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 conquering fears and insecurities in an alien land: Part II


There is nothing more rewarding and satisfying than figuring out the way in an alien city. Personally, I have lived and survived in six cities so far and each city has been challenging in its own way. But the day I helped a fellow foreigner find his way, I remember giving myself a little pat on my back. There’s a certain pride in answering: “Oh, R K Studio? Walk straight. Take a left and then a right. It’s right next to so-and-so building,” to a lost pedestrian/driver. Finding out the way in Prague was a little different, of course. Firstly, I was there for a limited period of time and wasn’t going to be living there for long. And secondly, I was prepared in the best possible way I could. I had maps of the city and print outs of the city’s metro and tram stops.

But just how prepared can you be in an alien city? It’s certainly easier in a cosmopolitan city like Prague as almost everyone understands English (the local language of the city being Czech). But for someone like me who can never figure our routes and always gets lost (especially after sunset), this was a challenge that I feared. While Prague is much “safer” than several other cities with the roads and lanes usually buzzing with people, I knew I’d hate the clueless look on my face and the feeling of helplessness in my heart every time I’d be on the street on my own. I had figured out everything—walk for 0.8 km from hostel to the metro station. Take metro line B and get down four stops later. Take the right exit and then walk 300 meters more. By my sharp calculation, I should have reached the venue in 20 minutes. I reached the conference venue in 60 minutes instead. The initial 0.8 km turned into 2.8 km as I kept encircling the same spot somehow! And though I got down at the right stop, I ended up taking the wrong exit and started walking in the opposite direction. By the time I could muster enough courage to ask a local, I had already made three mistakes and was running late by over 15 minutes!

Thankfully, predicting my dismal performance, I did leave the hostel way earlier as I knew something like this would happen. And I did not want to arrive at the venue fashionably late and being “so Indian” about it. This was Day 1 and I had enough backup plans. Personally, when I am walking on the road in an alien city, my hesitation in asking a fellow local is not about what its consequences might be—Can I trust a stranger? Would he/she even know the route? Does he/she look like a local? It’s more about what the perceptions might be—Would he/she think I am lost? Would he/she judge me for my poor understanding of routes? Is he/she silently laughing at my hapless state? And that’s what stops me from taking help, or rather, asking for help when I am lost.

To go or not to go? That is the question

To go or not to go? That is the question

After my carefully executed pilot, I took the risk of leaving hostel a little later on Day 2. Since I had made the mistake of encircling the same spot previously, I knew which turn not to take. I took the right exit. Reached the venue on time. One mission accomplished. Day 2 was the day of my paper presentation. So, there were other fears and insecurities that demanded attention. I had heard enough speakers by Day 2 and had got an idea about the variety of content people were bringing to the table and the kind of critique and questions to expect. Since I was going to be presenting a paper on something so specific and regional—21st century South Asian erotic literature—I realized I had a certain epistemic privilege. In a room full of people from all over the world, I was the only Indian who had read literature emerging from the Indian subcontinent. And that gave the much needed edge to a nervous 25-year-old MA in a room full of 40-plus PhDs and research scholars.

I presented my paper to a really interested and engaged audience that looked eager to know more about English writings around sex and sexuality coming from a region struggling with the demands of its customs, cultures and traditions. It was a fantastic experience of sharing insights of a society and culture that I represented, familiarizing others to it and looking at it together with an objective eye. The participants enjoyed hearing what I had to say and I was more than happy with the content that I presented and the comments that I generated. Another fear of feeling an inferiority complex conquered. Mission two accomplished. B

y Day 3, I had somewhat become a pro. On the last day of the conference, I took the same route back, this time reaching back to my hostel from the venue in a record 15 minutes. No unwanted detours. No wrong exits. No wrong turns. No wrong purchasing of the metro ticket (yup! I did that too once). And no encircling the same spot. I entered the hostel with a big grin on my face. I dumped my handbag on my bed. Had a glassful of water. And played the entire three days in my head. I knew I had achieved and won a lot of things in the last few eventful weeks. Got selected to present a paper to a global audience. Planned the whole solo trip alone. Financed it entirely with the help of my well-wishers. Handled all the expenses on my own without splurging anything extra anywhere. Gave the presentation. Interacted with a well-read and welcoming group of academics. But none of these made me feel as proud of myself as this: I learned how to use public transport in an alien city and did not get lost. Mission three accomplished.

