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This is the End

Manika Dhama, a Metro-loving poet and writer, had a great fall at the Rajiv Chowk Metro station in Central Delhi early Monday morning. It did not end well. Witnesses noted that she missed a step while poring over “a fat book”. The staff have since identified it to be Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Ms Dhama was a lover of dusty libraries and bitter coffee. Her little known blog Eggfacemomhead carried stories from her life as a Delhi woman, poet and mother, some of which had been published in local newspapers. An avid traveler and amateur photographer, she had only recently discovered the Joy of Cooking (both the book and the act).

“She was always giving us relationship and work advice”, said a colleague on the phone from Ms Dhama’s Delhi office.

Condolences continued to pour in from her 200 Facebook friends, 48 Instagrammers and 106 Twitter followers. A comment on a picture of Ms Dhama and her three year old daughter reads, “She looks just like you. Can’t believe you’re gone!” It got 184 likes.

Ms Dhama is survived by a large and loving family, a home library and about half a dozen unfinished writings.

Don’t cry for me just yet. This is a ‘self-obituary’ written for The Delhiwalla.

The series  invites Delhiites across the world to write their obituary in 200 words. The idea is to share with the world how you will like to be remembered after you are gone. (May you live a long life, of course!) Please mail your self-obit to mayankaustensoofi@gmail.com.

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5 Things you will NEVER forget if you EVER went to a Convent school

Before you start reading, if you were born in the 80s and went to a convent, raise your hands and say “Hell Yeah”, or more appropriately “Hail Mary.” If you didn’t, no need to feel left out. You were tortured by other adults who were not being stern (out of and) in a habit.

Even though I left a home away from home in the hill convent school more than a decade ago, here are some things that follow me around.

1. Lift Your Feet and Walk

When I see or more likely hear people shuffling about, it makes me want to stop them in their track and correct them. But I don’t, for my own good.

2. Cry for Christ

This one was left unsaid, but after reading enough pamphlets on Christ’s life and bawling at the crucifixion scene in a movie at the school theater, you’re always in readiness to cry some more.

3. Graveyard Gossip

As you must be aware, all Convents are built on a graveyard. No, seriously. A silent windy night, a back-lit statue of the Virgin Mary visible from the dormitory corridor and the glistening graveyard white is sure to make you feel like an extra on ‘Blair Witch Project’ (there weren’t any. and there was no ghost. or else, you’re it.)

4. The Forever Two Minute Meal

When you’ve got a nun parading behind you while you eat the daal-with-no-grains you learn to go faster. My personal best was going from a two hour lunch routine, which involved sitting alone at the table and looking on at nothing in particular in 1990s PC (Pre-Convent) to now eating before you can say “What’s that on your plate?”. Its fun, do try it at home.

5. Cursive is King

At and after a convent school you might begin to think that people who cannot form a word by joining letters together should be shipped to another planet. It might not be so bad. They’ll take your husband away (him with the left slant and floating letters that only martians can possibly perfect). Plus the written world will look pretty and who minds that.

Life within the walls of a Convent bears little resemblance to the world outside.

In your first years ‘on the other side’, you think everyone else needs to be “disciplined”. It’s only later that it dawns on you that the ‘cloistered’ convent taught you a language of life that is stuck in 1885. But you learn to roll with it, keeping your Nun avatar in check, but not without saying a shortened version of Our Father in Heaven for the souls of errant beings.

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Redemption Ride

I am in love with the Delhi Metro. For one, I get to read (or watch Suits on my phone. Aha). Mothers who (can make time to) read is a group with fewer members than the Micronesian Parliament. And I refuse to be thrown off it. The metro also provides the best alternative to moving my feet vigorously on the pedal without getting anywhere. So everyday I shove, race and celebrate the acquisition of a seat, at best, and a space to place stationery feet at the very least.

