Courtyard Cafe

When you sit in a cafe, a book in your hand, wishing you were fully absorbed in it

the cigarette between your fingers burns faster than you are breathing.

You see them from the corner of your eye, peering at you and your book and your cigarette, judging you and that shiny little glass you are drinking tea from.

When your eyes meet, you know they want to be you or do what you are doing because it looks cool.

If only they could see how flawed you are, with all your messy thoughts and the messier hair, your inability to read two sentences without drifting into small pleasures coffee shops have to offer

their square tables, those oval chairs and round faces on them, talking, watching, laughing, holding, thinking.

Light another one and watch it as it escapes your mouth, the fingers, and now the air.

Listen to the traffic outside and squirm every time you hear that accident noise – of tires screeching to a concrete halt, of yelling and the smell of blood, even if there isn’t any.

Dragonfly

Her eyes drooping with sleep, she got out of bed in her first attempt. Last night had been crazy. The apartment was now spinning fast with squares of bright light flashing her with devotion. She sat down and put her head under her knees. It didn’t help. As she made the fourth attempt to get up and fetch water, somebody had discovered the door bell and was going at it enduringly. She looked at the rusty old clock she had inherited from her great grandmother. 11 ‘O’ Clock. Over the years she had learnt to neglect the growing archaic den her apartment had become. The dust didn’t bother her anymore because they came with the things that were handed down to her, from a generation of people that kept things, too many things in the places they breathed and ate.

She recognized the woman at her door from the bag she was carrying. Our woman had been glaring at the bag all of last night, trying to identify the brand from the spectacular distance that had separated them and over all the tall glasses and the noise around them. It took her a while to recollect the name of the place they had seen each other at. Roofies? Floories? Gloria’s?

– ‘I saw you at Dragonfly last night’, said the guest, even as her host squinted her eyes into tiny round balls.

-‘Oh, yes! What can I do for you’?

-‘I came here to tell you to leave him the hell alone. I saw you glaring at us last night and he’s quiet upset’

‘But – I, wait, who are – ‘

‘I only came here to tell you that. Good bye’

As she saw the woman hurry past the gate and into the car, she wondered if she should run after her and demand an explanation. But she was too hungover to do that or the next sane step, which was to call Aaquil and ask him if he had any idea what this meant. She would have dragged herself back in but her silk robe got caught in the giant cactus that stood next to the door. She cursed and nearly died of exhaustion trying to rescue the robe without perforating holes in them. Unlike everything else in her apartment, this robe she was rather fond of. She wore it every night and never washed it. Her friends never got why she complained so much about all the antique hand me downs she had acquired.

She had always wanted to design her own place to her own taste when she got it. But because it took so long to figure out what her taste was like, her family had decided that the empty spaces in her apartment looked ugly and that it was the best home the family collections could ever get. So at the far end of the apartment stood a giant mahogany cot that was obscenely polished and seemed to hurt most eyes because of ugly carvings of goats and grapes at all four ends of the cot. She had done her best to hide the carvings and finally decided that wet towels do the trick. A grotesquely huge bookshelf stood at the other end of the apartment which looked rather embarrassing because she had owned only 2 books in her life and read one. The bookshelf had slowly become home to assorted key chains and jewelry and currently displayed all of the 80 sandals she owned.

A tall coat hanger stood to the door’s left. It was a naked woman with bulbous breasts that her friends sometimes used to hang their bags on. This piece belonged to her perverted uncle whom the family eventually disowned but chose to keep all of his furniture.

She forgot all about the bizarre conversation as she curled into her bean bag and slept until the doorbell rang again. This time it was him. She knew this because she had suddenly realized who the bag woman was talking about.

Breeze

When Lekha swam in the ocean for the first time, she swam like someone was chasing her to kill her. She played the same scene over and over again in her head, a band of rapists swimming like maniacs behind her, almost catching up with her legs now. Now they grab her hair but can’t, now they grab her feet but can’t. In real life, every time some orphaned sea weed or jelly fish moved under her feet, she thought it was the rapist and his rough hands. It gave her thrill, to swim like this, to imagine hands as rough as sand grabbing her by the waist and taking her back against the force of waves and her own unwillingness.

She would wake up at 7 every morning and go for a swim. The cold air mocking how colder it was going to be in there. Like a thousand safety pins pricking your body all at once, like the warm brush of concrete on skin, your heart coloring its presence in your body. It’s for this moment of feeling more alive than ever that she went for the early morning swim. Not in the noon, when the ocean was calmer and the sun was friendlier.

