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A Bully Repents

My column for Femina Magazine, dated September 2nd

There’s no better way to put it, but I was kind of a bully in school. Not the menacing, “I’ll carry a knife and threaten the teacher with it” kind of bully we see in Hollywoods films, but the kind of snide little schmuck that needed a smack upside the head, good telling off and reminder to be respectful. To put it in Harry Potter context, I was not Draco Malfoy, I was one of those two side kicks that just hung around Draco. I was too lazy to be malicious, it required thinking- a thing I preferred to not do till I was almost 20. Moreover, like any side kick, I was too low in the pecking order to do any real harm. In order to survive boarding school I learned to point and laugh in whatever direction everyone  else was pointing and laughing in lest the finger get turned on me. As you can tell from my desperate attempt to psychoanalytically explain it- I’m not proud of mybullying tendencies from the past. 

I’d like to attribute it to childhood cruelty and ignorance but I can never forget the incident with Nina (Name changed because I would DIE if she read this). Nina was the new girl and was eager to fit in and that was not an opportunity we were about to let go of. We told her we were having a midnight Feast. (These were amazing, we would sneak in a large amount of snacks from our personal snack supplies into the dormitory, wake up in the middle of the night, eat them and go back to sleep. As 12 year olds in boarding school, this was us seriously going rogue. If the teachers found out, we were to expect nothing less than the guillotine). Nina was told that we are having a midnight feast that night and that she should sneak her chips and biscuits and wafers during the day and give them to us for safe keeping. We didn’t want her to get into trouble, you see. That night we “accidentally” forgot to wake her up in time for the midnight meeting but feasted on her food indiscriminately. 

I remember looking up at her with a mouthful of Mava cake when she walked into the laundry room. (The location of our glamorous Midnight Feasts was left of the giant pile of dirty clothes that people gave to the dhobi every week). That day I learned the definition of betrayal because of Nina’s eyes. They were large, hurt and I could almost see my own stuffed, greedy face dripping cake crumbs reflected in her pupils. 

“Why didn’t you’ll wake me up? Did you’ll just want my food?” she asked- her voice cracking under the strain of the tears at the back of her throat- without waiting for an answer she spun around and ran away, sobbing in deep breaths. She kept her distance from me and my friends from then and at the end of the year, she left school. 

At a social gathering last week- I saw from a distance, a person who looked like a grown up version of Nina. Every pore in my body opened up into a nervous sweat, while simultaneously my mouth went dry. I didn’t want to look into her eyes and see betrayal again. As a child it may have made me chew my mava cake a little less enthusiastically but as an adult, it made me feel ashamed to be standing in front of someone who had seen what a callous idiot I could be. I adopted the strategy of  aggressively slinking into corners for the rest of the evening. The inevitable introduction came.

“Aditi,” “Nina”

Like an ostrich, I kept looking down at the floor. If I can’t see her, maybe she wouldn’t be able to see me. 

“What school did you go to?” was her first question. This plan of looking down at the floor was a massive failure. 

“I remember you! You used to hang around with X and Y. You’ll stole food from me for a Midnight Feast once!”

Of course, the whole room went quiet at that exact time.

“Yes” I squeaked at a decibel level so high that the bats in the neighbourhood went deaf.

She laughed, “You’ll were so mean.” I ventured a look into her eyes expecting contempt or at least coldness and what I saw was just an trusting, open, smile, no hurt, no betrayal. My heart skipped a beat, could it be, that…. she just didn’t care anymore? 

In my desperate desire to repent for being a bully, I had forgotten that she no longer cared about being bullied. She had grown up, met better people and let it go without thinking. 

What’s worse than being a bully who is remorseful for their actions? Realising that your “victims” just don’t care. That, sometimes, your remorse over your actions is your own burden to bear. This bully repents.

Metro Ki Maa

My column for Femina Magazine Dated July 24th. 

The Metro has launched in Mumbai today. I see people lining up to take their first ride on this new ‘life line of Mumbai’. It might be shiny new kid on the block, but I know that the Mumbai Local train will always be the Metro ki Maa. 

Ask any Mumbai romantic and they will tell you what a  unique and wonderful experience it is to travel by the local trains. Ask any Mumbai realist and they will tell you what a harrowing and suicide-courting experience it is to travel by local trains.

I found myself a regular on the 8:40 a.m-that time of the day when the city of dreams wakes up to the nightmare that is it’s work commute. Trains pregnant with people and ambitions trudge past sheds parading as stations. The veins of Mumbai pumping blood into it’s very existence. It is only appropriate for a city where everyone is in a  hurry to get somewhere and no one gets anywhere on time.

If you manage to get on to the train you have already crossed your first daunting hurdle. Logic does not take a back seat here because it literally finds no place. As the train stops, people in the train rush to get out and people on the platform rush to get in AT THE SAME TIME. The simple idea of stepping aside, letting people alight and THEN getting on is lost in that swarm. Archimedes just turned in his bathtub. As a member of that swarm, I have no excuse for my behaviour. I have no idea where logic goes in between mandatory yells of “pudhe chala” (move ahead) and deliberate tch-tch-ing because complaining louder is the problem to the solution. 

