Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Image of Saffiyah Khan

First off let’s face it, this is straight up hilarious - this Chihuahua of a man nipping at the ankles of human decency. You can just about hear his ridiculous yelps (like our ruling party’s goons but with an accent) growing more and more hysterical as the mistress of bindi stares him down. “Should I swat him now?…Now?” I imagine her wondering which Louis Vuitton handbag he leaped out of. Bigot want a biscuit?

Look at her power stance – does she walk around like that, with her body angled for battle, her back ramrod straight, chest out, neck stretched, face relaxed yet ready to get into just about anybody’s face? Is this her normal life-condition*? I slouch, always have. That’s my normal life-condition. I have a weak core. My back is sick & tired of being sick & tired.

When I was 12 there were two Chihuahuas that would accost us on the way to our school bus stop. I remember being terrified in anticipation before I stepped out of my house. I’d pray they wouldn’t be let loose on the street that morning. If I saw them scurrying to get at our ankles, I would panic and slouch-run across the road. Maybe if I’d known, like Saffiyah does, that Chihuahuas live in handbags, I wouldn’t have been so afraid.

By her own account, when the image was taken, Saffiyah Khan was protecting another woman who’d been surrounded “360” by the same yelping thugs. Reports have interpreted Khan’s demeanour as ‘unfazed’. That’s bullshit if you ask me. She had to have been fazed, most fazed. You don’t get to stand like that if you haven’t been similarly fazed time & time & time again. You get to a point where the fucking Chihuahua has barked at you one too many times and you’re like fuck it, if it even bares its toothpicky teeth in the direction of your ankles, you'll swoop down, scoop it up and lob it into the stratosphere before its keepers realise that their dildo-themed pet has gone missing.

One might ask, why didn’t you swoop & scoop before? Why did you endure years of intimidation at the hands of these canine hobbits? Can’t speak for Saffiyah but when I was 12 they seemed bigger. Everyone at our bus stop was afraid of them, even the 16 year olds. Over years, they’d acquired mythic status and the stories had been handed down from seniors to juniors. ‘Did you know they bit so-and-so and they had to amputate his foot?’ ‘Their owner is a tantric yogi. His dogs have secret powers.’ (Ok that one I made up, such was the terror unleashed by these unleashed beasts.)

Obviously I don’t know what Saffiyah Khan is really thinking in these images but to me she has become the Monalisa of pussy power. She has run out of fucks to give and this fuck-deficit has allowed her insight into the Chihuahua’s handbag world. Sure it’s Vuitton (and that’s nothing to scoff at) but it is, at the end of the day, a dank handbag, made even danker by dwarf-dog sweat. Does Saffiyah Khan find this realisation amusing? Or did the Chihuahua pee in the bag just a little, its stench reaching everyone’s nostrils? Is that why Saffiyah is smiling? 

I’m no longer haunted by the Chihuahua twins from my school days but I have new challenges. The apartment where I live comes with neighbours, whom I would term ‘distinctly asshole-ish’. I realized this the day I moved, when the movers decided to use the elevator to transport a heavy sofa up two floors. My neighbour stood at the entrance of the elevator and threatened to let loose Jack – her 350 kilo vicious-looking dog. She knew the men were terrified of Jack, they’d asked her to keep him leashed. But she didn’t like ‘those men’ using ‘her lift’ and she let Jack loose. I slouch-stepped in and blocked Jack in a friendly embrace. Jack was confused. The men laughed. He jumped again. I slouched towards him again. This time Jack’s tail went insane, whiplashing his human-shaped asshole. She yelled “JACK! No!!”. I held out my hand. Jack held out his paw. We shook like adults who had no beef with each other. As we retreated to our corners, the men grinned and I thanked god that Jack didn’t live in a handbag.

Check out this beautiful Twitter thread:

* Incidentally, her stance has been described as an “improbably calm stance – smiling, slumped shoulders, hands in pockets” – I view the image very differently.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Pocket Change

every time we meet
pieces of change fall from your pockets
getting entangled in sheets
dropping behind headboard
slipping under mattress & into pillowcase
when you leave I hunt for coins
collecting them in a jar
waiting for it to one day
be full

Monday, September 5, 2016

love letter

you will never know because you've always been plastic and planted to the bottom of the fish bowl as i swim around you in tight circles in a way that makes you believe that that is my only ability - swimming round and round and round. you won't notice as my circles get bigger and the water more turbulent. you will be busy trying to stay rooted in an ever swirling world. i will swim larger and larger. until one day we both realise there is no glass. this isn't even a bowl. you will find that there's no need for a little plastic castle in the fluid vastness of the ocean. you might even search for me because what's a plastic castle without a fish bowl-dwelling fish? but try as you might to retrace each memory you will never know how it happened and when i became gone.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

