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.

society

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.

giphy

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.

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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.

feminazi

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 turning 26 and being unmarried


In a few hours, I will turn 26. Anything extraordinary about it? Not really. But I am not just a 26-year-old woman. I am a single, 26-year-old woman. I am also educationally qualified, happily employed, doing work that makes me happy and satisfied, in a happy relationship with my friends and family, financially independent, ostensibly in control of my life, content with whatever I have achieved so far. Anything wrong in this picture? But, of course. I am single. Unmarried. Uncared for. Unattended. Unbelievably stupid to be shying away from the pure bliss of marital life.

This post isn’t a rant against marriage. Or one against people who are married or choose to get married. This post is a reflection on how much societal pricking of one’s unmarried status exists even as you achieve greater heights of success and satisfaction. Got a promotion? Well, career can wait, marriage won’t. Got an increment? That’s fine but no one marries a woman who earns more than the man. You finished your PhD? Finally. You better get married; who marries an overly qualified bride? You are attending your best friend’s wedding? Wow. What a hypocrite! You are dating someone? Hmmm. When do we get to hear the wedding bells? You broke up? Oh dear, he was the never the right person for you. Shall we venture into letsgetmarried.com now?

Cartoon by Surendra. Picture courtesy The Hindu

Cartoon by Surendra. Picture courtesy The Hindu

No matter what you do, what you achieve, what you derive pleasure out of, no marriage certificate means no happiness. That’s what our society would have us believe. Of course this pressure to get married and “settled” operates differently for men and women. But it’s present nevertheless and manifests itself in myriad ways. The way marriage, its centrality and its grave importance is presented, one is never allowed to enjoy any other achievement without any guilt. Every time I have paused to reflect on something praiseworthy in my life, I have also been forced to embrace the stark reality of my spinsterhood.

I have been, interestingly, involved in the curation and execution of a soon-to-be launched campaign against early and forced marriage that will be run by the girls at Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT), an organization where I work, learn and unlearn from. FAT has been working on teaching young girls from disadvantaged families photography and filmmaking so they can use their technical skills to run and anchor a campaign of their own, using the film that they direct and produce. These girls’ realities are very different than mine: they are daughters of domestic workers, construction workers, who wake at 4 in the morning and struggle to get educated in schools and colleges. I, on the other hand, am an upper caste, middle class, literate and educated woman of the 21st century. However, what binds us together is the same society whose products we all are. The same pressure. A different manifestation. That I feel the same pressure that a 19-year-old girl from an urban poor settlement faces is testimony to the fact how penetrative the matrimonial market has become.

Perhaps, I would also like to see myself married someday. Someone I truely care about and have chosen to spend the rest of my life with. Maybe in a less pressurizing and more prideful way. But I am very much against coercion. If I am 19 and wish to get married, I have every right to do so. Just like being 26 and not wanting to get married. It might to obvious to state this but let’s reiterate the fact that no one can tell if we’re ready to get married. Except our selves. Let’s respect choice. Let’s bless a couple who wants to be together despite or in spite of their backgrounds. Let’s celebrate individuals who are happy to be ticking the ‘Single/Unmarried’ box on official forms. Let’s break boundaries. Let’s be revolutionary. Let us honour the one thing we have always denied people. Choice. Freedom. Agency. The simple right to be ourselves. 🙂

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

An open letter to DU grads


Dear DU pass outs,

Hola! In the madness and mayhem that this admission season is, I thought of writing you a letter and enquiring about your well being and whereabouts. Before anything else, let me take a moment and raise a toast to the miraculous fact that we, in fact, passed out from what they call one of the “best universities in the country” (our nostalgic past would prevent us from disagreeing to this). We are living proof that despite NOT getting a mammoth figure in our 12th boards, we entered the gates of the University of Delhi with much pride, arrogance and spirit. None of us scored a cent percent. Well, we barely even knew anyone who did. And we respected each others potential regardless of how much we scored in that three hour exam in 12th grade, where most of us either panicked or puked on the paper.

An extra shot in the name of all those who went for honours in Journalism and English (and that includes me). What a ride we had! Running around from one college to another to sit for an individual entrance test for each college, cursing on the way that the distance between North and South campus was unprecedented and simultaneously realizing the importance, nay the supremacy, of the North over the South (campus-wise, at least). I remember missing to give the entrance for Gargi College on Siri Fort Road as it clashed with the entrance at Indraprastha College in Civil Lines. Both these colleges are at least 20 kilometers apart. And there was no way that the Delhi traffic could aid the satisfaction of having sat for both the tests.

