Waxing and whining

I’ve been picky about hair dressers for as long as I’ve needed haircuts. Once I meet and fall in love with the hairdresser destined for me, I go to them for years until either one of us leaves town.

But the rest of the hair on my body doesn’t get the same exclusive treatment. In fact, just the opposite. I’ve been to the big fancy waxing places where you could fall asleep while they de-hair your shin with magical hairy fairy wax.

But if you’ve been to an Indian home-turned-parlour – and you know the ones I’m talking about – then everything else is just fluff. These places – they’re loud, they’re rough and they scare the hair right out of the follicles. Two girls armed with wax strips and butter knives come at you like seagulls after a chippy, and turn you from a wildebeest to sheared sheep in under 30 mins. (If you’re in a hurry, they can make that four girls.)

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Generally called Angel’s Glow, Fair Beauty, Ladies Touch (Not a typo) or Miss Lovely, all of them offer the luxury and service of trying out wedding gowns in a fish market by the train tracks.

I was at one such magical place this past weekend.

Housed in a 2-bed apartment, the parlour makes you feel at home instantly. And by home, I mean the place where all your least favourite family members have gathered, but you can’t leave because the promise of free food has already made you its bitch.

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The living room serves as the reception (a row of chairs stacked against the wall) and as the hair-dyeing, face-fixing, hair-cutting zone. The chairs and mirrors point to the TV, which plays loud Bollywood music or, if you’re lucky, even louder Hindi soaps. This room also doubles up as the Society of Aunties Against Single Standards (SAASS) (omg this literally means mother-in-law in Hindi. It was purely coincidental and I love my mom-in-law who would never make it into this club.)

This group of powerful and opinionated women would make for ideal feminists if not for their fellow-female-cutting-down chainsaw and girls-your-age theories. But given their love of double standards, it is imperative to make your point and get out of the way, so they can disagree with you while agreeing with you.

I’m ushered into one of the bedrooms. Each bedroom is divided into refrigerator-sized subsections of semi-private waxing booths. A cold, hard plastic chair greets me, while my wallet trashes around my pocket wildly, begging to be spent at a swankier joint. Nope. Imma save that for the dermatologist.

We skip niceties and the waxer forward-slash life coach proceeds to scrape a vegemite-level schmear of wax along the length of my shin with the blunt side of a spatula-formerly-known-as butter-knife. Who cares if the wax just burnt through two layers of epidermis when you’re hoping the knife doesn’t puncture one of your blood vessels.

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When she stumbles upon my fourth tattoo, she can’t contain herself any more. Our conversation starts abruptly when the waxer informs me, the waxee, that when I get bored of my tattoos, laser is going to hurt. She knows. Her one client is never getting inked again. I shouldn’t either.

I mumble incoherently about knowing what I want, while it is painfully obvious that the woman with the hot wax and blunt knife knows what I really want.

Our awkward silence is broken by an active member of SAASS from the adjoining room. The conversation has been building up from Bollywood movies to Bollywood movie stars. Some heroine who is over the hill (30s) just had a baby. The woman getting her greys dyed black is about to drop some red hot wisdom. She cuts another woman off to loudly proclaim, in a voice that drips with wisdom – that women have a time for everything – studies, marriage and children. Maybe a career if it fits.

Of course she’s going to back it up.

“Why else would the female body hit puberty and menopause when it does?”

Boom.

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Given my stance of not taking any bullshit this year, I want to stand on the chair and educate them about positive body image, being strong female role models and uplifting girls, not boxing them in.

But I find myself standing atop a chair with more pressing work. The waxer is waxing the back of my legs and she finds it easier if I stand on top of the chair facing the wall, giving her a better vantage.

It is from this vantage that she spots my ankle tattoo. She decides that I don’t deserve her wisdom, so she mumbles to herself about spoiling your body. She throws a few rhetorical questions at my calves.

I steel myself to answer her. Yes, it hurt. No, my husband “doesn’t mind” – neither did my parents or 3-year-old son. Before I could school her on my-body-my-choice, she asks me to step down from my pedestal.

