To Those Who Wait” or “Waiting Will Set You Free” even though you knew, not everyone had to wait.  Worst of all, no matter how angry you were or how close to upturning a table and screaming revolution, you were also grateful. Because you knew what happened to those who weren’t even given the chance to wait. 

This is certainly not a new concept. Waiting has always been a subtle means to subjugate. A sign of powerlessness. The most enduring criticism of the Soviet Union has been that you had to wait for bread. Everywhere, the powerless wait. They wait for the small things—the bus, ration, water, electricity, and they wait for the big stuff— wages, justice, dignity.  Maybe that’s why the rich have such an inherent distaste for it. That’s why they pay more, drop names, fake documents, just so they can coolly saunter off to the front of the line, while the masses do the waiting. For a while, the pandemic made us all powerless and so we all waited. But soon the rich began to pay more for hospital beds, for oxygen cylinders, for vaccinations. And the poor are still waiting. Like Mary Gordon wrote, “waiting is the great vocation of the dispossessed.” 

So yes, there shall be waiting in my dystopia. It makes sense doesn’t it, for what is utopia if not abundance for all, all the time. 

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Feelings in the Metaverse

[Note to Reader: This is not a piece about the Metaverse/NFTs/Crypto/ Web3 as much as it is about my many disjointed and complicated thoughts and feelings around all of this stuff. If you want to read more on this stuff itself and why I think it’s so dangerous, you can check out this and this and this and this (straight from the horses mouth)].

Rage. Red hot rage. Leaving blisters on my skin hot rage. Till it reaches a temperature so high that it becomes pure white. And then I fall. I open my eyes to see the big blue sky, stretching from one end of the earth to another. It’s a resplendent blue, the type that has whimsical shapes of cotton candy clouds, sometimes dense, sometimes fluffy, bursting forth with the potential it offers for boundless creativity. Will they have this in the Metaverse?

They say it’s the future. That it will change the world as we know it. That it will be the thing that finally takes the human race into the next level. But how? Blockchain isn’t solving the climate crisis. NFTs aren’t doing anything to re-distribute the heinously concentrated levels of capital. And metaverse sure as hell isn’t making anyone forget that the air we breathe and the water we drink and the food we eat is getting increasingly toxic. So what type of future are they really building?

Somedays I feel like the whole world has moved ahead leaving behind me and my analogue ideas. I see my friends jumping headfirst into becoming micro-influencers, social media marketers, digital artists, crypto-traders, content creators. I remember how in early 2018 I discovered that one of the categories Facebook had grouped me into was a ‘late adapter to technology.’ I still remember the sting of embarrassment I had felt, despite knowing better, looking down at my two models behind iPhone. How long before it is me who is rendered obsolete? 

Is it as bad as you say it is? Is the Metaverse really that big of a problem? You like to read don’t you. Imagine this. Imagine your favorite author, the woman whose words make you believe for one brief second that everything is alright. Well, she is hosting a reading on the Metaverse. You can sit in a cozy little bookstore while she reads out an excerpt from her latest novel. And then when she finishes you can raise your hand and ask her your questions and have her look at you as she answers and finally at the end of the event you can walk up to her and ask her for a personal digital autograph, all the while sitting at the opposite end of the planet. Will you not be even slightly tempted?

Some of us have endless green gardens at our disposal, some of us make do with a single tree outside our window and some of us are surrounded by heaps of waste so highly toxic that no living thing can emerge. How can there be one metaverse when our worlds are so different?

You are sitting in your room. A tiny, crowded space, in a massive, crowded city, in the wrong side of town in the wrong side of the globe. It’s hot, hotter than it’s ever been in your already pretty hot tropical country. Electricity cuts are normal, so you don’t have anything but your own hand fanning your face. Sweat is dripping down the side of your face, the heavy leather headset that’s been on you for hours making things worse. You are attending an office meeting in the metaverse where things are always fresh, dewy, and sanitized. A mosquito sits on your arm, and you slap it. You’ve learnt to kill those pesky little pests even without being able to see them. How long till they can upload my body into the metaverse?

They’ll say it’s opt in. No one’s going to force you to go to the metaverse. It’s always going to strictly be your choice. But is it really? Is being on Facebook/Twitter/Whatsapp/Instagram really our free choice. Is the endless scrolling, the countless ads, the constant consuming, the emotional exhaustion, the changes in human behaviours, is that all the result of our free volition? Let this be a reminder to myself that even if I didn’t opt in- I do need to opt out. Because if I don’t stop scrolling now, if I don’t resist the power of a small box that I can switch off and keep aside, how will I resist when they come to alter our whole reality? 

