Excavating Company: After the Surgery

For those who live alone, without family, but with some friends–

went in for an arthroscopy [keyhole surgery on my right knee] on Thursday, ten years after the original injury. I had gotten so used to pain that neither myself nor the people around perceived it any more–pain had became a ghost companion for a decade, almost invisible to myself and those about me. But un/fortunately, the young doctor, whom I finally consulted, rewrote perception. I had to allow pain to assert its presence, make its existence known.Arthroscope

Almost immediately after I see the young doctor, I go in for surgery, spend one night in the hospital, and become dependent on the goodwill of others. In the process, my childhood heroes, women whom my mum had held up as exemplars of goodness, prove Mum is always right. Padmasini checks me in, discharges me, takes me home, messages me with offers of help the following morning–all the while denying that she does anything out of the ordinary.

Other friends spend the night, keep me company, but once home, I’ve myself. Being home after surgery, finally, alone, I have to struggle to throw off the habit of dependancy that hospital and enforced attendance have induced in a day. Even to answer a phone call induces stress, to move, sometimes to get up, to reach for the bloody tiny machine.

And, just as I get home, after the long process of discharge, getting my stuff together, struggling down hospital stairs, into the car, and up to my room, a friend calls. Trembling, anxious, tense [even with the good Padmasini by my side], I don’t want to answer. But, seeing the name, and grateful for her help in spending the night with me in the hospital, I pick up, intending only to let her know I’d call her back. cartoon-mobile-phone-rage-faceBut, oblivious to my panic, she continues the call, informing me that I have to call the lunch delivery guy. In my panic I yell, “PUH-LEESE, I’ll call you back!”

So, I call back after awhile when I’ve rested a bit, only to find the phone left ringing unanswered.

Yes, she did call again to inform me–“she’d call back”–which she hasn’t so far. Oh the problems of social interaction, with psychological games, when I must contend with my own resistant anxious body and mind! Moving around is a matter of judgment, as I must monitor my knee, make sure to sit down each time with my feet up, not to stand. When the phone is left elsewhere, I make a decision to lower the legs and answer. When well meaning friends call to ask “how are you? I’ll drop by sometime,” I’d rather be left alone.

And yet, last evening, when another of my childhood heroes, Kalpana, called to tell me she was coming by, despite taking her son to the dentist, despite having to see her sister in hospital [also admitted for surgery], despite nursing a horrendous cold, I am overjoyed. Pain and Panic vanish.

So, as I question throughout life, what makes the difference? What sets apart one human interaction from another? Is it the depth of emotion? Is it love versus social interaction? Is it the authenticity of the self? And, how did/ does Mum know so far back in the past??mum knows best

So–I bumble, stumble, through life and living, affection and hurt, human and social interaction….pain imperceptible, not of the body so much but of the mind, ghost companion at my side.

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On Show– The Female Body Controlled

Sitting at the bay window in my room, I watch the heavens open up in sympathy with my frustrations–another day at the bootcamp in Kodaikanal, South India. In hot pursuit of the body beautiful, Western and Indian cultural morés and consumer values intertwine, but through that fabric of expectation, the male gaze remains a constant.

"The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. Its display of one anorectic and one obese woman is a demonstration against modern society's obsession with how we look. "

“The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. Its display of one anorectic and one obese woman is a demonstration against modern society’s obsession with how we look. “

Today–I’ve reached a state of out-of-body fatigue, where the body moves like a rag doll, every movement propelled by will.  But I duly wake up at 4 am, do the journal the trainers requested, have my weight checked, then slowly, slowly, move out for a walk. More than physical exercise, I need the company of trees, of rising sun and mountains. Buoyed by this dawn camaraderie, I return and press on with my yoga: no chants, just stretches, and attempts at breathing deep. But, there’s a limit, my body lets me know that its all it can do to stay upright.

So, then, breakfast, whereupon I hang out with my trusty Macbook downstairs, waiting for the internet and geyser to warm up before I limp up the stairs, step by slow step, for my bath.  P—, trainer guy of the beautiful bod, is concerned, questioning me if I’m still hungry; he is, perhaps, guilty about his hard nosed refusal of a second helping of lentils the day before (60 cals over although my stomach has refused the bread served).  So, hey, everything’s hunky dory so far, if I’m just tired tired tired.  Finally, I lumber up the wooden stairs to take a bath in the bathroom shared with P and K, another stress magnet.  In my room, the bay window is unveiled, blinds up, open to the sun–nobody’s out on the deck, the other client, young Rishabh, hates the sun and is resting in his room. I’ve been reassured couple of times in the last days that privacy is mine, nobody climbs the hill opposite or trains binoculars into the room.

photo © Maxim Vakhovskiy

photo © Maxim Vakhovskiy

So, peeps, dear blog trawlers, fatigued even more after bath, I sit myself down on the bed to nurse my legs with pain gel, my big brown, tattooed female body, droopy breasts, saggy stomach, love handles and all, backing the window. Lost in my aches and pains, I suddenly espy, from the corner of my eye, movement outside–men–Indians, laborers–are busy moving the pots outside the window on the deck; they’ve finished three quarters of the deck.  Stupefied, horrified, I am paralyzed because, of course, they are enjoyed that big brown female naked body—mine!  I dash for a sarong, yards away, hanging behind the door, wrap it about me.  But I’m frozen again, gazing at them as their studied movements reveal their relish. I’m glued to the door, stuck to the corner of the room. Gradually, very very slowly I make my way back to the cupboard, reach for a caftan and pull it over the sarong.

The angle of their heads tells me, “O yes, we’re enjoying the show!” So, caftan clad, I sidle up to the bay window, and finally, ah, finally pull the blinds down separated only by the glass from the watchers as I do this.  Free at last from their eyes, I give vent to my rage as I grab a black sweatshirt, pulling it down over the caftan. “Fuck this,” I scream at the door, pull it open, and shout down to K—, the trainer’s wife and yoga mistress. My fury stemmed for the moment by her abject apology and shocked comprehension, I realize that, as a woman, she understands not only the violation of the male gaze, but as an Indian woman she realizes the peculiar lechery of class underwriting that violation. Hey, but rich or poor, the male Indian gaze has a ferocity all its own.

peeping tomSilent, I proceed down those wooden stairs, and flop onto the blue couch in the ritzy living room. P—, trainer guy, comes up,

“What happened?”

Tell me,” he insists, as I protest that I’ve already told his wife and he should ask her. But, I recount the incident, rage rising to the surface as I do. P— responds, initially, with a mild apology that he should’ve informed me before sending the workers to the deck, but, almost immediately, he changes tack:

How could you change with the window open? Rishabh, (who hates the sun, like all privileged Indians conscious of skin color!) could have been outside. You should be more careful.”

Incredulous I begin to defend myself:

“But I did check, the place was totally deserted. I was sitting with my back to the window when I realized the workers were there.”

As I mount my defense, I wonder at myself. Only the evening before as we were getting ready to go out to the club for soup, P— and his wife had entered my room.

