The Feminists We Meet

“Oh no, I am not a feminist” rose the cry from those who knew they had not made it, glamourous and popular as they were. Their pay was still a fraction of what was paid to men in the industry, and while they worked just as hard, if not more, did they dare claim something that looked like a victory pedestal? One that might irk the…men. Did one risk it, or was the price of assertion too high.

Those who did claim feminism too had their own journey. Come along, and meet a few types of ‘feminists’ I met. Some I liked, and could respect – while others were politely seen off my horizons. Let me introduce you to four, or maybe six types of feminists: The patriarchs, the privileged, the survivors, the #everyday and the club. And then a sixth who cares not for titles but is strong enough to both embrace it, live it and make it easier for others.

We move up the ladder of strength, the lowest first…

First, to those who declare themselves feminists, claiming to have found the perfect balance between work and home. For that they rely on their mothers and mothers in law. A pet peeve, I will admit, for they further entrench the patriarchy by restricting the choices of other women. How is your exploitation of (the mothers’) their abilities and time any different from what the patriarchy has done before you? How is your working life any different from that of any husband who has a wife to ‘make sure I do not have to worry about the home so that I can give my 100% at work’. A feminist does not ride on the shoulders of other women’s freedom, even if they seem willing. How many women in trapped in the patriarchy do protest the next sandwich or chapati – their lack of protest is not a position of equity. It is a role, a circumstance that they don as duty for they see no other way. To do that to your own mothers is probably just as bad if not worse. And to cry success from the rooftops when you are adopting the patriarchy’s privileges despite your own gender makes me wonder at how you define your feminism.

Many of us have done this in our working lives. When I first started in the corporate world there were even fewer role models in leadership positions. All our learned behaviours, everything that counted for success came from male role models. And that is what we did, we modelled ourselves on men. We adopted that straight shoulder (remember power pads on the shoulders in the 1980s?), the brisk walk, the crisp put down and the board room voice. It was not us, but we joined in, as we joined in on all the sexist jokes. For what harm can a laugh do, we were part of the boys club now, were we not? Our laughter proved it so. Those others, those ‘girly’ ones, or the domesticated ones were not up to our standards. We became the patriarchy and called ourselves feminists. Till we learnt better. At home and at work, we learnt to delegate, to share, and we learnt to survive.

Because survivors were what we were. Survivors in the sea of patriarchy, and all that we could do (and boy, did we work hard for it) was float in that sea. We floated, and swam along with the best of them, to make sure our voice was heard. To carry on with the metaphor, some of us made it to the boat, and then some got to captain a few ships too. Survivors. Sometimes with survivor’s guilt for those we had to leave behind. Were we, the survivors feminists?

Over the years I met so many who had charted their own path. Professionals, writers, teachers and more. And yet I wondered at their feminism, for their own lives were lived as an addendum to the ‘core’ traditional set up. They could be their own selves after the chores at home were done. I will never forget this meeting of school owners, some of whom owned large school chains. I was speaking of professionalism of teachers, and the hours they worked. They needed more hours at work to be able to do the parts of their jobs left undone such as the planning, the feedback and more. This one leader, male, stepped up to say, “My wife is a teacher, and she cannot do this school-work. If she does, who will make the roti for me at home?”. The room full of men nodded approval, while we women were stunned into a quiet determined silence. There were more stories gathered along the way, a classic from an ‘aunty’ to a mother, “So what if you are a PhD, it is still you who has to wash the dishes at home”. Truth. The famous writer sits down to work after the house is fed and cleaned. Is this teacher, this PhD, this author a feminist? Or a survivor of the house of traditions, learning to carve out hidden safe niches for themselves?

Then came the strong women who ran house and hearth. Were the grand matriarchs, defined by tradition for their roles and scope, true feminists? I met those who said, “The man might be the head of the family, but the woman was the neck”. She too took a step forward to claim power in the equation, not quite getting it, but she did get the use of the power. She too did what she could. A survivor, but was she a feminist? Was her way one of power or one for equity? Did she work for the patriarchy, control it or manipulate it to her advantage? I am sure there were some of each type.