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#2 Things to do on the Weekend: Take A Walk Through Time

A historian with mild manners and a loud voice organizes heritage walks in Delhi all year round. He attracts a small but loyal crowd who follow him week after week along the corridors of yesteryears as he regales them with stories of times long gone. This week I join that eclectic group of people who woke up bright and early on Sunday morning to walk around a famous historical garden in Delhi. 

There is a lady with fiery silver hair. A tall gentleman whose wife helps refugees in Tunisia. Two architecture students whose pens always hover in anticipation over their notebooks. Two sisters wearing similar jackets who studied in a school very close to the garden. A mother with her child. A man with his mother. 

We start in 1936.  The origin story. Imagine a vicereine driving around land that has been newly designated the capital of the colony her husband has been sent to rule. She spots a beautiful, if dilapidated, mausoleum and then yet another, and then one more, all within a five-mile radius. She proclaims, “let there be a park” and so there is. 

It is now the 14th century. A young king, the third of his line, abdicates his throne to pursue a lifelong interest in Sufism. Before he does, he orders the building of a tomb on behalf of his father, the second of his line. The architect believes the top of the dome to be where his god resides, and the mason believes the lotus to be the seat of his god. So together they build a lotus atop a dome. 

Soon we find ourselves in pre-historic times. People are coming together to cultivate land and are in need of storing grains. So, they begin building pots. Massive, red-baked, earthen pots that store grain and seeds for the community. Because these pots hold the ‘seeds of life’, they come to signify fertility and fecundity and centuries later, young brides begin gently kicking the pot filled with seeds as they enter their marital homes. 

Suddenly it’s the 20th century again. 1960’s to be exact. A quiet stuffy afternoon in India’s second decade of independence. Two boys bunk school to roam the halls of a tomb that is surrounded by its own private garden. They climb through the dilapidated stairways and stuff themselves in the nooks and corners of the silent tomb, lazing and languishing. 

Just like this, what started out as a heritage walk on art and architecture becomes a trip through time, where in patterns that sometimes resemble zigzags and crisscrosses and other times the unending circles of the Tibetan infinity knot, the historians spins stories after stories that leave me dizzy. Until I filled with a deep sense of unease. It’s eating away at me, taking out all of the goodness of what I have learnt. 

I recognize it to be fear that stems from the knowledge that our future does not stretch out as far ahead of us as our past does behind us. That somehow after centuries of slow and steady progress, we have decided to make a clean break and are charting into terrifying territories that we may never return from. Will heritage walks exist in 23rd century? What stories will future historians share if we never build anything to last?

The walk ends. I chase after a young boy selling tea. With a cup of steaming hot tea, I sit on the steps of the last tomb, surrounded by endlessly green gardens as far as the eyes can see. 

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Short Story: Sundered

It had been hours since I had been cycling around. Occasionally I recognized a particular tree or a rock that I was sure I had seen before but when I followed its path, I came right back to where I started. Finally, I stopped to look up at the sun as it peeked out of the thicket above me. It was still glistening, but it had lost the power of its zenith. I realized the day would end soon and my knees wobbled at the thought. But I continued to cycle. 

It’s been three days since I last saw another breathing, living thing. That’s not true, I remind myself, I am surrounded by plants and bushes and trees that are alive and thriving. If this place has taught me anything it’s that trees have their own secret lives. I have been observing them closely, tracking their movements. I have learnt that they twinkle in the mornings, and flutter during the day, yawn under the afternoon sun and shiver before the evening. At night I lie under a big banyan tree and trace the long-knotted roots as they are silhouetted against the gray night sky. My thighs feel sore from another full day of cycling, and I say good night just to hear the sound of my voice, for I have no other reason to speak.

We were a group of eleven cacophonous cousins. We descended to this bustling town for our annual trip to our grandparents. This year too we made our way to the city zoo, a sprawling forested area of 50 acres, smack in the middle of everything else. It was the place for many a childhood wonders. Where I saw my first green-eyed black panther and where I craned my neck to see the giraffes as they ate the leaves out of the tallest tree I had ever seen. It wasn’t like the other zoos, there were no big black cages that separated us from the animals. Instead, each animal got its own little island that was separated by a big moat that went up to ten feet. On their little island, the animals were free. Free to roam and sleep and eat. But that’s all they were free to do. Maybe that was the problem.  

A few years ago, my mother’s younger brother, Sharan uncle, who accompanied us on our yearly trips, told me a story. It was another hot sunny day, and we were eating our ice-creams while standing before the tiger enclosure. 

