Alvin Pang and Poetic Jugalbandi

Returned from a whirlwind of a poetry reading trip in Chennai (6 readings in 28 hours!), one brief night at home, before heading into another beautiful whirlwind in Nepal tomorrow. My brain and body are so exhausted, but my heart is so alive.

I've always felt these things are worth it, above all, for the people one meets and the relationships one builds. The greatest gift of this Chennai trip was a new writerly friendship with the wonderful Singaporean poet Alvin Pang (if youdon't know his work, you really should!). I've never had quite such a wonderful reading, a real jugalbandi, a way of reading and listening where your own words come back to you through someone else's. We did two sessions together, without repeating any poems, reading back and forth in response to each other, and were amazed constantly by how much our poems were saying to each other across time and space. I can't begin to explain how special that was: how often do you discover another human being through a quiet, spontaneous, joyful conversation between your most private selves and your most important stories, told rapidly back and forth in a short space and time?

I'm too tired to wax eloquent about it, and Alvin already did a beautiful job of that, so I'm just going to be lazy and share from his blog:

I am reading with Delhi-based poet Aditi Rao, author of THE FINGERS REMEMBER. It is past 2.30pm; we were supposed to start at 2pm, but were held up by Chennai’s gnarled traffic. On the spot, we decide, because we have not had time to think about what we each want to read for 15mins, to make it something of a back-and-forth poetic dialogue instead. I start with a poem, which prompts Aditi to respond with a similar poem, and so on. Her work is very fine, boldly executed, unfazed but not belligerent in the face of irreconcilable tensions. It soon becomes evident that there are many remarkable correspondences in our poetry. Not necessarily a matter of style or treatment nor even tone, but certainly in theme, certain images. Finger memory. Burning flesh. At one point I recount the Biblical story of Lot’s wife and family, on which a poem of mine is based. She responds with a poem also based on Lot’s wife. We have not planned this. I suspect this sort of thing is possible with many other poets also, if one looks hard enough for some sort of semantic or thematic resonance, but this is unforced. We are not making this up. Or perhaps we are making it up, which is what makes it sing: we are actively listening to each other, calling and responding. We are having a conversation. I have often felt this is what good writing does. The poems have not been written for the occasion nor for each other, but they are chosen to suit, the way we sometimes bring up old stories in new company. We read poems we might not otherwise have selected; we are made to think a little differently about what we have written. There is the frisson of resonance, recombination. Fresh context suggests fresh meanings. This is why we read and re-read books. Another way in which the love we put into writing becomes the love it brings. This is how literature lives and lasts.

Click on this link for more of this and other of Alvin's beautiful blogging

Thank you, Alvin, for 2 completely memorable sessions. Love your speaking and your listening, your warmth and your generosity. Looking forward to many more poetry encounters in the years to come!

And thank you, Prakriti, for bringing us together :)

For Gunjan, at her wedding

You enter the church, arm in arm with your father, scan the pews as you walk down the aisle. Our eyes meet briefly. You smile and mouth a silent thank you. I take a photo. Dressed in nine yards of silk and flowers in your hair, you are more woman than I have ever seen you.

When you put on borrowed sunglasses at your wedding brunch, even though your friends say they make you look like a 60s movie gangster, you are again the girl I’ve known since we were fifteen.

Image

The girl who not only scarfed down the sociology teacher’s tiffin everyday well before lunch break, but who also convinced said teacher to bring your favorite foods to school. The girl whose notes, big round letters, headings meticulously underlined in ruler and black ink, saw me through exams during a year when I could not write. The girl who regularly arrived two hours late for brunch and made me forgive you.

When I tell you at your sangeet that I just secured a publisher for my first book, you high five me, still-damp mehendi on both our hands. You announce my good news to a room full of strangers, and I promise to always remember these huge moments of both our lives in a happy continuum.

A decade ago, we had all laughed when you won the school special award for abundant optimism. You had laughed the loudest. But today, your cheeks glow with a love of life so deep I am forced to revisit that memory, tweak it slightly.

The first think you say to me on your wedding day: “I am the world’s most chilled out bride.”

Later, you slip the ring onto your new husband’s wrong hand, and even the priest bursts out laughing. It is the first of the many small mess-ups that make your wedding so memorable.

You ask me to hold your bouquet before you throw it to the other single women. Someone wonders if I will get lucky because I touched it before anyone had the chance to catch it.

At the reception, your new husband introduces me to an old friend: “You’re in-laws of sorts now."

You message me from the airport as you leave for your honeymoon, telling me how you just burned your hand with hot coffee.

I tell you simply that clumsiness becomes you.

Because 6 weeks isn't a long time

6 weeks have passed since Delhi burst into active conversation about gender and sexual violence after a young woman was gangraped and murdered on a moving bus. So much conversation that, for a while, I needed to be quiet. I needed to listen and absorb and reflect. I needed to write to make sense of what was happening to and around me, but I also needed not to be public with much of that writing because everything around me felt too cacophonous already. Also, if I'm being really honest, because I was still grieving in many different ways and somehow it was difficult to be public with that grief. But I was writing and talking, constantly, to close friends. One of them encouraged me to pull my thoughts and emails into a coherent piece that he hoped I'd be able to publish as an Op-ed somewhere; I sat down to write it, and I wrote all day, and I ended up with something so much longer than an Op-ed but so important for me to write. Now, 6 weeks have passed, and the initial fervor of the crowds that were teargassed at India gate has given way to something else, no less important, but definitely different. I am working with some others to try and build a space to continue engaging with young people on this and other issues in a more sustained way, and i am heartened by the variety of initiatives around the country as India starts pushing itself to ask important questions of itself. All of this makes me ready, finally, to be public with this writing that was written simply to make sense and get through. 

