when they winnow through throngs of women then reap plush spoils.
And everyone knows girls are flowers
showered with sweet botanical metaphor when little
saddled with grim agricultural metaphor after and
lascivious, fruit- based innuendo in between. Observe the ages-
फूलों सा चेहरा
कलियों सी मासूम
ओस सी कोमल
full and luscious
आँगन की तुलसी
then to be beautiful and powerful and ruthless
and some parts giving and some parts selfish
and some parts self- pitying and some parts conceited
and some parts brave and some parts terrified
and some parts tired and angry and bitter
and all parts determined
is to say
I am neither fruit nor flower
nor soil nor earth.
I am sky, you may go through me but you will not touch or thwart me.
I am above you, both shelter and curse,
and you can not, shall not know when I will turn.
When I am unremarkable, you will forget I am there
to your own detriment and downfall.
I resent and defy expectations of pleasantness or predictability.
I will roar often, turn grey and sombre, threaten to fall
to be heard.
I will smite you,
soak you in your own misgivings,
drown you in your worst fears
freeze you out of comfort and familiarity
blow grit in your eyes so you are left panicked and scrambling.
I will not be ignored, or dismissed, or forgotten
not even when I’m quiet.
to think that I am tame or tameable when sunny
is to walk into a trap.
There is no knowing the shape of me
there will be calm,
there will be mornings of generous light
the air so clear you want to dance and give thanks.
I am capable of unexpected kindnesses- good weather that lasts,
good weather that won’t trick you into misery or disappointment.
The great, oppressive sulk just before I give in to the thirst of the earth
is me hoping you’ll notice
that it is my greatest wish
to be feared and to be loved
to be deferred to and to be befriended
to both blend in and stand out,
to be trusted, but never, ever taken for granted,
to give, but also to take away,
to reward and to punish,
to be just but also, to respect my inner barometer
to never have a man pin me to a green screen
and point smugly with his wand at my contours and declare
‘Light showers expected.’
And this is why it is important that I defy your greatest wish
for me- to be invisible.
Not in your wildest dreams
am I a thing you can know or wish away.
While the men guffaw and slander in their pinewood chambers
while they jab a finger at us in Parliament, show us our place
while they plot our demise on colossal mahogany desks covered in green baize and lies,
while they mock and belittle us and our clothes and our hair and our bodies and our youth even when it is long gone,
(even as their own chins slacken and wag, or stomachs strain their buttons with their wanton spillage),
while they watch phone porn or hurl chairs and abuse at each other
or bless the circulation of gossip, suggest indiscretions where there were none
we do not cower
we contain our grief when we must
we thunder when it is time
we plot vengeance when it is inevitable
Do you realise
that we are all skies?
Let no indulgent auntie or uncle
tell you that you are a flower,
that you await a sowing, or a reaping.
Ask only to be compared to the sky.
to be both special and nothing special
to be both un-remarkable and hard to miss
to be both vital and unknowable
to be capable of anger both righteous and self- preserving
to be capable of forgiveness but also revenge
to be known for your kindness and also for your power
to shine sweetly, but also flash warnings
to contain within you a multitude of weathers, entire climates that shape terra firma to their will
to defy forecasts in ways that make men shake their heads and groan and reach for their umbrellas and look silly clutching at spring- loaded scrunched up nylon on a sunny day
to never have a man pin you to a green screen and point smugly at your contours with his wand and declare
‘Light showers expected’.
Images, from top to bottom and left to right- Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, J. Jayalalitha, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Phoolan Devi, Mamata Bannerjee, Meira Kumar, Mayawati, Smriti Irani, Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje, Rabri Devi, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Sheikh Hasina.
1. You aren’t your work. It’s neat to have your name hitched to a designation, but it’s also important to acknowledge and celebrate your complexity. I call it inconvenient complexity, a bunch of attributes that do absolutely nothing for you at work and could have mildly embarrassing associations. For instance I’ve discovered that I’m a closet grandmother, that I love rustling up expansive, filling breakfasts for my family. The truth is that you are so much more than what fits the little rectangle of your business card or the laminated ID on the secure access lanyard around your neck. It’s important to identify non-work descriptors that capture the you-ness of you so that when your job stops being fulfilling or when strangers at a party go ‘..so what do you do?‘ while you’re unemployed, you’re not tipped into an awkward silence that presages a full blown identity crisis.
