He has six friends and he tells us they will stand by each other no matter what happens. Before marriage, he told his wife, “You don’t need to adjust with my parents but you need to do so as far my friends are concerned.” He talked about his wife in a gentle and caring way. He makes sure that his wife has her share of fun and enjoyment. “Just because we are men that does not mean that only we will enjoy. A woman is a human being first and she must enjoy.”
#MeToo has consumed my life for last one week. The more I read about it, the more I angry I feel. And in moments of solitude and self-reflection, many painful memories of hurt and abuse have resurfaced. And the story is both personal and universal. It’s a fact that most women in India have their #metoo experiences both in public and private space. Since the #metoo narratives have been shared on the social media, many of us are talking to each other to share our experiences. The common thread is that we all have gone through harrowing experiences of verbal, physical and emotional abuse at different level. In our workplaces. And that’s a reality even if it is difficult to swallow. The time has come to listen to women who are speaking, who are sharing raw emotions which they have been holding within themselves for years together. It’s not easy to come out and speak about your experience of being violated of basic human dignity. By doing that, you are laying your life in front of strangers. You are making yourself vulnerable.
In recent years, the process of communication has definitely become democratized. And one can’t suppress collective and individual voices for too long. Somewhere, like a tree, the voices will find a way to have a place under the sun.
Let us be clear on one thing. This is not a battle against men. This is not men bashing. This is about people who have abused their power, their authority, their superiority in whatever form. This is about not respecting a woman’s boundary. This is about some people having a sense of entitlement based on their power, position and gender. This is about commodification of women. At work place, at intimate spaces, at parties.
It’s nice to see stories are coming out from the entertainment industry, from media, advertising industry, corporate sector and more. Let it all come — from different walks of life, from urban India, small town India, rural India. The narrative of pain, hurt and abuse suffered by women from all walks of life must now be a part of our mainstream narrative. We can no longer push these stories under the carpet. It’s time to listen to our women.
Our streets are not for our women. Otherwise, many of us will not think twice before taking a night flight/cab. And at that time it doesn’t matter whether we women are
journalists/engineers/nurses/academicians. If our streets are not ours, if we don’t have the freedom to move without any fear in our India then what are we really talking about? These are basic fundamental rights of any citizen. This is our constitutional right to move freely without any fear in our own country. A nation can not be a global player if its women are not feeling safe in their own country. Our offices are now telling horrible stories of sexual abuse. Men at work must realise that women are not sex toys. It’s not cool to crack sexist, misogynistic jokes. It’s not cool to comment on a woman’s colleague’s body parts. It’s not cool to be a skirt chaser.
The time has come for all of us to be sensitive about gender identity, gender empathy, gender fluidity and look at life and people beyond gender binary. Empathy and compassion is the only way to move forward. Let us teach our children to look at life beyond stereotypes of gender and role play. It’s absolutely fine if your father is a fabulous cook. It’s absolutely wonderful if your mother loves solving mathematics puzzles instead of cooking rajma-chawal for you on a Sunday.
We need to break down barriers and question our own mindsets. Talking to LGBTQ community members in the last few weeks (post Supreme Court verdict on Section 377) as part of writing stories have made me understand their deep lonely struggles in life. And all their stories have common thread of bullying at school, isolation at home and the innate pressure to be ‘normal’ (which just means being straight).
Let us share our stories and from there will only emerge lesson of empathy and compassion. As a beginning step, let us just start listening.
She: (Excitedly) You know.. Kasturaba Gandhi died on the lap of Gandhiji. She was one lucky woman.
He: Kab marna hai tum ko (When are you planning to die?). I will keep my lap ready.
(The youngest member in our newsroom is 22 years old. I have given more years of my life to journalism. Most of the world outside sees journalism as a glamorous profession. Not many are aware of the grime, the sweat and not to talk about long working hours and less holidays. But it is definitely one profession that gives you an ability, a perspective to look at your own life like an outsider)
I am a story-teller but I am not the story. That’s why every day, I wake up with a sense of deep gratitude. It’s humbling to be a journalist. It’s the story that is much much larger than me. It’s the story that matters, it’s the face behind the story that counts. I am just the narrator bringing the story to the world. People trust me with stories which define them as individuals. Not for anything else but for the fact that I am a journalist. People bare their vulnerable souls to me and share with me stories of love, loss, success, failure, aspirations .. all in the hope that their story reaches to the world. As much as you need the stories, you need the story-teller too.
