Leap of Faith: What I Learnt About Fear on a Water Slide

The Leap of Faith at Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai is a water slide located at the resort’s in-house water park, Aquaventure. It is at a height of about sixty feet, almost vertical in angle thus resulting in a free fall, and finds itself a spot in one of the world’s scariest water slides.

On an average, extreme and adventure sport is something that will elicit misgivings, yet be pursued with excitement. The entire logic of it lies on a bedrock of fear, danger and thrill. Watching somebody bungee jump in crystal, blue water excites feelings of thrill and a desire for adventure, for we believe that it is an escape from the mundane realities of life, somehow more liberating in nature than any other experience we might have. It is perhaps somewhat similar to breaking the law- it exhilarates, and makes you feel like you’re above the ordinary, the common people, the usual rules and the typical routine. It is revered and dreaded simultaneously, and understood only when its attraction complements its revulsion- it should be only something that only a few can achieve, and you would be in that minority.

The Leap of Faith water slide is situated in a structure which resembles a Mayan temple, immediately bringing to mind viewings of Takeshi’s Castle and the extremely popular Nickelodeon show, Legends of the Hidden Temple. After climbing three flights of stairs, we were greeted with a queue of people waiting to do the Leap of Faith- it will make you leave your stomach behind, I remembered my friend’s dire warning. The screams that accompanied the slide seemed to support his claim, and I was comforted by the long queue of people ahead, which gave me atleast a good twenty-five minutes to watch, observe and then decide if I wanted to go on.

The scene was not very comforting- at the entrance of the slide, we could see only the shady, white tube which would carry us forward, the gushing water that would initiate the slide, and a handlebar just where the slide began, allowing us to get into position without slipping off. Those in the queue watched every single person about to get on the slide- the routine was to get on the tube, lie down while holding the handlebar, cross your legs and arms and then give yourself the final push. It was nerve-wrecking, like waiting to be interviewed for something you really want, as my stomach knotted up and I jumped around in my swimsuit, hoping to let out the anxiousness.

In a queue of about twenty people, six or seven of them backed out as their turn came, laughing nervously and deciding to give up, concluding that it was not their game, stepping aside to let the mighty others take on this seemingly impossible task. One woman lost her balance in front of me: getting on the tube, she slipped on the rushing water and fell with a loud thud, but thankfully her grip on the handlebar was tight, or she would have hurtled down the vertical slide into God knows what.

I grew more and more nervous as I moved ahead, imagining all sorts of scenarios, where I could simply fail to align my body with the open slide, hit my elbow against something and get knocked afar, defy the law of gravity and get stuck at some point or directly crash into the pool below with such force that they would have to shut down the water park. When there were six people to go before me, I seriously contemplated getting out- standards of adventure should not be judged and I should be comfortable in my own skin. If I could not do something, I could not do it and I should just be okay with it, instead of fretting about it. I should know my mind and more importantly,accept my own limitations. But one look at my sixteen-year-old sister and I’d feel dwarfed; scared to her bone, she was still fixed on her resolve to do the slide.

WIth just a couple of people left in front of me, I shut my mind to all thoughts, positive or negative, and zoned myself out; putting my chin up, I refused to think about anything, even as the slide in front of me promised to gulp us all. With my mind almost blank, I stepped onto the tube and heard my instructor carefully- cross your legs, hold the handlebar tight, cross one arm, push yourself with the other, cross the other and make sure your elbows are tucked in. I followed them to the point and ignored the whirring in my mind, giving myself the kick and taking the plunge.

It was splendidly heady- perhaps the entire slide took less than even ten seconds as I almost flew in the air, rushing down at great speed as the water guzzled in my face. It was those two brief seconds when I felt like I was falling, two seconds which left me in control of nothing, and then I felt the slide at my back again,hurtling through the tube into a pool. I landed as smoothly as it was possible, shocked for a moment, expressing my exhilaration to the lifeguard who probably saw this more than a hundred times a day. Yet he smiled at my astonishment, asking if everything was good with a thumbs up. In the next few seconds, everything changed; the water slide seemed like the easiest thing in the world as all the fear was washed out with the water that had rushed through my back. I could do it a hundred times now, or not even bother to do it again; it seemed that easy. One of the toughest slides in the world was suddenly a cakewalk,but the truth was, it was never that difficult to begin with.

For if I came down to subtracting a few things, the situation would have been drastically different. If there was no anticipation, no waiting, no queue, nobody backing out, no intimidating Mayan temple structure and no it will make you leave your stomach behind warning by my friend, in short, no preconceptions and no buildup, perhaps it would have been just like any other slide. Which led me to a very reasonable conclusion.

It is strange, but mostly we fear something because it is supposed to be feared. Fear is a cultural hand-me-down, an unwanted inheritance- our aversion to darkness, our made-up ghosts, and the demons under our beds. It can be seen in the way we treat adventure sports, where the risk is the most important element. It is not the thing which needs to be conquered; what needs to be conquered is our fear of it. It is our fear which makes everything more complicated.

