Saturday, 12 October 2019

My one-sided love affair with Hyderabad

Dear Hyderabad,

This comes a little too late, and I wonder if it would make you question the sincerity of it. I left without stopping to say a heartfelt goodbye. Today, however, sitting thousands of miles away from you in this foreign city, I miss you a little too much, a little too deeply. And, when I miss people and places, I do the only thing I feel I do well…I bleed words. 

Five years ago, when I came to Hyderabad, little did I know that you would become home. Before I realized, you started feeling more like home than Allahabad ever did. I know it makes me sounds like a traitor of my native place. What sort of a person loves another city more than their native place? But, hear me, will you? I think Allahabad confined me and never really let me be myself. I felt trapped by considerations of the length of my skirt, of secluded roads that need to be avoided post 9 PM, of having a guy friend drop me back home, of being decorous being more important than being happy. And then, when I came to you, I felt for the first time what being truly liberated feels like. I could for the first time care more about the colour of my dress than its appropriate length, about the parties and not who would drop me back home, and when I had to bike back home at 12:30 in the night after rehearsals, I knew I would be fine. You empowered me with independence, and I felt like I finally found myself there. 

You welcomed me with open arms and introduced me to people, places and activities that became a part of my being. I found people who didn't push me away for not knowing Telegu or for my Hindi being too far from ‘Hyderabadi Hindi'. They loved, deeply and fondly.  As I was falling in love with the people, you introduced me to theatre. Theatre, that opened arms to amateurs. Theatre, that was not elitist and did not sit on a high horse turning away people who did not start acting when they were 3. Theatre, that understood, almost always, that a different job may put the bread on your table while theatre may be the jam you spread on it occasionally. You introduced me to art and gave me something to feed my soul with every time I felt empty. How can I ever thank you enough for making theatre such an endearing part of my life!

Thank you for the ‘Biryani', Hyderabad. The Biryani, Haleem, the Irani chai and the Osmania biscuits. Why are Osmania biscuits orgasmic and how do they make it perfectly porous to let just the right amount of tea soak into them? 

Did I ever tell you that you are paced extremely well, Hyderabad? You never made me feel like I was lagging, even when everyone seemed to run past me. You always had space to let me stop for a while and breathe, and tell you that I have had enough and I cannot run anymore. I could lose myself on one of your rocks beside the magnificent lakes and just stare into eternity. And, when I wanted to get back to the grind, I could get back to the crowd again!

And your forts, how can one not get smitten by them? Standing tall and strong, telling stories lost in History books. Would it be too much if I told you that I miss your roads? But I do…the roads, the pathways, the cafes, the clubs. I feel like I have left pieces of my self there…on the stalls, at the signals, at the cafes, on the dance floor, at the theatres, and dare I say, on the stage? Pieces of my liberated, complete self. 

Today, as I sit here, yearning too deeply to be around you, I fear only one thing. I wonder, if you ever, at all, loved me back Hyderabad? Will you, ever, if I choose to come back to you, be as delighted to have me back as delighted as I would be to be back? Or would you smugly tell me that you were never mine to love? Would you tell me that I was pretentious to have claimed to love you without knowing you in your entirety? I never asked you, if ‘outsiders' were allowed to love you deeply and what qualifies one to be a ‘Hyderabadi'. It scares me, but then I tell myself that maybe, just maybe you would be able to see my love beyond my disappointing ‘Hyderabadi Hindi' and also understand that love does not necessarily need to be a function of time. 

I love you, Hyderabad. Not in a colloquial way, but the way when you love someone who touches your life so profoundly that you are never, ever the same. And I hope someday, you would love me back!  

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Women, age and the ticking time bomb!

“So, when are you planning to get married?”, I was asked for the 126th time or was it 127th? I usually laugh away these questions but this time they came from a dear friend, so I gave it a thought. “4-5 years, maybe.”, I said after thinking for a while; “What about you? When does marriage fall in your life plan?”, I added. “Same – 4 to 5 years”, he responded. “Goodness gracious! We will be 31 by then. Damn! You would be so old, Charul”, he said.

“What do you mean by I would be so old? We would be the same age. Do women age faster than men?”, I responded with my signature eye-roll.

“I mean…you are a girl. 31 is quite old for a girl to get married but not so much for a guy”, he replied in a seemingly matter-of-factly tone.  I rebuked him and called him names, something like a patriarch, an asshole or a sexist. I think I called him a patriarchal sexist asshole.

Even though I rejected my friend’s words, the conversation with him got me thinking because he clearly reflected what a huge fraction of the Indian society believes in. The thought urged me to write this piece hoping optimistically that maybe it will drive the point home to at least 1% of my meager blog audience.

I want to start by deconstructing the famous ‘Girls mature faster than boys’ notion. This notion is highly unhealthy for young girls to be fed with.  It is popularized and even encouraged to justify women handling more emotional labor than men are ever expected to bear. Girls are conditioned into believing that they are more mature than their ‘naughty’ brother, and hence more qualified candidates to help mother with the household chores. This grows into women being expected to remember birthdays, keep the groceries stacked, organize parties and maintain family relationships.

This notion is the reason why men are often encouraged to engage in romantic relationships with much younger women(in which there is a substantial power gap) while women are often rebuked for dating men much younger to them. This notion excuses boys from being held responsible for their actions but holds women accountable from a much younger age. There is little to no scientific evidence suggesting that emotionally girls mature faster than boys. Yes, girls generally hit puberty sooner than boys but there is no substantial scientific inference to link early puberty to early emotional maturity. More than science, this is more of a gender-stereotype passed on from generations without being challenged leading to girls and boys essentially responding to behaviors that are expected of them.

Women are viewed as a declining asset whose worth post 30 in the marriage market exponentially drops. There is a constant pressure on women to figure out themselves and their career as soon as possible – there are hard deadlines imposed on schooling, college and settling down in the dream job. All of them need to be met precisely on time and there is little to no negotiation allowed in the timelines. In most Indian families, you are expected to achieve these milestones by 24; if you are from a more liberal family you may be blessed with 3 more years and if you have been extremely lucky you may be allowed to touch 29.9 but not 30…30 is blasphemy! Women bear the pressures of these deadlines from a very young age. These are not only unfair but may also restrain them from realizing their full potential and living their dreams. While men get more freedom and breathing space to achieve their goals, women are forced to accelerate their career timeline to stay relevant in the marriage market.

Another argument often sought when debating in favor of early marriage for women is that their fertility may go for a hit if they marry too late. It is important to understand that women are more than baby breeding machines and their fulfillment and happiness is more important than that of the life they will bring into this world. Their priorities and expectations out of life may be beyond having the perfect family or maybe their perfect family does not have children or maybe it has adopted children or maybe the children are produced through frozen eggs. All of these expectations and priorities are important and correct in their own regard.

Can we just let women be? I could have referenced ‘people’ but the world’s sometimes a little harsher to women, so I chose women for this article. Can we give them the space to breathe, to figure themselves out and settle down in life when they want to and not when they ought to? Marriage can wait and so can children, but personal goals and dreams cannot. If women require those three, four or how-many-ever years to be at peace with themselves, can we please stop shaming them for it?

