Thursday, December 22, 2011

Creating Stories

Sometimes when I’m on a long flight, I like to give people background stories that I think fit their behaviour or appearance. Sometimes, I like observing people and listening to their conversations, though I usually don’t like having conversations. Today, on a 17-hour journey, I created a daydream version of me.

She sat a few seats down from me while waiting to board the flight. She wore jeans, a plain t-shirt, a jacket and sport shoes – exactly what I usually wear while travelling. Her hair was long and tied back into a ponytail – messy, like mine. She wore glasses and no make-up. She was typing furiously into her laptop. In my version of her life, she’s a writer – not a journalist, a fiction or blog writer. She writes subtly funny articles and realistic stories based on her interpretations of events and people. She smiled while typing – something one of her characters just did amused her.

She carried only a backpack. It looked new – her last backpack was too worn out from all her travelling to be used anymore. A water bottle was stuck in the bottle-carrier net on the side of her backpack. She never buys a backpack that doesn’t have those carriers, because keeping a bottle inside the backpack is too inconvenient.

During the flight, she sat at the emergency exit row, in the window seat, the same seat that I had on the other side of the plane. Clearly, she visits SeatGuru to research the best possible seat, and has travelled enough to know to check in online to make sure she gets the best seat. She spent most of the flight watching something on her laptop that she found funny. The first thing she did when we reached our transit airport was to buy a can of Coke, and then look for a plug-point to charge her laptop – a woman after my own heart.

She talked to the guy sitting in the aisle seat in her row. She talked about travelling – she’s an American student, travelling Asia on the money she earned working several student jobs. She worked in Singapore for a while, but her workplace wanted longer commitment and she didn’t want to stay longer than a year. She’s moving on now – perhaps to Melbourne, where I’m headed, or the mysterious sounding Changchun, flashing on the board of the gate we’re waiting at in the transit airport. The conversation wasn’t long – she’s friendly, but prefers to spend travel time reading her book or watching her movie.

We eye each other at the transit airport, both stuck here for a few hours, both recognising the other from the first flight. I see a kindred spirit, someone who, in my head, is similar to the romantic picture of myself I sometimes conjure while daydreaming. Maybe she notices similarities too, in my behaviour and habits. Maybe she’s giving me a story in her head, in which I feature as a student travelling on a tight budget – I’m flying from Singapore to Australia through China – clearly a cheap ticket convinced me to add 10 hours to my travel time. Or maybe she sees me as a confused girl, unfamiliar with airports, running around and constantly turning to walk in the opposite direction because I can’t choose between Starbucks and Coffee Bean.

Or then again, maybe she’s just pegged me as the inevitable creepy person of the flight, staring at her constantly and typing furiously away into her laptop, blushing when caught.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Too Much

There’s just
Too much to learn
Too much to study
Too much to read
Too much to know

Too much to think
Too much to see
Too much to do
Too much to write

Too much to feel
Too much to accomplish
Too much to change
Too much to fix

Such little time
So much frustration
I’ll never finish it all
Because it’ll never end

The hour I just spent watching TV
Was such a waste of time.


The thing I want the most now
The thing that seems the hardest to find

The paths leading to it have been built
I need not find the road less travelled
I just want to find the highway

Confusion doesn’t suit me
In courses, jobs, decisions, friends
It makes me stupid and frustrated

I want to make informed decisions
Randomness or baseless analysis doesn’t suit me
But I don’t have the information I need.

There don’t seem to be any street lights
Highways never do have any, I’ve noticed
I have to find the highway without a map

I’ll stumble around, take a few wrong turns
I will eventually find clarity, I know
I’d just rather it be now, than five, ten years from now.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Disjointed Thoughts About Rajasthan

I spent three weeks in different villages in Rajasthan, and have wanted to write about that time for the three weeks that I’ve been back. However, a combination of laziness and other work led to this post being composed only now. Another reason why I’ve been hesitant to write about my observations, and why I now have five Word documents named “Rajasthan” on my laptop, each only a paragraph or two long, is that it’s fiendishly difficult to compose anything resembling a coherent article about the villages. The best I’ve been able to come up with a list, sort of, of unrelated thoughts and observations.

