Love in our times

What does love mean in our times? This question can invite a horde of different responses and opinions. Is it traditional like what most of our parents had or has it become easy thanks to services like online dating applications? What happens to the idea of love once technology takes over? These are interesting questions with equally interesting answers and possibilities.

When I was a young kid in high school, it was a very big deal for me to approach a girl and say a simple hi or a gentle hello. Forget speaking, even making eye contact took a lot of effort. It wasn’t because I was extremely shy but because that was the social conditioning I had seen and understood. Even though we watched western movies which had kissing scenes and public displays of affection, all of that seemed unrealistic within a small town in India. That did not mean I wasn’t attracted to anyone. The first time I liked someone was in third grade. She was a classmate and like every other classroom, we got teased a lot. So much, so that we started noticing each other just because people teased us. This happened in third grade, what were we even thinking?!

It was all we had, noticing each other and her wishing me “Happy Valentine’s Day” one fine day and me not responding anything because I didn’t even know what the hell that meant. I remember being really sad during the summer vacations of that year because I couldn’t see her for fifty days straight. To make things even worse, she didn’t come to class for some extra twenty days after that. Sometimes we played ‘Ice-Water’ and that was it. As far as I can remember, she never shared her lunch with me. There was no Internet at that time. The only thing to do after school was to look forward to the next day in order to resume the occasional-eye-contact-smirking game.

The first time I had a phone in my hand was in tenth grade. My mother’s Nokia some number phone which had Bounce in it introduced me to the idea of SMS-ing. Vodafone was new to this country and offered 15000 messages for 34 bucks a month. That created a revolution and then emerged an army of night owls. A few of my friends with more liberal parents than my own were able to get hold of their parents’ phones after dinner hours and send text messages to each other which sometimes continued till the crack of dawn. What could they have possibly talked about? In tenth grade, there was nothing much to discuss and it wasn’t like the place I lived in was extremely happening either. I loved talking about Dragonball Z and Linkin Park a lot but I ran out of things to say within half an hour. Maybe they talked about the girls in class and beyond. Anyway, SMS married technology to love. All around me, peers and seniors were thumbing away, annoying the hell out of their elders and parents. There were no touch screen phones at that time. Internet was still a luxury for the privileged few. I was quite jealous of those guys who could use their parents’ phones without any hassle. My parents thought some spirit had taken hold of me because suddenly I was keeping their phone inside my pockets, checking every 2 minutes to see if a new SMS had arrived and then thumbing away on the keypad to write something as a response. Instead of looking out of the window at passing trucks while travelling, I was more interested in waiting for the phone to vibrate. I was attracted to this one girl in class and my classmates continued teasing us; this wasn’t the one from third grade. Slowly, a more advanced entity called GTalk came into view. Internet was becoming cheaper as BSNL had launched their BroadBand services with an immense 1GB of data usage per month. My father had got a connection for his work and this is where I discovered the World Wide Web. My privileged friends with liberal parents soon got their own Nokia Express Music phones and were exploiting the same to the core. They talked about Gtalk and using Facebook on their phones and playing cool games like Asphalt 2 while I was stuck with my mother’s Nokia something number phone. I did not complain though, because I was able to text just fine amidst my mom yelling at me, snatching the phone away or hiding it occasionally. But I managed, I texted that girl as much as I could talking about things. Even in that time, love meant frequent eye contact in class followed by a microsecond of smirking and nothing else. We never talked in class and made sure nobody except a chosen few knew about us, that we were ‘girlfriend-boyfriend’. Even the utterance of such words was beyond our brains. There was occasional small talk in class but never a full-fledged conversation. The teasing continued and it started getting annoying cause puberty and raging hormones resulting in aggression. And this was fuel for those who teased and I was, sadly, not one of those who punched people when annoyed. Apart from SMS and GTalk, there was one more platform called Oracle ThinkQuest which was made mandatory in all CBSE schools. It was a social networking website for kids and it encouraged them to make pages and projects about things they found interesting. What I found interesting was the messaging option and before I knew, I was texting some random 14-year old guy from the Netherlands. GTalk was also the place where I saw emoticons for the first time. The kiss and kiss with a heart emoticons were never touched cause shyness and conservative upbringings. It was a very weird phase because this girl and me, we kind of liked each other but had difficulty accepting it while the entire class thought that we definitely liked each other. Somehow, we thought we liked each other simply because the class was confident that we liked each other and we had to make sure that we didn’t disappoint them. It was absurd.

After that came WhatsApp and eleventh grade meant a personal mobile phone was necessary because guess who had to go for Physics, Chemistry and Maths tuitions now. Nokia Asha 311 was my first phone, nothing too swanky but it served the purpose. The texting continued and the trending thing at that moment was Internet Packs which meant more frequent data pack recharges. WhatsApp had more interesting emoticons with better graphics which made the texting experience highly enriching. Love, at that stage, had a little more verbal aspect to it than before. More calls, limited but more conversations in class and the rise of voice notes were the new things in my life. This was also the time when minutes recharge packs came into the picture. 3G was slowly starting to come in which meant faster Internet although I stayed away from it because it was expensive. 2G was slow but it was enough to fulfil my needs. The usage of the kiss emoticon finally saw the light of day and it felt like an actual kiss although the latter didn’t happen. Heart emoticons also flew here and there occasionally. Amidst theories of thermodynamics and calculus, this was what love looked like to me. Many of peers were going a stage further by going to the limited restaurants in town but all that was beyond me. Going on a ‘date’ somewhere on your own was non-existent. It required a certain kind of courage which I did not have at that time. This phase lasted till 2015.

