The perks and perils of traveling (alone)


I have been a globetrotter for quite a while now. Running from one city to another, moving from one area to another, jumping sometimes from even one continent to another, life in the last few years have been quite a ride and I feel eternally thankfully for all the amazing travel opportunities it has thrown at me. However, travel isn’t always all glory and elegance personified. There are perks and there are perils and it is both that you must humbly experience as you embark on a new journey every single time. In either case, it impacts you in ways more than one.

I have been a traveller since a very young age and have developed a somewhat love hate relationship with it. My father always encouraged and planned family trips every vacation so the four of us (my parents, my sister and I) would get to spend some quality time away from our everyday life in a remote location. I have fond memories (and some awkward pictures) of families (with our extended family also joining us) coming together, laughing away and chatting about each others’ lives. And I cherish every single one of them, despite all my mood swings as a teenager, having violent relationships with cousins and being picky and choosy about who I’d tag along with. #Puberty

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Big family get together at Dimna Lake, Jamshedpur Jharkhand (India). Picture dated 2004

Traveling without my family and with friends, obviously, happened much later. Sometimes, these were pre-planned but mostly, they were spontaneous or decided in-the-spur of the moment. The Europe trip that happened in 2013 was one of the most memorable ones that I was lucky enough to be able to afford and be a part of. I have blogged about it before and had an amazing time reliving every single moment as I typed away my experience and all the knowledge that I gained as I embarked on a beautiful journey with some very beautiful people.

I have always viewed travel as something that becomes even more exciting when you are doing it with some good company. In fact, the perils can get overruled if you are with the right company, in my opinion. Almost each of my travel experience has led to a blog post because I learn so much when I travel with people and look at things from a different perspective (You can read all my travel posts here). A journey’s memory has a lot to do with who you share it with (even if it is yourself) and I am thankful to each and every one of the wonderful people with whom I discovered a new road, a new alley, a new shop or a new cuisine.

Travelling alone or on my own has never been a personal choice, despite getting ample of opportunities to act on it.  I have often wondered what stops me from pursuing them but it has been hard to articulate why I shy away from my own company in alien and unexplored places. The first solo travel that I do remember vividly is the one I undertook to go to Prague. It was my first solo and self funded (international) travel and I had butterflies, scorpions and worms in my stomach throughout the journey. I think I don’t trust myself or my instincts when it comes to travelling alone and relying only on my (limited) knowledge to undertake the journey, having no one else around me to put the blame on, if anything goes wrong.

And yes, things do go wrong. The recent trip to Istanbul was a testament to all things that can go wrong when you travel alone, even if you are prepared for the worst. One of the first setbacks came when my baggage didn’t arrive as I landed in Istanbul via Abu Dabhi. Several angry tweets tagging the concerned airline led to a faster response and I received by beloved and trusted old rucksack 24 hours after I landed in an alien city with literally nothing else to wear. I was so eager, energised and determined to discover the city on the day I arrived, I went ahead to explore the Museum of Innocence battling my jet lag, lack of clean clothes and general tiredness. I think I wanted to get it out of my system. Visiting the museum was my biggest priority and I had been planning and living that moment even before I knew that life would give me an opportunity to visit Istanbul in the course of my lifetime. So, taking the tram to an unpronounceable destination, walking from the stop to the museum, using sign language and hand gestures to ask the way to the Müzesi seemed like a really small price to pay for the mesmerising experience that was to follow.

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En route The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul city, Turkey

I also got the lovely privilege and opportunity to ride on the Bosphorus in the company of an equally enthusiastic traveler who I befriended during this trip. And the experience surely was memorable. To chat about our lives, to let the wind remind us of its power and to let the seagulls gape at us in awe. We both agreed that the wind, the sea and the water makes us contemplative and think about things we wouldn’t normally take the time out to be pensive about.

