The fear and fearlessness of being Anne Frank


Ask a book lover or a literary enthusiast–what is your memory of the first book you every read–and you are likely to get an interesting response. Some remember their first book very vividly, some have a vague idea. One of my favourite childhood book remains The BFG by Roald Dahl, but it still wasn’t the first book I ever read that I distinctly remember. I believe it was probably the Noddy series by Enid Blyton, but my memory is a little foggy around this. The one thing that I do remember from my early childhood readings and book consumptions, are three very unforgettable writers and their works. Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, Anne Mazer’s Abby Hayes series and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Notice something common? They are all diaries, letters, personalised notes, and it appealed to me so much that I started maintaining my own journal. These books made me believe that even the most mundane activities of the day needed to be jotted. That someday, someone, somewhere would find our words worthy to be published. I started the habit of diary writing at the age of 14, probably around the same time when Anne Frank started to write her own. Our reasons to write, of course, were nowhere similar. But reading Anne’s words made me believe that every one has a personal story to tell and words have value and meaning.

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It’s been over 15 years of diary writing for me, and these words by Anne still resonate with me, every time I pick up the pen and merge it with the rawness of paper. This is the quote that I have written in purple ink in my own diary. I am not as frequent a diary jotter as I used to be as a young teenager, but it still remains an important cathartic release to write in my diary. In fact, this blog is an extension of my journal writing–it collects my thoughts that I am comfortable sharing with the big, bad world online. But when I write in my own personal diary, I remember Anne Frank’s life story every single time. I try to imagine what she must have felt as she noted her own feelings and poured them onto paper, while she hid from an oppressive government in a boxed room for over 2 years, yearning for the sight of sunlight, the chirp of birds and the smiles of humanity around her.

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A screenshot from my own personal diary.

My visit to Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Netherlands was as surreal as my visit to Masumiyet Müzesi (The Museum of Innocence) in Istanbul, Turkey. That rare moment when literature meets reality, when fiction and non fiction are no longer separate, when you relive the character’s life and become the persona living to tell the tale. In the case of Anne Frank, of course, nothing is fictional. Everything is as real as it can get. Every step you take, every wall you stare at, every artefact you see is real and belonged to the Frank family. This house is not a figment of someone’s imagination, it is very much historical and a living testament to the horrors of Nazi Germany rule.

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Sample of the fearless tee! (not me in the picture). Copyright and original design by Fearless Collective https://fearlesscollective.org/

I wore my fearless teeshirt when I visited the house, because I felt the need to feel fearless before entering this house alone. Also, I am not really a solo traveler, and the only thing that would push me to travel anywhere alone would be to experience something surreal like this. Anne Frank House was on my list of places to visit before I die, even before understanding and placing Amsterdam on the world map. And when the opportunity presented itself, I wasted no time. I booked the ticket online, made a hand-written route of reaching the place (metro, train and a bit of a walk) and arrived at the house 15 minutes before the tour began. Having arrived at the place beforetime without getting lost in an alien city did began to make me feel fearless. Even if momentarily so.

 

I don’t want to blog in detail about the Anne Frank House experience, as I don’t wish to ruin the experience for anyone. I do hope you are able to visit it at some point in your life, because it is something to be lived and explored. There is nothing happy about it, though. There is nothing to celebrate, but perhaps something to be awed by. You’ll feel eerily absorbed as you climb the narrow steps, feel suffocated in the tiny rooms and stare blankly at sealed windows. For those still unfamiliar with the context, here’s a little history recap: Anne Frank, a Jewish girl, went into hiding during World War II to escape from the Nazis. Together with seven others, she hid in what was called the “Secret Annex” at Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam. She wrote letters, short stories and more in the two years of hiding, until they were all arrested and sent to concentration camps to eventually die (Her father Otto Frank was the lone survivor). 

A visit to the Anne Frank House can leave you feeling empty and disturbed. Not only for those who have read the diary, and try to relive her experience as they tour the house, but also because this is the story of a single girl. One, among the many hundred thousands Jewish children, women and men who were persecuted under Nazi Germany. It makes you wonder about the many stories that never got told, the many diaries that never got written, the many lives of countless people that never got documented like this, who faced similar or worse circumstances. Even after so many years, it makes a chill run down your spine. Every artefact, every snippet and anecdote, every visual documentary you see in the house is meant to evoke unresolved emotions. I saw a few people get misty, particularly children who listened closely to the audio guide that re-narrated Anne’s words.