Things were even more primitive during the time of my parents. A letter from someone you admired was a prized possession. Sometimes, those letters were accompanied by a photograph of the sender, taken very carefully in an appropriate setting. A lot went into planning such things. Also, one letter took a minimum of a fortnight’s to travel from one small town to another. These letters were written meticulously, each word was carefully chosen and many drafts went into the dustbin before the perfect one emerged. We still have a picture of my father posing with his then Bajaj Chetak which he sent to my mother months after they first met. My father is donning a blue shirt and his curly, long hair is neatly combed. Needless to say, he dressed up for that photograph. There is a message written in Assamese behind that picture and somehow it is more original than anything else. They didn’t have a lot of verbal conversations though as they were mutually shy, so letters served the purpose. This held true for most people belonging to that generation.

It is 2018 now and children have iPhones. Things have changed tremendously and today’s high school kids are far from being shy about their feelings. Online dating has spread like a wildfire and every second someone is matching with someone in a world of left and right swipes. The idea of love has changed and metamorphosed into something else entirely. Hookup culture has been embraced by the populace because it has become an effective tool to meet someone instead of being lonely. You choose a potential partner by reading a small bio and checking a few pictures of them that they post. While it was so difficult for me to even say a ‘hi’ to a girl in school, one can match with innumerable people on the Internet. It has become fast and easy like instant coffee, as Prof. Etienne would say. Technology has taken over and human feelings and emotions are shared virtually than verbally; we rely so heavily on emoticons, after all. A text can either make or break things. If you don’t receive a text from your beau for say, half an hour, all hell breaks loose and explanations are demanded. Innumerable selfies, Snapchat stories with tongues hanging out are taken every day and exchanged. A very Hang the DJ-esque atmosphere is slowly dawning upon us when technology completely takes over and ends up deciding who you should be sleeping with or who should be your “ultimate match” while boasting about a 99% success rate at the same time. Love has been commoditised and instead of aspects like mutual affection, support and trust, the physical aspect reigns supreme. Just like in an assembly line, humans come, get orgasms and move on. The conveyor belt keeps going forward with the same cycle. Loyalty is measured by looking at chat and call logs while not having enough couple photographs in your gallery attracts wide-eyed stares from friends and peers. A check-in into every restaurant, museum, art gallery, cinema you go to with your significant other ensures that your relationship meets the current community standards while being topics of conversations among your mates, which invokes jealousy among some of them who secretly loathe you.

I am not saying that I have kept myself away from social media or WhatsApp. What I am trying to understand is how far we have come and whether it is all worth it. When I look around, I see people who crib about how lonely their lives are without romance once the drink starts settling in and who go back, the very next day to online dating or to the school of thought which claims that amorous pursuits are a waste of time because he or she is going to leave you at some point anyway. In a post-modern world, love has reached a state of “post-love” as well and is now being widely accepted as a commodity and service into which two mutually consenting humans subscribe to and unsubscribe anytime they see fit and continue to do so in order to fulfil their carnal desires. Sounds very pessimistic, but these claims are drawn from my observations.

All this doesn’t mean that genuine affection doesn’t exist; it is very much there if one looks around instead of gazing at a screen.

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I was once a part of the problem

For the last few days, people around the globe have been sharing stories of sexual harassment and different other forms of abuse on various platforms of social media. Many people I am acquainted with have come out with incidents of abuse and a few men have come forward to give confessions of the times when they had willingly or unwillingly tried to inflict abuse upon someone. This has got me thinking about many things including how men react when they hear an incident of abuse against women. Twitter has been abuzz with reactions to subsequent hashtags like #NotAllMen. Everything has been pretty much laid out in the open for all to see. A teacher I know posted something on Facebook yesterday which has prompted me to sit down and think. I want to type all these down for everyone to know.

I don’t exactly remember when it began; I guess it became visible after the onset of puberty. I also do not remember the first time when my peers made a vulgar remark against any of the girls in our class. I was in a CBSE government school for the entirety of my school life and the atmosphere after I turned a teenager was one which bred all sorts of negativity towards girls. With the knowledge of pornography and sexual organs came the realization of lust and objectification of women. It seemed like a fun thing to do, commenting about how a classmate’ breasts were suddenly growing large or how her buttocks were starting to become more prominent. It escalated to things like how it would feel to spend one night with the “hot” girl in the next class and how one would actually want to do “things” to her, discussions about female and male genitalia. Things like menstruation disgusted everyone. There were a lot of graphic details involved in all this; enacting everything was one of them as we had a few people who went over the top with things like this. Everything was taken in a very casual manner. Things were said and forgotten in a manner of seconds. None of us gave a second thought about where all this was actually heading to. None of us, for one second, gave a thought that things like this when said aloud can hurt someone, that these things are demeaning. And to be honest, this is how the average teenage life of boys is. After I passed out of school, I used to meet my juniors every now and then and it didn’t take me long to realise that even they were obsessed with the same things as we were.

