The Daughter of No Expectations

To be noticed was to be criticised; for being too messy, too indisciplined, too lagging behind in studies, too busty, too mouthy, too big, too much of all things undesirable.

But as long as I could fly low, at a pace that did not disturb peace, with noiseless stealth, I could do what I want, be who I want. A blur. The lack of gaze was my armour.

Kashmir 1984

So I flew low.

The youngest of four children, everything I could say and be was already done. Between the three they had been prettier, naughtier, fairer, smarter, weaker, sicker. A penis would have been the only thing that set me apart, favourably, or so I was told repeatedly, when the gaze did fall on me. 

So I grew steady wings that helped me fly low.

Amma, me, my imaginary friends

There was no expectation of me except that I inconvenience no one by being called to school over a bad report or falling ill or be needy of attention in any way. It did happen a few times. But by and large, I flew low.

You see, flying low was my superpower.

To go undetected into spaces that allowed me to discover things about myself and others that a constant gaze on me would have disallowed. I became the aggregator of people’s ticks and twitches. An expert at spotting the weird uncle and nasty aunt, through their smiles and gifts and overtures. A keeper of secrets I stumbled upon.

Couple of years ago, a handsome, lovely, impossibly youthful nonagenarian uncle (‘nana’) visited me, and while browsing my bookshelves, asked, “when did you change ma? You were so ordinary when you were a child.”

I took no offence, because what he meant by ordinary was the fuel to fly low.

I did not change as much as I imbibed. From friends who loved me, the ‘maid/nanny’ who adored me and cousins who enjoyed my company, and equally from those who preferred me invisible, absent or in the margins, giving me the power to observe without being observed.

I wanted to tell nana I was still ordinary, but just ordinary in a way he didn’t expect me to be. 

Because, I am the daughter of no expectations. 

Not enough has been researched about lack of expectations. That it can be exhilarating for many.

As an adult, and many years after the fact, my firstborn helping me clear the shelves of my childhood room asked my mother, “ammamma you must have been so proud, all these certificates, all these prizes, all these things she wrote when she was young, the college magazine and the youth tabloid.”

Path of least attention…

Amma, whose lack of expectation was truly wrapped in love and not to deflect disappointment, looked sad. “I never knew, she never told us.”

So, not speaking of what I failed or passed in was me flying low.

You see, wins left mementos. The no-wins only left impressions.

Then suddenly, what I did, my ordinary, every day work, was not mine to hide. My name sneaked up on them in the newspaper they subscribed to speaking of corruption, malaria, sex, sexuality, STDs amongst other taboo subjects. Just my double-barrelled name, no surname, no initial – bald, devoid of strings that attached me to other identifies, other people. An ordinary name.

There I was, the core of me, stripped of expectations and all things burdensome. More ordinary than ever, I thought. But the silent disavowing of even a glint of expectations only drew more attention.

But, I was still flying low.

I left my hometown, my country, and the periodical family dos and dramas. When I wanted to fly higher, I did so where no one knew me.

I was once again occupying spaces no one expected me to be in, the conspicuousness fleeting enough, I could go back to flying low. 

What can be expected from the only woman in a room full of older men, the brown one in a meeting full of white people, comfortable in a field full of the fashionable? So everything I said and did, the most mundane of stuff, was not seen as ordinary simply because…

As a wife, and then a mother to children considered not fully ordinary by their aunts and uncles and grandparents… My very being and doing was enough.

You see, the power of having no expectations being foisted on me, gave me a lightness of being. A freedom of movement. An uninhibited desire to relish my life. To parent without judgement.

2009. My strength and my weakness, my whole heart and some more…

I will be 47 soon, and then 50 and 55 and 60… or maybe not. Who knows! No expectations beyond the now.

This daughter of no expectations will continue to surprise others with the ordinary things no one thought she could manage to do as a child.

It is this ordinariness of being, that nothing is expected of me, which has taught me implicit lessons in parenting I would not have learnt if I had tried.

It also helped me through the curveball this year has been.

I wish you all a year and lifetime of flying low!

What’s worth paying for with your dreams?

I wrote this on 23 April 2014. It was in my drafts and for some reason I did not publish it then… never underestimate the power of manifestation.