In totality, I gave around seven entrance exams. In other words, I got seven fresh chances to enter the gates of DU. How many of us actually get such an opportunity? As an English and/or Journalism aspirant, DU seemed to understand (ostensibly so) that your 12th grade marks weren’t enough or the correct measure of your potential and that sitting for an entrance specifically meant for these courses would actually help the examiner see if the candidate is truely suited for the course. Tell me honestly, all you Journalism and English grads from yesteryear, did you really score 90 or above? Well, I didn’t. And I knew I wouldn’t even when I was confident that my board exams went well. There is only so much that you can push yourself and all of us have limitations in our individual potentials and capacities. I got through a college that still boasts of one of the best English departments. The running around had ended. I had secured a seat in a prestigious college despite the fact that I wasn’t one who belonged to the 90+ camp. A shot in the name of not scoring 90 or above please!

Do you remember smirking at students trying to get in in other programmes that didn’t have entrances and had direct cut-offs? I remember doing it and also feeling so lucky to be wanting to do a course that gave me another chance to prove my potential. I wondered how things would have been had I wanted to do Physics honours. I would have needed at least an aggregate of 94 per cent (this is six years ago). Today, I dread to think of the cut-off. My guess is 99 per cent but I may as well be wrong. Six years ago, as a science student, I still had the advantage of not being from the commerce background lest be subjected to sky-rocketing cut-offs. Even to be eligible for giving the English entrance, a minimum cut-off existed and I got a slack since I was shifting from science to humanities (probably a demolition in DU and everybody else’s eye and hence the relaxation).

By the time I reached second year, they started a new thing called CATE (Common Aptitude Test for English)- a common entrance for English across colleges. Again, I felt lucky that I was not subjected to the torture of giving a singular entrance to pave my way through and gauge my chances to enter multiple colleges. A moment of silence for those of you who did gave the CATE (a fancy improvisation on CAT) and did not get multiple chances to improve our scores like we did. By third year, they scrapped it again (only to re-introduce it a year later and then scrapping it again) and stuck to the cut-off system for every course. You get a 97, you can hope for a seat. You get anything less, you’re wasting your energy.

I scored 88 per cent in my 12th board. And I graduated in Literature from one of the best colleges in DU. And, today, I think the only reason I could do that was probably because it was in 2007. Years ago when people were not so obsessed with marks to reach the level of absolute ridiculousness. I’m enclosing here with this letter a picture of me during my DU days. Hoping to receive yours soon. Unless you’re already drunk with all the toasts for the day. 😉

Campus fun

Finally, a final toast to the fact that we all graduated, got our degrees (honours or otherwise) in three years and not four.

Cheers,
Deepa

This letter was published on Campus Diaries, an online portal for storytellers alike, currently inviting posts on your views and response to DU cutoffs.

Of reading erotica and extended debates


So, basically, you’re reading porn?” More often than not, the question is followed by judgmental chuckle or shocked horror. For someone who is researching on erotic literature, one must simply get used to the idea that an encounter with prudishness coupled with shrewd hypocrisy is an everyday reality in our beloved country. On one hand would be those who would pronounce my shamelessness on having voluntarily chosen this topic, while on the other hand would be the same lot highly curious to know if erotica is really being written and is available for purchase.

As part of my research, I’m expected to do textual analysis of erotica and to do that, step one would be to read it. While my topic may sound exciting and interesting (it is, indeed), there are several challenges that I, as a [woman] researcher, face. Firstly, I can’t be reading erotica anywhere and everywhere, like any other piece of writing. It’s one thing to read Marquez’s Love in the time of cholera on a railway platform; it’s a whole other thing to read The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin in a local train, where people leer at the book cover that proudly flaunts the naked back of a lady. Much as we’d like to avoid saying it, we do judge people by what they are reading and books by their cover. It won’t be very “pleasant” and “decent” of me to be reading a book entitled that has the picture of a lady in a sari sans her blouse smoking away to glory, to begin with. Now, whether I read erotica for my own need for seeking pleasure or for a more “legitimate” purpose of researching extensively on it is, frankly, nobody’s business.