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A modernised version of the red, checkered diary–the kind Anne Frank maintained as she lived hidden in Amsterdam, Netherlands

The House made me feel claustrophobic and I needed a breath of fresh air, unlike the inhabitants of the house decades ago who lived in darkness for over two years, fearing their death. There is a museum gift shop too, that sells tote bags, postcards and the original book The Diary of a Young Girl in several languages. It remains one of the few books that has been translated in over 60 languages worldwide. A Bengali edition of the same book in the museum shop, unknowingly, brought a smile on my face. The shop even sells a red, checkered diary, the same kind in which Anne started to write on June 14, 1942, as a souvenir. I did not have the courage to purchase it, though.

As I stepped out of the House, thankful for the wind, the sun and the birds, I sat alongside the canal at Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal), close to the Westerkerk church. Several boats and tourists passed by as I sat on the bench and looked at them all. Many of these were part of canal boat tours, where the Anne Frank House and the Westerkerk remain major tourist attractions, noteworthy enough to be mentioned by the guide. Every boat that crossed the house, had its guide pointing at the building saying “This is where Anne Frank and her family hid for over two years.” Some people gasped, some nodded, most gave expressions that suggested they had heard of this name for the first time. I looked at my fearless teeshirt again, and remembered Anne. She lives and breathes in every fearless moment around us. At least, that’s what I would like to believe for Anne, and the unnamed thousands.

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Of feminist guilt and learning to deal with it


I have often blogged about my feminism, the need for it and my own lessons and observations over the years. My feminism began out of mere frustration and anger, as I believe has been the case with many of my feminist sisters. Anger at being discriminated against. Anger at the social imbalance existing around us. Anger at feeling helpless when faced with oppressive situations. We all started with anger. We continue to channelize this anger into fuelling the movement, and making sure that the world knows that we still remain angry. This isn’t an irrational, violent, destructive anger, but a kinetic, fiery one that needs to constantly shine to remind everyone that the world we live in is far from being equal. If they tell you feminists are always angry, you should say “Yes! And why aren’t you?”

In my initial years of working in the development sector, I started to understand the pragmatic side of feminism. I started to see how the anger remained, and yet was being used as a positive, powerful tool to spread awareness about how important it is to not be complicit and take some action.  Today, as I understand the needs and concerns of young feminists better, I see a wave of emphasis on self-care and collective wellbeing—how critical it is to look after our own needs and not feel that it’s a selfish act, how important it is to have each other’s back, and how we cannot be sustainable to the movement, if we aren’t rested enough.

From this understanding of “self-care is not selfish” arose my own thoughts about feminist guilt. The amount of guilt we experience every single day, within the movement, outside of the struggle, in the most personalised or public spaces often goes unrecorded. The most obvious example of guilt comes from the practice of caring for our self. Did I sleep too much today? Did I take a slightly longer break at work today? Didn’t my lunch deserve that extra attention? Did I spend too much money on that dress? Did it make me happy to splurge? Don’t I deserve some pampering? Haven’t I worked hard, against all odds, to be able to afford this? Opposing thoughts dominate our mind, and the first step towards accepting self-care, as a critical part of our everyday life, is to start by not feeling guilty about it. To stop feeling guilty for feeling happy. We deserve it. We matter. In fact, when we are happy, “the system shakes a little”.

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Designed by Everyday Emma

My own awareness about self-care and its importance has made me identify feminist guilt more acutely. I have often tried to understand moments, when the feminist in us feels a tinge of guilt. For me, the biggest moment was when I decided to get married. Marriage can be a free choice, but as an institution, it will always be patriarchal and unfeminist. Chanting of shlokas and mantras that have obvious regressive tones to them, obeying patriarchal rituals, being silent to sexist statements by common relatives—these are just some instances and a common experience for many feminist sisters, who I have known and conversed with. It doesn’t matter what culture, caste, class, religion or ethnicity one belongs to. Marriage remains the ultimate slap to feminist growth. To be married doesn’t make you any less of a feminist, of course, but I felt like I compromised on my feminist vows (the ones I made to myself) when I silently listened to the male priest dictating me my wifely duties. Being married to the man I love (with all my heterosexual privilege) indeed made me happy, but also made me feel enormous feminist guilt.

