Eight -Part 1 #Paperboattales

Eight: Part 1

October and Kolkata is steaming. The skies are washed blue. White clouds appear to have been brushed on as an afterthought. Everyone, everywhere is enveloped in a frenzy of shopping. The streets are heaving and roads can barely contain the cars that trundle up and down, plying the same old streets day and night. There is a feverish madness in the air, a sense of breathless anticipation.

She has sought a red jamdani for years now. She can see it in her mind’s eye. It is red wrought with gold. It has an air of genteel sophistication. It is not showy, it is gently resplendent as she hopes to one day be, herself. But, as it turns out, it is expensive. Much more expensive than she has bargained for.

They simply cannot afford it.

Today, her friend snapped one up, right in front of her, in the blink of an eye. Without thinking. It was magic.

You shouldn’t think so much, her friend had said.

It’s not that, after paying everything else, I don’t have much left over, she replied.

He should pay, na? Is he giving you anything for Puja this year?

We are saving for a flat.

Well, that’s something isn’t it? Mine would never even allow me to think of leaving his parents.

No no, we won’t leave. It’s just a small thing, for investment purposes.

It’s just a sari.

Maybe next year.

After the boutique, they went their separate ways. Time is measured and mapped out for them. Their moments of freedom are earned on account of good behaviour. They must hurry back on time. Punctuality. Discipline. These are their buzzwords. As daughters-in-laws, as mothers and as wives they are told that they must set the example. A recent study has shown that intelligence is inherited from the mother. That study has not helped them one bit. Rather than give credit where it is due, it has simply raised the platform of that unattainable pedestal higher, the pedestal that they know they must strive for.

She falls into the taxi. Bright yellow, it shines in the sun like a polished lozenge. It moves slickly through the traffic. She is hot, it is sweltering. Every year the heat takes her by surprise, it’s unseasonable or at least it ought to be. She wishes there was someone to complain to. Crescent moons have appeared beneath her armpits, a full moon has waxed onto her back. Her back. It reminds her, she needs to check back with the tailor. The taxi leaps over a speed bump and she’s thrown back onto the frayed and tattered faux leather seats. It’s surprisingly comfortable. She would usually make this journey in an auto. Indeed, she should make this journey in an auto. Cut your coat to match your cloth. Her son is learning idioms in English at the school which is supposed to be a springboard to a better life, launching him beyond the city, beyond India even. Ever since Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella burst onto his consciousness, her husband can talk of little else. Their daughter- if they ever have one- will be Indira Nooyi. In the meantime her husband has taken the liberty of dropping textbook idioms into everyday conversation. Perfection is expected of her, indeed it is demanded of her. She is the wife and the mother after all.

But today she has money in her wallet. Not enough for the sari of her dreams but enough to fritter away on a taxi. She might even – depending on the time and if there is time enough to conceal it- buy an egg roll, a Cola and a Dairy Milk Silk. She can wolf the latter down in the secret of the night. It will give her something to look forward to but the other two demand her attention now.

In the quiet bubble of the taxi juddering over potholes and makeshift speed bumps, there is a bubble of peace, a thin film of privacy. The stars have aligned in her favor today, the driver has actually agreed to take her where she wants to go. She hasn’t had to beg, to plead, he hasn’t demanded an extra 100 rupee note. She fishes for her phone in her handbag. Her husband doesn’t like her to look at her phone at home. It will set a bad example, he says.

So, she looks now. She turns to Facebook like a woman starved. Her most recent photo, a selfie in the sari shop has garnered fifty likes already.

Ravishing.

Mind blowing.

Quintessential bong beauty.

Gorgeous.

Mwah.

She can almost hear the chorus of the comments. She can feel the gust and blow of her friends’ enthusiastic, breathy voices. The screen speaks to her, it reaches up, out of itself to keep her company. It is a place where she can finally feel free. No one is trying to make a better version of her. The version of her that they see has already been honed to perfection. The perfect marriage filtered through carefully worded tributes, the perfect child framed by milestone cards and already sufficiently garlanded by accomplishments, the range of perfect holidays from Goa to Phuket, a sojourn in Switzerland by way of a Shah Rukh Khan standee. If she is a sum of her socially visible parts then she is perfectly enviable.

The sacrifices and compromises, the never-ending, suffocating saga of adjustments don’t find room here. The half abandoned meals, the time she stormed out of the car at a busy junction, the nights he did not return home, the all consuming sadness that enveloped her after the child was born, the fact that amidst a house filled to the brim with people, she still felt alone, the school gates that she stood outside of, waiting for her moon-faced child after each and every test. Test after endless test. The constant threat of a transfer certificate hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles (she knew about the sword of Damocles and this was the life she was leading? Well, more fool her), the holidays on which they survived on kebaps from Turkish takeaways and Pot Noodles because after the ticket and the hotels, there wasn’t much money left for more, his anger over her swimsuit, his anger over gazes held too long, his anger, his frustration, his fundamental petulance over a life that wasn’t going right (his anger followed them from the gullies of Gulmohar Park before chasing them up and down Gornergratt) – all of this was cropped out and filtered away. While these were the meat and bone of hushed conversations held in the middle of the night, tapped out against the dying light of this very phone, these very same friends would never give lie to the image that she was building.

