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13

Earlier: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Returning to the city was trauma. Big time. I was a fish out of water. I lost track of the times I left doors unlocked (just latched), while hopping across to a shop, ruined food, because I didn't heat or refrigerate it, stayed awake from the sound of a fan, shied away from crossing traffic.... My whole way of being was different. Slower, more trusting, ignorant on many things, and worst of all the crowds really got to me. Delhi was slightly better than Mumbai on the crowded front, but it was a prison in other ways - safety. It totally sucked to be looking over my shoulder again.

However, old training dies hard (read part 3), and I have never had trouble I couldn't handle in Delhi, largely due to my vast, automatic mental alerts and a lot of luck. Mumbai was safer on this front. I still felt safe in Mumbai. Possibly because of the lack of privacy in most parts of the city's public areas.

One of my first realizations was indeed dress. My clothes were .... out of place, old, with no specific style, etc. They were worn with hard, impatient hand washes where violence overcompensated for time-consuming attention in frigid water. I had some city wear, and salwar kameezes that would do to till I could get more. They were most unsatisfactory. I should have left most of the clothes behind. Saved the effort of lugging them for days and throwing in Mumbai.

Didn't find any work related with documentaries, so worked as an AD on Ad films to pass time and keep the wallet full. This paid better than I'd earned so far, and with no horses to pay for ( 😛 ), the money just sat in the bank. This was good. I wasn't much of a spender anyway. Purchased clothes. Fancy, pretty stuff. All I wanted. Got hair cuts, purchased make up - the expensive brands..... for the first time in my life, I was doing the "girly" that I should have been doing all through.

My relationship with my parents had improved like I said in the last part. My father stopped seeing me as less of a fool when on one of his visits to my remote home in the mountains, a foreigner friend had come riding by asking to meet. Dad has a bit of a thing for firangs. He hasn't really believed that they don't rule us. White skin, blue eyes, etc person asking to meet me by name and saying no fetching me was needed and he would visit at my convenience!!!! I must be doing something right. (He was one of the neighbours come for a routine chat - no extraordinary respect or achievement involved). But that did help my father see me as something possibly worthy of respect even if I wasn't a doctor or scientist, etc.

So this time around in Mumbai, I was treated to less of the abuse. Also, I think my father mellowed with age. It helped that my "bold" move of moving to the mountains had got a lot of attention and admiration from people. Calls for me to write a book, etc. So I wasn't exactly a "failure". He started treating me as more of an adult, and pushing those achievements at me. Write a book, edit that film.... now these are things I'd have loved to do. Still want to, in fact, but somehow the nagging took all energy away from beginning.

My choice of dress was met with more subtle disapprovals. For example, one fine day I couldn't find any of my best jeans. Three designer jeans - worth about Rs.2,000/- each - a fortune. He pretended innocence and said he'd thrown them away because they were worn and torn. He didn't know they were so expensive. He thought they were old from wear and tear. Yeah right. And all those left over clothes from the mountains that were almost disintegrating on touch were not yet thrown because?

Clothes he thought were revealing had a strange way of being put away in the most obscure places, where I wouldn't find them handy while dressing to go out. "Dad, did you see that brown sleeveless top?" "Oh that! I put it by mistake in your mom's clothes." Huh? A quick raid would find a treasure of sexy tops 😀 Dad was turning into a squirrel.

Make no mistake, these were character judgments, only put across more politely.

Another thing I found about the city was that clothes were crucially important. What you wore was who you were. I thought that that was because that was pretty much the only place where you could publicly own your gender. Everything was asexual, carefully equal. Almost warily. Clothes were you. If you were attractive, sensuous, bold, modest, timid, tomboyish, artistic, austere.... you don't see that so much in more remote areas. But then gender is easily a part of your identity. I was a ghodewali. The only one I knew from my generation, but I never felt a need to be "ghodewala-like". Nor was I ever expected to, other than by city folks who visited. The roles, responsibilities, image.... was different and that was fine. Anyway.... I must stop slipping into the mountains at every opportunity and move on 😀

Mom had been suffering from depression for several years and had quit going out of the house at all. Didn't meet people, didn't take an interest in anything. Had a small list of subject she had strong opinions on, and used to get irrational with those. She once came at me with a stick because I was on the phone for too long. I hastily disconnected the call and calmed her down. She used to hear voices. Was absolutely normal for her to break the silence with a "shut up".

