The written word

Well over a month since my birthday and I still haven’t written the letter to myself. Every time that I have decided to sit down and do it, I am overwhelmed by the thought of what parts of everything that is going on right now to include and what to exclude, so as to ensure that it’s not a never-ending letter, and a letter that precisely, not necessarily concisely, captures it all.

There’s a lot going on internally, and every day there are small shifts, changes, bodily movements, differences that I note. Many times these are little clues to something or another relevant to where I’m at internally, mentally, emotionally, and what changes I am experiencing in these areas. Some of it makes it to this blog, and so while it will always be (I think) a thing to go back to when I want to know what happened at this point in my life (and that is the idea behind logging everyday), writing these letters have been special. Every time that I have sat down to write one in the past year, something new has emerged from it. A different way of looking at the exact same thing I already knew I was going to write about. Sometimes, clarity that only comes when I put pen to paper. Most times, a deep sense of gratitude, empowerment and liberation. So I want to get down to this soon. Like today. What I did manage to finish was writing letters to some special folks who have been around and whose presence has  impacted me in some way this past year. 10 letters in total, I surprised myself. And today I went to the good ol’ post office to send some of the overseas letters off.

The exercise always shows me how some of these habits — things I was accustomed to even while growing up — are just near obliterated in our daily lives today. It’s only when I write letters that I realise I don’t know what value of stamps to use anymore. What’s the going base rate? What is an overseas letter going to cost? When I wrapped a letter in today, just snug, I wondered about how J might open it in Germany, without cutting through the letter itself. And then I remembered envelope cutters — every home used to have one. We did too. A blunt knife-like tool that would be stuck into a tiny opening in the envelope, to slide through to release the contents of the envelope. When was the last time you saw or used one? I can’t remember. Remember when everyone had personalised letter heads? And what about the entire operation that is a post office itself. When I entered the neighbourhood one today, complete with the grouchy, reluctant staff behind the counter, seated amidst piles of mail and paperwork, the smell of dusty, musty degenerating paper thick in the air, I felt a pang of nostalgia for the days when everything was analogue. And alive.

***

There’s something about letters and communication in the air for me, obviously, because as soon as I got back from Goa, I stumbled on an old letter from my grandfather that I had stashed away as a keepsake, but completely forgotten about.

Today, amma gave me another one (written in 2001) that she discovered some weeks ago. Back in the day, I used to regularly send printouts and handwritten copies of all my written work to my grandparents. Sometimes including essays I wrote in school that turned out well, and the odd book report or such too. In this letter, my grandfather congratulates me on winning 1st prize in a book and movie report competition in class 11. He had such a flair for picking the right words that always told me so much about his complete interest and involvement in reading whatever I used to send them. He didn’t just read my letters, he got a lot of what I’d write about, and he took great care to reflect/communicate his understanding back to me.

Reading the letter today made me think this is something else we’ve lost to rapid digital communication. The softness that is the essence of having someone’s full attention, knowing well that I am being heard. The human element of a heartfelt response. If writing letters is an act of vulnerability, reading and responding are too. Presenting, making oneself available fully to the mode of interaction at hand is most definitely an act of vulnerability. And I wonder if this is why I often feel like writing letters and do it so often. Even Especially to myself.

One year ago: Only happy when it rains

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Vulnerability and validation

As I find myself discovering how woefully limited and inadequate my understanding of words like authenticity and vulnerability have been, I’ve been having experiences of discovering newer, different meanings through recent experiences.

A massive penny-drop moment happened last week when I caught myself saying the other day, “I’m being pushed to be authentic in ways that I haven’t been…” and “I feel like life is giving me opportunities for vulnerability like never before…” and N gently nudged me to check Who’s pushing you? before making me see that this is merely life occurring as it always does, nothing special pushing me to do or be anything different, nor any divine plan or occurrence that is whipping up moments for me to show up in. Most importantly, N showed me that life is occurring as it always does, and I have stepped into a new way of being. And this really hit me like a ton of bricks, overwhelming me because I realise these are the moments of evidence, the lived experience of all that I have been seeking — vulnerability and authenticity.

The thing with growth and change is it very rarely occurs in sudden, singular mind-bending or life-changing moments. Most times, it is slow and steady, constant and so gradual I don’t notice it. Sometimes it is so mundane, it passes me by in moments when I’m not even looking. When N pointed out that this is the product of the work, the relentless focus and determination and asked me to really own that power and not pass it off on life, or destiny and fate, I was overwhelmed to the point of tears.

I realised my notion of what “power” is, and what “owning it” looks like is so largely defined by a very pop-culture addled and Internet-driven brain that unless it came with an aha moment that I could capture in a byte-sized, hashtaggable, YAASSSGIRL style, or something I can dissect and write an entire post about, I will probably miss it entirely.

Power is quiet. Asserting and owning it, even quieter still. And right in there, I discovered a new aspect of authenticity for myself, that I had neither known or experienced before.

Authenticity, vulnerability and a deeper honesty — all very quiet too.

***

It made me also realise how important that validation is for me. For us as humans. And very quickly I looped back to something I’ve been thinking about a lot since the start of the year. N has nudged me in strategic, timely fashion to question why I put out what I do, and the nature of what I choose to put out. I have seen my writing on here change as a result of it.

How much of writing this blog every single day, logging inane details about this journey, is for validation? I don’t have any definite answers. I know it isn’t for social-media style instant validation and gratification. I don’t have a like button active, I do not check statistics much, and I mostly no longer bother about the quality of what I am trying to say even.

There is also the fact that I am no longer an everyday life-blogger, dishing out details about the happenings in my life. I may talk about it here and there, but it is not the basis of my blog anymore. I simply don’t think my life is that interesting anymore. So many posts go live in utterly vague, airy-fary fashion, and make sense to nobody but me because I write them as a marker of something I want to remember, not necessarily communicate in detail to an audience. And even if I sometimes choose to be really honest, bare my soul and get really detailed about the actual happenings f my life rather than just talk about my feelings, am I really 100% honest, authentic and vulnerable on here?

