Donne Redone

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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.

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Coffee in Anonymity

A coffee brownness laps the edges of my consciousness,
As I stir in luxurious sleep
Resisting for a few seconds more, the totality of awakening
“Coffee?” asks her smiling voice,
Rich and dark with shades of brown
As the drink she offers me.

I smile and sip,
In our blue curtained room,
Our cocoon set delicately in the neon noise
Of the anonymous city.

The crisp rustling newspaper
Brings stories from far away
Earthquakes, terrorists and wars
And I shake my head and sigh
Safe and comfortable in my cocoon
Cradled in the garish anonymity of the city.

Honour killings in my hometown, yesterday.
A high caste girl, a low caste boy
Death on the railway tracks,
The vengeful honour of a family.

For a moment I shudder,
As I look at my love.
Her wavy black tresses
Her deep dark eyes
Her lilting voice…
And thank our different Gods
For the anonymity of two young women
Sharing a room, a life, a love,
Blending into the milling crowds
Of the big city.

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.

Fara

Fara ran the last few metres and dived into the ladies’ compartment, just as the train began to pull out. She was immediately jostled and pushed into the sweaty depths of the compartment, as her co-passengers converged back around the entrance. She sighed, there was so much space inside the compartment… why must they all crowd around the entrance and block all the air circulation to the interior?

She checked her bag to make sure her phone, purse and keys were safe. Yes, her possessions were intact. She reached up to hold the hand-hold as the train made its sluggish way towards Lingampalli terminal, from where she’d take a share-auto to get to Sujit’s place.

As the train trundled on, stopping at stations and from time to time between them, passengers slowly trickled out and Fara was finally able to settle by the entrance. There were several empty seats, but she preferred to stand by the entrance and feel the wind streaming against her face. She leaned comfortably against the partition and undid the veil of her burqa.

She was still getting used to wearing a burqa. At home she’d never had to wear one, and in college she hadn’t bothered to bond particularly with the other Muslims in her batch. In fact a lot of people had never figured out that she was Muslim at all… she herself had never identified with the community until she had started dating Sujit.

She wasn’t sure whether it was a defensive reaction to his rare and unintentional misconceptions about the Muslim community, or whether with age her religion had begun to mean more to her… either way, from the day she had started dating him, two years and six months ago, she had become more and more traditionally ‘Muslim’, whatever that was! She wasn’t sure it was a change she liked, but it had happened, somehow… and it certainly wasn’t a change she disliked. All in all, it was rather confusing.

It was not that Sujit was a devout Hindu. Far from it… in fact she wasn’t entirely sure whether he believed in God at all. On some level the fact that this did not bother her made her feel hypocritical about her growing religious affiliation, but she genuinely believed that all ways to God were equally valid… and couldn’t really make up her mind about people who didn’t make an effort to find God in any way. And Sujit was very understanding about her need to identify with Islam… a fact that made her love him more, as well as resent the implied condescension of it, even though she knew he did not mean it that way.

Her phone vibrated and she fished it out of her bag. It was her mother calling. Fara shook her head and put the phone back in to her bag. She’d call back later. She couldn’t think of a good reason for why she was on the train so late in the evening and the ambient noise was unmistakeable even over the phone, so she couldn’t lie about where she was.

Her poor parents. They would be so upset if they knew how she was living her life. They had been so supportive of everything she wanted out of life, supporting her career choices and even her decision not to get married, not knowing that all the while, she was not only dating a ‘Hindu’, but partially living with him as well. It was all so complicated. If her mother knew she was wearing a burqa these days she would be very troubled… but if she understood how the burqa fit into Fara’s world she would probably not be able to even understand it. It helped Fara both identify with her community as well as granted her anonymity when she needed it, like now… on her way to spend the weekend at her boyfriend’s apartment.

Fara shook her head to slow the teeming of the thoughts in her brain. She was exhausted. She longed for a bath.

She gazed out at the passing landscape. It seemed to be moving as fast as her thoughts. Offices, hospitals, houses, apartments, people… they streamed past her in the opposite direction. Her eyes fixed on nothing in particular and she took it all in, as the rushing tide of lives flowed past her momentary window into their worlds.

