Wednesday, May 12, 2021

When The Smoke Clears

 This piece was commissioned by and first appeared in First Post

Very early into COVID-19 ’s second wave and before the images of funeral pyres began to make international headlines, like so many of us, I too tried to arrange oxygen for someone I’d never met. The patient was alone at home with a nurse, in the middle of a lockdown, with an SPO2 level of 30 (later, we would learn all about SPO2 values as we  performed our own triages). No assistance was reaching them. I was 15 km away, yet confident I could help. Having been cushioned by a lifetime of privilege, it never occurred to me that this was unfixable, until many enquiries later, I had to inform them that there was no oxygen to be had. Could she wait till the morning? The daughter, who was on the other side of the globe, sent a message to stop searching. I put the phone away and wept for a stranger who was about to lose her mother.

Weeks on, anyone deemed non-essential to our city is locked in at home. Everyone except those who are running from pillar to post looking for beds, for air. Then the funereal photographs start coming in. A city engulfed in smoke and dust from mass cremations and burials. Pyres burn non-stop for weeks.  We’ve never seen anything like it. People living near cremation grounds report that everything is covered in a grey film, an unholy scattering of ashes across a city stuck in an unending nightmare. The state refuses to count the dead but the smoke is everywhere. It’s getting harder and harder to breathe.

Or maybe, it is history wrapping her hands around our throats. You’ve been here before, she screams as her grip tightens. This isn’t the first time you’ve witnessed institutional murder.

But those of us who won big in the sweepstakes of caste and class have mastered the art of denial. We have anointed intellectuals and ‘thought leaders’ to construct dangerous mythologies. Headlines, full page advertisements, op-eds in The Washington Post and TIME magazine, the Dutts, Dhumes and Mehtas. We have enabled not just one or two, but an army of sociopaths. We have made a business out of dismissing history’s smoke signals. The marketing of fake messiahs, the vice-like grip over police, media and the courts, the buying of bureaucrats, candidates and votes and the willful abdication of Constitutional duty as minorities are brutally culled. Go further back, history urges us, follow the trail of your pathological apathy. We watch vacantly as our farmlands get looted and workers betrayed. We look away as the brightest minds of our generation are locked away behind bars. We cheer as private profiteers hollow out public education and healthcare. But we always preserve our fragility. God forbid someone stored beef in their fridge.

The thing with a million pyres is, when the smoke rises, no one can tell where exactly it came from. Was it the pregnant 25-year-old who breathed her last at the threshold of a hospital that had nothing left to give? Or a young Dalit girl, full of promise, burnt like trash in the middle of the night by thugs in uniform? Was it our father, mother, son or daughter? Or was it the young man ‘disappeared’ into the Kashmir night?.

This is our moment of reckoning. We must ask why we turned away from self-evident truths. And why we rendered a million voices, unheard. In our deafness, we lost the ability to discern between right and wrong, the cruel and humane. Like religion and culture, we allowed the virus to be weaponised.

Now the pyres burn as history engulfs us in unforgiving fury. She rages like a forest fire that consumes everything in its path. Let us hope it annihilates the hate that courses through our veins, rendering us criminally useless when we need each other the most. May the hatred in our belly, as poet Joopaka Subhadra called it, be extinguished so that we may breathe. What will it take to start afresh?

The defeat of one political party won’t be enough, nor will the toppling of the current regime. We will have to remove the rot from the system, from ourselves. These recent years of darkness have also put a spotlight on our greatest resource, the Indian Constitution. It offers hope in spirit and word and a roadmap out of this hell we have built on communal and caste hatred. It is remarkably compassionate in its essence and committed to equity at its core. And although it has been singed badly in the last few years, it hasn’t burned out yet.

No, history isn’t the fumes that clog our lungs. It is the fire that burns in our hearts, urging us not to betray this moment in time. Those who merely wring their hands and despair will be pushed out of the way, making space for the children of Ambedkar to create new history. The Umars and Azads, the Nodeeps and Devanganas, the Sudhas and Sharjeels, the farmers, workers and nurses will claim this country. It is theirs to inherit. But make no mistake, the debris to clean up is ours.

When the smoke clears, let us hope to hear history’s whisper again, those words we long to hear: Don’t be afraid. There is still time.

A Pandemic Year for Women: For a community library and its members, what is lost and found in a lockdown

This piece first appeared in and was commissioned by First Post.

