Fighting like a girl


May 2015

To Staying Curious

I read an article in the newspaper a while ago, about the ‘worst things to put on your online dating profile’- one of them was ‘loves to travel’-because who doesn’t? Saying you love to travel is kind of like stating the obvious- very few would give up the chance to see the world if money was no object. Its one of life’s greatest gifts, yet a privilege that is accorded to very few.

I myself am not very well traveled-in my childhood, summers were spent at my grandmother’s house in Kerala, apart from an occasional trip to the hills-though that seemed like more than enough at the time.

When I was 18 I went on my first trip abroad, to Singapore. I could barely contain my excitement-but I remember feeling a sense of disorientation while I was there. The flashy airport was impressive, but it did nothing for me. I was a bit taken aback at the artificiality of the place, the perfection, the harshness of it all. I got used to it in a few days though, and I ended up having an absolutely wonderful time-yet it felt like something was missing.

My next trip outside India was to London three years later, and I’m lucky enough to have visited this city a couple of times after. I felt like a wide-eyed five year old when the flight was landing, with my face against the window, looking down at the city trying to spot the landmarks that I had so far only read about or seen in movies. I was fascinated with the city even before I got out of the airport-Heathrow was like a microcosm of the world. While standing in line at immigration, I looked around in awe-I had never seen so many people of different races and nationalities in my life.

In front of me stood a tall American man in a sharp suit trying to hold on to his briefcase while he took calls on his two blackberries-the Wall Street kind of guy yelling about stocks and shares and other things I have never bothered to understand. Ahead of him were a group of African women in colourful headdresses and kaftans talking loudly and animatedly in a language I couldn’t follow. Right at the end of the line stood a group of Saudi men in their white ‘thawb’ and ‘keffiyeh’.

Each time I’ve visited this city, I’d been very excited to do all the ‘touristy’ things-visiting the Big Ben and Houses of Parliament,Buckingham Palace, walking around Trafalgar Square, Notting Hill and so on. Looking back though, its not these places that have stood out for me- the city has revealed itself to me in much smaller, yet profoundly amazing ways.

Watching Coldplay live was a dream come true-and I will cherish the experience all my life. Yet the standout moment for me didn’t take place while the concert was on- it was right after, a sense of pure unadulterated joy that I felt while walking from the stadium to the tube, along with the massive crowd of spectators, singing, (or rather yelling) Viva La Vida. It was a feeling of freedom and belonging I had never experienced before-it didn’t matter that we were on a busy street in the middle of the night, it didn’t matter where we all were from-we had all just witnessed something beautiful-and that’s all that was important.

The first time I took the tube alone, I remember feeling quite self conscious and anxious. I was relieved that I’d managed to get on the right train, and I sat down trying to make myself inconspicuous. A few stops later, a girl got in, she would’ve been about my age. She had very long platinum blonde hair, with yellow, pink, green and blue streaks, and her black sweater had stars on it in all the same colours. She sat down and proceeded to apply the brightest pink lipstick I’ve ever seen in my life- I caught myself staring at her, and realized I was being rude/creepy. Nobody else seemed to notice, nobody gave her as much as a second look. Coming from a country where appearing anything apart from ‘normal’ invites stares, comments, or worse, this was so surprising to me-such is the level to which we are conditioned to fit in and make ourselves invisible, that the simple act of a female just being herself, and not being judged for it came as a shock to me, it felt like a privilege, or rather a right that I wish I had.

I’ve been to a few museums here, though only a couple stood out for me. The first time I went to the Imperial War Museum, I was looking forward to it. It was something I was interested in, and I walked around for hours as everything I had studied about in my World History lessons in school came alive before my eyes-displays containing the uniforms worn by Germany’s SS (Schutzstaffel) during the Second World War, newspaper cut outs announcing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie- the immediate cause of World War I, a Union Jack unfurled behind a glass case, that was unearthed from the rubble that was left of the Twin Towers after 9/11.

