Saturday, December 31, 2011

Naam chhote, darshan bare

Once upon a time there was a slum in New Delhi near the tomb of Humayun, the mild-mannered Mughal emperor who fell to his death from a ladder in his library. A few centuries after his death, a young woman walked into that slum with a camera and tripod slung all over herself to conduct an interview and take some shots for the NGO she was volunteering with. She was accompanied by another young volunteer. He was a college student, a Youth Congress leader, who visited that slum often as part of the NGO's Right to Information programme. He and his team helped make the people who lived in that slum aware of their rights as the citizens of India because those rights were often denied to them.

The young woman and the young man couldn't have been more different. She had an Indian passport but had never lived in India. He probably didn't have a passport because he had never travelled outside of India. She had travelled east from the Western hemisphere to be there. He had travelled north from Rajasthan. A decade yawned between the two of them. But he was her guide that winter afternoon in one of the most densely populated parts of the world. She had been asking him a lot of questions about himself, his work, and the people he had met at the slum. She had never been to a slum before and didn't know what to expect. They had taken an autorickshaw to Humayun's Tomb and had then started walking down a dust path right around the corner.

And then it happened.

A handful of scrawny brown children came tumbling down the path and called out to the young woman. "Hiiiii, Didiiiiii!"

They were gone as fast as they had appeared. The young woman and the young man kept walking. She didn't pay any attention to the children, they had probably mistaken her for one of the other volunteers they had met before. A thin man passed them by on a rickety cycle that was hitched to a wooden cart. Both he and his vehicle creaked and shook over the broken stones that stuck out from the ground as if they were growing out from it. The young woman remembered something her father had once said about the fertile soil of that part of India. "Something will start growing even if you spit on the ground." Magic soil. She remembered Stephen King's 'Pet Sematary'. The soil of life? What kind of life?

Some more children bounced past them. "Didiiiiiii!"

They're talking to me, she realised. She didn't know how to feel about it. Delhi was not a city where strangers almost fell over with excitement upon meeting you. She had spent a year around the smooth-talking, educated, rich, famous, sometimes good-looking segment of the Indian population. The elite. She was used to the people she worked for not knowing her name and not caring about if she lived or died. As long as she got the work done, as long as she made them look good. She was used to hard eyes and snarls and bad behaviour. Then what was this?

They had followed the path to its end into the heart of the slum. They had passed thin children hopping around chained puppies, they had passed an immobile old man exhaling smoke outside his shanty on a charpai he shared with an equally immobile white dog. An outdoor tap dripped Chinese torture onto a pile of steel pots and pans. Shanties lined both sides of the path until where it ended into a dusty open area. That is where the piles and possibly miles of garbage began. A couple of older women in saris and a baby sat on a charpai near the hill of garbage. There was a tall green gate nearby, some Muslim organisation. A clothesline with ratty colourful clothing hung along its wall.

The young man set out to find the woman they needed to speak to. The young woman surveyed the scene for a good interview location. She settled on a pink and blue wall that tapered off into the background to a line of shanties. She pulled the tripod out of its cardboard box and set it up on the ground. She screwed her camera on top of the tripod and peered through the viewfinder. Someone tugged at the bag she kept slung on her hips.

"Didi, meri photo khheencho na." She turned to a girl with messy short hair and dirty clothes. And missing teeth on a happy smile. A disarming smile meant for the young woman. It almost frightened her, she hadn't seen a selfless smile in a long time. A number of children suddenly surrounded the serious young woman and her equipment. They clung to the bottom of her shirt, to her bag. Someone reached for her arm, another grabbed her fingers. The young woman from another world could feel the warmth of their hands burning through her clothes onto her skin. A couple of them began to dance in front of the camera. They began to chant, "Didi, didi, didi, didi!" They were excited to see her. Their faces were glowing, they could not contain their joy. It made her feel unsteady, unsure how to react. She had learned how to react to hostility and condescension, she knew how to handle those things, but what was this?

A smile that almost broke into a laugh awkwardly began writing itself on her mouth.

The young man returned with the woman they were meant to interview. The young woman shushed the children, "shhhhhhh!" The woman seated herself in front of the camera and the interview began. The young woman kept a close watch on the camera's viewfinder and an even closer eye on the children who had crowded around her. She shushed them whenever they squealed, she tapped their little fingers whenever they couldn't bear to not touch the tripod. She even took one little girl aside and asked her to tell one of the shanties nearby to turn down their TV set which was playing old Mohammed Aziz songs.

After the interview, the young woman spent the rest of her time taking shots of the slum. The children followed her wherever she went. She was the pied piper, and she made them dance. She made some young boys on bicycles race past her, and they did. One of the boys yelled in triumph as he sped past her - "yeahhhhhhhh, Didi!!" Some of the children were dangling off of an abandoned autorickshaw near the garbage pile. One of the little girls with the uneven pigtails and the very high-pitched voice grabbed another girl by the hair and shook her head in play and laughed. They all laughed. They were all so poor and they lived in slums, and they treated the young woman as if she was the most important person in the world. The young woman looked around for the young man she had come with. She saw him being lead a way off by a little boy. "Hey, where are you going??" she called out to him. He turned to look at her with a smile and shrugged. The little boy obviously wanted to show his big tough friend something interesting in his life.

At the end of their visit, the young man and the young woman were saying their goodbyes to the woman they had interviewed and her family. "Thank you," the young woman said, the camera and tripod once again slung across her body. They were on their way out. The woman from the slum replied to her. She told her that they should be the ones doing the thanking, that if it weren't for the young man, the young woman, and their NGO, that they would not be able to put their children in school or even acquire their basic forms of identification from the government. They would never know their rights if it had not been for them.

The young woman stood there, half her body wanting to leave, the other half wanting to move in the other direction. She realised that she had suddenly stopped looking at the woman from the slum in the eye. She felt small. It had all been too much. First the children who had flung themselves at her out of affection and trust when they didn't have to, now this woman who spoke so directly that it made the young woman from the outside world feel like everything she had gone through to get to this moment had been worth it. All the good things, especially the bad things, it was alright because it had brought her here, to a woman who said thank you.

She wondered about the rich and beautiful and famous people she had been around the whole year. She remembered the big talk and the small actions. She remembered how after a while the most beautiful and powerful people had started looking unbearably ugly to her. So, so ugly. They were ugly in their behaviour, they were ugly in their words, they were ugly in how they treated the world around them. They were ugly in how they were competitive and not cooperative, ugly in how they wanted to tear down but not build up. The things people do to get on television can anger you. You know what they say about how power and money show the true character of a person? Add putting them on camera to that list. Many times it's not even about the message but about seeing themselves on screen. Many of them are people you wouldn't speak with if you met them elsewhere. But the young woman had seen people at the NGO cringing at seeing themselves in one of their own videos and insisting ad nauseum that the video be edited to put focus on the people, the people, the people. The people they are trying to empower.

The young man stopped by a small shop on their way out. He asked the young woman if she wanted him to buy her some gum. She did, so he bought some for her and for himself. The sun was beginning to set, the smog was beginning to darken. They continued on their way out to the main road. The young woman suddenly realised that the young man had not given her the gum he had promised her himself. She asked him for it, and he then fished it out of his pocket and handed it to her. She had a good laugh over it. "Such a typical politician," she said to him. "You offer me something on your own, then you pretend as if you never did. You make me go out of my way to demand something that I had never wanted in the first place!"

