Woman up! The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is here

Image courtesy: Amazon Prime

Somewhere in the past few years, at least in my slice of the universe, women found self-love. Brene Brown became a role model, vulnerability became an asset, and ‘I am enough’ became something to wear on one’s t-shirt. In the ensuing Instagram avalanche of personal stories, embracing our imperfections and owning our bodies became a thing.

But nothing truly prepared us for The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, currently in its second season on Amazon Prime.  On the face of it, Mrs Maisel (referred to as Midge or Miriam) is a privileged Upper West Side (New York) woman with a marriage and two kids, a manicured home and a talent for baking (she trades briskets to gain spots at a café for her husband’s unoriginal standup acts). When Midge’s husband decides to leave her for his secretary one night, her carefully curated life becomes a house of cards; she responds by venting in a drunken stupor in front of an audience at the same café and discovers something about herself: she has a flair for standup comedy.

Mrs Maisel is a lot.  She’s endearing, witty, attractive, poised, well dressed, the life of the party. She is the loud one, the funny one, the ballsy one, the weird one – and she lets all of them thrive.  Midge has the goods to do whatever she needs to do to survive in a world of patriarchy, but there is no feminism in her universe, even though she occasionally stumbles into rallies and says things like, “Women will fix it. And accessorize it!”

Yes, she is a “fix it” bomb, much as my mother and I are; much as we all are.

She wears her sexuality lightly, her motherhood even lighter. When she talks about pregnancy – “allowing another human to grow inside you till it reaches a size of 6-12 pounds and then giving it an escape route the size of a change purse,” you chuckle. When she wonders if she was meant to be a mother and maybe she picked the wrong profession, you find yourself leaning forward. Ever so slightly.

But Midge’s journey towards finding her voice is far more layered than the predictable evolution from housewife to career woman. She in that sense is Everywoman — angry and sad, inspired and hopeful, vulnerable and buoyant at the same time.

The part that I found most straightforward and progressive is that she turns her marital mishaps into material and she does this without pointing fingers. I may not have her waist, or share her fetish for hats but I could see scenes from my life playing out as comedy (even the sad ones). Everything is material.

I wasn’t perplexed that a show about a woman who is a mother does not focus on her motherhood; her children are like byproducts, props in the background, almost invisible, inaudible even. As someone who struggled balancing motherhood with a writing career (and still does), I was reminded that even with all the strollers, baby-wearing gear, and tactile toys in the world, birthing and caring for children inevitably presents a roadblock to nurturing the self. Women who write “having it all” essays obviously haven’t struggled with stifling creative freedom.

She talks to the mothers who rejoice when their children go to school than to the perpetually-joyful mothers.  Yes, she has parents in the same building (and later, in the same house when she moves in with them); yes she often leaves her kids with them, yes they were far less hands-on than she was, and yes, it was the maid who really looked after the kids – I didn’t process the logistics. Except that one time when she, midway through wheeling her kid in the park, starts addressing a rally and I wondered where the baby was. I still loved her, and at no point was in in the mood to analyze her motherhood skills, a thing I probably would have done in my early years of motherhood, perhaps still hung over from prostaglandins. Motherhood doesn’t seem an obvious challenge for her; perhaps she doesn’t overthink it, although she phones her mother while on tour and wonders if “the baby” has forgotten her.

The fact that her children seem to deliberately fade into the background is exactly why The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel worked for me. May be it shouldn’t have.

She has a day job as a sales counter girl or cloak girl at a departmental store and is demoted to working the phones, but money is never a problem for her. As a single mother with no child support, this should have jarred or made me angry – how unequal our lives were, despite having something in common. But it didn’t.

The point is: the show isn’t applauding Midge’s bravado of venturing into a standup career despite having two small children. It worked for me because it treats the two as mutually exclusive events.  The show is set in the late 50s but remains very now: the universally internalized notion that motherhood should be joyful is often in conflict with the desire to pursue joys of a different sort. We can’t pretend that deriving joy from our children does not, at some point or another, come at the expense of our own professional and creative journeys.  Because despite all the cacophony of voices we nurture and support, we can still hear our own. And that’s just fine.

(An edited version of this post appeared as an article in the Indian Express Sunday Eye on 23rd December 2018) 

Mindful, foldful, Origamiful

GUEST POST: Roopika Sood

Two weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, as I unlocked the Origami room, I was seized by a strange kind of fear – that of being stood up. Unlike the usual screaming, gate-crashing little zealots I faced every other day, today was different – it was a class meant for adults. It had been a herculean task to get them to agree to sacrifice a lazy Sunday morning.

20 minutes later, all eight heads were hung over with shoulders hunched and backs bent. (They reminded me of my parents who drop off for a siesta while watching our Sunday afternoon movies that are a weekly family ritual.) Except that the quick moving fingers here gave away the frisky minds at work. These were far from sleepy. These were agile, alert minds, looking to unearth hidden clues in a maze. Like squirrels working intentionally and intensely, dexterity and precision were the secretly, silently, shared ambition.

I moved around like Mother Hen in a coop, though it felt like I was walking on egg-shells. As I moved around as unobtrusively as I could, I heard a gentle humming. She was glued to her private moment. I would dare touch it or let anyone break that bubble of focus. That was my real role – to trigger, to watch, and finally to protect – a deeply personal moment of creative struggle. I kept a close watch on her but moved away to see two others, relatively animatedly talking. This is always a delicate situation – when two people are struggling together with an Origami challenge. And while they were speaking to each other in near whispers, they hadn’t noticed me shuffling over their shoulders. Total immersion again. As I moved away, I noticed 10 pieces on the table, the eleventh under construction. It was a eight unit model. She was humming something and folding on and on and on. Absolute focus, total immersion. A tender, private moment.