Seeing these things has a way of giving you a sense of perspective-something that I do need from time to time. However, the hours I’ve spent in that building have given me so much more- I spent a lot of time in the Holocaust exhibit-trying to understand what drives people to do the things they do-and the last time I was there I witnessed something that I don’t know how to describe- a group of Orthodox Jewish men (Hasidic, I presumed from the way they were dressed), standing in front of a glass case full of little things-spoons, bowls, combs and so on-that belonged to the prisoners at the Chelmno concentration camp- I couldn’t even begin to imagine what they were thinking-standing in front of concrete reminders of the way in which lives of 6 million of their own community had been erased. There are some moments for which words just won’t do.

Every time I visit this city it surprises me in little ways-each time someone stops their car to let me cross the street, the way in which everyone is spoken to and treated equally regardless of backgrounds and occupations, the way in which my personal space is respected even when I am out in public-and so much more.

Maybe that’s the purpose of travel-to make us realize that there is an exciting world outside whatever it is that we’re going through, to remind us that there are still so many experiences that will leave you wide-eyed, and most of all, to remind us to stay curious-because in the midst of dealing with the crap life throws at you, that’s always the hardest part.


To When Cynicism Was Just A Word

A lot of free time tends to lead to a lot of self reflection, and though I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, today seemed like a good day to put up this post.

I remember this time last year, while preparing for an entrance that I thought  was the most important exam of my life, I got a call from my best friend’s little sister. She was very stressed, wondering what subjects to take up in class 11. A few days later, when the board results were out, I tried to console her over the phone, because she didn’t think she’d done very well (though I thought she’d done just fine). I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t the end of the world, though a part of me knew she wouldn’t believe it.

Cut to two months later, and I had failed to clear the exam I had been killing myself over. Needless to say, it felt like a punch in the stomach. Everyone thought it would be a piece of cake, and I was already ‘in’.  But as I scanned that list over and over again for my name, I felt like I was dying inside. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me, that someone like me didn’t have anything to do for the next year. My friends were all going to the places I dreamed of studying in, and I felt like I was stuck in the same place.

I don’t want this piece to sound too preachy, and I can’t really claim to know anything about life, but having survived the last year and come out on top, I feel like I could have something useful to say. To everyone who got their results today, I just want to say, congratulations if you’ve done well, that’s brilliant! But if you haven’t, it’s definitely not the end of the world. The results will stop mattering in a year and you will soon realize that this never really ends-you always think you can “enjoy yourself” after your class 10 exams, but then in the blink of an eye, class 12 rolls along. And then comes college-and then entrances. And then a job- and you realize that in waiting to enjoy yourself, you’d forgotten that there’s more to life than just exams (or maybe you did realise that earlier because you didn’t have your nose buried in notes for the entire duration of college like I did!).

You will never be this young again; you will never again be in the place you are in now-where, to use a cliché, the world is your oyster. You feel like anything is possible-you can be whatever you want to be.  Where friends are friends forever, just a phone call away, there to greet you when you walk through the gates of your second home.  Where the world ends and begins with that boy you’ve been crushing on for ages, and the highlight of your day is seeing him outside school. Where the biggest problem is wanting that guy you can’t have (actually that’s always a very big problem!). Where you don’t have to wonder what the hell you’ll be doing in six months, or a year-because you know that the next day you’re going to wake up and go to a place with familiar faces, who are there to share your happiness, your grief, and just to get you through the day.

Now I don’t mean to sound like a cranky old lady whose life has passed her by, but all I’m trying to say is that when you’re 22 and nowhere close to being a Victoria’s Secret model, or to living in New York or London, it’s tough not to get a little jaded. You realise that maybe you won’t get that job as a BBC anchor, where you get to read out the news with the London skyline behind you. Maybe you won’t be a millionaire by the time you’re 30. Guys will come and go and maybe you won’t end up with the one you want. And when you have access to something like Facebook, where everyone else seems to be living an impossibly glamorous life, it can be hard to get up and face the day. But here’s the thing-it’ll all be okay. You will end up somewhere great-maybe not where you wanted to be, but somewhere even better.

