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

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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

Day 11: I have my books and my poetry to protect me

Most days, I write because I have so much to say and I want to be heard. Contrary to popular belief, being articulate in writing doesn’t always mean a writer is articulate in speaking. I’m not very good with those words, so I choose these.

Most days, I write because it’s the fuel that keeps me going. Thoughts turn to words, words turn to thoughts and on and on and on.

Some days I write to silence the voices in my head. Some days, to give the meek whimper struggling to stay alive, a breath of fresh air, and a mouthpiece.

Some days, I write because I feel like I’m a part of a tribe of likeminded people. Writers. Women. What have you. Some days, it’s to remind myself that even at my loneliest, there are people who will read my words and some times write to say they could relate. Or that they’ve been there too. Or that they liked what they read.

I could go on and on.

These days though, I write as a means to conserving my emotional and mental energy. I write as a means to finish every thought that I kindle. I write so I can journal all that I’m figuring out, fully, before I make heedless utterances. I write to jot the stops and starts on this path that I’m on. I write to mark the milestones, the small victories and the dips that define it. I write because at the moment, I am selfishly committed to looking inwards — writing helps me converse with myself.

I write because it is a very good way to sit still and be present with everything that I think, feel and process. I write because it helps me make sense of this fascinating process. I write so I can journal it in long-form. I write because this is for me. I write because I’ve only just tasted the sheer pleasure of this intensely personal experience. I write because I’ve woken up very late, to the bliss of going this way alone. I write because I choose not to snap a picture for Instagram every time, or shoot out an update on Whatsapp, to make a declaration, every time I arrive at a noteworthy moment. I write because it makes me slow down and savour every memory better, twice over.

I write because it is the only way I know how to record my truth. I write, so I can look back someday and ponder over how far I’ve come (or not). I write as a means to drop crumbs along the way, so others can follow if they find themselves in the same place. I write because words speak, connect and bridge distances. I write so my mind can go the distance and arrive at the destination I’m headed to, even before the rest of me can.

Two years ago: Day 11: This and that

Go Goa Gone: End of My Sunshine Dream

I moved to Goa restlessly in search of a new turf. I’d always dreamt of a life full of travel. But after eight years, Bangalore is the home I have chosen to return to.

The rain has always reminded me of Goa. In all the years that I was there, I steadfastly maintained that it was best experienced in the monsoon. So sitting in my home in bone-dry Bangalore – where I have just returned after eight long years in the sunshine state – watching my Facebook and Instagram feed replete with images of liquid skies, has made the bittersweet nature of my decision suddenly very apparent.

The street outside my bedroom window is packed with people, quite like an inescapable matrix. The chaos is palpable, the diametric opposite of the silence in my study in Goa, where the large French windows were the perfect lookout for the rain. I spent the bulk of my time there, mostly alone, with just my words for company: a simple, still, and satisfying existence. In fact, it was finding a room of my own, complete with a sturdy writer’s desk right beside a day bed and a view that really made Goa my home. And yet, Bangalore is the home I have chosen to return to.

Home. The word has such a sense of finality attached to it. Finding home, coming home, returning home – they all seem like such swift movements in a single direction. It has always evoked a sense of having to choose something, one way or another. A city, a house, a place to forever swear allegiance to.

I came to Goa restlessly in search of a new turf. I’d always dreamt of a life full of travel. Drunk on the idea of independence, charting my own trajectory, being forever unbound… coming to Goa was a ticket to escaping a reality I didn’t want to make my own.

Moving there eight years ago was my massive “fuck you” to city life. I wanted out from the endless cacophony of big-city noises, a hectic life consumed by work and commuting to work, that left me with no mind space to do the things I really wanted to. I was earning well, but constantly fighting to create time and space to enjoy the rewards of the hustle. Twenty-four years was too soon to be plagued by questions that define a quarter-life crisis – shouldn’t there be more to this life? Is wanting a simpler, smaller, quieter life really such a bad thing?

Quitting seemed like the best answer at the time. As a city, Panjim was refreshingly different. Everything about it felt wonderfully welcoming and I found a balm for every single painful sore memory that had driven me away from Bangalore. And then there was the monsoon – four full months of it.

Never, not even in my wildest dreams, did I imagine I’d give it up to go back to the bustle of Bangalore.

Quitting city life at 25 to go live in a beach town wasn’t all idyllic and romantic. It meant being the trailing spouse. It meant stepping out of the corporate race entirely, a choice that had life-changing consequences for me. It meant opening myself up to the unexpected and unpredictable ways of a small town. And I was going to have to embrace a domestic life I had no experience with. The introvert in me was going to have to start finding new friends.