  1. Rajasthan is definitely one of the hottest places I’ve been to. Or maybe it just seemed that way to me because I was actually outdoors all day in the scorching June heat, going from house to house in the villages, whereas the same time in Delhi would have been spend indoors in a comfortably air-conditioned room. But whether or not Rajasthan was hotter than Delhi during that time, the heat was enough to leave us panting and gratefully gulping down matkas of waters at every house we visited. And, as I’ve become fond of telling friends, though we drank water all day long, neither I nor my friends felt the need to pee at all during the day. I would pee just twice – once in the morning after waking up, and once at night before falling asleep when the ridiculous consumption of water would finally catch up with my bladder instead of being sweated out in litres and litres.

  2. Since I’m on the subject of peeing– us “going to the bathroom” was a constant source of amusement and much discussion in the villages. Lacking running water or built-in bathrooms, all villages evolve their own fairly efficient systems for doing their business. And we city-kids just didn’t cut it. Our behaviour regarding toilet functions were weird and laughable – “sham ko khet jaa raha hai!” (“he’s going to the field in the evening!”) was always said with awe every time one of us needed to use the fields at anytime other than 5am in the morning. And it amused them that we had no idea where to pee during the day (if we ever needed to), since though the shit-locations were well-defined, pee-locations were not. We tried hiding the fact that we were going to pee, but our newly developed concept of “ninja pees” never seemed to work very well – everyone in the village was always aware of our exact whereabouts, and any deviation from the plan would incite numerous questions.

  3. Each trip to the “bathroom” was a source of great stories for us city-kids too. A quick pee under the comforting cover of darkness in a clearing outside our host’s house led to a funny story about out hostess graciously switching on the outside light to enable us to see our way, but succeeding only in putting us in the bright spotlight for everyone in the house to see. And in every village, there was always at least one creepy black dog which would stand at a distance and freak me out by just staring at us while we peed, behaving as if he were just waiting for a signal of some kind before attacking.

  4. Village life was, of course, very very different from city life, but there were constantly some pockets of familiarity which would always take me by surprise. For example, after hours of talking to villagers about the ration shops and their entitlements, NREGA, the corruption of the Sachiv, and bias of the Sarpanch, we spent an hour at a widow’s house who had invited us for dinner. We ate the roti with the Rajasthani pyaaz ki subzi, and while we talked to her sister-in-law and her, I was constantly aware of a feeling of surprise at how normal the conversation was. We oohed and aahed over the two toddlers in the house and encouraged the proud mother to tell us tales of their naughtiness. The sister-in-law joked and complained about her husband (not present during the dinner), and poked fun at him when he arrived later. I’d overheard the same small talk and dinner conversation countless times between my parents and their dinner guests, but only this time, my friend and I were the “adults”, participating in the conversation to the best of our ability, instead of just listening in curiously to see what it is that grown-ups talk about.

  5. I also came across the weirdest squirrels I’ve ever seen. They were normal grey-and-white squirrels, scampering and chasing each other around in the trees, but as soon as they got onto the ground, they would lie flat on their bellies. Completely flat. I’ve never before seen a squirrel actually lie down – they always crouch, poised for flight, every movement sudden and quick. These squirrels appeared defeated by the heat, and would lie flat, all four tiny legs splayed out on their sides. When I saw the first such squirrel, I actually thought it was dead, and was rudely shocked when it promptly scurried away at my approach. I didn’t manage to click a good enough picture, since they would always scurry away as I got within photo-taking distance, but this one that I pulled off a Google search is pretty much what I’m trying to describe.

