You Are Alone

Image of a single flower
Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

You are alone. In your heart-racing stress and its consequent quest for calm. As you press your hands to your body or to a wall to find grounding, you are alone. In the alleyways of your mind where alternate scenarios to events past perform playback theatre, you are alone. When your unshakable morals stand their ground, there will be no audience. When human logic escapes you, there will be no sister to turn to and consult with. Remember! That logic is elusive to you alone. That infinite circular staircase of dissent that leads nowhere you will climb, wondering if the world has left you behind or if you are ahead of the curve. You are alone in your anxiety, silent screams that no one hears. For them you are too successful, too old, too disciplined or too privileged to be anxious. In the moments leading up to the end, you are alone. 

In reading a book, falling in love, memory of a dish, selfishness you feel or the taste of a December morning in 1999 you are alone. You can explain what the flapping of a wraparound skirt in a small town made a 14-year-old feel. Invincible, beautiful, modern and free. But words will fail you. The exhilaration you felt at the start of the day, the deep sense of shame you were gifted that day, the confusion of not understanding why a bare knee was a problem, the feeling is not in those instances. The feeling is in your mind—doubt; etched. The stares, the giggles, the stern whispered warnings.  

Live life as if you are alone and be surprised when you find a helping hand. A helping hand on your shoulder or holding your hand. Accept it without question. Give into its charm completely. But until then, live for yourself, as if you were alone. Because to believe in the other, to hope for the other, is foolish. It is foolish to believe that someone will walk with you. Of course, if you have faith, He will walk beside you through the night. But this is a PSA for those living outside faith. There is no one. If everyone’s life has a purpose, the purpose of yours cannot be in service of another. And if life has no purpose, then there you have it.

1985

Image of a living room
Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

In the beginning of 1985, when I had recently moved into my first home, if you had told me that I would be evicted soon, I would have laughed at you. No way! Those walls made me feel safe and comfortable. As if I had, not a care in the world. As if I were floating.

Every morning, I woke up feeling tiny but happy in a universe that loved me. Of course it was rather curious that a house could make me feel that way. If you’ve ever met first-time home owners you’ll know how enthusiastic they are about being domestic. They stay put at home. Talk a lot about food and mention comfort a couple of times a minute. Well, you’ve met me. 

I had elaborate meals and shared about them obsessively online. I invested in cleaning agents and was quite proud of my collection. I dreamt of flexing my green thumb. I trolled lifestyle bloggers after watching all their content. On stormy nights, I rearranged the furniture because lightning scared me.

In the afternoons I moved the furniture around and exercised in the living room. After a couple of months, when I began to gain strength, I would attempt handstands. At first I was pathetic. There was a lot of kicking the walls involved. But I now feel capable, as if this is not beyond me. I feel like I’ve grown as a person in these last 9 months.

In early November, I woke up early one morning feeling uneasy. I now know that that feeling was a premonition. But that fateful morning, I didn’t know what it was. It was like the discomfort you feel before puking. As if something were going to happen. I headed to the kitchen to put the kettle on for coffee. I reached out for the jug to get a drink of water. The jug fell from my hand in slow motion and broke, spilling water everywhere. That was a sign.

Walking to the front door to collect the newspaper, I felt a pull as if a giant magnet were attracting me from the opposite side of the street. That is the last thing I remember. 

I woke up kicking and screaming on a cold, metal weighing scale. There were noises all around. And people milling around doing things, looking busy. Before they wrapped me up tight, I saw my wrinkly exterior and felt air on my skin for the very first time. I was born, a healthy child at 7.13 am on a Thursday morning in November of 1985.

A Song Is A Song

Image of a swing
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Beedi Jalaile Jigar Se Piya, Daddy sang softly under his breath to the tune of a popular lullaby. Meera was falling asleep in the crook of Daddy’s arm, worn down by the punishing summer heat; unaware of the nuances of Daddy’s tunes. There Daddy stood, against the door frame staring into the night, dressed in his creased office wear, rocking lightly on the balls of his feet like a nervous novice.

