A portrait of the artist as a self-absorbed obsessive with existential angst

This is what happened when I was too anxious to go out all day and the power kept going off so I couldn’t work.

Anxiety day me in colour

The original is more purply than blue. Something happens when I photograph it that distorts the colour. That’s why I like the black and white version better.

Anxiety day me black and white

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White-rum, Plum-juice, Christian-guilt and a generous dose of righteous-harassment

The thing that bothered me the most, even more than the rough hands on my breasts and the stinging pain of the slap across my buttocks, was the scorn in their eyes, as they looked back at me, triumphantly. Even today, I wonder at it, my mind heavy with the plum juice and white rum that has become our staple Friday-evening drink.

Kamala is already five drinks down and has begun to curse men in general and Sabiha’s boss in particular, as she is wont to, these days. Sabiha is gently trying to steer the conversation away from her boss, and his repeated casual lingering hands that linger just too long to be casual.

Lapdiang and Arun are arguing about whether the event we had helped organize on our university campus, in solidarity with the ‘Kiss of Love’ protest against moral policing in Kerala, was an elitist event or not.

With all this talk about sexual harassment and moral policing, my mind sloshes its way back down familiar paths to the memory and I wonder, again, at how they – those three barely pubescent boys, zooming away on their motor bike, which had probably been loaned to them by an indulgent uncle – had not showed the least shame or remorse. They had looked so satisfied. So self- righteous… for teaching me a lesson. And even today, with all the university-bred theories of gender equality, patriarchy and feminism buzzing vaguely in my head and in the conversation around me, the scene remains etched into my memory, burning with shame, guilt and regret.

It had been summer. In Chennai. The scorching heat had dried out all the vegetation on the campus. Madras Christian College was swathed in shades of brown and the brittleness of dried out twigs and dead leaves. The afternoon air was heavy with sweat and lazy with flies. In the post-lunch somnolence, when all the other day-stream students had retired to the relative coolness of their hostel rooms, one could almost smell the hormones rushing through our blood and making our heads spin, hearts accelerate and stomachs churn.The guards could certainly sense it. They kept a watchful eye on us, making sure we didn’t sneak into the ‘forest’ – as the thick vegetation on our campus was often referred to.

Karan and I had been ‘dating’ for four weeks now. Karan had already declared that he ‘loved’ me and I had demurred that I might also, eventually, feel that way. In truth, I was scared to use that word, because to me it held the weight of life-long commitment and was not to be thrown around blithely. I felt guilt at the starved-puppy look in his eyes when I replied so uncertainly about ‘love’ and compromised by lacing my fingers tightly between his, though his fingers were large and cut off the blood circulation to my finger-tips, making them tingle with pins-and-needles.

I could feel the beads of sweat forming and dripping down my back as well as the soft cotton of my top soaking in the sweat around my armpits. Our palms were glued together with the stickiness of sweat, but we continued to hold hands as we exited our college campus (much to all the guards’ relief) and crossed the road towards Tambaram station.

Right opposite the main gate of our college, a short path led to the platforms of the local train station. A few steps down the path, another little path branched off in-between two parallel rows of houses, quite a few of which were abandoned. In our hormone-drunk state, we walked quickly past the first few houses, fingers still laced tightly together, and into the nearest abandoned house – it was just a few steps away from the ‘shit – pot’, an old abandoned Indian-style toilet which was no longer enclosed by walls and therefore useless as a toilet, except to exceptionally drunk men and male students of MCC . The ‘shit-pot’ was, however, surrounded by thick enough vegetation to afford eager couples a modicum of privacy, and was by this token, famous among the young couples of MCC as a ‘make-out-spot’.