If you are planning to find a seat on the train then much like an Oscar award for Himmesh Reshammiya- it’s just not happening. You will be lucky, if after scraping past a walls of handbags, ponytails and bracelets, to find a spot to stand. Sometimes the crowd will swell so much that you are just held propped up between the giant hand bag on your left and the bulbous arms of the woman next to you. 

It was in that tangle of arms and legs that I first saw Sweety. She wore a pink salwar kameez with matching pink hoop earrings, topped with a pink rubber band that held her hair on top of her head in a frizzy knot. I learned her name because it echoed across the compartment almost everyday. 

“Sweety, Paani?”

“Sweety, safety pin?”

“Sweety, napkin?”

Sweety would respond with the desired item and her uncanny knowledge of everyones’ personal life.

“Ye pee le, main do botal leke aainhoon. Mummy ki tabiyat kaisi hai?”

“Bada wala ki chota wala? Dono hai. Teri knees ka problem theek ho gaya abhi?

“Ye le, lipstick bhi fresh daal, aaj interview hain na?

Sweety carried two wishing wells disguised as handbags, one on each shoulder. You just had to ask for it and this handbag could produce a 17 piece orchestra of Vitenamese monkeys. Sweety was a psychologist when she held your hand after a broken heart. Sweety was a dermatologist as she confidently powder for you oily skin. Sweety was the pulsating vein of that compartment, a centre piece in a a small eco system inside a much larger one. I had discovered the Mumbai Local ki Ma

For 40 minutes we  forgot we were travelling at break neck speeds with windows and doors wide open, hanging precariously off bars and handles towards a 10 hour day of work- we were in the world of Sweety. I was awed by her ease, her ability to sort out fights about that sliver of seat where a 4th and often 5th person would want to sit and how she would happily place your heavy bag on the carrier because you were too jammed in the crowd to get to it. 

Like all people have “work friends” and “school/college friends” as separate groups, it’s not uncommon for a Mumbai traveller to have “Train friends” as well. Sweety never belonged to any one group of friends on the train. She seemed to flit from group to group seamlessly while not moving an inch from the tiny spot that peak-hour train crowds permit. The times when she was not on the train it would be eerily quiet, as if no one knew each other. 

Sweety would get off a stop before mine, many times I would look out the door  to watch the back of her head till it became a dot and disappeared into the crowds. I wondered where she went to work, what her day was like and if she even knew the power she wielded for 40 minutes a day.

As I step into swanky new doors  of the air conditioned compt. of the of the city’s brand new baby,  I send a silent wish out to to the Mumbai Local Ki Maa, Sweety. May be we will meet in the metro someday.

The Great Indian Lift

This column appeared in Femina Magazine dated Aug 7th.

 

There stands a 12-storey building where my ancestral home in my “village” in Punjab used to be. At the entrance there is a watch man who needs your name in his sekutree (security) book- a pile of papers so filthy I can see the germs on it dancing on it, the way they are in the microscopic shot of Domex ads.Cars of the residents are Tetris-ed into any possible available walking space.

It’s like any other Bombay building. I pensively look up into the sky and bemoan the concretisation of our country and only realize it when I walk cheek first into an actual concrete pillar. While rubbing the slaked lime off my face, I lament about how we used to play in the gardens and now kids and neighbours don’t even know each other’s names.

It’s then I hear a familiar ding, and see the metal elevator doors open to release a tube full of people into the lobby.  Some looked relieved to hit the fresh air, some just shuffle out while looking at their feet and some sprint walk out of the lift while carrying 2 babies and 7.5 shopping bags. I get into the lift with the group waiting in the lobby.  It made me realize that the further we recede into our rented flats, the more The GreatIndian Lift* remains the last bastion of contact. Physical contact, mental contact and sometimes Cue Alok Nath…emotional contact. There are 5 types of people you meet on The GreatIndian Lift*

 

  1. The Lift Man. Color me middle class, but I’ve been in more buildings that DON’T have a lift man who’s exhausting job it is to ask “Which floor?” and then press the corresponding button. Contrary to The Big Bang Theory stereotype, the averageIndian cannot be trusted to know numbers apparently? I wonder what qualifications you need to get that job.

 

  1. The Hold Uppers

These can be sub-classified into 2 more:

 

  1. The forgetful ones: They will always forget something as soon as the lift opens to pick them up on their floor. They will then make the entire lift wait because “I can’t remember if the geyser is off, let me check again, one sec plz.”

 

  1. The ones who are saying good bye:  In the old times, this would be that neighbor who would stand at the door of your house and chat with your mother for hours. She would not come in, but in some weird paradox not say good bye either…just stand at the door and chat for hours. Thanks to The GreatIndian Lift* they can now hold up several people while they discuss weather there was too much aamchur in the daal or if they are definitely going to be at Sushil’s party this weekend or not.  Nothing like standing squeezed up next to a stranger while 2 women are recounting the sordid details of what happened the LAST time they made it to Sushil Uncle’s party.

 

III. The hurry-uppers

Just like there is someone who needs “one second,” to keep the lift waiting, there is the person on the lift who NEVER has that one-second to spare.  Every time “The Holder Uppers” make them wait, they are the one’s in charge of making the “TCCCCCCHHH” sound loudly. That TTTTTCCH, is my favorite Indianism, it perfectly encompasses our attitude towards public confrontation- we want to have it, but we don’t, so we’ll just make do with this sound spitty sound. It ALWAYS gets the point across.

