No

He asked me to dance today and I said no.

I used to dance with agility, dance with grace,

But now my bones have started to ache.

Icy heart and creaky limbs,

Won’t shake the darkness away.

So I won’t move my body today.

Today is not a dancing day.

 

He asked me to sing today and I said no.

My voice is sweet and my throat is warm,

But I refuse to sing ‘cause something’s wrong.

My throat is gulping down a ball of hate

And my tongue leaves me with a bitter aftertaste.

So I won’t open my mouth today.

Today is not a singing day.

 

He asked me to love today and I said no.

Love needs giving, and I had nothing to offer.

So I offered him my body instead.

He said it wasn’t enough,

He said he wanted more.

But my heart refuses to feel today.

Today is not a loving day.

 

He asked me to leave today,

I had a bag packed the whole way.

 

Image Credit: All my bags are packed by Conceptual Miracles

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An Ode to my Bra

Ode to Bra

You padded black beauty, my fashionable friend du jour,
My prison of choice,
You black lace beauty, my object of pillowy comfort,
No underwire, criss-crossing straps, and a velvet touch,
Just seductive enough, but not too much,
Protecting the two brown circles of my modesty,
Black cloth hiding scars and marks of the past.
“Keep the bra on” I tell them,
Hiding my vulnerability behind the lacy flowers of sexuality.

Then C cup became D cup, and I thought I’d lost you.
Lost you to the unrelenting passage of time and my growing body.
You would no longer be my friend in need, my comfy confidante,
You would become an object of desire, of envy,
Hiding in plain sight in my closet, a mocking motivation to reduce my size.
So I avoided you for months, as one does in friendships and relationships,
Postponing the inevitable breakup.
Until one day, I could wait no more.
And so I took you out, with tragedy seeping into my fleshy arms, and cupped you against me. One last time.
Until I realized you still fit. You would always fit.

Tired of being a poet

Tired of being a poet

Tired of being a poet,

I want to be a poem.

Be someone’s prized possession,

An object of affection,

Not an artist, but a muse.

To be immortalized through someone else’s eyes,

For once I want to be the prize.

 

Tired of being a thinker,

For once, I want to be the thought.

To not think and reflect,

Ponder and brood,

Just flit carelessly through a brain,

Maybe get lost down the shower drain.

 

Tired of being a lover,

Now I just want to be loved.

No long nights and days

Spent in someone else’s name,

I want to rid myself of emotion,

Numbly go through life’s motions.

 

Tired of living fully,

For once I just want to exist,

To not swim or sink,

But float effortlessly

Through space and time, you see,

I’m tired of survival,

I’m afraid of death,

Yet somehow I’m always out of breath.

 

Image courtesy: The Whim of Time by Melinda Cootsona

How would I describe myself?

How would I describe myself?

A person, that’s obvious, but what kind?

A woman, an atheist, a lover, a feminist?

Those are just labels, and labels are no fun.

I’m much more than labels, much more than a person.

I’m a wall screaming ‘post no bills’

Covered with stickers and the occasional drops of piss.

I’m a rope strung on two poles,

Carelessly bent under the weight of white cloth.

I’m the pretty little pink kettle,

Placed high out of reach, all flash no utility.

I’m the servant in a castle,

Fending off attackers with my iron spoon.

I’m both the spider and fly in this web of lies.

A mirage that changes with every mirror.

I’m the victim, the survivor, the oppressor,

Good and evil jumbled in a ball of yarn.

But imagine I met another ball of yarn tomorrow,

As convoluted an imagery as my own.

Do we both become spiders or flies?

Do we finally break free from all the lies?

The Princess and the Frog

He comes, he goes, like a gentle breeze,

He waltzes in and out of my life.

Leaving in his wake a crumbling mess;

The remains of my will and pride.

 

What fantastic strength must I muster

From my body, mind and soul,

To throw him out of my life

And will myself to grow whole.

 

Once upon a time life was a dream,

Soft voices under the moon so bright,

No false promises made and broken,

No promises made at all.

 

Yes I can see him for what he is,

Not a prince, just a frog in disguise,

A fantasy of ‘what could’ve been’

Dancing before my wistful eyes.

 

Yet I leave the doors open for him,

As I bid him hello and goodbye.

I keep hoping my frog turns into a prince,

I keep waiting for the moonlight kiss.

Blue

Evenings of silent contemplation

Nights filled with remorse

Staring up at the starry lights

Stuck on my bedroom walls.