She sighs. She thinks of the life she has built in place of the life that she had worked hard for. Both overqualified and under qualified at the same time, they tell her that this is normal. Everyone goes through this. The first few years were teething pains, she was told. His possession was a sign of his love. He didn’t want her to work? Well she was lucky. If was she to insist on it then good for her but make no mistake, everyone handed over their salaries to their husbands. After all, he would manage it better. She has always been one to fritter it all away on useless junk and fripperies. It would be okay, they said, after a child. The child came and it did not make things better. The child only added to all the roles she was failing to perform to the expected standards of perfection. Now they told her that she should plan for another, give her son the greatest gift of all by giving him a brother. But some said girl. She should try for a girl – as if it were so easy – because raising two boys would be too hard while girls were easy, malleable, lenient, easy to mould, like water they took on the shape of the container they were held in. Like her. Hadn’t she done it well? Why complain, this was life after all.

The taxi pulled into her street. She saw that the windows to their home were all flung open wide. In spite of that, the air inside was stagnating. She knew a malaise, a lethargy would descend on her as soon as she entered. The anonymity of the taxi gave her an independence, a freedom that she was not otherwise privy to. She decided to get off.

Ekhane daran, dada.

She did not want them to see that she had arrived home in a taxi. Not when they were supposed to be saving. He pulled up next to the tubewell. Small mercies, at least she was not expected to use that. That had been her mother-in-law’s life. No wonder the latter thought that she had it easy.

She could hear all the televisions in all the houses in all the lane boom together, coming together in a solid, wailing, mass of sound. All crescendos reached together. When she was a child, balconies had been full at this time of the day, early evening giving away to twilight. Now everyone had retreated indoors, watching imaginary lives unfold on increasingly intelligent boxes. She longed for that time. Had she known then what she knew now, she would have done better. She would not have yearned to be such a good girl. She would not have blushed at the thought of marriage, she would not have glowed warm at the prospect of her parents saving up to buy her gold, she would not have listened to them when they asked her to wait for marriage and told her that everything she wanted would be hers if only she would wait for marriage. She would never have tried to learn all the things that made her a good daughter-in- law. She would never have saved up to buy Fair and Lovely, bleach her back, wax herself hairless like a little girl, thread her eyebrows into submission, scald her hand learning how to make the perfect consistency of rice all the while working to get good grades, go to college, go to university, pass government exams but after all that, what for? Good girls, she was fast realizing, has decidedly stifling lives.

The city churns itself up for a festival, celebrating the goddess within, they bring her home and they put her on a pedestal never realizing that all she wants is to put her feet on the ground.

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Seven

Seven: They know it is not possible. The positive pregnancy test spells a future that is not their’s. It is a future that they have both individually crossed continents and oceans to get away from. When it happens, they are both unprepared. She stops taking his calls and over time, too soon really, he stops calling.

The unexpected invitation to the memorial service landed on her carpet. She wasn’t expecting it. It upends her world and wonders if yet again she has been lost in translation. She must go. She doesn’t want to go but she must.

She felt obliged to let him know, at the very least. She wrote an email. She hadn’t expected him to come. It had always been difficult to draw him away from his books.

Beneath skies washed blue, they meet again. He, from the library that has painted him ash and she from the lab where she lives at the beck and call of her experiments.

He is even wearing a suit. In fact they had both made an effort. Neither has been to a funeral. All that they know has been gleaned from years of convent education, Hollywood and a smattering of Merchant Ivory movies.

As it turns out, it is a non-denominational service. There are flutes and recorders and thankfully, no mention of God or indeed, any god.

Amidst the gentle ritual, she finds home in the most peculiar of places, in the golden zari work of the flautist’s tunic. It is black, she has one almost exactly like it, practically every one she knows does.

The priest wears long flowing robes, she is almost gothic in her black boots and her sharply shorn hair, the glasses on her clean, oval face suggest knowledge in that way that knowledge is always written about. A thing of calm.

She doesn’t feel calm. She knows too much. Her face is awash with tears. This is a decision that they have made, together, but the rationale of it deserts her now. She tries to remember. The thinking trips her up, the nature of it goes against every grain of her being. This is not how she thought of herself.