We never knew the reason why but until 9th grade, we had little to no interaction with the girls in our class. In 9th grade, a class project brought us together as the entire class had to work as a team. I had seldom spoken to girls properly until then. This period of null interaction with the opposite gender created a sort of animosity towards them. We thought them to be egoistic, talkative and irritating in general and hence, best be avoided at all sorts. All of us were borderline misogynistic. In a few years, some of them got girlfriends but they continued to find titillation in the conversations we had.

In a matter of days, phone numbers were exchanged and some of my friends became friends with some of the girls. This didn’t mean that we stopped making lewd jokes among ourselves. Although I was expected to be a part of all this, considering I was in the “gang”, I refrained for most of the time. There were instances when I laughed at the jokes that were made, laughed when comments about body image were made, laughed about the many things involving sex and pornography and while slut shaming someone. If a girl didn’t reciprocate against a guy’s propositions, she was automatically a slut. During this time, a few stories started circulating about a certain girl in school who had engaged in sexual activities and had to get an abortion. To this day, I don’t know what the actual story was nor have I ever made an attempt to find out. In my opinion, it is a completely personal matter and I never wanted to do investigative journalism in this. What appals me now is the amount of slut shaming everyone did against this girl. Stories were narrated in class as to what happened, who was involved, how it happened. Now when I think of it, I see how dangerous we were as humans and I am glad that my mentality has changed. I don’t know about my classmates’ though. My classmates had fun talking about all this without an iota of shame. Even teachers were aware of the comments that were passed against the girl but nobody said a word. I remember her not seeing for the longest time in school and once she came back, people saw her as the example of committing the most disgusting of all crimes, which is to have sex with someone in high school. She was seen as an example of all things wrong with children who aren’t supervised by their guardians. We didn’t even talk about sex; nobody taught us the very definition of it! It was a school which skipped the chapter of Human Reproduction in its entirety. What more can one expect? There was another girl who was called a slut just because she had dated a few boys in our school. She was in a relationship with a control freak and the abuse inflicted upon her was visible. She was ignored by girls while boys slut-shamed her on a daily basis. I have seen my classmate call her a “randi”, right before my very eyes. Abuse was normalised. The bottom line is the guy never even realized that it was abuse. Boys felt that they were entitled to say things because they were boys.

I have been part of all this for many years without realising anything. I have been equally guilty of being silent and not drawing the line between what can be accepted and what cannot. How could I? Nobody ever told me what was right and what was wrong. Parents, teachers, siblings, friends, nobody told us the basics of human compassion. I blame every one of them. Things like mutual respect and gender equality were not part of the curriculum. What we were made to believe was that girls and boys were two separate entities and the more they don’t mingle the better. This was the image that was projected to me by people who were my elders. We never sat with girls, we never shared our lunch, we didn’t talk to them properly for years and we stopped playing with them after 3rd grade. We never understood them and all we learnt by growing up in a small town with limited knowledge about things was that women were objects of desire, like the way popular media and pornography portrayed in front of us.

I am apologetic for the things I have been a part of and for the so-called people I had as friends. I am ashamed for laughing at those demeaning, sexist jokes which we perceived as something normal. I am ashamed of being a part of a population which objectified women, a population which thought about fucking every girl that seemed pretty to them. I am ashamed of being quiet at times when I shouldn’t have. I have realised that I was once a part of the problem but I am glad that things have changed. I cannot speak for my peers but I am speaking for myself.

 

Ten years a home

Duliajan is also known as the Oil Town of Assam. Digboi, the place where the Britishers dug the first oil well in the country is situated just 80 kilometres away. Oil India Limited found oil fields in Duliajan and established a modern0town with quarters and various other amenities for their employees. I was born in a hospital which had the words Oil India in it. C-Type, our first quarter was a cramped 2-BHK house which was excruciatingly hot during summers, owing to the asbestos roofs above. It was the house where I watched Teletubbies and Kaun Banega Crorepati as a toddler for the first time while my father struggled with the TV antenna outside to get a good signal. Cable hadn’t arrived till then. It was also the house which housed our vomit yellow FIAT Padmini in the cane-walled garage while the red Hero Honda gleamed beside it. Most importantly, it was the house whose walls were abused with crayons by yours truly in such a disgusting way that the occupants after us were traumatised.

 

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Somewhere in Duliajan. Credits: http://dada.theblogbowl.in/2012/11/the-badminton-chronicles.html

 

I was a particularly shy kid, as my parents tell me. Babu Dada was my favourite relative. His mother used to call me out from the back of their gate in the evenings while I stood behind our gate looking like some lost puppy, drooling. Sometimes she opened the gate and advanced to pick me up and that was when I ran inside. They lived opposite to our house. Babu Dada was a teenager at that time and he had a lot of good toys, especially that green truck which was my favourite among the lot. He gave me that truck when we left C-Type as a parting gift. I was ecstatic. I attended a play school for some time before going to Tiny Tots for kindergarten. My father used to haul me up on the petrol tank of our Hero Honda and drop me till the school, which was actually a house. On a hot summer day, the tank used to burn my bum but I seldom paid any attention to it. A few passers-by giggled as they saw me sitting awkwardly on the tank and not on the back seat. I was too young to sit back there without falling off. When my father napped in the afternoons, I used to go near the bike and twist its accelerator while making bike noises. I could never reach the seat. One foot rested on the ground while the other used to stay at the footrest. There is a picture of me doing that when one day my father saw me and got very fascinated. We had a Yashica back then and father used to take a lot of pictures with it.

