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.

Part 3: Public Texts with Asha Nehemiah & Bijal Vachharajani at IIHS

This is the third post in a series about Public Texts sessions that I organise as part of my work with IIHS. If you missed the first post, catch the first & second sessions before you read further!

Children’s book sessions are always fun! There is a true sense of community among children’s book authors, illustrators and publishers. They always show up in large numbers. The camaraderie is so great that by the end of the session, the speakers were calling out to the audience to pitch in to the discussion. This sense of community is what drew me to IIHS in the first place. I had attended one of the children’s books sessions held during City Scripts 2018. And immediately, I wanted to put together such sessions where the conversation was freewheeling and the audience fully engaged. That’s a big thing for me to feel because I am not the most social person you’ll meet.

Asha and Bijal in conversation at Public Texts about children’s books.

This Public Texts session with Asha and Bijal blew me away. It was so much more than I expected it to be. Titled ‘Where Do Stories Come From? Writing for children through the years’, this session took place on Fri, 31 May from 6.30 pm. This was the best session so far. We had 44 children’s book enthusiasts in the audience. They ranged from bookstore owners to writers, illustrators and publishers. And they brought children!

We had organised an exhibition of children’s books from our library which was a great way to keep the kids engaged. This session was aimed at adults but we should look at doing some sessions for children as well. My sense is that it would have a lot of takers around Sadashivanagar. What do you think? Once I get Public Texts off its feet, maybe that could be my next event.

Asha Nehemiah has been writing for children for many years now. She talked about how before emails and such ease of access, she used to buy children’s books to find publishers’ info in there. She also talked about different kinds of publishers from Children’s Book Trust (CBT) to Pratham and the differences in their working style. With CBT she said, she would send in a manuscript one day and forget about it, till it appeared as a book in her mailbox. With Pratham however, creating a book was an iterative process. Read Asha’s latest book, Behind the Lie on Storyweaver.

Listening to Bijal talk about children’s books, it’s hard not to get excited about it. There is an energy about her that’s infectious. I loved that she also asked Asha fun questions about baking snacks from her stories in real life.

Another important part of the Public Texts puzzle was the popup bookstore. We had Aashti setup a Lightroom stall at the session. I bought more books than I could afford (as I always do). The good thing is that this time around I actually read all of them.

I am grateful for this session because it showed me that I really could hold all these pieces together. I am also grateful that this session got me to read a lot of Asha’s books. I loved how quirky yet simple they were.

Next up we have Sukanya Venkatraghavan and Shreya Ila Anasuya in conversation with Shalini Srinivasan about their fantasy fiction collection, Magical Women. This is scheduled for Thursday, 20 June 2019 from 6.30 pm. They will discuss feminist voices in fantasy fiction.

Of Chasing After Scents

My dear

I didn’t know your name. But of my Cubbon Park friends, I loved you the most. Because you were old. And I have a thing for old people. I didn’t pet you, it’s true. Because my four-legged old person likes to be left alone too.

I found you in the park Sunday after Sunday feeding you a special box of rice and eggs while the others got bones. Maybe you’d have devoured bones too but I know the sound your rickety heart makes when you see something you shouldn’t be eating.

Senior dog eating rice and eggs

I always looked for you in the clearing outside the pay-and-use toilet. You would come wobbling by as my eyes adjusted to the rain trees painting light spots on the bright green grass. Your steps were unsteady but you were so sure of your territory in your marble cake skin. Unperturbed by the retrievers and the great danes having the run of the park. The quiet suspicion with which you eyed me and the quiet confidence with which you ate the food I offered, will remain with me.

As you lay forever in the lap of that beautiful rain tree, I hope your life was full of adventures. Of chasing after scents and finding surprise treats. You will always have a piece of my heart.

White as Milk Powder

He was born, white as milk powder, the youngest of six children. He played with his brothers and sisters, running around in naughty circles, teething and playful. But soon, it was time for him and his siblings to go away.

Like every child he was on a mission; to be loved by a stranger and to rule their world. Being the cutest one, he brought in the highest bid. The two strangers he went home with were particularly interested in him, especially his ears. They cuddled him without reason and laughed a lot around him. When he furrowed his forehead, turned his face slightly and stared at them for their weird ways, they found it hilarious.

He particularly loved biriyani nights. He was allowed to eat as much as he wanted as long as he didn’t throw up. Every night he slept between them, hogging their blankets and all their space. And every morning after, he woke up happy and wild, waking them up with his boundless energy and uninhibited kisses.

