Wednesday, 28 January 2015

I Don't Need Your Saving

After ages I watched a movie that spoke to me. 'Arranged', a 2007 film, explores the evolving friendship of two fourth-grade teachers at a New York Public School- one a practicing Muslim and the other an orthodox Jewish woman. Rachel and Naseera, though from very different backgrounds, share a lot in common when it comes to their values and beliefs.
I related with one scene in particular which took me back to my various experiences as a 'Visibly Muslim' woman. During one of the lunch breaks Rachel and Naseera get called into the Principal's office. The principal- a white lady who took part in the women's movement of 60s- gives the all too familiar ' "Don't worry, I am here to save you" look to the two ladies. She begins,"You are both smart, bright young women. You are so beautiful, why do you have to hide under all those layers? This is the 21st century after all." As the two woman look on in bewilderment the benevolent principal continues to make offensive statements about their beliefs and then proceeds to offer them a wad of notes to 'shop for designer clothes'.
At 18 I started college with high spirits. I was in Bangalore- a city that I love in all its imperfection-living on my own for the first time. I was pursuing a degree in Psychology, Journalism and English- subjects that I loved and excelled in. Within days I made friends with amazing girls who I continue to cherish. I was actively involved in extra-curricular activities and was winning prizes for debates and 'personality contests'. But I soon realized that did not matter. One day I visited the staff room to have some of the well-intending lecturers there ask me why I am wearing clothes that are so 'drab;.Why, when I am so young, am I hiding my beauty under all those layers? Why don't I wear something stylish? You are so brilliant, you don't have to wear it you know.
As I stood there, an 18 year old girl high on life and excited about her future, I realized this is how it is going to be. No matter how vibrant my personality or how many my accomplishments, I was still going to be judged based on the cloth on my head. The hijab never held me back from enjoying life and its little pleasures. I traveled, I met interesting people, I wrote about these experiences. But for these women, my clothing muted every other feature that defined me.
At 19 a teacher asked me when my parents are going to get me married off. You know since in my community people do that to girls.
At 13 a random Muslim man shouted at me for not being modest according to his standards.
At 15 I held back tears as a religious teacher told me I might taste the flames of hell for not covering my face with a niqab.
Over the years I have developed a thick skin against these presumptions and judgments. When people ask me about my hijab I can now tell apart the genuinely interested from the ones who are out to save me or condemn me. I can see the words forming in their heads asking me to abandon what's on mine.
But let me tell you something, my hijab is not meant to act as a barrier between you and me. Neither is it an opportunity for you to tell me how I should live my life.
It is an invitation to look beyond what is physical and connect with me as a person. If you don't want to do that, and would prefer to just talk down to me, then know that-
I don't need your opinions.
I don't need your pity.
I don't need your saving.
I just need you to stand there and watch me rock my pashminas while I conquer the world with friends who value what's in my head rather than what's on it.

Friday, 16 January 2015


What holds India together? No, it is not Bollywood. Or cows. Or Masala.

It is the divine drink- Chai. Chaaya. Tea. Teh.

It starts in the morning, when Indian households slowly open their eyes to  a new day. According to the hierarchy of the family, one of the female members steps in to begin the ritual. If it is just a husband and wife, the wife. If it is father mother, and daughter, it is mostly the mother with the daughter making forays in when mother is unwell. With Parents, son, daughter-in-law, it is the daughter-in-law. The complicated matrix of tea making duties according to age, location, and hierarchy is available as pdf on request.

Once the wife/ mother/ daughter-in-law steps in and twists her hair into a loose bun, the process has officially begun. All families have a loyal tea pot- for God knows kettle made tea is blasphemy- with a wobbly handle that has been in use for years. A look inside the pot will reveal long tales of the past, where its mistress has let it burn in acts of rebellion or in the midst of the other main ritual- soap opera watching.  Carefully measured goat, cow, buffalo, or genetically modified radioactive milk makes its way in followed by a proportionate amount of water. The ratio of Milk: Water is critical here; tea is no joking matter after all! You don’t want your tea to be too milky, because that says that you are an entitled brat that indulges in milk when people don’t even have water to drink.  And you also don’t want it to be watery because that just means you are a spineless baby that can’t take strong tea.   So it has to be just right. Once in, the tea maker gives the tea pot some privacy to get its business done and meanwhile, revs up the household- The hair bun tied tighter, she pushes her husband off the bed, drags her groggy kids into the bathroom and plants them under the shower, and then checks on the pet she said the house did not need because she will be the only one looking after it.  The timing is so precise, that the Swiss will grudgingly tip their hats, if they wear any, to the tea maker. This is stage two of the ritual. Once little bubbles form, it is time for the most critical step- Tea leaves.