Ammamma sat at the dining table, chopping vegetables for salad, watching with a smile, the happy picture that Daddy painted. 

“You caught a good one, Mummy!” Ammamma mumbled in Malayalam, aware that her daughter could barely hear her in the kitchen and that Daddy could not follow. 

What was that?, Mummy’s head popped out of the kitchen. 

Isn’t Daddy amazing, I was saying… Ammamma paused. He’s such a hands-on parent, helping you put Meera to sleep.

Mummy was yet to put the laundry out to dry and find Meera’s white uniform from the washed pile. The evening was getting away from her and Mummy was in no mood to pander.

“You do know that she’s his child too, don’t you?” she shot back. “He’s not doing me a favour”. 

Ammamma wasn’t one to back down. “You know what your problem is? You don’t know how to take a compliment. Forget I said anything.”   

“That’s better”, Mummy shouted over the whistling pressure cooker.

Mummy was jumping through hoops to pull an acceptable dinner out of the hat. Acceptable was a relative term in this household. The same Ammamma whose brain could conceive nothing ill of Daddy, often saved her best jabs for Mummy. Ammamma’s scale measured behaviours between Amazing and Atrocious. And then there was the ambivalent Acceptable in the middle.

“Get through dinner. One day at a time. You can do this. Let it slide.” Mummy muttered, expending her anger with a brisk washing of rice.

Thumbi Vaa Thumba Kudathin… Mummy hummed as she tried to calm herself down, washing the rice till the water ran clear. It was an old film song from the 80s that Ammamma used to sing to her as a child. It was picturised around a happy family before tragedy struck. Sometimes Mummy imagined that her entire aesthetic as an architect came from this one song. The grey tones with bursts of colour. The fantastical whimsy, lingering nostalgia and spots of sadness.  The lines called on a dragonfly to get on the swing and swing to the sky and back. It spoke of playing with magical horses, listening to celestial music and climbing candy mountains to get amla that wasn’t bitter. ‘Lines from old songs, sweet as honey on your lips…’ Oftentimes, Mummy called upon this particular line from the song to make her feel better. And for a fleeting second she stopped to consider the song that would comfort her child as an adult. 

The Truth

Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

I go walking without a fight,

with you into the dead of the night.

For questioning, into custody,

over sedition, for conspiracy,

under UAPA, despite democracy.

I am just a person you call swine—

a benign human you can fine;

torture, imprison, kill or malign,

but the Truth you fear is not mine.

It’s a pandemic in young minds

as rabid televisions spellbind

and panting parents recline.

Economy dives underwater

but there’s no fish to find.

Oh! a neighbour is unkind

so we respond in kind.

In small WhatsApp circles Truth grows,

it takes a village, we all know.

She weaves a couple of twitter threads,

through fleeting Instastories she spreads.

She will maintain data, for herself to know, 

donate to the needy to soften the deathblow; 

and thus will Truth grow

into a conscientious young fellow.

You won’t find her serving alliances,

in a political party or with the media foxes.

She will walk for days to get home from a city,

live in detention centres, question the government’s duplicity.

She will hang from trees, raped

Or die with crops, aped.

As you waste my life away in a cell,

I want you to remember this spell.

the Truth you fear is not mine,

She’s in everyone with a spine.

Axe and the Beanstalk

Photo by Robert Hrovat on Unsplash

I have every right to be angry! I am the pivotal character in this story and I bet you don’t even know my name. Forget this story, I have been in hundreds of fairy tales, you know. 

The sheer disrespect with which they treat me is the reason why the fairy tale industry is dying. Our readers might be snotty but they are a smart bunch. They won’t take well to this discrimination dealt out to characters like me. I will make sure of it.

I got carried away, let me introduce myself. I am Velayuthan, the magnificent axe that chops down the giant green magic beanstalk in one, dextrous master stroke in Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack would be six feet under if it weren’t for me or better still, he would have ended up as the giant’s dinner. I saved him and I saved the day! But what do I have to show for it? Nothing, absolutely nothing. I don’t even have a line in the story or a name. Who doesn’t name their axe?

Wait, wait, wait. Hear me out.