On a cold winter night, in the middle of a busy marketplace in New Delhi, a group of young women led songs of protest and freedom. A few banners hung behind them, candles flickered in one corner, and their amplifier only barely managed to make their words audible. Even in a city experiencing some degree of protest-fatigue over the preceding weeks, there was something palpable about the energy of this group, something that made one want to stop and listen.

It was nearly 11 PM when I joined the group, accompanied by my mother, aunt, and grandmother. Together, we sang about nights free of fear. We listened to a 12 year old address the crowd, announcing that no one had the right to touch her body without her permission. We lit candles and joined a procession on the road at midnight. A few hours earlier, I had been in bed, a little unwell, but when my mother proposed driving us to the Take back the Night Streetside New Year’s Party, I had to go. I have never been prouder of, or felt more supported by, my family than on Dec 31 2012, when 3 generations of single women in my family decided to welcome the new year by taking back the night together.

On our way home, we took a short detour to stop by a memorial organized at the bus stop where a 23-year-old young woman and her male friend boarded the wrong bus on December 16, 2012. By the time we arrived, only a small group of people remained; we stopped anyway, lit candles, said a quick prayer. I stood there for a moment, instinctively making the kind of quick judgment women in Delhi learn to make about the safety of every situation and place. I looked at the road around me, searching, I think, for some sign of danger. There was none. The streets were reasonably well lit, there was traffic on the roads, and nothing about the spot suggested any kind of threat. Yes, I would have boarded that bus. No question about it. In the moment I said that to myself, I felt isolated and sick to the stomach. This was the city I called home.

 

 

I did not watch the news on December 16. I was on an overnight bus going from Bengaluru to Hampi. When my mother asked me repeatedly how many other passengers there were on the bus, I told her there were only a handful of men, but I was sure more would join soon. I laughed off her fears, reassured her I was safe. Thankfully, she hadn’t yet seen the news either.

When the bus dropped me off 12 km away from my designated drop-off point, and 2 hours earlier than its scheduled arrival time of 7:30 AM, I could only look around me at the deserted predawn streets and wonder what to do next. Not feeling safe standing alone in the streets, I hailed the first autorickshaw that was willing to take me, and in a bid to appear more confident than I felt, bargained the driver down to half his asking price. I made a fake phone call to my mother (I was out of cell phone coverage area, but I have learned the importance of creating the impression that someone knew where I was and had the autorickshaw’s license plate number). And then, I settled into 45 minutes of riding alone in the dark, through deserted country roads, not even a streetlight around, with no way of knowing if we were headed in the right direction, more aware of my own vulnerability than I have ever been. Aware, also, of how much I have learned to fear, even to expect, sexual violence when I am out alone in the dark. Only after I had checked into my guest house and shut the door behind me could I stop holding my breath.

Later, as friends from Delhi began calling and emailing about the horrific gangrape that had just taken place in the city, asking what I thought about the debate on capital punishment, I found myself unable to respond. I told them I couldn’t think yet; I needed to grieve first. As I grieved for the victims of that brutality, and as I grieved for my city and my society where this is far from an isolated incident, I found myself also feeling grateful to the auto driver who got me safely to my destination, as well as to the men in the bus where I had spent the previous night. And as I realized I was feeling grateful to men simply for not violating me even though they had the opportunity, I felt disgust but also a new understanding of how much I, as a young woman growing up in Delhi, had internalized the violence and the misogynistic messaging all around me.

 

By the time I returned to Delhi, the protests and demonstrations were in full swing. No longer the spontaneous outpouring of grief and anger that had brought out thousands of women on the first day, the demonstrations had now grown into something new, something different. India Gate had already been closed. The violence, tear-gassing and lathi-charge had already scared several women enough to keep them away from Jantar Mantar. The President’s son had already declared the protestors to be “highly dented and painted ladies.” The metro stations near the sites of the protest had already been shut down, taking away women’s ability to travel to the protests in what many of us consider the safest form of public transportation in Delhi. There had already been several reported incidents of molestation at the protests (according to the New York Times, 42 cases were reported to the police in 2 days). Women, ironically, had begun to feel unsafe at the protests for a safe and gender-just city; fewer and fewer women were coming out to the protests.

A friend and I decided to go. As we reached Jantar Mantar, the only site in central Delhi where the protests were still allowed, our first impression was simply deep sadness at the way the protest had been hijacked. When we got there, there were at least twenty men to each woman present, possibly more, and while I think it wonderful that Delhi's men are finally out protesting against sexual violence, I couldn't shake the feeling that most of them were there with their own agendas. Many were there to represent political parties, waving national flags, and asking for the government to be brought down. Few people seemed actually concerned about women's safety, and almost no one about women's empowerment.

We decided it may be better to join one of the silent protests instead, but as we walked to each silent group, we found most of the messaging too disturbing. Several voiced the demand for castration and capital punishment. More wrote about how death was “too small” a punishment, how the rapists deserved worse. One man stood there with a placard that read “The victim was sent to Singapore for better treatment. Send the culprits to Saudi Arabia for better justice.” Others more explicitly called for public stoning and televised torture. My friend and I looked at each other and shuddered. This was not the society we wanted to build; this was not the messaging to which we wanted to lend our presence.

Someone had pinned up several copies of a poster titled “Why does rape happen?” We stopped to read it. It started out stating that rape happens for the same reason we honk at traffic or urinate in public. I never fully understood the causal links the poster was making, but I think it was something about respect for public spaces. Surely, we said to each other, women are more than public spaces. We moved away.

