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If Popular Science can, so can I.

If you have something interesting to tell me, do email me at umm.of.on@gmail.com. Because I really do love a good discussion and chat. I don’t always enjoy trolls, even if some are cute.

Also, comments on blog posts are not really needed, because it’s just my personal opinion and also… this is why.

Some posts I may still invite comments, so do so kindly.

The best year ever. Again.

I haven’t published a single blog post all year… and yet, this has been such an eventful year. That’s not to say I haven’t written. I wrote reams for work, for studies and in my little books, putting pen on paper.

The ageing and ill-health of parents notwithstanding, the year has been a series of warm hugs and gentle caresses. When traumatic memories from 20 years ago came rushing back, there was an outpouring of solidarity. When some parts of my work failed to be as effective as I’d wish, there would always be some smiles drawn, a few wounds healed, and several issues brought to the fore, even if not always solved.

Recently I read a quote of Mandela: May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears. A penny dropped. Every major, successful decision of mine has been because I did exactly that. Be it moving back to India or changing my career trajectory.

And as the years creep up on me, I do hope my choices continue to reflect that nugget of wisdom.

Here are the highlights of my year:

  • Finally published the book, Stories of Origin. You can read the what, the when and the why here: https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2018/7/20/the-invisible-lives-of-migrants-in-the-gulf
  • A lot of travel, work and pleasure, a lot of conversations, new destinations and new people. (Qatar Airways tells me I’ve done over 85000 miles of flying this year on their routes alone.)
  • I finally started my Masters, from the School of Advanced Studies, University of London. It’s been tough and exhilarating getting back to studies, and at 44, finally falling in love with formal studies.
  • My work has always been fulfilling. But what I do now is by far the most fulfilling (and challenging) of it all. It’s been more responsibilities, more expectations, slow and steady progress… and a daily practice of gratitude, for the privileges I have and how I can put it to use. Got a chance to speak about my work at various platforms around the world, including the UN.
  • Home, family, friends are sacred. And our problems have been small or easily overcome, and for that, I am eternally grateful. In a world where conversations are dwindling, digitally disrupted, or falsely framed on social media, it’s still noisy, talkative, sometimes intrusive, always loving relationships that envelop my life and that of my children.
  • My first-born is already an adult, and if I can imbibe half her maturity, warmth and empathy, I’d be a far better person. The younger continues both to test my patience and to teach me love. For all my rational thinking, out of sheer superstition, I will hold back everything else I want to say about friends and family.
  • Never one for twitter hashtags, I found myself drawn to the #MeToo one… as old memories came flooding back. You can read more of that here: thewire.in/…/times-of-india-kr-sreenivas-resigns-me-too-india
  • I am really proud of myself for taking proper breaks from work, and reducing my social media use. For prioritising myself.

And if there’s one thing I wish for the coming year, it’s more open (albeit difficult) conversations… for that alone can bring in love and kindness.

 

 

 

An odd coupling: Another tale from Ethiopia

He is white, balding, with a beer belly, and prone to patting his neck. She is tiny, in impossibly tall heels and proportionately short skirt. Pints of beer and football on the big screen.

The waitress circles them, refilling and clearing. The bartender watches over her. The other white men – some balding, some not, some with a wedding band and others merely with an untanned strip where a previous reminder of loyalty lay – pass sideward glances.

Everyone is gathered for football. Everyone is thinking of that night’s lay.

The girl’s laugh is surprisingly loud as if that tiny body could no longer hold all the mirth within.

As the night grows old and the beer grows warm, his interest in football wavers. Briefly. Goal! He is immersed right back into the 70-inch screen.

She senses a waning interest and smartly throws her bare, shapely legs over the arm of the chair, and he instinctively reaches for one, and strokes it. Absentmindedly.

She tugs at his shirtsleeves, her laugh now a tinkle. He leans over and bumps forehead with her, going straight back to the game.

She rises. Pats the skirt over her ample rump, and sways to the washroom.

In the white man’s country, would she even be considered old enough to be allowed into the sports bar?

She has his attention now. The sweating men on screen forgotten briefly.

The game ends. Everyone seems gregarious and disappointed at the same time.

The other white men watch the coupling of this pair, that should have been unusual, but is all too common. In impoverished nations around the world, young girls wait for an escape. A smitten old man is a start.

Lonely white men, I can’t speak for.

Note: An after-hours story from my recent work trip to Ethiopia

 

Tales from a shrinking home

This is a composite of many stories I've heard and seen in my 17 years in Doha. Any resemblance to any person or event is likely to be true; I can only hope I've masked it well. 
As in all works of fiction, truth abounds.

