Short Story: Pink Toenails

The other day, I was taking a shower when I was startled to discover pink toenails. A flamingo pink that stood in sharp contrast with the dull marble that made up my bathroom floor. I was even more surprised when I saw that they were attached to a pair of brown feet that alarmingly seemed to my own.  

“When did I do that” And then somewhere out of the fog, a hazy memory of a pedicure that was forced upon me by my mother. “Who chose this colour? Was it me? That’s not possible, is it? I mean I would have never picked something so… so…” Words failed me. 

The colour was bright and girly and so goddamn joyful. A colour that belonged on Instagram reels under shiny ring lights and filtered reality. Not me I decided. 

I mentally added it to the list I had recently started building. Me or not me. My therapist had been urging me to understand and discover who I was. She’d repeat again and again, “Who is Vanya?” Every time she said my name so loud and clear, I felt my body clench, worried that somebody else would hear her and notice that I existed. Even the thought of that made the skin under my arms prickle with sweat. Another unwelcome reminder of my humanness. 

That night I wrote in my journal. 

Not me: Familiarity with bodily functions (Note to self: Do not have children)

Me: Using TV shows as an anthropological study into the social behaviours of human beings. 

Also Me: Pretentious as fuck. 

Since then, it had become something I did whenever I found the time. Which is not to say I didn’t have time. I had time in abundance, but somehow, I was always losing it. Time disappeared into the invisible cracks of the day. Morning when I woke up and night when I got out of bed type of thing. Whatever happened in between remained hidden in the thick foggy bits of my mind that sometimes made itself  known. Other time it floated above my head, just out of my reach. 

Well, that’s what my mediation podcast says I should do with my thoughts. Observe them as they float. “Let them come and go” the self-actualized man gingerly whispers in my ears every night. “Let it flow, like bits and pieces of garbage in the ocean.” 

Instead, my thoughts enter me and never leave. They are trapped in there like laser beams bouncing of every organ, artery and vein,  every cell, eviscerating whatever they find in their way. That’s how I live, with permanent heart burn.  

The best I can do is ignore it and hope it fades just a little. I leave my reality and tune into another, one that emanates from the hypnotic lights of my screen. A pre-recorded laugh track plays. Some people think it’s creepy, but I like it. I like being relieved of the obligation to laugh. I like that the actors have someone laughing at their jokes and I don’t have to be responsible for their disappointment. That way I can just be there. Effortlessly floating. Like a tiny piece of garbage in the endless boundless ocean. 


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. 


#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. 


#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. 


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.