Sanju is 12 going on 30. He walks into the library with a swagger that’s picked up from the older boys. I find it hugely irritating, “Just be 12 na!” I mumble to myself. Sanju’s fulltime job is being impressed with Sanju. He is consumed with his own brilliance: I’m so smart, I’m the best. I came first in class, I’m the best. I can read in English, I’m the best. 

He demands too much attention and is regularly surprised to discover that the rules also apply to him. His high-pitched complaints about other library members are not endearing. 

This kid requires energy. The kind that a decidedly single and childless-by-choice woman resents giving. But he loves the library and spends all his time there. He reads well, he teaches his younger siblings to submit perfect book reports and is always buzzing like a bee around this space. 

At The Community Library Project (TCLP) in Delhi, all are welcome. No fee, no kaghaz. Read, think, take books home, surf the internet, attend workshops, make art, make friends. I sometimes wonder if the library matters as much to me, as it does to him. I wonder if he thinks about it when he goes back home, as much as I do. Despite our differences, we have one thing in common - the library is our anchor.

On 25rd March, 2020 at 8PM, everything is unmoored. A deadly plague has travelled around the world to reach us. Deadlier still is the lockdown imposed suddenly by the Indian state. We have barely 4 hours to prepare for a new reality. Alone in my south Delhi apartment, dread fills me from head to toe. I am afraid for myself and my elderly parents. My fridge is stocked. I call my domestic help and tell her not to come. And then I reconcile to waiting.

For thousands of families connected to our library, the next few days, weeks & months are a trainwreck and the losses pile up. Daily wage & job loss, evictions and then the food runs out. Sanju’s school is shut. I don’t know it then but his family decides to leave the city like millions of other working class people. Not everyone at the library has the luxury to wait. 

In the early days of the lockdown, my reality is virtual. If it weren’t for Twitter I wouldn’t know what’s happening outside the gated colony where I live. Op eds, breaking news and the endless march. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. In what feels like forever, I have no real responsibilities. For now I have money in the bank and my landlord has said I could go six months without paying rent. I post this on Twitter, it goes viral - my landlord is a hero.

As the days get hotter, I turn on my AC and refresh.

Social media is flooded with photos and videos of working class families making the unbelievably long journey. How much panic does one need to feel to set out on foot, for thousands of kilometers? Imagine knowing that no one in this city, not even the people whose homes you built, waste you collected or deliveries you made, would look after you in a crisis.

May 2020. Many families from our library community are in deep distress. Children I’ve known for years are witnessing the unravelling of their lives. Everyone who works at TCLP receives an excel sheet of phone numbers. We each call at least 100 members to check how they are. We try and aswer their concerns as best as we can. Our librarians become hubs of information, we make videos about how to get tested for Covid in order to get on a ‘shramik’ train or bus. Others connect with food relief organisations to distribute food packets in our areas and visit ration offices to find answers. We find every public service collapsing.

When one has never known material adversity before, a crisis like this is paralysing. 

But as a library worker who is part of a collective, there is immense power as well. Library leaders search for ways to continue reaching readers. TCLP has never wanted to go digital but for the first time, it begins exploring online library resources that work in poor internet areas and don’t hog expensive data packs. Public school kids are ‘back to learning’ with Zoom classes. Ours will probably lose the year. They can’t lose their library too. We try to get as many members onto WhatsApp channels to send them read-alouds thrice a week. It is called Duniya Sabki. 

We are in October now. I have no idea where Sanju is or if he’s receiving any read alouds. And I’m ashamed to say it’s because I haven’t thought about him in months. I’ve been swept up in the pandemic too. Family members have fallen sick with the virus, some seriously. Income streams have dried up. Everyday, we hear more stories of despair from the library. I’m too scared to hit refresh on social media. My library colleagues discuss what to do with all this frustration. We decide to build a ‘Justice Doctrine’ - a chronicle of our community’s distress, made of snippets of conversations we’ve had with each & every member-family. It is not just a place to park our rage, it is a scathing testament of how our systems failed us.

I have taken up yoga but not baking sourdough. There is still food in my fridge and I have even confessed, with zero self-awareness, that “jhadoo-poncha is fun yaar, so great for the glutes.” There’s another trip to the ration office. After November the free-ration scheme, meant for food-relief in the lockdown, will end. What will happen after that? The officials can’t answer. We are hurtling into the worst of the pandemic. November in Delhi is deadly. We hit an all-time high with new infections & deaths. 