My first brush with Origami was a foldful afternoon hour that had spread to six hours and I hadn’t realised how. It was a turning point in my life – I hadn’t found anything this engrossing in a long while. And I was tired but beaming at the end of the six hours – like a good marathon, a long yoga session or a typical meditation circle.

When someone at office was asked to buy a colouring book (by her psychiatrist, no less!) to calm the tornado of thoughts that were constantly draining her mind, it got me thinking. This was the art therapy fad that was catching on at offices to the point that our CEO went out and bought coloring books for the official Zen Room.

What is it about working with our hands that makes time fly, thoughts pause and our breathing come back to a happy rhythm? Meditation, by definition, does not specify technique – any process that brings the mind to refocus, to calm, to stillness, works. In all my years of teaching Origami, I have experienced this same facet. Folding teases the intellect at first, then wraps the mind in its grip, in its ambition, in its demand of absolute attention.

Does all Origami make time fly? No. With modular origami where identical units come together, I enjoy the repetitive rhythm of the folding sequences, the struggle to zoom in and zoom out periodically while fitting the pieces together and the end result of watching an elegant, colourful whole from various vantage points. With tessellations and corrugations, the creasing of the initial grid is painstaking and pushes me to the wall. Gradually, my mind floats away to other realms while my fingers work as if on auto-pilot. The feeling of surprise at having finished folding all the papers that lay before me hours ago always surprises me.

Immersion. Focus. Concentration. Absorption. Mindfulness. Meditation. These words floated within the conversations between the folds fluidly with people of all sizes. This is what it really is, isn’t it – Focus (on the moment), Forget (any other moment, past or future) and Feel Fulfilled.

The privacy of being completely with yourself and the option of being with others that Origami grants is rare – and precious. Folding sessions often find people hunched down with a little frown of rapt attention as well as people connecting over a shared challenge that is as much a unifier as a conversation-starter. “Mindful, Foldful” is the tag-line in my head for the next wave of mindfulness meditation. There have been umpteen articles and books on Mindfulness and Origami, Zen Origami etc. Try Google and you’ll know that I am not the first to discover this.

Try folding, actually, and you’ll know why. Try it without a watch and you are on my side.


(Roopika loves colour, stories and people. After teaching for nine years in boarding schools, this Delhiite is now in Chennai, reconnecting with city-life, redefining herself, rediscovering the power of art in everyday life and chucking away her CV for good. Watching people have their ‘Eureka’ moment while working with their hands thrills the teacher in her. She blogs about her work on handsonpaper,blogspot.com) 

Trying to be green, one hand-me-down at a time

World Environment Day

Water color by Vidya Gopal

It was World Environment Day yesterday and it’s all very confusing  – I am told being vegetarian is not so green anymore because it takes much more lettuce to make the same amount of calories than say bacon. I don’t want to start eating bacon, but that doesn’t mean I am not environmentally conscious.

Also, there is this whole straw movement and I did wonder at some point if I should buy a metallic straw, but the point is – I never did straws anyway; I always found them silly, and besides, I never had a real need for them; I never took to aerated drinks or drinking colored liquids with fancy umbrellas. Or smoothies/cold coffees. Which is why I didn’t introduce them to the child either. We are both slurpers. So that’s one less thing we were polluting the environment with and one less thing to substitute.

As for bamboo toothbrushes, I will buy them when my local chemist or grocer sells them. Ordering them online — when a tiny toothbrush comes mummified with triple layered bubble wrap which is covered by another sheath of plastic somehow doesn’t make sense to me. The same way as buying organic dals (is the plastic it comes in also organic, I feel like asking). I would rather buy whatever dal my local grocer has – less wrapping. But every single thing you buy has plastic in it. Bigger the brand, more the layers of plastic. Everything you eat has touched plastic in some way, even if you made it from scratch. Isn’t that scary?

I wish I could say that I grow my own produce (or at least herbs and cherry tomatoes) in my backyard, but my father grabbed all dibs on green thumbs in the family, and is being sustainable on a piece of land in Belgaum, where he grows enough for the family and some friends.

I wish I could say that I have got rid of all plastic in my life (where does plastic go when you get rid of it?). But no matter how consistently and consciously I say no to plastic, it always makes an appearance insidiously. I try to control it from multiplying – but everything comes in plastic, even though it all sits in my cloth bag. I also try to buy large quantities of things – giant toothpastes, shampoos and big bags of rice and giant cans of oil – but at some stage, they all have to be replenished.

I wish I could say that I have switched to cycling and have stopped using my car, but I like air conditioning, and I also use it (albeit for a few hours) at home. If we had better weather, perhaps I would be more green, I tell myself.

It was a few months post baby that I calculated that his diaper consumption must have made a little hillock in a landfill somewhere. It was also when talks of climate change and global warming had reached their peak and there was a sense of alarm. If planet earth were the stock market, it would have crashed then. Since I already had made the baby, I couldn’t be one of those people who said that I wouldn’t have children because I want to save the planet. But I decided one thing – I will use less, want less and  recycle more. I think I have stayed true to that resolution for the most part. I rarely shop (not for clothes, shoes, accessories, belts, bags – nothing). Everything I own is old or gifted or handed down. Even when I travel abroad, I end up going to thrift stores if at all. I buy most books for Re from second hand stores or garage sales. I often wish that one could recycle uniforms and books in schools too, but when I bring it up, other parents roll their eyes. I buy groceries because we have to eat; occasionally I buy treats for us, but there is always a mindfulness about it. 