The blinds were down as it was late evening and I’d had the lights on. P— commented then,

“hey why do you have the blinds down, the view is beautiful.”

“Well, the lights are on, and I don’t know who might be peeking in through the rain,” I return in reply.

“The hill side’s deserted, nobody is out there,” he affirms.

Backing up his claim retroactively, the masseuse the previous week, had insisted,

“Keep the blinds up, nobody’s going to look into the window from so faraway.”

And as all of us knew, young Rishabh next door was totally uninterested in the deck, the joke of house was that he had to be forced outdoors for a bit of sun for his own good.  Ironically, although I had the bay window in my room, his room had access outdoors.

the fateful roof deck, my window to right

the fateful roof deck, my window to right

Anger surfaces now at myself and P–, arch jock who claims to ‘love’ women: I retort,

Don’t turn this back at me! Is the guest always to blame?

Of course, by that I mean the woman guest:

If you guys send workers on the deck, as the hosts of the program and house you fucking have to inform the occupants of the room, male or female.

My feminist self back on track, I settle myself on the couch downstairs until the workers leave.  P—, his hackles up, storms outside to be Mr. Fixit.  I lie, shivering, cold, muscles tense, for an hour or so, when I finally leave to creep into the violated room, now with the blinds down but with the willing voyeurs continuing their work outside the glass.  Heaping the duvet, blanket, and throw over me, I fall into an exhausted sleep, willing to forego lunch at the table with the Master of the house.

But, come dinner time, I have no escape.  I force myself downstairs. All the four of us seated about the table, P— looks at me and queries, kindly paternalistic smile on his face, “Everything ok? You alright?”  At that, with my gorge rising, womanist old me, throws back, “You alright?” Of course, Master Trainer’s dignity went for a toss–he couldn’t take that.  So we agreed, lets part.  “Mutual differences.” Catchall phrase.

“Get It Out of Me” by Heather Keith Freeman

“Get It Out of Me” by Heather Keith Freeman

Addendum:

After all was decided, and my bags packed, hotel room booked, I did manage to explain to P— why his paternal 34 man’s years to my 53 woman’s years attitude was so indigestible to me.

"My Body Isn't Mine" by Heather Keith Freeman

“My Body Isn’t Mine” by Heather Keith Freeman

Loving women is not the same as feeling women, being sensitized to women’s issues in an often violent, misogynist world. “Would you,” I ask him, “treat a 53 year old Indian man the same way as you have treated me?” Of course, there had been other previous incidents of the Young Master of house and gym extending his Fatherly (!) arm over me…..but the report/story ends here.

 

Monks of the Body Beautiful

I sit here in another’s space, blue couch, and busily ornamented, textured white walls–outsider’s space in which I decide that, after the gap of more than a year, I must write again.  On Facebook today, I happened upon a post that suggested that writing = thought.  I would qualify that writing=responsible thought.  If I take the trouble to put words onscreen or on paper, I hold myself accountable now and later.  They may come back to haunt me.

Living in another’s house, on a fitness program, or whateverelse, all paid up, is a peculiarly ambiguous venture.  You pay to abdicate control over yourself –you relinquish your habits and philosophies, store them on a safe shelf in the home you  leave.  You may or may not use them again when you return fit and re-shaped, another self.  As as my project takes place in India, the rules and expectations are left unvoiced but obtrude suddenly at unexpected junctures.  I am left to stumble about, bring my middle aged, overweight, body and mind into the upmarket dwelling of a young, fit couple.  To clarify, I have embarked on a fitness bootcamp for a couple of months (ideally), in Kodaikanal, a small hillstation in Tamil Nadu, South India.  [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitness_boot_campboot campThe fitness program is run in the house of the trainers, a small but exclusive dwelling in a gated community and cannot cater to many residential clients.  Currently we are but two, Rishabh, a young chubby man about town from Mumbai, India’s largest city, and me, from an ashram in an village of Andhra Pradesh.

P—, our trainer, believes in what he does, his particular philosophy of body and mind, and expects you to follow him without undue questions.  At 34, he is proud, justifiably, of his toned, beautiful body, and his attractive, slim wife who is 6 years younger.  And I, a middle aged, 53 year old, funky, bisexual feminist, have to negotiate the undercurrents.  Often I realize K— the wife will say or suggest something, only to withdraw her ideas in the face of her P—‘s disapproval.  K— is thin, fit, rather overzealous about her weight and her house.  As I’ve been there in my own OCD of cleanliness, I cannot help but recognize the symptoms but reap the benefits of the attention to home, decor, and appearance.

The irony here is that the couple appear thoroughly westernized, a paradox of young India:  P— dresses in top of the line sports clothes, wears thirty thousand rupee designer sunglasses, K— models Abercrombie and Fitch figure hugging clothes.  p n k[check out the controversy over that company’s policies– http://www.businessinsider.in/Abercrombie-Fitch-Refuses-To-Make-Clothes-For-Large-Women/articleshow/21136601.cms] The ‘westernization’ or ‘with it’ exterior however does not penetrate skin deep: husband and wife are products of Indian sindhi conservative culture.  [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sindhis_in_India]  P—‘s mother handed over her precious son to the willing hands of his young wife who now caters to his needs, while maintaining her body, a not uncommon role in India.  P— finds any suggestion of fat unappealing, un-hot.  The couple, please note, are almost white skinned, as are most of the Sindhi community, so naturally the label of ‘un-hot’  extends to cover the darker skinned denizens, the majority, in fact, of the Indian sub-continent!

They are proud to announce they do not want children.  “We are going to be monks, renunciants,” K— tells me.  P— confirms, “We are without desires, our lifestyle is only temporary.”  buddhist_monkOf course, I find the discouse seductive.  The couple are into Vipasana meditation and K— has just returned from a month’s training in the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala for her advanced yoga instructor’s certificate.  The spotless house and vintage furnishings with the requisite fittings and physical comforts, all western amenities, are, as I mentioned earlier, equally enticing.  I note the delivery of  a Bose mini speaker system for the gym, the huge flat screen tv that dominates the living room.  In fact when I turn on the lower end channel, P— chides me, “hey, which channel are you watching, dude, go for the HD.”  His subscriptions are only to  the premier channels that offer high definition tv.

He is dedicated to the body.   The discipline necessary for a beautiful bod–hard training and conditioning, restriction of food–is full time, obsessive, a yoga in itself.  And charming K— teaches us yoga, chanting the mantras and re-telling buddhist fables to the other ‘client’ here, the young boy of 23 from Bombay, privileged, wealthy, and overweight, but totally submissive to P—‘s will, uber guru of fitness.  The three of them are a little thrown by me, the overweight ashram dweller who has a tattoo, dresses a little too street–a single woman who lives in an ashram but cannot take mantras or chants.  No brand names for me, but, obviously I must be okay in the pocket to be able to afford the plush bootcamp.