And we must always, always strive to get over our fear- of anything. Of relationships, of commitments, of sport, of speaking while a hundred people listen to you, of embarrassing ourselves, of asking a stupid question, of appearing unseasoned and unfamiliar. But most importantly, we must get over our fear of failure, for it is fear, and only fear, which can ever result in failure.

 

Image source: http://www.attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk/aquatica/latest-news/eight-scariest-water-rides-planet

 

Happy New Year, Said the Doorman

Suited up

He holds one hand in the other

Standing in attention

Instructions memorized

Professional attire

Surveying, judging

Who is for real

And who isn’t

Who has the money to enter

And who doesn’t

Cover charge, he says crisply

Six thousand.

He mocks those who exhibit outrage

And welcomes those who reach their wallets

Behind the grubby streets and the dirty walls

The shiny board rests

‘Rooftop Restaurant and Bar’

He looks up in pride

Thrilled to witness the party

Gleaming shoes and red lipsticks

Luxury bags and fitted clothes

Expensive cigarettes in the pocket

The moneybags behind the imported liquor

He smiles, warm and courteous

As the music blared

And the glasses clinked

As notes were counted

And cheers heard

So he looked onward with pride

Noticing an aberration

Something that didn’t quite fit

Gangly boys, with teeth so yellow

And faces so dirty

With feet so strong

That they never felt the midnight chill

Needed no fur or leather to keep warm

Just a patch of blanket

To hide their syringe

And the unkempt bellies

And oh the dirty hair

Which turned light brown

Similar to the people who could enter

And he looked at those two again

In annoyance

Shooing them away

As they poked those who went inside

Asking for money

Nothing less than ten

Mocking them if not obliged

And he shooed them away

Once more

Cursing under his breath

About irritants

And rodents

And pests

And filth

And spoiling the landscape

And troubling the good folk

With their poverty

And their degradation

And so

We say

Happy New Year.

 

Picture source: GB Times

What does it mean to be traveling in India?

A single or a couple of women taking a trip in India comes with its own volley of problems, as every step of the way throws up a new challenge. First of all, you cannot do the most travel-esque thing: hitchhike. A method tried and tested for travel experiences that remain unforgotten, in a country where the news is full of horror stories about crimes against women, it is a privilege only accessible to well-built, thrifty men, as we give up dreams of our very own Motorcycle Diaries. Or so common sense will tell you.

Worries begin as night falls- while big cities are notorious for their crime rates, small cities have that eerie sense of abandonment post nine pm, of perhaps police being not so readily available, of people misconstruing your purpose, of stumbling across barren land and little connectivity. As women, we choose to spend the extra cash, but not compromise on safety- we try to stay in downtown areas, tend to peek in buses to check the male-female ratio before hopping on, and generally beware of accepting any unsolicited help. We take extra care about where we stay, about the homestays we pick, about the hotels we decide on, as often enough one hears horror stories about hotel staff mixing with local goons to harass you.

And then of course, for the cherry on top, there are always judgy uncles and aunties who are only too happy to show you your place. In our train back to Delhi, a middle aged couple was surprised to find that the two of us girls were out by ourselves, asking us whether we were too fond of adventure, their eyebrows raised so high up that they threatened to get lost in the hair on their head. Of course, there are many, many of us who do go out on our own, who do hitchhike, who do take trips while staying on a tight budget- but a general middle-class consensus remains, that for a woman to travel alone in India, without an external support system, is just not safe. I do not suggest that these problems for women are exclusive to India- but perhaps I may suggest that they exist more so in India?

A night in Jodhpur and all of us sat together, conversations taking us to places unexplored. A French girl traveling to other states of India after a three-month long stint in Leh, a German out to experience the whole of south and south-east Asia, another German with similar travel plans, an Indian guy bagpacking across the entire subcontinent with a goal to know every corner of all our twenty-nine states over a period of one-and-half years- and of course, us two girls, our travel plans seeming increasingly tiny in front of their ambitious ones.

Suddenly though, the equation changes- there are foreigners amidst us who have their own set of problems. They don’t know the language, they stand out for their differently coloured skin, and are obviously not so aware of the culture of a place- additionally, in a country like India, where culture can vary so greatly every few hundred kilometres, it can get all the more confusing.

They begin to relate their experiences, one of which happened right in front of us- some of the locals extremely keen to take pictures with these whiter skinned people, simply walk up  to these foreigners and stand next to them, asking their friend to click a picture. It is bizarre; the French girl exclaims that it does not make them feel like celebrities, that it makes them feel like zoo animals. That is the gap- it wouldn’t be the locals’ intention to make them feel like zoo animals; perhaps they just act out of curiosity, and do not find any other way to express themselves since they cannot speak a language common with them.

Then there are some instances which are not so funny, some which are just plain awful. Foreigners raped on the beaches of Goa, raped while they are on drugs, robbed as they try to ask around their way, fooled into things much more sinister. It is not just limited to foreigners; as the two of us girls walked around in Pushkar, a bunch of local guys begin to follow us, asking us which country, which country. When we do not answer, they try and push each other on us, so they may accidently brush against us and every time that happened, the whole group would cheer.

