12 years ago in Kolkata. At the time still much referred to as Calcutta. Now less so.
The city doesn’t change; but you do.
Every picture I have of it from 12 years ago still looks like it could have been from December, when I last visited. Perhaps even today. When I land at midnight later, there will not be the crisp, muddled air of the winters I love in that city, just the night time counterpart to the heat that I know will pound on my face, and the ground, sometime in the morning.
All that I know, all that I do, I owe it to this city, even if it will never know it.
When my school friends were road-tripping across European cities for ‘summer break’, or perhaps even the big cities of China and America for work and school, I found solace here. It can be hard to see, but Kolkata is a hard act to beat. It’s the ultimate summer. Followed by monsoon. And the sounds of….
It’s a monsoon and the rain lifts lids off cars
Spinning buses like toys, stripping them to chrome
Across the bay, the waves are turning into something else
Picking up fishing boats and spewing them on the shore — James, Sometimes (which somehow always comes to mind when I think of this place
How to beat it?
The start, really, of empire. The fall, or rather the fading away, of one. The majesty of India’s cricketing hopes and dreams, and occasionally the dashing of, projected unto Eden Gardens even when the matches aren’t in season. The death of Marxism, available for the world to see at every adda and every failing piece of infrastructure. Tagore’s poetry. Indian Coffee House. The children of Tollygunge, who taught me so much, 12 years ago. Sandesh.
On hot afternoons when the sun hits the ground and meets engine oil, the smell reminds me of my first love among the many other putrid Asian cities I have come to love:
“So in the streets of Calcutta I sometimes imagine myself a foreigner, and only then do I discover how much is to be seen, which is lost so long as its full value in attention is not paid. It is the hunger to really see which drives people to travel to strange places.” — Tagore, My Reminiscences
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.
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.
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.
Still scratching the surface of my favourite country in the world, this time by going to Coorg.
As many of you will know by now, I have spent a substantial part of the past decade travelling through India. I still feel like I’m barely done with scratching the surface. There’s just so much to see in that vast, amazing country that I call my second home.
For some time now I’ve wanted to go to Coorg.
Coorg, also known as Kodagu, is a hill area in the state of Karnataka, in the Western Ghats. Its people are known as Kodavas (not Coorgis!) and all I knew about the place was that it had coffee, beautiful people, and pork curry. All that was sufficient to inspire me to plan a trip there.
From Chennai, I took a quick overnight train to Mysore Junction (book early, book ahead — this route is headed towards Bangalore, and therefore sells out early), but you can also take a bus. At Mysore Junction, I arranged for a car to pick me up for breakfast and to my resort of choice.
An acquaintance from Mysore highly recommended Travelparkz, and he was right: they were a very reliable car and driver service, and it was good value. I hired them for a pickup from Mysore Junction railway station to the resort in Coorg that I was headed to; and for a drop-off from the resort to Bangalore city a couple of days later. I highly recommend these guys, though it’s best to reach them via phone. They speak English.
I had heard about The Tamara from friends in Bangalore, so I decided I would give it a shot. It’s a very new place and it gets most things right. My only complaint is it didn’t have as much pork as I would have liked.
You can wander about the grounds of The Tamara on your own, or sign up for one of their daily walks with their on-site naturalist. I did none of the above as I was too busy resting after a long week at work in India!
Highly recommended. I will be returning to Coorg shortly, although I may want to check out Victory Home next, since I’ve just met these guys in Bangalore.
I have a tattoo on my lower back. It was given to me by the grandson of a tribal village chief. I grimaced for hours on the floor as he used the primitive tools and ingredients that had tattooed his Iban people for centuries, on me, a girl from a big city.
I’d always wanted a tattoo, but didn’t know what; this one crept up on me. Like the girl I was there with (we had a crazy idea: we would visit and live with an Iban community in a longhouse and celebrate Hari Gawai with them), I wasn’t expecting any of this. The girl, the tattoo, or that I would have such a story to tell many years after the fact. I chose a bunch of tribal motifs from an album and told him to make it up. I got lucky: I like my tattoo very much, even if it is what some people would call a tramp stamp. I’m proud of it. There’s a story to tell each time anyone asks about it.