So why this medium with an audience then? Why would I not go private? Or write this in a journal? Again, no clear answers, though I have increasingly been keeping a journal too.

I’ve been reading a lot about how globally the search for vulnerability and authenticity has peaked, and how confusing doing this in the age of social media has made it for our generation. I have many thoughts about a lot of what I have seen and read, but I’m boiling it down to two things that have stayed with me:

  1. If I’m seeking vulnerability in my real life, why do I need to measure it by how vulnerable I can be online?
  2. Have we somewhere forgotten what the word — vulnerability — really means? And are we mistaking it for sharing?

It’s a little sad to imagine that the extent of exposure to social media has changed and reshaped the very definitions of some words for us as a culture, to the point that I’ve had to un-learn and re-learn some meanings altogether. That sounds like a profoundly first-world problem to have.

If my recent experience is anything to go by, vulnerability doesn’t have a single catch-all definition. I’ve discovered vulnerability in newer ways that I hadn’t considered ever before. I’ve seen how wide and all encompassing the word is for such an array of experiences — experiences that I cannot even begin to detail on here. Experiences that are personal, that I don’t necessarily want to detail on here.

If I’ve realised the quiet power of authenticity, vulnerability and a deeper honesty, I cannot possibly be unpacking it here in detail, or screaming it from the rooftops for all to see and know, right?

I’m finding more power, and sense, in quietly holding, containing it.

The fact that I am still questioning what I am doing on this blog, only points to my own discomfort with a standard I am unconsciously holding myself to. Why does my search for the authentic and for a deeper vulnerability in my real life necessarily have to translate into vulnerability online (whatever that is — in the age of general over sharing the lines are blurred)? Why do I need to perform my vulnerability and stretch it on here?

I don’t.

***

On the weekend, S and I had a nice big chat studying some Instagram posts by someone who considers themselves to be posting with a high level of honesty, authenticity and vulnerability, and it has become exceedingly clear to me in recent time that it is near impossible to be vulnerable with an audience. Vulnerability just simply isn’t for the masses. It cannot be painted on and performed, on tap.

It’s something hard won, an evolving thing almost, that morphs over time and with deepening experience, and most of all can only be exercised or experienced with a select few. A chosen inner circle, who have earned the right to be privy to it.

So I wonder again, why does this audience matter? Superficially, I can say no it doesn’t. Considering I get almost no feedback for what I write here, it doesn’t. But I also have to say that as a creative person, a writer, the odd time that on the rare occasion that I do get a deeply insightful comment, or a heartfelt email from someone who could relate to something I wrote, my day is made. It warms my heart to think I touched someone.

There is obviously the aspect of human nature of us all having stories, and wanting so desperately to be heard. The goal for me now, is to first find ways to be heard in real life, to share my stories authentically with those who deserve it, and who will hear it, rather than turn to this blog as an escape (like it used to be).

When I got off social media, I was driven mainly by the growing chasm between life online and offline. I know this is a sentiment many people share. The efforts to correct that by focusing on getting real in real life will do. I don’t know why I’ve felt the need to make my focus reflecting or projecting my reality online, as a marker of true authenticity.

Where have we gone wrong?

I’m still figuring this out, and certain that my thoughts will change and evolve with time, but for now, here we are with only some clarity.

Am I seeking deeper vulnerability all the time? Yes.
Do I want validation for it? Sometimes, it’s nice, yes.
Do I really want to be that vulnerable online, like I am trying to be (and being) in real life? No.
Are the two linked? No.

Three years ago: Birthday weekend in progress

On crying

It takes a good cry, or several, to get your hand to touch your face. To explore its contours and to see what lies beneath the thin skin that stretches over your eyes.

Crying has shown me the shape of my face. The curves where tears stall, the nooks that let them escape, making a beeline straight for my mouth. I trace a finger down the salty dry, residue from where a tear once trailed. And I see the shape of longing, I touch the slopes of happiness, I feel in my hands, the fullness of overwhelming emotions.

When I’m done crying, there is a strange new glow. My eyes sparkle invitingly. Suddenly, I find I am looking at myself straight in my eyes, more.

This is new and liberating. Crying has that power. Of discovery. Of freshness. Of endings. Of new energy.

I’ve tasted my tears now. Searing saltiness, reminiscent of cured memories. Memories I’d tucked away in the hope I’d never have to look. But they’re ready now, pickled, and pure in a whole new way. Waiting to be unwrapped. Waiting to hurt and liberate in equal measure.

The tears envigorate. Prepare me for what is to come.

Crying has made my heart fluid again. Turned it into a shapeshifting mass of water, held together by its own inward magnetic pull. That same heart I’d wrapped in layer upon layer of wisdom. The heart I’d helped grow strong (and perhaps cold, too) is salt water and sea breeze now.

The heart that has grown up, wise and clear, wants to grow young and naiive again. And so the tears come from that place of young-ness. Of the baby I once was.

Eyes full, always ready to spill over. A tiny nudge and the overflow is on. At the slightest hint of sorrow showing up. Of a kindred spirit. Of stories so alike they frighten.

I’ve found sharp loathing and a piercing ache in the spot where tears flow from. I try to stop them. But it is not to be. Not now, anyway.

And so they flow and they flow. Long after the urge to cry has left my body, they continue to flow. In that moment I know I’m not crying for my grief, or from the big sorrows alone. This is grief for every small, little, everyday pain.

From everyday dejection, defeat, disinterest. From that unanswered message. From that plan that didn’t include me. From that dress that didn’t fit. From having to make a choice that was no choice at all.

From the unknown hands that jabbed inside my teeshirt on that crowded bus. From that perv in the shape of a doctor. From the relative I can never speak of.

From not having made it. From holding myself in. From not being good enough. From balancing it all.

From moving from Bangalore to Goa. From moving from Goa to Bangalore. From wanting to be the hostess-with-the-mostess. From wanting it all. From that copy that refused to be written. From the pitch that never took.