Outside our quarters, we had a small garden in which big, yellow dahlias bloomed during spring. My mother was fond of gardening and there was space to do all that. We also had a few jasmine plants and chrysanthemums. Then one day, there was a storm. We had been reading the papers that a cyclone was imminent and we were terrified. Father was out of Duliajan for some reason and my mom and sister were even more worried as to what was going to happen. None of us even knew what a cyclonic phenomenon was. There were high-speed winds that day and it rained for hours. We stayed inside and I think my mother was praying now and then, she is immensely scared of thunder and lightning. The cyclone didn’t blow us all away but it decimated the garden outside. It was pitiful to look at all the dismantled flowers which my mother painstakingly grew. She was upset. I had experienced a cyclone for the first time and survived through it.

Father got a promotion and we had to leave C-Type by the time I enrolled into a nursery. We moved to the quarters named DD (pronounced Double D) which were a few kilometres away. DD was resided by people who belonged to the ‘executive classes. We got free gas, free electricity, free water, a maid, and a small patch of a garden, a large 2-BHK house which had a terrace which made the house hot yet again and three families as immediate neighbours in the block. Parul Didi was our maid and she used to take me to Tiny Tots. She was from Andhra Pradesh but she had lived in Duliajan for many years and had learnt Assamese. She used to bathe me, feed me and tolerate all my not-gonna-go-to-school tantrums early in the morning while my mom shouted in the background; I hated school from the very beginning. I walked with her to Tiny Tots for three years. She introduced my mom to idli and even got a cooker from her native place and taught her the process of using it. Back then, my mother was one experimental cook. We got a microwave oven and I was fixated in just opening and closing the damned door of it. It was probably the best invention I had seen till then. Mom even made dhoklas in that oven.

We lived on the first floor and DD-39 had a balcony too. Overlooking the balcony was a badly maintained road and across that was a high concrete wall with barbed wires on top. Beyond the wall lay a stretch of tea plantations which extended all the way to the horizon. Sometimes we saw women and kids plucking tea leaves and they waved at us when we stood in the balcony. I waved back at them but my mother was a bit reluctant to do that for some reason. There was a road on the horizon which went to this place called Tinsukia and the vehicles plying looked like fireflies at night with their headlights. My mother got a lot of potted plants and decorated the balcony to match those of our neighbours. Our neighbours were nice people but I never had the kind of toys their children had. They had Beyblades and Hot Wheels sets while I was only permitted to have a small blue Maruti Zen and a yellow Tata Sumo. Sometimes I felt that gross injustice was done to me but I seldom protested in front of my parents. There was this one incident in Oil Market. Everything in Duliajan had Oil in it, even the market. So, Oil Market was this enclosed bazaar that we frequented. There was a shop named Pick-Me which we crossed on our way to other shops. It had a glass-paned counter and behind that were chocolates. There was one big blue pack of Dairy Milk which I will never forget; it is perhaps the biggest Dairy Milk I have ever seen. I don’t remember how many times I begged my mother to buy me that, but she never did. One time, I got so hysterical that the shopkeepers inside looked surprised as to what was happening outside. My mom, on the other hand, did not budge.

Our neighbours included our family to the executive life by taking us to Zaloni Club. The place was a hangout place for many of the people in our colony and others. It had a movie theatre which was also an auditorium, a swimming pool, tennis and squash courts, a bar, a restaurant, a canteen, open space with a stage for events that happened, a gym, a place for aerobics, a venue for table tennis, a small cricket pitch and a lot of rooms behind which I don’t know what lay. None of us had seen a place like this and we were surprised by the openness of culture over there. Kids were roaming around in shorts, speaking fluent English because they were from DPS (I was in KV and there was a rivalry with them) while their mothers walked around in high heels with short hair and smeared themselves with red lipstick. All the kids in my neighbourhood did some kind of coaching in Zaloni Club, some did tennis, others did squash or swimming or TT. Naturally, my parents expected me to do something as well. My father joined the gym and found his long lost love for swimming and so did my sister. Mom joined aerobics and gym for a short time as well. Everyone lived a very healthy, active lifestyle. I tried swimming but failed miserably due to hydrophobia and I screamed and wailed in the swimming pool and made life hell for my father. “I am not taking this good-for-nothing back there again”, he told my mom one day. I enrolled for TT instead because tennis was beyond my physical capabilities. I was the only noobie in the TT department and the coach ignored me because he already had some ten kids who were playing quite well and deserved more attention. I learnt some of the basics but failed to catch the attention of the coach. My first time of watching a movie in the theatre happened here as well. It was The Polar Express which was screened as part of Club Week, a week long fiesta involving a lot of food, games, competitions and other upper-class stuff like flower shows and all. Most of my friends in the neighbourhood went there while I was forbidden to do so. Kids were allowed to buy ice cream by just signing a coupon and writing their parents’ name. They didn’t have to pay money because it got deducted automatically from the parents’ bank account. I was strictly forbidden to do this as well.

