Friday, November 30, 2018

Chameleon

Old black woman
Sitting next to me
On a plane
This plane
By the window
Grown woman
Maybe mother
Maybe grand
Maybe
Dear woman
In this tube
Of air
From Venus
From Mercury
Poison air
(We're dying)
Old lady
Quiet woman
Minding her
Business
But you feel
Only three
Maybe four
Maybe five
Small
In a dress
In baby shoes
Shining eyes
Ribbons
Just want to play
With me
Just to play
And giggle
Squeal
So nice
This little girl
This old woman
Little girl
Old
Woman
Who says nothing to me
Woman girl
Girl woman
She sat next to me
Quietly
Her memory is free

My Struggles with Nice

People have always told me that I'm a nice person.

What a nasty word that is. It always felt like an insult. Maybe because I am originally from India where being nice is universally considered a handicap. Nice there means stupid. Nice is a doormat that the world will wipe its feet on - and stamp its sins and muck on for good measure - on its way to take the things that you were too weak to take for yourself. What a loser.

Being described as nice has always pricked me like a secret thorn somewhere inside my ears where it's dark and secret.

In school, when my friends and I were matching ourselves to the Spice Girls, I thought I matched Ginger Spice with all her crazy. My friends promptly determined that I was in fact Baby Spice.

Baby.

Babies are nice.

When we were matching ourselves to Take That, I was matched with the baby-faced member of the group. But I really identified with the cheeky one.

Too late.

My family always feared my fate as a nice person. "How will you survive in this world?" they would moan, but of course in Urdu. It made me afraid.

Somewhere inside, even today when I have clearly survived to some degree in this world (with the kind of scars no eyes can see), I dread the next person telling me that I'm (still) nice. It feels like a secret shame that I desperately try to hide under...I don't know what.

I try very, very hard to not be known to be nice. Because it's easy for me. It takes no effort at all for me to be nice. It's my default mode. I absolutely loathe things that are the opposite of nice, the kind of person that wins praises in places like India, the kind of person that is called clever, smart, and someone who will succeed in the world.

But I want to succeed. At everything I do. I want to be the absolute best I can be. And if being nice, something that I have no control over, is going to hold me back, it will break my heart. I've had my heart broken many times by many things, by many people, but breaking one's own heart is worse than someone else doing it for you. I mean, one can't just walk out on one's own self. One has to live with oneself forever. How can I bear to live with my own failings? It is my secret fear, and it is always there, forever lurking just below my consciousness in the dark where ghosts live.

The past couple of years have been particularly challenging. I live in the United States these days where a lot of people who are the opposite of nice have sprung out of the woodwork. It's not just in the news; it's people around me whom I interact with to varying degrees. Seeing them at the very least be tolerant of ugliness (and at the very worst embrace it as if out of relief) has really sent me off-kilter because, if there's one thing I dislike more than being called nice, it's seeing others being awful. It's a time of the opening of great wounds, the whipping up of great gashes in the body of us, and we cannot escape. We are both the wounded and the one doing the wounding, and come to think of it, we are also the ones who have to watch, who are being forced to watch.

So imagine my surprise seeing my instincts for being nice snarling louder the more horrible people get around me. I had always visualized my niceness as something that was limp, soggy, and cold - basically pathetic - but these days it feels like a terrifying divine serpent, hissing and swaying maniacally at the flurries that have emerged from an eruption of nightmares. I never knew that nice could be strong. I never knew it could fight. I never knew that it could be awesome in its fury.

Nice in all its forms - silly, pathetic, outraged, helpless - is the reason humans exist. And that is its place. Being horrible can't be the right way - if everyone were horrible, we wouldn't exist. Each one of us exists because someone did something nice for us at some point. Nice is the fountain of all things. It is made of iron, it is made of petals. And it is my default mode. I am proud, I am here, I am ready.

