Is hope a good thing?

What is that which binds me to you?
A bond so taut it cuts my fingers
You don’t hold it from your end
You don’t even acknowledge it exists.
Is it a noose around your neck that I have placed?
Do you wish to be free?

Is hope a good thing?

Why does the world spin on a tilted axis?
Why do camels walk in the rain,
While fertile lands crack with thirst?
Is hope a good thing?

Or maybe it’s my imagination
Gives me dreams to sustain
Like a crack from which a shaft of light escapes
Into that abysmal hole of loneliness
What is the difference between hope and false hope?
Is there any?
Tell me,
Is hope a good thing?

But what will you answer?
You, the shredder of quilted hopes
And burner of combustible desires
They flare up so fast and leave nothing but smoke behind
Polluting, suffocating, poisonous fumes.
Is hope a good thing?

But what will you answer?

1/8/2012

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Ripened Mangoes

Ripened mangoes
Remind me of summer
Its long afternoons
Siestas under thin sheets
Whirling fans overhead.
Long midsummer afternoons
Remind me of childhood
Its golden sparkle
Story-tales being spun
Under leafy banyan trees.
Of dust—many feet kicking it up
As they played cricket.
Childhood, indeed
Reminds me of mangoes
Their sweet, warm smell
After long heavy meals with cousins.
There was always space
For just one more.
One more mango.
One more siesta.
One more, one last story.
One more childhood.

On Aji’s Death

It was said by Lemony Snickett, “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.” The essence of my reflections lies in this quote, and how you as a reader relate to it. If you’ve known loss, you’ll understand this. If you haven’t, then you cannot perhaps comprehend it.

But then, everybody has a sad story, haven’t we? A story of loss, of tears and regrets.

On Wednesday, February the 22nd, 2012, I lost my grandmother. My dad’s mother, whose only granddaughter I was, whom I used to fondly call ‘Aai’ or mother, died on that day, without any indication and leaving no opportunity for us to bid goodbye. It is, to say the least, a very disconcerting feeling. Lemony Snicket has, once again, described it very well – “It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”

A person you’ve been used to seeing – meeting, talking to, fighting with, touching, smelling – your entire life, just becomes a cold, lifeless body. And then, nothing. A void, an emptiness in space and time and in your heart that you carry for the rest of your life. Which just grows, as described in a beautiful poem by Gulzar that I love very much –

The lump of your grief

I had placed on my tongue

Has started melting.

 

I live drop by drop

As the sorrow flows

Down my throat.

I’ll take my last breath

With the final drop.

I should have said so many things to her, told her what she really meant to me, but all such realization was birthed after her death, as if her absence had a heavier presence than her life itself. Along with the emptiness came regret, and guilt, which slowly, painfully seeps into our thought-streams. That I did not even go meet her on her last day, when she was alive and whole and robust, out of sheer laziness! That I shouted at her for being so disorganised, that I ignored her invitation to have dinner that night, that I should have at least told her I loved her, or how much she meant to me. but I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t, and there is nothing in this world that reverse or repair it.

Death. It creeps upon us like a phantom stair which doesn’t actually exist, and leaves us hurt and disoriented.  I realise I had only, until now, tasted the word ‘death’ through songs, poetry – Tennyson’s, “Oh, for the touch of a vanish’d hand, or the sound of a voice that is still!” sounded so grandiose to say! – But I hadn’t swallowed the essence of it, digested it and let it flow through my bloodstream to the far ends of myself. And now! Everything I read, listen to is laced with a newer, deeper understanding, and connection.

And what about life? What is life, then, just a pack of cards stacked painfully together, that one fine breezy day just tumble down and fall apart? And are we, the mighty human ‘beings’, just wound-up spring toys that are slowly unwinding, each at our own pace, not knowing when the spring will uncoil completely and we’ll just stop?

It was the first time I went out alone after my grandmother’s death. I was walking back home; there was a strong summer breeze blowing; the warm noontime sun and gusts of air filled me with a sense of peace – that summer was finally here! The season of warmth, mangoes, yellow bahava flowers, languid afternoons, siestas and breezy days! I looked at the leaves scattered on the ground, whirling merrily in the breeze…and I thought that death must be this liberation – from one’s physical existence into “nothingness… which is again, everything.” in JK Rowling’s words. And I realized that, even though my grandma’s body had disintegrated, she was everywhere… In this breeze, in the dancing trees, in the sunshine, in the flowers blooming outside my home, in my kittens as well, and within myself. That she was no more a person with a body, but her being was merged with the great Being that is eternal and omnipresent…

Then I returned home and sat on the computer and chided myself for thinking nonsensical thoughts to pacify myself and rationalize, or maybe romanticize, my grandmother’s death.

