Love, Wine & Everything in Between

By Shubhangi Thakur

Perched in the coziest corner of my favourite Italian spot in the city two months ago, I confidently declared myself a pink martini girl, when asked about my drink of choice for the evening. Ten seconds later, I tweaked my drink order and, in a whimsical twist, ordered a rosé. That impulsive choice set the stage for a night of contemplation, inspiring the words you’re reading now.

Wine was my first alcoholic adventure, but I remember it was a very deliberate choice sparked by pure fascination. I’m someone who has grown up with the cinematic enchantment of couples sharing sips but also the vengeful splatter of it ruining a dress. Is it the allure of romance or the intrigue of drama that captivates my imagination? Truth be told, my daydreams often veer towards scenarios involving the latter. But as it turns out, the magic lies more in the liquid itself than the scenes that unfold as a consequence of its consumption.

A bottle of wine has long been a vessel for the profound exchange of affection between lovers, echoing through the corridors of ancient civilizations. In the Middle Ages, wine became entwined with the feast of Saint Valentine on February 14th and was whispered to bestow good luck and happiness in matters of the heart. This tradition persisted, making wine an essential part of 18th-century European Valentine’s Day celebrations.

Ancient Indian texts, such as the Rigveda, explicitly mention the use of ‘Sura,’ a type of wine, in religious rituals, believed to act as a conduit for communication with the divine. Notably Sushruta, hailed as the Father of Surgery, actively employed wine for anesthetic purposes, emphasizing the diverse roles of this beverage in ancient practices.

Wine even graced the opulent cups of gold, silver, and jade, embellished with Farsi and Arabic calligraphy, in the courts of Mughal emperors such as Jahangir and Shah Jahan. A fascinating apocryphal story hints that Jahangir’s first love was not Anarkali, but the intoxicating elixir itself.

Beyond rituals and rulers, wine has served as a muse for poets across history—from the verses of Emily Dickinson to Rumi. It has graced myriad artworks—from Renaissance feast scenes to modern still lifes. Over centuries and across diverse cultures, whether in the realms of arts or sciences, the meaning of wine has evolved, shaped by the specific places and periods in which it has been shared and consumed.

There are profound parallels between consuming wine and being consumed by love. The four steps of wine tasting—look, swirl, sniff, sip—aren’t exclusive to wine; they extend to the delicate art of deciphering the flavors of love as well. Unlike its other alcoholic counterparts, wine demands a ritual. Why does wine, warrant this special attention, unlike other drinks hastily mixed with tonics and flavors? Moreover, contrary to the popular belief that love blinds, I posit that love, in truth, heightens our senses. It exposes us to countless nuances and sensations, elevating our experiences and understandings—a resonance reminiscent of the intricate notes found in a corked bottle. A glass of wine often becomes an opportunity to sit, to slow down, and to savor the inherent beauty of the present—a sentiment intricately entwined with the essence of love. 

SEE: What color is it? Love, akin to wine, presents itself in varying hues. Just as oak aging deepens the color of wine, the shared experiences and challenges in love contribute to the richness and depth of the emotional connection.

SWIRL: Let it breathe. Just as a wine glass is swirled to release its aromatic compounds, love thrives with aeration. Love, when given the space to breathe, reveals its complexities and nuances, creating a bouquet of shared memories and experiences.

SNIFF: What do you smell? Like in wine tasting, smell is crucial in the symphony of love. Love’s essence, much like fine wine, is often judged by its scent. Aromas can evoke memories—coffee, books, salt, or sea. Each whiff encapsulates shared moments, crafting a scented memory profile that lingers.

SIP: What do you taste? Taking a sip of love immerses one in a complex taste experience. Allowing those moments to coat your being might unveil the sweetness of shared laughter, the fruitiness of affection, the saltiness of challenges, perhaps the acidity of disagreements, and even the bitterness of trials. The overall impression forms a balanced blend, crafting a unique flavor defining the relationship.

SAVOR: Does the taste linger? The aftermath of love is the sensation that lingers after the initial experience. Similar to the lingering taste of wine after swallowing, the essence of love remains with you. The duration of love’s aftertaste can vary, reflecting the depth of connection and the enduring quality best reflected in the lingering sensation.

Intriguingly, another parallel that captivates my imagination is the concept of terroir. Originating from the French term meaning “sense of place,” it unveils an interplay that extends beyond external influences, delving deep into the emotional bedrock where relationships take root. This juxtaposition is particularly fascinating when considering the cultivation of wine grapes and the development of love.

Much like how the terroir of a vineyard molds the sensory identity ofwine, the background and context in which love unfolds become the terroir of relationships. Love’s terroir echoes a delicate equilibrium between vulnerability and strength – the moments that carve out intimacy, the trials that probe truthfulness, and the nuanced evolution of self. 

This uniquely distinctive terroir of love, similar to the revered terroir of a vineyard, is cultivated over years through layers of understanding and empathy, which in turn transforms into a multidimensional exploration, diverging from a linear narrative.

Within the realm of wine consumption a timeless relevance and richness transcend the ordinary. No other food or drink delivers such sensory pleasure, and few pursuits can transport us as far from life’s mundanity—except, perhaps, the escape found in the pages of a good book. Both love and wine, in their entirety, require one’s undivided presence—not just during their enchanting beginnings, but throughout their nuanced progression  and lingering aftermaths. They are enduring eternal experiences deserving of being savored, contemplated, and celebrated.

Later that evening, the rosé I indulged in proved to be a little too bitter for my taste, not quite aligning with my preferences. Yet, it spoke in its own unique vocabulary, much like love. It served as a poignant reminder that wine, similar to love, possesses a distinctive vocabulary – and there’s no dictionary to understand this vocabulary; you can only know by indulging.

In the lively discourse on love that filled the rest of the evening, I savored every sip of my bitter rosé, curiously listening to the intimate encounters and anecdotes shared by those around me. It prompted me to view my life as an ongoing quest, a journey to discover all the metaphorical corked bottles I wish to house in my bar. To discern which ones genuinely delight my senses, those I can gracefully tolerate, and those I’ll unequivocally avoid.

Winter Yearning, Commonly Known as ‘Melancholy I Can’t Put My Finger On’

by Naina Rathi

For three years as I walked in and out of college: away from the same dead-end, down the same street, towards the same train, everything remained the same. Almost everything. In all those years, for all of the year save winter, a creeper hung from a balcony. With pretty orange flowers decorating a pretty corner of a house that was too huge to be pretty. Gone during the winters, leaving me lonely again.

It wasn’t unconscious, no, but had become second nature for me to look across and find them hanging down. Fiery orange against marble white. Until then, I hadn’t really like orange. I still don’t – some things never change – except that one pretty shade. They weren’t a brilliant painting or a streak of light in the dark or had an otherworldly shape or smell. They were pretty in a slightly more than normal sort of way, the way most pretty things usually are. So normal that I believe most (not me, but most) people wouldn’t notice them had there existed other flora around them. But I would, I did. Because, to me, it was unfathomable how such a beautifully normal being could bloom in a place I had only associated with plain dread. Plain because it fell short even when it came to being terrible; it was a tired sort of dread like it was bored of its mundane nature, of how uneventfully uneventful it was. But those drooping flowers were orange as hope. As though life was trying to escape the locked mansion, even if it meant having to jump down.

That was many many years ago. 

Back then, I didn’t know what it was like to have one’s hands weighted down. Not by gravity but by something much stronger, more powerful, tiring and hateful. I didn’t know what it was like to have winter bring me down. I didn’t know how winter brought with it a sea of sadness that wells up your eyes before you can end a sentence. Uembarked goals and silly regrets that flash before your eyes before you can end the year.

