The day is still fresh in my mind. That was the day when a moment in time froze and (now Late) President A P J Abdul Kalamwaited for me. Literally! This is how it happened.
…B R Hills in Karnataka wore a festive look. Frenzied preparations were afoot to receive the President, who was arriving to participate in the Silver Jubilee celebrations of Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK), an NGO working for the upliftment of tribals.
The state police and his special security team had turned out in strength to ensure safety for the President. A large shamiana with an elaborate stage was erected for the function. A separate place was set aside for people who were to participate in the function. Our organisation had written a book about 25 years of VGKK and Dr H Sudarshan, the founder had very graciously invited me to receive the first copy of the book from the President. I sat in my appointed place and waited nervously for the function to begin.
Before long, a burly policeman came up to me brandishing a stick and brusquely asked me to move to a seat several rows behind. There were several bamboo barricades in between the two places. I showed him the ID card I had been given to wear and explained earnestly, “I have to sit here as I have to go up to the stage to receive a book from the President.”
“This space is reserved only for MLAs and ministers. You cannot sit here.” he said very firmly, even somewhat rudely. Helplessly, I moved towards the back row and waited. As the function progressed, I looked around for a way to reach the dais easily and despaired of ever being able to cross all the barriers when my turn came.
When my name was finally called, I dashed, pushing the policeman aside, throwing caution and modesty alike to the winds. Kanjeevaram saree hitched up above my knees, ducking below, jumping above the barricades, and huffing and panting, I reached the dais. I was aware my unruly hair, which I had pinned in a thousand places had come undone. The pleats of my saree were barely in place.I puffed up the four steps and reached the stage.
Mr Kalam stood, unfazed, with an indulgent smile on his face, book in hand, waiting for me patiently. When I reached him, still holding my saree hitched up clumsily, he did not utter a word of protest. He held the book and waited for me to finish fumbling around, regain my composure and receive the book from him. Still smiling, he asked whether I had written the book. I just nodded mutely. I hadn’t the presence of mind to even request him to sign it. But he turned me around gently, ensured I held the book till it was visible, and requested the cameraman to take a picture of us! He knew how important the picture was in my life. He then gamely waited some more for that very special moment in my life to be frozen!
I still have the book and the memories! Memories of a very special human!
The place: A small town somewhere in Northern Karnataka
It’s approaching dusk. In a fully covered and shuttered three-wheeler, along with three male outreach workers, I’m headed out to a well-known brothel, situated in the midst of a residential locality. I’m researching a story on the levels of awareness among different sections of society about HIV and its spread, and sex-workers have to perforce feature in the story for obvious reasons.
The vehicle stops about a furlong away from the brothel and one of my escorts sheepishly points to the house telling me I will have to proceed alone. “Ma’am, we are nervous about accompanying you. Things can get unpleasant as we are known here and you are from the media. We will wait here, and come for you if we sense any danger.”
Undaunted, I make my way to the house expecting to hear Bollywood style ‘kotha’ songs, and see deep pink chandeliers in the rooms of the house, not to talk of the fragrance of jasmine and shops selling liquor and paan; what I see is quite different. It’s actually a passage with cubicles lined along the left wall. And the cubicles mean business. They sell sex and are done up for just that. The cubicles have only a cot and nothing else in them. There’s a flimsy curtain across the doorway for privacy. A woman waits on the cot in each cubicle waiting for clients. I peep into one and the woman waves to me. Hastily I step away. My palms are wet with anxiety by now. It’s too late to turn back. The resident bouncer has seen me and has come to fetch me.
He doesn’t ask too many questions and leads me to a decent-sized room at the end of the passage and hands me over to a giant standing at the entrance. Giant gestures to me to leave my footwear outside and step into what turns out to be a huge puja room. In a vacant corner, sits the madam – a woman with saucer eyes, wearing a shapeless gown that covers a middle-aged out-of-shape body. Something in common with me, I’m relieved to find.
I find myself embarrassingly tongue tied. All the questions I’ve prepared seem so trivial. Do your girls insist on the use of condoms? Do they have knowledge about HIV and how it spreads? The puja corner, the matronly appearance of this woman, and her innocent, saucer eyes preclude all such conversation and my questions actually seem prurient now. Instead I ask what she does for a living and she floors me by saying she sells vegetables! I inch forward and ask who the girls I saw outside are. “Oh! I give them shelter and look after them,” she says blithely. I persist, “Do they know of HIV?” “Yes,” says saucer-eyes easily. “Do they insist on the use of condoms?” I am emboldened by now. “We know about condoms,” she hedges. She looks at giant standing by the window. He inches closer to the door.
