Saturday, August 22, 2009

This thing

I am usually reluctant to mix my worlds, and have taken a few pains to keep my blogging world and my poetry worlds a little bit apart. But they've collided often enough now, so what the hell.
Here's something that got published recently.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A tale of street love/lust/whateveritwas

It has been seven years since. Or eight.

I don’t remember his name. Nor his number. He gave me both. He asked me for mine – name and number. I didn’t give him either. Now it seems quite funny and once it was over, I would laugh my guts out whenever I told this story. Yet, for a while, he had me frightened.

He looked about 16 or 17, not a sign of hair on his face; thin as a reed. That much I do remember, though I wouldn't recognise him if I passed him on the street today. He was from a certain class, that much too I could tell. From his clothes, his voice, his accent, his body language.

The first time he accosted me it was outside the Lower Parel railway station towards which I walked each evening (I worked at Mid-day at the time and the office was a fifteen minute walk from the station). Just outside the station, he stopped me with: “Excuse me, madam… madam, one minute!”

How many times have I heard that phrase from a stranger and how many times have I cursed myself for stopping and listening to whatever he had to say? But, like each time, I was thinking that maybe the guy is lost and wants to ask for directions, or maybe he wants to know the time, or maybe I dropped something and he’s come to return it. And so, like each time, I stopped.

“Yes?”

He was grinning rather stupidly. I noticed there was another guy with him, around the same age, and he was grinning too.

The young man (not his pal) began talking. “Excuse me, madam…actually, madam… I saw you madam and you are very nice… what’s your name?”

I let out a groan and then a sardonic smile. At least, I had meant it to be sardonic, sarcastic, somewhat insulting. It was the sort of expression that ought to have made him back off without any further fuss. But that was not meant to be.

He now started laughing – a half-embarrassed, self-conscious but wholly pleased laugh (and again, his grinny pal kept him company). He fell into step beside me as I walked away, and all the time, he kept talking.

I have forgotten the exact words now. I don't think I was even listening very well for I was concentrating on somehow getting into a train and shaking these two guys off. But he was a determined fellow. I vaguely remember the gist of what he said – (a) he was attracted to me, which amused me a bit because, to me, he was like a child almost (b) he saw me everyday, walking down to the station, which made me very nervous (c) he wanted to 'do friendship' with me, which is a phrase that fills me with a mixture of amusement, mortification and irritation.

When I repeated this story to a friend, she told me I had made a big mistake by laughing. Indian men’s minds still work according to the old adage of “ladki hansi, toh phansi”. Maybe he thought I was gurgling with pleasure at his advances, she said.

I did not think so. Anybody can see when a laugh isn't pleasant. Even a child senses that. Yet, he kept following me, asking for my name.

When I reached the ticket window at the station, I decided that enough was enough. So I turned on him with as much fury as my partial amusement would permit, and spat out the words.

“Look, I don’t know you and don’t want to know you. I am not going to tell you my name, or anything else about me. Go away… leave me alone.”

He started arguing (with his pal with the stupid grin still hovering in the background) with me about 'why not?'

I have to confess that I toyed with the idea of slapping him but slapping doesn’t come naturally to me. Besides, I took a second look at him and realised he was just a young boy who was attracted to me and decided to take his chances. I decided to try gentleness.

“Look, you’re very young. I’m much older than you think. I’m not right for you, that’s why.”

He cocked his head and demanded to know: “Why, how old are you?”

I considered this carefully. He couldn’t be more than eighteen years old. A ten-year gap should suffice as a dampener, I thought, so I lied.

“I’m more than twenty-eight years old, okay? You’re way too young.”

“But it doesn’t matter, madam. My mother is also older than my father,” he said.

Mother? Father? What? What was going on inside the boy's mind? Matters, I thought, were very quickly getting out of hand. So I decided to turn around and run. And that is what I did, except that he began to follow.

“Arre, just listen to me, madam. Just one minute. At least tell me your name.”

“No, I won’t.”

“Why not? Please.”

“Look, I am NOT going to tell you my name.”

“But, madam, please … just your name.”

I stopped once more and looked at that boy, still with his stupid grin pasted in place, and his pleading, stupid-grin-face companion still at his shoulder. I sighed.

“What is the point? If you harass me too much, I’ll just give you a false name. How would that help?”

“Okay then, just give me a false name.”

I was incredulous but since he had asked for it, I decided to give him a name, all the while descending the stairs rapidly with him in hot pursuit.
The name of an old schoolmate popped into my head. “Rashmi,” I muttered.

“Okay, Rashmi… Rashmi ji, your phone number?”

At this point, I was so amused and so incredulous that I burst out laughing. Here I was, telling him I’d give him a false name and there he was, asking for a false number?