He asked me “Do you know why Whisker is so sad all the time?” Whisker was what I had named the in-house tiger. Sharan uncle was the only other person who called him that. Whisker did look sadder and weaker every year we came. Right then, he looked like his body was a balloon that had been deflated. 

“Many years ago, his tigress went missing.” 

“Do you mean she jumped out of the moat?” I had been secretly entertaining that possibility, even though my sister thought I was stupid for thinking that. 

“That’s the thing—nobody knows. One night, the night keepers heard loud tortured howlings from here. When they came to investigate, they saw that only Whisker was left. You can imagine the panic that created. The whole zoo was put on lockdown for months, they searched every nook and cranny, every little cavern, looking for her. For a while there were even talks for shutting down the zoo forever because the risk was too great. But then after six months of complete lockdown, one day they opened the zoo. Just like that. No one spoke of the missing tiger again and no one to this day ever discovered where she went.” 

We continued to silently lick our ice-creams, quick and methodical, before the sun got to it. 

“Do you know why I am telling you this story?”

He never told me why.  

This was the first year where no adult accompanied us to the zoo. The oldest amongst was seventeen and so we were allowed to go out, adultless. Everyone except me was in high spirits. They tended to pick on me less when there were adults around. But there was one benefit. Whenever Sharan uncle accompanied us, he’d always ride in the back, making sure that everyone, especially me, was going the same way. Lest I go missing like the tigress. 

But the truth is, I wasn’t trying to get lost. My cousins had the habit of riding their cycles really fast and only stopping for the big-ticket animals. They’d all congregate before the bears and the giraffes and the big cats, but I liked to see them all. There were over six types of deer and that’s not including the gazelles, there were birds and then there were water birds, there was an entire pathway just dedicated to snakes. And so, I stopped and observed, except with no one to hurry me. When I looked up and saw that I didn’t see any of the distinctive orange cycles. I pedaled down the most obvious route but then I saw a beautiful white butterfly with a deep blue border on its wings and turned my cycle onto a grassy pathway, chasing and cycling, until I looked around and realized that I was here and all alone. That was days ago. 

It’s been two weeks since I followed a butterfly and entered this world. I still cycle all the time, but I am not looking to find my way back. I know why the trees and rocks all look familiar. It’s because we are in the same place but in a different dimension, one without my cousins and the little island zoos. Last night Sharan uncle came to me and asked me how I was doing. I told him that I was mostly okay, but I missed him a lot. He asked me if I knew why I was here. Now I know I am not alone. I will find her. I will cycle through this forest until I do.

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What have you been doing since the age of two? 

There’s a scene in a book I read recently, How Should A Person Be, where Sheila Heti (a writer who I truly believe has a direct line to my brain) is walking back home with a friend Jen. They have just attended a lecture by an artist who has been painting since he was two and Jen is feeling all torn up. Jen believes that the reason she cannot be successful in life is because she hasn’t been painting since she was two and the only real way to be a genius is to be a prodigy. That to be a genius is to have a long line of events and signs in your life that when altogether traced could only mean one thing, that you are a genius and you’ve always meant to be one. A little bit like this: 

Age 9: you get a guitar. 

Age 15: you play till your fingers bleed. 

Age 24: you are proclaimed a musical genius. 

This type of deterministic and quasi-religious thinking is making Jen feel like the events in her life do not add up to her being a genius. That she hasn’t been painting or singing or writing since she was two. That at best she’s been infinitely curious and at worst a shallow dilettante. And that no matter how hard she works now or in the next five years, no matter how long she slaves at her writing, she can never really be a genius writer because you see she was never really meant to be one. 

Sheila, hearing this comforts her friend saying that everyone has been doing something since they were two and you need to find that and lean into it and use that to inform your work, and that’s what makes a true genius. 

The episode ends in the book, but I imagine hearing that must have given Jen a tiny sliver of hope in her heart. Not at first, not if Jen is a jaded, modern, cynical woman who doesn’t believe that a simple conversation can really change your beliefs or impact your life. But later as she must have been doing her dishes or walking to work, Sheila’s words must have come back to her and lodged themselves between her intense desire to be successful and the terrifying belief that she could never be. And now every time she has a moment to herself, and her thoughts naturally traverse back to the topic of geniuses, she must think: What have I been doing since the age of two?

Sometimes Jen might chance upon something like how she has always created fake intricate conversations in her head, or worked hard to give meaning to mundane, unexciting things of life, but she shakes her head because those are not substantial things. Not meaty enough to be the stuff that makes up genius. But I guess no matter what a jaded cynical modern day woman Jen is, she still carries in her the hope that one day, in a glorious eureka moment, she will find the answer to that question. And I really hope she does. 