The woods are lovely, dark and deep but can we not for once hold people accountable for the promises they never made and let them venture into the deep, dark woods to their hearts’ contentment.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The curious case of Dadda

It's been way too long…six years, I believe. I was looking at your picture and reminiscing about how you were so peculiarly adorable. You were anything but a regular father. I remember talking to my friends about their fathers and I always wondered how you were nothing of those sorts. I wondered sometimes if you were even cut out for marriage or for having kids because sometimes you did not seem to fit in…your world seemed more fit for solitude. I am not sure if you were actively my mentor or my guide, but I do know that you taught me a lot about love, life and embracing my individuality.

I think I would miss our tea-time conversations the most – I wish there were more of them and I wish I had the opportunity to know you more. Regardless, I was looking at your picture and felt the need to write about your colorful personality, your ideologies, and quirks.

In a world where nothing but selflessness is expected out of parents and the most sacrificing parents are placed on the highest pedestal, your focus on self-care came as a welcome change. You taught me how it is not selfish to have your own opinions, choices, and idea of life and to not change it for anyone. You taught me that it is okay to care for yourself first because one cannot pour from an empty cup.

You taught me that you must always keep the child alive in you. You taught me that you're never too old for jujubes, gifts or stealing toothpicks from restaurants. I remember you getting mad at us for not getting gifts for you on your birthday. You taught me that we must say ‘I love you' to each other and say it often. "I love you the most, Charul. I will live with you after you get married. You must clearly lay this out as a precondition with your boyfriend". Later, you would add, "Also, don't get a boyfriend at this age. All men of this age care about is sex."

You taught me that it is okay to embrace your individuality and not blend in for the comfort of others. I remember how you would much rather sit with the women and discuss food than get into the men's room and watch cricket matches because you did not feel like it(much to mother's embarrassment, though). I admired how you valued people for who they were and how beautiful their souls were, rather than attaching importance to their social status. I remember how you would become best friends with some taxi drivers and spend hours talking to them and conveniently ignore certain VIPs because you just did not like them. I am dazzled by how you loved without bias, loved often and loved intensely. You always stood up for the people you loved, even when you were at your lowest. “You need to be there in people’s grief, Charul. In their happiness, they can still do without you. In grief, they need more support.” I still remember how your students doted on you and how everyone loved you too much. I covet the candor with which you could just be who you were, love the people you want and do the things you love without caring about the world judging you for it.

You taught me that it's okay to be brutally honest (I still believe in being kindly honest, though!). I remember asking you how I looked on my farewell, to which you replied (much to my displeasure), "You look ugly, Charul. You have a terrible dressing sense." I did not feel like talking to you then, but I do laugh about it now. I remember asking you what your hobby was, to which you looked me in the eye and said, "A poor man does not have a hobby. Hobby is a privilege." You taught me the importance of money, albeit in a harsh manner, "The day I stop giving you money, you will stop calling me your father." I loved how you did not believe in pleasantries and small talk, how you spoke what you felt and felt what you spoke. It was almost funny how you reacted at demises and said ‘Everyone dies', ‘It was due time' rather than the usual euphemisms.

I admire your zeal to be the best at whatever you chose to do. You didn’t believe in second places and you were unapologetically blunt about it, “There are no second places, Charul. A miss is as good as a mile. You just lose the first place.”

You taught me that men can cry, feel pain and be hopelessly vulnerable. You showed that true strength lies in embracing our weaknesses. You taught me that it was okay to ask for love, affection and even gifts. It was funny and adorable how you would cry even at Ekta Kapoor serials. I loved how you could laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously. "Why did you choose to become a teacher, dad?". I remember you laughing and saying, "It was a mistake. Never become a teacher, Charul."

Most importantly, you taught me to believe in destiny, stars, magic, and love. You taught me to never give up on life and to make the most out of it every single day. You traveled to your favorite destinations till your last day even though your health was critical. You traveled and lived life with the vigor and excitement of a 12-year-old. You lived the phrase, "It's not the years in your life that count; it's the life in your years." There was so much life in every moment that you lived, daddy!

You were beautiful, charismatic, unique, and stood out as a shining star in my life and the lives of so many. You will always be missed Dadda and your idiosyncrasies cherished in fond remembrance.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

To all the women I met in the restrooms!

I must confess that I have an affinity for restrooms. They remain some measure of home to me, probably because the largest chunk of my self-reflection took place in the restrooms. Some of my favorite conversations and life advice came from them. Sometimes it was me reflecting in the restroom mirrors and telling myself that I can do it, sometimes it was other, mostly drunk females.

It is surprising how few pegs of alcohol and the comfort of a restroom can turn women into such thick allies. I have been extremely lucky to have had real, uninhibited conversations, and exchanged some real, uninhibited hugs. Destiny ensured that I met my amazing ladies at a time when I probably needed to hear those words of advice and hold on those hugs. Considering that all these women in ways big and small added a lot of wisdom to my life, I feel that it is only fitting for me to express my gratitude to them through the only medium I know best - words.

Here’s to the lady who told me that I don’t look okay and asked me if I would like to talk. I didn’t know you and I am not sure why I opened to you, but it felt so relieving to be able to talk and not be judged. I want to let you know that you lending your ears mattered, so did your advice and most importantly your embrace.

Here’s to the group of girls who told me that I have the most beautiful hair in the world and that applying some extra red lipstick is totally alright.  I remember fixing each-others hair, helping touch up the make-up and checking on whether each one of us is alright. These little gestures that were so heartfelt made me wonder who these imaginary women are who just hate each other, the ones the world keeps talking about.

To all the women I hugged too hard and told how much I loved them times too many, I want you to know that it was not just the alcohol talking. If I could, I would say it every day but it probably makes you look goofy to keep uttering “I-love-you’ s” on random evenings. I cannot forget this girl who told me that I should dump the guy I was dating and that he was an asshole. I didn’t listen to you then but in retrospect, I realize how I should have taken your word for it.

The girl who’s shoulder I cried upon after a failed performance, who held my hand and told me that I have so much potential and that failure helps us grow, I want you to know that it meant a lot to me. It made a difference to my life, so thank you for that!

Washrooms are these private spaces which somehow have the power to enable people to confide, apologize and confront. I couldn’t muster enough courage to apologize to this girl I had wronged, but the other day at the restroom I could drop off my wall and tell her that I was sorry. I am not sure if it seemed sincere to you then, but I want you to know that I meant it.

It has been mildly surprising and deeply heartening to come to terms with my vulnerabilities and emotions in the comfort of the cohort of women who surprisingly emerged to have my back. It makes me wonder how beautiful this world would be if women continue to be as comforting outside the walls of the restroom. I think maybe the world requires us to wear blinkers, swallow tears and embrace stoicism to align with the expectation of strong women. I think restrooms are kind to us – they don’t judge, they let us be and we take our time there to let our emotions flow. No wonder we spend way too much time in the restrooms.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

My momma don't like you!