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Image by The Vagenda: http://vagendamagazine.com/2015/02/on-female-guilt/

As the movement becomes more digital, instances of feminist guilt have started to emerge in the online world. We’ve all spent hours of our time on online (and offline) conversations, trying to expose sexism, casteism and misogyny in statements we hear, only to be mansplained, ignored or be categorised as “feminazis always overreacting.” As I have grown older, more aware, perhaps more tired from being part of the struggle, I have gradually learned to better utilise my energies.

From feeling exasperated and exhausted of explaining why we need feminism and why it’s important to acknowledge privilege and identify oppressions, today I have learned to stay quiet. To not engage in lengthy comment threads in order to make a point. To recognise that there are some people with whom any discussion can be futile. To respect my own capacity and energy and channelize it towards a space that would value it more. To admit that it is not my job to educate someone about the necessity of looking at things from a feminist and gender sensitive perspective. And that comes with a pinch of guilt. I have lost count on the number of times I have seen relatives, family members, school friends, old colleagues pass a statement that is obviously repulsive, regressive and plain inhuman, but I have chosen to not react, because I know that the person concerned will never understand. I know that my energy and mental peace of mind is far more important than making a case for feminism. Feminist author, translator and historian, C.S.Lakshmi (Ambai), once said: “I no longer have the time to explain what feminism means.” And I resonate with that.

What worries me most are moments of feminist guilt within our own feminist circles. When we felt guilty for not taking on more work because our plates were too full, when we felt guilty about saying no to a task at hand because we couldn’t take on more, when we felt guilty about our feminisms not being up on its toes as we made mistakes within the movement, when we felt guilty about not attending that rally, not participating in that protest, not mobilising those people because we were just too damn tired at the end of a long day.

Our biggest feminist guilt arises when we don’t feel feminist enough. It is a lot more common an experience than we’d like to admit (check out this twitter conversation on #feministdilemma), and it needs to stop dominating our lives, our politics and our approach. In a world that is trying hard to pit women against each other, manufacturing divides and factions between movements and creating more silos, solidarity and a sense of warmth is what will keep us all sane. We need to move from a competitive feminist space of pumping guilt into others in the movement, to a learning and welcoming space of  pumping love, attention, care and support. We are all products of patriarchy. Remember it wants us to feel guilty. Defeat it, by being happy and letting go of that consuming guilt.

This post does not necessarily reflect the politics or views of any organisation, group or collective and is the viewpoint of the writer alone.

Of Bombay and its cliche


Bombay…

What is it about this city that eases me into the realm of nostalgia? What is about this city that is so easy to hear, see and smell that all I have to do is close my eyes? What is it about the Arabian Sea that touches “Mumbai” that is so easy to transport to? Why not Kochi? Or Canacona? Or Mangalore? The majestic Arabian Sea touches these spots too, like many others. Then, why does my craving for sea equals the craving for Bombay? I put “Mumbai” in quotes, as I feel it is a pseudo name. Bombay, to me, is a filmy, melodramatic, slightly British sounding name. Perhaps this preference is reflective of the colonial hangover in me, as is the case with several other Indians (whether or not they deny).

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Clicked from a street corner on Nariman Point

Matunga was one of the first places/locations when I discovered and fully understood my love for streets and street spotting. Certain smells–like that of strong, filtered coffee emanating from Mysore Cafe, competing with the equally enchanting aroma of filtered coffee from its rival, Madras Cafe. Two cities, nay, two states competing with each other in a whole other state, with a whole other culture. Certain sights–like that of a lane of stationary store selling Tamil calendars, while yelling in Marathi to potential buyers to come buy it. Certain sounds–like the silent readings you hear from people picking up books at a bookstore. Let me reveal a secret: sometimes, I like to stare at the lips of people who come to bookstores. If you’d notice carefully, you’d find someone or the other reading a book moving their lips. I find that charming and oddly beautiful.