Having never lived outside of Bangalore, and knowing absolutely nobody in Goa, I tasted a kind of anonymity I’d never known. Free and far away from social, familial, and professional commitments gave me large doses of alone time. All that quiet meant that I had to learn to befriend solitude, embrace it, and pretty soon I learned to love it. I began to write for myself, testing waters in a new craft. I started reading entire books again. I even did what I thought was unthinkable and discovered a love for cooking.

I became a homebody, feeling like I’d finally found my feet, grown into myself. I’d found the safety of a home that allowed me to be me. And it sparked the start of many good things. A hermitic existence, ensconced in peace and quiet, close to nature, away from the disorderly rat race, Goa was home because it’s where I began to thrive.

I dug my heels in and bound myself tightly to the new-found belonging. In its fixed, firm foundations I found myself anchored. Over eight long years, the gentle ebb and flow of creating the life I wanted not only helped me find myself, but also redefine what home really is.

And yet, as soon as the transition was complete, I found myself wanting to pick up and go again.

I realise now that my sense of home is rooted in specific things, rather than a city or place. Home is any safe space in my head. Sometimes it is a process – like it was for me, a period of transformation.

Sometimes it is the satisfaction of tasting freedom, of leaping into the unknown. Sometimes it is the acknowledgement of my privilege, the security of knowing that I can to lead a life based on my own choices. Sometimes it’s in accepting that home is just a word. It isn’t a single place wrapped in the foreverness we attach to it. Home doesn’t have to be an end.

Home is – as I realised when I craved a change of pace again – very often just a means to an end. It needn’t be weighted down by the heaviness of roots. Sometimes, it has the lightness of agility.

Home is a state of mind. And it can be anywhere or any place you want it to be. Home needs space, to grow, to spread itself out and open its doors to newness. Homecoming then is not about going somewhere you necessarily want to be. It is going somewhere you need to be.

And so, I did the unthinkable. I left the near-perfect simple life of Goa, to dive straight into the chaos. I came back to the Bangalore. It’s overwhelming, it’s grotesque, it’s oppressive. And yet, I’ve once again made it my own. I am at ease.

(This essay first appeared on Arre)

Same time, last year: Day 258: This morning

Bangalore: a graphic novel

I don’t know the first thing about graphic novels, but I feel like getting myself down to the launch of the Bangalore graphic novel, where I got to watch and listen to some of the good folk who contributed to it makes for a decent start into the genre.

The only artists I was already familiar with are Appupen and Prashant Miranda, because I’ve followed their work in some measure these past few years.

Also present were some of the younger contributors, for some of whom this was the first time being published in print. Their excitement was so relatable. I was particularly inspired by Ramya Ramakrishnan who spoke simply and cheerfully about her process and how the story came to be. When someone asked if she was open to freelancing, she ended with a little fist bump, proudly declaring “I’m a full-time freelancer!”
*Sigh*

It was my first time visiting Goobe Book Republic which is not as serious and officious as the book republic bit of he name makes it out to be. For a tiny, seemingly non descript hole in a basement on Church Street (that currently can only be accessed by crossing over a mini canyon) it has a whole lot of heart and good, good energy.

It helped that despite the god awful rain and feeling mildly marooned on Church Street (it had turned into a literal river) by the end of the evening I even got to eat the Andhra meal had my heart set on. And I came away with some choice book recommendations too.

A few weeks ago I complained to more than one person about how I feel there’s nothing to do in Bangslore except eat and drink. I’m slowly eating my words. For now. I have since joined a reading club, stumbled on this book launch (and actually made it to watch) I’m off to a cookbook club potluck lunch this afternoon. There are good intentions to watch a stand up act next week and take a weekend trip away some time in the next month too.

It’s tricky managing the balance between retaining and reclaiming time I want for myself and also making the effort to get out there and do some of the things I actually want to. It’s far easier to slip into hermit mode, specially once getting out in Bangalore has been quite overwhelming on more than one occasion. But for a select few things and with the right company, I hope to be able to push myself a little bit every time an event or performance or something catches my eye.

Back to the book — Bangalore, A Graphic Novel — it’s independently published, has a really good selection of contributors from Appupen and Prashant Miranda to Zac O’Yeah and several other comic book creators, illustrators and artists that I hadn’t heard of but am so happy to be introduced to.

It’s the second production by Every City is a Story, a city-centric story telling initiative. They already have a Hyderabad graphic novel out there and a Goa one in the works!

Same time, last year: Day 211: Interwebzy things

Whisky-shisky

The longer, boozier story I mentioned was in the works? It’s live. It’s about an Indian whisky being distilled in India, but it’s also about what makes it Indian, what it’s like being a Master Distiller, and what’s generally been shaking up the whisky scene in India.

john-distilleries-34

If you’d like to read it, head on over here: A Scottish-style Whisky with Indian Characteristics

Given my headspace and the lights fading on my life and time here in Goa, I’ve been steadily moving away from writing Goa-centric things, but when the opportunity to write this came up, I just couldn’t pass. It’s also nice when the end result is so far off from where the idea is at — in a good way — that the process of writing takes you to people and places you wouldn’t have connected with otherwise. This was one such gig. The story benefitted from my meandering, for sure, but even more than that is the lessons I learned.

