Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Holiday, A Flight, And Some Warm, Salty Water.

The gates had been snapped shut, the noisy children had suddenly gone silent, collective clicking sound of hundreds of seat-belts reverberated in an unusually quiet cabin. The aircraft had now started to taxi and the flight attendants mechanically demonstrated safety instructions with their plastic smiles intact. As I sat in my aisle seat looking through the extraordinarily thin girl gesticulating animatedly right in front of me, I felt the first warm drop. And then another. Within a matter of seconds, a steady stream of warm, salty water was flowing down my unsuspecting face. 

A little startled, a little embarrassed, I hurriedly wiped my face off and looked around: had anyone else noticed it? Almost everybody around me, to my relief, was busy doing last-minute things with their phones. Those who weren't, were already asleep. Relived, I craned my neck to catch one last glimpse of Chennai -- the city I was leaving behind that evening.

Chennai, from above, was nothing but a large mass of bright yellow stars and looked no different from any other city at night. Disappointed, I picked up the in-flight magazine. It was while trying to focus on a food article -- with my mind constantly racing back to Chennai, and its people -- that I felt them coming back. Knowing no one was looking, this time, I let them be.

Tears had once been my only companions: with my father moving every couple of years, I hardly had the opportunity to get close to people (by the time I got comfortable with anyone, it was time to go). And so, for years, tears remained my only friends. I cried when I was happy, I cried when I was sad. I cried when I was overwhelmed, or angry, or hurt. I cried when I was alone, and, sometimes, I cried even when I was among people. Slowly and steadily though, as I grew older, I realised the futility of crying -- and the perception it created about me. As a young adult, unwilling to be seen as weak or meek, I started to distance myself from my one-time trusted companions. With a little effort and practice they soon turned into strangers: so much so that I did not shed a single tear during the biggest of tragedies -- not even when I lost my child.

In my experience, tears come to you when you are angry, or hurt, or frustrated -- not essentially when you are sad -- and mostly when you are unable to express it.

In the last few months I had been thorough a whirlwind of emotions. I had experienced joy, sorrow, ecstasy, agony, longing, fulfillment -- all in equal measure -- in a matter of weeks. When you go through so much in such a short span of time, you end up feeling nothing: the joy had failed to cheer me just as the sorrow had been unable to move me. With tasks to finish, responsibilities to fulfill, things to manage, I had, perhaps, become too numb to react. And today, when I finally had a few minutes of solitude -- and nothing to do -- all the pent up emotions seemed to be coming back.

Were these tears of joy, then? Of having met an old friend after almost a decade and realising that nothing had changed between us. Or were these tears of grief? Of witnessing my mother battle death, come out of it, and now fight it yet again even as I holidayed. These could also be tears of happiness though: I had come to Chennai for one of my closest friend's wedding. I had seen her long struggle with loneliness and now, that she had found her match in a brilliant man, I was, obviously, very happy. 

But joy, grief and happiness were not the only emotions tugging the strings of my heart that evening, there were elements of fulfilment and longing too.

Chennai, which had meant nothing to me until around a year and a half ago, was now an important part of my life. I had, in the short span of time, forged a deep bond with the city and its people. Having spent the last four days hurrying between lunches, dinners, the wedding, and much else, ticking things off my bucket list had however ensured I had lost out on experiencing the city my way. It was only after boarding the aircraft that I realised the trip, which I had been planning for over six months, was already over. While on one hand there was satisfaction of being able to do most things on my list, on the other was the regret of missing out on my quiet time with a city I so dearly love: I longed for its sights and smells even before I left its soil.

More than a month later I still do not know why I wept through the flight -- was is joy, grief, fulfillment, longing, or just plain relief that made my old friends revisit me after years. And yet, as I get ready to travel again, I secretly wish to meet them, maybe on another flight.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Husband, A Lover, And A Woman Torn In Between.

Dear B,

You might be slightly surprised to see this letter, after all we haven't spoken in almost four years, since that muggy afternoon when I left. It is not that I have forgotten you, in fact I remember you very often -- and very fondly -- but I have not had the courage to write to you. I have been afraid that talking to you again might reignite my love for you.

Do you remember when we first met? It was a beautiful drizzly morning with a deep grey sky looming large, the breeze played with my hair, the raindrops tickled my cheeks, I had instantly fallen in love. Sometimes though I wonder if it was really love or just fixation with the new and novel. After all you were completely different from anything I had known until then. But a fixation cannot last three years, can it?

By the time I saw you again, a few months later, I was head over heels in love. In you I had found what I had always been looking for. You were good looking, you were kind, you were intelligent, and you had come in like a breath of fresh air in my stale life, what else could I ask for? I remember telling everyone about you.

They say love gives you confidence like nothing else. And with you, I experienced that. You gave me the courage to let go of my demons, you gave me the confidence to walk out of all the negativity that surrounded me, you motivated me to turn my life around completely, you helped me discover who I truly was.

In the months that followed we spent a lot of time together, most of it quietly by the large tree that peeped into my balcony. Those were hard times, mother was ill, child was young, and my self-esteem at an all-time low. And yet, I was happy and content.

But familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt. As I started to know you better, I found out things that I did not quite appreciate: your occasional indifference, your frequent mood swings, your apathy. Your inability to change, even for me, had started to make me increasingly uncomfortable. It is then, in those doubtful, lonely moments that I was reminded of D.