I was convinced she had withdrawn into her own world as a way of coping with all the shit about herself dad told her for years. I think it is quite natural to find a fantasy world when the real one gets too bad to live in. After all, wasn't that what my books brought me in childhood? She was being told too many things about herself that she found ugly, and that was the only feedback about herself that she got for years. She had lost all confidence. The woman who was a working woman in an age of housewifes, who did the Kailash Manasarovar Parikrama before my father, on her own initiative, was now intimidated by the idea of stepping out of the house. Small uglies pile up.

It was a project to convince dad to get treatment for her. He didn't want the shame of having a mad wife. That was when I blew a fuse. I told him that one way or the other she was going to get help and it could happen two ways. The first was that we both reassured her and took her with us and met a doctor. The second was that he resisted and I did whatever it took to get the same result, including getting a group of friends to physically stop him and take her there kicking and screaming. He chose the lesser shame, and mom got treatment.

Her schizophrenia was so severe, that she had to be hospitalized initially because of the drugs she was getting and to watch for adverse reactions. That shook my father. Outside the nursing home, we had a long talk. About her, about any human's need to be loved and accepted, about me, him.... I have never seen him more introspective. A lifetime of brash judgments dissolved, leaving behind a real person. Possibly the only meaningful conversation I have had with him in my life. But we made it count.

I got married again. Proved that I have a talent for picking exactly the wrong person for me, whom I can get along with wonderfully, while dying in prison. I think too much. I challenge too many status quos with devastating honesty. It is intimidating, because disagreeing is irrational, and agreeing demands courage that freaks most people out.

The surprise in our marriage is that I smoke, drink, wear shorts and am loved by my mother-in-law who is THE most orthodox, superstitious, traditional, ritual driven wife of a pujari of a particularly narrow-minded community. We both find each other exasperating and love each other anyway. When things went into a bad phase with the husband once, she was of the opinion that its a woman's lot and all women suffer like this and that her son was being an ass. When in a drunken rage my husband wanted me to get out of the house, her side of the net was clear. "You're my daughter. He doesn't like it, he can leave or you come and stay with me for a while.". The cage is that I must stay married at all cost, because he's a man, so being an ass is something he can't be blamed for. She agrees completely with me, but she accepts that women must suffer. That is all the world she knows. She doesn't think its a woman's place to change the world. She offers solidarity.

I see this echoed all over. It is easier to attack a woman and get away with it. Physically, verbally, emotionally, socially, professionally...

In a drunken moment of remorse, my husband laid it out flat "You are too high. I can't reach there. I am a man. I should have control, so I pull you down. I'd die for you, but I'm scared when you do the kind of things that I want to, but can't."

But then controlling me has frustrated too many, including me. I live too enthusiastically, care too deeply, feel too intensely... to be "allowed". I have slowly come to realize that to have an intimate relationship, I must dumb myself down. Or, I need to accept that I am loved by thousands, but not the ones who really matter, not because I am not lovable, but because it is too much, too close.

Today, I describe myself as a mother and blogger.

8

This is the third of a five part series. Earlier parts are A Life in Clothes - Part 1 : Childhood and A Life in Clothes - Part 2 : Teenage

This then was my grand attempt at freedom. A freedom with the price tag of leaving behind everyone close to me. In other ways, it was better like this. It is far easier to act like there is no shame around being a divorced woman among strangers, because they can't throw the culture book at you.

A clean slate is always easier to write on than a broken one. Not like I had much choice. I could go back and hear about how I was characterless and become a depressed loser like my mom, or I could survive or die trying.