Aight, so go read? I promise to be back with some updates that are more than just stories being plugged in and passed off as blogposts. Soon. Soon.

Same time, last year: Day 64: Because I want to remember

Kitchen Soup for the Homesick Soul

So here’s a little known detail: Somewhere in 2014, I was suddenly inspired to write a book. It would be a food memoir, I’d decided. Threading memory, tradition, nostalgia, food, and how it had all shaped me into the accidental kitchen-lover that I’d turned into after moving to Goa. Fragments of ideas popped like mustard seeds in a hot wok of oil. The time was ripe, I thought. So I jumped into it all guns blazing. Took 2 weeks off, went away to Bangalore with the intention of doing nothing but writing. It was a glorious time away from all responsibility and I spent my days writing and reading furiously, adding bits and bobs in the cauldron that was brewing my book. I came back to Goa with what I thought was more than 50% of the writing done, and confident that all that was left to be done was finish it. The draft has been sitting in cold storage since then, a series of episodic events that I needed to somehow tie together with a more than just coherent narrative, to take it from reading a blog to make it a book. Farr too often, I’ve seen bloggers, especially food bloggers, make the mistake of thinking that a successful blog is a validation of one’s ability to write a book. There have been some truly atrocious food memoirs and books to come out of the Indian food blogger community and I suddenly became very conscious of adding to that list. It also has to be said that in the time between then to now, my interest as it was then, in food, also waned. As I found more avenues and stories to go after, I found myself looking beyond food in the myopic way that I was: through the lens of nostalgia and memory alone. In case you haven’t already noticed, I shut down my food blog somewhere along the line too, and until I find a compelling reason, I will probably not resurrect it. With time, it became alarmingly clear to me that I no longer wanted the book to be just a chronicle of disjointed food-related memories peppered with recipes. Eventually, it became clear that I didn’t want to finish the book at all, not in the form it was.

But at the end of last year, I decided the least I could do was pick out episodes from the book and turn them into essays that explore the gamut of emotions, experiences, thoughts and memories I made in the seven years that I have lived in Goa, where my love affair with food began. So, I went ahead with shaky hands, to pitch this. As luck would have it, my very first attempt landed me this opportunity with Arre, a website whose distinct style intimidated me. This was really gratifying to write for more reasons than one. Besides being able to finally find an outlet for the umpteen stories in cold storage, it was made made even better by a delightful edit experience that is becoming increasingly rare amongst Indian publications.

*****

Kitchen Soup for the Homesick Soul

cooking

I remember sitting cross-legged on my mother’s kitchen counter, eating beans palya out of a steel katori, while she put finishing touches on a meal. I remember watching my grandmother deftly work the large grinding stone in her kitchen, breaking down fresh spices with a mesmerisingly giddying turning of the stone. I remember the excitement stirring every time my grandfather stepped into the kitchen to make his six-hour slow cooked mutton stew.

I remember always being a mere observer, a taster. I had no interest in the cooking, a process that everyone in my family took such pride in. The one time I succumbed to being taught how to cook, I was coerced into it. I was 13, and holed up in stuffy classroom with girls. It was the home science laboratory, and we were in groups of four, poring over our single-burner stoves, atop which were pots of bubbling pongal. While every other girl in the room lovingly stirred her pongal to buttery, smooth goodness, I was looking at a solid mass, fast transforming into a something that resembled industrial strength adhesive.

I’d rather have been out in the field playing, to be honest. These were electives, extra-curriculars, as they’re called. And I wondered why the only choices for us girls were aerobics and home science. Why were athletics and sport not up for grabs? I stared down at the gloopy mess that lay before me. While every other girl in the room lovingly stirred her pongal to buttery, smooth goodness, I was looking at a solid mass, fast transforming into a something that resembled industrial strength adhesive.

Right then I had decided this domestic business (okay, home science) was not for me. Years of tender convincing on my mother’s part turned to goading and silent worry. How would I feed myself when I moved out? How would I provide meals for my future family? Given that I couldn’t boil a pot of water without a minor casualty, her concerns were valid. But all that gentle persuasion was only met with my staunch rebellion.

I was convinced cooking was a completely unnecessary skill and played no part in my womanhood.

Over a decade after that ill-fated pongal incident, on a blistering day in March, I found myself setting up a new home, miles away from my own. Nothing shatters a self-satisfied, smug existence like a reality check. Mine had arrived less than 24 hours after I had landed in sunny Goa, in the form of six large cartons of kitchen equipment that I didn’t know what to do with.