Concluded

Read Part I here

आशा से गुफ़्तगू


आशा से मेरी मुलाक़ात मेरे दफ़्तर में दाखिल होने के दूसरे दिन हुई | उनसे मिलने से पहले उनके बारे में अपने साथियों से काफ़ी सुना था | इस वजह से मैं थोड़ी बहुत तैयार भी थी ऐसी हस्ती से मिलने जो, लोकप्रिय राय के अनुसार, मिलनसार और खुशमिजाज़ थी | किसी ने शायद सही कहा है: जनता कभी ग़लत नही होती | जैसा सुना था वैसा ही पाया | मिलने के आधे घंटे के अंदर मैं उनसे हँसने बोलने लग गयी | मुझ जैसे अंतर्मुखी इंसान के लिए यह एक परिवर्तन था | मिलने के कुछ घंटों में ही हम दोनो ने व्यक्तिगत और पेशेवर स्तर पर कई सारे चर्चे कर डाले | नारीवाद सोच से लेकर गैर संस्कारी संस्थाओं का योगदान, लिंग, जेंडर और लैंगिकता से लेकर काम के प्रति प्रतिबद्धता: इन सभी विषयों पर हमने ना सिर्फ़ चर्चा बल्कि आलोचना भी की | उनके साथ बातचीत करने में मुझे बहुत अच्छा लगा | जिस आसानी से मैं उनसे संवाद कर रही थी, ऐसा लगा मुझे एक ऐसी सहेली मिली है जिसे मैं बरसों से जानती हूँ |

उनकी व्यक्तिगत ज़िंदगी इतनी कमाल की है की सुन कर मैं दंग रह गयी और उनके होसले को मैने मन ही मन दाद दिया | बी. सी .ए. (बाचुलर्स इन कंप्यूटर अप्लिकेशन ) में तीन साल विशेष रूप से पढ़ने के बावजूद, एक लड़की होने की हैसियत से, आशा को कंप्यूटर नाम के साधन से दूर रखा जाता था | अपनी खुद की आर्थिक स्थिति और सीमित विकल्प के कारण उनकी शिक्षा भी सीमित रूप से ही पूरी हो पाई | अपनी ही कक्षा में आशा अल्पसंख्यक थी | ऐसे माहौल में ना तो कंप्यूटर या तकनीक के प्रति रूचि हुई और ना ही इस ज्ञान को आगे बढ़ाने का ख्याल आया | कंप्यूटर में ग्रॅजुयेट लड़की ने अपनी ज़िंदगी का पहला ई-मैल फ़ैट (फेमिनिस्ट अप्रोच टू टेक्नालजी ) में आकर टाइप किया | इस सच्चाई को सुनकर मैं हैरान रह गयी | जिस लड़की ने इस विषय को अपने तीन साल दिए और जो सामाजिक पूर्व धारणाओं की वजह से अपने रूचि को कभी जगा ना सकी, आज एक गैर संस्कारी संस्था में ना ही कंप्यूटर से संबंधित काम करती है बल्कि टेक सेंटर में आने वाली किशोरियों को कंप्यूटर और तकनीक से संबंधित विषय सीखती भी है | आज ना ही उन्हे रूचि एवं दिलचस्पी है बल्कि टेक सेंटर को एक “वोमन फ्रेंदली” रूप उन्होने ही दिया है |

आशा फ़ैट की सबसे पुरानी सदस्य है और हमारे परिवार से तीन साल से जुड़ी हैं | वैसे तो उनका पद प्रोग्राम असोसीयेट का है लेकिन मूल रूप से वह एक शिक्षिका हैं | जो भी किशोरियाँ हमारे टेक सेंटर में कंप्यूटर और इंटरनेट सीखने आती हैं, उन्हे वो ही पढ़ती हैं | उन्होने खुद अपना ज्ञान अपरंपरागत तरीके से पाया है | फ़ैट से जुड़ने के बाद ही उनके अंदर कंप्यूटर आदि यंत्र के प्रति भय मिटा | आशा के पढ़ाने का ढंग किताबी नहीं है | वह बातचीत द्वारा लड़कियों को व्यस्त रखती हैं | भाषण देना उनकी आदत नहीं बल्कि लड़कियों को इस तरह प्रोत्साहित करती हैं की हर क्लास में वे ज़्यादा बोलें, ना कि वो | हर थियरी को प्रॅक्टीस से जोड़ना भी उनकी एक अदभुद कला है |