The building we had ducked into was in total disrepair. It was only the barest skeleton that was still left standing. Chunks of concrete and plaster that had fallen out from the walls and support pillars revealing iron rods, making it look like the skeleton of the building was showing through. The floor was strewn with broken bricks and crumbled cement. Here and there were pools of human excreta, where passers-by had made use of the relative privacy of the crumbling walls to take a quick shit. It seemed like most of them suffered from chronic diahorrea. We held our breath and picked our way through the dried shit and the flies buzzing around the more recent piles. There was a room beyond the large one we had entered into from the path, which was almost free of shit, except for one old dried pile in the corner. We headed quietly, our hearts thudding to the wall opposite this. Karan checked to make sure he could see all the entrances to the room – the one through which we had entered as well as another which lead into what had been the backyard for the abandoned house – so that we would know if anyone stumbled upon on our little hidey-hole.

And then, finally, we kissed. We had kissed before, and it had been nervous and sweet and wreathed in all kinds of niceties about love and commitment. The niceties were still there, but this time we were more urgent, our hearts thudding, our faces wetly pressed together at the mouths and hands ever-so nervousley straying below each-other’s necks. It was hot and sweaty, and new to both of us.

He paused to ask me whether I minded if he touched me under my shirt. I dutifully said I did, though even in white-rum-heavy hindsight, I know that it was obvious that I did not mean it, and also that I wanted more than anything, at that moment, for his hands to touch me under my shirt. After a few more over-the-shirt breast squeezes while we kissed, he obliged by slowly slipping one hand under my shirt. We continued to kiss and he began to push my shirt up.

When he finally pulled it off over my head, despite my excitement and inability to breathe, a small detached part of my brain wished I had worn a prettier bra. He didn’t seem to notice the bra though, and fumbled with the hook as he looked deeply into my eyes, trying to reassure me with romance, before pulling me close and bending to take my exposed nipple into his mouth. In hindsight, I was as excited, and did not really need that reassurance. At the time, though, it did help suppress my Christian-guilt.

I felt short-changed. Was that all there was to it? It felt as straightforward as it was. Someone’s lips were around my nipple. It didn’t do anything to my heartbeat, didn’t transport me to the bliss I had been lead to expect. Was there something wrong with me? When he looked up from my breast to check on my reaction, I did a fair imitation of the heavy-lidded, blissful faces of women in Hollywood movies. Satisfied, he turned his eyes back to my chest, and left me to wonder why this particular forbidden action failed to stoke the rising excitement in me. Perhaps it was because we weren’t married? Perhaps I could not enjoy anything besides kissing until our sinful union was consecrated in a church?

All of a sudden, I became aware of the watching eyes. I turned quickly, covering my chest with my discarded shirt. Karan, momentarily disoriented, registered the pair of eyes watching us, greedily, from a hole in ceiling of the room we had not noticed. A pair of eyes peering down from the floor above, absorbing the scene in vicarious titillation. Karan shielded me from view as I quickly pulled on my shirt and fastened my bra under it, with shaking hands. It took me four tries to hook it.

The watcher sauntered down the stairs into the adjoining room and walked from there into ours. Another one, whom I had not noticed, came in through the back entrance. Effectively cutting off our quick exit, they converged on us.

My eyes were blurry with the shame. And the guilt that I had held at bay for dating this completely unsuitable boy came crashing down on me. If only I had said yes to the good Christian boy, who would have asked me out if it hadn’t been for Karan, I would certainly not have been in this situation. Not in a million years. Why, he probably would have only got around to asking me out in a month or two. I could have been studying last Saturday, instead of having my first kiss. I could have done well in today’s test. I could have…

The two cock-sure watchers were talking to Karan. A small modicum of relief that they were younger than us, and were therefore not holders of some authority who would report us to the college authorities, who would in turn probably pass this information on to my parents, registered its presence; but the shame and the guilt of such young boys having witnessed my bliss-face and having seen my breasts quickly obliterated it.

Karan appeared to be reasoning with them. And for the first time, my haze of guilt was pierced by a shard of anger. Who were these titchy boys to sit in judgement over us, as we explored our true love? Why were we on the defensive, when it was they who had been watching us, an activity which, it began to dawn on me, was extremely creepy.

I did not catch the words of the exchange, my shame being too acute to let me look up at these barely-pubescent boys, who had watched the most private moments of my life till date without my consent.