I was introduced to some who called themselves quiet feminists. The ones who dealt with questions of identity, self, equity and choice everyday and moved seemingly placidly through the patriarchal structures they had inherited. They looked traditional, but quietly, each day, they moved one tiny piece of the structure, so that a generation later, the entire structure had shifted for their children. They could never claim feminism for themselves, for they were mere survivors too. They never put up a fight, or struck out for what was right in the binary fashion of all large movements, they were the ones who fought quietly, not just for themselves, but for others.

Then, there were those young ones who stepped up for themselves. Some stepped out of traditional confines to work for pay, knowing they may be forced to abandon this path – because true choice and freedom were not theirs yet. They were ‘allowed’ to catch a glimpse of themselves for a bit before being bound again. Whether they were feminists, or survivors, (or even losers) I cannot say. But in each step, some sunshine had entered the dank tradition. Those who stayed within the norms laid down, and started a boutique, or a tailoring shop, or a festival even – did they conform or did they create a path? Were those who owned a ‘beauty parlour’ in affordable nooks asserting economic independence or were they serving the culture of objectification? Was the very act of ‘beautification’, or even simple grooming not an assertion of the self? Were they winning the battle or losing it?

In a very Eastern/Indian way, they did both. The divergence from tradition so subtle that one did not even notice when the matriarch of television soaps with the giant bindi moved from holding her aanchal to holding a laptop. It is Schrodinger’s feminism – did it or not kill the cat? Much of this feminism was too subtle to be seen, often to weak to survive. If there was a hashtag called #EverydayFeminism, it would be mocked as much as revered. It would be the refuge, the community of those who were still in there, trapped and fighting, not so much for others or any grand cause, but just to survive in ways that did not stunt their aspiration. These struggles often too petty, too small and too lost for the ‘cause’ would – and technically could – be seen as betrayal too. They did not cross the line, did not assert for equality, yet the line is what they owned. And by owning that line, they were able to blur it for the others. Were they feminists too? Or mere survivors like us, up in the corporate ship, playing the game as best we could?

And above all, of course, came those who conflated privilege with feminism. You could be both of course, privileged and feminist, but it was easier to reap the rewards and claim victories if you had enough money to pay for help and enough networks to glide through tough assignments. Glamour helps too, as does charm, since they carry privileges of their own that look so much like choice. For those who earned these privileges, I have a special regard. And an even greater respect for those who did not tread in the footprints of the patriarchs who came before us. These are the true ones who shine a light on the path for us.

Those who know and own their feminism are rare, and often not well known at all. We are beginning to discover them, as we seek to understand our version of what it means to be a woman and hold our own. Some of them are now grey pictures of women who traveled abroad to become doctors and pilots in the middle of the past century. Those that broke through barriers became our heroes. (They were heroes, but we note that not every feminist has to be one. If I were to have to break barriers each time to express or own myself, I’d be a very exhausted feminist. They were heros, but every feminist does not have to be one.) We look further, and see queens who went to war, scholars who were poets and philosophers and so many more. To some of is it is a comfort, a precedence that makes our assertions a little less ‘out there’. An easier battle for the self, we sigh in relief.

For the others, those in the club, a little twinge, as we realise that we are not the grand pioneers that we thought we were – but then swish our pallu back strategically – and the glamor of the moment of assertion is ours. The cat and the mouse here are both feminists in their own ways, one pleased with cream and attention, the other uncaring for the lack of it. The ones we rarely see, the natural feminists, they are too busy living their life their own way to care for titles or tags.

As another day celebrating women comes around, we will see it all again: privilege and patriarchy calling itself feminism, while true feminism quietly holds the line of equity, holds it firm and looks us in the eye asking – are you strong enough to stand with me for what is fair and just?


First Reactions to #Budget2017 Education Proposals

1. Thrilled to hear of National Testing agency. been asking for it for years. Separate learning from assessment. Even have Op-eds on it. (e.g Happy that the government listens, analyses and acts.
Here the devil is in the details. If it becomes a single point of failure (or success, then we have a problem. Design of this agency is vital)

2. The biggest give to the education sector did not even come under the ESJ classification. It came under digitisation – BharatNet.

3. Many are old announcements such as learning outcomes monitoring which has been in place with a 3 year lag for years, previous minister asked NCERT to deliver within the year two years ago, shows up in budget speech now with no details. Swayam pathways and credits were announced years ago, UGC reforms have been dancing a dance of old vs. new for years.

4. Few numbers announced in speech. There is little headroom for more expenditure in education at the state level. Need transformative new institutions not tinkering with the old. Progress is slow.