The girl is no more in my life but the tattoo remains, defiantly representing all of the new beginnings I will embrace in life. Tomorrow, I start a new life and more and more I feel as though the year of grieving and floating, which so profoundly altered my path and direction in life as well as my livelihood and future plans, is finally about to draw to a conclusive close.
I am finally ready for another tattoo. This time, I know exactly where it should be, what it should say and what it should look like. I would not have known this without the pain of my first tattoo. It will be a beautiful Sanskrit verse from the Bhagavad Gita and I intend to have it inscribed on my upper left shoulder. This time, I will harbour no plans or illusions about the permanence of anything other than that of the Sanskrit verse on my shoulder; this time, I will learn to love without needing to know the world.
Another new year, another bad habit: I’m late, again.
Just a few days ago, I was sitting at the back of a Toyota Innova, stuffing my face with mithai and chips — not at the same time — thinking what a nice surprise it’d be for my readers, to finally post, and on New Year’s Eve, too. I didn’t make it. I got busy.
The landscape outside my window was of rural Rajasthan: familiar. Not as brutal as the Marwar I came up close to, the last time I was here, at the peak of summer. Not too long before that I had arrived in Rajasthan with my young traveller tie-dye pants, led by nothing other than the youthful desire to do something unexpected, terrible and difficult. Things are quite different now: I have a ‘job’ to get back to. No doubt it’s a business I own and run, but I still can’t get away for as long as my college summer breaks allowed me to.
Everything feels different. Only India feels the same.
This winter made Rajasthan different from the last. It was much better, with its cool — almost too cool — air, dry spells. Not quite as cold as Delhi.
Hurtling through traffic, avoiding cows and camels, stopping occasionally for a ‘sulabh’ break — BYOTP (Bring your own toilet paper), the Innova, the “metal cow” of the Indian road made its way through all places familiar and strange.
We made a makeshift cinema on the rooftop of the small bed & breakfast we were staying at, shivering in the cold under bundles of blankets, with a dazzling view of the Umaid Bhawan in the near horizon.
We drank copious amounts of lassi.
We ate, drank and made merry — with our hands, of course, for to eat with a fork and a spoon is just like making love through an interpreter.
We didn’t break up at the Taj Mahal.
I’m in a different place now. A good place.
Not too long ago I was hopping around some parts of the world on a series of one way tickets, with nothing to hold me down to any place or any one. Just me, my backpack, my cameras, notepads, my lone self in a hostel room for one, on the lonely (but fun) road to self-discovery. That part of my life seems to be a distant past now. The places are the same but the package is different. I could not go away for a year now, not without looking back wistfully at some people, things and creatures.
The things that bind come when you least expect it.
They were the crazy thoughts that slip into your head when you meet someone for the first time — at a bar, or at least that’s how it was for me. The furious back-and-forth binary exchanges through various electronic sources. A text. An email. A few stamps in your passport and many flight tickets later, and you’re settled. Sort of. Settled as far as you can be. You go to a city, rent a house, set up a business, own a dog, and suddenly you’re one of those people boring hippies to death about how you love Singapore because you can go jogging at three in the morning and feel safe. Suddenly you’re one of those regular people who can go someplace breathtakingly beautiful like the Taj Mahal and feel nothing except annoyance at the incessant crowds, and you’re not the sort of girl who goes to the Taj Mahal and breaks up with the person next to you anymore.
No one ever tells you it’s going to get better in your twenties.
They don’t. Okay, so you can drink Yakult everyday before lunch and after lunch, and nobody tells you you’ve gotta eat a vegetable. That’s where it gets tricky. No one tells you anything — you’re supposed to know. About everything. About salaries and savings. About weddings and funerals. About businesses and jobs. About children and insemination. About… everything. It’s up to you. You can drink as much Yakult as you want, but if you lau sai, you take yourself to hospital and you pay for your own medical bills. You can go through life never eating a single vegetable if you don’t feel like it, but when you’re constipated… well, never mind.