The greedy fascination in the eyes I had seen, was now transformed to a sanctimonious moralizing tone as they lectured Karan about propriety in Tamil, and he responded in wheedling-broken Malayalam and English that we had not hurt anyone, so could they let this pass, this time?

Finally, they agreed and walked away. I stared after the retreating backs, which radiated a certain respectability and the straight-backed smugness of having intervened in immoral activities and having resolved matters in such a way as to bring credit to their (and my) homeland.

Karan and I left the building as soon as those two had vanished from sight. I was still shaking in fear and horror. I felt exposed. I felt as though everyone around me knew I was cheap and easy – at the time, words like ‘whore’ did not enter easily into my mental space, but the sense that the words which did come tried to capture, was much the same. As we walked back down the path slowly, not holding hands and with none of our earlier buoyance which the excitement and promise our walk there had held, Karan tried to calm me down with assurances that none of the people around us knew what had happened.

A bike revved behind us, and we stepped out of its way to let it pass on the narrow path. The bike swerved around us, and the two boys behind the rider – the same two watchers we had encountered- grabbed me. The middle-one grasped my right breast, and pinched painfully, and the one at the back, slapped me across my bum. They looked back at me as they rode away, without a shadow of remorse. The look in those eyes was full of scorn and impunity. They looked triumphant and righteous. The wholesome pride they felt at teaching me a lesson radiated from their eyes.

The guilt and shame I had been holding at bay swamped me, and I held on to Karan’s hand so that he didn’t run after them, as he wanted to, because I knew I could not stand there in that spot, alone.

I could barely walk for the next few days. My butt still stung from the slap, and my breast hurt all of that evening. I plied Karan with guilt for a week after that, presenting him with tortured poems filled with laboured metaphors of shame and guilt. He had his own feelings of impotence, from being unable to retaliate at the time and not having been able to protect me from that experience, to deal with. We split up a few weeks later.

And the ideas of sex and sexual pleasure were underwritten in my mind with a deep and abiding shame and guilt, far beyond any that my Christian upbringing could ever have hoped to have achieved alone.

I shake my heavy head as if to dislodge the memory and take another sip of my drink.

I had of course, been harassed before. And several times, after. This was hardly the most violent, or shocking of the incidents. But it was this memory that made me feel the most violated. And though I do not remember their faces, I do remember the eyes, watching greedily in vicarious titillation.

I close my eyes again and open them slowly, bringing myself back to the present. I emerge from the space behind my eyes and look around at my friends. Kamala’s cursing has decreased to a grumbling mutter delivered from Sabiha’s lap, while Sabi plays with her partner’s hair affectionately. Lapdiang and Arun have taken their discussion off to the balcony, and in some corner of my rum-soaked brain it registers that their heated political debate was probably some strange form of foreplay. Rahul is on the phone with his long-distance-love. And I sit here, alone, contemplating my last failed relationship, in honour of which we are sharing these bottles of white-rum in Kamala and Sabiha’s flat.

I know that it was probably my fault. How was Ranjani to ever understand my debilitating deep-seated guilt about sex, if I couldn’t talk about it? And she certainly couldn’t be expected to wait until I resolved the thing I couldn’t articulate to her, for us to have the sex we both wanted to have.

I sigh as I down the rest of my drink and head to the kitchen to pour myself another. It is so hard to untangle the strands of guilt from the idea of sex in my mind. All the university theories of gender that I’m absorbing as part of my PhD haven’t helped much to dislodge this very personal guilt.

And all it had taken to put that guilt in place was a sweaty summer afternoon, three pre-pubescent boys with self-righteous hands ready to deliver Tamil morality, one borrowed motorcycle, a crumbling abandoned building with mouldering piles of shit… and a pair of eyes watching my tentative bliss-face in vicarious titillation.