Sleepy Girls All Over the World

Dear girl
Female student
In my class
Sleepy soft eyes
Walking between the lines
Always
Learning
Still learning
That it's okay to be the best
That it feels good to be the best
Do you know that the world wants to hurt you
Put its hands on your skin
Make you wear clothes you don't want
Make you be what you shouldn't
Tell you to look up to fathers and brothers and husbands
Never mothers and sisters
Never yourself
Never
Ever
Yourself
Tell you to believe others
Never
Ever
Yourself
Tell you that it doesn't hurt
When it does
Tell you that it's more
When it's less
Tell you that it's honour
When it's
So
Much
Hate
So much hate
In everything around you
A sheep in a world of wolves
Wolves that look like people you love
Like things you love
Like things you are
A baby sheep
Sleepy soft eyes
You don't know
You can't see
Will you ever
See
See
See
Be able to see
Be able to believe
Your own eyes
Through the lovely blindfold
Expensive
Pretty
With perfume
They have placed on you
Your eyes
Sleepy
Soft
Full of their lies

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A Requiem for a Song Bird

This is a piece I wrote in a graduate-level public health course in February 2017.


I have been thinking a lot about George Michael recently. He died alone on Christmas Day in his home just outside of London (“George Michael,” 2016). His body is still with the police (“George Michael,” 2017). They determined that he died of heart failure and that it was not suspicious, but they are still conducting additional tests (Reed, 2016). I don’t know what they are looking for, but I have a feeling it may have to do with substance abuse. He was only 53 years old (Pareles, 2016).

My earliest memories are of one of my older brothers dancing and singing in front of the television to George Michael’s Wham! era music videos. This was in the early 1980s when the singer was still a teenager. He went on to become one of the most famous (and stylish!) singers in the world. I genuinely loved his voice and spent many years singing along to his recordings. Since the late 1990s, however, he became known less for his music than for his run-ins with the law. He was arrested for a “lewd act” in a male public bathroom in Beverly Hills in 1998 and subsequently came out as a gay man (Lyttle, 1998). In 2010, he spent four weeks in prison for crashing his car into a shop while under the influence (Swash, 2010). In the decade before his death, he became reclusive and suffered a series of health problems, particularly an episode that resulted in hospitalization and near death (Walker, 2011).

George Michael was one of the most sought-after sex symbols of his generation. He struggled with his sexuality, however, and hid it under a veil of super-charged heterosexuality. He began to seek out sex with strangers while still in his teens (Newman, 2016), and as an adult, wallowed in depression during the AIDS epidemic in which he lost a much-loved secret boyfriend (Moore, 2016). In his words, he suffered from “grief and self-abuse” for most of his life (Newman, 2016).

So I found it interesting to read a 2015 report on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website about the incidence of substance abuse and mental illness in sexual minorities (Medley et al, 2015). This was the first time they used sexuality as a variable in examining these issues (“SAMHSA report,” 2016). According to the report (Medley et al, 2015), sexual minorities are more likely than those in the sexual majority to use illicit drugs, smoke cigarettes, and drink alcohol. Further, they are more likely to have substance abuse disorders and mental illnesses, and according to other material on the website, also more likely to experience issues such as heart disease, cancer, and even violence (“Top health issues,” 2012). Given how I feel like I am grieving for George Michael, this hurt.

I was also reminded of a project I am working on with a professor in my department about gay athletes in the United States. The project uses interviews to gather data, and I have heard one elderly gay athlete talk about how some closeted gay men use drugs like amyl nitrate in order to get through having sex with a woman. It’s upsetting – it’s not fair to have to live like that. As if life isn’t difficult enough.

I am currently taking a gender studies course, and I’m learning about the androcentric nature of science and society. Also, in this public health course, we have learned that the way our society is organized is bad for some people’s health (California Newsreel, 2014). With researchers now paying attention to the role of sexuality in health, they may find that our heteronormative institutions have been setting up sexual minorities to die early and to have a poor quality of life until then. I feel that the slides on racism that we saw earlier in the semester could help us understand how that happens (Jones, 2000). SAMHSA even has a dedicated page for LGBT health on its website (“Behavioral Health Equity,” 2016).