This world seems dull and colourless

But painted walls surround me

Maybe it’s not the city that’s dull, but me.

Maybe it’s my heart that paints the walls blue.

And yet I long to get out, to go outside.

But I open my window only to be greeted

By honking ghosts passing swiftly by

Their yellow eyes glittering in the moonlight.

The people have long retired

To their own multi-coloured cells.

Trapped in their own world

Of silent contemplations and remorse.

If only I could reach out to them somehow

Connect with their hearts, not just their profiles,

Maybe I would see something hidden and true,

Maybe they also paint their bedroom walls blue.

 

Illustrated by Alice in the Slumberland

Human Doings

Ring. Snooze. Ring again.

Time to get up, it’s almost ten.

Well that’s okay, ‘cause you were up till three,

Four cups of coffee, you were on a working spree.

Rub the sleep from your eyes,

Chase it away with whiskey and ice.

Sip sip. Open your laptop once more.

Pop. There’s your list of today’s chores.

Work that earns money is priority number one.

Something that’s meaningful but also kinda fun.

Then there’s the hobbies – one, two and three.

Not doing them would make you feel crappy.

Let’s not forget the social life,

Crowded bars, loud music and cheap wine.

Remember to take care of body, mind and soul,

No one’s ever too busy to go out for a stroll!

Feeling a little stressed out? Relaxation’s the key.

Read a book, play the djembe, develop your chi.

New inspirational posters for you to mount.

“Live your life to the fullest”, “Make every moment count”

Pictures of you working, reading, eating, breathing,

Snap snap. Count the number of likes you get.

Human beings becoming human doings,

Only achieving, barely living.

Sexual Harassment in the Classroom

First published on Feminism in India.

When I was in 8th grade, there was a new ‘joke’ spreading in my school. “Sone ka bhaav kya hai?” (What is the value of “sone”?) the boys would ask us girls, sniggering. The joke hinged on a crass pun, you see. Most of the girls would assume that ‘sona’ meant gold, and would respond accordingly. But ‘sona’ also meant sleeping. So what the guys were actually asking the girls was “What’s the price of sleeping with you?” or “What’s your rate?”

Classrooms are rarely free of ‘non-veg’ jokes and sexual innuendos. Cast your minds back to the good old school days, and your memories will be peppered with ridiculous songs (A and B sitting on a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G), words turned into cringe-worthy acronyms (IDIOT = ‘I Do Ishq Only Tumse’, a Hinglish version of ‘I love only you’), inappropriate and often offensive language (‘randi’ meaning prostitute and ‘gay’ among others) and uncomfortable physical contact.

WHILE MANY DISMISS THESE INSTANCES AS JUST PUBERTY, I CALL THEM THE BEGINNING OF NORMALIZED SEXUAL HARASSMENT.

There is a shared understanding of why this happens. That children are sitting ducks hit by the sudden wave of hormonal imbalance and biological change. They want to talk about sex, but no one else wants to talk about it. So the topic of sex becomes taboo, finding an outlet through humour and inappropriate touching. But while many dismiss these instances as a symptom of puberty, I call them the beginning of normalized sexual harassment.

Let me give you an example. When I was in 10th grade, a boy in my class decided he liked me. Let us call him X. X would stare at me all day in class, making me self-conscious. But that discomfort was nothing compared to the disgust I felt when he tried to touch me. You would say there was nothing inappropriate about him touching my arm (which is all he did), but it was a bad touch, the kind that would bring a huge smile on his face, after which he would turn around and look at his friends, who nodded encouragingly. His hands would linger, and I would flinch, and pull away from him. But he would keep finding ways to touch me; during conversations, and while walking past me in the classroom, or in a crowded corridor.

AT NO POINT DID IT OCCUR TO ME THAT I COULD JUST SAY ‘NO’.

I wanted it to stop, but I did not dare to go tell the teachers or my parents, afraid that they would think I was a ‘bad girl’ who consorted with boys. Deeply troubled, I confided in my friends, who promptly began teasing me with him. “He’s doing that because he likes you!” they said. I was filled with disgust and shame. I was finding it difficult to focus on my studies, and I blamed myself for not being able to ignore the whole thing.

But at no point during this entire ordeal did it ever occur to me that I could just tell him to stop. That I could just say ‘No’. I finally got X to stop, by seeking help from his bulkier friend, Y. Y then proceeded to follow me around for a year, believing that I had ‘chosen’ him over X.