** Originally written for Out of Print magazine’s issue on Sexual Violence. Unfortunately my story didn’t make it into the magazine. Here is a link to the issue: http://www.outofprintmagazine.co.in/index.html

The Adulteress’ Tale

John 8:1 – 11 (King James Version)

1 Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. 2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

The Adulteress’ Tale

I remember that morning. The heat and the dust. And how they pushed me and jostled with each other as they dragged me to the temple. Some of their hands found their way to parts of my body that did not need to be grasped to lead me to my death. Sometimes, I wonder at the perversity of men.

I curled my toes into the sand as I stumbled along, and felt the edges of the stones as I walked. I tried to imagine how it would feel to have these stones thrown at me, hitting me, cutting me, until I died. It didn’t work. I couldn’t feel scared. It all seemed so strange.

They knew me. Every one of them. And they knew what I did for a living. Some of them had even visited me secretly. And suddenly, that morning, they had dragged me out of my house, yelling that I was a sinner and should die for my sins.

When they brought me before him and challenged him to pass judgement on me, it began to make sense. They were using me. Using me as an example for their pointless debates. It made me angry.

He sat there. So calmly. Writing in the dust. Ignoring their demanding voices.

They told him that I had been caught in adultery – a lie. I am much too careful for that sort of thing.

And they challenged him to defy the old scriptures, saying that Moses had said women like me should be stoned to death. It sounds like something I have heard them say of Moses.

Moses, who was saved from death at his birth by the midwives who risked their lives to disobey Pharoah. Moses, raised by Pharoah’s daughter who adopted him as her own on the urging of Miriam, his sister. Moses, saved from God’s wrath by Zipporah, his wife. So many men have no gratitude.

Then he looked up at me. For a moment our eyes met. And I knew I could be adulterous again, if I survived this. With him.

There was such energy in his eyes, I wondered how it would feel to be with a man like that.

He told them that the scriptures did indeed say that sinners like me should be stoned. He paused, and let them savour their moment of triumph. My heart beat faster. Was that it? From our glance he had not seemed to me a man to give up so easily. Was I to be disappointed again, by a man, just before I was killed – for loving all these men who disappointed me?

Then, he raised his voice slightly and challenged them back. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” There was a silence. A long silence. I could feel their excitement and victory dissipate leaving behind confusion. Their grips on my arms and shoulders slackened.

And then, they left, one by one. Like dogs with their tails between their legs.

He had outwitted them. And for a moment I was grateful to him.

He had saved my life from those vultures, who would use me as fodder for their arguments. Perhaps some of them even felt guilt for their wandering hands!

He looked up at me. His eyes had that same intensity.

And then, I realised that he too had used me. He had used me to show off his wisdom and compassion. To win a battle of wits with the other Teachers. To impress them. To prove to the onlookers that he understood God better than they.

I remembered that terrifying and disappointing pause. He had timed his words well for the best dramatic effect.

I was angry, but grateful. And I wanted him, with his burning eyes and his long fingers casually writing in the sand. I wanted to smell him. Taste him. Drive him mad with pleasure, like I did with all the others.

I looked down, demurely. They usually liked that.

“Go now, and sin no more,” he said to me, kindly. Patronisingly.

“What is sin?” I asked him softly. My tone was of a little lost girl. But my eyes were both angry and hungry for him.

He had no answer, and he stared at me. It seemed to me that he was suddenly seeing me as a person and not a point to be made. I walked away.

Later, alone in my room, I wondered if he was the one everyone spoke of. They said he could be the messiah. He had the energy and the intensity to be one. He could lead us.

They say he’s descended from Abraham and David.

Abraham, who abandoned Hagar and their son in the desert. And David who abandoned Michal after she saved his life by deceiving her father. David who then reclaimed her, against her will, when she had married another and did not wish to part with him. David who spied on Bathsheba as she bathed. David who had Bathsheba’s husband murdered so that he could lie with her again.

Both greedy men, who acquired land and power and spread their seed without much thought for their women.

I can never understand why they speak of David and Abraham as his forefathers with such pride. But I’ve heard tell that he speaks only of a kingdom in heaven. Perhaps he does not want to be king. Perhaps he will not seek power on earth. There may be hope, yet.