Sometime later, the young woman remembered a time when she was looking for a place to volunteer. She had spoken to a women's organisation over the phone who had turned her down because of the television news channel she had worked at. They had told her that they knew of others from that channel and that, if the young woman was anything like them, then they didn't think that she would be able to handle working with people from the slums.

But I can. I am not like the others.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

India: poverty, apathy, the mad drive to oppress

There's so much I have to say about what I saw in India, but I've been having trouble listing things out because I'm so overwhelmed by all the things I've seen and felt there. It's like this huge furball that's stuck in my throat, I need to hack it up, hack it up. I'm just going to start talking without worrying about the science and art of communication because I really need to get all of it out of my system, or I'll never be able to move on.

I recently returned from spending almost a year-and-a-half in New Delhi, where I interned for a year at NDTV and then volunteered at an NGO called The Youth Parliament Foundation. I had been living as a paying guest in a double room in a 4-storey residential building in 'posh' Greater Kailash 1, and I shall only remember my lodgings for the exposure I received there to menstrual blood, mud, vomit, garbage, hair clumps, human and animal urine and shit. The particular colony I lived in - one of the best I'm told - was known for the stray dogs that, at night, liked to look down upon you from where they'd perch on top of the expensive foreign cars that crammed its lanes. Toyotas, Hondas, even the occassional BMW. Some that looked too big to even turn those congested corners. Some rickshaw pullers refused to go into the colony because of the dogs. One McDonald's delivery man (McD's delivers in India) had been bitten once. The trees of the colony were very overgrown and depressing, the buildings were long and smashed into one another, almost falling over each other, not quite unlike the people in this overcrowded country. Nouveau riche Hemkunt colony, home to a number of judges and doctors, was a strange place.

For almost a year-and-a-half, I shared my room with rats, lizards, spiders, ants (on my bed with me), mosquitoes, and flies. The mosquito bite scars on my feet have only now faded away after half a year. People would keep forgetting to flush, and sometimes they'd flush so hard that they'd knock the knob right off, which would keep the flush running and empty out the water tank, leaving none for the rest of us girls, a real nightmare if you're having your period or if it's summer or if you have food poisoning, or all three. Nowhere in India does the water run 24/7. The water usually comes in for a couple of hours in the early morning or evening, which is when people fill their buckets or tanks and use this supply economically. Someone kept breaking the toilet seats so the landlord eventually stopped replacing them. That made things very difficult during the near-freezing winters because porcelain gets very cold very fast. The building was not heated for the spirit-breaking winters or cooled for the morale-shattering summers, all we had was a rickety ceiling fan and a cooler that was propped up through our only window. Because that window had to be kept open for the cooler to send air through, rats would make their way into our room from the outside. We could see them dropping in from the window to the ground, like miniature commandos on a secret mission. We could even hear them squeaking in the dark at night.

I was hungry and thirsty in Delhi most of the time. The shared refrigerator in the common area was forever leaking water that would stagnate into a small pool at my door. I never really bought anything to eat that needed to be refrigerated because someone was always stealing food from the fridge. Delhi water often mixes up with sewage, so no one really drinks from the tap. It has to be filtered first, and even then it tastes strange and...salty? I can't really remember the number of times my stomach would be gnawing at itself, bile ready to flow out of my eyes because tears were an effort, and there was nothing to eat. I would be thirsty, very thirsty, and would have run out of drinking water. I really hit rock-bottom my last 4 months there. I probably averaged a half bottle of water and 1 meal a day everyday. I ran out of money and worse, tanked out on faith. My time in Delhi was a time of extreme highs and lows, and like the work-hard, party-hard way of life, it burns you out really fast.

I tried very hard to see India for its grand history and its economy, all the things non-resident Indians are emotionally blackmailed into tearing up over patriotic sings about, but all it really reminded me of was what I've read of London during the industrial revolution. Filth, pettiness, an onslaught of stimuli. Oliver Twist on steriods. It's hard to focus on anything else, really, when you realise in horror that the only difference between you and the snot-faced child on the street who lives (and will most probably die) like an animal is not your intelligence, your professional dedication, your sex appeal, your god, but just chance. That given the same circumstances, you, with the American accent and the light brown skin and clever sense of humour, are not only not special but in fact always just one step away from joining that shrunken mummy on the street. Yes, your precious dignity will be taken from you, you will trade it for food, for medicine, for clothing. India is slumdog millionaire, not Bollywood. India is starvation, premature aging, unfairness, and death, a lot of death, a lot of different kinds of death. India is about crushing innovative thinking, India is about punishing excellence, India is about learning to expect less, less, less, until you learn to be grateful for the 'paid' in 'underpaid'.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Oh, what can I tell you about why I'm in India? That answer has so many parts, I'm tired of listing it out for everyone who asks me why I came back here. Most of all, I'm tired of going over it for my own self when I need reminding. They've told me that most people move forward but that I've chosen to move backwards. I've been here so long, away from the world that I came from. I am beginning to forget...

* * *

I've started volunteering as a Film Editor for the Youth Parliament Foundation. This past week they'd been hosting the 'Know Your Body, Know Your Rights' national consultation in New Delhi. A bunch of young folks from various states - Gujarat, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Uttarakhand, and others - landed up in the capital to talk about sexual health awareness for 4 days. I had been asked to help shoot the event for a video we'd need to edit and send to the sponsors, the MacArthur Foundation and UNESCO. I was grateful for the opportunity to hide behind the lens. As a videographer, one's goal is to capture an event without interfering with the subject or affecting the environment. It was only my second week with the organisation, and I was still getting used to its social dynamics. I didn't have any work friends as yet, I wasn't in on the inside jokes, and I couldn't imagine surviving on smalltalk and shooting out clever one-liners on the field all week. Thank God for the job description - shoot, be invisible, go home.

We were packing up by the end of the 4th and final day of the consultation. I had played the part of the mute camerawoman perfectly - I hadn't bonded with any of the attendees and had sat down for meals with the organisation staff without contributing much to the conversation. I hadn't had the energy for anything more than work anyway. Cameras get heavy hanging from one's neck after 8-10 hours. They give one achy shoulders, cramped thighs, and burning shoulder joints. That and keeping an eagle-eye out for good shots hour after hour after hour consumes any leftover desire to cross over and reach out to the subject. I don't mind though. The world often seems a lot more beautiful through a camera. I don't mind spending as much time there as possible. I don't mind not being noticed.

"Didi." Sister.

I turned to face a young rural boy, not more than 18. Like most people from the rural parts, this one was skinny with not an ounce of fat on him anywhere. Not even on his face. His skin stuck to his smiling skull like a thick layer of paint. Oil kept his side-parted hair in place. He wore a generic button-down shirt and generic pair of trousers. A generic Indian rural person holding out a generic Indian notebook to me. Made of recycled paper.

He was smiling at me, shyly, possibly even admiringly.

"Didi, autograph."

