a month in London…

I’m walking along High Holborn towards Covent Garden with a friend. She’s in a hurry – the shop closes in ten minutes – and I with my short legs struggle to keep up with her. A group of three people walks in front of me – just a mass of bodies in my way – and as I’m trying to navigate my way past them, one of them looks at me and says, “Please.” First, I think he’s asking me to go ahead, but a more desperate “Please!” comes my way again. I stop. The three bodies belong to a middle-aged man and woman and a young boy. The man has a slight limp, the boy is holding his hand. Anxious as I am to catch up with my friend, I wait for them to speak. “Is this the way to Piccadilly Circus?” is all that’s asked. The man has an Italian accent. By their clothes, they don’t look touristy, at least not the rich tourist variety. And in that moment, for some strange incomprehensible reason, I feel a wave of affection towards these three strangers. “Yes, you’re going the right way” I reply, hastening to add that I’m a student who’s also new but can look it up on my phone. “No, that’s not necessary” they say. They thank me for my help, and I hurry ahead to meet my friend.

I cannot fathom why and how and whereabouts this feeling of affection for random strangers has emerged. But it has stayed with me, a rich and engaging – if slightly disconcerting – emotion. But I speak of this exchange because it encapsulates so much of what it has meant to live in London, of which I complete exactly a month today. Being a little lost. Friendly and extremely helpful (and better at giving directions than I was!) strangers. An obsession with Piccadilly Circus. Struggling to keep up. A touristy family of three. But not the rich we’ve-been-here-before kind. More the we’re-not-from-here kind. Discovering London on foot. Limping. Unwillingness to rely on technology. Parents. And then the sheer exhilaration and sheer exhaustion of being alone, alone, alone…

…and yet, not being alone. London has been, surprisingly, accommodating. Before coming here, I was really worried about feeling alienated in a European city full of White people. One of my formative experiences of being culturally ‘othered’ happened when I travelled to Europe and the US as a child, where I became painfully aware for the first time in my life that I was different from everybody and not in a good way. And that this difference was marked upon my body and my person – the colour of my skin, the way I spoke English, the clothes I wore, made people look at me in a particular way. The worst privilege is the one that is self-deceptive, which insidiously hides itself within the ‘normal’, the ‘general’, the ‘standard’. In India, I never had to think about my identity precisely because I belonged to identity groups that were in power – ‘upper’ caste, religious majority, middle class, urban – the same groups that form the subjectivity of the normative, unmarked ‘Indian’ (perhaps also male, but gender is something I will not get into for now!). But step out of those boundaries, and suddenly the fact that I am ‘brown’ (not ‘one of us’), poor (wealth is so relative!), non-native English speaker (even though I’ve been thinking in English since I can remember) and fat (hello culture-specific beauty standards!) becomes painfully obvious.

This feeling of being marked in a particularly disempowering way was something I had dreaded about moving to the West. But amazingly, I have not felt that way in London. London prides itself on being the most international city in the world – apparently, all of the world’s nationalities are said to be living here. And that diversity – of bodies and faces, of colour, of language, of ethnicity, of religion – is very visible here in the city. There are times when on the Tube, I hardly hear any British-accented English, or even any English at all! The diversity makes it easy to feel belonged – to feel part of this amalgamation of difference. The gaze is different too – you’re not so much an outsider as you are another inhabitant going about their business in this big, big city. The very fact that I – a brown-skinned, kurta-and-bindi-wearing (on that particular day), very-un-English-looking person – was asked by a White European family if I knew the way to Piccadilly Circus as if I was a born and bred Londoner itself indicates how easily diversity is understood and accepted around here.

Of course, this diversity is not free of hierarchy. Which bodies occupy which spaces, which bodies do what kinds of work, is quite clearly visible. For example, most behind-the-counter and cleaning staff in LSE as well as at Goodenough College (my residence hall), are (like me) non-White and immigrant. As most of my interactions, especially at Goodenough, are with them, this ‘outsider’ likeness gives me a sense of connection to them, which is nice, but also leaves behind a disconcerting subsidiary of the Imposter Syndrome (…what am I even doing here? …do I have the right to be here?), which I am trying to make sense of and explore further.