In the Club Week of the year 2004, I decided to take part in a children marathon race. It started from Zaloni Club went through the DX quarters, took a U-Turn, beside the Golf Course and back to the starting point. It was a beautiful stretch, shady with trees and shrubs along the side of the road. There was a kid who lived in a couple of blocks from us named Riki. Now, the news was floating that Riki had been practising for the event with his father in the Golf Course every evening. Everyone in the neighbourhood was sure that he will bag the first prize. I didn’t do any practising but my father gave me a couple of tips. Start slow, keep your stamina for the final 400 meters, let everyone pass you first but they would eventually die out, regulate your breathing and do not open your mouth at any cost. I did the same, I was in the third position for quite a long time and was content with that. The organisers gave everyone Center Fresh before the race. That’s when I got greedy. I stopped and my fingers went into the pocket to get my chewing gum. I looked back and saw a few kids but they were far. I forgot the last rule my father said and ate the gum and started running. Naturally, I inhaled from my mouth and that’s when my lungs got tired and the lactic acid crept in. There was a shooting pain and I lost my speed. There was still around 300 meters to cover and my breath was gone. I saw a kid run past me and then another until some four kids crossed me. Ricky was in the first place as expected and he won. I sipped the glucose which was given after the race dejectedly, cursing myself. Back home, I told my parents what happened and they face-palmed themselves on my stupidity.

Duliajan was one terrific place. After father got a transfer and we shifted to Tezpur, I and my sister got a tremendous culture shock. We had to leave our executive lives behind and move to a place which was ordinary and mundane, didn’t have clubs or swimming pools or round-the-day electricity. It took me around six months to assimilate with the new place but I missed Duliajan a lot. Many years down the line, I occasionally gave a thought as to how life would have been like if I grew up in Duliajan as a teenager. It would have been exciting and active and fun-filled maybe. But in some ways, I was also glad that I was able to grow up in a much humbler setting than Duliajan, amidst the common folk. I left Duliajan in 2005 and haven’t seen it ever since. From what I have heard, things are pretty much the same. There are still Club Weeks and other stuff which happen every year. Many of the kids I knew played with are doing different things in different places. Duliajan was my hometown for nine years but it gave me moments worth writing for.

 

On Raksha Bandhan

There was one occasion every year which my sister devotedly followed and that was Raksha Bandhan. I remember her waking up earlier than usual on those days, taking a quick bath and arranging the thali. As I came out of the bathroom, she used to stand ready with a lighted diya, a rakhi, a bit of tika, some flowers with rice and some sweet, mostly a rosgolla. She used to wear a churidar on those days, tie her hair up and put some kajal. Mother stood close by as she did the aarti by doing the whole ‘thali in a circular motion’ in front of my face. There was something in that warm glow from the diya which stayed with me for a long time. The rakhi stayed on my wrist till the end of the day. Afterwards, we used to hurry off to school. I never gave her anything as a gift for quite a long time. I felt kind of shy in front of her during those days; mostly because this was too much of sudden sibling love and it was unlike us because we used to fight with each other all the time.

My earliest memory of gifting her something goes back to 6th grade. By that time, I had gathered knowledge that one is supposed to give something to his sister during Raksha Bandhans. TV ads and the fact that my sister got gifts from her bro-zoned classmates made me realise that. I gifted my sister a chocolate that year and I remember the Cadbury Celebrations that she got from some classmate-turned-brother in school. I followed this never-seen-before box all the way to the refrigerator and hoped earnestly that she would share it with me. She did share but she consumed most of its contents herself. My tiny 20 rupee Dairy Milk seemed inferior against that large cache of chocolates. By the next year, she had moved out of Tezpur for her higher studies to Guwahati and things changed a lot. There were no early morning aartis anymore but instead, the rakhis started arriving by post, with a hand written letter in the envelope. I received the first letter of my life in 7th grade written by her using sketch pens. This was also very unlike of her and I was surprised that she wrote something for me. Needless to say, I felt very special and for the first time, sensed that someone was actually missing me. I mentally did somersaults and blushed as I read that letter which was filled with a sort of sibling love that I hadn’t experienced before. Her words conveyed a lot than her physical presence ever did. It said all the things we could never say to each other verbally and it made her absence all the more profound. I felt that the letter deserved a reply and I wrote and posted one, tried my best to convey everything that I was feeling and mentioned that we will talk more over the phone and share things from now on. I promised her over the phone that I will gift her something when she comes home during the vacations.  The next year, I received a similar package and I decided to act mature. I asked my sister over the phone as to what gift she wanted this time. I had saved a bit of money by now as I was ‘old enough’ to handle money on my own. She told me that she wanted an eyeliner and a few good nail polish bottles. I didn’t have any knowledge about cosmetics so I had to confirm which colour of nail polish she preferred. After getting an idea of everything, I went to the market on my own to buy the same. Mom didn’t know what was happening. It was the first time I was buying cosmetics for someone so it took me a while to figure out which brand to get and what Lakme Colossal Kajal actually was. I gave her gift when she came home during her Autumn Break and she was happy with the nail polish colours I chose. I felt glad as a level of competence flashed on my face.  My mom gave me surprised looks because I had managed to do everything so discreetly.

