On Being

Ever since going bald early on in the pandemic, I’ve maintained a short buzz, about half a cm at best. It’s convenient, fuss free and I don’t need to depend on anyone for a haircut. The funny thing about going bald is how it has made me feel more feminine than before while confusing some people in the world outside. Errands and walks tend to see me in pants and a tee which mean I could very easily pass off for a man. I rarely wear earrings now because of the mask and it’s no surprise that there is confusion. Inevitably, the gaze moves from my head to the chest to verify that I am a woman. I wonder if it should bother me and I realize it doesn’t simply because I don’t feel naked.

It made me think about what does it mean to be a woman? A younger me would have a different answer, one of rebellion perhaps. As an older person, I don’t consider myself as being limited to the identity of a woman. I just happen to be female among the many other things I am and do. There is no neat box that contains a person, we are so much more than our limited identities.

A few days ago, I saw a delightful little film, Dancing with the birds. Such elaborate courtship rituals with the ladies needing to be impressed and their almost ruthless practicality when it comes to choosing a mate. The male and the female of the species have their place and tasks to accomplish, neither more necessary than the other. While we lament the disparity between men and women, there have always been the free spirits who have sung their own tune, taken off on their own flights. Nothing could hold back the force of their freedom. I suppose it boils down to one’s own sense of personhood and how much can be tolerated. When the pain of remaining in a situation is greater than the pain of the unknown, there is the possibility of change. I’m inclined to think of it as being mostly personal. Change begins in the singular; its fruits though are collective.  Quite like a seed that grows into a tree, a gift to the future. The trail blazers have forged ahead, mostly solitary and with their sights on moving to a song only they hear. In the process, they also cut a path for those yet to come.

Another packed work day but managed to carve out an hour at lunch time to go on a walk around the neighbourhood. It never fails to energize and refresh thinking after long hours staring at a screen. Besides the urban wild, there were cricket games, a drum seller, some delicious masala dosa and  wafting music.

Art and the Artist

But why should we label artists as belonging to some place or by their sexual orientation? Inevitable, how gender, caste/race and class inevitably come up to introduce the creator of art in all reviews. By knowing the background of the artist, perhaps unconsciously our lens adjusts itself to respond to their art in a manner that comes from biases, both aware and unaware. In the wake of creative people who have since become infamous for their sexual offences, there is a conflict between how one views the creator and the creation. And then the question follows, should art be seen separate from the artist’s life?

I’m not an artist and have no understanding of technique, history or philosophy of art. All I know is how I respond to it mostly at a visceral level. And it remains just that, a personal response, often intuitive and completely subjective. Yesterday was a cocktail of different stimuli, yoga- shared and studied, work, an interesting webinar (first time I listened in to one while sitting in the woods), a quiet movie, some reading and an essay on an artist.

That last one there piqued my curiosity and I spent time looking through the artist’s website, www.salmantoor.com . It’s not the kind of art I might go seeking but something compelled me to dwell on it for a while. A few themes from many aspects of my day echoed in his work. The day saw two triads of thought, Gender, Race and Class was one and the other was exclusion, exploitation and expendability. These are playing out loudly on a world stage at present but closer home, the story has been the same in my small universe of work. For now, they’ll just simmer until that post writes itself out.

Back to the artist, I felt there was a thread of an essential loneliness in the subjects of his art. Some solitary and awake, some asleep, some in twos or in groups but disconnected-connected. There was an overarching sense of a resigned aloneness of each individual, an underscoring of the impossibility to ever truly share space, awake, asleep or in dreams. Even in intimacy between two people, there is a movement towards separation, a parting that is implicit.

All his paintings are of people and the bookshelf ones also have people in photo frames. Something about them reminds me of a Van Goghian anxiety and there is a drawing into his world with a colour wash of greens and quick facial features, particularly the sense organs. The bodies seem to be treated with a pallor of disregard, an indifference and the backgrounds have an emptiness of urban spaces even when crowded with people.