Re has grown up almost entirely on recycled clothes and shoes. Most of his toys are recycled, although birthdays go a little out of control with people buying random presents that sometimes I have to find ways to recycle. I have some mindful and generous friends who keep aside old clothes, shoes, toys, board games, puzzles and raincoats etc for Re. He doesn’t know that shopping is a luxury and till today, we haven’t actually gone shopping for things – except perhaps to a garage sale for books.  This year on my birthday, I asked my friends not to buy me gifts, but give me something old, something they might have outgrown. It was beautiful, the way everyone responded. It is catching on.

A few weeks ago, my bhangarwala (local buyer of recyclable items including newspaper, bottles, cans , etc) asked me if I had old metal, since bottles had no value any more (the bottle recycling industry was shutting down). Since my mother will throw a fit if I give any of her copper bottomed heirlooms or iron griddles, I told him I had nothing. What about old toys or books of the child, he asked. I told him I donate it to the Don Bosco shelter for children and he laughed. “Ha ha , but they sell it to me, so you might as well, directly”

Now I give stuff to Goonj occasionally, but if there are things that I would like to set free (I don’t like the word donate), I make a list of people, call them, and ask them if they would like a pair of sneakers, a good swimming costume, books or floats or anything in good condition that my child or I may have outgrown physically or emotionally. It takes work, but it is infinitely more rewarding. Likewise, when I want something specific I ask for it. Like right now, I want a cycle. Anyone?

When I am tired of my stuff and want new stuff, I have no shame in asking people for hand-me-downs – ripped jeans, jackets, sarees, kurtas bags, embroidery books, knitting needles, yarn, whatnot. And people are always generous. I have a circle of friends I regularly do barters with and I will recycle anything and so will the child. This is the nice thing about making art. Everything finds a place.

The worst thing for the environment is not straws – it’s greed and random consumption –  to always want more, own more, dump more.

I had a green childhood. We grew up green. Our school satchels were made of thick canvas/cloth and we had the same one for several years, frequently stitched up. My textbooks were kept aside for my siblings as they were in pristine condition. Tiffin boxes were always steel. We drank water from taps. For notebooks, we used brown paper, home-made labels and home-made gum paste. All our clothes were stitched at home and everything we ate was made at home. Except Parle G and sliced bread (which made a guest appearance once in a while). We walked to school, we played with friends, we hardly had toys. Once in a month, my father or the domestic help would go to Pai stores with a list and groceries would be brought home in a large jute bag. Tins had to be sent for oil, ghee. Everything else came in recycled brown paper bags. Rice was bought from farmers (my dad always knew someone) in large 20 kg gunny bags. The only plastic that came into the house was the milk packets of Warana milk that Amma started buying once she found that our milkman was giving us more water than milk from his canister. She would wash and dry each packet, making a sort of accordion like arrangement on the kitchen tiles where they stood next to each other. These were sold once a month for Rs 7 a kilo to the same guy who bought our old newspapers. Empty pages of our school notebooks were collected and bound into “rough books” in the school holidays. Uniforms had hems that if unfurled, would run up to our ankles (just in case we got my father’s height)

Fruit was not a staple, but we occasionally ate guavas, bananas, oranges, watermelon or anything seasonal. Once a year, a crate of mangoes arrived and we had no upper limit on how many we could have. It was real indulgence. We had no gadgets (except a Sumeet mixer and a Phillips radio). No one spoke about global warming. It wasn’t a thing.

I am saddened by the world we are leaving for our children. And each time I look in my garbage bin, I am saddened even more. Especially when I multiply that amount by 1.2 billion people.

Two years ago, my son was picking up litter in Landour and he said something that i will never forget. “Mamma, when humans don’t want things, they throw it on mother earth. It’s like they don’t want garbage in their house, but they are okay with throwing it on Mother Earth’s garden. At this rate, all that garbage will become another planet.”

May be it will.

(If you’d like prints of the above water color, do get in touch with Vidya Gopal on her instagram @spink_bottle )

Why solitude is a mother’s best friend

Water color by Vidya Gopal

Water color by Vidya Gopal

Earlier this month, I packed away my mother and my eight year-old son for three weeks to Dubai as I wanted to be home alone. My mother and I co-parent my child and I am often caught between having to be a daughter, a mother, a caregiver and myself.

It was the ‘myself’ bit that I wanted to steal from my life and this was as good a time as any. My sister and my closest friend live in Dubai and they were happy to host the twosome, who came back nourished and rejuvenated, as much I was, in their absence.

There were eye rolls. Figurative ones of course.

“But you just traveled to Italy like a month ago!”

“Will he manage?”

“Three weeks! Has he stayed without you for that long?”

People didn’t say it, but I heard it nonetheless. It’s not that I needed the kid out of my way because I didn’t know what to do with him. The two of us have done plenty of nothing in the past few years during the holidays.

What I needed was to get his mother out my way, so that I could be with me.

It was easy to legitimize this aloneness. I had committed to an impossible deadline and the only way I could make it happen was to not have anything come in my way. No child-related decisions. No giving instructions in triplicate. No “what do we cook today?”. No random logistics to compute or things to co-ordinate, plan, or execute. No listening or speaking (the best bit for me!). No domesticity.

There were smaller rewards. Not getting derailed every time I paused to look at a sunrise. Having a whole mug of tea uninterrupted. Being able to make things about me. What do I feel like eating for breakfast? When do I want to take a nap? Do I really feel like talking today?

I led the student life that I had never led as a student, which included, among other things – eating podi rice or stuffing leftover pasta in my sandwich and grilling it. It was yumm, by the way.

