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.

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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 Music of my Life

Every two years, we try and discuss the last two years in song. It is, as I have said it before, time.

I sound manic depressive with these music choices, don’t I? 😉

September 2010: (Basel) Nowadays (You can like the life you’re living/ You can live the life you like/ You can even marry Harry/ But mess around with Ike/ And that’s… good, isn’t it? Great, isn’t it? Fun…)

October 2010: (Istanbul, Turkey) We no speak Americano (Comme te po’/ Comme te po’/ Comme te po’ capì chi te vò bene/ Si tu le parle ‘mmiezzo americano?/ Quando se fa l’ammore sotto ‘a luna/ Come te vene ‘capa e di: “I love you!?”)

November 2010: (Maputo, Mozambique) Barbara Streisand (Barbara Streisand/ woo woo woo woo woo woo woo/ woo woo woo woo woo woo woo/ woo woo woo woo woo woo woo)

December 2010: (Johannesburg) I wanna break free (I want to break free/ I want to break free/ I want to break free from your lies/ You’re so self satisfied I don’t need you/ I’ve got to break free/ God knows, God knows I want to break free)

January 2011: (Swakopmund, Namibia) Dynamite (I throw my hands up in the air sometimes/ Saying AYO!/ Gotta let go!/ I wanna celebrate and live my life/ Saying AYO!/ Baby, let’s go!)

February 2011: (Johannesburg) With or without you (Through the storm we reach the shore/ You give it all but I want more/ And I’m waiting for you/ With or without you/ With or without you/ I can’t live with or without you)

March 2011: (Brussels) Rockstar (It’s like the bottom of the ninth/ And I’m never gonna win/ This life hasn’t turned out/ Quite the way I want it to be)

April 2011: (New York) New York, New York (These vagabond shoes / They are longing to stray / Right through the very heart of it / New York, New York)

May 2011: (Kalamata, Greece) Tonight’s gonna be a good night (I gotta feeling, that tonight’s gonna be a good night, that tonight’s gonna be a good night…)

June 2011: (Kitzbuehl) Club can’t handle me right now (You know I know how/ To make em stop and stare as I zone out/ The club can’t even handle me right now/ Watchin’ you watchin’ me I go all out)

July 2011: (Johannesburg) Glycerine (Don’t let the days go by/Gylcerine/ Could have been easier on you/ Couldn’t change though I wanted to)

August 2011: (Cape Town) Alors Danse (Mais c’est ton corps c’est pas le ciel alors tu t’bouche plus les oreilles/Et là tu cries encore plus fort et ca persiste…/Alors on chante)

September 2011: (Kruger) Rollin’ in the Deep (The scars of your love remind me of us/ They keep me thinking that we almost had it all/ The scars of your love, they leave me breathless/ I can’t help feeling/ We could have had it all)

October 2011: (London) Carmen Burana (Loud overture ;-))

November 2011: (Milan) Paradise (Life goes on, it gets so heavy /The wheel breaks the butterfly / Every tear a waterfall / In the night the stormy night she’ll close her eyes /In the night the stormy night away she’d fly)

December 2011: (Sydney, Australia) What a wonderful world (The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky/ Are also on the faces of people going by/ I see friends shaking hands, saying how do do you do?/ They’re really saying, I love you)

January 2012: (Trivandrum) Somewhere over a rainbow (Somewhere over the rainbow/Skies are blue/And the dreams that you dare to dream/Really do come true)

February 2012: (Moscow) Aaromale (Mamaleyeri varrum thennal/ Puthu mannavaalan thennal/ Palli medeye thottu thalodi kurushil thozhudu varunbol/ Varavelppinu Malayalee karra manasamadhan choriyum/ Aaromale, Aaromale)

March 2012: (Vancouver) On the Floor (If you go hard you gotta get on the floor/ If you’re a party freak then step on the floor/If you’re an animal then tear up the floor)

April 2012: (Vancouver) Somebody that I used to know (Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over/ But had me believing it was always something that I’d done/ And I don’t wanna live that way/ Reading into every word you say/ You said that you could let it go/ And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know)

May 2012: (Seattle) Nantes (Well, it’s been a long time, long time now/ Since I’ve seen you smile/ And I’ll gamble away my fright/ And I’ll gamble away my time)

June 2012: (San Francisco) San Francisco (Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair) (All across the nation such a strange vibration/ People in motion/ There’s a whole generation with a new explanation/ People in motion people in motion)

Tell me your dreams

I know you spin your gossamer dreams in your heart,

Cherishing them against the vagaries of life,

The mundaneness, the pains and the strife,

And they who would stomp your dreams into the dirt.