Four days of silence behind a camera, and I'd forgotten how to speak. My voice came out with a crack, as if I'd been asleep. "Me?" My autograph? What had I ever done for him? I'd never even spoken to anyone during the consultation. What reason would he have to smile at me?

But he kept smiling anyway. "Accha, theek hai," I said - right, okay - and I slowly took his notebook and pen and smiled, still in a haze after being woken from my cameraperson stupor. Life behind the camera dulls one's social instincts sometimes.

"Main kya likhhoon?" I asked him gently. What do I write?

"Naam, email address, aap kahaan ki hain, aur aap kya kaam karti hain." Your name, email address, where you're from, and what you do.

Oh, boy.

I started writing my name in English. K-H-A-D-I-J-A. In uppercase because it's easier to read. He looked at what I was writing and told me that he couldn't read English. So I wrote my name and email address in English, and then began to write in Hindi.

I wrote my name.

I skipped the email address. I didn't know how to translate it into Hindi.

Of the remaining two questions, I tackled the easier one first. What did I do for a living? I was a trained IT professional. I had recently trained at NDTV in broadcast journalism. I was a published book author. At that moment, I was a film editor. Media, I wrote.

I wondered what to write about where I was from. I was born in Lucknow, but I had never lived there. I never felt Lucknawi, more so after my latest trip early this year. That had snapped any emotional ties I had to that place. I just did not recognise it anymore. Most of the people I knew there who had remembered me from my childhood had died, their name plates still on their ancient wooden doors, their houses abandoned by their children who'd moved out to the newer parts of Lucknow, to other parts of India, to other parts of the world. Greener pastures. They hadn't even bothered to take down the old nameplates. Like Scrooge who had been too miserly to remove his dead partner's name from their office signboard, 'Scrooge & Marley'. Old Lucknow was a ghost ghetto, a grinning skeleton. Like this rural boy here, wanting to know where I was from.

Maybe I was from Delhi? It was the only place in India where I had actually lived, for over a year, working, not on a holiday. I could recognise landmarks and the 'India Today' office in the latest movie 'Rockstar'. And the 'India Today' signboard had been extremely blurry and in the background. You couldn't even see any text, just red and white squares. But I had recognised it. I had even shouted the block out at the theater - F-14/15 Connaught Place! I get excited whenever I can recognise landmarks in any city I'm in. It makes me feel that maybe, just maybe, this is what home feels like. There once was a time in my life when I had started recognising landmarks at airports. The restaurant where the chicken nuggets and fries were good at Zurich. The worship room in Amsterdam. I like the food court at Terminal 3 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. The smell of cinnamon and the sound of jazz at Chicago's O'Hare. The casino posters near the baggage claim area in Tulsa. I remember the woman's face. She was a white brunette in her late 30s and was ecstatically clapping about winning something.

But my Facebook account says that my hometown is Muscat, Oman. I spent 18 years straight there after all. That's the most amount of time I have lived anywhere. A close second is America with my 10 years. Canada was only for 4 months in total, but I am a resident there. I did feel a sense of belonging there for a while because of my immigration status. It made the immigration officer smile at me and say "welcome home". I've even got used to Tim Horton's and the Rogers monopoly. I even know some intersections and Go Train stops in Toronto. I know Dundas Square. I had attended a music fest there for Michael Jackson when he had died. It hadn't felt like he had died then.

The rural boy with the long eyelashes was still looking at his notebook, waiting to see what I wrote, wondering about the long pause before I wrote the name of my hometown. I wrote them all. Lucknow/Delhi/Oman/America/Canada.

"Yeh kya hai?" he asked. What is this?

I told him that I was from all those places. I read out the names even though he could read Hindi. His eyes widened, and he looked at me with new respect. This was probably the first time he'd left his town somewhere in Jharkhand, Uttrakhand, wherever he was from. India's soul is in its villages, Gandhi had said. This was probably the first time he'd visited Delhi. Reaching Delhi had been a miracle for him. Like a trip to Rome for the ancients. Babylon, Cairo, Persepolis. It was what Hollywood had been for me. Staying in Beverly Hills, coming on TV on Jay Leno from Burbank. Having my picture taken on the bridge of the Enterprise-D at the Star Trek museum at the Las Vegas Hilton.

We had both come a long way. Such a long journey it has been.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Voodoo Man

voodoo man
magic man
cast a wicked spell on me
hooked me in my gut like a fish
and tugs at me when he's bored
blew black magic dust in my lungs
without laying a finger on me
just with the way he moved
spanish dancer prowl
he knew i was watching
he did it with the way he looked at me
he knew
he knew
i knew from his half smile
that he knew

Monday, October 17, 2011


Dear God

Remember when I got mad at you
Because bad things had happened
To me
Despite yourself

But I found you again
And I flowered
I felt so wise in my triumph

Now I'm mad at you again
Because bad things are still happening
Much worse things
All around me
To the good, the weak, the silent
Millions and billions
Who speaks for them?

Good things are happening to the bad people
The bad people pick on the carcasses of the good people
They fatten and bloat
All the time
In front of me
In front of my eyes
Where are your eyes?

The good people believe in you
The bad people believe in nothing
How much happier they are
Than the broken good people
Who live and die like animals
Or worse

This time I'm mad at you
For everybody else
Burning rage
My mind is ash
Soul smoke
So mad at you
But I can't find you here
To tell you how mad I am
At you
I know you're out there
You were with me once
Are you not the God of all of us?
Where have you hidden yourself?
Are you hiding because of the bad people?
Are you afraid of them?
Are you afraid of your own creations?
The dollmaker is afraid of his work?
Frankenstein afraid of its monster?

You'd promised us
Over and over
Throughout time
In every language so that we'd know and believe
What was true
What was wrong
So, so wrong
But what of you?
Does your mighty throne not tremble now?
You who said would right all wrongs
You who would be our shield
You who have abandoned us!
You who made demands of us
We now make a demand of you
Hear us now wherever you hide
Show yourself, you who created us without our consent!
Show yourself, you who told us that suffering was divine!
Show yourself, we dare, we dare to make demands of you!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Rock star

"I can't imagine what other people think cold turkey is like. It is fucking awful. On the scale of things, it's better than having your leg blown off in the trenches. It's better than starving to death. But you don't want to go there. The whole body just sort of turns itself inside out and rejects itself for three days. You know in three day it's going to calm down. It's going to be the longest three days you've spent in your life, and you wonder why you're doing this to yourself when you could be living a perfectly normal fucking rich rock star life. And there you are puking and climbing walls. Why do you do that to yourself? I don't know. I still don't know. Your skin crawling, your guts churning, you can't stop your limbs from jerking and moving about, and you're throwing up and shitting at the same time, and shit's coming out your nose and your eyes, and the first time that happens for real, that's when a reasonable man says, "I'm hooked." But even that doesn't stop a reasonable man from going back on it."