I like being alone. I like cooking for one. I love a table for one.

I got a lot done too, and it was not all about work.

One of the things that goes out of the window when you become a mother is the luxury of solitude. A fair bit of it had already gone out when I married a man who sulked when I told him I don’t do “I miss yous”; I had programmed myself to fake it. Solitude, therefore, on the rare occasion that it came my way, did seem like a luxury. It was always measured. It was often stealthy.The father of my child got plenty of it though. All it took was a ‘smoke break’ or an X Box controller.

There were several times in the early stages of motherhood when I would dream of waking up single – when there was no baby who really needed me, when I had no one to answer to, when I could take myself out for a movie or a dinner and not have to explain. Or just drive around in my car, listening to the radio because that was my truly alone space.

Perhaps my intense need for solitude and inability to orchestrate the cosmetic togetherness that seemed necessary for my marriage paved the way to my single momhood, and for that, I am grateful. That I was able to recognize the signs and run, while I was still a good enough mom to my child and still enough in love with myself to want to claim me back.

The single mom thing therefore suited my personality really well. In my mind, I was always single and now, I was a mom too.  I didn’t have to fake collaboration anymore because I didn’t think it worked in the first place.

If it’s tough for mothers to hold onto their solitariness, it is even harder for a single mother. But sadder than the loss of solitude is the loss of anonymity. If you have to get away and leave the child in the hands of another caregiver, it better be a thing. And it had better be work, for the most part. Whenever I entered a room, the mother entered before me; when I left a room, the mother left before me. It’s a thing.

I knew all that I needed was some quiet time to heal. May be I would have got it if I had asked for it, but I never did. And even when I got it, I filled it with something, and it usually involved people. Yes, there are work trips. Getaways. But they don’t always qualify, because they are about other people too.

I know that when I go long enough without claiming solitude, I feel disconnected from myself and everything around me. But this time, I didn’t want to lose myself in the hills or the seaside or a foreign country.

I wanted to find myself in my own home. There’s something truly special about being alone in your own home. Not a hotel room. Not a flight. Not an Air BnB. Not a friend’s home. Just that same space you nurtured every corner of, but never found the time or the luxury to savor.

I finally asked for it.

I got it.

Growing up poor as one of three children in a family that never put a premium on solitude, I didn’t realize what I was missing. But I found myself travelling alone in my twenties, when it was not even a thing. I had moved to a working women’s hostel and it was the first time I had a room to myself. Unlike what others said, I slept very well, had good dreams, and no, I didn’t miss home. I often watched plays and movies alone. There were friends who didn’t get it, and thought I was odd. But I thought to never want to be alone – that was odd, almost unhealthy.

When my son was away, I didn’t send “I miss you” texts and voice messages and neither did he. I didn’t call every day to check on him. In fact, I didn’t call at all. Every time I would receive an update or some photos on WhatsApp, I would smile at the realization that I did something right. For the both of us.

Among other things, I found time to grieve. I hadn’t grieved my failed marriage, the two cats I lost in the last year, my numb disconnectedness with the autopilot world around me, the part of me that was lost in the constant winging of things – work, life, money, motherhood.

Grief is a luxury. It needs time. Space.  Grief can’t be collaborative.

I clearly hadn’t timetabled grief in my schedule. It will happen, I told myself.

When Re returned, he had learned origami, Sudoku, how to shampoo his hair and other things. He also had a plan. “Mamma, did you know that Emirates has an unaccompanied minor thing, where I can travel alone to Dubai and it’s really cool! I hope you won’t feel bad?”

“Why would I feel bad? It’s the best news of my life!”

“Really? I can’t believe it.”

I can’t believe it either. The rest of my life has begun!

(If you’d like a print of more water colors like the one above, Vidya Gopal does a whole range of them and you can reach her on Instagram @spink_bottle) 

It’s true girl power when boys have girl role models

Re and I are reading Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls right now. Every night, we read 2-3 stories and are not allowed to proceed further until we have passed the Rebel Girl exam of the previous night’s stories (which he always does with flying colors, while I goof up quite often). One of the common struggles in all the stories is fighting against limiting beliefs : eg science is not for girls and neither is math or computer technology, being a pirate, astronomer, boxer, orchestra conductor, surfer, primatologist, astrophysicist and whatnot.

Of course he knows what breaking stereotypes and fighting for what you believe in is very well; as an “unboy boy”, he’s often been subjected to scrutiny for doing “girl things” viz: dressing up his dolls, loving glitter and sequins, sewing and wearing purple Dora crocs, amulets (Sofia) and Doc McStuffin bracelets and thinking Hermione Granger is the coolest girl on the planet.

And that’s why I wasn’t surprised when he got hooked onto Project Mc2- featuring teenage spy Mc Keyla who teams with three other super smart girls to become secret agents who use science to save the day, from hackers, villains and other control freaks. “Mamma, they are rebel girls too,” he said. The timing was perfect.

Needless to say, when a hamper with a DIY kit arrived from them, he gave a squeal of delight. Apparently the lipstick and lip balm making DIY kit is an interesting diversion when they are on a mission to stop a hacking device.

And that’s how our DIY project lip balm began: mixing wax base with wax chips, melting, adding flavor, shimmer, pouring into molds and creating our very own name – Melon Swirl

It was nice to have our lip balm and eat it too. We can’t wait to raise the bar now and try something a little more complicated.

All India Radio and what it did for me

When I was a child, Vividh Bharati was my everything. We didn’t have a TV then and we couldn’t afford many books (the school library just allowed you one per week). I woke up to Jharokha (a line up of the day’s program) and then had my coffee listening to Rasvanti (or was it Bhoolein Bisre Geet)? At 7.30, I rushed for my shower during Sangeet Sarita (was totally willing to skip the classical bit) and was back for Rangavali at 7.40, packing my bag, getting ready for school but not quite ready to leave home.