Jack is a farmer boy, right? What kind of farmer boy doesn’t carry his axe around? A…a lazy one I suppose. But I am so useful. If nothing else, I could sit pretty on Jack’s shoulder and make that dimwit look desirable.

Okay, I will forgive him the first time. He woke up, he was shocked to see a beanstalk outside his window, he climbed right up the stalk and forgot about me. Understandable.

What about the next time when he stole the golden-egg-laying hen? Did you see that humongous piece of bread and cheese the giant’s wife gave him to eat? I could have helped him chop it into bite-sized pieces and even carry some back home for his mother. But who thinks of their mother on great adventures, right? 

My biggest beef with the writer is that he didn’t have Jack carry me into the climax. Can you imagine, my shiny, chiselled face against Jack’s panicked, sweaty one? I would have looked so handsome in the chase sequence with the giant breathing down my handle.

Oh, the travesty of getting me to chop off the entire beanstalk. I would never do that. I am a big climate crusader, you know. Why did Jack have to cut the whole damn beanstalk? But first, plot. How is it suddenly acceptable for the male protagonist to ask his mother to get his axe? Have they never heard of feminism, hello! She is not a farm hand waiting around to do his bidding. She is the matriarch of the family. Show some respect! 

Anyway, if it were me and if he had carried me with him to the giant’s castle, I would have just snipped the top end of the beanstalk touching the sky. Clearly, the giant is not going to risk jumping to his own death for the sake of an autoplay harp that speaks or a even a thieving boy. 

That darling plant. Her name was Latha. Gone too soon, and for nothing. Can you imagine the crop from a magic plant like her? It could feed the whole of England. Perhaps end world hunger. 

Crusty eyed, camera shy: Life and work in these Covid times

On a regular day, I wake up, make coffee, have breakfast, pack lunch, get ready and leave for work. In a tumble I could fit all these activities into 45 mins. That was in my life pre-March.

Since the world as we know it ended, I go to sleep around 1:30 am. I wake up around 8.30 am. Mostly because the trash gets picked up at 8:30 am and I need to put it out. Meanwhile, Thej wakes up and parses data

I wash the dishes. Then make coffee. Warm up our dog Echo’s food and refill his water bowl. Along with this I fill all our water bottles. I make rice in the rice cooker for lunch or other eventualities. There’s usually some leftover sambar or rasam in the fridge. So lunch is sorted.

By then, Thej and Echo are back from their walk. Like foragers, they bring back from their walk, single packets of milk or curd or whatever is available in the shop. I put out Echo’s food. While he eats, I drink coffee, read the newspaper. Thej and I talk about the world going to shit. Talk about where to get meat for Echo’s meals. Often, we check on our househelp Selvi. Meanwhile, we have cornflakes or overnight oats for breakfast. I clean the balcony where the raintree’s flowers and leaves congregate. Sometimes I do a quick cleanup of the living room from where I work.

On most days, Thej and I have calls from 11 am. Truth be told, I open my computer earliest at 10:50 am. I sit in front of the computer/phone, crusty eyed and camera shy, mostly on mute. For me, social distancing is actually the best part about Covid-19. I don’t have to meet people and for the most part, I don’t have to make polite conversations. This bit is truly divine.

I answer emails if any, I get on calls (of which there are unreasonably more these days) and I plan for the next FY. But beyond this, I have to work on some content and an internal grant but my covid priorities are always running on loop in my head. For instance, at 3 pm I have to remind Thej to head to the grocery store to join the queue. It’s only been a week since we got Echo home, so we take breaks to play with him, pet him, groom him. I manage to keep calm thanks to this cuddly bum and the belly rubs he demands. 

In the evenings, I talk to Amma about the sensex, Pinarayi’s efficiency and what’s for dinner. Thej and I drink coffee and try to talk about our work day. It usually spirals into Covid talk or we end up watching the news. There’s a palpable tension in the air as we try to act normal to recreate some peace. We tiptoe around discussing the heartbreaking scene at Anand Vihar bus stand. Clothes need to be folded and put away.

