Teenage, is that Thee?

Chubby cheeks, dimple chin


Rosy lips, teeth within


Curly hair, very fair


Eyes are blue – lovely too.


Teachers pet, is that you?


Yes, Yes, Yes!

I remember reading this poem aloud with my kindergarten classmates on hot sticky afternoons, when the fans moved in slow motion and after lunch exhaustion hung over the classroom.

The illustration of the little girl next to poem was not surprisingly different from anyone I saw around me. She looked, like the poem instantly paints a picture in the head – a full-blown firangi child we only saw in English movies. We sang the poem anyway as per expectation, and took in the first dogmas of socially likeable features. Fair skinned, rose bud lips, light eyes, golden hair, the works.

Apart from the lurking thought that I wasn’t fair enough, I didn’t have a problem with my physical appearance until I hit my teens. My family shifted to a tribal region in the North East of India, a place where people are genetically blessed with the beautiful hair and skin, and kids could be mistaken for porcelain dolls. This was the time my body chose to show its puberty changes and boy o boy did my confidence go spiralling down! My light coloured body hair turned darker (also on the face, and I saw myself as a hairy monster that had been in hibernation all this while), I put on weight, got even darker (did not go unnoticed by my relatives), and added to all these life threatening changes was the omnipresent problem with my short height.

I fretted posing for the camera, ate as little as possible, perennially covered my face with a handkerchief, and sometimes at night stared in the mirror wondering what the devil went wrong here. When you are at the doorstep to the world of boys and the other girls already went on dates, these glitches were certainly not how I aimed to build my social life.

All I wanted was to be as fair skinned and thin like the other girls at school, to have silky hair that would bounce as I walked. It was my silent agony that I couldn’t be one of the girls who middle parted her hair and wore tweety bird clips on each side for soon my wavy hair would reconstruct into Marilyn Monroe’s billowing skirt. I wasn’t one of those who wore overalls without having it hug the body at the wrong places. I never smiled at the camera without worrying if my bushy eyebrows overpowered my face.

What I did instead was wear loose fitting clothes to hide my weight, flattened my boobs with tricks learned from the movie Now and Then, dived into height enhancing potions, depended on fairness creams and battled with poor body image.  But I was still I, and love letters declaring true love never came. What did come were sniggers from friends that I took as something I deserved. Who knew what constituted bullying and body shaming 15 summers back?

After a point I gave up  (I could say ‘accepted myself’ to sound wiser, but no, I surrendered). And then time happened. As years wore off I noticed these ‘glitches’ resolve on their own. I developed into what I will look like for the rest of my life, for better or for worse.

Struggling with poor body image, especially during teenage years is not uncommon. We are fed with stereotypes of beauty since we can remember, which is then compounded by the pressure of fitting in at high school. I was teased about my developing breasts and facial hair but looking back I realize that the root of my problem was I. I was my worst enemy who nit picked every small detail that was different from the rest. This is the worst kind of body shaming and I did not deserve that from myself. Nor does anyone else.

If I met my 14 year old again I would tell her that time will make it all ok, and while we are waiting why not play a game of badminton?

 

 

 

 

 

 

One – reel meetings

(Dedicated to those who made our travels unknowingly memorable)

 

One of the many expressions our middle school Math teacher expounded was of one-real moments. What he meant by this is that he will hint at a Math problem only once, and if you caught it good for you, and if not then fend for yourself.

The expression somehow stuck in my head and I often used it for people who I meet all but once in my life, like the reel of an analog camera, which once clicked, cannot be retrieved again. I meet them at parks, while taking shelter from the rain, in smoking rooms, on train journeys, while scrambling for WIFI at airports. They make me laugh and wonder, make my journey a little more special and disappear from my life, like I do from theirs.

Some stay, like my husband who I had also documented in my mind under ‘One reel people’ 7 odd years ago. Life surprises.

On my first solo trip to Spiti, a small Indian valley in the Himalayas, I found myself struggling to sleep in the 900-year old Ki Monastery. It was only 8:30 pm. I decided to walk a little on the porch as the night sky was brilliant and other than occasional gusts of wind crawling up the monastery walls, it was silent. The grand naked mountains stared at me like they knew all of my secrets. That’s when I met the Stranger without a Face. I call him so because in the one hour that we spoke about our countries, shamans, education, the Milky Way and poverty I could not once figure out what he looked like. It was only the next day when I reached the main town of Kaza that I realized the oddness. Though I fervently considered getting on the next bus back to the monastery to see what the person’s face, I let it lie. Firstly, because I would come across as a crazy stalking lady and secondly, I saw some twisted romance in not knowing.

Years ago when Diego and were only 15 days into the relationship we decided to go to Pushkar on his bullet under the ruthless North Indian summer sun. I wasn’t well travelled, you’d know it the moment I tell you this – I hopped onto the unreliable second Royal Enfield Bullet without a helmet, sunscreen, proper biking costume et al to pillion ride 600 kms on uncertain Indian roads.

I was just 21 and deliriously in love.

