Fashion and the Summer of its Content

Such is the fate of fashionistas that they must follow. And to follow, they need to keep up lest the trend pass them by. So it is each season, and so it nearly was – but not. The Delhi fashion scene may pretend to be with it during the sponsored fashion weeks, but we know that if anything, Delhi figures on the real fashion map only as the guardian of the traditional. Not orthodox, but the traditional. Fashion is reflected here truly as fusion, where Milanesque elements fuse seamlessly with the mores of Munirka’s back streets. Gasp if you will, for you, surely are not one of those, who follow, are you? You create your own style. If you are one of us, and I count myself amongst them, then rejoice. For fashion wise, this has been the summer of our content.

Delhi has always been at the centre of the fashion routes of the world, even as it stands under-acknowleged for its graceful and pragmatic adaptations – witness the story of the Anarkali, bringing all the graceful elements of the world’s courts into one perfect sweep that survives long past the empires that made it so. Today, borrowing our fashion sense from the summers at Cannes, the ramps at Milan, the exporters from Pakistan, the relatives in London and the commencement parties in Boston, Delhi has always known how to blend with the rest of the world. Listen to it’s accent – but that is for another day. And Delhi has always known to make it uniquely it’s own style with the flowing textiles that have never been in lack here – this is the land when any aunty will promptly tell you a rubia from a two by two with a supercilious air, as she will tell you the difference between a semi pashmina and a ‘real’ pashmina, while flinging the false one pretentiously over her shoulder. We live our comforts, not our delusions.

Like the alignment of the moon years to solar years, sometimes one finds oneself in asynchronous space. The seasons changed and we just missed the straight salwar phase that was big in Lahore last year. But we were not going to actually miss it, were we – how could we – that would be defeat. In any case, it was new here, and oh, so comfortable. Then salwars were so passe – only grand aunts wore them anymore. Churidaars had morphed into skin tight stretchable leggings, often in colours of mud. The battle for the invisible bottoms, as leggings were often called in street shops, was best left to the young ones – the one who did not dare to be seen in a simple frock and needed the pretence of garment. Did I not say the back lanes of Munirka and Subhash Chowk created their own rules? Rules were not being broken but the great Indian patriarchy was brought tantalising, teasingly into a bottomless present. That too entered and remained in the fashion lexicon of this summer. Of course all leggings were not as mud, they entered in a riot of colours, often replacing the salwars of old, pretending to be the trousers denied to many, and sometimes – if rarely- remaining the sports garments that they were in the rest of the world.

In this fusion of past forms transmuting to a desirable future, the last season meeting the anticipation of the next, and the simple pragmatism of materials and forms that work in the severity of the summer, Delhi’s fashion finally found freedom. Or – indulge me here – the degrees of freedom rose with the degrees on the city’s temperature. It was hot and dry, unprecedentedly so. There was no point to make up, it was too hot. What was the point of being a follower of other styles – it was too hot. Can we please just breathe – it is too hot. The fashion gods who hold us to the mode smiled. And so we have the summer of the medley.

Delhi has erupted in a gorgeous festival of shapes and colours, the only common theme being a delightful, mature and self confident comfortable elegance. Cotton shararas mingle with printed trousers as comfortably as long ghararas, or even divided ghaghras co-exist comfortably with stitched lungi patialas (or whatever those wretched beasts are called). We never saw the cullotes really disappear, but their gentle swing could be seen in the streets along with the more formal – pant like pajama. (Call it what you will, the salwar sans its pauncha is a pajama. And it is perfect). Everything worked, this summer – and there was a riot of shapes. Anything one wore was ‘in’ at the moment. The fashion motto of the season seemed to be, ‘whatever works’.

Joining in were the kurtas and kurtis of the world, starting with the extra long anarkalis, the ones that often looked like prom dresses even without the prim tights peeking out at the ankles. They thankfully gave way to the clean lines of muslin long kurtas, cut straight over the flare of the cotton shararas. Happy to defer to the lead provided by ‘lowers’ (oh yes, Delhi has the least elegant of names for a city this well dressed), the uppers were crafted with an unerring sense of proportion. And so we saw the season bloom with a variegation that had rarely come to pass – the longs, the less than longs and the short joined with the I lines and the A lines, possibly meeting other letters of the alphabet in their quest for the look. Silhouettes that had rarely met each other in a single season were co-mingling shamelessly under the severe sun in Delhi.

And so it came to pass – that we – who seek style but not fashion, who aim to be distinct and yet a la modè, found that our season had come. We were the mode, since everyone seemed to have discovered their own style too, regardless of what the influencers told them. It may not last, so for a moment, let us celebrate this summer that brought us to ourselves and our sartorial sentience.

Marks, and paths Ahead

Result season. Result week. Result day! Doom and Hope, you swing wildly between the two, finally learning what the word amplitude really means. They arrive – and you take it on the chin. Except for the toppers, who had better be whooping with delight, the rest of us tend to be hard on ourselves.

Of course we know that marks are just a means, they are not life itself. We know that good marks can take us places we want to go, and poor marks can take us to different places. So we assume that the known pathways are good and safe, and we celebrate. And the unknown are difficult, and dangerous and awful – they say – so we worry. But are they really?