On most days my head is bowed in reverence to the words in my hands. But often the action around is engaging enough to invite a look or disturbing enough to dread. While I’m almost always in the “women’s coach”, sometimes an empty seat in the “general compartment” draws me in. In the former, I have seen and heard (not eavesdropped but God some people are loud) enough life histories to feed a potboiler. Women have fainted, howled, offered a seat to heavy-set women thinking they were pregnant, proclaimed their love for possibly dubious men and first-rate rum.

Being part of a “general”-anything is sure to be fraught with mediocrity and the thus-named metro compartments come with their own share of debased drama. Nose-in-book is a cure for many things but is a meek defense against crotch-in-face. Especially, if said crotch is riddled with a fidgety hand that you want to smack with aforementioned book. A hardbound copy of Proust would be a possible weapon for it. But with only the last two volumes of In Search of Lost Time remaining to be devoured, I’ve placed Paris aside for the moment and am on a most fascinating journey with Rebecca West through (erstwhile) Yugoslavia. However, my copy of her tome is a paperback and hence ill-placed to combat a denim-dressed crotch.

Despite curious distractions we continue our journey, Rebecca and I, in Herzegovina, Dalmatia, Kosovo and beyond, past garish Turkish remnants and ruined cathedrals, with history dancing forever beside us. In the haze of a garrulous metro ride, the sights, scents and sounds of her world meet mine, ensuring that 2014 Delhi can be 1931 Balkans and our lot in life can truly seek redemption through reading.

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Let Her Find Her Voice and Sing

“It’s a girl”.

Immediately after I heard her first cry the doctor informed me that I had given birth to a girl. Perhaps I was just imagining their lack of enthusiasm at the news, but while they ran customary checks on her, I wondered how people usually broke the news of a baby boy’s birth and whether it was as solemn. A little while later they handed her over saying “Here’s your daughter.” I had to stop smiling and purse my lips into a pout so that I could kiss her cheek. Truth be told, I followed the kiss with trying to check if she had my eyes. She didn’t, and I thought, “Ah well, perhaps it is better if she has her own version of everything.”

She was born in 2011, the year the Census in India came out with a grim statistic – the sex ratio in the country had declined to its lowest since Independence, at 914 females to 1000 males (the final population figures since put out by the Registrar General’s office have been significantly upwardly revised to 918). Infant mortality plays truant across the country but so does active silencing of the female voice before and after birth. Countless female foetuses do not get a chance to open their eyes and look at the world. Some who do grace the air with their first cry are forced into darkness, sometimes by helpless mothers but most often by ‘family’ who ask the mother to “look away” and forget all about it. And forget we do, because our collective consciousness has learnt to look the other way.

Nearly three decades before that census, an old woman drove through the summer night in an Ambassador car in central India. Her daughter-in-law was in labour after having laughed her heart out at a humour classic earlier that evening and had to be taken to the hospital. The father had not been granted leave by his (Government) employers. So the two women rode alone hoping to see a healthy, possibly laughter-loving baby soon.

The baby was born in the early afternoon the next day and was immediately diagnosed with infantile jaundice, which is a common ailment among newborns. However, this affliction was severe and the infant was placed in the nursery for nearly ten days with photo therapy that required the eyes to be shielded. The mother, a paediatrician, knew the range of symptoms and how bad things could get if the baby’s condition worsened. She may have cried thinking about all the bad things that could happen to the child. But ten days later, her little girl, was ready to see the world.

My early years were spent around the gorgeous hills in the north Indian state of Himachal. While I created childhood memories of river stream picnics, devoured years later through scenic photographs, my mother worried some more about her shy girl and how life would treat such a quiet child. It didn’t help that relatives did their bit comparing cousins and suggesting that the feisty tomboyish one would grow up to ride a bike and wipe the tears of the wailer. That image, like most other plans hatched too early, didn’t quite play out that way. But I found myself being encouraged to search for my voice, irrespective of the form it came through. Slowly I learnt that your voice that pushed forth your will was the strongest tool a person had, not by trampling on the sounds of others but by ensuring that you made yourself heard. Instead of looking the other way, I learnt that you had to jump right in the centre of the ring and fight; because there were things that needed to be verbalized and others that were waiting for just a little support. It also became amply clear that most people (women included) found nothing more fearsome than a woman with an opinion.