They only speak of the men in his line, after all. The truth of it can only be known by the women.

Perhaps he has more potential than they credit him with. Perhaps he is descended from Anna and and Judith and Deborah and Yael.

Perhaps he could make a good messiah.

And if he is the one, I hope they remember him as a man. Of flesh and blood. Made to smell and taste and feel. I hope they don’t reduce him to a voice from the scriptures telling people what to do and what not to do. However revolutionary his ideas.

But that is too much to hope for.

And clashing with the Pharisees and Saducees, will only get him killed. Maybe even crucified, if the Romans notice him.

I wonder if I should seek him out, again. If he is to be the messiah, my presence could be dangerous for him. I hope he remembers me.

I can leave if he does not want me with him. But from what they say of him, he keeps worse company than prostitutes like me. They say he eats with tax-collectors and lepers. Perhaps he could be a great teacher. Both wise and compassionate.

And his eyes…

How should I go to him? Should I take my perfume and wash his feet and cry and promise never to go back to my sinful ways. It’s hard to tell from a single look whether he will appreciate repentance or not. Some men do. They like to think that they have cured a woman of her wandering ways and made her faithful. It makes them feel good about their skills in the night, and righteous about having brought her back to the lord. And he is to be the messiah, after all.

They never wonder what kind of Lord creates pleasure so intense and then insists that we, who feel it, tame ourselves and restrict our pleasure.

I wonder if his love is worth repentance?

Perhaps he will be different.

But then, how should I go to him?

I wonder if he will see me as a person. As a woman of skin and hair and smell and touch and thought. Or as a symbol, for him to reform. He is to be a messiah, after all. Such men are dangerous.

I know I will seek him out, for he fascinates me. The only question is, how?

Notes:

1. This piece began as a monologue about Mary Magdalene, and many of the ideas here come from discussions with friends. This is another version which came out of the discussion. Take a look at her blog as well. It’s beautiful. https://nathawahlang.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/the-forgiving-and-forgiven-whores-1-mary-magadalene/?preview_id=84

2. The bible I consulted, mentions that this story is not found in the ‘earliest and most reliable’ versions of the Gospel.

3. This is one of my favourite stories from the Bible – the idea that we are all flawed and have no right to judge other people is one I hold very dear. Nevertheless, I think the story bears retelling from this perspective. I also think we can learn a lot from this kind of a perspective, about how we can be insensitive to people who experience different subjectivities from ourselves.

4. This story, though often assumed to refer to Mary Magdalene, is probably not about her. For more information on her please read this excellent article: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/who-was-mary-magdalene-119565482/?fb_locale=fr_FR&page=1

5. The conflation of the offence of ‘adultery’ with ‘prostitution’ is definitely part of the rewriting of (in this case, Biblical) history through male eyes, and the conflation of Mary Magdalene – possibly one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples – with the reformed prostitute we see her as today. Please do read the article linked above, for more on this. Despite this, and perhaps because of it, I think this kind of retelling of the tale can be very powerful for bringing another voice into this much beloved tale.

6. The line ‘What is Sin?’ emerged from a discussion with friends. One of them mentioned that a recent Malayalam poem ends this story with Mary looking up into Jesus’ eyes and asking him ‘What is Sin?’ I found the imagery very powerful – especially with the story ending there. I attempted to find a translation of the poem or the author’s name, so as to acknowledge the source, but have so far been unable to track either down. I will edit this as soon as I can acknowledge that source properly.

7. I am also probably, strongly influenced by the musical, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics: Tim Rice) and the song, ‘I don’t know how to love him’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lS2nX4fuzqc

Picking Scabs

Radha looked at the new scab, through the green-tinted glass of the half-empty beer bottle. It looked, she decided, a little like an island. Or maybe a smallish continent. A pear-shaped continent on her arm, where the rock had scraped as she scrambled back up, after her fall. She smiled at the thought.