Meanwhile, so steadfast is our SAASS activist in her archaic views that she continues to Godzilla over everyone else with half an opinion and half a head of foils. By the sounds of it, mostly everyone in the reception/ face-fix room/ hair-do chair agree with her. They only wish for a chance to get into her SAASS club; they only wish she would accept their humble offerings in the form of a salacious story of their sister’s neighbour’s wayward daughter.

As I walk past these stalwarts of society in various stages of bleaching and dyeing, I feel guilty for tearing these women down in my head. I may not agree with a word they say, but it’s safe to assume they run their homes like a tight ship and practise a uniquely Indian form of feminism, which will always be at odds with what they preach.

Besides, I’m not picking a fight when I’ve just paid 1/10th of what it would’ve cost me elsewhere.

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All images from Google the Saviour and Creator.

If you ever find your way to one of these magic 2-bedroom-multi-room-salons, remember to keep your ears open and hand-sanitiser close. You’ll be wiser for it, and hairless in half the time.

To Chennai, with respect.

Many years ago, I moved to India with Bollywood stars in my eyes and a loud, strumming beat in my heart. For someone who was born and raised overseas, this was going to be my big Indian adventure.

But like in most Indian movies, first you’ve got to hate each other before you find true love.

I fell in love with my country reluctantly at first, and then in a mad rush.

The closeness in my grandparents’ small town of Nagercoil. The freshly washed sun in Kerala, every morning. The smoke and independence in Bangalore’s air. The feeling that someone hit the fast-forward button and lost the remote control a very long time ago, in Mumbai. The indomitable, infectious positivity of Chennai, through heat or rain.

About the time when I was crushing hard on India, I stumbled upon this ad.

 

 

I watched it every single day. Later, when I moved away from India, I watched it every time I missed her. It reminded me of an India we all dreamt we could be part of. One that was film-y enough to be us. One that seemed impossible and yet, something that could only happen in India.

One that we’ve been seeing over and over again for the last few weeks during the Chennai floods.

No vigils, protests or petitions. No time for controversy or negativity. No blogs, logos or inspirational quotes.

It has been action, action, action. Go, go, go.

Food, clothes and medicines are being handed out to the drowned by the drowning. Phone numbers and home addresses are being shared openly and urgently. You need a car, they have a car. You need a doctor, they’ll bring you a doctor. You need to charge your phone, they’ll take you to a clean, dry power source.

If power blackouts and dead phone & mobile lines weren’t going to stop Chennai-ites from helping one another, then what was a little waist-high rain and drain water. No one waited to see what the government would do; they were out long before red-tapism permitted it and will be there long after the media circus ends.

The Chennai floods have wrecked havoc upon her people, but her people have given themselves the gift of time and faith.

Through ruined homes, lost belongings and threatened health, the Chennai-ites have inspired the world with their unwavering and unstoppable fortitude.

It’s far from over and far from perfect, but this is humanity at it’s best. If there was ever a starting point for a better world, this is it.

It didn’t take a calamity for the people of Chennai to band together, they’ve always been that way – it’s part of the whole Tamil charm. But it did show the rest of the world how to move forward.

By getting shit done.

Drawing a blank

Among all the voices in my head, I tend to be partial to my most reasonable one (she’s making me write this, what I really mean is judgmental and self-conscious asswipe). And this wise voice thinks that the three posts I’ve been writing over the last few days are just not cutting it. Maybe I should remind her that I don’t have very high standards.

Seven days since my last post. The last time I was this uninspired, my husband and I decided to pack our bags and leave town. Where do you go when you’re uninspired on the road? Back home?

I’m thinking I should suck it up and use my imagination.

Update: My imagination just flipped me off and went back to staring at the wall.

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Maybe one of the reasons I can’t seem to focus is that I’ve been writing while my mum watches her Hindi TV shows in the background. And oh my good merciful god, that is some seriously insane TV. I mean, I’ve been a TV snob since Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones happened to me, but I also have some incredibly low standards when it comes to soaps and day time shows, and this stuff smashes those standards!