Let me take you on a retro ride. It’s March, 2002. I am walking along with my colleagues in the riot affected areas of Ahmedabad — amidst burnt houses, smoke billowing from the roofs of houses, textbooks of young children lying here and there in tattered condition, once shiny utensils now all black and beyond any shape and most importantly charred dreams. The loss is immense and palpable. Grief stricken women and men open up their hearts to us i.e strangers armed with little yellow notebooks and ball-point pens. The world calls us ‘journalists’. A woman in her early 40s wearing a pink salwar kameez and a green dupatta holds my hand and tells with tears in her eyes, “Go and tell the world what you have seen here and what I have told you. Tell the world.” I hold her hands gently and say, “I will. We will.” I am the outsider in her world. Her loss has given me an entry into her intimate world. I have a comfortable home in the western part of Ahmedabad to go back to in the night.
But here in the midst of devastation — I am the narrator, I can’t be the story. Yet, I have to be there with them without losing my sense of self. I have to bring back the story as it is to the world outside. I have to draw the boundary of not losing my self and stealing the story from them.
On another day during the same period, my senior colleague and I go on the field to do a story on relief camps. From there, committee members of the relief camp take us to a graveyard nearby. They say the smallest graves are the ones that hurt the most. Standing there among wailing men, I actually counted the number of graves of little kids who had fallen prey to mindless violence earlier in the day. There were nine of them. In moments like that, a part of me feels like an intruder and I want to move away from that deeply private moment of those grieving intensely.
But the story is the winner here and it holds me back. There’s no moral dilemma here. I have to tell to all of you who are sitting in their homes, or working in offices and who are not privy to what’s happening there. I have to be detached at that moment to tell you what I saw there — without any colour, any filter. I can’t jump into the frame, I can’t be the frame. I need to be there among the people to bring you back the story no matter how gruesome is the story or how heart-breaking it is. I believe, if you don’t have it in you to come to face to face with death, violence, loss and grief then you can’t be a journalist. You got to be somewhere else.
My best friend who worked with Sebastin D Souza ( in Mumbai Mirror), famous all over the world for his photograph of Kasab in action in CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) station in the Mumbai terror attack, which eventually led to Kasab’s conviction, asked him once, “Sebastin, didn’t you feel scared while you were clicking photographs of Kasab?” He said non-chalantly, “What was there to feel scared? I was just doing my job — shooting him with my camera.” He didn’t glorify his moment of truth, how brave he was or how put his life into risk.
Years later in an interview, Sebastian said to a leading news channel , “After all that hype of 26/11, nothing has changed. I don’t feel anything. I try to erase it from my mind. It does not seem such a big event now. Photo-wise, yes, it was a very big thing. My pictures were used across the world and helped convict (Mohammed Ajmal) Kasab (the lone attacker captured alive and hanged in November 2012).” As matter of fact as it can be.
On a slightly chilly winter evening, I met Kalpana Gupta, a woman who had lost her husband, two kids and home in the 2001 killer Gujarat earthquake. I was meeting her five years after the earthquake had consumed her once picture-perfect life. Like a phoenix, she had risen from the ashes of pain, loss and longing. She had remarried and she came to meet me with her two year old daughter. She took me to the same apartment where she lived before the earthquake took away everything she had nurtured lovingly. She offered flowers on the door and we sat down on the ground floor of her apartment on two plastic chairs facing each other. She was living in another part of the city then and had just taken the possession of her newly built flat.
There was no question to ask her. She had to tell her story in her own words. Till now, I have not seen someone crying throughout an interview. She had no control over her tears. The poignancy of her story overwhelmed me. Yet I had to sit stoically throughout the interview and listen to her attentively. I distinctly remember walking back on the neon-lit streets of Ahmedabad with a heavy heart. But the narrator’s job begins with that.
