Hey Bhau, Pudhe Chala

Textually Active: Please use protection

How to travel in Business Class- A Crash (and Burn) course.

This is my column for Femina Magazine, November 2014. Do pick up a copy!

(I am a stand up comedian and life gets pretty uninteresting when you’re touring alone for days from airport to hotel room to stage to airport to hotel room to stage to airport to hotel room etc. And even though my job may be to entertain others, I find it harder to keep myself entertained. It’s true. I always already know what I’m going to say next- it’s horribly predictable.)

I recently found myself in a business class seat to a flight to Delhi. To put it in context, I’m THAT middle class child who still cannot get over the fact that I get to take flights instead of a train. To find myself in business class was like sone pe suhaga pe giant scoop of chocolate ice cream with almonds crushed on it.

I dressed as I would for any normal flight where I would be sitting in economy class. Track pants and t-shirt with hooded sweatshirt. I maybe one hockey stick away from looking like a female Mika, but at least I’m comfortable. The idea was to dress casually, as if I travelled by business class all the time that it was like my second home. I put on those giant bee sunglasses to give myself a glamorous, mysterious look, as if the paparazzi is always following me around when I go to
get bread and milk to the kinara shop. I was disappointed that no palanquin came to take me to the airport, but it was something I was willing to let go of.

Flying Business class means you get access to the VIP lounge. Here was a buffet that included things like “Palak kabobs.” They tasted like socks and it made wonder why they chose palak, the least kabob-able vegetable for this purpose. Maybe pedestrian items like  potatoes and paneer did not make the cut. There was also a guy from that show on that channel where they fall in love but families have an issue and there’s one manipulative family member who keeps sabotaging the young lovers and the family. I may have described pretty much every single Indian T.V show ever, but the point was that he was a celebrity and I was within 20 feet radius of him.

When a voice announced, “We request all Business class passengers to proceed towards the gate,” I stood up and walked towards the line of economy class passengers who were already waiting at the gate. As a middle class/economy class person- I am totally used to a bit of pushing, shoving and line cutting, but now that I had the full permission to actually cut the line it felt awkward.

To celebrate my first ever Business class flight I had worn a string of pearls. These pearls were specially mined from the oysters of the Zambian lagoons, or as it’s known, Linking Road 50 ruppees, but trust me they looked real. It would add to my nonchalant glamour, as if I wear pearls in my pyjamas all the time. I hope everyone imagined that I was the child of someone very rich, maybe one of the first Indian programmers of Microsoft? Maybe I was married to a celebrity dentist in London who parities with Posh and Becks? Maybe they envy my wealth but feel sorry for me since I obviously did nothing to earn or deserve it? I hope so.

The sheer amount of space of my seat made me nervous. I’m too small in height and size to warrant all that extra legroom. It made me think of my brother’s long legs that would bang against the seat in front when he sat in an economy sized seat. In tribute to every bump in his knee,I stretched myself out the to the max.  In 10 mins I found a sweet spot and  (this will always be a regret) fell asleep. The excitement and energy required to maintain the air of being posh had taken a toll on me.

When I woke the flight was almost landing. I looked at the unread Economic Times that I could have looked intelligent while reading. I was hoping to strike up conversation with my fellow business class travellers and project myself as a whipper-snapper entrepreneur. “Current valuation you ask? Well, according to Forbes, $450 million dollars,” I would have said casually while taking sips from my shrimp cocktail. Even though the idea of seafood based cocktail was weird, I saw it on the menu when I woke up and was seriously upset at having missed out on it.

As they say, you can take the girl out of economy class, but you can’t take the economy class out of the girl. Maybe one day, when I find myself in the hallowed bowels of a business class airplane seat again-I’ll stay awake. Till then, I will go back to another stage, another hotel room and another airport.

The Razzle-Frazzle of the Indian Wedding

My column for  India Today Magazine (Simply Mumbai), Oct 2014.

If you are a middle class woman in Mumbai over the age of 20, then you know it’s in the air. Halls, banquets and grounds all over the city have been booked since June. Event management companies are fighting with decorators who are fighting with caterers about the placement of tables.’Tis the season to get married in Mumbai. Like dominos your friends and cousins and far off relatives fall into the world of shiny boxes of kishmish and menu choices (which are still the same at every wedding. Paneer Makhani anyone?)