Looking back, this incident and my inability to handle it well seems ridiculous, trivial even. But it was all-consuming for a harrowed student preparing for her board exams. And if you think that these incidents are just harmless distractions, think again.

In 9th grade, a boy in my class had started molesting girls who had the misfortune of sitting on the bench in front of him, by groping their butt. No one said a word, except for one girl. Let us call her S. She got up from her seat in the middle of a lecture, and gave the boy a resounding slap. The teacher paused, called S to the table, spoke to her briefly, then did nothing. The next time S slapped him during a lecture, the teacher ignored the incident and continued teaching. In the course of that year, S slapped the boy five to six times. Of course responding to harassment with violence does not always end well. But back then S was my personal hero. Because she could do what I couldn’t. She could say ‘No’.

We don’t think of such instances when we talk about sexual harassment. It has been relegated to the domain of the public; the deserted streets, the high-spirited bars, the crowded trains. But we forget that sexual harassment and molestation can also take place indoors; within the boundaries of our own homes, and in classrooms.

India and Child Sexual Abuse

Unfortunately, India’s legal system is far from equipped to deal with the complexities of sexual harassment. Until five years ago there was no legislation to curb or even acknowledge the sexual abuse faced by minors in the country.

But a study conducted by Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007 across 13 states showed that 53 percent of Indians between the ages of 5 and 18 reported facing some form of sexual abuse, out of which 53 percent of the cases were reported by males and 47 percent by females. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) law was finally passed in 2012, criminalizing child rape, harassment and exploitation for pornography. Now it is slowly garnering attention, with mainstream movies like ‘Kahaani 2‘ bringing the issue to the forefront.

UNTIL 5 YEARS AGO THERE WAS NO LEGISLATION TO CURB OR EVEN ACKNOWLEDGE CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE.

But the discourse is still limited to minors being harassed by adults in positions of power and influence (such as relatives, family friends and teachers). A study in the schools of Goa in 2003 showed that 33 percent of students studying in 11th grade said that they had been verbally abused by fellow-students in the past 12 months, while 18% reported physical abuse.

This kind of abuse has been normalized and often glorified in popular Bollywood movies, from the recent ‘street-harassment’ songs to the earlier ‘college-harassment’ ones. Songs like Khud ko kya samajhti hai and khambe jaisi khadi hai have normalized harassment of girls in colleges for being too rich, too smart or too fashionable.

The conversation around similar harassment in schools is negligible. There is a growing awareness about this in the US, where a survey showed that 48 percent of students faced some form of sexual harassment in the 2010-11 school year. But while US has acknowledged the importance of curbing abuse at a young age, India is still several steps behind.

Understanding Consent

The obvious step that India can take is to establish committees in educational institutions to address such grievances, like the ones made mandatory for work spaces. But this only serves as a band-aid to the problem, and a very poor one at that.

The first step towards addressing these issues is to acknowledge that these instances of sexual harassment do not appear out of the blue. They are symptoms of a much deeper problem – a lack of understanding of personal space and consent.

When our peers crack dirty sexual jokes in front of us because they think we are cool and one of them, we do not want to dispel this notion by expressing our discomfort. When someone stands a little too close for comfort while talking to us, we force ourselves to get used to it, because that is how they talk to everyone. These are minor negotiations that we start making in school, and continue making in our lifetime. We choose likability over comfort, because that is what we are taught to value.

This reflects back in our schools, where teachers themselves often fail to understand consent. In 7th grade, a boy sitting behind me in class would touch me at inappropriate places between the waist and shoulder (think sideboob). He did not understand why it was inappropriate for him to touch me there, when the boys did not mind it at all. In fact my annoyance seemed to encourage him further.

Fed up of his tactics, I walked up to the teacher one day and complained about him. But the teacher addressed the situation not by shouting at him or explaining what he was doing wrong, but by simply asking him to sit somewhere else. I went back to my seat feeling extremely dissatisfied. I knew this wouldn’t change anything. He would just torment another girl who might be too frightened to report him.

IN A CULTURE WHERE ALL SEXUAL CONTACT IS BAD SEXUAL CONTACT, TEACHERS DO NOT WANT TO BE THE ONES EXPLAINING SEX TO CHILDREN.