This tradition continued till 10th grade, although the length of those letters decreased to the size of a note. By then she had moved to Bangalore and the rakhis took more time to arrive by post. Instead of me giving her gifts every year, she made sure that the parcel contained not only a rakhi but a small gift as well. There was a t-shirt one time and when she wasn’t able to include one with the rakhi, she made sure she got something on her visits during the vacations. Each time I made the same promise of yeah, I will give you the gift when you come home. By the time I had reached 12th grade, I already had three years’ worth of pending rakhi gifts that I was supposed to give her. That backlog lives to this very day.

Truth be told, I have seldom protected my sister from anything and over the last year, Raksha Bandhan isn’t the same for me anymore. I understand the essence of a sibling connection but I am so not okay with the whole brother-protecting-sister thing. My sis has protected herself just fine all these years so why follow some tradition just because our history and parents tell us to? For issues involving family and parents, I have covered up for her, more so in recent years. She has protected me equally but more than that she has been a guiding post and that matters a lot more for me. Last week when she told me to meet up as she wanted to give me the rakhi in advance, the feminist in me was in a conflicting position. I texted her saying that I don’t want the rakhi as I do not comply with the tradition behind Raksha Bandhan anymore. I told her that should a case arise, I would be there to ‘protect’ and support her in all ways possible and that a thread wasn’t necessary to make sure that happened. I used sentences like “patriarchal traditions” and “why are we still doing this”.  She agreed with what I was trying to say but she urged me to understand that this was something she wanted to do, regardless of what history or tradition says about it. I was glad to see that she took this tradition for what it is meant to be, a bond between siblings. That’s all. She didn’t want to break the bond which was created well before I was in 6th grade and I couldn’t say no to that either.

Actually, I feel like I should tie a rakhi on her wrist as well.

 

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Me and my sister c. 1998

 

Ma isn’t that mad

The first instance I remember of my mother showing her wrath for me was when I refused to go to kindergarten. It used to be a daily ritual for me to cry like a lost chicken while my mother would hurl curses and abuses from the balcony above. Our maid Parul didi would try to tug me like one would tug an adamant, immovable cow. Teary eyed and sad, I used to reach my school with Parul didi and sit beside this certain girl who fed me apples during recess for an entire year when I was in Nursery. There was very little conversation between us and I don’t remember anything apart from the pieces of apple she gave me. After reaching home, I used to recite the rhymes that were taught to us in class and say one line in the end, “Ma, we don’t have school tomorrow. It’s a holiday.” Of course, it wasn’t always a holiday and the cycle continued.

I have seen the not-so-pleasant side of my mother multiple times. Some of them have been so extreme that I possibly cannot write about them here. There have been times when I have refused to do household chores or bring oil from the nearby departmental store. This has produced two kinds of results; one is that my mother gets a bit irritated and mutters under her breath without further action and the second is that she transforms into one angry human, spewing venom and sometimes throwing the only nearest thing that she can deem as a weapon. This has varied from chappals, brooms to moisturizer bottles and spoons. I was stressed most of the time during my PU years and as I was a science student, the prevailing atmosphere at home was stressful as well. My mother had all of her stress visible on her face as she contemplated my purpose in life in front of our neighbours and practically everyone who came to our house. My poor marks during tests in school didn’t help to the cause and my prevailing laziness in terms of everything else made things worst. My mother was totally dissatisfied with my existence and she used to repeat time and time again, “Why did I give birth to this good-for-nothing creature”. I could understand her existential questions. “At least study and get some marks man, we know you can’t do anything else anyway, So, at least be good in your studies. How hard can it be to be good in one thing?” she repeated the same for two years. It hardly changed anything. There were days when I used to wake up really late; waking up at 9.30 AM is the biggest sin any mortal can make in our household. My mother would be doing her kitchen chores and she would start with her morning ‘why-did-I-give-birth…’ chanting early in the morning, in a voice loud enough for me to be heard. Let’s be real, it is certainly not pleasant to wake up in the morning and hear your own mother curse about her decisions in life, especially when that decision is you yourself. It gives such a bad taste in your brain, the likes of which is equivalent to getting a whiff of vomit while walking on the road. On other days, she used to come to my room with a broom to sweep and howl in order to wake me up. I will describe how the scenario actually feels like as best as I can. Your mother barges in and starts shouting at you, the day is hot and humid and the first thing she does is to switch off the fan and you start sweating immediately. Maybe you have been already sweating. The vomit distaste of the brain has already set in and the first question that pops up in your mind after you wake up is “why on earth did I ever take up Science”. Your mother goes on to describe how Sunny who lives five houses away, goes to play cricket at 6 in the morning and is also preparing for his medical entrance exams while you are doing nothing, not even maintaining your health. She sweeps the room angrily while you choose to be adamant and stay on your bed. “Uthiso ne nai?!” she shouts at the top of her voice and threatens to call your father who is busy working in the room upstairs. You realise that things wouldn’t turn out well if the father gets involved so you make a move to get up but your mother isn’t convinced. She gets really angry by now and the broom comes crashing down on your bare legs which tears apart the remaining sleep that you had like mozzarella cheese is detached from a pizza when you take a bite. It just snaps away and all you are left with is a lasting burning sensation and a very bad start to the day. There have been times when I had stayed put even after she was done using her weapon, just as a sign of protest and there have been times when I have angrily snapped back at her. This happened to many times during my gruesome two years as a high school Science student. Sleeping and waking up on time is a big deal in our family and my parents still haven’t been comfortable with the idea that every individual has the right to sleep and wake up whenever he/she desires.