George Michael, however, is still dead. That will not change no matter how much I want him to be alive and out in the world somewhere. It hurts, and I’m surprised by how much. I mean, I’m a media scholar, and I understand that people can form bonds with other people in the media, both real and fictitious. That probably happened with me somewhere over the years. My earliest memories of him are of a young, fashionable song bird, and really, all I ever wanted for him was to enjoy his life and be happy, the way I would wish for an older sibling, a cool uncle, or my own child. Maybe the way our society is set up made that impossible for him. Maybe all it could offer someone of his sexual orientation was a path of substance abuse and mental illness. It could have been different. And we will never know.

Rest in peace, dear, dear friend. I’m so sorry that I could not take care of you.

References

Behavioral Health Equity: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) (2016, November 9). Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/behavioral-health-equity/lgbt

California Newsreel. (2014, October 22). UNNATURAL CAUSES – Trailer. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXBkOYMCAro&list=PLayHb3ehfKbfxdMAmIkFm2wlRikR4Ka6f

George Michael: Coroner yet to release singer’s body a month after his death. (2017, January 28). news.com.au. Retrieved from http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/celebrity-life/george-michael-coroner-yet-to-release-singers-body-a-month-after-his-death/news-story/c03ca7a2fb727c2e3976c7d481ac90ec

George Michael: Pop superstar dies at 53. (2016, December 26). BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-38432862

Jones, C. (2000). The impacts of racism on health [PowerPoint slides]. Harvard School of Public Health. Retrieved from https://blackboard.sc.edu/courses/1/PUBH700-J50-SPRING-2017/content/_10122663_1/camara%20jones.ppt

Lyttle, J. (1998, April 8). George Michael arrested over `lewd act'. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/george-michael-arrested-over-lewd-act-1155246.html

Medley, G., Lipari, R. N., Bose, J., Cribb, D. S., Kroutil, L. A., & McHenry, G. (2016). Sexual orientation and estimates of adult substance use and mental health: Results from the 2015 national survey on drug use and health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-SexualOrientation-2015/NSDUH-SexualOrientation-2015/NSDUH-SexualOrientation-2015.pdf

Moore, J. (2016, December 26). GQ. Retrieved from http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/george-michael-interview

Newman, V. (2016, December 26). Sex, drugs and self-destruction: The dark side of George Michael he couldn't fight. Mirror. Retrieved from http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/sex-drugs-self-destruction-dark-9515044

Pareles, J. (December 25, 2016). George Michael, pop superstar, is dead at 53. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/25/arts/music/george-michael-dead.html?_r=0

Reed, R. (2016, December 30). Autopsy: George Michael's Cause of Death 'Inconclusive'. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/autopsy-george-michaels-cause-of-death-inconclusive-w458442

SAMHSA report shows higher rates of substance use and mental illness among sexual minority adults. (2016, October 11). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/newsroom/press-announcements/201610110100

Swash, R. (2010, July 6). George Michael arrested after crashing car into shop. Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/jul/06/george-michael-arrested

Top health issues for LGBT populations [PowerPoint slides]. (2012). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content//SMA12-4684/SMA12-4684.ppt

Walker, P. (2011, December 23). George Michael gives tearful account of near-death pneumonia ordeal. Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/dec/23/george-michael-reveals-pneumonia-ordeal

Monday, August 13, 2018

Nuzhat and Khattu See The World

We were on our way to the airport for that flight back to Muscat. I was in my 20s, a young woman who had been numb for a few years, weakened from the onslaught of womanhood, a shadow of the unrestrained child I used to be, somehow always in a haze, always elegant and struggling to conceal the rest.