More disjointed thoughts later.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Venice, the Metro Station

Barely two days of travelling on non-airconditioned, Rajasthan Roadways buses reminded me of how privileged I really am. The only other time I’ve travelled in sleeper class in a train was five years ago, when I went for a summer camp. And that, too, was not by choice – sleeper class was what the camp had booked for us.

Now, I’ve spent three weeks living and travelling among villages in Rajasthan. I’ve travelled in sleeper class, both with and without confirmed bookings, taken four different government provided Rajasthan Roadways buses to get from one village to another, hitched rides on everything from an overstuffed auto to overloaded tractors. And though I wasn’t so okay with the situation at the time, I do appreciate the experience and understanding afforded to me by the travels.

Sitting in an unusually undercrowded bus, enjoying the luxury of personal space (having just finished a seven hour journey in a sweltering bus carrying at least twice the number of people as there were seats), I was oddly reminded of a guy I met in metro station in Washington DC. I’d been using my debit card to buy a ticket at the machine when a guy of around my age, carrying a guitar and a bag, approached me. “I’m trying to get to Venice, ma’am”, he started, which immediately confused me. It took me a minute to realise that he was talking about a stop on the metro line, not the city in Italy. “Could you buy me a ticket?” he asked simply.

I didn’t immediately understand his request – I still hadn’t figured out that Venice was a metro station. When my mind cleared, I pointed out that the fare was more than $6, more than double of what I was paying for my own ticket. He responded by saying that that was the fare for the peak hour, but he just wanted me to buy him a reduce fare ticket. “Let me worry about getting out of the station at Venice,” he said.
By now, I was even more confused. I’d used the metro system in DC just once, I didn’t understand that I could buy him a reduced fare ticket for $2, and he could wait at the Venice station for the “reduced fare hour” before exiting.

I refused to buy him the ticket. That one decision has bothered me several times since that day, mainly because the reason I refused was that the whole situation was very awkward for me. I didn’t immediately understand him, and it took me a while to see what he meant when he asked for the reduced fare ticket. Rather than prolong an already awkward meeting, I politely asked him to ask someone else. He thanked me before turning back to his original position, observing the other metro riders.

It was a stupid decision, not just because I turned down a civil request from a guy to whom the request was clearly costing a lot of pride, but because the reasoning behind the denial was so utterly stupid. Out of all the times I’ve refused a request for money, out of all the times I’ve shaken my head at beggar children knocking on my car window, all the times I’ve waved away the one-legged man or the young girl clutching an infant on the road, this one incident is one of the few denials I vividly remember and regret.

All I can say is, I hope the man and his guitar made it safely to Venice.

Monday, April 25, 2011

My Music Teacher

When I was around nine, I had a music teacher. He would come to my house to teach me Indian classical music... singing and playing the harmonium. He did the same at many other houses in my campus. He was also the music teacher at our local primary school. He was regarded as the best music teacher in our area. The other students and I lived in a university campus, but he came from the village half an hour away from our campus, and so, was always regarded as an "outsider".

He was a good teacher in many ways. He used to boast that he could play all the musical instruments except the violin. He was well-trained and knowledgeable, and managed to impress even my dad, who has always been hard to impress.

But despite his musical prowess, what I remember when I think back to my years of learning music with him were the whispers that followed him. Murmurs that he was perhaps a little too fond of his young female students. Whispers that he had roving hands that didn't always just touch to teach a particular skill on the harmonium. And also mutterings that he had a temper that would flare up if a student did something wrong or said something out of place - a temper that could get out of hand.

No one knew where the murmurs began, and I'm not sure they ever reached my parents. The closest I came to hearing a first-hand account of his roving hands was from a friend who'd heard it from her friend who talked about too much "accidental" brushing of her breasts. No one ever called it molestation or even sexual harassment. But all the children knew about it and talked about it. We were all around the age of nine, we were just realising that his touching a student's breasts was wrong, though we weren't really sure why.