A few days later we began to clean up my grandparents’ home – such a mess! Junk, basically junk and raddi encompassing old razors, passbooks of bank accounts closed long ago, ointment tubes long expired, mouldy chutney-types, half-melted (probably after being put in the microwave) melamine and plastic containers, to name a few. Here, where my grandmother had been living, breathing, existing, for all this time, I couldn’t find a trace of her. Her paraphernalia had been scattered around – her chappals, sarees, shawl, her hair still clinging to the cloth due to static, and her knitting, that she used to do so passionately – all just made her absence more unbearable rather than assuring us of her everlasting presence. My mother remarked, “We take years and years to assimilate this stuff, and it gets cleaned up in a day or two.” I thought about how these little things we collect and attach so much sentimental value to, in the end become junk left over for someone else to throw away. Unattachment seems to be the answer, but is it that easy? Is it even possible?

And now it’s been almost a month. And unbelievable though it seemed at first, life is moving on, and death just becomes a sad memory, a deeply disturbing experience, a practical change in the structure of our daily lives, an occasional, acute stab of guilt or loss, and… just an eclipse, as someone said. The darkness recedes and there is light again. Perhaps, just perhaps, life is too powerful a temptress to keep us clinging to death, and eventually we all learn to let go of the bad memories and find our own versions of happiness. I don’t know if I like this quality of life or not. Somebody once told me, the pain of labour during childbirth is the worst pain a woman’s body can endure. And yet, after the birth, the body itself erases all the memory of the pain it suffered, so that it can keep producing more offspring. A shrewd trick of nature to ensure its survival! But maybe that’s the only way we can survive… My question, then, is can we live only without the memories and anticipation of Death, and all the pain and guilt it brings in tow, or is it possible to live a deeper, fuller life with full awareness and acceptance? If so, how?

This has also gotten me thinking about nature, and why I can connect my grandmother more to natural things than to her own painstakingly collected belongings. Why is it that children, babies even, love the idea of going ‘out’? To gardens, parks, anywhere really, where they can be under the open sky and feel the wind in their hair. Why? It is because somewhere deep inside us, however concretized and plasticized our lives and existences have become, there is an inherent, instinctual connection to nature? And from the time we’re born into this existence, we choose, or are taught to, fundamentally ignore that connection – put it on a pedestal, hang in on a frame, maybe – but ignore the essence of it? And maybe death is the release, and a way to become a part of the great Being again…

And I laugh at myself now, for writing all this sitting in front of a computer, listening to the drone of humdrum, impersonal existence.

But then, we are, out of accident or purpose, I don’t know, given this life!!! This mortal, human existence! And really, what the fuck am I here for? Am I cursed or blessed to be? And more importantly, now that I’m here, shouldn’t I do something about it? Maybe it won’t have any meaning, whatever I do, after I stop existing, but since I get the benefit of doubt here, maybe this life, this fact that I am breathing, sensing, feeling, thinking… means something! and I’m GOING to make it meaningful, for me at least (also because there’s no one to tell me what IS meaningful, and all those who have an opinion usually disagree with one another) and yet, with a deep sense of awareness that what I am, and we all are moving towards, is ultimately a release. So why not enjoy the journey, rather than pondering over the destination?

Last thoughts. it’s interesting how you miss something, someone so much more when they’re gone rather than when they were right there. Clichéd, I know, but fits me. I’m thinking so much more of Aai, my grandmother, and more positively, now that she’s gone than when she was alive. The positive thing her death did to me was reconcile me to the fact that I love her very much. Even now. It was eclipsed many-a-times by frustration, irritation, anger, etc… But love was there. And now that she’s gone, it’s coming out it leaps and bounds. Well, such is irony of life.

I don’t know if it makes much sense… I just wrote whatever was coming out and it might be a little fragmented… but so there.

Letters, letters…

Somewhere amongst the stuff stored in our attic, there is a box full of letters. In it are all the letters my parents wrote to each other while they were ‘courting’, as my mum likes calling it. Also postcards, faded blue inlands, yellowing telegraphs, and some lovely handmade papers filled with lines inked eons ago. They speak of emotions as faintly intense as the aroma of crumpled flowers pressed between pages…

My mother always promises me that we’ll sit together and read them, on a rainy afternoon when there’s nothing else to do. Unfortunately, although many rainy afternoons have come and gone, we have never found one suitable for opening this particular box. There’s always something else to do.

I am waiting for the perfect afternoon to read them. Some day, it’ll arrive. Till then, I have begun making my own little box filled with some interesting paraphernalia. A couple of pages torn out of a school note-book, written in pencil in my own wriggly squiggles. It is a letter to my parents, admonishing them for always being late to pick me up from my grandmother’s, but I’ve also added a story (an original creation, I believe) about a ‘theaf’ and a girl he kidnaps. It is especially written for them, as a token of my love. As I read it, I can feel the pang of nostalgia, remembering the evenings I sat staring at the clock, waiting for the minutes to pass until I heard the sounds of my dad’s scooter coming down the lane, to take me home.

Underneath is a pile of letters my mum has written to me, one for every night she was away from home. I remember the excitement of finding one each night, and her friendly handwriting feeling as if she were in the room, talking to me… I nodded at her questions, mentally answering them and hoping they’d reach her, wherever she was. In those days, when Windows was still 98, and the World Wide Web and mobile chatting were unknown entities, these letters would be the closest thing to connection. For me, they still remain so, even after my life has become an open Facebook and my cell-phone an extension of my hand.