But largely, the feeling has been of accommodation. Of falling in step with the crowd. Which brings me to a side note I must say about the crowd. People had warned me that London is crowded (ha!) and the tube sometimes resembles the Mumbai locals (haha!), but that is just a gross overstatement. Yes, London is peopled, and there are crowds on the Underground at times, but even the crowds are accommodating. People wait to see if anyone else would like to claim an empty seat before sitting. People make way for you and try not to get in your way. There is a sense of detached politeness that’s really rare in India. Or, as a friend remarked, back home we are taught (conditioned) to fight for space, to fight for everything, basically. Here, that frenzied win-or-die attitude isn’t on display, at least not in public spaces. Perhaps, same friend remarks further, a couple of beers later the politeness will recede, and the inner xenophobia will be revealed. Perhaps. But for now, I’m happy with the stiff upper lip. It makes me look at my own learnt behaviours (I need to grab that seat before someone else takes it!) with a more critical eye, and pushes me to be more considerate, more polite. Maybe it’s a dikhawa, but even that’s a good thing when we’re navigating the public space together, I suppose.

More than the public space, navigating the private space has been interesting. As this is the first time I’m living literally on my own, without the support systems of family or close friends or boyfriend, it is a learning curve. It also makes me aware of how much time and energy is consumed for routine tasks that were either taken for granted (read: not recognised as the domestic, reproductive, and emotional labour done mostly by women) or shared at home. Even decision-making takes such a long time – like whether to do laundry today. Or planning to cook. And what to wear – London weather is so famously unpredictable that I feel I am dressing for different seasons in the same week! The hardest is to do the emotional labour for and by yourself – to comfort, to cajole, or even to convince your own self is un-easy. There is nobody I can be grumpy, crabby, and whiny around! Sulking or crying on the phone isn’t the same as sulking and crying to people in front of you. I really miss the physical presence of loved ones who know me and love me as I am.

Another painful realisation is the lack of touch, and how much we take touch for granted. What really hits me sometimes, especially when I come back to a cold, dark, empty room after an exhausting day, is the realisation that I have not felt human touch at all during the day. Maybe because it’s just the first month – friendships are still being forged, personal space is still being negotiated, and while there are people I’ve become great friends with here, and those who are available to (occasionally) get some nice hugs from, it’s still not the same as a parent’s touch, or a lover’s touch.

I’ve been repeating to myself what a friend described as the ‘Chosen One’ hypothesis, which consists of the following premises: 1. I only have a year here. 2. There’s so much to do in London! 3. I should consider myself lucky to be here, and hence 4. I cannot waste any time moping. Thus, I convince myself – and everyone else – that I’m doing great, that amazing things have been happening to me. Which they have. And I am really doing great (ha!). London has been generous in its offerings (even weather-wise), and apart from certain days from hell (if hell were a rain-sodden desert of gloom) which I can count on the fingers of one hand, I’ve been having a fantastic time.

But coming back to an empty room, with no one to cry to but your pillows, kind of majorly sucks.

Alright, enough moping. Let’s move on to the more than good enough time I’m having at Goodenough College. Goodenough College is a quintessentially British establishment (the Queen is their patron!) which houses international postgraduate students in London. It’s a lovely place – Georgian style buildings, manicured lawns, quaint furniture, and a Great Hall straight out of Hogwarts. They really emphasise on community living, which is great because it means you’re constantly around people. And yet, you have your own space to retreat to, if so desired. The community also becomes a resource pool – there’s always someone to ask for help, or anything else. After spending a month living here, it has already started to feel like home. It’s also just nice to meet so many people from different parts of the world and hear their stories. Made me realise how little I know about the rest of the world, and how what we hear or know about other cultures is so different from the lived experiences of someone who is actually from that culture or location. And how, because of the sharing, it makes it easier to build a more nuanced understanding of the lives and realities of those who are not like us, and hence also of our own lives.