At 8 am, Appa wanted to switch to Radio Ceylon for a bit before he left for work, so I endured (and later learnt to appreciate K.L Saigal, Noorjahan and co. (But Wednesday nights, the entire family would be around the transistor, for Binaca Geetmala, tuning Radio Ceylon to a microfrequency that didn’t squish and gargle, especially for the aakhri paaydaan and the Sartaj Geet!)

At the dot of 8.30 every morning, as Appa left for work, humming a Talat Mahmood song, I would switch back to Vividh Bharati for it was time for Chitralok (the only time of day when they played the latest songs). At 8.45, no matter what song was playing, I had to leave for school. I hated it. Some days, I was late for assembly on account of song greed, but thankfully there were no PTMs in those days (I don’t think my parents would have bothered even if there were)

Evenings were for Amma – there was a total line up of South Indian songs -Tamil, Malayalam and also Telugu and Kannada, some of which she hummed to and the rest of which (the modern ones) she found distasteful. Sometimes I hummed along as I did my homework and Amma was happy I was imbibing some “south Indian culture”

Post dinner and the rituals, I reclaimed my radio back with Hawa Mahal on which I heard some of the most intriguing radio plays and then bed time was Chhaya Geet with golden oldies at 10 pm. Some days, I couldn’t have enough, and sneaked in Bela ke phool at 11 pm, after all the lights in the house were out (I would hide the transistor under my pillow)

There was also the hour-long Jaimala (song requests by soldiers) and once a week, a celebrity anchored this (Vishesh Jaimala)

Years later, post an M.Pharm from UDCT, when I didn’t know what to do with my life, AIR saved me again. I used to moonlight as an interviewer for their Science channel and got paid 275 rupees per interview (I think it may have been my first income). My family would sit around the radio on the day of the telecast, listening to me quiz doctors and scientists on acupuncture, ophthalmology, plastic surgery, effluent treatment, power generation, pesticides, bacteria, viruses and other such.

Today as I entered the local radio station to arrange a tour for our school kids, so many memories came flashing back and I felt grateful for having grown up in simpler times, when all it took to fill your world with joy was sounds from a transistor. Sometimes it wasn’t even yours.

Netflix and the art of pixie dust

Towards the end of last year, I had a sort of pixie dust experience. A little fairy called Netflix walked into my life and and I began to look at screen time so differently. It was about me time and family time interwoven so well, everybody won!

I was invited to this really cool party to be a part of their core #streamteam (yes, I got a sneak preview of many new shows including Llama llama (and also a pair of red pajamas to go with it. And the book)

With my brand new subscription, the child got a profile all his.

Although the cat is still waiting for his.

Soon it was Christmas and this happened!

And then, I became a true connoisseurBut what they did for Valentine’s Day made me fall head over heels in love

with myself!

It’s Holi and I’m talking consent

For as long as I remember, I haven’t enjoyed Holi. Not that I think it’s wrong that people – big and small, get all rambunctious in their display of affection for each other one day of the year. They also happen to show this affection with generous amounts of color – wet and dry, organic and inorganic, water-soluble and non-water soluble, and in the end, it’s not even about color , but any form of substance including, but not limited to: mud, eggs, paint, tomatoes and other such that rank higher and higher in the vile index.

In all this, no one stops to ask if you are okay being the recipient of such affection. It is assumed that as Indians, we are all lovers of such orgies and affections and would be nincompoops to not partake of this grand gesture of our culture. Saying no is not even an option and even today, as schools and communities set about finding newer, eco-friendly ways to celebrate Holi and discuss at length the harmful effects of “bad colors”, consent is conveniently left out.

I dreaded Holi for the most part of my childhood, when my mother and I hid in the kitchen and bathroom when they came looking for us and sometimes we just gave in, because we feared they would break our doors. But we felt violated nonetheless. To me, it is often an example of bad touch and I wish more people would talk about it.

When I grew older, I found ways of escaping this revelry that usually involved a getaway to somewhere quiet. Once I found myself in the jungles of Dandeli , but turned out I hadn’t run far enough, as some revelers caught me.

I know that ‘consent’ in its various forms is just a recent addition to our vocabulary, and “no means no” somehow goes out the window when Holi arrives. It’s nice to know that hierarchies and boundaries dissolve on this glorious day, but what of people whose voices are not loud enough when they say no? How many times does one have to say no to be taken seriously? What of children too overwhelmed and tongue-tied by the sudden rowdiness of their ilk? What of body language that is often good enough for a no for those are too scared to protest when boundaries are crossed, when space feels violated but tongues are stuck? What of people big and small who cry hoarse but can’t be heard because, hell, who is listening when everyone is screaming “Holi hai”! And what is one child in a mob of children? Or one voice in a melee?

Because it turns out, even today, my kid is as much a minority as I was and feels violated every year on Holi, no matter what we do. Or don’t do.

But I don’t want us to spend the rest of our lives running away – from Holi, from noise, from people who don’t give a shit that other people, animals and plants bear the brunt of their excesses, and their sheer inability to comprehend that enough is enough.

And if that makes me antinational or anti-cultural, so be it.

Chums in the time of #Padman

In the month of February of my fifteenth year on this planet, while studying in my balcony for my class X board exams (we were granted a three-week study leave), I got my period. Got is what they said in those days, and ‘chums’ was the popular euphemism.