नारीवाद और नारीवाद सोच पर एक सेशन के दौरान उन्होने “फेमिनिसम” जैसे शब्दजाल को बहुत ही सरल रूप में समझाया: वह सोच जो हर मौजूदा अधिकार पर “क्यों?” का सवाल उठाए | मेरी सारी पढ़ाई एक तरफ़ और यह सरल परिभाषा एक तरफ़ | आख़िरकार, नारीवाद सोच तो यही है ना: उन सारे भेदभाव और सामाजिक अन्यायों के खिलाफ आवाज़ उठाना जो औरतों के सशक्तिकरण में बाधा बनती है | लड़कियों के उत्साह का शिकार मैं भी बनी | उस भरी कक्षा में आशा के एक नये विद्यार्थी का जन्म हुआ और अपने इस नये अवतार से मैं आज भी प्रसन्न एवं संतुष्ट हूँ |

मेरे लिए आशा एक ऐसी शिक्षिका हैं जो ना ही दूसरों को सिखाती हैं बल्कि दूसरों से वे खुद भी सीखती हैं | मेरा इस लेख को हिन्दी में लिखने का भी एक प्रमुख कारण है | वैसे तो मैं खुद को कोई लेखिका नहीं समझती परंतु जब भी लिखती हूँ, अँग्रेज़ी में ही लिखती हूँ | आदत कह लीजिए, या रूचि, या ज्ञान | यदि मैं आज हिन्दी में इतना कुछ लिख पा रही हूँ तो वो आशा की ही देन है | उनसे मिलने के पश्चात मेरे ज़ंग लगे हिन्दी को एक नयी जान मिली और मैं इस भाषा से और रूबरू हुई | हिन्दी में अपने विचार प्रकट करने का कारण एक और भी है: आशा खुद अपने अँग्रेज़ी के ज्ञान से ज़रा शरमाती हैं | अँग्रेज़ी के अधिकतर माहौल में खुद को सीमित पाती हैं | आज उन्ही पर कहानी लिखना हिन्दी में ही मुनासिब लगा | आशा से आशा करती हूँ की मेरी इस प्रयास को वो सराहेंगी और इसी तरह अपने अदभुद ज्ञान और उत्साह को हर तरफ बाँटेंगी | आपको ढेर सारा प्यार और स्नेह xx

A cheerful Asha at the Tech Center

A cheerful Asha at the Tech Center

I met Asha on the second day of joining office. Before meeting her, I had heard a lot about her vibrant personality. This is why I was somewhat prepared to meet someone who, according to popular opinion, was an affable and positive person. Maybe they are right when they say that the public can never be wrong. She turned out to be exactly as I had heard. Within half an hour of meeting her, I began to laugh and talk with her. For an introvert person like me, this was a major exception to the rule. Within hours of meeting, we had already discussed so many things both at the personal and professional level. Ranging from feminist thought to their identity in the development sector, sex, gender, sexuality and work commitment: not only did we discuss but offered each other our very own critique on these topics. I really enjoyed striking a conversation with her. The ease with which I was interacting with her, it felt like this is a friend I have known for a long time.

Her own personal life journey is so incredible that I was stumped to hear about it. I appreciated her morale and self confidence as she unraveled her story. Despite enrolling in a Bachelors for Computer Applications and giving three years of her life to obtaining this degree, as a woman, Asha was categorically kept away from an instrument called the computer. Her own financial status only allowed for limited options as far as completing her basic education was concerned. A woman, and by extension, a minority in her own class, neither did she develop any specific interest towards computers and technology nor did she get an opportunity to expand her knowledge on the same. A graduate in computers, Asha typed her first e-mail in the office of FAT. I was surprised to hear about her reality. A woman who gave three years of her life to computers and disliked it majorly owing to societal assumptions about a woman’s capability in front of a technical instrument. Today, she was not only working in an NGO using a computer but also teaching computers and technology to adolescent girls at FAT’s Tech Center. Today, not only is she interested and zestful about it but is a major contributor towards making the Tech Center a “woman friendly” space.