- Keith Richards, "Life"

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Beggar with the Red Cup

the curled up dark brown grey man lying so still on the road
in Delhi
tapping the plastic cup on the tarmac
tap tap
it's a red cup with a white rim
in america you can buy dozens of those cups for cheap
frat boys drink beer in it
then they pound their broad well-fed chests
because they are young american men
you can see it in the movies even
families drink punch in those red cups on the 4th of July
they barbeque and eat on plates of red white and blue
celebrating democracy and credit cards
in the land of the free and the home of the brave

Your Songs

the songs you told me about
the songs you told me you liked
the songs you would listen to when no one was around
those songs
which made that moment home
a moment that let you believe
that you were who you could be
that there was still time
they take me there too now
those songs
your songs
i am with you then
i listen to those songs
my feelings about your feelings about those songs
my memories of your memories
i am with you again

Friday, September 30, 2011

Stay hungry, stay foolish

"In return, I want to offer you a few pieces of advice: try to keep it real. Stay true to what’s best in yourself and to the best of what you’ve experienced here at Vassar. Continue to expose yourself to new ideas. Trust your instincts and think for yourself. Make art, or at least value it. Look for the core of what makes each person human, appreciate the details that make them unique.

Find something that moves you or pisses you off, and do something about it. Put your self out there. Be brave. Be bold. Take action. You have a voice. Speak up, especially when something tries to keep you silent. Take a stand for what’s right. Raise a ruckus and make a change. You may not always be popular, but you’ll be part of something larger and bigger and greater that yourself. Besides, making history is extremely cool.

Hold our elected officials accountable. They work for you. Ask them anything you want. If you don’t, you’re giving up on democracy. Inez Milholland – Vassar class of 1909 – didn’t let people silence her and she didn’t let anyone stop her. She became one of the pivotal leaders of the suffragette movement. If you forget everything else I’ve said here today or if you choose to ignore it, remember Inez and remember to vote. It’s a radical act that’s still legal, and we need to keep it that way.

Speaking from my own experience, I also want to offer a warning: you will, undoubtedly, meet people who will try to shut you up or entice you to compromise your principles in any number of ways. They’ll try to seduce you and distract you with money, power, security and perhaps, most dangerously, a sense of belonging. Don’t let them; it’s just not worth it. One of the biggest threats to our world is the culture of silence and compromise—politicians who compromise their beliefs because they’re scared they’ll piss off their voters and won’t get re-elected, corporate executives who put profits above principles. You can have a conscience and still make money. You can have genuine values and still get elected. You can even make movies that do well at the box office without playing to the lowest common denominator.

And try not to let love silence you. And don’t let it kill you—always wear a condom, for god’s sake. Partner with someone who loves you and loves your voice, who loves the very core of who you are and believes in your dreams, not someone who is hell-bent on changing you."

- excerpt from Samuel L. Jackson's 2004 Vassar College commencement address

Monday, September 19, 2011

This Cradle of Civilisation

It's ironic that the one place that I find it hardest to believe in God is in a nation where there are millions of them.

You can feel the absence of a divine presence when you look into the greasy tired faces of the people around you. Their eyes bear the dull cataract of low expectations. I wonder what God the barefooted children covered with rags and mud believe in. This is a country where people are realistic, practical, territorial. There is no room here for dreams. This is the world's largest democracy, a country where its starched leaders fatten as if feeding upon the souls of its withering citizens. The real Indian is an anonymous face, and scores of them fade away everyday without leaving behind their stories. In India, death is a relief, a welcome escape, something worth believing in, like God.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bharat Mata ki Ek Beti

If I have ever been judgmental of gold-diggers or mail-order brides (and I have), then I'm sorry. It will never happen again. I now know how they feel, even in some small tiny laughable way.

I've now been living in India by myself for over a year, and it is solely to that fact that I can attribute my metamorphosis from a fiercely independent and principled pseudo-American career woman to a shrunken Indian version of said pseudo-American who's just waiting to be rescued by the capitalist man of her dreams. Rich socialist bhhi chalega. Do we have any takers?

Don't judge me, my own medicine tastes terrible. Everytime I almost fly off of the cycle rickshaw as the rickshawala decides to speed over a pothole, I miss the shock absorbers of the cars I've ridden in in America (and Canada. You too, Oman). I curse the elements everytime I have to devastate a good hair day by savagely pulling my do back in a behenji ponytail just because it's too damn hot/sticky/windy. Over the past year, I've only ever shopped off of the street because clothes, like people, just seem to fall apart faster in this part of the world. It would hurt too much to have that happen to anything I paid more than 100 rupees for (what is that, like 2 dollars?). I never seem to want to dress nice or comb my hair here anyway. I don't even wear makeup anymore. What's the point? Two minutes on the outside, and either the wind from the autorickshaw ride will ravage the curls that usually set beautifully on their own in a controlled environment, or the monsoon mud will artistically splatter itself all along my calves and precious toes. I now scowl or even fling a dirty look at every car that screams its neverending banshee of a horn into my poor ear. I wonder if the smog and traffic exhaust has formed a permanent layer of hopelessness on my once 20-something-year-old skin. I think of all these things and then fondly remember my vanilla-and-cinnamon-scented sparsely populated existence of the West. What's a pretty girl to do when the shadow of socialism falls upon her?

I'll tell you what she's to do. Visit the parlour regularly, dress the best she can in her budget wardrobe, flash a carnivorous smile or bat a virginal eyelash (both if she's talented), and pray to the gods of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll that Prince Charming (age never a bar) will whisk her away to a capitalist country far, far away. Or at least to the nearest suburb in a nice air-conditioned apartment and car and never let her pretty soles scrape the soil of the motherland again. Inhein zameen pe mat rakhhiyega, mailay ho jaaeinge.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Pretty Woman

He was paying her to look at him that way. It didn't bother him. She was beautiful, soft, clean, and all he wanted was her to spend some time with him. There was no way a woman like that would ever be with someone like him. He knew he had paid for the softness of her eyes, he knew she did not love him, want him, she was only letting him breathe in the perfume in her hair because he had paid for it. He didn't mind. He wanted to rest the scars on his face against the dew on her shoulders, he wanted to feel her soft feet under his cracked soles, he only wanted her to not flinch as he reached out for her skin. He knew that every look of hers, every move of hers, every sound she was going to make was going to be a lie, but he didn't mind. He wanted her to lie to him, he was paying her for the performance. He wanted her to lie to him with all she had, the best she could, the biggest lies she could tell him. He would believe her. He was paying her for the illusion that someone like her could want him, that that was all it took to find a face like hers by his side, looking at him, only at him, reaching out for him with her small soft hands the way he was reaching out to her. It was beautiful. So beautiful. That something in this life could be so simple, such a small easy transaction, it was beautiful.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Casa Mia

This is the last thing I see before I go to sleep, and the first thing I see when I wake up.

This is the ceiling of the room I rent as a paying guest in Delhi's Greater Kailash I. It's been a year since I first set eyes on this ceiling. It was upsetting, I remember. I had been struggling to remain optimistic about my newest adventure in India, but the sight of the matte orange and disco yellow ceiling was the straw that broke the dam that was soldiering my tear glands. The colour combination made me cry. It was atrocious, aesthetically outrageous, the most depressing thing I'd ever seen.

Moving to India, that too New Delhi, was highly disorienting, but I had heard that the GK1 area was posh. It wasn't. It had potholes like the rest of Delhi, untrimmed trees, and dogs, dogs everywhere, wandering about the colony, peeing and pooping all over the place, snarling and barking at you until you felt your insides vibrate. This was not posh. The dogs chained at the entrance of my PG urinated and defecated all over the entrance to the building, and we would all have to begin our day (and end it) by playing hopscotch around excrement. It was not fun. That made me want to cry, but I used to be fairly decent at hopscotch when I was a kid, so I was able to manage. But I could never forget that under all my shoes would now remain layers of animal excrement that I would be tracking along everywhere I went.