There are smaller problems as well- imagine leaving a valuable bag at some place you visited, some table you sat at, in the excitement of the day, imagine accidently leaving it behind at a shop, a restaurant or in a taxi. I make this statement without referring to any stats, because there can be no reliable stats for such a thing- you’re just less likely to retrieve something you left behind or lost in India as opposed to in other touristy countries. It is easier to find something you left behind, or dropped on the way, in a country like Singapore, or Germany or Switzerland.

But why? Is it because people are more dishonest here, more deceitful? No, maybe not; maybe the problem is that we don’t have the kind of systems in place that will facilitate the search of a lost item. We don’t have effective Lost-and-Found management at tourist places, we have police who are overburdened and have better things to do than find your lost wallet and they have no problem even telling you so- it is perhaps because the system doesn’t support us that individual acts of such assistance are more rare. Of course, experiences are always subjective- you could have lost your bag in Singapore, never to be found again, and found a lost one in Punjab. But on an average, I would not pick up a wallet lying on the road and make an effort to report it to the police if I know that it’s going to take away too much time from my day and earn me additional jeers from the authorities themselves.

These are among the many factors that make traveling in India not just dangerous, but consistently difficult, and that is a terrible shame, because India, with its endless history and multicultural demographic has monumental potential. Every state has so much to teach you, with effects of an increasingly globalizing world palpable on the local population, that traveling in India can be one of the many great experiences of your life.

But as the night went on and the Jodhpur air cooled down, we began talking about the other side of India, the side beyond the gruelling heat and inconvenient transport, the side beyond the dilapidated histories and the forgotten lives. The side which sheds light on the warmth, the brilliance and the beauty of cultures which believe in communities, in helping each other out, in looking out for more than just yourself.

They relate experiences and instances where the generosity of the people has exceeded anything that they have ever witnessed- the simple gestures by which the locals welcome travellers in their homes, the way they ask them to sit and have a meal with them, to share their food and understand where they come from. I hear that and I can’t help but agree- seeing a baraat passing by the main road from our balcony, all of us rushed down to witness it as the groom and his family pulled us in with them, made us dance, and asked us to come along, to be a part of their festivities, to share their happiness. They asked us, as we stood in our dishevelled hair and random pyjamas, they asked us to come along.

When our German friend caught an auto in the middle of the night to buy cigarettes and upon reaching the shop, realized that he had no money on him, the auto guy generously offered to purchase them for him. When in the train, the judgy uncle-aunty who disapproved of our trip, also made an extra effort to visit us and check whether our unconfirmed seats got confirmed. A couple of years back, while on the train from Goa to Delhi, we befriended an old, sardaar uncle who never fails to call and wish me on any festival, who never fails to wish me on my birthday, more than two years after we met him that one time.

There is something about this country that makes traveling here an absolutely maddening and an absolutely heart-warming experience. The range of people you will find here, there is little chance that you will find it anywhere else. Perhaps its still not too clichéd to say that here you will find that something else too, maybe a method in madness, a beauty in disarray, but it is something that works.

 

 

Money Can’t Make You Work

Marlo Stanfield, an unbelievably young drug kingpin in the city of Baltimore, is caught in a multi-million dollar drug bust. Behind the drugs lies a trail of murders and black money, pinning him responsible for all these crimes, something that can ensure that he stays in jail till the day he dies and yet have years and years left in his sentence. His snarky lawyer is able to cut a deal for him that allows him to walk free with all that money, and let his subordinates take all the blame. Guilty of a drug conspiracy and more than two dozen murders, Marlo Stanfield walks away with more money than he can possibly spend in ten lifetimes. It is nothing new; with democratic legal systems, it happens all the time.

Now imagine this.

Jimmy McNulty, a police officer who has caught several murderers in his service to the police, puts his career at stake by misleading his superiors into allocating funds to their department, funds that will catch Marlo Stanfield, funds that do catch Marlo Stanfield and his associates. But once Jimmy McNulty’s fraud is caught, he is fired, and could possibly face a criminal charge.

In the face of a situation so contrasting wherein a drug dealer walks free and a police officer is fired for bending the law in trying to catch the drug dealer, one can wonder what inspires people to take up certain jobs. What can inspire you to be a police officer, with salaries that can barely sustain you, when you witness first hand how much money lies in being on the other side of the law? What inspires people to take up certain professions that seem too dangerous to us? What can inspire you to be poor policeman, when you can be the rich criminal?

It is simply the difference between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing.

A difference that is underrated and overused, the one with the very thin line in between.

The difference between right and wrong.

It is this which convinces me that money is not the motivational factor, that it is not even close. Some people work for money, yes, but there are some things that can drive people in a way money never can. Marlo Stanfield, despite his millions, despite a fortune that can be spent without heed, is unable to leave his drug dealing. He is unable to quit. Just like for McNulty, it is not about the money, for Stanfield too, it is not about the money, but the thrill of the game.

Money is something that is needed to function in a society, money is something that is needed to buy our comforts and our luxuries.

But money cannot make you work.

That is where money fails.