I realised very soon that two-minute noodles and quick-cooking oats simply weren’t going to cut it and that there are only so many ways to cook eggs. Before long, I was deeply regretful for not watching Amma make phulkas. For wishing I knew what to make from the three different kinds of dal in the supermarket. Was there some way to thinly slice onions, without gouging my eyes out?

Resisting slipping into the identity of a homemaker that this situation demanded of me, I chanted repeatedly: Cooking isn’t for me. But, I had to eat my words. Along with the badly made meals of dal, rice and sabzi.

I began to cook in my new house because I simply had to. I was overwhelmed by homesickness and hunger. I had been wrenched out of a job I loved, uprooted from the only city I have ever called home, and was starting life over in a dusty home that didn’t feel like mine. I had no choice but to make sense of the demands of this new space I was in. This kitchen, this home, and this life in general. I had to recreate an identity and purpose in these new circumstances.

I began first with taking solace in recreating the comfort of rasam and rice. When I needed a challenge, I attempted to deconstruct a biryani from the memory of taste. When I felt lost and weightless, I grounded myself in the mundanely tedious rhythm of peeling garlic, making a massive batch of tamarind extract, rearranging my kitchen, or cleaning the fridge out. When I simply needed to occupy my mind that would race toward unwanted and sometimes destructive thoughts, I went into the kitchen and cooked a meal. When the emptiness felt like it was consuming me inside out, cooking filled the void. All of it to bring some semblance of sanity back in my life.

Memory is a wonderful thing. Almost every single day, my mind would float back to the humble homely meals, festive celebratory meals, skimming over the traces of taste, texture, and aroma that lingered at the back of my mind, thoughts of customs and habits related to food. I recalled things I didn’t know I had stashed away at the back of my mind – the way my mother stored her coriander and curry leaves in the refrigerator, the exact dishes she made when she was strapped for time, the way her pressure cooker was the centre of all kinds of magic. All of this simmered together slowly, and gave me a sense of self again.

Before long, my days began with praying the dosa batter had risen, picking out the weekly vegetable and fruit supply, and haggling over best prices of grains and pulses. I don’t know when I embraced the kitchen, even less when I began to find contentment and joy in cooking.

In finding myself, I somehow found my way back home too. Through simple, hearty meals to satisfy hunger at first, and more complex challenging ones, to satisfy my mind and find my feet again. When every other aspect of my life, and strong facets of my identity felt like they were slipping away from me, cooking helped put it all back together again.

I was not only teaching myself to cook, but was also recreating my own sense of home. Donning the identity and roles I’d observed all the strong women in my life play so very well, being in the kitchen was no longer an aversion. It was my sanctuary, and cooking, my raison d’être.

In the process, I rekindled relationships of a new kind with my mother, grandmother, and aunts. They gifted me cookbooks, emailed me recipes, and sent me tips and tricks I could use. I forged new ties with friends when we gathered around my dining table. Eventually, though, and possibly the happiest consequence of all, I found a career in writing about food.  In an odd roundabout way, stepping into the kitchen, into the very role I believed was a trap, had liberated me.

Thirteen-year old me would most likely be disappointed to see how contempt has been replaced by a deep affection for the kitchen. But if only I knew back then, that it would eventually be food, that would teach me to love my life again, and that learning to cook had little to do with being a woman but everything to do with identity, I’d probably have tried to just keep calm and stir that pongal to perfection.

(A version of this essay first appeared on Arre)

Same time, last year: Day 63: Shine on

Roads and Kingdoms

A fair bit of writing about beverages has consumed me in recent time. It was a nice little segue. I’m delighted to have had two quick pieces out in Roads & Kingdoms’ 5 o’clock somewhere segment, in quick succession. And I have a longer, boozier feature in the works for them, coming out possibly later next week. Heady times. In more ways than one, but more about that later.

For now: want to read the pieces I wrote?

The latest on drinking feni in one of my favourite little bars in Panjim.

chilli-feni

And another on enjoying mangoes on sticky rice, pretty much all through my trip to Thailand last year. I might have made a passing mention of it in this post, and saved this little nugget for the story.

Same time, last year: Day 53: Playtime

Commitment issues

Of late, I’ve really begun to feel like navigating the freelance life is a lot like dating. You know, serial dating without wanting to commit? I want to aim for the best on my wishlist, I want to associate with the names I admire and am attracted to, I want to have the freedom to write and say the things I want to that give me satisfaction, and I want to do it all with just the right outcome of contentment. Basically, I’m playing the field. Wanting all the best ass, being extremely picky, choosing only the best of the crop of men out there watching and looking for traits that excite me enough to just dip into, taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that from multiple sources, relationship testing, if you will. And yet, I want every experience to be wholly uplifting, without the pressure to commit to something long term. I want in, but only as much as is exciting and beneficial for me. And then I want out, and I want the freedom to flit to the next thing, whatever else rocks my boat.