Under-graduate studies took me to an all-women’s college in Delhi, the nation’s capital, where I’ve been based ever since. During the daily commute by bus (living in the suburbs meant I needed to change two), I encountered molestation of the butt-pinching, breast-grabbing, hand-on-crotch variety, where only the degree varied over time. The more comfortable Delhi Metro had not begun then and there was no “women’s coach” to get pushed into. Like all other things a woman must “learn to live with”, we used elbows, safety pins and loudly shaming the culprit to get by.

This was also the time I was exposed to countless stories from around the world detailing the trials and triumphs of women through the ages. The suffrage movement in U.S. and Europe, the closeted yet brilliant lives of gifted women writers and harsher realities closer home that showed up in newspapers every day, and continue to, with increasing viciousness, today.

Rape, acid attacks, domestic violence, female foeticide, all stem from the base desire to silence and force into submission the valiant voice within a woman’s heart. This is the voice that often threatens established ‘norms’ and seeks an alternative life not crafted entirely by others. She questions, admonishes, refuses to accept all that women before her were ‘supposed to do’. This refusal to ‘conform’ and be ‘tamed’ creates conflicts, which unfortunately do not lead to questioning their relevance as much as it does to the silencing of the ‘aberrant’ voice of the woman.

~

Even as I write this piece, I receive a message from a female friend about having been accosted by two men on a bike at a crowded parking lot in Delhi in broad daylight. She was walking from the metro station, tagging along with the daily crowd, when these two men first started making lewd comments from a distance and then they pulled up closer. Before she had time to react, the rider pulled out a bottle and threw the contents on her face. In those fifteen minutes of chaos she was certain she had been attacked with acid. It turned out to be hot water. She lost her balance and collided with the pillion rider and they both fell. Her left arm was bruised and while she tried to get back up on her feet, the attackers had fled. The crowd that had by now gathered around her was full of people some of whom tried to help, while others simply stared or worse still, laughed at her. She could hear murmurs of “these things keep happening to girls”. Luckily a nearby vendor had noted the number on the bike and armed with that my friend went to the nearby police station to lodge a complaint. The officer on duty looked at her and said she probably invited the boys’ attention because of her clothes, which revealed her legs. He went on to suggest that since nothing was going to happen to the case anyway, she should just get out of the mess and FORGET ABOUT IT. She went on to lodge a complaint against the boys and the police officer. Based on the bike number plate, the boys were rounded up the next day and turned out to be local hawkers. My friend identified them and they were taken into custody.

I relate this incident here to remind us that it is not alright to find reasons for a crime against women in the clothes she wore, the things she said or how she behaved. And it is not alright to pretend like these things happen in a faraway universe outside of our lives. Or that these are everyday occurrences so we must all forget about it. For then we’re teaching our girls to ALWAYS BE AFRAID (or silent) and telling our boys that they can get away with ANYTHING. Neither of those reflects the true meaning of freedom.

Every year we proudly celebrate the decades since India became a free state. And yet it remains unfair to joyously proclaim this freedom when one half of the country’s citizens are denied the right to life with dignity. Why must a woman have to ‘fight’ to survive, thrive and lead a life on her own terms? Why doesn’t it bother enough people’s consciousness to do something about it, in their own, small way? Why must we close our eyes to the reality of discrimination, abuse and inequality and answer it not by punishing perpetrators but by forcing the female voice into submission or silence?

~

My life has had more in common with many women and most men from a similar socio-economic background than with countless other women across the country. This life has been unhindered by struggles that scores of women face everyday. My education, marriage, motherhood, profession have not been dictated by those around me. I continue to enjoy (or falter at!) the fruits of my labour, with support of those around me. This ‘privileged’ existence has come most significantly from the social milieu of the family I was born into, but it has also come from the uninhibited sky under which I was left free to dream.