Today I Cannot Write: The Legacy of our Colonizers

Writing about not being able to write is a common theme in literatures across the world. In modern terms, it is the writer’s block, ‘the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing’. I attempt to relate the Indian experience of writing in English, and how subtly yet profoundly it is affected by the legacy given to us by our former colonizers, in the form of the ‘universal’ language, brilliantly beautiful yet irreparably hurtful.

On a trip to China two months back, I was chatting with a few associates, and they complimented me, telling me how good my English was, that it sounded just like standard English, that it had very little accent. I looked at them quizzically- but obviously- we studied in English medium schools, I studied English literature, we talk in English more than half the time. If a language is in use so much, why wouldn’t we be good or fluent in it? We never went around complimenting each other in India on our English. And so they asked, do you also speak English at home, with your family? No, I said, not so much- a little bit, but not so much as outside home. Aah, they said, so it is your social language. You use it, they explained, in your social circles, and at your workplace.

Another time, another place. As school children, we went for an exchange to France, and again they had conceded, your English is very good. No, we French, we are the best in everything you know, we are the best country in the world, America comes second yes, but France is number one- but you guys oh, you guys definitely speak better English. Do you also speak it at home? No, I had said, not at home no, not English- our social language.

It can be stated safely, I am presuming, without reference to facts and stats, that for most Indians across the country, and by most I do mean more than ninety percent at the minimum, English is not their mothertongue, it is not their first language. Sure, we might have been conditioned to learn words like cat and bat, recite Johnny-Johnny to twenty smiling relatives, to say goodnight after dinner, but English was not our conversational language, at the beginning it was not. When I  got hurt, I never went to my mother saying look mommy, I got a boo-boo; no, I went to her saying mamma ek balti khoon nikla hai. I lost one bucket of blood- obviously an exaggeration there, but boo-boo, no it never came to my mind. English is not a language that our families gave us- it was a special gift by a special government, for its dutiful citizens, a passcode into the world. Our families gave us Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Assamese, Marathi, but English, our country gave us English.

English seeped into our lives like a language does- it came in the guise of how it became cooler to listen to English music when we were thirteen, how our teachers would say we’ll be punished if we talk in Hindi at school, how claiming you understood every line in an English movie without subtitles gained you impressed looks, how we were given the choice to drop Hindi after class eight and take up any other foreign language. It seeped into our lives, disguising itself as our compulsory subject, how you could pick maths or physics or history, you could choose to study economics or psychology or accounts, but English, everybody had to study- it was the compulsory subject, whether you chose science or commerce or arts.

And so, how could it not seep into our writings? I was thirteen and it was the first time I attempted to write a fictional story on such a grand scale. The story was quite thrilling honestly, and some days I still wish I had made something of it- a terrorist group took over a school, deploying a terrorist each in every classroom, as the children fought back using their pencils and compasses, chalkdust and water bottles, stationery stuff of a school life. But I struggled- I struggled and I struggled, not because I did not know the story or wasn’t able to write it; I struggled because I could not name my characters. The Indian names all around me, the names of my friends and teachers, my own name indeed, did not sound real enough for an English story. It just did not seem authentic.

Matt, I named a character, because Matt sounded English; Matt seemed like he belonged in an English story. And my terrorist group, they called themselves The Jungle, yes, and their head was called The Lion. And when I was faced with the eventuality of choosing Indian names, because an average classroom in India is not filled with Matts and Lizzies and Ashleys, I tried to pick Indian names that could sound as un-Indian as possible. It wasn’t due to any personal aversion that I harboured for Indian names; it was simply the sound of such names, sounds which never fit in English books, in all the stories that I had been made to read in school, all the books I had bought from the bookstore, all the TV shows that I watched, Lizzie McGuire and Hannah Montana- these stories never had an Akshita or a Shreya, an Aditya or an Anuj, names which were very popular at that time, names which were all around us in person, but never in the books we read.

Then there is the question of writing in English itself- any story in the world, to make itself legible and publishable, dictates that it is narrated in a single language, barring its interspersion with foreign words or phrases, it is essential that the narration must be in one language. And then again it happened: my story had a grandfather, and how do I justify that he spoke such perfect English?  I had never seen any grandfather to be so fluent in English. My story involved a squabble with the domestic help- how many women who swept your house everyday, did the dishes and cooked the food, raked the leaves and collected the garbage, how many of them spoke in English? It was a conundrum that I just could not, and still cannot, sometimes, resolve. If everybody in the story spoke in English, the story did not sound real, it did not hold true; my characters lost grit.

“Fiction must stick to the facts,” Virginia Woolf once said, “and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” So how do we deal with it? Something about it doesn’t sound real- a lot of Indian characters speaking in English, and a lot of names, did not sound real, did not sound genuine. Yet we have to deal with that fact. I try to think of what language do I think in, maybe that will give a clue- but as soon as I try to determine my thinking language, I immediate forget what I’m thinking. My thoughts escape me, forever elusive. I start counting in Hindi, and then stop after a point, realizing that I do not know the counting beyond a certain number.

