The Day After

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Photo by Thiago Barletta on Unsplash

 

Today is the day after the catastrophe ended.

I Google to check for pandemic-related stats out of habit first thing in the morning. Zero cases, zero deaths. Good. The newspapers are brimming with stories about life coming back to normalcy.

Normalcy—I wonder what that is.

I dress up for work after what feels like forever and head out. The watchman uncle greets me with a high-pitched “Good morning”. I know it’s coming from his heart, I can see. There’s no mask on his face this time. I carry one in my bag; just in case. I say “Good morning, chacha!”, and ask him how he and his family have been. He says they’re doing fine with a contented smile.

I struggle for a moment in my head. I’m not completely convinced about riding the bus. I think I should take a cab. But I see a bunch of people waiting at the bus stop just like they did weeks ago. I’ll be honest—I’ve missed travelling with complete strangers in a crowded bus. I shrug my fear and start walking towards the bus stop.

I see my colleagues, not on the Zoom interface, for the first time in over two months. I smile at the receptionist for a little longer today. Watching my team members smile widely at me as I take my seat fills me with warmth. The office cafeteria—how I have missed sitting here! I make myself a cup of coffee, and gorge on some Pringles (like I always do). I hope I have too many meetings today; I can’t wait to see everyone.

My phone has been buzzing with messages from friends who have been making plans with a lot of heart since the time we were cooped away in our homes. Only this time, we don’t wait for the weekend to catch up.

We have now seen the invisible price tag that comes along with taking people, time, and plans for granted.

We decide to meet today, post work. 

The bar is overcrowded today. I think a lot of people are afraid to cancel plans now. For the first time in so long, I see people sitting close to each other, sharing food, hugs, kisses, and holding hands. Precious little things we always took for granted. I start reading the menu, even though I know it by heart by now. After going through all of the twelve pages, I order the item I’d always order during each one of my visits. Life may be too short to order the same things over and over, but today is dedicated to wrapping ourselves in the sweet sense of familiarity. Trying new cuisines can wait for now.

The bar has announced happy hours, apparently. We order one too many drinks because God knows how much we’ve missed the kick! The owner is present at the bar. Each one of the staff members is overjoyed to watch the space fill with customers; a lot of them are regular faces.

Today is not about the business—it’s about the many reunions that were long overdue.

We leave a fat tip after we’re done. We want to make up for all the appreciation we failed to give in all this time.

Mom has been calling incessantly because it’s late and I’m still not home. This time, I’m not tensed about going home to her fully-rehearsed lecture.

It’s funny how I’ve missed being scolded for not getting back home in time.

I get home, overstuffed with all the drinks and food, yet ask mom to serve me a little bit of whatever she has cooked. She’s the one who ran the house like a boss when supplies were limited. Now that things are back to normal, I want to respect every bit of the morsel that she puts on our plates unfailingly.

Things feel normal now, or do they? 

The stars in the sky are suddenly scanty tonight. Have they disappeared or have we screwed up our pollution game already? Stray dogs were hiding behind the bushes because a bunch of teenagers thought that bursting crackers was the perfect way to celebrate their freedom. Motorcycles are roaring on the streets left, right, and center. I pass by a group of aunties who are discussing a certain family who lost a member to the pandemic. They’re blaming the deceased person’s wife for not being careful enough. Umm…what happened to all the empathy and oneness that we were talking about throughout the quarantine period? 

It took us a pandemic to understand the power dynamic between humans and nature.

But once again, we’re consumed with abusing our environment, abusing the way we pollute the very air we need for breathing, abusing the way we discuss people and their loss. 

I guess general disregard is our normal.

It has always been; it will always be.

You Bring Out the Mumbaiwali in Me*

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Photo by Yash Bhardwaj on Unsplash

 

Your half-open mouth when you’re half asleep,

Your messed up hair from the rickshaw ride,

Your hand on my shoulder,

that slyly sneaks to my waist,

All of that is mine; all of it is me.