Because it’s not just the season turning, it’s the homecoming of all your heartbreaks and unfinished dreams. October days are fine, the promise of chill soothing out a year’s worth of heat, the winter sun warming your bones. But November opens its doors to winter’s permanent companions: yearning and melancholy. A yearning for warmth that must accompany the bitter cold. Familiar warm hands that must dissipate the cold. And melancholy that must end up replacing the lack of them both. 

Because it’s not just the season turning, it’s the time for rituals and festivities: year-end trips, office gatherings, weddings, homecomings, Diwali. The time of year when everyone’s hopping from one Diwali party to the next while you’re reminded you have none to go to. All your favourite people are celebrating Diwali in chillier continents (although yours feel bitter-er). You imagine what would you do if you were at one of yours: you had your people, your place, your food, your laughter, your songs, your cheers; you remember that good things become better and best only when shared. However, all you can see is one girl, cornered in her own home, flashing her teeth and the brilliant lights never shining her smile. You find that loneliness rips through your imagination too. The happiest time of the year suddenly reminds of you your adult incompetence to form meaningful friendships. Friendships that change into family. But how many families can one have the strength left to build after having to rip themselves, year after year, out of each?

Because it’s not just the festivities, it’s the year ending. And you cannot help but feel like a loser. We have a terrible habit of tattooing our failures and never remembering our wins, it’s what unites us all. Every year, this time, a ringing noise invades my brain. A voice from the year before I first saw the orange blooms. A voice that told me I would never accomplish anything in life, almost like a premonition. Throughout winter, I’m told I’m a failure who will quit before she can be challenged, who will not weather through any storm. Whom do I convince that it’s not for lack of trying?

Because it’s not just the year ending, it’s the time for longing. For throughout the year your aloneness is not threatening but winter begins to crack your walls, shake your bones. In winter, solitude morphs into loneliness. Loneliness jo kaatne ko daudti hai, that’s chasing me to take a bite out of me. How do I possibly explain that my loneliness doesn’t run deep, it spreads across the horizon? Everywhere I look are endless, empty skies…of me. Alas, no one else but you will do. I long for your familiarity, for you who know me. I long for parts of myself that I’m losing and for you to please pick them up for me. 

Because it’s not just the season of longing, it’s the time for melancholy. Melancholy; the old English word for sadness they couldn’t put their finger on, for what they didn’t know then to call depression. That’s what sadness in winter feels like: something old and ancient, that you simply cannot put your finger on. While I’ve prided my memory for its top-notch bookkeeping, this winter the ink’s running dry and I’m missing many entries, time and complete days. I’m told and know that that’s common for both melancholy and depression, they freeze your memory and no matter how much you skate, the ice won’t break.

It’s November again and I’m ready for melancholy to knock at my frozen door, bring despair with it. They are my familiar companions now.

Winters change, years shift but they remain. 

I returned to my place of learning some time ago, walked down the path that was once my favourite even if it led me to a place I merely despised not even fully hated. And it was while leaving that I remembered about them, the wildflowers. I remembered them because my head turned of its own accord, not even knowing it hoped to see something, and found that the creeper was gone, as was the balcony. The house had stayed but it had changed, it had gotten bigger. Home of the plants taken away to make room in a house already too huge. My flowers were missing but my hope believed that they finally escaped.

I realised I only remembered them because they were gone, and continued to walk on.

Author bio:  Naina Rathi is a writer and filmmaker (wannabe) from Hyderabad where she has lived most of her life. She studied media and literature, worked in advertising and this year, finally quit it. She now freelances for the Times of India and always struggles to her make bios wittier.

The First Winter Without –

by Ujwalla Bhandari

… anchor – 

My heart has been falling for months. The runs to and from closet to mirror to door to train to work to the end of the day serve to keep it in the air like a ball that an inept juggler is juggling. I’ve been struggling since home ceased to be a place I can go, and turned, instead to rubble. The trouble is masked by the facts – people sell their homes, the city is practically one endless construction site, we needed more space, the family was broken. I flip these thoughts over like totems to keep my heart afloat.

What takes me by the throat is the winter I love, setting in, warming the tea on the stove, as if to compensate for the loneliness of my ambiguous loss. Because of course, a woman who marries for love, leaves her home anyway. She loses her say about what is irrevocable, loses woman to wife, with the haze of her girlhood tugging, from time to time, at her heart. Her falling heart. Can I really fall apart that my house is gone, when I have been gone from my house for years?

The tears come for me when I realize the house was where my loneliness stopped being scary, and somehow felt safe. The walls of my room seemed to say, hey: we’re holding you, feel what you feel. My bookshelves revealed me to myself, mirrored my musings, made them real. I could trace my becoming on the spines of all I read in all those years of solitude. Whatever the mood of the world outside, the chaos or the mess, I could step into the best kind of quiet, and exhale the day away. I could keep the world at bay, and stay in the nook between my bed and the wall, burrowing into the call of isolation. People were always confusion, but at home, they were far away. It was only ever those walls that let me in, truly, that built themselves around me. Home was a place that found me, and I was lost a lot.

… love – 

And then there are the memories attached to you. In my doorway, in my chair, in my bed. Your love first found me there, too, those years, and the first thing I did was introduce you to my sanctuary. I wonder if you were wary of my heart on my sleeve. This strange reprieve from games; me, a girl who was no one, whose mind had been burrowing inwards for years; whose layers spilled into your arms as soon as you opened them.

I have craved to belong everywhere I’ve loved. For a time, we belonged together in that little haven: talking, laughing, planning a life. The ring you put into my blanket-fold for me to find, and exclaim, the glistening promise of togetherness that it signified. Our love story unfolded in my safest place. 

I craved to belong to you, belong with you, belong in love. I thought love would catch my heart and hold it. But now I know, love is about letting go. Sometimes love is a fault line; a door to safety, or an invitation into a storm. I never know how warm your hands are going to be, but the warmest place to hold them was always that home. The one that won’t be there anymore, whose last walls are coming down as I write this.

… truth – 

Ignorance is bliss. I think there are still things I omit from the narrative. The thirty-one years I spent at home were dotted with blanks of things too dark to remember. It was the scene of many crimes, from a child’s hungry eyes. An unrelenting loneliness grew miles and miles of distance between me and anyone else who lived there. But I felt as though the walls cared; the plants the ceilings, the floors. The doors closed when I needed to disappear, and opened when I wanted to run away. And there were many days when I didn’t know which – freezing or fleeing – would quell the screaming inside. In spite of it all, the ball of pain I was for so many of those years, the sight of a bougainvillea rain, pink strewn all over the patio made everything disappear. The years of ache, too, were softened by the abundant happenstances, the little quirks of the house; its creaks and creatures and its many, many blooms.

There was no winter that didn’t bring warmth – a coal fire always lit on the coldest days, as people who’d hurt one another sat around the maze of their feelings, and poured each other wine. We were broken and we were fine. And the house contained us in all our seasons. Being home was a good enough reason to exhale the weight of being misfits in the world. Hands curled around themselves, somehow only ever approximating belonging anywhere – this, us around a fire at home, is an image of the closest we came.