 

  1. The lift is my make up room.

Women of course, are very guilty of this.  No time better to whip out your compact and wipe out that oily sheen then the 1-minute down from the 7th floor of the building. These are also probably already bathed in enough perfume to cause the hair in your nostrils to burn up. Men, not to be left behind, will rush intolifts with ties in their hands and undone shirt sleeves. The all essential function of getting ready happens then, in the lift itself.

 

  1. The lift is my dining room

I only know the girl on the 3rd floor as “boiled egg girl” because she enters the lift every single time with one single unsalted boiled egg shoved into her hands by her mother. Occasionally people will have a piece of toast stuck in their teeth as if someone flung it at them like a Frisbee and they had to catch it with their mouth.

 

 

As the lift dings back down to the ground floor, I wonder if I’ve just done the creepiest thing in the world by riding an elevator of a building I didn’t even live in anymore. I didn’t know any of the people I had got into the lift with, but knowing the types of people that we see in The Great Indian Lift they all some how seemed…like home.

 

They live among us.

This appeared on the Times of India Editorial Page dated Aug 25th, 2014

My cousin is angry, they have taken away the bowl of water she keeps outside the building for stray dogs to drink out of under the pretext that it breeds mosquitos.

“What about the two garbage cans right there- do those not breed mosquitos?,” she demands angrily at a society meeting.

“Garbage cans will not bite our building members”

“And neither will the mosquitos apparently,” she mutters under her breath.

The dogs have stopped getting clean water, now they drink stagnant rain water from the potholes where mosquitos breed.

On my way to work, I share a rickshaw with a cockroach. It was sitting on the shelf below the drivers handle and I think it noticed me staring. It stopped and turned to me, his feelers still rocking in a violent rhythm to the bumps on the Mumbai roads. The rickshaw driver was not aware of it at all. So I indulged in what I would like to believe was a dangerous stare off with this cockroach (but I was not wearing my glasses so it would qualify for a squint off) I felt resentful that it was riding all the way from one end of the city to the other without sharing the cost for this expensive rickshaw ride. I imagined it smirked at me and then exited from the hole in the metal near the head lamp and probably rode the rest of the journey belly down on the lamp with the wind in his feelers.

Every time the house help does not appear for more than 3 days, squiggly, thin lines of ants find their way to my dad’s study desk. They crowd at the base of pen stands and and in the pages of books. They would pour down in thousands, little tiny red/black/brown dots travelling at breakneck speeds towards something as impractical as a ball pen. Silly ants, ball pen ink is not tasty or nutritious, but every time it happens I cannot stop staring at their wasted effort. They don’t even realise that just two rooms away was my kitchen with a bountiful feast of fruits on the dining table and ketchup bottles on shelves.

The fish market near my house is ruled by 4 cats, all who have a variant of the word “Maushi”, which means mother’s sister in Marathi. I don’t know what it is about cats that makes people want to make them our relatives. The 4 cats, as cats are vont to, could not care less about our ‘relationship’ with them, as long as there’s scraps of fish involved.

Ahmad Sharif, a rickshaw driver once told me about monsoon nights where as soon as it starts to rain, the strays on the road jump in to curl up on the back seat. If it gets cold they sometimes dig into the seats ripping up clumps of coir, cotton and exposing the wooden seat frames to snuggle in further. He sighs:

“It costs me Rs. 300 to fix it every single time but it’s not like they’ll stop feeling cold if I tell them it costs me Rs. 300, right?”

Despite Disney’s and Pixar’s attempts to make insects cute (with movies about rats cooking and ants spewing little allegories for life) the default reaction to sharing our world with these creatures is hand to chappal, and chappal to insect. Gone are the days of rolled up newspapers because technology has brought us, the mosquito racket, (which are unfortunately not tiny rackets used by mosquitos to play mosquito tennis). We’re squished and swatted and screamed down houses because they suddenly make themselves known to us by scuttling across the room. We spray and apply dangerous medicines that could damage our bodies because we want them dead.

Maybe this is not about us or them. They live among us, but maybe it is just that we live among them.

The Lawlessness of Language

Disclaimer: This post may contain certain words that people conventionally find offensive. Rest assured they are being used purely in the context of description and not with the intention to offend. So, sue me I guess.

The release of Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to lead came with a glitzy campaign to ban the word “Bossy.” In a video that featured. some feminist icons of our times (including Beyonce and former Secretary of State of US, Condolezza Rice) they made the point that hearing the word “Bossy” discouraged women from assuming leadership roles and pointed to the dismal number of women in the upper echelons of the corporate work force. Not withstanding the fact that it is bossy to tell people that they can’t use the word “Bossy”, the campaign has found it’s share of detractors. Ms. Sandberg’s intentions may be good but “Bossy” is a gender neutral word, what happens if you meet someone who is genuinely bossy? Maybe it’s not about making the word an insult, but using it correctly. And let’s face it, banning the word “delicious” will not curb the obesity epidemic, will it? This begs the question, is banning a word really the best way to go about bringing change?