 

I am the sharpness of your extra teekhi chutney,

I am also the wholeness of your cutting chai,

I am the sweetness of your last sip of coffee,

I am the chaashni and malai.

I am your unfinished whiskey by the bedside,

I am the warm yellow from the fairy lights,

I am the cool breeze on a boiling May afternoon,

I am the disappointing Mumbai winter, sometimes.

I will calm your demons by singing them lullabies,

I will fill you with my stories, wise and otherwise.

I will tell a hundred lies to the world,

only so that I can see you for a while.

 

You bring out the Mumbaiwali in me,

The abey and the oye in me,

The rust and the robustness of the kaali-peeli in me,

The shameless kisses in the rickshaws in me,

The missed sunsets at Marine Drive in me,

The fourth seat in the train in me,

The wrath of a delayed Virar local in me,

The casual bhai and the bantaai in me,

The angry, reluctant smile after our fight in me,

The meethi chutney on the sukha puri in me,

The “cheap Chinese” dinner dates in me,

The ritually losing the umbrella in me,

The rare finding of a window seat in me,

The bright red of the BEST in me,

The muddy browns of the floods in me,

You bring out the Mumbaiwali in me.

Yes, you do; you really do.

 

You bring out the serial bomb blasts in me,

The bullets and cries from the Taj in me,

The wretched 7/11 in me,

The pointless ‘Mumbai Bandhs’ in me,

The losing homes to floods in me,

The poverty of the slums in me,

The affluence of Bollywood in me,

The chor, the bazaar, and the Chor Bazaar in me,

The dhol-tasha of Ganeshotsav in me,

The sultry, impious Nav-ratris in me,

You bring out the “Spirit of Mumbai” in me.

 

You bring out the fearless Radha in me,

The staunchly devout Meera in me,

The emptiness of the day that follows Diwali in me,

And all of my nine Durgas in me.

You bring out the sweet pain of unrequited love in me,

The strongest lust for your flesh in me,

The unrealistic expectations of our future in me,

And our inevitable separation in me.

 

You bring out the six-yards and the dupattas in me,

The skinny jeans and the salwars in me,

The laaj, lajja and also the besharmi in me,

The “nahi, pehle meri baat sunn” in me,

The “sab theek ho jayega, yaar” in me,

The “aisa hota, toh kaisa hota?” in me,

The “arre samaaj ko maaro goli” in me,

The “I’m good; but not good enough for you” in me.

 

They say my name means ‘love’;

You bring out my name in me.

 

*This particular one is my (very rueful) adaptation of  Sandra Cisneros’s ‘You bring out the Mexican in me‘. Easily and non-exaggeratedly, this has been the most fun piece I’ve written in my entire life!

I’m getting there; almost

I'm getting there; almost

 

Everything happens for a reason.

I’ve spent the last three years telling myself that. Since I’m writing this in the last few hours of 2019, I can’t help but indulge in some retrospection. Life’s not been my friend every single day of the last decade, especially the last year. It was a full spectrum consisting of my highest highs and my lowest lows.

This decade gave me my first kiss, and also my first, devastating heartbreak. It gave me my first job, and then a second one. I made my life’s most expensive Android and Apple purchases (so far) and paid for it in full. Having spoken about these retail indulgences, I am also proud to say that I learned about and started practicing slow living.

I looked at things more closely and for longer, and saw things that we can only see when we slow down.

I learned about stillness. Being still is magical—it can take you to places within you and show you what sits at the root of your emotions. 

2019 was also a year of finding out what my real support-system looked like. When everything else failed, they cushioned me against the blows.

2019 was the year when I saw parts of me that only my current, beaten up version could see.

Travel did not happen to me this year, but a journey inwards did happen. I met with my best and my worst parts, and I accepted myself with every bit of myself.

I realised that having my two-year-old neighbour around was my therapy during times when I struggled to keep my spirits up. Now, I can clearly identify my emotional triggers and know exactly what I need to do to not make my demons feel unwelcomed. 2019 was a year of realising that I am the kind of person who lives in the extremes—one of those with-all-my-heart kinds.

