The affirmation of an outsider

I am an outsider in every country I find myself in.

In the Western world, they see a brown Indian woman who comes from an exotic land filled with colour, spices and promise.

“We LOVE Slumdog Millionaire,” they say, happy to talk about that foreign land of heat, poverty and cows.

I grit my teeth, because I, like every other Indian, hate the movie with a burning passion (“like the light of a billion suns, my Lord“).

But the words for me, anywhere I go, would stay the same – I am an expat in polite terms, an immigrant when countries are determining their immigration policies.

In India, I am in the convenient box that is framed “minority” because of my religion.

And we are told by our government’s even more right wing to embrace ghar waapsi My religion makes my country nervous – even though we have been part of the fabric of the country for the past 2000 years, my ancestors owned land and paid allegiance to the same kings that my Nair brethren did and the only thing that gives us away as other are our family names, or rather surnames*.

I grew up going to church on weekends (and high holidays and fasting, like all good nasranis), singing hymns in a mix of Malayalam and Syriac**.

On weekdays, I was a patriotic Indian child of the Armed Forces, who went to a government school. I sang a Sanskrit/Hindi prayer, patriotic songs (Saare Jahaan se AchaHind Desh ke NivaasiJanmakaarini Bhaaratam) in all languages***, learnt and recited Sanskrit shlokas, contorted myself into yoga positions (my class’s favourite asana– Shavasana) and saluted to the national anthem everyday.

And I didn’t think that was a dichotomy at all. Because, being Indian was about embracing the weirdness of experience and the plurality of our being. Even more, being a Malayali meant being ridiculously tolerant of religions – being equal opportunity recipients/sufferers of Christmas, Onam, Vishu, Bakrid or passing by Palayam which boasted not only of monuments to three different religions, but also a stadium, a monument erected by the communists and if you looked behind it, Kerala University.

And that was that. Till it wasn’t.

The rise of populism and majoritarian politics is obvious in hindsight. However, as an outsider in every country I live in AND a bleeding heart feminist liberal to boot, it troubles me.

Because… the majority need not fear the minority. There is nothing an extremist from a minority can do that you haven’t thought of and done to yourself.

Because… unity does not mean uniformity. If these few years are the last throes of hyper-nationalism, let’s get it over with. Homogeneity, however, does not bring peace and prosperity. You need to look at better education to be able to do that.

Because… goodness is not the bastion of only the godly, nor is violence (in action and words) the last refuge of the heretics.

Because… I would like to reclaim my life back from people who label me as the other. I have the same pride in my heritage and my same/unique-ness as these people who glory in their rightness. Because, I promise you, you are an outsider to someone else.


*We use patronymics like all other South Indians, i.e., my surname George is not my family name – it’s supposed to be my father’s given name (it’s not, but that is for another reason altogether) and hence, my surname. So there’s that too.

**Old Aramaic, similar to what Jesus would have actually spoken on the Sea of Galilea. “But Jesus speaks ENGLISH,” scream some Evangelicals. And I am going to ask them to shut up now.

***Because… Kendriya Vidyalaya.


Choose your own ending

This is how the world ends. In a bang.

In a concerted world war – the first true one, where Asia gets its hands wet. It’s not the story of Imperial Japan wreaking havoc in China and SE Asia, of Britain pulling troops from its colonies to fights in the European or African wars. It ends with nuclear bombs obliterating the big cities of the free world.

Nothing stands except those towns no one wants. The world is literally bombed into the Stone Age.

All because Trump decided that NATO was passe and when Russia invaded the Baltics, he was going to whistle nonchalantly while stealing croissants off the buffet table of world history.

And you blame Chamberlain for appeasing the nasty Nazi Hitler.

This is how the world ends. In a whimper.

The world stares flabbergasted as America decides that trickle down economics is a perfectly reasonable way to run a country. After all, it had, in no way, been thoroughly debunked in Chile.

But, but but… ALL THESE IMMIGRANTS ARE TAKING MY JOB AWAY. And, they are not like ME. I need people like me...”

So, on the basis of anti-globalisation and a feeling that coal jobs are relevant today (and why should I learn a new trade, thanks-very-much?), populist parties come to power all over the world. To herald a throwback to a past that no one lived through and really doesn’t exist because, SURELY, it was better to have people like me all around me.

Mother Nature decides that it’s had enough – the glaciers in Greenland melt. The sea levels rise by 3m, with loss of coastal and arable land in many parts of the world. The seasons shift, average temperatures go up and savannahs turn to dry deserts.

The leaders of the free world decide that fiddling while the world burns is a collective great idea.

And, so, the world ends… in a soft whimper. To the self-same historical pattern of history being “filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes going up”.

Whichever way history repeats, we are “living in interesting times” (to paraphrase an ancient Chinese curse, or Terry Pratchett – you pick)

Love’s Follies Part 4

He didn’t understand why she didn’t love him. He’d tried everything the book had told him to.