Over the past year, I have shared my room not just with my roommate, but with lizards, spiders, rats large enough to be teenage rabbits, and airborne cockroaches. There used to be a couple of roosters who'd crow all day and night long outside our window, but those were taken care of some time ago, hopefully with delicious sauces. Last week I screamed a purely instinctive scream when I encountered a rat scuttling up the bannister of the staircase I was descending. I am not a screamer, so I wondered about that experience. A few days earlier, a friend had screamed as another rat (or maybe the same one?) had fallen off of the clothes that were hanging on the clothesrack behind her door, just like that, like it was the most normal thing to do, like rats plop off of clothesracks all over the world all the time.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Muslim on the Run

"After Partition, many Muslims stayed behind in Bihar instead of joining Pakistan. It's an impoverished, mostly agricultural state that is considered somewhat backward by most of Bombay's middle class, and Akhtar is part of a large migration of young Bihari men who have come to Bombay in recent years to find work. He tells Cassim that he's never met a foreign Muslim before, or anyone who is partly from Pakistan; the idea of an educated, well-traveled Muslim is exotic and interesting to him." - excerpt from 'The Girl from Foreign' by Sadia Shepard

I am an educated, well-traveled Muslim, and I would be fine with that except I don't know what being a Muslim means anymore. In Oman it meant something else - reduced school hours in Ramadhan, lots of government holidays, and weekends that conveniently fell on Fridays. There were Sudani Muslims, Egyptian Muslims, Indian Muslims, Phillipino Muslims, Omani Muslims. They all wore their own national clothing and ate their own kinds of food. Masjids were beautiful, grand, clean. In America, Islam was reactionary, so Arabised, so structured. I discovered a new word - zabiha. The Muslims there would look at me funny - you don't know what zabiha is? I'd only ever heard of halaal. I didn't wear a scarf, and I would feel slightly insulted that people were surprised to find out that I was a Muslim because I didn't wear one, as if I was inadequate, not doing Islam quite right. But I was raised in the Middle East! And the more vicious public debate about Islam got, the more I withdrew philosophically into Islam, arming myself with answers to questions that I had learned to anticipate, questions that ordinarily only a scholar should have been expected to have the answers to. Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam. Bismillah-i-rahman-i-rahim. Five pillars, 1-2-3-4-5. Zakaat 2.5%. Polygamy permitted not recommended. No concept of holy wars in Islam. Back off, back off, back off. Self-proclaimed defender of the faith, the Islamic Joan of Arc, brothers and sisters across the Ummah unite. Yes, we can!

Except this past year, I plunged into mainstream India, dying to be set free from the flat two-dimensional Islamic person I'd started to see myself as from the eyes of those around me. I wanted to be more than an example of Islamic pluralism, more than someone's token centrist Muslim friend, see momma she's not a terrorist, she's quite reasonable, she doesn't even wear a scarf, she drinks Pepsi and goes to the AMC and likes Billy Joel.

This whole past year in India I have not had the time to sleep or dream even. There aren't so many Muslims around in mainstream India anyway. If they are there, they keep to themselves in their secular speech patterns and professions. They acknowledge each other in silent ways, but they daren't step over that fine line. They'll smile at each other and then look away, they'll say hello and you both know why but will not admit it. You've been noticed, you're been watched over, but neither party will do anything more about it. And what a relief that is. Nobody wants to talk about religion in this secular space where everybody dresses and talks the same. It's exhausting, it asks more questions than gives answers, and we're a tired, tired, tired country. I was so grateful that I was just another Indian face whose face and language was suspiciously Muslim-like, but everybody was so busy that at the end of the day, everybody just wanted to talk light. What a relief it was. Nobody had any religious expectations of me, nobody poked and prodded my wilting soul for justifications. We're all just too busy, everybody just wants to be left alone in peace. We all really just want to have a job and an Internet connection and the occassional trip to the mall or the theater or Bangkok.

But then a Muslim girl from Kashmir told me she looked up to me, I'm guessing because I was educated and well-travelled. Me? But I don't wear a scarf. I'd fled halfway across this blessed planet of ours just so that people would stop seeing me as a Muslim. Do you know that this whole year I almost never said as-salaam-alaikum or Khuda haafiz to anybody? I never even said insha Allah or masha Allah, and I never said Allah ka shukar in jest the way I usually do. I never said yaar, Khuda ke liye when someone was getting on my case. I didn't want to. Then when I started wanting to, I didn't. I didn't want to stick out again, I didn't want to sound different again. I wanted to be like everybody else, frivolous and carefree, without worrying about the Day of Judgment or if the French were curbing the rights of Muslim women to express themselves.

I don't seem to understand the Muslims of India. I don't know why they live in ghettoes and why they can't just shake their demoralisations off of themselves and say I'm a bloody citizen of this country and let me see you tell me what to do. Why are they so hostile to the mainstream Muslims who are honestly just trying to make a living? I am not a traitor, I don't even belong to these people, this is only the first year I have lived in this country. I don't know how to look at my own self in India the way others do when they detect my religious identity and all the things it means here. No I don't think it is acceptable to dilly-dally on a court case regarding the demolition of a religious structure where public order is disturbed and oh, people are murdered or tyrannised. Is that a typical Muslim reaction though? I don't understand how to position myself between the Deobandis and Barelvis and the Sufis and the dargahs and the Syeds and all the others. I don't have special knowledge of the Mughal period, and I don't particularly feel too connected to the Ottoman Turks. I just want air-conditioning and regular water supply and no power cuts. I don't want to be a Sharia expert, I don't even want to deal with the autorickshaw driver who insists on charging me an extra 10 rupees. Theek hai, bhaiyya, jo aapki marzi. I want to be pretty, I want to smell nice, and I want to live in luxury. Do any of these things make me more or less of a Muslim? I don't know, I don't know, I still don't know what any of it means.

The Man with the Magazine

The young man sat down next to the young woman at the library. He held in his hands a magazine. A glossy magazine. He was bored. He sharply flipped one page over in her direction. The warmth of his arms carried the dull bitterness of the gloss to the young woman next to him. It startled her as it softly touched her cheek and began to fade away, but not entirely. He flipped another page. And another. It hit her cheek again. Her cheek began to heat up. He flipped another page. Her heart began to pound, her mouth began to water. Delicious. She smiled to herself.