Several people (men as well as women) carried placards of the “She could be your sister, mother, or daughter! Wake up and save women!” variety. One man walked around with a sign that read “I am not Rahul Gandhi. I have the guts to save my sister.” We rolled our eyes and squirmed. We wanted to engage in conversations about how that protectionist attitude towards women is part of the problem; we wanted to tell people that we didn’t want to be saved. For one reason or another, though, we simply weren’t able to find the right words, the right spaces, the right openings. The conversations didn’t happen.

A group of over fifty men passed us with placards containing messages like “Rape the Rapists.” I wanted to shake them. I wanted to tell them they were part of the problem. I wanted to tell them that their aggression and vengeance scared me just as much as the crime had. But nothing about their words or body language told me that they were there to listen to women; much as I hate to admit it, I was afraid of them. I stayed away.

 

We returned to one young woman we had seen earlier in the evening, standing alone with a message about taking every act of violence against women seriously. As we spoke to her, we discovered that this college student had been standing protesting alone for days now because she wanted to be there but did not want to associate with any of these groups. One other woman joined our conversation about how isolating the rest of the protest was, how much we appreciated finding each other. Another young woman walked up to our group, started listening in on this conversation — the only conversation she could see happening among four women talking about the violence we experience. We widened our circle to include her, but before she could say a word, a young man who was with her tugged at her arm and pulled her away.

As darkness fell, we started lighting candles. A few more friends arrived with paper and pens, and we decided to create our own messaging. My friend created a “I am not your mother, daughter, or sister… but you should still care” placard, and I created one that read “I am not here for vengeance; I am here for solidarity.” For a while, we stood in one line, holding our placards and our candles.

After a while, we decided to sit down in a semicircle, and then somehow, we started singing. Tu zinda hai, tu zindagi ki jeet par yakeen kar; agar kahin hai swarg toh utaar la zameen par (a protest song translated roughly as: You are alive; believe in the victory of life/ if there is a heaven somewhere, go bring it down to earth) to begin with. Then several renditions in Hindi and English of We shall overcome, specifically the stanzas about “We are not afraid” and “we are not alone.” Then Itnee shakti hume de na data/ man ka vishwaas kamzor ho na (roughly: “Give us so much strength that the confidence in our hearts doesn’t weaken”). A few other songs too. The singing drew people’s attention to our little sit-in, and several people stopped by to light more candles or leave diyas in front of us.

At some point, one man sat down in our group and started his “Down with the prime minister” sloganeering. After some internal debate, I found the courage to politely inform him that his agenda was not ours, that our message was different from his. He told him he was supporting us. I asked him if he was willing to listen to our message, which was not about bringing down the government but about the need to come together in solidarity and start asking difficult questions of our society. I told him I would rather he join one of the groups that shared his message if he wasn’t there for ours. He looked surprised, but left us our space.

Other women and young children joined our singing. One girl, not older than twelve, changed the "some day" of the "We are not afraid" to "this day”; from that moment on, we sang “We are not afraid, this day.” Every time one of the male-dominated political sloganeering groups would pass us with their chants, we would sing louder, work at drowning them out in our women’s and children’s chorus of we are not afraid, we are not alone, and we shall overcome, in Hindi and in English. I have never been part of such a powerful, joyful, obstinate sing-along.

By the time we left, I felt better. I felt proud that we had, in some small way, taken back our space, our protest. Proud that, even as we mourned, we had been able to talk about hope, about moving forward, about fearlessness. Above all, I felt proud that we had been able to sing instead of being silenced.

 

In the days that followed, I had a nightmare about a friend being abducted and raped. Another friend told me she had been crying in her sleep. A third friend emailed me to say she cried for hours when the victim died, then felt awful and selfish because she knew how much of her grief came from the fact that this could have been any of us.

For whatever reason, in a city where hundreds of rapes happen every year, this particular incident has struck a chord, has channeled a movement of women starting to express their fears, tell their stories and demand justice. Sexual and gender-based violence is suddenly a part of public discourse like never before. Suddenly, I find myself surrounded by stories of fear, assault, abduction, molestation. Suddenly, the newspapers are full of other rapes — a 2 year old raped and killed by her uncle, women raped by the army, schoolchildren raped by their hostel warden, so many stories. Suddenly, women are coming onto television to tell their stories of sexual abuse, many of them refusing to have their faces blurred or hidden, insisting this is not their shame. Suddenly, people are talking about sexual abuse in its various forms, including marital rape and childhood sexual abuse, both of which our society has never honestly dealt with.

Suddenly, I find that my own women friends and I are telling each other our stories of molestation and abuse, often for the first time (and there are so many stories we find ourselves reluctantly classifying them as "serious molestation" and "small incidents”). Suddenly, my men friends are calling to ask what to make out of everything and hearing stories they have never asked about before. Suddenly, there is a conversation. All of this story-telling and story-listening feels incredibly important and powerful in a society that has long hidden these stories and refused to acknowledge them. But it has also been intensely painful. I have known for a while what a disturbingly misogynistic society I live in, but I have never felt the horror and pain of that knowledge so acutely.

And it is in this story-telling and story-listening that I have grown angry with the critique about the class connotations of this protest — the insinuation that these protests are somehow less valid because many of the protestors are middle class women identifying with another middle class woman. As much as we all need to build our capacities for empathy across all kinds of boundaries and oppressions, surely that can't be at the expense of allowing ourselves our grief when we can relate. Surely we, as women who have experienced sexual violence in various forms and to various degrees, are allowed our pain and our fear too. Surely we are allowed to demonstrate and protest to end that, even if that is all we are doing.