I love writing and receiving letters. The romance of it all! The feel and crackle of paper as it is unfolded… the excitement of opening a thick, long-awaited envelope… the satisfaction of writing till the very end of the page… the nervous thrill of dropping a sealed envelope in a red letter-box… “Will it or won’t it reach?”

Writing a letter is like putting a part of yourself on ink and paper, folded neatly and sealed shut. It is a part that will remain encased in those words, on that paper, no matter how much you change or life changes. I wonder how many such parts of me lie in their various-sized envelopes and with whom.

Letters have been the defining points of two of my closest friendships. Recently, a small number of my friends and I have decided to keep in touch mainly by letters and the postal system. So I wrote a letter to one of these friends and dropped it off at the post office. Two weeks and my friend still hadn’t received it. I cursed the lethargic pace of the Indian Postal System and wondered what would’ve happened had I just sent him an email. It would have taken less than a second to reach, and we might have exchanged 50 such emails in the span of 15 days. And here I was, still waiting for my first letter to reach. But then, as another friend reminded me, how would I have experienced this bittersweet pain of waiting and the jubilation of finally hearing it was delivered?

I have an uncle who hates keeping any kind of paper junk in his house. My mom jokes that if you give him a card on his birthday, you’ll find it in the dustbin the next day. My mother, on the other hand, loves collecting every card, note or letter that anyone has ever sent her, and so do I. It will end up in the bin somewhere down the road anyway, my uncle says teasingly, and why leave raddi for someone else long after you’re gone? But perhaps that’s the very reason my mother, I and all the other hoarders stash away our letters! That one day, it’ll be all that’s left of us. A few lines written on crumpled yellow sheets of paper, a signature at the end. But those who read between the lines will find us hidden amidst those words, and for that moment, we’ll be alive again.

I invite all those who think life goes by too fast to post a letter once, and experience the days of waiting for it to reach.
There are some things you can’t type out in a SMS. Try a letter instead!

And do write to me at:

Sakhi Nitin-Anita
1-Surabhi,
Old Gangapur Naka,
Gangapur Road,
Nashik- 422013, 
Maharashtra, INDIA

On Giving

A while ago I went to Mumbai to spend time with my best friend Tanvi, and during that time we would go for daily walks and talks to a nice park behind her house. Once, on our way to the park, we were stopped by a couple with a small child who asked us if we spoke Marathi. They said they had no money and wanted to go somewhere, to a relative’s place I think, which and they needed money for the travel. They gave some other details about where they were from and where they were headed to and why they had no money, but I can’t seem to remember these now. Said they were hungry and had not eaten anything all day, so would we be kind enough to give them some money for a meal and train tickets to their destination?

Tanvi and I weren’t carrying our purses or anything; we were only supposed to go to the park and back. But Tanvi’s mom had asked her to get something from a grocer’s, so she had a couple of hundreds with her. She began talking eagerly to this family, sympathizing with them and asking them if they knew how to get to the place they were apparently headed for. I, with a feeling of wariness and discomfort, held back. Tanvi turned to me and asked what we should do, but looking at her I knew that she’d already decided. I tried to reason with the family that we didn’t have money either, since we were just taking a stroll. But they said that they would accept any amount we would give them. Tanvi promptly took out a hundred rupee note and gave it to them, saying this was all she could spare, but, after some quick calculations, she assured them that it would be enough for them to have a meal somewhere as well as get a train ticket. They thanked us over and over again, said something about Marathi Manoos and how only Marathi people can understand each others’ woes, and left. Looking at them, I felt they might have been genuine but I was still plagued with distrust.

As we began walking again, I asked Tanvi why she had believed so easily in their story, and that many people used this trick to fool gullible folks like her, as I had experienced earlier in places as far off as Vaishnodevi and Udaipur. I told her about a fight I had with Nitin in Udaipur once, when he’d given some cash to a family with a similar story. She replied that she had looked into their eyes and known that they were genuine. “But how can you TELL?” I asked her, adding that I could never tell the difference… then she said something really nice that I realised, with a start, was so true. She said that regardless of whether she was right or wrong in judging their genuineness, she was giving with a faith that, some day in the future, if she’d happen to be in a similar situation as those people today, she would also receive what she needed. “You get back what you give, Sakhi…”

I quote thoughts like these but when it comes to actually implementing them, I often fall short. That evening my best friend taught me a lesson in giving, and some thoughts to go with it that I’d never considered before. Later, I realized that I HAD been in a similar position on the Cycle Yatra, having no money and being dependent only on people’s humanity… and those people who had given to me so gracefully then had not stopped to judge whether I was ‘genuine’ or not. What then, gave me the right to sit on this pedestal of passing similar judgment on others?

Also, I need to address and question these feelings within myself that make me so distrustful of such people… is it because of a class prejudice that I still need to tackle? Is it because, somewhere, I consider giving or asking for help a sign of weakness? Or is it a fear of making a fool out of myself? But as Gibran has said, In truth, it is life that gives unto life– while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.