He stood there while I continued laughing loudly, shaking my head, hoping the train would arrive quickly so I could escape.

But he wouldn’t give up. “Why are you laughing, Rashmi ji? Okay, at least tell me where you live.”

I laughed some more.

“Come on, just tell me where you live," he persisted. "At least tell me the area, Rashmi, please.”

The train’s headlamp was curving into view. I rushed forward; both boys followed.

“So that’s where you live… Borivali?”

I was amused again at their na├»ve logic. It was a Borivali local that I was rushing to board and so the boy conveniently assumed that I lived in Borivali. I would be getting off at Andheri, and could have gotten off at any of the half-dozen stations in-between. Boarding a local headed in a certain direction means nothing in this city, but I wasn’t about to correct him. So I just nodded and hopped into the compartment.

He began calling out a series of numbers. It took a few seconds to for it to register that he was calling out his phone number. That made me laugh once again. Did he seriously think I was going to remember his number and call him up?

He repeated the number twice. As the train bega nto move, he called out: “Call me… remember the number, okay? Give me a phone ring… Rashmi!”

The train pulled out of the station.

And you’d have thought that was the end of the matter. I certainly did. But I was wrong.

A few weeks later, I was walking down again to the station when I heard a voice calling out.

“Rashmi… Rashmi!”

I hardly paid any attention. As the voice called out again and again, I walked along briskly, wondering who this Rashmi was and why she didn’t listen to whoever was calling out to her.

Then the voice got closer and caller sounded very loud, just behind me. I stopped and turned out of sheer curiosity. And that's when I saw them: those boys again! Their reedy, teenaged bodies with those stupid, permanent grins. I groaned with annoyance and disbelief.

“Hi, Rashmi.”

I took a deep breath and without answering him, swung back and briskly marched to the railway station. I wasn’t going to talk to him this time.

“Rashmi! Please, one minute, listen. What’s your problem? I really like you… one minute!”

This wasn’t helping. They kept following. And then, suddenly, it occurred to me that this could turn into an unpleasant scenario if I were to walk down every single day and have them at my heels all the way. Once again, I thought it might be better to try and get some sense into him.

“Look, I told you; I’m much older... You’re in college, right?”

“Yes, second year… I’m twenty.”

Liar, I thought. He didn’t look it. But by now, my annoyance was replaced by pity and amusement. I felt the corners of my mouth threatening to curve upwards.

“So why don’t you find a nice girl from college and try to pataofy her. There will be many girls of your own age whom you like.”

“But, Rashmiji, I like you.”

“No, you don’t. You don’t even know me. Besides, I told you, I am not suitable for you.”

“That’s okay. I will tell my sister to talk to you.”

Gasp. Splutter. Sister?

“Yes. I told my sister about you. I want to marry you. I’m going to make my parents meet you.”

And his pal's stupid grin got wider, if that was at all possible. I really wanted to slap this other boy.

Yipes, I thought. Marry me? This boy's imagination was moving ahead in leaps and bounds. This was no time for gentle remonstrance. It was time, once more, to run.

Of course, he followed.

“Rashmi, I will marry you, I promise. What’s the problem?”

I wanted to scream at him by this time. It wouldn't have helped, I knew, to just point out that that was not what I wanted. I had already done that the first time he followed me and he was clearly not listening. So I just kept walking towards the platform.

“You’re going home? Don’t go home right now. Rashmi, stay for a while… Let’s talk.”

I ran towards the train. They followed, still calling out to me. The phone number was called out again. With pleas to call him up.

The train chugged out.

Believe it or not, this still wasn’t the end of the matter. There’s more.

The third time he caught up with me en route to the station, it was almost two months later. Without any calling out of false names, he said ‘Hi’ softly into my ear.

I almost screamed with panic. I saw who it was and began to walk more briskly. He (with his grinning pal in tow) kept pace. As they walked beside me, my anger mounted. Also, there was a new shred of fear. I don’t like being followed, especially by people who seem determined to marry me even before they’ve touched the legal marriageable age.

He said, “Rashmi, listen. You had said I would find another girl in college, someone of my own age.”

“Yes, so what?”

“But I have not found anyone yet.”

The expression on his face and his choice was words was such that I was tempted to double up laughing, but I bit my lips hard.

“So, what should I do?”

“Rashmi.”

I snapped, “My name’s not Rashmi.”

“Then what is it?”

“I’m not telling you. I told you that before. I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

“Why not?”

I sighed. He just would not get it until I packaged my 'no' in layers of a context he could understand. So I decided to tell him one more little lie.

“Because my heart is elsewhere.”

“What?”

“My heart is with someone else. That’s why. Understood?”

“But Rashmi...”