With the advent of internet technology, however, and the increasing realization of our globalized times, and the past few years when Indian fiction has erupted, it is easier to make peace with these facts. It is easier to relate the Indian experience in English because the experiences are made more common, more popular, normalized to a huge extent in the books we read and the articles we keep scrolling through our social media websites.

And yet there is a split- a split which all writers writing in English must face, whose mothertongue is not English. The split in the self- personally, for me, the split in my Hindi self and my English self, in my home life and my public life, in my personal language and my social language. This split in myself in two languages is my hindrance- it is because of this split that today I cannot write.

A lot of Indian writers have dealt with this Split in incredibly creative ways. Anuja Chauhan frequently uses Hinglish words for an urban novel, which I feel is the strength of her style. Her style doesn’t pose, as terms like yaar, arre, bhai, and toh among others become as commonplace in her stories as they are in real life. Amitav Ghosh uses unique narrative styles to find his way around relating this Indian experience in English. Arundhati Roy placed The God of Small Things in small town Kerala, where English is definitely more prevalent than the rest of the country, and even she uses Malyalam phrases and words frequently in her novel. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions narrates theMahabharata from Drauapadi’s perspective, a retelling of the epic- the theme of the story is so poignant and powerful that it automatically posits itself as outside normalcy and we never need to connect it to contemporary reality. As for Tagore, I will never be able to understand how he does it- he places his stories and themes of suffering in such beauty that even his translations never seem to have undergone it.

However, the fact arises that one way or the other, we must deal with it, whether it may be by alienating our subjects or adapting contemporary usage of English as a language in a way that is relatable. The only other language that I know, Hindi, I am ashamed to admit I am not so good at anymore- I can speak it well, but read it much slower in comparison to English. As for writing, I’ve been out of practice for years- it is my fault and the fault of so many others around me, the fault in our system, and hilariously so, the fault in our stars. And it is a beautiful language lost to me.

A lot of post-colonial writers talk about this as well.  Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o renounced his usage of English as colonialist and began to write in his native Gikuyu and Swahili. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe talked about writing in English, but in a way that made it your own, away from the classical, traditional English. That is what we have happening in recent times- new words are added everyday, curated and abbreviated by their context, especially with information technology. All countries which underwent colonialism go through the same experience.

On the other hand, think of countries like England, America and Australia. English, there, is the mothertongue for the majority- people of all classes speak it. The dialects and the slangs vary, but primarily, it is easier to represent that community in writing, because the Split is not present. Then there are scholars who argue against homogeneity and for multilingualism-  Aijaz Ahmad makes a case for multilingualism, that we are all capable of learning multiple languages, fluently, and using them in our day to day lives, and it is only the system which teaches us that we need to have a primary language.

But today, I cannot write, not because I don’t know the story or I am unable to write- but because I face a split in myself, I am unable to understand how to represent this uniquely Indian experience in a language that seems inadequate for it. With the ghost of a language that refuses to go away, and another language that is always inside me but never truly feels mine, I must struggle to reconcile with this Split, finding new ways everyday to sound acceptable, in both worlds.

This post first appeared on mirrorfect.in

The Way of the World

Yesterday, I saw a car run over a homeless man’s foot. I don’t know for sure if he was homeless; he sat next to a food stall, on the road, his hands and legs twisted in manner that would be deemed strange. I could not understand what he was wearing- I could say they were rags,but then, what are rags? They were patches of cloth over a dilapidated body. His eyes were only slightly open, and his white beard was dirty- he was mumbling. He seemed homeless at the time

I saw him on the night we went out to eat Biryani, because it was Eid, so we went out to eat Biryani. On our way out on the street, we paused seeing more meat on a grill. “Let’s try the kakori kebabs”, we decided and stood there, next to the stall. He was on the ground, minding his business, when the pair of us came and stood next to him, waiting for food. He mumbled something, and I could not respond; he asked me for money, I managed a polite smile. In a bright, shiny plate, we got the four, soft, pieces of kakori kebabs, and he went on mumbling to himself.

Before I could look up from the plate to raise my eyebrows in approval, a car passed us, so quickly that I wouldn’t even have noticed it, if I had not heard a shout, a curse. “Maa ki choot!” The man on the ground yelled, a metre away from us, as the rolled-up glass windows bounced even the abuse off. I saw as the car sped off, and looked back at the man. His nails had come off, and blood, bright red on his dark skin, bright red on the grub of his feet, began cascading down. It made its way down to the ground in beautiful lines, shining on layers of dirt. It travelled all the way down to the grimy road, brightening up the spot where it collected and formed a pool.

Everybody around him, all the stall owners and the kebab makers, they all knew him, they all saw it, looked up when he yelled at the indifferent car whizzing by. And they chuckled- a laugh on the lips, a shake of the head, as their hands went about stirring, stirring and cooking and frying, too used to all this, too used to the world to stop. “Humne bola tha na, side mein baithna”, they said- now bear it. And they went about stirring and cooking and frying, reminding him that he should have heeded them.