As my daughter turns three, I continue to celebrate the things she says and does, to feed her curiosity of all the new things she encounters, to lead the way till she wants to walk alone. In all the things she and I will share over time, I wish we never have to talk about “learning to live with” being a woman in India. And when we do, I hope these words conjure up images of a carefree life, bound only by her will and not by externalities that force her actions.

~

Every child is born with a song in her heart, one that she polishes over time, humming and setting it to tune. It is for us to let her sing to her heart’s content, without erecting walls that trap her voice within.

—–

This article is part of the #BeingaModernIndianWoman archive, which is being launched on 15th August on Indian Independence Day. This storytelling initiative celebrates womanhood and freedom of (responsible) expression, and it’s a stepping stone to further economic opportunities for women in India. Please visit facebook.com/beingamodernindianwoman for more information.

#BeingAModernIndiaWoman

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’tis Nobody’s Business

Alone time, whether self-imposed or induced by circumstance, can often be fairly refreshing, as opposed to depressing as some people will tell you. One must hail alone time as the elixir for embattled souls and for those who’re as self-obsessed as certain people I know (yours truly included).

Whether you spend these glorious alone-hours indulging in tomfoolery or otherwise is merely a matter of personal choice (as ‘personal’ as choices can possibly be).

There are countless activities to choose from:

Making burnt egg-toast to satiate evening hunger, while dancing not-so-gracefully around the pan.

Wearing clothes with a colour combination that has the potential to cause blindness.

Watching movies rich in nonsensical content in entirety, and preparing to criticise them later.

Sending countless emails to friends who’re definitely busy at the time.

Telling yourself that you need to get back to work and not doing so at all.

Continuing to prance around the room.

Identifying the source of strange sounds emanating from certain corners of the house, just to make sure one is indeed alone.

Indulging in time travel (of the imaginary sort of course).

Sleeping and waking with particular disregard for dawn and dusk.

Not being busy at all but grumbling at the sound of the doorbell.

Losing oneself in the pages of a book and resurfacing only when the world comes searching for you.

…I’m sure there are those who use their time (whether alone or otherwise), rather judiciously (a term stubbornly closed to interpretation).

However, it is of no concern to me and neither should it be to you.

Suffice it to say that ‘tis surely a treat and luxury to be unnoticed and unheard, though only for a while.

And imagine what great potential something must hold when it is best described thus:
What you do on your own time is nobody’s business.

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Write On

I have been away for a week. There would be punishments for this kind of thing but I’m the boss and not a keen follower of the masochism movement. Instead I can only make a note to self: Live and let write.

No revolutionary events to report but mundane thoughts on things continue. Like happiness worth 50 bucks by way of two (second hand) books I bought for 25 each. Cheap thrills aren’t easy. In the 10 minutes before the 10.30 pm movie show, you must scan piles of mindless junk to get to anything worth more than 25. And when you do, the joy lasts for days on end. If you’re turning your nose up at “second hand” stuff and think you’re cat’s whiskers, well then you better do a good job chasing the tiny rat’s ass I care about your opinion on that one. The great thing about second hand books is that there’s always a story (or more) than what exists between the covers. If you find names or personal notes, you’re lucky. Otherwise you can invent your own story and imagine it played out as the finest drama there ever was.

Talking about drama, there’s enough everyday to belittle Television soap operas. Having your zombie moment at work in the form of picking up the phone and dialing the number on the keyboard instead of the phone pad. Spilling cheese from an eat-on-the-go sandwich all over your clothes on your way to work. Paying 50 bucks and getting lost on your way to a place that’s at a five minute walking distance. Or days going downhill suddenly picking up towards the end and making you a star (at least for a while).

As star vices go, I have those of the restless variety. There is a need to always be doing something that amounts to more than can be summed up in a word (or sentence). There’s the urge to eat the forbidden sweet (did I say “forbidden”? Nonsense. In my world there are no forbidden sweet vices). There’s the desire to watch back-to-back episodes of the favourite show late into the night, with knowledge of how resulting lack of sleep will affect next day at work. There’s the conversation with the almighty where wishes shift priorities at the speed of light/sound, whichever you prefer.