For a second her eyes met his… and the smooth flow halted. Then it rushed tumultuously on with renewed vigour as the train bore her swiftly away. It had only been a moment, but it shook her.

He had been standing, leaning against his balcony wall, his elbows resting on it and staring into the middle distance. As the train rushed past, his eyes settled on the blur of windows broken by the occasional door or break between carriages. And for a second, he had met her eyes… seen her face clear and still before the train bore her away forever. Or so, Fara imagined. She had no way of knowing whether the moment had unsettled him or not… whether he’d even noticed her. Yet their eyes had met, and like a woman from a corny Hollywood movie, she’d felt her world change.

She did not know who he was, what he did, whether he’d been standing at his own balcony or at a friends’… she could not tell how old he was. He could have been anything between sixteen and thirty… Was he married? What did he believe in? Did he smoke? Did he like movies? Where was he from? Did he have a girlfriend? Did he like chocolate? Was he gay? What language did he think in?

She wasn’t even entirely sure how he looked. She only knew he was clean shaven and that his eyes had seemed to reach into her soul and see her innermost thoughts and that for once she hadn’t felt lacking in who she was, despite her many confusions and contradictions.

Fara shook her head again, to clear it. She was being ridiculous. It was just her whole dilemma over identity playing up and tormenting her overworked brain. She tried to think of Sujit and everything he meant to her. How nervous he’d been in the beginning… how sensitive he was… his curly hair… his warm eyes… his infectious laughter… the way he looked at her… his foolish grin when she smiled because of something he’d said… his ridiculous impractical plans and promises… Sujit. She took a deep breath, and smiled at the thought of the man she loved.

But somewhere in the recesses of her mind an image of a figure on a balcony with momentarily piercing eyes flickered and a lone voice asked What was his name?

Comfort

She didn’t turn as he settled down beside her, on the rock.

What took you so long?”

I ran into Arnab, Gayathri and that gang on the way here. Major party, they’re having. Brought you something.” He held out a beer bottle to her.

She took the bottle, without turning and took a swig. He smelt of Old Monk and too much deodorant.

He followed her eyes. The moon shimmered silently back up at them from the lake. An almost perfect reflection, rippled by the occasional wave.

She sighed. And took another swig in the silence.

Reminds me of that old poem we learnt in school. ‘Silver’.”

She smiled. “Yes. It does, doesn’t it?”

He took the bottle from her hand and took a swig.

Hey! I thought that was for me!”

Sharing is caring.” he replied, handing it back to her.

I don’t care. And I can smell the Rum you didn’t share.”

He grinned and pulled a small Coke bottle out from his backpack. “Rum and Coke?” he offered.

She grimaced, “Maybe not right away. Don’t want to pass out.”

Suit yourself,” he took a swig from the coke bottle.Then he leaned back on his elbows and gazed up at the sky.

Infinity, eh?” she asked, leaning back as well, and tossing her head to dislodge a few stray wisps of hair from around her eyes.

Yeah. Infinity.” And then after a companiable pause, “Have you seen that Calvin and Hobbes strip? About the stars and infinity?”

Yup. Love Bill Waterson.” She sat up and gulped down a mouthful of beer.

Pure genius, that man.” he lay back further, hands supporting his head using his backpack as a pillow.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist. I loved that show, ‘Caroline in the City’.”

He laughed, “I bet you had a crush on that struggling artist character. He’s your type.”

Richard! Yes, I loved him. I dreamt about him. Still do.” she took another swig of beer and held it in her mouth, allowing the fizz to wrinkle her nose.

And now you have your very own struggling artist. How does it feel?”

Don’t say that.”

Don’t say what?”

She took a deep breath, “We broke up.”

He sat up. The silence stretched between them, like the rippling waters of the lake. He couldn’t see her expression. Her profile was silhouetted against the moonlit night sky.

I’m sorry.” he said, finally.

You are?”

Well, I never liked him. You know that. But I know you cared about him.”

I don’t know. I wonder if I ever cared about anything or anyone other than myself.”

Right…” he drawled, rolling his eyes.

No, I’m serious, Sahil. I feel like I’ve never cared about anyone or anything. All I’ve been doing all my life is acting. Playing a part. Whenever anything happens in my life, I go over the possible responses in my head, and play out the appropriate one in my life.” her eyes glistened.