2. Risks, even when they lead to failure, especially when they lead to failure, are worth it. Risk- taking is an excellent way to grow. Two inadvertent consequences- you become more open to the world and its possibilities, and you acquire a humility and a healthy sense of self- both excellent springboards for any new goals or ventures you might have in mind.
3. No matter how emotionally tough or battle hardened you are, you will never be prepared for that next heartbreak. Don’t beat yourself up about how it blindsided you. Instead, focus on working through it. On a related note, never let your struggles become your calling card. Self- pity is a powerful seductress and submitting to it is lazy and self- defeating. Work to find out who you are despite your struggles, not who you are because of them.
4. Love is the only way to weather a personal crisis. Even in the worst of times, S and I never dispensed with love- affirming rituals. We traveled to beautiful places even when we were broke, celebrated with elaborate meals even when there wasn’t much to celebrate, never tired of telling each other how much their love meant to us. I am here, and I love you is the only thing you need to hear/ should want to say to your partner when your life’s gone pear- shaped.
5. For comfort, seek the familiar. For growth, the unknown. You know how they say they’re mutually exclusive? They’re not- sometimes the best way to grow by leaps is to first hunker down in an old, familiar spot where you’re at your calmest and most confident. That spot is your Bat Cave- a place you introspect in, lick your wounds in, draw strength and solace from, invent and plan world domination in. My Bat Cave is writing, legs jammed into a soft crumpled blue Jaipuri razaai I can dive into for foodcrumbs.
6. It’s okay to turn into your mum, to startle from recognising her in a mood or a gesture or a coping strategy. Panic and self- loathing are natural first responses if you’ve had a less than peachy relationship with her, but work your way through the discomfort and you will arrive at a place of quiet compassion and possibly renewed love and respect for her. I am proud that I am, in many ways, turning into my mother.
7. As you age, you’ll be surprised at how much you begin to rely on things you dismissed as silly or inconsequential before- feelings, intuition, the pricking of your thumbs. Delight in your witchy/ grownup abilities to suss a room out.
8. Adversity will change you and your priorities. Don’t fight this. It’s okay to ditch old ways for new ones- change your language, change how you present to the world, change how you negotiate feelings and relationships. Those that care will keep up. Those that don’t won’t.
9. Hold your friendships close, even when you suspect you’re not being that great of a friend. Ghosting a friend is a terrible idea- trust that your friendship can take a difficult conversation.
10. Pay attention to your mental health. Dismissing something as a mood or a phase or shoving it under the carpet is far easier that coming to terms with an axis-shifting reality. Educate yourself, find resources, and seek help so you won’t implode one day and be left breathless from how little you saw it coming.
11. Pay attention to your physical health. Adopt formerly uncool things like dietary changes and vitamins and hourly hydration with a vengeance. Drag your butt to the treadmill. Find a cheap gym or yoga class you can sustain a relationship with. My own moment of reckoning came with Shilpa Shetty’s excellent yoga video, a great introduction for beginners. Watching her bend and stretch in fire station- red lycra to generic flute-y music against the gorgeous backwaters in Kerala was unexpectedly pleasant.
12. The ancient Romans believed that inebriated and thus potentially adulterous women were the single biggest threat to their patrilineal family trees, and so they made their women kiss every member of her family- formally, on the lips- on returning from a jaunt. It was done to check for signs of drunken revelry, a humiliating ritual never foisted on the men, who drank and womanized freely. You must put an end to this invasion of your personal space, the exhaustion from the constant provocation. It’s important to set boundaries. Setting boundaries, guarding your space, protecting your peace- these don’t make you a stone cold asshole. These make you mindful of your mental health. Those that jeopardise it knowingly have absolutely no place in your life.