I care, love, and also stop loving with all my heart.

2019 was a year of less reading and even lesser writing. But it was also a year of journaling. I got myself a five-year memory journal and I journaled daily. Even on days when life seemed as dull as an overcast sky, I’d pour myself dry on the pages of my journal.

2019 was also replete with emotionally, intellectually and politically stimulating conversations. It’s funny how steadily and profoundly I got sucked into understanding the nuances of fascism, communism, feminism, social privilege, and the lack of it. I even signed up for a Master’s program in Political Sciences.

2019 was a year of brunches and house parties. I’ve made peace with the fact that even though I’m 25, I feel too old to be “chilling” in overcrowded and painfully noisy clubs. If I can’t hear what the person across my table is speaking, I’m already regretting my decision of being at that terrible place.

2019 was the year of finally washing the taste of his name off my lips.

It was also the year of watching him get married and watch my friends go through heartbreaks. It was about hearing them out patiently and letting them grieve. It was about helping them without really helping them—by simply being by their side, by being completely present whenever they needed me. While some heartbreaks happened, 2019 also gave some of my friends their companions for life! 

2019 was the year when my parents barely bothered me with the big M word—marriage (thank God for that!). It was also the year when I decided that I really don’t care about it, and what I do care about is pursuing the one dream that keeps me hopeful and sane. It was also the year I noticed my parents grow old. The occasional blood tests, waking up in the middle of the night because the pain in their joints was unbearable, buying medicines for them—the tables have turned now.

2019 was also a year of muting certain noises. It was about setting and prioritizing boundaries. It was a year of realising that some social media influencers are less of influencers and more of influenza viruses, causing damage by attacking the minds of the masses. I learned that having a louder voice doesn’t really mean anything if you’re not saying things that need to be said.

I also learned that we need to think and question everything before we learn it—choose our heroes wisely and consciously select every piece of content we consume.

2019 was a year of taking action. I took four major decisions this year that forced me out of my comfort zone. It was a year of unlearning things and unf*cking myself—of going back to who I was before certain experiences happened to me. 

As the new decade begins, the answer to “what do I want to do with my life?” seems to be closer to me than ever before. I’ve decided that 2020 is going to be a year of being selfish—of putting my mental peace, my opinions, my dreams, and my plans before anybody else’s idea of what I should be doing at 26.

I discovered that my greatest strength is endurance, and my greatest fear is to be forgotten by those who are important to me.

You know what else I realised? I wouldn’t be the person that I am today if it wasn’t for the cumulative impact of everything that happened to me, the good and the bad, in all this time. I know that everything happens for a reason, and I have the strength to face it no matter how hard it gets.

Teatime with My Demons

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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

I sit here taking the last few sips that are left of my tea, wondering whether stagnancy in life should be embraced or treated as a red sign that needs to be acted upon. The bottom of my mug leaves a brown ring on the tablecloth as I place it down. 

Why do stains like staying back until they’re forced to leave, I wonder.

Pleasant memories from not very long ago flood the moment, making it unable to pass swiftly. They stay there, the memories, all of them happy and warm yet making me feel utterly cold on the inside. I can’t blame them for my misery though; they are here because I summoned them.

They flow from the spaces between the doors that I’d left half-open on purpose. Masochism feels like a warm blanket on a cold night when it comes to recalling the time I spent with you.

We had a great time together, didn’t we? It was all good while it lasted. But then you left. Like a nomad making his home in a village this second and then abandoning it for another in the next. Zero regrets, zero loose ends. I wish I’d signed up for the course where they gave lessons on detaching seamlessly.

The bitter taste of your absence hasn’t left my mouth ever since.

I roll it on my tongue and even savour it shamelessly every once in a while. What I learned then was that absence is the heaviest thing to carry.

Do you know what happened to me after you were gone? Did you care to find out? Oh, never mind. I’m still the same—in the same place, fixed in the same spot just like the hands of a dysfunctional clock. Broken things don’t move, no? 

I’d go about my day as if nothing had happened.