The clunky taxi, smelling like petrol and grease like everything else in industrial Lucknow, made a chaotic stop by a dusty gali. My brother, mother and I got out and met a gaunt dusty man at the entrance. Pigs, an unusual sight in the part of Lucknow I knew, snorted and squealed at what I learned was the entrance of the Muslim cemetery. My heart contracted with the indignity – didn’t this bother anyone else? Maybe the world was too tired by now. I didn’t let anyone know. No one would want to hear me.

The caretaker led us through what looked like a large field, dusty and barren with pebbles and stones scattered throughout. Suddenly we stopped, and someone pointed to the ground in front of me. Nuzhat Bua. She lay buried under where I stood. I wouldn’t even have known if the caretaker hadn’t told me. There was some sort of makeshift marker, a piece of wood or stone half sunk in the grass as if left by an ancient child on the grave of a beloved pet long forgotten. My feet tingled, my heart contracted – shouldn’t I not be standing on top of her? I didn’t want to hurt her, even though I knew I couldn’t.

I said nothing. We said a quick prayer. The caretaker hurriedly pointed to a similar spot on the ground where my grandmother, who had died many years earlier, was buried.

We were soon back in the taxi, and my story continued while Nuzhat Bua’s and her mother’s lay at the bottom of the pig-ridden cemetery in some odd corner of Lucknow that I have never visited since and wouldn’t know how to find again.

Many years later, when I had wrestled with womanhood and flung it to the ground, I would think of Nuzhat Bua again and again. She supposedly wasn’t very well-liked. Some people credited her sharp tongue with her never being married. I was too young to understand, but she was the only adult who ever made sense to me. I’ve heard the same things about me too as an adult, although the times are changing and such women are praised.

The last time I saw her, she was championing my journey to America. I don’t remember our last words, but I hadn’t thought that they would be our last. She hadn’t either. She had recently started travelling for leisure – Muscat, Jaipur, and Hong Kong – and was beginning to discover a friend and accomplice in me, a teenager perched on the precipice of childhood, the country of adults and the rest of my life within sight. We had plans to travel together, my functioning as her English-speaking companion as she took me around the world. I couldn't wait. Neither could she. It was so exciting.

Nuzhat Bua would die in six months, and I never saw her again except very suddenly years later at that cemetery where she still lies, possibly some of her genes part of my body as I move forward in life and see the world we were supposed to discover together. Since then I have seen many things. The Grand Canyon, Hollywood, the White House, Native American reservations, and the Ku Klux Klan. I have even been to Jaipur, straining my eyes to catch Nuzhat Bua still amongst the mass of humanity that is Anywhere, India. But I only see her in dreams, always telling her, “you shouldn’t be here, you are supposed to be dead.” I wonder when those dreams will stop and what it all means.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Auto Beauty

a squishy white college student
sat in her car
parked by the curb
outside the school of music
her windows were up
the music was on
it could have been techno or could have been hip-hop
her clothes were stretched against her lumpy body
folding on itself in layers of fat
she was squishy looking
that co-ed
she didn't notice me
she was looking at herself in the mirror
applying mascara

Friday, December 13, 2013

Reverse Culture Shock in Reverse

One year of hard living in Delhi wiped out ten years' worth of social integration in America for me. I was quite Americanised when I used to live here before, but now I feel like I'm in a foreign country. I speak so much Hindustani at home these days that talking to an American in English feels...like an effort. I sometimes mistakenly even use a Hindustani word or two in my English! I have been back in the US for more than a year, and I still freeze when people whom I don't know try to make friendly conversation with me. Today it was the bank teller, who startled me when she casually asked me what my plans were for the evening. I froze, then panicked, and then delivered an awkward "...nothing?" Her interacting with me beyond our banking transaction made me feel uneasy. I guess I have become more reserved since Delhi. People don't look each other in the eye in Delhi, and they are deeply suspicious of friendly strangers. India seems to have affected me deep in my subconscious in extreme ways. It makes me feel like Jason Bourne because now I sometimes have strong, instinctive reactions that I can't explain. The face in the mirror is familiar but the personality is someone else's. I'm a slow motion ungreza.