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View from a boat on the Bosphorus strait, a water body that divides the European and Asian side of Istanbul, Turkey

But I did know that I wasn’t done with the city and that I wanted to discover more. I wasn’t sure with whom and hence my own company felt like the next best bet. On a particularly non moody day, I decided to explore Gülhane Park, an urban park known to be one of the oldest and largest public parks in the city of Istanbul. I walked the entire stretch of the park. I observed the lovers around me: some shy, some awkward, some meeting and touching each other for the first time (one could tell). I let the wetness of the grass feel my naked feet. I chose a particularly large tree’s shade to sit under and read a few more pages from Orhan Pamuk’s book. I soaked the smell of the bees, birds and leaves around me some more. And I tried to feel satiated with all of this. But somehow, I didn’t.

I am not a very big selfie fan. I probably get awkward clicking my own pictures, especially in a public place, guilty of elevating myself to that level of importance. But on that particularly unsatisfied day, I figured a selfie would somehow validate this experience. I figured a picture that has me with the park on the backdrop would add value to this “solo” experience. I figured I needed a picture that had me in it too, so people would believe I was not just the onlooker but a part of the look. I wasn’t just gazing; I was the gaze too. And I did end up taking a couple of them (I am too shy to share them publicly).

As I briefed through the pages of Pamuk’s words under that tree in Istanbul, a friendly cat came near me and sniffed my Indian scent. Confused by the difference, he nibbled on the grass around me a bit and left me alone again. Seagulls came (dangerously) close to people in the park, including me. And I feared for my handbag and mobile around them. But they didn’t bother my solitude much either. There were couples, families, photographers and locals all around whose gaze rested on me briefly as they crossed my path. Some seemed to admire my confidence. Some probably found something interesting in the way I looked or dressed. Some simply wondered if they’d do something similar: getting all dressed up and coming to an unexplored territory of an alien city. They could tell. I was an alien. I still will be. Even if I go back. In search of the cats, seagulls, trees and barks.

Of water, wind, seagulls and nostalgia


If there is one word I could use to describe the city of Istanbul, it would be nostalgia. I am no city expert and neither have I been here several times (heck, it’s only been a little over 24 hours since I landed in this oh-so-familar place) but the city fills me with a sense of nostalgia. I am not sure what it is of yet. But as I think more about the city, its relentless clinging on to the past, its reluctant moving to the present, I feel the land and its people are nostalgic about where they come from, what they continue to represent and what they hope to become.

I have always wondered if I am one of those people diseased of seasickness. The assumption comes from the fact that I do suffer from motion sickness. But I have never had the opportunity to be on sea or any other water body long enough to feel sick. Today, I found out the truth as I took a boat ride on the mighty Bosophorous. The Bosophorus is a natural strait that separates the European and Asian parts of Turkey. As a country, Turkey already is at a geographically rare position and is often categorised as Eurasia. The Bosphorous adds to that charm. As you cruise through the water, the waves and the wind, you try and make sense of lines, borders, separations and rigid categories that we create about people, places and the planet.

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The Turkish flag flies high. As viewed from the boat #nofilters

As I stepped on the boat, I felt my body shivering. Partly because of the wind but mostly because of the constant moving of the boat hit by waves whose velocity is always unpredictable. My traveller friend and I narrowed down to a 1 hour boat ride and even before the boat had begun sailing, I was wondering if it’s too long a time to be away from land. As the boat breathed to motion, I tried to focus my attention on the rarity of the blueness that surrounded me. The wind lets you forget your sickness. In fact, there are several distracting seagulls that divert your mind.

I am not an avid bird watcher. My knowledge and interest is limited to the pigeons, crows and sparrows around me back home. In fact, up until today, I had never seen a sea gull before. As they flew closer to the boat, perhaps gazing at us just as we did, I realised just how majestic they were, too. A perfect and most appropriate fauna to surround the mighty Bosphorus. Flying high, then low, then walking on the surface of the water and finally sitting on it like a natural duck, the sea gulls fascinated me too. Perhaps they are the best symbols of nostalgia. I say this after being reminded of yesterday’s visit to the Museum of Innocence, where Kemal associated kissing with “visions of a mother seagull putting food into her impatient chicks’ open beaks” as well as “of a seagull gently holding a fig in its beak”: a visual that stayed with me, much like everything else. And what is desire if it doesn’t evoke a sense of nostalgia?