Young Rishabh, the Bombayite, quizzes me one day when we are having dinner tete à tete, with K— and P— out on a dinner date:  “how do you fund yourself?”  I reply that I live on the proceeds of selling my house, on the interest.  “Do you have investments?”  he probes, “how do you spend your time in the ashram?” And I account for my day to day schedule.  The problem with me is that I am not easily quantifiable, I do not ‘fit’,  my freakishness is both my strength and a dilemma for the others.  Ah, new India, now almost a fascist Modi India whose values rest on the Rupee, the bank account, and the body that money can buy all the while vociferously reaffirming an ancient misogynistic culture.  [http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/gupshup/modis-new-india.html]  The Monks of the 21st century.

 Liu Xue Hybrid Sculptures


Liu Xue Hybrid Sculptures

 

Of fools like me–eccentrics in a spiritual asylum

Subramaniam died a week ago, and I didn’t know (‘cos I can be a recluse). One of the nights before I knew he’d died, I remembered him intensely– a gush of emotion and memory that prevented sleep.

He’d been really sick, moaning, and unable to walk by himself. He moaned like an animal in distress, a cat or baby who couldn’t escape his pain, and the sound drew me to my window. A carpenter (or, some such ordinary laborer) was leading him along, explaining he was sick to those who looked askance at them. Beautiful, unthinking kindness that, unlike my self-centered selfishness that saw, and yet let him be. I hesitated to approach them though my heart pushed me to Subramaniam (life always makes me regret the times when my rational mind overrides my heart).

Then, few days later, he came by. I asked him how he was, and he replied that he’d been dizzy, round face still drawn and tired. But, I reassured myself he’d be back as usual when memory and emotion assailed me with guilt that night. Next day, my maid told me he was dead. A shock.

O, what avail tears? what avail regret and love when I hesitated to approach him that day. I’m reblogging my post in memory and grief—

Waiting to Be

Around the corner from me lives Subramaniam.  When I sit here at my window, I see him as he rolls by, white haired, chubby faced, rotund. Although he must be at least 65 years old, there is still something childlike about him.  Mornings he sports a bed head, white hair sticking up in spikes, a look that I still (52 myself) attempt to duplicate with hair gel or wax.  His clothes are different too: for the last three days he wears the same bright red baggy pants, and a loud red plaid shirt.  With his hands scrunched up like a child’s, one finger pointing toward the ground, he is the resident ‘Idiot’, a fool, certainly mental.

Continuing to live on in the ashram after my Mum died, I heard a loud rapping at the front door suddenly one night.  Nine o’clock is late night here, particularly in those days a…

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Cold! the physical toll of memory

Last night, sleep was slow in tendering its benefactions.  Perhaps my mind, by the end of the day, had turned again to worry at human interactions with my aunt and others like her.  I find that the more I try to help people out, funding their lives with mindless money, the more they look down on me.   They become the ones doing me the favor, they allow me, from their inherent goodwill, to bankroll their lives and indulgences.  Accepting the moolah, they put themselves on a pedestal. Hurt, I bark and growl, tuck my tail between my legs and remove my scrappy presence.

coldIn time, anger appears.  “Why should they get away with it?  I’ll keep them on their toes,” I vow to myself.  And so, in some part, I do, but in the doing, I tear my mind apart.  I fall ill, perpetual colds rack my body, the inhaler becomes my succor.  I recover from one attack of the cold virus to succumb to another.  Every morning I turn on the steam machine, bury my head under a blanket, and inhale hot air.  Quarter of an hour later, I reach for ayurvedic nasal drops and squirt medicated oil into my nostrils [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayurveda].   Pain hits my teeth and sinuses, I groan in discomfort and my throat burns with the taste.  Last in the process, I sip hot lime and honey, the sour-sweet infusion counteracts the pungent oil.

The morning runs by with these rituals.   Colds have long been my body’s familiars.  In childhood, my dad’s big white cotton hankies were indispensable: held against my dripping nose, their absorbent comfort got me through my days.  Come the long awaited monsoon, my nose watered in company with the skies.  Dosing me with Erythromycin [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erythromycin], my dad was often fellow sufferer.  But, for him as well as I, after each course of the antibiotic, another cold bided its time to attack anew.

My college years in Anantapur and a decade of graduate study in the States granted me some respite.  Over the last decade, however, with Mum dying, and the peri/ post-menopausal years, I have reverted to my childhood self, clutching now not a white hanky but a tissue to my nose.tissue box  Wastepaper bins overflow, and crumpled papers decorate random corners during my worst drips. Though guilty at the waste of paper, I am now addicted to their convenience.  When my nose streams, and I can barely stand upright, the tissues are my tenuous hold on sanity.

During times of stress, I’ve noticed that the colds follow one upon another.  This month, for instance, I’ve hosted three major attacks.  Is it any coincidence that this is the month, I’ve driven down thrice to neighboring Bangalore, in order to check on my aunt who happened to be hospitalized?why-i-keep-getting-colds  [cf. blog that relates stress and recurrent colds:  http://healthblog.yinteing.com/2010/04/14/why-do-i-keep-getting-colds-sinus-and-flu/]   Aunt Devaki, my Mum’s only surviving sister was rushed to CCU in the throes of intense abdominal pain, initially suspected to be the heart, and later diagnosed as gall stones.  After a week’s stay,  my aunt recovered to celebrate her ninetieth birthday at the Old Age Home I’d placed her in.  I was summoned to take her out for lunch:  transport and treat which included her recent favorite, her cousin’s daughter-in-law.  The cousin’s son doesn’t bother to visit her.

His wife, on the other hand, is a regular attendee on Aunt Devaki, in favor because she’s of the Coorg race, fair as the Coorgs are. [check out the Coorgs here: http://coorg.tripod.com/coorgs.html]  Earlier, my aunt has been known to insist on receiving blood transfusions only from a Coorg!   For mongrel, mixed blood me, Aunt Devaki is a relic and memory of Mum’s do-gooding.  Mum was the standby of her older sister, when life didn’t go Devaki’s way.  Dearest Mumso often grumbled at her sister’s airs and graces, but she stood up for her, even when Devaki pissed off my Dad, “I have a right to come here.  It’s my sister’s house.”   Feminist in rhetoric, but parasite in substance, Devaki feels that looking after her is our duty–first Mum, now me.

Every time I visit her, I come down with a Cold once I return home.  Suggestive?  Aunt Devaki is the mistress of manipulators.  With a face whose beauty even at ninety startles people, her looks and regal presence have gotten her through life.devaki  Although nearly penniless, she has numerous servitors who appear magically when prompted, among whose midst I number myself.  Having taken her on financially, a responsibility as memorial to Mum, I am yet periodically beset with childhood belief in her gracious self.  That belief, besieged by her physical reality, doesn’t last long for adult Grie.

I have to take to my heels and run home–to my ashram apartment, the Rain tree, the increasingly unkempt garden,  timid Tippy the bitch, and of course, my watering, suffering nose.