Two Indians Walked Into a Grocery Store

The middle-aged, obese, white man on the mobility scooter had started talking to us in the grocery store after asking my husband for help with a container of milk that had been out of his reach.

"You guys have been married for less than three years," he had announced suddenly. "Be nice to each other, okay? Don't divorce, just don't do it." He looked at us more closely.

"Where are you guys from?" He didn't believe us when we told him we were from India. He got confused and struggled to speak for a second.

"Nooo," he said in slow disbelief. He looked at my husband. "Are you not Jewish?" He looked at me. "You look a little..." he didn't say what, but he turned back to my husband and said, "...but you must be Jewish!" My husband later thought that he almost looked disappointed. The man continued to speak.

"But you must be very Americanised by now? I mean, you must mostly be eating American food now, right?"

I shook my head. "No, we mostly eat Indian food."

"Well, okay, then," he said. "Just don't divorce. It makes a mess of things."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How To Bloom

My dear potted plant,

I love you. I bought you for cheap at WalMart a few weeks ago, but I loved you before then. I loved you when I was transplanting you into your new pot and packing fresh new soil around your naked roots in your new home, the patio of my apartment. I didn't hurt you when I did that, did I? When I had yanked you by your stems out of the broken little plastic cup you had come in, your roots looked so frightened, like a shivering little kitten that had got wet in the rain. You had looked so settled in the cup you had come in, decrepit as it was, but I knew you needed more space to grow. It must've startled you, having no soil to hold on to for a while. It must've taken your roots time to grasp your new soil and get used to the new watering schedule. Could you feel my love when I patted you down with rich, new soil in your new pot? I love you. All I want is for you to grow, for you to be happy. What else is there?

I know what it feels like to be uprooted. I know what it's like to have to transplant yourself time and time again. Maybe you were like me, a young sapling that had never known the soil its parent tree had come from. Maybe you were always the exotic plant whose foreign name no one could pronounce, the plant that no one knew what to do with. Maybe you won't take to your native soil again the way those who were never uprooted do. But that's okay. One can only be where one is, one place at a time. The best you can really do is give yourself some time to get used to your new home. I can promise you that one day your roots will grip your new soil and that your stems will rise crisp and fresh again. There is no shame in adapting to your new environment, and you will flourish if you let yourself just be where you are. It doesn't matter if people can't pronounce your name - they will come to you themselves when they see how comfortable you are in your own pot.

Your mother in all seasons.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My Husband and My Son

Sonal and I were walking arm-in-arm outside his parents' home in Delhi. We were still boyfriend and girlfriend in those days. It had been a difficult relationship - he was training to be a neurologist in America, and I had just finished my year-long internship with New Delhi Television. We talked everyday over the phone, but sometimes that wasn't enough. I was so happy that he was visiting Delhi. At the time, he was the only happy thing in my life. I had started noticing then what I know now, that in his presence my mind would quieten and I wouldn't feel anxious anymore. I wouldn't feel like running, running the way I had felt my whole adult life. By then we'd only spent a few weeks in each other's presence. Our long-distance relationship would last for two years.

The sun was setting, it was getting cold. Diwali was only a few days away. Sonal and I were walking around his colony. He was telling me stories about his friends from school, from med school, about his favourite movies, his all-time best jokes. He was making me laugh. I had my arm around his and was smiling at him as he laughed at old memories that he wanted to give to me. I felt so pretty and delicate.

I suddenly felt like time had sped forward. I was still here, a happy bent old woman with white hair and an impish twinkle in her eye. This handsome young man full of promise and potential and goodness and kindness looked a lot like Sonal but was my son. I felt so proud of him. He looked exactly like his father had when we had walked arm-in-arm outside his parents' house in Delhi. We had been young then, the way my lovely son was now.