Of course, that isn’t all that we are doing; that isn’t all that this moment is about. It cannot be. This moment in our city’s and out country’s history is brimming with the potential to become so much more than the aftermath of one act of violence, and it is important — vital — to keep pushing the limits and broadening the scope of whose pain and whose violence we will recognize and speak up against. None of that, though, should ever make a woman feel guilty about her ability to empathize and identify; no one should ever feel the need to apologize for her tears and her fear.

 

On January 1st, I participated in a New Year's pledge-making event organized by the self-declared “Painted and Dented ladies” of Blank Noise. The event challenged us to go beyond blame games and to examine our own roles, make our own pledges towards building the city we dream of in 2013. We stood outside a busy metro station in Central Delhi, holding our placards with our pledges, then walked around the marketplace, attracting several stares and a few questions. I couldn’t help noticing that the men who stopped to ask questions asked them almost exclusively of the one man in our group (a few other men did join us later). After walking for a while, we agreed that we needed to sit down and talk, that placards were not enough.

In the 4 degree evening, our group of 15-20 sat down on the damp grass of Delhi’s central park, and we were immediately approached by a policeman. He was not allowed to let us protest there, but he agreed to let us talk if we did so softly, put away out placards, and pretended to just be a group of friends. We agreed. A few of the men in our group got up and left.

Over the next hour, the rest of us shared our pledges and our concerns. We talked about our personal lives, but also about gender based violence in parts of society that we may not belong to. We talked about our experiences of molestation in public transport, but also about sexual abuse within families. We talked about pepper sprays, but also about the role of inadequate street lighting in making women, particularly women from lower income groups, especially vulnerable to such violence.

In the weeks that followed, I was part of other similar conversations with young people – conversations that gave me my first glimmer of real hope within the protests. Two young men, both college students, told me that their response to this incident had been simply to refuse to participate in conversations among their peer group that were derogatory to women – to call their friends out on such conversations an make it clear that they were not amused by the jokes or the banter. One said he and his male friends were so accustomed to talking negatively about women that no matter where their conversations began, they always seemed to end up there; in refusing to be part of those conversations now, he'd lost several friends, but was very sure he'd done the right thing. This was the most heartening part of the movement for me – these young men who were starting to see their own role within this complex matrix of violence, who were starting to recognize that, although they may not rape, their attitudes towards women were part of the problem.

I don’t pretend that the conversations have offered any concrete answers just yet, but it felt like a beginning. We have started to move from blame to taking apart the systems we live in; we have started asking difficult questions of the ways in which we bring up girls and boys. As women, we have challenged the men to understand our experience of isolation when we are molested. As men, they have pushed us to understand some of their fears. We have begun a dialogue about gender, across genders, among strangers. We have begun to talk to each other about what it would mean to be allies. That feels like a beginning.

And that was my pledge too: I pledged to open real conversations about gender and violence with men around me, especially when it gets difficult or uncomfortable. And I pledged to hold on to my hope and joy, to refuse to surrender them to a place and a time where it is so easy to feel afraid and to despair.

 

The last few weeks in Delhi have been traumatic and empowering in equal parts. For every day that I have spent feeling powerful and able to impact change around me, I have spent other days in tears, overwhelmed by the weight of all of the stories about gender and violence that are surfacing. For every time I have felt deeply, personally insulted by the barrage of misogynistic comments being made by our political and religious leaders, there have been times when I have been able to laugh at these remarks and openly refuse to “know my limits.” For every conversation about patriarchy that I have been able to facilitate with friends or strangers, there have been conversations from which I have had to disengage because I am still grieving and the misogyny hurts too much. For every time that I have lowered my eyes and brushed quickly past a group of young men on the sidewalk, there have been times I have stepped on to the road feeling more assertive about my rights to public space than ever before. And for every time I have been angry at a man for trying to take over or hijack this protest, there have been times when I have felt reassured by the fact that, for the first time, men around me are asking, listening, caring.

Ultimately, the protests and demonstrations have to give way to a more sustainable and sustained dialogue about gender in Indian society. Ultimately, we have to be able to connect the dots between the many ways in which patriarchy oppresses both women and men; we have to start recognizing rape and molestation as part of a much bigger matrix of how women and men relate to each other and to themselves. The judicial and policing systems may (and hopefully will) undergo some important reforms soon, but the deeper change, the change in mindsets and behaviors, will take years, perhaps decades. And after these six weeks, I am more aware than ever of just how challenging the work of creating that change will be. But the work has begun.

Singing at Jantar Mantar

I spent this evening at the protest in Jantar Mantar, and it was a mix of so many emotions. As KS and I got there, our first impression was simply deep sadness at the way this protest has been completely hijacked by men with their own agendas... when we got there, there were maybe 20 men to each woman present, possibly more. Many were there to represent political parties, with their waving tricolors and their cries of "rahul gandhi hai hai" (umm, yeah, i don't know).

After spending a few moments at each of the noisy groups, we decided to go join one of the silent protests instead. Then we walked to each silent group and found all of the messaging too disturbing — it was mostly about hanging and castration for the culprits, with a generous sprinkling of the "tomorrow, it could be your sister... wake up and save women" variety. Not wanting to lend our presence to any of those groups and messages, we finally called up some folks who were going to join us later and asked them to bring us pens and paper so we could create our own messages.