Seventy seven pages of heartrending stories. Of physical and emotional abuse. Of women who were not allowed to visit their dying child or parent. Of unkept contracts and dreams that dissipate. Of a government that fails to recognise the distress of the victims. And worst of all, the inhumanity of our kind. The victims maybe known to you. The perpetrators could well be you, your family or friend. It is us.

The report Amnesty released in the wee hours today is not for the faint of heart. But keep in mind, they interviewed just 52 of tens of thousands of workers.

It was a bitter-sweet realisation to find one of my earlier blog posts quoted in the document. As is the wont of the self-obsessed, I managed to find myself in the throes of self-pity – a punch in the gut: “That’s all? That’s what you have to show?”

A lot of small realisations are coming together for me at this point. I am not really doing what I want to do. I am not telling the kind of stories I know best to recount. I am no longer the reporter of human interest stories that I aspired to be 20 years ago. I appease my guilt with an occasional post or a story; but I’ve moved too far from that sense of purpose I held dear.

The girl who sat wide-eyed listening to safe sex advice from mothers at a creche for children of sex workers is now wondering why she is now paralysed by the profitability concerns of her employer.

Where’s that person who spent hours outside a ward in Madras Children’s Hospital to meet two under-aged maids who were beaten and burnt brutally. What happened to the Qatar newbie who sneaked into the paediatric wing of Hamad Hospital to speak to a little boy who fell off a camel at the races? She is now burying her head in matters that she thought was the route to success and wealth.

How wrong I was in thinking that. How wrong. It’s the bloody revenues and budgets that have lost me sleep for months now*.

Regrets are useless. Reflection is useful. Is this who I wanted to be? Conceiving communication strategy for corporates I don’t care about and struggling to keep press releases clear of the one job that gives me some amount of joy and satisfaction?

But bills have to be paid, no? The household has to run, yes? Now, it’s time to choose what’s worth billing. And to learn to run with simplicity. End of the day, what could possibly be worth paying for with your dreams? The shiny red machine I drive? Working in a fancy glass tomb? Measuring up to other people’s standards of good living?

Tough decisions all around. Good ones as well, I hope.


*Which I hope to be rid of come May 1.


One part of Adel Abdessemed exhibit in Mathaf, in 2013

The home that need built and love shaped

The house has many doors. Almost as if there were an infinite supply of wood and not enough bricks. The ground floor can be accessed from five different rooms — one in the front, two on the side and two at the back.

A narrow flight of stairs branches into two, providing two different accesses to the first floor. One at the front and one at the back.

Up another narrow flight of stairs from there, there is a small terrace and four doors leading to the five rooms. Inexplicably, one of the doors gives access to the bathroom from the outside.

In the narrow buffer between house and compound wall motorcycles and potted plants jostle for space.

There are two gates, where one would have sufficed, providing entrance to the house from the street. 

All this is not to say this is a mansion. It is a very modest house, on a tiny plot of land, framed by two coconut palms and very little by way of a garden, but every free space had a plant or a sapling, the moringa and papaya trees, and nithyamalli creeping up over the gate and the sunshade.

Every single room in the house connected to two other rooms at the minimum. Sometimes even three. On the walls with no doors windows flourished.

At the peak of its occupancy this haphazard building housed four different families, 22 people little and big, and four active kitchens vying with each other to offer delicacies at every meal (my Amma’s was the best), but just one telephone (at my home) and one television (at my uncle’s) and lots of gossip all around. It hosted a few funerals, some engagement parties, countless gatherings, a handful of bride-viewings, several births and one marriage (my own).

But it didn’t start off that way. 

It was a little less chaotic and better planned as a dwelling when 46 years ago my parents and grandparents moved in with four young girls  – my three sisters and aunt. I was still the embryonic hope of a boy, resting inside my heavily pregnant mother. This house was primarily her dream, to own the roof she lived under, as her husband was almost averse to wealth-accumulation.

In the beginning, it had a ground floor with two columns of three rooms each and a second storey with a scattering of rooms, not one of which had a designated purpose – including the kitchen that shape-shifted based on the residents.  