There is one more topic which irks my mother like anything. And that is me and my sister’s marriage. Time and time again, both of us have tried to show my mother reason that it might be alright for Brahmin people to marry non-Brahmins because we live in a modern time and old rules and ways should change. My mother is not okay with this ideology and once she told me angrily that she wouldn’t think twice before disowning me and giving away all of my father’s property to some charity or orphanage if I end up tarnishing the family name. She has cursed our generation, for us being “so modern” so as to forget our family values and culture. Above all, she believes that cell phones are the reason for this abomination of the mind and it will give all of us cancer. She has become a lot more liberal now but her stand on marriage remains more or less the same, especially when it comes to me.

“It’s only because of marriage that I had to leave my job, or else I would have been in a good post by now”, one can hear this line emerging every now and then in our household, mostly after my mother has had an argument with my father. This is the time when she reviews many of her life decisions like her marriage to my father, her deciding to give up her job. In the midst of all of that, she would turn towards me and blame me for my existence as well. If the maid is absent on such a day, she would be blamed as well. According to her, she was a teacher in some adult education school before her marriage but after the wedding was fixed, she had to leave her hometown and come to the sasuraal, which was situated some 250 kilometers away. The saddest part is that she never tried looking for a job again. Even in front of relatives, she has expressed this loss in her life as she mentally calculates the salary she would have been earning right now. Mother gets mad for the most trivial reasons nowadays, sometimes I feel like she is getting more and more short tempered with age and there’s nothing that can be done about it. “We come from a different era. Just like there is no point in giving manure to a matured tree, there is no point in giving me all your modern ideas okay”, she would say as a concluding remark to every argument. In a way, it is true.

 

This Malayalam Film Will Enrage You For All The Right Reasons

I vividly remember the end scene of the film “Ka Bodyscapes” that was being shown at the Bangalore Queer Film Festival (BQFF) 2016. Just as I entered the dark auditorium at Alliance Française de Bangalore,  the screen showed a man walking gradually towards the sea before disappearing out of sight as the sound of crashing waves resounded the room and the screen turned black. I checked the pamphlet that I had in my hand and looked for a name. “Ka Bodyscapes, Malayalam, 1h 30 mins,” it read. For some reason, I wanted to know what the film was about. But I couldn’t at that time.

Now that I have watched the movie, I tend to believe that I was meant to watch it. Call it fate or give it some other name, I am glad I got the chance. This film by Jayan K. Cheriyan has been fighting for a certification without any cuts from the CBFC for the past two and a half years. The movie has been screened privately in film festivals and has won immense praise and accolades, but hasn’t seen a formal release in this country.

One of the things that I loved in this movie is the absence of background music of any sort, except in the final scene before the credits roll out. It has comparatively few dialogues as well and is presented in a very raw, almost amateurish form when it comes to camera panning and the shift in scenes. Due to the content and ideology of the film, a prior statutory announcement was made before the screening, informing everyone that certain people with certain ideologies might find the film awkward or disturbing and that they can leave any moment they want to. Fortunately, nobody left.

“Ka Bodyscapes” is based in god’s own country, Kerala, in the town of Kozhikode. It primarily focuses on the life of Haris who is an aspiring gay painter, played by actor Jason Chacko and Vishnu, the subject of Haris’ paintings and his lover, played by Kannan Rajan. Along with them are stories revolving the life of Sia, played by Nasreena, who works for a footwear manufacturing company and is a vocal feminist. The film encapsulates a lot of subjects ranging from homophobia to violence against women and the ever infecting patriarchal and right-wing society.

Kerala, as far as I know, is ahead of many states in this country, in terms of education, equal rights for people belonging to different sexualities and everything in between. But the film showcases the conservative side of Kerala, the side which roots for Ghar Wapsi and the need for women to be home before the sun sets. It is a society where cribbing grandmothers with rosary beads wince at the sight of girls washing their feet and do not hesitate from calling them a wench. It is a society where fathers beat up their daughters when they raise their voices against patriarchy and the subjugation and degradation of the female body that it brings with itself. In short, it is a society where love and equality lie at opposite poles.

Haris brings Vishnu to Kozhikode where the latter gets a job as a graphics assistant in his uncle’s right-leaning newspaper Bharatbhoomi. His uncle believes that it is his duty to uphold and save his traditions from going to the dogs and disapproves the idea of Haris and Vishnu living together under one roof. The idea of Vishnu posing as a model for all of Haris’ “naked” paintings ignites him even more. Haris’s place has scores of paintings which he wants to showcase as a part of an art exhibition and he gets a chance to do the same.

A still from the film ‘Ka Bodyscapes’

Sia, his friend who goes by the name of ‘Sia Rational’ on Facebook is a strong advocate of female body rights but is subjected to daily criticism from her conservative Muslim family. She works under a misogynist, condescending boss. Things get bad when this repulsive boss finds bloodied pads in the factory washrooms and tells the female supervisor to take care of the culprit. The supervisor questions all of the workers but to no avail. This is when she grabs one of Sia’s friends and drags her to the washroom for a strip search. The ordeal ends with Sia coming to the girl’s rescue and resorts to calling the police. The police do not take any action, obviously.