The most integral question that any self-respecting human being will ask themselves during this trying time is “Oh God, what am I going to wear?” Fortunately my mother cares for clothes like a Jihadi cares for democracy. The first time I complained to her about having to wear the same outfit to yet another wedding she looked at me like I was clinically insane.

“People will think I have no other clothes”, I protested.

“Do you remember what Anvita, Muskan or Suniti wore to the last family wedding?”

I scrunched up my face in concentration “No, I can’t remember. Why?”

“If you have not thought about what other’s have been wearing then what makes you think that anyone cares about what you’ve been wearing?”

It’s true. No one cared. I never remember what anyone else wears because I am mostly busy obsessing over my own outfit. It made me feel let down and liberated at the same time.

We have sharas, ghararas, (which is also another word for gargling), tiharas and shikaras and though the last two do not exist I bet half of us are planning to ask for one the next time we’re at Santacruz station doing wedding season shopping. Strips of cloth pretend to be sari blouses and saris drenched in beads, sequins and crystals leave us one portable battery away from Amitabh Bacchan in “Saara Zamaana.” I wonder if aliens look up into their night skies and see the twinkle of the MASSIVE crystals in Pammi Aunty’s salwar and make a wish upon it. If you come from a family that has any jewellery to it’s name then visits to the “locker” in the bank will become de rigour, as if you’re Ajit or Dan Brown.

Bollywood sank it’s grimy paws into the Indian wedding narrative very early on in the game. Documents unearthed from Suraj Barjatiyas office reveal the template for Indian wedding movies.

Step 1 : A weds B but during this wedding C meets D, Cue Song #1 and Song #2

Step 2 : C weds D and during the wedding E meets F, Cue Song #3 and #4

Step 3 : After some minor Bapuji related issues, cue possible song #5 (sad song)  E weds F, cue song #6, every one stands around in a semi circle facing the camera spouting cloyingly earnest cliches about love and life,  desperately trying to bring this extended wedding video to an end.

Step 4: Alok Nath deposits a check in his bank account.

In that eternal dilemma of “Does Bollywood imitate life, or life imitate Bollywood?” the Indian parent now treats each wedding as a petri-dish where potential sons and daughters in laws are germinating . This is why a staple at every wedding now, is the  person in their 20’s either sulking in a corner or “Bole chudiyaan, bole kangana, and babu-ji pooja ki thaali ek minute laayi”-ing all over the place. Parents want to replicate the Suraj Barjatiya template and the kids are thinking more along the lines of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Most parents get the wistful when watching the couple at the mandap/alter because they’re thinking of their own children standing there. Their look of longing would put Romeo and Juliet’s love to shame.

Weddings are also the one time in your life when you will meet many relatives for the first, and probably the last time. Your cheeks will be pinched by fingers that have just eaten butter naans so there go any dry skin issues you may have. You will touch more feet than the average pedicurist does in a month. There are certain relatives in the family who’s face I cannot remember, but I’ll know they are Mom’s second cousin’s wife or Uncle’s Aunt’s 3rd cousin from the other side-simply by their footwear. Then someone will loudly recall the time that you did susu while they were carrying you when you were 5 years old, and isn’t that too old to be wetting yourself, but you always had a weak bladder. The person at the wedding who you had identified as your parent’s future son in law/daughter in law, gets extremely disgusted and leaves. This is not first date information.

It’s also the time that the family Saroj Khan, an aunt or an over enthusiastic cousin will choreograph 14 dances too many. Chachus will convulse, Phuphis will vibrate, building friends will shimmy and the DJ will try not to murder himself because he’s been playing the same playlist for almost this entire wedding season. The guests will politely clap along because they have nothing else to do with their hands since the food counters are not open yet. My over zealous Mamu, once entered the sangeet stage to the opening notes of “Dafliwaaaale…..” using a steel thaali as a dafli. He may have got a bit too in character when he frisbee-d the thaali across the hall nearly severing my brother’s neck. (If something had happened it would be a horrible inconvenience to everyone because, what are they going to wear to the funeral now?)  One of the older uncles will strike up “Ey meri Zohrajabhi…..” and his wife will shirk like a flower as if she’s getting married all over again. Since the poor children are already out on display in full finery- the parents and relatives feel the need to do the traditional “ beta uncle aunty ko dance dikhao”