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Hidden Stories

There’s a story I try to tell often. It’s about the first time I was sexually harassed at the workplace. I was interning for the very first time with a High Court lawyer. He had a tremendous reputation, words like legend, genius, maverick would often be thrown around. It was only much later in life that I understood it was mostly men who are described this way, usually by other men, but back then at 18, I joined his chamber for a month and I found myself in the text book definition of a hostile environment.

There were only men in his chambers. He only ever hired men because he didn’t think women could keep up with his practice. The rigours and the demands of it. His office was a small, cramped, and smoky cavern with thousands of books and documents making up each wall. There was always a musty smell and everyone caried an air of doing Very Important Work. 

The harassment started immediately. On my first day I was given a laptop where Pornhub was bookmarked and the male associates sniggered while I accessed it. I was ‘asked out’ by two seniors in his office on the same day. There was a constant barrage of sexist commentary about what women cannot or should not do. And one time during his regular sermons on why his genius was not appreciated enough by the world, where his office would be packed to the walls with lawyers and juniors sitting on top of each other, rapt with attention, he challenged me to sit on a male colleague’s lap if I wanted to prove that men and women are equal. It was exhausting and uncomfortable and embarrassing and made me extremely conscious in the workplaces, hesitant to make friends, and aloof from male colleagues till today. This is usually where I end the story. Always angry and very annoyed that this ever happened. 

But there’s something I leave out. And that is five months after the internship I reached out to him thanking him for his support and the opportunity to learn from him and how much he had taught me. Today I want to write about why I did that.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t know that sexual harassment was wrong. I literally maintained a document with everything that was happening just so I wouldn’t forget it. And I shared my experiences with supportive friends who all confirmed and comforted me that I had indeed been sexually harassed. And even as I was writing the email, I distinctly remember thinking how it closed all doors for me to ever speak out against the lawyer and his chamber. And yet I did it in some naked and needless attempt to still be in his good books. It was because I had very much brought into his cult of personality. 

As young women trying to make something of themselves, we crave validation. Validation we are good enough, smart enough, that we have what it takes to succeed. It happens at various levels, we seek validation from our batchmates, from our seniors, from our professors and later from our bosses. Very often these dynamics are gendered. Male disapproval hits us harder because many of us our socially engineered to make it hit us harder. It sticks more when we get called names by men. Whether ugly, bitch, easy, slut or in the professional space; bossy, frigid, incompetent.

The flipside is that we also crave men’s good opinion. During my internship, the lawyer took a special interest in me. He assigned me some work that I put a ton of effort in and I heard from someone who heard from someone else that he liked my work. That’s how he operated, in a dense cult of mystery. And then one day I got invited to his den of vice, where behind the thick smoke I saw him—the genius, legend, maverick. For the rest of the internship he ensured that he took time to talk to me every day. We sparred about the state of the world, feminism, the opera. Winning an argument against him was specially thrilling. He told me about new authors and great thinkers (all men), about his various victories against various judges. He invited me to see how highly his clients regarded him. And I guess I fell for it all. Even as I was being sexually harassed I was actively seeking his validation. 

This part of the story still brings me residual shame and so I usually avoid it, sticking to the easier sanitised black and white parts. But the truth is that almost all sexual violence, be by an intimate partner, child sexual abuse, domestic violence happens to people who are more than passive victims. And we all have host of emotions because of the nature of our relationships with our perpetrators, or have hidden parts of the story where we feel actively complicit in the harassment. And I think sanitised stories like mine only make it that much worse for women who believe we weren’t blameless. 

Today I can see a more holistic truth of the events. And that is even as he was actively putting himself in a position of power over me, he operated from a deep sense of insecurity. I hear it now in his deeply caustic remarks about the national law schools he didn’t attend, about big law firms where he felt rejected, about senior Delhi lawyers by whom he was never accepted. But like many men, he sang the song of his own genius so often, that those around him, including me, often got carried away in his narrative. But today it’s clear that even as I was seeking his validation, he was a pathetic dissatisfied lawyer seeking mine. And so even as I am still abundantly angry that any of this ever happened, I’m also just a little bit satisfied. 

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#1 Things to Do on The Weekend: Bird Watching

A reminder for self when your brain convinces you that spending the weekend alternatively drunk and hungover is imperative to experiencing your 20s to the fullest.