The man was now slinking away, putting his weight on his hands and elbows against the rough concrete, he dragged himself across the road, slowly and excruciatingly, running his lower body against the road like a snake, but without the agility, without the venom, he slithered ahead. Behind him, he left a train of urine, dark against the road, wiping his blood away, and the stall owner said, “Yaha mat kar!” He ignored them and he slithered on, leaving his trail behind.

I went and bought a cold bottle of water, hoping he would wash his foot with it, take a little gulp, forget the pain, for a second at least, a second of thirst quenched. But he refused- refused to accept the bottled water, slithering on where he wanted, refusing the bottle of water, which probably to him, was a token of all that ever trod on him. The people around chuckled and shook their heads, smiled an all too familiar smile, went about stirring and cooking and frying: this is the way of the world, they seemed to say.

This is

The Way of the World.

Why, art

[Image source: http://blog.artandwriting.org/2013/05/10/why-are-art-and-writing-important-to-you/]

Our desire to keep on existing

is what makes the timeless valuable.

Timeless, something that defies Time,

the Great Eroder,

if not the Destructor,

whose passing no man can withstand,

for one day we will all be

fine powder and dust,

lost in the grains of sand.

Is this not why

we all wish to leave behind

a legacy,

a proof of our existence,

a tiny, solitary ink mark,

which no matter how minuscule

may seem in the cosmic infinity of space and time,

still raises a voice,

however feeble,

here once walked you and I.

Sonnets of earlier centuries,

little love poems written by courtiers

for mistresses who were unattainable,

emphasized a lovely point

the best thing in the world would be

to have your love accepted,

and reciprocated.

But since the object of desire

is unattainable,

the next best thing would be

to immortalize your unfulfilled love.

Isn’t that exactly what we do,

when we strive to create art

which will never be forgotten,

as our own physical being

finds it impossible to overcome

its own mortality,

so we find the next best thing that can-

the Idea, and its Creation.

Life is like that Chilli Crab

[Image source: http://www.loverofcreatingflavours.co.uk/2015/02/like-hot-birds-eye-chilli-singapore-chilli-crab/]

After the travels of a long day which had now turned into the night as the city buzzed with clinks of wine glasses, bursts of laughter and the clatter of knives and forks, the sounds of dinner, we were starving. Starving and tired, so we could have collapsed anywhere, after a busy and exciting day, on our first trip outside the country as adults, we really could have collapsed anywhere.

Seeing a little diner, not crowded, not loud, we went inside and slumped on the chairs, with bags on the table and sighs of relief, oh how we slumped. Starving stomachs look for one thing, and one thing only: the menu. We picked it up and scanned, up and down, left to right, judging, deciding, for each meal on a holiday is precious, an empty stomach is precious. It enables you to taste and explore, to literally take in the country, to smell and touch and feel what the place is made up of, how do they live, what do they eat; a meal can tell you so much. So each selection in a meal needed to be carefully curated: is it the local flavour? Can we get something like that back in India? Will we get to try something new?

We discussed and debated despite our rumbling stomachs, and finally decided our order, the highlight of which was the Singaporean Chilli Crab. After the day that we had and the hunger that had struck, we could want nothing more than the gorgeousness of the Chilli Crab. Smiling a satisfied, deranged smile, we called to be served. “Yes, we will have three steamed buns, two cokes, chicken..” I began and ended proudly with the Singaporean Chilli Crab. There. Done. Dusted. I almost sat back and turned away but the server made a pained expression. “What happened?” I asked her tentatively. “No have,” she said, as we looked around in confusion. “Chilli crab, no have”, she repeated.

Our grief-stricken looks said it all. But collecting ourselves and moving on from the disappointment, we searched the menu again for a replacement. Nothing appealed to us as much as the beautiful chilli crab. Okay we tell you after some time, we said. She nodded and left. We frisked through the menu once again, up and down, left to right.  We talked some more, appreciating, praising, getting impressed- aah, what a skyline, what roads, what transport. How immaculate it is, everything in order, everything on time, what variety, what food, oh it is dynamic, very dynamic, very fast, changes every six months, has to change, lives on tourism, Clark quay, what a place, dazzling lights, delightful bars, stunning riverside…

And so came the coke. How cold and refreshing it was, with the little bubbles, so we’d go to Universal tomorrow, yeah the Universal Studios, yeah its one of the four in the world, Hershey’s store, the giant roller coasters, the Hollywood walk of fame, and came the chicken and the buns, and don’t forget the mini New York, we have to go there too. We ate a little, talked a bit, but waited and then waited some more, for the star dish, what we saved up for, oh and also the safari, yeah we must, Bugi’s street, Orchard road, they have slow service, very slow, hope it will be worth it..