Then we came across one young woman who had been standing alone for a long time, holding a message about taking every act of violence against women seriously. We started talking to her and found that this college student had been standing there, protesting alone, for days now because she wanted to be there but did not want to associate with any of these groups. At last, a voice of sanity. We stuck around with her, lighting candles. When our pens and papers arrived, KS created a "I am not your mother, daughter, or sister... but you should still care" placard, and I created one that read "I am not here for vengeance; I am here for solidarity." For a while, we (along with NB who had joined us by now) stood in one line, holding our placards and our candles.

After a while, we decided to sit down in a semicircle, and then somehow, we started singing. Tu zinda hai, tu zindagi ki jeet par yakeen kar; agar kahin hai swarg toh utaar la zameen par (really rough translation: You are alive, believe in the victory of life; if there is a heaven somewhere, bring it down to earth) to begin with. Then several renditions in Hindi and English of We shall overcome, specifically the stanzas about "We are not afraid" and "we are not alone." Then Itnee shakti hume de na data/ man ka vishwaas kamzor ho na (roughly: "Give us so much strength that the confidence in our hearts doesn't weaken"). A few other songs too. The singing drew people's attention to our little sit-in, and several people stopped by to light more candles or leave diyas in front of us.

At some point, one man sat down in our group and started his "Down with Manmohan Singh" sloganeering. After some internal debate, I found the courage to politely inform him that his agenda was not ours, that our message was different from his, that I would rather he join one of the groups that shared his message and leave us to talk about solidarity and coming together. He looked surprised, but he agreed to leave us our space. We ended up being one of the only groups comprised mainly (actually only, except for some kids) of women.

Other women and young children joined our singing. Every time one of the all-men political party kind of sloganeering groups would pass us with their chants, we would sing louder, work at drowning them out in our women's and children's chorus of we are not afraid, we are not alone, and we shall overcome, in Hindi and in English. I have never been part of such a powerful, joyful, obstinate sing-along.

By the time we left, I felt so much better. I felt proud that we had, in some small way, taken back our space, our protest. Proud that, even as we mourn, we had been able to talk about hope, about moving forward, about fearlessness. Above all, I felt proud that we had been able to sing instead of being silenced.

One week into Sangam House

I have been at Sangam House for a week now, and since I am avoiding Facebook updates for this time, I thought a blog post was due. It feels like so much longer than a week, though — not in the "this is all so slow and boring" sense, but rather in the "you mean I haven't known these people all my life?" sense. Everything about being here — the place, the people, the food, the dogs — has been magic. I came here feeling completely daunted by the task of pulling together any sort of manuscript... one week in, I have already completed two solid drafts of my manuscript, figured out a lot of the hardest stuff around sectioning and organizing, and come to a clear sense of what my next steps are — for this manuscript, and for at least 2 other writing projects. Just as importantly, it has been a week of so much laughter, so many stories, so much incredible conversation, and so many new friendships that it is hard to believe it has only been a week. Turns out the Sangam House isn't only what my writing needed; it's what my life needed just now.

I will admit, though, that today is an odd day to be here. I awoke this morning to the realization that today is December 2nd — less than a week away from the wedding (in Delhi) of one of my closest friends from high school. It would be odd enough to be here rather than there for that wedding. But it's so much odder because, as the universe would have it, he is getting married on the death anniversary of one of my closest friends from college. December 8 on my calendar is a day of quiet, of remembering. I don't know how to process it also as a day of the celebration and the noise that is an Indian wedding. I simply can't seem to reconcile the two. And how much odder still to be here, on this gorgeous little island away from all of the rest of my life, surrounded by people I thoroughly enjoy but who are unfamiliar with both of those parts of my life, during this week. I can sense I'm going to learn something important over the next few days, but I'm not yet sure what that will be.

In happier news, I was able to bake brownies for everyone in a pressure cooker yesterday! Move over, ovens, a whole new world just opened up to me! :)

Reflections from a Train Window

After another couple of months being MIA, I’m sitting here at the ant cafe in Bangalore, desperately trying to feel like a writer again before I start my residency at Sangam House tomorrow. It has been a strange few weeks, the kind that disappear on you without a trace, since I finished my last round of workshops in the beginning of October. I was traveling for a few weeks, and sick for the rest, and then hosting one of my closest friends on a 10 day layover in Delhi on her way to Afghanistan. Somewhere in the middle, I was facilitating research writing and reflective writing workshops, tutoring, and doing research towards a dream consultancy project that I will begin in January. All wonderful stuff (except the being sick!), but all time consuming enough for me not to find enough time for the blog, or for writing in general. So I opted to take the train rather than fly into Bangalore. Over the 36 hours, I slept a lot and read a lot. I also stared out of the window a lot (and I have to say, as ways to spend a day go, staring out of windows is grossly underrated!). Somewhere in the middle of all that, i started returning to a space inside me that is quieter than the hecticness of the last few months, and I reached Bangalore equally exhausted and refreshed.

I spent the day today at the home of my oldest friend; after a quick morning chat and breakfast, he left for work, and I slept in, ate lunch, slept some more -- pretty much until I got out here to read and write. Every time I meet friends like him, I am struck with joy and gratitude at the effortlessness of these old friendships... at the way in which we can make each other’s homes our own, at the fact that time away doesn’t matter.

While staring out of the train window, I was thinking similarly about another friend from long ago. Over 12-13 years of our friendship, he’s grown into more and more of a close friend, and on that train ride, as I recalled a joke another friend made recently about this friendship, I grew suddenly, intensely grateful. Somehow, who knows how, over more than a decade of not living in the same city or, for the most part, even in the same country, we have become such solid presences in each other’s life. Somehow our love for each other has grown absolute and dependable in such a way that I don’t know who I am without that friendship.