From the love that turned sour. From friendship that I’ve let go of. From being too much. From not being enough. From people who didn’t pick me. From people I picked who wouldn’t have me. From people who had me, but fell so short of what I wanted of them. From people who had me, and who I had, but only just for a short while.

From distance. From too much closeness. From boundaries that were never made. From boundaries that were transgressed. From boundaries that were in places they never should have been. From being too hard on myself. From letting myself go easy.

Crying has shown me the shape of my face. In the abyss of loneliness that lies still, within, just beneath my eyes, and in the turn of my chin, I’ve felt a softness I didn’t know I had. A softness to hold in my tender hands, old sadness. I’ve found there, the power to choose myself. I’ve found strength to be myself.

Salt water and sea breeze, sunshine and sand — crying has shown me the source. A single drop from where I emerged, and the shapeless all-encompassing vast beyond that I must eventually go to.

One year ago: Tell me what you really like

I am the universe

Sometimes I am the sea. After a full moon night. Swelling and ebbing, in control and contained. Holding space within. Exuding gentle power and grace.

Sometimes I am a river in a rush. Reckless and raring to go. Slipping over hills, sliding under crevices. Solitary and single-minded. Making my way even where none exists.

Sometimes I belong to the moon itself. Blissful. Distant. Maddeningly bright on a starless, indigo night.

Sometimes those stars descend within me. Shimmering, pulsating with a self love that shines through. Privately, for me.

Sometimes I am reduced to a minute spot of magic dust. Small and insignificant. But present. Sometimes I grow into a dark cloud of grief. So gargantuan it could end me.

Sometimes my heart beats in consistent rhythmic bursts of happiness, that can light up a room. And sometimes that same heart breathes a sadness that stifles.

Sometimes I wake up to that old fire raging within. Angry, white, hot. Blind. Consuming everything in its way. Only to turn to the rain for relief.

Sometimes there’s friendship in the freshest dew on a lonely morning. Sometimes a heavy, hollow mist. Like a hug on a cold night.

Sometimes joy bursts forth like a volcano of laughter won’t be contained. And sorrow showers soon after like the unending tears of ash. They both come from the same place. The volcano that rages must also eventually meet a brutal wind.

Sometimes I ride an irrationally beautiful rainbow to great heights. And it takes a sobering storm to level it out again.

Sometimes the universe breathes down on me. Powerful and achingly beautiful. I cower under its overwhelming immensity. But more and more I find the bountiful gifts of that same universe within me. Flowing continuously, coexisting in a complex, confusing, beautiful mess.

It’s in those fleeting moments that the leaves whisper secrets in my ears. The wind caresses me gently in a new direction. I see reflections of magical new truths in the sparkling stillness of pools. I find a quiet rhythm in the breath of a bird. All I can do is bear witness. And it’s in those fleeting moments that I know what it really is, to be me.

One year ago: Day 5: Here I go again (on my own)
Three years ago: Day 7: Shiny new guiding lights

Day 348: I got this feeling inside my bones

Remember this letter I wrote to myself on my birthday? I had decided back then that I am going to write to letters of the kind every year — one on my birthday, and another on New Years Eve. I made an early start to the year-end letter yesterday, thanks to finding myself at a cafe with a sudden blinding realisation that I just had to jot down for posterity. And because I had my letter pad in my bag, I began.

I realised that I have been so focused on healing and feeling whole and positive this year that I have unconsciously not allowed the pretty much constant feeling of loneliness that underpins my life to really come to the fore. There’s many aspects to why this has panned out so.

One, the extremely personal nature of self exploration itself cannot be ignored. But I have really been wondering if it needs to be strictly this way or that. I find myself seeking and longing for connection even more than before these days, and so I wonder, can I not have the intensely private journey on my own alongside the thriving and solid relationships that I also want? Why does one have to come at the cost of another?

Perhaps that is something that needs reflection.

Second, I have at some level become slightly mistrustful of people. Maybe it’s past experience, maybe it’s a deep-seated fear, maybe it’s even something trans-generational, but I have never really thought of myself as a mistrustful person. Until today. And maybe I’m not, on the surface of it. But, deep down, even with my closest relationships, the ghosts of past experience are always lingering, making me keep everything at just that safe distance. So even as I make headway with new levels of vulnerability in these relationships, I’m always prepared for the eventuality that when it really counts I’m probably going to be alone again. And in that way I invariably manifest it in some manner.

I know this because that every time that I have shared a relationship low point on here this year, it has come from that feeling of loneliness surfacing. Most times that I have acknowledged the goodness of people around, it has come off the back of feeling that loneliness. I have just made a very good habit of gratitude that makes me switch gears and feel grateful quickly, more often.

The focus of writing this blog every day has been to record with honesty the ups and downs of this journey. But combined with my typical need to reach the parts where I’m feeling the good stuff and everything works out, I’ve perhaps stayed overly focused on the good, merely throwing in vague references of the shitty parts that have surfaced in almost equal measure. There is also the fact that my blog is read by many, many people very close to me, and partly because I am still deeply afraid of being judged and partly because I sometimes don’t want to face the questions and deal with the feelings anymore than I already am on my own, I tend to project a picture of being largely a-okay. This has kept me from going into gory details of just how deeply I have sometimes felt the ugly bits. I’ve resorted to talking in vague circles a lot, only referencing the unpleasant bits in passing, when what I intended to do was really sit with it all, equally. This is not to say I haven’t done that at all but, a whole year of writing this way has meant I might have some times papered over a lot of the subtleties that have come up and that needed to be acknowledged deeply. I might have glossed over some of the loneliness, the regret and the grief more than I was willing to dwell on it.

And so in it went, in full technicolour detail, into the letter I will open 5 years from now, by which time I hope to have forgotten the intricate details of this day in this time. I hope that when I open it then, it is an apt vehicle to travel back in time and remember a day like today when I felt soft and almost pliable, yawning open like a newly bloomed flower that has woken up to a new sun, kissed by gossamer morning dew — a picture of freshness, a leaning towards new possibilities.