It was not supposed to be this way. Where was the audience? My parents were at work, my siblings were at school. I was home alone, studying. I mean, who gets their periods studying? The least that could have happened was I could have got it at Bharatanatyam class or during the goddamn assembly while my all-girls school was still on. PT class would have been even better, on account of the white uniform, hence hard to miss stain. I envied the other girls in my class the drama of the stain. The whispering, the discovery, the shock, the denial, the submission, and finally the whisking away and being allowed to go home early on account of a ‘medical emergency’.

This of course implied that by some subtle private club code, they were thereby initiated into womanhood. I also felt that the girls in a co-ed school would have been a lot less mean, as they would have to fake solidarity in front of the boys. But in a high-estrogen all-girls convent, all fangs were out at all times. If you hadn’t got your period, you didn’t count. I didn’t, clearly, despite being a top-ranker and all that.

Even the flat-chested front benchers were crossing over to the other side, one by one. All except Annie and I (although she told me she got hers, I knew she was lying). I was close to nervous wreckage. Of course there were tiny eruptions in the name of breasts (and they hurt). And hair was sprouting in places other than my head. So I knew my body was up to something. Yet, there was no visible evidence. The constant barbs about ‘gender unknown’ by the back-benchers in my class, the constant looking at me in a “Serves you right, you show-offy, always-doing-your-homework-on-time first bencher”! The speaking in code about ‘downs’ and ‘my sister’ and ‘that time of the month’ as if I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was as though I was paying a price for my academic excellence. “Let her know what it means to win a consolation prize,” the signs seemed to say.

My mother had always been mysterious about ‘the period’, as though saying the word would start the taps; she never gave me the birds and the bees talk. Neither did my friends, although one neighbour who was eleven and ‘chumming’ made it a point to tell me all the gory details, in the manner of “well, I got there before you, see!” Being the first-born didn’t help at all. So I was left to figuring it all on my own, reading subtext and often reading what was not written.

I had however dragged my mother to buy me a bra and the best they could do at the shop was a 28A, for my chest pimples. Since college life was looming large, I was concerned about being the first girl to go to college without a period (I was already planning on faking it by spilling sanitary napkins every time I took out my wallet, in case the blasted red river never showed up). And the bigger concern was about actually being a man in disguise, although my mother always hushed me when I spoke such unmentionables. I truly needed an assurance that I was ready for bearing children which I never wanted to have. “Give me this day my fertile ovaries” was my prayer.

In the light of all this, the ‘no audience’ thing upon arrival of the red river was a real bummer. I would never get to tell my class girls that I (finally!) got my period. That I was them, just a late bloomer is all.

I made a mental note of announcing it to my class when the board results were declared two months later (and I topped, again, and it meant nothing, again), but then girls were just running helter skelter, collecting marksheets, bonafide certificates and rushing to stand in queues for college admissions and whatnot and who would be interested in my period? So my little celebration never really happened with the ones who really mattered.

When my mother came home that afternoon, after I had wallowed sufficiently in my red river and the cramps thereafter (and had run out of fabric wads to stuff my panties with) I announced to her that I was a woman. She said, Thank god. Or something to that effect.

I liked the fact that finally I got to pick a side (I could tick ‘female’ in all boxes now) and could now be officially in on all the sex talk at school.

From that day on, the red river was a loyalist, and I was constantly assured that it would never fail me, always knocking on my door in 28 days exactly. (Years later, my ob-gyn told me that my regular-as-clockwork menstrual cycle was what made conceiving at 40 easy as pie for me. “You are lucky,” he said.)

With periods came period paraphernalia. In my time, you bought these Comfit sanitary napkins, whose ads always featured women (or was it a man and a woman?) running in slow motion, hugging trees and suchlike. This was pre-Whisper days, but even then, girls always ran in slow motion during their period. Then came the Carefree era which was Comfit with two long tails and a plastic sheath. This was followed by the revolutionary peel off pads – Stayfree, Whisper and the gang. And what do you know? Very soon, pads had wings. (I am sure this was trying to say something about the women’s movement.)

Comfit pads looked like fluffy white sausages with tiny ears. These ears had to be looped with utmost dexterity in between the white and the red plastic loops pre-strung through an elastic ring/band which they proudly called ‘the belt’. This was very complicated and involved too much technique, especially in your most vulnerable and therefore clutzy days. My series of unfortunate incidents involving Comfit often featured the plastic loops in the front shooting off just as I wore the band and was ready to get padded and me frantically looking for them in the bathroom when someone had to ‘go’ really urgently. Sometimes, I just shoved a few sausages into my underwear and couldn’t be bothered about the loops and it never really mattered, unless of course, your underwear wasn’t well fitted.

The tricky bit was finding this belt in that newspaper wrapped Comfit packet. The belt was usually knotted into a tiny ball and placed delicately amid the bundle of pads and you almost always couldn’t find it until you had spilled all the pads on the floor and ruined a few in the process.  The pack announced ‘free belt inside’, but they should have had a contest for finding it in less than five minutes. Once the belt was found and you could go about your business, the tricky part was figuring out how to minimize the lag time between discarding a used pad and adding a new one (no one talks about this either).

And then someone invented the horror called the period panty. And every mother bought one for her daughter. If you remember what it was like to be an infant, to always have your genitals covered and smothered in a diaper (cloth or otherwise) and never be able to come up for air, well, that’s how a period panty felt. Every girl must have tried them at least once, because they were advertised as ‘stain-proof’  and  ‘secure protection’ and ‘no more accidents’ and everything unsubtle. These were made of two layers – an outer nylon or rayon or whatever material produces the maximum irritation to your skin and an inner – hold your breath – plastic sheath. In case you were a nincompoop who still hadn’t learned how to use a pad, there were two elastic bands on the inside of the panty to hold your sanitary pad in place.