Words emerge because they allow us to classify and create patterns in our understanding of the world. And in a similar fashion, disappear because they are not needed anymore. As long as there have been words there has been someone who’s been trying to ban them. Language is like a religion, you can freely judge people for the one they practise, but you can’t change it unless there are legal consequences to it. Recently, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs proposed that anyone using the word “Chinki” to refer to people from North Eastern India would be booked for 5 years under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act. This would leave about 30% of my childhood playmates from my building, who were called Chinky, with an identity crisis and their parents in jail for half a decade. This would put a “just had a 4 course meal” kind of pressure on our already constipated courts. (No fast track option here plz).

I spent a large part of my childhood thinking that the man with the kind eyes that gave me a free Pan Pasand every time mom went to buy bread from the Kirana shop was a “Baniya.” When someone called me that as I asked them to pay me back some money they owe me, the word “Baniya” took on a whole new meaning. They’re the Indian “Jew” – another word that American sitcoms have told me is a strict no-no, but to anyone else might just be the word to describe people who practise the Jewish faith. Bollywood, our “mirror to society” reflects a murky image- from “hum kale hair to kya hua dilwale hai” to incredibly offensive Aakhri Pasta.

One of the standard ways to deal with a troublesome word is to make it your own. That’s why, the N-word, one of the most complicated words in the American lexicon might be horrific enough in it’s implication, but is still liberally peppered in the lyrics of most rap songs and used in parlance by young African- Americans’. At age 16, someone called me a “Bitch”- a word that I personally find foul but, I was assured, was a compliment. As a woman, we were taking back the word bitch, adding things like “fabulous” and “sexy” before it and making it our own. Either that, or she made an idiot out of me. But note how I have not launched a campaign to ban the word “bitch” yet.

In the ultimate “If you can’t beat them, join them move,” no one has a better sense of humour than the Oxford English Dictionary. They should know, they’re documented words as society has mixed and mangled them for decades. Every child across generations has written an essay that begins with the line “As the Oxford English dictionary defines it….” for a reason. My favorite new one to make it to the 2014 edition is the word “Twerk” which I venture is a combination of “Tweak” and “Work”, but has nothing to do with putting the finishing touches on that Excel sheet you’ve worked all afternoon. Instead it is a dance move by pop singer Miley Cyrus which I leave you to Google.

As is human nature, banning something only makes it more desirable. (Does anybody else DESPERATELY want to smoke a cigarette while they watch tar being squeezed out of those lungs in anti-tobacco PSA’s? I feel HORRIBLE admitting this.) Historically, a BAN on words has achieved little in terms of “banning” but serves the function of making a speaker more aware of their usage of the word, the context and effects of it. Unfortunately, there is no constitutional right to NOT be offended, but the truth is, words are too fickle a friend and even a foe to wage battles for.

 

Asking for it: The latest in rape prevention fashions

(My unedited column for Femina Magazine “The Devi and the Devil”. July 2014. Do pick up a copy!)

Well, rape, as they say, is never out of season. In spite of the incident on Dec 16th, 2012 we are still waking up to brutal gang rapes coupled with hair raising murders.

But, we’ve progressed. We’ve moved on. As each new generation unfolds, we are exposed to new, more horrifying stories of rape. Unlike earlier times, women now have to leave the house, whether it’s to put dinner on the table, or go relieve themselves coz there is no toilet at home. Therefore the anti-rape fashions such as “stay inside the house” and “don’t look anyone directly in the eye” now seem outdated.

Over the years women have been swaddled into various outfits to reduce their insane, over desperation for wanting to be raped. We have worn burkhas and ghoonghats and veils and scarves lest we incite lust in the cherubic young minds of the public. In our modern times, as an avg. Indian woman I have spent about 40,006* minutes adjusting my dupatta, and 32,147* minutes realising that I should have worn a full sleeved kurta instead of this sleeveless one. I am rubbish at math, but I know, that is time I could have spent doing a lot of OTHER things.

Other things, such as watching out for the newest in anti-rape trends!

Welcome to the latest additions in the “Asking For It” collection.

1. An American company has launched the anti-rape underwear, which is lockable and has material so strong its not even cuttable with scissors. With this one can experience the joy of not getting raped, as well as struggling desperately with locks when we feel the need to go to the bathroom urgently. Chastity belt references aside, who doesn’t like a bit of “medival” action?

2. Students with NIFT Kolkata have designed an anti-molestation jacket that contains electrodes that administer a mild electric current to the offender trying to grope you. Like an eel, you can glide through your molestation without having to say a WORD! (Which is how we like our women anyway!)

3. The female condom with teeth in it, distributed in South Africa. The teeth trap the offending penis and can only be removed by a doctor. Now you can get raped AND accompany your rapist attached at the groin to the hospital!

With the current trends I think that the anti-rape fashion industry is only going to see more evolution. The “Asking For It” collection has many more trends waiting to happen.

One that I see gaining immense popularity is the ‘Asaram Bapu Anti-Rape Rakhi.’ No one has the solution to rape better than a man who is accused of the act himself. His suggestion that the Delhi Dec 16th victim should have called her rapist ‘bhaiya’ in order to save herself sent the anti-rape fashion world into an innovative frenzy. The result is a rakhi, and a button that blares “BHAAAIIIYA” every time it’s pressed along with the opening notes of “Phoolon Ka taaron ka.” The rapist will take you for his sister and hopefully not behead you in honour killing style for “asking for it” from him when he was not your brother seconds ago.