My concluding thoughts are that, I still need inspiration from Gibran and the rest of them with their wise words and abstract poetry to understand concepts like these, but there are people like Tanvi or Nitin to whom these things just come so naturally, and which flow out of their beings so easily! I admire them and take inspiration from them that, one day, I might become like them too.

Learning Societies unConference

What happens when two hundred people of varying ages, nationalities, languages, perspectives, questions and ultimately, life-stories, gather together to share and celebrate their individual as well as collective quest for walking out of the System and ‘taking the road less travelled’ of learning and living?
Courage, contemplation, creativity and compassion were the themes around which the unConference was ‘un’structured. But how did these four abstract words seep into conversations, into new ideas and inspirations and into the hearts of the people who held the space of this unConference? And did they, even? Sometimes it felt like the unConference was more about confusion, chaos, celebration and cookies!
Each day saw new questions, ideas, insights being put on the Open Space idea-board that was the only planner for the five-day gathering. Throughout the day and night, groups would be engaged in conversations, creation with their hands or bodies, or just contemplations while looking at the clouds descending upon the peaks of the Himalayas.
Among the two-hundred people were members of organizations working on self-directed learning, healthy food, sustainable design, organic farming, non-violent communication, zero-waste, self-healing, community media, and more. There were families from the diverse regions of India engaged in unschooling. There were confused young people, disheartened with institutionalized education and corporate systems, trying to break free and exploring alternatives. Adding to this amalgamation were the free-spirited minds of children who were also engaged in exploring the world in their own ways and bringing positive energy to the group.
The flow of conversation ranged from sharing personal stories and dreams to deepening perspectives about alternative education, community living, co-learning and more. Apart from verbal discourses, there were spaces for creating music, art, jewelry, pottery, theatre, organic farming, co-operative games and clowning.
Some highlights of the unConference were a visit to a Monastery to watch close to seven hundred monks engaged in an ancient Tibetan form of debate, a talk with the ex-Prime Minister-in-exile of Tibet, Venerable Professor Samdhong Rimpoche who spoke about Buddhism and integrating the four practices of courage, creativity, contemplation and compassion in our lives and a langhar (or a form of community kitchen practiced in Gurudwaras in India) where some members from the Learning Societies community took the initiative to cook for the 200 people present and served them with their hands and hearts.
The unConference was an intergenerational space for dialogue, reflection, co-creation and sharing of stories. For the many people present, what it left us with most deeply was a sense of security, that we weren’t alone in our quest to challenge the system, that there were many individuals all over the world who were thinking or doing similarly, and that all of us together were a large and growing community that we all felt belonged to.
This feeling of community, and of belongingness, is the sweet aftertaste that remains within me as I peer into the hazy, colourful memories that comprise the unConference…

Some reflections on W-Day by an aspiring feminist…

It’s Women’s Day. The newspapers bring out a special edition declaring the ‘importance of women’ and facebook is overloaded with status updates paying tribute to the various facets of femininity. It’s the day my uncle calls in the morning to wish my mom and me A Very Happy Women’s Day and we get “you are special!” SMS forwards from our various friends and fans urging us to “celebrate your womanhood!” And I sit here and think, so what’s the big deal about being a woman that needs to be shouted out and parroted by everyone just for this one day?

So here I am, trying to put my thoughts into words, trying to piece together what, for me, is important about being a woman today.  More than two centuries ago, a group of courageous women stood up and starting talking about themselves, as women and as human beings. We’re as human as you, they told the men, and hence we should have a say in running the world and running our lives as much as you do. They fought for equal rights: to vote, to work and earn and to procreate. They challenged the then-societal beliefs that “a woman’s place is in her home” and urged women to become economically independent. A century later, around the early 1900s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton made a speech called “A Declaration of the Rights of Women,”[1] and after a hundred-year struggle, finally got women’s suffrage. And there’s been no looking back ever since.

And today, on 8th March 2011, I think, well, Stanton and Mary Wollstonecraft and the rest of those amazing women, finally have their efforts paid off! Today women have access to education, to information and knowledge, and they are asserting themselves in positions that have traditionally been dominated by men- from political leaders to taxi drivers. In my own life, I know many women of my mother’s generation who are engaged in jobs outside their homes, and almost all the females my age have chalked out a ‘career’ for themselves, which hopefully isn’t restricted to marriage and bearing offspring.

But is it all that equal, I wonder… For if one wants to be a successful ‘woman’ of today, not only does one need to have a glittering career but one must also be a good wife and a devoted mother, balancing demanding work routines with household and children-related duties with apparent ease. Strangely, the same formula doesn’t apply for being a successful man: his worth is only measured by the number of zeroes in his month-end cheque! Then why are we, as women, burdened with that extra responsibility that men can brush off so easily?