Its taken me a while myself to realise this, but there is so much more to life than exams and jobs- there are so many wonderful things just waiting to happen-there are so many experiences yet to be had, there are so many places yet to be seen, and so many amazing people you are yet to meet. So please, savour this time. It won’t come back. Soon, the shit is going to hit the fan, and cynicism won’t be just a word anymore-but even then, know that grades and jobs don’t define you-and hold on to your sense of wonder.


A Case for Loitering, A Case for Freedom

Ever since I stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy, I’ve turned to Pinterest for my daily dose of lessons on life and love. All my free time is spent on this insanely addictive app, and  a few days ago, I found a quote that really stayed with me :

The older I get, the more I see how women are described as having gone mad, when what they’ve actually become is knowledgeable, and powerful, and fucking furious.”

I can’t even begin to explain the many ways in which this is true. The things I’ve experienced, read and watched in the last one year have made me fucking furious, and rightly so. For the sake of keeping this post at a reasonable length, I want to talk about one particular book that has made a huge impact on my life, and I suggest you all read it- “Why Loiter”, by Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade, and Sameera Khan.

This book focuses on the way in which women in particular access public spaces in Mumbai, but I think all of us can relate to it, no matter where we live.  It made me realize the many ways in which I have to manufacture respectability every single time I step out of my house and the process starts even before I step out of my front door. First, I have to think about  whether I have access to a car, what time of day it is, which area I am going to, who I am going with-just to name a few. The question of safety is entangled with the concept of being a “good girl”– maybe if I wear a duppatta over my top, no one will grope me. Maybe if I wear a loose t-shirt, no one will notice me. Maybe if I don’t make eye contact with any man on the street, I won’t be leched at.

After reading the book I realized how women tend to take up as little space as possible in public. We make ourselves seem smaller than we are-to avoid harassment, yes, but also because of a larger culture in which women aren’t seen as having an equal right to a highly masculinised public space. More often than not, we need to demonstrate a purpose for being out in public- this took me sometime to understand, until I looked back on all the times I waited for a friend specifically at a bus stop, obviously so that I looked like I was waiting for a bus, and not just standing around. I thought back to all the times I called a friend while walking on the road, or fiddled with my phone, just so that I looked like I was “doing something”. I thought back to the times when I got onto a bus and tried to make myself invisible, just so that I wouldn’t “attract attention.”

As the book eloquently points out, different bodies access public spaces differently, but public spaces in India are designed keeping in mind a physically able male (the lack of infrastructure for the differently abled calls for a separate, lengthy discussion). It further points out the lack of sanitation infrastructure for women in Mumbai. There are hardly any public toilets for women, and the ones that do exist shut by 9 pm. I started observing my own city and I don’t think I noticed a single toilet for women on the streets-not one that we would actually consider using anyway. Either this implies that women don’t need to pee; at least not after dark, or maybe that they shouldn’t be in public after dark anyway.

When I was younger, I remember resenting having to take public transport. I thought girls my age who had access to cars at all times had so much added freedom-and as I’ve started travelling by car more, I realised that this is simply not true-reading this book as made me think about my own behaviour so much more closely-yes, now I can dress pretty much however I want to. I don’t have to think twice about wearing a skirt or a dress, and that’s great-but I soon realised what the book was saying- now I get out of my house, get into a car, get off at a mall or a restaurant, get back into the car and I go home- I am in public, without ever truly engaging in public space. All I’m doing is going from one private space to another, without really being in public at all.

It is of course wonderful to be able to travel without the possibility of someone bumping into you and rubbing up against you “by mistake”-access to a car does give us a limited sense of freedom-but wouldn’t it be even better if we could use public transport more comfortably? If we didn’t have to rely on cars and drivers? Isn’t that the goal of public transport, to make the city accessible to everyone? And no, separate compartments/autos/ seats for women are not a long term solution. I am grateful to them, obviously-in the six months I spent in Delhi I must’ve taken the “general” compartment in the metro (funny how “general”=men), just a handful of times, and it won’t be a stretch to say that those few times were fraught with anxiety. However, the focus needs to be on making spaces inclusive, not creating exclusive spaces for women.