For some of us, these marks make our lives, for others, life makes up for marks.

So here is how I’m going to flip it today.

Basically, they say, you have two paths, the safe, well known, well lit road that everyone has already traveled. And this will let you zip past the tough terrain on the side of the road and get you to flashy places sooner rather than later.

Right by its side is the open countryside – and the terrain is a bit rocky, often smooth – and along this you have paths, and then you have other possibilities. This too is a way to get on, and along this journey you may encounter some adventures. Meet different types of people. Learn to take your own decisions because you may not have someone always telling you what to do (not such a bad thing, is it?). You will discover your strengths and your advantages – and will learn to pursue them to survive this path. You will have fun, and pain. You will live the full range of your emotions and will become the person you build.

When you look at your friends on the fast road, some might look as if they have zipped ahead. If they are your real friends, it won’t ever – ever – matter as you stop to share a meal or a story. When you look at your lot, it might look different. For some, faster, as you learnt to fly, or found a bird to cling to, for some it would have been slower. Some would have found hidden treasure along the way, some would have built a fort. Some would have continued to trod ahead, looking for more. Some would have learnt to walk better, some would have mastered the milestones. You are still mid journey, so it may not be time to judge yet. You are still building yourself, and your path – and thence your destination and destiny.

Some of you would have zipped along on the well laid path. And done well for yourselves. Reached a destination, made something of yourselves – as the world sees it. Some of you would have had the time to stop and see the stars, but many of you would have missed many chances to be yourself and to be with those you love. It is a part of the fast track, it is hard work. As hard, or harder than the other path. It brings its own securities and insecurities, its own challenges.

And then, you and your friends may find yourself looking across from one path to the other, wondering, whose grass is greener?

Some of us wonder if the fast track was where we were meant to be, and the rest of us wonder whether we missed out on the deep and delicious pathways of discovery.

Some of you will cross over, others will have found their comfort. Both paths can lead to success, both paths have comfortable hidey holes. On either path you will find those who stumbled, and some who crashed. On both paths you will find those who fell, and fell again, and picked themselves up again. And again. Either path can leave you lost and bewildered. Either path can push you forward, and onward.

One day you will realise that the paths are merely the means. They are choices and chances you got, and took. Or left. Ultimately, your journey is your own – the journey through yourself, when you learn what makes you happy, and what makes you cry; what angers you and what makes you reach out from within yourself to share; what makes you feel your own music. And to get there, the fast track or the slow, the well laid path or the one barely marked, the led or the discovered – whichever path you take, you get to yourself through equal parts of pain and joy.

You, who hold ‘results’ today think you are holding keys to paths ahead. Use them well, but know that the paths that you do not choose today, or the paths that did not choose you today still await you. Whatever you do, whatever you become, you will go through heaven and hell on each path, and with the pieces of each success and failure you will build yourself everyday. And you will finally arrive at whatever makes you really happy, because you would have built it for yourself, your way.

 

 

the its

I noticed it in hairstyles first. Everyone seemed to have the same one. Dismissed that thought – after all, that is what fashion meant, did it not? That something would be in vogue for a while, everyone would join in, and then it would change. And as it mysteriously morphed to the next season, so would we…follow suit. We see this with clothes all the time.

But put it down to growing up in India, clothes never seemed to be similar. I lived in cities, so there were always some traditionalists, some who would wear the latest cloth and cut, others who would be in the seasons colours (colour as seasonal fashion took years to catch on anyway), and the rest were in sarees anyway. To a child all sarees were either traditional or ‘synthetic’. Of course there was a sameness as fashions came and went – but there were so many thousands of colours, prints and patterns in each that they all looked unique. I’ve never seen a print replicated in the (now) many years that I have lived. I am sure they are, for I see yardage in the shops, and each of us buys only between two and six metres – but the variety is so plentiful and the distribution so widespread that to find a duplicate is tough. Unless one looks at the few shops at the top end that seem to distinguish themselves by offering only a very few designs each year – here, one runs the risk of finding an overpriced duplicate.

This is what I see everywhere – at the posh end, everything looks the same. Look at pictures of people’s drawing rooms. You will see the same things. Soft yellow lighting, pale cream walls. Dark wooden carvings brought in from travels across the world (or picked up from the local market fair), statement paintings that dominate one wall, smaller ones arranged like window panes on another. The steps invariably with family photographs. The balance of light to dark is the same, the proportions identical. The carpets Persian, the sofas geometrical or plain. One could be in any house, and they would all look the same.

For that matter, so would any hotel. At least the tucked away clubby parts of the best hotels. Lounges and restaurants now try to look like homes, and homes try to look like commercial lounges. Easy on the designers – everyone wants to look differently in exactly the same way.

It’s not just hairstyles, or rooms – it is everything. And it is possibly not new. When being fat was a thing, everyone wanted to be fat, now fit is a thing, everyone rushes to join in (surely this is enlightened self development, ya? ya, ok). But then everyone wants to be fit in exactly the same way. It is the fad that counts for most, not the fitness. Or whatever it is that is the norm.