The reluctance to drop roots and get into a long term entanglement is in part caused by the aversion to the ups and downs of the typical relationship curve. The tedium of the entire exercise, learned habits, the forced behaviour patterns, the expected stereotypical acts that beget those expected outcomes, the whole tired song and dance of getting to know one another and settle into something that fits. Only to be inevitably disappointed when the inevitable crash happens — the display of an unsavoury habit, a terrible attitude that shows when you’re least anticipating it, good old boredom. Basically all the things that tend to come into the light once the thrill of the chase has ended and reality kicks in.

You know what else playing the field and freelance writing have in common? The fear of rejection. In good measure. Debilitating enough to make you not even want to attempt a pitch or story, for fear of having it rejected or not find a home. Of late, though, it’s really  begun to feel like I’m more turned on by the thrill of the chase. I get such a high from turning stray thoughts into potential ideas. Playing the field, basically. And it’s oddly satisfying. I’ve realised it’s so much easier to operate this way, without having to engage long term in an in-your-face sort of way. So much easier to flit in and out of little interactions over shorter spans of time, just until the deed is done and each of us gets what we want from it. This way we’re also mostly just  exposed to the pleasant bits, and the minute the inevitable disappointment strikes. Want me to write on spec? Want me to write for exposure? Want me to write on a ridiculously short timeline? Want me to source pictures for no extra cost? Want me to believe you’re too busy to answer even when you’re opening my emails every day? Bye Felipe! There’s always the lesson learned and you segue swiftly on to the next thing.

You know the other by product of the thrill of the chase? The ones that  have positive outcomes. You grow your ladybits large enough to be brave, you put yourself out there, you even do that dreaded networking thing and roam the marketplace, you indulge in some sales-ey tactics you always thought you’d never have to resort to. You’re relentless, determined and persistent. You work hard, focus on your target. And suddenly, you strike. Lasso around the one you really, really want. You’re ecstatic. Your heart racing, palms sweaty, face flushed. Could this be the start of a heady new something? All those familiar feelings of the first time rush in.

And then, you freeze. Suddenly, all you can think is dafuq did I just do? Now I actually have to date this guy. I mean write this damn story. Suddenly you feel like the most incapable person. Your worst inadequacies and insecurities rise to the surface and you’re convinced you’re the world’s most incompetent person for the job. Every now and then, despite all the good, positive and altogether encouraging developments my work life have shown me, I arrive at the crossroads of what-the-fuck-am-I-even-doing-here, also known as the junction where self-doubt meets extreme procrastination.

Today’s procrastination involved introspection to understand what kind of a writer it makes me if I suddenly don’t find the ability to write the stories I claim I so badly want to write, immediately after someone gives me the green signal to go forth and conquer. I haven’t really ever played the field in my years dating. The one time I came close, I chickened out very early on into the game, leading me to believe I’m made for the simple, straight and narrow. Could it be that this is that hitherto unexplored side of me finding an outlet.

*shudders*

*****

When I think about how I arrived on this life of writing that I now have, I feel incredibly privileged. Privileged to be able to scratch the writing itch, to quit a full time job and be able to sit at home pursuing this slowly and steadily at my pace, experiencing no immediate fall outs to the quality of my life. Reading this incredibly eye-opening piece about the almost unbearable, but very real, privilege (and struggle) of doing what you love, I realised once again that I am in such a small, astoundingly privileged minority to be here today.

After a day of struggling to get myself going, to finish all the pieces I started at the beginning of this week, to avoid picking up yet another distraction to keep me from getting down to it, in a whatsapp exchange with M today, I caught myself saying “It’s nice. I’m finally close to where I want to be.”

Where is that, she asked.

“Writing for the most part of any given day,” came my answer, without so much as a seconds thought.

It’s true. Despite the debilitating self doubt, the weight of feeling horribly lucky and undeserving in equal measure, the incredibly high highs and the very low lows, the loneliness of working from home, the days of fumbling around in the dark knowing not what the fuck to do, the Herculean efforts to get up and get going with nobody to answer to, I’m incredibly happy to be here. Playing the field, serial dating, flirting with my inability to commit to a full time gig.

Same time, last year: Day 40: Begin again

Busy times, apparently

At the start of the year, it felt odd not to log in here everyday and type out a post. I found myself wondering how I managed to write something everyday for a whole year. How did I cull out time? Which is another way of saying, I’ve been busier in January, than I was for the larger part of 2016.