"Oh Jesus Christ! I told you. No."

I started descending the stairs. He tried to move faster than me and block my path but he slipped and took a tumble down the stairs. For a few seconds, I stopped, then started on my way again.

He was already up on his feet, biting his tongue, half-smiling, muttering, “Oh shit! What an insult… and that too in front of a girl!”

I can’t quite describe the way this statement made me feel. At that time, it made me laugh. Now, when I think back, I see it for what it was – an open admission of embarrassment from a relatively uncorrupted boy who hasn’t yet learnt to cheat on feelings and isn’t afraid of plunging headlong into a pursuit, confident with the brashness of youth and unaware of class or other social barriers.

Even so, I turned around and was going to ask if he was alright, if he was hurt, because I did not really want him to get hurt.

But just then, he caught my wrist to make me stop. And that was it. I was at the end of my tether. I jerked my hand away and turned on him with all the fury I could summon.

“Don’t you dare!”

“Okay," he said. "Okay, but you weren’t listening to me, Rashmi.”

“I don’t want to listen to you. Next time you come after me, I am going to yell, collect a crowd and have you beaten up.”

I walked away, not looking back over my shoulder. I don’t know whether he followed or stayed or went back.

Once, much later, I saw him and his friend, grin-faced as ever, walking down to the station. I was walking towards the Mid-day office in the late afternoon. Both boys saw me and saw that I recognized them.

But this time, the boy did not make an attempt to stop me. He just grinned. I looked at the road straight ahead and tried not to laugh. He and his pal kept grinning as I hurried past them. My reaction was: "Phew! Thank god."

And that's the end of the story. Why am I telling this story now? Because Blank Noise is collecting street stories of love and lust, about the way these emotions are negotiated in public spaces in an attempt to undestand harassment better.

Was I feeling harassed by that young college kid? I don't know. I actually wanted to be kind to him. And all these years later, I think of the entire episode with amusement and a little pity and remorse because of how he must have felt. But at the time, I was only a couple of years out of college myself and being followed everyday by two grown-up boys was a frightening thought.

No, let me be honest. It is still a scary thought. A nineteen year old is no more or less dangerous than a fifty year old. Two nineteen year olds stalking me would still make me nervous, especially if they knew where I lived, what route I took, what train I waited for on what platform.
I ask myself questions now. I ask if that boy had really done anything wrong in following me and proposing marriage outright. I ask if I had done right in allowing myself to get sucked into a conversation. I ask what could have been done differently?

I have learnt to harden myself to strangers over the years - to slide on an impenetrable mask of indifference and cold comtempt on my face when accosted by strangers whom I don't want to speak to. I like myself lesser for it. It is a terrible thing to do to a human being - to reduce him to an object not worrthy of acknowledgement even, to make him feel like that. On the inside, I cringe each time I do it.

But what are my options? When accosted by a random stranger who refuses to take 'no' for an answer, whose sense about where and how conversations about romance or marriage should be conducted, whose sense of propriety is so vastly different from my own that he seems scary, what should be done? I still don't know.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Envy, back home

When I returned home, the first thing everyone in the family asked was: "So how does it feel to be back?"

I answered with the truth. It feels good. It feels like home. It feels like it felt. And the familiar, while breeding a certain degree of contempt, also guards you and hovers over your like an anxious mama-figure and you cannot help but be relieved to see it.
My uncle laughed a little, disbelieving. "It doesn't shock you each time you return?"

And I laughed and said, no. I'm so familiar with it. 'It' being all the things we should not be. The clogged drains. The smell. The air heavy with smog and dust. The cramped living. The jostling. The noise. The lack. The haggling.

The lack of water in the restroom sinks at the international airport in Mumbai. The lack of quiet smiles. The lack of electronic receipts in the average taxi. The auto guys who will not use meters, or even the pre-set standard prices everyone else has been surviving by thus far. The auto-guys who will just not go, because they are reading a newspaper.

I know it all. And though it is not alright, it is too. I know it enough to call it the motherland.

But I also know that there is very little excuse for no water in bathrooms. Or no bathrooms at all. Of all the things I envy the great western cities, the greatest is this: bathrooms with running water and soap.

Yes, there are other things I envy: Shiny, clean floors and windows. Trash cans everywhere. Mounds of art generously sprinkled around the cityscape for harried, hurried citizens, and for visitors - along the long escalators, at airports, on the underground, on walls, on store shutters. A sense of security and freedom for women, no matter what they wear. The freedom from spitting on the streets. Car-free zones. More and more incentives to bikers (bicyclists), with dedicated lanes everywhere. The relative ease with which people speak to each other across class barriers. Live music on the streets. So much more live music of all genres in so many more eateries and pubs.