Of course it has to be be this way, by definition. The norm is what defines what is normal. To be normal is to fit into that little box of what other people do. The more people do it, the bigger the box – look, they are making room for you to join them. It is the magnanimity of the mode, it has room for more. The big fat mode in the middle, that, my dears is fashion. Or to use it’s mothertongue – a la modè. This is the party you are invited to, and if you are of the club you will know exactly what will be served, and where it will be placed. Of course, everyone is trying to keep up, to out do others by doing exactly the same thing.

What of those who are uncomfortable wearing other people’s skins? Who are not of the tribe?

Is there a tribe of the untribed? The untribable? Those who will not be tamed, who will not join in.Those who will not utter the next words of the scripted inane chatter, even if they are not shy and know how to play the game. What does one call these people who seek to free themselves from the modal mundane? Who are they – can one even call them by the collective ‘they’? The its. They are the its.

Trouble is, everyone follows the its, copies them, and they are soon the mode. The rage, ah the rage. The race to out-it the (neo)Its (mark the capitalisation) is probably the only real one, it is the only thing that keeps one out of the abyss of the modal w(h)ell.

The Secret Every Traveller Carries

To travel through a place could mean anything, or even be totally meaningless. You could have been that business traveler who had their nose stuck in their laptop through the entire journey, barely looking up to acknowledge the concierge who would seamlessly move them into the next bubble where work could continue. With their head in their business, and their bodies being handed over from one care giver to another, the business traveler knows much about a place, and yet nothing at all. As much or as little as the vagabond, who travels to discover themselves. Their head up in the clouds, or even all a-cloud, their sense of wonder so keen that even the obvious and the commonsensical acquires an aura that it does not deserve. A haze so deep that all that they see around them is coloured by it, and their need to bring meaning, their own meaning to it. That is their quest.

For others, that just might be their failing. They travel to see the world, but they are mere visitors. They bring their own meaning to everything they see. You see them everywhere, gazing upon new sights just as they gazed upon the old. They pass through, noting what they see, and yet not what they will not see. They too are guests, careful to pass through but not make anything their own. There are those, then, who touch every shiny object they pass, that has been touched before, and they must mark it to show the others who come after them how important they are because they have been touched. They are tourists who must be on their way, they have itineraries and places to be, things to touch.

Then there are those of us who travel, who float in and out of ourselves, tempted at every turn – we follow the piper’s tune. We become one with where we are, not realising that we may lose ourselves to the siren song. Anything could call us, and we would be there, listening to the stories from beyond. A mighty river, rising through rock and gorge, twisting seductively and disappearing beyond the bend. A tantalising spray of mist cast to call us yonder, she might beckon. Some of us will give in, seduced by the moment, some of us will answer the call, and walk as she wills, by her side. We will be in thrall, and walk away from it all, just to be with her. She will twist and she will loop, glinting at us through sun and shine, and we will smile with her. We would have walked miles away from our selves in that one moment when she looked at us invitingly, we would have traveled endlessly in that moment, not realising that we were just that – travellers. But she would know, and she would send us back to ourselves, back to the place where we began.

We would now look like all the others who had only come to visit, and we would pretend to be one of them. Were we not the practiced traveler, well versed in the ways of the world? We would rejoin the race for the sights we had seen – the mightiest river, the tallest peak, the widest bend, the largest crossing, the curviest road and more. We would look like all of them, the guests, the tourists, the visitors. But we were not them, for we had known our river, our mountain, our view. Our flowers had sung to us, and we had breathed in the sun. We carried them with us, like secret lovers: once you have kissed so deep you can never really leave. Because, for that one moment, you have become the other. You have traveled to their very being, and they have into yours. That path you walk, that monument you admire, it was yours, and only yours for that moment when you traveled it. Your feet were sure, your stories true for the stones spoke to you. You knew their soul and they had seen yours, you were one for a moment. You were the traveler, and you were transformed.

And as you go back to your daily life, you know nothing will be mundane again.

Packing Light

“And we are going to need an extra suitcase for you”, the man smiled deceptively. Years of marriage had taught him to snark with a smile. Years of marriage had not taught me to walk away from a challenge. Suckered, I snapped back, “Of course not! I can live for a month out of hand-baggage allowed on a flight!”

And there we were, off for a month with little access to washing machines or even friend’s homes and all my luggage in my pull along suitcase and handbag. No more than a strict airline would allow. We were going to be on the road with the boys cycling the Rhine with occasional visits to colleagues whose towns fell along the cycling routes. That meant clothes for cycling, trekking, sightseeing, visiting and dining (think shoes people, just footwear for all this takes up a whole suitcase!). Oh, and weather – it might rain, or be colder in the mountains closer to the origin (we were tracing a river after all) and warmer in the valleys.

No, I did not repeat clothes, did not wear them again without washing. Nope, no compromises on ensembles – I was not going to wear a yellow top with purple trousers because that’s all fit in the suitcase. But yes, oh yes, a lot of shopping over the years made this happen. And learning from mistakes. Think light, think materials. Think combinations. Think essentials. And try not to think synthetics, though one cannot really avoid that completely.