If your rapist is more the educated type, they will disappear into a “friendzone” type situation as popularised by Big Bang Theory and will then complain about how you don’t like him coz he’s too much of a “Nice guy.” Because there is NOTHING in between “Asking for it” and being a “Frigid man hating bitch/slut.” The possibilities in this fashion trend are endless.

Why am I so hopeful for the future of the anti-rape fashion industry? Mulayam Singh Yadav, a politician so soft he was named after the primary descriptor of the skin on a baby’s bottom in diaper ads, suggested that even accused of the Dec 16th rape need to go free for because “boys will be boys.”It is therefore the woman’s job to keep up with the evolving brutality by protecting herself and her entire ghar ki izzat that she is carrying around in her pants. The government will not do it, the people around us will not do it, and “boys will be boys.” Instead of asking people to be respectful and cautious in the way they use their guns, let’s ALL roam around with bullet proof vests ALL the time, coz bullets will be bullets . Till these attitudes don’t go out of fashion, then neither will anti-rape trends. “Asking For It” now available everywhere.

(*numbers made up, but is it not enough wasted time?)

The fashion of FIFA

My non-opinion on the non-event that is FIFA Bollywood Awards Cup for Times Of India (Pg 10), 30th June, 2014

There are 4 kinds of people around me these days.

1. People who love football and are genuinely enjoying the FIFA world cup.

2. People who are being paid to love football and talk about the FIFA world cup.

3. People who want to love football to be able to talk about the FIFA world Cup.

4. “FIFA was that Bollywood awards ceremony in Tampa Bay, Florida this year na?” (Oh, IIFA? Then who is this FIFI?)

Because I have as much interest in football as a fruit fly would have in reading Dante’s Inferno- one of my favourite things about the football World Cup, is the song. Every year it is some variation on the word ‘Ole’- which you have to admit  might be the catchiest word to the human brain. Merely reading it has sent many of our heads into “Feeling hot, hot, hot….”(Arrow) or “Here We Go…” (Ricky Martin’s Cup of Life) or “7 signs of Aging” (Olay Total Effects 7-in-1) or the appropriately nubile Saif Ali Khan’s “Jab Bhi koi ladki dekhoon….”. I almost can’t believe no one has done a mash-up of “Oles” yet. Since ‘Ole’ also means sleet in Hindi so it also gave us a minimum 20 mins of entertainment to sing these songs whenever it falls from the sky.

If I watched a football match, it would be for the same reason that a man goes to a dance bar- to see some good looking people in small clothes, sweating it out and having a good time while I yell out instructions that like “Arrrree move move move, take it to the back, now forward, arre” at them from where I sit.

I imagine that with the budget of 15 million dollars the money will have to be spent somewhere and so the promotion of it has been as subtle as a football to the face. That’s why souvenir shops are leaking at the pores with keychains and mouse pads and hats that scream “buyers remorse.” The maid is eyeing that Dri-fit jersey of your team you bought for too much money. She is worried that it will not make an absorbent enough poccha for the floor when we are done with your FIFA fever. Also, in this weather, that material is just not appropriate, body odor wise. People who dress up in their team jerseys and watch a game (“Players”) are like people who dress up  as characters from Chetan Bhagat novels (Chetyas) to go for his book reading. It’s only fair that they both made get fun of equally. (Though it’s easier to make fun of the “Chetyas”, because the “Players” will beat you to pulp, so you have to pick your battles really.)

McDonalds has partnered with the World Cup releasing a burger called McBrazil burger. The country can now finally move away from its label of inspiring the name of naughty waxing styles to those of hamburgers. While the bun of the burger has the markings of a conventional football, the actual footballs used in the game have moved from the conventional black and white design to look like Wilson, the basket ball that  was Cast Away with Tom Hanks with it’s random squiggly red pattern on it.

So my guide to identifying the 4 kinds of people you will meet in the world these days

1.  You can identify a true FIFA world cup fan by the dark circles they sport in the office every morning. Suddenly the word ‘Messi’ will throw them into a rage/tears of joy when you didn’t formerly know them as being so particular about cleanliness.

2.  You can identify the one who is being paid to talk about the FIFA world cup because they have already scored all the the freebies that they are supposed to be talking about.

3. You can identify the people who want to love the FIFA world Cup because they will be hanging out with the people who are being paid to talk about football, getting the freebies and wearing ALL of them at the same time.

4. You can identify us because we are still wondering what Sonakshi Sinha wore on the red carpet at this year’s IIFA World Cup. (Oh FIFA? Then who is this FIFI we keep talking about?)

FIFI at a silent vigil against the treatment of FIFA protestors by the Brazillian government.

FIFI at a silent vigil against the treatment of FIFA protestors by the Brazilian government.

Also, do watch the razor sharp (and possibly racist) John Oliver on why he’s CONFLICTED about FIFA. (Thank you GCPP-8 classmate, Shanbog Rachna for the link). It has a Brazilian waxing analogy that will blow your mind, not even kidding.

 

 

 

The Baggage of Breasts

(This is a column for the AWESOME Femina Magazine, (June 11th, 2014). I got a cover byline because obvi duh boobs. Do pick up a copy!)