I don't know whether anyone told their parents about the whispers; I know that I didn't. There was always the hesitation of saying anything "bad" about a much-respected and very elderly music teacher. I remember thinking that even if I did tell my parents, they might not even believe me. After all, the first question would be "Who did you hear this from? Who said that he touched their breasts?" and I, of course, would have no answer. They were just rumours, unconfirmed and unverified, passing from one student to another. And the reports of his uncontrollable temper which had (as rumour said) led him to physically hit a student made all his students afraid of ever saying anything against him.

We didn't make a big deal of it then. I was mildly concerned when my parents hired him to teach me music, but I confidently stated that if he "tried" anything with me, I would go to my parents. And maybe I would have. But throughout the time he was my teacher, he never did anything overt that I could complain about. But I was always uncomfortable when he touched me in any way. I didn't see why he needed to touch my hand while teaching me, and while there was never anything blatant, there was always the sense of inappropriateness whenever he came physically close. But I did see first-hand that he definitely had a temper - it would flare up when I did something wrong, or dared to disagree with him. He never hit me, but I was always scared of his acid tongue and raised voice.

But to think back over it, maybe my parents had heard the rumours too. I remember being told (again and again) to never go anywhere alone with him. Either my mom or my dad would always remain in the room while I had my lessons with him, and if by chance neither of them were around, the live-in maid had instructions never to leave me alone with him. But still, week after week, for several years, he was allowed to come to my house to teach me music.

All the children knew about the reports, but no one ever said anything. If the parents (mine or others') knew about the rumours, they didn't do anything either. He was always hired and got good reviews from parents, he remained a respected member of the "outsiders" group in our campus, and as far as I know, was never told off by anyone for anything he did. And while I can't be sure that the rumours were true, no one really doubted them at the time. Yet, no one raised a voice, no one said anything. People moved away, the music teacher retired, and the rumours were forgotten.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

But I Don't WANT To!

The first time marriage became a topic possibly relevant to me was when I went to college. No one had ever talked about it in terms of me before: not my parents, not my friends in school, not my cousins or sister. We'd discussed the "ideal boyfriend", what we want to be "when we grow up", colleges, dreams, travel plans, how to change the world etc, but never the “ideal husband” or marriage.

Within the first couple of months of college, however, during one of those late-night talks when everyone's just trying to get to know each other and make new friends, someone asked "So, what age do you want to get married at?"

That was the first time I'd even thought about the idea of me being married. I was only 18, I'd just begun college in a new country, I was as confused as ever about what I wanted to do with my life. Marriage, frankly, had never even occurred to me as a possible part of my Plans for the Future. I was genuinely surprised at the question. "You mean to say you guys have an age that you want to be married by? You've actually thought about this before?"

That's the first time I really understood that there are families which have expectations from their children regarding marriage. My best friend at the time, a boy, had a long-term girlfriend that his parents knew about. He knew he was going to be married around the age of 25, because his girlfriend would be 24 at that time and already past the "ideal marriage age" for girls in her family. Another close friend, a girl, said that there was no way she'd be allowed to be unmarried past the age of 24, and that's if she managed to push it to 24.

This was all new to me. My parents had never even mentioned their "plans" for my marriage to me. They still haven't, and I'm fairly sure they don't have any such plans anyway. I couldn't imagine a situation in which my various uncles and aunts and grandparents could pressure me into getting married at any age. Why would it be any of their business? And why would disapproval from them lead to me making the life-altering, very serious decision about getting married?

Since then, I've talked more to my friends, and while I still can’t understand the pressure and the expectations that they face because I’ve never faced that, I’ve accepted that there are such pressures. My advice to just “screw it and do what you want” may not work in all situations and for all people. I may not be able to empathise, but I can at least sympathise.