I can either blame the shows for my brain freeze or own up to the fact that I’ve got nothing here. So I’ll blame the shows.

May I please take a moment to talk about one of them?

I’ll take that as a yes.

(If completely bullshit posts are just not your thing, may I recommend this, this or this.)

So one show is about a divorced dad and love-spurned woman, who were neighbours until they were forced to marry because his child considered her to be the mother (good thing the kid didn’t think they were all mer-people and had to move back into the ocean). Anyway, they have a cutesy, sleeping-in-separate-beds kind of relationship that seems more realistic than the art-directed home they live in. At the start of the show (hey, I’ve been jobless okay), our male protagonist is still in love with his ex-wife who left him for his business partner. As the show crawls on, we see that the business partner, being the evil douche that he is, ditches her for a younger model. As you do. Anyway, the ex-wife comes back to the ex-husband, who is now in love with his new wife but still covers up for his ex’s mistakes. What ensues is a series of absurdities bordering on awesome set to the soundtrack from tone-deaf hell: suspicions, fights, love, slapstick-unfunny-ness, ultimatums, tears, smiles, awkward flirting – and soon, all’s well in the badly art-directed home.

Except that would mean the end of the show, and that must not be. So I caught up a few days ago to find out that the ex-wife is now dead.

Multiple exclamation marks.

Everyone is shocked. We know this is true because the camera swings furiously in epilepsy-inducing close-ups of every single member of the cast, as they give us their best aghast expression without creasing the 27 layers of makeup.

And you’ll never believe this – Shonda Rhimes should be taking notes right about now – the ex’s ghost takes over the new wife’s body, giving the actress who could only write ‘Sweet wife with maternal qualities’ in her folio, a sparkling new bullet point: ‘Calculative and possessed meanie’.

How am I supposed to fight that?

Up next: A manipulative woman manipulates people.

They had me at manipu-

Rama

No mother should ever have to bury her child.

Before she turned 60, Radha buried her first born, her precious boy. Before she turned 70, Radha buried her youngest son, her little baby. Her husband stood by her side the first time, and on the other side the second time. Long before that, she lost her youngest one at birth, and almost lost herself with it.

She stood outside her body and watched as her mind slipped in and out of sanity. She watched as daughters-in-law were widowed and grandchildren were left without their father. She watched her two heart-broken children left behind grapple with one hard blow after another. She ached for them, she ached for herself and she ached and she ached.

Then she got up, rearranged the cushions and went to check if dinner was set.

Life tried to break her, and life lost.

No one radiates as much hope and belief in life as Rama does. Her eyes shine with the kind of love that we all crave, all-consuming, fierce and loyal. Her smile has a curiosity and mischief that is unheard of in women her age and situation. Her hands, her bejewelled hands are comforting like that’s their only purpose and purposeful because that’s what comforts her. The food that appears at the end of her magical wand-like hands could solve world peace if only she had the time for it. A heady mixture of Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream and Ponds Talcum Powder announces Radha’s arrival into the room and lingers on long after she leaves. The mattress under her, the clothes on her and the air around her carry the scent like a halo. The halo only a real human can carry. Her superhuman strength is carefully wrapped in delicate silks and diamonds. Her mind is always racing, her feet not far behind.

I must confess, as I write these words, I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but I promise you, I have a story to share.

 

Rama

Her name is Radha, and she lets me call her Rama.

Rama is far from perfect but everything she does is. She makes friends, enemies, memories and mistakes in a minute. She feels love, hate, joy and pain with an unparalleled intensity. She dislikes dirty places, people and words. Her saris are starched and spotless and timeless. If it smells sweet, looks lovely and tastes good, she’ll accept it. She chases a fly out of her home with the same ferocity with which she welcomes a compliment. She is superficial and sincere in the same breath. She’s generous with her time and attention, but her special brand of blind love is reserved only for her siblings, children and grandchildren.

Nothing gives Rama more joy than seeing her family together. She never shushes or restricts kids from running wild. She’ll get us afterwards though, to scrub off the dirt before we step into her heaven (not haven), her home.