To Sleep with Trees: a small meditation on lives & deaths

To sleep like Rip Van Winkle for a hundred, a million years…and then to wake into the wonder of a world made new.
It’s not the waking but the sleep I crave.
I long to plunge into a deathly sleep, a sleep that transfigures my nascent, waking self.
I would be a changeling, stumbling bravely through a sphere seen anew.
A sleeper who wakes not herself, but another altered eye/I.

neemtreeAs a child, I used to creep out of the back door of the bath room, out to sit under the Neem tree in the night quiet. [http://www.organeem.com/neem_tree.html] Sitting there, I would let the minutes and hours slip away, breathing in the sentience of non-human earth. Way back in the bowels of the house, caught by human anxiety, Mum would hunt for me, “Grie, Grie, where where are you?”

The faint echoes of her voice cautioned me into total still, under the leafy neem scented starlight. Though our house lay in the center of Madras, three roads bordered the bungalow:  our back yard only connected to old lady Achutha Menon’s front yard, separated by a wall and yards of shrubbery.  Mum, moreover, had planted trees all about the compound wall, cutting us off from neighboring lives.

On the ground, seated beneath the Neem, I, small Grie, shared a reality that humans, bustling about their lives, missed. Feeling the earth breathe, the insects bite and rustle, small creatures (rats?) stir about me, I touched G-O-D, unknowable mysterious process that, even then, reassured and brought me curious strength.

Years later, Mum referred to those ‘catatonic’ states of mine. She’d been worried, she said, but Swami put her mind to rest, though he counseled me not to sit alone when he sent me off to his women’s college in Anantapur, about six years down the line.

Dad had died by then, so my mind tunneled into different spaces of grief and loss, crevices disparate from my dark Neem shelter.  In the scrublands of Andhra, I discovered, at the farthermost edge of playing fields, a rocky outcrop that I could sit atop to consider the barren, stony hills.  None of the other girls ventured close, scared off by tales of surrounding graves and their attendant ghosts.  But, the quality of solitude was different: with dad’s death, complexities of adulthood came creeping over my soul, trailing in its wake, romantic fantasies, sexual infatuation, and existential confusion.

Photo on 24-06-13 at 5.52 PM #2Only now, sitting in this little semi-open patio, with the Rain tree’s [Albizia Saman] branches spreading overhead in the green company of shrubby foliage, I wake from the thrall of an unplanned two hour sleep to chanting from the hall, and feel a sudden breath from the child I was.  [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albizia_saman]

Now, with Dad, Mum, Swami departed into the past–
now, stressed by a recent encounter with my ninety years’ old aunt who revels in the busy, petty minutiae of human interactions,
who still plays one human against the other,
have I woken to unspeaking child’s awareness.  Now, the little dog lies on the doorstep, a squirrel dashes from shrub to tree, a butterfly hangs from a flower, and only the gusting breeze bustles.

My father died in his fifty-third year, the earliest of my loves to depart, Mum in her seventy-fourth, and mysterious Swami in his eighty-fifth.  I envy my Dad his exit at the height of his human achievements.  Me, I’m 52.  My soul, and body, tire of interaction, I long for sleep in the bowels of the earth, next to the Rain tree’s roots.
Saman1744

FAT comfort: wrestling with the image police

What’s happened to you, you’ve ballooned!big wonder woman

The ‘tactful’ remark greeted my hesitant foray into the garden after a self confinement of nearly 5 months in my apartment.  On venturing outside, I was only too aware that the garden lies in the epicenter of the ashram, subject to the sundry looks of passers-by, self advertised spiritual seekers. Ironically, the comment had issued from one of the longtime residents, hardly a slim woman herself.

The community had gone through an upheaval with the death of its founder 5 months earlier, and we were still reeling from sensational revelations of hidden wealth, silent immediate thefts by the managing council, and speculations about the true date of his death. [see for eg. http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/more-gold-found-in-sathya-sai-baba-s-ashram-in-puttaparthi-116432http://www.ndtv.com/topic/sathya-sai-central-trust; ] Unable to socialize, gossip, or add to the rumor mill, I’d shut myself up in my room. But, my room lies in the eye of the storm, behind Swami’s erstwhile residence, itself next to the big hall of worship where the 12 day death rituals were conducted–I could elude none of hysteria.

I’d lost the three of them over them over these 50 years of my life–Dad first when I’d just turned 15, Mum next, four years after my return from the States, and now, Swami two months into my 50th year. Menopausal, hurting with grief, I couldn’t take the socio-spiritual hubbub. So, for five months, I stayed within my little apartment. A box really, but one Swami had personally gifted to me just two years before he died. A prescient talisman, the room was simultaneously my protection and an object of envy, a double on the ground floor occupied by a questionable single feminist when whole families occupied a single.

How did the time of self immuration pass? Times of depression or great grief are periods of hibernation for the soul. The body may ache from lack of exercise, but the spirit needs silence and solitude to nurse itself back into human interaction. Menopause, lack of exercise, over-eating, all played their role: I knew I’d ballooned up.

But, still mentally vulnerable, that unthinking comment by a sista, a self-promoted white sari clad seeker, triggered my angry response, “Hey, you’re not so thin yourself. What gives you the fuckin’ right to comment on others?” Of course, she was righteously offended, unable to comprehend my anger or its cause. To her way of thinking, the remark was merely a casual joust, to me it was an insensitive blow to my already shaky psyche. I’d had to summon up my willpower and courage to go outside, into the glare of human interaction. Perhaps I unconsciously sought the friction of social intercourse that the scar tissue of ill-healed grief might toughen up?

Anger has always been my defense, armor to withstand the blows of the world. angryblackwomanWhere other folks cry, I scream. I throw tantrums. I used to break glass and crockery, tear up clothes, smarting from social hurts I couldn’t explain even to myself. “You’re oversensitive, you read too much into things,” friends and acquaintances advise me. But I’ve never been able to figure at what point sensitivity crosses over into the prohibited area of over-sensitivity.

Unfortunately, in order to be a productive, socialized, civilized human, this knack of differentiation is a pre-requisite!

Patch (for sale) by artist karapassey

Patch (for sale) by artist karapassey

Fat is chain-mail too, a sheath both defensive and aggressive. [on a life changing book, see http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2012/04/09/fat-is-a-feminist-issue-2/ ]  Right from childhood, I’ve been plump, overweight, at one point even labelled obese by the school doctor, a family friend.  I remember my mum outraged by the word, “obese, what a word to use.  She’s not obese!”  So, the very first time I heard the word, it was an insult, an affront to parental nurturing.  Looking up the word, I took in its connotations and cringed.  That was the beginning of fat guilt:   I was the culprit in my obesity.  My mum consulted our family doctor after that report about my ‘obesity,’ and he put me on a diet.  It didn’t work.

Obesity, however, didn’t come in the way of my activities.  I played throwball, basketball, netball, even tried hurdling.  Inclined to sports, and addicted to swimming, I continued stubbornly overweight.  And obese I grew up–through my troubled teens, my father’s death, my college years in Anantapur, through grad school in the States, and my return to India and the ashram.   It took my Mum’s death to make me lose weight.  I walked miles each day, worked out frenziedly between times sitting in the big hall for Swami’s darshan.  Appropriately enough, that was the time my sexuality made its presence anew after a decade of dormancy. I wonder if such sexual hunger at time of loss is a reaffirmation of life force, the urge to the species to continue to propagate its kind.