Sia along with Haris and a few of their friends decide to stage a protest while Vishnu decides to stay out of it due to its risky nature. Sia Rational ends up putting a Facebook profile picture of her bloodied sanitary pad after which they organise a roadside protest with slogans of “My body, my choice”. While some goons wait on the other side of the road with batons and swords, the police intervene. This entire incident is based on a real-life. What happens next should be discovered by watching the film.

The film is supposed to enrage you and it is successful in doing so. If you do not feel angry for the right reasons, you are not thinking rationally. Amidst all of that, you feel a certain form of helplessness, a very weak state of mind as you begin to realise how inconsiderate and close minded we are as a society and as people in general. You would feel the need to shout as you absorb the frustration and anger that the characters in the film go through while their worlds crash down, frame after frame. And this is reality, simple and unadulterated.

Many of us choose to be inside our cubicles, we don’t want to look at things and get our mind “dirty”. Many of us talk about same-sex marriages and equality but I think all of that is too distant for us. We live in times when misogynists feel disgusted at the sight of bloodied sanitary pads and when freedom of expression in the form of art is abhorred. We live in times when religious intolerance is met with death and centres to cure homosexuality operate in full bloom.

The despair that follows after watching a film like “Ka Bodyscapes” lives on for a long time, not because of what happens in the end of the movie but because of how there can never be a world where the need to make a film like this would ever arise.

P.S. If you want to catch a screening of Ka Bodyscapes, there is a screening on 5th August, 2017 at the same venue. Do follow Urban Solace on Facebook for more info.

Firing on all five ‘Piston’s

I had heard of this thrash metal band called Piston for quite some time now. The first time I came across the name was on a Facebook post by a friend who had watched them live and was writing about how ‘tight’ their performance was. And when I saw that they were going to perform at VR Mall on the 24th, I was all the more intrigued, mostly because of the venue. I called my sister up asking if she was interested but she sounded disgusted when I sounded thrash metal. “Not my scene bro” was all she said.

After a gruesome and traffucked two-hour drive with two uncles in an Uber, I reached Phoenix Marketcity. The courtyard is the place where all performances generally happen and I jogged my way to the venue only to find a reggae concert in action. People were cheering from their seats amidst the banging of djembes and other types of drums. The singer was telling the crowd to put their hands up. I looked around for help from someone to guide me at the right direction; mostly I was looking for someone wearing a metal t-shirt like me. I decided to go to VR Mall, which is right beside Phoenix Marketcity, maybe the show was happening inside the mall. It was already 7.30, the show was supposed to start from 7. I asked one of the security guards if a show was happening somewhere and he pointed towards the left. I followed his finger and saw a small platform that had been erected and some twenty clueless people lingering around. Some kind of a live EDM track was playing from the speakers, which was bizarre. The four people on stage were all clad in black, three of them having a guitar and one of them with glorious, curly long hair. Something I could only wish for.

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Unlike most heavy metal concerts, nobody stood near the stage

Across the mixing table, I saw four guys wearing metal tees, looking all pumped up while the rest of the crowd murmured and continued to linger around. The weather was windy and chilly, after the rain. Someone from the mixing table started speaking on the mic. Took me a while to figure out where the sound was coming from. Salman U. Syed, the boss of Bangalore Open Air welcomed the gathering and talked about the ‘promotion’ that they were doing for the fest, by organising this show. The drummer of the band spoke next, introducing themselves and pointing out that this was the first time a metal band in Bangalore was playing in a mall. They played the first song and surprisingly, it was the drummer who was singing and not the guy with the long hair, who I presumed was the singer. Whoa moment, indeed. I know Rakshith on Facebook, because I went to ask for drum lessons from him a long time ago. That didn’t work out. The sound was achingly loud and distorted but that is what you get from an open air venue like this. Towards the end of their second song, Rakshith said that their singer was sick and couldn’t make it so he was taking up vocal duties for the day.

I was more interested to look at the crowd. Most of them had no idea what was going on. There were a few uncles and auntys who were making faces while Piston was covering Slayer. Five hands went up when the band announced if the crowd knew who Slayer was. Only those five hands clapped after the second song. “It’s very odd for us to play here. We usually play in places where people are drunk as f**k. I see a few people who look my parents and that is so weird because they have never approved this kind of music” Same story everywhere, I tell you.

The quintet went on to play a few more songs and covers while the crowd slowly got the hang of their “no core, no fiction and only 80s thrash metal inspired by real life events” music. Rakshith kept alive the profanity and made the crowd realise that the music is a bit difficult to take in and also pointing out facts like God indeed is dead. Their rendition of Slayer’s Disciple proved the statement for them. For a moment, I was worried if this venue was appropriate for such subtle blasphemy but luckily there wasn’t any divine intervention. I, for one, was happy that this music was being introduced to an oblivious population. I heard a few girls admiring the rhythm guitarist’s long hair, an aunty telling her husband “aise gaane sunta kaun hai bhai?” (Who listens to music like this?) and a father coaxing her five year old daughter to dance to it while he tried to click a few pictures of her. The drummer was the only person who did all of the talking on behalf of the band and apart from giving reality checks like of how the world is a living misery, he did a pretty good job on the drums. Personally, I was left with a constant ringing in my ears after the show was over, mostly because I was standing too close to the speakers and guitars were too distorted. All in all, it was a good show, the first of its kind. People were affected by it, in both ways. And yes, metal is pretty much alive in this city.