To develop clarity on these questions and confusions in my mind, I began reading post-feminist theories and arguments. A bunch of disgruntled ladies argue that ‘feminism’ and the struggle for equal jobs and equal pay just put more responsibilities on women. Danielle Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman,[2] suggested that women should marry and bear children at an early age, stay home to raise their children, and then pursue careers later in life. Another similar thinker, Amy C. Goldman, declared that feminists who criticized traditional gender roles devalued the importance of motherhood. “A better form of feminism would be not to rebel against ‘gender roles,’ but instead to assert the value of these roles and to ensure their continuing existence. . . . It is where distinctions between the sexes are properly maintained that men and women complement each other and promote each other’s happiness.” she said.

But then this is only the conservative side of post-feminism. Other ‘liberal’ feminists have argued that the difficultly women faced in juggling this twin burden of responsibilities could be resolved by changing the entire notion of ‘work’ and ‘home’ itself. Betty Friedman, author of a book (that I really want to read!) called The Feminine Mystique, suggested a perspective change on the assumption that women only should bear child-rearing and other domestic duties. She wrote that “What women and men today need [are] real choices about having children . . . without paying an inordinate price or facing dilemmas in their careers. We need to restructure hours and conditions of work. The technology of work today . . . urge[s] us to flex-time, with staggered hours of starting and leaving work, and variable schedules during the work week.”

So while the conservatives state that feminism has evidently harmed women by transforming social norms of ‘equality’ and discouraging women from shouldering domestic responsibilities hence sabotaging their happiness, the liberals suggest an entire paradigm shift on conventional gender roles and the values assigned to them.

But then, how does it relate to my own life, my own understanding? Here I shall proceed to share some of my own reflections that I have formed while reading/talking/hearing/exploring feminism and asserting my place as an outspoken woman in this world.

I have been raised in a non-conformist, radical-thinking family, and as an only child. My parents had deconstructed gender roles and responsibilities in their marriage, a stark contrast to many of my relatives’ and friends’ households that I occasionally chanced to witness. Both my parents worked 9 to 5 jobs and shared all the household responsibilities. Since we didn’t have any household help, except for a woman who has been cooking for us since the time I began forming memories, hence chores were shared (and continue to be!) by all three of us. My father does the dishes, sweeps and mops, waters the plants and does the laundry. My mom makes breakfast and lunch. I help them both, and occasionally clean my room and the toilet. This isn’t a rigid system, people usually do what they feel needs to be done and sometimes force me to do it. I think it is a good, workable system.

But because of this, I find it difficult to accept rigid gender roles and get very frustrated when I see it happening, even with my so-called ‘modern valued’ male friends! Some of them refuse to step into the kitchen and help their mothers, even today!  A lot of men justify their reluctance as “this is a woman’s job” and “demeaning their masculinity”… Then I wonder, why is it that if WOMEN step out of their houses to do jobs traditionally done by a man, that’s called empowerment, but if MEN step in to do work traditionally done by a woman, that’s subjugation? It seems there is an inherent notion in our society that masculinity is better than femininity!

This makes me think more about these allocated ‘jobs’ for women. Perhaps the inequality and discrimination lies not in who gets to do what, but in the perception of these jobs themselves. The values we assign to a set of activities traditionally done by women and men define which activity is ‘better’, hence economically beneficial, hence empowering. So, the activities of women as natural child bearers and rearers aren’t valued, hence have no economic gain, hence degrading to the person who does them. Who set these values in the first place, I wonder… And I haven’t really found my answer yet.

But what if we all change this hierarchy of values at its core? What if men and women BOTH become capable of doing what was conventionally restricted to only one gender? And what if traditionally ‘female’ work was of equal value as ‘male’ work? Sure, certain natural things cannot change; men won’t be able to birth children for a long time as yet, but they’re certainly up for taking responsibility for their offspring’s nurturing! If there can be reservations for women in the ‘hallowed’ hallways of power such as governance bodies and educational institutions, why can’t there be reservations (at least 33%!) for men in the even more sacred sanctums of the home and hearth?

And perhaps, this hierarchy of value isn’t only restricted to the work of men and women… it can be applied to the other oppressive systems in society today, say of caste and class. Virginia Woolf, in her feminist literary criticism essay A Room of One’s Own has said, people, for asserting their own superiority, devalue other groups different from them in certain ways, and start considering them inferior, to boost their own collective ego. And when the other group, that has been considered inferior, starts accepting that, well, that’s the start of discrimination. The same has happened in our scenario of caste and reservation, methinks. There are reservations for Dalits and other ‘lower’ castes for positions in educational institutions, but then why aren’t there, based on the same logic, reservations for Brahmins and other ‘upper’ castes in positions of sweepers and rag-pickers? Why is this work, actually very necessary for society, devalued?

I accept it is more complex than that. That there is an entire question of violence used for subjugation… And another of choice and centuries of being denied that choice— for both women and ‘backward’ groups—the choice for doing something apart from what was expected of them. But looking closely, was this choice as freely available to men and ‘upper’ castes as we think it to be? I think not.

