Tishani Doshi’s session, her dance, her poetry, her thoughts- they changed something in me, added something, weakened something, healed a few more things. Made me think. In conversation with Janice Pariat.
“They… they’re saying you’re such a slut…”
I was thirteen, and the above line was murmured to me by my then-best friend, whom I’ve rather lost touch with and I hope is doing well. At thirteen, I wasn’t very shocked; not because I’d heard worse, but because I didn’t know what it meant.
“Papa, what’s a slut?”
“It’s a sexually promiscuous woman.”
Well, I didn’t know what ‘promiscuous’ meant either, but rather than talk more during a tense CSK match, I sought out the next best source- a dictionary.
In the columns of the gigantic, moth-eaten Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary Of The English Language, I found that I’d been termed someone who has sex with any man who asked. Please don’t run for the dictionary; that’s not how it’s phrased, but my copy’s halfway around the world.
Which, I reasoned, was rather ridiculous, because we were thirteen; who wanted to have sex anyway? It sounded like an uncomfortable business.
(It had been the late Khushwant Singh who had contributed greatly to my sexual education. I don’t recommend it)
That’s not to say it didn’t sting, of course; which teenager doesn’t dread being gossiped about? On the other hand, a whole new world of insults now opened up before my slightly-shocked eyes, although it took three years for me to actually use any. When I did, though, it was to a boy: with the air of someone delivering her coup de grace, I informed one of my classmates that he was, in fact, a man-whore.
“You should say gigolo.” He replied. I was late to the party, it seemed, and not fashionably.
You might wonder why I’m writing this now. And yes, while there’s a part of me that’s gleefully typing up words like sex, whore, gigolo, for all and sundry, I still feel something like a bee-sting when I type the word slut.
There it is again.
That’s one word I try not to use. It may have slipped out at some point over the years, but I try. There’s something particularly filthy about it- and even, I feel, something maliciously female. I can now easily call a man a whore without tacking the ‘man’ to it, but slut always seems so pointedly female.
Slut-shaming. I hate the term. I hate the practice. I hate the casualness of it, how easy it is when the target is a ‘she’.
A sexually promiscuous woman. But a man is just a playboy. A Man.
This isn’t a rant against slut-shaming; honestly, I don’t quite know what this is, even. I don’t often dislike words in and of themselves- even stuff I’ve made my peace with. But slut is one thing I’ve never been able to find middle-ground with. Maybe it’s personal. Maybe society’s ease with it. I don’t really know.
At any rate, it’s a good word to dislike.
(Title shamelessly stolen from Bee Rowlatt’s unnamed friend)
At what point is my story worth writing? As children, we’re told it’s wrong to take pride in our accomplishments, to talk about ourselves as though we’ve achieved something, however small. So how do I come to the thought that, hey, I’ve got a good story, look, it’s about me ?
But that’s not completely accurate. Emma Sky’s story in Iraq is as much the story of Iraqi people (not the Iraqi people, as though all of them experienced horror in the same way) as it is about the US soldiers she worked with, as it is her own. She wrote it. They claim it. In different ways- in the US, it’s in the political section, in the UK, it’s among the biographies, but I might be wrong there. In Iraq- where would it be in Iraq? But they claimed it.
I talk about what inspires me at Jaipur, about what sticks. This next person sticks, but there’s very little that I can say about her, because to write about her journey and her trauma and the scars that her courage left her with is her privilege. I don’t get to tell that story. Read The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, let her tell you, in her own words.
Rosalyn D’Mello peeled off layer after layer of protection, and her book- a different kind of courage, a terrifying vulnerability, and words that mingle into my bloodstream like warm wine- is on my Kindle shelf. A Handbook for My Lover is the sort of book I would justly be terrified of writing, not because of the sex, but because of the intimacy. It would be like putting cameras in my bedroom, bathroom, in my closet and in my underwear; an artful sort of bleeding out, time and again, the knife steady between my fingers. I wasn’t sure if I could ever have enough courage- to start, and if I did, to ever stop.
I asked how- how do you choose when to stop– and she smiled and said, the end sort of looms over the whole book. She laughed, sometimes I’d storm out and then I’d go,’ oh no, my book’. She smiled and told me, I think you’ll like it.
I think I will. She answered my other question too- that deciding that one has a story worth telling, even if no one else thinks so, is a brave thing to do, and that’s the kind of bravery I hope to have one day, when I do have a story worth telling. I think I will.
“But love is blind, and lovers cannot see”
The Merchant of Venice, Act II Scene VI.
I never imagined that love would feel like this. It seemed like a high; a feverish, wild dream that would break fast and ugly. I’m a romantic in that I believe in love, but I don’t believe that love can last. How can it?
If this is love, I don’t understand it. It’s slow and gentle, and I am utterly terrified. What is this tight softness in my belly when I look at you? Where are the fast-beating heart and sweaty palms and the painfully shy glances from the corner of our eyes? Where is everything the books promised me?
I ask, not because I want those, but because they’re all I know. I had a script, a timeline of romance, an how-to love manual in every trashy romance I’ve ever read. But we followed no script and yet broke no rules, because there was really nothing to stop us.