They home-schooled him, teaching him discipline, logic and spatial skills. The bigger he got, the lesser they taught him. They let him grow into himself and be. In turn, he returned the favour by keeping track of them without being in their way. He made himself a spot on the couch, used the armrest to rest his chin and watched them like a hawk. He let them talk to each other, as long as they involved him in their conversation.

Years went by in road trips, friendships and surgeries. He had them right where he wanted. At his beck and call. All he had to do was was whine and one of them would check on him. Refuse to bathe and they would give him treats. If he brought his toys over, they would drop everything and play with him. If he went on a trail, they would follow. If he got stuck in a bush, they would come to his rescue. When he tired of walking, they would carry him home. His charms worked wonders on the other strangers too. If he wagged his tail, they couldn’t resist petting him.

He had done his people proud. He had won over the strangers. He was Maximus, the maker of minions.

Second story in print!

Delighted to announce that my second story has come out in print recently! It’s called ‘For Chikki’s Sake’ and it’s published in an anthology called The Best Asian Short Stories 2018. You can buy it here. It’s published by Singapore-based publisher Kitaab International.

It’s been a while since I wrote that story. For those who don’t know, I took a year’s sabbatical in 2017 to write short stories. I wrote ten of them of which this is one. It’s been a tiring enterprise getting these stories out in print. My mission to get them published as a collection also seems to have lost steam.

Lately, I have been thinking of an idea. Either way, I am not going to make any money getting these stories published. Then why not circulate them in a closed group of people. Monthly, like a newsletter. At least they will get read instead of gathering dust in my google drive. I don’t know if I am being foolish.

The way I look at it, this could help me:

  • build a feedback group
  • get my stories read
  • write more

If you think I am being foolish, leave a message. If you would like to be part of this experiment, fill the form below:

Part 2: Public Texts with Kartik Shanker and HS Sudhira at IIHS

This is the second post in a series about Public Texts sessions that I organise as a part of my work with IIHS. If you missed the first post, catch up on it here before you read further!

I was extremely excited for this session with ecologist Kartik Shanker and researcher HS Sudhira talking about sea turtle conservation in India (Thu, 2 May, 6.30 pm, IIHS). In this session titled Slow and Steady, they discussed his book, From Soup to Superstar (Harper Litmus, 2015). From Soup to Superstar, which I read almost 250 pages of before the event, is a comprehensive account of the history of marine conservation in India. Shanker wrote this book as a New India Foundation Fellow in 2009.

I could not have found a better person than HS Sudhira to be in conversation with him. HS Sudhira is the Director of Gubbi Labs which does independent research on sustainable ecosystems. He knew as much about conservation as Shanker and enriched the quality of the discussion immensely. I was super excited about this one because it’s such an important conversation to have in the current socio-political climate where some people in power claim that climate change is not real.

I was nervous too because it was my first time managing the session single-handedly without Rekha. She was out of town on the day of the event which meant that I had to smile and wave and be social. Not my scene.

My impression from the 250 pages of From Soup to Superstar that I read was that it’s an important book. It talks about India’s history of sea turtle conservation through the stories of its biggest champions, Satish Bhaskar, Vijaya, Rom Whitaker and CS Kar among others. It gives credit where it’s due to individuals within the government functions and outside who pushed for changes that eventually tipped the scale in the turtles’ favour. We need more Kartik Shankers in academia who can write about their work interestingly; interestingly being the operative word. And for that to happen I believe that writing should be not be an afterthought or a mandatory output. It should be a skill taught to all professionals.

Coming off the success of our previous session, All Characters are Tamil, I was hoping for the room to be full but the realist in me was prepared for a poor turnout. This session had 25 people in the audience. I was disappointed with the turnout because I think people ought to be more interested in animals and the natural world. I was also upset since I find it hard to imagine how humans think of themselves as being separate from the environment. Before this spirals into gloom, I was extremely grateful that Thej and Yasho showed up for moral support and kept me calm. I couldn’t have done it without them.

I thought the session itself went well. Kartik Shanker was a natural before the audience and Sudhira, though not very audible, moderated the session with great nuance. It’s always a pleasure to listen to two passionate people talk about something they love. The audience was engaged and asked interesting questions. My measure for a successful Public Texts is when the discussion starts with the book but expands into larger questions. By that logic, this session was great since it ended up discussing the politics of conservation and its livelihood costs.

The next Public Texts session is on Fri, 31 May from 6.30 pm. It will be children’s book author Asha Nehemiah in conversation with writer and editor Bijal Vachharajani about secret hair oil formula, among other things!