So here are my ten rules for packing light – and that’s your shopping list too. It took me twenty years to assemble this, with online shopping it may take you no more than twenty minutes.

  1. Choose a colour palette for your holiday – My coolest #protip is to choose a set of 2-3 colours for that holiday so that you can mix and match to create the look of the day. Incredibly useful in case of that inevitable wardrobe mishap – you can easily wear another from those at hand. The most useful colour palette that has worked all over the world for me is red, black and ivory. All three of them go well with each other, and individually. With 3 pcs of each, I get 27 outfits right there! That’s enough for a month!
  1. Layering – The secret to being prepared for everything is layering. Snowing outside? Sure, 5-7 layers on. Sunny and warm – let’s go with 2-3 layers. Beach? Shall we start with 2 layers? The trick is to shop wisely for layers that can work well as beachwear or boardroom wear. No compromise on quality here. The standard set of layers in addition to underwear (choose them wisely, they are more essential to your wellbeing than any other layer) would be a camisole, a tight shirt(look for fine cotton Tshirts), another (T) shirt, a warm layer, a tight jacket with pockets, an outer rain proof jacket. And a stole or a shawl. #protip The perfect semi-pashmina. Carry it everywhere in your hand, around your neck or strung on to your purse. It’s your blanket on the flight, your stylish wrap at the party, your only friend at the top of the snowy mountain and of course your casual cover for whatever trouble you find yourself in that day. Mine, of course, is red.
  1. Sturdy essentials – Invest in sturdy essentials that you can rely upon. A good pair of shoes that are not heavy. Unless you are professional runner or lumberjack you can manage for ages with simple walking shoes. The heavier ones are tiring after a while and remember, we are allowed just the one bag this time! A lovely pair of walking slip ons does for most parties and visits. I pay four times the market price for these simple beauties but they have lasted me over eleven years now (only to be ruined by the local mochi who put nails through the worn out soles). Resole them, polish them, look after them. They will keep all your stories safe. Invest in a good jacket, tiny torch, zipped wallet, and the other lovely gizmos they keep advertising. Just invest in quality, something you can trust for twenty years else you’ll only be traveling with unreliable rubbish. My #protip? A sleeveless waterproof stretchy jacket (gilet) with at least five pockets, one passport sized. It has been my constant companion.
  1. Quick dry materials – Pack only materials that dry quickly and don’t need drycleaning. You can easily wash them in your hotel sink if you don’t find a laundromat. If you must and can handle them, do take synthetics. I personally love muslins, fine cottons and simple silks, even crepè, that wash and dry really fast on a hanger over the bathtub. Desi of me, you say? Uh-aah-nope. Sensible. And the whole world does it, just ask. Why do you think many hotels have that string pull thing over the tub? Yea, just don’t dry wet clothes on upholstery or wood, you don’t want to stain or damage your hotel room. #protip After wringing out the water from washed clothes roll them in the hotel towel to half dry them. Then place them in hangers where you can see them flutter in the fan/airconditioning or in the bathroom. Oh, and if you see a 4 hour laundromat that will fold your clothes too, just do it! Even if more than half your stuff is still fresh.
  1. Shop small, shop sturdy – Build your collection of small versions of essentials. The folding toothbrush, the miniature perfume bottle, the interlocking cutlery set, the tiny silk top that stretches when worn. There’s so much fun stuff out there. It is tempting to buy a lot of junk too, but that is a strict no no. The rule is – would you show this off to your granny and not be scolded for wasting money? Multifunctional stuff is cool too, I swear by the mini-money belt though its not money that I keep there -I keep essential medicines to hand in case of a coughing fit or allergic reaction etc. The tiny toothbrush stays in one of the jacket pockets – gotta stay shiny in long haul travel.  #ProTip Keep a mini version, or a part of all essentials to hand in various pockets on your person, just ensure you keep coins in your jacket pocket not trouser pocket. You’ll figure out why😀
  1. Roll pack – Packing techniques are as important as the stuff you pack. I am a firm believer in the roll packing technique though I have been known to use the daypack method as well. If you roll each item of clothing it does not need ironing when you take it out and a tight roll means less space in the suitcase. #proTip Fill up trouser pockets with essentials for the day such as socks before you roll them up. This way, no hunting when unpacking for the day!
  1. Don’t waste space on boxes and bags to sort stuff – you know those fancy ‘toilette’ bags they sell in gift and pharma stores. The ones you see in the movies. Total waste of space. Use tiny stretchy mobile phone covers or tiny click-purses to sort miniature versions of your essentials. Really, how many can you have that are really essential and not already in your inner jacket pocket. If you did not need it on a 10 hour flight, it is not essential. Don’t pack it. #protip A tiny bag for 3-4 essential meds/first aid might be a good idea as it helps to find them fast. All the rest can be packed without casing, or in a tiny polythene. Hey, we are showing off our one suitcase here, not the cabbage roses on toothpaste bags!
  1. Go generic – Let’s not be fussy for the holiday about eye-creams vs. lip-balms vs. neck creams. A salve is a salve and a simple chapstick does equally well everywhere and comes in its own handy twist up packaging to boot. Same with soap. Any soap will do even to wash your essentials. The hotel shampoos foam well, so better for the larger clothes. If you read the ingredients of the fancy brands and your generics, they are about the same. On a budget holiday I’ve been known to use dishwashing liquid in a washing machine (in reasonable quantities) – and yes the kids in my group laughed at me then. But no one was laughing when I had freshly laundered everything and no extra soap to pack for the next destination! One lipstick is enough if it is ‘your’ shade. Minimise. And for the guys: A deo is an essential. It’s minimise, not compromise. Super #protip Take tiny bottles of talc/powder if you are not planning to check in your bags.
  1. Estimate how much you can afford to buy on the go – that’s risk management. What could go wrong if I did not pack my whole room, my wardrobe, my bookshelf and all that I keep around me everyday?! It’s anxiety that makes us over pack. Calm down. You can always buy stuff locally. It is likely that there are some people who do live along your travel route and destination. They might be different cultures and may live differently but they do have all the essentials one needs for human survival available to them. Try it their way for once. Suddenly cold? Buy a shawl from the local street market. Warm? Try a local dress. Out of toothpaste? Try soap (again, read the ingredients, its almost the same). Toilet paper vs. water? Go local!!! Before leaving home just check local supermarket prices. I was shocked to see how expensive phones were in Toronto – because I was so used to picking up a cheap set and sim for calls on other holidays. Obviously we did not buy and managed for four whole days like it was the 1990s – yes tough times😀.  Pack what you cannot afford to purchase out there. Here comes the #protip: In an expensive country ask the hotel/hostel staff where they shop for essentials. (Though one day I will tell you the story of how that led us to the local hand-weapons market!)
  1. Gifts, Sweets and Snacks: Do we travel anywhere without gifts? Again, buy locally. Exotic stuff isn’t really useful across borders. If you must, then buy gifts that are really tiny to pack. For the past few years all I have gifted is jewellery to those I visit in other countries. One gets it in all price ranges, and it is all really pretty. So some will get glass beads and some pearl strings, depending upon what is appropriate. Simple silver chains, bracelets – they are all lovely presents and do not take up as much space as a book. Which they could buy locally anyway. Sweets from your country? Ah, here is where I break the one suitcase rule without really breaking it. Buy it at the airport so it does not have to go into the suitcase. You’d have bought it after it was weighed, and it is in an airport shopping bag anyway. Doesn’t count that way😀. It is impractical to buy sweets for anyone past the first destination, it would surely go bad. Surely, I said. Right. It will. No arguments there. Oh, and snacks for yourself for that after party when you were so pleased with yourself at having had an early dinner? Here comes the #protip for those hunger pangs – Dates, chocolate (1 slab max) and almonds. You’ll be surprised at how far they take seasoned travellers.