She looked forward to the tingling sensation on her body, the hair on her arm standing up in agreement with hair everywhere else, the wind washing her face. She would lay on the sand until it got hot and run back home for a long shower.

She did this regularly after her father passed away. He was an architect. He would often talk about moving into the cottage by the beach. Sometimes she would dream of him and wake up crying. There wouldn’t be any rapists chasing after her on those mornings. Her father’s voice would call out to her from under the ocean and she would want to drown in that melody.

She was an explorer in the morning, and a swimming coach by evening. She taught 11 year old boys to swim. On her way back home, she would stop at Kanti’s shop and pick up ready made upma mix. After another long shower, she would head out for a walk, come back, cook and sleep on the couch. She never grew used to sleeping in her bedroom. She did this for 6 years until one morning, Lekha didn’t go swimming. She lay there on her couch, listening to the wind outside, her legs seeking her body’s warmth, curling up into a ball. She felt warm, she felt happy, she rubbed the palm of her hands on her thighs, her waist and her neck. For a minute, Lekha was almost scared to be able to feel so light suddenly. What was this lightness? Why was she happy? In 7 minutes Lekha would hit a sleep that she had learnt to forget in all this time. The skin around her lips curved into a tingle as she lay there, blissful. She felt cold and yet felt a warmth no man had ever been able to give her.

Bombay

At a book launch today, I was inspired to look at Bombay the way I visited it once in a year. I lived in two Bombays but they were seemingly the same. It felt like two because of the time it took me to get from one home in Mahim to another in Andheri, east or west, I don’t remember now. Two of my aunts lived there, respectively. Mother made annual visits to Bombay and these weren’t ones that lasted all of one week or 15 days. These were 30 days and more, it was my entire summer vacation. Mother saw it fit to drag us there because of what her and her sisters would like to call the ‘treatment’. While in Mahim, skins would be scrutinized and focused on, to be made white and flawless, cheeks were pulled now and then, Dal was a yellow that floated in ghee mostly, the plateful of rice was a challenge to be completed every afternoon after which we compulsorily had to take a nap. Most afternoons, I would lie down, shut my eyes and wait for sleep to come.

So much of Bombay will sadly remain only this for me. Deep from within the folds of my mind, I have perhaps learnt to associate Bombay with tall, dusty apartments and roads that struggled to meet around them. The smell of an ocean rotting nearby, the salt on my face, the dirt that I scraped off my neck, chatty taxi drivers who would suddenly turn rowdy after they would drop us home, the exhaustion that I anticipated from having to climb 4 floors, the smell of recycled air that I now call ac smell, the marble floor that was scrubbed with surf excel 20 times a day.

Our time in Bombay was cut between shifting from Andheri to Mahim and the occasional trip to GangaVihar’s for boring paneer- kulcha kind of food, which I didn’t care much for. My target was the sweet pan that they sold outside. There were the frequent shopping sprees to Linking road and Dadar. I have never really seen the beach in all my time in Bombay. I saw it when the plane flew over it during take off and landing. That was that. Living in Mahim was living away from Bombay with all its activities and flyovers and peculiar taxi sounds that I am convinced, is only produced in Bombay. I haven’t seen what the city is like now. When I go there soon, I wish I find places hidden behind what I saw back then.

For Ila

In the beginning it felt like it was never going to happen, like passing by that new Chinese restaurant everyday and telling yourself you will go there someday. It didn’t feel like it was really happening even when I was packing or even when I was on my way to the airport. Strangely enough, it felt like it was happening when I missed my flight. It felt like somebody was standing in the way and I had to get past them no matter what. I felt a strange stubbornness, something I thought only my family was capable of provoking. That’s when I realised that it was happening. I fought with the management, got another flight booked, all because for weeks now I had seen myself in another city. I sat in the airport for 3 hours being mad at everyone for having missed my flight but secretly relishing the idea that it was happening and now nobody could stop me. It was a long wait at the airport punctured now and then with moments of fury and joy and with laughing young boys who gave me peppermint and ran off to their mothers.

I sat with my copy of On Beauty, my brown coat that I had decided long ago to wear on my travels alone because it looked like independent and strong women wore them, my phone that was running out of charge and my little duffle bag that can’t hold a lot but I am really fond of because I have taken it to all my travels. So many times, I had pictured this scene in my head. I played the scene in my head over and over again, wondering if the details matched, if I was sitting the way I sat in my head, if I was actually reading Zadie Smith or just moving my eyes left to right, not registering a single word because I was so darned excited. I noticed that in my head, I had a fancy watch. As I looked at the empty space on my wrist, I made a mental note to myself to buy a good watch because it makes the picture perfect.