I have had so much going on to keep me on my toes, and my mind buzzing. My folks visited us over the long weekend, which though it went by in a blur, was an amazing four days for me. Multiple ups and downs with domestic help has meant I’m back in the kitchen. 6 am wake up calls meant I’ve been perpetually running low on sleep. Weekends have been spent either typing up loose ends with work or chilling out so much I couldn’t be bothered with the computer. So I’ve been busy. The only difference is this time around I have no inclination to sweat over meals and dishing out something new and fresh every day. So we’re making do with a lot of rolling leftovers, quick one pot thingies, baked stuff and sometimes that means eating chaat for dinner. Old me would feel terribly negligent and guilty for not being able to efficiently manage my home and kitchen duties, but new me is too busy writing to give a fuck. It helps that VC’s response to most questions about food is one of two things: Please don’t make me eat dal or Whatever you’re eating is fine. On that dreaded weekend, he made me cheese toasts two nights in a row. We’re getting by, and if it means I can keep calm and write without losing my mind, I’LL TAKE IT.

As a result I’ve had a good month of work. Had a landslide number of accepted pitches, turned in all my work on time, and it continues to be good and positive. And there have been no downsides to any of this as yet. I’ve met my targets not just for January, but February too and I honestly can’t remember the last time this happened. So whatever’s at work here, letting me have this good run, thank you. I’LL TAKE IT.

Today, I broke into VICE. VICE-VICE. Even though I’ve written for some other VICE channels (Broadly here and Motherboard here)before, this is something I’ve been thinking about for over a year now. I’m even more glad I could do it with this story, that’s also been brewing in my head for over a year now. Alex’s work has fascinated, inspired and moved me ever since I first watched a video some time in 2015. Since then, I have been drawn to his unabashed and unapologetic spirit and I was so overwhelmed when he, Sudipto and Nilay gave me their precious time to share some very interesting, insightful and very thought provoking ideas with me. Two interviews ran well over an hour, and meandered across subjects, into a freewheeling discussion about things at large. I love it when that happens. Even the writer in me who really procrastinates until the very nth hour, before I actually pick up the telephone and make that call, loves interviews like these. The last interview ended at 11.20 pm. And I came away so charged, I couldn’t sleep so I got down to writing the story immediately. I know an issue or a topic has touched me when I am able to take away from the interview not just answers to my questions, but little nuggets of information to keep thinking about, when I learn fascinating new details and facts that I am prompted to google immediately, and when I feel like this issue deserves so much more than a single story. So I’m going to work towards that. But for now, the story.

Being Gay Is Illegal in India, but That Doesn’t Stop These Drag Queens

alex4

“I started performing in drag in 2014. I came out the very next month,” said Alex Mathew, laughing unabashedly. “For 6 months, I had been framing a coming out letter to my parents. I don’t like being fit into boxes—I call myself queer, I think sexuality is fluid. So it didn’t go well. But Mayamma literally yanked me out of the closet.”

Alex is a 28-year-old communications professional in Bangalore, in India—a country where sexuality, gender and identity are deeply intertwined with religion, superstition and caste hierarchies, allowing little or no room to go against the grain. Coming out as gay or lesbian is much less publicly accepted than it is in many Western countries; to claim fluidity in one’s identity, then, is an unapologetic and daring move, much less to perform publicly in drag, as Alex does when he transforms into Mayamma (aka Maya).

In India, performing in drag invites potential for ridicule, social ostracization and the risk of persecution—Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, introduced in 1860 under British rule, criminalizes sexual activities that are “against the order of nature.” But Alex, alongside a rising class of performers spreading the gospel of drag throughout the country, has taken his performances to nightclubs and stages throughout the city, where Maya gets to push the envelope to incite progressive conversations and encourage LGBTQ acceptance.

Whether sashaying in a crisp white saree, singing an emotional rendition of Frozen’s “Let It Go” with jasmine flowers strung through her hair, or belting a boisterous cover of Lady Marmalade, cleverly renamed “Lady Mayamma,” every performance encapsulates an idea Alex holds close to his heart: to be uncompromisingly true to yourself. It’s as much a deeply held philosophy as it is a message about individualism, feminism and gender equality.

“Drag is a performance art; it’s what I do. My sexuality is my identity,” said Alex, carefully separating the two. Little wonder that it was a brush with drag that spurred his coming out: Growing up on a steady diet of Bollywood movies and classic Hollywood musicals, Alex developed a natural flair for theater. “I always wanted to be a Broadway performer, so I learned different forms of dance, acting, improv, and performed in local theater productions. But I always felt like I was missing the excitement and adrenaline rush that I expected from being on stage,” he said. When he revisited the 1993 comedy Mrs. Doubtfire as an adult, he was inspired to give drag a shot.

“Performing as a woman gave me a different rush,” he said. “It was an entry into a creative life that had been waiting for me.”

The act of men donning women’s attire to perform as women is far from new in India—it was previously common in traditional and folk art forms, like KathakaliYakshagana and Theyyam. But in the western, RuPaul’s Drag Race-inflected sense, drag as we know it—as a political act and performance art—has only recently risen in the country. Ironic, then, that to embrace the life of a drag queen is seen as a somewhat political act, given India’s cultural history of similar forms of performance.