I’ve also had more time to think about marriage. And it still doesn’t feature on my Plans for the Future. For many reasons, I don’t understand marriage as a concept, and until I am convinced that there’s a real reason why I should get married, I don’t plan on getting married. What really bugs me, however, is the dismissal that I encounter if I voice this opinion. “Oh, you’re still young. You’ll change your mind in five years.” I have heard that countless times. Especially so if I add that I don’t like kids, and don’t want to have any of my own. The indulgent smiles from many adults really annoy me. Yes, I’m 20, but that mean that my opinions will necessarily change magically when I hit 25? Why are all women expected to want to get married? Why am I expected to want kids just because I’m a woman?

Do guys face the same indulgent smiles and general disbelief? I don’t know, but I’m inclined to believe not. A guy saying that he doesn’t want to get married or have kids will probably be more believed than a woman saying that (I may be wrong here). The expectations that a large part of society has from its members are extremely gendered. I may want to change my mind later on in life, but the desire to not get married just to spite those who were so convinced that I would change my mind is very strong.

I feel a little stupid even writing about this, because I do feel too young to be even thinking about marriage. Not because I’m too young to understand it and have an opinion about it, but because I feel too young to be thinking about it affecting my life because it’s never been discussed as part of my life in my family, and won’t be a part of my life for a long, long time, if ever. But I have friend who might be married two years from now, solely because the society she lives in has set this schedule that her life must follow, and marriage is part of it. Her not wanting to be married at 24 is abnormal, stupid and against everything they believe in, and hence, the childish desire must be ignored and squashed. And my opinion that marriage as an institution doesn’t make sense should die a similar death.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

About Helplessness and Frustration

I'm living in the "international dorm" in my university in Florida. Half of us in this dorm are international exchange students. The group of friends that I've made consists of people from all around the world. The diversity of the group often leads to discussions and comparisions of life back home, from food and shopping, to governments and laws.

Last week, when we were looking to rent a car for the weekend, the talk turned to driving. We discussed the differences in driving laws - I mentioned that all my driving test consisted of was one U-turn, my Peruvian friend said that in Peru, you can get out of traffic tickets by bribing the cop, I agreed with her. From which point, the talk turned to the police and law implementation.

All this tied in with some articles I've been reading recently. Tehelka carried an article about the botching up of the Aarushi Talwar case by the CBI, Annie Zaidi published links to articles about further incompetence, brutality and corruption of cops (here and here), Dilip D'Souza poignantly displayed the utter stupidity and blatant incompetence of police offers in a court case. And I remember walking with a friend and talking about how I've never been asked for ID in any bar in Delhi, and how easy it is to find drugs or bribe a cop to get out of a traffic ticket in Delhi. And I remember telling her that we read and hear a lot about the corruption of cops, or their incompetence, but we never really hear about the good cops. Surely there must be some.

But these succession of articles are so frustrating, so shocking, they leave me feeling so overwhelmingly helpless that I start doubting that belief. If there are some good cops, where are they? Why do I hear only about events and behaviours that should be hard to believe, but sadly are so familiar that they're not even particularly surprising?  Why is it that I'm beginning to doubt my comment that there are good cops in India, they're just never talked about?

What went wrong? Why are there so many bad cops? Corruption is one thing - at least there's some gain to be seen, which provides an explanation for why. But what do police officers gain from imprisoning and harassing 23 men without even telling them the reason for their arrest? How can that possibly not sound blatantly wrong? What reason could a public servant, an officer of the law in a democratic country, have for doing that?

I believe that I've been lucky. I've never been stopped by a cop, nor ever needed a cop for a crime that happened to me. But I'm still so scared - what if someday I need the police? What if I need them to solve a crime, and they display their incompetence? What if someday I'm at the receiving end of their incomprehensible bullshit treatment of citizens? It's frustrating and depressing enough about to hear of such things happening to strangers. How would I handle it if it was me, or someone I cared about? Is there even a way of seeking redressal? Is there a way out of a situation where the police refuse to protect evidence or do a thorough investigation into a murder? Is there a way to do something, anything when trumped up or incomprehensibly random "evidence" is used in a trial to convict a citizen?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Three Naked Teenagers

I'm trying to get into the habit of reading news online everyday. And it's not going too badly... I usually do visit CNN, NDTV and The Hindu every couple of days. Today, I came across this on NDTV's website. The title "Boy Drives Into Canal With Two Naked Girls" was interesting, so I clicked.