5. Innovation fund may have the potential to do much good.There is energy in the innovation and schooling intersection with work done by Intel and Google, Srishti and many others. India’s global participation in innovation at the school level had reached significant numbers but needs upgrades and funding. The design and details of the funds matter.

6. Had expected more on Data and gathering evidence for improving education. Much of the good work in education continues to be self funded in small pockets.

7. Is the silence on money spent on the above a signal to states?

The Annual Karwa Chauth Conversation

A: Why over think it? Just do or not, it is up to you. (She said…)

B: Is it really? Is it really up to me or do I think I am exercising free choice but am really responding to my conditioning? Because that often looks just the same as choice.

I may think this is fun, but I have been told it is fun. I may think this is good, but again, that’s what I’ve been told. How would I know this for myself?

A: I feel good, so I know it is good. I dress up, apply mehendi, feel pretty, and share a ritual with my married friends. (Let’s ignore the widows argument today, anyway it is a day to ignore widows, and let them feel excluded and miserable, right? Tradition). So, we are all having fun together, and I choose fun.

B: Really? That’s your argument? Toys and trinkets? And pretend games? Adults anyone?

A: It is a moment of bonding with my family, with my husband. We feel really close after we do the ritual with the moon and everything.

B: Yaar, what does that have to do with fasting? Any ritual you set up, you can condition the family to feel good about it. Try charitable giving and bonding over it. Or climbing a mountain (yup, the religionistas figured that out too, most temples and abbeys are on mountain tops). Set up an apple pie ritual, or a eating kheer together annual ritual. Or being unusually kind to each other and not fighting one day of the year. Each of these works. (And guess what, each of these has been incorporated into the day just to reinforce the conditioning. Smart design.)

A: I want to fast okay!! Do you have any problem?

B: Nope, not a bit. You can do what you want. But just don’t call it free choice.

It is participating in a drama, a ritual, a delusion. Something one sets up. Go on, do it, have fun. But don’t claim it as free choice. Because you cannot ever know whether it was truly free or not.

A: Do I have to prove that it was free choice?

B: No, and that is the beauty of it. It is fine to go along with a delusion, an act. Who am I to tell you which delusion to choose — the one of choice or the one of tradition. Go, go on and have loads of fun. Share some pictures too!

A: So, what what this whole argument about then?

B: Just don’t call it choice.

Thing is: the only way you can prove choice is by breaking away from tradition. If you occasionally perform the fast, and sometimes don’t, just because you don’t feel like it, then you are exercising choice. But again we can be sure only when you don’t do what is expected. When you do, then how will even you know whether you are giving in to pressure, conditioning, or even the feel good of rejoining a tribe?

It’s like this: you see an advertisement for an icecream or coke, and you want to have it. To indulge is to respond to the stimulus, not to exercise free choice. But to not have it is an act of choice.

A: So, I am not having food that day. I am choosing not to have food though others are eating. Even by your argument, I am exercising choice.

B: No, you are joining the tribe and tradition of those who deny themselves on this specific day. Do the dressing up and fasting on any other day, if it is by choice. Or never. But to join in, is not provable as an exercise of choice. To deny yourself denial on this day of denial is definitely proof of choice.

A: I don’t need to prove myself to you or anybody! So what if I conform? Or behave according to my conditioning?

B: That’s what I said earlier. Go, do what works for you. Do it and be aware of the consequences. Some will be good, some less so. Do it as a political move, as a chessboard move in your life. Do it because it makes you glow for a minute. Do it because it works, not because you claim freedom. It may be many things but it is not an exercise in freedom.

India, Pakistan and Strategic A&R

As the dust begins to settle and ‘Surgical Strikes’ enter everyday lexicon in India, a shift is noted by all. Strategic Restraint has been abandoned – not that strategic restraint seems to be much of a policy. Indeed for  much of the past decade it was noted that India did not seem to have a stated policy nor a consistent course of action. Much was left to the daily drift and the India-Pakistan relationship settled into a comfortable pattern of daily skirmishes at the border, and occasional literature festivals across the borders. Cricket matches were fought fiercely, and trade maintained neighbourliness.