This is a pattern we see all through school, where issues of body and personal space are left unaddressed, and often ignored. This discourages students from sharing their concerns with the teachers, who themselves are unsure of how to deal with such incidents. In a culture where all sexual contact is bad sexual contact, they do not want to be the ones explaining sex to children.

The change we need will happen slowly, with seminars and workshops for teachers to sensitize them to the concepts of the body and consent. Maybe we can develop a set of guidelines that teachers could follow when such incidents occur, to ensure they are handled in a firm and sensitive manner.

Maybe we could have videos for students on consent and what is considered appropriate or inappropriate in the classroom, like the period video they show adolescent girls in school, but less annoying. A few non-profits are already working in this direction, by providing gender sensitization workshops for teachers. But looking at the state of educational institutions in our country, and their sheer number, we have a long way to go.

Towards a Better Future

Sexual harassment is only a small part of the abuse that can be faced by minors in schools today. I cannot even begin to enter the domain of the sexist, homophobic, racist and casteist jokes and slurs thrown around often. And with the rise of social media, the abuse becomes more creative and violent by the day. The continued acceptance of such humor shapes the way we look at others and ourselves. It creates divisions of us and them, and generates an atmosphere of intolerance.

If schools are our first step into modern society, then adolescence is the perfect time to cultivate ideas of inclusivity and acceptance. To build a more nuanced understanding of gender, sexuality and the body, and to weed out sexual violence from our vocabulary. If we are able to make our classrooms harassment-free, the deserted roads, the crowded trains and the entire internet would become much safer for us all.

Pieces

We’re both in pieces, you and I.

We’ve been shattered a few times.

Sharp corners and jagged ends

Drawing blood from well-meaning hands.

 

But when I touch you, I don’t bleed,

For when our crooked angles meet,

Sparks fly, hot and bright,

The world is more than alright.

 

Oh yes, you know very well,

How you make my metal heart swell.

And though you and I hate to cuddle,

We’re two pieces of the same puzzle.

A Musical Journey

As summer arrives to wreak havoc over the people of Mumbai, air-conditioned vehicles become the ideal choice of transportation. Move over, affordable and efficiently well-distributed network of local trains, buses and share autos. Metros, and cabs owned by large corporations are here to stay.

To be fair, taxis have always been an integral part of the city experience. But gone are the days of being baked alive in the kali-peelis (black and yellow taxis) of Mumbai. Now we sit in the luxury of air-conditioned cars, shared with strangers in a desperate attempt to save some money.

But I digress. This is not an article about the city’s changing landscape, or a horrible click-bait article about some stranger’s terrible experience in a cab (A girl took an Uber home. What happened next will blow your mind!). This is about a cab ride I had on an average day in the city. Although I did take an Uber home. And the experience was pretty amazing. Maybe I should rethink the title of this post…

So I was taking an Uber home. I had called up a friend while I waited for the driver to find my location. The car arrived on time, a feat in the smaller winding lanes of Mumbai with inaccurate location mapping. Confused at this punctuality, I cut the call, promising my friend that I’d call her back in a few minutes. The driver enthusiastically rolled down his window to greet me with a flourish. “Hello madam! Kaisi hai aap (How are you)?” I paused for a second, surprised by this rare display of affection by a stranger. He was a funny looking man with a funny smile. I wondered for a second whether he was nice or creepy. (Yes, this is a thought that crosses my mind at least ten times a day. If this is something you have to worry about too, meet me in the comments section and we’ll discuss our sorrows in detail. )

Now cab rides taken alone can lead to a range of experiences. The most horrific ones are well documented on the internet But usually they involve sitting in an uncomfortable silence and staring into your phone, while every small sound gets amplified in the tiny space. Sometimes the radio is on, and that puts you at ease. You can now shift your position in the cab without worrying about the farting sound that these seats often emit. Phew. You can enjoy the music of course, or be amused by the driver’s taste.

This driver seemed like a nice guy, and in a great mood. He immediately began chatting about the last fare he dropped before picking me up. I responded with the cursory replies of ‘oh!’ and ‘acha’ as I settled in my seat. I figured that once the car wound its way to the main road, and the driver had exhausted all topics of conversation, I could call my friend back.

But this guy wasn’t planning to stop anytime soon. Somehow he reached the topic of Bollywood, and asked me if I knew any songs. “Haanji (Yes)”, I answered. Any Mumbaikar worth their salt could proudly spout at least a few hits, even if they sounded like badly recited poems. “Do you know any Kishore Kumar songs?” he asked hopefully. “Of course!” I replied, a little offended by his question. I might look down upon the recent drivel that they’re passing off as songs, but I simply cannot unlearn the songs of my childhood. And Kishore Kumar was my childhood, sort of.