I didn’t find sadness as much as I found a capturing of something like apathy, there is hope yet. It feels as if the paintings are a seeking that has not found its destination yet and as a viewer I want to know the outcome. I want it to be of resolution but there’s also the possibility that it will never come. The tableaus are a playing out of images of ideas of what might be thought of as revelry through a debauchery, reminiscent of opulent pasts in a present continuum with the paraphernalia of a global 21st century, including the ubiquitous cell phone.

The trees where they appear are barren almost always. Blues and browns make up much of his colours besides the green. The orange-white pairing when it occurs feels like the possibility of something outside the normal a slight elevation perhaps, of a different response but there appears to be no definite outcome yet. Through all of the works I saw on his site, I experienced the painter in the paintings, as much a part of the pigments in the canvas as his subjects. Some of the paintings that caught my attention almost immediately were Immigration men, Boy in Window. Floating Shelf II (this felt like a peek into the artist), Confession and the Green Bar. Needless to say, these are just personal musings that found their way here and in no way a review, I am not qualified to do so. And all of this meandering is probably way off what the artist intended.

Since it’s been an arty post, here’s a recent water colour on paper by the resident artist.

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After the rains

Today, it was bugs day out! And predictably a lot of birds were having a field day. I saw a black ibis, lots of green bee eaters, four or five smaller birds that I couldn’t identify at a distance besides the regulars. Ants were busy everywhere, on the ground, on trees and crickets were leaping all over the place. There were a few butterflies too and gorgeous dragonflies, spotted about 4 different varieties, a lovely crimson one, a couple of blues, a few amber ones and some goldenish green ones. The first creepy crawly that I laid my eyes on though was a red velvet mite as it moved on the ground.

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managed to get one picture of one of these fast flitting beauties

There was just so much life in the woods today and it was a symphony of different sounds. There were hardly any people save for a group of young men playing cricket and a couple of bikers. Most days, I am the only woman in the woods for a long time until a few of them come in twos or threes. But in there, I become genderless, one with the ground and wind. Ever since I went bald, I feel outside of the limitations of gender as though along with the hair, something else also was freed. In this country few women choose to go bald and it is associated with widows, renunciates, those undergoing treatment for cancer or then those with a non-heterosexual orientation. Going bald for was a spontaneous decision and I found I like it. It’s non-fussy and looks like it might remain this way for some time to come.

The only thing that stopped me before was meetings outside but with work calls coming into homes, there is a diluting of the work persona. I found that professional relationships have become a little more personal. An interesting work call was one where there were four of us and three were bald! One of my yoga teachers and his entire family (wife and two kids) also turned bare headed and it was the sweetest picture I saw during the lock down. I suppose this encounter with uncertainty and mortality has allowed people to let go of many fixed ideas about life and work.

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white shirish flower

I roam the woods as though it’s my playground and I catch myself appropriating the wild as mine even if it is in my thoughts. It’s so easy to slip into this sense of feeling at home in a place that is free. I think of a tree as ‘my tree’ even though it is not mine and am reminded of the concept of aparigraha. Sometimes possessiveness is not things but beliefs and thoughts and these are as binding as actual things. As I reflected on the thought, a spill over from yesterday’s reading, I ambled to the southern end of the woods and saw the most delightful sight, a dog sitting in the shade of a tree. There was also a shirish with some flowers still on it, they have a lovely mild fragrance. In full bloom, they scent many streets of Pune. The strong winds had broken quite a few neem branches and I picked some fruits off the ground. The grass has already started to sprout and soon it will become tall as the rains set in completely. I do hope to see it through the season, hopefully there will be enough days that are not too wet. And the next time, I should remember to carry a pair of binoculars.

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the good life 🙂

It’s a blessing to have this patch of green to disappear into, to become a child again, full of amazement. Some days, poetry erupts while there and I have no choice but to note it down as it writes itself. These walks have never been for fitness but an escape into wonder and a suspension from life as a city dweller. And so there’s no thought of time and it ends whenever I feel like it. In fact, over the last couple of weeks three hours have been set aside expressly for this purpose and it is sacrosanct even if I don’t go out. Today was a little over a couple of hours and I didn’t realize it until I got back home. At one time, I’d have covered about 4 times the distance in that time but now I don’t even think of distance. It’s time, elastic time unbound by anything except having my fill of a space that is special.