“Hey, what’s up?”, they’d ask.

“Same old, same old”, I’d say. 

What else do you tell people who can’t think of a better question to ask you when they see you? I never wanted them to know actually. I don’t want others to have the pleasure of thinking, “Thank God, it’s not happening to me!”.

Oh wow, these memories are stubborn and how! Come on, leave now! I’ve replayed all of you in my head; you’ve outlived your time. 

But they stay. They stare at me with a smirk on their faces. I hold them by their collar and pull them closer so that I suffer a little more. 

I don’t cry, no, won’t shed another tear for the one that willingly chose to leave. I stop every sigh of despair that tries to escape my mouth. I want these memories to know that they cannot do shit to me, even though I’m going down like a pack of dominos on the inside. So I stay quiet.

Quiet things are harder to break. 

I simply stare at those memories in the eye. I wear a smile while I do that because I want to let them know that I’m tough. They hear what I have to say.

After getting tired of provoking my demons, they give up and finally leave me alone. 

Me = 1; memories = 0!

I now understand that not getting what you want can at times be a blessing in disguise. I smile, this time without any pretense. 

I take the last sip of my tea which is utterly cold by now but is also the sweetest. At least this particular ending was sweet!

This is why I choose to be selfish

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

My day begins at 9:00 AM in the morning with me doing nothing substantial post waking up. I am not one of those super-enthu-cutlets who jumps out of the bed and begins with the day with indefinite amounts of horse-power.

I like tossing in the bed for a couple of minutes after I have woken up.

I do that primarily to prepare myself for the work-day that lies ahead of me. Maybe also so that I can test my abilities to scale new heights of shamelessness – the kind of heights that only a person who chooses to laze around even when she is running late can reach.

I fold my blanket and put that in place along with the pillows. I think I do that because at some point I was convinced by an article that spoke about how making your bed first thing in the morning sets you up for increased productivity throughout the day. Not sure how much of that matters, but I do it anyway.

I then go to work, I’m back home by 11:00 PM and I spend the rest of my time mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and stuffing my face with chips and/or roasted peanuts till I start feeling sick. That has been my schedule for the last 4 years i.e. since I started working full-time. Not much has changed in all this time, really.

I’ve never wanted to be famous, or rich, or powerful; I’ve always wanted to be happy. I’ve wanted to feel genuine gratitude for everything that there is and isn’t in my life. How hard could that be?

Have I been able to achieve that? Yes, and no. But the answer also largely depends on how I define happiness, no? My definition of happy has evolved over the years – it has gone from ‘I want my parents to feel proud of me’ to ‘I want to feel proud of myself’. Sounds selfish? It is.

Selfishness has grown up with a bad reputation and I don’t understand why.

The one quality that is constantly expected out of all of us is selflessness – be it through the ever-so-obedient daughter-in-law from mediocre TV series, or the Bollywood protagonist who leaves his wealthy family to obey his father (high five to those who got the Sooryavansham reference!). They want us to give more than you can and expect nothing in return. Why, because that makes one a better person.

Well, fine, it sounds like a good philosophy but is it healthy to keep giving all of you all the time?

I’ve grown to believe that it’s essential for one to be selfish. The “good” kind of selfishness is quite an esoteric idea and I know that most of you, by now, are already starting to dislike me for saying what I just said. So I’m chugging a cup of adrak wali chai before I proceed.

Selfishness has bad connotations attached to it. There are two types of selfishness –

  1. The “I’m going to say that I’m not hungry but I’ll eat 4 bites each from everyone’s plates” type,
  2. The “I’ll have my dinner with everyone, but save my gulab jamun and have it when everyone has left” type

You don’t want to be no. 1, you want to be no. 2! (even no. 2 has bad connotations attached to it. Hehe.)

Pardon the analogies AND the sad toilet joke.

But the point that I’m trying to make is that being selfish should not be about benefiting yourself at the cost of someone else’s happiness. It is about maintaining the right balance between making others happy as well as your own self.

Choosing to stay indoors over meeting your friends on a weekend because you want to be by yourself is selfish.

