A Sweeper and a Gentleman

Okay so I forgot to ask his name. Sorry sorry.img_5721

He sweeps Mother Theresa Crescent.

As a woman running in Delhi, I frequently get these responses to a woman running in shorts: men try to obstruct you, get in your way, cat calls, try to run you off the road.

And then I would run past this man, who would give me his own brand of acknowledging a woman runner.

Everytime I’d run past, he would get four feet out of my way, which was considerate, respecting the effort of a runner. And this is what he would do that flabbergasted me: he would stand straight, hold his broom vertical in one hand, and give me a military salute with his other. He is not a runner, nor is he in the army.

Finally after a year of running,  I stopped in the middle of my run to shake himg_5723im by the hand and ask him why he gives me this completely extraordinary greeting. He had no clear answer for me, wasn’t able to answer why he honors a female runner like that.

He was very shy, and couldn’t understand why I was asking him. While he was foggy on that answer, one thing is amply clear to me:

You don’t have to be an officer to be a gentleman.




The Horrifying Faces of Acid Attack

It wasn’t without trepidation that I went to meet the victims of Acid Attack. I have never before seen such horror. Will I be able to maintain my composure in front of these women, who bear their scars so well? Would I behave inappropriately, and stare, trying to come to terms with acts that I can’t begin to imagine?

Their stories..

Their stories belie the cordial image of India; they show people so far removed from empathy toward their fellow man that they might as well be standing on the moon. The ‘reasons’ (as if there can be any) boggle the mind. ‘He said he loved me, he asked me to marry him, I refused, so he threw acid on my face’; ‘I don’t know who, or why, poured acid on me while I was sleeping’; ‘my in-laws were trying to hang my sister from the fan, and when I tried to stop them, they poured acid on my face’.

So I went, on my white horse, all ready to teach them how to say no, all ready to teach them self-defense.

I was wrong.

These women were attacked because they said no.

When I tried to teach them self-defense, they fell over laughing. At first, at how ridiculously simple it was. (I also re-iterated that when you can’t see your attacker, or trust your attacker completely, there IS no defense. Sometimes, there just is no defense.) And then they laughed when I taught them to get out of a grab hold of both their wrists. I’d teach them, then hold onto their wrists tight, and say, ‘go on, get out of my grip’, and they’d say, we don’t want to. We like it like this. (Why does this always happen to me?) Then fall over laughing.screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-12-49-12-am

I was curious. Are you happy? ‘Now we are’ they said. There was this moment where they had been obeying their parents, their husband, obeying, obeying, not venturing out of the house because they weren’t allowed to do so, obeying, obeying, and this happened?! Somewhere inside, something snapped, and they said, ‘f*ck this sh!t, now I am going to do exactly what I please’. Now they are happy.

Do you think you are beautiful? Most raised their hands. Except for one, let’s call her A. Do you not think you are beautiful, I pressed her. She looked down at the ground. Do you love yourself? ‘What, like physically?’ she asked. So, no. Do you think you are a good person? I mustn’t be. That’s why I was attacked. She wouldn’t raise her eyes to look at anyone, wouldn’t say no, wouldn’t fight to protect herself. We all noticed.

img_5197On the second day, I was teaching them how to defend themselves from a slap, and so pleased were the women with the new techniques, they came complaining to me. ‘Ma’am, no one is slapping me! This is not fair’.  With the basic elements of Aikido, they darn near broke each other’s wrists. A got herself out of a wrist hold, everyone noticed, everyone applauded her first effort in even wanting to defend herself.

Oh, and – by ‘horrifying faces’ I don’t mean the women; they are beautiful. I mean the men who can fathom committing such heinous acts. Like Voldemort who left a scar of his attack on little Harry Potter’s face, so did these men leave the mark of their horrible self on these women.

I think I realized my first day that I cannot teach these women anything. They don’t need teaching. As Chetna Gala Sinha, a fellow Ashoka fellow once said, ‘the women don’t need help; the men do – help them!’

My three days with these women tells me they are not Acid Attack Victims. They are Acid Attack Victors.



The Magic That Is India

Mum's birthdayDaily living in India is shit. The traffic, the yelling, the garbage, the patriarchy. And I so often forget the Delhi I grew up with, the Delhi I love.

Every morning my mother wakes up and goes to the wall dividing our neighbor’s house from ours. Every morning she finds a steaming cup of tea waiting for her, with a plate of biscuits. Sardarni aunty or sardar uncle make it and put it out there for their friend every morning.

Every so often, we’d come upon a two-wheeler scooterwala pointing repeatedly to a closed car door, with a dupatta or sari palla hanging out of it, trying to notify the woman inside that she’s closed the door on her palla. This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. Because no other women in the world wear a sari. (hehe, sorry).

Indians are the greatest friends in the world. They will always fight to pay the bill when dining out. The limits of intimacy are best transgressed by Indian friends. At a local swimming pool, octagenarians would get together every Sunday for a swim and one of them would be pakodas for their Sunday brunch. A few Sundays went by, and they didn’t see their friend, so they called. Found out he was sick. ‘Oh, if you’re sick, at least come by, don’t swim, but get our pakodas.’ And that’s not the end of the brazenness of this request; the friend came with the pakodas. ‘cause we be intimate like that.

When I was a child, I went to visit my mother at work, at the American Cultural Center. The security guard behind the bulletproof glass wasn’t paying attention to me waiting to be let in. The Chief of the American Cultural Center, who was on the phone at the security booth, was. She tapped the guard on the shoulder and pointed me out. I broke into an inadvertent smile, and nodded my thanks. In acknowledgement, she winked at me. To this day, I am amazed at that trust – in a culture where winks are seen as disrespectful, she wasn’t being ignorant. Her wink reached across our skin colors, and culture, to establish her playfulness and an innuendo of a statement ‘we gals gots ta stick together’. At my age, she trusted that I’d get all that.

Another time I was tricked by another American. We had been invited to dinner, my twin sister and I, by a friend of my mum’s, an American diplomat. We were ushered to a dining table, our host graciously asked us if we’d like dinner. ‘No, no’, we protested. He placed pastries before us. Loving the sight of them, but loath to abandon our manners, we didn’t reach out a hand. He placed them in our plates. ‘No, no’, we still protested. He said, with all the mischief of an elf, well, they’re in your plates now, you might as well eat them.

Bobby uncle is a neighbor whose house I’d walk into any hour of the day or night. One day I said to him, I wanted to call to see if it was okay to come over. He said, the day you ask me for permission to come home, I’ll break your legs.

Such are Indians. Such is their love. This is my India: where people go out of their way to be hospitable to strangers, neighbors, friends.