The tea leaves are of prime importance.  Half a tea spoon for every cup if you are a sissy and a spoonful if you are committed to tea and everything it stands for. You want to know a person? Find out how he likes his tea. Strong and sweet? Weak and sugary? Aromatic and spicy? A person’s choice of brew is very revealing of who they are.  This is proven science and the reason why tea is central to all matchmaking missions in India. Starting from when the matchmaking aunty walks into your home with her mental file of suitable ‘Nice Boys’. She sits down with the Concerned Mother of unmarried 23 year old and consoles that it is not too late, ‘It’s the new age! There might be some boy who likes old women!’. In return the temporarily placated mother offers her a cup of tea as a sign of gratitude. Then over cups of tea nice boys are laid out (metaphorically of course) as the aunty rattles out Age, profession, salary, and family history upto Adam. After half a dozen cups of tea the conspirators land upon the perfect  Nice Boy to whisk away the Aging Spinster at home.  Matchmaking aunty then repeats process in the Nice Boy’s house, over tea of course. Then Nice Boy and co. head to Aging Spinster’s house with Matchmaking Aunty in tow. 

The scene is set, the Aging Spinster is dressed in red and the Concerned Mother utters a prayer and begins to brew the tea that will make or break her daughter’s life. Not too weak because you don’t want them to dominate you for the rest of your lives, not too strong because we are not aggressive like Sharma’s family.  Concerned Mother drops in some crushed cardamoms for the delightful aroma that will twirl around the Nice Boy and make him like the Aging Spinster. She lets it simmer till the perfect tea coloured tea is ready. It is then poured into the delicate little cups brought out just for this occasion, arranged carefully with sugar on the side so no diabetic grandmas of the Nice Boy die. Aging Spinster nervously carries the tray that determines her future and offers it demurely to her prospective in-laws. She looks down as her mother in law gauges her height, weight , and skin-tone. The only time she looks up is to meet the very uncomfortable Nice Boy’s glance and then she looks down again with a shy smile or a disgusted sigh.  Matchmaking aunty talks on behalf of everyone in the room and the match is made! And what carries forward this dated and excruciatingly awkward ceremony? Our beloved chai of course!

The famous ' one-meter tea'
Do you see how important it is now? Tea is so important that we even have a time in the evening- usually 5 pm- where the entire family sits together and sips on tea with Marie biscuits and the staple ‘Rusk’.  No conversation is necessary; you can lose yourself and your worries to the small cup in your hand.  If you do want to talk though, you can choose from a wide array of topics –cricket, politics, and the latest black sheep of the family.  Not just homes, even Government offices run on tea. It’s a known fact that government employees take up their jobs for the endless stream of free tea delivered by Chottu The Office Boy (Thanks to every Bollywood movie ever made).  Earthquake, Tsunami, or a Zombie take-over- nothing interferes with the office tea breaks.  And God forbid if Chottu ever takes a day off! *collective shudder*

Really,nothing ever gets in the way of tea, not even the times when it is physically hazardous to drink it. Take the great Indian trains.  Your face is in sweaty aunty’s armpit and there is a pervert trying to grope you from behind, but do you let that stop you? No. As the agile Chai-waala contorts his way through this human sea, you unglue your face from Sweaty Aunty’s armpit,  frantically wave so he notices you and then you dislocate your shoulder while locating your purse. But you buy that damn tea.

The love affair with tea is more profound in the rural areas. Take my native state Kerala. The locus of the village here is the Chaaya Kada (tea shop)- A shed with wooden benches and a woven mat as the roof. In the corner stands the most important man of the village- the Chai maker. Out of reverence for his holy-trade the locals attach the title of Chetta (elder brother) with his name. The chaya kada sees a variety of people throughout the day, but the loyal customers (as informed by Malayalam movies) are-The avid newspaper reader, who is singlehandedly responsible for the political knowledge of the entire village, the local communist party worker who rages against the bourgeoisie over endless cups of black tea , the old man who should have died yesterday, and, often, a failed poet who inflicts his soulful poetry on his tea-companions.

