Inertia

When 26/11 ripped at the fragile seams of Hindu-Muslim harmony, I wrote a piteously naïve plea to “stop fighting and just get along”. Cringing.

Grief has replaced naiveté with despair.

These attacks are projections of our worst anxieties. As a parent you spend every day praying your kids will be ok. Worrying about their every move.

One day your kid is blown to bits. You tell me you wouldn’t feel an all consuming rage, a vengeful call to action.

You tell me how it is any different in Aleppo or Mumbai or Manchester?

Nothing is as universal as grief. You can put most feelings in a cultural context, but grief is transcendent.

Refugees come into new countries having lost so much. They come with a burden of grief inexplicable in the new world. Empathy is easier said than done; what empathy can you feel for voices you don’t hear?

But the guilt sets in anyway. Just a tinge, a peculiar moment of self-questioning that is easier dismissed than fed. We feel it, we let it pass.

There are those of us who feel nothing. Whose instinct for self-preservation is far stronger than empathy, that bludgeons right over guilt. Their barbaric sense of loyalty to their kin, their race, their kind gives them an almost enviable self assuredness when they declare the need to “let refugees die” or to “kill those fucking muslims”.

There are the activists and academics who organize rallies, write passionate rants in the public eye, shout to have their voices heard over the barbarians and the apathy.

Here lie the rest of us, uncomfortably positioned in a limbo we have learnt to make our peace with. Horrified by the atrocities of the barbarians, the white supremacists, the ISISes of the world. Touched by grief, streaming tears over loss of lives, lack of opportunity, over the injustice of a world where we are consciously helpless.

We are middling, campless. We allow ourselves to be shaken, harrowed by the pain of others, yet remain bizarrely motionless when the gong sounds. Comfort and action are antagonistic, so the best we do is make half-assed attempts to put our unease to rest.

Grief is both a catalyst for and an antidote to numbness. The only positive that can come out of the pain of losing a child or starting life over in a new world is empathy. Self-righteously tearing up over struggle is the coward’s cop out. It’s just not good enough.

How do we escape?

Body (2)

Should we cover up?

It is an unwinnable fight. The familiar look of discomfort, the lingering tension that persists every time we leave the house wearing anything that leaves hints of skin exposed. The hushed Chinese whisper that invariably turns into a large scale blowout when we refuse to conform. The constant bone of contention between an understandably concerned parent and his rightly feminist daughter. The fight is ever present, inescapable.

There have been so many of these encounters that it feels almost self indulgent to wallow in the indignity of it all. There were the high school Model UNs that became excuses to pick at the length of girls’ skirts, the amount of cleavage we were showing. There were the indignant middle aged women self-righteously reminding us to cover up at family events. There were, most frustratingly, the innumerable fights with exes, male friends, well-meaning parents over what is acceptable to wear outside the house.

It is just our Indian way. We are taught to be ashamed. Of our bodies and any desire to showcase or decorate it. We are taught to hide skin and wrap ourselves in scarves and cardigans and leggings to prevent hinting at female sexuality. There is just no winning. We will be sexualized, demeaned, relegated to constant shame regardless of what we wear, but we may as well be careful. As though covering our legs protects us from the horrors of the male gaze.

I was so happy to leave India. Exercising absolute freedom over my body was such a thrill, such a grand, unthinkable escape. Wearing sundresses and crop tops and shorts without the accompanying shock and discomfort. It felt good.

Until it didn’t. Because we are never truly free. Wear your shorts and tight dresses all you want, but you still have a body whose sexualization transcends continents. You might escape the judgement but the baggage of unwaveringly persistent catcalls and leering will follow you as long as you are female.

There was that uncomfortable moment when on the ever crowded Delhi metro, a filthy middle aged man grazed his hand right up my thigh making me feel simultaneously outraged and miserable. There was the moment right after when, cowering in the refuge of my male friends, I burst into tears and, like a child being taken care of, was expertly guided to safety.