It has been interesting, in this background, to talk about India. A random man I played table tennis with one day was very interested in knowing about ‘Indian culture’ and its various trappings, including the notion of ‘arranged marriages’. He asked me if families in India continue to coerce their daughters into marriage with a person chosen by the family. The easy answer to that question was yes, as I was thinking about the girls and young women I was working with prior to coming here, and their struggle against early and forced marriage. However, as soon as I responded, the man asked, “So even you will have to marry the person your parents choose for you?” which made me laugh. Except, he was genuinely confused. I tried to explain that 1. India is not homogenous and 2. Not all families think this way, and 3. Fortunately I belong to one that is very liberal, but the exchange left me feeling uneasy. Full of questions such as how to represent one’s culture responsibly, while being mindful of the relations of power that exist between as well as within cultures, which not only create partial understandings about certain (especially non-Western) cultures, but also accord different positions of privilege within them. Could I, as a person with considerable privilege in my culture, accurately and authentically describe it to someone completely unfamiliar to it? Could I be informative and yet acknowledge the confusion, the bias, the partiality, the contestations within my narrative?

A few weeks ago, I visited the Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace, a free tour organised by (who other than) Goodenough for its new members. As someone with a major postcolonial hangover, it was dreamy to see the House of Commons and House of Lords and the opulence and splendour of it all – the tradition, the ceremonial frills, the rules of etiquette. But I had very mixed feelings on the tour. At one level, it was thrilling to be in the birthplace of the parliamentary system, and to historicise it – to see it as a site of contestations and struggle which made it possible to refine and further strengthen its conceptualisations of democracy and representation. Despite that, it was also unsettling to think that this was the very space, these were the very seats of power, that produced and legitimised so much violence and destruction in so many parts of the world, including the part I call home. But do I then blame the current British government or people for it? Do I hate them? No! Thinking of ways to engage more critically with these feelings, and to take the dialogue forward with people from both sides of the ‘Commonwealth’.

Speaking of dialogue, something I really like about my course at LSE is the emphasis given to dialogue as a pedagogical tool – as a way to make better sense of this world. I am really inspired by the way in which my professors and classmates at the School respond to and are responsible to diversity. In the beginning, having only heard of LSE at this academy of global renown, I was (more than) a little worried that the teaching here would be pedantic and impersonal, and how it would juxtapose with the teaching of gender studies as itself a subject of radical study. However, I have been (more than) pleasantly surprised at how participatory and inclusive (and warm!) the classroom space is, particularly in my (Gender Studies) department but in the School overall. And how there is a strong emphasis on diversity, not just of access (almost 70% students here are international) but also in terms of classroom engagement. Among my classmates too, instead of competition, there is a shared commitment to learning together. As we come from very different backgrounds (academically, culturally, socio-politically, geographically) it is much more fun to attempt to make collective (but perhaps not always coherent) sense of it all than to determine who knows best. (Also because as gender studies students we challenge the very idea of knowing something ‘objectively’ and in its entirety – how can an individual claim to know anything when what they know and can know is so rooted in their subjective locations and located subjectivities? But more about that some other time!)

Of course, the niceties are also within an academic structure that is not unlike academia elsewhere (and in India). Teaching is still informed by power – in my first gender studies class, I found out that out of nearly twenty thousand professor-level positions in the UK academia, only nineteen (19!) are held by women of colour and ethnic minorities. And that the professors in my department continue to struggle against pay gaps as well as increased marginalisation of and attacks on gender studies as an academic discipline. So, same storms brewing in different teacups.

That brings me (thankfully) to the end of some very rambling reflections of this first month in London. As I’ve already spent a day and a half of my precious weekend time on this (with still-unread readings for next week’s classes haunting me) and as you also must have spent enough time reading this (good enough? Not good enough? Also this phrase has forever lost its semantic purpose for me), I shall take pause.