The Chai-maker Chettan is also the Page 3 of the village. His hands maybe busy brewing tea, but his eyes and ears are everywhere. Want to know the scandalous affairs, the elopement stories, the  history of gulf-returnees, and who just died? Visit the tea shop for gossip begins and ends in this tiny stall. Who needs TMZ when have the dedicated services of our beloved chai chettans!

This love affair with tea is an unending saga that cannot be captured in a single post. Maybe I will regale you with it another day. Over a steaming cup of tea, what do you say?

Sunday, 11 January 2015


Every night before sleep
I swallow little pills of apologies,
Regular doses so I can doze,
See dreams well without  random security checks
Every morning I mourn
The day and its turns
As I stir in strong condemnation with my tea
As I brush my teeth with more apologies
As I cloak myself in the otherness bestowed to me
And step into a gaze that
Never leaves
Never cedes.

And they say:

Why don’t you just make up your mind-
Condemn or condone-
Get it right this time.
There is no way out so
Shout out your moderation from rooftops
Declare yourself civilized so we have no doubts

Scream that your religion is peace and
Continue to String prayers beads with apologies
For the crimes you did not commit
For the times you did not admit
Your absolute irrelevance in
This world we have made for ourselves
Or let us paint you in seven shades of hate

Stay quiet
As we pillage and plunder
Your bodies and boundaries.
Don’t question our privilege
For offence is our right and
Dissent was never your due.
Accept the labels we so kindly bequeath
And tweak your faith to our ease.
Till you fold into the corners we spare and
Contort your history to erase our errors
Cull terror cells in your wombs and
Raise new tombs and
Raze new tombs.

Here, let us save you
Now express freely,
In our terms .
Adorn your brown, black and blue bodies with our ideas
Abandon your tongue and Put away your words
Weave your oppression into the strands of your veil
Now twirl around so the world can see you
So free.
But Please
Don’t let your truths seep into our world and
Stain structures built for you  on your bones.
Don’t colour
What was just meant to be black and white
Rather gather
Your apologies
For you will need them again
And again.
Store them in purses and pockets,
Seek crevices of your being that matter.
Tuck them into the delicate folds of your blue scarf,
Slip them between yellowed pages of history book behind the broken jar or just
Spread thin on the empty plates of your hungry child.
Fill apologies in your pores and your prose and your poems
Till you can no longer breathe.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Castelmezzano, Italy

Here I present a tale of epic proportions where a Desi girl with her very Desi parents set out to conquer the harsh Italian mountains armed with a GPS, 3G internet and very little  Italian.

The story begins with our desire to not waste a long weekend at home. With our trusty GPS Jane, the weather forecast and some wiki-knowledge, off we went to Potenza. The drive from Puglia, in southern Italy, to Potenza, which lies in the Basilicata region, is very Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge-esque.  We drove past orange farms, olive orchards, vineyards, and the occasional clusters of small, decrepit houses. With clear skies framing the gorgeous landscape, it was hard to not stop at roadside bays every few kilometers to take in the scenes (and maybe  an occasional selfie).

However, once we reached the city center of Potenza we were quite disappointed because it appeared to be an industrial town that just happened to be on top of a mountain. By this time, the Fazals clan was also edging towards the dreaded- “Hangry” (Hungry+Angry) phase, not having eaten any solid food for the last couple of hours. Like every true-to- their-roots desi family we obviously had our lunch packed from home- some paranthas, fried chicken, beef curry and pickle (yes, we carry the pickle bottle around with us. ) But since the Italians take their siesta time very seriously, we were not able to find any places in the city center where we could eat our home-cooked meal. So we drove out of the city, found an isolated gas station, parked our car and made our boot a makeshift table. That’s how seriously we take food. 

It was getting darker, and there wasn’t much to see anyway, so we decided to call it a day and checked into Hotel La Piana. This is where our language woes began. Overestimating our prowess over Italian, we weren’t carrying a phrase book along with us. Talking to the receptionist was literally a game of dumb charades. By the time we checked into the room, we were exhausted of miming our questions. The next day we had a disappointing breakfast where I managed to fill the dining room with smoke when I forgot to take the bread out of the toaster. Just the beginning of the many fiascoes to come up in this trip.

Our next stop was Castelmezzano a small hilltop village half an hour away from Potenza. It was a beautiful drive to the top, as we drove through snow laced roads curving around the famed dolomite mountains of Basilicata. As we climbed higher up the steep roads, we were exposed to breathtaking views of a cluster of tiny yellow houses set against the background of imposing mountains. It was out of this world.  