I will tell you the truth, the picture is way better in the head only and only because it does not carry the burden of waiting. The real picture was perfect, except, I didn’t know that waiting would be hard. I tried to keep away thoughts that were worrying me about my regular life.

In another city, I wanted to be lost in newer and real worries. I realised that I didn’t have to try hard because all around me were characters who were now going to be a part of my story. Like the angry white man sitting next to me on the plane who kept cursing everytime the airhostess told him to please shut the laptop during take –off. Or like the absence of screaming babies on the plane and how much I didn’t miss it.

I couldn’t read on the plane. I slept and when I finally got there, I was surprised at how easy it was to be alone. I thought I would feel different while I travel alone. But it’s pretty much the same. Like the little journey you make from the bedroom to the bathroom. Only, it’s a happier journey.

I felt alone in moments. Like when a group of noisy people sitting next to my table would leave. Their departure would seem severe and sudden to me. I wondered why they were leaving me. I wondered if I was going to cry because it grew really quiet suddenly. Then I would smile and go back to eating my prawn. It’s quite something, travelling alone. It made me feel better, like a newer version of me that was so much fun to be with.

And then there were other happy moments. Like smiling at another lone woman traveller who was sitting by the beach, watching the sunset and smiling. We had a moment. We looked at each other and smiled. I held my gaze a little longer hoping she would talk to me. She turned away quickly maybe because she didn’t want to miss the sunset. Maybe because she didn’t want a face she smiled at to become familiar in her story.

So many faces I don’t remember now but they are all a part of my story. Like the nice waiter who made sure I didn’t drink much, like the guy who sold me petrol for 80 bucks, like the woman who gave me directions to a famous restaurant 30 Km away.

The city made sure I was scared enough to not get comfortable in my cottage. I wanted to run out and explore, go out and see the city I had seen so many times before. Only now, I would see it my way. This is the great thing about travelling alone. You have nowhere to be yet there is everywhere you want to be. You have nobody waiting for you or hurrying you.

I am going out for lunch. On my way, I see a store selling I don’t know what but nice things. I wanted to stop and it gave me mad joy that I could. That was liberating in so many languages, I wish I could tell you more clearly. When I travelled with my parents, my face hanging out the window, I would see places and bookmark them. Little cottages decorated with fairy lights, big black boards showing off English breakfast and Jumbo prawns. I was pleased to see that my bookmarking was eventually paying off.

In a couple of hours, the two -wheeler that I rented, 3020 became more familiar to me than 3211, the one I ride back home. Routes became trademarks of achievements that I think I am going to be proud of for the rest of my life. I left bang in the middle of noon one day to see a church I had seen long ago with my parents. It was the first time I was riding on the highway. I got lost, got scared; thought I was going to get hit by a truck but it was all ok when I finally saw the church. The church was pointless really because my journey was more interesting. I looked at old huts and houses planted on either sides of the road. I liked imagining who lived there and what their lives were like. Honestly, this was all I did.

When I think of that city now, I think of these houses, some vague faces, sand, prawn and the bottle of pepper spray that I didn’t have to use.

Of Borrowed Bikinis

It’s what families do to me. It’s what my family does to me. This feeling that they are taking away from me what is mine – my body, my space, my idea of who I am and who I want to be like. It feels the way bodies sometimes react to danger. Like how 5 seconds before your body knows it’s going to touch concrete, it cringes and you taste blood in your mouth, like air squeezed out from your lungs.

I am 14, puberty and all. We are out on a holiday. I spend most of the night thinking about touch and sex and love only to be woken up rudely by mother at 6:30 in the morning. I have barely slept and not fully recovered from fantasies. We have to go out for a walk, all of us together, with the family. I don’t want to go, I say sleepily. I don’t have a choice because they can’t leave a girl alone, all by herself in a hotel room. The reason makes me slightly mad. Now I really don’t want to go even though I am wide awake because mother is being stubborn again.

No, we have to go because we have to see the sun and anyway I get to sleep at home how much ever I want. I fight, they shout, we leave. On the walk, they have a new problem. I am not looking happy ‘enough’. I have to enjoy because I am out with family. I didn’t want to because I didn’t feel like I had control over my body anymore. I had wet the bed, with no time to bathe or change, I was out for the walk with wet panties stinking from between my legs. I felt sicker because they were all watching me, forcing me to look happy.

