While my first escape from home was an epic in insecurity, I had learned a lot from it. Most importantly, that the world had not ended. I was alive. A little worse for the wear, but I was ok.
This article is of necessity going to be a little abrupt between “snapshots”, because there simply is no way to fit 6 years of intense living in one post.
On the whole, this period was the first time in my life I was me, and I healed. There definitely were outstanding moments far more than drawbacks. Manali was another tourist town, but a lot of the tourists were foreigners. It was easier. I started relaxing. Possibly for the first time since teenage hit.
I did the Basic Mountaineering course and followed with the Advanced course the next year. I gained 3 kgs in the first and 5kgs in the next. Mountaineering courses are supposed to be exhausting and no, I’m not superwoman, they dumb things down for girls. As though the mountain cares about gender when its out to get you. The attitude of instructors toward us, was rather like they didn’t expect better.
One instructor we used to call Tarzan for his attitude – the swinging from trees bit. He never used words if he was within reach to use touch. We thought we made history when our entire batch filed a complaint against him. It was an epic disappointment to find out through other sources that it was quite normal for a batch to complain against him. There is exactly one women’s batch per year in June. How difficult could it be to plan? At least my confidence was back. I wasn’t cringing, I was responding to my best.
Got the results from the surprise Board Exams (from last part end) 64.64%. Endured another lecture about how if I could “perform” like this with one week of study, I should study more. Yawn. I was done performing.
I joined a local Khampa family who considered me one their daughters after meeting someone from Delhi they called son. We started an affair that lasted six years. We had horses, lived a nomadic life. It was hard, hard work, but some of the best time in my life. Summers were spent in high altitude trekking, cultural tours and other tours.
Wore all kinds of clothes from shorts to uncountable layers and looking to add more. Trekking clothes mostly. Wore jackets of Goretex fabric that client companies gave us with pride.
Saw places I hadn’t imagined I could call home. Yet, as a nomad, home was where camp pitched 🙂 A peeling nose was a fact of life. Its the high altitude version of digging your nose – you absently peel dead skin from the sunburn. Come autumn in Ladakh, and you’re an idiot if you don’t empty the water cans before sleeping, because they will be unusable ice containers in the morning. And yes, you live in a tent with one side always open to the elements, looking out at the world. The tent is a plastic sheet, like road laborer shelters.
Winters were spent in physical labor. Kidding you not. To earn money and exercise horses, we used to transport construction material from the roadhead to wherever someone was building a house. Rough work, endless hours, physically overwhelming (one cement bag weighs 12 kg more than my then 38kg bodyweight). A horseman’s winter is to be lived to be believed. It is an endless loop of tasks. Most of them heavy. And there is no holiday. You can tell someone to take care of a child or dog. A herd of horses? hahaha.
I had forearms I still miss for their strength. Day after day for five months. I didn’t own a mirror (too much hassle to lug), but I ate with spoon, because fingers were routinely cracked like the heels on TV ads + curry/spices = #fail. 😀 Here’s a memory from then.
Clothes in this time were ones I didn’t want to see again. Cement + clothes = #fail. As an outsider, I had considerable leeway with clothes. Particularly in the foreigner rich summers. In the winters, salwar kameezes were the thing, but eventually I got back to wearing jeans during the days when horses grazed.
Why do I mention this? Because this was a very nosy region. Everybody was into everyone else’s business, but jeans cut unwanted friendlies faster than anything else.
I was surprised, since jeans were not actually socially acceptable. There were judgments here too, but not anything that prevented LIVING. Clothes weren’t that big a deal compared with horses. This was paradise. And it was.
But the undercurrents of the cage vibrated with every breath here as well. From women labelled unclean and spending four days on verandahs in winter temperatures during their periods, to lecherous men holding stud roles in groups. My offer of housing them at our room in the village for those four days didn’t go down well. Men asked my partner why he made me work like that, like I was a slave. But then, the women were somewhat enslaved…. or they were “shrews” if they had an opinion. Modesty was default. I don’t know anyone who messed with that. His reply used to be “Send your wife to help me, and I’ll send mine home”.
We had not told anyone we were not married once we realized that that was serious “prostitution territory”. Sigh. Whatever.
Well before I started smoking, traveling alone a lot in the high altitude deserts, I used to carry cigarettes. A timid girl asking for directions or help is a magnet for patronizing lechers. Initiate conversation, pass cigarettes, address people you wanted speaking specifically, talk “man to man”. Move on. Never failed.
Oh, sure they had their thoughts, but my personal space became less of a parking lot, because I could then throw a man-to-man “chod yaar, kya bakwaas hai?”, without triggering a male female chase. They shook their heads, called me crazy like the foreigners. Better that than wondering how far my friendliness extended.
I met my boyfriends friends in Delhi, did a stint with a production house to get an idea on how to make documentaries, got a camera, shot a 45 day trek from Ladakh to Kinnaur. Through some of the most incredible high altitude terrain (no, I still haven’t made the film, but if anyone wants, I have the footage).
I did a lot of wandering alone with my two dogs – Sweety and Pye, or just me. Really formed bonds with people. Spiti. Feels home. These areas are rather safe for anyone (or at least were, but things were already changing rapidly), women included, and it helped I spoke the language a bit. I finally came to terms with being a woman, with its vulnerabilities and its advantages.
I learned to dumb down, to appeal to spectator heroes for assistance in dealing with villains, to grab stage, go invisible, to be a woman when the situation warranted one, and one of the guys if that was how it was. To fit in smoothly, yet be me. That was empowerment. And it was infectious.
People started bringing up things that were bothering them, and often found ways beyond reactions and egos to make functional responses. For the first time, I was me, and it was heady. It was beautiful. I couldn’t break the cage, but I built me such a library of workarounds, that I could render it largely irrelevant to my freedom.
I discovered that in this battle with life, I’d learnt something for survival that people search for for all their life. I had no shame. I was absolutely fine being wrong, so easily adaptable around criticism, that I didn’t make stupid responses. I had confidence that I was capable of reinventing myself over and over, and criticism was a help understanding me from a new angle. Ideas from such a space helped people. this continues till today. I just opened up, blossomed as a person, and it was so clearly my trial by fire that had made me thus, that all was forgiven – without reservation. I liked me.
On one level, we were well matched. He was technically modern about clothes, but I started discovering a side that didn’t respect women. From comments about other women, to accusing me of provoking friends into making passes…. but the disenchantment began with a stray comment on me not being “Shadi ke layak” and ended when he said in a group that he got involved with me because I was available.
Things got better, but words like this have a way of eroding relationships. For the record, I was the woman who stood by his side sweating blood for six years growing a herd of 5 horses into 27 and the gazillion ways you need to care that come with it. The one who could watch a horse grazing half a kilometer off and know he had a saddle sore just from how he moved.
The one who didn’t take anything away when moving out, because the wealth was horses, and they were a family. They didn’t understand break offs or money. The one who wasn’t even informed when they were sold off separately later.
There never was a fight. just a losing respect and moving off. We did get along excellently in other ways and six years worth of memories of a life under the sky overwhelm many bad ones. We sometimes connect, but now I find him high handed. Also, however it ended, there is one debt I will always owe this man. I found a family with him. I never had a problem not being top dog, so those six years were amazing.
I moved to Delhi, because I knew there was one person there I could count on for a job.
But my mother’s health concerns brought me back to Mumbai.
To be continued in A Life in Clothes – Part 5 : Shehari This will be the last (for now at least). A post about the series will follow. Note: I know this is abrupt. Bear with me. I won’t be editing these smooth till they are all done and settled for a while.