She had always liked to pick at scabs. Right from the time she was a little girl. She loved to pick at them, slowly, patiently… until she drew blood. Then she’d press the scab back quickly, wincing at the pain that replaced the itching sensation of healing flesh.

She would first examine each new scab. Carefully run her fingers over it, to understand its texture, thickness and weak points. Once she found the most likely border, she would gently edge her nail between the scab and her skin. Ever so slowly, she would begin to peel. She’d stop every time it seemed like it was going to hurt, and then keep going cautiously. It was an achievement if she could pull off the scab, without drawing blood. There was, however, a familiar pleasure even to the sharp indrawn breath and sting of fresh drawn blood.

She had been out on a walk. Exploring a new path she hadn’t seen before. It turned out to be a shortcut to the lake. It lead over the large rocks, that the main path circled around. She’d lost her footing, hopping from one rock to the other, underestimating the distance between them. And she’d slipped into the crevice between them. It wasn’t deep, so she’d scrambled up quite easily, but she’d scraped her arm rather hard against the edge of one of the rocks, and earned herself a new scab to pick in the process.

Radha took another swig from the bottle. She wondered if there was a streak of masochism in her. She could see it as clearly as if she had witnessed it, herself. Every detail that Nafisa had related with shame, at Radha’s insistence, played out with vivid detail to her dispassionate mind’s eye. The worst part was that she couldn’t even blame her partner.

A droplet of beer slid slowly down the side of the bottle. Radha watched it trace its way down the smooth greenness. Like a tear. Or a bead of sweat. Someone else’s sweat. Sliding its way over Nafisa’s elegant collar bone. Someone else’s sweat, marking her with someone else’s smell. She smiled, through blurring eyes at how territorial and animal that thought had sounded.

Radha caught the droplet, just before it fell to the ground. She held the partially peeled bruise right under it. She winced slightly as the alcohol stung the raw area, where she’d worried the scab off the pink healing flesh.

Every time she closed her eyes, she saw them. Images Radha had conjured for herself, from Nafisa’s flat descriptions. Karan’s smooth dark skin and lightly muscled body, sliding against Nafisa. His deep black eyes enticing and mysterious, as Radha’s all too familiar ones could never be. Nafisa’s slim graceful form arching sensually against Karan’s. Her long wavy tresses, that Radha loved to run her fingers through, thrown back… for Karan. The magic of skin against skin made that much more magical with the newness of discovery, a novelty hard to compete with.

Strangely these images did not evoke any feelings in Radha. She watched them as dispassionately as she fingered her scab. If her eyes blurred, it was more because she felt she had to react, than from any spontaneous feeling. She longed to feel, again. And so she played it over in her head.

Fingers sliding over skin. Lips meeting, melding with a slight ‘pop’ of wet suction. A warmth and wetness that had always been hers and Nafisa’s alone… until now. The gasping, panting and wet slapping of naked skins. A part of Nafisa she could never share.

She’d asked Radha for permission. Nafisa had asked, in the certainity of shared convictions that came from challenging norms together all their lives. And Radha had given her permission readily, in the greed of reciprocity.

Reciprocity and the reluctance to set boundaries on another that came with pretensions of intellectualism. A middle-class idealism about a love that transcended all boundaries and challenged all structures. A love that was patient and kind, that knew no limits, set no boundaries and was not fed by jealousy. Radha didn’t know what kind of love that was. The love she knew was savage, greedy and possessive.

The worst part was, to be completely honest, if she’d had the opportunity, she’d have done the same.

She’d thought she could handle it, and to be fair, she had handled it. It just hadn’t been the way she would have liked to. She wondered now, how she had imagined it would feel. Certainly it hadn’t been so bleak and emotionless. She’d only seen the logic of it. And the excitement of novelty, the furtive meeting of eyes, the uncertainty, the strange new chemistry, the glamour of the leap into the unknown… a new path to explore.