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Breasts. Even the word has weight. The hard B, coming directly before the rolling R followed by an “-issts,” like you’re beckoning a dog towards you. They’re called wonderful, snappy pet names like “tits” or the comical sounding “Boobs,” the scientifically accurate “Mammories”. They’ve been called “The Girls” “Thelma and Louise” and I met someone recently who called them “Tina and Amy.” As evolutionary biologist, Desmond Morris notes- compared to other female primates that experience swollen breasts and shiny red vaginal lips during mating season, human females are the only primates that have a permanently enhanced breasts, a beacon that this primate is ready to reproduce. And because of that, a HUGE source of interest and shame at the same time.

The first time I noticed them, two round -ish things filling out the dress of a model in a red carpet picture, I was intrigued. It never struck me that they were the same tiny bumps under the shirts of the seniors in my all girls boarding convent school, that ruined the crisp ironing lines of the shirt.

“Where can I get those?”

I asked my mother.  She laughed and told me I would have to wait till I was a big girl.  I associated “being a big girl” with demurely sitting out of of P.T. period, speaking softly and smiling at boys. As much as I hated P.T. period, I hated speaking softly and  (God forbid) smiling at boys even more.
At an inter-house folk dance competition in 7th Std, the principal of our school walked out half way through our version of the Kohli dance, when she announced that she would not watch anymore obscene, breasts jiggling  even if it was in an all girls environment. I was one of the guilty.  My mother had told me nothing specific about it apart from it being a “big girl” thing . When I ask her about it today she admits “I was embarrassed Adu, I didn’t know what to say.” So, far from the “taking-me-aside-and-gently-giving-me-to-my-first-sports-bra” I had the violent “embarassed-in-front-of-entire-school-for-having-them” introduction to my own breasts. It would only be another 2 months till I got to leave boarding school for the annual break- till then I stole a crepe bandage from the First-Aid locker in the dorm and wrapped it nice and tight around the offending breasts and slouched so hard my shoulder and pelvis were threatening to get fused.

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Sketch: Natasha Chopra (@nattychops)

The shame of being a breast possessor is directly in proportion to shopping for a bra. For a middle-class woman, it is normally a young man named along the lines of “Chotu” or “Biju.”When you sheepishly mumble your size  and requirements to him hoping that no one else will hear,  he’ll stop everything he’s doing to take a  good long look at your breasts before announcing your size, leaping up the wall of undergarments like a cat and coming down triumphantly with your new size and style. I am equal parts repulsed and fascinated by this job. Repulsed because of the long hard gaze that my breasts have to endure and fascinated because Chotu/Biju almost always get the size right in spite of the layers of clothes, dupattas and purse straps with said gaze.

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Sketch: Natasha Chopra (@nattychops)

 

 

The talent of Chotu and Biju often finds itself in the measuring straps of the expensive bra shops as well. It’s scientifically proven you have to find out that you are wearing the wrong bra size at least 2 times in your life. This time, instead of Biju/Chotu’s estimation, you will meet these measuring straps, that come attached to a know-it-all woman. The whole shop will be lightly perfumed with a smell of estrogen and someone will offer you green tea at some point. This woman with the measuring straps will nonchalantly measure the circumference of your chest, the diameter of each breast, the length from one nipple to another, the distance from Mumbai to Khandala during peak traffic hours, divide it by the number of hits Yo Yo Honey Singh’s last music video got on Youtube and the first letter of your favourite vegetables’ name, add salt according to taste and simmer for 30 mins. Personally, this is an extremely nerve wracking experience  because now I really want my breasts to impress this lady who obviously has a PhD in boobs. Maybe if they sang or a song, or solved a complex mathematical equation? Then the lady fits me with a bra and I feel so grateful, confused and-still trying to impress her- I spend an entire month’s salary on my breasts.

Even today, I sometimes look at them in the foggy mirror of the shower, I am underwhelmed. Is this what the big deal is about? The “sweater puppies” that make saris curve deliciously around shoulders? A jiggle of which sends self-righteous school principals into a frothing frenzy? And the sheer relief of finding something to rein them in turns your purse strings lose? Are these the things that turn little children into curious adults and grown adults into bumbling children? Breasts- the baggage of them, is a loaded one to bear.

A HUGE THANK YOU Natasha Chopra- the girl with sketch Pen in her hand and an item song in her heart, for the adorkable sketches.

 

Woman at Work

 I wrote this for an event called “Women at Work” organised by Senior Editor of Firstpost.com, Deepanjana Pal. It is a description of my experiences as a woman working in the English stand-up comedy market in India. It was probably the most warm, lovely environment to speak in and for someone who is supposed to talk to people for a living,  I was terrified of saying a lot of things I said below. (This is an edited version)

This is a mike, to indicate that this post is about stand-up comedy. Some deep symbolic imagery and stuff here.

This is a mike, to indicate that this post is about stand-up comedy. This is some deep, symbolic imagery and stuff here.

I am a woman. I am also a stand-up comedian. I go on stage, I tell what I think are jokes. On a good day people laugh, on a bad one they leave tut-tutting about the “gandi ladki who was saying all those dirty dirty things.” I was asked to choose if I identified with more, being a woman, or being a stand-up comedian. Being asked to choose implies that if I am one I cannot be the other. I’d like to borrow a quote from a report released by the detachable-genital dept of John Hopkin University, when I say “You can’t.” I end up carrying my womanliness when I am on stage every single time. Also, I’d love to hear the answer when a man is asked if he identifies more with being a MAN than whatever profession he’s in.