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Picture source: https://www.thebetterindia.com/108499/mumbais-matunga-railway-station-gets-an-all-women-staff/

When I first got the opportunity to study in Bombay, it was for a pretty rad course: Women’s Studies. At that time, this discipline of study was a discovery, in itself, for me. But I remember rejoicing for Bombay more. To be living *almost* on my own (I had saved enough to partially fund my education) as a 23-year-old woman in Bombay elated me. I celebrated my entry ticket to the city much more than my invite to the course and the institute in which I was to study. Of course, I learned to grow into the discipline and pretty much loved it. But, Bombay remained the foundation of my delusional mid-20s bliss. Although I spent less than 2 years in the city, I feel I aged in the true sense in Bombay. I felt I learned more than a 23-year-old woman was supposed to. I felt I discovered more in that city. I had more glass shattering moments in Bombay than anywhere else. This process of ‘ageing’ never happened again, since I left the city for good.

But I am not blind romantic of Bombay, make no mistake. I remember the smell of the sea along with the smell of filth on its shore. I remember the sound of local train alongside the noise of my co-passengers. I remember the Marine Drive lanes as much as my memory of being catcalled by rich blokes driving fancy cars on Nariman Point.

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Queen’s necklace aka Marine Drive

Recently, I was thinking of Bombay a little too much–more than my own usual permit to get lost into the web of nostalgia. And I remembered quite an unforgettable photo:

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I spotted this majestic goat one random morning in Bombay. The t-shirt says Chembur, a locality in the city where I lived for almost a year. I remember this goat posing initially and then getting angry at me for clicking the photo. I remember thinking of Bombay in this frame: an animal with horns– can be a meek goat and a ferocious attacker at the same time. Also, such a cliché.

…Bombay.

Of Montana Machu Picchu and the love for wool


Peru, as a country and culture, is so geographically and culturally distant to me, as an Indian, that to imagine exploring it, as a traveler, is beyond my everyday imagination. Even as a tourist, when one plans vacations and holidays, one doesn’t think of Latin America as an instant holiday destination—not because it isn’t worthy of being a relaxing spot, but simply because of the fact that it is so far away and situated in the other end corner of the world. The mind is often unable to wander that far, let alone our bodies and spirits. It is only after I came back that I Google-d just how far it is and the number speaks for itself: 16,762 kilometers. So, no, under usual circumstances, one wouldn’t plan or imagine a tour in the far-off Peruvian nation. Neither did I, until I learned I have to be there for work.

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I am thankful to my job that lets me travel to different places. Peru, by far, has been the farthest I have ever travelled in my life. I also had zero idea about the country and its culture. The only tiny bell that rang in my head was that of Machu Picchu. It made sense to visit it, given that I was travelling over 16,000 kilometres away from home and it was entirely legitimate to push for seeing one of the “wonders of the world”. (it’s #100 on my to-do list). It is also quite a wonder to reach there, by the way. The nearest airport is Cuzco, from where you travel to the nearest train station, Ollantaytambo in the Urubamba valley, and take a train to Aguas Calientes—the last train station to the wonder. From Aguas Calientes starts a bus that takes you to the montana, from where you can enter the world heritage site and explore by walking and climbing. This is just ONE of the many ways of reaching the wonder.  Here’s a link that will give you more ideas, especially if you are into hiking and trekking.

Cuzco will awaken the dead shopper in you, especially if you are a fan of colorful woollen. It is not a very big city, so a lot of the exploring and discovery happens on foot. And you cannot miss the countless stores on the streets that sell souvenirs, llama and alpaca wool and more. On one particularly sunny morning, I decided to walk alone on the street. Sometimes, all it takes is a bright red lip color and a pair of cool sunglasses. All I had was an engrossing book, some cash and a desire to soak up the sun. It was a memorable 2 hour walk, as I roamed around the lanes and corners, sat on benches, eavesdropped on a few couples, tried to make sense of the Spanish being spoken around me, observed the school uniform of young girls with neatly plaited hair, kept an eye out for (spitting) llamas and ogled at the skirts worn by some old, indigenous women. It was quite a satiating experience—to be the Indian woman (often the only one for miles ahead) trying to be an insider in an outside space.