Suddenly, as if on cue, he began singing, “O mere dil ke chain…” His 70’s playback singer voice resonated in the tiny cab. After that, he kept singing song after song, informing me of the song’s name, its composer and lyricist, the film it played in, and the actors who lip-synced the song. For a while I kept glancing at my phone, but I was soon swept away in this wave of musical nostalgia. “Aap bhi kuch gaayiye… (Why don’t you sing something?)” he nodded encouragingly into the rear-view mirror.

Why not. “O mere sona re sona re sona re…” I began. He turned back, surprised. “Aap to chupi rustom nikali! Aapne bataya nahi aapko gaana aata hai. (You didn’t tell me you used to sing!)” “Haa..” I mumbled, suddenly self-conscious. I hadn’t sung this freely in a really long time. “Ruk kyu gayi? Gayiye… (Keep singing)” he said, and I did.

He started telling me more about his life. He was a singer on the side, singing at karaokes and recording songs. “I sing with many young people just like you. You shouldn’t give up on your talent.” he told me. “Keep it alive just for yourself.” I nodded my head, touched by his heartfelt advice. The moment passed. “Let’s sing a duet now!” he said. I nodded again, gleefully.

And so we sang till we reached our destination – my house. We both were a little sad when the journey ended. I didn’t say anything, of course, but I was still working within the realms of general appropriateness. This man had shed his inhibitions a long time ago. “Thoda dur nahi reh sakti thi aap (Couldn’t you live farther away)?” he asked, as the cab screeched to a halt. I laughed apologetically.

“Maybe we could sing together in a studio sometime” he said. “Yes…” I replied, feeling a sudden stiffness in my spine. I began gathering my bag and stepping out of the cab. “Don’t worry,” he said, sensing my unease. “I won’t call you or text you. You have my phone number na. Use apne phone ke kisi kone me save karke rakh dijiye. Kabhi man kiya to call kar dena. (Save it in some corner of your phone. Call me if you ever feel like singing again.)” I laughed again. “Sure.”

That day I went home humming a little tune under my breath. In fact my next few days were filled with music, more than they had ever been. I had come in contact with the purest love for music, and it touched my soul for a little while. But like the songs I was humming, the magic slowly faded, and my days returned to normal. I never did call the guy. But he remains in my mind, a happy soul with a musical heart, the funny looking man with the funny smile.

Celebrations

Strangers sitting together

Sharing their drinks, but not their souls.

Voices drowned in the pulsating music,

Celebrating their victories, all alone.

Reprieve

Away from the world of lights and concrete,

I hide in the original jungle.

More bark than walls, more green than grey,

In this fair land I’ll stay.

 

For in the bright city

My bones grow weak and weary.

The noises don’t let me sleep at night,

The bright lights hurt my eyes.

 

But here there’s just silence

Infinite and unnerving, at times.

Here I can find all my bruises,

I can heal them in the night.

 

The night, when the city churns papers

Of ink black and white.

I wake up to piping hot tea,

With horror stories on the side.

 

Poets before me have sung

High praises of the tropical sun.

The lush green trees, the tempestuous breeze,

Are my reprieve from the city.

 

Yes here I lie, and here I’ll stay

As the world threatens to burn away.

Away from the cruelties of mankind

I’ll stay safe in my fantasy land.

Seaside Musings

Here I sit on uneven land, sand sticking to my thighs,

Hair blowing back in the forceful wind, something stirring deep within.

The sand lies white and warm, lazily stretching out for miles,

Impervious to the periodical whipping of water cold as ice.

I look far out into the sea, look as far as my eyes can go,

And count the waves as they come nearer, threatening to swallow me whole.

The sun is shining a little too bright, burning with white hot fury,

And in the tumultuous sea I see, the rage burning inside of me.

You see, the sea is me, with its depth and chaos and uncertainty,

Crashing itself upon shores unknown.

Forever still, never at home.

People Ruin Beautiful Things

Travel and tell no one, live a true love story and tell no one, live happily and tell no one, people ruin beautiful things.

– Khalil Gibran

She wore her pink earrings. The bright pink ones, that looked like tic-tac clips hanging from her ears. She wore her yellow kurta and her white leggings, her blue eyeliner and her red lipstick. And after she was done wearing everything she wanted to wear, she examined herself in the mirror.