Crossing the forty watershed, I looked much younger than my age.  It had nothing to do with weight, however–I’ve never looked my age thin or fat.  angry black womanNow, at 52, I still don’t look my age, fat though I thankfully am.  Looking young, to me, is more trouble than its worth. I’d rather look my age if not a little older: youthful looks often encourage patronage, particularly by the men. I still suffer from the occasional male follower, at a stage when sexuality is more trouble than it’s worth. How did I regain my weight and recover the self I’m most comfortable with? [see a wonderful post on self image: http://www.thefword.org.uk/features/2010/01/feminism_and_fa]  A torn knee ligament which the aches and stiffness of menopause only made more painful, Swami’s death–the last of the trinity I love–and the accompanying depression/ grief.  So here I sit, typing these words, too big for the world as ever.  I’m out of the agoraphobia of intense loss, go for regular walks early morning, work out with weights, but I’m a big mama.

After 52 years of being obese, with a skinny interim of maybe 5-6 years, I have at long last learned to rejoice in my big self.  Too large for the social spaces I’m in now, and spaces like academia that I moved in earlier, I am the right size for me.  Men can’t easily talk down to me, either physically or intellectually, nor do most women. [see also– http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/oct/11/gender.society ] Thin socialized women find me unsettling:  loud, big, and rebellious, unable to conform.  I make my friends uneasy, as I really have not much yen for company.  My solitary self does not revel in too much interaction.  [on singleness today, see http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/09/going-solo-klinenberg/http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/04/16/120416crbo_books_heller]. Most comforting now, I’ve begun writing again, taking up as much space as I want in words and letters.

I spread myself easily: I am fat enough for comfort.

dirty words, filthy mind, profane body–reclaiming language & god

Women porters Madras 1920s

Women porters Madras 1920s

In that never never time of memory, a decade ago when Mum was alive and Swami too, I worked at the Western Canteen, pre-dawn, mornings, afternoons, and evenings. A dog used to accompany me there, leave me to work and sometimes even appear to take me back. Pappu was my Mum’s dog, really, but she took it upon herself to assume responsibility for me.  (Who owns whom?)   Eddie, a co-worker seeing Pappu’s solemn duty, joked, “one man and his dog.” Without thought, I reacted, “No Eddie, love, its one woman and her bitch.” Eddie found my come back apt, but funny, as I did too at the moment. But, my own quip remained with me through the years: unconscious knee jerk reaction to language and its sexism.

Now, when I’m writing this blog, putting words down after a silence of almost twenty years, I find that words like ‘bloody’, ‘period’, ‘bitch’ run through my sentences. I wonder at myself that I gravitate instinctively toward words or phrases resonating with women’s sexuality. An Young Woman in Sari, Rides BicycleGrowing up an overweight child prone to tantrums, fits of withdrawal, I had my parents worrying about my mental health.  [See Mollow’s article that looks at fat discrimation even in the queer community: http://bitchmagazine.org/article/sized-up-fat-feminist-queer-disability] Getting my periods early didn’t help either, nor that I possessed a shrieky witch’s voice too loud for the surroundings.  These traits added to a mind that couldn’t take anything for granted meant that I invariably got singled out.  Trouble followed me around.

My discovery of Audre Lorde, when doing my doctorate in the States, lifted a weight off me.  Reading “The Uses of Anger” and the poems in “The Black Unicorn” and meeting Lorde herself gave me a role model. I fancied Lorde literally bulging out of the confines of white racism and academic restrictions with her big black lesbian body.  She thrust the physicality of her black, woman’s body in the midst of white anemic writing. Lorde Myself too big, too loud, too argumentative for my Indian context–the well behaved, upper class schoolmates, or conversely, the conservative, modestly hindu collegemates in Anantapur–I rejoiced to be one among the big, black women I met.  [On going against the norms of modest Indian womenhood, read http://thefeministwire.com/2013/05/walking-the-tightrope-good-indian-girls-race-and-bad-sexuality/ ]  Called “nigger” by my black friends, I learned the painful ironies of that sisterhood.

Running out of beer late one night, Jackie, my girlfriend, and I walked down to the corner store only to be told by the lone clerk that we couldn’t buy alcohol after midnight, although we knew that the cut off was 1 pm.  When Jackie and I suggested that he wasn’t selling us the liquor because we were black, the store clerk was on the verge of pushing the panic button, thinking he was about to be attacked by us.  Merely the sight of our skins signaled aggression to him.  Where then is the difference between black and brown.  Did Indian culture and upper classness distinguish me any from Jackie, my  tough black ghetto woman?

A month or so later, Jackie left me, jailed for shooting a dealer when he intruded on her territory.  I wonder if I’d been around in that park whether I’d have been arrested too regardless of my involvement or not. [For a look at internalized racism and its workings, see http://shotgunseamstress.blogspot.in/2012/10/radical-anti-racist-racism-or-rarrrrrrr.htmlanti-socialLater, while writing my dissertation, I wrote of a black/ brown/ colored woman’s, particularly a lesbian’s, “monstrously feminine” body in the convoluted prose of critical theory.  The jargon of ‘high’ theory protected me against the messiness of words, the dirt of description and anecdote, the visceral secretions of women’s cussing.

Growing up, I learned first to lisp English syllables.  Speaking the different vernaculars of Coorg and Tamil communities, Mum and Dad, educated intellectuals both, spoke fluently the language of our colonized past.  Indian English is my first language, and I now dig in the mire of its sexist, racist, and classed legacy.  I speak my woman’s self and body, not to abuse my self but to savor the curious delight of an identity too big for others’ comfort.

But, twenty years down the line, doctorate or no, class markers or no, I am yet prey to a secret guilt that I am too gigantic, too clumsy still for the spaces in which I live and write.  That these negative socio-cultural attitudes persist, internalized somewhere in my psyche, is proof of the immense power of cultural norms.  I fight against these dictates of womanliness, but in moments of self-doubt they rise like specters to haunt me.  I shut myself up in an ashram room, go for walks only at first, faint light, and speak to hardly anybody but Tippy.  Grie Verd, the my private childhood nickname for myself fits snugly into the “malformed series of noh masks” by a Japanese artist in a collision of non-white hurting(s).  Apt indeed that I find these malformed faces/ masks beautiful! [see ‘About’ page: https://quiescentbeing.wordpress.com/about/]

And what about my clumsy quest for otherness, the ache of longing for some vast awareness that  includes all, animate and inanimate, and judges none?  Any route or religion seems to demand purity, often an ascetic purity involving continual cleansing of humanness–of the dirty woman’s self and body, in particular.  But I’ve been born with a being who hinted otherwise, that total acceptance of the self and universal process leads, will nilly, to surrender.  Surrender which rejoices in just being, worship and adoration without mind,  a sense of arbitrary divinity—I am tumbling through Generation-Organization-Destruction, process, entropy, cosmic chaos, multiverses.  I live in god. I am everything and nothing—loud, big, messy, dirty, bloody, slutty, womanly, angry micro in the macro cosm.