Thej washes the dishes in the evening, makes coffee, grates coconut. Alongside, I whip up some dinner that’s labour intensive. Like chapati. Just to stay occupied. I’ve already cleaned out our storage and the cupboards in the kitchen. 

In the evenings, Thej vacuums the carpet and sometimes our bedroom. Echo sheds even more in order to keep Thej occupied. We have dinner ignoring our begging, drooling bum-wagger under the table and I Netflix late into the night. 

Why am I talking about my daily routine? Because, workplaces (mine included) seem to think that we are just working from home. No, we are not. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. And now is not the time to harp on about productivity. I would ideally have the leadership everywhere address the vulnerability we feel. Talk about the importance of business continuity: the merits to keep on keeping on. Do what you are doing but at your own pace. It’s not enough to see this messaging on Instagram. There’s authenticity in hearing this message from our leadership; a sense that they care. Acknowledge and address that elephant in the room: employee morale. But I understand it’s too much to expect. 

I imagine a typical woman of my age; 35. In most likelihood, she has two children, a husband whose work is “more important” than hers and she lives with her in-laws. Financially, she has a home loan, a car loan and children’s education to worry about. On a regular day, work hours are her time slot to focus on work and herself.

But in Covid times, she has two children who are thrilled that their mother is home all day. She has to deal with her “in-laws dynamic” during the day as well. She has to do the dishes, wash clothes, water plants, clean the house and cook food because the house help isn’t around. She has to keep her children entertained and her in-laws safe. I am sure there are husbands out there who are equal partners but you know that you are not the majority. She or her husband has to go out to get groceries because the other members of the household are highly at risk. If the household has a pet, then getting meat supplies for his/her food also weighs down on her.

No, we are not just working from home. This is a stressful time full of uncertainty. With next to zero direction from the state and central administration on the plan of action, people are having to cope in their own ways. My organisation might be working on changing the world but right now, I need to Netflix trash late into the night just to stay afloat.

Filed under: my-privileged-world-view.

Comfort in the Collective

ProjectOnHerOwn had its first focussed offline event on Tuesday, 6 August 2019 with 22 women facilitators working with Buzz Women. Buzz Women trains low-income women in financial literacy so that they can be drivers of prosperity. Three of the four people on the team have below average to poor Kannada skills that we make up for in smiles and enthusiasm. Apart from the nervousness of not being able to respond in a common language, we were also anxious about how we would say what we want to, will anyone be as excited as us about this thing, and why should anyone even talk to us? 

Turns out games are a good way to make shy people smile, awkward people more awkward, and a group of 25 women make a huge amount of noise. After a round of names and a short introduction to the project by Thej, we started with a complicated game of ‘stacking’  involving advanced hand-eye coordination and memory skills as an icebreaker. Though this exercise was absolutely useless in helping us remember each other’s names, it did help us get a sense of the group’s enthusiasm and set the precedent for the rest of the hour. 

We then dove straight into the project, by playing a recording of one of the stories on a speaker to the circle of listeners. Very important note to self – must do a tech rehearsal and sound check beforehand. However, we had a very patient audience who listened to two stories on the speaker. 

One of the things that I’ve found works well both in groups of adults and children, are exercises where individuals are prompted to think on their feet and reveal something small about themselves without having the time to filter their answers. What this does is open up entry points into discussion without putting anyone in a vulnerable position. So to open into a discussion of why this project mattered, and what could its scope be, we had a quick rapid fire round. Our questions were who do you call when you want to talk about something?  Who reaches out to you when they’re in need? What word describes the feeling of a shared conversation on the phone? 

We moved very quickly from the rapid fire to a game where we had two minutes to share a story with a random partner. The story or incident could be one’s own, another woman’s, anything that came to mind. 15 minutes later, we gathered in a group to recount our experience of listening to someone else, and a word that popped up multiple times was ‘samadhana.’ 

Now while a lot of times that means relief, it also means comfort. There was comfort in listening to someone else, being able to speak to someone else. Comfort in the collective.