 

I know what you are thinking when you idly chat,

Your eyes flickering from face to face,

You’re searching for that safe place,

Where you are who you are and just that.

 

You’ve lived your life like a personal quest,

Left a piece of you at each milestone,

Purposeful steps from dusk to dawn,

Your wandering mind knows no sleep or rest.

 

Tell me your dreams, hopes and all your desires,

I’ll let you be you and I will still be me,

I will walk beside you in this journey,

Together, we shall brave the world’s tepid fires.

How does this work?

So, I was flying from Vancouver to Brussels on seat 14A. As I was contemplating the distance to which I had to toss my bag into the hold, a tall man sauntered up the aisle and said…

“Sorry.”

I was confused, apologised myself and sat down in my seat and looked out of the window (First rule of flying – do not look at fellow travellers)

The guy opened his suitcase, took a banana and placed it in the seat holders, then took a vegan bar. By now I was curious, and I peeked a look at him. Tall, Dutch/German looking standard traveller (Aryan type – thanks very much).

I went back to looking out of the window, trying to depress my curiosity.

“Where are you from?”

The question knocked me a bit, “Excuse me?”

“Where are you from?”

“I live in Brussels.”

“Where is that?”

“Uhm, Belgium, in Europe.”

Silence.

“What are you doing here?”

“I work here. Now I am going home for a week.”

Silence.

“That is a long way to go to go home…”

“Yeah. I am a bit homesick.”

More silence.

I broke it this time, “So what do you do?”

“I play hockey.”

“Ahhh. For which team?”

“Team Canada.”

Awkward silence, while I debated if he was expecting me to fawn on him or pretend I even knew him.

“Amazing, I am next to a celebrity”, I mumbled.

“What?”

“Nothing. So where are you going?”

“Zurich. So, where is Brussels?”

“Uhm, it’s next to Amsterdam.” I pulled out the Lufthansa map and pointed it to him.

“So, have you travelled in Europe?”

“Yeah, when I was younger”

“Where can I go? Is Southern Spain nice?”

“Yes”

“Barcelona? Greece? Greece is dangerous, isn’t it? St. Tropez, Ibiza?”

The guy started messaging on his iPhone at top speed, inspite of the attendant warning him repeatedly.

My head was aching a bit. So I pretended to watch the clouds.

He told me, “There are seats in front”

“Okay” (“Does he expect me to leave this seat?”)

“If we move, we can get more space…”

“Okay?”

He sat there for take-off, while I pretended to be busy with watching paint dry. By now, I had a huge smile on my face. For the first time in my life, I had met a jock type.

I took my laptop out and connected it to the onboard WiFi.

“You have internet here?”

“Yes.”

He took his iPad out and stared at it as if it would magically sprout wings and have WiFi.

“How does this work?”

I was a little baffled, but showed him how to use the tablet that was designed for your grandmother to use. But not jocks evidently.

He stared at it after connecting. “Still doesn’t work”

“Why don’t you type google.com?”

He typed labouriously.

http://www.nhl.com

That pretty much made my day.

Thank you, cute jock boy who plays for Team Canada. That was the most fun I ever had on one of my flights. Ever. All the best in Zurich.

I hear Croatia is great this time of the year.

The case for singledom (mine)

When I was 21, my mother took me to a palmist.

I had one question to ask him (I had just finished my interviews at the IIMs and was nervous), “Will I study more?”

He took a look at my palm and nodded his head ponderously, “Yes, and you will travel a lot.”

That’s all I wanted to hear. I was happy.

My mother, being a typical mother-from-achayan*’s-land wanted to know what was uppermost in her mind, “When will she get married?”

The man looked apologetic, “She will get married only late.”

My mother was a bit upset, “… Like 24, 25?”

The man nodded his head, repeating thoughtfully, “After 24, 25.”

I am now 27, though my mother wants me to stop repeating my age to strangers. I find nothing wrong in being 27; I have came across each of those years honestly.

I am also the only unmarried girl from my undergrad class and possibly school, one of very few from my post-grad and finding more of my circle being part of a couple.