So I’d ask all the women reading this to think back to all the times you’ve seen groups of men loitering on the street-just talking, having a smoke, relaxing- at any point of the day or night. The next time you witness this, notice the ease in their body language. Men feel like they belong in public. They don’t need a purpose to be out. They can take a stroll at 10 pm in their shorts. They can go downstairs for a smoke at 3 am. They can go out and buy cigarettes or alcohol without being given as much as a second look. And that’s fine. The question I’m asking here is: why not us?

I shouldn’t need a reason to walk down the street. I shouldn’t need a reason to stand around on a foot path or in a narrow lane. I shouldn’t have to pretend to text while waiting for a friend outside my house. I should be able to sit in a park with a group of girlfriends in shorts and a tank top without the nagging feeling of being watched. I don’t just demand the right to access public spaces-to go to school, college or office. I demand the right to access public spaces for the sake of pleasure-to take stroll, to watch a sunset, to watch the world go by-to have fun.


“Aurat nadi ke samaan hoti hai”….no. Not really.

I am not ashamed to admit that Aitraaz is one of my Bollywood guilty pleasures. I watch the film every time it’s on television-Not only do I find it highly amusing but I also find it interesting because it touches upon the fact that males can also face sexual violence.  Anyway, as I watched it today after a very long time, a particular line struck me for the first time.

Anu Kapoor is Akshay Kumar’s lawyer, and is defending him against the the “attempt to rape” charges filed against him by Priyanka Chopra-who I think plays the part of the evil temptress to perfection, leaving aside some very comical dialogues.
Anu Kapoor stands up in court and says, “Aurat nadi ke samaan hoti hai … yadi apne kinaron ki maryada mein rahe, toh lati hai khushali … aur yadi apne kinaron ki maryada todh de, toh lati hai vinash“. (A woman is like a river. As long it stays within its boundaries, it brings happiness, but if it crosses them, it brings destruction.)

I laughed. Out loud. Then again, in trying to defend Akshay Kumar, he was merely echoing what we women have been taught since the time we’ve been old enough to walk and talk. “Don’t sit like that, keep your legs together”, “Act like a lady”, “Don’t make a scene”. Moreover, once we’re old enough for “the talk”, kids in general are told that “sex is something very beautiful that happens between two people who love each other” (really?). But the difference is, that girls are taught to grow inwards, while boys are taught to grow outwards. That adds to a culture where women are ashamed of their bodies and of their sexualities, which in turn leads to slut shaming of any woman who desires any kind of a casual relationship. And I’ve seen this happen multiple times.

My sister is the most intelligent and driven person I know. She’s living the life she dreamed of and is travelling the world and having experiences that I can only hope to have.Yet on a few occassions, I’ve received calls and messages from her, expressing worry that people will judge her for not wanting to “settle down” (What does “settling down” even mean anyway? Just the presence of a husband? Two kids by the time you’re 35?), and for wanting to date casually and have a good time. She worries sometimes that maybe its “time” she got married, even though she doesn’t really feel like it.

Sometimes I have a hard time believing that someone like her would harbour such insecurities, and I tell her “You’re living it up in London for god’s sake, just have fun!” but it took me time to understand that this is exactly the kind of pressure society puts on us. You can be ambitious, but not so much that it scares a potential husband away, you can be sexy, but not too much, you can be outspoken, but not too much. This kind of pressure is what leads a woman who has a great job, a life in one of the most exciting cities in the world, to worry that people may think she’s “too slutty”.

Funnily enough, no man I know has ever had to go through such a thing. Men can date women who are  young enough to be their daughters (and sometimes granddaughters), and they will be hailed as sliver haired foxes who still have wild oats to sow  (Hugh Hefner, George Clooney anyone?).On the other hand, any woman who is close to 30 and isn’t living in domestic bliss with a husband is doomed to be a sad spinster with only cats for company. If you think I am exaggerating, know that I was once told by a relative that “girls these days” are so career driven, that they are getting married very late-“26-27 koi age hoti hai?” (oh, the horror. Let me go drag the next man I find to a bonfire so that I can walk around it seven times before its too late for me! Is 22 an alright age?).