I decided to enter a brightly colorful store that had a beautiful red muffler hanging at its entrance. With the desire to look around initially, I ended up buying two pullovers, one poncho, two mufflers and a sweatshirt for myself. My pockets felt empty, my heart felt full. As I raced my mind about how to negotiate the price of so many purchases, the storeowner who happened to be a lady gave me a small girl toy. “She looks you, Senorita,” she said. I don’t know if this was a marketing gimmick or a genuine friendly gesture but I thought it deserved a reciprocation. I gave her a warm hug and she Namaste-d me. The Senorita, today, sits proudly in my home in India today.

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Senorita sits on the wall of my bedroom.


Cuzco reminded me of Manali very much–a small, quaint town in Himachal Pradesh in North India that also boasts of colorful woollen all over town. But Cuzco wins extra points for being friendly to non Spanish speakers. Also, Cuzco is situated  around 3,400 meters above sea level (11,200 feet). So it is normal to feel dizzy and heavy on the day you arrive, because the human body take time to get acclimatised to the high elevation. My girlfriends and I did experience some dizziness, although drowning it in coca tea felt like the most appropriate thing to do. It’s also good practise before climbing montana Machu Picchu, in case you are thinking of climbing up till the peak. It is only after you reach the peak, when it hits you that walking in Cuzco town, in comparison, is a cakewalk.

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A street in Cusco city, situated 3400 meters above sea level

Our journey towards the montana started in the most traditional way. We utilised Inca Rail and were happy to be on a train in the Latin America. It felt comfortable and as touristy as it could possibly get. Not a morning person at all, the excitement to go to Machu Picchu helped me get up on the day of my visit at 5.30 am. The bus ride from Aguas Calientes to the entrance of the site is not more than 20 minutes, but that time period is enough for you to understand just how far and high you are traveling. A look at the window and the view around you could either give an adrenalin rush or poke the worst height fears buried deep inside you. There is literally just one route that the bus follows; everything else around you is wilderness. Tall trees, breath of fresh air and after a few minutes, low-lying clouds. I was made aware of my insignificance in such a surrounding. It felt strangely blissful.

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A view from the top: Montana Machu Picchu, as captured by my humble camera phone

The entrance to Machu Picchu felt like any other heritage site–a long line at the entrance, tourists flouting and speaking in multiple languages trying to catch your attention and a horde of tourists taking selfies and photographs at every spot. I could hear crowds speaking so many languages–German, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, English, French and Telugu (surprise! surprise!). The Telugu group and I exchanged a “we-know-each-other” glance, although we didn’t and neither did I speak or understood Telugu. It made me smile, to feel a sense of strange belonging and solidarity despite not knowing the language at all. As the walk inside the heritage site began, we spotted a few llamas minding their own business. The animal was the ultimate exotic species for many travellers and I could only silently pray that they don’t spit on irritating humans.

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A full-grown llama minding its own business, chewing on some hay.

The climb to the montana is not something everyone undertakes–it is entirely optional and something to pursue for only those who have the strength and will power to climb. At that point, as I stood at the start of this climb, all I considered was the fact that my home lay several miles away. If I have come this far, I have to go for it. And I did, mentally making a note of boosting my will power and confidence as the climb elevates. We were told it will take 2 hours to climb, which I nonchalantly dismissed looking at the trail. It looked like a bunch of steps and I couldn’t fathom why it would take 120 minutes to climb them. The steps had a different story waiting for me, of course.

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The climb, honestly, can only be described as endless. It felt like I have been climbing and walking forever, with no sight of the end of the tunnel. Interestingly though, since the route to climb up and down was the same, I encountered several climbers who were on their way back after finishing their climb up. Each one of them had a distinct smile on their face, perhaps that of accomplishment or even a sense of harmless superiority of having conquered the peak. Each one of them gave us a look of pity mixed with encouragement. Their faces seemed to suggest that they sympathised with our panting breaths, with promising eyes about the end of the journey being all worth it.

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A view of the rocky terrain that ultimately leads to the peak of the mountain

As I panted my way up, I started thinking about climbing down. It suddenly felt like an impossible thing to do, because I had already been climbing for more than 90 minutes and the thought of climbing down exhausted me more. As the climb escalates, so does the level of steep in the mountain. It starts to feel more difficult, as you have sweated and climbed enough while you reach that level of sharp and edgy heights. One small misjudgment and you are bound to fall on the rocky terrain.