But there was also that moment when, in true white male fashion, I was told I was cute “for an Indian” as I walked home from another night fending off conversation with men looking for a quick blowjob from an orientalized version of me. Go anywhere. It never ends. Cover yourself up out of fear that you might be stared at, catcalled, raped. Wear what you want with the knowledge that those could happen anyway. Feel restricted. Feel guilty. It never ends.

From this ever tightening grid of risk and restriction emerge the games we play. Fiddling with bra straps, glaring at strangers, walking with tightened fists and pepper sprays in our bags to ward away the curse of the female body. Don’t play it. We all lose anyway.

Wrong

I’m not sure when I started being able to justify wrong to myself. When white became steadily murkier and black became avidly more appealing.

There are the simple wrongs. The universal bad. Murder. Rape. Violence.

Bad.

Then there are the less objectionable cousins. The little lies. The jokes that aren’t meant to hurt anyone. That one time shoplifting that no one would ever catch.

And with an outpouring of guilt, the rationalizations begin. You only lied because you didn’t want to hurt anyone. Your joke was a joke. Your one-time thing was just that. One time.

I was five when I stole money from my parents. I didn’t plan on doing it, it just sort of happened. I had money for a class photo. I took a calculated, albeit impulsive, risk and spent it on an ice cream instead. That ice cream hadn’t made it to my tongue before I felt the first churn of discomfort stirring in my gut. It was wrong. I had no other information. I just knew what I was doing was wrong.

That instinct has since been diluted and mangled and ripped apart at the seams. What seemed at five to be inherent morality is turning out to be nothing more than a fear of consequences. The better one gets at taking the easy way out, the easier it becomes to justify wrong.

Manifestations of this already festering dilemma in the realms of religion, culture and moral idealism make the notion of instinctual morality even hazier. When two equally educated, perhaps even altruistic parties can argue fervently over the ethics of abortion, each blind to the possibility of another way of being, how is it possible to maintain any belief in systems in black and white?

Because the vice of an open mind is that it can understand anything. Remember when stealing was just unacceptable, no two ways about it? What happens when you are thrown into the deep end of Marxist thought? If you have the manipulative ability to merge political with personal, you immediately have a rock solid defense for the impulse to just whisk an overpriced commodity right out of the hands of those evil capitalist enterprises. You aren’t really doing anything wrong. It’s stealing, but it’s the good kind.

And like a burst dam, there is a good kind of everything. Our complex, calculating minds know how to twist knowledge just so to mould it into convenient justifications for every form of wrong.

I am scared.

Scared that my mind has begun to function on auto pilot, lazily constructing elaborate justifications for every moment of weakness, every lapse in judgement. The woes of having an overactive imagination and an analytical brain. I can argue my way out of feelings that irk me, bury the occasional flashes of guilt under mounds of litigation designed to divert attention from what I did to why someone had it coming.

I wish my mind would censor these awful, vicious thoughts the way it did when I still believed morality was constant. I think them on default now. Hurtful things about the people I love, dangerous ambles into how far I would go to get what I want. I tell myself there is no shame in thinking those things because the more liberal my beliefs become, the more I find myself questioning whether there ever was a right to begin with. I entertain every awful idea that flickers across my hyper vigilant mind and am stuck analyzing all the ways I could execute it before I can finally put it to rest.

Yet there is some intangible thread that yanks me back from abstractions just in time to protect me from committing fraud or adultery or theft. The thread, perhaps, of fear. Sewn into my back to ensure that I don’t end up hurting the people I love or doing something I could potentially never take back.

Strangely I almost want to believe that the only thing shielding us from wrong is not wanting to be caught. Placing blame on a rigid society is far easier than constant self deception. But since that first lie, that first moment of guilt, the prickling discomfort somewhere right below my navel has followed me through to the first exam I cheated on, the first time I called someone ugly to make people laugh, the first time I hurt someone I loved largely because I knew I could.

The feeling never leaves. Viciously assaulted by pronged explanations that render a rational right and wrong meaningless, it remains, faint, coy, but alive. For all my valiant attempts at intellectualizing choices, that uncomfortable lurch moments before diving into wrong just cannot be explained away. Perhaps the only remnant of a moral compass I once held such high regard, it is all that ties me to the five year old who cried for hours over her first encounter with guilt. Who, in her utter ignorance, had a morality she felt priggishly obligated to live by.