She tries to wipe her face. Her clay feet are showing. She has always had to fight harder and longer than anyone else to occupy the same space as everyone else, to earn herself a place at the table. She has been sensible and fierce in equal measure. Tears here, are unexpected of her but perhaps, she fears, all too expected of someone like her. She doesn’t want to give herself away.

He stares straight ahead. They do not touch. He wonders if the other men too, feel like a spare part. He looks at her from time to time but she’s wearing her armor today. He is, as he has been, recently and in some ways, always, the enemy. It justifies the present.

Someone sniffs. And then someone else sniffs. Finally somebody else blows into a hanky. They are not quiet in their grief.

She should not be here, he should definitely not. They are here under false pretenses. She wants to run. They don’t deserve the funeral, the chance to say a good bye. It is not the same for them. The couples have begun to cleave to each other. At the sight of the urn, there is a collective intake of breath, a soft hiss that she will hear for years to come.

They follow the urn in a silent procession. Everything is too green, too manicured, the flowers and graves too well tended. It throws the disorder of their lives into sharp relief.

When they finally stop and the priest lowers the urn into a a hollow in the ground that she hadn’t noticed at first glance, the tears come, thick, guttural, fast.

The men he sees are sobbing too and his own face is damp. He reaches for a tissue. She offers him her’s. It is one in which she has blown her nose. They once shared toothbrushes. Borderlines of intimacy are arbitrary, she had said once.

He takes it from her and dabs at his face. She is looking at him, he cannot tell whether she is bemused or irritated. Or perhaps she is disgusted.

She has bristled at his attempts at consolation. She folds her arms and stares into the middle distance.

She sees a life that could have been. A life filled with compromises, she wonders if she could have grown to love them. She wonders what her mother would think of she saw her now.

This too, is happening Ma, she thinks. This too, is something I did . Unlike the scholarship, the fellowship and every other ship she has ever boarded, this is not news that her mother would have shared. This would not spread amongst the family like wildfire.

It will just be him and her, they will hold this secret in their hearts. After today they will never see each other again.

Six#scrapstories#paperboats

Six:

He walks home, congratulating himself. He has not been found out today.He had come uncomfortably close and he has worried about today for weeks. Three weeks to be precise.

He had gone to see her during a trough. Peaks and troughs, peaks and troughs they said, that was what life was all about. His uncles spoke of hardships back home, wars that they had had to flee, battles that they had to fight even if they were not their own.

And him? With his suit and tie and briefcase, his university education, his sit-down-at-a-desk job, his mortgage, three kids and a wife with a nail business of her own? He was the prize, the sign that all that they had suffered was worth it. His brothers, sisters, cousins and now nephews and nieces, all looked up to him.

No pressure.

And, so, what if, in the middle of the kitchen conversion, he had felt like his life was fracturing, breaking up into small, brittle fragments of charcoal? What of that? No matter. He had to keep on going, surmounting one impossible task after another.

Posting a letter was his undoing. He couldn’t do it. Just the effort of going to the post office, buying envelopes, getting a stamp, licking the back, posting it. It was too much, just thinking of it made his eyelids heavy.

She has been telling him to see someone for ages. When she had found him sobbing with the letter in hand, she had made the phone call with little regards to the consequences.

She didn’t seem to realise -no matter how much he tried to explain – that everything that they had, everything she prized, could be taken away. Rubbish, she said, it doesn’t work that way. He could not bring himself to believe that he could ever be lucky enough to believe her.

She had driven him to his first appointment, she had waited outside. She had been beaming, as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.

When he went back today, he went by himself. He told the doctor about everything he had done. He told him about the healthy eating. His wife had him on a diet. He was cheating at work.

He told the doctor about the walks they were taking. She was. He had opted out.

He told the doctor about how they were making time together as a family. He was coming back later than ever. The children’s raucousness made his face ache. He was not the father to them that he wanted to be. It was difficult to live with that.

He told her about the letters he was writing. He was flitting between the same three apps on his phone every day.

He told her about the time that he was taking for himself. He was getting off at the stop before and then waiting for the next train. Station platforms at twilight with their sodium fizzing were an oasis of possibility; chances for him to think about what he would do if he were no longer himself.

He told her the shadows of the truth and watched as how each successive lie lit up her face from the inside. She congratulated him on his hard work.

Baby steps, he said, smiling, diffident.

He had moved mountains, she said. What did he feel about the medication? She asked.

Not required, he smiled.

He walks deliberately towards the garage. The thought of her face, caught in the sun the following morning stalls him. She doesn’t deserve that. He turns to the house. One more night.

He is attentive. He knows she likes presence. He can do this for her in short bursts, when he knows there is an end in sight. He gives all three children their bath, he takes out the rubbish after dinner. He even calls his parents and sends each sibling a text.

She looks at him, squeezes his shoulder. It amazes him that she does that, that she insists on doing that. It’s done in books and films but for him it does nothing. His shoulder is all bone, there is nothing to squeeze. He feels empty.