On 16th December 2020, I receive a Facebook message:



Give me reply


I squint at the profile picture. No! It can’t be. Sanju! But not 12-going-on-30 Sanju. He looks like a proper teenager now. A bit more serious, with a more serious haircut and just the last dregs of boyishness on his face. He must be posing, pretending to be an older man, I think. 




Give me reply just mam




And just like that, as if the months of deadly lockdown never happened, I feel that old familiar annoyance rise up again. 



Oh sorry


Purnima mam

Give me reply

I reply to him and apologise for not responding earlier. He asks if he can call me and another ‘mam’ sometime soon. I say yes of course. I want to know how he is, where he is. But then he vanishes again and the call never comes.

10 months after the lockdown began, TCLP’s libraries begin reopening. First at Khirki, then South Extension-Kotla and soon after, Gurgaon. As old members and new admissions begin streaming in, we exercise as much covid-control as we can. Our programs are running at half mast, we sanitise a lot and at any given time you can hear some adult saying “Beta, mask theek se pehno...naak par.”


Sanju messages once more. I figure he’s seen all the photos of the new libraries on social media.

How are you mam?

This time I ask him: Aap kahan ho? Aapka message dekh kar mai bahut khush hoon

Library kab khulegi maam?

Khul gayi hai. Aap kab aaoge?

Mai nahi aa sakta mam, gao me hoo.

Oh! Wapas kab aaoge?

Pataa nahi mam.

I don’t know what to say to that. The 10-second delay is characteristically too much for impatient Sanju.


Aap theek ho mam?

Haan, mai theek hoon. Aapko miss karti hoon. Saare ma’am aur sirs aapko miss karte hain.

Ok mam.

Ab mjhe jana hai mam.


The cursor blinks as if someone is typing furiously on the other end. But the message, when it finally comes from this boy whom I haven’t thought about in weeks, is short.

Take care mam.


Monday, July 6, 2020

I Did Not Ask For This Thank You

Two months of intermittent fasting, watching what I eat and getting the-best-blood-reports-of-the-decade later, it is Monday night. My body is a temple and tonight we drink.

This is my first beer in two months and oh, if I only had the words to describe how gloriously this cold, life-affirming liquid slides down into my interior.
My head spins and I want to giggle at everything and nothing. This. Is life.

Then the phone dings: Ma'am aap free ho? Call karoon?

It's a kid from the library where I work. I've known this boy - young man - since he was what, 12? He's 17 now and a musician. A rapper with his best friend. They whip out 'flows' at lightening speed, they flood social media with their 'Coming Soon', 'Coming Real Soon', 'It's Coming, We Promise' posts every second day. The boys are gifted, they 'spin rhymes' that make me cool by association. Their raps possess an ease that makes me both proud and jealous. No one would guess it but they record their tracks by scavenging for quiet nooks in the chaos of their locality.
Our library used to be that but then came the pandemic.

Ugh but I'm so happily inebriated. I don't want to talk to kids.

"Ma'am aapne Sidharth-Garima ka naam suna hai?"
Nope. I've not heard of Sidharth-Garima. Is that one person or two?
"Ma'am unhone Ramleela ke gaane likhe the."
Lyricists for a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. Hm.
"Ma'am unka phone tha."

Ok ok, I'm up. I'm listening dammit.
The boys, whose work has spread wide enough for us to no longer have any kind of reliable contact-tracing, have been approached by famous Bollywood composers. The bigshots have lyrics that need to be transformed into a 'flow'. They've heard the boys' music (where? how? what is this miracle?) and would like them to try.

For some reason, the boys decide to call me - their only link to the glamorous world of cinema, I guess, myself having been a worldfamous screenwriter for documentary films that no one watches. "Kya karein ma'am?' What shall we do?

My buzz fizzles to piss. If the past twenty years have taught me anything, it's that young, hungry & talented artists without 'godfathers' rarely catch a break in show business. The boys tell me they've been promised 'credit' but no money. Of course, what a fucking cliche.
I'm paralysed. I don't know what to say. As an 'elder' who believes in their talent and is incapable of being objective about their work, I want to tell them to tell the Bollywood bigshots to fuck off if they can't pay. But I also know that calls like these don't come everyday. And as I struggle to give them the right advice I'm confronted by my past coming back at me in waves. It's as if the 20-year-old Me is standing in front of me, asking if she should take that unpaid internship to get a foot in the door or let it go because money matters and her work has value.
Both choices are wrong. Both choices are right. Especially when you're staring down the barrel of opportunity.