And so the days pass, one bead on a string followed by another.

Jaded, Coloured, Crooked, Pearl white.

Good, Bad or Ugly. But none like the other.

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Being Zen: When in doubt, flash that Smile. You know you want to.

This is what happened one day many summers ago…

Your afternoon siesta is disturbed by a phone call.

Its a courier guy asking where you would like to receive a package in your name. You ask him to drop it in at the office on the first working day (which is two days away). He insists on dropping it at your current location (your apartment). When you relate the address he sounds clueless about the area. You really want to help the guy (and it wouldn’t hurt to receive the package soon enough), but you admit not being the best with directions to a place you’ve been in for all of two months. You give the best leads you have and then both of you laugh over your mutual lack of knowledge.

You disconnect the call after he assures you he’ll manage a way out. He tells you to be by the side of that telephone. Who knows how lost he can get. Sure enough, he calls again and confirms your location. Now you’ve spoken with this guy long enough to start talking with his accent (which you can’t quite place on a world map).

Few minutes later the door bell rings. You open the door and its the man behind the last few calls on your phone. The fact that he looks like the sweetest thing on two feet really completes the picture of the pleasant stranger. Both of you can’t help blurting out “Finally” and giving your best smile . You almost apologise for having made the man run around (actually doing his job). He says it was interesting because now at least he knows the place and he wanted to complete his deliveries before the weekend. Then you sign off (literally sign for the package delivery) and you wish each other a good day.

That neat little interaction right there was pleasanter than several others with supposed non-strangers, which is why I still remember it after nearly six years.

That the smile of the day should come from such unlikely quarters is what made it all the more special.

Perhaps that smile was just a courier guy doing his job.

Or (and I have reasons to believe this one) it was a genuine man about town who made receiving a courier a pleasanter activity than signing for packages can possibly be.

This could happen to you too. So always be armed. With a SMILE.

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Are We There Yet? OR It is the Penultimate Day of the A-to-Z Challenge, Yay!)

“I must write something” she whispers to herself, sitting by the balcony trying to save the letter ‘A’ on the machine from being pulled out by the toddler.

I wonder if anyone stays in the apartment in the opposite building. Never seen anybody there but that empty clothes rack and mop in the balcony surely belong to someone.

I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. I wonder if “I’m hungry” is as contagious as a yawn. Really wouldn’t mind a fruit yogurt right now but who’s going to walk to the grocery. Laziness is a disease with no cure. Talking aloud about hunger helps. Husband offers…banana, apple, garlic bread…no prizes for guessing which one I’m going to eat.

I have a very tricky relationship with bananas. Mother never tires of telling me of the goodness of that (godforsaken) fruit. Maybe because I know its so good, I can hardly ever bring myself to eat it. Buy it I do. Perhaps that helps me stay comfortable with the idea of ‘healthy eating’. Maybe if someone chopped it and served it in a bowl with tangy masala on it I’d gobble it down. But you see, laziness is a disease with no cure. If banana and I were the last thing on the planet, would I eat it? Sure. Until Armageddon, pass me something else.

The sound of a basketball dribble. Don’t get me started on that either. Not basketball, but exercise. Its kind of like the banana situation. I know its good for me but I can’t get myself to do it. And the garlic bread is here. Now I type with little finger as others are smeared in butter and I’m not done eating so why get up and wash hands. But I will not wait for Armageddon to start exercise…just not today honey.

“Life is ours, we live it our way”, Metallica to the rescue of all rebellious children (and certain adults). So I saw them Live last year on my birthday. How I managed to make it happen is a helluva story. You should stick around long enough to read that when I get to it.

There is now most certainly melted butter and cheese running through my veins. Shoot me and you’ll see.

“I must end this” she whispers to herself, very aware of the ridiculousness of all the words above.

Forgive me oh unfortunate one for your eyes have witnessed this dreadful scene.