Not bad, she thought, proud of her new creation. She enjoyed it, this intuitive mixing and matching of parts to create a new whole. It was the reason she enjoyed cooking; throwing ingredients together to create something unexpected.

She twirled in front of the mirror, appreciating how the clothes fit on her curves. Her mother would say she’s not conventionally pretty. But then Meera never wanted to be conventional.

“Are you done?” Mother had popped her head into the room. “They’ll be here any second!” She paused to give Meera a disapproving look, before rushing back to the kitchen. She had asked her stubborn daughter to wear something nice, something that would make her look beautiful and feminine. But Meera insisted on being her usual flamboyant self. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”, her maternal instinct reared to protect her daughter from her own criticism. “They should like her for who she is.” The mother just wanted her odd child to be happy.

Meera was still admiring herself in the mirror when mother called her outside. She burst into the living room like a blast of air, to find a roomful of people staring at her. Taken aback a little by the sheer number of people (she’d expected 2-3) and the silence that followed, she tiptoed to the only empty seat in the room, right next to her mother.

Once she had settled herself comfortably, the questions began. How old was she? What was her plan for the future? (This one was asked by the boy) She turned to him with glittering eyes and a passionate voice and began talking about her hopes and dreams. By her third sentence she saw his eyes glaze over; a blank expression now stood in those intelligent brown eyes.

Meera’s voice faltered, unsure of what she’d seen. The woman to his right, presumably his mother, took this opportunity to ask the next question, cutting Meera off mid-sentence. “All that is fine beta. But you’ll be taking care of our son as well. We’re a modern family, so you can work part time if you want.”

Meera turned to the woman with creased eyebrows. “You can cook, right?” the woman persisted.

“No.” Meera stared defiantly into the woman’s eyes. Her mother suppressed a smile. Meera had made her decision.

Every question after that was met by staunch opposition, and obstinate denials for things that Meera could do, and did in her own house. And when that intelligent brown eyed boy tried to sneak in a question of his own, her eyes bore into his with a blazing defiance, causing him to stutter. Her mother observed the growing tension in the room with growing amusement, making no efforts to diffuse the situation. Her daughter seemed to have inherited her knack for making people uncomfortable and watching them squirm.

The outsiders could finally take no more, and politely announced the end of the meeting. Finally! Meera sighed as the guests headed for the door. “This is a good thing.” she heard an uncle whisper reassuringly to the boy’s mother. “She’s a bit fat for him, don’t you think?”

Meera headed for her room, and positioned herself in front of the mirror again. She took a long look at herself as she began to wipe the color off her lips.Her cheeks were a little too chubby, her kurta a little too bright, her body a little too big, her breasts a little too small. She smiled, as her critical eyes found fault in every part of her body. “People ruin beautiful things.”

I’m a Prisoner of Kaajal, and I Love It!

My tormentor has many names; eye pencil, eye liner, eye color. Sometimes it looks like a pen so you can’t call it eye pencil, and the advertisements call it kaajal, but it’s apparently not kaajal. But let’s not delve into the confusing world of eye makeup more than we have to. For the sake of my sanity, and yours, let’s just call all of it kaajal. Because I’m a prisoner of that (mostly) black curve we draw under our eyes, and sometimes over our eyes, to make them pop, whatever that means.

Now I’ve never been one to high dive into the pool of makeup products and trends (as is evident from my earlier mini-rant). I was the girl who would be happy with dipping her toe into the water and calling it a  day. I’m talking about black kaajal and lip balms. And of course, flavored lip balms for those days when I felt a bit adventurous. I kept it simple, because I was fortunate enough to consider myself fairly pretty. And I was too lazy to make an effort.

Then I went to stay on a campus, and things changed considerably. When you live with people your age 24/7, you lose all sense of shame and decency. And because they see you at your most hideous (think uncombed hair, unshaven legs and armpits, bra-less and possibly covered in food crumbs), you lose all motivation to look good. But somewhere down the line, applying kaajal became as routine as brushing my teeth. Because those were the two things I would do before rushing for an early morning class.

But I didn’t realize how dependent I had become on this tiny little stick, until tragedy struck. A few months ago, I underwent Lasik surgery, to correct my eyesight. And just like I had to abstain from technology for a few days after the surgery, I had to abstain from wearing kaajal for a month.