‘Changing a pad’ was some sort of expedition or conquest, with girls constantly exchanging notes on how often they changed. In some circles, not changing often was looked at with awe, in others, with pity, as if secretly passing judgment that the ovaries were perhaps not healthy enough or not doing a good job of getting rid of the unfertilized egg. But whatever the pronouncement, there was always a thrill about knowing that if you had a period, you had just about missed a pregnancy. That you were almost pregnant. For a little girl, that information can be huge.

When I grew up, I realised that there were two kinds of women: those who make a big deal of their period and those who pretend it doesn’t exist and look at you in askance when you bring it up. Why did they do that, I wondered. I was veering dangerously to the other side and I didn’t know why. Perhaps because I always saw my mother slumped and gloomy during hers and I was determined that I was not going to let my period get in the way of fun.

Balancing your period with the rest of your life was what the rest of your life was going to be. So you had to plan waxing cycles, treks, beach fun, sex, presentations, dates, travels, even your own wedding, around your period.

I was, at the time of onset (of the period of course), a follower of tennis and constantly in awe of Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert Lloyd and Steffi Graf for how they ‘managed’ their period with their tournaments while my mother had programmed me to be nervous even about a train trip during ‘those days’. They were always so poised in their short, white skirts with their underwear showing, and when I asked why I could never see the bulge of the pad ever, my friends whispered, ‘tampons’. Like it was some code for big girl talk. My friends also told me they took ‘pills’ to control the period, but then I wondered how they could take pills all the time? And would that not make their ovaries totally nuts, never knowing when they could gush.

Soon as I managed to shove a tampon into my vagina, I did, because wrapping the pad and walking eternally to the other end of the college/hostel/office was unbearable, what with you feeling that you had been marked and were off to an unexciting expedition. I later learned that girls who wore tampons were marked as ‘those’ type of girls – the ones who always get a lot of action down there, so their vaginas are like butter to slide the tampons in and out. No one actually compared the size of a tampon to an average penis, but never mind. I found it odd that most girls associated tampons with loss of virginity.

At some stage you reached a point where you could talk to men (at least some of them) freely about your period and they pretended to understand, perhaps having been trained by previous girlfriends or able sisters or mothers. But I still wonder whether they really, truly get it and can feel empathy in this regard. Yes even the one who tested sanitary pads by actually wearing them.

I used to often wonder about period waste and how much it must be contributing to landfills and feeling less guilty that my three decade tampon usage must have contributed far less. Now I hear women talking about how the menstrual cup has set them free. The period revolution is finally here! Can you believe not having to ever change a pad or a tampon, but just inserting this silicon wonder into your vagina, allowing the menstrual blood to drain into it and then just rinsing it and reinserting. I am trying to imagine how much money I may have spent on pads and tampons in the years since my period, and it’s scary. That is one math I don’t want to do. But I have decided to give the menstrual cup a miss nevertheless. I don’t want to shock my uterus at this stage of my life.

(This is an essay from my book The Whole Shebang, published by Bloomsbury. You can order the book here.)

Life in an unLinkedin universe

I think I was nine when my father came home one day and announced he was buying a buffalo. Yes, you heard that right. Appa then had a regular office job; he diligently went to work every day, although his mind was always wandering into all the things he could do other than his job. This time it was dairy farming.

Of course it was just one of many ideas he acted on.  The buffalo didn’t happen, but that’s another story. My dad then tried being an organic fruit and vegetable supplier, a landscape gardener, a horticulturist. Once he nearly started his brand of pickles and chutneys. He also tried being a builder, but that didn’t end well.

People labeled him a maverick , perhaps too old to take these risks and wander off, like he did, into the unknown. Family members would advise him to hold on to his job and stop trying things he knew nothing about.

I don’t think it bothered him.

“I can do wonders,” he would say. They would laugh. We laughed too.

My father is now 80 years old and is a farmer. He grows things on a little patch of land in Zhadshapur, a small village in Belgaum. He says he’s finally happy waking up every morning and going to work. He also says he sleeps well and has beautiful dreams. And whenever he visits Mumbai, my friends get bright orange pumpkin wedges and red plantains as return presents.

The red plantains are his specialty, by the way. They are hard to grow, he says, and they can fetch a good price in the market, at least twenty rupees a piece when he last did the rounds. His last harvest was 100 plantains, and it thrilled him no end. Every member of the family has heard the story.

I have no clue what will happen when my dad learns to Whatsapp. We might get hourly updates on ladyfingers, custard apples, aubergines, and of course, red plantains!

Last year he made a trip to the dairy institute in Coimbatore. We knew something is brewing. Perhaps the dairy baron dream has awoken again. You never know. He will try anything.

When I was a child, I remember reading a book “Why I’m like Dad”. I found it on our book shelf and maybe I was too young to read it – it was mostly about genetics and stuff, but somehow the title stuck.

And years later, when I abandoned a safe and bankable career in the pharmaceutical industry to try a career in writing, I remembered that again.

I remember what motivated me was boredom. I could not imagine working in a Glaxo or some such, doing things on loop, where one day would be exactly the same as another. Not that Glaxo offered me a job, but you know what I mean. I then became a copywriter, and for a long time, my family couldn’t make sense of me. My spotless academic life now had a permanent blot.