It took me exactly one day to realize that it is one thing to have friends as a girl or married woman, and altogether different when you are "free". Amazing number of puns on this one. All except the one implying real freedom applied. Getting a place to stay becomes a character assessment. My mountaineering friends, who would also be working with me in camps as instructors were looked on with such suspicion or male "understanding", that the decent ones kept away to spare me the embarrassment, and others started changing agendas on me. How I wish the ones who WERE decent hadn't stayed off. How could they be an embarrassment for me? If they were, what's a bucket more or less in the sea? Perhaps they were sparing themselves.

The work suddenly got cut off, and I the only explanation I got was that I was "naive".

I was now dressing to look ugly. Oversize shirts, rigidly tied hair, no jewellery... with my father's tape playing in my head, that I'm dark, I'm ugly I felt a little more better now that I was undesirable. I look back and shake my head in astonishment. Even if I were ugly, seriously, who doesn't notice a twenty year old slim woman? That is our world.

And I was prickly. The tapes were louder. Be modest, head down, encourage men, and you'll get raped. I had no trust in the intentions of anyone whom I didn't know from a safer time, or they were visibly happily married. And then I made friends with the couple. Wise, I suppose, but it was nerve wracking paranoia. I had no girl friends. A "girl like me" didn't meet approvals of families, with the empty home to get into trouble I had. Also, in hindsight, girls didn't like me for the same reason. One friend I did have said her friend avoided me because I was living alone (and her boyfriend was interested in me, whom I didn't want at all.) At the end of the day, I was a girl living alone. While no one obviously seemed to be judging me (tourist town), it was a fair bet that they knew me. I had also heard people speak about other women in ways I'd not like to be spoken about.

The other reason was money. I had very little. My good English had come to the rescue, and I was doing some tutions, but there have been weeks when I survived an entire week on one loaf of bread. Nothing with it. Being too obvious about such things could be dangerous too. Another mark of desperation/availability.

And the insomnia... wondering why me. Wondering if I was safe. Counting tiles on the ceiling. Practicing increasingly obviously meaningless Karate moves (body weight 40kgs 😛 ). Parents called me back. Didn't go. At least I was alive.

It all changed with a cautiously made new friend remarking that I was beautiful. I smiled, continued conversation, but gears were turning in my mind. What did he want? Turns out he really wanted to be a friend, and he really thought I was beautiful and that friendship helped. A lot. Also I realized that people would be noticing me one way or the other. And my enthusiasm for clothes continued.

They became more feminine. Less jeans, more salwar kameezes, saris quite a few times. I had some jewellery with me, I used that. Made friends. And it was a friend who stole the jewellery. Made a police complaint. No one took me seriously. The gold that was my safety net was gone. Well meaning friends called me stupid for wearing it. Their hearts bled for me. Mine was bleeding too. But it wasn't stolen on the street. It was stolen by a person of trust. Who knew full well that it was part of my survival kit. Nor did any of the well wishers offer to do a single thing monetary or otherwise to offer safety in life. This town was getting too small for me.

Time to move on. Coincidentally, parents called to complain that I make them worry. I lost track of the bitter laugh that kept bursting out at this line, but I didn't hold them to blame. But really I made them WORRY? I was living worry because they didn't parent me. I didn't think they meant it. My father has always charmed me as long as I'm not living under his roof (in other words, he's not at fault for my "failures"). Still, family is family. In some visit, they had got me to fill in a form for the HSC Board exams. He was calling because exams were next week. When was I coming? Ah... that explains it.

Frankly, I'd signed the form to keep them shut. I didn't even have textbooks. He kept arguing. Attend and fail, but you must do it. It had been a long time since anyone had even been familiar enough to demand like this. Charmed (yeah, I'm crazy), I returned, got books, gave the exams. Realized that nothing had changed. Prepared to move on.

The chance was round the corner. I got hired as an instructor in children's adventure camps in Manali. Pay was piddly. My interest was "new place" + "far away". Asked to be paid money for the return at the end and I would do it at my own convenience. (in other words, one way, + the all important money on hand).

That was a new phase in life.

To be continued in A Life in Clothes - Part 4 : My Terms