I hear male voices from the next room. Giant gestures to me to leave. I try not to rush outside, but the adrenaline flow that is suddenly active in my system urges me to flee, leaving footwear behind. On my way out, I’m unable to resist a quick look into the room from which I hear voices. I see several (at least 10) girls standing in a semi-circle, and several men leering at them, sizing them up, trying to decide who is their prey for the night. Condoms? The thought, the word, and the need seems very far from this room which emanates the stench of raw lust.
Hastily exiting, I try to catch a last glimpse at the girl who smiled at me from one of the cubicles. The curtain is drawn across the doorway now, and I hear tell-tale grunts from within. Condoms? They seem out of place here.
Saucer eyes and giant stand at the gate and ensure I’ve really gone away. I want to go to my hotel and have a shower. To wash off the stench of lust which seems to stick to me. I tell my story which goes on to win an award but the story of the cubicles of joy gets only a paragraph. I can’t seem to be able to tell the story – till today, when the GR Initiative tells me it’s a story worth telling, at least for the sake of the girls who were being assessed like cattle before being ‘taken’.
Right in the midst of a bustling marketplace in a small town in Northern Karnataka, above a rice shop, is a one-room dwelling. Uneven steps, set in a narrow, dark stairway lead up to it. The door is open and the sound of happy chatter is audible even at the street level downstairs.
Going into the apartment is to enter a world of colour and femininity – bangles, vermilion, sarees, trinkets, make-up and handbags are scattered all over and yet, there are no women in there. I see a man who walked in a little while before me fondly caressing a pair of anklets, already all dressed up as a woman, a colourful saree draped over his trousers, and lipstick slathered over his lips. There is a look of happy contentment on his face. He looks coyly at his friends, all of who are similarly transforming themselves. They giggle back at him and all is well with everybody except me!
I’m kind of overwhelmed at what’s happening around me. Till I’m told that the place we have come into is called a drop-in-centre. It’s a non-threatening space where people, in this instance, sexual minorities, i.e. gays, transgender people, men who have sex with men (MSM), bi-sexuals and lesbians can come and spend time without pretending to be what they are not, where they can give expression to their inner desires .
Within four safe walls.
Over the next week or so, where I spend entire days with them, I make several friends. There’s the man who wants to be a woman but is married to a woman and has two children. He confesses to having to watch titillating films before he can cohabit with his wife. He shares how difficult it is to stay married to a woman when he actually wants a male partner. He also feels sorry that his wife, a good woman, has to put up with a husband who doesn’t want her. Then he gives me his photograph and asks me to find him a mate who looks like a famous Kannada matinee idol he adores!
There’s the young boy of 20-years or so who has four female siblings and whose mother offered intense prayer for a son. He confesses that he often locks himself into his room and wears clothes and make-up that belong to his sisters. “I was found out one day and thrashed,” he says. He can’t wait for the day to get over so he can come to the drop-in-centre and do what his heart says is right for him – become a woman!
I wonder what I would have done, were I in a similar situation. How would I have felt being a man in a woman’s body? Forced to wear women’s attire, act like a woman, be bound by having to be a woman when I actually wanted to walk with a swagger, walk into a men’s pub for a drink or just sit on a bench and indulge in back-slapping chit-chat with my male buddies? Would I feel caged? Of course I would.
How would I feel if I was targeted for becoming what my heart told me to? If I was hounded and tortured? Simply because I was different?
Pic: Bharathi Ghanashyam. Taken with permission on a platform in Vienna Rail Station
I had very precise instructions from my friend Roeland Scholtalbers of the Insititute of Tropical Medicine (where I was spending three weeks learning how to write better on public health) on how to reach Arendonk, a picturesque town which lies at a distance of about 50 kms from the centre of Antwerp city, just 3 kms away from the border between Belgium and Holland. He had sent me a map on the day before and taken great care to ensure I would safely find my way to a truck which would take me to Arendonk from a village outside Antwerp.
I had to take a tram, a bus and walk a bit to a predetermined landmark – all in the pre-dawn darkness of a winter morning. Is it a gender thing? I missed every tram, every bus and got off at the wrong stop. It was freezing; the person who was supposed to meet me knew no English and I didn’t know what to say to him even if I called. After a long wait at the wrong stop, I knew I had to wake up a few people who could help me. I called my organisers who called the driver and then, after a long wait when I didn’t know whether I was headed to Arendonk or Timbuktoo, I spotted the truck parked on the other side of the highway. The driver had found me! I dashed across, scarcely mindful of the almost incessant movement of traffic on the dark highway and saw the driver with his hand clamped over his mouth in horror! I had apparently missed being run over! Being run over would have probably been easier than climbing into the truck – actually it was a mini-house on wheels and I had to use a portable ladder to climb in!