Today you went birdwatching and came back feeling more fertile and generative than you have in a long time. It is an excellent endeavor, a long meandering walk, bathed in the right mix of aimlessness and wonder. It allows you to leave that dark recess of your mind and train your senses to your external environment. You followed sounds and patiently stared at thickets until the birds made themselves known to you. You saw birds, in stillness and in motion, sometimes only catching a speck of colour before they disappeared. You observed these birds closely and identified their specialty, a pin tail, a curved neck, a colored feather, a ruffled crown only to misidentify the bird completely. Sometimes you walked on the road, and sometimes balanced yourself on the edge of the raised footpath. You chased butterflies and ran away from dragon flies. You touched plants that reminded you of the touch-me-nots of your childhood, holding your breath in anticipation and when you were disappointed, you let it out into the world, without fear. You squealed in delight when you saw a long-bodied mongoose titter across the road and savored your wonder when you saw you bird gracefully stretch its wings into a yawn. 

It’s important who you go bird watching with. You want someone with a rich inner world and a low threshold for wonder. You want someone who will tell you facts about the animal kingdom and evolutionary science and other interesting things that you never think about. You want someone who will patiently and tenderly show you exactly where to look, above which branch and below which leaf to spot the bird they’ve spotted. And you want someone you can do the same for. You want someone who will laugh at the couples who sit there, as they teeter on the edge of socially acceptable behavior before making a hasty retreat when they hear your footsteps. You want someone who will share a cold drink with you at the end of your visit and make promises to do it all again someday, soon. 

The bird sanctuary isn’t an Instagram approved place. When you have the option between well-manicured parks with pretty ponds and even prettier fountains and government protected bird sanctuaries, unruly and unkempt; choose the latter. Reject the encroaching dominance of totalitarian Instagram aesthetics. Instead laugh at painted signs that tell you to smile because you are in the lap of nature and forbid you from feeding the birds and setting the place on fire, because apparently that happens. Read the names of the birds that someone has so methodically and bureaucratically put up around the park. Then read their names in Latin and in Hindi, because why not. Don’t mind the benches with large and sticky spider webs and even larger spiders. Don’t mind the fact that you can see the grey and dusty buildings hovering above the edge of the greenery and also across the pond. A bird sanctuary can’t fight the capitalist imperative. But you can. 

As a refugee lawyer, a bird sanctuary holds an important message for you. It is one about enduring connections and ancient routes of travel that predate modern nation states and our ideas of which places are cool. (Why else would birds travel to Noida?) It is a place that exists outside the marked territoriality of everything else around you. Away from peculiar human afflictions like passports and visa. Where a migrant or resident status doesn’t have an impact on your belonging. There is a beautiful thought about our shared commonality in all of it, find it. 

And when you come back, make yourself a cup of tea, play some music and pour down all your thoughts on paper so you can revisit it, again and again. 

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Birds and Bees and Other Horror Stories

As a young girl at the ripe old age of nine finishing my first month in an all-girls boarding school tucked in the middle of the Aravalli valley, sex was on my mind. Maybe it was the sweltering heat in the sultry nights that gave rise to deep friendships, forged out of the danger of whispering secrets after lights out. Maybe it was the tossing and turning trying to decide which out of the two bed side partners fate had allotted you, you liked more. Maybe it was thrill of realizing that that the partner you liked more also liked you more. 

I still remember her; she was the most brilliant student of our form. There was nothing she couldn’t do. She was the smartest, fastest, strongest, most creative nine-year-old there ever was and she picked me to be her friend. She was also the daughter of two doctors who had sent her to the school equipped with a big shiny encyclopedia on the human body. 

It was silver in colour with colorful 3-D diagrams that would pop out if you opened the page, and little flaps which you picked up to reveal more information about the endlessly interesting piece of machinery that a human body is. Her head would always be buried in it, and last I heard she became a doctor too. But that night, after we had discussed all our hopes and dreams and deepest darkest secrets, she asked me if I knew how babies were born. I put on my most authoritative and sophisticated face and said yes, babies are born because of kissing. And she giggled and giggled but refused to divulge anything else. I think it took three additional nights of begging on my part before she agreed to tell me and what she told me horrifies me to this day on. 

She said, babies are born when men pee inside women. It was an innocent misreading on her part, but I was shaken to my very core, aghast with the world and my parents and everybody who indulged in this shameful shameful act. She said she couldn’t believe it too at first, but the facts were there plain as day in her book and promised to let me read it. I only fell asleep after we made a pact and swore to each other that we would never do anything like that. We eventually did read the book again and consulted a senior, a ten-year-old who was wise beyond her age, who solemnly shook her head and explained to us what actually happened. But I can assure you, it didn’t do much to calm me down. The biblical apple had been bitten and I was no longer welcome in the garden of innocence. 

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