To me, comedy is truth. It’s terrifying to be all alone on stage with just a mic, no background dancers, no music, no flashy lights. It’s a vulnerable place to be in. And when vulnerable, just like always, honesty is the best policy. Being fake results in contrived jokes about Punjabis being loud, Gujratis being cheap and Parsi’s being…few. They’re hilarious sure, but they’re not very hard to come up with. When people ask me if I write my stand-up comedy from a female perspective I feel confounded. Who else’s perspective am I going to write from? My truth is that I am a woman, and my truth is comedy. I cannot deny one for the other. To be honest, when I started out, I did not know it was a big deal for a woman to do comedy. I just went along doing shows like any of the boys would. It was only when a journalist earnestly asked me after a show, “Women are not funny. Why?” did it hit home. I was being asked to justify what I was doing, WHILE I was doing it. It is after that, that I suddenly felt the need to justify my jokes on stage. I’d start my jokes on Vaginal tightening cream by saying “I’m not a pervert or anything,” when in reality I am a huge pervert. Today, I am done justifying myself. Now when I am asked why women are not funny, my answer is “Next question please.” Incidentally, the same journalist also posed the question “so you’re a funny woman, they’re either considered crazy or sluts. Which one are you?” I said “Both.” For some reason that question never made it to print.

I remember listening to an ad for a show I did in Delhi. In it, they described me as a fiery feminist. Coz apparently feminists who keep their cool don’t exist. But I remember wondering why. The men had their humor described as “political” “observational” “satirical” while everything that came out of my mouth was lumped into my gender. When a fellow comic announced me on stage as “India’s #1 female comedian” I had to gently remind him that I did not have an entire genre of comedy in my pants. And to clarify, in no way, am I ashamed of being called a feminist. In fact it breaks my heart when I hear well educated women go “Oh God ya, all this nari Shakti and all please I don’t do.”

Is stand-up comedy a boys club? Numerically, yes. It is. It’s easier to make people cry then make them laugh– comedy can be pretty daunting and risky. Personally, when I started doing stand-up comedy, I had nothing to lose. I had just been laid off from a job in New York and returned to Mumbai, the prodigal black sheep of the family was back to bleating on familiar pastures. If I didn’t spend my evenings at open mics (where comics try out new material and jokes), I would have spent them drinking massive glasses of Horlicks and crying myself to sleep. The nature of laughter is such, you can never 100% of the time tell when people are laughing with you or at you. That can be discomforting. As a woman, we are taught to take ourselves 100% seriously. A well meaning gentleman came up to me after a show once and said “Beta lovely comedy, but….do you parents know that you are saying all these things on stage? Accha ladka kaise milega?” His concern for my love life was heart -warming. As to why there are few women in stand-up comedy today, I say, give it time. Even nurses and secretaries and teachers were “boys clubs” at one time. We are on our way there.

I am lucky that my ultimate boss is the audience. If they like you, you will get work. But getting booked for gigs can be tricky. I have been included in stand-up comedy shows because sometimes, they just need a woman to “sexy up” things a bit. And then I have had shows denied to me because “yaar tum ladies ho, ye boys college hai, tujhe maar dalenge.” Often it’s not economically viable to book me for travelling gigs in groups because I cannot share a room with the guys, and so one room has to be specifically reserved for me which raises costs.

But stand-up comedy, as we know, is still a very nascent industry. With the English language barrier we only cater to the upper middle class, a market that has the disposable income to enjoy the indulgences of a comedy club. As mentioned, I was not aware, when I started out that a woman doing comedy was supposed to be as rare as a monkey being able to quote Shakespeare.

Except this guy. Or wait. It's quoting Romeo and Juliet, it's a girl monkey obviously.

Except this guy. Or wait. It’s quoting Romeo and Juliet, it’s a girl monkey obviously.

500 shows later, I can confidently say that to most audiences, if you’re funny, you’re funny. It barely matters what is in your pants. Even the few times that I am reminded of it by a heckler, I know the audience is on my side. At a New Year’s Eve Show of 2013, a drunk heckler kept yelling about the BIG BLACK MIKE in hand and how I should suck on it and lick the tip, the audience roared with approval when I said “Since you know such great penis sucking techniques, why don’t you do it yourself? My mouth is busy with telling jokes right now.” After all, the audience didn’t pay 500 bucks for a comedy show to watch the performer tank simply because she has a vagina. After shows, in the guise of taking photographs, many a penis has been rubbed against my groin and my boob has been grabbed so many times, I fear I’m losing sensation in the area.

I’ve answered questions about my relationship with event organizers who book me too often “You’re sleeping with him na? That’s why he keeps booking you,” someone postulates. It is unimaginable to some that I might be booking gigs because I am actually funny. “You’re only getting this much work because you’re a woman,” others have stated. Again, not because I’m funny, but because I am a woman. In the past I’ve spent so much time crying in the St. Andrews auditorium’s ladies bathroom, that now, even when I go there to pee, tears spring to my eyes.