13. It’s okay to quit. We make a virtue of doggedness, but it’s important to identify the point when the law of diminishing returns kicks in. If it’s making you unhappy and causing you to become a stranger to yourself, it’s okay to let it go. No matter how cliched or eye-roll inducting or easily dismissed as simplistic, happiness was, is and will always be a legitimate goal to chase.
14. You’re allowed to flip- flop on issues of personal importance- because while others are free to roll their eyes, it’s you that must live with the outcomes. In 2012, I was ready to be a mum. In 2018, I was convinced it was the worst decision we could’ve taken. You’re also allowed to change positions on other issues- such as your estimation of certain people. It’s unhealthy to persist with an opinion because your ego won’t allow a re-evaluation, or because it’s expected of you socially. If certain friendships are centred on your mutual hatred of a person and you find yourself liking said person, the right and honourable thing to do is to speak up and opt out. If dissing someone you secretly don’t hate is an initiation rite for a relationship/ friendship you care deeply about, you need to ask what that’s doing to you.
15. Forgive yourself for not living up to the parental ambitions you internalised. It’s okay to have not won a literary award or invented anything in your twenties. Come to terms- gently, compassionately- with the constraints you were never taught to acknowledge- the relative privilege of others, your relative poverty, a model of parenting torn between modernity and conservatism. You will realise that there does exist ground before that ‘expiry date to blaming your parents for everything’ (JK Rowling)- and it is ground that neither you nor your parents could’ve done much to change despite everyone’s best intentions.
16. It’s okay to downsize your ambition and shift your goalposts. This doesn’t mean you’re settling for lesser, but that you’re acknowledging that different things motivate you, that you find joy and purpose in things you hadn’t given much thought to before.
17. Read as much as you can. If you grew up relatively poor, as I did, your best bet is self- education. Money spent on building a personal library is never money lost.
18. Invest in yourself. I’ve learned this from the refugee family I married into: no amount of money spent on self- enhancement, on education, on resources that help you learn and grow is enough. Also, get rid of any coyness about money; conversations about spending and saving, no matter how uncomfortable, are important. Evaluate your relationship with money constantly. It’s important to acknowledge when you don’t have enough so you can dispense with expensive habits.
19. Cultivate a rich inner life. Write. Journal. Document via endless streams of selfies. Scribble messy notes in the margins of books. Hoard old magazines and journals so you can pick them apart at your leisure.
20. Calibrate your social media usage. We’re well past the point in history when aimless scrolling could land you in a place of juicy discovery; today it mostly fuels insomnia and existential dread. It also lands you in unsavoury places, like an old colleague’s depressingly wordy, testimonial-fat Linked In. I use mine mostly to network, practice writing, and stay in touch with current political developments.
21. Internet friendships are no less important or real or meaningful than real ones. Reach out to people online you admire. You’ll be surprised at how effortlessly like-minded you can be even when you’ve never met.
22. Never make decisions out of fear. Even as I’ve stayed wide awake at night and wondered how sustainable my unemployed state is, I’ve politely declined some wonderful opportunities to work on a salary. Fear- based decisions never work out in the long term. I can no longer afford fancy dinners, but I’m okay with that trade- off as long as I’m operating from a place of self awareness.
23. Look out for your parents (and if you’re married, your husband’s parents). Terrible things, painful and unforgivable and life-altering things may have happened between you but the fact remains that you owe them forgiveness. This is when there’s a shift in power and responsibility, because they’re coming to terms with their own shitty decisions and their mortality and their friends dying and their lives not quite being what they’d hoped- regular life stuff. This is when you step in- delicately, unobtrusively- to parent them. If not handled carefully, the transition is a painful one. But it is necessary, and it must be done graciously, with all the kindness and forgiveness you can find inside you.
24. When your heart feels like it’s irreparably broken, trust that it isn’t. It will expand to make room for someone new. Get an animal home and let them fill your life with silliness and love like you’ve never felt before.
25. Don’t let anyone- no matter how close or highly regarded- tell you what to think of yourself.
26. Experiment with your hair. Cut it a lot. One day you’re going to desperately wonder about bangs, but your thinning scalp and faltering courage are going to be the death of that idea.