Unlike Alex, who arrived at drag after searching for a creative outlet to better express himself, 23 year old Sudipto Biswas’ first performance happened somewhat by chance. Training in Western classical music, singing, songwriting and performing have been central to Sudipto’s life, but he found performing to be more frightening than exciting, because he was scarred by early memories of being mocked for his effeminate mannerisms.

“I’ve been singing all my life. But I have also had huge body image issues and stage fright because I’m not exactly a ‘manly man,’” he said.

He was introduced to drag in 2014 after watching Alex perform as Mayamma; RuPaul’s Drag Race was also gaining in popularity at the time. By marrying his childhood fascination with fabulously unapologetic divas with his desire to sing, he developed his own drag avatar, named Rimi Heart. He had the opportunity to perform as Rimi at Bangalore’s Queer Carnival last year, a fundraiser for the city’s Pride celebrations, which he said liberated a fearless performer within himself.

“Once I was on stage, I felt a radical different level of confidence!” he said. “You know the saying ‘ Give a man a mask and he’ll show you his true colors’—I didn’t hide my mannerisms. In fact, I was exaggerating everything!”

“Drag, by definition, is meant to attract attention. ‘Bad reactions’ to drag are heavily influenced by social conditioning, where it’s almost a sin for a man to do anything feminine. Hyper masculinity makes straight men worry that even remotely interacting [with male femininity] will somehow emasculate them,” said Sudipto. He’s now pursuing ways to break barriers to the public expression of femininity, and use drag to reach a wider audience for his performances.

22-year-old Nilay Joshi is a graduate Engineering and Psychology student with a clear goal—to use his foundational knowledge of psychology to develop his drag performances and bring the realities of LGBTQ lives to stage.

“When you are a drag queen, you get to boldly take to a platform and talk to an audience who wants to watch and listen to you. I feel it’s best way to talk about relevant issues,” said Nilay. His drag character, Kashtaani, is a portmanteau of Kashi bai and Mastani, the two wives of the 18th century Peshwa ruler of Central India. “I was inspired by their diverse personalities. Kashi is caring and subtle, a typical Indian woman, and Mastani is bold and open-minded,” he explained.

For some, drag becomes a way to make a direct political statement about the LGBTQ community itself, like Harish Iyer, a well-known Indian LGBTQ rights activist. You’ll find him applying foundation as he reflects on what drag means to him for filmmaker Judhajit Bagchi’s lens: “Even some of the supporters of the LGBTIQ community feel that it’s okay to be LGBTIQ as long as you don’t overdress or go over the top. I know what they mean—they mean drag,” he said. He told Judhajit that he does drag to represent “the effeminate gay man, the masculine lesbian…(who) are still largely ostracized,” even by the LGBTQ community.

Given the frightening rise of homophobia in India, people like Harish, Alex, Sudipto, Nilay and more are using drag to help subvert the idea that gender roles are binary and sexuality is rigid in a country trying to reconcile deeply ingrained tradition with our modern, global era.

“It’s extremely important to understand that just being a man in heels and a dress dancing and singing is a political act,” said Sudipto. “But there’s a lot of genius and thought process there, and real talent. It would be nice to see people focus on that, too.”

Homosexuality is still criminalized in India—in July 2009, a Delhi high court decriminalized private, consensual homosexual acts proscribed by Article 377; then, in December 2013, India’s Supreme Court recriminalized them. Last February, the Supreme Court heard arguments against its constitutionality, then decided in June to decline to re-examine Article 377’s validity.

The back-and-forth is indicative of the push-pull nature of LGBTQ rights in India. But whether it’s Alex speaking in drag at prestigious conferences, Sudipto pushing gender boundaries with daring performances, or Harish going further still to point out self-hatred within the LGBTQ community, drag may be an art form whose time in India has come.

(This story first appeared on VICE.)

Same time, last year: Day 32: On creative happiness

Work. But also life.

I started 2017 with a couple of mini work goals. One, to send out a minimum of 20 pitches every week. And second, to just consistently do it without losing heart or feeling wasted.

I did the former fairly well, but semi-sucked at the latter. It has to be noted that the second half of last year saw me rolling way back on the effort to find new work. With everything else going on I was consistently only just doing enough to keep me going, and stay in touch. So I kind of began January with a clean slate that needed to be filled from scratch. That’s a scary place to be especially when your bank balance is slowly diminishing and there are bills to be paid. So my restless self began to despair just one week into January.

Why won’t people respond soon?

Why can’t my emails just be acknowledged, even if it is to politely reject my idea?

How long should I wait before I move on?

Maybe I should try something else.