No This Is Not Rape (Trigger Warning: Sensitive Material)

The Mahmood Farooqi rape case has been immensely triggering for me.
Not just because the facts are so similar to what happened to me about a decade ago but because of the unfortunate discourse that's followed Farooqi's sentencing to a minimum 7 yrs in prison.
"Why didn't she resist?"
"Why didn't she go to the police immediately?"
"Is it rape if he goes down on her?"
"Is it rape if it's less than 4 minutes long?"
"Is it rape if she's white?"
"Is it rape if he's bi-polar?"
"Is it rape if he apologises?"
"Is it rape if his politics is widely acknowledged as progressive?"

There have been a string of rape apologies I've read under the guise of 'widening the debate' and 'inviting nuance', some by people I call friends.
Each piece twists my insides because they take me back to a time when rape-apologies weren't things others said to me but things I said to myself.
No, this is not rape because he's not inside me, I told myself as he pinned me to the bed. No, this is not rape because I've smoked a joint, I thought as I screamed stop for the nth time. No this is not rape because he's having a bipolar episode. No, this is not rape because I'm his houseguest. No, this is not rape because look! someone's broken through the door within minutes and lifted him off me. No, this is not rape because everyone in that house is pretending nothing happened. No this is not rape because he is widely loved and I must not destroy him.

I told myself this isn't rape as I ran home and then stayed there, unable to come out for the next 7 days. I told myself it's not rape as I quit my job and sank into a confused state. It wasn't rape for the next two years that I went underground, receding from the world. It wasn't rape when I finally went to therapy and it wasn't rape that made me spontaneously start crying every time my boyfriend & I got intimate. It definitely wasn't rape that stirred it all up again eleven years later when the Farooqi case came up.
Eleven years.

All this time and for me, it wasn't rape at all. Until the woman Farooqi raped showed me it was. Because every forced sexual act is rape. Lack of consent is rape. Taking away a woman's agency and right to her own body, her own safety is rape. I must repeat this to myself every time doubt creeps in and I wonder if it was indeed rape. So must we all, repeatedly until we get it.

Do read this Kafila piece, which succinctly breaks down the legal and feminist aspects of the case and judgement: 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Bikini Wax

At the lowest point in life, when I was in extreme physical pain from a back condition, Sunita from the neighbourhood parlour was someone whose kindness helped me make it through the haze of pain. She understood why, despite extreme agony, I would hobble over to get my eyebrows threaded or arms waxed. She didn't judge my need to indulge in such grooming rituals just to feel normal. When she noticed I couldn't sit up for more than 2 minutes at a stretch she invented new ways to thread, exfoliate, soften, condition and wax.

Since then, our friendship has grown. We continue to meet once a month, when she comes over, all-professional, to deliver 'parlour' services. I am healthy now and have my own place. I've had a significant romantic relationship and remain unmarried. She got married a year & a half ago, late by her family's standards. Within the first year, she suffered a heartbreaking miscarriage and came to realise that the man she'd married was less life partner and more petulant man-child.

Whenever she comes over, we hang out for a bit - me in my ganji and shorts, her chatting away as she heats the wax, knowing where everything in my kitchen is.

She tells me that a few days back she found herself at a bus stand at 8pm, not wanting to go back home to her husband yet unable to return to her parents because they would only send her back. As she rips out the tiny hairs on my calf, she declares that women in this country can rely on no one, not even their own parents. I ask her why she didn't call me from the bus stand.
"I thought you were traveling for work - don't you travel a lot?"
"I do, but you can still call."
"The phone works outside Delhi?"
"Yes, it's called 'roaming'. You can ask your mobile company to activate it. Anyway, I don't travel that much anymore."
"Oh, then I should call you."

Then like always, she recommends that I get a full body uptan treatment done. "I will do it nicely. You see how your skin will glow after that!"
"I don't want it Sunita. I barely have patience for the basics."
"But bhaiyya will like it."

There is no bhaiyya in my life anymore. She doesn't know this because I haven't updated her yet. Instead I launch into a lecture about how I don't care to go through hours of treatments for bhaiyya. Any bhaiyya who enters my life will just have to deal with me as I am.
"I'm waxed and threaded, Sunita, that's about all I can offer bhaiyya."
She giggles and then gets serious.
"It took me a year to realise it, didi, but I can't rely on my husband for anything. As long as I'm happy and laughing he's fine. He'll take me out for shopping or ice-cream. But when I suffer, he can't handle it. When I lost the baby, he moved out to go live with his sister."
Then she says, "It's good you are not married didi. You did the right thing."