The more I think about one person in my life in all these ways, the more people come to mind who are just as special in different ways. And the more my heart fills with appreciation for all of them.

Here’s the funny thing: this year is the first year in the last decade when I haven’t been aware of the date for Thanksgiving in the USA. I used to have a mish-mash of holiday calendars from around the world that I commemorated because those individual rituals and moments with friends had come to mean something to me that went beyond their historical of cultural significance... this has been the first year that Thanksgiving slipped off that calendar (partly because of the craziness, but mostly because I guess that part of my life has slipped off my immediate radar). And yet, this year is the one where I organically slipped into a sense of deep gratitude at approximately the same time that my friends across the world were carving their Turkeys or Tofurkeys and saying their prayers of gratitude. Maybe that part of my life has only slipped off my conscious radar.

So, going into the 3 intense weeks or writers’ residency to come, I’m grateful. For this opportunity to become the writer I haven’t yet been able to be. And more than that, for a beautiful, strong, and loving community that I know is mine regardless of the writer, or anything else, that I am.

Writing and Community

  A few months ago, I blogged about my Spiti adventures and what I learned there about the my own relationship to both solitude and community — about learning that the two aren't really opposite ends of a spectrum. Over the last week or two, I've been thinking again about the relationship between the two, but this time in the context of writing.

Two years ago, while I was in graduate school, I would have laughed at anyone who told me I would miss the MFA community. Not because I didn't like that community, don't get me wrong, but simply because I had been so saturated with poets and poetry that I was craving something else, anything else. In moving out of Bronxville and into NYC, then throwing myself into my various jobs in the more social change-y space there, but still going up to college two or three times a week for poems, I found a balance. But yes, I admit I prized college more for craft-based learning and the conversations with professors (especially my super-awesome thesis advisor) than for the rest of the MFA community. Maybe prized is the wrong word; maybe it's simply that I took the writing community aspect for granted because it was everywhere.

Also because I never fully felt like I belonged in it — I still struggle to identify myself as a "poet" (because it's only one of so many things I am, and because people read more weirdness into that than I ever intended to pack into it!). Consciously or unconsciously, so much about who I am becoming is about breaking out of categories and boxes — just when you think you've finally wrapped your mind around who I am and what i care about, I want to spring out of that box and surprise you...  just when I think I've finally wrapped my mind around who I am and what i care about, I want to spring out of that box and surprise myself. That's become the most fun part of being who I am!

And recently, I have surprised myself by how much I miss having a community of writers. I don't mean a critique group — I do still exchange and critique manuscripts with friends from various writerly spaces, and while it would be lovely to have more of that in physical proximity, right now, I'm talking about something else. I'm talking about being part of a community of writers. About a group of people who care about, work with and enjoy talking about words — a group of people alongside whom I can read and laugh and spend hours talking about a favorite poem or about the etymology of my favorite word or about a metaphor I just used but don't fully understand myself. A group of people who understand the frustration of a misplaced comma and the exhilaration of getting into the backseat of a character's life and letting that character drive you wherever they choose. it isn't so much about what we give each other's writing as it is about being able to share this thing that we love so much — perhaps so differently, but still so much. Whatever else my MFA community was or wasn't, this it was, and this I miss about it.

Which is part of why I'm very excited to announce that I will be spending three weeks in residence with five other writers from around the world at Sangam House this winter. I'm looking forward to the focused time to write and edit and pull together a manuscript from all the disparate poems lying in various online folders and paper scraps (yes, I said it. I'm working on pulling together a manuscript. Eek). But perhaps even more than that, I'm looking forward to three weeks of being part of a community of writers again... of early morning walks and late evening conversations about words, our love for them, and the ways in which we tame them and are tamed by them.

I've never fully bought that whole "solitary profession" thing people are always saying about the work of the writer, and now, I'm looking forward to conversations and cross-linkages that breathe new life into my words. You shall hear more about all of that in a few months, and perhaps about some other kinds of interesting writing-and-community things in the offing before that.

For now, I just remember what K. Srilata told me about her experience of Sangam House: "For once, I felt like I was walking on the right side of the road." As statements about the role of a writing community go, that pretty much sums up everything I'm hoping for.

 

India and Feminism

A few months ago, in one of those random encounters where you happen to be sharing a bench with a stranger while waiting for something and end up talking, I met a guy from the USA who had been living in India for a year, and before that Turkey for another year, and before that many other places around the world. He was here as a fellow for the one of those bog money foundations, and I met him in an NGO context, but he definitely wasn't your stereotypical "NGO dude." He was a lot of fun to talk to — don't get me wrong — and I think he pretended to be less compassionate than he was when he talked about rural life, and perhaps he didn't really mean it when he told me he was cutting short his work here and returning home to the USA because he needed to eat lots of beef and pick up women at bars (Then again, maybe he did mean it — the organization he was working with was really not a great or very meaningful workplace at all, and when you have nothing in particular holding you to a place, a really random thing like that can be your pull away from the place... and who am I to judge what people miss?) At any rate, that isn't the point. As we were chatting, he told me "I was never a feminist growing up. Turkey made me a feminist. India is making me a stark raving feminist." In particular, he told me how he couldn't get over the fact that he had drunk hundreds of cups of tea made by women whose faces he would never be allowed to see, and in general, we talked about Delhi and how difficult it could be for his female colleagues and also for him because of how women in the city generally imagine and respond to strange men. It was a conversation I've had many times, in many contexts, and with many people. But that thought in particular "I was never a feminist... India is making me a stark raving feminist" stood out and stayed with me.