As we were admiring this picture postcard view, my father realized that we had hit reserve fuel. And there obviously wasn’t any fuel station in the vicinity of this isolated village. So in another characteristic desi move we decided to solve this problem over food.  Castelmezzano being a Lilliputian village, allows only the inhabitants’ cars inside their narrow lanes. So we parked our car at the base and made our way to the nearest 'Ristorante' . On entering we were greeted by Antoinetta, the chef cum owner cum Server. With broken English and animated gestures she informed us that she was aware of our dietary requirements (No alcohol, no pork etc.). When she found out we are Indians she told us that many years ago Sonali, the wife of Raj, used to live here. We guessed she was talking about Sonia Gandhi, but don’t know how far the story is true…

For lunch we feasted on Baccala,  spinach and ricotta Ravioli, and Spaghetti and weren’t disappointed, except with one dish- Fried eggs with truffles -which was just disgusting.We decided to check into a Bed &Breakfast (B&B)  in Castelmezzano for the day. On exiting the restaurant I saw directions to a B&B that I had seen on, so I told my dad I’ll just check it out and come back.  Now on the website it says that it is just 300 mts away from the city center, so I was sure I could have a look and be back soon. I was wrong. 

Castelmezzano has incredibly narrow cobbled streets lined by small box-like houses. The streets go up and down and it is very easy to lose track of how much you have walked once you are inside the maze like formation.  So I kept walking and forgot that my parents were waiting for me near the restaurant. I finally reached the B&B and found a kindly looking Italian lady there. She spoke no English at all but I managed to convey to her that I wanted to have a look at her B&B. She let me in.   By this time, she was under the assumption that I was going to take the room for sure and was asking for my documents.  After 10 mins of miming I managed to convey that I need to go see my parents first. We stepped outside to find my parents frantically knocking at another door. It was half an hour since I’d left and they had been running up and down the isolated, narrow alleys of Castelmezzano shouting out my name. My mom was convinced that I’d been kidnapped and my dad thought I’d fainted somewhere because of the high altitude. After being reassured that I was neither kidnapped, nor sick, they launched into a full tirade in Malayalam about how irresponsible I’d been (which I quietly accepted). After my parents calmed down (which wasn't that easy!), I asked the now scared  B&B lady to take us in for another look.  My parents had a look and did not like it. Uh oh. We said no, and stepped outside with the B&B lady shouting what I am sure is not goodbye in Italian. After five minutes my father realizes he has left his phone at the B&B when we went in. I wanted the earth to swallow me right then. We turned back to find that the B&B lady was following us with a suspicious look on her face, muttering something in rapid Italian into her phone. We mimed that we had forgotten the phone in her place and then she lost it. So again we turned back and went towards the B&B, the lady now fuming. On reaching, she entered in and shut the door on my face before I could enter.After a few torturous minutes that seemed like forever, she stepped out with the phone. It’s a wonder that she didn’t throw it at us. In her fiery Italian peppered with  gestures that did not look polite, I could pick out a few phrases like ‘dishonest’ , ‘racist’  etc. and decided it best to leave the place as soon as possible. We began almost jogging back when this lady stops us again, runs up to us and asks us to leave a good review about her B&B on Yes, that happened. And we still don’t know what to make of it. However, it was a lesson learned. Lesson 1- Do not overestimate your miming skills. CARRY A PHRASEBOOK. Oh, and don’t piss off random Italian B&B owners and desi parents at the same time.

By the time we reached our car, we were in no mood to stay back in this place and decided to shorten our trip and drive back that day itself. Just then comes in Domenico who owned a B&B away from the main cluster of houses at the village. It was a beautiful house with a small courtyard in the front. A hairy dog which couldn’t make up its mind about whether he was fascinated or terrified with the strange new visitors greeted us at the entrance. 

There were a couple of chairs outside to enjoy the view, and bundles of firewood stacked at the entrance, where I found three cats staring suspiciously at me. Domenico and his sister (who spoke English!) welcomed us in. The place had dark wooden floors, a nice fireplace, cozy rooms that opened into tiny balconies with a great view of the mountains. It was quiet, homely and away from the B&B lady who we’d pissed off. It was just what we needed.