Are you okay, she asks. She has become good at spotting vacancy.

‘Course, he says, kissing her on the forehead. Two can play at this game. She goes to bed tired, happy. The house is spotless, he looks around. Everything is a shade of grey or teal with occasional splashes of pink. It is tasteful in the way of supermarkets. He smiles. This will bring her comfort. There’s contempt in this thought.

In the morning, on the way to work, he closes the door softly, it whispers to a click. The occasion should be momentous, he should be flooded by memories, memories upon memories layering up, a palimpsest. After all, this town, this station he has been living here and leaving here all his life. But even as he takes his shoes off in the last breath before the train has the chance to sweep him away to a different life – they will always wonder why he took his shoes off – he just marvels at the ordinariness of it all.

It is only at the very last, when it is too late, when the girl standing next to him realises that it’s too late, the window of opportunity to grab his hand, to attempt to pull him back is already gone, that he wonders if he could have gone on and if there was another way. He closes his eyes.

Five: #Paperboats#scrapstories

Five

She has begun to think of the olden days with fondness now. The city that she never loved, the one in which she had never felt at home has begun to feel just that now. Like Home.

They can never go back of course. He doesn’t believe in it. Always move forward, he says.

She likes to go back. She never likes anything the first time. Familiarly breeds comfort. Time, life, love, self never seem to walk the same path together at the same time as far as she is concerned.

He is so different. Cheese to her chalk. His life moves in tandem with him. He is not at loggerheads with it. He lives his life by maxims. Carpe diem, that’s his thing.

So she sits, in,corners, next to aisles , in abandoned front rows and watches yet more new people she doesn’t know rally together. She is the new one here, again, indistinguishable foliage that will be shed once a year.They are the roots.

She marvels at their freedom. She watches them topple into one another, marvels as they hold each other up. She tries to see who is friends with whom, which one is married to the other, she gives them characters based on what they wear. Larger than life. She paints them in her head. She wants to sit at their table.

He is already there, at their table. He never beckons.

Once home, he urges her to transform herself. He tries to talk her into becoming more likeable. He likes to solve problems.

She declines. It appears to involve the dismantling of her, dissembling to the degree that she would have to forget herself.

It is a small victory, but it is her’s.

Four: Paper Boat Tales #scrapstory

There is a boy and there is a girl. The girl looks at the boy and wishes that it were that simple. He is within reach, he would be so easy.

There is a concert tonight and they will go together. He is always doing the right thing. He is there, always there, ready to help, ready to lift, just ready.

When he sees her, he smiles. It flutters, unsure, about his eyes. She holds back. She will have to let him down, again. Gently, again. It is for the best. When will he learn?

He is forever finding these things for her. Things that she enjoys, experiences she loves, moments and occasions which appeal to the way she sees herself, appeals to the person that one day she would like to be.

It is novel, this arrangement. This experience of being courted is unusual. It is usually she who feels far too much and too strongly for another who always turns the other way.

They walk together,side by side, into the church and step together down the aisle. They are late. The harmonium is being adjusted, the tabla is being tuned. The dancer waits in the wings, poised and ready. But really of course, there are no wings, there isn’t even a stage. It’s the just an open space, a clearing amidst the vast limestone trunks and branches of this celestial forest that the chapel seeks to mimic. The audience is close. It is intimate.

Did you know, he turns, as the singers take to the low stage, that Tagore was inspired by Burns? Robert Burns?

Bond. James Bond. She raises a brow – the only gesture left over from years of Saturday mornings spent in South West Ken learning mudras and bols off by heart as if that would have be her life forever.

Of course. She turns back.

He bristles. What he would not give for her to soften, to acknowledge the wonder of him. How he has brought himself to appreciate her. But she carries herself as if she did not know who she was.

As the singers begin, she tries to lose herself but it isn’t until they pause and the dancer drifts back to the pews and the singers begin to take questions from the audience, when the singer answers in song, dispensing with the music altogether, that she is able to let go.

Unburdened by the weight of the music that seeks to envelop her, the singer’s clear voice soars, it touches the rafters, it flies around the room looking for rain clouds that have fled into the skies beyond.

It looks for oceans which have found their shores, it reaches out into the wide wilderness beyond and brings them inside, her voice paints pictures, builds cathedrals in the sky.

While the other sings, she gazes and listens in wonder, wondering a little herself, laughing a little at the quiet comedy of it all. She has come to listen to songs sung by the woman loved by the man she loves accompanied by a man who does not love her at all.

Three: Paper Boat Tales #scrap story

Three

When his parents took him to Delhi during the Puja holidays, one of the places that they took him to see the Qutub Minar.

But, as their car passed through Mehrauli, it was really the Iron Pillar that he was most excited about.