Two years ago: Day 348: The last of the books for 2016

Day 332: Shoot high, break low

So. I was published! In a Canadian anthology featuring stories and essays about menstruation from around the world. I was first notified in an email from one of the editors, Tanis, who wrote to me last year, about my essay being picked. I’m not quite sure why, but I wasn’t terribly excited then. It’s been a long time in the works since then, and I had actually even forgotten about it. Until I came back from Auroville last week, to a heavy package waiting in the mail for me.

From Canada? That’s unexpected, I thought, only to open it and discover two copies of this formidable anthology.

Opening up Gush: Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times, edited by Roasanna Deerchild, Ariel Gordon and Tanis MacDonald, though, I felt that familiar thrill creep in again. No matter how many times I see my name in print, the excitement never gets old.

One of the first instances of experiencing that feeling was when I was first published in a community newsletter when I was 12-13. My grandfather had insisted I submit some of my poetry to them, and when published, he neatly cut out strips of my published poems form the newsletter, stuck them on a letter and posted them to me in Bangalore for keeps.

It was probably one of the first instances of realising that I could be a writer. That this business of word-soup was actually fun and gratifying.

That same thrill has oft-repeated since then. Every time that I see my name and a byline in a newspaper or magazine, I remember that day where it kind of all began. And now I am in a book.

In a year that saw relatively less professional work (and aspirations, even) on my part, this felt good.

I was telling N in a long voice note last week that even though I knew I was slowing down with work this year, I didn’t know I was going to reach a point where everything “work-related” would completely take a backseat. For once in my life, I have allowed other kinds of work to take precedence. What little writing work I’ve done, I’ve done on occasion, only when I was particularly inspired or compelled to voice an opinion. I’ve had a steady, low hum of assignments that I took to keep me going, and my writing muscle in good use. But it’s extremely low-key and very, very basic compared to the kind of writing I was used to doing last year and before. However, it’s given me a few busy spikes and the income is always welcome. But this? This felt delightful at an all new level.

I’m now slowly going through the rest of the essays in the book and finding I’m in some fine company. If you’d like to read the essay, it’s a mildly edited version of this one I wrote for The Establishment on World Menstrual Health Day a few years ago.

Second, now that I can talk about this, I was one of the many judges for the Conde Nast Traveller India’s Top Restaurant Awards. I won’t be making it to the shiny awards ceremony in Mumbai next month, but I look forward to eating at some of these winning restaurants over the next few months.

Day 257: One breath leads to another

Why I write every single day

I started writing this year, to have a daily ritual that helps me connect with myself, and one that engages me entirely. It started as a habit I wanted to cultivate, but over this year it’s become that pocket of stillness that completes the day. Most days, this is an unhurried activity, almost like a daily meditation. It makes me stop, reflect, use my head and heart, use my hands and create.

I used to write to get out of my head earlier. And it’s helped escape monotonous phases in my life, get through sleepy days at work, distract me from things in my real life that would be insurmountable issues in my head. But I find that has changed and now I write to get in my head. To distill the jumble and get to the heart of it.

This has definitely meant I have slowly cultivated what it is to just be with me and my thoughts. The good and unsavoury ones.Without a necessary outcome as I used to know it. It’s helped me stay. It’s helped me be still.

It’s also helped me break my obsession with perfection in my writing. I write here, with a very specific objective to not curb, edit or filter my words. Purely because of the purpose of this blog as a journal, a notebook to mark my days as they develop.

I write to acknowledge and internalise the goodness in my life, and to record gratitude so it isn’t a mere passing thought, but a deliberate feeling.

Writing everyday is a tool for the constant work of going back to being me, the most honest version of me that I know, or can get to know, through this process. Words are the tool and writing is a bloody good exercise for it.

I write to record memories of instances when I felt things shift. This has 100% contributed to my sense of confidence in the way I carry myself. I suppose this is one of the crucial side effects of any daily ritual — do anything long enough, with enough involvement and it becomes you. Seeing, tracking, writing and reading about the changes I’ve experienced has trickled out from the innards of this journal, into my real life. It’s given me a solidity to my being, and a strong and renewed coherence to my inner monologue, the language of me.

One year ago: Go Goa Gone: End of My Sunshine Dream
Two years ago: Day 257: Down and up again

Day 155: I wrote a letter to my love

Confession: It took me a whole month to write the birthday letter I had promised to write myself.

Every day, since my birthday (when I decided I’d do this) I have thought about getting my ass down to doing it, but I just faced such an enormous resistance from within. I didn’t understand why, because I actually, really, really wanted to begin doing this for myself. But much like the general fog that hung around me, I put it down to the inexplicable forces that I must not attempt to fight. Tomorrow, I’d tell myself. Every day. Until the whole month had passed and nada. Noting. Zilch.

Everything felt like it took extra effort, and yet nothing really held me in what can only be described a high-activity few weeks where my mental and emotional energies have rendered mush. However, in all the chaos, there have been internal signs and cues — just the need to write that letter, the desire to get out for breakfast by myself — that my mind has been silently giving me, continuously.

I discovered the joys of solitude very early in life, and in recent time the pursuit of pockets of time with myself has been selfishly high on my agenda. The rapid shifts I’ve been experiencing within my being has left me silent for the most part of last month, because there was just too much happening within for me to process and share, and begin to live and experience. I have really felt the need to cocoon myself and be alone, quiet. Inevitably though, that feeling comes with a little guilt.

Just how small, narrow and selfish am I being?
self-serving am I making my life?
Is my desire to be by myself causing others around me hurt, worry, rejection?

So in addition to actually wanting to be by myself (and managing to do it a fair bit) I have had an inner tussle these thoughts, I realised, as I sat by myself the other day.

There is also a matter of space. One of the things I’ve felt a little sad about in Bangalore, is not having a room of my own. When we moved to Bangalore, I had already mentally started winding down my personal writing practice, and our current home doesn’t allow for desk space  or a work room (like I had in Goa) for me to work, or just sit and ponder. In Goa, it was my room to retreat to for the most part of any given day. It kept me grounded and centred in more ways that I realised. Until I came here, and have been without a room of my own for over a year.