"Venus Variation Large" Artist-Susan Grabel

“Venus Variation Large” Artist-Susan Grabel

A woman and her bitch: an INDog and I

A scared little dog decided, one day some five years ago, that I was the one to feed her.  When she turned up in my tiny front yard, she was skin and bone, her dugs hanging down, her ribs all too visible under the skin.  As with most female dogs who were not spayed, she ‘d given birth somewhere, hidden her pups nearby, and gone out to forage for food.  Less than a year old herself, she was an awful sight.tippy1

What instinct led her to me, I can’t fathom.  Frightened of the big bad world at large, loud noises, even the sound of a dropping leaf, she ate ‘Marie’ biscuits’ from my hand, shying away if other folk came too near or dogs barked too close.  That behavior hasn’t changed.  If anything, she becomes more worried when people walk into the garden.  As the garden lies in the heart of the ashram, I cannot fence it about though it is ringed by a row of concrete planters. For Tippy, however, this openness makes for an anxious feeding. Constantly on the look out for other dogs, she runs at first bark to take secondary refuge under a red mini-van yards down the block.

Abs not ME!!

Abs not ME!!

I’ve always been quite companionable to dogs: “Hello, how are you today,” I greet any stray on my way.  Merely an acknowledgement of co-existence, I ask them how the world is and themselves. Most dogs respond, staring at this stranger, me, with the expressive dark eyes common to the breed. Sometimes they even follow me about for a while. Indeed, there have been a few dogs who have taken my greeting as a sign of uncommon friendship, jumping on my shoulders and attempting to lick my face. Such exuberant outbursts leave me worried about hygiene as I am a believer in washing my hands after canine contact. As with my interactions with my own species, humans, I’d rather a quiet, occasional camaraderie with no expectations on either side. Mostly, this approach works well.

At a juncture in my life, when any attachment seems too much, Tippy is a one off for me. She’s not really my kind of dog. I’d prefer a more confrontational bitch, a more muscular female, less the pretty dog she’s turned out to be. But, I must admit, when cornered, Tippy snarls and fends off the biggest prick among those who set on her. A particular set of noisy, boisterous barkers claim my garden as part of their territory unfazed by my shouted invectives. At sight of Tippy, they give chase. She can turn on them abruptly even if she’d rather hide.

When I set about driving them off, unfortunately, Tippy is the first to run, though recently she’s hung about, and watched their retreat. In the last couple of days, I mutter away to her as she sits in the yard outside my window, and my mumbled nonsense seems to calm her down a bit. Anyway, she’s definitely healthier.Photo on 02-05-13 at 11.15 AM #3

Tippy chose me, and I let myself be chosen. Now, I’m caught. Thankfully, she’s been seized and spayed sometime after her first overture to me Although she turns up on three days and disappears for the next three, I know she will return. Sometimes, her absences have been as long as ten days, but she re-appears eventually. The day I returned after my three month sojourn in Goa, she bounced out of the bushes, as startled by me as I was by her. I refuse to ‘own’ Tips. She is not my dog, much as I worry about her. In her own timid way, she asserts her independence through her regular absences, through her cautious approach, through her darting escapes out.

As my unwanted attachment grows, I find her beautiful–dark brown eyes ringed with black, short light brown coat fading to a blonde ruff over her neck. Not one of the elect, pure-bred kindred, she belongs to the ubiquitous ‘pi’ dogs that populate every Indian city and village. Wondering what strain these ‘pi’s had descended from, I googled them the other day, my usual resource when I’m at a loss. I’d assumed these dogs were mongrels like me, composed of a mix of different breeds. But, I’ve no company here. I learn that these dogs are a domestic breed, as distinct as any of the pedigreed breeds.[http://indianpariahdog.blogspot.in/search/label/articles] “INDog” is the label now officially recognized for these dogs. On the definitive site for the INDog project [http://www.indog.co.in/], the breed is described in detail, and archeological evidence given to prove that this dog breed was the first to be domesticated, despite the insult of their nickname. ‘Pi’ the label from my childhood is actually short for “pariah” a tamil word for the untouchable, scavenger class in India.

Interestingly, the scavenger class extended to comprise these dogs, looked down upon as the lowest of the low of dogs. No self-respecting Indian of the upper and middle class would own one of these in those days. A pure-bred Lab, Pom etc. signified status, much like cars, watches, or even the schools we attended. But, the INDog is gradually coming into its own [https://www.facebook.com/pages/INDog-Club/]. Though not recognized by any “Kennel Club“, the breed is ironically admitted to the ‘primitive’/aboriginal breed of dogs. Racist classification of the human species bleeds over into the labels for dogs. More ‘civilized’ perhaps, the Western dogs can lord it over the primitive breeds!

Wikipedia cites Gautam Das who is part of the INDog project–

 Indian Pariah Dog Club logo

Indian Pariah Dog Club logo

“The type represents one of the few remaining examples of mankind’s original domestic dog and its physical features are the same as those of the dogs whose fossil remains have been found in various parts of the world, from very early remains in Israel and China to later ones such as those found in the volcanic lava at Pompeii, near Naples in Italy. In India these were the hunting partners and companion animals of the aboriginal peoples of India. They are still found with the aboriginal communities who live in forested areas. Since these dogs have never been selectively bred, their appearance, physical features and mental characteristics are created by the process of natural selection alone. The INDog has not been recognized by any kennel club although similarly ancient or ‘primitive’ dogs have been recognized such as the Azawakh and the Basenji both of which are also sighthound and Pariah…. It has been recognized by the Primitive and Aboriginal Dog Society (PADS), a worldwide grouping of enthusiasts which is based in the USA. It is extremely alert, very social dog. Its rural evolution, often close to forests where predators like tigers and leopards were common, has made it an extremely cautious breed and this caution is not to be mistaken for a lack of courage. They make excellent watch dogs and are very territorial and defensive of their pack/family.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Pariah_Dog]

Chacha ChaudharyEven in Puttaparthi, or the outlying villages in Rayalseema, I’ve seen the Indian pariah sitting proudly in the little courtyards before the small houses, standing up to bark fiercely if an unknown comes too close. [On Chacha Choudhry, the comicbook villager, and his dog Rocket, see http://topyaps.com/top-10-indian-comic-book-heroes/]   But, I’ve come across a number of dogs with their ears cropped, and often their tails as well. I asked my dhobi (laundry woman), Saraswati once why the villagers did that. She replied earnestly, “Dogs listen to our secrets. They hear our whispers and family problems, and carry them around the village. So, we have to lop off the tips of their ears. Otherwise, it’s not good for the family.”  Cut off the dogs’ ears the villagers might, but the dogs receive as good a meal as their children.  Last year, Saraswati’s son carried their dog in his arms to the animal hospital in the neighboring village when it refused to eat.