The story is about three teenagers in Melbourne who were "having a bit of a party" and decided to go skinny dipping. Interestingly enough, all three of the teenagers (including the boy) were naked, despite what the title of the story and the first few sentences ("Australian policemen were startled on learning that a car carrying a teenage boy along with two naked girls plunged into canal..") would lead one to believe.

Now, why would the nakedness of the two girls be clearly mentioned in the title and the first sentence, while the nakedness of the boy be revealed only towards the end, in a direct quote from a police officer?

On another topic: suggestions for new (and better) websites to follow Indian news are welcome. The NDTV website doesn't appear to be doing a very good job at objective reporting.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

An Excellent Night Out

Head spinning,
Loud music,
Gyrating bodies,
Packed room.

Lit cigarettes,
Cups of alcohol,
Make-up and perfume,
Low cut clothes.

Hugs and kisses,
Sexy grinding,
Unintelligible introductions,
Longing glances.

Inane laughter,
Long walk home,
Embarrassing conversations,
An excellent night out.


I underestimated charm. Before I went to Singapore for college, I totally underestimated the power of charm. I hadn't really met a whole lot of "charming" people - I'd grown up in a small, closed community, and no one ever needed or wanted to charm someone else. I remember the first "charming" guy that my friends and I met when we were about 16. He was so different from the rest of us. He would effortlessly flirt, cast his beaming smile everywhere, flick his hair about. The word universally applied to him was charming. And I remember that we regarded the fact that he was charming as slightly scandalous.

Then, in Singapore, I met more charming people. Flirtatious, smooth talking guys; bubbly, smiling girls. They got along with everyone. When I ran into one of them at the library, the conversation would encompass everything from current classes to upcoming parties, possible internships and future plans. I formed a stereotype of a "charming" person in my head: flirtatious, smooth-talking, but mostly importantly, fake. The interest they show in our conversations, in what I said, it all seemed so fake.

Then I met another type of charming. A genuine, occasionally rude, always funny, easy to talk to, interesting guy who is now one of my best friends. He didn't carry on conversations he wasn't interested in, but he got along with everyone, could talk to anyone, and was always fun to be around. The stereotype in my head was contradicted and abandoned. There's more than just one type of charming, I decided.

But still, I underestimated the power and importance of that charm. Until I came to Florida for one semester abroad. And last night, while having dinner with a massive group of people, the power of charm hit me. I'm not very good at social situations with people I don't know, so I was sticking to my table with a couple of friends, and just observing the other students there. And charming people are just so good at socialising! Witty comments, funny jokes and a slow smile will get you really far with people! The girl sitting across the table from me has been in Florida as long as I have, but she's friends with at least double the number of people I know here. A guy with a nice smile and very funny jokes was constantly surrounded by people, all laughing and talking. A group of people next to me randomly planned a post-dinner party and invited people, all of whom said yes.

In general, I prefer to hang out with a small group of friends. But the point of this semester abroad was to meet more people, learn to make new friends and party. None of which are made easier by my social awkwardness, physical clumsiness and lack of ideas for good conversation or funny jokes. Once in a while, it would nice to be able to be charming, even if I choose not to exercise that ability all the time.

I spent the dinner forming this blog post out in my head. By the end of two hours, I was exhausted. My cheeks hurt with all the smiling, I was tired of talking and hugging and asking people what they were studying, and I was ready to go home, get under my blanket and type this blog post out. I left, but the charming people stayed and probably went on to their impromptu party.