And a Bonus (xi) for my dear friends who asked about light packing if you are going to be travelling to a wedding. Slinky silks, my dears. And strappy sandals. They are easy to pack. And accessorise with as much or as little as you please. If it is an Indian wedding you can pick up matching bling in any city, its fun to get out and shop a bit! And for anywhere else, just pack those three strings of pearls for layering if you need to go euro-bling. That’s as much as anyone ever needs to stand out and travel tall.

Oh, as for the challenge I took on? Of course I won. A whole month in one suitcase. For once, I traveled lighter than the boys. No, not telling you of the stuff I snuck into their bags. If they did not notice it, it doesn’t change the win.

(C) Meeta Sengupta

Meeta Sengupta is a writer who has traveled a lot, on all sorts of budgets and with a range of people. She is infamous for her ‘back-up’ packing, and has been known to produce the right type of spork for feeding a child in the middle of a precarious drive through distant moors.

Migrations

The only wonder is that we have not been able to accept migrations as natural and inevitable – we stand up to them, putting up picket fences, boundaries and pushing migrants back with batons and holding them away with electric wires. The ebb and flow of humanity is the nature of life on earth, and your notions of nationalism merely a reflection of limited memories, if I am to be kind, and of greed, if I am to be brutal. Fear and Greed was the mantra taught on Wall Street, the movie said so too. Our lives and our boundaries are dominated by fear and greed. We have clawed this piece of the earth for ourselves, fashioned it just in our image, and the shape of our aspirations and we will protect it with everything we have. Nothing can come in and change it – so what if all the world is about change. We will defy nature, and its people, for we claim our air. We shall not let it flow.

And yet, the land that you claim sovereignty upon has more tales to tell than yours. You sit here today claiming its history and rights, maybe not even knowing how you came upon it. Do you know the stories of what wave of migration brought you here? Were you amongst those that traveled to conquer but stayed to love? Or were you amongst those who were left behind, too weak to move and not worth the trouble? Were you amongst those carried along with the glamour of the day, seeking new land and new hope? Were you a nomad, a gypsy, did you call yourself so? Did you know where you would rest, did you even know your quest? Or did you just follow the gold, the greed leading you on? You were not a migrant, surely, as you moved.