I remember being a sales person for Time-Life Books when I was still figuring out what to do with my life. I sold a few books too, so maybe I wasn’t bad. I also graded papers for a coaching institute, teamed with a friend to design clothes for children from textile waste, tried being a yoga assistant, a tutor, proofreader, a research assistant. I managed a helpline for stray dogs and an NGO store. I worked in a placement firm, trying to sell dream jobs to people.  I wasn’t very convincing. And oh, I also co-founded a content management company and watched it go bust in a year. I wrote resumes, presentations and speeches for other people.  I designed visual aids for pharma companies. I later worked as a journalist, an editor, a teacher. It got me closer to who I was, but it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Was I trying to find my passion? I don’t think so. I was just trying to do a good job of whatever came my way.

Every once in a while, someone would say, “But why did you do an M.Pharm then? You wasted a seat!”

No I didn’t waste a seat. I opened a window. I couldn’t say this then. But I can say it now.

 For the longest time, I have been trying to construct the perfect answer to “What do you do?” The reason people ask this is to figure out who you are. But what if you are not just what you do? What if you there are so many other facets to you that you are unable to showcase in your job?

May be I just have an incredible amount of activation energy. I think this “find your passion” thing is unnerving. But I do know that I love beginning things. I am a great beginner. I have begun so many things so many times. Plus I know I am adaptable and curious; I can learn pretty much anything on the job. But when something is not working for me, I am incredibly good at letting it go. I finally know that it is a talent. In effect, I believe I am eminently hirable.

The interesting thing is: I haven’t been professionally trained for a single job that I have done so far.

May be I was not passionate about all the jobs I have tried, but I was curious enough to want to know how to do them. And once I knew that, I was restless and wanted to move on. I did worry that I had commitment issues, no clear goals, and all of that.

But maybe, just maybe, for some of us, there is no one calling. Isn’t it a relief to know that? Those of you whose hearts are singing right now, just hold on to that thought.

I am sure most of you were asked when you were a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I was too. My answers varied from veterinary surgeon, lawyer, forensic scientist, dancer, film critic, singer, author.

Right now, I am a teacher and a mentor. I have written a few books, I tell stories and talk about finding your path. But it still doesn’t help me fully answer the “What do you do?” question.

I still wonder what to put in the “Occupation” box, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

At some point, I stopped tailoring my resume to sound consistent.  I stopped explaining gaps in my career. I stopped apologizing for my spontaneous travels. If people didn’t want to take a chance on me, they were not my type anyway. Jobs and relationships were similar in that way.

The point is:  What’s the harm in not knowing what you want to do? Why is it so defining? Why are parents in such a hurry to put their children in boxes? As a teacher and mother, I meet parents all the time, and they annoy me, most of the time. Parents of teenagers are especially a worried lot. “She has no idea what she wants to do”. Or “He is so confused, please give him some advice”. These are the things parents often ask me.

I love my students, especially the ones who don’t know, because I don’t believe ‘chasing your passion’ or ‘knowing what you want to be’ means anything. What will really get them far is knowing how to do a job, any job, really well. It’s amazing how rare that is. It’s like those red plantains my father grows. Of course, even as I say this, parents have this glazed expression on their face. And then I tell them, “I am 49, and I’m still figuring it out.”

We all know there are things we are good at. There are things the world will pay us for. And there are things we love doing. Sometimes the three intersect. But even if you get one of the three right, you are on your way somewhere.

Recently a journalist asked me in an interview about my new book: “How would it have been if things in your life had stuck — jobs, careers, companions?”

The question made me sad and annoyed in equal measure. We still believe that stuck is an aspirational state. That it is the default setting. That each one of us has to choose one thing we want to do with our life and stay married to it ever after. The next time someone asks me what I do, I am going to say Professional Dilettante. Hmmm, I kinda like the sound of it.

I am sure there is not a single person in this world who hasn’t had the urge to “try something different”. No matter what your life stage, no matter how much on track you think you are, no matter how much your job pays you. Sometimes, your inner voice urges you to go ahead, just try it and see.

And just as quickly, your inner pause button stops you. “Are you crazy? That’s not even a real job!”

I have been lucky, because I think over a period of time, my inner voice and I have become best friends. But for every chance you get to try something new, there is always someone who is willing to let you try it:

Someone who hires you for that magazine job despite you having no experience in journalism.

Someone who hires you to write ads for oxygen analyzers or mutual funds.

Someone who is willing to take a chance on you while you are ready to take a chance on yourself.

Someone who can see what’s not in the box.

I want to thank all those someones today who saw me beyond my resume.

But imagine for a minute! What if we all had a chance to try as many careers in our lifetime without being judged? Without being labeled, like I was?

Very often, our rational mind can make some mind-blowingly irrational decisions. We just have to stop getting in the way.  Sometimes life also puts you in situations when you make courageous or fearless decisions. Like the time I quit a high profile magazine job to go teach at a school on a hill. It took off a zero from my pay check, yes. But it added zeroes to my emotional quotient and gave me a rent-free and bill-free life for a year while I figured what to do with my marriage. To me, it was the most practical decision I ever made.

But what if we can make such decisions even when we are not in extreme situations?  What if we let ourselves try new things, even if we are afraid of failure?

Statistics say that 8 in 10 people don’ t like what they do.  Why do you still do it? What if you tried something else? What is the worst thing that can happen?

Yes, that’s probably what my father would say. If he can try something new at 80, anyone can. At the end of the day, half-hearted careers means half-hearted people. That means half-hearted relationships, half-hearted marriages, and eventually, half-hearted kids.  And all it would have taken to not make this happen was to try something else.

What I really want for the future is an alternate universe to linkedin.  Where you can look at the unlinkedin profiles of people. Where things don’t add up. Where people will share their failures instead of their successes.

What if every opportunity that comes your way is you? It’s just that you didn’t know it yet?