They had stayed with relatives. His cousins had prepped him. They told him about the legend that if one stood with one’s back to the pillar, and managed to clasp their hands behind it, then they would be blessed with good luck.

He was in Class 5. It was a big year. Only the finest went onto Class 6 at his school. The rest were handed transfer certificates. He had been working towards the all important Class 5 exams for as long as he can remember.

*************

Years later, he returns with his daughter. He feels that she should know her nation’s capital.

Yet, he is just a little bit proud that this is not her real nation after all. Her nation is the country of her birth. But that one step remove grants him generosity.

That one step remove from the reality of all things Indian allows him to feel benevolent about a country that he has made his life’s work to remain as far away from as possible.

He is immediately disappointed. They have fenced the pillar. While centuries of rain have not managed to rust its iron, centuries of human hugs have apparently been far more damaging. No good luck for his daughter then.

She looks around but is far more intent on taking pictures with the candy-colored camera with its bulbous packaging that she has looped around her neck. He also has DSLR and he has a good feeling about all the pigeons he’s managed to shoot in various states of flight.

He calls the driver. They must leave. There’s still the Lotus Temple and Red Fort to see.

Just as they are about to get back into the car and move on, a child comes knocking at the window.

He’s bare-bodied. His ragged shorts defy gravity, they are held up by sheer good will and nothing else. The flesh has begun to slide off his bones just as his smiles appears to be wider than his face. His naked feet are grey with dust.

“Babu”, he says, “kuch de ke jana”.

She looks at him, shocked and then looks up. Eyes melting, brown, distraught, that this too could be someone’s reality. She doesn’t understand what he says but poverty is an universal language.

The thing is, they have spoken about this. He has explained to her that they can’t give money to all those who come begging. That’s why they do readathons, sponsored silences, sponsored fasts (although that one didn’t go down so well)…

…They run, they hike, they bike, they bake, they auctioned to raise money for an earthquake over here, a flood over there. They are already doing their bit.

But she insists.

And he can never say no.

He takes a coin off the dashboard and flings it at the child.

It catches him between the eyes. It lands on the ground, by the tires. The child looks stunned before recovering swiftly to scrabble for the coin in the dirt. He runs away without looking back.

He slides into the passenger seat, he feels something. He doesn’t know what.

He turns to check that she is safely secured into her booster seat. He has had to fight for it. His family think that he is ridiculous.

“ You’re a big man”, a voice says, approaching. The voice belongs to an unassuming pink paunch, brown trousers which baggily flap in the wind, weatherbeaten sandals that have allow his toes to be dusted grey.

“Big man, in a big car. If you have to give, give with a big heart or don’t give at all. Think of the little people like us”.

“I,” he begins. “No”, he stutters.

“No sir, you’re a big man. Carry on, just remember”.

He slumps in his seat. He can’t look at her. He can’t meet his daughter’s eye.

One: Paper Boat Tales

One

The rain catches her by surprise. It shouldn’t have. She should have checked the weather. She should have planned better. She should be more organized. She is carrying too many bags, her pencil skirt is riding up. She feels held back. In spite of the rain, she feels too hot. It’s muggy. What was just right for the office is too much for the world outside. She teeters, she stumbles.

She is not effortless. She does not feel effortless. She hopes no one can see her. She puts a lot of effort into being effortless. She feels like an imposter. She’s stayed too long at work. She will have some explaining to do at home. She won’t win any points with her manager either. Work smart, not hard, he barks.

He doesn’t like overtime. Overtime means days taken off. Overtime means inefficient. She ought to be efficient and effortless. She breathes deeply. The rain patters down, cool. She has been praying for it. And now she’s just wet. A bus pulls up. She sighs.

She slips off her heels and plants her feet firmly on the ground. She hasn’t done this in a while. There’s something to be said for the coolness of rain soaked tarmac after a long, drawn out summer. It isn’t quite grass but if she squints really hard and focuses on the potted plants beneath every lamppost, it could be.

She walks quickly, able again.

A woman on the bus gazes at her, a smile lingering on her lips.

Two: Paper Boat Tales#scrapstory

Two

He does not invite friends around. There is no telling what state she will be in. Sadness has shrink wrapped itself around his mother.

Some days are good. On those, she buys flowers. She divides bouquets into bunches, lops off the stems and sticks them in jam jars and milk bottles that she has stored for some future use. She secrets them around the house.

By bedside tables, on the cistern, by the sink, places where seeing flowers would make you smile. She cooks, they eat together and nothing is thrown away. He reads to her and she to him.

On others, the bad days when the shrink wrap clings tighter and makes her skin sweat, and makes her hair stick to her head, he comes home to the detritus of her day on the floor.