The home her husband and children built for her is her everything. The fact that her husband and eldest son never made it past the housewarming only makes her home a heaven more than ever.

She was treated like a princess till the day she wed, and like a queen every day after. Her home is her palace and she rules fairly.

The rooms are cushioned with music and sunlight, kitchen bursting with aromas, veranda decorated with flower pots and backyard with freshly washed clothes. Not a bowl out of place, not a cushion, not even a sound.

Remember how I said she rules fairly? Not if something is out of place. In the event of such monstrosity, there’s a very small chance that she will quietly go about putting it back in order. Rama has a – how do I put this mildly – she’s a control freak, a cleanliness freak and a broken record when it comes to running her home.

If you’re on an overseas call with her, she’ll put you on hold in order to fluff the cushions. She never entrusts anyone else to clean her bathroom, she does it herself every day, and believe me when I say you can eat off the floor in there. A Dettol cloud surrounds everything and the silverware doubles as mirrors. Her little army of housekeepers work with a steadfast loyalty that you can only get from an iron-fist wrapped in duck-down feather and glitter.

It was in this home that Rama taught me my first and only bedtime prayer. Together, we prayed that we would have sweet dreams and wake up early with fresh hopes and dreams for a better day. We prayed that we would be kind and respectful. We prayed for ill relatives and travelling neighbours and the homeless people we couldn’t help. We prayed for peace and happiness and love.

We didn’t pray to a God with a name. We prayed as a reminder to ourselves, to wake up as better versions of who we were that day.

Then I fell asleep, her prayers and arms keeping me safe.

That was when I was a child and she was my fairy grandmother.

A million lifetimes later, she falls asleep safe in my prayers and arms.

I move into an apartment in the city with Rama during college, and she takes about 32 seconds making the place hers. While I was away growing up and figuring out who I was, Rama perfected her unique brand of her-ness.

She brings along her little army of housekeepers and her her-way-or-the-highway-ness. She hates being away from her home, but she is unbreakable in her optimism. Deaths in the family and near-death health scares for herself and her loved ones can’t shake her faith. In rare moments of solitude when she lets herself reminisce, you can see it. You can see it in the way her fingertips touch her face, you can see it in her soft, faraway eyes. Raw, agonising pain.

On nights that I stay up late, I find her asleep with her arm reaching across the empty bed as if to clutch the husband, babies and siblings she lost and the family that’s scattered far and wide.

Born into a family of 9 children, alone was not a common feeling. Married to the eldest among 8, she instantly doubled her family. Then she built her own brood with 3 boys and a girl. Then there were in-laws and their families. She lost count after the 6 grand children; nothing else mattered.

These are the numbers that run through her head when she lies in bed at night. These are the numbers she aches for. These are the numbers that give her strength. She counts and recounts, wondering where so many of the numbers have vanished.

She wakes next morning, full of fresh dreams and hopes for a better day.

These are some of the many memories of Rama deeply cemented in my heart. There’s no obvious storyline here. No moral. Just that no matter how small or short life is, make your mark and leave your scent, so people speak of you as if you never left us 11 years ago.

Fireworks

I’ll rise early and happy tomorrow and have a nice long shower. I’ll wash my blue-blue hair and pick my bright-bright clothes. Then I’ll sit down to eat, and finish around 12 hours later. It’s Diwali tomorrow!

For those of you who don’t know what Diwali is, it’s the gift giving and feasting of Christmas + the togetherness and feasting of Eid + the noise and feasting of a very large-scale New Year/birthday/anniversary/wedding party.

In school essays, we wrote that it is the day we celebrate the victory of good over evil, of light over dark. But mostly, feasting.

But this isn’t a food post – at least that’s my intention so far.

But the food, man.

Samosa and dhokla and pakoda. Puri and pulav and chaat. Lassi and daroo and daroo. Green chutney sandwiches and chole batura and paneer tikka.

Kaju katli, motichur ki ladoo, rasgulla, gulab jamun, jeelebi, rasmalai, I’m dying.