Perhaps because I'm feeling a little bit of that myself and discovering it everywhere around me lately. I'm not going to get into a rant about safety and molestation ont he streets and things like that — all of that is important, and you've probably heard all of that already. But I do want to share this absurd and incredibly scary day in court for a victim of domestic violence, seeing as the news simply doesn't seem to be covering this enough (I'm still trying to figure out why this didn't get the kind of mad news coverage that the Tehelka expose on the cops did — is it because he is a judge? Or is it more?).

A victim of domestic violence approached the Karnataka High Court seeking divorce, and the judge told her:

“Women suffer in all marriages. You are married with two children, and know what it means to suffer as a woman. Yesterday, there was a techie couple who reconciled for the sake of their child. Your husband is doing good business, he will take care of you. Why are you still talking about his beatings?" 

The article goes on:

"The woman, who had come with her younger son, stuck to her stand of not going with her husband. Upon this, Justice Bhaktavatsala told the man to take his her and their son out for lunch. “Take them and eat Davanagere benne dose. Everything will be alright,” he advised. The court asked the woman if her parents were present, at which her father walked up to the bench. The judge remarked, “Ask your father if he has never beaten your mother!” When the woman said her husband would beat her in the open, in front of everyone, Justice Bhaktavatsala remarked that it was she who was bringing it out in the open. The court was told that the husband would beat her in the middle of the night and had thrown her out of the house. Justice Indrakala said their child was in court and should not have to hear about it."
And on. You can read the rest of it at this link
I don't know what to say about any of this. I cannot put words to the anger and outrage and plain old bewilderment. Really? Go eat dosa and everything will be all right? Really?
But today, even as I am thinking about this kind of blatant injustice and violence that women in my country and city deal with on an everyday basis, I am also thinking about all of the feminist spaces I have encountered in Delhi over the last few years. Spaces like the Zubaan Talkies are, of course, statedly feminist and completely wonderful, but there are also so many others. Many of these aren't activist spaces in the traditional sense of the word, simply spaces that women are creating — with or without the support of male allies — and using to create community, support voice, and come together as strong and independent individuals. I have, even just in the last year, met several wonderful and inspiring women in their 40s and 50s, with whom I've felt an instant connection and a sense of reassurance... a sense that I can veer off the traditional womanly paths and roles, or stay within them, or take a more midway stance in that spectrum, and still build a beautiful and meaningful personal and professional life.
Women's groups have stood up to fight for justice for this survivor of violence. My thoughts and prayers and petition signing will always be with them, and with her, and I hope that we can figure out a mechanism to make our judiciary accountable and responsible in such situations.
But just as importantly, the amazing women whom I am getting a chance to talk to and work with and learn from are showing me that while protests and lobbying for specific legislations are an important part of feminism, they are not its only face... that we, as women, can challenge patriarchy daily through using our voices, following our dreams and working in solidarity. That we can challenge oppression with our laughter.I'm curious to see where the next few decades take our cities and country... which way this balance tips.

The grass is pretty darn green on my side of the fence

As the annual deadline for the Rayaprol prize rolls around, I can’t help but think back to a year ago and marvel at how far my life has come in a short amount of time. Even 8 months ago, I was home after a couple of years away, in the midst of several painful surgeries and scary moments of wondering how much of my eyesight was coming back to me, in shock and mourning too many sudden deaths, and unemployed thanks to said surgeries. I hadn’t yet published a single poem, and while this wasn’t disturbing to me (it couldn’t be -- i hadn’t yet sent out any poems for publication!), it definitely didn’t help in terms of feeling part of any writing community in India. In general, I was rootless and community-less in Delhi, unsure where to begin the process of rebuilding, and frankly, too exhausted to try. Today, I cannot believe how recent that was. Today, I have more work than I can take on, 14 poems published or soon-to-be-published, and at least a few close friends and several new acquaintances in Delhi. I can see again, perhaps better than ever. I am starting to feel part of a real writing community as well as several other communities in Delhi. I am discovering worlds within worlds in my city and falling in love with it, over and over. I have a beautiful home, garden, and home-office. I have the freedom to work from home most of the time, do work I absolutely love (even when I hate it!), and the freedom to set my own schedules and take off for a month of travel when I feel like it.

So, when I was recently in a group where someone remarked (someone always remarks) that everyone thinks the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, I was only a little surprised to find myself telling her, “actually, I love my side of the fence -- this grass is as green as I could ask for.” My surprise wasn’t about the fact that I felt this way, just about the fact that I was saying it out loud. In their uncomfortable laughs that followed, I realized that we have somehow built a world where someone admitting to loving and feeling grateful for her life comes across as arrogant or boastful -- if you’re complaining, you’re humble and we are all in the same boat, but if you’re grateful, you’re boasting. For me, this was not a boast. It was simply a shout of gratitude to the universe for all the amazing things that have happened for me over this past year. When did gratitude become so unfashionable?

Of course, this is not to say that everything is a cakewalk. It isn’t. Over this past week, more than once, I’ve felt utterly swamped and overwhelmed with all the things I’m juggling right now, both in terms of things to do and in terms of ideas and possibilities. Today, I got so tired of not doing enough work at home that I came to a cafe to spend a straight 6-7 hours sitting at my computer and hopefully ploughing through enough of this workload to feel better about the next few weeks. Not all of that work is fun -- some is, and some is utterly boring.

But when the woman I mentioned made that remark about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence, I realized that I couldn’t imagine or ask for a greener pasture than what I have. Even green pastures need tending and maintaining and effort, and sometimes more tending and effort than one feels ready to put in, but that doesn’t make them less green. I love challenge, and I love that this pasture currently needs more tending than I am capable of; it isn’t easy, but I’m enjoying pushing my limits to accommodate its needs, and also the process of learning what is worth accommodating and which portions I’m okay with allowing to grow wild.