Wrappers lie discarded, she barely looks at him. She lies, curled like a comma on the couch, not looking up, not looking anywhere but the TV. The only movement, the only sign of life behind those blank, glassy eyes is the furtive movement of her hand

moving abruptly, rushed, plunging a tub of ice cream behind one of the cushions on the sofa. She doesn’t want to share.

He’s made that mistake once or twice, brought a friend around without warning. The way her eyes puddle in shame holds him back from doing it again. And the way she snaps when he has shooed them away.

The way she calls him names, tells him that he will be the death of her, that he already is.

No one ever says anything. He doesn’t. She doesn’t. His friends don’t.

His father doesn’t even know. He knows that she has told him, that she is sad. But she is scared, she doesn’t show him what sadness looks like.

He is the one to help her tidy up, he is the one who tries to shed all the insults she throws at his back while he brings her the tea that he has learnt to make. He’s the one who sets the egg to boil and the daal to boil and the rice to boil, adding turmeric and salt to the one that needs it.

He does his homework in silence and when the bell rings at eight and his mother is dressed for the first time that day, with a washed face, brushed teeth and resolutions to be a better mother tomorrow, he believes her. They sit around together.

She drizzles the simple food with ghee and they laugh together as if this is how it always is.

He looks at her and wishes that tomorrow will be the day when flowers come home.

I discriminate too

A short while ago I wrote about my experiences with being discriminated against on public transport in Zurich and how it left me feeling unhomed.

Further things have happened since then which remind me that this country will continue to surprise me, both in good ways and in bad.

For every elderly gentleman who suddenly apparates on steep hillsides and teaches us to take the pram zig-zagging down rather than straight down so that our child does plunge straight down a hillside (the thought of what could have been still creeps me out), or every suited-booted Zurich version of a City bro who helps me heft the pram onto trains because I stood in the wrong spot and missed the easy access doors or every amazing woman, man, child who has waved hello to my children and wittered away with them in Swiss German and taught me a random assortment of affectionate words in Schweizer Deutsch…

…There will sadly be a complete douchebag who can completely ruin my day, week or month, whose obstinacy can wreak havoc on not only my physical health but mental too. Sadly those guys can apparate anywhere too, sometimes in the places where you least expect it. Unfortunately, teleportation powers are not just reserved for the good.

But, what is good? And what does Switzerland have to do with it? Douchebags exist everywhere. It’s time for me to admit that at times I can be a douchebag too or if I am being kind to myself, I have the potential to be a douchebag as well.

I think of myself, as we all do (unless you are Baddison from OISTNB) as a good person. A few days ago, I did something today that I certainly would classify as ‘bad’. And by doing something, I mean I thought something and that thought wasn’t great either. What was especially not great is that I’ve never questioned myself about this before. After a doctor made an unkind comment and an unkind gesture about my child’s weight (which reminds me, we really need to talk about and work on ways we can talk about weight, body image and body positivity to our children, to our boys as well as to our girls) my immediate reaction was ‘Gah these doctors really need to brush up their bedside manners’. Fortunately the reaction was in my head. The thought lingered and festered and I grew angrier and angrier that I had not spoken up then more strongly than I did (I did speak up, so tiny pat on the back for me because I find confrontations incredibly hard).

But here is the thing, if her words were rough then so was my reaction entirely uncalled for and it was completely unfair. It was discriminatory.

For the last five years my children have been almost exclusively been treated by these doctors. My daughter’s life was effectively saved by these doctors . These nurses have stood with me for the best part of an hour to reassure me that they would everything they could to sustain what looked like an unsustainable pregnancy and entire teams of these professionals have stood at attention ready to whizz my dramatically inclined second born to intensive care should she need it and not to mention that for the last few years every single vaccination or prescription has been administered by these doctors. I should be the last person to even think for a millisecond that ‘these doctors really need to brush up on their bedside manner’. For the last five years, these doctors have been keeping my family and myself safe, healthy and alive. These doctors and these nurses have been kind to us, they have been good. But, in the heat of the moment, all those memories of goodness and kindness vanished and I discriminated against a whole people, a community simply because I was upset. It was an individual thing but I made it a community thing. Why is it that when we are keen to praise an individual, we praise the individual but when we have one bad experience with one person who may or may not be having the best day of their lives, we condemn an entire community or a profession? Perhaps the lady who was rude to me had a bad experience with an Indian? Perhaps she condemned me as a consequence?

It’s time for me to admit that I have been that lady too. Maybe I haven’t acted like her but I’ve shared similar thoughts. Maybe?

What haunts me is that thought of mine is now in the world and I have to admit to myself that just as others discriminate and some have discriminated against me, I discriminate too. There’s no point in preaching from the pulpit about discrimination if I don’t admit that the problem lies with me too, in a sense, it begins with me too. If we are to actually work towards a less discriminatory society, let’s first look inwards and audit ourselves before laying the blame at other people’s doors.