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Seagulls are hard to photograph, especially with a camera phone, but the most common thing you will see and hear in Istanbul.

The sea. The water. The wind. These are objects I associate my idea and perception of nostalgia with. They also bring the deepest contemplation in me as I admire and bow before the mightiness of water. One hour, really, wasn’t that long (although I was beginning to feel a sense of land anxiety as we were nearing the end of the tour) and I soaked in as much of the experience as I could. The sound of the seagulls fill the night, as I type this. They seem to be echoing my thoughts. Or perhaps paving way for new ones. Whatever they may be, I continue to be mesmerised in the nostalgic land of Istanbul.

Of finding masumiyat in Istanbul


I began reading The Museum of Innocence in 2011. That is the year it was gifted to me by my faculty in my j-school to go with my Certificate of Distinction for “Excellence in Magazine Writing”. I was amused. Mostly because I did not expect such a category of award existed while I was studying and learning journalism (although magazine writing was one of my chosen electives in the second semester). And the other reason for my amusement was to realise that I was probably the only student who got a fictional book as a gift. Every other awardee was given a non fiction book that narrated stories from a significant historical period or even the do’s and don’ts of journalism and such like.

As I stood proud of my achievement and holding the heavy book (the edition I own is over 750 pages long), I read the name aloud for the first time. Orhan Pamuk. I had never heard of him before. The cover of the book depicted a fun family/friend outing in a vintage car. The size of the book did not worry me as much as the thought that this just might be yet another historical narrative of a lost empire, civilization or culture. I was wrong. Or maybe not? I am yet to figure out. I have been reading this novel since the day I got it. Since 2001.

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My copy of the book which has been with me since 2001. The novel was published in 2008.

When I say I have been reading it since then, I don’t mean I read a paragraph or a chapter every day. But I have been cautious of taking my own sweet time to read, learn, absorb and live the words weaved by Mr. Pamuk. Frankly, I have never read anything else by him (I bought My Name is Red a couple of years ago only to recommend it to my cousin even before beginning to read it; she was in need of exploring a new author at that time and I figured I, at least, had the comfort of The Museum).

So in the year 2011, Pamuk officially entered my life. My dear friend Raghuram later told me several stories about Turkey, Istanbul and the personal and literary life of the author. Raghu had already devoured some of Pamuk’s writings, Snow being one of them, and was constantly pushing me to finish The Museum. He often expressed jealousy for not owning the book himself and wanted to hear my thoughts about the book before he purchased a copy of his own. He also, often, scolded me for taking so long to read a novel critiquing my reading abilities and taunting my so-called desire for literature and arts.

I still don’t know why I have taken so long to read this book. It has surely nothing to do with the fact that it is uninteresting in any way. It also has nothing to do with the fact that Pamuk’s literary reputation has been affected, albeit slightly, with accusations of plagiarism. Every word. Every scene. Every plot of this text is so rich that when I reach an interesting point in the novel, I shut it and move it aside. When I shared this with Raghu, he simply used to guffaw.

The dedication of this book reads To Rüya. Raghu later told me that Rüya, in fact, was Pamuk’s daughter’s name and the word means “dream” in Turkish. He also taught me how important it is to read the dedication page of every book that one reads as it is a valuable insight into the persona of the writer. Again, it was Raghu who educated me about Pamuk’s well-publicised relationship with Indian authoress Kiran Desai. Raghu was full of such fascinating literary gossips and mesmerising tales (quite resembling Pamuk’s writing, now when I think about it). Shortly after narrating these stories, Raghu passed away in 2012. And thus began my long hiatus from The Museum and Pamuk.

In the last 4 years, I have made some progress with the book, although I have been even slower than before as reading it cause a surge of emotions in me. Nevertheless, I continue to enjoy the story and how Kemal and Füzun’s relationship develop in the course of the narrative. Since hearing about Istanbul from Raghu and now having read about the social transformations in the city in The Museum, I have always had a fascination to visit the city some day. I have had countless dreams about a city I have never visited, which is surreal even for a dreamy person like me! And I have had cravings to go back to Istanbul: a place I have never visited even once, in the first place.