Just want to end with a small riff: the leaves have already started turning yellow/brown and falling; soon all the trees will be bare-boned and sad-looking. While autumn continues its ‘mellow fruitfulness’, we are reminded constantly that Winter is Coming. And that this is going to be the worst winter London has witnessed in a hundred years. So, as I enjoy the last bits of sunshine on this sunny Sunday and try not to worry about falling leaves and the (sheer amount of) homework left to do, here’s a verse by Frost (the name, too!) that says it ever so much better:

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

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25.

Today is my ‘lunar’ birthday, it seems. It didn’t feel like a birthday, to be honest. Definitely not a milestone like the 25th. The social constructivist part of myself laughs at this seemingly arbitrary calculation for an arbitrary number of years of existence that is deemed so noteworthy. Yet, as my ‘actual’ (oh well.) birthday looms just around the corner, another part of me – more difficult to label – titters excitedly. Why are birthdays so important to me? Perhaps because it is the only day of the year that I am so self-aware: a day that I know for sure is going to be remembered for ever; rather, has to be remembered; hence, has to be worth remembering. I have tried my best to make my birthdays these spectacular, perfect days that stories can be spun out of decades later. I have mostly failed. The failed ones are remembered in sharper clarity, unfortunately.

So here I am, once again, trying to make this one special. The failed birthday cynic in me scoffs and is already wondering what can go wrong. Some loose threads have already begun to unspool. But I shall not be daunted. So, I’m giving myself the best birthday gift I can: time to write. Write about what it means to be 25, to be flung beyond the cusp of adulthood that I was long hanging on to. Write to celebrate my learnings and reflect upon my mistakes. Or should it be the other way ‘round? Write to remember. Write to recover. Write to let go. Write to invite others into the conversation. But mostly, write because I love to.

Adulthood.

The other day, as my best friend and I were crossing the road, a group of preteen boys called us ‘Kaku’ (roughly translated as Married Aunty). We were offended, but later joked about it being the lowest point of our year. But it happens. I sometimes catch myself in the mirror and think, when did I grow so old? I have millions of grey hairs. But not the wisdom that comes with each strand. I behave like an adult but I have to remind myself of being one, at least once a week. It hasn’t sunk in yet. When did it happen, I wonder? When did I finally become an adult? Was it after I got a fulltime job, and my first salary? Was it when they let me inside a bar after checking my ID? Was it after I cast my first vote? Was it after my first sexual encounter? Was it after the first time I experienced intimacy, and relished it? Was it after my first experience with a loved one’s death? Was it the first time I drove a car? There have been so many firsts! And yet, none of them exclusively made me feel very grown up. I think adulthood is a process of adaptation. Of slowly unpeeling layers of yourself – and the pain and exhilaration that come with it.

I don’t feel like I am on the edge of a precipice anymore, though. I’ve jumped in, and am learning to swim. When swimming gets tiring, when the current is good, I float. But not for long, or else I’ll drown. So, swim I have to. It is a vast sea of loneliness at times. Other times, there’s too much company. I’ve stopped being afraid of loneliness. There was a point when I started craving it. Maybe that’s when I became an adult.

Love.

Falling in love, to me, is the easiest and most difficult thing. Easy because it just happens. Serendipitously. My most prized relationships have been ones which unfolded without us even realising it. And love is most difficult because it is not easy to love someone so constantly, so completely. Not even myself. Not even life. And yet, that’s what we are expected to do. I’ve realised that I love people contextually. I love my boyfriend in certain situations. Does that mean I don’t love him in other situations? Not necessarily. I just cannot see him in certain contexts. There are times when I desperately want to love him but cannot. There are other contexts where other people, other ideas overpower my heart completely and claim it as theirs. I love feminist theory because it allows me to see a completely new dimension of the world – one that has already been right there but never perceived, never realised, never understood. It allows me to see so starkly the workings of power in a society which invisibilises it by hegemonically normalising it. Like I have some sort of superpower, a supergaze. I love thinking about what we do once we gain this gaze. Do we bask in the glory of possessing it, gazing down upon lesser other who don’t? Do we try to spread it to more people, infecting as many as we can with this supersensory perception? Do we attempt to change what we don’t like (but care enough about)? This is my question. I think I’m in love with this question.