Maybe you moved along rivers, your people spreading out as prosperity reigned. Maybe your people crossed mountains again and again, driven by arraign. Prove it, prove that you belong. Prove that you belong to victory not defeat. Was it victory or defeat that carried you through, away and far past the land your grandparent’s grandparents called their own. Did you know them? Or their stories? Did the stories you read to your children carry tales of the land you left? Or did they merge with the land you laid your head rested upon. Our stories traveled, and moved along the globe. The stories tell the tale of how we moved. We are the dust of the stories that migrated.

Your food, your language, your stories, your clothes – none of these are truly yours. They come from the migrations of the past. Your gene pool is not a pool. It is a part of the great ocean of humanity. We do not differ in our genes as much as we differ in its expression. We are, as we know, brothers and sisters under our skin. We are one species. Each time we raise our voices and swords against each other, we mirror each other. We rise to protect our land against others, just as others had risen to welcome or fight us when we arrived. We may not remember the stories of our coming but our fears do remember. Our fears remember what it was like to be in front when we moved to the next unknown, and our fears remind us of the promises we made never to let it rise again. Each time you hear yourself speak about ‘them’ any them, listen carefully. You will hear your fears speak, for these fears have traveled far, they have traveled with you in your migrations. Wave upon wave, the story of mankind is the story of migrations – both in the sending and the receiving.

Diwali – The pragmatism of order, aesthetics and design

Diwali is a special day for myriad reasons, but I realise I’ve always loved it because it marks the confluence of contradictions. It is a worship of the materialistic aspects of life, yet it marks the spiritual journey to materialism. It marks pragmatism in the light of potential. It speaks of order, yet stimulates chaotic levels of churn. It glorifies aesthetics, yet lays down no standards, allowing each to discover their own. It is about form and function coming together towards a purpose – and in doing so it calls on the designers of success to craft their own pathways. A festival of resources and results. It is eternal, with the promise of many more, and yet it is immediate – and urgent call to do well now. A festival of re-invention, to end the old and start anew. For tomorrow is the start of another year to succeed, and succeed again.

The victory of good over evil is welcomed home because we know this is what prosperity looks like – it looks like order, grace, organisation, and competence. We celebrate these in thanks each Diwali, hoping that the next one is even better. And as we sit down for the puja, we ensure that we allocate time to reflect on the meaning of it all. Intent is a powerful part of anything that we do, including our periods of worshipful reflection. Diwali is a pragmatic festival, it is an annual marker in the cycle of human endeavour. To a farmer, an academic, a businessman, or a student, or to any other, Diwali offers a chance to reflect on success. And a chance to resolve what success will look like in the year ahead.

In grateful submission to circumstance, we first take a moment to reflect on the hurdles in our path and the resources we need to cross these hurdles. For most of us who celebrate it, this is made manifest in the shape of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, the one who must be worshipped before all others. Prosperity follows wisdom and needs discipline, detachment and the ability to work with limited resources. In this, the first puja – worshipful and complete attention is paid to this idea where one resolves to analyse situations and create a path through them cutting through the bindings of past experience or karma. For a society that values traditions so much, it is very mature to recognise the siren call of past experience and its deep influence on how we make decisions for the future. That wisdom lies in breaking away from the bindings of the past, and that this is the the effort that will make future ventures successful is a profound lesson for every seeker. Our karma (shadows, memories, tendencies, templates-there are various levels of understanding of this term) hold us back and it is our mortal duty to move away towards enlightenment. This paves the way to Shri.

The worship of Shri is at the centre of Diwali, and she is made manifest in the form of the goddess Lakshmi. From a simple harvest festival to a celebration of aesthetics and a state of grace, Ma Lakshmi embodies the ideal we seek in our lives. We wish each other prosperity and light, but we leave the questio of the means and the ends to the seeker. For some it is about money, a simple linear improvement in business. But for most it is much more. Diwali and its Shree calls on something deeper than the mere philistine within. We clean our houses, ritually marking the changing of the seasons and therefore both, the raising of standards and the responsive resource reallocation. We tidy up, marking the need for order and aesthetics to come together to create design for functioning prosperity. We visit each other, sharing our prosperity and good news – recognising that no success belongs to one person alone. Nor would it be possible to sustain even purely pecuniary prosperity without a network of useful associations.

We mark the rule of law, and safety too with Diwali. Rama is supposed to have returned on this day, and the north Indian worship brings him to the centre – we rejoice the return of this king not because he was loved. By all accounts the people were very fond of him though his story doesn’t reveal much about a remarkable emotional quotient. We rejoice because his rule represents stability which is essential to business prosperity. Cannot imagine that the ease of doing business index was a cause of concern there, though one wonders how tolerant they were of incessant and inevitable call drops. They say that in that kingdom people could leave their doors unlocked – and on Diwali we pray for such low crime rates that will enable us to direct the goddess of wealth Lakshmi into our open homes. We open our hearts to our own potential, and resolve to be the light – grounded in the wick that fuels it, and pervasive in our impact.