You amble through life, finish college, and if you’re lucky, acquire some sense of purpose — I like to think I was lucky in that department — and then you try to make yourself a success. Somewhere along the way, one of your friends is going to die in an accident, another one of your friends is going to be diagnosed with a terminal disease, and there’s going to be absolutely nothing anyone can do when faced with sudden mortality: something most of us have not had to think about until now.
I’m not sad or anything like it. Quite the opposite. I love what I do (btw, it’s a combination of writing, speaking, and separately of selling and making apps and running a small company that makes apps), I wake up every morning the master of my own time and location — which is something I established a long time ago as a bare minimum for any endeavour. I will be where I want to be, when I want to be. This has meant 800km trips up and down the North-South Highway every other week, crazy meetings packed in rapid succession, and some sort of invisible third arm growth that is my iPhone and high speed internet connection.
Some mornings, though, I wake up missing the part of me that’s long gone. That part of me that used to write furiously, take good photos, chase stories, pursue any trail of human interest in my vicinity. I’m not complacent or anything: I’ve just lost it. Like not knowing how to play a piano again from neglect, despite banging on it for 10 years: I’ve just lost it. I’ve lost my need to go to places, see things, talk to people, take photographs, write stories. I’ve lost my wide-eyed curiosity and innocence — I’ve seen it all before, my brain tells me, and there are precious few things in the world that leap out at me the way everything once did. Absolutely none in the developed world, which doesn’t interest me anthropologically or culturally in any way, and a dwindling number in the developing world. India. Yemen. Syria. Places like that — full of raw energy, waiting to be unearthed. And in India’s case, ever-surprising and ever-ready, no matter how many times I go back there.
Then there’s the writing. Not having had the discipline, time or desire to write as often or as much as I once did, the year or two of utter neglect is leaving me scrambling to pick up the pieces before I lose it forever. It’s difficult to keep writing when you’ve been stuck, as so many writers before you have been, on that one debut novel you’ve been hacking away at for years. On the bright side, I am at a better place right now to write — and finish — that novel.
So the point of all this, I guess, is to figure out what’s next? Lots.
There’s that book to write. Like an awesome Chinese soup on slow boil, it can’t be hurried. I’m just doing what I know best, although I should know better. But that’s for me to figure out.
There’s the business, which appears to be growing. I’ve had the good luck to work with great people, so I’m excited about what it’s going to bring in 2012.
Then there’s the travel. I’ve been lucky to be able to visit all these amazing places and to know a few of them quite intimately. There’s plenty of travel scheduled for 2012, some work, some leisure, and I may finally be able to get to a few places I’ve dreamed of going since I was a little girl. Places that were difficult to get to.
On the home front, my resolve to spend more time with my family in Singapore appears to be going well. On the home front in KL, we’re at a good place although there are some plans (on my part) to move back to Singapore at some point this year.
I don’t know. For someone who hates planning, I’ve certainly planned too much. Always the big picture, the big goals at the end of the line; never the small details. Maybe it’s time to think about the details, too.
Health-wise I’m in pretty good shape. I’d let myself go — so typical of a long-term relationship — but I think I’m back at a healthy weight, build and BMI. Never again. Although the rapid and massive weight loss means I need to shop for a wardrobe anew, it’s a step in the right direction for 2012!
I won’t bother with setting any resolutions since those so often disappoint. Let’s just say I have my eyes on the prize… or prizes! Lots to do, lots to work towards — a combination of company work, personal work, and community work — and I can’t wait to get started. Though I’m currently nursing a flu from the brutal Delhi winter smog, I can feel it in my bones that 2012 is going to be a year without precedence, one that will blow the last 5 out of the water (and I’ve had very, very good years recently)!
Also, I’ve been going back to India really, really often. That counts for something in the greater scheme of happiness. Happy new year, everybody.