May the lord above grant you dreams of happy places and may you find no further reason to utter “Oh the horror, the horror”.

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What they don’t teach you in (V)alue-Education

Under normal circumstances I abide by the doctrine of non-violence. But sometimes things or people just drive me over the edge. It never results in homicide but in the darkest chambers of my mind it plays out with utmost clarity.

I always liked the Guns and Roses song, “I used to love her, but I had to kill her”. It speaks to the side of me that might like to swing a baseball bat or two (its easier swingin’ than a cricket bat) at certain people at uncertain times. Mostly it’s those who hyperventilate. Nothing gets easier or better with panic for company but some dimwits just don’t get it. So they will do the crazy dance over your head and all you want to do is pick the best gloves in the house and box their head off.

The other category I can’t stand are micro-managers who don’t leave that skill at work. I mean, a trip is more fun if you know enough to come out of it alive. Leave the rest to chance and adventure so that you can live to tell the tale of how you got lost or how the trek to the top of the mountain left you staring not at the panoramic view of the city but a well guarded military base.

Don’t even get me started on how many maniacs on the road have made me want to play my version of the Monster Truck Madness (Yes video games are integral to your personality development. Don’t listen to Mommy).

However, more difficult than all of this is experiencing fury within and maintaining a straight face, (or worse still) a smile, without. Giving someone a piece of your mind might help you reach a bearable lightness of being. But it doesn’t last long enough to save you from the next jolt from the blue.

Therefore it helps to cultivate the fine art of making a Kill Bill rip-off in your head, while somebody is blabbering on like there’s no tomorrow. All the imaginary swashbuckling leaves you satiated enough to smile at something that ordinarily would make you want to turn diabolical.

It is almost like reaching a state where you can levitate far from the maddening crowd and pretend that nothing below don’t matter.

Ah the (short-lived) joy of fooling yourself with the I-can-rise-above-and-be-a-bigger-person-by-not-reacting.

There’s no rising above anything really.

The only decision worth making is what will be your weapon of choice in the violent movie in your head the next time someone more than tickles your not so funny bone.

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7 Things I Just Don’t (U)nderstand

1. Mascara at the Mall

Why oh why would ladies wear make-up to the mall? Save some for night time drunken safari I say.

2. Men and Stars Wars

So I don’t know if this is more about Yoda’s wisdom or Princess Leia’s derrière or both, but mention ‘Star Wars’ to a man and the facial expression changes to the look on a well-fed puppy’s face as he’s reminiscing about his recent lunch. And God forbid you should question the worship. Prepare to be given the head shake that says, “Oh, but you don’t get it.” Yes honey, I don’t get it. I might however read this for laughs.

3. Sarees at Sea

Visit a beach in India and prepare to be assaulted by the view of beautiful sarees victimised by being pulled upto the knees. Auntyji that six yard wonder never thought it would have to see this day. The Burqini has made it to the Olympics. Will someone make a swimsaree please? Watch and Learn.

4. Milk, Soggy Leaves and Sugar aka the Indian Chai

This one I will never understand. How can scores of people across the country enjoy this beverage made from the worst tea leaves of a plantation?

<There is no unappetizing Indian Chai photo on the web. It’s a conspiracy>

5. Unsolicited Parenting Advice

What makes random strangers think they can get away with telling you how to hold, cuddle, feed, scold YOUR child. These people I just want to be physically hurt. I’m always trying not to. Grrr.

6. Mother/Sister expletives

How did these even start? One day a band of boys decided they would push the limits of verbal hatred and began spewing female family figure venom? Pass by any group of boys chatting and you’re bound to hear them. And they’re communicating, apparently. And laughing, patting each other. Ha Ha, you sister-what-not. No boys, it’s NOT NORMAL.

7. Bag Elbow

What is that? In addition to looking like a very tiring activity, it is fairly inefficient in helping you do a good job of carrying anything, or managing to do anything while you’re at it. Remember that shoulder girls, get on, work it now. Or maybe I’m just a big bag girl.