Written by Sunayana Premchander. Sunayana is a theatre professional based in Bangalore. She is part of the #ProjectOnHerOwn team.

Why We Need #ProjectOnHerOwn

I spoke about the need for #ProjectOnHerOwn at the Teach for India Sabha, last Saturday. My talk focused on the need for women to tell their stories. We all know women who are achievers and rebels, and those who have been harassed and taken for granted. We are those women. Then why do we shy away from sharing our story? Our stories are so similar yet different. And, they all matter. Below is the transcript of my talk.

I am Anjana. Today, I will tell you my story. 

Growing up, I was an obedient child. But once I realised that I didn’t really want to become a doctor or an engineer, everyone started calling me a rebel.

I chose to study Journalism and English in college. Soon, it was clear that I was not built for Journalism. I am not the most curious cookie in the box. For years, I was a content creator by day and wrote poems and stories by night. I would rarely share these with anyone. Finally, in 2016, I decided to give writing a try. I took a year off and wrote 10 short stories. Two of them have been published since. And 4 of them have been used in #ProjectOnHerOwn. 

I have never been a social person. I am happier being lost in my own thoughts than interacting with people. But today, I work at Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Sadashivanagar and I anchor a monthly event there called Public Texts, where we bring authors to talk about their work. I find these two to be huge achievements in my personal journey.

Moving on to less happier things, like all women I know, I have been harassed too. I’ve had my breasts pinched in the streets. Men have rubbed up against me in buses. I’ve worked with male colleagues who’ve made me uncomfortable. But I’ve also stopped an overnight bus in the dead of the night once and confronted my harasser while travelling alone. 

I’ve also been taken for granted. Right after college, I took two years off to care for my grandfather. The least I could do for my grandparents was to be by their side when their faculties faded. In the beginning I got a lot of flack for not focussing on my career. But these same detractors soon began to take me for granted. I was there 24×7, a primary caregiver, with no one to change hands with me. I am glad I spent time with him while I could, but being taken for granted was a frustrating experience. That is also my story.

These are the stories that make up #ProjectOnHerOwn. None of them are heroic. We have all experienced some version of these highs and lows in our lifetime. If not, we have at least seen and heard of the women around us experience these stories. These stories are important. All of them, however similar they are to each other, matter. It is not often that women’s stories are told. And when they are told, they are about women achieving extraordinary things like Jhansi Rani or Kalpana Chawla. We hope to create a space for relatable stories of everyday women.  

We are #ProjectOnHerOwn, an IVR-based art project done as part of Gender Bender Festival 2019. Call 080 6608 4304 number, listen to her story and share your story with us!

I would like to leave you with a story that was shared earlier this week at one of the #ProjectOnHerOwn focus group discussions. A lady who works at an NGO as a facilitator narrated how she was someone who could not talk to people. She would never leave the house alone. She would never eat at a hotel. And since she got this job, she has learnt to ride a bike, she facilitates conversations about financial independence in 100 villages, travels alone, eats out and is confident enough to talk to a crowd of people. It made me realise how big a deal eating at a hotel is to someone. If I hadn’t heard a first hand account of it from her, I would have thought, what’s the big deal in eating out? For me, that’s the point of the project. You never know how your story will affect another person. And my hope for the project is that it becomes a space to listen to and to share everyday stories of women.

Once again, We are Project On Her Own, the poster has all the details. Call this number to participate. If you have questions, find us after the Sabha.

#ProjectOnHerOwn FAQs

What is #ProjectOnHerOwn?

#ProjectOnHerOwn is a celebration of everyday stories. Stories of moments that make up our daily lives. While caller responses will build out the audio library, we’ve recorded some fictional cues and we hope that hearing them will encourage you to share a small part of your own story. If you have any query, Whatsapp 897 107 1985.

Why are you doing this?

We hope to collectively remember that the small victories of the day that only we may know, matter. The stories you hear may be of someone you have never met, but everyone’s story is different, and we hope that you will also leave behind something for us to listen to.

What’s the number to call?

Call +91 80660 84304 from anywhere in the world, 24×7. Please remember to use +91 or 0 before the number when dialling. However, WhatsApp calls are not available. 