Remember Mike, and we laughed, yes Mike, the Mike who drove us, he said you girls are crazy, as we waited, we laughed over Mike, what Mike said, how we laughed, we laughed on how we laughed, and we waited a little bit more, and I’ll have a nice dessert after this, me too, oh me too, and then again we waited some more, as the tissues lay unruffled, too white, too clean, waiting with us, hoping they would hurry, and the chicken got over, and the buns were rejected, and the coke lost its fizzle and then we finally decided to call out once again, call out for the highlight of the night, call out for what was taking so much time, too much time, we had been waiting so long for the exquisite chilli crab, and I opened my mouth to say excuse me…

And with a jolt of understanding, a dawn of realization, a surge of comprehension, we looked at each other: in stupidity, in foolishness, in inadvertent neglect, in distractedness. Our head in the clouds, all throughout the meal, as we waited to be served as we talked about our grand plans and this day and that person, we had been waiting for the chilli crab that would never come, because it never existed. Too much talking and excessive excitement made us forget that we had to order a replacement and like idiots, we sat and waited for the chilli crab, after being told that they don’t have it, imagining it getting washed and grilled and spiced, when that never happened: the chilli crab simply did not exist.

Many times, we make up things. We see something, read somewhere, hear someone, and we take it all together and make it all up in our head. We create our own idea of it, which materialises soon into a solid, tangible, living, walking, talking person in our head who tells us that this is how it is. It makes our should be into is, and seeks to impose our fantasies on the world outside of us. Life is one of those things. We wait for what never was or will be.

We build expectations around something that probably never existed, and then irrationally, we wait for it, wait for it to turn up, without cause, without reason. We build up ideas that say, this is how you should be when you are 21, and this is what you should wear at 40, and this is what elegant is like, and this is the money you should have by 35, and this is the number of countries you should have seen by now, and this is how college is, full of nights that don’t end and days that give way to nights..we always wait for a life that will be one day.

Life isn’t something out there that you will do one day; life is here and life is now. Life will never reach that ideal that you always made for yourself; at every age, and every day, you will wish you had gotten up a little early, or done more for your health, or not have eaten that extra dessert, or said yes to that offer, you will always wish for some kind of do-over. You will never arrive at a stage in life when everything will be perfect from then on. The chilli crab that you ordered will never come, no matter how much you wait for it, because that chilli crab you made up for yourself never existed and you were too busy thinking of other things, waiting for the non-existent chilli crab.

And so I say, life is like that chilli crab we never got to eat. It is nowhere else, but with you, all along, and it really isn’t that chilli crab you thought it would be.

Masaan and the Many Faces of Love and Sex

[Image source: http://www.filmimpressions.com/home/buzz-masaan-at-cannes.html]

One of the best things I read in the reviews of Masaan after watching the movie is the underlying irony of the story: Varanasi, the city which is believed to be the gateway to ultimate liberation of the soul, can entrap the soul just as well. Masaan narrates two storylines depicting the lives of particular individuals who sought to break away from the lines of caste, class and gender that divided small-town Varanasi.

Except for a couple of aspects, I found the movie absolutely fascinating with subtle and insightful portrayals of new versus the old, illustrating the many ways in which technology is seeping into homes and families, lives and its loves, attempting to break age old barriers as traditional institutions battle it out against this unstoppable force whose victims are the people of this tragic generation, forever stuck in the middle.

But the facet of the movie that I wish to touch upon is Devi’s storyline, who checks into a hotel room along with her boyfriend and then proceeds to have sex out of curiosity. Trouble strikes as police barges into the room, intimidating the couple as a result of which Devi’s boyfriend locks himself into the bathroom and slits his wrists, as the police threatens to call his parents. The police also clicks a photograph of Devi while she is naked in bed, which they will later use to threaten and blackmail her- the Great Fear of the Scandal.

There are two striking features at this volcanic start: a woman in a small town watching porn on the internet, who then goes to have sex with her boyfriend, admitting that she didn’t want to do it under the so-called pressure to ‘put out’ but because she was also a human being who had sexual urges and a curious mind. What? A woman who wants to have sex?! Out of choice?! How blasphemous!

This is the reason why Masaan, despite its confused storyline and untapped potential, still managed to win my heart because it not just acknowledges female sexuality and natural carnal needs, but is also accepting and unapologetic of it. When her boyfriend commits suicide out of fear of his parents, she doesn’t die of despair- one could even say she was just plain disappointed. Despite the threats of ‘an MMS scandal’ that the cop blackmails her with, she goes back home to face her father, taking his anger, and telling him after a while that she did nothing wrong. Her eagerness to pay off the blackmail money is her desire to put this nasty episode behind herself and start anew not by marrying and settling, but by bravely visiting her deceased boyfriend’s family, in spite of knowing they would blame her for his death. She even moves out of her ageing, lonely father’s home in Varanasi to Allahabad, because, as she says, ‘jitni chhoti jagah, utni chhoti soch’, an action which is particularly laudable in the Indian setup.

Taking the issues that Masaan raised, we, as a society, need to ask ourselves why are we so uncomfortable with sexuality? Why are we so prepped up against any kind of sex that is not legitimized by a heterosexual marriage? What is so wrong with pre-marital sex, with marrying a person you love while disregarding his or her caste, that it drives parents to murder their own children, and children killing themselves out of terror of their parents’ wrath? Why is it a crime at all if a grown man or woman chooses to sexually engage with someone of their age in a private hotel room, a crime that a police can arrest you for, socially, if not legally? At a time when the Indian government decides to ban porn, this is certainly a very important question to ask. What is it that makes us so very, very afraid of the most biological eventuality in the world?