I’ve been longing for space too, I suppose. In some form or another. A room of my own. A date with myself. A walk in Cubbon Park. Something to make a ritual of.

On June 1st something definitely changed. I woke up early and joined the yoga class I’ve been meaning to for months now. The same one I’ve been unable to because waking up has been so damn hard. I cooked! Willingly, enthusiastically. Looking up long-bookmarked recipes from my favourite cookbook, and really enjoying the cooking, rather than cooking to just get a chore done. And I finally got the letter written.

From the moment I woke up, the will to actually finally put pen to was palpable. I felt upbeat and like I had emerged from a grey cloud to suddenly see the light.

S and I had plans to meet for lunch one afternoon, and when I was all set to leave home and get my cab, she cancelled. I was already in the flow of things, my cab was on it’s way, and I was looking forward to some time out. So, I decided to go anyway. I changed my destination and took myself to Koshy’s — my favourite place to have a table for one, and where I usually go to spend time writing or reading alone, when I just need to be with myself for a bit.

As a last minute thought, I carried my letter pad with me. And lo and behold, almost as soon as I got there, ordered and opened up my pad, the thoughts just bubbled over. And they would. not. stop.

I wrote five whole pages, over three hours. Over two unhurried iced teas, one omelette with a plate of toast, and since the sky had suddenly turned overcast, let out a loud crack and crashed down on us with a massive downpour, a tall glass of chai to end it all.

Originally, I’d wanted to walk down to Blossom’s, but I was just so content from having let the words that have been stifled in me for the last four week come out, I really didn’t need anything more to top the day.

I’m glad I finally managed to cut the chatter and go get it. Because it was nice to just decompress and put my thoughts out, and see them for what they are. Freeing and unburdening.

It was nice to have that sense of space about me again. I’ve been longing for some room. Some room in the clutter of my mind. A room of my own. But sometimes just a table, a pen and some paper will do.

Two years ago: Day 155: Sairat

Day 150: Days when I couldn’t live my life without you

I began blogging in May, twelve whole years ago. And on this day seven years ago, I moved to WordPress. I’ve said it before: for all the inconsistencies in my life, the inability to stay with anything long enough, this blog and how consistently I’ve kept at it, how it has been the constant through so much in my life, counts for a lot.

The blog itself has morphed a lot from where it started. And it’s morphed many times over. But I look at the move to WordPress as quite the milestone, where my writing really significantly changed and moved from mere journaling of daily occurences to a more reflective sort of writing about things I was thinking and feeling.

Two years ago I wrote a post about what the blog has seen me though and how it stands testimony to so much I have experienced. It chronicles journeys taken, and records so many details that don’t always remain in my mind.

This year though, the blog has changed yet again. I’m woefully aware that this stint, the form the blog is in today, is the least interesting one for an audience. But I cannot overstate the joy it brings me everyday to have a space to turn to every single day, where I can ramble on unencumbered, where I have no expectations (of me or of this activity). There is no agenda or point to any of this really. At this point, it is merely a journal to recount the things I am going through.

I’m so glad to have made a habit of it because it’s been such a handy tool in noting the changes, the fluxes and the inflection points. The small victories, the setbacks and the in betweens alike.

I’ll go back yet again to my favourite quote from my favourite book on writing. Because it still sums up so accurately how I feel about writing, and why I continue to do it, even when it apparently has no bigger purpose:

Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.

Writing this blog, more than many other kinds of writing I’ve dirtied my hands with, fills me up in ways I cannot even explain. And sometimes when I think about it, it feels like such a luxury to have the ability to express myself. In words. In sentences. In rambling stories. Here on this blog. Because more than anything it allows me to come back and drink up, yet again. Even years later.

And that’s a mighty empowering, freeing feeling.

Two years ago: Day 150: Ten

Day 81: Somebody holds the key

So, for a while now I’ve been sitting with a discomfort with the idea that a lot of channels of popular media and culture in India tend to use their wokeness as a convenient route to popularity or make big bucks. With influential people, social media stars, and everyone from sportspeople to movie-stars and Indian comics picking up issues of social relevance on which to create content, whether movies, webseries or even music, I’ve begun to wonder how much of their backing or feeling deeply about these issues peters beyond the purpose of creating popular content.

Does it ever translate into action beyond the obvious? Or are we settling for the easy access to hot-button topics to further our reach by creating content around issues that are highly shareable? Even as this content is being created, how much of it digs deeper by way of going a step further from the very convenient to reach superficial understanding that already exists.

Recently, this came to light in some form, with this video that called out AIB on how they “use” Feminism. It makes some really strong and hard-to-argue-with points about how the collective raises important feminist issues, but also does very little to truly represent women in a relevant and useful way, outside the boundaries of the very gendered stereotypes that already exist in popular media and culture.

And it’s not AIB alone. I have this issue with so many Indian movies. And I’m so aware of how accepting we are of it, and how that too perpetuates the cycle. Several times, I’ve debated whose responsibility it is to raise that bar, to create that one change that can take things to the next level. And if celebrities in positions of power don’t own their influence and use it even in some form, are we ever going to get beyond this?

I wrote about the #PadManChallenge that infuriated me in the weeks before the release of the movie. By then I was off social media entirely, and even then I couldn’t escape the mugshots of celebrities, wasting sanitary napkins for their photo-ops and endorsement of the movie. The entire exercise seemed tone-deaf, insensitive and irritated me enough to not want to watch the movie. I know I’m in a huge minority for having this reaction, but I had to have it out somewhere.

I was about to shoot off a rant about it on here, but decided to turn it into a story instead, and decided to shop around to place it. I’m happy to report, I cracked a publication that has been on my wish-list for nearly one year now, and it was such a pleasure working with the editor on this one. This is one fo those “big wins” for me as far as my writing is concerned, and it was reassuring and a huge validation for my new approach to work. Something is afoot, you guys. This is working, and I’m so excited to see where it will take me.