Everyone knew that all was not well. Pakistan had been trying for decades to identify itself as a Muslim state, and yet amongst the Islamic world its people were not the most respected. It’s identity as a nation stood as the ‘pak’ or pure land, presumably in opposition to the unclean idea of India which stood for secular inclusiveness. It’s existence therefore seemed to depend upon this opposition. It’s nationalism rising to destabilise this big-brother next door who struggled, but seemed to make a go of things in a way Pakistan never could. It’s people could not rise from poverty nor its politics rise above territorial squabbles. It’s own frustrations could of course be mitigated by creating troubles in the big brother’s house, and that it did consistently. India and Pakistan have been at war in one way or another for over three decades.

Their history did not help them. Separated at birth, there was conflict built into their very fibre. Pakistan, an unwieldy state hanging on to the east and west of India in two parts was unusual to say, in the least. India’s role in the formation of Bangladesh and it’s comprehensive wins in the direct wars between the two countries probably convinced Pakistan to play destabilisation. Indeed, it seems to have been their declared policy if evidence is to be believed, and there is enough corroboration in the public domain and the international stage.

Their claim to Kashmir stands on weak ground, and so they mount assault upon assault, damaging a people who could do with some respite and peace. Their failed war in Punjab where they set up a claim for a Sikh state, Khalistan, has turned into a dangerous and insidious war on the people with drugs. The state, once India’s most prosperous, now suffers a generation decimated by drugs that are clearly brought in from Pakistan. The war in both Kashmir and Punjab has three clear markers: (i) It’s origins and support structure from across the border in Pakistan, (ii) it is an attack on the morale and foundations rather than an honest frontal battle, and (iii) it is an attack on the people, not a nation. Pakistan’s sneaky wars are about destruction of ordinary lives. People like us.

The shifts in the relationship between India and Pakistan has been evident to most close observers. From a ‘family’ tiff between two brothers over a boundary wall and a room at the back of the divided ancestral property, they have now come to behave like a nasty couple sniping and drawing blood just to hurt each other. And there is much hurt and anger – for consistently there has been a public game played of placation and peace followed by a terrorist strike by Pakistan, or another act of damage to India. As the Indians see it, Pakistan is a state not to be trusted. Any trust placed has been breached, and breached time and again. And each such break has shifted the relationship further apart. Each test of tolerance, of restraint has led to a further breach.

Pakistan itself must know that it’s victim complex has come home to roost. It is under siege from its own homegrown and hosted powers that now control its polity, its people, and worse – it’s economy. To free Pakistan from its own insecure and armed power hungry powers is a job for Pakistan itself. India’s strategic restraint has been a policy insofar as allowing Pakistan the space to control its own monsters – even as they reach across time and again to hurt India. The narrative in Pakistan surely is the opposite, painting India as the enemy. But the people of India have no love left for the state and ‘powers’ of Pakistan and not much patience left with it. Even the ones who wistfully wished for the states to be rejoined as one are long gone. We may love our neighbours, and share our food, our music and our movies but that can never be taken to mean we want to be one family. Not now, not anymore, not in the near future. Likely never. It is now like a noisome neighbour whose infestations are troubling. They need to fix their house. They make the neighbourhood unsafe.

It is not as if India has not been protecting its own. More has been done than is always shared in the public domain, and rightly so. The shift has been in declaring and owning a strike. The strikes announced last week are still positioned as defensive more than preventive – in search of the terrorists who struck Uri and more. Certainly not an act of aggression or incursion. Strikes inside each other’s territory, it seems have been common, at the least operations. For neighbours that have been skirmishing for decades, this is the new normal, now acknowledged. But for India to abandon strategic restraint, as as been written may be a statement of shift, it is certainly not a declaration of new policy yet.

A nation that rises to protect its own is a nation that needs an active policy of strategic aggression – and this does not mean war. It does not necessarily mean a tightening of language or action. One could also be aggressively kind, if it is to strategic advantage. It certainly means an aggressive alertness and responsiveness to matters of national interest – and a strategic choice to be made in choosing such action.


(P.S. The India Pakistan relationship tore my family from its home, and the PTSD they say lasts three generations. It’s time is done. It is time to stop living in the history or the shadows of the actions that happened in the forties, fifties and sixties. I have followed these closely – and this is an ask for both nations to grow up and deal with each others as neighbours should. Much more could have been written, but for now, this suffices.)

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 :D.  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 :D. 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.


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.

Pretentious, Unending Gab