If I got a penny for every friend of mine whose partners were turned down by their parents, I could finally go on that Euro trip that I have been planning for five years now…actually seven. The thing with being twenty-five is that most of your friend circle is of the ‘marriageable age’ and although your relationships never lasted long enough to bring up ‘that question’, you always know these couples who are just right for each other. I often covetously admired their relationships and wondered how blissful it may seem to have found your significant other.

I know couples who were just right for each other – ‘sanely’ in love, great jobs and enviable compatibility. One friend of mine envisioned her entire wedding; everything was picture perfect– the dresses, the food, the venue, the honeymoon, until the day the girl decided to tell her parents about the relationship. The picture-perfect wedding plans fell apart when two critical questions were asked – what’s his caste and what’s his ‘rashee’? I was told that their castes and ‘rashees’ didn’t match; in fact, they were of the two opposite castes – the Brahmins and the Shudras and there was no way in hell that they could be united. I thought 67 years of Independence and innumerable History and Civics lessons would have done away with this discrimination, but I couldn’t be more wrong. So, some 365 days and 462 melodrama sessions later, their relationship was formally and finally butchered by their family. 

I would run out of fingers if I try to list all my friends and colleagues whose perfectly beautiful relationships were forcibly broken by their parents for one of these reasons - their families did not like each other, their castes were different, their horoscopes did not match, or they simply did not like their children’s partners. Indian parents believe that they love their children way too much to ever take a wrong decision for them. They raise their children believing that they are always right and that their children can never grow old enough to take mature and informed decisions. I remember having conversations around love marriages with my mother. They always ended with her bringing up her the infamous diary of ‘101 love marriages that failed’ and reciting case after case of picture-perfect marriages that ended in either divorce or separation.

I tried to understand why Indian parents tend to be so controlling when it comes to their children’s love life and I came up with a hypothesis based on my observations. I think Indian parents are way too involved in every decision that their children take – the courses they should opt for, the friends they should make, the dresses they should wear and most importantly the career choices they should make. Not surprisingly, the control does not end at determining the career and goes on in selecting the right life partner for their children. In event of their children selecting their life partner without their discretion, the parents are understandably heartbroken. They are not able to make peace with the fact that their kids, who did not even buy their underwear without their approval, have taken one of their biggest life decisions without their consent. ‘When did they grow so old’, ‘I raised you for 25 years, why do I not get to decide your life partner’, ‘I know how marriages work better than you do’, ‘Why would I not want the best for you’, are common arguments that the parents bring up with whenever the ‘I am in love and I want to marry him’ situation comes up.

Control is often confused with love and emotional manipulation is justified because ‘I love you too much to want anything but the best for you’. Indian parents make their children’s marriage more about finding the right child-in-law and less about finding the right partner for their children; them liking the suitor becomes more important than their child liking his partner. The situation is analogous to your friends not approving of your date; while it is good to have a date whom your friends love which would mean that you can all hang out together and have more fun, it should not determine whom you end up dating. Even though we share a lot in common with our social circles, we are unique individuals and the choice of selecting a partner should lie with us and not our social circles.

I often come across people who would voluntarily break up with their partners because they don’t want to hurt their parents. ‘This is the only thing that my parents have asked me for’, ‘They asked me to choose between them or him’, ‘I cannot betray my parents’, and the list goes on. We have been conditioned to believe that sacrifice is the essence of love and that standing up against our parents or having healthy debates are blasphemy. We have never questioned our parents’ views or believes and most of the times happily adopted their beliefs’ as ours. Hence, when we suddenly stand up for our choice when it comes to our life partner, it is not only hard for our parents but also for us to accept this anomaly. We, together with our parents have fostered a culture where dissent and arguments are considered sacrilegious and obedience is an essential component of love.

At the expense of my mom cutting the phone on me sometimes and me throwing my phone in a fit of rage on other times, I have dared to venture into the uncomfortable conversation zone with my mother on a multitude of occasions. I have spoken to her about love, sex, marriages, relationships, my expectations out of life and my perception of the right and the wrong. Even though very few of our conversations concluded fruitfully, I still feel that they helped in establishing healthy dissent in the family. These conversations help in transforming the family structure from that of a dictatorship to one of a democracy. They help in establishing that rebellion is not necessarily evil but could be an essence of growth and progress.

I think it is important to separate love from conformance and respect from submission. I think it’s high we stop glorifying (wo)man-children to be the epitome of parent-child love and start respecting the fact that adults can take important decisions on their own, including that of choosing a life partner. I hope we can together take small steps to make parent-child love less suffocating and more liberating. We can begin with having more conversations with our parents and bridging the ‘taboo’ gap – talk more earnestly about our lives, our dreams, and our understanding of love, happiness and grief. We should let our parents know that their worldviews may sometimes be wrong and their perceptions flawed, and together we can help each other grow into our better selves.

Hopefully, we can work together to create a more tolerant and accepting country for our children and maybe if we try too hard, for our younger siblings. I believe conversation is pivotal in creating an environment more conducive to healthier relationships. I hope we encourage more conversations, both as children and as parents. If not, there are always these new dating apps on the store that let you filter by caste (I am not kidding). My Jain friend confessed to having used the caste filter for finding her latest date, “If I am not dating a girl of the same caste, then I feel that my parents will anyway not approve of her and the relationship will never last!”.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Knock, knock! Are you my soulmate?

The terrible thing about growing old watching Bollywood romance and reading dozens of love stories is that you have a larger than life expectation out of romance. You grew up watching Shahrukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit in ‘Dil Toh Pagal Hai’ where Rahul and Maya eventually find the soulmates they had envisioned throughout their youth. Aishwarya Rai in ‘Taal’ found love in Akshay Khanna and their love stood the test of time, class conflicts and rivalry; it conquered it all because they were soulmates. Veer found his Zaara and Raj finally got his Simran. Oliver Barrett and Jennifer Cavilleri found each other in the ‘Love Story’ and taught you that love means never having to say that you’re sorry. All of them contributed to the content of the mental ‘soulmate’ booklet that you consulted way too often.

Having spent your childhood soaked in romantic movies and novels, you were aware of your hopelessly romantic expectations out of love. You wanted to feel chills down your spine at each sight of him, have breathtakingly romantic dates along the beach by the moonlight and write poetry till the ink cannot bleed more love. Your first ‘love’ or whatever you call it when you’re fifteen did obscurely met some of these criteria – there was poetry, breathtaking romance, 12-hour-long phone calls, there was ‘I love you’ written boldly and deeply on bits of paper every time you felt a surge of passion, there were decisions about the future, names of the kids and there was madness. It was followed by jealousy, heartbreak, betrayal, and devastation. ‘How do you destroy 16-year-olds? What do they even understand about love?’, you may ask. I think you break down their beautiful idea of love, tell them that they were delusional, and love doesn’t exist in the form they imagined it.

