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Gyanada 2014

As you may know, I set up The Gyanada Foundation last year. We’ve spent the past year building the organisation and learning as much as we can.

Last year, we supported 150 girls in India. This year we hope to raise that number to 350, including the existing students we have onboard currently; also expanding geographical reach alongside enrolment numbers at the same time.

Yesterday evening we had a great event at Artistry where we talked about what we’ve done so far and what we hope to accomplish in the near future. Here’s a summary and how you can help.

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The Geography of Hope

At 18 I certainly believed I knew everything. I did not know just how much it’d hurt this boy’s heart if I told him the inevitable: that I was in love with someone he could never be—a woman. We went to our favourite bar and sat glumly while he tried to drink away his pain and anger.

At that time it felt as though life simply led me into various unforeseen encounters, at turns dramatic and at others explosive, as if I were but a mere spectator. The woman I loved walked into the bar. I stole a glimpse. I could not look away. Even without saying anything at all, he knew it was her.

She met the man she was to marry that evening after I left.

***

There was a girl I noticed at the campus coffee shop.

I liked her pants. And her hair. It helped that I sat at that coffee shop every day nursing a cigarette because that’s what I did when I was young and stupid. She would walk by, and I would try to find out who she was.

Every day we passed each other in that little corridor or at the coffee shop. I don’t remember how, but she agreed to come on a date with me.

We went to a place I still go to, then on a 46-day backpacking trip to India. I bravely led the way. By the second week we were at the Taj Mahal. We had waited to see the sunset because I thought it might be good to attempt romantic gestures sometimes. As the sun set over Agra I reached for her hand. She pushed it away.

We broke up at the Taj Mahal, which was fitting because we had also fallen in love at the Angkor Wat. From one wonder to another, she still could not erase the shame she felt from being with a woman. Even in a country where no one knew her name.

The next 30 days were epic and vengeful, full of sadness and train schedules.

***

The woman I loved four years ago did not marry the man she met at the bar. I may or may not have had anything to do with it.

The truth was that the more I sunk into the sadness, the more I elevated our mythology. It was not the great love which never was. We were not star-crossed lovers. Not only had I not grown from that point, I had even regressed. Waking up with her every morning made me feel I would lose her any time now. I was a little bit older now but really I was still the awestruck girl in my school uniform and my tie, wanting to know how I could punch above my weight because I can, and God she’s hot.

We were the cartographers of silence which began with a lie, later snowballing into a mountain of mythology and characters with their own CliffsNotes and paths strewn with sad poetry and despair and sadness.

When you throw yourself at a wall repeatedly, it’s okay not to know when to stop, especially if you enjoy feeling sorry for yourself.

But I had adventures to go on and mythology was too heavy to come along for that ride. I threw it away.

***

I don’t dream very much, but that year I had a vivid dream: I dreamed of a tall, slender woman with a soft voice who captivated me completely in that dream. I felt happy in that dream. I was a new person in that dream. I grew to be a better person with this figment of my dream, in my dream.

When I awoke from that dream I was with such a woman barrelling down the River Skrang in Borneo on a hare-brained plan to see tattoos and drink moonshine with the tribal elders of the tattoo artists we knew in the big city. We hit a rock and the river rushed around us as if it wanted to have us whole.

We went places without names on maps. Places without maps. We were apart a lot, but she drove 300 miles to meet me all the time and we travelled tens of thousands of miles together when we could. I ended up travelling tens of thousands of miles each time I needed to see her, which was all the time. We met in Istanbul. We made video postcards about the places we were in without each other, and we sent them to each other every other week.

Eventually we decided it was time to try to steer our way home.

I don’t even remember what home means any more. I had wandered a few hundred thousand kilometres, some of it by foot. Mostly by bus, train or taxi. Even boat.

Home was where she was. Some days it was London. Others, it was Kuala Lumpur.

I found a little house I thought we could be happy in, got a dog, and perhaps for a time we were. It feels as faraway as all of my 18-year-old memories.

***

I don’t remember when I stopped trying. I was back at the Taj Mahal again, and everything about that monument still fills me with despair. I’m never going back there ever again. I looked at her. I felt despair. I didn’t know how to fix us. I just stopped trying. Or talking. I held her hand on a cold New Year’s Eve in Jodhpur. I felt nothing. I kissed her. She did not want to kiss me back. I fell asleep with my back turned, full of anger and secret tears. It had been that way for a while now.

A few months earlier I asked her to marry me. I was met with nervous laughter and panic. In hindsight, it was a bad idea. Everyone knew she would say no.

Except me. Ever the optimist.

The computer says no.

Everybody knows it. But I didn’t get the memo. It was always no.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a lesbian in this society, and it all comes down to this: other people. It’s that I have to automatically assume that all of the following are bonuses, not expectations: having my love recognized for the purposes of property, tax and inheritance; attending a partner’s family functions without unnecessary outcry and suspicion; knowing that if I were to be in a medical emergency, my life partner would be legally allowed to make decisions on my behalf. In other words, to even hope for my future life partner to be perceived as anything other than a complete stranger, is going to have to be taken on other people’s good faith.