I

There are two little bedrooms, a bathroom and a ‘powder’ room. I giggled, imagining walking into an exclusive little space to dab Cuticura talc under my arms, in the small of back, behind my ears. Then the special Lakme powder for my face.

Ikka wasn’t happy with my giggling fit. Powder room means just half bathroom, he hissed.

But I had made up my mind. That’s where I will powder all my parts, the parts Ikka liked to sniff at through my nightie as I served him his morning tea.

The kitchen was tiny and tiled. Green window frames, and dark glass windows. We didn’t even need a mirror. There were flimsy cabinets above and below the granite slab.

The agent, Ikka’s friend, says the washing machine will go into the bathroom. Washing machine. I cannot quite believe the luxury of it all. A room for my Cuticura talc, two bedrooms for two people, and a washing machine.

There was no car park, but there was plenty of space on the street, the agent pointed out.

Ikka nodded. We had a car. Not the Benz he dreamt of, but a white Nissan Sunny, second hand. Once we save enough for our home, he will buy a Toyota firsthand. It’s easy to get loans here, because you can’t leave the country till you pay it back. He will buy a Benz car when we have enough money. That will have to be a secondhand one, or even third hand.

I believe only Sheikhs have first hand Benz cars.

Ikka has lived here for more than four years, always in ‘bachelor’ room. We got married two years ago, but I didn’t get visa till now. So as soon as I came I stayed in the ‘bachelor’ room with him. One plywood wall halving a small bedroom. One side Ikka, one side an old man who has lived here for 25 years.

The man who rents that house had an old Benz, and he kept the stepney in his hall, chained to the door. He was a Malayalee too, but a Christian and from Bombay, so thought he was better than all of us.

Ikka finally found this two bedroom house for us. We will go to Souq Haraj on Friday and buy furniture. I love my house. My first house.

These Sheikhs use their sofas only for four months, six months if they are not too rich. Then they throw it out and buy new ones. So much money they have, they get bored of keeping it in the bank.

II

The sofa was blue with big brown flowers. There is one where three people can sit, and two one-seaters. But if Ikka’s mother comes she will take up the whole of the big sofa. Her buttocks are bigger than her mouth, and that’s saying something. I can’t tell him that. He thinks his Umma is Khadija herself.

We bought two side tables, and a foldable dining table. We can unfold the table in front of the sofa when we want to eat. The Bengali who sold us that said the Sheikhs take these tables to their tents in the desert, but never bring it back. Then the Pathans go in their trucks and round up all the things left behind in the desert, and sometimes they take things when the people are still in the tent, the Bengali sniggered.  

These Bengalis talk too much. Ikka says India went to war with Pakistan just to create a country of carpenters, barbers and laundrymen. The Bengalis run all the furniture and barber and ironing shops here.

Ikka knows everything about this country. He keeps talking about this and that to me, I will become an expert too.

The Sheikhs trust Malayalees and give them work in their homes and businesses. Malayalis also run all the grocery shops, what they call baqaala here. The Indians do all the other work. Accounts, engineering, and very poor Indians work in all the low class jobs. Ikka says Indians are jealous of people from Kerala. Especially these Indians from Tamil Nadu.

In my village we call those people paandis.

When we went to buy LG TV in Lulu, Ikka got me a saree, in my favourite colour, yellow. It’s Japan nylex the man said. Top quality. So soft. But I can’t wear it out in summer, it’s like wearing plastic.

We now have A/Cs–from Souq Haraj–in every room, but have to be careful using it. Too much money wasted if we keep it running whole day.

We also bought a bed from Souq Haraj. I asked Ikka if the mattress will be dirty, he said the Sheikhs must be bathing in rose water. But I put two bedsheets on it, just in case. They have four four wives, how much they must have used this bed?

Ikka keeps saying we will see, we will see when I ask him about decorating the second bedroom.

III

There is a young boy who rents the second bedroom. He works in the printing press here, doing typesetting work.

He moved in four months ago, and pays 800 riyals. If we give him food, we can increase it to 1200 riyals. That’s nearly half of the rent we pay, Ikka says.

What’s the big problem in cooking for one more person. So I said yes.

Ikka wants to save money quickly and move back to our country. To start a business there. So for just two of us we don’t need this big flat. Anyway, that boy leaves early and comes late. He comes in the afternoon for lunch because he works two shifts. Only now he started talking to me. Chechi this, chechi that.