You only get one shot.
Or do you?
And my insides scream: THIS IS WHY I CHOSE NOT TO BE A PARENT!
It's too big. A young person handing me the reins of their life-changing decisions and saying: 'Tell us. We'll do what you say.'

I tell them to ask for more details (never be afraid to ask questions about a project, even if it's to Jesus himself) and get them to commit to 'credit' in writing on email. I tell them to walk that thin line between expressing keen interest in the job and holding firm for better terms. It took me decades to learn this. I know these boys will not be able to do it very deftly. They sound unsure on the other side, almost prepared to lose the job. Part of me wishes they'd ignore me. This could potentially be a huge opportunity (if it isn't a total scam), one that boys without studios don't often get. Will my advice steal their chance? Or will it remind them of their worth so that when success comes calling, it is real and rewarding.

I put the phone down wearily. My beer has made it to my kidneys and well past it.
Be grateful for that singular second when the chilled brew first hits your throat. No sip will ever taste the same. All I know is: Life is hard and I never want to be 17 again.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

If It Smells Like Hope

I am experiencing a surge of goodwill, hope, bonhomie and the urge to create.
And even though people all around me are dying left, right & centre, today it feels like I will not join their ranks.

This hope smells like privilege & dumb luck.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Roaches Are Here

At around 1.45am I stumble out of bed and make my way to the bathroom. I turn the light switch on before I enter, like I always do (it gives whatever djinns and animals roaming inside fair warning that a human is approaching). I open the door and the biggest cockroach I have ever seen walks out. He (I assume...they?) freezes. I freeze. I'm startled but not scared. Despite being bitten by wasps and regularly cleaning lizard poop off my floors I'm not easily freaked out by anything besides rats.
My reason for freezing is I'm polite. I'd like to give the cockroach a chance to gather its wits and make its next move.

At this point, I should mention I haven't really had a human in my home for a couple of weeks. It takes me a while to tell myself that having roaches in the house is not good. In fact I haven't seen one in my house since 2016. I scroll through my database of insect knowledge - why exactly are cockroaches bad? They don't bite or chew through stuff. They don't carry life-threatening viruses (well...they might). Why am I supposed to take my chappal off and squash this guy?

I really don't want to take my chappal off and squash this guy. The cockroach-chappal-squash move is something we've all grown up with and somewhere it's become the automatic Darwinian response of south asians to all pests. But who said that's the only way to deal with cockroaches? What if we let them walk away? What would happen?

I must google this, I think, as the cockroach remains frozen, contemplating its power move. I must also add 'Cockroach killer' to my shopping list although I'm not decided whether to use it or not. Have I mentioned that no human besides me has entered my home in weeks?

Two weeks ago I was attacked by a swarm of wasps. It's not their fault, I'd barged in on them quite suddenly as they were building their nest on disputed property. According to the Indian constitution, I have rights over this building. According to natural law, the Indian constitution can go suck it. It was painful as sin. My arm and back swelled up to theatrical proportions and everything was very tragic looking (and feeling) for a week. The wasps got it worse. The ones that stung me died. The rest had to deal with me for the next 2 weeks as I set upon a daily routine of breaking whatever nest they'd built through the day.
Wasps are exceedingly persistent. To the point of being, in my opinion, stupid af. They will build no matter what. Like robots programmed to execute code with no regard for value of labour or consequence. Despite the fact that I break their construction every single day they return to rebuild. I've taken hits too. The glass lampshade they decided to construct on got smashed to bits because of my indelicate stick manoeuvres. As of today, they continue to build through the morning. At around noon, most of them will disperse (lunch break?) leaving one poor sod behind (to guard the fortress?). I will then sneak up with my stick (curtain rod) and poke at the nest until it falls. That poor guard wasp, the shit it must have to listen to every afternoon when the others return to find their hard work undone. GO SOMEWHERE ELSE, YOU FOOLS! I want to scream every single day. Do you think I enjoy destroying your homes and your chance to build a future, I yell at them like a serial gaslighter. But they never listen. It doesn't matter I guess. Soon the nesting season will be over and the problem will take care of itself.