Asha is the oldest family member of FAT who has been associated with us for the past three years now. Strictly speaking, she is a “Programme Associate”. However, I view her as a teacher as that is the identity I see her as. She teaches computer and Internet to the young girls who come to our Tech Center. She herself is a live example of having learned the unconventional way. It is only after joining FAT that her fear of machines like computers went away. Asha’s teaching style has never been bookish. She keeps the girls engaged through a healthy and friendly interaction. She is not the cliched lecturing woman. Instead, she encourages girls to speak more in each of her classes. She is incredibly talented in converting the theory that she has learned and understood into practice inside a live classroom.

During one of the sessions on feminism and feminist thought, Asha deconstructed the supposed jargon around feminism in the most simple and clear manner: that which questions authority and asks the question “why?”. My entire theoretical knowledge was one; her own understanding and definition was another. After all, isn’t feminism all about raising one’s voice against any discrimination and societal oppression that becomes a barrier in the path of woman’s empowerment? The enthusiasm among girls spread and infected me. A new student was born in that class and even today, I am extremely happy and satisfied with my new avatar as Asha’s student.

To me, Asha is the kind of teacher who not only teaches but also learns from what her students teach her. There is a reason why I chose to write this article in Hindi. While I do not consider myself to be a writer but whenever I do write (or have written), I have chosen to do so in the English language. Call it my habit, interest or sheer knowledge. But if I have mustered enough courage to actually pen my words in Hindi, it is Asha’s contribution. It is only after meeting and knowing her that my rusted Hindi got a new life and I met this wonderful language all over again. Expressing my thoughts in Hindi also has an ulterior motive. Asha is conscious of her Hindi. In a world where English is the norm, Asha finds her own knowledge and grasp over the language to be limited. But to write a story about her demanded that I write it in a language that she relates to. I hope that Asha would appreciate this effort of mine and would continue to inspire and encourage several people with her knowledge and enthusiasm. Lots of love and hugs xx

Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT) is a a not-for-profit organization that believes in empowering women by enhancing their awareness, interest and participation in technology. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect that of the organization.

This article was originally published on Campus Diaries.

Draped in Questions


Sari is said to be one of the most complicated clothing that can actually be worn in the most simplest manner. Many who wear it deem it as nearly impossible to learn to perfect. Some find it difficult to “handle”. Some are selective with the kind of texture they prefer on the six-nine yard clothing. Many like themselves in it but do not have the time or energy to master its demands. To each their own.

I was never fascinated by the sari. This despite the fact that I grew up in a household full of different types of saris, a wide variety of colours and an exclusive blouse bag, for crying out loud! My mother has worn a sari practically all her life—she began wearing a half sari at the age of 14 and once she draped the sari as an 18-year-old, the only time she abandoned it is since then is when she hit the gym to exercise in a salwar kameez (though she is forever shy to embrace the stark enemy of the sari) or when she went trekking owing to some pilgrimage or religious commitment that required long hours of walking (everything is fair in love, war and God). I grew up watching ma wear sari with such ease that I was put to shame when I realized I took longer to wear my clothes. My father folded saris, ranging from chiffon to cotton to synthetic, with such speed that I wondered how long has he been “practicing” such a difficult task.

A Kancheevaram silk sari

A Kancheevaram silk sari

As a young girl trying to embrace my “inherent” femininity, I did experiment with my dupattas draping it like a temporary sari but I never cared enough or had the patience to surround my body with a six yard long piece of clothing. It looked complicated—the way ma’s fingers intertwined with the folds, the way she made her pallu, I was just thankful for my PJs!

I was 19 when I wore a sari for the first time as an adult. As a 19-year-old trying to juggle with the pallu of a pattu sari at a cousin sister’s wedding, that several pairs of eyes had carefully devoured, I realized that consciously or unconsciously, I had openly declared a transformation—that I wasn’t a girl anymore, I was embarking upon “womanhood” (whatever that meant).