I am 17, I have PTA. Mother gets there 30 minutes early and stands behind a pillar to watch if I am talking to any of the boys. Fast forward to 5 years later, my sister and mother joke about dad’s expression if he were to find out that she gets dropped home by her male friends on their two wheelers.

I am 20. I have a bad headache. Mother wants the grinder repaired. There are 3 other people at home perfectly capable of getting it repaired. But mother is convinced that I have to go. Maybe because she is mad at me for being in love (which I was), maybe she is mad at herself because she didn’t have enough evidence to prove it, maybe she is mad at me for lying, but for now she is mad at me for not waking up soon as she screamed my name to get the fucking grinder repaired.

I am 20. I want to go for a sleepover. She throws her plate of food away because I asked her why I can’t go. Every one at home is mad at me because she hasn’t eaten that night. I didn’t go for the sleepover.

I am 23. I get a job in Mysore, which isn’t too far away from home. Surprisingly they agree. But mother has cried thrice already because I looked ‘too’ happy to go to another city. I can’t find accommodation. Mother and father have BP issues so I have to quit. I spend more than a month at home, unemployed and depressed and now I have to stomach the fact that my sister is going to Pune to work. ‘They have people we know there’ ‘You’ll get a job soon, don’t worry’.

I am 23. Another sleepover. Dad yells, I yell back, he says he is going to slap me, mother lets me go.

I am 24. I have lied enough to learn that I don’t have to deal with any of the drama at home if I keep lying. So I keep lying.

I am 25. I have to wear a Saree for a cousin’s wedding. I don’t want to wear it but she looks tired and unhealthy and apparently her menopause becomes worse when I don’t wear a Saree. So I say ok. My sister doesn’t have to wear one because our clients only like chubby girls. When she puts on enough weight, she will be forced into a saree and made to stand in front of strangers who will rape her with their eyes. But now it is my turn to be raped.

I feel naked in a saree because I don’t want to wear it. I might wear a bikini and feel more clothed so long as I have decided to wear a bikini. I can’t talk to them about this. I don’t think they will understand.

I am 25. I am going to travel alone for the first time. I am excited. I don’t care that I had to lie to be here, doing my own thing, paying with my own money. I am glad I am here. They can all go to hell because for 3 days now, I am the master of my time on a holiday that I am paying for, where I will wear bikinis and run on beaches. I will think about the Saree later, when I have satisfied my body with a bikini.

A Tale of Sarees and Woes

When Meera was 18, the uncle who molested her when she was 14 and then again when she was 15, brought a man one day to her house wondering if her parents were willing to get her married. The man he brought with him was a colleague, an NRI and 32 years old. For the next two weeks, everybody at home only talked about the man and how lucky Meera was. But Meera was in love with somebody else, and even if she wasn’t, she didn’t want to get married to Gangappa, the NRI.

When Meera was 22, her mother found out about her affair. There were tears followed by a 2 day fast, followed by more tears and finally, bread and butter for dinner. When Meera was 23 and 24, she started to have a life outside of her home and her relationship with the boyfriend of 9 years. When this happened, relationships that she had left behind began to turn yellow and sour.

Outside of this home, Meera secretly liked wearing sarees. That was perhaps her only guilty pleasure that she took away from the list of things she had learnt not to like: functions, marriages and families for instance. Because of the hysteria built around young women wearing sarees during functions, Meera simultaneously developed an aversion towards it. Unknowingly, her family contributed a great deal to how stubborn Meera had become. Her dementor sister’s insistence on other people having to be in a good mood, if accidentally she woke up with one, had made Meera somewhat of an anti family person. And also because the dementor sister was a splendid daughter, rebelling against parents became twice as difficult for Meera.

She grew to hate her family and their emotional blackmails. Her dementor sister’s Karma speeches and Journey monologues left her with guilt initially and later when she found refuge in laughter and sarcasm, it became easier to ward off her fake Buddhism. Eventually Meera would come to realise that it wasn’t the depression that made her sad at home. It was home that made her sad. Even so, Meera held her ground until one day the worst saree fight ensued between mother and daughter. Meera succumbed because she didn’t know why but later that evening, after she had returned from dumping the blouse material at the tailor’s, something strange happened.

At first, Meera thought it was color from the clothes she was wearing, it was blue one day and green another day. The spots would hurt her more when she felt guilty about wearing a saree when she didn’t want to. She felt guilty because she didn’t have to do this just because her mother was mad. Her mother was always mad, and she could trust her sister to make her madder. If it wasn’t the saree, it was earrings or wearing sleeveless.

A week after the Saree incident, Meera died. A blue saree had weaved itself around Meera’s body and she had died of suffocation and guilt.