Discrimination is socially conditioned into us. Growing up in the gap between England and India, I experienced the ironies of it throughout my childhood and young adulthood. Derogatory comments were made about both sides of my heart. If someone assumed I had been married at age nine to a man five times my age, someone else would assume that all Westerners stank because apparently ‘Britishers’ don’t bathe. Sigh.

Or clean their bottoms properly. Double sigh.

Someone else would assume that I smelt of curry while yet another person cautioned my mother to keep me under lock and key to ensure that I didn’t wind up as another teenage pregnancy statistic… I learnt to pick my battles because otherwise I wouldn’t have coped. I did not lead the revolution but as I sat on the fence between two distinctly different cultures, it was clear that discrimination lay everywhere.

People in circle would think nothing of and still think nothing of making comments that were regional(ist), casteist, parochial, elitist and discriminatory about race and/or religion.

(I’m consciously making the decision not to talk about caste any further here because I think I need to educate myself on this topic. I need to check my privilege and I understand that I don’t yet have the knowledge to discuss a topic which deserves sensitivity and an understanding of the full range of nuances. When I do talk about it I want to do it justice rather than add insult to centuries of injury. But of course, suffice to say, caste discrimination is everywhere and we are kidding ourselves if we believe that it doesn’t endanger lives and livelihoods anymore. But have I spoken up enough when comments have been passed within my earshot? No, I’m very sorry to say that I have not. I’m a douchebag and I will try to do better.)

Then, of course there’s colour. Not just black, white, brown. Thanks to a colonial hangover that very few are willing to get rid of, the shades of brown remain a battlefield in themselves. But have I revolted when someone said something about ‘she’s dark but a nice person ‘ as if the two were someone mutually incompatible. Nope. In fact I’ve brought and used Fair and Lovely myself in a bid to look conventionally attractive.

I haven’t led the revolution when people have spoken horribly about people from African countries living and working in India today in spite of feeling sick at the words I was hearing, I haven’t said anything in defense of the Marwari community living and working in Kolkata or the Tamil, Telugu, Kannadiga communities- all of whom have just as much right to call Kolkata their home as my family do.

I’ve let discrimination run riot in my life. People I respect and otherwise look up to have come out with gobsmacking diatribes and I’ve remained silent. So how can I expect that I should not be discriminated against myself? If I discriminate, if practically everyone I know discriminates, what gives me the right to believe that I should be treated any differently?

So my point is, to work against discrimination let us first begin with ourselves. When we categorize and draw distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘discriminators’ versus the ‘discriminated against’ then we relinquish control. If we remind ourselves that we do it too, that we are all part of the problem, we allow ourselves to be in control of making positive change. If we are able to state that we do it too and we are working hard not to do it more, we can also discourage the whataboutery that invariably starts whenever someone feels accused by something that we or someone else we know and love has said. We want to start a conversation and not shut it down.

Let us embrace the fact that we are all works in progress and rather than rant and rave about the other and the injustices that the ‘Other’ has meted out to us, let us recall (in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words) more than a single story. If only I had been mindful of all the help and kindness and trained myself to remember that I have received from German and German-speaking doctors and nurses, I wouldn’t have brushed off an entire country and it’s people. It is a thought that I will feel eternally sorry for. But also grateful for, because it has taught me to recognize that discrimination is not the sole realm of ‘baddies’ but by people like you and me.

No brainer but it really shouldn’t be.

Six: I’m British so let’s talk pretend that I’m talking about the weather #paperboats

On the way home, I make it a point to check the temperature and the time. There’s a digital thingamigic that hangs on the face of a car dealership. Seeing it, I know I’m home. I love it because it’s one of the few things in life that vindicates how I feel. I love a good old bit of vindication. Recently it’s been confirming what I’ve long suspected. Zurich, city and beyond, has upped sticks and moved itself onto the surface of the sun. My skin is burning and I have so many body image issues that I’m never not in jeans and my arms and legs are never not covered…Zurich has taken up residence on the sun and I’ve become a swamp monster or perhaps, at long last, I’m finally being true to my own self. Whatever it might be, this summer, in Europe, things are getting mighty ratty and everyone is feeling a little frayed around the edges. Given that the Arctic Circle is on fire, it’s probably no surprise. It is hot and people are feeling it.

So it’s the weather, it has to be the weather, right? Otherwise why would a perfectly nice looking, well-dressed, elderly woman carrying a lovely designer bag absolutely lose the plot with me on the tram today? Lose the plot? No, that’s much too polite and not quite accurate. She utterly lost her shit.

This is how it all began.