I clean my own toilet. As I mentioned, we don’t have any household help, and in our non-rigid, organic role-distribution system, toilet cleaning often falls on me. Initially I was aghast, yes, I too carry that value hierarchy somewhere within me, but I did it. And started doing it more often. And soon, started enjoying it too, although occasionally it does gross me out. But well, I tell myself, it’s my own shit that I’m cleaning. And it’s a great way of releasing pent-up frustration, so ultimately, not only does the toilet come out bright and white and sparkling, but so does my soul.

So if you’ve read this completely and agree with me even just a little, take this Women’s Day as a time to reflect what value hierarchy you are carrying within yourself. What work, what chore do you consider ‘below’ your standard to do? Why do you feel it is so? Explore that. And then try to do that work. I think empowerment begins from there.

Happy Women’s Day, again!


[1]An Introduction to feminism on eNotes http://www.enotes.com/topics/feminism

‘Cycle Yatra’ Diaries – 9th January:

Morning came, and I forgot my vow of not going in the hustle bustle that followed as preparations began for the start-off. I managed to exchange my un-zip able sleeping bag for one that could be, so that provided some relief. A cycle that I could ride was also obtained, and I made a final call to my parents before switching my beloved cell-phone dead for the next five days. As the screen blinked white and faded away, I wistfully thought of all the birthday calls and messages it would be denied receiving. Oh, well.

“Just do your best and cross one bridge at a time…” my parents had advised. It was to be my motto for the entire length of the yatra. I would stop myself whenever I began speculating about the next five days, and all the kilometers to go. One goal at a time. And first goal, reach Chetak Circle. We started. Cycling wasn’t that difficult, I soon realized, especially since my cycle had excellent brakes and was fairly easy to control. Chetak Circle came and went and soon we were crossing the main limits of the city and entering the outskirts.

My first challenge came when my cycling buddy, we were all given cycling buddies who we had to look out for and generally keep close to, went much ahead of me. Our cycling speeds were different; she was faster than me and raced ahead. Suddenly, she was just a speck in the distance and all my hollering for her to stop was useless. I looked behind, and although I knew there were more people behind me, either they were way back or had lost the way, for no one was to be seen. I suddenly realized I was alone in the world, with no money, no cell-phone and no way of going back (looking back, I can think of many things that I could have done then!) so I kept cycling harder and faster, throwing all my hope to the heavens that my buddy would finally stop somewhere. The area was the outskirts of Udaipur, crowded with noisy trucks and buses and lined with tea-tapris and makeshift mechanic stalls. For those five minutes, I was terrified for life. But then she stopped, as the other members of the group had stopped too, so all was well. She explained that she had kept looking back to make sure I was following her, but couldn’t stop because she wanted to catch up with the rest of the group. After that I decided that whenever I cycled, I would make sure there was a person in front of me and one behind me at all times, lest such a situation arise again.

Soon, we entered the glorious countryside and cycling became more fun. It was, quite literally, an uphill task sometimes, but then a slope would follow, and we would be rolling along nicely. Trees, fields, green landscapes and time flew past as the pedals were pushed. We often took breaks to quench thirst and empty out bladders. Snacks in the form of homemade chikkis, oranges and bananas were distributed. Some people in our group were wearing animal costumes sourced by our friend from Delhi, so we had an elephant, two bears, a tiger, a penguin and a duck that were cycling with us. We made animal noises, shouted some “Cycle chalao, sher ko bachao” slogans and sang Bollywood songs at the top of our voices. The group energy was contagious in the beginning. But as we rode on, people with different speeds started getting more distanced from each other.

The forest was starting. The terrain, too, started becoming wilder as the road took snakelike twists and turns. Around this time, the entire group had become scattered into groups of three-four. One person in our group got a puncture and we had to stop. We were in a ghat (mountain-pass) surrounded by cliffs and the jungle on both sides. It was beautiful, but at the same time spooked me out. For a long time we waited for the other yatris to catch up with us, for the person carrying the repair-kit would always cycle the last. Just when we started to wonder aloud what was taking them so long, a passing motorcyclist told us that a ‘girl’ from our group had fallen and was injured. We started worrying and began wondering who it could be, since there were only five girls, including myself! Finally, the last group turned up hitch-hiking on a tractor. The next village was around five kilometres away. We hauled the punctured cycle into the tractor and requested the driver to drop it off at the village. Harshita, the girl who was injured, also went with it. The rest of the group began cycling away, along the winding road and steep turns.

We reached the village where the entire group reassembled. Some of them were helping repair the cycle at a little repair shop where they offered to do it free of cost. Others were helping Harshita, who had sustained bruises and wounds to her arms, feet and head. Someone applied a local healing herb called ‘tata tale phat’. Turmeric, known for its antiseptic properties, was also obtained from the village. Although Harshita was coping with her injuries valiantly, she couldn’t help feeling de-motivated and wanted to go back. The collective encouragement of the group as well as her own courage facilitated her staying and even completing the entire yatra: a feat, I feel, that required strength and spirit that she showed in plenty.