You pick up the broken pieces of your heart and put them together. You tell yourself that you cannot let one heartbreak take away your entire belief out of love. You reassure yourself that your soulmate exists, and you will find him in time. You grow up and so does your understanding of love and attraction – you understand that sometimes the chills down the spine are overrated, that sometimes your guy wouldn’t know wordplay well enough to stitch together a beautiful poetry for you, but he can still love you the same. You start familiarizing yourself with apparently a more mature idea of love and manage to find someone who fits into this idea. ‘He is probably the one’, you tell yourself and the years that follow reassure you of the same. There is again the spiral of love, laughter, cute-fights, not-so-cute fights, decisions about the future, names of the kids, I-think-we-are-not-the-same-people-we-were-three-years-ago, I-think-we-want-different-things-out-of-life and I-don’t-think-we-can-work-out-anymore. Gradually, the differences take over the love and you don’t feel like soul mates anymore. You sigh and tell yourself that you’re still young and maybe the right person and has not walked in just yet.

You grow older and hit that age when it somehow seems alright for you to be unapologetically reckless and have more drinks than you can handle, go to more parties than your schedule allows and fall for more quintessential wrong guys than you need for your mandatory ‘wrong guy lessons’. For some strange reason, they felt like your soulmate, albeit for a very short time. You wipe off tears, bandage your bruised ego and tell your naïve self to become pragmatic and not mistake a life lesson for a soulmate ever again. You tell yourself that it’s alright to fall for the wrong guys sometimes because they make you strong and give you more content for the ‘Things I will teach my daughter’ booklet.

Enlightened and emancipated with the life lessons that the wrong guys brought along, you continue your pursuit of the ‘soulmate’. Your thoughts have been widened to understand that sometimes you need not attach tags to love. Your supposed wiser self now stumbled upon the more liberated souls, unconsciously looking for a piece of the jigsaw that was supposed to fit just right. There were some who seemed just right – the thick-rimmed spectacled guy who read Kafka and the singer who made you the central theme for all his lyrics thereon. They seemed right – maybe this is what a soulmate would feel like – great conversations about the complicated theories of love, life and beyond. You pretend to understand Rumi and maintain the intellectual snobbery of being better than ‘them’, the mere mortals who could not think beyond the norms. It seemed beautiful for most parts when you felt liberated and realized relationships make you a prisoner of love and love is too beautiful to be caged. Months passed, and you realized that maybe you also want to belong to that cage. Your free-thinking partners, however, continued with their absolute rejection of anything closely linked to commitment. You strike off some more points from the soulmate booklet and move on.

‘You’re adding to experiences. Nothing beautiful comes easy. At least now you know what you don’t want!’, you tell yourself. You pull out pages from your soulmate diary which spoke about madness, passion, Kafka, pseudo- intellectual-masturbation and liberated ideas of love. Then, you meet this guy, the all-famous best friend whom you get romantically involved with because apparently, best friends make for the best partners. You think you have finally found the one when you realize that you understand each other perfectly, do not go through the ‘couple’ drama, have no pretense and have the potential to maintain a real relationship. Only when you started getting comfortable with your regular fights and not-so-cute name calling and try to establish it as a critical component of any healthy relationship, he breaks it you, ‘I can’t handle these fights. They drain me of all emotional and mental strength. I think we are great friends, but we cannot work out as a couple.’

It hurts to know that something which you established as a healthy component of the relationship was a deal breaker for someone. Nevertheless, you go ahead with the quest of the soul mate because you were certain that when you find him, he would fit into the spaces of your life so beautifully that all the undulations would smoothen out.

Then, one fine day you come across that guy. He ticks off everything from your updated ‘soulmate’ booklet and also brings in more additions. The smart guy with witty jokes, the cute nerd, warm, affectionate, passionate, ambitious, sensitive and adorable. He texted just the right amount, made phone calls of the right length, wasn’t painfully jealous of any of your guy friends, understood your idiosyncrasies and need for space. He didn’t reek off toxic masculinity and understood that men do cry. He didn’t seem like someone out of a romance novel because he seemed real and his love, believable. He didn’t sweep you off your feet or inspired you to drown in poetry. You didn’t mind it because you thought that maybe the real deal gives you peace and not butterflies. He seemed like the one who would make all the wrong guys worth it. You believed that finally, you had it all figured out and realized that peace and not chaos is the answer to it all. You basked in the perfection of it all, until one day when he tells you, ‘We are too ordinary, dear. There is no magic. It is important for me to be insanely, passionately in love with you and I don’t feel that. You don’t inspire poetry or madness. Lukewarm is no good.’ You took a deep breath, smiled, told him that you understand and maybe you’re not the one for him.

As you tear off all the remaining pages of your soulmate booklet, a billion questions throw themselves at you. What all qualities do you look for in a soul mate? What do people without a soulmate do? Are they supposed to spend the entirety of their life waiting for someone to come and complete them? Also, does your soulmate need to necessarily be your romantic partner? Does it necessarily have to be one person? Does it have to be a person at all?

I thought about it all and wondered that maybe I have pieces of my soulmate lying across different people, places and things. Maybe one part lies in my best friend, another in my mother, another in the guy who made me believe that my darker upper lip is actually quite sexy, another in my best friend who can take a bullet for me or so she says, another in my childhood journal, another in my mentor and another in the cat whom I used to pet as a kid. Maybe all of these parts together are my soulmate. Maybe it’s unfair to expect one person to bear the gigantic expectations of my soulmate booklet.

Yes, it definitely makes so much more sense now!

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Hopping on to 25 – the less glamorous other side!

There is something unnerving about pre-birthday nights for me. I have been telling myself for the past five years that I have outgrown birthdays. Apparently, I had dropped the expectation from people to treat me like the almighty’s choicest creation and turn their lives around to make me feel special. Only that, I hadn’t outgrown them. It is in equal parts ridiculous and egotistical to expect people to spend time and effort to make the day you just happened to pop out of your mother’s womb, special. However, my heart and mind rarely choose to live in harmony.

My extent of making people feel special has been only stretched to pouring the contents of Knorr soup in a cup of boiling water and offering it to a sick friend. I had almost reveled in happiness and gave myself a pat on the back for exuding such compassion. Despite embodying such shallow standards of affection; hypocritically enough, I still expect people to drop everything and invest the entirety of their time in the glorious event that’s my birthday.

It was finally the birthday eve. It was 12 AM; I was half sloshed and cutting my overly priced ice-cream cake, half of which would be thrown away next day because there was no way it would get over. The next thing I remember was making forced attempts at having fun and making everyone around me to do the same. Alcohol is supposed to do that, right? Only that sometimes, it doesn’t. It doesn’t when you have been shoving gallons of it within yourself since the past two days of the extended long weekend because what else is 24-year-old frustrated IT folks excuse for fun? However, my friends still tried with all their might to fabricate fun out of their exhausted bodies, to swing on ‘Taarein gin-gin yaad main teri’, and periodically shout, “Shots, shots”. I glared at their sleep-deprived eyes, alcohol bloated bodies and decided that maybe we could do without more ‘fun’ that evening and called it a night.

I wished everyone a good night and thought of hitting the bed. “Oh God, let me turn my phone to silent mode. I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night with all the calls and messages. And Facebook, shit, I thought I will remove my birthday this year. All the unnecessary wall posts, man – so many notifications. I can’t handle them.”