In a sense, I suppose we all do that…”

No. Not so much. Some people feel. I know he did. He does. That’s how he gets inspiration for his art.”

Amu, I think you might be overthinking this.”

She ignored him. “That’s what life is to him. Inspiration for art. Very Gaimanesque. Everything he thinks and feels fuels a painting or a sculpture. That’s what he’s doing right now, I’m sure. Pouring his pain into a work of art. And it’s all so genuine, no one else ever completely understands what he’s created. I certainly couldn’t.”

The silence slowly surged back around them.

What happened?”

Nothing momentous. We realized we’re different people. We want different things out of life. I want more involvement. Excitement. Adventure. He wants to observe the world and document his reactions to it.”

That’s it?”

What do you mean, ‘that’s it?’” she snapped, turning to him. Her eyes glittered in the darkness.

I mean, that doesn’t sound too serious. It sounds like any one of your tiffs. You always knew you wanted different things.”

It’s not a tiff.” she snapped.

Look, i’m not suggesting you get back together. Personally I think this is good for you. Pardon me for saying so, but you deserve better than him.”

He deserves better than me,” her voice shook.

Hmmm… let’s stick to: you’re different people. Makes more sense.”

He gazed at her, without quite turning towards her.

A little tremor shook her frame, and he moved closer, putting an arm around her. She leaned against him and cried silent beery tears on to his shoulder. He patted her head awkwardly. After a few moments, she grew still, and wiped her cheeks with the palm of her hand.

Sahil?” she said, softly, looking up at his face, her head still resting on his shoulder.

Hmmm?”

She lifted her head off his shoulder, and looked into his eyes. Their faces were inches apart. Her eyes searched his desperately.

He looked away, awkwardly. His one armed hug around her shoulder grew strangely slack.

Amrita, I thought you knew. I’m gay.”

The First Time

Don’t get me wrong!” she said, cheerfully blowing the smoke at him, “There are a lot of positives to nomadism- variety, constant stimulation, you’re never tied down to one place- no clear cultural loyalties, new people, new things, new food…”

He nodded, wide-eyed, rapt.

But after a time,” she continued, gracefully tapping the joint so that the ash fell neatly into the broken coffee-cup she used for an ash tray, “It’s those very same attractions that grow old, if you know what I mean…”

Kala laughed at his earnest nod, and passed him the joint. “I suppose it all depends on your mood…” she said philosophically, and shrugged, “I love and hate the same things about my life!”

So… ummm… how did you get into this lifestyle?” Rashid mumbled inarticulately, fumbling with the joint.

She narrowed her eyes at him for a second, then sighed. “I’ve been asked that so many times, in so many ways… It gets tiring.” She tugged absently at one of her plaits, “Though it seems strange to you, it’s the most normal thing in the world for me… the permanence and geographical grounded-ness that you see as natural… it scares the shit out of me!”

He grinned nervously, “I didn’t mean to offend…”

She smiled at his obvious discomfort, “I know. I can tell, when people want to offend.”

Kala watched as he finally took the joint to his mouth and took a small drag. For a moment his eyes bulged. Then he coughed and spluttered violently.

She leaned forward and patted his back, till he subsided and looked mutely up at her through smoke-induced tears.

Why didn’t you tell me you’d never smoked before?” she asked, amusedly.

No no…” he protested wheezily, “It’s not my first time. I have smoked before… but it was some time ago…”

She hid a small smile, “Maybe this joint was a bit strong…?” she offered.

He nodded, earnestly. “Why do you keep calling it a joint?”

Because that’s what it is… what do you call it?” she asked indulgently.

Beedi… cigarette… sutta,” he suggested, tentatively.

Oh!” she sat up worriedly, “You do know this isn’t just tobacco, right? It’s weed as well…”

Rashid’s eyes widened in inadvertent shock. “Ganja?” he whispered.

Yes,” she said patiently, “I thought you knew… I’m so sorry. I should have checked specifically…”

That’s alright…”

Don’t worry, though. You’ve barely inhaled any.”