One of the many research questions that I’m looking at is the subtle line of difference between what gets constructed as erotica, and thus, by extension, aesthetically appealing and hence justified for consumption (at least by a certain section of society—the so-called “educated” ones) , and pornography casually and conveniently associated with something that is dirty, cheap and trash-worthy. Much has been written about feminist debates surrounding porn and how feminists stand completely divided on their stand, which itself has changed over a period of time. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon are one of the most obvious and vocal voices of anti-porn feminists who recognize porn as an exploitative industry and categorize it essentially as demeaning to women and something that should most definitely be banned. Most common arguments against porn includes glorification of rape and sexual assault, objectification of women, catering to the male fantasy, degradation of women in their representation, child sexual abuse and perpetuation of serious misogyny.

The other side of the spectrum has feminists who rationalize pornography as a celebration of women’s sexuality and depart from the aforementioned views. They see it as a platform for feminist expression and advocate for what they call feminist porn (and they insist that the word is not an oxymoron). Ellen Willis who is credited for having coined the term sex-positive or pro-sex feminism argues that [feminist] porn gives an opportunity for women to explore their sexuality and provides that rare space to articulate and achieve those hushed sexual desires and fantasies. This feminist revisiting of porn is linked to the feminist critique of censorship and borrows from the basic notion of freedom of expression that ought to be encouraged and not protested against.

In the light of these historical arguments that are primarily American in their location, let’s place the recent verdict of the Supreme Court of India that has proposed a ban on pornography from the Internet, the argument being that it is one of the chief facilitators of increasing violence against women. Going by past events, common sense would tell us banning something simply ends up increasing its sale or productivity. Ban a book? People would be more than curious to [illegally] download its e-version. Ban a movie? It’s all set to become a box office hit. As far as banning pornography goes, it’s hardly possible for that to happen given the fact that it’s a large scale industry in itself and there are several ways of accessing porn.

A ban is essentially a curb on the freedom of expression; in this case, that of art and content. Feminist porn, as claimed by feminists who support pornography, seeks to revisit porn and the things that it is accused of. One of the reasons why I decided to research on erotica is because it is a genre of literature that was never taught or, rather, brushed aside. Much like any other genre, erotica, too, has a lot of scope for women’s writing. A similar case may be made for porn that isn’t demeaning to women but seeks to revisit and reclaim it as a medium of feminist expression. What porn (much like media ads on beauty products and cosmetics for both men and women) has done today is create unrealistic standards of fantasy, promoting objectification and perpetuating gender violence in this process. Feminist porn and photography seeks to correct this by “challenging dominant conceptions of sexuality and power”.

Let’s look at the audience that consumes porn—openly and/or clandestinely. India is deemed as a country of sexually frustrated men (a generalization that is used by some to justify increasing cases of rape and molestation). We even have ministers watching porn during the proceedings in the Parliament. But porn is also consumed by women, whether or not they may be sexually frustrated. Those who watch/read porn have their own set of reasons for doing so.  India Today sex survey claimed that in 2006, a large percentage of women emerged as viewers and the figures are only increasing over the years. The survey that also sought to understand the lives and minds of women in small town India reveals that at least 30 per cent of them has watched a porn film at some point and at least half of those saw one at least once every couple of months.

That porn is a medium of women’s exploitation is still an acceptable and factually correct argument. But I’m yet to understand how its ban would reduce violence against women. Do those who rape and molest do so after having watched a couple of graphic pornography and learned the tricks of the trade? Isn’t the problem more in the mindset of the person who commits a crime that is essentially about power and not sex?

Now, if you will excuse me, I have three volumes of erotica to finish before I end my day. Thank you.

Picture courtesy Google Images

Picture courtesy Google Images

This post was published in The Alternative, an e-magazine that strives to make social good an everyday practice 

Of Delhi, Bombay and switching cities


I’ve been on a roll as far as travel in 2012 is concerned. What began with Puducherry finally ended with a quick yet significant trip to New Delhi. There was Bombay, Chennai, Trivandrum, Ranchi, Madurai and Jamshedpur in between. To be fair, the year hasn’t ended and I might end up traveling yet again during Christmas. But, sadly, I don’t see that happening given my extremely tight situation. Financially, of course.

But, in a way, I’m glad that Delhi happened.

I have always believed that you know you’ve turned a pro when you start giving directions to other people in the city. I realized that within my first month in Delhi (I was in the capital for three years during my graduating years), by which I had, more or less, figured the workings of the Delhi Metro. Not entirely, of course, but still manageable. So, when a random person used to ask how to get to Kashmiri Gate, I proudly flaunted my [limited] knowledge of the metro routes.