I woke up the next morning and suddenly the realization seeped in – I am 25! Everything that followed, reiterated it, in not so fancy ways. I picked up my phone expecting at least a dozen missed calls like every year. It’s funny how I tried to mask my embarrassment from my own self when my phone read ‘2 missed calls’ and one of them was from mom. Then, I opened Facebook and pretended to nonchalantly browse through the newsfeed. I heard something break inside me when I saw only three notifications. I tried to rationalize it in my head by telling myself that those ‘HBD Charul’ posts are the ones I give two hoots about, but deep within it pained to know that I am not even getting those irritating ‘HBD Charul’ posts. It’s like that feeling you get when the creepy guys stop making passes at you-you never wanted them in the first place, they were outrageously annoying, but it makes you stop and wonder for a while if you’re attractive anymore.

25 is a rather funny age. You’re old enough to understand the things that shouldn’t matter anymore but still too young to stop caring. It gradually dawns on you that the attention and affection that became too difficult to handle at one point in your life has gradually moved out when you were busy growing up. That Skype call from friends settled in the US did not happen this time. I realized that along with me, they grew up too and finding jobs and looking after their fiancé became more important. The birthday messages in the ‘Others’ folder also shrunk down to three from thirty-three. The creepy guy who religiously sent monthly poetry to my inbox also seemed to have found another muse. I judged myself so hard when I almost missed that weird poetry.

My old friend from college called up, I acted cute and asked him to sing ‘Happy Birthday’, he blatantly refused and asked me to grow up. I spent a significant amount of time wondering how old one is supposed to grow in a year because he did sing it last year. I laughed; a light, hollow laugh that was meant to mask my inner chaotic battle. My mom called next, “Baby, Deepali aunty asked for your hand in marriage.” “Mom, I need 5 more years”. “Honey, who do you think will be interested in marrying you after 5 years. The rate at which your beauty is deteriorating, do you think that even you would consider marrying yourself after 5 years”, she said, matter-of-factly. I stared at myself in the mirror and my growing acne and weight seemed to suggest that mom wasn’t just trying to be sarcastic and funny.

Gradually, it sunk in – the horrible realization that I am now on the less glamorous other side. Life is a bit harder this side, you may end up looking less pretty and your likability radar may shrink, one bit at a time. The less glamourous side may not seem as amazing, but it is more peaceful. It throws you out there amongst the crashing, fast waves. However, I believe that eventually, you learn how to swim and reach the shore stronger than ever. The other side is intimidating and often sprinkled with spells of loneliness. You learn to find comfort in those spells. You explore the forgotten, uncharted spaces of yourself and serendipitously discover solace in them. The extras get trimmed out and the constants remain, and they are the only ones who matter – the only ones who ever mattered. The next morning, with the maturity of the first quarter sinking in, I happily welcomed myself to the other side.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Dating in the time of feminism!

“You’re the ‘feminist’ kinds, I heard. It should be fun dating you”, he texted and added a wink smiley.

I wondered what that really means. I read it again. I replied the same way I respond to most texts which I cannot come up with an appropriate reply for - ‘Hahahaha’. It perturbed me a bit, though. ‘Feminist’ types – what is the stereotype that he is expecting? Is he intimidated by me? Am I supposed to come across as intimidating?

His expectations compounded a lot of pressure on me. What if I do not come across to be ‘feminist’ enough? Will it shatter his bubble? Am I supposed to wear thick rimmed glasses and have conversations around the third wave of feminism? What was I supposed to do? What are feminist women supposed to be like? Should I be too assertive? Should I put red-lipstick on? Should I get offended by casual sexist jokes? Am I supposed to cut him in middle of conversations every time and womansplain things (Yes, I just invented that term)? Should I come across as a difficult woman?

Oh my God! This was too much pressure for me to handle, already! What if I come across as a ‘normal’ girl? It would break his world into a thousand tiny pieces.

I dressed up and hoped that it come across to be ‘feminist’ enough. I guess adding thin framed glasses to a sexy black dress does the trick. The neck of the black dress, however, should have the right amount of depth- neither so deep that you come across as slutty, nor so high that you seem prudish. It should be exactly 4.78 inches deep – it is the ideal feminist neckline depth. He then texts me and asks if he should pick me up; I am about to type yes, but then suddenly I think about my clan and how I would come across as a sheer disappointment if I let him pick me. I immediately text back, saying, ‘I am good, I’ll drive there.’ Having pressed the sent button, I suddenly realize that I don’t even have a car- ‘Wrong move, Charul. Wrong move!’ I immediately book an Uber and reach the brewery where we were supposed to meet.

He is waiting for me at the entrance, smiling. ‘Hey, you look beautiful!’, he remarks. I blush a bit and say thank you. (‘Blushing is acceptable, right?’ I whisper to myself. ‘I guess you are doing fine’, I respond back.)

Then the conversations get going and we become comfortable talking to each other. Suddenly, the guy at the next table started smoking. I coughed. It was co-incidental and I didn’t mind the smoke. He gave me that ‘Emraam Hashmi from Ashiq Banaya Aapne’ look and said, ‘Is it bothering you Charul, the smoke? Should I ask him to put it off?’ The alpha male instinct almost made me weak in the knees and I wanted to cough harder and tell him, ‘Yes, please save me from that big bad boy because I can’t say anything to him. Save me, will you? Please? ‘. However, I smiled and said, ‘I’m fine. I don’t really mind the smoke.’

The conversations post that went almost fine. Apart from the occasional, ‘Look I am all for feminism, but I don’t understand why women want reserved compartments in Delhi metro and talk about equality at the same time’, ‘I’m all for equality but then why can’t I hit you like I hit my guy friends?’, ‘If feminism stands for equality why is it called feminism in the first place’. Now, I have come across these questions so many times that I paused for a while, thought about the appropriate reply and was just about to lash at him when something within me stopped me saying, ‘Maybe I don’t have energy for this debate, today.’

However, just moments later – my clan started calling out to me loud and strong, ‘You must say it, Charul. You have to.’ I told him to get a drink and relax. Then, I started – one after another discussing all the ‘concerns’ he brought forward. Two minutes into the conversation, and he couldn't take it – ‘This is the problem with your kinds. You are so easily offended. You cannot take a joke.’ I wondered which of his statements was intended as a joke. I tried telling him that I am not offended, I am just trying to have a discussion – presenting another point of view. We can agree to disagree. He raised his hands, rather dramatically and said,’ Fine, you are right. Let’s just end the discussion.’ I did something between an eye-roll and a smile or a little of both. I don’t believe that I could do it well enough, though.

We were done with our food and drinks and I was prepared for the main test. Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, this is no ordinary test. It is the most important test to qualify as a true feminist. This round has the veto power.