I am not trying to imply that I have a problem with women wanting to get married and have kids at any age. We should do whatever it is that makes us happy, and if you’ve found the one person you want to spend the rest of your life with, be it at 21, 40 or 60, then that’s great! What I do have a problem with is when women rush into marriage just because society thinks “its time”.

Please let’s try and unlearn these suffocating lessons we’ve been taught since we were little girls- from family, friends, acquaintances. There’s no need to “be ladylike”, in fact, be as unladylike as possible, sit in whatever way you like, walk in whatever way you like, talk in whatever way you like, have all the sex you want with as many people as you like, get married whenever you like, or not at all- and don’t let anyone talk you into something you don’t want.

“Settling down” means different things to different people. Don’t let Renee Zelwegger and rom coms in general fool you into thinking you need someone to complete you ( I am finally trying to give up the hope that Colin Firth is going to fall in love with me and kiss me on a snowy London street). You are whole on your own. You are happy on your own. Your worth comes from within you-so no, we are not rivers that need to be contained. We are whatever the hell we want to be.


Hello world!

I’ve been thinking about starting this blog for a while now-there have been so many things I’ve wanted to write about, but I’ve been too scared. Taking the first step in doing anything at all is always frightening, but once that’s done, the next steps seem so much easier- and that’s exactly what I’m feeling right now. So many things have happened in the last few weeks that I’ve wanted to express opinions on, and now I’m just going to dive right into the latest incident (?) that’s made me question the kind of society we live in.

I woke up yesterday thanks to some really loud screaming on TV.  Mom was watching the news, and anchors were yelling themselves hoarse on the verdict in Salman Khan’s hit and run case. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. I don’t know anything on the law and I can’t comment on whether the quantum of punishment was justified. I heard a lot of arguments on the news about how sentences in the Alistair Pereira case and the Sanjeev Nanda case were much lighter, given the fact that they had killed a larger number of people, and Salman had “only” killed one. I understand that “the law is reason free from passion” (no, I’m not an avid follower of Aristotle, I know the quote thanks to Legally Blonde), but this kind of utilitarian approach to human life did manage to shock me.

I obviously don’t know Salman personally, and I’m sure he is a lovely person who has done a lot for charity, but he did kill a man and has been duly punished. Of course I saw a lot of status updates expressing solidarity with “Bhai” (also I have a major problem with this infantilizing of grown men like Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt by calling them names like “Bhai” and “Baba”, as if it in any way absolves them of the crimes they have committed) , but I do understand it can be traumatic to see someone you love and idolize go to prison. But once again, not only did he kill a man, he also fled the scene, denied all charges, and last month, tried to get his driver to take the fall.

Now,  the point I wanted to come to- we as a society tend to idolize sports persons and film stars, and so on to a point where we are blind to their flaws completely. Salman Khan has been breaking all kinds of laws for a while now, and PLEASE can we not forget that he serially abuses women-Somy Ali and Aishwarya Rai being two cases in point. I’ve read somewhere that Aishwarya Rai’s parents had to file a police complaint because Salman had been stalking her. Of course, he also abused her regularly. I hope you aren’t thinking, “Why didn’t they just leave”, because that discussion is going to require another post altogether. Let’s ask instead, why do we love and look up to this man who obviously has some serious anger issues? Why has Bollywood been rallying around him knowing he physically and emotionally abused one of “their own”?

Worldwide, men who regularly abuse women or have been accused of doing so in the past continue to be admired, continue to be cherished, continue to earn accolades, and continue to earn obscene amounts of money- Roman Polanksi, Eminem, Chris Brown, Charlie Sheen, Bill Cosby, and most recently, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, the two contenders in a multi-million dollar boxing bout that was broadcast worldwide.

I could go on and on but can we as a society please stop worshipping these men who are regularly violent against women? Can we please realize that women’s experiences count?  Before we go looking for answers, we need to look into ourselves and start asking the right questions.

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