Finally a good 30 minutes behind schedule, we were on our way to Arendonk, where I was going to see refugees who were housed in a camp there. These were people who were fleeing their countries and had come into Belgium via Brussels, seeking asylum. Meeting them was to realise that my bus, tram, truck and walking effort had actually been a cake-walk. Some of them had travelled thousands of kms from countries as far as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and others, across hostile terrain by foot, hidden themselves in unheated vehicles in freezing temperatures, and suffered unspoken horrors just to reach safer havens. All of them had left families behind and now had only non-working phones with photographs on them to remind them how their mothers, fathers or wives, or children looked.
Arendonk Asylum – on a cold winter’s day in January 2016
It has not seen any sunshine all day. It’s mid-morning but there are still traces of frost and snow on the campus of the refugee asylum, which can house 650 people. The residents have received their allowance for the week and most of them have gathered in the cafeteria to treat themselves to something special, or just sit around and talk. The room is filled with the strong odour of unwashed bodies. Below the camaraderie, an air of sorrow, anxiety and fear permeates the atmosphere. Each person living here has a tale to narrate; each of them remembers parents, brothers and sisters left behind; and each of them relives again and again, the horrors that forced them to leave home.
Outside, on the grounds the huge truck I travelled by is parked, waiting for them to come and get their chest x-rays done (a bid to determine whether any of them has TB). There is already a queue outside as they have been told in advance that they are due to get the x-ray done. They wait their turn patiently, some of them very ill-equipped for the harsh weather conditions and wear flip-flop slippers or cotton clothing. Most of them are also very young. Many of them are reluctant to speak, but M (20), who has come from Afghanistan recalls, “I was tortured; there are scars on my leg where I was branded. Every day there was pressure on me to become a jihadi. I could not bear it anymore. My uncle told me to run away and save myself. He said he would look after my aged parents and my sisters. I undertook a 2-month journey on foot and by truck through freezing conditions and arrived in Brussels.From there, I was brought here. I get food, a warm bed and a roof over my head. I miss football and cricket.” When he stops speaking, tears spill down his cheeks, telling me that food and a warm bed might not be what he wants at this moment. He might rather want the comforting arms of his wife or mother around him.
Many of them crowd around me because I look like them, despite my dusky ‘Madrasi’ looks. They find out I can speak Hindi, and we’re soon conversing – I speak in my Madrasi accent, mixing up gender with merry abandon as I can never get the logic behind gender and Hindi (in Hindi, table is a man and chair is a woman!!), and they speak to me in their Afghani or Pakistani accents. But we find common ground and are soon bandying recipes, rumours and gossip. They want to know about the three Khans who rule Bollywood and I want to know about their wives and children.
Soon it becomes evident our conversation is not just about Bollywood or about inane details about their families. They are hungry to know why…Why did they have to leave their homes? What were they fleeing? Who could have a problem with their living in peace with their families, be it on one meal a day, or four? Why wasn’t anyone doing anything one Syrian gentleman asks. What was the UN doing?
One 16-year old Afghan boy cries that he wants to be with his mother again. He doesn’t know whether he will see her alive again, because when she forced him to flee the country, parting with all the family savings to make his journey possible, he was actually fleeing death. What were they fighting? He wants answers from me. and I know not what to say because I don’t know. I’m asking the same questions myself. I don’t know the reasons that make humanity fight wars, tear social structures apart, separate families and create havoc. I know only to draw him close and hold him as his mother would have done. That seems to help because he smiles. He smiles and shyly says he has a girlfriend in the camp. Romance blooming in ruins?
I ask the camp director how he can bear to see this day and night. He defiantly asks why he should tell me. “I’ll go home and discuss this with my wife. Why should I tell you?” And then he hollers for a cup of tea in a choked voice, revealing he’s not so tough after all!
I walk out in thought. My new friends stand in a group at the entrance to the cafeteria and wave to me. A young girl walks towards me with her baby which was born in the camp. I hold and cradle the baby, and pray that he grows up to a healthier, more peaceful world. “I hope we’ve got our act together by the time you grow up,” I want to whisper into his ears. But I don’t want to spin dreams which I don’t have the power to fulfill. Maybe‘together we can’? Yes. We. Can. Does that sound familiar? Can we heal the world? Together? Can we? Please?
In January 2016, I woke up on a bitterly cold Sunday morning in a beautiful country – Belgium, thousands of miles away from home. I was spending three weeks there serving a scholarship. Loth to get out of bed, I snuggled deeper into my quilt and prepared to go back into slumber. Till my conscience reminded me with force that this day would never visit me again. It had all the ingredients needed to go out and make a memorable day out of a cold and potentially lonely one, were I to spend it in bed because I was alone. Then I reminded myself – I was not alone, I just had solitude – it makes a difference, being alone, or being in solitude. The former makes you sad, the latter is enjoyable.
An hour later, I was on a train with no particular destination in mind. I had told the lady clerk at the ticket window at the Antwerp railway station to just give me a return ticket that would take me from anywhere to anywhere. And then I boarded a train that was going to Namur, because a friend had told me it was easy to go to the mountains from there and I had this juvenile wish to see snow-clad mountains from a moving train.