My essay is now live on A Beautiful Perspective, if you’d like to see. Or keep scrolling to read it here.

In India, fighting menstruation taboos that silence women

A Bollywood movie put periods on the big screen, but battling widespread myths and superstitions around menstruation is much harder.

Shrouded in myths and taboos, menstruation is a difficult subject in India. Studies suggest that 200 million women lack awareness of menstrual hygiene, and many don’t have access to toilets during their periods, let alone sanitary products like pads or tampons. In some areas, even discussing menstruation is anathema, silencing an entire gender into shame.

So, when I heard that Pad Man, a biopic celebrating the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who sparked a minor revolution in menstrual hygiene, was coming to mainstream cinema, it seemed like an enormous step. The movie would tell his story, I read. It would talk about what led him to invent a machine to mass-produce affordable sanitary pads in rural India, and in doing so, it would talk about menstruation openly, in a raw, unsophisticated manner, without resorting to shabby innuendo or weak euphemism.

But as the release date drew near, the #PadManChallenge began to crop up online. This trending hashtag saw celebrities holding up sanitary pads alongside glib captions denouncing the shame attached to menstruation, hygiene products and women’s periods in general. They would then go on to vouch for the movie and its commitment to talk about menstruation unabashedly.Full marks for good intentions, but none for sensitivity or nuance. On the one hand, celebrities (men and women alike) were using their positions of influence to push the dialogue around women’s issues into mainstream channels of communication. But as the hashtag grew to enormous numbers and spread to include movie stars, industrialists, professional athletes and socialites, the exercise also resulted ina colossal waste of sanitary napkins. In marketing the movie and promoting this message, they’d completely missed the point of the film itself.

For Arunachalam Muruganantham, India’s real Pad Man, his moment of awakening occurred with the simple act of buying his wife a packet of sanitary napkins in an effort to impress her. Shanthi was on her period, shamefully hiding a piece of menstrual cloth (that she would fold many times over and use to line her underwear) from her husband, when he questioned her about it.

“We’ll have to cut our milk budget, if I have to use sanitary napkins,” she said, revealing the bleak reality that she and other women in the family were forced to choose between buying food and sanitary products.

Fifty-seven percent of menstruating women in India, face similar choices and have to get by without access to sanitary pads. Some studies report that as many as 200 million Indian women lack awareness of menstrual hygiene, and 39 percent of girls don’t have access to soap for washing their menstrual cloth. In some areas, even cloth is hard to come by, and women resort to using hay, dry leaves or unhygienic plastic. Wateraid’s Menstrual Hygiene Matters report states that 20 percent of women lack access to a clean toilet during their periods.

If those numbers are staggering, the effects are even more so: Twenty-three percent of Indian girls between ages 12-18 drop out of school entirely when they begin menstruating, and some data shows gender disparities are exacerbated with the onset of puberty, as millions of women without access to comfortable and dignified menstrual hygiene management are forced to skip opportunities to work or pursue further education. Perhaps this has contributed to declining female participation in labor force in rural India, year over year.

These numbers point to a crucial need to build awareness around sanitation, menstrual hygiene and women’s reproductive health, and to elevate menstrual hygiene on the government’s priority list.

In 2017, India rolled out the Goods and Service Tax, lauded as a revolutionary shift in the country’s taxation structure that would benefit consumers by providing a singular transparent tax system. Where women are concerned, it exempts products like bindis, kajal and sindoor (used to indicate marriage), but continues to heavily tax essentials like sanitary napkins. Unsurprisingly, the 31-member Goods and Services Tax Council that decided the exemptions doesn’t have a single woman on it.

This is the reality in large parts of India where pioneers like Arunachalam Muruganantham and others operate, an India far removed from the one occupied by the privileged, elitist movie industry.

However, there are several organizations trying to take the spirit of Murguanantham’s work forward, provide workable solutions and empower women to take control of their menstrual health, including Aakar Innovations, Goonj (Not Just A Piece of Cloth), Azadi and the Desai Foundation.

The Desai Foundation calls itself a “public and programmatic organization” and works in the areas of health and livelihood as a means to empower women and children in India and the U.S. Asani,meaning Ease, is their sanitary pad program, currently run in 52 rural communities in the western state of Gujarat. The program is committed to destigmatizing menstruation, improving access to sanitary pads and enabling women to take charge of their own health and hygiene.

Megha Desai, president of the Desai Foundation, touches on the aspect of dignity a central to the work that they do. “Our channels are essentially health and employment, but the currency we work with is dignity. Elevating communities in terms of their dignity is key, and women are crucial to this effort because when they thrive, their communities do too.”

The foundation provides access to machinery to manufacture low-cost, almost fully-biodegradable sanitary napkins and creates rural social entrepreneurship that centers around women as employees and managers.

“We want women to really feel empowered through and through, and helping them build this as a part of their community, as a service being provided for and by them does that,” says Desai.

Taking on the traditional patriarchal family, where men have the power to bring about or withhold change, Asani employs women in their factories, not only providing avenues for income growth and independence for women, but allowing them to reclaim control over their bodies, their health and their choices. The program also conducts regular health camps and seminars where women talk about sex, reproductive management and menstrual protection, thereby fighting regressive beliefs and challenging deep-rooted cultural taboos and superstitions associated with menstruation. Bringing women and men together to openly talk about menstruation goes a long way in breaking the taboo around the topic, too.

Speaking about the Pad Man film and accompanying social media challenge, Desai is optimistic. “I am so thrilled that there is so much energy around this movie. I think any conversation around menstrual health helps to break the cloud of silence. So I was happy to see the campaign where celebrities were coming together and showing that they aren’t ashamed to talk about periods. It makes me hopeful that people are starting to see this as a basic human right. I hope that the energy and support for this issues continues long after the movie.”

That lasting change is also part of Desai’s goals for her foundation’s work. “Our long-term vision is to get the system to be sustainable, so it can run on its own. We want the women to take it on, so we can bow out. They’re capable of such greatness, but they don’t know it. It’s about showing them what they can do.”