Yes, a month. And although it seemed like a small price to pay, that month was, for lack of a better word, disastrous. My confidence decided to jump off a cliff, leaving me alone with self-image and body issues that I never knew I had. I would look at myself in the mirror with critical eyes; my eyes were too baggy, my face was too dull. I would actively avoid stepping out of the house, because I didn’t feel good about myself. And if I did, I would keep asking my sister or friends if I looked ‘bad’.

I know all this sounds superficial, but this insecurity stemmed from an idea that I wasn’t good enough as I was. That I needed something extra to me make me look even presentable. That anything more than the little black line was too much, and implied that I was trying too hard.

Now I’ve become bolder, and my collection has widened to colorful eye pencils and lipsticks; lots and lots of lipsticks. I’ve received flak for wearing them, because I’m not supposed to be a “girly girl” who likes dressing up. Because it’s my intellect that makes me interesting, and my IQ drops every time I color my eyes and lips. Because I’m giving in to consumerism, and beauty ideals propagated by patriarchy.

But it doesn’t matter. Because now when I look in the mirror and apply that black curve, I do it for me. And sometimes when I don’t apply anything, I still look beautiful to me.

Plastic

Dark and cold, the city awaits

For a gentle touch of the sun.

And trapped within its concrete walls, I wait

For redemption, yet to come.

 

The buildings cast long shadows,

Blacker and deeper than trees ever could.

And yet my plastic mask threatens to melt

From the heat of the elusive sun.

 

Is this what I seek? A reprieve from the dark?

A rendezvous with the sun, to dance among the stars?

To shed all my veils, like leaves from a tree,

And reveal my true self, for you to finally see?

 

But here’s the catch, the clincher of it all,

The fear that keeps me locked within these concrete walls.

In my mind every day this question does stick

What if, in the end, all I am is plastic?

Heartbreak Hotel

Come spend the night

With me at Heartbreak Hotel.

A destination date, if you will,

Into the recesses of my heart.

 

Take my hand in yours,

We’ll enter the beast together.

This house built on bad memories,

With shabby furniture and faded walls.

 

But before you say yes, my love,

I must warn you of what lies ahead.

Of the scars you might see,

The screams you might hear,

Or the feelings you might feel

If you come too near.

 

For this hotel is haunted

By the paintings that adorn its halls

Forgiven but not forgotten,

Or maybe not forgiven at all.

 

And don’t be scared if you hear

The floors and walls creak at night,

I’ll give you fair warning, dear,

Before the roof comes crashing down.

Magic

I met you that night,

When my head spun,

And the moon shone bright.

The night I cannot recall.

But for the rushed images in my head

And the swirl of emotions in my heart.

 

I remember walking with you

Somewhere between land and sea,

Sand crunching beneath my wet toes.

Shaky limbs, blurred vision

Yet clarity, for I was sure

I had never felt this alive before.

 

As the wind gathered my hair

And whistled in my ears,

Us, our conversation

It all seemed so familiar.

As if we had met like this,

Laughed like this earlier.

 

There are so many places

Our paths could’ve crossed

Briefly met, to part ways again

But they had to merge that night

In the soft glow of moonlight

‘Cause that night was magic.

An Eyewitness Account

It was a coincidence.

That’s how these stories start, don’t they?

It was just a coincidence.

She just happened to be sitting there; at the right place at the right time. Or was it wrong place, wrong time? One can never tell in these situations. But she hadn’t meant to see it, to witness any wrongdoing. On any other day, she’d be thrilled about an opportunity like this. She was the type to press her nose against the window and spy on the neighbours. It was a childhood trait of hers. That’s why she had a flat nose, her mother would explain.

But that day was different. Tragedy had struck the Singhvi household, when the patriarch of the house refused to wake up that morning. And our Aneesha, dazed and heartbroken, had been staring out her favourite window. As you might have guessed, this is when she happened to see something that would make her such an important character in this story. But she didn’t know it back then. She didn’t care.

The mist floated, an opaque white, taking up half the view from her window. The other half seemed to have been painted in a grey palette, buildings and roads alike. And they were turning blacker by the minute, due to the incessant rainfall.

A man emerged from a building. This building was no different from the others, a cluster of mass-produced structures, except that a man emerged from it and ran across the road, trying to protect himself from the downpour with his flimsy little handkerchief. The handkerchief was pink. She remembered that because it had caught her eye, this sudden burst of colour in the monochrome of her view. Of course, she thought nothing about it then. She didn’t care.