… a Past that speaks to the Present – 

The person standing over the stove in her husband’s house is a stranger. Seasons change and I try to reach her, crossing the bridge of space and time, from a girlhood we have shared. I am still 19 and idealistic, reading on my bed, in my room, in the house of our dreams, that, in this parallel universe of before, still stands tall, adorned in its vines and flowers. I send her the image of where I am, nestled in a nook that has held us both. She is letting the winter have her, resigned to the falling of home and heart. I try to reach through the lonesome fog, to the yearning in her, to the loss of self that she has endured at the hands of tradition and circumstance. You didn’t know when you left, that there wouldn’t be a home to come back to, I remind her. Even if the bricks fall, you can always go back there in your mind. I imagine that she hears me; that’s the single tear that gathers in the corner of her eye is the bridge from me to her. We’ve always favoured winter, for it has taught us how to stay warm.

I watch from Before, and want to hold her; this brave & broken eventuality I know will be me in a Future where our house has been razed to dust. It’s cold, but I will her to savour the tea, the quiet morning, the weight of the book in her hand. I will her to let herself mourn home; everything it was and wasn’t. I will her to feel me there with her, a part of her, that can witness her – witness the loneliness away. As a fragment of her self, I want to offer a sunbeam of belonging, to warm the skin of her soul. I want to remind her of what we know in our bones – that the lonely can grow roots again and again:

for this feeling;

this longing for home –

is home.

Author bio: Ujwalla has felt in poetry ever since she can remember. She sees the creative word as a language that captures interiority with a kind of magic that evokes the depth within its readers too. She is fascinated by the power of this resonance. She works by day as a psychotherapist in New Delhi, with the resonance of words at the heart of her practice. 

A season of Yearnings

by Affan

Yesterday, I opened my wardrobe and retrieved my blanket. It emanated an odor that stirred my senses, transporting me back to last year’s winters. At its peak, that winter mirrored my emotional fragility. I had pledged that by the onset of the next winter, I would have penned all the stories I yearned to write. As the idealist I used to be, I foresaw myself transformed — refined, akin to a sage, devoid of immoral tendencies.

Now, I realize I’ve lingered in the same state as last year, and the year before, and so on. I’ve merely dreamt of change, never truly embraced it. This season, unfolding from the previous, reveals the fallacies I’ve concealed beneath my social exterior.

As the wind breezes and days pass, I don’t tally the moments I squander, yet persist in lamenting my obituary state of futility.

I remain under the blanket, yearning to rise and complete the drafts of stories and essays initiated long ago. I wish to witness the sunrise, the unfolding day, the birds leaving nests in the morning and returning in the evening. I long to comprehend and articulate life as it is.

My window is open, the blanket envelops me. A gentle breeze sways over my potential resistance to procrastination. I feel a sense of retardation and mournfulness, inducing sleep whenever wakefulness threatens to remind me of my lapse into procrastination. Upon waking, I am further disheartened by the unaltered reality. The seasons change, and as I drift to sleep each night with unfulfilled aspirations, I await an unforeseen change, knowing that with winter’s arrival, dissatisfaction with my present state will intensify. Come summer, I’ll mourn the passing of winter, and this perpetual cycle is destined to persist as long as I live, as long as seasons shift, and I persist in promising change in the next season, ensnared in the cobweb of uselessness.

Author bio: I am Affan, currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Delhi. As a dedicated writer and avid reader from Aligarh, poetry courses through my veins. My aspirations extend to becoming a filmmaker, fuelled by a fervent desire to alter the conditions of the world through transformative storytelling.

All My Leaves

by Nyssa Lowenstein 

I think I’m like a tree.

If a tree wanted to cling to every single leaf it ever produced.

But I don’t want them all the time, so I will bag and box my leaves.

Protect them under my limbs regardless of season.

Use my roots to hoard them, press them in books to preserve them, tangle them in fallen sticks, throw them into junk drawers and lockets.

I never want to lose one. 

What if I lose one? 

What if I forget it forever? 

I spend a lot of time collecting all of my leaves. Dreading, catching them as they fall. Instead of reaching for the sun, or reflecting on the passage of seasons and the passage of time that will produce thicker bark, more rings, deeper roots reaching for deeper wells of water and richer soil. Nitrogen, aquifers. 

I want all my leaves. 

I want to protect and save them, out of my mind, but in physical space. I need them. They say something about me. About how I’ve lived. How I’ve been impacted by the air, the weather, the ones who want to chop me down and the ones who will attempt to rake the leaves that I so desperately want to keep but slowly smother my existence.

I weep when they disintegrate because they are not meant to last the time that I am. 

And weeping harder for the ones that I know I’ve forgotten and will never remember exactly, or the ones I can’t recall at all. 

I understand my leaves are meant for a specific purpose, that they are an extension of me for a moment, absorb the vitamin d, give insects a thing to eat or to mate on, and drop when things turn cold. Not forever. I shed them unwillingly. My aging and growth, my wrinkles and seedlings. 

But I want to protect these fronds and petals. Keep them close. They are precious. How can anyone deny they are precious?

If I were a tree that moved – I would carry them with me. 

I know that they would either fertilize my roots better if I allowed their removal. Time passed, rotated to compost, lowered fire danger, made fodder for bird’s nests, or squirrels would chase each other through them in rustling displays of flirtation. 

They would make grass greener and flowers bloom. 

But if they are no longer mine, they are no longer mine. Would someone understand them as I do?

That I want to celebrate each one no matter how painful and that’s why some of them sit in dusty boxes and others are loved to dust out in the open. Get a birthday cake and a party. Some will live longer in my consciousness because I saw them every day. Memorized. 

The ones that sit in boxes in shadowed altars in back closets peel back scars and wounds when I see them again – knowing they are important and if I lose them I will lose that pain that still rings true each time I see them. That I’m never really healed. 

It wrings me out like a towel. 

I love my leaves. I hate my leaves. They make me look haggard and a little unwell. In many ways they have stunted my growth, but are somehow crucial to who I am. Cozy and decaying. A museum.

How can I be ungrateful for them? How can I show my respect to them if I leave them behind or allow them to be swallowed by nature or the local town dump? How can they produce someone else’s mulch?

Author bio: Nyssa Lowenstein is a writer, film producer, and theatremaker. Nyssa has been previously published in The Remnant Archive, and at The Unsealed. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University with a BFA in Acting with certificates from Yale University and Moscow Art Theatre School. Originally from Denver, she currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Adam, and cat, Milton @nysistrata

Hindi-Urdu: Politics and Poetics of a Contested Linguistic Landscape

By Daniele Speziale

Though a lover of Hindi/Urdu poetry, my first encounter with the language was not exactly poetic. In 2015, as part of an exchange, I moved from my hometown, the Italian port of Savona, to a small village in faraway Malaysia – my first time experiencing the mighty monsoons, vibrant spices and interconnected tongues of the Indian Ocean region. It was there, at Malaysian Indian weddings, that my young self discovered the sheer fun of dancing to Sheila Ki Jawaani and Chikni Chameli at weddings. “You know what, these are pretty catchy” – I thought as I entered a Bollywood rabbit hole that lasts until today. Eventually, lyrics after lyrics and movie after movie, I picked up the language more and more – and with it, the poetics that pervade texts and dialogues. 

When the 2020 lockdown began, I found myself stuck in a tiny apartment in the Netherlands (where I studied Political Science) with an Urdu Grammar textbook and Ralph Russell’s “A Thousand Yearnings, a brilliant introductory anthology to Urdu Literature. My passive absorption of random Filmi vocabulary like “piya”, “deewaana” and “zulfon ka rang sunehra” thus turned into an active exploration of the language’s inner workings. Then, as an exercise of sorts, I started trying my hand at composing my own poems. As of today, I am a budding “ghazalkaar” (ghazal-composer) who goes by the “takhallus” (pen name) of Raahi Italvi. 