Was I ready for it? Yes, I was ready for it. I excused myself for the restroom, opened my wallet, took out my credit card and kept it in my pocket for easy access. Then, I waited, with bated breath. ‘Why are you sweating?’, he asked. ‘Nothing, it’s just too hot, suddenly.’ ‘I-have-to-grab-the-bill. I-have-to-grab-the-bill. I-have-to-grab-the-bill’, went on in loops in my head. I could see the waiter walking towards us. ‘Was I sitting at the right angle for him to offer me the bill? Did I seem rich enough? Will I be quick enough to grab it in case it is titled more to his side?’ Oh my God, I was nervous. Five, four, three, two, one – and, he kept it on his side of the table. I don’t remember being this quick ever, but I grabbed it and said, ‘It’s my treat.’ He looked at me, rather bewildered, not able to understand why I seemed so keen on treating him. He insisted on paying and we did some bit of drama for three minutes, post which, we agreed upon letting me pay this time. I sighed in relief. I passed the final, most crucial test.

I could hear claps in the background, ‘Thank you for not letting us down, Charul’, they said. He will no longer tell his friends, that when it comes to paying the bill- these feminist types forget about equality, suddenly they start preferring chivalry. I did a little dance when he was not looking.

Meanwhile, my phone beeped. It was a message from a dear friend- ‘Woman, you owe me 30k on Splitwise. I am not your husband; you do realize that, right?’.
‘Shut up! I’ll throw the money on your stupid face, you ass’, I reply.
‘Yes, how about you throw it today. I need to pay my rent.’
‘Fine, whatever!’.

Ah, things you do for your clan!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

A letter to the girl who radiates happiness!

Dear best friend,

It has been two long years in Hyderabad and I was contemplating over how I have changed as a person; over things, experiences and people who got added to my life. Surprisingly, what stood out in the entire list was you and this fact compelled me to write something about you – about us, disregarding how cheesy it might sound. I seldom write about people, because how can you put down what someone means to you in words and do justice to those emotions, but, today, I want to try.

I remember seeing you at office for the first time – bright blue shirt and black trousers, poker straight hair, make up so heavy that it could give one of those models a deep complex, heels so high that I wondered if you need to directly rush to a party right after office; and I immediately stereotyped you to be this loud Delhi girl I can never become close friends with. Funny how first impressions and be so misleading at times!

Destiny and a bit of conscious maneuvering of it got us together as flat mates and I want to write about how much I fell in love with you with every week that passed. Is it too cheesy already? Oh, I am a cheesy and mushy person – I pretend to be this cool girl, but I am so not her.

I want to build up and then reach this point where I tell you that I have found my soul mate in you, but an impatient person that I am, I will blurt it out already – ‘Honey, I have found my soul mate in you.’ I want to recollect incidents, you know those incidents when you look at your partner and think, ‘He’s the one.’ I want to talk about the ones when you made me feel that you’re the one.

I remember those mornings after some reckless drinking nights when I walked up to you with regret, sobbing softly. Sometimes I would walk up with a vomit-engulfed T-shirt, sometimes with a blacked-out memory, telling you, ‘My life is over. I have turned into one of those girls I hated.’ Thank you for telling me outright that you’re not going to say that it is fine, and it happens, and it is okay to be young and reckless. I want to thank you for being brutally honest and telling me that I am turning into a shitty person and that you don’t like this person. Thank you for loving me just enough and not being the forgiving and endearing person that I wanted you to be at that time. Thank you being the friend I needed, not the one I wanted.

Thank you for being at the first row for all my plays and performances and cheering for me every time, every single time. It means a lot, you know to have loved ones telling you that they’re proud of you. Thank you for the jewelry, make up and dresses that I borrowed every time. I often wonder what I’d do without your wardrobe.

I remember the days when I went through an existential crisis and forgot how to smile for days, and even weeks. Thank you for helping me get out of it to figure out who I am. Thank you for shaking me up and telling me that I’m your hero and that you derive your strength from me.

How can I forget my fracture and the way you cared for me like a mother – taking my tantrums, cooking for me, cancelling your parties and working from home because I was being a baby. The time when I was admitted to the hospital for the viral fever which chose to not leave me for three straight weeks. Thank you for taking my tantrums when I refused to talk to you because you left me alone for an hour to have dinner. I behaved like a cranky little baby. Thank you for letting me a baby, then.

Thank you for paying heed to my whims and remembering the little details that I whimsically throw around sometimes. You remembered that I once whimsically stated that I want to have a swing where I can sit and read, and went ahead and gifted me that swing on my birthday. I remember staring at a Winnie the Pooh soft toy for five minutes and claiming that I want it. It was both funny and flattering how you without another thought walked into the store and bought the Pooh. I remember being cranky and telling you that I am bored of you and that I need new friends. You smiled and patiently took my uncalled temper, went an extra mile and suggested some new people whom I can be friends with. I often wonder if I deserve this kind of love – the kind of love which spoils you. Thank you for spoiling me, sometimes.

I reminisce over our breakfast discussions, about my bizarre ideas of love and life and you understanding those ideas. It’s strange how we’re two extremely different people and yet understand each other so well. Thank you for supporting me on my solo trip despite knowing how reckless a person I am. Thank you for gifting me a solo trip package with a book, a diary, chocolates and flashlight. These little things, these little things that you do for me – they are everything!

I often wonder how some people continue to love me despite my expression of love being so vague. Thank you for understanding my expression of love even when it was so indirect. Thank you for understanding that I love you even when I wasn’t by your side for days on end when you were sick – emotionally and physically. Thank you for understanding that I love you the same even when I failed to plan your birthday even half as meticulously as you planned mine. Thank you for understanding my quirks and idiosyncrasies, accepting them and loving me despite them and sometimes, for them. Thank you being the person I can share my dreams and stories with, thank you for waiting for me at dinner. Thank you for being my person.

My vocabulary is not capable of doing justice to my emotions, but I’d just like you to know that I feel extremely lucky to have you in my life and you belong to the group of people whom I call mine and take for granted, sometimes. I love you!

I forgot to mention one thing – you radiate happiness. It falls off your shining cheeks, glittery eyes and infectious laughter and everyone in your radar gets a gift of that happiness. You can walk into a dank, dingy room and brighten it up with your smile. You are amazing! I think I have already crossed my threshold of the number of cheesy words I can use in a day.


The girl with the fake accent

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Celebrating selfish mothers

Of late, I had been reading myriad of answers to the question, ‘What is it like to be raised by an Indian mother?’ on Quora. You browse through the answers and there you go- tales of selflessness, unconditional love and sacrifices galore. The stories were almost identical; each spoke about how their mothers’ selflessly cared about the children, gave up their careers for the cause of their children’s development, woke up at odd morning hours to make sure that the kids get their morning tea and how they are superwomen who are the epitome of support, affection, selflessness and greatness.

I read one story after another and I could relate to each of them because my mother was there in each of those stories. She has always been the one to wake up at the earliest hour. She would then make the morning tea, wake the rest of the family up, prepare breakfast, get my siblings and me dressed, send us to school, send dad to office and it will go on for the rest of the day. She would then be the last person to go to bed. My mother seldom complained, she always seemed happy. Hence, I never asked her if she had a problem with it all because it seemed to come naturally to her.