But later, when questioned about what she saw from her optimal spying position, that’s all she could remember. A flash of pink floating among all the grey. It had seemed like a sign, she said. If that tiny little thing could survive the rain, she could survive this tragedy.

The policeman questioning her put on his best sympathetic face, his hands clenched tight, his foot tapping nervously on the tiled floor. He asked about the man’s face, his clothes, or any other feature that could help them recognize him. No, she said. Just the pink handkerchief. And wasn’t that enough, she wondered, as the policeman repeated these questions again and again. He wouldn’t even tell her what the crime was. And which man carried a pink handkerchief around anyways?

The policeman sighed. It wasn’t a pink handkerchief. It was a white handkerchief soaked in the blood of a dead woman from the building across the street.

Oh, she said, and would say nothing more. He sighed again, this time just for effect, and walked away. She turned back to the window, looking at the black and white view outside. After sometime she saw him cross the road, his pink handkerchief fluttering in the wind.

The Date

There it is again; the fluttering in my stomach. As if a thousand caterpillars have chosen this very instant to break through their cocoons and spread their beautiful butterfly wings, and are now trying to find a way out of my dark insides. My hand moves towards my stomach and lingers for a few moments, as if to soothe my body, which is buzzing with nervous anticipation. It’s a mechanical gesture, one that I’ve been doing since many years to calm myself down. Today it doesn’t work.

I look at the wall with the patterned wallpaper. An ornate clock hangs from a nail, tilting to its left. The imperfection fascinates me. I listen to the clock’s periodic clicks. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Time seems to be moving slower than usual. I will it to move faster, it refuses. I sit back with a sigh.

I have intentionally chosen a table at the back, with my seat facing the glass door of the tiny café. This way, I’ll see him when he enters. I’ll be physically and mentally prepared. I realize I’m in my head too much. I’m overthinking this.

The waiter places a tray on my table. With a shaky hand, I take a few sips of the iced coffee I have ordered. It’s probably a bad idea to order before the other person arrives. But I needed to calm myself down. The cool glass feels slippery against my palm, which has become slimy with sweat. What if he tries to hold my hand, and thinks it’s cold and reptilian? I quickly wipe the sweat away with tissues. I want to hold the glass up against my forehead, which seems to be burning hot. Maybe I have a fever. I wonder if I should use this as an excuse to cancel. I don’t. The cold glass beckons, tiny droplets of condensed water forming along its outer later. But I’m conscious of the other people in the café, huddled around their tables, deep in conversation.  What if he walks in right now and sees me holding a glass against my face? That could happen to me. I have bad timing.

I push the glass away, and my heart begins to pound. I glance at my phone to see the time. Five minutes late. ‘Why am I getting so nervous? It’s just a date. It’s no big deal.’ I repeat this in my head a few times, till I feel my throat constricting. “I know why you’re so nervous.” I hear my bestie’s voice in my head. “You like Ethan! You like Ethan!” In my mind’s eye, I see myself blushing.

I catch the waiter’s eye, signal for a glass of water and gulp it down with growing urgency. The phone buzzes. I snatch it and read Ethan’s message.

Sorry, can’t make it tonight.

As I take a deep breath, I feel my throat clearing. Must be all the water I drank.

No problem. I was running late anyways.

His message also says some other things. I ignore them, deciding to read it properly later. As my heartbeat slowly returns to normal, I feel my body relaxing.

‘What should I do now?’ I wonder, looking around the tiny café. Going home doesn’t seem very appealing. And I like it here. Suddenly I grin. I whip my phone out, and type rapidly.

Are you nearby? Are you free?

The phone buzzes back in equal haste. Within minutes, Jake is here, sitting right across me. We talk, we laugh, we binge on fries. He asks me about Ethan. I feel the familiar tightening of my muscles, and I blush. He smiles. I feel a warmth spreading through my body; the warmth of friendship, of familiarity, of Jake.

I reach home and check my phone to see Ethan’s messages. I wonder if I should be offended that he cancelled our date, but his reason seems valid enough, so I decide to play it cool. “But he cancelled on you, so let him text you first.” There’s my bestie’s voice again. I roll my eyes and keep the phone aside. It buzzes and I grab it.

You forgot your scarf in my car again, moron.

It’s Jake.

Meet me tomorrow and take it.

I smile, feeling the warmth in my body again. Looks like I’m meeting Jake tomorrow.