Today, this dream (or reality) has come true. The universe conspired in a crafty way, I must say. My work, my activism and my passion for what I do in my personal and professional life has landed me in Istanbul to attend a 7-day long forum. While I am excited about what is to begin soon, I am elated to land in a city I have had a supernatural connection with. And this connection began exactly a few hours into landing in Istanbul: I finally visited the Museum Of Innocence or Masumiyet Müzesi. Yes, an actual museum of innocence that Pamuk created in conjunction with his eponymous novel.

The museum and the novel were created in tandem, centered on the stories of two Istanbul families. On 17 May 2014, the museum was announced as the Winner of the 2014 European Museum of the Year Award.

The narrative and the museum offer a glimpse into upper-class Istanbul life from the 1970s to the early 2000s. The novel details the story of Kemal, a wealthy Istanbulite who falls in love with his poorer cousin, and the museum displays the artifacts of their love story. According to the website, the museum presents what the novel’s characters “used, wore, heard, saw, collected and dreamed of, all meticulously arranged in boxes and display cabinets.”

The collection, which includes more than a thousand objects, is housed in a 19th-century house on the corner of Çukurcuma Sk and Dalgiç Sk.

(source here)

You get a free entry into the museum upon showing a page from the novel where they stamp your entry in the shape of one of Füzun's earrings

Showing this page from the novel gets a free invite into the museum. The stamp resembles the shape of one of Füzun’s earrings.

Since I have still not read the novel entirely, as mentioned earlier, I was careful not to ruin the experience by checking objects in display from chapters I hadn’t reached reading yet. Almost each of the 83 chapters from the novel are displayed in a box with an audio guide narrating sections from the novel in Pamuk’s voice as well as telling the story of how a particular chapter or plot was conceived. You miss the line between fact and fiction as you view the countless hairpins that Kemal has carefully preserved of Füzun’s. The surrealism of it all comes alive as you hear the sound of a boat paving its way on The Bosphorus as a voice narrates excerpts from the novel about Kemal’s anguish.

I clicked several images while I was there but unfortunately they all got deleted owing to some error on my mobile phone. But I am not upset about it at all. The images are imprinted in my mind and I know this is an unforgettable experience. As I write this blog, an array of emotions and feelings are rushing through my veins. The words. The objects. The characters. The ambience. The floor. The voice. The recreation of my imagination as I devoured this novel diligently since 2001. And the magic of a love story that I am now too afraid to finish reading, lest the joy be over. I end with a quote from the last chapter of the novel (which, now, I have partly read out of curiosity): The Museum of Innocence will be forever open to lovers who can’t find another place to kiss in Istanbul. 

Of love, hate and raindrops


As the rains are dominating the background music of my mornings these days in New Delhi city, my mind has turned more contemplative than usual. For one, I have found it the toughest to write and/or blog again. Complacency, of course, is always the most visible reason. But there are demons I am fighting that are preventing me from picking up the pen again. Lest I pour out feelings I have blocked so well in the past couple of weeks.

As I stand in the balcony worrying about the supposed demons, the wind blows and the raindrops splash on my face. I wonder aloud about Suri, a cat I raised (not alone but sometimes, it did feel like he had no one but me and I had no one but him). Introducing Suri, who he was and what he means to me is rather a futile exercise for my brain as I organise my thoughts on a windy morning. But the one thought that refuses to leave my mind is this: was my Suri, really, as pensive as a cat. Or was he too smart and evolved from all these cliches and similes?

If Suri were around, I wonder what he would wonder. Lying and lazing on that balcony. Staring into oblivion. And sometimes, even, leching after the pigeon on the opposite fence. Would he think it’s too mundane out there and just sneak back inside and curl on the bed? Or would he try to gnaw on one of my bags that haven’t been blessed by his teeth marks? Well, maybe none of this. Perhaps he would rather relieve himself and simply pee on an old rag or an abandoned mattress on the floor rather than the litter box filled with fancy kitty litter granules made exclusively for him (No. Despite whatever he may believe, it certainly is designed for exclusive feline use). The wind makes you want to pee, he’d argue. With his large, green eyes. And soft, rhythmic purrs.