Absolutely. Many women do. I have travelled alone to India over 20 times. To all parts.
I used to always stay in $2 rooms alone, and also travelled sleeper class in long train journeys alone.
You need to have your wits about you, more so that you are a lone woman, but this is true of all places if you have travelled alone before.
I’m not saying nothing untoward will ever happen, just that the most I have seen has been verbal harassment which was quite easy to disarm. And that this did not happen significantly more than other places I have travelled to alone, and I will include Yemen, Bangladesh, some parts of western Europe in that list. You will have some trouble travelling alone anywhere — I don’t think India is a special case in any sense.
Someone told me, very early on when I first started exploring India alone: when in doubt, talk to a woman. I thought he was nuts but then I tried it whenever I felt unsafe anywhere (this has happened just a handful of times). People in India are super friendly, so don’t be afraid to ask. It should not be too hard to find English-speaking local women who can help, as they deal with much worse on their own. I realized this person was absolutely right: Indian women got me out of situations with calm ferocity, each and every time. They would tell the guy/s to f*** off, and make sure they deliver you to safety. This has happened across India and I urge you to consider this if shit ever hits the fan (it shouldn’t).
Some things to note, from anecdotal experiences (all of this has happened to me):
– a generalization: you will probably find South India very safe compared to North India. If interested, ask some locals on their opinions on why that is. My experience is just that in south India people are more reserved and less taken by the idea of anything foreign.
– many people in India are unable to comprehend why you should want to do that. Many of my friends there who come from privileged backgrounds, are not even given the opportunity to travel alone the same way I did. Most of their parents thought I was mad, and thought their country extremely unsafe. I think as a foreigner, one is held to a different set of standards and you can see India in a completely different way. Don’t be put off or scared by stories of other people’s opinions. Discover India for yourself and never be afraid of her. There’s a lot to learn.
– you will be asked endless questions about your personal life. What is your good name, what is your country, how old are you, are you married, how many children do you have, do you like India, what is your native place, how much money you make and can you help them get a job in your native place. Be friendly, be open to making stuff up (“the correct/expected answers”) if you like. It doesn’t really matter. But do not take this personally: this stuff is expected, considered good form, and not intrusive at all. They will also want you to send their regards to your parents, who they haven’t and will never meet, just keep it all in good faith. Friendliness takes you far in India.
– an unpleasant quirk of travelling as a lone female: this is a strange, not very nice thing but you will find out that in some places, some local men will assume because you are a foreigner = you are willing and able to have sex with them because all foreign women are not Indian and therefore impure and loose by definition. You won’t hear this said, but it is thought by many. I have found this attitude more pervasive in the north than anywhere else. I have seen and heard and experienced this behavior personally from lowly educated men and highly educated men alike. Remember, most local men are GREAT. It’s a couple of bad eggs that spoil it, as always. Just remember this terrible idea comes from watching tv and never having interacted properly with foreigners and believing in the myth that all white (and foreign women) are interested in alcohol and sex (and necessarily with them). Many people also won’t be able to understand why your husband or boyfriend is okay with you travelling alone.
– in general, the “holier” the place, the more shit you will get as a single lone female. The negative stuff I’ve experienced have come exclusively from the touristy and/or holy cities/towns. No problems at all outside these parts. There’s a crap ton of hypocrisy in the so-called holy places. All the sexual harassment I have ever faced have come from weird men in “holy” places. Luckily none of it was ever dangerous, just annoying.
So, be on your guard but make sure you don’t let any kind of fear cripple your trip either.
I mean, I have more than survived India alone.. And I also have a lot of female friends who have travelled India alone many times over the way I do. Their experiences more or less corroborate with mine.
The assumption is that you will dress appropriately and be sensitive to local customs. You will be fine. More than fine. Make plans before hand to meet some prominent local people in major cities, especially if they are in a similar field of work or working in an area you are interested in finding out about. I’ve learned a lot from talking to journalists, artists, tech types. They can teach you a bit about their city, and they will also watch out for you as you are a guest of Mother India’s after all!