After all these years of exploring the language, this is the first time I put my linguistic, literary journey into writing – together with a few socio-political questions I encountered along the way.

The age-old question: what are “Hindi” and “Urdu”? 

The first thing a foreign learner notices when approaching Indian languages is just how thin the line between “Hindi” and “Urdu” is. So thin, that even native speakers struggle to point where one ends and the other starts. The confusion reaches such levels that an Indian friend once asked me: “Is ‘Urdu’ just another name for ‘Persian’?”. After years of reading, my conclusion is we need to start seeing Hindi-Urdu as different registers of the same language, rather than wholly distinct languages. 

Imagine a colorful continuum going from Sanskrit, on one end, all the way to Perso-Arabic, on the other. Depending on how Sanskritized or Perso-Arabized your lexicon is, what you are saying will be more likely to classify as Hindi (in the first case) or Urdu (in the second) – but still along a continuum which, in linguistics, is usually referred to as “Hindustani”. In most cases, I always found it more useful to speak of a unified Hindustani language. After all, “Hindi” speakers are way more likely to refer to their friend by the Persianism “yaar” than by the Sanskritism “mitr”. Likewise, Pakistanis speaking informal “Urdu” will call a flower “phool” and a cloud “baadal” just like their Hindi-speaking counterparts, instead of resorting to Persianism like “gul” and “abr”. 

Some may counter-argue that, still, Urdu is distinguishable by the use of the Arabic script, and Hindi by that of Devanagari. But does this distinction hold? If we look at written production in pre-Partition India, we would find magazines called “Swaraj” distributed in the Urdu script, and the slogan “Inqilab Zindabad” circulating in Devanagari. Does this make “Swaraj” an Urdu word and “Inqilab” a Hindi one? Again, the divide collapses. 

All in all, the purism involved in the terms “Hindi” and “Urdu” hardly reflects South Asia’s linguistic syncretism. Still, in the case of artistic writing, authors might choose to embellish their texts with the prestigious lexicon of Persian and Sanskrit, in which case we might say they are using an “Urdu” or “Hindi” register. How did such a complex divide become so cemented, and how does it affect Hindustani poetry appreciation?

Love-hate patterns: why people romanticize either Hindi or Urdu, and sometimes dislike the other

When I was taking my first steps into the Hindustani culture, besides having to make sense of the Hindi/Urdu divide, I was also baffled by the romanticizing outlook that Indians have towards either of the two languages. To my foreign ears, words like “saadhu” and “jaadu”, “pyaar” and “yaar”, “karam” and “qasam” sounded all rather similar, even as I could usually point out which ones had Sanskrit or Perso-Arabic origins. Why was it the case that, under Filmi songs, some people would comment that they prefer Urdu lyrics over Hindi ones, while others threatened to boycott Bollywood for its use of “foreign” Urdu? 

Hindustani went through multiple historical moments that split it into “Hindi” and “Urdu”, all of which slowly cemented popular perceptions about these in India’s collective perception. British language policy, which aimed at landing a final blow to Mughal culture by eradicating Persian, allowed for the development of Hindi’s highly Sanskritized register. “Shuddh Hindi”, which embodied the alliance between British and Sanskrit-savvy Brahmin elites, achieved a dominant, “sarkaari” status over Urdu, even as it was a relatively artificial idiom. Peggy Mohan, in “Wanderers, Kings, Merchants”, traces how the British coined “Shuddh Hindi” words entirely based on English syntax, such as “prabandhit” for “restricted”, where “pra-bandh-it” is the exact replica of “re-strict-ed”.

This pure Hindi was not just distant from people’s spoken tongues, it was also a language that engaged very little with popular arts. In “Anthems of Resistance”, Raza and Ali Husain Mir argue that Hindi writers, by virtue of their elitism, never bothered engaging in “vulgar” mediums such as cinema – hence why Bollywood dialogues and lyrics came to be dominated by the more daring and progressive Urdu writers. I find it ironic, then, that Hindi-language conservatives nowadays hate Bollywood for its Urdu-ness (often on Islamophobic grounds) when it was Hindi authors who stayed away from it in the first place.

While these two stages are just small moments in Hindustani’s long history, they illustrate how Hindi and Urdu acquired the position they have today: the former a hegemonic register with, due to its top-down-ness, limited popular appeal; the latter a more marginal idiom, but with a reputation of romanticism and lyricism. 

Revamping Urdu knowledge, reclaiming Hindi poetics 

Eventually, the alienation that Urdu suffered in India led to a deplorable situation, where even self-declared Urdu lovers often see the language through romanticizing, exoticist lenses. Romanticization leads to a surface-level appreciation of Urdu as an “aesthetic” more than an actual language, while its exotification perpetuates the perception of Urdu as foreign. 

The situation of Urdu poetry is even more dismal. I remember my struggle in convincing an incredulous friend that “Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna” and “Saare Jahaan Se Accha” are ghazals – her disbelief being based on the misconception that ghazals are invariably love poems, while it is in fact the couplets-based, rhyme-following meter which makes a ghazal. Similarly, when people romanticize Faiz’s nazm (not a ghazal!) “Mujhse Pehli Si Mohabbat”, I always ensure they get to know the actual text. “There are sorrows in the world far worse than love’s”, says Faiz before devoting two full stanzas to the pus-oozing, disease-stricken bodies of the poor, exploited masses. The poem, with which Faiz rejected apolitical romanticism in favor of socially-oriented art, is hardly ever considered in its entirety: viral renditions, exploiting andreproducing the “romantic Urdu poetry” aesthetic, have instead almost crystallized a repackaged, “sanitized” version of the same. 

If this is Urdu’s position in the mainstream, it cannot be said that Hindi poetry is afforded much attention either. The equally well-rooted misconception that Hindi is a traditionalist, administrative and academic language distances many from its poetics. Wealths of progressive poets like Dhumil, Vidrohi, Gorakh Pandey, Agyeya and Baba Nagarjun, together with feminist poetesses Mahadevi Verma, Kamla Bhasin, and Anamika, are thus disregarded in the subconscious perception that “Hindi is not as poetic as Urdu”. The neglect of revolutionary Hindi voices, in turn, allows for conservative forces to perpetuate their monopoly on Hindi poetics. I thus believe reclaiming Hindi for progressive purposes would pull the rug from conservatives’ feet and, while caste orthodoxy might have been intrinsic to Hindi’s development, it must be remembered that languages are constantly contested, repurposed, reappropriated and mobilized for new goals. 

Towards the future of Hindustani poetry

The poetry of Hindustani (Hindi, Urdu and every color in between) represents one of South Asia’s most invaluable heritages, but its appreciation and preservation requires a learning which pop-culture alone (as with the Faiz example above) cannot provide: from the forms that poems take, such as ghazals, to Hindustani’s enormous range of vocabulary; from the identity politics that afflict the language, to the pre-Western literary standards that poets followed for centuries. If this were not to happen, Hindustani poetry will suffer what Akbar Allahabadi predicted in his poem “Nayi Tahzeeb”: guzishta azmaton ke tazkire bhi rah na jaenge / kitaabon hi men dafn afsaana-e-jaah-o-hasham honge (not one memoir will remain of past greatness / as tales of our grandeur shall lie buried in books).

Belonging as a Perpetual Outsider

By Diksha Singh

There was one thing about informal gatherings that constantly bugged me, irrespective of where I lived or the people with whom I hung out. It was the conversation trails that traced our families and native places, the routes that elicited stories of belonging and personal culture. My friends would often narrate how a bride was decorated, how people ate during a wedding in their hometown, or how their grandma dressed distinctly and told stories.  With these narrations, they would sometimes add the pinch of nostalgia that relayed their connection to their homelands. The coconut tree that grew in their backyard or the chai-biscuit stall that developed with them over the years. 