There’s a part of me that dreads the day that all my close friends will have kids, and the other part that is happy that, for now, I can do whatever I want – travel wherever, do whatever – sleep till 12, shop till I drop, not cook for 2 weeks and then overcompensate by cooking everyday for another 2, party, chill out, pig out, read, take one of my long walks… whenever I want.

I want to share two conversations on this topic I had in the recent past.

The first was about managing expectations.

For one, the ideal girl of his dreams would be a wine-swilling, travelling, Goethe quoting, sarcasm-understanding, intellectual and independent person. He was wondering if he was asking too much and ought to moderate his expectations.

I reflected on this a bit. Whereas some years ago, I had said that “the guys of my dreams was not a list“, I now also understand that if you lower your expectations in the “Yeh chalega” mode, you will invariably be more unhappy the moment you have a little bit of a tiff.

So, no, I don’t want to lower my expectations just because someone wants me to “be happy in a relationship”, presuming that I am not as happy as I can be.

The second was about the changing nature of expectations.

While I am not the super-romantic person who believes in red roses and pink confetti, as I grow older I believe even more in the power of actions, not words.

When I was younger, I had a few ephemeral crushes with guys that were generally unsuitable. I knew that and bided my time for the crushes to pass. As I grew older, the kind of guy I liked changed, in that I generally liked someone who had a good sense of humour and an air of genuineness.

And now? Now I want common sense and a handkerchief. (Inveterate travelling and some amount of Monty Python/Top Gear viewing would be appreciated, if only for swapping notes.) Kind of like the list I made in 2005. (Young me was not stupid, was she?)

The second conversation was about how when you grow up, your expectations of the person in your life change. It is very likely that you will not be happy with anyone in your life till you become the person you are potential of being. Once that happens, your “type of person” will be constant.

The fact is, sometimes the fact that you “found someone” early means you ended up a different person than you were meant to be.

Now I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad, but I for one think that my case for singledom is as airtight as it can be.

My palm says so!

*Achayans are the Christians (nasranis) from Middle Kerala. We have a typical way of speaking and can be identified when we open our mouth by people in the know. Generally landed families with a million cousins and rubber and sugarcane farms coming out of our collective ears, we subsist on appam, kozhi curry, beef fry and “Ichiri thottu nakkan tha di, Sosamme”

But you already knew that, didn’t you?

2011: The Travelogue

The high (low) lights of the past year’s travels.

Namibia:

Waking up with temporary amnesia in the Namib desert,

Having afternoon tea with camels and some nice German ladies in Swakopmund,

Begging the bartender for Savannahs in the best (and closed) Swakopmund bar at 8:30 with puppy eyes, coaxing – English, German, Damara clicks-and our extreme youth,

Drinking aforementioned Savannah lights on the pier extending into the Atlantic, listening to the crescendo of the waves dancing to the light of the Southern sky (and getting nothing but mixed metaphors in my head),

Saying no to fueling the car when half empty, driving for 300-odd kilometers in the middle of the Namib-Naukluft park and finally finding a petrol station after we were running on petrol fumes,

Trying not to show panic about the petrol situation whilst constructing Doomsday scenarios in the head,

Gawping with awe at the Milky Way from the rather posh tented camp in the Sesriem canyon,

Stuffing the face with springbok, kudu, impala and other assorted antelope,

Painting the desert red in Sossusvlei,

Anti-climactically, finding Windhoek amazingly boring.

Western Cape:

Understanding what gale force winds really mean at the Table Mountain,

Listening to the best string trio (and accordion) at the Waterfront and watching an impromptu dance by a 70 year old woman,

Crossing the highways from V&A to the Westin – ignoring the usual warnings of not to walk,

Watching the spectacle of Penguin against the world at Boulder Bay,

Screaming through a 30′ boat ride through roller coaster seas for a Cape fur seal encounter at Hout Bay,

Getting completely drunk on a wine “tasting” tour of the Groot Constantia estate,

Discovering the prettiest cottages in the world in Franschoek and Stellenbosch,

Figuring out that CT is a great retirement option,

Falling in love with the Cape route,

And finally, discovering the meaning of life at the Cape of Good Hope (“Don’t sweat the small stuff”)

Rest of South Africa:

Swaying to U2 in the Soccer City stadium in Jozi,

Using the power of the tele zoom to get close enough to The Edge to touch him,

Driving through Johannesburg CBD at 7:30 PM in a convoy, hoping that noone would smash the car windows…