What scares me right now, is the knee jerk feminism that our country has adopted in the past year and what it really says about our attitudes towards women. Everyone’s talking about it, panels are being organized and media outlets cannot wait to get their pixelated paws into the “WOMAN” market with non saas bahu programming. While on a panel with 4 other, feisty, intelligent women, where I was obviously tacked on as the “funny” element of the event, the subject of the Mallika Sherawat video from Vanity Fair came up. Where she said that India was regressive and hypocritical when it came to women. I was shocked to hear one of the panelists respond with “What a bitch, she can’t even talk properly because her lips are so fake and she’s talking nonsense about my country,” I jumped in to defend her. “Well, she didn’t lie. We have rapes, dowry deaths, female infanticide…” and before I could finish my sentence the producer jumped in. “Arre comedy-waali, why are you getting so serious? You can’t say “rape” and all on this platform.” Apparently the word bitch was ok, but rape—that’s a No No.

I’ve said no to several interviews when they begin their story with “Well, you know, with all the horrible stories about women coming out of India today, yours will be a positive one.” It horrifies me that the fact that I’ve not been left dead in a ditch with my head copped off in spite of speaking my mind, is a reason to celebrate.

In the last season of Kaun Banega Crorepati, Amitabh Bacchan waxed eloquent about EVERY woman that broke through the fastest finger first round. “Dekhiye” he declared, “Naari Shakti. Ek naari humare saath iss kursi par baithgi aur questions answer karegi.” We are being exulted for being alive. And that’s scary too. The higher the pedestal on which we place women, the more vehemently we will react when women divert from it. We don’t want to be your Madonna and we don’t want to be your whore, we don’t want to be your ghar ki izzat and we don’t want to be your office ki shaan. We want to be us.

12 Things I learned at 27

I’m officially 27 years old. Even though that’s still far away from my first pair of dentures, or urinating in a bed pan, I’ve learned a lot of stuff. And like every old person, I feel the need to share my wisdom. Here are 12 (coz I couldn’t think of a 13th one) things in no particular order, I’ve learned at 27. A lot of them are still in resolution stage (it’ll give me something to talk about next year na?) Some of it might be clichéd. Some of it might be too specific to me. Going to be senti either way.

Nothing could be more self reflective, than a selfie. It's science.

Nothing could be more self reflective, than a selfie. It’s science.

1. No one is my servant or lower than me. Even who one conventionally calls their ‘servant’ is not my servant. Behind the hand that serves me tea in the morning, the one that hands me a towel in the rest room of fancy restaurant, the hands that drive me to work/school, there is a person doing their job. I have been amazed at how my shitty day flips around to awesome when I ask someone “How are you?” out of the blue or ventured a stray smile at a person on the street. It makes me look weird I imagine. I’m OK with that.

2. I have learned to fail. Over and over, in front of hundreds of people sometimes. But I am proud to say that I have tried my best to remain true to who I am. Not everyone is going to love what I do/say/write. Does not mean I won’t continue doing/saying/writing it. Conversely, I will not romanticize failure. I will not wear it like some badge of honor, I will learn from it and move on. Possibly to my next failure. . My vulnerabilities are not my weaknesses. I am not defined by my success and not defined by my failure.

3. The answer to “What CAN’T you do?” is always “Nothing.” Nothing. I will try everything once. Then apply point #2.

4. I will never ever buy a top that’s a bit tight and then promise myself that I’ll lose weight to get into it. No piece of clothing has ever been motivation enough for me to lose weight. Getting into a shirt is very low on my list of priorities when faced with a deliciously sweet cup of tea and chocolate biscuits. My body will never look the way I want it to look- my arms are too big , my skin still suffers from teenage acne sometimes, but I am alive and well and healthy. I have learned that it is OK to be happy with that. Also, I look nice when I wear a salwar kameez.

5. I will let people think and have whatever opinions they want of me, unless it hurts enough to ring true to me. Someone else calling me a bad person will not automatically make me a bad person unless I believe it. I would rather work to change my flaws for the 10 people that know and love me than 1000 people who don’t. Life’s too short to try to impress everyone beyond a point.

6. My true character is revealed in times of adversity (also when Sheila ki Jawani comes on at a party, WHATTA SONG!)

7. When my dad/mom call me 500 times a day to ask me what time I’m getting home, I will answer their calls and hold my irritation about answering the same question again and again. Sometimes they call because they are lonely, and because they love me. I will listen to them talk about their childhood and youth. I have learned that looking at old pictures with family members reveals a treasure trove of interesting stories.

8. I have learned the hard way that I cannot drive a car, can barely cook, that sometimes printers and hard drives crash around me. I panic less than I used to. Panic makes me even more muddle headed, and when things go wrong that’s the last thing I need to feel.

9. I have learned the value of waking up early. Nothing equals the smug satisfaction of having almost done all your days work, while people are still stumbling out of their bedrooms grumbling about being sleepy.

10. I will write more. Everyday. It will still never be enough, so I will write some more.

11. I have learned to clean up my language. Unless it’s absolutely imperative, I will try and speak without curse words. Because using curse words automatically diverts from what you are saying. I would rather not have that barrier in the message I am trying to get across. Also, I have realised that a carefully worded actual criticism can hurt much more than a “fuck you, you fucker.” (“Ass” is not a curse word btw. It means butt. There’s nothing wrong with butts.)

12. I will try my best to make people laugh. I have been so blessed to be in front of a room full of people while they laugh and enjoy themselves. It makes me feel like the luckiest person alive. I will never ever get complacent. It’s too damn precious to me.

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