I don’t feel blinded; this is no fever, there is no high; I’m not delirious. I see myself as clearly as I did the night before I met you, the hour before, the moment before you smiled and I heard your voice. I see you more clearly than I once did- your little mannerisms and your smile. The way you chew back words when we breathe between kisses. Your unceasing chatter. Your silences. I see you more clearly, and you are radiant, my darling, and I can’t even dream of being in your arms until I actually am.
My biggest fear is that you’ve blinded yourself with pretty glasses that paint me the colours of beautiful. That one day the wind will blow them off, and you’ll get your first good look at me since we met. That’ll be the day you take your heart back from me, but you won’t be able to return mine, because of ‘ownership issues’. I’ve signed it away, you see, and I’m terrified that yours is only on loan.
But until then, I suppose you can be mine completely. Till that day, I can breathe softly as we part from a kiss and smile at you before the next one. Our clock’s ticking down, but I can ignore it. Let’s celebrate, because we actually have a clock.
Break my heart gently, when you do, if only because I love you so much.
Roll your shoulders back, lift your chin, tighten your core.
Raise your eyes, and don’t blink.
Smile, and let tears sting the very corners of your lids.
Never, ever let them fall.
But perhaps what was needed then was to be. Be sad. Be shocked. Feel the sting of the slap in the face, feel the burn of the humiliation.
Feel the beginnings of affection turn into jagged things; they prick and prick, waiting for time and life to smooth them away.
Be sad; cry. Cry at the half-formed spectres sitting on your pillow, the remnants of what might have been, what you thought was. Cry at the thought of how rosy the world once seemed, and how you can now see little spots of grey and rusty browns in the corners and undersides of pretty, softly glowing things. The world seems a little less bright, sometimes, and your heart isn’t even broken.
So little to say when there’s so much to feel. They’re things you can’t bring yourself to feel, and things you can’t admit to feeling. There are feelings which you fear to name, for it might turn your world on its axis, pull you apart and expose your insides to light and air and truth.
Would you do it? Let yourself and all you know be irretrievably changed, all for the sake of a name of a feeling? Should you? Could you?
I have no answers, and neither do you.
Oh stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.
‘As I Walked Out One Evening’.
Write about it, they say. So I will.
Maybe I’ll write, now, about the humiliation. About the jolt, the numbness that was ‘shock’, the confusion; maybe even about that kernel of sadness that has since rotted and turned bitter. Would you like to hear about that?
Were you afraid? I wonder if you were; if you knew me, you would have been. I love hard and fast and ferociously. It could well have been forever. Did that scare you?
I could have loved you, given time. Could have liked you in a few weeks. How close I was, teetering on the cusp of affection, dipping a toe in occasionally, but still playing at my self-preserving balancing act; wanting not to fall, but consciously to step down into one side or another. How far you were, and I thought you were close, as close as I was. How prettily you played it- the game and me both, and no rules but your own.
A game with no rules and no stakes, and no end except when you wanted out.
Months have gone by, and I have yet to forget. No broken heart for me to mend, no wounds to lick, no tears to cry and dry and brush off my pillows. No blood. No foul, it stands to reason, but that’s not on. That’s not the way I think, the way I play.
I cry foul, and that’s my rule. No stakes, again, and maybe not even a game. But I still cry foul, and I won’t forget.
It’s hard to let go and find something that might ease the bitter seed inside me that you planted, so that it doesn’t grow into anger. Harder still to find something to sweeten it. It could so easily turn to hatred. I wonder what my hatred would do to you.
Better to fear what it might do to me. Yet I want it sometimes, to hate you. The burn. The ash. The end it brings.
Emotion is a hurricane. I wonder if you ever suspect how much I struggle not to let it rise up and wash you away.
Would it take the rot as well? Perhaps; and perhaps it might take me whole.
How strange it is, though, that there are no regrets. No “I wish” or “If only”.
Sometimes I laugh quietly- at you, at her, at myself. So much to laugh about, if only because I’d rather not cry.
When seen through the shimmer that mists a happy girl’s eyes, you were rather lovely. But what would I give to see you like that forever- to be that girl again? Not much, I suspect. Then again, it doesn’t matter, does it?
Not to you; not to me; not to all else, the infinite number of things that actually do matter.
And one day I’ll dig here again, and there’ll be no seed to find.
I recently came to the decision that I would like to meet my third grade math teacher again.
Why, my parents ask, why after so many years? Closure, I say. Mom asks, Forgiveness? And I can’t tell her, can’t say everything that I thought, sitting in the shower.
Forgiveness. Closure. How interchangeable are these terms? Mom says that forgiveness leads to closure. I’m not so sure.
You do not humiliate eight year olds. Not even if they find it hard to add two three-digit numbers. Not even if they gave the wrong answer in an inter-class quiz- or you think they did, anyway. Not even if you think their stomach ache is a sham, and their tears are tap water, and their red eyes are a little more ingenious, achieved by violently mashing their knuckles into their eyes. Even if you don’t trust the eight year old, you do not tear into them in front of their peers, and use your tongue as a shovel to scoop them out of themselves.