I like challenging boundaries. I like being intellectually curious. I certainly like to get my way whenever I can. But as the temptations build and wrong becomes more glorious than horrifying, I have the futile urge sometimes, just for a moment, to go back to being five.

Home

India,

You are so difficult. You infuriate me and exhaust me and make me want to leave you in my past. I wish you would stop toying with my mind.

There are days I am ashamed of being yours. Of the crudeness, the insensitivity, the misogyny of a culture that is inseparable from body shaming and harassment. There are days when the insurmountable heat and hostility, the throngs of starving people, the stray dogs shitting on the streets wrench away even the defensiveness of an Indian abroad.

You have given me so many reasons to hate you. The constant battle between freedom and safety, the filth coating every inch of every road, the infuriating inefficiency conveniently coupled with throbbing, unabashed corruption. How can I be proud?

Yet you are everywhere. In my voice, in my words, in my music, in my clothes. The world sees me as a part of you no matter how much I try to distance myself. You are the abusive relationship I can neither escape nor condemn.

What a paradox. What a twisted, vicious paradox. I may as well say it. I miss you. I miss being in a place I feel welcome. I miss the spectacular displays of mangoes, litchis, dates. The early morning flower markets with marigolds and gladioli and jasmines. The magnificent tropical sunlight. I miss the music. The unending stream of Bollywood songs playing on every beat up radio in every seedy alley. The arrays of women wearing niqabs boarding metros and buying groceries and living their lives right alongside those who wear jeans and salwars and on rare, liberal occasion, shorts. I miss comfort.

I tried to pretend I wasn’t yours. When I was regaled with stories of dirty Indians, lecherous Indians, Indians who cooked Maggi in hotel bathrooms and left Haldi stains on bedsheets. When I walked down the streets of Delhi and saw the grime and the filth and the bodies slewn across pavements without food, clothes, homes. I saw a broken country. I idealized worlds beyond my reach. I felt a tinge of pride when people said I don’t look Indian, talk Indian, seem as Indian as most. I was proud to disavow my culture.

I was proud until I was ashamed. As I tried to hide you under folds of ambiguity and otherness, I could feel myself inching closer and closer, accepting the markers of Indianness you had placed on me. I was growing increasingly more conflicted.

Why do I feel happiest surrounded by people who look and talk like I do? Why am I most amused by crude, borderline obscene humor from the subcontinent? Why can the lilt of forgotten Hindustani classics have me sobbing into my pillow in a way that no other form of music can?

And why am I still bitter? At best apathetic about being labelled unpatriotic? Why do I feel an almost masochistic glee when sharing posts on rape and poverty and turmoil in my country, thrilled to be proven right?

I am no nationalist. There is too much truth in the accusations hurled at us for me to be on the defensive. How can I put a positive spin on government officials claiming girls should expect to be harassed if they wear “western clothes”? How can I pretend I didn’t feel stifled by an education system that decided my worth based on how I “conducted myself around boys”? How can I be proud of our stellar economic growth when we have maids eating on the floor to avoid classes intermingling? No, I am no nationalist.

But I am Indian. In listening to Bollywood songs from the 00’s and feeling quiet pangs of nostalgia. In the comfort of desi interactions in a language that only upon alienation became my own. In the Jhumkis I wear with immense pride. In the thrill of seeing Priyanka Chopra and the likes make it in arenas where Indians were never welcomed before. I feel my Indianness more than I had ever felt it at home.

I’m not going to stop being fervently critical of India; I can’t stop being Indian. I’m not sure where that leaves me. Conflicted? In a limbo where I am criticized for being too anti national as well as for being too passive. How can I acquit myself of either label without pledging allegiance to the other?

I should commit to being the angry Indian. Take the exasperation with the cultural elitism and continue to live my own selfish life without any promises to “make India a better place”. Is that unfair? Perhaps. But criticism without answers is not invalid. My anger comes from the helplessness I felt the first time I was told not to wear shorts in a public place because “India isn’t safe for girls”. It is an anger that will not be mitigated by “trying to find a solution”. It is an anger to which the easiest response is detachment.