I had started this mammoth climb with my girlfriends, but we had separated since owing to our varying climb speeds. Approximately ten minutes before reaching the peak, when my dying legs had almost convinced my brain to give up, a lady, who looked as old as my mother, looked at me from atop and screamed Vamos! Vamos! (C’mon! C’mon!) , clapping her hands rigorously to snap my brain out of demotivation. She didn’t speak English but spoke the language of determination and that was enough for me to not give up.

Exactly ten minutes later (truly, after 120 minutes of starting the climb), I reached the coveted spot. My sweaty eyes spotted a bunch of people of different nationalities and ethnicities. Some sat on the spot there, some were laughing and grinning, most were engaged in different selfie poses. I felt the world go deaf. I couldn’t hear anyone or anything, except the roaring wind. I could no longer smell my own sweating body. All I sniffed were clouds, whose dance around me reminded me of the smell of impending rain. The world stood still as I let the wind and clouds devour me. My legs had stopped, my heart was racing. I found a giant rock at the peak spot and sat there sipping the last few drops of water I carried in my flask.

I shut my eyes and sat there for several minutes, fighting tears leaking from the corner of my eye. In the middle of that crowd of 10-12 people, every one saw me wiping tears running down my cheeks. Yet, no one asked why. They seemed to know. They looked like they all had a similar experience when they reached the peak. They smiled approvingly–as if the tears were needed to cleanse me in some strange way. I smiled back at them.

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Operation Montana Machu Picchu successful!

An Irish couple kindly offered to click a photographic evidence of my achievement. They asked me if I was alone, and I replied yes. I knew my girlfriends were around, had probably climbed up already or were on the way. But it felt right to say yes.

Yes, I was alone, and I had never been happier.

Romance your damn self*


Of late, I have been very regular and disciplined about self-care and making sure I allot time for it in my everyday schedule. My calendar pops up with reminders to take care of myself in different ways. Sometimes, it asks me to read a poem. Other days, it asks me to write a letter to someone I love (on particularly positive days, I write letters to myself). But there’s one task in particular that I have been working on even before I understood the critical importance of self-care, self-love and body images, and that’s self-grooming.

Personally, I look at it as an incredible act of self-care, especially in a consumerist world of rising prices and beauty standards. An experimental haircut, trying on a new pair of earrings, a bright lip colour, or even wearing a skirt when your legs aren’t waxed and walking confidently down the street: these are revolutionary acts of self-care and self-love.

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Source here

Of course, a lot of self-grooming activities that we indulge in are shaped by our class, caste, religion, sexuality, and more. I was once told by a classmate that she was forced to get her eyebrows threaded as early as when she was 15. This was because “well-shaped brows” are the only thing one can see when wearing a burqa. This did not make sense to me then and I concluded that she is definitely ‘a victim of oppression’ until much later, in high school, when she told me she feels beautiful every time she steps out of the parlour. I had bushy, unshaped eyebrows as a 17-year-old and my pity for her oppression suddenly turned into my envy about her perfect brows. It dawned on me how an act can liberate as well as shame a person, almost at the same time.

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Source here

I was in graduate college, I think, when I had a conversation with an acquaintance who used to go to a men’s parlour regularly. He informed me about a nice little place in North Delhi that he used to visit regularly to trim his beard and moustache just the right length, get a chocolate facial at least once every two months, and get his eyebrows threaded. “Don’t get me wrong. I am not gay. I just like looking good,” he had told me. And I was both stumped and confused at the same time. When had looking good become related to one’s sexuality? Self-grooming, along with a million other things, apparently, not only had a gender but also a sexual identity. At that time, I had begun hearing the term ‘metrosexual’, which, frankly, sounded like a desperate attempt to hide one’s homophobia with an intellectual-sounding word. Like you just had to defend that you are straight with a straight face and straight eyebrows. Pun intended.

A man’s grooming needs are as much an aberration as a woman’s non-grooming needs. Every single time I have visited a parlour (irregularly, if I may add), I am lectured on the “abnormal” growth rate of my armpit hair or the white spots/pimples/freckles on my face that make me “ugly”. They tell me that my “tanned look needs to be removed” and I have to “work hard to look less dark”. Like it’s some kind of a communicable disease that needs to be taken care of, lest it spreads everywhere.