And fire crackers! Before the implications of bursting crackers were known – child labour, air & noise pollution and animal-safety – every child and adult was outside their home holding a sparkler, watching the sky light up with rockets, jumping around the swirling chakras and exploding flower pots. When poisonous fumes and deafening fireworks didn’t bother anyone, conscience never stood a chance. (It’s getting better, but I’m not getting into that just now!)

Photo Credit: The man, M

Photo Credit: The man, M

Oh Diwali, Diwali, Diwali; there’s just something about this time of the year that just doesn’t do it for me.

Yep. I’ve started writing a post about a festival I’m not even crazy about. Diwali and I have had an unspoken standoff that’s lasted a few years now. I am hoping it goes away soon, because year after year I stand in the sidelines admiring it from a distance and hoping it’ll let me in with all the other happy cool kids.

I’m not sure if I miss the way it used to be before a few untimely deaths in the family shook us all up and turned every family celebration into a massive if-only fest. Or if I subconsciously connected a lot of personal trials to that time of the year. Or if taking fire crackers out of the equation was like taking chocolate out of Easter? I don’t know why, but it bugs me and needs to go.

So this year, I’m making a Diwali resolution. Out with the dark, in with the light. Tomorrow, I’m going to pick positive over negative. I’m going to laugh and sing and dress up. I’ll make it so Diwali will beg to be my friend! Aha! Who’s the boss now?

And if I can do it tomorrow, I can do it again day after. And the day after that and the one after that. Maybe I’ll take a dark day off every now and then, but I’ll find my way up again.

After all, this Diwali isn’t just about the food. I’m with family again and I love my family (near and far, in-laws and in-loves) with Godfather-esque loyalty and passion. We laugh and we cry, we love and we fight, we push and we pull. And we do it all together at the same time.

They’re all the fireworks I need in my life.

Here’s wishing that all of you rise happy today, and find your true love and light!

Walk the walk

I can’t call myself a traveller just yet, but I have moved around enough to pretend I’m one. Truth be told, I have wished I was travelling instead of moving at more than one instance. When I was struggling to bridge the cultural gap or make up for it, when my previously successful sense of humour fell flat in a different time and different language. My confidence wavered, speech stuttered and personality went through absurd changes. I always came back to who I was when I found my people, but I was most at peace with myself when I was out there by myself, exploring this new place and falling in love with it.

Sticks and stones

Walking through a well-manicured park in Melbourne, I see a stick between the blades of grass. It’s a long-enough, thick-enough, less-than-a-branch, more-than-a-twig stick. The kind that stands up, crosses its arms and dares me to pick it up.

The 8-year-old Indian schoolgirl in my head wants to pick it up. She wants to drag it along the sand, all the way from here until the end of the song on her lips.

That’s another thing I miss about India. Random lines dragged along the path from nowhere to somewhere. Marking our thoughts as we walked back home from school.

Or stones. You’d always find stones gathered outside homes. Stones from 2 blocks down. From where that day’s dream began. We would kick it as we walked home. As we imagined, dreamed, sang.

It’s always the simplest things that stay with you, and it could not get simpler than this. Just a stick and a stone, mapping the short walk from the bus stop to my doorstep.

Not that we needed a distraction, because there was never a dull moment in India. Not even when everyone, including the birds and stray dogs, were having their afternoon siesta. We did it as a dance to accompany our wild fantasies. We did it to make the walk home shorter. Or longer. We did it because there was a stick, a stone and an open path.

Get lost

It must’ve been a day like the one I was having when Lawrence Durrell wrote in Justine: In the midst of winter you can feel the invention of spring.

I was still new to Melbourne and on my way to a job interview. The tinniest hint of pollen in the air had given me the confidence to venture out on my own. Naturally, I took the right tram going in the wrong direction. So lost was I in the winter-spring-ness, that I didn’t realise my mistake until I was at the opposite end from where I needed to be. So I wound up enjoying the ride twice, as I took the tram back to my destination.

After my interview, I jumped on the same tram for the third time that day. I stepped off at a random stop and got lost. Lost within the laneways, brick walls, café-behind-a-café, shop-within-a-shop.