Non (W)Riting Indian

I can't write in India. I'm not sure what it is. My head is exploding with things I want to say; I have a dull headache most days because of it. Maybe it's too much stimulus and not enough quiet time where I can process it all and give it form. India is like that - too much stimulus assaulting your senses, clogging up your creative pores so that nothing can come out. It's like you want to sweat but you can't, like you just can't get all those toxins out, so they just swirl about inside you, poisoning your blood, turning everything sour. I can't write, I can't draw, I can't sing, I just can't do it. My head feels like a collapsing star at the red giant stage - the inside is cooking and cooking and cooking, filling up with hot terrible steam, collapsing upon itself, while the outside remains maybe a little flushed and very still, on the verge of an explosion that will send shock waves throughout the universe. There's so much I have to say, and I want it to sound so beautiful and polished, but that is not India. India is not beautiful or polished. India is a crawling beehive, a wasp's nest, layer upon sticky layer of termites, breeding breeding breeding all over themselves, dirty slimy filthy limbs fighting for air and liberty, never stopping, dissolving all resources, leaving me hollow, a dream home waiting to collapse upon all of those who own it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Who is that woman in the mirror
She looks like who I was supposed to be
I haven't seen her before
But I saw her looking back at me only recently
She's pretty
In a new way
She has nice lips
Her cheekbones have pride
I like the way her shoulders move
I like the way she sits
The way her hair curls around her ear
Something about the way she looks me in the eye
She has a deep glimmer in her eye
Is she really looking at me
Could this woman
Could she really be me

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why I enjoy being 30

1. I trust my judgment and live by instinct.
2. I have learned to pick my battles
3. I now know what haircut suits my face shape.
4. I have figured out how to dress according to my body type.
5. I know what sort of makeup looks good on me.
6. I have become patient.
7. I have learned to forgive myself.
8. I know what shape of eyewear works with my facial features.
9. I can recognise my PMS symptoms.
10. I allow myself to be very selective about whom I let into my life.
11. My body has finally stabilised and stopped changing.
12. I once again look like how I did before puberty hit.
13. I know how to center myself and bring myself to peace.
14. I accept what I see of myself in the mirror.
15. I am comfortable with uncertainty.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


If you saw some footage on NDTV today of the air strikes in Libya, it was edited by me.

There were shots of the night sky somewhere in Libya lit up by what looked (and possibly sounded) like exploding suns. There were some shots of people being rushed into a hospital. There were shots of medical personnel walking about the hospital and treating patients.

What I wasn't allowed to show you was a shot of 3 dead bodies lying on stretchers in some quiet low-priority corner of the hospital. They were the dust-covered bodies of 3 Libyan men dressed in shirts and pants. Their heads lay slung over to one side, like deactivated robots. Their mouths were open, like dead fish. The faces themselves were unrecognisable because most of the facial features had been damaged. The eyes were either closed or had no eyelids at all. The bodies looked like ancient mummies. They were still, very still. Their skin had turned to various shades of yellow and grey. Dirt was in their tousled hair, like as if a sandstorm had raged through it. The dead men looked exactly like the corpses from the movie, 'The Ring'.

Long after the PG-friendly footage that I'd edited had aired without making a dent in anyone's existence, I returned to the original footage on my computer and paused at the shot of the 3 dead men, still lying motionless on those green stretchers. I wanted to see if they would breathe again, if a dangling arm would stir to my surprise. These men hardly looked like they had ever been anything but lifeless. Only a few hours ago they had had names and favourite foods and sleeping habits and desires and facial expressions and plans for the upcoming week. Now they were just APTN footage that no channel would ever air, that no audience would ever witness. Would they ever know that I was here, that I had seen them?

I believe that people really need to see what conflict looks like. They need to see beyond the hustle-and-bustle of its living version, they need to see the stupid stillness of what dies. No wonder the mere mention of war or conflict doesn't outrage us. We've dehumanised conflict. All we see on TV, all that we're shown in the media, are endless shots of living faces and night skies lit up by bombs and tankers rolling down streets that could be anywhere - just lazy passive pictures that lie about, that conceal something that's very wrong and very frightening. What's the point of showing you imagery about an issue when the real imagery is not shown to you in the first place? Have you any idea what you've been missing?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Mirage

her hard eyes devour her reflection
proud of a body in movie star clothes
matching shoes that hide knobbly toes and dirty soles
bad skin scratched by long dirty nails
expensive lotion masks the smell of cigarettes
grey skin grey gums grey lips
lips that kiss hard words and curses
a smile that never reaches her eyes
this young woman
her soiled body
her crooked smile
her crazed eyes
a child of this city

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

You heard it here first

I saw a UFO when I was in school.

At least that's what I think it was. I was 12-14 years old and in the middle of a lesson in my classroom in Muscat, Oman. Our windows that year had a view of the highway piercing through the rocky al Hajar mountains in the distance. The bright blue waters of the Persian Gulf lay unseen on the other side. That day the sky was the way the local newspapers predicted it to be the whole year round - clear to partly cloudy.

I don't remember what subject we had that period. I remember the teacher going on with the lesson and my classmates silently making (or passing) notes. I was seated at my desk in the front of the class, my upper body leaning over the wooden top, my face cradled in the palm of one hand as I looked on at the teacher with an expression of teenage boredom.

My eyes left the teacher and wandered over to the nearest window. Far in the distance, an object that looked exactly like a flying saucer was hovering above the mountains in the baby blue Omani sky. The UFO didn't move, it just stayed in that one spot for the whole 5 seconds I kept looking at it. I was still leaning over my desk, and my face was still cradled in the palm of my hand.

I shifted my gaze across the classroom and then moved it back over to the window. The UFO was gone. The mountains, the highway, the tiny cars zipping along the highway looked deceptively innocent.

Dumbed down and easy to digest

"An Islamic government is charged with supporting all religions equally. It is a twist on the American ideal of separation of church and state, which forbids government from having any role in religion. In contrast, Islam says the state must support all religions!

The Islamic government is forbidden to seize the churches, synagogues, or temples of any group, nor can the government meddle in the appointment of religious leaders by each group. The treaty Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, made with a local Christian community is very clear: No bishop can be removed from his office and no church can be confiscated.

From the time of Prophet Muhammad (p) through the last Muslim Empire of the Ottomans Muslim rulers have been particularly concerned with the welfare of their non-Muslim subjects and their religious needs. For example, in the year 1076, the Muslim ruler of Bejaya, in present-day Algeria, wrote to Pope Gregory VII about the desire of the Christians in his land for a certain priest to be promoted to bishop. The pope was so overjoyed at this expression of religious respect that he wrote a beautiful letter in response, which concluded with the words: "We pray with heart and mouth that, after a long sojourn in this life, the same God may guide you to the bosom of happiness of the holy patriarch Abraham."

Has Muslim history had its share of despots and kings? Sure it has, but so has the Christian world. What is to be judged are the principles and not how faithfully they are applied."

- Yahiya Emerick, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam, 2nd Edition"

Saturday, April 16, 2011

C'est la vie en rose

In early 2006, Yohanna was a hundred years old. I was 24, but I felt a lot older, as if I had lived too much too soon. I was running on empty. I did not find the company of my chronological peers satisfying, which is why I had started volunteering at the retirement home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That's where I had met Yohanna, the 100-year-old Frenchwoman.

Yohanna was tall and wore a short dark wig. I only ever saw her in pant suits. Her face was doughy and lumpy, as if it had been made of wax and had been placed too close to a heat source before being rescued. The thick downward folds of her skin gave her a permanent scowl. Her skin itself looked bloodless. Her voice was low and sometimes unclear, it was often hard to follow what she was saying. Her fingers looked bloated and shook often, her hands had age spots like freckles, and under the bright nailpolish her nails were surely yellowed and had stopped growing. Like her surroundings, she smelled of napthalene and floral airfresher. Sometimes lavender. Always overpowering.