The village was called ‘Kewda’; it was a moderate-sized village with a school, a blacksmith and even an electricity-powered mill. By the sun, we guessed it was early afternoon. We decided to split into groups of twos or threes and explore the village, looking for labour and food. The main objective, though, was to build relationships with the village-folk and to witness and understand a slice of their lives. I went with two fellow khojis to the east side of the village. We roamed around amidst farms, not quite being able to summon the courage to go into any of the homesteads. Finally, we befriended a couple of young boys who decided to show us around. They took us through wheat plantations and to a well, where we did a bit of bird-watching. We saw some monkeys as well, and the boys threw stones at a particularly mischievous chimp for our entertainment. While coming back, we asked them if we could work in their fields.

My fellow mates were soon hard at work, taking out weeds from a wheat field. I tried my hand at it too, but soon got tired and a little frustrated. I was very hungry, we hadn’t had any lunch or any substantial meal at all since breakfast, and I wasn’t sure of a chance of food with these boys. The sun was going down, so I decided to head back to our common meeting point with some other members of our group whom I spotted. Nobody was back, and some random people we caught wandering around were all going to their respective hosts for dinner. Seemed like I was the only one with no luck of getting food. As I was dejectedly wondering what to do next, our Swaraj facilitator turned up and asked me to go to a house down the road where another chap from our group was housed. I ambled there uncertainly and entered to discover my co-yatri in deep debate with a man who seemed to be drunk. He had ‘suspicions’, it seemed, about our group. He wanted some proof, otherwise how could he trust that we were who we said we were? I was quite scared and suggested to Jayesh (the person with me) that we ought to leave. But Jayesh was impassioned and bent on making Drunken Guy understand the purpose and intentions of our Cycle Yatra and how ‘modern development’ had made all of us into cynical and suspicious people who had forgotten how to trust others. Finally, Drunken Guy got his point (or maybe realized he was late in wherever he was going) and started to leave, all apologies to the extent that he held his ears in an “aapki maafi chahata hoon” gesture. He was a relative of our host family calling in to inquire about them, it seemed. Our host family, too, was very apologetic about the entire debacle and begged us not to leave.

They were a middle-aged couple with five children, three daughters and two sons. They were entertaining, apart from us, other guests— the son-in-law of the man’s brother who worked in Udaipur as a driver, and his friend. The family was very warm and welcoming, especially the woman, who spoke to us enthusiastically, even though she couldn’t fully express herself in Hindi. They spoke a Mewari dialect, which also had words from Gujarati and Marwari, in that region, hence communicating with them was challenging for me. My friend Jayesh was having a slightly easier time, since he spoke both Marwari and Gujarati. The children were shy and only responding in giggles if we addressed them.

My antics that evening caused quite a few moments of merriment for the family and embarrassment to me. First, I yelped and leaped up when a few goats came right at me as they were being herded into their shelter for the night. Then, as we prepared dinner together, I decided to test my skills of making makka rotis, but failed pathetically as the rotis kept breaking. Finally, I made a thick but tolerably edible one, which, I insisted, that I would eat myself and spare everyone else the misery of chewing through it. The other rotis our hostess made were delicious—thin, crisp and straight from the chulha! There was a curry made of sev along with the rotis, which we ravished, except that the curry was so spicy I had to ask for sugar to eat with it! Jayesh had an idea about how hot it was going to be as he had hand-pounded the red chillies himself, but he braved it with watery eyes! The nephew-in-law, while inebriating himself, offered some local ‘whiskey’ to Jayesh as well, who politely declined it stating it was his ‘fast’. Soon, when the nephew became dazed and asked us again about where we had come from, we decided it was our cue to leave.

Throughout the evening, I had started to feel increasingly comfortable and belonged. The family and their life, it was all so dissimilar to mine, and perhaps they felt that disparity more than I did. But all along, they were fully accepting and opened their hearts and hearths to us. They offered us food, many of the ingredients they had to go buy to feed us, but that didn’t dither them. They inquired about our sleeping arrangements, and were worried that we would sleep in the open and be exposed to the cold. They offered us their ‘godadis (hand-stitched blankets) and when we declined, saying we had enough materials with us, forced us to take a couple of mats just for safety. I realised that they had already accepted us as a part of their family, while I, as it steadily got colder and darker, was restless to go back to the security of my belongings (however little they were), my cycle and my group. I had come and eaten as a guest, without doing any work to earn my food. Somewhere, that didn’t feel right, and Jayesh and I promised them we would return the next day at daybreak to help in whatever daily work they did. They laughed it off, saying we needn’t do anything but just feed ourselves as we were leaving the village at noon the next day to continue the yatra.

As we walked back to the common meeting place, we both talked about how warmly they had invited and fed us, and whether such hospitality was possible in our fast-paced urban lifestyles. Our group was re-assimilating as the various pairs and trios came back, all looking satiated and radiant, as if the glint of embers from the hearths they had dined at was still reflecting in their eyes.