I have understood that beauty parlours are spaces where consumerism, capitalism and patriarchy amalgamate in the most vicious ways. Over the course of years, I have experimented and hopped from one parlour to another in search of a non-judgemental, happy and positive place. A place that doesn’t advise me to spend more money so I look less hideous. Of course, I am privileged enough to make that decision to spend or not spend the money that I have. But I have come to realise that a beauty parlour is a place that body-shames you the most. It is ironic because you go there to feel better about yourself, hoping that you will emerge looking different, feeling better and exuding increased levels of confidence.

A few years ago (when I was single), ahead of a friend’s wedding in Benaras, I visited a local parlour to get help with sari-draping and make-up. While the lady was helping me out, she gasped in horror looking at the hair on my stomach. She asked me why I hadn’t got it waxed. A simple “Because I didn’t want to” did not satisfy her. She probed further.

“I like hair over there. It makes me feel happy when I look at it,” I told her.

She seemed very uneasy and uncomfortable with that response.

“And your boyfriend is fine with it?” she asked. (But of course, as a woman, I need to be straight and in need of a boyfriend, potentially a husband.)

“Um. I don’t have one.”

“And now you know why,” she stated, as a matter of fact.

I never forgot that. But I learned that there is no one else that can make me feel good about myself except me. Not even the people I pay money to look/feel different (if not better). Learning to love myself became much easier after that. Because I figured if I wouldn’t be okay with my body – whether it is shaved, tanned, hairy, skinny, voluptuous, or freckled – no one else would be. And I will not let that happen.

* A quote by Yrsa Daley-Ward.

Originally published on InPlainspeak here.

Of feminist circles and their eligibility criteria


In an interview I read a while ago, a quote stayed with me. C.S. Lakshmi, better known as ‘Ambai’, a feminist author, translator and historian, spoke of female friendships, literary ambitions and Tamil writing. On being asked about her willingness to accept the label of being a feminist, she said: I no longer have the time to explain what feminism means. This struck a chord. It illustrated just how important the movement is, just how tired we are defending it, justifying it and constantly countering post-feminist world claims and just how much work we have to do as the clock ticks away.

Someone once asked me why I am such an “angry feminist”. Someone else once lauded me for my “happy feminism” as a relief from a circle of “sad, depressed feminists” that they are surrounded with. Someone once said I am too privileged to truly claim a feminist identity. (huh?) This amuses me. But it also alarms me, because it belittles the very purpose of a movement set out to erase inequality, oppression and marginalisation.

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I was once in a gathering of young feminist activists from all over the world. We kickstarted the day by introducing ourselves, where we are from and how we began our feminist journeys. It was one of the most emotional experience of our lives. Because for so many of us, it began with anger.Anger at not being taken seriously despite repeated attempts. Anger at several helpless situations that we were confronted with and continue to do so. And this anger didn’t disappear. It channelized its way into a movement from which we gained much energy, peace and liberation.

Over the course of our journeys, we have all felt hopeful, happy, agonised, ecstatic, positive, eccentric, existentialist and so many other things. There are days when I wake up feeling burdened at the amount of work that still needs to be done to meet our feminist goals. There are days when I feel I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this collective. There are days when I feel I need to buck up and think of ways I can contribute better. And that’s the best part about being engaged in a movement that is so relevant, contemporary and contextual.


Of late, I have been witnessing a sense of competition in feminist circles and gatherings. Their feminism is more inclusive. Hers is more environmentally responsible. Yours isn’t intersectional enough. I have seen folks proclaim these out loud or present their viewpoints in a ‘mine-is-better-than-yours’ manner. I have also been seeing some of my feminist sisters openly denouncing particular people identifying with feminism. And that scares me a little. While it is important to be constantly evolving our politics and recognising where our privilege is blinding us, it is hurtful to be denying the identity to those who want it.

For so many of us, feminism is a tool we use to fight sexism, casteism, ableism, classicism, homophobia, misogyny and patriarchy every single day of our lives. It is a cushion we rest on to escape the inequalities that surround us. It is a powerful pen that we pick up to respond to oppression. It is the welcome respite of love from a world of hate and judgment. And for many of us, it began at different stages of our lives. Some of us discovered it after leaving an abusive husband. Some of us found it on the day we were introduced to it by a fellow feminist friend. Some of us read about it somewhere and got curious. Some of us held on to it as we embraced our queerness. Some of us relied on it as we broke caste and racial barriers. This gif somewhat explains beautifully how I see the movement growing as we support each other through the journey.