The rooms were tiny, it could either take a comfortable-sized cot or a proper almirah. So if the almirah was too big, the cot had to be tiny, or be done away with altogether and replaced with coir mats.

As the family grew, and with it the expenses, the single income had to be supplemented with rent, so rooms were added, new doorways incorporated, and an extra floor built. When I left home and our pet had to be moved out of my room, a small kennel was built for him near the well and the hand pump.

In my rented apartment now I hesitate to even drive a tiny nail into the wall, and I think often of what went through my parents’ mind to constantly tear down walls or put new ones in, and none of that to enhance the appearance of the house but merely to make it accommodate more. 

More people. More aspirations. Just more of whatever was needed that month, that year…

That house, with more doors than rooms, has never been without people or bolted up. It carries some bitter memories, as all homes do. But more importantly it carries freedom, warmth, and an unbridled ambition of the numbers it can accommodate.

And the kitchen in its tiniest avatar, when the house was at its modest, always had enough to feed surprise guests of whom there was a steady stream. From relatives and friends of relatives, to cousins from far away towns coming to Madras to study, and all the buddies we accumulated over the years… those badly planned rooms hold many secrets and laughs and tears, securely held by doors made of wood so flimsy that one shove could break the bolts. Those doors were never meant to keep people out, just to protect us from the vagaries of Madras weather, the nesting sparrows (which still would sneak in) and the stray cats.

Over the decades the house had gained a few monickers, only one of which endures. Like No 10, this home is simply called 83 by all who know and love the place.

Affluence over the years meant that some of the changes were better planned. The sit-out added to the first floor about 18 years ago, for my mother, has now been taken over by my 87-year-old father who can’t go down as frequently to his office. Yes, part of the ground floor now has a new purpose – his law offices. Another little balcony, off the tiniest and busiest room of the house, was built last year so my 80-year-old mother can still sit outside, enjoy the cool neem shade courtesy a tree next door, watch the street, chat with the neighbours, admire her plants and haggle with the street vendors as she dangled the basket tied to a long rope. 

There are just six people in the house now. My ageing parents and the tenants below who are almost family. There are too many doors and too few people to mind it, so many of these often remain absent-mindedly ajar through the night. The creaky doors await the arrival of guests…  it’s been five months.

It was a house that need (and my father) built, and a home that love (and my Amma) shaped.

Edited: Last visit home I realised there is a fifth door on the ground floor, edited to reflect that.

Super heroes in sarees

Only illustrative purposes. This pookara amma is from my colony.

Every evening at 3.30 dozens and dozens of young girls walked out of the convent school gate in T.Nagar, turned right, walked 5 minutes down the road to the bus stop* at the edge of the busy Pondy Bazaar. A handful of bus routes stopped there.

In the mid 1980s, I was one of those girls for a few years, taking the 11A bus back home.

There sat the flower vendor (who also sold lottery tickets) on a small plastic stool, her derrière spilling out from all sides, her saree tucked under her thighs, revealing turmeric stained feet to match her turmeric stained face. A one rupee coin-sized pottu covered most of her forehead. Large ‘rolled’ gold earrings framed her cheeks. 

On a tall stool in front of her was a large coir tray piled high with strands of flowers. Malli and saamandhi, roja and kannagabaram. Her hands were always busy stringing more, even as her eyes darted back and forth, keeping a watch on the kids lining up waiting for their bus. I rarely saw her make a sale, and while we registered her as an omnipotent figure none of us engaged with her. 

She was genial in general. Until she wasn’t.

She would gently shoo away young school boys who were trying to make an impression. But when the older boys and the troublemakers decided to stop by she would spring up from her seat with an unexpected grace and speed and threaten to thrash them with her large calloused palms. 

It was all fun as we stood there watching this drama.

Now I see it as an act of love and kindness, of bravery and ethics. That no little girl should be harassed. I wonder where that Amma is now. For me then she appeared old, but she must have been far younger than I am now.

*(On those buses these young girls would undergo a right of passage, and be subject to ‘eve-teasing’ – that benign label given to sexual harassment. More than just catcalls, but being groped and hurt in more ways than one can express coherently here. For the few minutes before we boarded the bus, we had the luxury of a safe space at the bus stop.)