Ten minutes into my journey, a scary thought struck me. No one who knew me knew where I was at that moment. I hadn’t told family or people at the Institute where I was going. I didn’t have a working phone. What if something happened to me? What if the train had an accident? How would people find me? How would they even know I was on a train from nowhere to nowhere?
Now, I realised I was alone, not in solitude. And I was scared. The train was speeding along, blissfully unaware of the scary storm brewing inside of me. Maybe I should get down at the next station and just go back, I thought for a panic-stricken moment. But then, snow-clad mountains were beckoning and I persevered. My face was probably playing out all the emotions in me, because a young, beautiful girl sitting opposite me began to chat me up. She too was going to Namur! When I told her why I was going there, she found it hard to keep a straight face. These funny Indians, she probably thought. I didn’t even have a copy of Lonely Planet with me she discovered! She adopted me in a sense thereon, and patiently told me I was doing it all the wrong way.We had reached Namur by now and holding me by the hand, she took me to the ticket counter. Speaking in Dutch, she patiently explained to the clerk that I wanted to see snow from a moving train. I saw her gulping back good-natured mirth while saying this.
Five minutes later, armed with a ticket and precise instruction on how to reach Libramont, a teeny-weeny town nestled in the Ardennes and wrapped in snow, I wondered what to do next, because there was still an hour to go before I boarded the train. My guardian angel disguised as my train companion wasn’t taking chances. She led me out of the station to a restaurant just outside and got me a sumptuous hot meal. And then, ensured I went back to the station in time for my train and made me store her number in my phone in case I needed to call her for help. It was at this time she told me she had just half a day to spend with her parents who lived in Namur, before she returned back to Brussels where she studied. And two hours of that had already gone, helping me. How had I thought I was alone? The world was so connected! I finally got around to asking her her name. She floored me with her reply. She said her name was Mira!!
After returning to India, I messaged her to thank her and got no reply. Maybe she was someone I imagined? But how can that be? I still remember every feature of her beautiful face, and her soft voice, guiding me…
My father, had he been alive would have wagged a finger at me and said, “I told you so,” after reading “Living apart together: the cautious approach” by Audrey Gillan in The Guardian a few weeks ago. Dad, even in the late 90s was fond of remarking that marriage as a social institution and order, had outlived its time, and had become redundant. His belief had been brought on by the many marriages around him, both in the family and outside of it that were headed “for the rocks”. Even though I belong to a later generation I had dismissed him as a cynical human each time he propounded his pet theory on marriage.
It seems he was more perceptive than me about emerging trends. As it turns out, even if not redundant, as increasingly seen, marriage as an institution seems to be viewed as a last option to formalise relationships, rather than the only one. Only, even he would have been completely flummoxed by the many alternatives to marriage that have emerged. The permutations and combinations are many, and none of them necessarily points to marriage as a conclusion. There’s the relationship called living apart together (LAT), where couples live in separate homes even while being in a relationship. Caution, rather than a lack of commitment is touted as the reason for this kind of relationship.
If the reader is not already cross-eyed trying to understand the nuances of the various combinations, he will notice that marriage is either not a possibility, or a very far one, in these relationships. A sign of times to come? While this might be a portrayal of the situation in a country we think is far removed from ours, are we really so insulated from the trend? Here’s what some youths between the age of 20 and 30, I talked to, had to say about their views on marriage.
Leena (name changed), 25, an upwardly mobile young professional who works and lives independently far from her hometown says, “I personally find that marriage has no relevance today. There is so much uncertainty in a marriage. I don’t know whether I can live happily ever after like my mother or grandmother before her did. Even though I would like to be in a live-in relationship with my partner till I am absolutely sure he is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with, for fear of offending or causing unhappiness to my parents, I will probably get married.”
Deb, 30, says, “There’s so much more to marriage than just tying the knot. Living with a person for life entails a maturity that I might not have just now. That does not take away my need to enjoy the comforts that a close relationship with a woman can give. I would not want to blindly enter into a marriage. Yes, I would consider a live-in relationship for a few months or even years to be sure I am making the right decision.”
There are many more similar views among our youngsters when asked about marriage. What however is very clear is the tendency between humans to want to enter into sexual relationships, to enjoy the closeness that such relationships can give. It’s the finality of marriage that scares them.
And yet, it was probably to give it that very finality that relationships in the past had to be conducted within the framework of a marriage. An institution that has, as my father liked to say, become redundant down the ages. Well, any institution can become redundant, so why not marriage? But then, give me an old-fashioned marriage any day, give me the fights, and give me the problems that living 24/7 with another human brings. Marriage, whether it is bound by love, held together by affection and fondness, or only survives because of children is an infinitely more stable way of life, for individuals as well as society. Even if someone says, “But you don’t want your cheese moved!