These conversations made me feel distant, as I never had many stories about hometowns and cousins. I never had stories about one place, rather small stories of the many homes that I inhabited. My father had a transferable job, and thus we shifted living spaces every three to five years until my father retired. It appeared as if my friends had an anchor, a port, a comfortable home from where they had sailed for higher education and work. And I? Whenever I looked back at my past, all I had was a blurred set of multiple temporary homes. No anchor. 

Now, it isn’t true that I don’t have a hometown. Because I do; technically, it is the native where my parents were brought up. So, I supposedly belong there. But really, only my parents do. 

Growing up, I always threw a tantrum when we moved to another city in India. As a person with an introverted personality, the possibility of uprooting life in one city and planting it in another appeared impossible. How on earth was I to make new friends in a new school and a new classroom? 

It was not that I despised change and new beginnings. It was the abrupt endings that irked me. A life devoid of life-long friendships. Every time, it felt as if something invaluable was lost prematurely, as if there was more potential left, as if there were more corners to explore in the old city, as if there were more jokes to be cracked between friends. 

There were two other consequences of moving periodically – one, I lived in other states more than my “own”, and, two, I mostly surrounded myself with people of different cultures. The second consequence caused me more heartbreak and mental trauma. Towards the last decade of my father’s service, surrounding myself with friends from other cultures was not a choice anymore. It was a given for ten long years—my ages through thirteen and twenty-three. The catch in the last place was that everybody else was localised except for me. All of them had the same language and culture. All of them belonged to the same, single state. Now, this is where I became a perpetual outsider for ten years. 

After the initial shock that everyone in school was from Kerala, I made a few friends and interacted with them in English, which was difficult for me. I always had pictured English as an academic subject that I had to learn as part of the syllabus. I never thought I could use it to converse with friends. Gradually, I improved my language and even enjoyed spending time with my new friends, learning a new language and their culture slowly. 

Over the next ten years, I made many friends in school, college, hostel, and workplace. I learned Malayalam to an acceptable, I-can-live-and-travel-on-my-own-here level. In fact, I was even proud of myself until 2019, to have spent so many years as a non-Keralite in Kerala. I thought I did a good job, notwithstanding how a few people had discriminated against me, how few friends had kept secrets from me, and how some men had treated me differently and less respectfully. While some incidents were intentional, some others were unintentional.

In 2019, I commenced higher studies at a national institute established in Kerala. Here, Keralites were no longer in the majority. Naturally, I was excited at the prospect of meeting people from other cultures, and I wrongly assessed myself as being perfectly capable of handling the transition. After two years, I realised that I was so wrong. In this new place, I interacted with Keralites and non-Keralites simultaneously. I soon found that neither was I a hardcore Keralite, despite knowing well the language, people, movies, and culture, nor was I a “proper” non-Keralite, because, hey, I had not interacted with one in the past ten years, except for my family. 

I was neither here nor there. I was a little here and a little there.

With time and some disagreements and conflicts, I reckoned I was harbouring insecurities and a desperate “need to belong”. When I was with Keralites, I tried to fit in by being as good as I could be. I never considered treating them different, but my trust was broken a few times.  When trust is broken because people think you are not one of them, it leaves an indelible scar on your psyche.  

When I interacted with non-Keralites, I expected to belong to this category as well quickly. But I hadn’t lived in North India for most of my life, a few conversations in, and I soon realised that I was different here and the hint that even they considered me out of place left me a bit shaken. I didn’t realise that falling into a category mattered to me. I was even ashamed that I bothered being part of any one of the communities. Why? Because everybody else belonged to one? I don’t know.

The realization struck me heavily, and I remembered each chaotic incident where I was mistreated. I realised I wanted to fit in, how a jigsaw puzzle piece fit with another in a picture, but I wanted to become a piece that could fit in multiple images. I realised I was insecure about being an outsider and insecure about being left out. But despite all the efforts, I was still left out by some individuals. And thus, I realised I probably didn’t belong anywhere. 

At first, these realisations troubled me immensely. But with time, and with more conflicts and interactions with both Keralites and non-Keralites, and a little help from books like “Belonging” by Umi Sinha, I understood that perhaps it isn’t necessary to belong anywhere. I can freely be what I am. I should remember that these incidents are only a few, and many have treated me exceptionally well. I shouldn’t let such incidents cause heartache and trigger the insecurities as and when they like. 

Belonging” by Umi Sinha was an overwhelming and much-needed embrace that I forgot about my insecurities. The story travels through three generations of a family which lived in India and Britain during colonial times. The complexities and feelings that arise when you spend your childhood in one place and adulthood elsewhere are brilliantly portrayed in the book. The author doesn’t shy away from displaying affectionate feelings for people of another land, and she does it effortlessly as if it is like loving people from our land. 

The book and some magnanimous individuals had a significant impact on my mind. They made me realise that it is perfectly alright if I don’t fit into any categories. Perhaps, before being accepted by others, I need to accept myself and be grateful that I witnessed various cultures while growing up. Moreover, these experiences have made me look beyond mistreatments and helped me become more empathetic towards others. As humans, we all tend to be sceptical of uncertainties, of unknowns, and of people of different cultures, states, religions, and countries. Maybe it isn’t so tragic when locals try to protect themselves from outsiders. Sure, I would love to be accepted without hurdles and potholes, but I do understand the motivations behind avoidance and scepticism and frail trust. 

And, despite all the uncertainties, there have been individuals who have graciously, slowly or immediately, accepted me and embraced me. My heart beams gloriously whenever I think of my dearest friends and well-wishers and guides. Sure, there have been difficulties, but there have also been a lot of colours, a lot of seasons, warmer winters and rainy summers, a lot of slippery slopes and ascending bonds, a diversity in perspectives and a potpourri of diverse talent and ideas. And perhaps, a blurred past of multiple homes is perfectly and wonderfully complete.  

Author bio:

Diksha adores reading, writing, and drawing and is currently pursuing her PhD in Management Information Systems.

To be forgotten- The way a camera forgets the photographer

By Kashvi Chandok, EIC

I have a problem with documentation, which is to say, I have an obsession with documentation. This is more of a self-confession than an exposé, but being young in the age of surveillance compels you to look at yourself from a distance. Most days I wake up nursing the feeling that life is passing by dreadfully fast and if I don’t live every moment of it, even more so, if I don’t document myself living every moment of it, it’ll disappear into fragments of thin air.

Credits: Moya Mawhinney

For a few years now, I have walked with this lipid realisation of how transient everyday moments can be. Life passes by when you’re reading on the school bus, when you’re shuffling through your playlist in the metro, making eye contact with masked strangers, and so on. There’s something about wanting to live a prodigious life that is so conducive to manifesting an alternative life that most times I feel like I’m living in motion, neither here nor there, but in this daydreaming amnesia of what reality should be. 

For most people of privilege and access to literature and the media, our lives imitate art more than the other way around. In “Cruel Optimism,” Lauren Berlant, discussing the “genres for life” says that we want to think that our lives have an overall trajectory, much like the plot of a book, and that if we could just figure out its arc, we could write it ourselves. For me, the trajectory has often been about visualising my life, if not in the future, then in the present: as an escape. It’s not this longing of abundantly unlived daydreams that troubles me. If anything, it’s in imagined lives that we truly break away from the enigma. Yet it’s the performance in which we often manifest our desires that interests me.