Interestingly, while travelling in the metro this time, I was again asked a similar question by a random stranger. He seemed lost and wasn’t sure if he was on the right platform. When I gave him the directions, he thanked me embarrassingly and confessed that he was from Bombay and hence new to the “Delhi way of life”. Without a second thought, I smiled and agreed, introducing myself from Bombay, too. It was a reflex. Or may be it was just the excitement of having found someone from Bombay in Delhi–someone who’s lived in both cities and has a vague idea of how they function.

At Lajpat Nagar Metro station

I was in Delhi for about 5 days this time, which helped me explore more than I had bargained for. I met a bunch of my friends and a couple of my relatives, all of whom had the same question for me: “So, how is Bombay different from Delhi?” To be fair, I’m neither a Delhiite nor a Mumbaikar. Or rather, I found it fashionable to call myself the former while I was in Delhi and the latter is my new identity now. It’s a statement I resign myself to as I find it easier in comparison to my nomadic existence.

But, it’s amusing how the two are almost always pitted against each other. While Delhi revels in its historical supremacy, Bombay flaunts its Arabian Sea. While the former boats of exceptional education, the latter believes in turning people street-smart. While one thrives on the metro, the other lives in the suburban trains. It’s easy to make these linear, simplistic comparisons. But, isn’t it too reductionist? Isn’t Delhi more than just the metro, the capital and the University? Isn’t Bombay more than just Marine Drive, local trains and Vada Pav? A city is what you make it out to be, how you register it in your memory, what kind of images it conjures in your mind when you think of it. For me, a city is about its food, its people, its weather, its character, its roads, its lanes and lastly, its attitude.

Outside Andheri station

I remember being completely enchanted by the way Metro functioned in Delhi. The long trains, the enormous population boarding it, the clean, well-maintained stations. I feared being gobbled up in the crowd at Rajiv Chowk, one of the busiest stations in the Delhi metro network. I face the same fear in Ghatkopar today. Of too much crowd. Too many people. The struggle to find space in the train. The fight to somehow reach my destination without being molested, without being dishevelled, without being hurt by being stamped on my foot. Perhaps the cities are similar in that sense. But what did make a difference, especially this time, was the death of a political leader in Bombay that jeopardized everything in the city.

I landed in Bombay from Delhi on Sunday morning only to find absolutely no public transport running in the city except the local. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded a local train travel, but I was travelling with a heavy suitcase and a bag and had hoped to get a taxi back home. Of course, that couldn’t be so as the city was “honouring” the recent demise of a political bigwig. I dragged my luggage at 5.30 in the morning from Dadar to Kurla and finally to Chembur. As there was no rickshaws running either, I dragged my luggage further down the road from the station to my home, which is otherwise walkable sans any luggage. By the time I reached home, I was drenched in sweat on a relatively cold morning, thirsty, tired and extremely exhausted of the intense labour I had just performed.

I later figured that none of the shops were to open for the day. They were instructed to stay shut lest they be attacked by rival parties. I nibbled at my train journey leftover food for lunch and munched on an apple I had bought from Delhi to satisfy my very annoyed stomach. I was more worried at the tantrums it might throw in the evening as I had absolutely nothing left in the room for dinner. My flatmate and I, obeying the demands of our hungry desires, set out in the evening to spot at least one tiny shack that sold some eatables. And may be water, if we’re lucky.

Walking on the deserted streets, I could smell fear. Fear that had been unfairly imposed. Fear that was not protested. Fear that just could not be rebelled against. I had never seen anything like this in an otherwise very vibrant and voracious city. It was hard to believe that the death of a man had led to the death of the most mundane activities that suddenly seemed important like never before. I saw policemen helping out people to find their way to the nearest medical shops. I saw apology in their eyes. Like they felt sorry they couldn’t do anything about the fact that city had been forced to come to a standstill.

We did finally manage to spot a shop that sold enough essentials for our survival for the night.  On our way, we did stop by at a medical shop-the only one open in a 1.5 km radius. I overheard a little girl complaining to her father that she wanted chocolates. The medical shop, of course, did not sell them. It was strange enough that the chemist was also selling drinking water and bread that night. It was heart-breaking to hear the father explain his reason for not being able to buy her chocolates. “When people die, you should bury yourself in sorrow; you shouldn’t make merry and have chocolates. Do you understand?” I couldn’t. Do you? RIP.