I’ve seen INDogs herding groups of sheep and goats being taken to graze, nipping at their heels to keep them in line.  In Chennai, my friend Ganesh is in the process of training Mani, the street stray, to sleep within the compound. Now, Mani duly scares the courier boy, though a large coterie of his friends tempt him with biscuits to get him outside Ganesh’s gate. Perhaps Tippy turned up in my garden to keep me socialized, a borderline human.  It takes a woman her bitch to keep her womanly…?

Barbara Shermund. I'm Sorry! between 1945 and 1955.

Barbara Shermund. I’m Sorry! between 1945 and 1955.

 

fat, bad, and witchy: a woman seeks god

A sinner, that’s me.  Always in trouble, always pulled by stuff that is often termed ‘bad.’ But what’s life without a bit of vice?  As long as you’re not really hurting other people, that is.  Living in an ashram as  I do, I run into narratives, stories of changing for the better, a progress toward goodness.  The Goddess and her consort know– whenever I hear these meta-tales of ‘evolution’ toward moksha, nirvana, heaven, a better life…etc I need a good long drink and a ciggie, if not a fuck.  Drugs, yes, done those, loved coke, but it doesn’t have a hold on me these days, and grass, too mellow.  All the last including sex, however, involve too much preparation and judgement: unfortunately, nowadays, I’m too lazy to take the risks I did when I was younger.

The implicit evaluation in “O, you’ve changed,” impels a mad rush of fury:  I want to beat someone up.  Can’t do that anymore, I’m not fit enough, unfortunately, but the urge remains.  I ‘m comfortable with the demon under my skin now.  Of course Swami it was, gazing at me long and deep,  who declared, “She’s good only….but, who will know?”  That acknowledgement led me to believe in myself, in my weird anti-social ache for otherness.  Earlier, through my childhood, I had always believed myself to be a bad person, given to anger, always questioning, always restless.

feminism-2bWriting this, I realize I’m glad to be–the middle-aged, menopausal, overweight, aggressive, limping, intellectual, hot-headed dyke I am.  Forget the trials of my twenties and thirties, when despite my anger, I still looked for understanding, needing beauty to complement my brains.  After my Mum’s death in 1999, I took to walking and working out in order to get the grief out of my system.  Though I  tired my body out, tears were always a hair’s breath away, as was temper.  Anyhow, for the first time in my life, I was thin, and beautiful.  A dab hand at make-up, attending darshan in the big hall at that time, I became the cynosure of all eyes, female and male.  But, much as my hormones danced and I enjoyed the lustful looks, my anger kept pace. Beautiful women may enjoy being objects of desire, but  my toned body and made-up face nursed an angry genie.  Follow her around and she’s liable to shriek a curse, or take an iron rod to your legs, and I’ve done both!  One arrogant boy in white, one of the chosen elect, close to Swami, drew my ire.  “You fuckhead,”  I said, and punched him in the chest.  Walking away, I turned to have a gander, and there he stood, with his hand to his chest, stunned. Now with Swami’s death, holy N— spouts religious clichés, and hopes for a top slot in ashram management.

Anyway, my brief spell of fighting fitness came to an abrupt end while semi squatting to lift weights at home.  With a loud pop, my knee ligament tore.

Take Up Space by Heather Keith Freeman

Take Up Space by Heather Keith Freeman

Misdiagnosed, the knee has never recovered, and is prone to swell and hurt.  Menopause followed up the injury, and I’m back to my bad ass overweight self.  What a relief!

What are my vices?  Not many, small ones but reassuring.  Long, cold gins and tonic whenever I’m out of here in the summer, and in winter, my staple, “Honeybee” the Goan brandy that lives up to the promise of its name.  Reminds me, I’ve got to drive down soon to Bangalore, while smoking a Camel toward a pizza and g-&-t.  Not far, a hour and a half away.  I live a life with G-O-D, yes, but I want to burn out fast, reach an explosion of stars and hear the anarchic laughter of space.

Being with God, for me, is the ultimate here and how, a sense of absolute oneness with a chaotic cosmos:  laughter and rest, where nothing in this world, the good, bad and ugly is taken seriously.   “If you really want to, you can be one with god in the blink of an eye.  It’s simple,” my Swami repeats endlessly.  Yet, spirituality becomes an exam, with grades along the way–visions, inner voices, yogic powers;  in any religion, people judge, evaluate and label sister worshipers.  I cannot bother with the rest of the community about me, only G-O-D, process without end, a journey with no goal.  For this absurd  love–of nothingness, formlessness, and journeys nowhere–I give you “Ithaca” by C.P. Cavafy, another outsider, civil servant and closet queer in Alexandria at the turn of the 20th century.  Sean Connery reads with background music by Vangelis who did the marvellous soundtrack for Blade Runner.

“….Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.”

 

Bloodletting II: my bloody sexualities

In a country like India with so many taboos about periods, my Mum was curiously casual about her first child’s coming of age. [see a description of taboos and problems in India here- http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/29/opinion/the-taboo-of-menstruation.html?_r=1& ] Only nine, and overweight as I was, my period shocked both her and me. In the 1970s, most girls started much later at about 13 or 14 years.  “Well, you got it early, so it’ll end early,” was her consolation.  I wish those words had come true, but they didn’t quite prove prophetic.  I ended my monthly blooding only at 50, a nice round figure. Forty-one years of ‘maturity’ proved useless as the idea of having kids left me cold.  I’m not into marriage either, being single, grâce à dieu, is the best choice I’ve ever made in life!

I’d like to reclaim the time of monthly periods as empowering, but, I have to admit, I’m a little relieved at the onset of menopause.

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, India.

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, India.

[see men’s research on goddess worship and period power: http://www.metaformia.org/articles/menstruating-women-menstruating-goddesses/; http://indianstemples.blogspot.in/2012_12_01_archive.html]  If only menopause didn’t arrive with various aches and sudden stiffnesses in a body shocked by the sudden withdrawal of hormones. The withdrawal itself wasn’t too hard a process for me, given some of my friends’ sufferings. More scanty, the period became more painful and frequent as well. My problem was towards the end–I’d be sure I was going in for a feverish virus, when, lo and behold, I’d see blood. Grateful for the abrupt bloodiness, I’d know the pain and stiffness would leave, and that I didn’t have the ‘flu.

Back to Mum. Warning me not to get too close to the boys (for months I would not allow any boy even to brush past me), she took off to attend a wedding. Already in her forties by then, Mum had tutored me in the art of using clean, old cloths to wrap between my legs. Torn from thin, cotton saris that had been saved for that purpose, I’d throw them away unless the blood flow was minimal.  Only then, would we wash and reuse them.  Looking back down the years, I find that my Mum’s method was ecologically sound as well as hygienic.

Quite apart from the nuisance of bleeding inconspicuously, I’ve noticed that there’s always weird stuff happening at “that time of the month.” My period was a trouble magnet. The time of my first period, for instance, my schoolmates and I were in the thick of rehearsals for “Tulips of Amsterdam,” a major school performance where the younger kids swayed onstage in bright orange stretch pants and short blouses. Plump as I was as a child, those seventies stretch pants proved more traumatic with thick wads of cloth between my legs. Sundry girls would comment, “hey, Grievs, you look kinda boyish down there.” Those ghastly stretches pants defined every contour and crevice. Hiding the news of my ‘maturity,’ I kept my bleeds deathly secret: if anyone deduced the cause of my ironic ‘boyishness’, they kept quiet about it.