One too many left turns later, I turned right and stumbled into the smallest op-shop (thrift store). The smell of dust and crumbling paper and fading clothes and fresh memories made it feel anything but small. The surge of happiness I felt made me laugh; I had just found a piece of my soul I didn’t know was missing. I was afraid the spring in my step might push me over the stack of mismatched cups and saucers.

With a bagful of treasures in one arm and a vintage milk crate under the other, I found myself drawn towards the aroma of freshly toasted bread wafting out of a narrow slit in the wall. Behind the slit was the beginning of my breakfast obsession; a quaint little café that completed my perfect warm winter day with a breakfast stack of a heavenly poached egg sprinkled with dukkah perched on a bed of wilted spinach and garlic mushrooms carefully balanced over a crispy golden hash brown laid out over a spread of avocado and feta on a slice of impeccably toasted sourdough. I know, the adjectives are practically drooling out of my mouth.

I found out a lot about myself when I got lost. I found out that I like old books with notes scribbled in them and curios that don’t fit into any style bracket. I like talking to strangers. I was still petrified at the thought of talking to strangers. I like eating alone by the window. I was bad at catching trams, and it was one of my best qualities. I found out that I was falling in love with Melbourne, one wrong turn at a time.

I didn’t get the job that day, but I got Melbourne.

Goosey Goosey Wander

Writing this post has opened the floodgates, and memories are gushing right in. The short walk from school to home in Kuwait, with the allure of home pulling me forward while the endless conversations slowed down my every step. Hot sand under my feet and hot gossip on my mind. Or early morning temple visits with my mum in India; the lane leading to the temple would be saturated with smells of breakfast being laid out and incense sticks and freshly scrubbed school kids.

Sigh. There’s so much more living to do.

Home.

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I envy the people who can close their eyes and picture home. Of a place they can go back to and feel like they belong, even if for a little while. Don’t get me wrong, my problem isn’t that I’m unhappy where I am; my problem is that I’ve been happy in many different places. It’s a good kind of problem to have.

I was born into a home that was bursting at the seams with noise: laughter and over-lapping, nonsensical conversations. We lived in a sort-of joint family setup with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins – living in a fluid state between two floors in the same apartment block. I’m still not sure who lived in which house. Some nights I slept in my room, some mornings I woke up wedged in between my grandparents and most days my parents had to pry me away from my cousins to go to bed anywhere – as long as it was apart – just to put an end to the incessant giggling.

After we fled Kuwait during the gulf war, I never saw the inside of that house again; my happiest place in the world.

I read somewhere that you see your grandparents’ home in your dreams because it’s the place where you got away with mischief, where love was abundant and judgement lenient. I entered my grandmother’s house in India as a refugee and even today, in my most stressful times, I dream of being in her home. It was a large modern house for a small old-fashioned lady. We jumped from the terrace to parapet to veranda. We played and prayed. We climbed trees and claimed deserted cocoons. We ate, ate and ate.

When the war ended, we returned home. Now my grandmother’s home keeps someone else safe. Strangers live there and love there.

I spent the next few years being the most confident version of myself there ever was. I was back home in Kuwait, my home turf, my Queendom. If school was where I held court, home was my royal chambers. Teenage invincibility and high-school popularity made our tiny, loved-up 2-bedroom apartment my new happiest place on earth.

There were 2 cities in India where I spent most of my time after I completed school. One where I couldn’t get out of fast enough and another where I got out of too fast. Both gave me immense happiness and loneliness. Neither felt like home.

Then Melbourne happened to me. At first I found it too sterile, too proper and too quiet. Then I found the dirt, the quirks and the noise. I was in love. Wildly in love. The kind of raw love you feel for the earth and air and sun. We (my husband and I) built our first home and fell in love with it every day. We built our family (the kind we choose and the kind we have) and fell in love with it every day. Everything was perfect.

It was too early for perfect.

I went for the people, I stayed for the place, I left in search of more. But I’ll be back, because while I still don’t see a single home when I close my eyes, I may just have found my true north in Melbourne.

So far, that is.