27. Acknowledge that sometimes you are the asshole. Learn to apologise with readiness and grace. Don’t apologise under pressure. A hollow apology boomerangs on you in the form of pent- up resentment
28. Abandon your defining virtue if it comes to your mental health. I was always the Type A girl/ low emotional-maintenance/ easily grateful. You don’t have to live with these expectations lifelong. I’ve kicked most of my type A tendencies to the kerb, loudly demand acknowledgement for my emotional labour and am now difficult to please- in the healthiest way possible.
29. Don’t take yourself too seriously. No one cares what you do- in a good way. Learn to chuckle at your self- image and stick a pin in your head if it’s swelling a bit.
30. Acknowledge your privilege- relative and absolute. It will help you read the world better, relate to issues more authentically.
31. Fashion-wise, work to find your signature. I’m all about color and especially love a florid pattern tempered with a nice neutral. Print-wise, I like a feral animal against tropical foliage. Or a small watercolour pineapple. Or cactii. I dragged S over miles of cobblestone in Florence so I could grab two cactus- shaped mugs. Sue me. On a serious note, fashion is a relatively harmless- and if you’re into thrifting, inexpensive way to express yourself.
32. Be nice to people. Be generous with compliments. Also, don’t waste niceness on someone who doesn’t have the stomach for it. Nice and Neutral should be the only extremes of your social decency spectrum.
33. Don’t set too much store by plans. They almost always don’t work out. Make room for swerves and about- turns, rests and pit stops. As long as you’re okay with the general direction your life’s taking, you’re in a good place. Don’t sweat the details.
There’s a moment in Knock Down The House when pre- fame Alexandria Ocasio Cortez plunges her gloved arms into an ice bin, upends an avalanche of ice into a bucket, and pushes it across the floor into a waiting service elevator. You can be sure that the scraping, the jarring loudness of it, is a total contrast to the hushed, hallowed workplace of her opponent. ‘I’m used to being on my feet 18 hours a day’, she says later, explaining why this makes her uniquely suited to politics. ‘I’m used to receiving a lot of heat. I’m used to people trying to make me feel bad. They call it ‘working class’ for a reason, because you are working non-stop.’ That sense of realism and optimism, cheek- by- jowl, is what defines the AOC brand today.
So how does a 28 year old bartender- waitress whose mother cleaned homes become such a force of nature? How does she convince a roomful of people to look past her youth and her class disadvantages, and several bigger roomfuls later, make political history?
Netflix’s Knock Down The House, which began as a Kickstarter project for directors Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick could well be Hollywood fiction about the audacity of the upstart- a popular theme- except it isn’t. The documentary profiles four women who hope to effect a major upset in the Democratic primaries of 2018, notwithstanding the inconvenient facts of their debut candidatures, relative/ perceived inexperience and entrenched competition. It is the anatomy of three dashed hopes and one landslide victory connected by themes of community, personal hardship and hopes for shaking the complacent establishment out of their stupor. The organizers and strategists backing these new hopefuls are two grassroots outfits called Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, working to introduce a radically principled, urgency- driven, more responsive brand of liberal politics to a complacent and lacklustre Democratic party. For instance, AOC, who was nominated by her brother to join a pool of several thousand names vetted for moral clarity and ability to lead and inspire and organize, rejected corporate donations entirely for her campaign. Nearly 70% of her campaign funds came from individual contributions under 200 USD. Thus, the working class background of the candidates is both essential qualifier and badge of pride.