After settling in we remembered that we were still out of fuel and could be stranded on a mountain top if we don’t do something about it right away. So we drove back to Potenza, filled the tank, bought some margherita for dinner and drove back to the B&B in Castelmezzano. A trip that could have been completely avoided had we checked the fuel the first time around. Lesson 2: CHECK THE DAMN FUEL.   

Once we had our pizza and got our dose of ze internet, we settled into a comfortable sleep.  The next day, well rested and recovered from the Adrenaline high of the previous day,  we were served a scrumptious Italian breakfast of eggs, cheese, bread, cakes, coffee, and juice at the B&B. We made plans to go to Pietrepertosa,which is one of the highest points in the Basilicata region. In summers there runs a zip wire-'Volo Dell' Angelo' (‘Flight of the Angel)-where you are strapped to a cable and literally propelled face down from Castelmezzano to Pietrapertosa. Since it was closed, we had to drive there. The weather forecast showed chances of snow, but good Indians that we are, we ignored it and went forward with our trip, trusting God and our GPS.  As we neared Pietrapertosa, the snow became heavier,the curves sharper, and the roads narrower and steeper.

My mother started getting panicky and demanded we turn back. If only we’d done that. We went forward and then we couldn’t. Our car did not have snow tires, so we found ourselves lodged into ice unable to move an inch. On stepping out to inspect, we realized that if we’d tried moving we would have landed the car into a deep ditch. We were stuck in ice, in a narrow road, with no one around.  The silence was so loud that it hurt. And then it started snowing. Now it was full on panic, I started hyperventilating, my father tried calling Domenico for help, and my resourceful mother used the GPS to locate an emergency number.  She saved the day. Our GPS not only gave us the number but also the exact coordinates we were stranded at. The emergency service operator informed the local carabineri (Police) of our details and told us they would get to us soon. Once the call was done, my panic-attack subsided and I burst into tears. I’d really thought that this was how I was going to die -of hypothermia in an Isolated mountain top in Italy. I thought of all the things that I still had to achieve, spiritually and otherwise, and thanked God for helping us yet again.

The call made, now all we could do was wait. Now calm, we just started peeling oranges from our food stack and eating. Yes, that is what we do when stranded in the middle of nowhere, with the prospect of being snowed in. We eat oranges.

My mother meanwhile, was all psyched because she had such an interesting, masala-filled story to tell her sister back in kerala. She immediately called my aunt and before she could finish her sentence "guess where I am…”,my aunt started talking about her fish pickles. Every time there was a pause and my mother opened her mouth to tell the exciting story that we found ourselves in, my aunt started yet another  tale of the trials of being in the pickle business.  Eventually, my mother surrendered, and waited till all details of the pickle business were known and then slid in a glib “Oh we are stranded in a snowy mountaintop, by the way” which wasn’t met with expected shrieks of WHAT HAPPENED?! Poor mum.

After about an hour and a half, a recovery jeep approached us. Out step our saviours- Augestino, who looks every bit like what a mountain-top-rescuer-of-stranded-Indian- tourists would look like, and Daniel, a local police and sidekick to our Hero. After gently chiding us for our stupidity and informing us that the road is actually not in use, Augestino and Daniel set to work. While Daniel took down our details, Augestino pulled the car out of its temporary home of snow and then, to our amazement, expertly reversed our car uphill, all the way back to the main road. Daniel proudly informed us that Augestino was the 'snow man' - snow expert- of this town.

 He then came back, bundled us into his jeep and drove us to our freshly rescued car. It still was not over. My father had to now drive our car in front, slowly and without braking because the tires could slide on the ice, while my mom and I sat in the jeep with Augestino and Daniel and followed him.  We finally reached the base without any problem, Alhamdulillah. After profusely thanking our rescuers in English and whatever broken Italian we could muster, we were on the road again to Brindisi. Lesson 3: Do not, ever, EVER, ignore the weather forecast and go on an adventure to an isolated,  snow -capped mountain in Italy on a Public Holiday.

My parents obviously did not learn the lesson and actually had the audacity to ask me if we should take the alternative road and go to Pietrapertosa. After encountering my death stare they decided to settle for just a simple lunch at an unheard Indian restaurant- Gandhi- on the way back. The restaurant was closed, obviously. But a true desi never lets silly matters like closed restaurants get in the way of their appetite. We drove another hundred kilometers and had lunch at a Pakistani kebab shop.

So that was our three day adrenaline filled adventure which probably landed us in the Mafia hit-list and on the Interpol. Now for the next one…