And when I say we, I do not just imply Indian society- most major societies in the world are intolerant of, or atleast once were, any sex outside of marriage. There are also many societies in the world which are even more intolerant than ours; but because I have grown up in this particular society and can form the most informed opinion on this one, I choose to question my Indian society.

Any discussion about ‘unnatural sex’ is always guised by two constructs: that it is a ‘western’ import and a development of these ‘modern’ times that does not understand culture or tradition. Both these arguments are doomed from the start, as neither of these have any concrete basis, and are actually themselves constructs created by certain groups. It would be foolhardy of me to cite history, for neither am I learned student of history, and nor are there enough resources even in the deepest recess of the web to capture the multitude of traditions and cultures that have existed in the world over the ages. So I decided to go over a couple of examples that general knowledge and the elusive ‘common sense’ provide us.

Everybody has heard about the Kama Sutra, the ancient Hindu treatise on sex, which describes the many ways of pleasuring your partner. We have even heard about the Khajuraho temples, and similar temples in the south, which show carvings of men and women engaging in all kinds of sex, be it homo or heterosexual, be it with a single partner or multiple. We know how Draupadi was forced to accept five husbands, and it is a known fact how the princely, dynastic families used to practice polyandry and polygamy to ensure succession. The ruling classes, just like the present times, were known to lead hedonistic lives which were quite different from the simple morality of the lower and middle classes, and again just like the present times, the lower and the middle classes allowed themselves certain freedoms and liberations of which the upper classes remained scathing.

The point is, ancient attitudes towards marriage-less sex were as ambivalent they are today; while there were communities who condoned it, there were groups who condemned it. While sex was considered the lawful dharma of any husband and wife, sex without a higher, righteous purpose was akin to sin. Such codes were respected by some and dismissed by the others- while the brahmanical classes maintained tight rules by the word of the Vedas and the Upnishads, there were many,many other whose lifestyles were quite different.

One good example for this is the Muria tribe, an adivasi tribe in the Bastar distric of Chhatisgarh. Muria are known for their open and embracing attitudes towards sexuality- from the onset of puberty as young teenagers, Muria girls and boys are sent to ghotuls, which are mixed-sex dormitories and are encouraged to make love to their partners. While some are told to go ahead with monogamous relationships, many of these teenagers are told to adopt multiple sexual partners in the course of their lifetime.

This is not an ideal, nor a debasement: it is simply an example of the variance in sexual practices not just all over the world which are many, but within India itself. The key here remains in sex education and acceptance, rather than imposition of one particular morality over others. We have a huge world with so many traditions and cultures that a lifetime is not enough to even study them- then how can we, insignificant, pathetic human beings that we are, living for a measly, little time period, even attempt to tell someone else that this is how it should because it is written in this book or because it’s done that way in one society, when we are nothing but dots in the cosmic infinity of space and time?

A Patch of Green

On a hot morning in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, I met a Chinese acquaintance who could surprisingly speak very good English, facilitating our conversation, as we headed towards a cultural park which I wanted to visit. A long metro ride ahead of us, we went on talking about one thing then the other, this habit and that tradition, India and China, life and the Universe.

Very soon, as had to happen, with a person like me, very soon, we landed on the subject of movies. Who didn’t like movies? At the mention, he felt compelled to give me his very honest opinion- his face went glum, his voice lowered , a shadow of disappointment fell over his person. “I will not tell you to watch any Chinese movies. Here, we do not like a lot of Chinese movies; they are very stupid. They have no story at all, just a bunch of stupid fighting scenes, some stupid love story, everybody always beating each other up. All of them are the same”

I looked at him, amazed, making no effort to hide my expression. How many times in ourselves, in our friends, in our families had we said the same thing about Indian movies? How many times have we scoffed and dismissed Bollywood commercial films, dismissed them for their exaggerated nuisance, spurned their stupidity, their absurdity, their distance from real life, their nonsensical nature? “That’s what we also think of our movies, sometimes”, I told him, giggling.

“What?” he asked me, flabbergasted. “Why?! Here, we LOVE your movies. I haven’t seen a lot of them but the ones that I have, I loved. Especially I have seen 3 Idiots and PK, and they are amazing! In my college, all my friends love these two movies. They are so full of life and so funny. How can you not like them?”  “What, and I love your movies! Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee- come on!” We both burst out laughing.

With a shake of the head, a hint of a smile and a dawn of realization, I understood the secret to the universe. What is yours will always suffer your criticizm, your rebukes, and your disappointments. It will take your praise and present its flaws, it will lay bare in front of you, in its stark honesty and nakedness. What is not yours, however, will escape the glaring eye; we will never know their problems and their dreams, we will never know what it is like to be them. We can always guess, but we might never know. So what we belittle here could be celebrated there; what they deride there could be extolled here.

But more importantly, I learned that you could be sitting in the most beautiful and lush sprout-wielding, cherry-popping flowerage, but the grass? The grass will always, always be greener on the other side.