The Self in Self-Documentation: 

Recently, I came across a class called Intentional Documentation on Skillshare which claims that effective visual documentation, i.e., documenting yourself doing menial or mundane chores, can help you live a mindful life. The class description is quite interesting: “There is something beautiful about capturing pieces of your life in a thoughtful way and having these moments to look back on. Their value is immeasurable. They can create a sort of loose outline of your past. They will become portals to see where you’ve come from and what you’ve been through. This class is all about the cultivation of those moments. “

These ideas of viewing oneself from the lens of the other are not new. Some of the early origins of self-documentation have emerged in the form of portraits. Self-portraiture is an art form that dates back to Ancient Egypt, and artists like Rembrandt, Albrecht Düre, and Frida Kahlo have all explored, even based a majority of their now remarkably considered works on this artform. Most of these artists used it as a chance to portray themselves as the main characters and heroes of their own tales. In fact, it is still viewed as a chance to capture a side of yourself that nobody else sees. 

In a study conducted in the UK, it was found that self-portraits or photos of the self were the 2nd most popular category of photographs after “friends and family”.  If we view the self-portrait genre through the perspective of document theory, we understand that they serve as some sort of referential system to provide proof, relevancy and meaning. But in a world where we use devices to track our own behaviours, make web pages for our professional portfolios, autobiographies, visual self-portraits, and other specialized types of information about ourselves, how do we differentiate the self from the document? And who is really the archivist of our identity?

The Affect:

Every moment that we live is governed by an immeasurable and indescribable feeling that is individual to oneself. Sometimes in mid-summer, I would be sitting under a fan and a suspiciously wistful sensation would seep through me that I had lived this before. I recognise this warm air, this sense of mundanity that transports me back to a school day when I was 15 and passed notes to my friends in between math classes, or to a trip I went on with my family, where I bruised my knee and sat in front of a local chemist store eating ice cream. Yet in all these commonplaces of shared feelings, my sentiments differ by my current state of being. This is how the “affect” concept works in correlation to our memory. 

A few weeks back, while having a phone call with my Modern Theater professor for a paper, she introduced the “affect-concept” to me. Talking about the theory, Eric Shouse wrote in M/C Journal that unlike emotion, which is social, and feeling, which is personal, “affect” is considered pre-personal: a nonconscious experience of intensity. In more literal terms, affect theory refers to unconscious forces in our minds like sensations, atmosphere, feelings, experiences, moods, etc that govern how we look at the culture around us. 

The concept was proposed in reference to the French-Romanian playwright Ionesco’s works, and we were talking about the difference between theatre performances and readings of those performances. The visual and theatrical elements of a stage assimilate the “affect” on its audiences through the performance of sounds, visuals, gestures, and lighting. At the core of photography and videography lies this concept. So does the concept of self-performance in documentation.

André  Lepecki, a well-known performance studies professor and author, says  “If performance’s life is in the present, its plunge into unconsciousness is what guarantees its persistent (yet a temporal) presentness, for the unconscious reveals only a temporal present tense of memory… remembering as total surrender to memory is a very effective way to elude the passing of time.”

Similarly, capturing these motions in photographic form exposes performance’s unconscious citation while also utilising photography’s power to call to presence through vision, memory, and imagination, even if it is a temporal presentness. The rhetoric of the main subject and, dare I say, “main character” isn’t merely a cynical technique of manipulating others. Revolutionaries may use heroism as a narrative to make sense of their own lives and the decisions they have made. But what about the heroic construct of people living ordinary lives? Are the principles of that skillshare class based on factuality?  Is there anything heroic about coming home to unwashed dishes? Is there anything of significant posterity that deserves to be preserved when I’m separating the whites of my laundry? 

Exploring the performativity of performance in visual documentation 

Traditionally, in Greek, photography means “light writing”. When I sit down to place my phone to capture a shot, I first observe the direction of the light. Will it make me more defined? Do I want to look defined? Can a human even look defined? Or will it make me more obscure? A bone-figure thrust into body dysmorphia. But desire is often a demanding emotion, ravaging one’s body from within. I have these terrible lingering longings for love, experiences, and travel, which manifest through photographs as vessels for preserving those sentimental moments when they finally arrive. 

I am reading, but I’m also performing the act of reading. The frame of building something that surpasses the ethos of one moment is refreshing. But in perceiving myself from the 3rd person’s lens, I alter myself. To think of it, self-concept is primarily a social phenomenon. To establish a sense of self, one must treat the self as an object and observe it in the same way that others do. From one’s perspective, creating a self-concept entails integrating self-perception with the perceptions of others. 

It is this distance from the reality within our pictures, videos, and documentation of the self that interests me. Szarkowski seems to agree with this idea when he says that a photographer’s factuality of pictures was different from reality. He says that the subject and the picture are never the same things, and why would they be? The image, the documentation in question, would survive the subject and withhold memory. Perhaps, the image propels the subject to be looked at from a new perspective, forming an alternate remembered reality. 

But the function of memory is itself quite fickle, what stays and what doesn’t, who is to say? In performing while creating the memory, the truth value of the self-portrait of the self-portrayed photograph is diminished as the artist performs their body repeatedly in such a way that the creative subject, who is both the author of the image and the performer in the image, is unduly enacted as a representation. 

Identity, Surveillance, and Keeping Yourself at Arm’s Distance.

Some of my early memories of seemingly innocuous surveillance have been in grocery stores. My mother would be at the cash register where I would stare at the tiled computer screen to see how I was looking through my back. I would move around, fix my hair, and even try to face the camera while trying to catch a glimpse of myself on the screen. It wasn’t until I started to write this essay that I realised how these extremely common, almost forgettable moments are modern-age ways of how we see ourselves. 

The phenomena of constant surveillance propels an insidious anxiety to unconsciously act as a version of ourselves that is being “watched,” and if we’re not comfortable with the amount or manner in which we’re being watched, a fear of being irrelevant arises.  Perhaps the most significant impact on our identities comes from interactive surveillance. We live in a world where privacy is an arduous concept. Recently, I saw a bunch of “influencers”, maybe some masquerading as activists and entrepreneurs beneath their socialist facade, promoting a smart wearable that monitors heart rate, sugar levels, and everything-that-sums-up-your-cellular-existence levels. The device allows people to communicate information about themselves and their health via social media, “gamifying the body,” as they say. Isn’t this a form of meticulous documentation of every aspect of their lives? Even the invisible ones? 

The fear of being invisible is not just rooted in existentialism but in the way we see and want to be seen. We’re all stories wanting to be told, of finding an arch, a narrative which doesn’t peak until it’s too late. But one cannot always live in the moment and walk with this spearing burden on the shoulder to create art out of ordinary life. This is the curse of artists, isn’t it? To spend so much time finding meaning in the banality of common life is to develop a mechanism of romanticising yourself, in all your mundanity. Even if it means rendering the gravity of lonesome some strength. There’s so much beauty in recording one doing house chores, or leaning against a wall with curled telephone wire smiling, or sitting alone by the sea shore. Quite cinematic in its perseverance, isn’t it? The art of capturing a scene in itself is emotionally two-dimensional,  only shining a light on what appears and not what goes on inside a person. Yet, it is documentation, the capturing of one in movement, in transience, in the humane backdrop of fleeting moments that we find beauty within, wrapped in all our ugly acts of performances.

Rekindling the relationship with my hometown: Jamshedpur, its Heritage buildings and Libraries

By Priyam Moonka

One out of the endless list of things humans crave most commonly is newness. The kind we think can only be achieved by moving away from the old. While the old brings comfort, the new brings excitement. But the notion that one needs to step out to experience the newness, and that comfort and excitement cannot coexist, was easily debunked for me as my hometown unfolded before me in ways I had never imagined. 