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Pic credit: @soorishoonnya

If Suri were around, he would not let me even type this much without creating some nuisance or the other. He would slyly slid inside the blanket and campaign for a strategic posture between my legs. The 0.05 mm space is what he would want to claim as his own. And he would fall asleep in a second rendering me helpless to move my body or position lest he wake up and create the commotion all over again. I have lost count on the number of days my legs went numb protecting Suri’s right to reclaim his space. I have also lost count on the number of times I have smiled every time this has happened.

Bansky once said: “They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing and the second, a bit later on, when somebody mentions your name for the last time.” As I shut my eyes and let the rains tell me their story, I think of Bansky and what prompted him to say this. Did he lose someone he loved? Or worse: did he lose a cat he loved to hate and hated to love, just like me? My relationship with Suri was so complicated and convoluted, I lose my chain of thoughts thinking about it. We have been through so many opposing emotions together: love, hate, affection, annoyance, joy, guilt, beauty, envy, calmness, chaos and more. And in exact equal measure too, I believe. It is hard to concentrate on the rains. Suri’s enigma continue to fog my mind.

A couple of days ago, I purchased a photo frame to (supposedly) immortalise a particular photographic moment in Suri’s life. Suri died over a month ago and, ideally, I should have done this then. It isn’t a time taking exercise. The market is nearby. There are plenty of pictures to choose from. And it doesn’t cost a lot of money to do it. But it took me the longest time to act on this long pending task. I was not procrastinating, I realise today. I was still mulling over Bansky’s words. Trapping him in a frame and putting him on my wall seemed to confirm that this would be the last of him. Would this be his second death? When all that survives is a single moment? 

The rains haven’t stopped. They will probably answer my existential queries some time later. But I am still fighting my demons. Demons that paralyse my fingers as I type my most vulnerable thoughts. Demons that make me think if Suri has, indeed, died twice. And demons that also make me wonder if he had eight lives before. I was guilty of hating him when he was alive. I am guilty of loving him even more when he isn’t around. Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or is Suri trying to tell me that that’s just another pseudo-literary rationale? Maybe the raindrops will tell me. I am waiting. . .

Of intimacy, closeness and building familiarity


I have been reading a lot about intimacy these days. Mostly, articles about building solidarities in movements, trying to save a failed marriage by building a strong female friendship with a gal pal, understanding the complexities of various kinds of friendships in our life—whether inside or outside of wedlock—regardless of sexual orientations and gender identities. I have also been sitting, for a long while now, on reading Purple Hibiscus, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, that explores familial relationships closely that also has intimacy and closeness at the center of its theme. Much of these readings and writings have propelled me to wonder about intimacy in my own life. How they have changed as I grew up. How they have shaped me as I moved on. How they have made me a presumably wiser person.

I have always been wary of having a “best friend”. I have always found it to be limiting, I think the reason I began thinking like this, right from an early age, is probably because of my upbringing in a joint family where you never have one best person. Your best person changes according to situations, needs and wants. When you want that chocolate bar that your father just won’t buy for you, it’s your uncle who becomes your best buddy. When you need a signature on a test paper that you fared badly in, it’s your sibling who comes to your rescue and emerges as the new buddy. When you know your mother is super mad at you, you seek the comfort of your aunt. My best friends kept changing in my family. And by the time I grew up to understand what “friends” are—you know, the ones we choose and not the ones we are born into—I knew I’d never have a single BFF. And I was right.

My mother recalls the story of one such BFF. She claims that I have never been so clingy and attached to one person my whole life. Apparently, I faked stomach aches on days she was absent in school because those days just felt sad and lonely without her. I also ended up actually feeling sick when she wasn’t around. We ate together, read together, played together. Hell, our moms exchanged recipes too. I was 8. And I have very little memory of all the things we did together, which according to my mother, are aplenty. I don’t remember how we grew apart. She changed schools, perhaps. Or maybe was shifted to another class section. But that was the end of what I would call my first “female friendship.”