Step 1: Neg the girl

“You know, you’d look half-decent if you lost 5 kilos. And maybe, get a rhinoplasty.”

Step 2: Establish dominance

“You know, you need a man who can shut you up and tell you what to do. Lucky for you, I am that man.”

Step 3: Isolate her

“No one likes you anyway. No one likes a woman who thinks she is better than them.”

That’s when things went a bit awry.

“Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean I want to be with you.”

And that’s when he started shadowing every move she made…”I am sure it’s just a matter of time before she falls in love with me.”

Looking ahead by looking back

My friends tell me I am always in a mad rush to change things, people, the world – both things I can influence and things I can’t. I know that. It manifests itself in the impatience (that has also quadrupled during my 8 years in McKinsey) with which I regard situations, in the passion with which I throw myself into things I love, in this jumbled mish-mash of my hyper-focused short attention span combined with an-almost contrarian risk aversion.

And that is unfortunate. Because in this tumult of running around just to keep with what I want to do, there have been casualties.

I found this over the weekend, when I sat down to read my blog archives. In my first post ever (incidentally, in 2004 on a blogger address called Mumble Jumble, because why not?),  I tapped in not-very-vast reservoirs of anger to rant about slow internet speeds, spam and limited-size email inboxes.

And over the course of the next three hours, I read the book of my life (ages 19 to 30-something) as jotted down by a capricious teenager who was faced with the enormity of growing up and becoming her own person.

I still like her – that 19 year old Shruti. She seems manic – running from one thought to another with nary a breathing space. She is naive and the knowledge of the rest of her life hasn’t fully hit her yet. The troubles, thus far, in her life haven’t made her jaded or cynical, though she really wants to be. And she is fun, so fun.

Her writing has the same quality. It is breathless, moving from one topic to another at the speed of light (the way I still think, incidentally) and utilises way too many exclamation marks and unbound ellipses (Like this!!!!…..). It is imaginative – running the gamut from useless advice columns and fake book covers to the creation of a whole new character, Shruti Fraud. It is intimate – she made inside jokes to her regular readers with a wink and nudge; in fact, learning that she had regular readers inspired another breathless I-can’t-believe-it post. And most of all, it is personal – that young version of me treated her blog like a diary, ripping band-aids in public, whilst keeping the story private.

And like Google coming and solving that terrible limited-inbox problem, I have grown up into someone the 19-year old would not fully recognise. Yes, some of the quirks still remain, including the perpetual clumsiness and the manic-ness that has morphed into a self-aware undercurrent of impatience.

She would approve of what the 31 year old has done – she’s gone to a good school, got a great job that lets her travel the world, found her place in the world FINALLY (India is not kind to women who don’t conform to the norm of expectations), broken/mended her heart a few times (“Not to anyone inappropriate, surely”, she’d muse) and become more comfortable asserting her authority.

And, everyday I try and over-plan my future and try to reconcile my life and my ambitions, I forget how far I have come. And that, to be entirely fair to the 19 or even 25-year old me, is inexcusable. Because to look forward is also to look back sometimes and pat yourself on the back. It’s been a long journey but I really do think it’s been worth it.

While approving of the general direction, the 19-year old would wonder, “But what about your hobbies? What about writing? Singing and twirling in the house with abandon? Doodling in all corners of your books? What happened to all the manic energy you put into creative pursuits? Why have you stopped? And, and, and… what about your friends?”

And for that, I need to start making amends. Consider this step 1.

The Divine Wind

She strips the linen off the shikifuton, moving on to the pillowcase. Wet. It is all she can do to run out of the room and give voice to her silent agony.
Instead, she folds the futon, takes the linen and puts it to wash. And then, she walks out steadily into the spring sun to see Takashi.
He stands in the courtyard with the fallen cherry blossoms, a small smile on his face.
“Aiko, I was waiting for you!”
“My apologies. I was caught up in my chores. What can I do for you, Takashi-San?”
“Could you please send this postcard out when you can?” He hands her a postcard with some money.
Her mouth blurts the words out, “But I have no change.”
He waves her off with the familiar twinkle, “That’s okay. You can keep the money. I am bribing you not to forget.”
“I won’t”, she smiles hesitantly at this old young man and moves closer, to hold his hands. And they stand motionless in the sunlight.
The other girls come clattering out, holding flowers. Aiko and Takashi move apart and he bows to her.
“Thank you, Aiko.” He says formally, “till we meet again”
“Till we meet again, my firefly.” She lapses into the familiar rhythm.
And he walks away from her into the rest of his life.
The plane takes off and dips its wings in salute – once, twice, three times. Aiko’s friends wave their boughs of flowers at the rapidly disappearing speck.
And then she reads the postcard addressed to his parents. A single sentence like a solitary ship adrift in the vast sea of unspoken words.

I meet death on my terms.

And she walks back into the dormitories –  back to his tear soaked pillowcase.