Every time I have sat down to chant over the last several days, even when I think I’m sitting down feeling overwhelmed, I find my only prayer is a prayer of gratitude. I’m not going to apologize for that, and I’m certainly not going to pretend to hate my life when I love it deeply. If that makes me unfashionable, then hey, I walk around everywhere in bright orange slippers -- I can deal with unfashionable! ;)

I'm going to be the most eclectic 40 year old you know

Now that I have been out of school for a year (again), and now that I have managed a work schedule that leaves me a fair bit of time for a life, I'm discovering something about myself. I really love learning. And my life feels like a real drag when I'm not learning something new. Until May, I had my Spanish diploma exam to study for, but now that that's done too (did I mention I now have a Nivel C1 diploma from the Spanish Ministry of Culture and Education?), I needed to find something new to learn. Last week, I actually browsed listings of random classes in Delhi, looking for something new I could learn. And while the classes led me nowhere (either not interesting enough or far too expensive!), I realized in the process how many things I'm starting to pick up during this almost-but-not-quite gap year.

(Seriously, Aditi? Gap Year? Time to start thinking of yourself as a professional at the start of a real career, rather than someone "in between things"... no?)

No. I don't want to become stodgy. And in order not to do that, I need to stay a student, in addition to whatever else I'm doing. Plus, between an awesome LIberal Arts education (that teaches you, above all, how to learn), 3 library memberships, and the incredible tool called the internet, learning's become so easy that it's kinda irresistible!

In any case, this whole entrepreneurial thing is demanding some serious learning. Did I mention that, as a freelancer, I need to figure out double bookkeeping? Fortunately, my mother is a whiz with all things financial, and as I start doing it, I realize it's easier than I'd anticipated. But Step 2 and 3 of this Mom's teaching, apparently, involve understanding mutual funds and dividends — I'm sure I can figure this out eventually, but who'd have thought that deciding to teach writing freelance would also mean learning accounts?

Speaking of things I've picked up by-the-way, along-the-way on this whole writing workshop thing: baking! I'd never baked anything since the cake that failed when I was twelve, and then I decided that my workshops needed homemade brownies, and so I started baking brownies, and that gave me the confidence to do a chocolate cake and a banana walnut loaf, and then a friend came home and taught me how to bake a basic wholewheat bread, and then I decided to try a focaccia... and can you see where this is going?

Gardening, of course. That's been on a bit of a hold over this summer (sorry, I love plants, but not enough to stand outside in the Delhi summer a minute longer than I absolutely have to!), but my basil and lemongrass are just doing such amazing things on my herb spiral (did I mention that one basil sapling has become 5 full grown plants and another couple of saplings?!) that I'm inspired to return to the garden just as soon as this heat dies down a little.

And then there are the other things. Photography, I already mentioned (I finally invested in a good camera, and I'm really enjoying playing with aperture and shutter speeds and looking forward to start learning about post-processing as well!). And as soon as the repair work and re-plumbing in our courtyard/ driveway is done, hopefully by October or so, I am still planning on getting my own pottery wheel and continuing that learning journey with my absolute favorite non-verbal art form.

But my newest, favoritest hobby is my city, Delhi. I've always loved the history and layers of this city, and now that I feel pretty comfortable with the basic Hauz Khas village, Jama Masjid/ Old Delhi, Lodhi gardens etc tourist tracks, I'm getting excited about venturing further and deeper into this city. Partly, this may be coming from the fact that I'm reading City of Djinns (and have 3 other books about Delhi's history lined up for when I finish this one!), but largely, it's coming from a sense of grounding and joy that I find in walking about and getting to know this city that is mine and not mine at the same time... that is so many cities rolled into one.

As part of this adventure, I took a group of friends/ friends of friends for an iftar walk through Old Delhi last weekend. I had done an organized street food walk during Ramazan last year, and then gone on another one with my mother and brother during which we explored a little further — add to that some quick articles on the internet, and suddenly there's more places to visit and eat awesome street food than you can do justice to!

My favorite part about this walk, though, was the hour or so we spent at Jama Masjid before the call for iftar, just hanging around, sitting amongst all the families who were there waiting for sunset. As we were getting up and getting ready to leave, a young man, probably in his early twenties, walked up to me and said something that I didn't quite understand. I'm not proud to say that I ignored him at first (sorry, guys, but as a woman growing up in Delhi, that becomes your instinct when a man you don't know comes up to you and makes a remark you don't fully hear). In a moment, though, something told me I had misunderstood, and I turned to face and smile at him. He was holding out two bananas, wearing a smile that was mostly welcoming and slightly apologetic — "it's all I can offer you all," he told me. It took half a moment for me to realize what was going on — he had seen us enjoying the masjid (rather than just rushing through it after clicking some photos, like many tourists do), and he was offering us a part of the meal his family had brought for iftar. My smile widened and I thanked him deeply; he smiled back and left to go join his family again.

In that brief moment, in that brief action, this stranger welcomed me into a world that I find beautiful but don't feel like I belong in. It was one of those classic moments that our silly "unity in diversity" textbook chapters would have loved — he knew I wasn't from his world, and he knew that I may never be part of his world, but in the moment that we were sharing, he wanted me to know I was welcome.

I'm going to treat that as a working definition of a great teacher — that ability to welcome people into worlds that aren't theirs, to give from the world that is yours. And I hope it's going to keep me exploring and learning and giving.

Let's talk in a decade or so and see where all this takes me! ;)