No matter how heavy is your heart or how dark is the night, your qwerty key board is your place to go to. In the stillness of the night, you have to detach from the world around you. Then it’s just you and the story. That’s the ethereal moment when writing feels like prayer. That’s why, it’s intoxicating to be in the newsroom day after day, week after week and actually year after year. The high of holding the story within you and then letting it travel to the world. Once you let it go, you have no control over it. And it’s that juxtaposition of brutality and tenderness that has fascinated me all these years. The brutality of telling a story as it is and the tenderness of the story becoming a part of your life.
We are living in strange times. An overdose of information, fake news, issues of ethics plaguing the media, the list is endless. It’s not easy to be a journalist in today’s time. But then it’s almost impossible to resist a story. And letting it travel through the world.
Statutory confession: I am no expert in man-woman relationship. I also believe that a relationship is deeply personal. This piece is just based on my experiences of being in some meaningful and not so meaningful relationships. Yet, I have immensely enjoyed this roller coaster ride called ‘being in love’.
Silence is ‘not’ golden: There was a poster in my friend’s hostel room which said, “If you can’t understand my silence, you can’t understand my words.” I don’t know whether my friend took it seriously or not but yours truly definitely took it seriously. So, I just thought that my silence would speak, solve all problems with my man. All that I would need to do is to sit in one corner of the room, maintain a Buddha like posture and if need be, shed some pearly tears. But real life is much more than a poster. Understanding silence is very serious business (more so for your man). I have realized that most men are not really good at understanding silence. They find it easier when you express yourself. So, the next point is a natural progression of this one.
Argumentative Indian: Amartya Sen, please forgive me for using your famous book title in this context. But I have discovered the joy of arguing. Well, it doesn’t earn me money but it gives me immense pleasure. And being a student of social sciences, I make sure that my argument is both historical yet contextual. Man, I know I am a late bloomer. But I never knew that there’s so much of fun in arguing. Sometimes it feels like a high octane tennis match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Feasting .. no more fasting : I thought I had this secret AK 47 weapon with me. Of not eating. Rather refusing to eat whenever we had fights/disagreements. Well, over the years, I have realized that man-woman relationship is a tad different from Gandhiji’s Satyagraha or Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption fasting agitation at Jantar matar, New Delhi So, I have surrendered my secret weapon with great happiness. Now, if I have a fight/disagreement, then I make sure to order mutton biryani, kebabs and polish it off with a plate of caramel custard or rabri with jalebi. Life feels uber delicious. The weighing machine sometimes look alarming. Well, everything is fair in love and war. And, didn’t somebody say love is all about layers? I am just adding layers to myself.
Still tectonic plates, dormant volcanoes: For years, I dealt with innumerable earthquakes, volcanic eruptions within myself. I was operating from a high disaster zone called ‘heart’, But of late, things have settled down. There has been no need for any disaster management. The tectonic plates are all still. And the volcanoes are all lying dormant. Life feels disaster proof.
(This was posted by my favourite Priyanka Chopra on her Instagram feed)
This too shall pass: When you are young and head over heels in love, you think this comes with a stamp of eternity. But then you grow up and you experience life, death, relationships, you realize that everything evolves in life. Evolution is the truth of life. So, the older, wiser me has decided to take a chill pill and curl up in the couch and revel in the line ‘This too shall pass.” Be it happiness, sadness, laziness or even dreadful Indian summer.
Nobody is going anywhere: The younger me had this terrible thought in her head —“If it ends.. what will happen?” Well, it took me some years to understand that nothing begins, nothing ends (To quote Osho). Nobody really goes away anywhere. And the husbands (and lovers who behave like husbands) find it most difficult to go away. They somehow manage to stick on, for different reasons. Even when I threatened my hubby recently with this killer line, ‘I would put you on OLX,” he just didn’t move an inch. I have a feeling my husband may have a similar tale to tell about me. Fair enough, I think.