But it is an anger soothed by Kishori Amonkar and Kaju Barfis and the inexplicable lump in my throat when lighting a lone candle outside my room every Diwali.

 

Body

I am livid.

Here’s a cliche I am amazed you still cannot grasp: you are not entitled to my body. You are not entitled to measuring it, ranking it, giving or taking value from it. Your evaluation of how I look is certainly not something I should be concerned with, but your words are so biting, so cruel that they crawl their way in, steadily hammering away at security and self-respect and pride.

I want to be brave. I want to possess a cool non chalance that allows your unforgiving assessments of my body to roll of my back like water off wax. I can certainly disguise my discomfort when you call out crude observations about my hips and my thighs. But I go home to a mirror that now exaggerates every bit of my body I hated to begin with. I go home with the feeling that I am, despite the power of positive self-affirmation, simply not enough.

I want to float out of my body. I want to dip into the bodies of people on every end of the spectrum and just once, feel entirely satisfied. How would it be, I wonder, to live in a world where your body is neither a source of pride nor a source of pain? Where your body isn’t carved with markers of character, of ability, of sexuality? It seems sometimes that the white body is the only one left untouched, interpretable by the owner rather than the beholder. Everyone else is left playing a game of catch up, trying to lighten the skin, stretch out the torso, flatten the hips, shrink the thighs, sprout hair that has the ease and silky sheen of the blonde, the brunette and, on occasion, the diversity hire redhead model.

For we all want to be desirable. We quell that desire the moment we realize our bodies simply cannot conform, take on the shapes we want them to. We pretend not to care, laugh off the callous comments that make us cringe and glare at our bodies with horror, swallowing the urge to hurl accusations of insensitivity in an effort to seem chill. But the unease lingers long after we decide against standing up for ourselves, leaving us subdued and vulnerable.

Why should I be ashamed that your words hurt? As though your insensitivity and ignorance is somehow a result of my inability to fit the mold you see me in. It is hardly my prerogative to absorb your assessments of my body while you continue to spew vicious, undermining opinions with the careless ease of a slave owner who has every right to dictate how the people around you should look.

Here are the things I didn’t ask you: whether you like makeup or not, what I should wear to make you happy, your opinion on cleavage, your opinion on my thighs, YOUR FUCKING OPINION ON MY BODY. It is a lump of flesh; your gaze makes it an object, a source of shame. If I choose to aesthetisize my skin, you are not the audience. If I choose to wear clothes that express an identity you feel uncomfortable around, walk away. If I choose to let my body embrace its form instead of trimming away at the hedges to suit your fantasies, don’t look. The female body has been colonized, violated, written over, hidden, over exposed, sexualized, erased from history. Whether you acknowledge it or not, your words are a part of this tradition of objectification.

How can you disavow rape culture without ridding yourself of slurs on the body? The expectation that your constant reminders of the inadequacy of my body are just to be brushed away are a covert extension of the expectation that you can sexualize and harass me and I should just learn to deal with it. And yet, none of us are comfortable being that person. The prude who calls people out for mild humorous objectification. The insecure female stereotype that can’t handle a subtle dig about skin color or breast size or weight.

Why aren’t we all that person? Why do we choose to let taunts and insults and skin deep assessments of ourselves go by unchallenged? As a culture, we have consecrated being “low maintenance” and “chill”, touting these words to dismiss emotion and anger and hurt. It is our collective weakness: we are ashamed of strength. But words sting and torment and oppress. They are the knives we refuse to shield ourselves from. We must fight. This is no longer my struggle, it is ours. We cannot allow our bodies to be a canvas for others’ judgement. Raise your voice, even when your instinct is to retire into the mild, submissive mould reproducing a hierarchy that muffles the female voice, ensuring that she continues to endure abuse without complaint. Raise your voice when you are hurt, belittled, angry and be proud of those emotions because it is your right to feel, not theirs to question your worth.