But something in Radha had made her stumble as she took the new path. She hadn’t been able to make the leap from one rock to another. The crevice was small, but she’d fallen and scraped herself. She’d clambered back up, but she couldn’t try the leap again. Not now that she knew how it felt on the other side. At least she hoped she couldn’t.

It was one thing to make the leap unknowingly, as Nafisa had done. It was quite another to knowingly make her feel the bleakness and impassivity that Radha had herself felt. Perhaps that was the scariest thing. Not knowing whether, with the hindsight of experience she would still be selfish enough to take the leap, should the opportunity arise. Not knowing whether she was capable of that or not.

The fleeting brush she’d had with opportunity had backfired because of other consequences. Shobhana was a good friend of Nafisa’s, and she hadn’t wanted to endanger that. But was that all that had stopped her?

And something in her rebelled at being the wronged one. She did not want to play that part. Nor did she want the part of being in the wrong.

As destiny diced in her head, the scenes played themselves out over and over in a never ending loop in her mind’s eye.

Her fingers worried the alcohol-moist scab, peeling it easily off the bruise, exposing the raw pink flesh.

And somewhere inarticulable, there was a pain and an emptiness. A pain and an emptiness that Radha hoped she would never cause.

Radha took another swig of beer and considered the dramatic import of her thought. She grinned at the bottle through blurry eyes, and wondered who she could be. She could be kind and forgiving and faithful, and keep the moral high ground forever. Or she could equalize the score and take revenge in one sweep.

She watched her reflection sway slightly as she stood up from her corner of the floor, leaning against the head of the bed. She walked to the mirror. Her eyes narrowed critically, taking in her slight frame with its little protruding belly. She was short. And her hair was thick and straight. On the whole, she reflected, hating herself as she did so, for being clichéd enough to consider her looks as a factor in the equation, she didn’t look that bad. If you took away the dark circles, which admittedly had been less pronounced before their little experiment with bisexuality and open relationships, and sucked in the protruding belly, she looked quite attractive in a cute school-girl way. Thankfully her dark skin lent a tinge of adultness to her image. On the other hand, Karan… Oh, Karan was exquisitely handsome. Tall and muscled with dark eyes and skin the colour and smoothness of chocolate. Radha sighed. She knew that it wasn’t a competition. She knew that there had never been any comparison between them as far as Nafisa was concerned. She knew she should not feel threatened. She knew that monogamy was just a social construct… but perhaps she was too well socialized into monogamy. Or perhaps having broken so many boundaries in her inter-religious lesbian relationship, this was one step too far for her.

In the background, her mind re-played the scene where Nafisa rode Karan. Something in her tightened. That was her place, with Nafisa. Her territory.

She waited for the anger to come. For the wave to build up. This was it. She was finally reacting.

It was like a failed masturbation. Nothing happened. All she felt, was tired.

Radha held the cold beer bottle to her forehead and took a deep breath. Sometimes you keep picking at the same scab till it bleeds. Then you let it scab over, and start again.

Donne Redone

IMG_0553

No woman is an island, entire of herself;
Every woman is a piece of the earth, a part of the main,
If a clod be washed away by the sea, India is the less,
As well as if Kaniyakumari were,
As well as any of your friends, your roommate, sister, mother, lover, cousin or aunt were,
Any woman’s rape diminishes me,
Because I am involved in human-kind.
And therefore never troll the internet to know for whom the cameras flash,
They flash for thee.

Finding my way

Frustration seeps into the corners of my mind
Like incessant rain through a cement roof
Dampening the walls
And chasing the lizards off on to the floor.

It fills the boundaries
Suffusing every thought with a must
That dulls incisive clarity
And breeds a cloud of irrational emotional fungus.

A soggy painting on the damp cement wall
The only constant goal of my life-
To make my parents proud.
A humid depression hangs over my actions.

And in everything I do, I seek approval
As a pointless moth flutters around a tube-light
I yearn for the impossible-
That glass-encased, blinding certainty.

My choices, like cobwebs, ensnare my thoughts
In soft threads of lethal possibility
Branching off into the elusive limbs of time
With the occasional scuttling spider.