Social media has other ‘social’ uses: I am not a great fan of people flaunting their love on Facebook. Most of my friends who write long love notes to their spouses on Facebook are not in a happy personal space (their off line confessions say a different story). I prefer to stay away from professing love on Facebook. Life seems blissful. Sometimes no virtual information is good information too. Unlike many other contemporaries of mine, I am freed from the pressure of being a Miss Marple / Lady Agent Vinod/ Bobby Jasoos or even to change profile pics thrice in a week.
Take love seriously but not the lover: I am fascinated by the idea of love. I feel just being in love makes me a better person. The lover is a part of the whole, large, beautiful concept of love. I fiercely protect my right to love. I love being in love.
It’s Onam today — Kerala’s much celebrated harvest festival. But how does one celebrate in the midst of loss, pain, grief and devastation? Kerala is going through a harrowing time because of the massive floods. The magnitude of this natural calamity is beyond anyone’s imagination. But then Kerala has a million stories of hope, love and generosity. Here’s to Kerala’s magical landscape and its beautiful, resilient people. Kerala, you will always be close to my heart.
(I visited Kerala just a month ago i.e July, 2018. The pics are from my Kerala trip. )
UNDER A CLOUD… STANDING TALL
NET GAIN IN FORT KOCHI
YOURS TRULY WITH KERALA’S TWINKLING STARS
LET’S GO QUIRKY
I don’t remember the exact year. But it was early 1990s. My friend and I were going to Connaught place (New Delhi) in bus no 615 (from JNU). We were talking in Odia (the language spoken in Odisha) and just before we alighted from the bus, a co-passenger asked us. “Which language is this?” My friend without batting an eye-lid said, “Italian.” We got down from the bus and laughed to our heart’s content. It felt exhilarating to be able to speak in a language that somebody standing next to us couldn’t understand.
I have always relished the fact that I can speak another language fluently other than English and Hindi. I love languages and love collecting words in different languages and write them down in my notebook, mobile phone, mind and heart. Odia is my mother tongue and that’s the language I first learnt to speak.
I remember spending beautiful evenings under a cloudy sky listening to Chittaranjan Jena’s soul soothing song, ‘Mo priya tharu kiye addhik sundar, ediki manoi jiha se…’ (There’s no one more beautiful than my beloved… but she is so moody that only when she’s in a mood she tells me that she’s mine) and Shekhar Ghosh’s ‘Hridayara ei sunayata ku’ (When I ask the emptiness of my heart). I learnt English before I picked up Hindi. I loved English as a language and always scored well too, making my father feel very happy. I was equally good in Odia and my favourite leisure activity was reading all kind of adult literature (mostly novels and short stories) in Odia. Some of the stuff I read, I didn’t understand at all. Nevertheless I just read the books. For the sheer pleasure of travelling through the forbidden territory. My mother had kept away one such novel far away from me in one of her secret shelves. The little devil in me egged me to hungrily finish that novel when she was fast asleep in the afternoon. I think I read that novel faster than a Sukhoi 30.
As a child, I never felt attracted to Hindi as the teacher was not that exciting. He was an old man who was lost in his own world and didn’t pay much attention to our young inquisitive minds. I wish I had somebody to teach me Hindi well in school. I love the sound of Hindi, I love the beautiful, mesmerizing world of Hindustani. I deeply regret not exploring the rich textured world of Hindi literature. But I remember the first Hindi word that left an impression in my mind. The word was ‘kachchi dhup’. One of my friends had just shifted to Odisha from Bihar and she was good in Hindi. She explained the meaning of the word to me. I remember standing in our garden early in the morning and telling to myself, “Oh, this is kachchi dhup (tender sunlight) playing with me.”
For three years in school, I flirted warmly with Sanskrit and enjoyed listening to the Sanskrit news bulletin on All India Radio (AIR). It was a highly pleasurable activity for me even though I didn’t understand much. The other day in the newsroom at work, we were talking about our childhood memories and then I started, “Eyam Akashvani. Samparti bartah suniryatam. Prabachika Deepika.(as they used to start the Sanskrit news bulletin on AIR). Everybody burst into laughing. The three language formula in school gave me enough joy to fleet in from one world of language to another.