I remember crying, a little. But mostly, I remember fear, Fear of math classes, fear of getting answers wrong, of not remembering my tables. Fear of the half-hour between her entering the class and leaving it. Fear of being left alone if my new best friend- protector, helper, sister- were suddenly sick again. Eight years old, and so much fear.
Hunched over, holding my stomach, tears dry and sticky and shiny on my cheek- “I’ll give you one tight smack if you don’t go back to class now”.
Shaking pencil lead, and what if I’m wrong- “Always wrong, and so untidy, why do you even come to school?”
Nearly screaming that it wasn’t me, that I had been right, Diya had given the wrong answer, the captain didn’t remember- “I made a huge mistake choosing you in the quiz team.” And everyone staring, and Diya silent.
I still hate her for that, a little. Just unfriended her on Facebook. Oops.
Eight years old and teaching myself not to cry, to hold back tears because she mustn’t see them; thirteen years old and slicing my arms into sections, a veteran at being (faking) strong; nineteen now, and knowing where it all began; Because, from before that, I don’t remember pain. I don’t remember the tears.
Before 3-B, I didn’t know fear.
I want to meet her, because she is the first and most potent demon in my life. She took my self-confidence, and my happiness, and my joy in schooling, chewed it and spat it back in the form of venom that burnt into me, and has left its mark on my soul. When I second-guess myself, when I feel that I’m less than I am, I know that that is the part of Mrs Mitra that I carry around with me, eleven years later.
I have these moments of euphoria where I go, Yes, Goddamnit, I’m fucking hot!!. I want them to be more than than moments. I want them to be my whole fucking life.
I need to see her, not even to ask her why (though I will). I want to talk. I will talk to her. I spent all that year, I’ve spent all these years Iistening to her. Now she’s going to hear it all- she’s going to know exactly what she did to me, and how she isn’t going to do it anymore. This will be my closure.
A reason may come. It doesn’t matter, really. And by some miracle, I receive an apology (I’m not fool enough to even hope)- why, maybe I can even forgive.
They aren’t the same thing, you see. But they do both bring peace, in their own way. Sometimes they do go together. But not for me.
Because I’m not even sure I have any forgiveness left for that woman anymore.
Do you ever wonder
What we could have been?
Do you ever think,
Had curves been lines
And had not straight paths
Twisted us way-
Could we have been something,
Do you think?
When my mind thinks of you,
It is in thoughts left over;
From the bottom of the barrel.
The dregs of things
That almost were feelings,
That nearly became hopes;
Not quite wishes-
Not nearly desire-
Time would have told.
Time tells me
What might have been,
And what instead is;
But I tell Time,
Of hopes that never died
Because they never drew breath-
Of things better off stillborn.
Exchanges between us.
Time and I, we go hand in hand,
And sometimes, dear,
We may talk of you.
“She was a girl who knew how to be happy even when she was sad. And that’s important.” ~Marilyn Monroe.
Much to my mother’s disapproval, I’ve been on a Marilyn-Monroe-inspiration-spree recently. About being a woman, being beautiful, smiling, laughing and some of the more flippant things she said that just sound cool. I like them. Being a girl with (yes, be surprised if you know me) crippling self-esteem and self-image issues, I admire tremendously any woman who is comfortable with her body and sexuality, with her looks, with her femininity and womanliness- any woman who is as comfortable in her skin as I’m not. Quotes like Monroe’s give me the strength to get through the day with a facade of confidence and security and freedom from self-doubt. Yes, darlings, the lack of self-consciousness that characterise Malavika is just that: a facade.
And why? Had I been able to answer that five years ago, I would not be writing this today. I would not dread the hours spent with peers outside the four walls of my room. I would not dread judgement from my own parents despite knowing in my very bones that it’s impossible.
And again I ask myself: why? I’m not ashamed of my attributes: I’m smart, sarcastic, witty, friendly, funny and a nice person to be around because I have to be. I’m not pretty, I’m not beautiful, I’m not sexy. My hair doesn’t fall perfect and straight; my stomach juts out, not in; my skin has monthly eruptions; my teeth aren’t like Snaggletooth (Sophie Kinsella? I forget) but they aren’t the best either. In short, I look like Miss Bingley’s description of Elizabeth- you know, the one where she provokes Darcy into calling Eliza gorgeous.
I was a tomboy for so long that by the time I remembered that I am a girl, I’d forgotten how to be one. Sometimes I think the rest of the world had forgotten what I really am too. I came to makeup as an extension of dance, or as something to fool around with and play ‘disguise’ with (Five Find-Outers, I blame you). I came to heels because I realised that I was the only girl in my seventh grade class who’d never worn a pair. I came to clothes when my male friend had to explain peplum to me- with a diagram. Before, I’d thought it was a dress material.
It suddenly comes to me (as it does every morning when I give myself those li’l pep talks) that all this sounds so shallow and nothing at all to do with the woman I am. Something I once read, like, ‘just because I’m not a lady doesn’t mean I’m not a woman’, that was pretty cool. That was true, too. That is true.
It’s just so hard to remember when I stare into the mirror at night.