We can live in a place all our lives and still be a stranger to it. We may think we know our cities and towns well while being unbeknownst to where their hearts lie. That was my relationship with Jamshedpur – a city which was merely a densely forested land on the Chota Nagpur Plateau a little over a century ago. It was not even chosen to be a city, actually; it was perfect for building a steel plant. Thousands came from all over the country looking for employment and a city washed into existence as a result of that. Among the thousands was my great-great-grandfather, who hailed from a village in Rajasthan. So, the city I am talking about is not just the place of my birth, but also my father’s, his father’s and his grandfather’s. This is the only home we have ever known. You’ll find people of all ethnicities here – Gujaratis, Punjabis, Biharis, Bengalis, Marwaris, Tamilians, the list goes on; they’d have similar stories to tell. As much as we all love Jamshedpur and know that it’s a confluence of cultures that reflects in its linguistic and food culture that we’re proud of, there is something none of us would deny. More than once in our lives, we’ve cribbed about the lack of modernity; the absence of an airport, malls with premium brands, cafes like the ones in Delhi and Bombay, and those typical city-like high-rise buildings; a symbol of modernity and urbanization. 

While most of its young residents move out for better opportunities as soon as they finish school, just as I did, what’s left behind is the rich history, heritage and culture. Jamshedpur is vastly overlooked and lies mostly unexplored. While I’ve cursed Covid for closing a lot of doors for me, I am immensely grateful for the time I got to spend in my hometown after so many years of staying away from it. It is only now that I know what it is like to be a tourist in your own city. Never did I know that this new journey of rediscovering my hometown, which I was embarking upon, would reshape my relationship with it, the relationship that I only see deepening in the times to come.

I’d set out on my two-wheeler in the early hours of the day. What was truly beautiful about my ‘explorations’ was the fact that what I was now exploring was what had always been around. The buildings that I was so fascinated by now and could not get enough of were ones I had passed by many a time, and thoughtlessly. There was familiarity and comfort, along with newness and exciting curiosity. 

Knowing that more and more old houses and buildings are consumed by the fever of urbanisation with each passing day, I relish in stumbling upon the remnants of the good old times. Most of these traditional mansions were built in the 1930s, within around two decades of the establishment of the city. This implies that people had gradually started settling here, permanently. They’re majorly built on lands allotted by the Tata Company, and on leases. The allotments were meant to attract more workforce for the growth and expansion of the Steel plant and the city in the making. These houses, many of them crumbling, are now occupied by the old and the retired who are seen watering their plants or reading newspapers on their airy balconies in the morning. Overly spacious for barely a couple of occupants, generally an old couple, parts of them are rented out. As I stop in front of them, I imagine the houses in their days of glory and all the stories that their walls contain – the dreams of a new bride, the laughter of children as they run around sowing seeds of memories in each corner, the fragrance of succulent sweetmeats prepared on festivals year after year, the ageing of the old and cries of separation. Another edifice, a mansion from the era of the Raj – Bharucha Mansion (or the Regal Building), said to be built in 1935 using leftover steel from the Howrah Bridge, has fallen prey to the obsession with modernization. It once housed one of the first theatres in our town – the plush Regal Talkies. It was shut down in the 80s with its portions sold off to a couple of businessmen. Today, with many parts of it pulled down and replaced by their modern counterparts, this heritage building is losing its glory. 

One of these mornings, I came across a dilapidated building which serves as a guest house and a mosque. An old man helped me with the Urdu scribbled on its walls – Musafir Khana, it says. Sensing my eagerness to know more, he ushers me to an Eidgah. Built in 1911, a gift from the Raja of Dalbhumgarh, it is older than the city of Jamshedpur itself. A brief Instagram conversation with Shah Umair, popularly known as Sikkawala on Instagram, revealed to me a very interesting fact. His great-grandfather, Abdul Rab Ansari, was one of the first Imams to read Namaz there. 

I was gradually falling in love with the Jamshedpur I had never known. But what really brought me closer to it was what I had been the most oblivious to, what I had earlier thought was missing but had always been around. My visit to the Muslim Library bridged that gap. The oldest library in the city was founded in 1932. Contrary to what the name suggests, the library is open to everyone and houses books on a wide range of subjects in Urdu, English and the Devanagari scripts. As I enter, I see round tables on the corridor, some occupied and some not, with 8 different Urdu Dailies which I have never seen before in Jamshedpur. There are English and Hindi dailies as well. The corridor leads to a room dedicated to books in Urdu Literature, and for the first time I regret not knowing a language as beautiful as Urdu. I chance upon one English book among the many in Urdu. The title is gripping – Purdah and the status of women in Islam. Many more are to follow. A staircase leads to a library which is called the JRD Tata Students Corner. Among books on Commerce, geography and various sciences, I find a few caked with dust as if they hadn’t been touched in years. These are the ones that draw my attention; Fall of the Mughal Empire by Jadunath Sarkar, Ghalib: Life and Letters (1797-1869), History of the Freedom Movement in India (1947-1857), Guru Nanak by Gopal Singh, Hindu Names by Maneka Gandhi, Bengal Divided and an ancient copy of The God of Small Things. I have clearly found a new home within my home. 

To the people of Jamshedpur – Our city is way more than what we think it is.

Author Bio:

Priyam is an independent researcher and writer. She documents narratives of the Partition diaspora. She is a history buff who loves to read about South Asian history and culture. Her work is an attempt to find the umpteen stories around us, waiting to be told.

Unpacking the Dystopia in Gender: A Personal Essay in a Patriarchal Society

By Siddhi Joshi

When I make an attempt to trace the very first years of my existence, I see a blurry silhouette of my favourite flowers blooming into a loo-lorn, harsh Dilli summer. I can smell an air of non-belongingness, the kind that comes from living in a rented space: the sharp lines of keeping your first sharpie markers away from the cream of the walls and the borders of not roaming away two rooms and one kitchen too far. I imagine smiles and giggles. I reminisce about the clanking sound made by my father and me as we loudly banged on utensils to demand food – only two decibels louder than the afternoon lunch bell marking recess in schools. A picture of my mom giddily serving us tori bhindi and the like. I proceed to make an ‘ew’ face to honour the dislikes that I’ve been loyal to over the course of the years. 

In her book, Seeing Like A Feminist, Nivedita Menon shares an interesting analogy. She compares the hours spent on the application of nude makeup in order to make one’s face look like it has not been touched at all to the maintenance of a social order. The social order requires one to commit to a lifetime of faithfulness, solidarity and dutiful adherence to such an extent that its complexities, inequalities, ridges and nuances seem natural. Putting on a feminist lens is all about questioning and analysing the mundane, obvious and prescribed. It is about not accepting the social order as natural, a gift of god, a way of life, or a holy anthill of religious rituals. Over the years, I’ve heard innocent proddings about the pink and blue of clothing sections and the line of distinction between different kinds of toys.  I had a light bulb moment, the beginning of systemic questioning – why was my mother, for years on end, serving the food and eating after all of us were done eating? Why was my mom proud about putting her family before herself? These questions were perhaps a result of envisioning myself as a human growing into my mother’s shadows, duties and expectations alike. 

Who plants the mold of patriarchy in the midst of a family whose members love one another, and are tied together with promises of companionship, care and marriage?  Are there inherent inequalities present in the very foundation of a household? The damp, humid and wet conditions for the growth of this ‘mold’ are the result of the several generations before us laying down the ‘nude makeup’ of patriarchy without realising that they were breathing air into a sturdy beast – a beast consuming the potion of immorality.