The Indian wedding is heavily fetishised in the west. Technically, it’s the most easily packageable piece of our culture. Most weddings also seem to have the token foreigner (a white person only, we won’t invite black people because Somnath Bharti). This white person will exclaim with surprise at pretty much anything-ooooh look-the people are so happy, the music is loud, everyone is so well dressed ( and also mostly intoxicated) OOOHH THE GREAT INDIAN WEDDING! They will be encouraged to dance to Sheila ki Jawani to which they will do an awkward thrust or 5 but everyone will whistle and hoot in encouragement so much that they will actually begin to think they’re doing it right. The photographer will be explicitly told to photograph the token foreigner having a good time with the immediate family, so that pictures in the wedding album will remain testament to the racist and selective hospitality we take so much pride in.

Let’s face it, the frazzle and dazzle of the Indian wedding is very little about the poor bride and groom, who are hidden under layers of saris, generations of  jewellery, pagdis and seheras. It’s about people coming together weather it’s to criticise each other’s clothes, find someone to get married to, recall horribly awkward stories, or watch someone named Jeffery try to match steps with your cousin sister to Mutukudi kawadi hada. Now when I get an invitation to a wedding, instead of my wardrobe, the first thing I open are my eyes and mind. As I said, ’tis the season to get married. Let the celebrations BEGIN!

Whose cheque is it anyway?

My column for Femina Magazine Oct 2014. Do pick up a copy!

It amazes me that in 2014 we are still having the debate about who pays for the first date. Being a strictly middle class girl, I think that there’s a need to define the word “date” for the Indian context.

“Date” When two individuals, who have romantic intentions, set aside a time to meet, and explore if they have qualities that could facilitate a long term relationship. This might involve said individuals consuming coffee, alcoholic beverages and even a full meal together.

Traditionally, he pays, and the woman is supposed to look interested in her phone or go to the powder room while he handles the unpleasant business of paying for the food. This action is supposed to highlight his role of the ‘provider’ in the relationship. The preposterousness of him having to be the ‘provider’ is equivalent to the idea of her needing to be ‘provided for.’ The fact that he can pay for 1 meal is not really a standard to judge the “providery-ness” of your partner anyway. It’s like saying that because Neil Armstrong landed on the moon once he must have a  2 acre farmhouse there. Gender roles have altered drastically since the concept of “dating” as we know it today, came about. “He pays” is not acceptable as default. This does not mean that “She pays” is a solution either. That’s just flipping the problem around.

For the scores of ladies who “forget” their wallets at home, because he’s “supposed” to pay, stop embarrassing yourself. Leaving home without money for yourself is the most juvenile and possibly dangerous thing to do. No one, far from a person you’re meeting to explore a romantic life with, is running a charity. It’s a matter of self-respect and common sense.

The other common way to decide who pays is “Who asked who out”- the person who initiated the date has to pay the bill. This is unfair because the ratio is skewered inordinately to men. As an Indian woman, I am aware that being sharmili is supposed to be one of our trademarked qualities. The heroines in our movies have itrao-ed their necks off, blushing and smiling mysteriously as if we’re posing for the Mona Lisa. We have been taught that women are supposed to attracted men with beguiling smiles and lowered eyes, not through direct words and (God forbid) overtly sexual things like asking them to share a meal/coffee with you. Therefore applying this principle means its mostly the men who end up paying for the date. Moreover, what happens when it’s a family arrangement? How do you decide whose Phuphi contacted whose Chachi first to initiate the meeting?

The one smooth way out of the dangerous waters of ANY date (or even regular social situation), is to pay for what you ate. Because a date, no matter what, needs to be an investment of time, energy and money from BOTH the people involved. A friend once complained that she had gone on 7 dates in 7 days and she felt no connection. Dating is NOT a way of filling up a weekly social calendar, but a way of getting to know a person. You don’t mind taking the time to dress up, you don’t mind giving away a couple of precious hours, then you shouldn’t mind paying for your half of the meal.

