When worlds collide... or overlap.

Hyderabad and I have a strange relationship, mediated by two very different and equally important parts of my life. It is the city where I won my first literary award, before I had published a single poem, and the city where I have returned full circle with an award for my first book. It has also been the city of 4 eye surgeries (and counting), the city where donated organs are easier to come by, the city with the only doctor I fully trust.

At the hospital for a check-up yesterday, before random loitering around the city and heading to the festival inauguration, I gifted a copy of my book to my surgeon, telling him that the poem about corneal transplants is, in some ways, for him (he did the third and fourth and will do the fifth and sixth). He was moved, and he asked me if I minded writing about my experiences of corneal surgery so he can share the same with patients who are afraid of its implications for their quality of life. I promised to do so, and I also made another resolve that I’d love for you all to hold me to: to start writing more about my experiences around chronic illness in general. I was struck yesterday by my own familiarity with hospital ophthalmology departments, with the parts of the process i know to roll my eyes through, with the parts i know to brace for, which machine to walk towards for a topography test, how not to wince at the burst of air in my eye for the pressure test, how not to be intimidated by the machine with tentacles -- so many random little moments that have made up my life. 

Let’s see if Hyderabad 2016 manages to bring together my literary life with my medical life: I’d be curious to see what emerges from that marriage.

A Corbett Holiday

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It happens every once in a while. You decide to get away from work for a few days in the middle of a busy work month, knowing that the next few months will only be busier and you're finally learning to make time for play no matter the work. You surprise yourself by agreeing to go for a holiday with someone you barely know, simply because it feels right, because you're usually the pickiest when it comes to travel companions.

You log on to book train tickets and see that there are exactly two confirmed seats available for your journey. The very reasonably priced camp-accomodation you had booked turns out to have made a booking error, so you get upgraded to a fancy jungle cottage nearby, all meals paid by the travel company that messed up. The hotel manager warns you that your train has been known to be delayed by upto 3 hours quite regularly, but the day you board it, it actually arrives 20 minutes early (your travel-companion shakes his head: "Uff, yeh aaj kal ki trainen! No respect for tradition!").

You arrive at this jungle cottage with this acquaintance-turning-friend, and a few hours later, you find yourself sitting by a river, sharing stories and fears that only your closest friends have ever otherwise heard about, letting him hug you, letting yourself cry. You say that the river brings this out in you, this quiet ability to share anything because you feel so safe sitting next to flowing water.

You continue to surprise yourself. You ride an elephant after decades and love the view of the treetops so much that you forget to look for animals in the undergrowth. You go on safaris and realise you're one of those weird tourists who loves the thrill of seeing fresh tiger prints almost more than the possibility of seeing a tiger. You don't see any tigers, but you carry back in your heart the incredible silence of the jungle in those minutes when the engine was turned off and your guide was listening for the deer's alarm call.

Your travel companion has by now grown into a trusted friend. You remember that he is a geographer by training, and learn that he is a scout by passion, and you let him lead you on a trek along the river that the locals say you'll never be able to navigate (usually, you trust locals). You walk along embankments of rock and wire, somehow managing not to step into the wire mesh, a little dizzy from the eye strain. You manage somehow not to double over in laughter when your friend uses his adorable French-accented Hindi to tell a security guard who's trying to stop you "yeh tere malik ke baap ki nadi nahin hai!" (later, your friend will insist he was insulting the malik, not the guard, and you _will_ double over in laughter, sure that the security guard missed that nuance). You jump across rocks in the shallow water and navigate an island and a jungle without panic. You surprise yourself by being able to ask for help when you cannot see well enough to jump a wide rift or navigate a narrow concrete ledge; you never used to be able to admit you could not see well enough.

At night, the two of you sit around a bonfire, eating delicious meals, and talking. Nothing feels out of bounds, not politics, not faith, not family, not loves, not heartbreaks, not wildest dreams, not deepest regrets. You amaze yourselves by how much and how seamlessly you can talk despite the regular interruptions by over-enthusiastic hotel staff who insist on standing right at hand and carrying chairs to wherever in the lawns you happen to stop for an instant. You learn to share yourselves with an openness that stuns you both. You learn to hold each other safe in your stories, in your griefs. You spend years together in three days.

On the train ride home, you tear up suddenly. He tells you everything will be okay, and you smile and tell him you know that; everything already is okay. The tears are simply the necessary grief of leaving something magical behind, and they pass. You remark how much of a difference a few days can make -- how different the two of you are, returning, than the two who went on this holiday only three days ago. He says quietly, "That was a long time ago."