I would often wake up thirsty in the middle of the night with an urge to drink water. ‘Mom, Water!’, I would shout at the top of my voice. She would wake up, without resistance and get me water with a smile. Back then, it never occurred to me as to why I never called out for my dad instead. I remember her dressing me fondly for every fancy dress competition that I took part in and hear me rehearse my debate speeches over and over again. I don’t remember being thankful for it though. I always felt that she ought to be there for me. However, every hour that my dad spent in teaching me or hearing my elocution speeches seemed like a privilege. I was always grateful for his time. 

I remember mother telling me fondly about her college days and how she used to frequently visit the forests for her Botany research. She smiled broadly every time she spoke about her classes, her students and how she used to elaborately prepare for each class. ‘If you liked it so much, then why did you leave it all?’, I asked. ‘Darling, someone had to be there and take care of you all. I worked in a different city and your grandmother used to keep unwell. I had to take the call. And oh, I have no regrets’, she smiled.

This is not my mother’s story. This is almost every mother’s story, specifically the Indian mother’s story. The sacrifices may be different, the stories may have different characters and varied incidents but at the core of them lies a woman selflessly juggling many roles, putting everyone else in the family before herself and being the ultimate support system of everyone in the family. ‘What is the problem?’, you may ask. The problem is that this is often what one gets reduced to - a support system. A selfless goddess who cares for everyone else above herself and this is not what scares me; what scares me is the widely accepted notion that this comes naturally to them. The notion that this is how mothers are - selfless, giving and supportive.

I have come across a lot of mothers who have often failed to live up to the standards of ‘great’ and have dwelled in guilt on every such instance. I remember talking to a colleague who was working till late night, when she exclaimed to me about how terrible she feels about finding her son fast asleep when she reaches home. Another friend, started crying soon after my midnight birthday celebration. ‘I am so selfish. How could I leave my one-month kid at home with my mother and come here to enjoy a party?’, she exclaimed and drowned herself in guilt. Her husband, however, did not even distantly feel that there was anything wrong in his behavior. You might argue that it just comes more naturally for the mother. However, if we examine the behavior more closely, we find that both the parents wanted to come for the party. It is just the post party guilt which dawned on the mother and not the father; which stems out of the fact that the mother assumes that it is primarily her responsibility to take care of the child. The guilt of putting yourself, your enjoyment or your dreams first almost always hits the women rather than the men in a family setting.

I wonder how it would be for a mother to think about her dreams. I wonder what it would be like to not want to wake up at six one morning because she is too tired after a long workday. I wonder what it will be like if she happens to skip a parent-teacher meeting or a football match of her daughter because she was busy weaving her dreams. I wonder about the ‘selfless’ tiara with which we grace all mothers. What if all of us cannot bear the weight of that tiara and do not wish to wear it? What if we do not want to be ‘great’? What if we want to be mere mortals who have their own dreams and goals and want to chase it with the same vigor that the family wants to chase theirs with?

I am tired of hearing about the secret formulae which ensure how women can have it all. I would love to hear acceptance for women faltering and not being able to have it all. Acceptance for putting herself first sometimes, before her husband or her children. Acceptance so that she doesn’t drown in guilt if she has to leave her toddler with dad for baby-sitting when she goes out to enjoy a party with her friends. I yearn acceptance for a world in which a mother can be allowed to be 'selfish' and cater guiltlessly to her dreams. 

This can become possible if we can let the mothers drop the burden of ‘greatness’. Let the mothers also be flawed, imperfect, selfish, faltering and mere mortals, like the rest of us. Let the imperfection be celebrated and encouraged. You and I can do this together. Let’s take a step in that direction; by imbibing this in the women and men that we become, the children that we raise and the conversations that we may pick up with a random stranger. 

Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Penance

‘How do I look in this dress?’, Zaara threw a quick question at Rehaan while giving the finishing touch to her eyeliner.

‘You look ugly. Why would you even buy something that looks like a banana for a dress? What were you thinking?’, Rehaan smirked.

‘Why am I dating you? Why? Why can I not date a normal guy who compliments me like normal boyfriends do and makes me feel good about myself?’

‘Love is blind, darling. If only, you could choose.’

‘First of all, this is not love. We’re just having fun with each other. Secondly, you felt that I looked like some model from Victoria Secrets when you had to woo me. Suddenly, I look nothing better than potatoes and bananas to you.’

‘Darling, fifteen kilograms can do that to you. They are capable of transforming you from a Victoria Secrets model to a potato. Moreover, for God’s sake, I never felt that you look like a Victoria Secrets model. ‘Pretty’ is the best compliment that I have ever given you.’

Zaara flung her bag at Rehaan, picked up her car keys and cussed him all the way to the lift.  ‘All you men, all of you are the same. You will keep chasing a girl as long she doesn’t pay any heed to you. However, the moment she gets interested in you; suddenly she is a banana.’

‘You’re a pretty banana, darling. In fact, you always looked like a banana to me. I thought you might take offence to it if I tell you about it even when you didn’t pay any heed to me. So, I kept the feelings to myself and decided to reveal them once the attention is reciprocated’, Rehaan laughed as he rushed towards the parked car.

Zaara managed to mask her blushing cheeks with her long hair as she got into the car. She could never come to terms with the reason behind getting flattered at her boyfriend’s demeaning comments. Love has mysterious ways of turning us into people we can seldom fathom.

She sat at the driver’s seat, plugged in her pen-drive with the updated playlist and turned the key in the ignition. The engine roared transitorily and then stopped. The monsoon had taken its toll on the engine. After four to five unsuccessful attempts, Zaara finally managed to get the car started.

‘The heart wants what it wants’, was the first track that started playing.

‘Can you please change that stupid song? I don’t like it.’

‘I care a lot about your likes and dislikes Rehaan, just the way you care about mine. Can you tell me the exact songs you would like to hear? I will happily oblige.’

‘Zaara, will you stop being sarcastic? Just change the damn song.’

‘Will you stop throwing around your whims? I will play whichever song I feel like playing. Bananas do not like taking orders.’

‘Yeah, just because I don’t have a car, you’re going to look down upon me and dominate me. You preach feminism, but in reality you have the patriarchal mindset which will never let go of an opportunity to humiliate a man who makes lesser money than his lady.’

‘Rehaan, good trick to garner some sympathy; but it is not going to work. So, just shut up. However, now that you mentioned it; I wonder why I date you- you’re ugly, mean and poor. What is wrong with me!’

‘Honey, if only you had a choice. You know I am the best deal for you out there.’ They both laughed heartily as they waited at the traffic signal. The lights turned green and they moved ahead. Thick grey clouds started to fill the sky. It looked like it was going to rain. Another few minutes in the traffic and it started drizzling. There was something about light drizzles that Zaara loved. Tiny water droplets that settled on the windshield mesmerized her. She loved drizzles, not heavy rains, just the drizzles.