Once, my mother shared a personal story of standing up for her own right. It was the first time she had acted upon something that she had been silent about for the longest time in her life.

“I am scared I am turning into you,” she said.

“What do you mean?,” I asked.

“You know. Feminist.,” she said with a quiver in her voice, after having uttered the F word. “What if I have turned into one?,” she worried.

“Well, you are not alone,” I assured her.

Picture of a scene from the Hollywood film Hidden Figures.

Picture of a scene from the American film Hidden Figures.

There is no time and there’s so much to do. And the only thing that can catalyse the process is love and support. Let us embrace people into the movement. Let us be constructive in identifying where we are misguided in our politics. Let us acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them. But let us not deny people from the circle. Because feminism doesn’t need an eligibility criteria. And, really, we should all be feminists.


 

This post does not necessarily reflect the politics or views of any organisation, group or collective and is the viewpoint of the writer alone.

Of finding silence amid noise


I toss and turn on my bed. I feel slightly cold from the wind around me. I am staying at a resort, about 80 km away from Salvador, a Brazilian city in the state of Bahia, which is over 14,000 km from New Delhi, India. While I do this geographical math in my head, I toss and turn a little more. I check the time on my mobile. It’s 5.30 am! I look outside my window and it’s still a little dark, with the sun just about to pop up and say hi. I am amazed at how my eyes just popped open at this strategic time. I am not a morning person at all. But somehow, Bahia and the ocean around me has turned that around.

I try and dismiss this as a crazy coincidence and go back to sleep again. Only, I can’t. I see the crack of dawn from my window and can no longer stay indoors. Something tells me I need to smell the wind outside. I wake up, put on my shorts and running shoes and walk towards the beach. While I am getting ready, I notice a slight drizzle. Is it raining? How is that possible? The sun’s almost out and is shining bright! Perhaps the tropical weather here is trying to teach me a lesson on dual personalities. I grab my sunglasses as the rain stops as abruptly as it began.

I walk on a narrow, sandy path towards the ocean. I am engulfed with a slight sense of fear. I am a Piscean by birth. So if zodiac signs are to be believed, my personality should have an affinity for water. In a lot of ways, it does. I love being on the beach. The waves, the sea and the water bodies have the kind of soothing and calming effect on me, like nothing else (I have blogged about this before). But the water also scares me. The mighty power of the waves remind me of my mortality and insignificance as a human being. And deep waters can terrify a below average swimmer like me.

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South Atlantic Ocean, as viewed from a beach resort near Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

As I walk on the sand, maintaining a safe distance from the roaring ocean, I look around. I see no one anywhere nearby. No men, women, children or humanity around me. I see a strange looking bird that looks a lot like a vulture, staring back at me. I see a yellow and brown colored sparrow (or is it a humming bird?) fluttering around the edge of the waves. And I see these birds enjoying the solitude as much as I am. All alone on a long coastline far away from home, I have never felt more alive and aware of my existence.

I try to conquer my fear of being alone near the mighty waves and inch slightly closer to them. A big wave comes roaring ahead and I take a few steps back. It barely touches my ankles and runs away. The cold water touching my feet brings a smile on my face. I get a little more encouraged and inch closer. This time the wave is bigger, stronger and colder. They taste my weak knees and I scream with delight! Having tasted the salty water on my legs, I walk further down and hunt for a quiet spot.

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It’s strange that I am looking for a quiet spot at a space where there’s literally no one around. No noise. No people. No conversations. No words around me. And yet, I go looking for it. It is an eerie, yet liberating experience to be at a space that literally feels like in the middle of nowhere. The only consolation is the dry land. The horizon beyond it is endless and infinite. It is the loudest silence you will ever hear. And I soak it all in as the wind and waves roar ahead of me. I do manage to find a quiet spot. It’s inside me. And I realise I can revisit it any time I want. Amid all the noise. Amid all the conversations. Amid all the loud silences. All I need is some ocean, wind and strange looking birds. They remind me of Frida Kahlo’s memorable quote:  “It’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”