As children, we celebrated, awestruck by the plenitude. The lights, sweets, savouries, shiny clean homes, glittering covers, fireworks. Everything shone, and the world came alive with the sound of laughter and joy. Some gambled the nights away, even what was evil on other days became sacred on this night – for who could deny the wilful nature of fortune. We knew that with every call to bounty we were taking a chance. She could come, or not, as she willed. All we could do was our very best to please her, to design our offerings with sense and sensibility, so that she would come and grace us. We wanted her to stay, but marked the impermanence of such hope with fresh flowers that would wither, with earthen lights that would just stay the night and be crushed again to dust on the morrow, with fireworks that light up the moment leaving us with smoke and remains. For this is what real dreams do, they bring us to glory. But no glory can last, and for every next step we have to build again.

The only promise that Diwali brings is that it will come again, and once again we will set out to reinvent and redesign our fortunes.

Class, Codes, Consent

Of course it is creepy if someone from another ‘class’ makes overtures, @parodevi you are right in observing this. (Thank you @anjakovacs for asking). But I would want to pause a moment to figure out what this class thing means. Does it mean money, or caste, or this nebulous thing called background? I think not. I think the word class in this context means someone who understands social boundaries in the same way as the person receiving the overture.

So, if I am comfortable hugging, and even receiving a peck on the cheek in public from a friend, I will do so only if the friend is from the same class – the class that understands that there is nothing sexual in the hug and kiss, that it means nothing more than affection and carries no signals other than saying – I care for your welfare. In accepting and responding to that hug and kiss, I will be responding with the same sentiment – godspeed, go your way, and I go mine, with the warmth and affection of our friendship that makes us feel good. In another ‘class’ I would express the same sentiments with a Rakhi, a piece of string tied to a brother to signal affection, warmth, caring and a promise to be there to help if required. Neither of these ‘classes’ will really get the other side simply because in their heads they have a different set of signal-to-meaning coding systems. Its a different cypher, a different code book. Some people can read more than one code book, not all.

Each class carries its own signals and to mix classes is to mix the signals. There is nothing ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ in class here – it is just that they have different norms. These do not make one better than the other. If there is something normative here, I’d add that a more tolerant, accepting and nimble version is obviously a smarter and more intelligent version. A more complex set of signals exists in ‘classes’ that have set up protocols whether explicit or implicit, and those that have the benefit of being ‘in the class’ are obviously more deft at handling it, outsiders are shown up easily. This is why class becomes a sensitive issue – because it can hurt the ego and make outsiders out of anybody. We are a gregarious species, and we live in groups. To be ‘outclassed’ hurts. At the expense of reason, we react with emotion.

Class matters even more when the signals are liable to be judged as sexual. I’d like to recount a tale – I took a piece of black silk to the local tailor and was curtly informed that I’d need a lining as it was too transparent. A traditional handwoven silk that I have been wearing for decades was risque and suggestive to the mind of that (lady) tailor. Obviously, she and I do not move in the same circles though we are related by marriage across three families. She and I do not share the same notions of what constitutes a signal, and so, she and her people are not people I can be comfortable with – we are not in the same class. “It’s a dress, not a yes”, read a poster. This is what I wanted to tell the tailor, it is a dress, not a signal in my ‘class of people’. We wear what we choose and know that a no means no, there will be no force or suasion after that. Or mention. To discuss it would be to live in the trivial.

Delhi is one of many cities that is full of people who wear thick, layered clothes through the day, in the streets or as they go about their work and short, light clothes in the evening as they party. This is not hypocrisy. It is simply being responsive to the signals that are exchanged across classes. In the day as they interact with various types/classes, they seek the safety of the lowest common denominator. In the evening, when they are sure of not being misunderstood, they can be themselves in whatever they are comfortable wearing. The predators have different rules, different signals here – a simple short dress, or a simple alcoholic drink are not signals in this class.

So yes, when ‘classes’ intermingle, there is trouble and confusion due to mixed signals. Nothing wrong with that, as long as there is an agreed mechanism to sort out the confusion. A ‘frand’ request is different from a ‘friend request’ only because the social boundaries at each step are different. A ‘frand’ is likely to be over friendly, to want to become a part of my life by wanting to know too much, or engage a bit too closely. A friend on the other hand knows their limits. Because you see, each of us has different personal barriers, and a different pace at which we open the gates to our time, tolerance and attention. Our class, we assume, understands our pace, and the pacing. Those who do not get relegated, it would seem. Those who are ‘outside’ this classroom have not practiced this dance, this rhythmic pace of stepping forward, tentatively, formally and not crossing the invisible lines on the floor. To creep over and cross these lines is definitely creepy. It is creepy because it is a recognition of the fact that the lines crossed were invisible to the outsider, and therefore one needs to put up barriers, because they do not have the self restraint or the ability to see gentler lines. Maybe they were in a different dance class😀

Each one of us has a ‘class’ of our own, often family, where the signals are equally subtle but clear to us because of the high context nature of the gathering. These have been repeated so often in different ways that they are deeply embedded, therefore comfortable and invisible at the same time. We would not even realise that they are not apparent to an outsider, unless we are that outsider. (In a traditional patriarchal household the newly wed bride is often ‘outclassed’ in this manner, and our television serials bear enough witness to the joys of this when used as a game, as it can be). The hashtag #Iamsomiddleclass is a signal too, an assertion of shared codes. Is it in response to any other class and their behaviours? Possible, maybe? We let this pass for now.