(This essay first appeared on A Beautiful Perspective.)

Two years ago: Day 81: Giving thanks

Day 59: Pretend like there’s no world outside

In 2016, I started a newsletter. It was a very impulsive, inspired decision. I’ll pat myself on my back for how I didn’t overthink it, just dived in and went with it. Because that was so uncharacteristic of me then. But maybe I didn’t give it quite enough thought as I should have. And it died a swift death, almost as swiftly as it was brought to life.Bringing it back has been on my mind ever since. But between moving, dealing with 2017, and letting the pursuit of perfection (and some definite imposter syndrome) stop me in my tracks every time I was ready to take the plunge, it didn’t happen.

The thing is, when I started it back in 2016, I went to great lengths to try and not let it be an overlap of the blog. I was already writing a post a day, how much more did I have to drone on about, I wondered. But I went through with it anyway. I’d figure it out on the go, I thought.

I had grand plans. What to do with the newsletter, things I’d write about, feature, explore. People I’d interview. Places I’ll go with this grand new tool. What I wanted this newsletter to become, basically. But if I’ve learned anything at all in the great flux that has been these last 18 months, it is to have a plan, but only enough to spur you to action. Never let the plan get so big and serious, or be so wedded to it, that it paralyses you.

Like it did me, with this newsletter. Back in 2016. And again early this year.

Eventually, I said I’d resume it in January this year. Along with all other fresh beginnings. But that didn’t happen either. The ideas kept swelling, but I just didn’t know where to make a crack at it.

So I did the next best thing I could. Decided to stop overthinking it. This is me diving in and going with it. Once again. This time with only a smidgen of an idea, some guiding lights to where I will go with it. No plans for how frequently I will post, what I will say or when.

For a start, I may have to overlap it a bit with the blog, until I gain some momentum and find a rhythm with giving it an identity of it’s own. But we’ll get there eventually.

If you’re not too bored of this daily drivel already, and want moooooaaar, you’ll find a separate page on top, right next to my About and Contact links. You’ll also find a subscription field somewhere in the side bar. And if you don’t find either of them, you can visit this link and subscribe: https://tinyletter.com/HaathiTime/

While we’re here, and still talking, want to tell me if there’s something specific you’ve always wanted to ask, or know about this blog? Want to chip in and suggest things I could write about? Want to tell me what you’d like to hear that isn’t already here on the blog?

Day 52: I hope you’re not lonely without me

The Thing that Drew Me to Social Media Also Led Me to Quit It

Two months ago, I was deep in the throes of a supposedly philosophical discussion about the simultaneous usefulness and futility of Instagram, about how the platform has turned into a marketplace to display our excesses, when I had an epiphany.

I’d been through this sequence of events so many times before — opening Instagram, scrolling on till I found something that I thought was utterly ridiculous, snapshotting it, sharing it with a group of friends, popping over to WhatsApp to discuss, giggle, and mock said post. But that day, despite having initiated the conversation, I was suddenly overcome with disgust at how judgmental I was being, and about someone who was essentially a stranger.

It wasn’t the people I follow. It wasn’t the amount of effort I put into pruning my feed.

It was me.

***

Ranting about the evils and downside of technology and social media is a recurring pattern. Hating social media even as we continue to exist on all platforms and master the trendy tricks of judgmental snark (legitimised by hashtags like #sorrynotsorry), is so normal.

Why the compulsion to look through people’s lives, believe everything is a lie, rip through their posts and poke holes in their beliefs? I consider myself largely self-assured, content and confident. But on an off-day, when I am low, dissatisfied or even just bored, I’d sometimes catch myself looking at every post in a very different light. Pictures of perfect gym-bodies contorting in ways I will never manage to, plates of perfectly cooked, balanced meals that I don’t have the inclination to put together, people going on holiday after holiday, immaculately curated homes, beautifully articulate opinions and thoughts, gorgeous clothes worn with casual ease, effortless and unselfconscious selfies – I’d slip into a gnawing sense that my life is perhaps not all that good enough. That it is somewhat lacking in one way or another.

That the app is preying and manipulating this insecurity is no secret. In this recent article in The Globe and Mail, Matt Mayberry of Dopamine Labs says the app withholds notifications and releases them in a staggered fashion, to keep users compulsively coming back for more.

“They’re tying in to your greatest insecurities,” Mayberry says.

Sean Parker, ex-president of Facebook, recently confirmed that the site was made to exploit human vulnerability, by creating a social-validation feedback loop that gives users a hit of dopamine with every notification. Ultimately, the success of an app is in how much it is used. In this Guardian article, which draws a bleak picture of the future as a smartphone dystopia, Chris Marcellino (one of the architects of iPhone’s push notification feature) reveals smartphone technology aims to tap into the same neurological pathways that influence gambling and drug use.

According to a 2015 study by British psychologists, quoted in the article in The Globe and Mail, “Average users look at their phones about 150 times a day,…and about twice as often as they think they do…These companies have persuaded us to give over so much of our lives by exploiting a handful of human frailties. One of them is called novelty bias. It means our brains are suckers for the new.”

It also means our brains are suckers for donning a thick judgmental attitude. Social media makes you feel like a star, but actually keeps you in the audience, where your only worth is your response. It forces you to react. To take a stance, pick a side. To create a chatter. To decide — at once — if you like or dislike something. If you love or hate it. If it was pretty, or not. If it was realistic, or not.

Could it be that we’ve confused exhibitionism for vulnerability and strength? Was I swapping staying in touch for staying up to date? Had the quest for self-improvement and been replaced by self-validation?

In this alarming think piece, Andrew Sullivan talks about how technology, social media (and by extension, capitalism) are diminishing the place and value of real connections, community and the experience of being with and around people. Similarly, it is extinguishing the deep contentment and satisfaction that comes from the workmanship and tedium essential for human growth, by making everything accessible, instant and efficient.