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Being barefoot, one develops a keen eye for the ground and its stories and there’s always interesting things to notice. Barefoot heightens all senses for some reason.

After long, the thought of my father’s ancestral lands came unbidden, fertile green acres in a forgotten corner of a tiny sliver called God’s own country, which now belong to some stranger. And I found myself thinking it may be nice to have a patch of wild to slip into right in one’s backyard. Perhaps the sea nearby and undulating rolling greens as far as the eye can see…

The girl in the red plaid dress

Another morning out. I should give up the pretense of shopping for supplies and see it for what it is, the need to walk. In the absence of ambles in the woods or jaunts around the neighbourhood, I found myself picking threads from little vignettes that played out on the street or the voices and noises from households, some of it, violent. Some threads were ripped from an unruly heart, some from cold waters of reason and much unravelled in letters that remain piled on my desk. But, this is about today and a walk under a summer sun with my beautiful bald pate, a half masked face and skin that drank sunshine.

It’s been a couple of days since the hair came off and with it, everything that weighed this old head down. I suddenly feel ageless and in a manner of speaking, outside of the limitations of gender. It’s liberating in such a primal way as though the rules of convention don’t apply anymore. Perhaps, this is what monks and nuns feel? Them of the beatific smiles and melodious voices.

I’m out in a running singlet and find that my feet want to let go and break into a jog. It’s that kind of a day when the body feels its sinewy strength and there is pleasure to be taken in being alive and strong. I feel the ripple of energy in my back and legs as I move. It reminds me of long walks on the beach with the sun on my face and water lapping against my feet and I wander into memories of the sea and it’s incredible silence. The next face I see reminds me that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and all those images of sunkissed shores are a long way off.

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So I walk, soaking in sights of a changed world. I walk past a school with one hundred windows- all shut, cross a much dead cat with dried skin and ashen ribs that have no takers, watch winding lines outside liquor shops and cops who have given up trying to tame the crowds. The trees are in bloom and I hug one of the Indian Cork ones. They’ll sway in monsoon winds in a few months and their lovely blossoms will make beautiful scents. Again memories, of night time walks in my invisibility cloak. There are people out and about as though it is time to shop for Diwali, most in masks but else in thick groups. Mostly men, some women and no children except the little masked girl in a red plaid dress, walking with her father.

It was a stark reminder of the missing children of a pandemic. And I wanted to mourn for the ones with loving families and those with hateful ones, the ones with food aplenty and those who go hungry, the ones with lovely homes and those who hustle on streets, the ones with friends and those friendless, the ones who dream in colour and those who live nightmares, the ones with pretty smiles and those with haunted eyes, the ones with grand plans and those without, the ones who get cuddles and those who get beaten. I wanted to grieve for all the little children and the unborn who’ve inherited a blighted planet.

Sometimes, the need for a mourning as such is to mourn the fragility of human lives and a poem springs-

I feel the urge to keen

lament in beautiful tongues

that I don’t understand

I want to partake

the bewilderment

Of a species as it mourns

I want to

share their grief and

walk to distanced funerals

And along with all this

I want to keen

for losses of another kind

That of little children

and a lost summer of

urchins and the home schooled

The little masked girl haunts my today. She was the only child I have seen outside in all these days of lockdown. Perhaps it is also a feeble hope after 40 days of suspension that a little girl appears in a red plaid dress.

Gendered Spaces

I was clearing my phone and came across this picture and it reminded me of an unusual experience. One that tickled me no end and also provided fodder for thought. Since there is time, let me tell you about an evening when I discovered what it felt like to occupy a space not really inhabited by too many women.

Earlier this month, I was back in Bombay, the city of my childhood. It was a trip with mixed emotions and thoughts, a happy afternoon with friends, an evening walk by the sea and also packing up my mother’s household. That last there was a heaviness, the knowledge that for all her aided liveliness, she would never live in that house again. And as is wont, every time there is a sense of being weighed down, I chop off my hair.