What is common to all these women is their belief that the personal and the political are one and the same. ‘Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid?’, says writer Margaret Atwood in an interview with The Paris Review. ‘It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.’ It is easy to dismiss these womens’ emotional pitches as hysteria, but what they really are is a heightened awareness of their place in society, and a truthful telling of society’s failure to acknowledge their struggles. Personal grief becomes battle cry, family and community rallying points. So there’s Laura Jean Swearengin of Virginia, grimly determined to expose the powerful mining lobby for their role in the deaths and sicknesses of her people- including her father. There’s disillusioned nurse and mother Cori Bush, a black woman running from Missouri, clearly still reeling from the Ferguson riots. There’s gritty, grieving Amy Vilela of Nevada who lost her teenage daughter to a no-insurance clause that denied her emergency medical treatment, advocating for insurance for all. And there’s AOC, struggling to make ends meet in a tough economy. It’s proof that unlike men, women don’t and shouldn’t hesitate to use their hurt to legitimize their ambition. That feelings- stormy, frightened, frustrated, angry, sorrowful- can empower instead of weakening or discrediting- and also challenge the notion that even when power expresses as fist- pumping wood- slamming rhetoric, it is essentially stoic and coolly distant. That powerful white male politicians with their regulation khakis and rolled up white sleeves and their casual cheery entitlement perpetuate the political equivalent of manspreading- taking up too much space to the point of cultural inevitability, to the point that questioning it seems like asking for too much, to the point of it boomeranging doubt and apprehension on the asker. Individually and as a group, these women reframe power as collaborative, feelings as valid reasons to run. ‘For one of us to make it through, 100 of us have to try.’ says AOC. Since her win, she’s been widely praised for constantly highlighting the achievements of her fellow- Congress debutantes, forcing the spotlight on female leadership and showing us how fundamentally different it is from its male version.
On the show or off it, AOC inspires. She’s courteously assertive, a tough rope to walk especially when being baited or slammed, which she often is. She’s never patronizing, never rudely dismissive or combative. A cautiously thrilled American media has called her ‘earnestly nerdy’ and praised her refreshing candour and her refusal to allow cynicism or jadedness to take over.
Today she’s championing an improbable- sounding legislation that aims at a full transition to renewable energy countrywide by 2030 plus an immediate moratorium on the mining of and investment in fossil fuel. Her insistence on seeing the Green New Deal fructify has earned her eye rolls from the old guard, who are appalled at her apparent naïveté. But people have been hauled over the coals for far less. This disdain for ‘lack of experience’ is exactly what the documentary explores. What does the ‘experience’ in the phrase ‘lack of experience’ entail? Who decides whose experience matters? Is one kind of experience inferior or less valuable than another? Is the predominantly white male notion of experience- usually bookended by an expensive Ivy League graduation/ celebratory donation the only kind of experience that counts? Is the premature experience of adversity, of daily working class grind, of lived financial deprivation and near-homelessness and sicknesses left untreated because there’s no insurance, of being denied opportunity and agency because of class or ethnicity not enough to qualify an educated, well- intentioned candidate who wants to make a difference? In a bizarre plot twist, AOC slams the incumbent, who’s been unchallenged 14 years as representative for the New York burroughs of the Queens and the Bronx. He doesn’t live here, she says. He lives in Virginia. ‘If we elect working people, working people can have representation in Congress.’ she reasons later in the show.
For me this was a fantasy- watch. The Indian political scenario is not very different; we have a consolidation of power by an elite determined to exclude and suppress fresh talent. Caste and class privileges are directly proportional to wealth, and wealth joined with muscle dictates political outcomes. The Arvind Kejriwal- led Aam Aadmi Party movement, premised on the right of every ordinary citizen to influence said outcomes has played out to mixed results. In an attempt to change the language of power, governance and political discourse, the leaders of the party adopted unconventional methods. Theatrical displays of resistance, protest- based negotiation and threats to unveil a paper trail of systemic corruption pitted them against the old ways. Their electoral success was stymied by infighting, poorly set priorities and expected backlash from establishment politicians. Still, they made their point; ordinary working class citizens, when empowered, can and do accomplish the one good thing no one can deny- representation. What then will it take to have our own KDTH moment?
Against the disapproving murmurs growing only louder by the day, it’s easy to forget that AOC and her kind don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be. ‘He leaned down next to me, and he pointed at the Washington Monument, and he pointed at the reflecting pool, and he pointed at everything,’ says an emotional post- win AOC of her dead father, crying for a memory from when she was five. ‘…And he said, ’You know, this all belongs to us.’ He said, ‘This is our government. It belongs to us. So all of this stuff is yours.’