But loving people is much more difficult. Most people I love, I don’t know the answer to why I love them. And yet I still do. What does loving someone entail though? To me, (and I steal from CS Lewis here), to love is to be vulnerable. Permeable. Open to pain, and sorrow, and joy. It is also to be honest. This year has given me the opportunity to make myself vulnerable to people in beautiful and powerful ways. Some of my best conversations stemmed from this space of vulnerability. I think being vulnerable is important because it is the only act of political resistance left to me in a world that tries so hard to make me competitive, insurmountable, perfect, so geared to succeed. Vulnerability makes space for imperfections, for failures, for warmth, for empathy. It allows me to connect my pain to the pain in others and to collectively try and ease it. It allows me, as a wonderful lady told me this year, to come close to people. My pain may not be the same as another’s, but it pushes me to move closer.

My problem, however, is that in return for my vulnerability, I expect it from people too. And that’s where I’ve been sorely disappointed.

Disappointments.

Being an adult means being disappointed quite a lot, I’ve realised. I feel like everything doesn’t live up to the way it is made to be. I’ve been disappointed quite a lot this year. With life. With the choices I’ve made. With my boyfriend. With my job. With my friends. With people, in general. A question I’ve been struggling with is, how do I deal with this disappointment? Do I stop expecting? Do I stop giving? Do I stop trying? But I cannot. Maybe I should stop holding everyone else to the same standards as I hold myself. Maybe I should stop holding myself up to any standard. Maybe I should give a chance to people to please me. Does disappointment occur from my need to be in control? Should I let go of the reins, a little bit at least?

Life isn’t any one thing. It has its highs and lows, something everybody knows. So, the good will come with some bad. I cannot let my disappointment overwhelm the good left in this world, in people, in myself.

I think for the most part, I’m very proud of myself. For taking the efforts, regardless.

Transitions.

It hasn’t been an easy year. So many things that I thought were becoming my footholds to life were pulled from beneath my feet. I got my gold medal but didn’t get my dream job. My boyfriend – who had been my anchor for the past four years – was pulled away in the pursuit of his dreams in another city while I was left behind, with memories that became increasingly bitter. I took up a job I wasn’t sure about in a city I didn’t want to live in just because I didn’t want to stay at home. For a while, I didn’t know what I wanted. I had had a glorious, perfect post-graduate performance. I had made a thesis-baby I was proud of. I had won accolades after accolades. I had won the gold. I had a boyfriend who fulfilled all my people-needs and snuggle-needs. From this lovely, cosy little oven, I jumped into the fire of mediocrity. Those few months, I hated my life. I hated Mumbai, my job, my boyfriend, my friends, my life. They had all betrayed me.

But it got better. Conversations helped. Unexpected friendships and drinking sessions helped even more. As did Sahir’s poetry. Life was bearable, even enjoyable. But just as I was settling down into this cosy little bubble I had created for myself, it was burst, once again, by Life. Circumstances. Things Beyond My Control. Maybe being an adult is to realise that it’s a constant, unending walk over hot coals. We just need to keep dancing. Reinventing. Readjusting. Rest your feet a little longer and you just might get burnt.

Will it ever get easier?

[re]Births.

Okay, I realise this thing is becoming too cynical. I’m becoming too cynical. I’m usually not like this! I hope it’s a phase. When was the last time I was truly, unabashedly, unequivocally happy? It was almost two weeks ago, when I found out that one of my closest friends had given birth to a baby girl. The baby’s father is the closest thing I have to an elder brother, I’ve literally grown up with him. Her mother is someone I look up to, an elder-sister-role-model in many ways. Around nine months ago, I had a vivid dream that these two had a baby daughter who I would go play with. I like to believe it was some kind of premonition which actually came true. On Christmas Day, when I held her in my arms for the first time, I felt a strange sense of solidarity, an attachment of sorts, with this little fortnight-old babe. I wondered what it was.