Nearly about at that age, I also formed my first male friendship. I was 10 maybe, and attached great value to terms like guy friend and girl friend. I also strongly believed that they are very different primarily because of the genders involved and nothing else. This boy was so dear to me and I to him that we always flaunted the fact that we were people of opposite sex and yet friends. Nothing less, nothing more. Even at that age, having “just a friend” of the opposite sex was seen kinda cool by some and kinda lame by many. But that didn’t bother our friendship. I have the fondest memory of having a blast at each other’s birthday parties. And then, we drifted apart. His family was transferred to another city and that was the end of it. That ended my first “male friendship”.

So many years later, I have a handful of friends who are my “besties” regardless of their age, sex, gender, class, caste, region, religion, country, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation. But the reason why I recall those two specifically is because they are the ones that taught me intimacy. They are the ones I remember most vividly (is it possible that I recall it all so well because of the fact that they are no longer in my life and there’s nostalgia to blame?). I remember their faces, their comforting presence around me and the ease with which I shared my personal stories with them, however minuscule or insignificant it may have been at that time. I remember feeling intimate with them at every level of my relationship with them. And it is a feeling I cherish even today, despite time taking its course on them.

So many years later, I have also become wiser, learning to ignore the unimportant, forming my own judgment of what and who are important to me, mastering the art of not-giving-a-damn. Does age do that to you? I am not sure but I look forward to growing older and more (in)tolerant to people. I have lost friends, resumed friendships, gained newer ones and some have simply rusted away with time. But reminiscing about the two strong intimate friendships I have had as a growing child, I have understood what to expect in a relationship when I am getting intimate with someone. And contrary to popular belief and common assumptions, intimacy isn’t about just a physical connection. It’s purely about comfort—in being who you are, in not trying to pretend, in being relaxed as a person and in wanting that comfort some more. An intimate relationship is as rare as it is beautiful. And it’s also something that perhaps comes with an expiry date. If it hasn’t expired yet, it’s worth holding on to! Here’s hoping that the year 2016 is filled with intimacy, closeness and affection for you! Love and peace xoxo

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I end this post by sharing this image that seals a friendship I formed during my Europe travel days. This picture is dated December 2013 and was clicked at a small railway station in South Germany when we were on our way to a mesmerising ride through the Black Forest. :) 

 

 

Of learning to accept body hair status quo

Source: http://anna-grrrl.tumblr.com/post/43081201230

I was in ninth grade when I experienced shame because of body hair for the first time. We were preparing for a dramatic recitation of poetry for an inter-school competition. I was an integral part of the group that was all set to perform and winning meant a big deal. While I fully understood that and gave my best in all my rehearsals, one of my teachers said that I couldn’t go for the performance “looking like this”, pointing at my hairy legs. We wore knee-length skirts in school till tenth grade and, clearly, the fact that I had hit puberty by then manifested itself with the sudden eruption and visibility of body hair. My teacher said that we were supposed to wear our school uniforms at the competition and “no way” could I wear my knee-length, navy blue skirt parading my hairy legs while I recite a classical poem. It puzzled me how people would even want to look at my legs and whether or not there was any hair on it when I was actually performing and all the focus should have been on my face, my expressions and the lyrics of the poem.

By Carol Rossetti

By Carol Rossetti

It was the first time someone, whose opinions I valued, had pointed out something erroneous in me and/or my appearance. Interestingly enough, after this incident I began noticing hair all over my body and categorizing them as “unwanted”. Armpits, facial hair, pubic hair, hair on legs and arms—things that never made me think twice were suddenly all I could think about. I was 15 and lengths of cajoling did not help me get my mother’s permission to use the razor. Ma was worried I’d cut myself and it was reasonable for a mother of a teenaged daughter to be suspicious about my request of having a sharp-edged object.