Fawaz, that’s his name, also brings me old magazines from his company.  Nice boy he is.

IV

Fawaz last month asked if his cousin brother can stay with us for a few days. He came on a free visa and wants to find a job.

Ikka was not happy, so Fawaz said he will pay 200 riyals more and his cousin will stay only for one month.

The cousin, Fazal, got a job in one week itself. He must have paid a lot of money Ikka feels. Ikka told them he can stay here only, they have to pay 1800 riyals together, and if they want the bedroom with attached bathroom they have to pay 2200. The boys said they will use powder room.

I anyway apply Cuticura in the bedroom itself.

Ikka doesn’t like Fazal. He says that boy’s eyes are always roaming here and there, and that he stares at me as if he is a tailor taking measurement for my saree blouse. Ikka is funny, though he doesn’t realise he is.

Ikka feels I should start wearing salwar kameez or if I want to wear saree then put a burkha when that boy is around. Here these people call that abhaya.

Ikka is very modern but traditional. He is nadan-modern, that’s why he wanted a girl who studied in English-medium school. He says all the rich Malayalees when they go back now wear black shiny burkha. Only the very backward people still wear sarees.

V

This Fazal has a very long lunch break. He leaves for work at 6.30 am, but comes back by noon and doesn’t leave till 4 in the evening. After his lunch he naps, then comes and watches TV with me. Three families in this building share one dish antenna. Because we are all from same country, we pay for all the Malayalam channels.

I don’t tell Ikka Fazal watches TV with me. He will get very angry. But Fazal is like my brother. Just like Fawaz. Only thing, Fawaz won’t even look at my face when he talks, but this Fazal is very naughty. He calls me chechi when Ikka is around, but when I am alone he calls me by name.

He is very funny, and he knows it. He really makes me laugh.

These days Ikka is always tired when he comes back, and hardly has time to talk to me. He works very hard. He leaves home at 7 and drives nearly 1 hour to work. I pack his lunch, and he comes back only at 8 in the evening. He tries to do over time, because they get good money, and on those days he comes even later.

Every Friday he takes me out. We usually go to Lulu, to buy all the grocery for the house, and then we have shawarma, then go to one shop in souq where they sell latest Malayalam movie CDs for just 10 riyals. And if you return it, you pay only 5 riyals for the next CD.

VI

It is more than a year and still no good news. Every month when I buy Carefree Ikka looks so sad. He doesn’t know I cry too. When my stomach hurts around that time of the month I keep praying, please let it be food poison, let it be food poison.

At least here I can use Carefree. If I had been in my country then everyone would know when it’s that time of the month, as I have to use cloth and wash and dry it outside. I am lucky that way.

When we go to our country next year we will go for a check up to a lady doctor.

But his umma has the same question every Friday when we call her. What good news, what good news, as if this is Asianet channel.

Last week one evening I went to the terrace because I was feeling so homesick and sad. I speak to my parents only once a month. Fazal had come back early from work, and came up looking for me. He knew I liked sitting on the terrace, in the space between the water tank and dish antenna. The terrace was full of water tanks and dish antennae, but I had one particular corner.

He tried cheering me up. He is very good at imitating people. His boss, cinema heroes, Fawaz. I lost track of time and suddenly I heard Ikka calling out my name from the doorway to the terrace.

He was very angry. Later when he saw me crying he felt bad and hugged me.

After dinner when Fawaz came home Ikka told him that he and his cousin should find another house by the end of the month, we will need the full apartment because we are planning family. I knew that wasn’t true. I know Ikka by now.

Fawaz looked very sad.

VII

Fawaz and Fazal had found two separate rooms not very far from our flat. They will move soon.

When they were at work yesterday Ikka brought a middle-aged man home. He was looking for a ‘share’ apartment. He had a wife and a small son in class 1.

Ikka said now I will not feel lonely and homesick, because Basher bhai’s wife Shabnam will give me company. Ikka and I will move to the other bedroom, as the family will need the attached bathroom.

They will pay most of the rent now. Shabnam and I will make a timetable to use kitchen. Timetable. Like we are in school.

Fazal gave me a tin of Yardley powder as a gift before he left. I hide it in my suitcase.