You hug each other goodbye in the middle of a jam-packed station, as you prepare to go back to daily life in Delhi and as he prepares to leave the country for months. You feel no need for labels or explanations or protracted goodbyes. You end as you began, two people with very different lives, off on an adventure -- but this time, with pockets full of new words, stories, campfires, hugs, and memories that you know you'll periodically pick out and admire and say a quick prayer of gratitude for.

It happens every once in a while. Travel goes completely right.

Your Words Matter

The news these days is constantly reminding me of my Capstone on totalitarian language. What does the government mean by "manufactured revolt," exactly -- do other revolts fall from the sky, fully formed? What does the RSS mean by "diseased with the secularism-complex" -- when did secular become a horrible slur, and do they know that it is (still, despite their efforts) in our Constitution's preamble? Not to mention the "diseased by" reference to the body politic -- we are used to putting our bodies through painful procedures to protect then from diseases, including removing certain parts of the body altogether for the good of the whole, and the metaphor carries over scarily. 

But scariest of all to me personally, what does it mean when someone on my Facebook Newsfeed, an ordinary person who proclaims a commitment to peacebuilding, brags "I proudly declare myself communal from this day" -- and how different is that from the way the German word for "fanatic" had become high praise in Nazi Germany?

Every totalitarian government in history has known that discourse shapes public morality and ideas of what's allowed -- "Let's change the meanings of words, make secular a bad word and communal a good one, and let's see how public morality changes in turn." Say "secular" with derision often enough, and it has an effect. We are seeing this everywhere.

You say "but, but... the 'seculars' do horrible things too." Sure. So hold them accountable. Say, in no uncertain terms, "Secularism is one of the highest ideals of our Constitution, and it implies that religious matters must be kept separate from matters of the State. I believe that ____ is not actually secular because they say/ do _____." That's all it takes to engage us in a real, rational debate while still holding high the threatened and in-desperate-need-of-protection ideal of secularism. Try that next time instead of your name-calling; hold people accountable, but do it without vilifying an important ideal. Do it without falling into the totalitarian trap.

Your words matter, people. Please use them wisely. Please take responsibility.

My Perfect Goodbye

What do you do when your closest colleague, friend, co-dreamer, confidant, selfie stick, cheerleader, clown, photographer, devil's advocate, little brother, caregiver, playmate, and so much more decides to move to the other side of the world for five years?11696451_564278270984_4766307721161216971_o

You call him a mean-o. Maybe cry a little. Then take a lovely little holiday together. Make promises about Skype. Write a sappy message. Hug.

And then you send him off in style, coffee mug in one hand, wine goblet in the other. And a note:

"As you launch into your graduate school adventures, here are some essential supplies. A coffee mug for all your late night readings and predawn grading sessions. And a wine glass for the days when coffee just doesn't cut it any longer (or when you want to feel like some kind of medieval king, drinking out of a ceramic goblet)

Or:

Look! I found a way to tag along! To be present when you celebrate an accomplishment or relax after a long day with a glass of wine. To hang around when you are so tired only a good cup of coffee will make you less grumpy. To show up in your kitchen every day, in moments of celebration and frustration alike, reminding you of a friendship that will always have your back.

Or:

I made you a mug and a goblet. Raise a toast to me already."

I love you, Vivek! Delhi won't be the same without you!

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 :)

Spring arrives in my garden

IMG_2772 When my mother and I moved to my grandfather's house 2 years ago, there was a shriveled up tree in one corner that we were advised to cut down. It was a peach tree my grandfather had planted perhaps a decade earlier, but it had never borne flowers or fruit. It had gotten too little sun, its roots had been badly damaged by rats, and the nearby wall of a tank my grandfather had once built was keeping it from growing further.

Neither Mum nor I had any experience gardening -- this was the first time in our lives we had a garden -- but for some reason, we believed in that little tree. For some reason, we were sure it was stronger than that. I kept telling Mum, "I don't believe that life is that fragile." So we refused to cut down the tree. Instead we broke the tank wall so as to free up space for the roots, got the garden treated for rodents, and pruned nearby trees to give it more sunshine. And then, we gave the little tree lots of love (for the only time in my life, I even prayed for a tree).

Sure enough, the little tree grew big and strong. Within months of our decision not to cut the tree, we came out into the garden one day to see its first blossoms. That summer, we plucked and ate the most delicious homegrown peaches. In the monsoon, the tree shot up, doubled to over twice its size, like it had just been hungry to grow and was so excited to have this space now.