On moving from a small town to a big city I remember feeling hurt by distant greetings from people I had spent hours with just the previous day. As we do in small towns, I had included them in my circle, the new one I was forming in this vast and unfamiliar place, but clearly this was not so in fast paced big cities where often individuals pass by in just a blur. This is an experience that has been validated by many small town people who come to cities, the immigrant experience (not going to talk about race here) and so much more. Was this rejection an affront to my ego? (Duh, no) Was I not in their ‘class’? When I now ignore others am I playing a ‘class’ game? Not really, it is just about pace, place and signals. The town mouse has learnt a set of signals that country mouse cannot like at first. But the town mouse, the (upwardly-downwardly-laterally) mobile mouse and others must realise, this is not always about ‘class’ in the sense of better or worse but about class in the sense of shared codebooks.

Oh, and if you want a peek at the other codebooks all you have to do is watch the behaviours and model them. There are courses available too, but there is nothing smarter than a nimble mouse, be it town or country. One who watches and learns the ways of the invisible maze, learning not to cross the line unless signaled. Yes, this is the nub of it: class is about consent.

(This really should be a proper essay, maybe oneday….. )

(Postscript: Will this be misunderstood? Sure it will. I think that is the point it is making. As long as the responses are civil, we are in the same room and can talk)

The Wind

The light was soft in this corner, the harsh sun filtered through the gentle green creepers that crowded around the window as if trying to get closer to her. Barred by the iron grill, they peeped in nonetheless, nodding approval each time the wind sang and breezed its way past them to gently touch the tendrils of soft hair that had come loose through the morning. She did not notice the breeze that played with her hair. Ignored, it gave up. Only to come back as if irresistibly drawn. Each rejection sent it sulking into a corner, immobilised by her cold indifference. Then again, something stirred, and it went a’calling again, winding itself around her, waiting for her to notice.

Her eyes were lowered, intent on the book on the table. She sat in a straight backed chair facing the open window, seeing nothing. If she raised her eyes, it was only in deep thought. Her eyes saw nothing of the outside, they were far too busy with the world she was creating within her. Her black ink pen flew fast over the paper, the words tumbling out impatiently, finding shape, and meaning and reason. It was as if they had been trapped too long and it was time to come out and play. Some played truant, running out in reckless abandon, only to be forever imprisoned in the sharp horizontal strokes of the pen. Curly lines meandering purposefully, all coursing through as if a young river. She wrote in confident strokes, her story was telling itself. In that tiny room, constrained by the bars on the window, her story was free to escape.

Her eyes were large and grey, limpid pools as if blank of emotion. Eyebrows a gentle arch, as if containing a temper that rose with her will and fell with her wants. She wrote for hours while there was light, her lips quivering along with the twists in the story. There were days when they settled into a gentle smile at the end of the day. But there were other days when they were silent, straight, slightly pulled down at the corners. The story she wrote was not always happy, though she knew that most wanted it so. Everyday she strove towards happiness, holding it off then, and again. Because happiness would mean the ending. There can be no story after happiness. It reeks of failure to have found happiness and then lost it. Of a carelessness that can only be beneath one. To let oneself down in a way that one could not bear to meet oneself again. Who wants to befriend the callous? No, happiness was best saved up, a promise, like that pot at the edge of a rainbow. Even if you were sitting on it, it is the rainbow that would always be more special.

So she wrote, everyday. She wrote of a world where there were many twists in the road, so many that no one could tell whether it led to the town or to the woods. It depends on which way you look at it, they said. You could be going here, and then again, you could be there. She wrote, finding her way through the maze till she saw that every choice looked very much the same, and however much she tried, she would always be where she was – between the town and the edge. She wrote everyday, and all day, till her stories went around in circles. And then she looked up. A shiver would go through the leaves on the creeper outside her window as she looked at them with her clear, all seeing eyes. She wondered at the wind that came from far, the gentle breeze that stroked the leaves and caressed her weary brow. How she wished she knew it better, this wind that wrapped itself around her.

Why Do they Cry

Why do they Cry?

Why are they crying mother
All of them together
Why do they look so sad
Why do they gather?

A man has died child
He has been sent away today
That’s got them riled
This is why they moan and sway

Was he a good man ma?
Did he help them all?
Did he follow the law?
Did he save them from certain maul?

What can I say to you
You are too little to know
Of the horrors unleashed
Of the tears that were shed

Of the fires that burst forth
Of the lives that were torn
Of how killings follow killings
Of the carnage that was spread

Is he gone now, all gone away?
Ma, are we safe now on?
Sigh. Who can surely say
Evil has its own spawn

Is that why they cry today
Do they cry for us
Do we cry our fears away
Also ma – who are they?

(c) meetasengupta 2015

Pretentious, Unending Gab

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 117 other followers