As outsiders, that’s all we have to go on: the goodwill of other people. The readiness of other people to stop thinking of us as criminals, sexual deviants and perverts. If I hold hands with a woman I love, I am rubbing it in a conservative society’s face and being too declarative about my sexual orientation; if I walk side by side with one, the man who catcalls and makes lewd comments at us bordering on sexual harassment, is just, after all, being a man and is entitled to his opinions about my body and hers.

As for someone who generally feels like there is nothing in the world I cannot do, all I can do is to keep on doing what I do best—live my life as best as I know how, be kind to old people and animals, donate to charity sometimes, avoid premature death—and dream about the day I hope to see in my lifetime: when our lovers will be our equals, and our love as deserving.

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An Indian Decade


As a wee child in Varanasi before I threw away my backpacker wardrobe.

I’ve been coming and going from India for the last ten years.

In 2004 I started to hatch the first plans to flee the terrifying life laid out for me — that of a student in a Singapore university, doomed for the corporate world or for the civil service — into the wide open arms of India, which changed everything, and who I have grown to love unconditionally. Those early escape plans evolved into a lifestyle I would not trade for anything in the world, one which has given me ample global career and life opportunities simply because I could not sit still when I was 19.

I’m currently finishing my book, a travelogue and guidebook to India for independent female travellers, which seems timely and necessary at this point; I also set up and run The Gyanada Foundation, which aims to help girls in India receive a better education. I look forward to a few more decades with India in my life in a big way.

I’ve written a lot about India in various forms, but here are some posts previously posted here about India:

***

Speak of India and its great cities, and someone is bound to correct you.

Mumbai, they say, offended, as though you didn’t know any better. In other situations, Chennai. Yet I do say and I do like saying Bombay and Madras because those were the names we had for those cities, growing up a sea away from the subcontinent, and nostalgia counts for something, nationalist political correctness be damned.

It’s a weird question I cannot answer whenever someone asks the inevitable, why do you love India so?

Where do I begin?

Do I begin with the story of how hearing my China-born grandparents conversing in market-Tamil with our Tamil neighbours as a child mesmerised me whole, leading me to watch Tamil movies endlessly wondering why I could not understand the dialogue? I was convinced I was Indian, there was just no other way about it: being told at age 5 that I was a disgrace of a Chinese person for not being good enough at a language nobody spoke at home (we spoke dialects and English instead of Mandarin), only made me more determined. The singing and the dancing and the prancing around trees made sense to me; the kungfu television shows felt alienating.

Or perhaps it has something to do with how I was born a stone’s throw away from Little India, how my parents were wed on Diwali, and for the astrologically-minded — of which I am not — that made perfect sense to explain away my identity confusion? My solo walks around Little India as a teenager led me into informal Tamil lessons I can no longer remember, and spice shop tastings that made me feel, for once, that this is a home I understand? 

Or that nearly all of my early mentors in childhood and adolescence were Tamil-Teochew poets and Sanskrit scholars who imparted in me a love for rhyme and meter and an irrational fear of booming voices; that later in life, nearly all of my friends, lovers, business mentors and collaborators would also be connected to India in some way or other?

None of that matters.

What does is that in 2004 I walked out of the airport in Calcutta and felt immediately that I had come home, through no other prior connection; and that every year ever since I have returned, twice, thrice, and more each year, sometimes staying for months.

Whenever I read travelogues about India I am often unable to understand why the authors keep writing about the Indian Arrival Syndrome: something about throngs of humanity and masses of people and rotting flesh and cow dung and about needing to flee. The only time I have ever felt that way upon arriving anywhere has been in the great cities of America and Europe, where I have arrived and thought: oh my god, where are all the people? I need to leave. (Eventually, I got over it. But I certainly don’t write travelogues about arriving at places I don’t know and wanting to leave.)

I love that I am at home in Madras, Bangalore, Calcutta and Bombay (I’m only just learning to like Delhi). That I have my secret places, amazing friends, and a world of possibilities. If I want to drop in on a film set, I can; if I want to organise a great conference, I can; if I want to do business, I can too; if I want to set up a foundation and educate a hundred and fifty girls, it’s possible as well. I am aware everyone’s mileage varies, including that of the people who actually live there — but that’s just how it’s been for me: it gives me an imagination. Mostly by showing me the extremities of the world.

After every breakup, illness, death in the family or other assorted tragedy large and small, my first instinct is to go to India — anywhere in India. It works. It’s been called my Prozac, but what it is is really far simpler. India is where I go to make sense of the world when the world no longer makes sense for me. That arrangement has worked so far, this past decade.

I’m excited about what the next five or so Indian decades will bring.