If you cannot afford to pay at the place he is taking you out to dinner to, then mention it. The WORST thing that can come out of it is that he will offer pay for it, or he will change the venue of your date to somewhere that you CAN afford to pay. Just like you’re not judging him for his ability to pay, your inability to pay should not be a “deal breaker” either. You’re not dating each other’s wallets. (Unless that’s your thing-then you should probably ignore all this.)

I agree that doing maths when the bill comes, in order to calculate and pay for what you ate on the first date, may not be the most romantic thing in the world. But how quickly they do the math, or how you make each other laugh while doing that awkward calculation or- now THAT’s a better indication of how much of a “provider” someone can be.

Generic looking couple on date for representational purposes, because good Indian children do not go on dates.

Generic looking couple on date for representational purposes, because dating is against Indian culture.

Gym Jam: Notes from a sweaty corner

This is my column for Femina Magazine dated Oct 15th. Do pick up a copy!

It’s so easy to hate people at gyms. Because we live in a world where everyone is supposed to be polished, perfect and presentable at all times. You want to look hot but the impression to be given is that you just naturally have this ridiculously sexy body. That your rippling muscles, toned arms and protruding clavicles just come as a result of you existing. But it takes work. That’s why it’s so easy to hate people in there, even though you might be the chubby girl sweating all over the treadmill, panting like the engine of a Padmini Premier. (I’m totally, talking about myself here, to clarify. Sweating one of my best qualities)

The suburb of Mumbai that I live in, Andheri West, is kind of like a home for Bollywood and television actors. Everyone within 2 Km radius of here is  is going to be the next Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan combined and acting skills be DAMNED. What you need these days is a 6 pack. Because nothing conveys your emotions like those weird biscuit-y things on your stomach.

Being in Andheri West, I have also had the fortune of once going a gymthat was visited by television personalities and film stars. Now maybe their eyes are sensitive from all the stage and camera lights they face it’s almost like they’re scared that they will end up emoting from their eyes in person, which they only do for cameras thank you very much. You can tell the struggling actors from the established one because they still don’t have sunglasses on, so they can make better eye contact with themselves in the mirror while simultaneously admiring their own pectorals. As for the women, who show up in full make up to work out, it’s sad that they are still to discover that it also exists in the water proof variety. You go into the gym looking like a movie star, and come out looking like a Panda that has not slept for a month.

Having lost and gained over 100 Kgs in the past 5 years (I’m not even joking, I have more stretch marks a rubber band), I am an expert atgyms. My favourite workout machine is the jiggly machine(TM) . I’m not sure what it’s actual name is, but the jiggly machine has a belt that you put around your waist and it vibrates violently taking your body along with it for the ride. Anyone using the jiggly machine (TM) always looks like they are being electrocuted, but in the most enjoyable manner. I’m not sure how it’s supposed to help with losing weight (can you just jiggle away your fat? But then if you lose your fat then will you be able to jiggle?) I enjoy the paradox of treadmills, where we keep running but get nowhere. I feel like a hamster that’s powering a giant machine that is keeping humanity alive when I’m on it. Some machines are so complicated that I wait for others to use them, watch what they’re doing and then proceed to do it horribly wrong. The system of levers and pulleys that creak in response to my creaking bones is a solace.

As I have qualified, I am far too conscious to be the sports bra with short shorts wearing gym visitor. (I’m talking about the women as well as the men here) They look like they’re in a Sports ad and are doing some overachieve-y like training for an ultra marathon that raises money for noble causes like supplying water for wet t-shirt contests in Goa. On the other end are the ladies in the salwar kameez and sneakers combo. The one’s who will take the elevator to the gym on the first floor. Their best friend is that napkin which is used for everything from wiping their brows to fanning themselves to waving at the gym trainer when they are stuck under the 50Kg leg press.

And then, there is, the chubby girl in the corner working out in mismatched track pants and an old torn tshirt  who’s breathing like the engine of a Padmini Premier who’s weird because she has no place on the spectrum, hating everyone at the gym because she will never be as perfect. And hell, it takes work.