The traffic cleared as they moved ahead of the crossing and started driving on the Park Street. ‘That baby now, Take me into your loving arms, Kiss me under the light of a thousand stars, Place your head on my beating heart, Thinking out loud, Maybe we found love right where we are...’, was now playing in the background and both of them were smiling to themselves. Rehaan suddenly muted the song and looked at Zaara, ‘Zaara, please drive onto that driveway by the hills. I really want to go there. Please!’

‘Rehaan, are you out of your mind? We’re getting late for Rajiv’s wedding and going to that driveway will add some eight more kilometers to the route.’

‘There’s no traffic on that route. We will save time. Please, just do this for me. I haven’t said please three times in a row to you in the past three years.’

‘I can never understand you, Rehaan’, Zaara exclaimed as she unmuted the song and took a left turn to route to that driveway. The road was laid with yellowed leaves which added more beauty to the monsoon. Zaara’s annoyance of being forced to the change the route was immediately replaced by rapture and her frown transformed into a lovely smile.

‘Do you remember the day we came here for the first time, Zaara? You were wearing a yellow dress and I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to wear a dress that would make them look four times fatter than they are. You still managed to look pretty; in a strange way but pretty, nonetheless.’

‘I don’t remember meeting you but I remember that dress. I love that dress. You have strange ways of complimenting Rehaan, but at least you managed to use the word pretty this time.’

‘Zaara, I love you! I mean…I don’t know how to say this in a better manner and make you feel special. I am bad at it. I don’t know how to compliment you. In fact, I never compliment you. I never even asked you out because I never felt that I have to ever do that. Whatever we share is just so natural and beautiful that I don’t feel like tarnishing it with the slightest bit of pretense. I wish I could do this in a better manner, at a better time and a better place. But, I really want to say this to you right now. Zaara, you are a part of me and I can never let this part go. I want you to be there in my life, forever, not to complete me but to ensure that I continue living. You’re my favorite part of myself, Zaara. I don’t have a ring right now and I am probably the worst boyfriend in this world but I have to say it right now,” Will you please marry me, Zaara?”’

Zaara’s eyes welled up and tears rolled down her cheeks before she could to terms with the fact that Rehaan proposed to her. She pulled out the pendrive and threw it at Rehaan. ‘Why on earth would you propose to me in the middle of road when we’re getting late for a friend’s wedding. I hate you for it. This had to be my special moment. This is the moment that I had to share with my children. I want the goddamn ring. Rehaan Malik, I hate you!’

‘I am sorry. I just had to say it right now. Yes, or no, Zaara.’

‘Of course, yes. You, asshole!’, she exclaimed and in that moment she felt ecstatic, surprised, elated, passionate, vulnerable and loved; all at the same time. She was crying and laughing; all at once. It felt like those beautiful romantic movies which she privately loves but hates to admit in public. This was her moment. It was raw, unplanned, impulsive, real and in the middle of a yellowed leaf strewn driveway on a rainy evening. She couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful proposal. This was her special moment and she made a mental note to tell her children about it. She was smiling one of her widest smiles as she was driving.

It had started to grow dark and the drive way narrowed as they drove ahead. Suddenly, she saw an old lady crossing the road. The car was at a reasonably high speed. She honked, applied brakes immediately and deflected the car to avoid hitting the lady. However, the road was too narrow for the lady to escape and the car hit her; throwing her onto the ground head first.

Zaara started hyperventilating and could not come to terms with the accident that took place. She was unable to move. Rehaan rushed out of the car and addressed the old lady. She had got a head injury and was bleeding profusely. He lifted her up and got her into an upright position. Then he tore Zaara’s saree and tied it across her head to control the bleeding.

He called the police and narrated the incident to them. He then, called the ambulance which reached the location within five minutes. Zaara accompanied the lady in the ambulance and was checking her pulse, throughout. Time refused to budge. With each passing second, she contemplated about how the accident could have been avoided. ‘If only, Rehaan had not proposed to her and she wouldn’t have been so excited’, ‘If only she was driving slowly’, ‘If only the road was better lit’, ‘If only they had not changed the route’, ’If only the lady moved to the side on hearing the incessant honking’. She kept thinking about these possibilities all along the way to the hospital.

They got down at the City Hospital and with trembling hands Zaara helped the lady out of the ambulance. She finished the formalities as the doctors rushed her to the emergency ward. She called up the last dialed numbers on the lady’s phone.

The first person who picked up was apparently the son. ‘Hi, I am speaking from City Hospital. This lady...may I know how you are related to her?’

‘She is my mother. What happened to her?’

‘She met with an accident. Please come to the hospital as soon as I can. I was driving the car which crashed into her. I have signed all the forms. She had to be operated immediately. Please come here as soon as you can.’

‘What? How did she meet with an accident? Who are you? Are you sure about it being my mother? What is she wearing?’

‘She is wearing a brown saree. The name on her Aadhar card says Uma Lakshmi.’

‘Yes, that’s my mother. Is she all right?’

‘No, she is not all right. Please come to the City Hospital.’

I will ruin you, woman. If anything happens to my mother, I will ruin you.’

Zaara disconnected the phone. She wanted to cry but could not bring herself to cry. She was numb. It seemed like a nightmare which will pass when she wakes up in the morning. It was too terrible to be true. She went down on her knees and for the first time since the crash, she wept uncontrollably. She wept and asked for forgiveness, for another chance and traded everything for the lady’s life.

Funny thing about being an atheist is that in the times of crisis, you don’t even know with whom you are having these conversations. You don’t even know who you are asking for another chance. However, you ask, nonetheless; converse, nonetheless and hope for a miracle, nonetheless.

Rehaan found Zaara weeping at the corner of the hospital. He hugged her as he fought back tears. ‘I don’t want her to die, Rehaan. Please do something. Please save her, Rehaan. Please! ‘. He kept hugging her and controlled his emotions. He was as broken as Zaara but he had to be strong for her. He had to comfort her and tell her that it will become all right.

I felt sorry for Rehaan. I pitied him for not being allowed to break down and tell Zaara that he is as scared and broken as she is. I pitied him for not being able cry and expose his vulnerabilities. I pitied him for having to crush his pain and put up a brave face for Zaara. I pitied him for being a man.

The doctor came out of the operation theatre. He looked content. The nurses made a casual joke as they walked out. The scene gave a ray of hope to Zaara and Rehaan. ‘She must be fine’, Zaara told herself as she breathed a sigh of relief. ‘How is the lady, doctor?’, Rehaan managed to utter.

‘I am sorry; we could not save her. There was way too much blood loss and her body was too weak to survive the operation. Please complete the formalities with the police before checking out.’

Sometimes time just seems frozen. You force yourself to stay in that moment as long as you can because any moment after that will only be worse. It was happening for real. ‘I am not a murderer, Rehaan. I am not a murderer’, Zaara kept repeating in a loop as she fell on the floor, weeping. She was broken, shattered into pieces which seemed too many to ever be put back together, again. 


Sitting at her rocking chair and braiding her granddaughter’s hair she exclaimed, ’Penance is important, my child. It is very important and so is forgiveness. We should all learn to forgive ourselves. Forgiveness after penance.’

That night, she wrote into her diary, ‘I forgive myself. It was a mistake.’