It’s easy to be a critic, far more difficult to allow ourselves to be seduced by hope. KDTH quietly, unobtrusively asks that you suspend your scepticism and allow this moment its rightful, shining place in history.
I love silver jewellery and Quirksmith’s simple, impactful pieces are an old favourite. This Mothers’ Day I’m honouring my Amma by wearing their Mere Paas Ma Hai earcuff.
In India, silver’s first serious associations with lifestyle were embodied in predictable signposts of royal debauchery- objects like the ittardaan (perfume holder), the paandaan (betel nut box), the gulaabpaash (rose water sprinkler) and ornate silver jewellery, all of which survive to this day. States that lay in the crosscurrents of the old maritime trade still retain European, Persian and Chinese influences in their designs. Then there is our consumption of varq, the micrometre-thin beaten silver foil that tops our mithaais. By one estimate, India converts over 10 tonnes of silver into varq every year. With zari, a conveniently bendy hair-thin wire looped and twisted into pretty embellishments on the hems of skirts and saris, we even found a way to incorporate silver in our textiles. My mother- in- law’s mother, who arrived in India from Sargodha after the Partition and lived and worked in a refugee camp, cut and sold the zari from her best saris for money. Silver may lack the sex appeal of gold, but it remains strongly evocative of sepia- tinted gentility and nostalgia, reminding us of a simpler, sweeter, quieter time.
Today, most silver jewellery in India still draws heavily from and perpetuates a staunchly traditional region- specific aesthetic. On the outskirts of Kolhapur in Maharashtra, the ‘silver city’ of Hupari specialises in paayals, ornate anklets that clink and jangle pleasingly and are roaringly popular across the country. Their motifs of choice speak to their inspirations- the koyna (mango), the pankh (bird’s wing), shankh (conch) and pari (a triangular shape reminiscent of marine corals). Odisha boasts an ancient filigree tradition called tarakasi, so prettily delicate as to be impossible. Jewellery from the erstwhile Rajput kingdoms in Rajasthan, UP, Punjab and Himachal is distinctly different and is influenced, to varying degrees, by the art forms nurtured in Mughal courts. Gaddi jewellery from Himachal- bright blonde silver mixed with blue, red and green enamelwork- all of it incredibly light and easy to wear- is a personal favorite. The pride of my wedding trousseau is a pair of silver kaleerey, commissioned by my grandmother Sushila and crafted to perfection by the talented women in her niece’s village.
Extravagantly shot period films have revived interest in pieces like the chandbaali, the jhumka and the karnphool (for the ears) the borla, the maangtikka and the maathapatti (for the forehead), the sarpech, the passa, the jadanagam and the nizam choti (for the hair), the rani haar, the patta haar, the jadavi lacchha, the guttapusal, the kanti, the kantha-tudar, the navratna, the attigai, the kasu malai, the manga malai, the linga padakka muthu malai, the pathakala haaram, the naulakha and the satlada (for the neck and the torso), the kamarbandh and the chandrahaar (for the waist and the hips), the paizeb and the bichuey (for the feet), the haathphool (for the fingers) and the nath (for the nose). Happily, cheaper silver versions of these abound.
Still, I’ve always missed a simpler, more modern silver ornament, as far removed from the maximalist ethos of its predecessors as the royals were from the grim realities of ordinary people.
Quirksmith’s handcrafted pieces are exactly that- sleek, contemporary, quietly cheeky. They are also excellent conversation starters. I love that.
You can place an order at their website, find this particular ear cuff here, and other cuffs here. They accept payments online and also offer cash-on-delivery service. They are also unfailingly courteous in conversation and handle transactions efficiently and professionally.
Do your bit to support small local businesses by considering small shops like Quirksmith for your jewellery needs.
And now, my generic, mandatory PSA: when dealing with a small business, be mindful of their logistical constraints. Communicate with clarity and politeness. Before you shoot off a rude email or unflattering review, make sure you’ve had a proper conversation- via text or on the phone. If you’re happy with the product, send in a few sincere words of thanks and appreciation. They go a long way in boosting morale.