Are all stories in English?

No, stories are available in English, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi. And you can leave your response in any of these languages too. 

What kind of story do I share?

You can share any of your experiences with friends, family, big and little wins and losses, friendships, courage, doubts, determination and choices. Here are some cues to get you started. Does the story you listened to remind you of someone? Share their story. Has something similar happened in your life? Share that story. What is that challenge you overcame or choice you made, the one you think is too insignificant to mention? Leave that as a story. 

What happens to my response?

The story you share as response, will be added to the system. It will be available for other callers to listen to. It will also be part of the final showcase at Gender Bender 2019 from 21-24 Aug 2019 at Bangalore International Centre, Domlur.

Where do I get more details about the project?

Find all details about the project on our webpage and on our Instagram.

Where can we read these stories?

Right now, it’s not available online to read. We will have some copies for you at the final showcase at Gender Bender 2019. But once the project is done, we plan to publish these online in all 5 languages.

Will you have copyright to my story?

You own the copyright for your story. When you share your story you are giving permission to use it only for the purposes of #ProjectOnHerOwn including Gender Bender 2019. 

Will you share my phone number with anyone?

No. We will use it only for the purposes of #ProjectOnHerOwn. It won’t be shared with anyone for any other purpose.

Where can we meet you?

We will be at Cubbon Park every weekend from 9-11 am till the final showcase. Location details will be updated on our Instagram. From 21-24 August, we will be at Gender Bender 2019 at Bangalore International Centre in Domlur. You will find the #ProjectOnHerOwn display on the 2nd floor landing.

Can I volunteer for this project?

Yes, please. If you are on Instagram, repost us. If not, talk about us to your friends and family. If you want to get further involved, come to Cubbon Park over the weekends and help us interact with passersby. If you have more time, you could run focus groups in your area and get users to listen to her story and share their own. For further instructions on volunteering, call Sunayana Premchander at 98330 49857. 

What is Gender Bender 2019?

Gender Bender is a festival that showcases new works of art around gender. It is a space for conversations on gender with artists and audiences alike. Gender Bender is a joint project of the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan and Sandbox Collective.


#ProjectOnHerOwn: It’s live!

Seems like it was ages ago that we won the Gender Bender grant. In reality, it has only been 35 days. But these 35 days have redefined what we can do as a team. I am incredibly grateful for our team who are at the same wavelength or ready to put the project above themselves. In the last month, I have often joked that we forgot a tiny detail while submitting the proposal. That all of us have fulltime jobs.

Over evenings, late nights and working weekends, we have put together an IVR-based phone system where you can call to listen to everyday stories of women. First task was to write stories and shorten them to fit 500 words so that they weren’t too long when recorded. If the stories were too long, it would make this a very costly project. Why do all stories about women need to be heroic? Where are all the stories of the everyday challenges, courage and choices that women face? That’s the question #ProjectOnHerOwn wanted to tackle. That’s how these stories of women’s self-reliance, self-discovery and self-assertion came about. 

Next up was translation. Right from the start, we wanted to make these stories available in as many languages as possible. We decided on English, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi. Getting them translated and recorded was possible only because friends and family rallied behind us. We have not been able to pay most of them and we have not been able to use some of their recordings but we truly appreciate them dropping everything to translate these stories on short notice.

Without context, we are fully aware that our logo with a number looks very much like a hotline. But that’s the idea too. What about the colour red, the word her and a phone number suggests that it’s sexual? We understand that users could have reservations about calling a random number. That’s why we are taking our project offline to Cubbon park (3, 4, 10 and 11 Aug) and possibly other venues across the city. Watch #ProjectOnHerOwn instagram for details. We want to engage a diverse audience in these stories and see how they respond. Do they think it’s a waste of time? Do they have a story to share about a woman in their lives? Do they have a story we can add to the IVR?

Call +91 80660 84304 to listen to her story and share your own. If you’re in Bangalore, come by Cubbon Park this weekend and the next to help us get more people to listen to these stories. If you can’t make it, share the number and spread the word in your circle.