Now my fourth language is Gujarati. For this, I owe a lot to Taraben, my cook. She didn’t understand Hindi when she became a part of my home and world. So, I had to make an effort to learn Gujarati and now I can speak Gujarati and manage to read it if it’s written in bold letters. I hope, one day I will be able to read a Gujarati newspaper completely. I want to push myself. I want to do it.
Language feels like a trusted companion in my personal and professional world. I feel lost without language. We need to embrace each other for my own sanity. Language is the lover I love spending time with. I need to hold language in my heart. I need an effortless relationship with languages. Languages are not just about words. Languages are about emotions. Languages have a feel of warmth in them. Sometimes, I feel the salty breeze of Bay of Bengal in my mouth as I speak to my childhood friend of 30 odd years in Odiya. Sometimes I feel the taste of a lightly spiced fish curry and mashed potato with a dash of mustard oil, finely sliced onion and green chili, when I go through old letters of my mother written some twenty odd years ago. Sometimes it gives me a strange of comfort while sitting in my apartment in Ahmedabad, only I can relish the content of the letters written in Devnagari script. It feels very intimate and special.
As I flaunt my grey hair with gay abandon, I now look at languages with a kind of warmth and fondness. I remember my maternal grandmother who always carried a basket of Odiya proverbs with her. She was a tough lady who believed in dishing out a proverb or two at the right moment. She never missed a chance. She had mastered the art of firing proverbs with missile like perfection.
Even as India surges ahead on the path of globalization, we need to protect our languages. It still amuses me when I see upwardly mobile Odia parents speaking to their children in English or Hindi at home but not in Odia. Years ago, a young man asked me “So you speak Odissi at home?” He was then studying in a prestigious college in New Delhi. I looked at him and said, “I speak at home. I don’t dance.” (For the uninitiated, Odissi is a form of Indian classical dance.)
As I indulge myself in English literature, conversations and music, I feel I need to move a bit closer to my mother tongue now. I can no longer write a poem in Odia. The language is in the process of distancing from me as I am not nurturing it with tenderness and dedication. I have been an inconsistent lover. The touch of ‘sahitya’ is missing in my mother tongue. I am losing a slice of my love. I can’t remember when did I write a letter in my mother-tongue? May be a decade ago. But I now feel the desire to do so..
Now I listen to Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosale, Mohit Chauhan, Elton John, Cat Stevens, Mariah Carey, and Adele. I no longer listen to Akshaya Mohanty, Chittaranjan Jena and Prafulla Kar. They are childhood memories carefully tucked away in some corners of my heart. Their songs are on a pause mode for me. Their voices no longer waft through my home.
Most importantly, I express love in English. On rare occasions, I do it in Hindi. My love has a language that was never in my blood. Never in my vein. I express love in a language that has been far more global than mine actually. A language that has a limited vocabulary for fire, water, earth and sky. Leave alone love. English makes it easier for me to write a love letter. It enables me to shed my inhibitions. To create a different world than the world I am familiar with.
In strange ways, I now stay connected to the language I first spoke. I speak in Odia to the visiting pigeons who come and happily sit on my balcony wall and sometimes wander aimlessly in my living room. I ask them in Odia, “Are you paying the rent? Why are you going and banging yourself against the glass window? When will you have some intelligence?” I make a mental note of my ‘TO DO’ lists in Odia. When I am desperate, .I talk to my late mother in my mother tongue asking her to make things easy for me. I tell her, “Why did you go up there when I want you to be here? If you are not here, then at least make life easy for me.” I feel a sense of peace and resonance when I talk to her in the language she taught me to speak and encouraged me immensely to explore. And unknowingly, she gave me a chance to discover adult literature when I was very young, She gave me an entry ticket to the wonderful La La Land called ‘Imagination.’ I will be eternally grateful to my mother for introducing me to Dr Kunjabihari Das, the doyen of Odiya language and his seminal works on proverbs, Lok katha.
Right now, I am feeling a lot more closer to the language that runs in my blood. Even though I am writing this piece in a language that is not mine. Some emotions or memories always stay true and authentic even though you express in a language that is not actually yours.