Now 2 1/2 years later, it is among the first things to bloom in the garden, these gorgeous, delicate flowers heralding the arrival of Spring. In ways that these photos can express much better than words can, my grandfather's garden will always be a reminder of springs following winters, of life outlasting death, of love begetting beauty, of the deep joy of belief.IMG_2779

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Independence Day Reminiscing

When I came home from graduate school for the first time after my grandfather's death, my grandmother asked me to choose one of his possessions as a memento, something he owned that reminded me of him most fondly. I didn't need a moment to think before asking for a giant (ok, 24 by 18 inches!) jute covered book with simple maroon lettering on its cover "India's Struggle for Independence: Visuals and Documents" I grew up with my grandfather's stories about the independence movement. He was only a teenager when the British rule ended -- 18, I think -- but those were exciting times in which to have been a teenager. He was full of stories and passions, opinions and memories. I must have been 6 or 7 years old when he started taking me in his lap and opening out the giant (now you get why it feels giant!) book in front of us. The book contains some explanatory notes on various moments in the freedom struggle, but for the most part, it replicates newspaper articles, photographs, letters and maps. It is more scrapbook than textbook, more archive than commentary. In my grandfather's lap and in the pages of that book, the independence movement wasn't something that happened a long time ago; it was present, it was alive, it was playing out in front of my eyes.

As I grew a little older, he showed me another book. I forget the compiler and publishing house, and I gave up looking for it a long time ago, but this was a thick, hardbound light green book named "Martyrs of India." There was a photo on the front cover, but I am no longer sure what the photograph depicted. A noose? Perhaps. I cannot remember. But I remember that book as my introduction to Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh (or Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, as he later called himself), the figures in Indian history who chose a different path from the Gandhis and Nehrus. It was my first introduction to how Chandra Shekhar Tiwari would only tell the magistrate that his last name was "Azad" (free) and thereby became Chandra Shekhar Azad. In years to come, I would read more, in school and out of school, about different parts of the Independence struggle, and I would learn to disagree with my grandfather about some of his idols. But early on, in his lap or in the chair by the window in his bedroom, I learned about the largeness of the struggle for independence, about the differences within it, about some of the complexities of representation and reportage.

As I graduated from school and went abroad to study at a college that prided itself on fostering "global citizens," and as I created homes and families in different countries, I learned intuitively and academically to question the idea of "nationalism" on which so much of this Independence movement was based. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, an early 20th century Japanese educator, whose writings form the foundation upon which my university was built, talks about 3 levels of citizenship -- the local, the national, and the global. He stresses the importance of identifying with the local and the global in order to avoid being swept away by the national (as someone who was imprisoned and ultimately killed in prison during World War 2 for being a "thought criminal," he clearly understood nationalism's dangers). Back home, as India moves aggressively towards becoming a stronger nuclear power and lapses periodically into the anti-Pakistan war rhetoric, I have learned to step aside from nationalist rhetoric. As I began working for an organization that talks about nation-building and "working for India," I learned to identify for myself that I don't work for India; I work for ideals like peace, justice, community, dignity, and freedom from want. I will work for them in India or anywhere with the same degree of love and commitment. And when I feel that India doesn't stand for them, I will criticize it with the same anger that I would criticize it anywhere else. Nationalism, to that extent, lost meaning for me.

But yesterday, I became aware that I may have lost something else in this process of critical understanding, that I may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. When this year's 15th August came and went without any surge of nostalgia or passion, I felt a little empty. Not because I felt unpatriotic but because I felt the absence of a history that had once coursed passionately through me. I felt the absence of my grandfather's stories. I felt afraid that, with his death, I was allowing myself to forget how recent colonialism was, how recently my family (like so many Delhi families) had been refugees of one of the bloodiest population transfers in history. I felt, in some ways, story-less.

I don't have to be nationalist to be proud of, and grateful for, the legacies handed down to me and my generation. I can recognize that it is because so many people in the generations before mine worked so hard to build this nation that I can choose not to be "nationalist," that I can choose ideals over geography. I want my children to inherit that understanding, to know that the Independence struggle wasn't about anonymous individuals from a forgotten era, or just about the Gandhis and Nehrus -- that the freedoms they can take for granted were hard-won by countless individuals with loves and hurts and beliefs and sacrifices, individuals like their great-grandfather. And for the moments when I forget that, I am grateful I can reopen that book full of visuals and documents, reread Marx's letter to Engels about how 1857 would come to be seen not as a revolt but as the first uprising for independence, reread the newspaper from the day that India won independence, and remember everything that those moments in history continue to mean in this one.

The Beds We Lie In

It has now been seven weeks since I slept in my own bed. Five of them absolutely wonderful, two of them rather stressful -- seven very full weeks.