Sunset Family Salon is not really for the entire family, just for the men folk, a modest place with 6 seats under fluorescent lights and whirring fans. There was a popular show blaring on the tele and I tried hard to understand what made all those people in it laugh but didn’t get it. So, I sat staring at a mirror and saw men in various stages of grooming. Haircuts, massages, shaves- the entire gamut of male grooming at 10:30pm.

The owner was a genial man, late 50s perhaps with crinkly eyes that told of laughter and an appetite for life. He made me welcome, showed me to a chair and asked me to wait as he wanted one particular guy to cut my hair. I could have told him that it was not about a sharp hair cut but just a shedding of heaviness. But I didn’t and chose to observe the scene around me as unobtrusively as I could. It must have been strange for all the men there to have a woman sit there. There was silence except for the buzz of equipment. I’m unsure if it is so always or whether it was the presence of a woman in their midst.

It was interesting how the relief on the faces of the patrons was almost in direct proportion to the vigour of their treatments. The massages though very strange to witness close up, it seemed too close for comfort, a kneading that felt strangely intimate. The new age salons have private spaces and soft lights, this one was rough and ready under harsh white light. Hair colour was meticulously matched with eyebrows and moustaches although I’m fairly sure instruction leaflets would mention their use only for the mop on the head. The head massage looked like karate chops and truth be told, I was tempted to ask for one but the hour was late. It wouldn’t do justice to cut corners on something like that. Maybe next time, if there is a next time.

At the moment, I’m mildly contemplating learning how to cut my own hair or then letting it grow out. Long hair looks pretty but it takes effort. My current shock allows me to wash and wear without the need for a comb or brush. I’ve been lazy about going to a salon for what many women consider essential grooming like monthly manicures, pedicures, facials, waxing etc. Blame it on an indifference. My indulgence remains old fashioned oil massages and hot baths, easily accessed in the privacy of my home. When you spend enough time walking with naked feet outdoors and welcome the sun’s relentless heat, the need for a pedicure or facial fall by the wayside. As to hair, I like greys so there’s no question of colouring it. If there’s one extravagance, it is the draping of everyday cotton sarees. That is a deeply sensual pleasure, cotton on skin.  

A buttercup cotton saree a friend left behind. Yellow and white remind me of wild daisies.

I try to imagine what a reverse situation will be like in one of the ‘beauty parlours’ meant ‘only for ladies’ and it would not have been the same. There would be outrage. But I could enter a male space, like in the general compartments in Bombay locals and the same would not be the case no matter how much the men might resent the intrusion.    

The young man who chopped off whatever little he could from my already short hair was pleasant and knew his job. He was the owner’s son and worked in an upmarket salon by day and in his father’s establishment by night. Sunset Salon has been the place where little boys in the locality got their first haircut and while some may have transitioned to the unisex chain salons, the perpetually filled chairs indicate a staunch loyalty of its longstanding patrons. The owner would come over home to cut my father’s hair after his stroke. Maybe if I lived there, I might want to frequent it too for its no fuss service and sense of a throwback to life when I was a child and the streets were free from traffic. The current lockdown is reminiscent of that life.  

Spending half an hour in that joint got me thinking about the spaces occupied by women as women, especially roads. Sometimes, I walk late at night and till date have never seen another woman taking a walk by herself. Usually, couples walk together. If there is a lone woman, she seems to walk with purpose and accompanied by the trappings of work or study gear. Men and boys though walk with swinging arms or hands stuffed in their pockets. The gaze of men and women differ too, raw and diffused. There have been occasions when a refusal to avert my eyes has changed the dynamic of encounters with strangers. There is a perceptible shift. The neighbourhood streets have always felt safe even when deserted, yet there are no women walkers on night streets.

Short hair and a tall frame make it easy for people to mistake me for a man and perhaps that makes it easier to roam freely. It’s only when they see me up close that there is a startle in their eyes but by then it is late to rearrange their reaction. I’ve been marked as male and it is too much work to look at me as a woman. In many ways, this androgynous receiving is a relief.