Over the years I've known Sunita, I've heard this line many times. Earlier, she would say it as a kindness. "It's good you didn't get married." I imagined she felt bad for me because she knew how others perceived unmarried women our age. Now when she says it, it's as if she's proud of how my life turned out. So I don't tell her how lonely I feel sometimes and how my gut wrenches in the middle of the night because I miss being held so damn much. Instead, I listen as Sunita tells me about her other friends at the parlour, girls like her who wouldn't give up their jobs for all the husbands in the world. Girls, who would sneak out at lunchtime to cheat on their 'karvachaut' fasts because "When have our husbands ever cared enough to fast for us? The day they bother half as much as we do, we'll skip the samosas." She tells me about the elaborate labyrinth of untruths they spin to avoid the wrath of their in-laws. It sounds a lot like the lengths I go to to avoid relatives fixated on undoing my single-status.

"Ok didi, let's try something new today. Bikini wax."
"WHAT? No!"
"Just see how bhaiyya will love it, didi."
"I don't care what bhaiyya will love. It's too painful."
"Oho, the way I do it there will be no pain."
"Yeah yeah yeah. No thanks."
She looks exasperated. She had me pegged for an adventurous woman and now I've disappointed her.

I don't know when it happened but at some point a hairy bush became not-normal. When I realised it wasn't a passing fad and that 'everyone was doing it' it made me angry. Burning hot wax on my shins was one thing but my crotch?! That was going too far. My politics wouldn't allow me. My fear of singeing my cooch absolutely forbade it.
But here is Sunita, bored by my tedious politics, unimpressed by my fear. Is there some arcane code of sisterhood she's invoking because it's beginning to feel like I just might let her come at my vagina with hot wax dripping off a butter knife.

And HOLY SHIT it hurts like a motherfucker.
"You SAID it wouldn't hurt. STOPPPP."
"I can't stop now. That would be silly. I can't leave you half-done like a chicken."
"'s the first time you're doing this, no? That's why it hurts. You see how good you will feel later. Especially when you get your period."
"Sunita, you're being ridiculous. OH MY GOD WHAT SATANIC TORTURE IS THIS."
"You know didi, I've opened up a secret bank account. I'm going to put all the money I make from this job in that. I won't tell my husband."
"That's so great." I whimper. I hate her so much.

"Bas bas bas...ho gaya. It's almost done."
Whenever Sunita says something is 'almost done' I know that something terrible is about to happen. And so, as a last ditch effort I scream out my confession:
"There's no bhiayya anymore! He's GONE!"
Sunita looks up at my face. She looks just the right amount of sad. And then she grins.
"OhO! It doesn't matter didi, who needs bhaiyya? Now turn over. Let me do your bum."

Like A Motherfucker

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Kids Are Funny

Dear Amit Shah,

I want to tell you a funny thing that happened at this place where I work in Delhi. It's a small library and on Mondays I go in to hang out with the members (mostly kids between the ages of 4 and 18), help them check out books and every so often read books aloud to them and have chats.

Every Monday is funny, because kids are funny. Even when they're not trying to be. They have a funny way of observing the world that grown ups built. I'm convinced they've got a whole standup routine running in their heads about the absurdities they experience on a daily basis.

This Monday was no different. Actually it was. Half a world away, an angry man had opened fire on a nightclub full of people, overwhelmingly from the LGBTQ community. They were just there for a good time, but by the end of the night 50 of them didn't make it out alive. Because of that angry man with a gun. So we spoke about it, funny kids and grown ups.

Why do we fear the things we don't understand? What kind of responses do we have to the fear? Do we have a choice in how we respond? Do certain groups of people deserve to live more than others? The funny kids and grown ups decided to make a list of all the different kinds of people that are targets of hate, mockery, disrespect & oppression. The list was long and had all kinds of folks in it: weird shapes & sizes, weird skin colours, weird family names, weird ways of dressing, weird choices of romantic partners, weird ways of speaking, praying and eating food. Just weird, you know?

Finally, when the list was complete the grownups wondered: If we choose hatred as a response, what would happen to these groups?
Kids: They'll all be killed!
Grown ups: If they all disappear who'll be left?

And then an unsure but gravely serious voice offered: "Mmmm...Modi?"

I told you, Amitbhai, kids are funny. You should come hang with us.