Treating yourself with a cheat meal after a month of restricting yourself to “healthy food” is selfish.

Cutting off toxic people to protect your sanity is selfish.

Do these things sound wrong to you? No, right? So you see what I mean – we have been blessed with this beautiful gift, that is life.

We’ve only got so much time and it’s imperative that we make the most of it. You can’t be enjoying your life if you keep deprioritizing yourself.

I am 25, and I’m still not a millionaire! But in hindsight, I realize that ever since I started doing things that made me happy, I’ve truly been in a better headspace, even without the moolah!

Putting myself above everyone else has prevented me from living my life on autopilot. I do things that are not always expected of me, but I do them anyway because they are harmless and they make me happy. Imagine how boring our world would’ve been had all the great scientists, and philosophers, and artists, and writers, who walked this earth, wouldn’t have done what they once wanted to do with all their heart and soul!

I treat myself because I want to, I say yes because I want to, I say no because I want to, and I say goodbyes…well not because I (always) want to but because I know that some sights are prettier when viewed from a distance.

I think I’ve made my point. It’s time to make my bed now, and I will make it. Not “because I want to”, but because it gives mom one less reason to scold me. Being selfish doesn’t always work; sometimes you have to be wise (especially with mothers).

Cold and Comfortable

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Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash
 

It’s starting to get colder.

I’ve always been one of those who will carry a jacket in her bag while going to a cinema hall. For some unknown reason, those people at the cinemas know no temperature that does not meet the Arctic standards.

My palms are bearing the brunt of the cold. My fingers, they are starting to get numb. I feel a chill run down my spine followed by a ghastly sense of loss.

It’s not the temperature; it can’t be.

Am I the only one who is cold? Everyone else seems to be unaffected by it. They look like bright and shiny people, totally slaying their day. “Hustle”, that’s what they call it these days.

Working around the clock to make more money so that you can spend more money is supposed to be the “cool” thing to do these days.

Anyone achieving less than the standard expectation is slapped with a label of mediocrity. But is being mediocre really a bad thing? Isn’t greatness a choice? Why is the opposite of that looked down upon then?

When everyone else seems to be moving at the speed of light, why am I still stuck? Or could it be that everyone else is trying their best to drag themselves too and what seems to be a great speed is just an illusion? Just like the trees that speed crazily past us while we’re seated inside the train, unmoved from our seat.

Should I make a phone call? Nope; bad idea. What if they don’t answer? Or worse, what if they think that my concern is not even a legit concern in the first place? I’m not making any phone calls! There’s nothing worse than having your feelings invalidated by those whom you count on. I know that feeling. When was the last time that happened?

Was it when you said that my questions weren’t important for you and that you didn’t owe me any answers?

Nevermind. No calling.

It’s getting colder. I’m starting to feel cold on the inside now. What is this nonsense? Which 24-year old gets stuck in a rut so bad that that place starts to feel strangely comfortable; like a home?

My life is a joke!

Since when did comfort zones start feeling cold? Weren’t they supposed to be warm and cosy places?

But I think that I have made some progress, or at least I’d like to believe that I have. I’ve come a long way from digging deeper into the good memories and mourning their death, to focussing on the unpleasant ones and declaring to myself that what has happened to me is for the best.

Optimism has never been my friend, so this is how I cope.

There’s a cuckoo singing outside. She does have a sweet voice. She’s been singing for too long for me to find her song melodious. It’s really starting to get annoying now. She’s definitely singing it for someone specific, probably calling out to someone she held very close to her heart? Oh god, someone please ask her to stop! Whoever that one is, he’s not coming back! Do you hear it, annoying cuckoo? He’s not coming back!

If he wanted to, he would have done so already.

I shut the window to block her cries out completely.

In case she does manage to reunite with whoever it is that she has lost, I don’t want to see it.

I don’t want to sink another two feet deeper into my rut knowing that it’s just me who is always going to have to live with the loss.

I think I should just wear the damn jacket. The cold doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon, so I may as well make my peace with it.