Some years later…

In 1995, every few days, after my friend finished her CA classes and I my journalism classes, we would meet up late in the evening at my home and go for a walk along Cathedral Road catching up on the trivial excitements of our lives. 

One night, well past 9, we decided to have dinner at Gangotree and were walking back when a gang of men on motorcycles slowed down to trash-talk us, laughing aloud as if it were all just a joke, even when it was obvious we were uncomfortable. We tried walking away quickly, as there were too many of them for us to stand our ground and push back. That’s when we heard a few women swear loudly. 

Right opposite Stella Maris college was a shop under construction. There were a group of construction workers having their dinner by the pile of gravel, including these women. Having noticed the boys harass us they chased them away threatening to throw bricks at them. 

As the harassers took flight, the women turned to us and instructed us sternly to enjoy our walk and not be scared. That moment of solidarity was a warm hug.

Couple of years later, this time out of Madras…

I was covering the election campaign of 1999 and was travelling by buses and trains around TN. I was not covering a party, which would have meant I had access to the official convoy. I was covering the stories around the campaign from the villages and constituencies for the Indian Express. One evening I had to take a train back to Madras from near Dharmapuri. I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept well the previous night as the door of the lodge room was not secure. 

I arrived early at the station, which was empty but for a few vendors. I bought a ticket and found a free bench near a lady selling peanuts. I bought two packets of nuts, washed it down with some soda and requested the lady to tell me when the train arrived. Backpack under my head and my scarf wrapped around my face I decided to rest a bit, but fell asleep. I woke up to a gentle tug of my arm. The lady had shifted her basket near the bench and was seated on the floor by the head of the bench, keeping watch. I remember clearly wiping the drool off my cheek as she laughed. And in the tenderest Tamil she told me she didn’t want people to know I was alone as that would have invited undue attention. So she had sat next to me as I took a nap. 

The train was pulling into the platform and all I could do was thank her hurriedly and repeatedly before running into the nearest bogie. 

I think so often of these women. Not just kind, but so wise to the ways of the world, so eager not to crowd little girls and young women out of public spaces, instead trying to make it as safe as they could. 

Everyday heroes in sarees and with calloused hands. 

The decade…

Every year my privileges get starker, and my gratitude deeper.

This decade began on an indifferent note. My personal life had more downs than I could manage. I was questioning my relevance in a job I loved and the publishing group I helped build. Then I decided to take a risky jump away from my comfort zone; I was tested, I was rewarded, I was supported and I was tested some more before being thrown into another whirlpool of uncertainties.

That’s when I realised, in 2014, what an incredibly lucky life I had. And the less I held on to my fears, the luckier I got. I made big shifts – countries and jobs (and in a way my career itself), but most critically, a shift in my perception of success. Not that I had a set-in-stone definition before, I loved what I did and that was success enough. It’s just that now, the measure of a good day’s work was mine own to make. There were no external barometers. Every word I wrote for work meant something to someone and had the potential to change a life; Every time I picked up the phone or wrote an email, even if I could not resolve an issue, I could make those few moments or days better for someone who may not otherwise be heard… it has been both a burden and a privilege to be trusted with their worries and problems.

The last couple of years have taken me away from home more often than either my children nor I wished, but my girls have been my champions. I see them as the anti-horcrux. The best of me is embedded in them.

I would have said this decade is ending on a good note (even a GREAT one) if it were about my life alone. But it isn’t… as I write the post, there’s unease in the pit of my stomach. After 17 years away, I moved to India. I cannot say I moved back… because this is not the country I left in 1999.

I am political. Have always been. And I know of no other way to live. The PERSONAL IS POLITICAL. I am keenly aware that the privileges I enjoy came on the backs of those who fought for it before me. I see the freedoms I enjoy being eroded a little bit today, and being taken away in large chunks from those who are marginalised by gender, religion and caste. Staying quiet now would be unforgivable.

The languages I speak, the passport I hold, the way I look, the food I love, the drapes I don, the people I care for are all tied to this country. Hence, what happens on its streets is personal to me.

Hope 2020 is kinder to all of us, and more importantly, teaches us to be kinder to others.