Consistency has never been one of my strengths. I have the attention span of a housefly most days, and the patience to stay with something even when it seems like nothing is moving comes in bursts and spurts. So I hoped that this would be an exercise in gaining some chill. And getting it to stay.

Additionally, the ups and downs of last year, the number of weeks I took off from work has meant that the motivation to keep writing has also been sporadic. Even though I did write something every single day, turning it to work is another thing entirely.

I’ve had numerous instances of giving up too easily, way too often. I really want to change this. To eork hard in the true sense of the word. Not only when I have a deadline having over my head. I want to taste the sweet success that comes from slow, but persistent consistency. I don’t think I have ever focused on cultivating that with my work.

I was hoping to give this a shot by focusing harder on making a daily habit of pitching. The idea being that in order to do this successfully, I’d have to work on having a lot more ideas in the bank (which would mean having my thinking and working caps on even when I have no assignments on hand) and working doubly hard on turning accepted stories in (assuming they’d convert faster!) on time, to keep the ball rolling.
After one week of what felt like thankless pitching, I was disheartened when I didn’t receive as many responses as I’d expected. Maybe folks were still surfacing from the holidays? Maybe my emails weren’t good enough? Maybe they got lost in the slush-pile? I don’t know what it was. But I got no bites. Just a lot of crickets.

I took the weekend to regroup and decided I need to really, truly just chill out, and for once in my life focus on the process, trusting it wholeheartedly, doing the task at hand with sincerity and intention, without lusting over the results, or obsessing about how fast or slow they are to come.

And that right there was the hardest part. Not the idea generation. Not the writing of numerous LOIs. Not the combing the internet for contacts. Not the actual pitching. Just the pushing aside of all thoughts of why and how, stomping down on that imposter syndrome that is constantly trying to make a comeback, waving away the self doubt and fear. And just. keeping. my. head. down. and doing. it. day. after day.

Several days later, suddenly, smack in the middle of the week, I landed 4 stories in 2 days. Including breaking into another international site that’s been on my wish list for ages, one Indian glossy (it’s a really small piece, but still!), one international print mag, and one essay — and this last one has been the most satisfying conversion of this week. It’s an excerpt from a memoir I attempted to write not so long ago, but gave up on after much deliberation. For a year now I’ve been wanting to pick bits of it to turn it into publishable essays so at least some part of it sees the light of day. It took me one whole year to get cracking believe I can do this. And surprisingly just 2 days to land the story. Remind me again, why I didn’t do this sooner?

I think the hard work that went into keeping calm is what is at play here. I’ve been consciously spending significantly lesser time on all platforms of social media. Well, to be fair, I only use fb and instagram. I’ve returned to meditating and I begin every day with a big dose of affirmation. For this, I have A to thank.

I took up simple bullet journalling to keep track of my pitching, daily todos and wish lists and goals for three month and week.

There’s the gratitude journaL, which I know is making a huge difference to my general state offer mind. I try and consistently stay positive, and be thankful for what I have and where I am and believe that it is enough. Part of this means I’ve further cut down the noise – sticking to my routine, being goddamned adamant about not missing my workout, and meeting only a select few friends in whose company I feel uplifted and happy. It takes a little being selfish, and isn’t always easy. But it pays.

Most importantly, I think it was the deliberate effort to brush aside negative thoughts that spark laziness, self doubt and the inevitable spiral of apathy that makes my motivation turn to a sorry trickle, that boosted my confidence.

I know I’m a creature of habit. I need a vague framework of routine within which to play. I like having a plan most times. And I’ve been a firm believer in daily habits. So, if the mindful and deliberate effort to bring this all back to my life is putting some basics into place, I cannot complain.

Is this what mindfullness really is? I’m not sure.

I have to also say though, it’s not all me. I gather an immense amount of confidence boosting motivation from my virtual writer friends. Even as a silent spectator privy to a host of discussions, being exposed to an amazing variety of work, being a fly on the wall in so many discussions about ethics, professionalism and the right/better way to approach situations I thought were rare, I’ve gained a lot.

Despite the spotty year I had, I was a bit amazed when I realised how much work I’d gotten done. Today too, I realised that from feeling motivated to aim higher, to do better and to expect to be paid more, from learning to deal with rejection to never giving up on my ideas, from going about this in a nice-to-have kind of fashion to turning it into a practice for my daily life, I really couldn’t have done this on my own. So much of my will to keep at this without giving up, comes from the inspiration of others who have surged ahead, and been there and done everything that I am now doing. Their unabashed and absolute generosity to share, with zero insecurity is refreshing. It has taught me to open myself up, offer help even when it isn’t asked for, and basically never hold back if I can help it.

Sometimes I feel like writing is just the medium. What I am working at, what actually gets bigger, better and sweeter in the process, is life.

For all the help I get, I’m so grateful.

Same time, last year: Day 19: Hope