In many ways, her birth feels like déjà vu for me. She reminds me of myself, for a number of reasons. She’s a Capricorn. Her parents, in their thinking, in their politics, and even in their relationship with each other, are akin to mine. They’ve even given her a name that’s like mine – with no surname! I see this kid growing up in a wonderful environment – a progressive, liberal, egalitarian bubble, just like I did. But it is still only a bubble! Needing to be created, preserved, protected, upheld, at all time and at all costs. Looking at her little life, I ask myself, what has changed in the past twenty-five years? How will this one’s life be different from my own? Let’s take her name, for example. Just because her mother did not change her surname after marriage, the baby’s birth certificate was rejected by the municipal authorities. Because the mother and father need to have the same surname, apparently, in our society. Because within the institution of marriage, the wife needs to take her husband’s name, according to a clerk in the municipal corporation. There is no law to validate these claims, of course, but you see, these minor discrepancies will cause you trouble, inconvenience, shame. Dare you try.

Twenty-five years ago, my parents went through the same inconveniences. The times have changed, but social customs have not. At least my birth certificate wasn’t rejected! Maybe things have worsened. All the more reason to fight. All the more reason to protest. I look at my fifteen-day-old fellow-Capricorn, sound asleep and happily unaware of her own, very controversial, name. I wonder what battles she will have to fight. I wish her all my luck and love and strength. I wish the world she grows up in the next twenty-five years will be a better one.

I promise to help make it a better one.

 

I’m Twenty-One and I’m Still a Foetus

I’m twenty-one and I’m still a foetus

I was born into this world twenty one years ago but

I haven’t been born into myself yet

I’m still a womb, carrying this person

Who is yet to be me.

I’m twenty-one and the only thing I know

Is that I don’t

Know anything.

I know that perhaps no one ever has known

No one ever will.

I’m twenty-one and I have stopped filling in answers

To life’s every question. To the word question itself

Facts have become questions

Questions have become facts

In their permanence. In their omnipresence.

I haven’t been born into myself yet.

At twenty-one I’m still a foetus.

I think maybe I need a hiatus.

I’m twenty-one and love is not a word I use anymore

Intimacy is only anticipation

And heaven is always just out of reach

Love is being in limbo.

Like the foetus which is in-between life and non-life

Like Schrödinger’s Cat which is in-between death and non-death

Like me, at twenty-one.

I’m twenty-one and I’m afraid of death

I think that is because I’m not born yet

To be alive is to be ready for death any moment

I cling to life like a foetus clings to the womb that nourishes it

Only when it let goes is it born

Maybe to be born is to die in one sense.

So what do I wait for? Death or Life?

I’m twenty-one and I haven’t got a clue.

All I know is this – my water has broken.

The labour pains have begun.

Twelve Commandments of ’13

So it’s the New Year and everyone is in resolution-making mode. So here’s my two-penny’s worth.

This morning I came across a wonderful blog, titled The Happiness Project, which is about a woman’s journey to figure out what the hell happiness is really all about. But something that really inspired me was the post on Personal Commandments, which the blogger explains as

“The overarching principles by which I try to live my life… A creative way of distilling core values.”

I’ve been trying for some time now to ‘distill’ (how I love that word!) the core values of my life and hence, my first post in the new year I’m going to make a list of my Twelve (because it’s my lucky number) Personal (because they apply only and only to myself) Commandments (I don’t like this word so much. Too much of religious baggage. But it’s a borrowed phrase anyway…)

12 Commandments

  1. Que sais-je? (roughly translated as – I don’t know shit about anything)
  2. Be authentic. Be honest.
  3. Life is short. Savour the mo’.
  4. It’s all a joke anyway.
  5. Be fair.
  6. Listen.
  7. Accept everything, but don’t tolerate everything.
  8. Shout out. Say no. Protest.
  9. Stay with the questions.
  10. Stop. Breathe.
  11. Keep loving.
  12. This too shall pass.