“By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact…We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves” —Andrew Sullivan

The resulting despair seems to be a theme of our time. It is coupled with an inability to stay with anything we begin to pursue, whether a relationship or a hobby. The ability to watch everything from a distance, retaining the right to dip in and out, dispensing judgment without every really getting involved, has petered into the very way in which we live life. And in the end, it has contributed to the nameless restlessness and angst, fragile and fraught relationships and widespread boredom that washes over my generation. We scroll, mindless, with casual and helpless nonchalance, even as we know the damage it is doing to us.

The decision to remove myself from social media. while impulsive was sufficiently fuelled by a growing kind of loneliness and dissonance that had slipped into my life.

I was increasingly uncomfortable accepting the truth that the more connected I was virtually, the more disconnected I felt in real life.

***

Within seconds of ending that conversation, I had deactivated my Instagram account. Facebook and Twitter followed the day after. One month later, I introduced a 10-hour WhatsApp-free window to my day.

It was only in the absence of access that I fully registered the colossal amount of time I was channelling towards virtual reality.

Off the grid, plenty of life’s answers come slowly. They’re not usually packaged in neat little bytes of information that one can simply, thoughtlessly scroll through. They require marinating in experience, immersing ourselves in the tedium of routine, reveling in the smallness of everyday life.

Stepping away from an immediate, judgmental and curated kind of existence has helped turn down the chatter in my head, making me acutely aware that what I am seeking is authenticity. And what I need the most right now, is to satisfy the basic human needs – to seek joy in experiences, find connection in relationships; to listen to the voice within, not the chorus without; to act, not react. So much of this requires me to just put my phone down and get out – physically, mentally and emotionally.

It might be the platform. It might be a whole generation. But, at the end of it all — It’s me.

(A slightly-edited version of this essay appeared on The Swaddle.)

***

That’s enough about the whys and what happened before I unplugged, now. Maybe when enough time has passed, and I am feeling the words brimming over again, I will share an insight into the after.

Day 45: We’ve gotta hold on to what we’ve got

For about a week now, I’ve been pondering about why I continue to keep this blog — especially in the form it has taken this year. I’ve watched it morph from a frequent account of things that happened to me, to a ton of tangential and severely self-indulgent navel-gazing, to a place to document pictures of things I’ve seen, done and enjoyed, or that I simply want to remember.

This year I find myself writing as a means to therapy and healing. It is the lens through which I take in the self-awareness piece of this puzzle. I write to feel and internalise gratitude. But like I said here, I’m also growing very aware that this isn’t the kind of writing that got this blog its audience. This isn’t the kind of writing that even warrants an audience.

The idea of “an audience” has also been top of mind this week, as I just submitted an essay about why I got off all social media late last year, and why this time it doesn’t feel like an experiment, or a detox period with an end date, but more like a natural movement in line with the general direction and growth in which I find myself moving.

After I worked hard at the essay, two rounds of edits and finally sent off a shiny almost-final draft this morning, it suddenly dawned on me. I continue to write because this is a now a journal. A place for me to record these changes, the events that precede them, the thoughts that come after, and everything that happens in between. This is a means for me to examine the transformation. This is a way for me to move closer to my truth. To push myself to be vulnerable in ways I don’t always allow myself to be. To voice things I don’t have the courage to speak, but I manage to write about. To distill every experience, threadbare, down to the essence of what it has to offer me, to record it and use that awareness as a gift to move ahead.

With a head swirling with all these thoughts — about social media, and if this blog is an extension of that same curated/performative life online or not, about how we are all forced to be an audience, about judgment, about self-awareness and growth — I stumbled on a beautiful essay about Joan Didion’s essay: On Keeping A Notebook, in which she says:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

[…]

It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.

Suddenly, I know exactly why I am drawn to writing about myself. To keep this notebook. This has been the best way to stay in touch with myself. Every version, every iteration, every layer shed or donned.

And so this morning, I considered shutting down the blog to public. It feels drastic, so I am going to mull over this one for a bit.

Day 25: Gravity is working against me

I’ve been beating myself up about a couple of things of late. I’d like to stop. Not so much put and end to the completely unproductive self-flagellation itself, but also gently remind myself that there are no mistakes. Just missteps that serve as lessons. On the flip side of the opportunity to learn something.

It’s okay to have made a wrong call with a certain work assignment. It’s okay to acknowledge that I didn’t see the signs, the writing on the wall, right from the start. There was enough evidence staring me in the face. I had a hunch right from the get go. That the editor wasn’t being upfront, clear and transparent. And that I was selling myself short. But I chose to ignore the signs and go for it anyway. Because I thought I was at a loose end, and I needed something to bind me down to a work routine again. I am a long way off from seeing the end of this, but I need to stop beating myself up about it, get the job done and just move on.

I’ve really, really had an ongoing tug-o-war in my head as far as the whole fitness debate goes. The more I think about it, the more clear it is, how much of confidence, positivity, clarity and true liberation I have lost to what I now see as a completely unfounded need to experiment with my fitness. Last week, I finally admitted to myself that I was fine even before I went on the six week plan, and that in retrospect, I now no longer understand why I had to do it. Fixing this place in my head, and regaining this conviction is taking a lot more time and effort that I am willing to give it. I want to snap back, but the truth is I have to take the long, painful route. And it is testing me.

Then again, nobody said it would be easy. The rewards however, are happy-making beyond compare. So I’ll take it. Even though it isn’t always a pretty picture, or a perfect progression of linear, ever-progressive movements forward. I’ll take it, for that crushing sort of all-pervasive relief in finally learning to forgive myself, let it go. And just get on.

Two years ago: Day 25: Love

Day 18: Afterglow

Today was a really good day. For no special or momentous reason. Just many little seemingly insignificant things strung together. And I just want to remember it while I’m steeping in the afterglow.

Bunking gym and sleeping in.

Early morning reading even before I got out of bed and surfaced for the day.

Placing an essay that would have otherwise been just a blogpost.

Talking to S about hypno-therapy and social media.

Afternoon reading that lulled me to sleep.

Meeting P and having pasta for dinner for the first time in months.

Turning in early and tucking myself into bed with a book.

Two years ago: Day 18: End of day