When I was 17, I begged ma so I could go to the “beauty parlour” to get my “eyebrows done”. These were new phrases I was gradually picking up in school as I increasingly saw my female classmates coming to class with surprisingly perfect shaped eyebrows, leading to much male attention (I studied in a co-ed school). Up until then, I didn’t know what a beauty parlor was. My mother used to go to one (she still does) but I thought that’s a place only adult, married women go to because that is the age when beauty really mattered. Or so I thought. But I guess I was wrong. Beauty mattered a hell lot in school, as a teenager, who had begun feeling disgusted at her own hair everywhere on her body.

My mother tried to delay my foray into “adult womanhood” by claiming that she began her affair with beauty salons only after she got married. And that once I start, I’d never be able to stop. Well, she wasn’t lying! But I had an upcoming occasion to back me up. It was fresher’s in school: an event organised by the 12th graders for 11th graders (as a welcome to high school life) and it was a big social event for a 17-year-old me. Ma finally said yes and I went to my mother’s beauty parlour. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. The thread that was used to remove hair on my upper lip and shape my “hairy eyebrows” made be believe that they were thorns designed to kill me…one step at a time. I cried and wept, while the lady removed my facial hair. She also gave me a complimentary hair cut, just to cheer me up. But it did not. I looked at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t recognize the image of myself. When I came back home, my mother said: “You aren’t the same any more. And you never will be.”

It’s almost been a decade-long affair with beauty salons for me. I still go and, of course, have gotten used to seeing my eyebrows in a certain shape and look. In addition, I occasionally get hair on my arms and legs removed, especially during summers when I just can’t seem to get used to the idea of wearing a sleeveless tee or shorts/skirts without waxing my body hair off. I also feel that the nerves on my body that had feelings once-upon-a-time are now dead from being exposed to consistent and constant pain during hair removal. But what has changed over the years is my own confrontation with changing ideas, definitions and perceptions of beauty and how it gets associated with body hair.

I have grown from being least bothered to being most bothered, from can’t-wait-to-get-these-unwanted-thingies-out to what-is-this-excruciating-pain-somebody-rescue-me, from being embarrassed to strip in front of the salon lady to being proud of exposing the “real” me and from being a parlour regular to becoming my-body-hair-ain’t-that-bad satisfaction. It has taken me a long time to learn to accept my body and its hair, the way it is. It has taken me years to walk down the street wearing a knee-length skirt sporting waxed or unwaxed legs, with the same amount of confidence. It has taken me months to grow used to the idea that my eyebrows—regardless of their shape, size, thickness and girth—do not necessarily define my beauty. And it has certainly taken me a really long time to actually write about it all.

Of Serbia, staff meet and a supernatural connection


I double-check my e-ticket and passport. I count the number of baggage I am carrying. I chew some gum to calm myself down and avoid the restlessness and jitteriness I am feeling deep inside. As I take the cab from my home to the airport at midnight to catch a 4 am flight to Belgrade via Moscow, I wonder how uncanny all this sounds when I think about it in my head. A couple of weeks ago, I would not have even imagined such an event happening in my life. And today, here I was, travelling to Europe again. This time, for work. And that is exactly what made me wonder just how uncanny it all was.

As I arrive at the airport and collect my boarding pass, I realize I have a business class ticket. Since I could not take the flight on the day as was scheduled before (owing to visa troubles), my flight was rescheduled to the next day. Turns out there were no other tickets available except those in the business class section. It’s amazing how disappointment of not getting the visa on time turns to euphoria on discovering that I had been upgraded to first class. I collect my boarding pass as well as a coupon that apparently entitled me to first class lounge services. I sheepishly ask the lady who hands me the coupon: “Um…what exactly is that? Sorry, it’s my first time on business class!” She smiles and directs me to the lounge, where I discover comfortable recliners, massage centres, cyber café and, most importantly, free food. A buffet of assorted fruits, vegetables, dishes, snacks, juice and wine. As I pick and fill my plate, I wonder if this is for real.