The bike, keeping with its reputation, broke down several times on the way and heavy rain pricked our skin. One of our hurried shelters from sudden rain was an abandoned house off the highway. The first glimpse of the house, with it broken windows and peeling paint, sent a cold shiver down my spine but there wasn’t anywhere else to go. Once we entered we saw that the house had more people – a dozen of men huddled together, probably construction workers also taking shelter. If you are a woman and have stayed in India you’d know how this could play out. It could mean assault, robbery, murder, or all of them.

But instead these were Men Who Offered Tea and were far more interested in knowing the white man amongst us (Diego). So while the sky was overcast and rain formed puddles around the house, we sipped on milky tea, talked about us, questioned them on the homes they have left behind, listened to wet car tires squealing away on wet highway when we were listen, took a photo of them with Diego which they happily approved of. I secretly thanked my stars.

When the rain stopped we bid adieu to our friends and I wondered – perhaps they’re not all like that?

On our recent visit to India we met the most The Couple in Fort Kochi. The lady was as beautiful as Eastern European women are famed to be, wore a long backless silk dress she claimed to have bought for 200 euros, had beautiful wavy hair and smoked her Marlboro in the most delicate swigs. She was travelling around the country for the first time alone and was in absolute love with the chaos of India. It was endearing to hear her speak in her heavy Eastern European accent of the times she was scared, the sights that took her breath away and about her travel plans. I was often distracted by the way her trinkets shone under the light of the fishermen boats. The boyfriend, from Tel Aviv, was as full of life like the city itself. He was brimming with life and jokes. It was under the haze of beers and balmy sea breeze with two unfamiliar people that we had one of our most memorable dinners of whole trip.

We were literally thrown out of the restaurant and we said our goodbyes. When I turned back to have a last look I saw them laughing and chasing one another in the empty streets of Fort Kochi, her dress slithering along.

Too safe is sometimes too safe. I do not know where the line begins and ends, but the times I have stepped out of my comfort zone and interacted with complete strangers, are the moments that stand out in my travels. Guards down, ego silenced, high heels kicked off, ready to marvel. And in the end even though they take a left, while I go right, I owe it to them for making my journey richer.

It’s in those intersections that I have fearlessly lived my life.

 

 

SAY MY NAME

HEISENBERG.

No, that isn’t my name, and I know I fooled no one . But like Heisenberg I developed along with my name.

As a child it wasn’t easy for me to say my name. I couldn’t generally enunciate the letter ‘s’, thereby pronouncing Kasturi (then) as Katuri, which means bowl in my language. And naturally the laughter that ensued post introducing myself did not do very well in the department of liking my own name. There are 1001 reasons for a young person to get red in the face.

Then came years of living an introverted pre-teen life making it hard to appreciate the sound of my name, since it either meant that the teacher wants me to read out something in class (Golly! What if I pronounce the words wrong?), or I had to respond to attendance calls, or I was told by my friends if I could play with them or not. I disliked the attention my name brought to me, I wanted to disappear but it didn’t let me. Was I shy? No. Was I low on confidence? Terribly so!

Then I wanted to change my name to Karishma, the name of my favourite actor at that time. I was obsessed with this idea and begged my parents to make the change. They gave it a thought; while I spent days and nights imagining being under dizzy lights and stars (hell yes I was going to be an actor now!) and practiced my new signature (because autographs, bro) on all surfaces. Then. Then I came across another mesmerizing name and ran to my parents with the new discovery. They realized that it’s just a phase and we never went ahead with the name change. The lights went out and the stars faded; what remained was Kasturi.

By the time I was a teenager I was ok with my name. I decided to add double ‘o’ in place of ‘u’ and I was ready to face the world. ‘Kasturi’ became ‘Kastoori’ and I gathered confidence in life (I won’t say that it came with the spelling change, but my outlook did change along with it). Then it so happened that each time my name was called it was also to nominate me as the class prefect, or to show my neatly done classwork to others, or when friends asked me which games we should play. I developed an identity and it felt great to associate my name with that.

Kasturi is a substance that releases scent from the navel of Himalayan musk deer to attract females during mating season. The substance is widely used in perfumes, incense and as medicines. It may not mean much to you, and it did not to me either, until a random lady recited a couplet that Kabir Das wrote on it:

Kasturi kundal base, mrag dhundhat ban mahi
Jyo ghat ghat ram hai, duniya dekhe nahi

(The deer runs through the forest looking for the scent that comes within him. Similarly, people look for God everywhere but cannot see that God is within them)

Written in response to: Say Your Name

Bubblegums & Melting Icicles

It began with the word ‘luscious’. The delicious of all words, it gave me the feeling of something silky and fruity, an undeveloped idea of ‘fullness’. The word instigated in me the silky fantasy of dancing blindfold in a huge airy room full of satin pink and violet curtains. But closer to home, it was the smell of my friend, which was always a mix of fruity pink lip-glosses and the most exotic gum that she never left home without.

The mind is a mysterious life of its own. For what may have been just another word for others, ‘luscious’ was perhaps the word I swam the bubble of teenage years with, and formed my idea of eroticism. I recently found myself laughing at that curtain dancing desire of mine. And then kept thinking what it means for me now. Really, it’s just an idea, an emotion, isn’t it? It’s a voice, the ideas expressed in a book, a gaze, the smell of the woods. Or a sun bathed room that catches a glint now but is gone the next moment.

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Image courtesy Flickr