D had been my friend and confidante for seven years. My relationship with him, which had begun when I was a young and naive small-town girl, was akin to a stable marriage. We had our issues, but we accepted each other with our shortcomings. My enchantment with you however had created a rift and I had mercilessly left him for you. Now I had suddenly started to long for his familiar embrace.

I am not a person who believes in frivolous relationships, and so, even though I missed D dearly, I would have happily stayed on with you: so what if the passion was dying, the love was still there. But your apathy to my kids was something I could not tolerate. The most important thing for a mother is the well-being of her children, she can go any length to ensure they remain happy and healthy. It was the mother in me that forced the woman in me to step away from her lover, into the familiar company of her husband to ensure her children were safe and secure.

You did not show any sign of anguish when I told you I was going, just as you had not shown any excitement at my coming to stay with you. The afternoon I left was most unlike the afternoon I arrived. I was relieved that I was leaving. 

Back home with D life slipped into its familiar routine like nothing had changed. We lived the same way, we laughed the same way, we loved the same way. It seemed as if those three years had not even occurred. But every now and then I was reminded of you -- the way you played with my hair, the way your cold fingers woke me up every morning, the warm sunny afternoons we spent together, and, most of all, the rainy evenings. 

I know it is impossible for us to be together, but is it also impossible to meet up once in a while? After all, however much a woman might love her husband, she always preserves a soft corner in her heart for her lover. 

Wouldn't you like to see me too, B? Would you not, like old times, like to stand with me in a shady balcony for hours without saying a word? Wouldn't you want to play with my curls, or pull my cheeks? Tell me B, do you not miss me at all?


The letter is dedicated to my dear Bangalore, who I miss very much. D, in this case, happens to be my home, Delhi.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


I have been travelling for as long as I can remember. As a little girl I travelled with my parents through the country -- from the snow covered passes of Himanchal, where we went with my four-month-old brother, to the oceans of Kanyakumari, where we travelled, a few years later, with grandparents and cousins in tow – we travelled more than anyone around us, and to the places no one else went to. As a young adult too, I travelled extensively making many routine trips between college and home, and some, not-so-routine ones to far off places. It was probably destiny then that I met my match in a man who was as eager to travel as I was, and together, we set out to chart the length and breadth of the country -- and some unknown corners of the world too.

While travelling with husband, family, and friends had its share of joy, it was the travel of another kind that had me hooked, right from the time I was fifteen.

My first journey alone was made on a particularly warm June morning in 1995. The summer vacations were still ongoing but I was required to be back in town to attend special classes arranged by the school for all students appearing in the board exams. So that my family’s vacation plans were not jeopardized, I decided to travel back to Lucknow on my own and to stay with a cousin until my parents returned. The journey, although not a very long one, became one the most memorable journeys I had ever undertaken.

Over the next few years, especially during college, I made many, many more such journeys – some in the freezing winter nights, when even the warmest jacket, and the thickest sleeping bag could not prevent my toes from getting numb and fingers from swelling up, others in the scorching summer months when the railway coach was nothing but a huge oven and coming out of it without being charred an achievement in itself. Then there was the special one made on a birthday-eve with a special friend discussing our non-existent future together. Every trip, however insignificant, had its share of stories.

There was a catch though. Despite the fact that each one of these journeys was made alone, it was never to an unknown destination: I was invariably travelling from one part of the family to another, or from one home to another. I was travelling alone, but not in the true sense of the word.

It was only recently, at the ripe old age of thirty, that I first undertook my first holiday alone. I went to an unknown town at the other end of the country all by myself. I did not know the people, I did not know the place, I did not know the language. It was, in the beginning, a tad intimidating, but, it gave me a high like never before: I felt strong, I felt powerful, I felt free. I had never felt that way before, but I wanted to feel like that over, and over again.

It was during this trip, and another subsequent one, that I noticed two things. One: the number of women travelling alone in India is abysmally low (those who do are either on a work assignment, family emergency, or, in the rare case of travelling for pleasure, in a group). Two: as a woman travelling alone, my experiences were very different from those I had while travelling with husband, family or friends – I saw the same things in a different light, and, as a lone woman traveller, not confined to air travel or luxury hotels, I was seen in a different light too.

Travelling by myself also helped me uncover elements of my personality that had remained hidden until then. I spent hours listening to the stories of my co-passengers, made friends with strangers, had conversations with taxi-drivers, auto wallahs, and shopkeepers (something, a shy, reticent woman in me had never been able to do until then). Then there was the time I spent with myself doing nothing, talking to no one, just sitting by the ocean, or gazing at the clouds (as a compulsively fidgety person, I did not know I was capable of doing that either). The discovery of the world around me ran parallel to the discovery of the unknown person inside me.

But travelling alone is not always fun, there are times it can get difficult too. In a country where any man -- from seventeen to seventy -- can letch, grope, or insult you, you have to forever be on the watchout. You need to be careful of when to let go of your guard -- and with whom -- and when to retain it. Then there is the planning. With a house to run, a family to look after, a job to attend, finding time -- and money -- to travel is not always easy.

But these are trivial matters especially when compared to the experiences, the perspective, and the knowledge that you gain while travelling alone. After all, as Pico Iyer says, "Travel is like love, mostly because it is a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity, and ready to be transformed. That is why, the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end." And who wants a love affair to ever end? Not me for sure.