VIII

Shabnam is very friendly, but now she also started every month, what no news? She also wanted to have another child, but she says some problem in her Ikka’s system. Basher bhai is very quiet. He listens to everything his wife says. He is a driver with a Sheikh, and the sheikh got Shabnam a maid visa though she doesn’t work. She doesn’t even work in this house. I do all the cleaning in the kitchen. They’ve been here for more than 10 years now, and the boy, Ahmed, was born here. He has never been to the country. Never. Shabnam says they just need 30000 riyals more and they can go back forever.

Ikka also says things like that. Every Friday the three of them will talk about what all they will do when they go back. I play with Ahmed every evening, and because I studied in English medium I help him with homework. I sometimes feel he loves me more than he loves his mother.

IX

Next week we are going to our country. We will stay there for two months. Basher bhai was helping Ikka tie the bags with a fat rope. There is one small suitcase and 3 large plastic bags tied with ropes. We will travel by Sri Lankan airlines, because we can take more luggage and it’s cheaper.

Almost everything in those bags are for the demon. Bring Tang, bring Nido, bring Cashews, bring this, bring that.

As if there are not enough milch cows in her town. And cashews? It comes from there only no? But she want to show off that her son got this and that.

He also had to buy a CD player and electric stove. Why does that old woman need so much.

We have to stay in the airport in Colombo for nearly six hours.

Ikka said good thing the tigers are all in the zoo so it will be safe now. Basher bhai and Shabnam laughed, but I didn’t understand the joke. I didn’t even know Sri Lanka had tigers.

Tomorrow Basher bhai’s friend will move into this house. The friend just brought his wife over and they will pay the rent and stay in our room for the two months.

Ikka says that way the full holiday money he can save, and not pay rent here.

I carefully packed the Yardley into my handbag.

X

I cried in the airport, though I was actually very happy to come back. To my own house. My own room. I will miss my mother and father and my sisters.

Basher bhai came to the airport to pick us up. We had only 2 small bags.

When we reached home I realised Basher bhai’s friends were still there.

Shabnam had made dinner for all of us.

Ikka and I will sleep in the hall today.

Ikka explained that Basher bhai has found a villa a little far from the city–45 minutes from Lulu–where even four or five families can stay. The rent will be very cheap. Ikka will have to pay only 800 riyals. There will be a bedroom and one bathroom we share with one more family–I hope not Shabnam, because she is messy.

There was one kitchen on the first floor and one kitchen on the ground floor. The villa had three bedrooms, but the hall was big and was divided into two portions. So five families can stay comfortably, Ikka said. By moving to the villa we can save more.

Next time we go to our country he doesn’t want to come back. He wants to go forever. His mother is old and needs us he says. I wanted to say his mother is healthier than me, she will drive me to my grave first. When we went to the lady doctor, that woman came and kept asking are you sure you checked everything? Is everything working? Is everything clear? As if I am a washing machine. The doctor said there was no problem and sometimes good news takes time.

My sister said maybe Ikka should go to the doctor, and I told Ikka. He didn’t mind, but the demon screamed and cried so much, and said she was having a heart attack. Where is the heart to have an attack, I want to know.

XI

Because we stay so far away now, it takes longer for Ikka to come home. And the Sunny car is giving a lot of trouble. After I cook, I bring the food and keep it in the room. We have a microwave to heat food. I sit and watch TV most of the time. Sometimes Ahmed comes and does his homework with me. He is also very busy because there are two more boys in the house now for him to play with.

I don’t like sitting outside with the other women. The walls are so thin we all know too much about each other as it is. They also keep talking about their children. And to hear each one boast, as if they are the sheikh’s children. The worst is they will look at me as if I am some pity case. No need for this drama in the house, so I sit in my room and watch the drama on TV. Shabnam also changed a lot. She thinks because she lives in a villa her husband rented she is the Sheikha.

I also don’t like going outside the room because Ikka says so many men in the house, I should wear that burkha when I go out. Especially during lunch time and evenings.

One of the other women told me once that Basher bhai doesn’t pay any rent, we all pay his share too. Who knows. Ikka doesn’t want to talk about all that.

Nowadays we go to Lulu only once a month. That’s enough he says, to buy everything. No more sarees also. Ikka thinks abhaya is traditional and fashionable. All the rich ladies here wear it. Actually all the rich Arabi ladies. Then there are those who wear pants so tight, you can see the colour of their panties. The Americans are the ones who dress like Sister Rosa in our village. Ikka says they are so scared of the Arabis, they try to cover everything. But not the women from England.

I want to remind him my favourite colour is yellow, not black. I don’t want to upset him, he works hard, so I don’t tell him anything.

It’s now five years since I came here, the only thing Ikka can talk about is going home forever. Forever.