As I think back, I realize that the single thing that set my recent five-week vacation apart from every other vacation I’ve taken is simply that this one wasn’t planned around places; it was planned around people. I didn’t make a to-do list; I made a to-meet list. Over the month of May and running into early June, I visited about 40 friends and acquaintances in 10 cities, and in the process was able to spend real, quality time with at least 20 close friends. In each city, I asked the person/ people I was visiting to take me to the places they love there, or I simply hung out at their homes and in the neighborhoods, catching up over walks, meals, and slumber parties. I experienced in this month so much love and warmth that it has made the last couple of weeks of caring for a very ill family member much easier than such an experience should be. People talk of safety nets; I feel like I am carrying one of those acrobat trampoline things in my stomach -- the moment my heart starts to sink, it bounces against that trampoline and springs right back into action.

They say that we make the beds we lie in. I am grateful, humbled, and proud this month to realize that the beds I’ve been making are warm and welcoming in the most important of ways. So let me tell you about these seven weeks by telling you about some of the beds I’ve been lying in.

There was the clickety-clack futon in my aunt’s living room in New York City, where I spent so many nights during various family emergencies and celebrations during my grad school years -- where a beautiful white cat sat on me every morning as a wake up call. There was the mattress on the floor of the American friend in Brooklyn, who hasn’t bought a bed yet because she moves to graduate school soon, and who has lived in India long enough not to hesitate to ask me to share her mattress for the night. There was the bed of the school friend in DC, who has lived in the USA long enough to need to ask if I mind sharing her bed, but who remains sibling enough for us to fight over the blankets in our sleep.

There was the couch in the office where I used to work and where I will always be home enough to be able to go nap during a spare hour of a too-hectic day downtown. There was almost a bed in the house of one of my closest friends from poetry school in Brooklyn, but I’ll never know what that would have been like because my aunt threw a party that night, and said friend and I ended up reunioning over baking brownies in a toaster oven instead of having a slumber party.

There was the futon in San Antonio where I spent Spring Break two years ago, catching my breath in the comfort of an old friendship, between the many episodes of illness and the deaths that punctuated my years in graduate school. There was the solid ground and open night sky of the Texan desert, sleeping bag on picnic blanket, with the moon and stars so bright they woke me up periodically.

There was the wrought iron bed in the house of another high school friend in Los Angeles, where we slept less than we talked during my brief first visit of only 10 hours. There were the cushions and the sleeping bag on the floor of the spare room in the home of my favorite family -- a former professor and his wife and daughter -- where ocean sounds mix with distant highway traffic, and two beautiful dogs vie to shed hair all over you and your bedding. There was the Japanese fold out mattress in the graduate apartment of a close friend from college who says she’d cook and clean for anyone the way she does for me, but who nevertheless succeeds thereby in making me feel like a special guest. There was another night in the wrought iron bed, except the bed had by now moved to a new apartment, and we spent an hour after midnight literally making the bed we’d lie in.

There was the 6-hour long bus journey to see another of my closest graduate school friends, during which I did most of the sleeping I didn’t do the previous night as we talked rather than slept in that newly remade wrought iron bed. There was this graduate school friend’s bed in an apartment full of loud, night-owl musicians, while he slept in someone else’s apartment. There was a bed covered in drapery in San Francisco where I napped after an eleven hour journey that could have taken just three hours. There was a couch by a window, with a view of the ocean and the most gorgeous light, in the home of an acquaintance who became a close friend while I stayed there. There was a spare bedroom in another house, this time in the UAE, where I recovered from jet lag and was offered four pillows and fell asleep to the crying of an old friend’s new baby.

There was my mother’s bed with my own pillow, and my dog on the floor beside me, for one brief night as I transitioned from holiday-travel to family-emergency-travel. There was a mattress on the floor of an almost empty apartment belonging to a friend of my father’s, where my family and I processed his sudden illness. There was another mattress in the home of another friend who is an expert at making one feel safe when one stays with her during an emergency. There was the half-broken fake leather armchair in the waiting room of the ICU, where I spent many long hours, reading or napping or talking to my father’s family, whom I otherwise don’t see very often. There was the attendant’s bed in the hospital, where I napped while my father rested after his four bypasses, and where I will spend tonight.

Soon, in another couple of days, there will be my own bed, at home. For many weeks, perhaps even months, to come. I have never looked forward to it so much. But I will also always look back with a smile at this summer spent in so many beds, homes, hearts. And I will always look forward to the opportunity to offer a bed in my own home to all of these people I am privileged to call my own.

 

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.

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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.