It was a blink-and-miss opportunity for me to even contemplate on the enormity (if any) of my decision to wear a sari. Several weddings and other “occasions” (read: excuse to wear a sari) happened afterwards and I think I wore it again maybe once or twice. In the meanwhile, I was beginning to pay more attention to my mother’s sari collection, how she maintained them, what colours she chose and the story that each of her possessed sari told. I began taking interest in these stories and began experimenting with the long clothing. Ma was secretly happy with me “embracing my womanhood” by gradually developing an interest in wearing saris. I don’t know how “womanly” this desire was but I simply decided to learn a little more about the so-called complicated piece of clothing. It seemed like an interesting puzzle to solve.

I took almost a year to understand the art of wearing a sari. During this time, I loved experimenting with any sari I could beg, borrow or steal. I played with its length. I experimented with different styles. I made mistakes with the folds. I angered dad every time I did not fold a sari after literally having played with it. But I finally felt I could drape myself with the sari without any external help. It wasn’t perfect but it was good enough to be public and comfortable enough for me to stay put.

They say you look more mature in a sari. They say you look a “certain age” when you wear a sari. But I have simply looked it as yet another piece of clothing that covers exactly those areas of my body that I wish to cover and reveal exactly those that I wish to flaunt. At the most basic level, it is just another attire that one can choose to wear. Anytime. Anywhere.

Perhaps, the world doesn’t look at it so simply. Every time I have worn a sari since I came to terms with it, I have involuntarily invited a standard bunch of questions. Is it your birthday? Anniversary? No? Then, what’s the occasion? Something special today? No? Then what the heck are you doing wearing a sari in the middle of the day/night?  Perhaps these stray of questions are also linked to my marital status (I am unmarried).

It is amazing how, in today’s world, wearing a sari invites so many questions. Wearing a sari also invites yet another standard response: “Looking so good beta! Ab toh shaadi kar hi lo!” implying that the so-called level of maturity that you display while draping the daring sari is a reflection of your marriage clock ticking. A few decades ago, sari (for women) in traditional households was a compulsion. Today, it’s more of a choice, perhaps even a reflection of one’s lifestyle, if one could argue it that way. But, for an unmarried woman who chooses to wear a sari on an “occasion-less” day, the experience can be extremely exhausting. It’s just a piece of clothing. Let’s leave it at that, shall we? 🙂


 

This post was originally published on Campus Diaries

Learning about feminism: through the eyes of young girls’


I enter the Tech Center with a lot of inhibitions. About twenty girls who have never seen me before eyeing me from top to bottom. I adjust my dupatta. Maybe they are judging if it matches with the rest of my attire. My colleague, Shivani, who is about to take a session on “Feminism” with these young girls has repeatedly assured me how beautiful and wonderful these girls are. But I have my set of inhibitions. This is my first entry into a world of young girls coming from urban poor slums wanting to know about feminism and curious enough to come together and listen about it. I take out my notepad to make notes, if any.

Shivani introduces me to the class explaining my entry into the FAT team. All thirty pair of eyes on me. I am about to break into some more sweat when they all yell “Hi!” with the biggest smile on their faces. It’s amazing how a smile can break any ice. I smile back at them and get the confidence to reciprocate their friendliness. Things are not as half as bad as I thought. I sit with them to listen to the class keenly.

The session begins with a simple question—what do you think is the difference between a boy and a girl? Girls enthusiastically raise their hands to answer. Some say there is really no difference except their reproductive organs. Some point out the difference in their respective behaviours. Some vaguely mention the word ‘power’ and how its distribution varies among boys and girls. I am amazed at this response and wonder if I even knew what ‘power’ meant at that age except if used in the context of electricity.

Shivani explains the difference between sex and gender to the girls and there is a sneaky giggle at the s-word. I can’t hold back my smile and join them in their curious snickering. The word आज़ादी (freedom) comes up for discussion. Girls react differently. Some look at each other as if it sounds like something one should have but for some reason, one hasn’t got it yet. Some claim they have complete azaadi to do anything they want. When asked if they can go late at night alone on a street, they are shocked at such a demand. But why would we want to do that?, they ask. But what if you want to? You don’t want to today because you do not even have the option to consider it. There’s silence and a lot of musings.