Saturday, May 14, 2016

Damn Girl, Your Feminism Is Showing

I can’t speak for other professions but being feminist in Indian television is a weird science, practically inexplicable like quantum theory. In TV one can, at the same time, be and un-be a feminist. One can, simultaneously, benefit from & destroy the very foundations of feminism that generations of women (and some men) built with blood, sweat and tears.

…which is precisely how my boss prays I won’t speak as we walk into the conference room to present a “wow kickass jhakaas idea for TV program” to a group of suits.

Subconsciously I brace to be institutionally ignored by men in positions of power. If you’re a proper feminist, you’ve read up on all the ways in which you can be disregarded and made to feel small in such situations – you’re talked over, sometimes you’re loomed over by big-dick body postures and very often you’re subjected to half-smirks as dudes pretend to listen.

Where people sit at such events is key. My team is represented by myself and two men. One of them is my boss and he, automatically, takes the seat that would put him at the head of proceedings on our side. The other side is represented by three men and a woman. So far so #everydaysexism.

But then a slight woman with a big presence walks in and introduces herself as the high chair priestess. She parks herself bang in front of me, across the conference table, upsetting patriarchy's seating chart. She's a marketing suit and she takes lead (yes children, if you thought your television was made by creatives birthing sexciting ideas, think again – the head honcho is always the salesperson looking for profit). Off we go.

I don’t need to turn towards my boss to know that he’s straightening his back to up-talk our company and the work we do. She listens for a second and starts looking bored. A mousey guy to her right interrupts my boss and says, “Yes we know your work. Tell us your idea.” It’s over to me now.

I’m so excited, I tell them, to be presenting an idea that’s part humour, part emotional drama and always ‘life-positive’. Off we go, let’s present the fuck out of this. Three slides in. What wow. Such amaze. Look at their rapt---

High Chair Priestess: “I’m going to stop you right there. I think we’ve got the point.”

Me: Umm ok. (Initiate Sequence – Control ‘HELLNAW YOU DINT JUST INTERRUP MAH GRINDIN’ Face.)

HCP: This is great and all but it’s not right for our channel.

Me: Ok…?

HCP: There are women in each of your episodes.

Me: Yes.

HCP: And your anchor is a woman.

Me: Tr00 dat home gurl.

HCP: Our channel is more inclusive of other genders.

Me: Oh yay, like the whole spectrum of LGBTQ? (This was more a ‘face expression’ than actual words.)

HCP: No, I mean – shows that everyone can watch. And feel happy about.

Me: *nodding head vigorously* You do mean LGBTQ! (Again, face-expression)

HCP: Have you seen that Brooke Bond ad?

Me: Nuh-unh.

By this time, the world around us has dissolved, like in West Side Story, and there’s just me and her in the room looking meaningfully into each other’s eyes.
and mouths a little less agape

I can hear background dude-murmurs (‘yesyesyes') every time she says something. But not once has she made eye contact with anyone besides me. She ignores the men, she assumes the big-vag body posture and she resolutely interrupts any dude who pipes up from time to time. I’m a little bit in love with her.

HCP: There’s a young couple. And she asks him to make chai. Her mother in law comes in and there’s this cute tension you know because she expects the daughter in law to make tea? But then she takes a sip and approves of her son and daughter in law. Like that.

Me: Huh? (Initiate Sequence – Remove CONTEMPT from face)

HCP: We are not looking to push women’s programming. Or be perceived as ‘male-bashing’.

Me: But but but these are fascinating stories that happen to have women in the lead. We’re talking about women who do great things. There’s no male-bashing at all.

HCP: Exactly, there are no males.


HCP: If we get a branded slot like ‘L’Oreal Presents’ we’ll explore this further. Thank you for coming in. Keep in touch.

I reel out of the room, not quite sure what happened. I’m still high from having HCP engage with me so completely, to not be talked down to as is the norm. I’m appalled at my own desperation to not come off as a ‘card-carrying feminist’. I’m shocked at how this woman, whose talent & determination has allowed her to rise up the corporate ranks, is doing her job so well that it destroys any chances of non-cis-male narratives making it to the mainstream. I’m even more aware of how the ‘market’ is patriarchy’s bitch.


My boss is incredibly supportive. We’ve bombed, yes, but he believes in the idea and immediately starts making a list of other places we could pitch it. My other colleague is mostly quiet.

Then he says, “I’m sorry to say – and don’t take it the wrong way – but women in channels are like this only.”

Me: Like what?

He: Poor listeners. They interrupt constantly.

Me: So do men, yaar. All the time.

He: No they don’t. Not like this.

Me: Sigh. Ok.

He: And, anyway, did you see her body language?