[BOOK REVIEW]: Works of A Revathi, transgender activist

 

A few times a year we would take a bus to Vellore from Chennai and another bus from there to Adukambarai, a tiny village on the outskirts of Vellore. This is where my eldest Aunt (Perimma) and cousins lived. A quaint house with hens in the courtyard and paddy fields and coconut groves a walk away. There was a large irrigation well into which one daring cousin would jump in to swim. Her brothers were less adventurous.

There was no television and we kept ourselves entertained with games and books. And of course, making fun of Thandavaraayan, who took it all in his stride. He would come and sit on the ‘thinnai’ at the doorway. Dressed in a tight half-sleeved ‘banian’ and chequered lungi, and a towel wrapped like a half-saree across his barrel chest. We sniggered at his effeminate ways. The way he walked and talked. But the residents of the village all seemed quite friendly towards him. During festivals, he would deck up in a saree.

I’d never know what he went through. How he lived. How much he hurt. Should I refer to T as she? But I now think about it, having read two books by A Revathi in recent weeks.

Another distinct memory is from when I was 14 or so. We were holidaying in Bombay. My sisters, the host family’s sons and I were going around the city on the local trains. One crowded evening, the boys asked us to take the ladies compartment, so we got in and found cramped spaces to rest our bums.

I sat staring at a few ladies with over the top makeup and clothes, and they in turn started talking to me in Hindi. Since I didn’t quite understand what they were saying, I kept repeating, “What aunty?” and they grinned every time I said ‘aunty’.

Then I felt a sharp pinch on my waist. My sister hissed. “Shut up. Don’t talk to them. They are not aunties.”

Probably on that day, unwittingly, I did make their day by calling them aunty.

Then when I was 21-22 I started working for The Indian Express, covering the health beat. I wrote a lot on HIV/AIDS, and one of the people I often spoke to was N. She was quite involved in awareness campaigns. We were comfortable enough with each other, that even when she was busy soliciting in Pondy Bazaar, she would call out to me and say ‘hi’. To the absolute embarrassment of my mother with whom I’d be shopping. She also gave me tips on ‘safe’ sex when she heard I was to get married soon. (Those tips would make an interesting post by itself.)

Now, in Bangalore, every time I pass the Koramangala junction on my motorbike, I would get a familiar wave, and a mocking ‘bullet rani’ thrown at me by the group of hijras, who beg for money. They are friendly, and I find them amusing, the way they make the men squirm and feel uncomfortable.

None of those experiences or interactions really humanised hijras/transpeople for me. Oh yes, I’d like to believe I am ‘open-minded’ enough to accept them as they are. Therein lies the problem. Why should it take ‘open-mindedness’ at all to accept what’s natural?

Reading A Revathi’s books  A Life in Trans Activism and The Truth About Me – A Hijra life story was a slap in the face of my ‘open-mindedness’. How many time have I called them ‘ali’ or ‘onbadhu’ when I was young. And even when I knew better, I rarely corrected people who mocked them with such pejoratives.

In a A Life in Trans Activism she speaks of the journeys she and others like her undertake, not to rebel, but because there’s no other way for them to lead their lives ‘normally’. In The Truth About Me Revathi unabashedly lays bare all her wounds – physical, emotional and mental. In that riveting and brutally honest narration, one cannot but shed a few tears, even as you cheer her on.

She has been a boy for a while, then a dancer, a sex worker, an unpaid ‘servant’ in the hierarchical hijra community, a mother, a daughter, a sister to many, and an activist speaking up for the rights of the minority. And in every one of those avatars, she shows a vulnerability that’s heartbreaking.

No, I don’t feel pity. I feel anger that it has to be so difficult and so dangerous for those who are boxed into gender/sexual identities that they are stifled by. I feel sad that this may not change for a long time to come.

Yes, India (and Nepal) recognise the third gender. Reading this book, I wonder if that’s fair. If one chooses to identify with a gender, shouldn’t it be one of the two. Why a third?

Disclaimer: This is probably not quite a book review, as it is a very brief review of an issue. Please do read the two books.

 

Her & His Story

There are some stories that don’t quite fit the nature of this blog. Here I rant, review and boast.

I like listening to stories, and just as often to retell them. And the most unexpected people have the most interesting tales. Hence, Her & His Story: The Uncelebrated.

These are long(ish) pieces, which I hesitantly call creative non-fiction. For now, I am going to keep the posts password-protected, till I am surer where I am going with this. So drop me a line if you want to read these stories.

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