We got on the tram from my favorite part of town, Bellevue. We were also on my favorite tram, the number 11. I’ve always loved trams. Summers in Kolkata bred that into me or perhaps they are written into my genetic code. Trams, no matter where they are and where they are going, are my happy place. And the number 11 is the happiest of them all. From Bellevue, the 11 crosses the lake and on most days, you can see the Alps shining bright and on most days, I think how lucky I am. No matter how morose I might actually be, mountains manage to beam through the darkness and shine a light, however briefly. Today was no different. The 11 then proceeds down Bahnhofstrasse with its ridiculous assortment of shops. Once we are at Rennweg, I come into my own a bit. From there onwards it’s the high street and of course the English ‘book floor’ which once used to be a whole shop but I’ll take whatever I can get. The 11 then trundles assuredly towards Oerlikon and real life. With the 11, you get a little bit of everything. Just in case, you didn’t get it, I love trams and I love the 11. Nowadays I feel like a Zürcherin on it.

Today I was in my non-work mode. I was in my ‘mother of two’ avatar, with a fully kitted-out pram, carrying the snacks that all the other Zurich mummies carry and all the books that they ferry around. I looked just as harassed as any other thirty-something in the city, I felt quite myself. Things were going well, or so I thought. My daughter was asleep and given how hot it was (have I mentioned how hot it is?) I was grateful that she wasn’t screaming. My son was reading the names of the footballers on his newly acquired paninis (Sorry, that’s me, guilty as charged) and I was leaning against the window by the pram bay, scrolling on my phone and reading a book on the Kindle app. I was feeling content. Shortly beforehand, a lady in a wheelchair and I exchanged some pleasantries and I was pleased that I had managed to more or less camouflage my pigeon German with tonnes of smiles and ‘genaus’.

As the tram pulled out of Bahnhofquai, I realized that there was no reason for me to remain standing. There was an individual seat which had just become free. As The Mum who never gets the window seat anymore and as the only child who never ever questioned her privilege, my relationship with the window seat is, shall we say, a little intense? I love them. Heart-shaped Love. Bottom had just made contact with seat when the well-dressed, elderly lady in front of me screamed at me that I made her ill and that I should leave her alone. My knee-jerk reaction is to say sorry. I said sorry in English and ‘what’ in German. She screamed at me again (my son had dropped his paninis and was looking on open-mouthed) to go and learn German. Here’s the thing, when it comes to German I’m semi-literate. I can understand almost everything but I really struggle with putting a sentence together. I might have looked on like a goldfish but I understood everything that she said. She flounced off, up the aisle and sat down next to a German speaking couple. She said something to them, they turned around, looked at me and laughed. I felt about a millimeter small. Honestly, I had no idea what had just happened. My son came to try and explain everything that she had said and when I asked him if he had felt scared, he said that he had felt a little scared. I was embarrassed and humiliated. Everybody else on the tram had turned a blind eye. For the rest of the journey, I sat questioning myself and wondering what had happened.

What had I done wrong?

Was it my clothes?

My hair?

My children?

My silent children?

My brownness?

My otherness?

Was I threatening?

Did I smell?

What was it about me,

Me,

that had set her off? In case you were wondering, this is the photo I took shortly afterwards to send my husband and ask him what it was about me that had wound her up so much? My ratty eyebrows?

When the lady got off the tram, she fixed me with a steely gaze. For her, I was clearly in the wrong. Or simply wrong. For a while I wondered if I should approach her and her new companions and ask for an explanation? But then I thought better of it. Had I been by myself I would have not hesitated but with my children, I felt less anonymous and more vulnerable.

I lost my equilibrium for the rest of the day. I realized once again that while Zurich has been home for five years now, it will never be home-home. And, when it came to it, my home-home or my other home-home might reject me too. Zurich has definitely been a learning experience but it never ceases to surprise me how easily it can remind me that I’m not to consider myself at home here even when I try my utmost to fit in. I might be doing all the ‘right’ things but I will still not be accepted wholly for whom I am or what I once was or who I could be. The word ‘auslander’ (outsider) is too easily bandied about as if difference was not enriching but a bad thing. And then of course, I opened the news and saw once again that this was not a Zurich problem but a world problem. When I was a teenager, multiculturalism was well regarded, now it is regarded as a cesspool.

So this is why I’m writing again. Not just because not writing is the only thing worse than writing (I read this somewhere) but because I feel that I need to document this feeling and to add, in my own way, to the chorus of voices who insistently remind people that we are here too, that there are women, men, children, families, singletons, couples who move about and that we have been moving about for centuries because moving about is the most natural thing. And yes we are different, and if we have done something that has offended you, please talk to us, don’t yell at us.

Chances are we are trying to fit in but why should that mean that we are abandoning our own? I’m giving the designer bag lady the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there’s a rule that I voided? But how I wish she had spoken to me rather than humiliated me and scared my child.

And my goodness, all those people and her, weren’t they lucky that my fierce little girl had been asleep? Had she been awake that would have been like poking a tiger with a stick.