Roaches, I can tell even without googling, are not seasonal. I suppose at some point I'll have to do something violent to them. I'm still standing outside the bathroom, waiting for Big Guy to decide where he wants to go. Just go anywhere please, I won't do anything to you tonight, I plead. I really need to go to the toilet. The bastard doesn't care (does he know what I did to the wasps? Is this revenge?) so I stomp my foot. Perhaps its Darwinian response is to scuttle when it feels the south asian chappal approaching. It makes a beeline for the living room. For now there is truce.

It's summer in a pandemic. The wasps will soon leave. The roaches are here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Hat Tip To My Anxiety

I'll say this in praise of my anxiety - it'll try everything once.
It's always got one eye out looking for comfort.

Before the lockdown we would take walks, my anxiety and I. Now it's all downward dog this, chaturanga that. Breathe breathe breathe that newly purified air you muthaloving human, my anxiety chants.

Enough blood to the skull resolves the tightness.
We allow ourselves to become cliches.
We won't read the books we said we would and we won't stay awake as late as we'd hoped.

Cook once, clean twice, binge watch. Then turn them into monuments of functionality.

Things my anxiety doesn't know.
What this post is about it until the first sentence is written.
That it will eat 3 lunches in one day or nap from 2 to 6pm.
Or that this task will be abandoned in 3...2...1.

Making money? We don't do that anymore.
Write more than 3 lines at a time? We don't do that anymore.
Plan? Laugh. Out. Loud.

It's annoying, this brain-fart prose.
My anxiety shortens things. Sentences, breath, ambition. This blog post.

Sunday, July 15, 2018


Aren’t we supposed to get wiser as we get older? I must’ve missed the memo.
The abiding takeaway from this whole advancing towards middle age thing has been: confusion.
I long for the certainty of my early 20s, when this was absolutely good and that was definitely wrong. When of course art trumped the artist and hell yes, we'd yell bloody murder if someone assaulted or cheated on us.

Now? Mmmmmm….ffffff… - I don’t know…

Such a gift. This aging.

I’m in the last year of my 30s so technically – technically – I’m not old. But thanks to the magic of television, the Panic has started. Not really of boobs sagging or fuses going pffft on the ovaries, but of knowing that this is it. I am not Helen Mirren. I won’t be shooting gangsters at 70.

I’m going to be broke like a millennial. Gosh that made me feel younger for a minute.

I will tell you this though.
If we age correctly, it won’t be because things get less confusing. It’ll be because they get more so. The cause – our humanity. We may have had all the education, all the cuddles and all the life-lessons handed down to us; we may try really hard not to be a little shit – but a little shit we will be. We will, at different points in our lives, be both perpetrator and victim. We cannot avoid it. Understanding that this is who we are, is hard. 

Into the cracks of these existential catastrophes, we must dive. The waters are murky. There’s no way but to feel our way through the contradictions. Turns out we sometimes lie, cheat and step over another for our self-interest. Turns out, we can be weak. We won’t be the girl who reports her abuser. We won’t be the guy who turns down a job in the tobacco industry. Still. We are the girl who stood by someone’s depression, someone’s cancer. We are the guy, who supported a colleague’s fight against workplace harassment. We showed up for the tough stuff. We let someone down. We risked reputation for the greater good. Sometimes we weren't up for the fight. 

We will grapple with how both versions of self can exist side by side. We will realise that our lives aren't bigger than Life, that complex beast just beyond reach. When we surface, we will feel good. Look ma, I learned this thing. Look ma, I saw.

Not so fast. We merely survived. We didn’t flippin’ triumph okay? Our cave wasn’t the only one. Our learning wasn’t one-size-fits-all. We came out with the Shoulds still strapped to our backs.

So here's the bad news, we might have to dive in again. And again. And again, until we discover the meaning in our contradictions: compassion. 
Because really, there's no other way. We tried judgement, it didn't make us better. We tried debilitating criticism - the self-talk nearly killed us. We held ourselves & each other to impossible standards. We only caused hurt in the end.

With compassion we might be able to tell the difference between mistakes, ignorance and Trumpian evil. We might learn how to discern what deserves our anger and what doesn't. Compassion allows room for confusion. But more radically, confusion, allows room for compassion. And maybe that's why we age at all.

Because there sure as hell isn't any medal at the end of it.