I wish we had all of that. But I can live without all that too. What I find absolutely unforgiveable about my own country is the lack of investment in sanitation and public hygiene. There are places to eat, and drink, on every other street. But there are hardly any places to relieve yourself. When, when, when will come to terms with the truth that people need to pee and shit just as much as they need to eat and breathe. They die if they don't. And no, it is not just their own problem. Just like I expect the government to step in sort out an issue of there is a serious hunger problem in my country, I also expect them to step in and sort out this sanitation problem.

The few places we do have are filthy. Not just stinky, I mean, filthy. And it isn't just about the lack of manpower or resources or infrastructure. It is also about terrible, terrible sanitary habits. And these terrible, terrible sanitary habits come from our schools, our homes, our reluctance to even talk about the importance of toilets, and the risks inherent in not keeping them clean.

It comes from our refusal to think beyond the immediate. Yes, you want to pee so you want to find a clean toilet and then leave right away without bothering to stop and think about whether you are leaving the place suitable for the next person. But you will also want to pee an hour later in another location, and then you might find that the person ahead of you has not bothered either.

If there is one thing travel has taught me, it is this: culture is not just about museums or clothes or food or history. It is as much about widely accessible public toilets and running water as it is about sculpture and architecture. It is as much about not stealing the metal bottoms from trash-cans as it is about stained glass in churches.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Complain, complain

Dear O'Hare, Chicago, Airport

I have a grouse. Actually, I have many. I visited you recently and found that communications wise, you are rather badly equipped, and badly planned.

Most international airports now have decent telephone and internet services. You must have too, at some point. There were several public pay phones, which is as it should be. However, all of them belonged to the Pacific Telemanagement Services company. Not one of them worked. I tried at least ten. All of them claimed to allow local and international calls, and specified the number of coins that had to be inserted. I followed instructions. A man's voice kept saying "please check the number you have dialled". I tried every local and international number I had. Same response. Twice, the machines swallowed up my coins.

There was a number mentioned on the pay phone, which you were supposed to call if the machine failed to refund your money. I tried that. It did not work. Not even a tone or an agent at the other end.

Finally, I called Pacific Telemanagement. I stayed on hold until an agent came on the line. I described the problem. After explaining three times, the agent drawled out the information that the service no longer exited.

I said, "Excuse me?"

He said, "Yeah. The phones won't take coins any longer."

I said, "But it just did. Twice!"

Then the agent hung up on me.

Do you understand now, dear airport, why people outsource such business-related calls to India? Our agents don't hang up while talking to clients. Sometimes, even when you repeatedly ask them to.
The second thing is the internet. Having unsuccessfully attempted to call my family, I decided to send an email instead. The entire airport was supposed to be wi-fi, thanks to Boingo Internet services. I could not connect through my laptop, for some reason. There was a number mentioned where you could call them for technical assistance. I could not call them because the phones were not working.

Catch 22, dear airport.

I spotted a pay-for-net-time kiosk then, also operated by Boingo. I slipped a currency note into the machine's flickering red mouth. It readily swallowed. I logged in, clicked on the email option. The website opened up, and then the machine would not connect any further. I waited. Tried again. And again. Time ticked on, the internet didn't deliver.

I looked closely. Found a toll-free number to call. Then discovered that the kiosks were no longer functional. That is, they still took your money, but were no longer engineered to deliver any connectivity services. There was no note, no tape against the mouth of the cash slot. And there was a number you could call to complain. Except they kept you on hold for twelve minutes, all the while thanking you for your patience and determinedly avowing appreciation for the same, assuring you than the next available representative would be with me in a moment.

The moments slipped by, and so did my patience, until there was nothing left but rage and frustration.

Dear airport, this is not about losing five or ten or fifteen dollars. This is not about losing my temper and wanting to shatter the machines (I did not). This is about the concept of 'service'.

A friend has said this repeatedly, and I think I am inclined to agree with him now. "There is no real 'seva' in the US. They don't get it," he said.

Think about the idea of 'service'. A service is something you extend to people, based on the notion that they need it. You try to anticipate their needs, you try to mould your facilities to allow them maximum ease.

You ask questions to guage how customers might feel in a given space. Who needs an internet kiosk? Someone who doesn't have a laptop, or for whatever reason, cannot connect to the wi-fi options available. Who needs a pay phone? Obviously, someone who does not have a functional cell phone. People often need to make important phone calls at airports. And not all travellers have, or want to use, credit cards. The idea is to make things easier for people, all people. Why then, dear airport, do you persist in keeping up with these perverse, client-scorning Pacific Telemanagement and Boingo? If they cannot deliver, get rid of them.

And oh, you don't seem to have plug-points in the waiting areas. None that are visible to the naked eye. Why?
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