Yohanna wasn't the sociable type. She mostly kept to herself in her room, or you could catch her shuffling down the hallways. That's where I first met her. It was my first day at the retirement home, and the head nurse was showing me around. She saw Yohanna from afar and whispered to me that she was from France. I had studied some French at university, so I sprang up to Yohanna and tapped her on her bent back. She spun around and gave me a hard look that almost silenced me. Bonjour, ca va, I managed to say. She immediately began muttering in French, too softly and too fast for me to understand. She almost sounded like she was talking to herself, catching up on some conversation she had left off the previous week. Plus lentement s'il vous plait, I said, asking her to please slow down. She eyed me harder. Je suis Khadija, et vous? I asked her. She rambled on in French, and then suddenly switched to heavily-accented English so fast that it took me a second to realise it. She looked at me even harder.

I introduced myself to her once again. She asked me how old I was, and I told her. She suddenly became very friendly with me and started telling me about when she was my age. She said in those days the soldiers would come to her town in France and dance with the local girls. (She often spoke of soldiers, I don't know what soldiers they were, maybe World World II?) She placed one hand on her hip and bent her knees and jiggled her shoulders to show me how they would dance. She stopped dancing just as soon as she'd started - she said she would've taught me those steps except that I was too young and the steps were too risque and the girls had been 'bad'. If these were the days when her complexion had some blood in it, she might've blushed. And we were friends.

I followed her around the rest of the day listening to her stories. She told me how she'd met her husband who had been much older than she was. She said she had never paid attention to boys or love until the day she locked eyes with the man that was to be her husband. He looked at her and she looked at him across a distance between them. That was it, she had told me, something intense was felt between them. She clenched her fists trying to find a word for what it was that they had felt that day, but she couldn't find one, and I didn't need her to. They got married soon after.

She once showed me a picture of her husband, a small black and white studio photograph of a kind-looking man in his early 40s with a round face and a Hitler moustache. I asked her for more photographs but she said she didn't believe in keeping any. Memories were enough, photographs were just things according to her.

She did fish out a photograph of herself a few weeks later. She had allowed me into her room, and I was sitting on her bed beside her. The bedspread was white with pink flowers on it, a very British tea set print. She suddenly put a small black and white photograph in front of me, not saying anything because she wanted to see my reaction, raw and instinctual.

I didn't recognise the woman in the photograph. She was incredibly beautiful though - a dark-haired woman with long hair loosely tied away from her face, full lips with dark lipstick on them, very 1940s. Her eyes were large and bright, her face was full and glowing. She was sitting under a wall in a button-down shirt, looking straight into the camera. What a beautiful woman, one of those who could not see her own beauty, the best kind. You could see it in the demure look in her eyes as she shyly looked at the photographer, as if it was not her usual habit to look people directly in the eye. A soft, effortlessly beautiful, healthy, fresh-looking woman.

I turned to the skinny old woman with the molten face and the pant suit hanging off of her bones, the photograph still in my hands. Is this you? I asked in disbelief, you're so beautiful. She waved her hands in dismissal. Oh I was nothing, she said. But she looked pleased.

Then she suddenly remembered her dead husband. She told me how much they had loved each other. The tough old woman who prowled the retirement home on her own and never betrayed any emotion suddenly welled up. Her voice began to waver. It had been 40 years, she said. Her husband had died 40 years ago. Then her voice strengthened again and her back straightened as she declared with pride that she had never loved anyone since.

She got up and pulled his photograph out of her dresser. She lovingly stroked his face as she told me how she had started shrieking at his funeral when his casket was being lowered into the ground. Her family had had to hold her back. I don't know when she came to America or how many children she had had, but she definitely had one daughter in Tulsa. She had put Yohanna here in the retirement home because it was tough for young people to take care of their parents, what with how busy they all were with their own lives and jobs and children. I had seen Yohanna calming another lonely old woman at the home with that explanation.

And then Yohanna remembered that she needed help with a CD player. She started rummaging through her closet and pulled out a portable player, holding it like the frighteningly unfamiliar piece of equipment that it probably was to her. A CD was still in it. Someone had helped her set it up so that she would just have to press the play button, but something had gone wrong and she wasn't able to listen to her favourite music anymore. Music was pretty much all she had of her past life now, and I could see how helpless she felt around this new piece of technology.

I wasn't very confident about my hardware skills, but I saw that the player was set to radio, so maybe all I had to do was turn the knob to CD and hit play. I did, and soft music floated out of the speakers almost unexpectedly. Yohanna clasped her hands and then reached out to hold mine. Her hands were clammy. I could feel the loose flesh and cold skin hanging off of her bones. Oh my darling, she exclaimed, thank you! She took a few long steps across the room as if she was dancing with a ghost. The music played on. I would listen to this blessed song over and over when I was young, she almost sang to me, thank you, thank you. Por ella, she trilled along with Julio Iglesias.

I smiled awkwardly not sure how to receive her gratitude over such a small task. I didn't even know if I was supposed to join her in the dance, she was swaying to the song with her eyes shut. I felt like I would be intruding, so I decided to just sit there and watch an old woman escape to a happier time.

I did ask her once, how would I know if a guy really loved me? You will be able to see it in his eyes, she had said, he will not be afraid to show it.

I made my mom meet her once at the home. My mom was visiting me for a few weeks, and by then, Yohanna had become my escape from the world I was living in. I would spend time with her every weekend, listening to her stories and asking her questions about life that everyone else seemed to just be lying to me about. I took my mother straight to the home and made our way to Yohanna's door. Yohanna was happy to meet my mother. She immediately started saying something to her in her heavily-accented English. My mother, all 5 feet of her 60-something self, froze with a terrified smile on her face as the tall thin Yohanna adjusted the short wavy locks around my mother's forehead, telling her to take care of her hair like a mother would. I noticed how young my mother looked in front of Yohanna, and then I realised that Yohanna was probably as old as my mother's parents would've been. Maybe even as old as one grandmother of hers. I began talking to Yohanna, and pretty soon I noticed my mother asking me, almost desperately, to leave. Once we were outside the home and back to the living world, my mother told me she felt frightened inside the home and that it smelled funny, like a beautiful farce for the barely living. She remained agitated about the whole experience for the rest of the day.

I met Yohanna every weekend for a couple of months. The first thing I would do every visit would be to find her and start talking to her about things. She told me once that she noticed I was a lover of beautiful things. I had been happily holding a flower then. Once I had held the door open for her and had insisted that she go first despite her feeling awkward about it. She tried to make me change my mind for a minute, and then she came close to me and looked into my eyes with that crazy look she would sometimes get and told me that I was a good person, a very good person, and that some people would take advantage of it, so it was important that I knew when to stop being good and with whom.

Once I met her after an interval of two weeks. I flew around the home, all smiles and happy to be back, asking the residents and the staff where Yohanna was. They said she was in her room. I made a beeline for her door and knocked on it. Yohanna opened the door slightly with the chain locked and peered at me suspiciously with one eye. I started - I was not used to Yohanna looking at me with that kind of a hard look, as if she was being aggressive just to protect herself. It's me, Khadija, don't you remember?