… hearing that happened to a friend later anyway,

Living in Sandton for so long that the hotel staff welcomed me home when I showed up after 4 months,

Getting utterly lost on the way to Hartbeespoort dam and driving through Alexandra, where they’d kill you as soon as look at you…

… and driving alone through a 6 km stretch of road with the concise warning: “Area prone to car-jackings”,

Partying: in Sandton, Rosebank, Parktown… just partying,

Running through the rain at 1 AM, regardless of warnings not to walk at night and arriving at the hotel filled with awe at our daring,

Getting a massage in the middle of the bush at night,

Finding myself in the middle of a discussion on whether to fuel the car or to break-down and leave ourselves to the tender mercies of the supposed terrorists lurking in every corner,

Meeting and greeting two leopards – mother and son, in the Sabie-Sabie,

Coming face-to-face with a pride of four lions that also would rather kill you than look at you,

Encountering a family of warthog taking the highway in the Kruger and anthropomorphizing them (“Darling, let’s take the highway, nay?”),

Discovering masculine skills like “cooking a braai”,

Finding the South African accent in my English,

Falling irrevocably in love with the country.

Lesotho:

Taking one hour to travel 200 m from South Africa into Lesotho,

Entering the country with just an entry stamp!

Searching for the donkeys that were mentioned in the Lonely Planet as Lesotho’s chief mode of transportation,

Adjusting to the low light conditions in a shabeen,

Making WWII jokes in a group of Germans and Israelis (woe is me),

Checking out the mad skills of a medicine woman (and also her trusty blue steed/storage area).

Europe:

Walking with my mouth fully open in Keukenhof,

Partying till 4 AM on Saturday morning with a bunch of Germans in Berlin…

And partying till 3 AM on Sunday morning with the same bunch of Germans whilst forming an elite club called “League of Shorties”,

Visiting the Ice Bar in Amsterdam with the Shorty and friends, cackling at the joke, “I don’t have the key. I am level 3.”,

Defiantly ordering a cappuccino in Milano at 2 PM and pretending not to see the Italians dying in the aisles,

Exploiting the executive lounge of the Ambassador Hotel, having breakfast in bed and lunch at St. Germain in Paris,

Building up my house with Pooja in Brussels,

Running through Frankfurt airport Terminal C to the First Class terminal with luggage (3 km including passport control) in 15 minutes behind two directors,

Gawping at Hamleys London again and wishing I was 5 years old,

Discovering the finer points of London (shopping).

US:

Spending most of Easter Sunday stuck at church in Philadelphia, praying for the service to end,

Finding Gino’s Philly cheese steak superior to Pat’s,

Appreciating the Rockefeller Center for more than its architecture,

Stumbling on NYC’s best cupcakes at Magnolia’s (yum),

Getting a handle on Warhol at the MoMA,

Signing up for membership at the New York Met and spending 10 minutes next to the half bust of Nefertiti,

Watching Jon Stewart on Monday and Steven Colbert on Tuesday,

Coming away much affected by Colbert’s personality and introspection,

Wearing jeans in the Waldorf-Astoria lobby  and learning about the dress-code later,

Feeling overawed by the New York skyline,

Listening to the story on Osama Bin Laden on the flight home.

The Philippines:

Never figuring out how exactly to cross the street in Manila,

Partying with French folk!

Ingesting most of the ocean during a sailing trip in Boracay and nearly capsizing,

Getting unbelievably sunburnt due to an obstinacy to put sunscreen,

Listening to reggae at 1 AM by the seaside

Reading a book at 2 AM by the seaside,

Discussing life and other dilemmas with a friend at 3 AM by the seaside,

Paying taxes to come to the country, go through the airport, leave the country, sneezing etc,

Paying 600 pesos to get from one side of the airport to the other…

… and missing the connecting flight anyway.

Australia: 

Spending a rather topsy-turvy Christmas in Melbourne,

Meeting the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road,

Checking out the marine life at the Great Barrier Reef,

Equating Cairns to Kerala in my head, down to small waterfalls,

Impressed by Sydney’s unique mix of New York city skyline and Australian panache,

Discovering, once again, the meaning of life during the best New Year’s Eve celebration on a cruise through the Parade of Lights (“Always display a child-like wonder”)

Ringing in 2012 in the best possible way with a million other Australians.

 

Happy New Year, people!