Picture courtesy FAT

Picture courtesy FAT

Shivani throws in another situation. What if your brother comes late at night? That’s okay. He is a boy. That’s allowed, girls agree in unison. Why do you think that is? Girls realize that it’s a question always at the back of their head but they have never explored it further. Where does such a thought process come from? How does the presence or absence of a vagina and/or a penis decide things for people that affect their everyday lives? Girls whisper around and wait patiently for one magical word to answer this inequality. पितृसत्ता. Patriarchy. There’s silence. Girls are still absorbing the enormity of the answer and the weight of this heavy word.

So, how do we deal with this?, asks one curious girl. By fighting patriarchy. Girls voice their everyday patriarchal experiences in the session and these are linked to the idea and concept of feminism—not merely as a term to be understood but as an everyday need and a daily lived experience. Raising our voices against discrimination. Being stubborn about wanting to claim our rights. Constantly asking why and questioning authority. Changing people’s mindset. By dialogues, discussions and comparisons. By perseverance, persistence and patience. By understanding differences, respecting it and negotiating with it. And isn’t that what feminism is all about?

Girls gasp at the F-word. Some have vaguely heard of it before. Some are neutral to it. Some know it because it is the first word in the abbreviation FAT. As the term is unfolded in front of them, the girls notice how their association with the F-word is almost an everyday affair, without them realizing it. Some of them have fought or are still fighting for their right to study further. Some have raised their voices against parental pressure to get married the moment they turned 18. Some have supported their mothers and become their shields when their fathers have raised hands on them. Some have garnered the confidence to travel on their own in Delhi and wear what they want to and what they feel comfortable in. I have been told that girls from the Tech Center in the past have even screened movies on menstruation using community screening as a tool to keep the feminist struggle alive.

Shivani explains how the Tech Center, today, is a feminist space that provides young girls from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, with the much-needed freedom to come, learn not just about technology and new age communication tools but also foster a spirit of awareness and activism about women’s rights and girls’ issues. It’s a space where girls share stories about lived experiences and do some loud thinking on it, while they simultaneously learn how to lose inhibitions (if any) on using and working with technology. This is what we call a ‘Feminist Approach to Technology’. We are FAT and we love it! The girls laugh and spread cheer. At the end of the session, two of them give me goodbye hugs. My day feels worthwhile.

This post was originally published here.

Of France, Italy, Spain and “the end”


I have had my share of France when I visited Pondicherry (now, Puducherry) two years back. I remember being fascinated by anything French: from cuisine to the architecture to the literature, probably fascinated more by its European roots as, to me, European, was French. What foreign language do you know? French. What was eight grade history all about? The French Revolution. Where is Simone de Beauvoir from? France. French feminism. French kiss. French fries. France was the quintessential representative of anything European. I thought I had experienced all the French-ness that I could when I visited Pondi, completely convinced that this was my best bet of experiencing Europe in India. I think I spoke too soon.

I began my affair with France by landing in its capital city, Paris. The city that I had heard so many rumours about that it became almost necessary to go there to verify them. I was told that it is one of the most unsafe cities in the world. I haven’t been everywhere but I can vouch that it is as safe and/or unsafe as Mumbai or Delhi. There is nothing in Paris that stands out as peculiarly threatening  to life. I may be wrong. But I am alive to tell the story without having been robbed, mugged or groped. And I have been on the streets of Paris during all times of the day. Well, mostly. I was also told that France is the most romantic country in the world with Paris being oh-so-mushy. Again, nothing in Paris stood out as particularly romantic. The couples I saw making love at the underground railway station were no different from the elderly couple giving each other a good night kiss at an Italian coffee shop.