She didn't. I never went back to that retirement home again. I didn't have it in me to start over.


"You're sitting with some guys, and you're playing and you go, "Ooh, yeah!" That feeling is worth more than anything. There's a certain moment when you realise that you've actually just left the planet for a bit and that nobody can touch you. You're elevated because you're with a bunch of guys that want to do the same thing as you. And when it works, baby, you've got wings. You know you've been somewhere most people will never get; you've been to a special place. And then you want to keep going back and keep landing again, and when you land you get busted. But you always want to go back there. It's flying without a license."

- Keith Richards, "Life"

"Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return."

- Leonardo da Vinci

The family that grieves together

"Afterward, for many days, Kunta hardly ate or slept, and he would not go anywhere with his kafo mates. So grieved was he that Omoro, one evening, took him to his own hut, and there beside his bed, speaking to his son more softly and gently than he ever had before, told him something that helped to ease his grief.

He said that three groups of people lived in every village. First were those you could see - walking around, eating, sleeping, and working. Second were the ancestors, whom Grandma Yaisa had now joined.

"And the third people - who are they?" asked Kunta.

"The third people," said Omoro, "are those waiting to be born.""

- Alex Haley, "Roots"


This is not about Kiran Bedi the celebrity. This story is about me. I realised this while waiting outside her house in South Delhi with the rest of the camera crew from NDTV.

It was only last year in Muscat, Oman, that I had been spitting mad about missing out on Kiran Bedi's visit to the Indian Embassy and to my alma mater. My father had had passes for the event but for some reason had not thought that any of us in the family would have been interested. And I was interested! Growing up outside of India, one could only keep up with the newsmakers in the homeland through the TV and newspapers. You just didn't have the kind of access to these people that you might've had if you'd been living in India. As Indians, you felt like these public figures were yours in some familial way. In India you might be able to run into them at malls or at a rally or something. Somewhere. Anywhere. Not so overseas. So I was mad that I'd missed Kiran Bedi's visit to Oman. I'd lost my chance.

And so an improbable year later I was waiting to enter her house as part of an NDTV crew. A few minutes later I was in her office watching the camera crew set up for her interview as she quietly read some newspapers at her desk. I let my gaze wander about the numerous framed items around her office - a picture of Swami Vivekananda, a 5th grader's handmade sketch of Mahatma Gandhi, numerous awards and plaques, and images of the Hindu deity Ganesha. A small tower of books stood upon a table behind her desk. One of the books was about the influential women of India.

I started as I caught sight of two framed silver Omani khanjar daggers high up a wall. The sudden sight of those familiar objects from a faraway Middle Eastern childhood threw me off for a second - I felt a little bit off kilter as I got confused about which country I was in. Then I remembered once again that I was in India and that the khanjars must've been presented to Kiran Bedi when she was in Muscat last year...during the trip I had been so close to attending. A soft feeling of homesickness for an alien nation warmed my cheeks because I had discovered that another person in the same room had stepped onto its soil as well.

I stayed back in Kiran Bedi's office for a minute after the crew had packed up and left. I told her that I was raised in the country that the khanjars were from and how close I'd been to seeing her there. She smiled. Then I adjusted the tripod bag that was slung across my back and left, not angry about last year's passes anymore.

Read related: Climbing Every Mountain

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dilli ki Hava

there is shit in the air
and when the breeze blows it's like getting a shit facial
the flavour of the breeze coats my windpipe
a thick coat of shit i can almost swallow
sometimes it's urine
pungent like knitting needles through my eyeballs into my brain
tickling my tear glands but not enough
giving me a dull headache like cigarette smoke but not quite
the smell of old ammonia and something worse

Dilli Live

Today I spent about 5 hours at the Patiala House Court in New Delhi standing and waiting for the 2G scam accused to step out after a bail hearing. A fellow intern and I arrived at the court complex at 1245am with a reporter and a cameraman and were only able to leave 5 hours later after standing for most of that time on an empty stomach. The hearing was supposed to be from 2pm to 4pm, but the ending kept getting delayed in increments. It felt like waiting for a late Indian train which has no intention of arriving before a delay of 14 hours (that happened to me once).

There was no place for the press to sit, and some photographers eventually decided to sit down on the very filthy ground. I could only bring myself to a squat after around 330pm. The photographers got so bored that they started taking pictures of each other, "for Facebook" someone joked.

When the accused eventually stepped out one by one, cameramen (there were no camerawomen there) ferociously descended on them from all sides in an overwhelming God's Wrath sort of fashion. Who were these guys? Where were the sweet cameramen I had just stood with for so many hours? It was a stampede, the ground was shaking. My heart came into my mouth, and I sprinted out to a safe distance. Tall men with cameras that looked like the Terminator's machine gun were swarming around (up, down, and on the sides of) the accused like giant cyborgs, yelling at each other as flashbulbs went off like juggernaut lightning. It was like a scene from a pilgrimage gone mad. You couldn't see the accused in the middle of the crowd, but they kept moving, trying to get to the safety of their vehicles out on the main road. I felt somewhat afraid that someone would get hurt badly in that chase. There was so much shouting and aggression in that crowd that orbitted around the accused, I realised later that I had held my breath waiting for the sound of a cracking camera or skull. I am still not sure if I'd be able to tell the difference between those sounds.

It was not a short way from the courthouse to the main road. The accused and their suffocating envelope of cameramen pushed and shoved all the way to the outside and rocked the security walkway and a metal gate on their way. The guards kept their distance mostly out of shock. Bystanders both inside the courthouse and outside kept asking us who was being chased. An older man in the court complex huffed and puffed - photography was not allowed in the court complex! An old dust-covered toothless man sitting near the main road was watching the accused dive into their cars. He kept chuckling and calling out, "Ayyy Raja Babu!"

But that was a learning experience that I am grateful for. The real memories that I will be taking with me of the Patiala House Court in New Delhi are:

1. people taking long luxuriant naps on the court lawn
2. a dirt-covered boy of about 4 standing in the middle of a court courtyard with his pants pulled down to his feet and peeing with all the glory that God had intended. He just stood there with his lower body completely exposed, urinating on Indian judicial property as lawyers, judges, and maybe some media personnel walked all around him. They kept walking after the boy had put his pants back on and left. Some walked right over his urine, by then an anonymous puddle in the middle of the courtyard.
3. a lawyer blowing his nose hard and letting it drip to the ground outside a court where the camerapeople , including my fellow intern and I, were standing and contemplating sitting on the ground
4. dogs and cats wandering about the court complex
5. swarms of flies (and much worse?) around all the food stalls in the court complex
6. everything smelling of excrement and urine, especially when the breeze picked up
7. dirty walls that I eventually convinced myself to lean against when my feet began to hurt

Today was a small sample of the paparazzi experience. I expressed my surprise at the aggression of the cameramen to a reporter, what if the accused had got hurt? A fist fight had almost broken out out there on the road. An accused had been unable to get into his car at first because the crowd had pushed him to another car.

The reporter shrugged my concerns away with a grand disaffected declaration - so what, he said. What's more important, getting the visual or keeping the subject safe?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Coolest Clique Ever

Random invites to strange chat rooms - I always wanted to be a part of DrunkGirlRoom! And by always, I mean never.