I board a 6.5 hour flight from New Delhi to Moscow, while absorbing all the exquisite facilities that are offered to me on business class—welcome drink, comfortable pillows and cushions and blankets, a fancy travel kit and a three-course meal served on my seat (pity I am a vegetarian). An hour’s wait in Moscow followed by yet another 3 hour flight to Belgrade, again on business class with almost all the aforementioned facilities. Covering 10 hours, two time zones and over 6000 miles, I finally land in the beautiful country of Serbia. A kind man stands on the exit of a crowded Belgrade airport holding a placard that screams my name. For a moment, I feel too insignificant to deserve that!

I introduce myself to the kind man, who welcomes me to Beograd and escorts me to his BMW taxi. No, this isn’t a luxury I am exclusively entitled to; this is a luxury all taxi users in the city get. Most of the taxis in the city are BMW’s and Mercedes. After a 20 minute smooth ride on wide roads and bridges that oversee river Danube, I reach my ‘boatel’—a hotel that rests on a gigantic boat, of sorts. Every time an actual boat comes anywhere close to the boatel, the waves cause the boatel to swing making you feel like you’re on a Kashmiri houseboat. Soaking in this incredibleness and still unable to believe that I am in a country I had barely any knowledge of, I take a quick shower and freshen up to reach the destination of the staff meeting—the purpose for which I have been invited oh-so-gracefully and travelled so far for. I look at my image in the mirror for the 89th time just to confirm if I don’t look too over-excited, under-confident or unprepared. I head towards the meeting venue.

Sunset on the boatel

Sunset on the boatel

A short taxi ride later, I arrive at a giant building. I am told that the staff meeting is happening on the 16th floor. I gasp in amazement and take the elevator. The door opens and there are six young, smiling and brightly coloured women who cheer and shout at my arrival. I almost feel like a celebrity who isn’t aware why she is popular. We do a group hug and I instantly feel a connection with these amazing souls, who, in fact, I am meeting for the first time in my life. I had known their names and had briefly interacted with them over e-mail but this is the first time I have got the rare opportunity to link their profile pictures to their real selves. It feels surreal—to actually be able to meet them within a couple of weeks of e-interaction. These are women from all around the globe: Turkey, Australia, Cambodia, Botswana, Poland and Serbia. And now, India joins this colourful mix of people. I feel proud, responsible and hopeful for the next few days.

Since I had joined the meeting late, I am briefed about all that I have missed. I am also given gifts by my fellow team members: a special something that they have carried for each one of us from their home countries. It is beautiful and I am touched! I myself gift them my own jhumkas (earrings) and I am elated to see them wear it instantly. It makes me feel closer to them already. Sometimes, it is hard to believe that these lovely ladies are soon to be my colleagues. It feels like they are people I have met. Somewhere, sometime in some form or the other. Perhaps in a coffee shop. Maybe in a bar. Or a park, a library, a supermarket or a rally. They may not be familiar faces but there are familiar interests, common and strong linkages in our activism and politics of feminism and equal rights for all. With each of them, hired for a specific purpose, I feel there is so much to learn and unlearn from. Throughout the meeting period, I am overwhelmed and excited to realize how much there is to know and understand deeply. The variety of ideas and possibilities that are brought together on the table with the collective brains of seven individuals is quite mind-blowing.

All-staff

FRIDA staff. Picture courtesy FRIDA website: http://youngfeministfund.org/about-frida/staff/

I take part in each of the team building exercises. I learn a bit of Tai Chi, do some traditional Botswanaian dance, and make them dance to a Bollywood number. It’s an amazing mix of colours, cultures and cuisines. I make a note of my specific roles and responsibilities in this new job that sounds less of work and more of having fun and making sure that everyone else does too. I am nervous, excited and thrilled all at the same time. I am filled with hope that feminist activism around the globe continues to grow and shall never end. I bid a teary goodbye to all the new people I met. I bow my head in front of the solidarity that is built in such a short span of time. I smile as I return to my home. I smile as I relive each of these moments while typing them down.🙂

Disclaimer: This post does not reflect the views and opinions of FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund