Tag Archives: women

Each as they want, choose or feel forced to do.

Vehicles carrying animal and human lives line up at the junction of two major roads. They are in a staggered row, depending on each driver’s anxiousness or impassiveness to get going as soon as the light changes. The drivers lean back in their seats and spit to the side.

There, each person is doing as he or she chooses, wants, knows, thinks or has done before. They are at an intersection on the road, at an intersection and crossroads in life.

In one rickshaw is farmer and his son and their goat. They live in a dairy colony in Gurgaon but had gone to collect their goat from Bombay central, first arguing with a taxi wala and then rickshaw wala.

“My rickshaw is new,” complained their present driver. He was uneasy to pollute his brand new rickshaw with the smell of a dirty goat, at least not so soon! But was won over by a bribe. He, like those dyeing fabrics in Dharavi or those folding paan leaves in Mahalaxmi, is doing what he has been born into.

A child pushed a miniature merry-go-round made for children between a rickshaw and a cab, leaning with the whole of his weight and all of his skinny self to make it move. The paint was chipping off of the merry go-round: its colours were faded and the whole thing was not as joyful and fun-looking as it was originally intended to be.

The little boy is doing the only thing that he knows how to do, except for also being able to curse back at the rickshaw walas who curse at him for cutting them off. He came voiceless to Mumbai four years ago from a village in another state, but now his Bombaiyya Hindi is perfect.

In one taxi is a gaggle of Bandra babes, girls going out on the town. They laugh and pass around an illicit cigarette. The driver eyes their bare legs from his mirror as the cab jerks to a pause. The girls are too drunk on their beautiful young lives to notice.

They are doing what they want. How delicious.

A Sunni Muslim man sits on a motorcycle next to the cab. Behind him and sideways is his wife, peering at the world through heavily-lidded, kajal lined eyes. She’s hiding every lovely part of herself except for these eyes, and these she shows off.

Her sisters are more like the girls in the taxi, dressing modestly at home but sneaking off to flirt with older boys on the weekends. But for this married woman, honoring the tenements of her faith is more freeing than skirts or blouses could be. She is doing what she chooses to do.

An elderly couple stands at the curb beside the rickshaw with the goat, waiting to cross the street. Sir has placed his cane in front of Mam to prevent her from being too close to the traffic.

Mam’s fingers smell like the cilantro she rubbed between them at the market. She’s carrying a bag of ripe tomatoes and onions, unperturbed by the alarming price increase.

Sir was born in another time and place, slept by the highway and worked in tea stalls before succeeding in his entrepreneurship. No reason to have servants, to do everything differently now that things are different, he reasons. And so still, he walks to and from the market with his wife every evening to select the vegetables that she will cook for dinner. He thanks god that he does not have to worry about onion prices, that actually there is very little he has to worry about anymore. They together are doing as they always have done.

When the light finally changes everyone moves forth: some are faster than others to gun their engines (having had more opportunity or inspiration) and some slower, but each does move ahead.

All except for an orange tabby cat that is rust-coloured with dust. She had been wandering in front of the vehicles until the engines roared to life again. She jumped and hightailed it to a place on the roadside where there was a very pleasant texture of ground: round pebbles in soft dust. Rather than running the race with the others, she’d rather roll over there to scratch her sides.


Kadir weds Shaheen: a Muslim wedding in Khajuraho, Madya Pradesh

I had arrived at the location in a taxi van with Ifraj, Sadhav and two other boys.

Uff, you must be so tired of being with boys na? So long in the car with all of them, very terrible, chaal, now come with us!”

Sadhav’s sister Sona grabbed my arm and led me upstairs, where the women of the groom’s family were. They had also driven the one hundred and ten horrible kilometres that took four hours on Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh’s bumpy roads, to arrive in Modaha for the marriage.

Upon arrival, women hitched up their saris or salwars to squat by the sinks, a single row of taps over a concrete gutter. Each splashed water over her face and neck, forearms and legs, rinsing the journey’s dust down the drains.

Upstairs, in the big room lit by small bulbs (cobwebs in corners casting shadows, moths flitting near the light) women aged three to at least seventy years old readied themselves for the occasion. Out of plastic bags came each’s best clothes, folded neatly. Out of other plastic or cloth bags came compacts, creams, jewellery, makeup and other accessories. The flock of women began to change, pulling off their wrinkled clothes to put on fresh ones.

Most were putting on saris: pulling on petticoats and cinching them tight at the waist, and then slipping luscious, smooth arms into front-fastening choli blouses. One frowned as she grabbed and pulled at her own breasts, trying to get them in the right place. One end of the sari is pinned at the hip, and then wrapped around once to cover the petticoat. The thumb and pinky fingers of each right hand deftly fold the sari into pleats, measuring the remainder of the fabric carefully. Folds are then flipped inwards around the band of the petticoat in one quick motion. Each belly sucked in to create the space, and then released. The remaining end travels once more around each woman’s body, crossed over in front and drawn up to the left shoulder. Pinned in place. The sari pallu can be wrapped around the shoulders, hang loosely in the back, or be pulled over the head. These Muslim women all wear them pulled over their heads, but not yet.

Jewellery was taken from little boxes and bags. Women helped one another secure necklaces and ankelets. Bangles were shoved over wrists; earrings poked into ears. Braids were unbraided, brushed out thoroughly, re-braided. Thick, healthy hair; some dangles past the womens’ thighs. A jewelled pendant on a gold chain was pinned to center-parted hair and dangled on each forehead just below the hairline. Those married women applied extra sindoor is applied to the part in their hair, showing how very married they were. Eligible girls were done up with more attention to detail than anyone else, showing how very unmarried they were.

Makeup. First, Fair and Lovely whitening creams were passed around and applied to each lady’s face and decolletage. The older ladies have arms and stomachs that are several shades darker than their faces, years of Fair and Lovely. Pressed powder and blush are applied to cheekbones with care. Eyes are rimmed with kajal. Some women close their eyes over the point of an eyeliner pencil and then rub it back and forth.

Pakistani-style makeup” Sona told me me with a tip of her head, raising her eyebrows and pouting her lips. Thick mascara and eyeshadow were applied for very dark and smoky eyes. Lips were lined with pencil, and painted a ripe cherry red. Only then was the pallu draped over each shining black head, pulled forwards like a hood or with the sides tucked behind ears. Younger girls in salwar kameez put their dupattas on their heads and wrap the ends around their shoulders. They peer out at the world through lowered, eyelids on beautiful faces, bodies hidden beneath brightly coloured, flowing clothes. Even the littlest girls are dressed up, preparing for years of such parties, and even elderly ladies apply almond oil to their greying hair.

I felt as though I was being let in on a big secret, watching the roomful of women prepare for such a big event. Indian women, when seen in the street, already look perfect. One rarely sees the process. The inclusivity felt like a gift being bestowed on me. I accepted it gratefully, happy to feel like part of a group. I’m continually impressed by the way that Indian women make do, in every situation: in spite of al odds; dust, dirt, exhaust, pollution, animal waste and travelling, they still exude grace and loveliness. Undaunted by the world they live in.

on hold

I left Aunty’s bandstand apartment before noon on september 30th, had stayed up late the night before, folding and packing things. Alone as I generally am when I am moving in or out of any place. I felt angrier and angrier with allowing her to take advantage of me with her demands for money. She is crazy, and it is not her fault, but I could have left earlier, should have, but didn’t.

Leaving the house the next morning, I almost started to cry. Even if something isn’t the best for you, if it’s something you’re used to, you’ll miss it until you have something else.

Then I straightened my back and threw my pieces of luggage into the rickshaw while the men of my building watched me and didn’t offer to help. And whistled past bandstand where I lived for the whole while.

In Canada there is a different kind of beauty. Where in Mumbai, the edges of air are muddled, in Canada they are sharp, crisp, clean. Thrashing my limbs in a hospital bed, I had noticed the quietness around me. I couldn’t hear anything, even if I strained and fought to hear something, there was no sound. And outside the window, there were only a few people. You’d think there would be more people in such a beautiful place.

On the bus downtown, a boy dressed like Justin Bieber ate a piece of sprouted bread toast while he read one of the free newspapers. Every girl walking on Granville strip was dressed to the nines, but was frowning into her phone or ipod or both.

I remember spending time with women in Dharavi, loving them because they don’t have such complicated, wrecked, messy minds. They are simple and clean and beautiful. Their problems are more and their worries are fewer.

I had no phone or ipod to distract me, and shone out the window at the people in the streets.

I left India on a friday morning, sick as a dog. Mary Ellen came to Hayley’s Juhu apartment where I was sleeping, pushed me the bathroom where I took a sitting down shower. She packed my bags and fed me while I was lying down. Then Viren showed up, and practically carried me downstairs with all of my bags. He dropped me off at the international airport and then I was on my own, to take two flights and carry typhoid across two borders before arriving home, delirious with a fever of one hundred and five.

Your hair is falling out so much,” remarks my little sister. I shrug and pull my fingers through my hair, taking along a few strands.

On the plane, I remembered sleeping beauty in Bandra. How sleepy Carter Road is in the morning, before it wakes up. Many of the people you can see in the day there are also there in the night. Collapsed. Finished, and resting, for as long as their economic situation allows them.

In Vancouver, I sat in a cafe where it looked like every couple was meeting for the first time. On blind dates, organized through the internet, so they already had lots of background information about one another. In one sense, each knows what to expect, and in another sense, each is misled about the other by thinking that they know something about them in advance. Having only lived in the era in which I do, I wondered about the time where you could not know anything about a person before personally meeting them.

I checked into VGH on my second day home. I had not planned to have typhoid fever or stay in the hospital for eight days, but what could I do? I slept for four days while taking two liters of salt water per day into my body through IV, as well as antibiotics.

At the Indian Consulate downtown, the very same sardarji doorman welcomed me.

”Aapko yaad hoga, mere bare me, na?’ I joked with him. You remember me, right? There were only two other foreigners in the Punjabi-filled office, and they were definitely of the tourist variety.

‘Aray haanji, haanji!’ Of course! he spoke with me in Punjabi-tinged Hindi which I could only just understand, and the rest of the waiting room was curious. Naturally there were some complications with my request for a visa.

So I wandered through downtown like a lost dog. I realised again, but for the first time in many months, that I will always be a foreigner in India, and will always require permission from a higher authority before I can spend time there.

In theory, moving every few months is a great idea: how much exposure, how many experiences, how much knowledge gained from having to figure everything out for yourself in a new place, every time. But what if you are emotional? If you need people to love and to love you wherever you go? Who can those people be, how quickly can all of that be set up and be real?

My lips and hands are dry. My legs, the very same that have jumped so high on the trampoline, that have pushed me to so many heights, that have carried me to every place, feel flaccid and finished.

The late afternoon sun filters through the big windows in my parents’ enormous new home and falls on me. My arm hair stands up, my feet are cold, my body has forgotten how to behave.

Downtown, chic office people roam around with lattes in their hands, talking together. The homeless or crazy or addicted, or all three, sit on heating vents and wait for something to happen that will make a change in their lives. Maybe some loose change.

Robson street and granville strip are evolving. Little restaurants are being beaten down to make space for big chain restaurants, or Japadog.

My current on hold, waiting state is not conducive to doing anything: to writing, to deep thinking, to working, to relaxing. It’s only fit for being anxious. So I am anxious all day and don’t do so much.

Still, here the street is clean and people walk everywhere. And everyone does what they like. If you want to wear these clothes, you can. If you want to kiss someone of the same sex publicly, why not. If you want to chat with others, that can be a little tricky, because people would rather keep to their own business. If, like most everyone, you want to keep to yourself, that is the best, you are most welcome.

The sun was not warm, but it shone in my eyes and I welcomed it. I loved it as much as it loved me, and that was enough.

Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition. Timothy Leary

The migrant woman on the Bombay roadside possesses a plethora of stunning textures. She wears clothes from every place she’s been, with beads and threads that are coal black, crimson sindoor, pale dust grey. Her hair is coarse but her skin is as though polished: shining, rich, dark. Too soft for someone who has spent life like a flower offered into the salty, dirty ocean, being swept here and there.

The nonchalance with which she throws her ragged sari pallu over her shoulder and glares her raven eyes has been mimicked by many wealthy actresses and fashion models. None of whom can match her impossible combination of carelessness, frustration and softness, because none of them have her history.

The wealthy Indian model has been flown all over the planet, and requires many attendants to take care of her needs. The migrant woman has walked all over India on her own bare, hard feet, while being a strength for many more, and all of that gracefully. Facing life head on because she has knows no other way to do it. With her heavy silver ankelets singing.

What takes me is that such women don’t know that they are doing something that is difficult, because they have never done anything that is easy.

Bombay is not India

Every day in Bombay, one is provided with a few opportunities to forget where they are. This is because though Bombay is defined as being an Indian city, situated in the state of Maharashtra, on India’s west coast, bordering the Arabian sea… it is actually its own place.

A Delhi-ite argued with a cell phone salesman over the Reliance rates, saying they were lower in the north.

Delhi is Delhi,” the shopkeeper proclaimed in famous Bombaiyya Hindi, throwing one of his many mobile phones under the dirty glass counter. He made a kissing sound that someone in Canada would make to call a cat or dog, then touched his fingers to his forehead and waved his hand dismissively.

We are in Bombay.”

In Bombay, everyone forgets where they are. In many ways, this could be in any cosmopolitan city in the world.

Young women in Bandra are dressed in dark jeans, black tops and sandals. They toss their black hair over their shoulders, gloss their lips and carry lattes in takeout cups. We could be in Rome.

In Lower Parel, teenagers from wealthy families enjoy pool parties in fancy hotels. They smoke cigarettes and dance like music video stars. We could be in Los Angeles.

At Marine Drive, couples of all ages sit along the edge of the ocean, talking about life and kissing. We could be in Vancouver.

So why have I come to Bombay? I wonder. To sip cappucino in a cafe with wifi, or dance at a nightclub playing western commercial music?

Thank goodness though, that even in Bombay, India cannot be avoided.

Thank goodness that when young Mumbaikars leave those western nightclubs in the wee hours of the morning, they can go and eat their favourite pav bhaji at a snack stall. Lone dogs and lone humans roam the streets, enjoying the cool air.

Thank goodness that when I leave the quiet oasis of the wifi cafe, I find myself stuck in the traffic created by Ganpati festival.

(Just when you thought the chaos of Ramzan and its night activities was over… Ganpati has now begun)

A Ganesh idol the size of a real elephant is being carried through the street, and several hundred people, as well as many animals and trapped vehicles fill the space. A brass band in uniform plays celebratory music at top volume. A few of Mumbai’s Punjabis dance to the dhol, throwing their arms in the air and grinning. I remark that the youngest kids have the most vulgar dance moves, thrusting their hips like wild animals. In my rickshaw, unable to go anywhere, it’s all I can do to shake my shoulders and dance a little. I may not be in India, but at least I’m in Bombay.

How so

A club, a lounge, a bar is such an alien place when there is no-one there. Stillness before the excitement comes, with a wave of wealthy party people and socialites. There are Indian girls in Bombay who have never worn a salwar kameez, and there are their moms who have never worn anything else. How is that.

Tonight I am in a nice restobar/lounge with low lights and soft music. Dining on expensive lasagna and espresso, knowing I’ll be up for many hours. Romancing myself. Alone.

Tomorrow I will eat food from everyone’s tiffin, a veritable feast of South to North Indian ghar ka khana, served out of stainless steel containers. Offered to me for free. The dining room will be a small schoolroom in Dharavi zhopadpatti, and I’ll be surrounding by laughter bouncing off of corrugated tin walls.

Tonight I am in the company of a beautiful, thin Russian girl. To look at her she is a girl, loose white blonde hair, enormous, perfect green eyes. She is actually a woman though, with a child, without a husband. She makes her living by being a living doll that walks around and smiles. But what can I say about that, these days, so do I. How is that.

Tomorrow I will be in the company of Gujurati toddlers learning in a Hindi and English medium school run by an NGO. Their moms who carry them on their hips to drop them off every day have also requested an English class. They would like to understand more of what their young children are learning at school. A class will be started for them soon.

Some women hitch up their patiala salwars and step through sewage in a slum. Some with expensive jeans and silver earrings sit in cafes where a latte is 150 rupees. Almost inevitably sitting alone. They answer their buzzing phones and don’t smile. Still more sit in tarp-covered chai stalls sipping tea for 3 rupees. Almost inevitably surrounded by people, crowded onto a wooden bench that sits on bricks. How is that.

Some girls dance in heels on the marble floors of a five star hotel. Some sit hunched over and take small naps in places with loud music, exhausted. Still more are able to sit up straight, in silence, well with themselves. With a good feeling coursing through them. A lot of people know the feeling I mean, and a lot of people try to name that feeling. I don’t know what I would call it.

On any day in Bombay, a girl could as easily be wearing a skirt, sequined top and feather headdress as a salwar kameez, dupatta folds thik se across her chest. She could be under bright lights in an AC studio, or seated cross-legged in a room that is almost a convection oven from the whirring overhead fans.

(The only light that comes in is sunlight, in ribbons that cut the room into pieces. Sawdust from a mill outside comes in through open windows, falling into kids’ hair. Black strands that are gold edged in the sun ribbons.)

Some days, I am all of those women, how is that.

Bandra to Churchgate in the ladies car

Very elderly ladies aren’t accustomed to sitting on chairs, and don’t feel to venture so far into the trains, jostling to compete for space with so many. They climb aboard, hitch up their saris that are tied in the Maharashtrian dhoti-style, and sit in the doorway on the ground.

Beggar families, usually a mom and a pile of kids, have no qualms about doing whatever they want wherever… as anyways they have no private places to do private things. So they also sit on the ground in the train compartments, eating donated roti or banana, or taking sitting-up naps leaned against the walls. The kids try to play and take back the childhood that was not offered to them.

University students do their homework on the way, young modern girls in shorts and blouses. They listen to ipods and look disinterested.

If I was a baby I would also collapse into sleep against my mother’s softness, rocked as I was ferried from place to place, gently jarred by the train’s humming movement. So new and alone here, I think of how nice and secure this would be.

The only males in the ladies car are the infants and those young enough still to be harmless. These boys get to stay amongst women, and observe all of their secrets until they’re old enough to cause trouble, and then they have to go in the general cars. From those general cars, they can only watch into the ladies car from a distance, and flirt with their eyes with shy young girls who are just coming to know that they are beautiful.

An abundance of softness: soft worn cotton and silks, floppy synthetic purses, impossibly soft womens’ upper arms and bowed toddler calves. It all rests against unforgiving hard benches, poles, walls to contain the passengers.

Most women have long hair that falls down their backs or is collected in loosely plaited braids. Spare strands inevitably become free, and sit wrapped around their owners’ necks in a mess of clear sweat and train grime. Held there by sweat that’s summoned by air that’s full of water in this monsoon season.

Most wear sandals and have painted toenails. All kinds of different feet: one lady with six toes on each. Cars full of women with the nails on their left hand grown out and painted, and the nails on their right cut short and left unpolished, for eating.

Some people catch up on their sleep, falling against the seats and lifting their feet up, abandoning plastic sandals under the benches. Some read: English romance novels, textbooks or different books from different faiths.

Muslim women enter the car and sit and pull their hijabs off of their heads, only to re-wrap carefully before they get off. Younger girls from Islamic schools wear veils that cover their heads and shoulders. And long kurtas, and pants, and square school backpacks.

Some of the women are so delicate and spare, skin drawn tightly over their bones, as though there was only just enough to cover them, not more. Some are beautiful and perfect: skin tight over their collarbones and then quickly loosening into fullness at their sari blouses. Older, heavier women shuffle to their seats, hot and heavy and uncomfortable and with no release.

At each station, there is a clamour and dash towards the doors, pushing and shoving and all kinds of unladylike behaviours. Between stops, a stillness gathers and everyone appears to sleep even with their eyes open. Gold nose-rings and earrings that drape over the top of the ear all glint in late afternoon sun that enters the cars through slats in windows.

A small Bengali baby wears thick dark curls and long eyelashes shielding big eyes. Her fat baby thighs straddle her mom’s hip; mom uses the end of her sari to wipe the sweat gathered at her temples, her upper lip, her throat. Locked together, they are funnelled through one crowd off of the train and into the next, those waiting on the platform. Only two amongst the millions of little fish swimming in watery and stale station air every day, coming and going and continuing.

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