He nodded, looking down at the floor “It’s okay… I just didn’t realise. So, I was surprised. That’s all.”

He glanced up at her, “I have a cousin who smokes ganja. He doesn’t have a job…  keeps moving around… is that why you…?” he looked concerned. Scared to cause offence and worried for her.

Why I…?” she asked, eyebrows raised.

No… not like that…” he mumbled miserably, “I didn’t mean to cause offence…!”

She smiled, feeling faintly maternal. “Here,” she said, handing him the joint, “lean back, relax and smoke this slowly.”

He stared uncertainly at it for a moment, then glanced at her. The scene seemed benign enough. He did not know how to refuse. Besides, she was so beautiful. So beautiful and so strange, and if he refused an invisible barrier would come between them. She would still be polite of course, but… Rashid nodded and took the joint from her.

The smoke rose up lazily before his eyes, curling in on itself like a serpent. Rashid smiled, as it grinned at him.

He breathed slowly, and tried not to cough, though it was harsh on his throat and the smell grated on his olfactory senses. He liked the word ‘olfactory’. It sounded clumsy and awkward. Like a tortoise with wings. He giggled with the serpent and the cobwebbed beetle on the ceiling, and considered seriously the political posturing of pimples as a means of protest against unhealthy living. Or something.

He tried to tell her that he was fine. It wasn’t an effect of the substance. He was just seeing things very clearly, and everything was connected in beautiful ways. Like the colours on her loose spaghetti top… merging into each other in concentric rings of resonance, clashing slightly at times with the sober browns and greens of the dried-seed chains that hung around her neck in a strangely fitting harmony. He wasn’t sure he was too coherent, but he felt she understood.

Kala smiled down at his wide-eyed, amused form, lying prone on her mattress, discovering the wonders of his own head. His pale blue shirt was comfortably rumpled as he twisted to find a comfortable position. His eyes were far away as they stared at the ceiling through his neatly black-rimmed glasses. He finally settled lying on his back, with his head on his hands, elbows sticking out, so that they formed the shape of a large eye with his head as the pupil.

She rolled herself another joint. It was always fun to watch new initiates.

Rashid watched Kala as she deftly rolled another joint. She crushed the weed and picked out the seeds efficiently with her long dark fingers, glancing at him from time to time to see if he was alright. He tried to reassure her with a bright smile each time, but it may have been too bright a couple of times. And once he may have giggled rather foolishly.

After a few minutes, Kala asked Rashid and set some music to play on her laptop. The familiar strains of Beatles music tickled Rashid’s brain with images of a Blackbird on a Magical Mystery Tour, as Kala patiently and concentratedly rolled the mixture of weed and tobacco – from half a cigarette – into a thin long joint. She smiled at Rashid as she lit it, and leaned her head back inhaling the smoke in an almost reverential ritual manner. Her numerous little plaits moved like awkward baby snakes which hadn’t yet teethed, as she moved her head. Rashid wondered idly if snakes teethed or whether they were born with teeth.

Kala’s eyes opened slowly and she let that familiar far away feeling show. Her mouth smiled slightly of its own accord, and she leant back in the chair letting the waves of music crash around her, like the Fool on the hill, and buoy her up as she floated on peacock-blue oceans of thought.

Rashid watched Kala, lifting his head slightly and craning his neck to see her from his position on her mattress. She shook her crimson Patiala-clad legs in time to I am the walrus. The light from her dusty tube-light cast shadows on her face, under her eyebrows and nose. Rashid let his head fall back and watched the stories in the spider-webs play themselves out before his eyes. Everything seemed both infinitely beautiful and infinitely futile.

He glanced up at her once more, before losing himself in his own head. She was smiling slightly with her eyes closed. And for a second he felt terribly alone. The terrible loneliness of existence brushed his soul, ever so lightly, and he thought of how no one ever actually left their own heads… how reality itself was composed of infinite facets and no one could see through more than their own, no matter how hard they tried… how no one but he would see through his, no one else would experience life quite this way, think these thoughts in the way he’d thought them………. and the world spun madly on with it’s billions of inhabitants each trapped in their own heads.

Then, as his head fell back onto the mattress, and the laptop crooned Let it be, he laughed at the audacity and self-centredness of his thought.