I workout

Scent of a Man

My column for Femina Magazine dated Aug 22nd, 2014

The conventionally unattractive man is ignored because he is, as the ad suggests, conventionally unattractive. He grabs the dildo shaped graphic emblazoned with a word like “Gravity” or “Deadly”, “Inflation” or something equally vague. He spurts it in the general vicinity of his conventionally unattractive torso. Every woman within a 12 km radius (who for some reason has only a 2 buttons per shirt allowance) gets a whiff of him. Like locusts with sexy breasts they descend on now formerly conventionally unattractive man. He is now covered in lipstick marks. Close-ups of women’s fingers clench on bed sheets, and bare male backs and backs of heads. End graphic. “Be awild animal, Lust your smell, buy this deo.”

It not only slays the single women but the married ones as well. This inference is based on the massive number of ads that feature ripped off wedding rings, mangal sutras and heavily panting bhabhi’s who cede to sexual encounters on their way toa Pooja. The logic is that you might as well squeeze in a few of your own “Oh God!”s while on the way to the temple. (Non-threatenting voice over:Just  Zatak her you guys.)

Last week,while looking for a way to postpone actually sitting down to write this column, I found myself where most procrastinators convene- On Twitter. I asked “What is your favourite thing about a man/your man/men (in general). Just 1 thing.” The most popular answer unanimously was “they way they smell”*.I am scared breathless by the question— are deodorant ads telling the truth?

Being in an all girl’s school, I knew few things about men till I found myself sitting in a class next to one in college. It seemed I was now supposed to interact casually with this brand new creature who I had pretty much no idea what to do around. I remember being amazed by way hair grew on their face and neck and how they had awkward voices, but most of all, I was awed by the way they smelled.

One familiar whiff can trigger a powerful memory. As a Bombay dweller, I associate the nose-crinkling smell of drying fish and sea salted air with a happiness that activates others’ gag reflexes. It’s the sense that will alert you of a coming storm, Dadar station,  and a potential mate even before your eyes and ears. Your sense of smell detects chemical compounds called pheromones that signal sexual interest and process them for your completely unconsciously.At times like this, I appreciate mother nature’s Cupid act- because society barely prepares us for sexual interactions. While you bungle awkwardly through nervous smiles and stilted conversation- your nose and body has already made some decisions for you.

Luckily thanks to free-will and common sense and not having nearly enough shirts that have only 2 buttons we don’t have the same response as the buxom beauties in the deodorant ads. If deodorant ads are true, then no one would ever get any work done.

Husband: Why is the breakfast not ready?

Wife: Arre first the neighbour put on deodorant so I had run over to leave lipstick marks on his body, then you put it on so I to stand here clutching bedsheets and breathing heavily. Where is the time to make breakfast? Even the maid had to run out to rip off her mangalsutra suggestively when Rohit from the 5th floor was getting ready to go to college.

I dare not suggest that deodorant is redundant, it is a welcome invention that has made the commute to work bearable.  But let’s face it- women and men fell for each other much before  the invention of deodorant and public transport isn’t exactly designed for finding a mate. On the other hand, having your nose hair spontaneously combust because the cloud ofdeodorant around you as has a human being in it is not the best idea in the world either. The rules of sexual relationships are confusing enough, let’s not mix it up it with the rules of our relationship with that little black can of insecurities.

*For public interest purposes I would like to share the other  #4.

#2 “His personality:” which was the vaguest answer of all. It’s like saying I like a man for his eyes. You can’t like a person for having eyes. Having eyes is not a special or specific quality. Everyone has eyes. Come on yaar.

#3  “Confidence”: Agreed. A man/woman/person who likes themselves is easier to like.

#4 “Empathy/Sense of Humor”: These both came in with equal votes but that’s because they’re kind of two ends of the same spectrum.  Twitter can be pretty deep at times.

#5. “Why has nobody said his money or his penis size”: Men on Twitter contributing to the discussion

(For those of you who want to check out the tweets. I’ve Storified them here. Huge thank you to all who indulged me with their answers and their insights. Twitter is amazing.)

(This edition of Femina Magazine also has a fantastic Article on “6 Men That Make Us Laugh” which feature the hilarious Sorabh Pant, Sanjay Manaktala and Ashish Shakya. I’ve seen them all be fantastic on stage! Check it out!)

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.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32,416 other followers