More troubles followed when Dad decided to treat the family with a summer holiday in England, a year or so later. Trips abroad were a big deal in the days of protectionist India, especially trips for the entire family.  In Brockley, London we put up my uncle’s house.  Uncle K— had married a Britisher, Jean, and had actually disappeared from the visible face of the earth for a while to escape his mother’s demand that he qualified as a doctor. periodMy Aunt Jean wass a kind, solid Englishwoman, and she made us kids feel welcome when my Dad and Mum deserted us for a romantic twosome in Paris.  Naturally, with wonderful timing, my period made its appearance. Too shy to say anything to my aunt, I was at a loss about where to throw the used cloths. As children will, I wrapped and stuffed them into a bottom drawer, just hoping the whole mess would disappear. The smell grew stronger by the day and Mum didn’t appear, but Aunt Jean getting a whiff, during her housekeeping, discovered my shameful secret. I don’t remember much about the trauma of getting caught, but Jean was an understanding woman.  She showed me where I could throw the bloody detritus with no fuss.

Thank the Goddess, any Goddess, I found that sanitary pads existed about a year later. Leafing through one of my Mum’s woman’s magazines, (‘Femina‘ or ‘Eve’s Weekly‘ most likely) I came upon ‘Kotex‘ and its elastic belts. [of all writers, V.S. Naipaul comments on these two women’s mags, the first of their kind in the country, see http://books.google.co.in/books?id=BDBSzbe252kC&pg=PT117&lpg=PT117&dq=eve%27s+weekly,+femina&source=bl&ots=rChVNrDH8a&sig=8HRDDH8e_U7Yk9LqglP13JaCtdI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=bZ-RUdDHF4LorQfXmYCwBQ&ved=0CGsQ6AEwBg] After that first awesome discovery of pads, I read women’s magazines assiduously in hopes of finding more tips.  At eighteen, I tried tampons, not really knowing how or where to push them in. But, after several tries, squatting in the bathroom, I managed.

Over Mum’s and her sister’s anxiety (probably, they worried about breaking the hymen), I used Johnson’s ob’s regularly, preferring to push the tampon in with my fingers instead of a plastic inserter.  I found obs heaven sent in their practicality.  [See skywind’s comment to http://philobiblion.blogspot.in/2005/11/menstruation-why-is-it-so-hard-to-say.html] I loved that I could continue to go swimming even during my period. As the oldest child, I was forced to embark on a continual journey of discovery about my body, given that my mother was a generation older than other mums, only married at 34.  [more about my mum in a post to come]

image on Tom Tom Magazine

image on Tom Tom Magazine

Despite her worries, my mother yielded to my wishes, allowing me a freedom of mind and body. Not having a son, my father made sure I was never inhibited by my gender: I dreamt of becoming a fireman or a policeman, both macha fantasies. Unhampered by her female body as a child,  Grie was feminist even before knowing the word. Growing up with two intellectuals for parents, I was trained in deconstruction as I learned to mouth syllables.  Nothing was taken for granted at home, even the concept of religion, hindu and catholic as Mum and Dad were. Though Swami was a given, his visits home reinforced my parents’ ideas.

Even marriage as an institution was questioned.  A poignant memory recurs:  suddenly one visit, Swami looks over toward us, my younger sister and me.  We were only about 11 and 13 years old.  He gazes at us, and grumbles, “One of them has marriage madness.”  Sure I was the one being accused because I was in the throes of a hidden crush on David Cassidy, scrawling “Mrs. David Cassidy in my notebooks, I trembled. Fortunately for me, Swami’s finger pointed at my sister. Not really understanding the exchange at the time, I was only thrilled to have escaped with my pash undetected.

Later, after being sent to the States, in therapy there for being abused by an older woman in the college in Anantapur, I realized what that accusation meant. Marriage as an end in itself, a social identity, was challenged by Swami. Though he warned me on leaving for the States, “Don’t change partners like shirts,” when I returned having done exactly that, he teased, “You did change them like shirts, didn’t you? Girls and boys.”  True enough, after the abuse in college, I had needed to check out my sexuality for myself.  Under Swami’s mocking guidance, I learned to see sexuality as a spectrum. We position ourselves on one end of the spectrum, as lesbian or gay, or, on the other, as straight hetero, but bodily attraction is a slippery slope. Given different contexts, we are pulled toward people, men and women, to whom we may not be attracted at first glance. I know I’m going to piss off a lot of folks with this view, but it’s what I’ve learned through life.

Swami was a strange being, androgynous though physically of the male gender. Growing with him through different stages in my life, I’ve realized that rational classifications don’t apply in his case.  If I’m a feminist, a woman who likes being a woman and feels equal if not better than the men around, my perspective is  shaped through him. Though the society Swami moved in is homo-social, a segregated society, with women often belittled, Swami undercut those social morés frequently. For example, in a private address to a bunch of male students in college, with women sitting in an adjoining room, Swami remarked, tauntingly:
Spiral_Goddess_symbol_neo-pagan.svg“In the early days of Indian culture, women like Gargi and Maitreyi [women ascetics] were treated on a par with men, wearing the sacred thread and debating philosophy. Made jealous by their prowess, the men took the sacred thread and made it into the ‘mangalsutra’ so that the women could be put to serving the men tea and coffee.” [check out a sexist and caste-ist explanation of the sacred thread here: http://ajitvadakayil.blogspot.in/2013/04/upanayanam-sacred-thread-ceremony-of.html]

An astringent comment on the patriarchalism of Indian culture, Swami’s words go unnoticed, and unremembered in favor of other sayings on the role of women as mothers. But I was present, and of course, Swami’s rebuttal of men’s superiority went straight into my fierce woman’s heart, especially since I had just returned from the States after writing a feminist thesis. On my return to India, I had feared the set up in the ashram–men and women segregated, with women consistently put down. Swami’s deconstruction of Indian his-story gave me courage.  And so, I stayed on with the being I love most on earth, and learned to trust myself loving him. I am woman and strong, loving and loved….

Check out the blogs listed, wonderful indian women on the PERIODhttp://madperiodwoman.wordpress.com/
http://youngfeminists.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/menstruating-goddesses/
articles & tips: http://menstrupedia.com/blog/
discussion: http://newint.org/cgi-bin/new.comments.pl?action=rss&article_key=/blog/2012/05/11/becoming-woman-india/index.html
for a young western feminist, see- http://sketchbookradical.wordpress.com/

sand–a poem against the self

Image

sand

follow up to the ‘Spiritual Punk’ posts.

Original image is by Paul Kozal, “Cypress Mist” [http://www.westongallery.com/kozal_paul_pages/kozal_paul_16x20_1_weston_gallery.htm]