Karl Marx’s comrade and fellow thinker, Friedrich Engels, wrote in his famous work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, that early human societies were egalitarian, in that there existed a simple and functional division of labour – ‘a simple outgrowth of nature’. The women formed the centre of these communistic households and controlled them. This changed when human communities began settling in a single place for a long period of time. Once they discovered agriculture, they no longer had to worry about gathering food on a daily basis, and began producing surplus. The acceleration of production eventually changed the very nature of these communities, and fights among groups over resources became common, leading to the first great division of society into masters (winners) and slaves (losers). 

With the accumulation of wealth, the relationship between men and women underwent a change. As wealth was a direct result of production (a male-dominated activity) the domestic sphere began losing its significance – women became domestic slaves. Private property didn’t just include land, animals and slaves but also women, resulting in “the world-historic defeat of the female sex”. Women began losing their exalted status in society and children began identifying descent and inheritance through the father, giving birth to the rule of the father or the patriarchy. 

While this theorization is too simplistic, it suggests the division of labour between men and women is natural and doesn’t account for culture- and region-specific nuances (there existed cultures wherein women actively participated in hunting, gathering or production activities). It underlines the enslavement of women over the years and attempts to give an account of the origin of a patriarchal society. 

My life can be divided into two unequal parts – the years before having to share everything that belonged to me, and the years of battles against a manipulative devil who loves art. I wish I was being overly dramatic, but yes, I refer to my little sister. What’s peculiar about the period before she was about to emerge from my mother’s womb is my very extensive preoccupation with wanting to have a brother. Praying to various gods to grant my otherwise unfulfilled raksha bandhan wishes and being told by my relatives to ask my parents to bring me a bhai, thereby ‘completing’ our family and giving it a coat of perfection. 

A boy and a girl make an ideal, fulfilled family in modern India – the family that tokenistically eschews the pettiness of discrimination against the girl child, giving her a decent education, pretty dresses and braids. Their girls are ready to be held up for comparison against the high-end metrics of “Sharmaji’s Children”. They’re not backward. They don’t thrive by stomping on the existence of others. Unless, of course, it includes bargaining with a local candle-maker, or the children marrying outside the upper-class nexus, thereby bringing ‘shame’ to the family. 

The sight of the small, potato-like teddy, full of life with big goofy eyes, eyeing every corner of the dimly-lit hospital room, was enough to prevent my mind from meandering to the slight disappointment of not getting a brother. I was full of awe and on Cloud Nine with joy. My maternal grandmother and everyone else expressed utmost delight at the birth of a daughter in the family. 

The womb of resistance

Birthed this dagger of change

“Oh no, a daughter!” the world exclaimed. 

In a wretched valley of half-bloom

Against a crescent moon-lit night,

Beneath a graveyard of a hundred widowed torn longings,

Her unfamiliar (unwelcomed) babbles

Strung together, 

A fragmented song of hope, an embodiment of flickering light. 

Crawling in a courtyard of sulken weeds – 

Winters of sharp love

Mountains of griefs – 

Toiling against the wheel of time,

She built ladders with bare hands into the faraway lands of tomorrows,

As the town engulfed into destruction, the yesterdays she weaved. 

Protected by the prayers of women who came before her (and got crushed),

She unflurs like a tender echo of courage

Slipping into another dawn,

Uprooting curses of generations

A war against shadows and shackles,

She marches vigorously

Against the bruises and blood.

To carve a bright sun 

The motherland will remember her name –

She’s luminous and unrestrained. 

Traversing life with my new-found sister allowed me to realise the powers of love sooner than I’d have anticipated. One of the first battles revolved around addressing her magnificent dusk colour, giving tough competition to the elegantly sculpted Krishna idols. Standing up against the casual comments and the homemade facepacks of turmeric, milk and besan gave a dimension of anger and resistance to love. Over the years, I had grown comfortable with everything the world had to offer to me as a young woman. In a household with two sisters, it’s hard to accuse any parent of patriarchal behaviour, and there is limited scope for comparison with boys of the same age. I would like to believe that despite the cushions of safety, grooming, scoldings of elegance and ways to maintain the upkeep of hair, dresses and constant chaperones for assistance, my sister and I bloomed in an equal environment only overshadowed by the hierarchies imposed by age. We shared conversations and laughter and I softly tried to warn her about the world beyond the worldwalls. Rebuking her for not enjoying studying while letting her know that, not very many years ago, people like us were not allowed to access this puzzle piece in the jigsaw of freedom. After all, through social science textbooks, I understood that my country was extremely advanced and ‘great’ in comparison to its counterparts because it extends universal adult franchise to women – the bare minimum. “Don’t take this for granted, Mahi,” I gave her a stern stare while I had my fair share of inhibitions about the mindless mugging up of facts and formulae. 

Juliet Mitchell outlines the four levels of control: production, reproduction, sexuality and socialisation. The sphere of socialisation refers to the various ways in which the family raises and prepares its children to fit in with the demands of the world – performing their defined sets of social functions, working in a close nexus with the religious customs, cultural affairs and norms of community life. 

It was through my school that I understood that teachers needed (strong) boys (not girls) to move around the furniture during fests and exhibitions. It was through the playground that Mahi realised that boys and girls are supposed to be different – the football boys, full of commitment to win against their rivals, did not let girls join their respective teams. Who would want the burden of girls on their march towards victory? My friends and I have been policed through and through for the lengths of our skirts (a reflection of our parental values), our cycling shorts (a marker of our sharamand haya), and our cherry lip balms (a petty seducer of boys). Unfortunately, us women share this common piece of reliability against all the markers that otherwise differentiate the Delhi Public Schools, the Kendriya Vidyalayas and the convents. 

The women of history have either been reduced to the margins of textbooks, their ideas glossed over by their male counterparts, their bodies enclosed within the curses of palace walls, or enraptured against the pitch black of erasure. Connecting the dots from my own life, in retrospect, I realise that I stand on the shoulders of women who came before me – in the absence of their voices, I’d have been reduced to nothingness. 

An Athena is waiting to flutter from her legs, an Aphrodite is blooming in her heart, she’s Ares at the split of day and night. She is running away hoping to stumble across her own self, the one she was before she dived into everything she was supposed to be. I am –

The brisk wind, unfurling an azure satin ribbon

With sapphire raindrops,

Inhaling the golden beams,

Dangling on a makeshift clothesline,

Suspended over the minuscule.

The orbs sketched on the flaps of a hopper,

Its moving stems against

The rusty crevices of muddy potted plants,

Welcoming the pesky monsoon air.

The lint sprouting

From the bed of a floral kimono,

Making earthly constellations.


A lightning startling the comforted. 

References 

1. Engels, Friedrich, 1820-1895. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York : International Publishers, 1942.

2. Menon, N. (2012). Seeing Like A Feminist.

3. Mitchell, Juliet.  (1971).  Woman’s Estate.  Harmondsworth : Penguin

Author Bio:

Siddhi Joshi is a poet and artist based in Uttrakhand, India. She is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Sociology from Miranda House, Delhi University. Warm like the colour yellow, in her company you will find yourself amid warm laughter and witty remarks. To her, mysterious old libraries and hastily scribbled poetry in a coffee-stained journal is the only utopia worth seeking. Siddhi is a blend of strong opinions and lyrical thoughts – a dichromatic soul that searches for answers in the prevailing paradigm and finds meaning in the minuscule.

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