Eiffel versus Human

Eiffel versus Human

But, Paris felt loud. Its glamour, its fashion and its people. They seemed to scream their existence. Not in an irritating fashion but in a hey-you-can’t-help-but-give-us-a-second-look way. And you would. You would look at the Eiffel Tower twice. Thrice maybe if you go in the night and feel awed at its glitter and extra-ordinariness. The farther you look at it, the more it mesmerizes you. The closer you go, the tinier you feel. You would look at Da Vinci’s painting twice when you visit the Louvre Museum. You would wonder at Mona Lisa’s painting and wonder what the heck is her expression all about and why is the world so obsessed with it. You would stare at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and muse over its architecture and sculpture even if you don’t understand it. Paris is all about wondering why is it so famous. And by the time you leave the city, you wouldn’t know why but you would agree with those who campaign about the Parisian way of life and nod at what Hemingway had to say about the city: “But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.” 

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Louvre Museum, Paris

From Paris, I ventured into French Riveria, wanting to experience more about the country than just its capital. I explored Cannes and Nice (pronounced as niece, mind you), while also visiting Monte Carlo, Monaco, ending up having the best time in these wonderful coastal cities. With the Mediterranean Sea following you along the way as you travel from one city to another, the sea literally never leaves you. Its magnanimity follows you like a shadow presenting itself in different ways in different cities. Cannes, with its red carpets, fashion brands and private yachts. Nice with its feel of French countryside, the postcard picture perfect sunrise and sunset at the beach and Monte Carlo with its richness of people and culture. Each of these was an experience of its own.

A quiet beach in Nice Ville

A quiet beach in Nice Ville

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The city of Monte Carlo

With so much France in my system, I had pretty high expectations with my next destination: Italy. I was greedy for more as I neared my next stop and Italy did nothing to disappoint me. One of the most visually appealing cities, Rome, was my first stop. On first look, it looks like an abandoned city where civilization once flourished and is now just a crucial chapter in history textbooks. Rocks. Ruins. And rust. That’s Rome, in a nutshell. Unforgettable, though. With its wonderous Colosseum and the popular Trevi Fountain. Rome stays with you. Even after you have forgotten all your memory, Rome remains. And never dies.

Colosseum, Rome

Colosseum, Rome

From Rome, I left for Pisa to admire yet another wonder of the world: The Leaning Tower. I have been fortunate enough to have seen at least three other wonders (the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower). But the tower that leans wins my vote hands down. Its simplicity, its perfection in it imperfection and its serenity is enough to knock your socks away. There is pretty much nothing else in Pisa city except the leaning tower. But that is enough a reason to lure you there. I ended my innings at Italy with yet another oft-spoken of romantic destination: Venice. It’s easier to understand why Venice is touted as romantic (as compared to Paris and the mystery surrounding it). There is water everywhere; the city thrives on it. Paintings. Fresco. Gondola. Touring the city on water. Well, there is a noticeable charm about it all. You can smell and feel love everywhere. In the air. In the waters. In the paintings. In the painter’s brush. In the painter eyeing his muse. In the gondolier’s oar’s strokes. Venice is for the lover. And for everyone who aspires to be one. Also, I had one of the best pastas I have ever had in my life there (in case, you aren’t convinced just as yet).

The city of Venice

The city of Venice

My last European stop was Spain. I could only go to Barcelona as Spain was my last destination and by the end of it all, I was physically, mentally and monetarily spent. Yet, I couldn’t erase Spain out of my To-go list even if it meant only one city. I choose Barcelona as I could fly there for cheap.  Also, I wanted to visit a city other than the capital. Barcelona fit my bill and gave me all the Spain and Spanish-ness I could have possibly wanted. And more than just that. Apart from discovering Gaudi‘s spectacular architecture in the city and hitting the local beach, I also walked along the lanes of Catalonia, a historical lesson I had completely missed and ignored during my school days. A trip to Barcelona was easily one of the most informative ones I ever took in Europe and I came back filled with enough information to last a lifetime.

A street in Barcelona

A street in Barcelona

The beginning of Spain meant the end of my mammoth European tour. And I was already apprehensive of that happening. I began my trip to Barcelona with the constant feeling that this is possibly my last destination and I ought to soak up as much of sun as I can. Literally. And figuratively. And that’s what I did. I probably enjoyed Barcelona a tad more than the others. Just as I enjoyed Prague a little more than the last, both being memorable owing to the fact that they were my first and last stops. If the story is good, you always remember the beginning and the end, no matter how it turns out. And for me, it was all good. Nay, ¡Magnífico! 🙂

Read Part 1 and Part 2.