The rain pounds cracks into my roof
And I stumble out, into the torrential downpour of reality.
Soaked to the core of my being,
I squint against the watery blur of doubt.

Until finally, I cease to fight it.
Arms outstretched, face lifted to the sky, I glory in it,
Embracing the cleansing downpour at it’s splattering best
Unstructured, untethered and tumultous in its beauty… Life.

Barbie-doll

Like nausea
The putrid wave
Makes my hair stand
On end.

Cloying shame
Dilutes my vision
And the pavement stones warp runnily into eachother.

Innocent film songs
Emerge spontaneously
Made lewd and leery
By the congratulatory laughter
That greets the singer
As he passes me
And joins his friends with a grin of triumph.

Anger speeds my feet
In their delicate dance
Weaving in and out of pedestrians
Avoiding bodily contact
Eyes downcast.

Cold eyes
Fill with shared wholesome-healthy laughter
And slide over me in fun
Undressing me in their heads
Like a Barbie doll,
Weighing my breasts in their sweaty mental paws
For ripeness
Like mangoes
Squeezed, smelt and passed around
In the grimy market.

The sickly-sweet smell of decay
Colours the moment a festering gray
As the oh-so-casual hand
Stabs between my legs
Or pinches my breast
Or brushes my behind.

And my father/ friend/ husband/ brother/ lover
Fights for my ‘honour’ in impotent fury.
Asking me not to fight back
And risk the revenge of injured pride.
Haven’t I heard of acid attacks?
Of rape?

My safety is not worth this fight!

Watery frustration fills my eyes
And I cannot dredge up anger.

This is me,
Naked.
A chunk of meat
Dripping obscene drops of red
As a hapless calf sniffs forlornly
At the butcher’s counter.

This is me,
Naked.
In my sunny-yellow kurta
And lime-green salwar and chunni
Haggling with the mango seller.

This is me,
Naked.
In my blue pinafore and black buckle-shoes
Lost in my own head
Playing with the end of my tight plait.

This is me,
Naked.
In my low-cut red dress
And chic cropped hair
Gingerly avoiding puddles
In my high-heeled shoes.

This is me,
Naked.
In my black flowing purdah
A hint of a baby blue churidar at my ankles
My deep black eyes hinting at my mystery.

This is me,
Naked.
In my green cotton sari
And red blouse
Watching my daughter play in the mud
As I carry bricks in a metal pan on my head.

This is me,
Naked.
In my oversize T-shirt and harem pants
Hung with colourful beads and earrings
Carrying my rainbow umbrella.

This is me,
Naked.
Begging for spare change
To feed my hungry baby
And pay off the ones who let me beg
So I can try to feed my child tomorrow, again.

This is me,
Naked.
In my green T-shirt and jeans
Talking to the mechanic about his life
And his sick mother
As he mends my cycle
And his friends snigger
And pass comments I can’t understand.

This is me,
Naked.
Locked in with the others
After six p.m
So that we would not be raped
By our classmates
Who could be out till ten
And who, for some reason,
Could not have raped us
Before six.

This is me,
Naked
To whom strangers feel entitled
To give advice on how to dress
Or how to cover my ‘apples’.

This is me,
Naked.
As authorities,
Ask why I was out walking alone
At two in the afternoon
When I complain about being attacked
By three men.

This is me,
Naked.
In a protest march
For women’s rights
Sneered at for not appreciating what I have
And not being in touch with the virtuous village woman
Or the abused prostitute
Or the oppressed Muslim
Or the rape victim
And thus not having a right to protest
At all.

This is me,
Naked.
Barbie-doll naked
Faceless, featureless,
Naked.

A toy on display
Who should be grateful
That they are only playing with her
In their fetid minds
Or brushing against her in passing.
And learn to dress properly
Stay in after dark
Not stare back at them with hate
Or hit back
Or say ‘no’.

It is, after all, only for my own safety.

Like the cellophane and cardboard
That shields the vapid, smiling
Barbie-doll.