The owner of the mill, at whose place we’d kept all our cycles and luggage, was kind enough to open a room at the school for us to sleep in; he also threw in a blanket and some mats. As were unrolling our sleeping bags and laying out whatever other bedding we had, another drunken guy walked in, stating that he was the caretaker of the school and how dare we get in without his permission. Drunken Guy #2 was from Madhya Pradesh, it seems, and boasted of a gun in his room. A few people in the group decided to deal with him and quite soon he was cajoled and even came to wish us a safe night and advised to keep our door shut from the cold and winds. We decided to do a quick sharing of interesting stories or highlights of our day, but I was so tired that as soon as I got into the warmth of my sleeping bag, that dearly-awaited lass called Sleep came by me and drifted me away to the seas and lands hitherto undreamt of.

 

‘Cycle Yatra’ Diaries – 8th January

In the morning, we gathered to discuss logistics of the yatra as well as the principles we were setting forth with. We were nineteen of us, sixteen from the Swaraj community and three more friends. One of them, Ramji, had gone on many such Cycle Yatras before and hence had some knowledge of the area as well as previous experience. He asked us to think of all the ‘challenges’ we were to take on this particular yatra. No money and no technology were a given, but I was unwilling to not take any medicines. Even though I didn’t have any medical conditions that needed special treatment/medicines, I still volunteered to carry, for safety purposes, antiseptic cream, anti-allergic pills and an antibacterial ointment. I’m pretty sure people were quite anti-me by now, but I felt I was pushing my limits too much already, and having dealt with an allergic rash right the day before my last birthday, I didn’t want history to repeat itself and another birthday spent with itchy hives and tears. I promised myself that I would use them as the absolutely last resort. The other challenge we took up was not to take watches and a framework of ‘time’ with us. One chap in the group, known for his quirkiness, decided to keep a no-sound ‘maun vrat’ for the entire yatra. He wouldn’t talk, and would only communicate through gestures and writing.

The rest of the day was spent running around organizing cycles and a basic cycle-repairing kit. I wasn’t finding a cycle matching my height (the low, ladies’ type of cycles were the only kind I could properly ride) and hence was getting quite negative and stressed. That night too, we had to sleep on the cold marble floor with only our sleeping bags so as to get accustomed for the coming nights. As I unrolled my sleeping bag, I realized it did not have a zip, and hence couldn’t be properly wrapped around oneself to generate enough warmth. More angst ensured. Somewhere long after midnight, after tossing and turning for goodness knows how many hours, I promised my sleepy self that I would NOT go for the yatra the next morning and instead go sleep on a warm bed.

 

 

‘Cycle Yatra’ Diaries – How It All Began

I had heard about the concept of the Cycle Yatra ever since Manish, Shilpa and the Shikshantar folks went on the first yatra five years ago. That time, I firmly decided that I would NEVER, ever attempt such a crazy thing in my entire life. And after five years, I still held on to this decision. First of all, I could NOT cycle, having fallen off one many years ago when I used to cycle in our colony with my childhood friends. The fall had given me a scar on my arm that was hardly visible anymore, but many in my mind that I still carried.  The most I had cycled was back in Std. 10th, three years ago, to my tuition class which was a couple of kilometers away from home. After that, never. And secondly, why would I want to leave all the necessities and amenities of modern life behind and delve into completely unknown, unconquered territories of body and spirit? I was never an adventure enthusiast. I preferred my securities and comforts tightly wound around me.

And hence, on January 9th, 2011, it was with a feeling of foreboding and heaviness in my stomach that I woke up. Today was the day I would be setting off on a five-day yatra, cycling for nearly 100-120 kilometres, carrying no money, medicines, cosmetic or toiletry products, electronic gadgets and especially no cell-phones. Basically, leaving my entire life behind. “What kind of mental ‘environmental’ rigmarole have I got myself into?” I wondered.

It had started with my joining Swaraj University, an alternative to degree colleges and universities, last year. At Swaraj Uni, we learners called ourselves ‘khojis’ and took the responsibility of our education into our own hands. We would decide what we wanted to learn and how we wanted to learn it, as well as deepen our understanding of society and the environment, so as to live a sustainable and socially just life. One aspect of this perspective building was the Cycle Yatra, where all of us would venture into the so-called ‘un-developed’ villages of our country, leaving behind the shackles of modern development and education, to re-discover our connection with nature, with each other and with ourselves… a connection based on trust and faith rather than facts and numbers.

It all sounded very nice and poetic and romantic, but when it came to actually doing it, I was petrified. Would I be able to survive once I let fall all the warm, cozy shields of comfort I had built around myself, and my life? I didn’t know. But I still decided to try it out, because my entire khoji community was going and I didn’t want to be left behind. Since the last year, all of us had formed a deep bond with each other, and I trusted my group that, I felt, no harm could befall me if I was with them.

But still… how? How was I going to cycle so much, having near to zero experience? How would I survive the possibility of no food? How would I survive the cold, sleeping in the open, no toilets and the complete lack of hygiene? How could I live without my cell-phone, and without talking to my parents, with whom I spoke to almost daily? Adding to the list of these tangled-jangled thoughts was another worry: It was my birthday on the 12th, and was I going to like celebrating it in such conditions of adversity?