Frankfurt Dreams

I had a dream last night.

I was being put in prison. It was (only) going to be for three months but the vision is raw and red and vivid in my mind.

I was not to be allowed to text or call or be in touch with my loved ones. I was not to be allowed to keep my phone with me. Nor was I to be given access to any books, papers or pencils/pens. My bodily functions and food and water intake was to be monitored. My head was to be shaved. And it just kept getting worst from there  until I woke up, sweating and filled with dread.

And oh, it was because of Frankfurt.

For a large part of the day I walked around with this vivid dream locked up inside me. I asked myself: I have known people who have been raped and seriously assaulted. I have been through nothing like that in comparison. Why then, do I see such dreams? Why does my mind conjure darkness out of nothingness?

But I also know, despite what people say: comparison is not the answer. I cannot walk about every day feeling guilty about my pains just because there are others who are so much worst off than I am. I cannot walk about every day carrying the sorrow of every little thing I did as I experienced what it means to be human. I cannot let the voices of those who shun me, haunt me.

I come to terms with that and I allow myself to breathe. This exercise in journaling blankly at the world may be getting more and more complicated as I grow older and become entangled with people who carry their own weights and expectations about themselves and me and the relationship they wish to have with me, but that shouldn’t stop me from expressing my own pains in the ways that I want. Even when they are tainted with the guilt of feeling too much.

And so my mind drifted back to Frankfurt…I wonder if I am still carrying unresolved conflicts from that detainment in my belly. And if so, what kind of self-reflexivity may be needed to transform them into something healthy and productive, with the recognition that fears and anxieties may not completely go away but it is okay as long as we acknowledge them and trust ourselves enough to let them be within us.

But something else lifted itself to my consciousness as the vividness of the dream faded into the background. I lived this dream so poignantly that I could imagine what it might feel like to lose my freedom in that way. What happened in Frankfurt came close to it, in one sense, and this dream I think was just an expression of how closely I could feel the hurt and humiliation of those who are constrained by a system that is much bigger and more complex than them, wielded by people in situations that they have no control over, during the few hours that I myself was detained in Frankfurt. I felt it then and I felt it now. I feel it quite frequently and I want to confront it with my research and my writing, and more ambitiously, with my being.

I do not want to apologize for feeling it. I want to feel more of it, in fact. If it allows me to learn and to bring forward experiences that others might not be able to express, as a result of my privileged position, then I shall believe my life to have been worthwhile.

But I am human. I am inconsistent. Like every other human around me, I am full of imperfections. I have given myself the license to live with them but when it comes to this, it is hard. I want to embody in my real life the idealism I carry in my head. Knowing that it is impossible, knowing that I will inevitably make mistakes is sometimes a difficult pill to swallow. I know I hurt people as much as I am hurt by them. I know that I stumble often and hardly ever know how to offer a helping hand in return to the ones who support me when I am about to fall. I am learning…

When I was out for brunch in December with a friend and she told me she wants to confront her own demons before she can go out there and fix the world (with the caveat that of course both of us know that we cannot really ‘fix the world’ literally), I knew that I have to do the same. If my dreams, my writing, this blog, my confessions and the deep, deep conversations I get to have with people who stimulate my heart and mind allow me to confront my demons, then it is all worth it and the mean voices and nightmares that occasionally block it all out will eventually fade away or recede enough to not matter while I figure the rest out.



The Perils of Living with Depression (#1 of what might develop into more parts)

This story has been living in my gut for the past two weeks. I was living in fear of saying the word out loud on my blog, although I know that those who follow my blog religiously can probably see its strands weaving their way through the fabric of my life. Today- I gather my courage, with the knowledge that some people will judge as they always do, but others perhaps may find some solace, hope or just a little connection with my story.


One fine Saturday morning in 2008, I woke up early with a heaviness in my heart, wondering why it mattered that I get out of bed at all? Those were the days of the intense pressures of preparing for engineering entrance exams, which, for those who might not know, are a brutal time in any Indian student’s life and required at least two years of intense coaching classes, in addition to regular school. A few hours later, I was crying as I dressed to go give one of the ‘mock’ entrances that I came to hate so much- as I hated everything about preparing to be an engineer- and that’s when the thought circled in my head, ‘was I depressed?’


I had a normal childhood with loving parents and I was mostly happy. And yet I find specks of inexplicable unhappiness darkening my memories of my preteen and teenage years. It wasn’t until I was sixteen in 2008 though, that that first cloud broke strongly upon my head.

I wondered what it meant, and I had no way of comprehending it and no one to really turn to help me either. So I decided to visit the school counsellor. She was a psychiatrist but I suspect the school had mostly hired her to provide career counselling, and not to talk to depressed students in a very 13-reasons-why-esque fashion (fortunately I wasn’t suicidal, it saddens me to think of where suicidal children are led in such circumstances). Somehow, I knew I needed to see her. And it might have taken some guts (I don’t recall). What I do recall is feeling a sense of relief when, after hearing what I had to say, she used that word to describe what was going on: depression.

I believed her. But nobody else I talked to about this back then believed me. And so, a part of me stopped believing in what she had said too. I thought, perhaps, I was being paranoid, and have thought that many times since. Miraculously, this incident itself was enough to snap me out of what I was going through. To this day, I have no answer for how I did what I did as a 16-year old when I can no longer do it as an adult, except perhaps to say that whatever innocence remained inside me then shielded me from what was to come.

Today, there are often times when I can no longer tell you where the depression ends and I begin. Was it I who spent multiple nights of 2011-2012 crying all by herself on the dusty and unused rooftop of a hostel chock full of girls, and multiple days not crawling out of bed unless someone forced me to go eat, or was it my depression? Was it I who spent hours doing the same on bathroom floors, or was it my depression? Was it I who was unable, unwilling and unmotivated to leave her house, move a single muscle or do any chores, or was it my depression? Was it I who made excuses to get out of accepting invitations to social gatherings, or was it my depression? Was it I who demeaned herself in front of multiple people and allowed herself to be taken advantage of, or was it my depression? Is it I who spend countless days still thinking she is worthless, talentless, unworthy and undeserving of anything good in life, or is it my depression? Is it I who lost multiple friends because I was busy doing all of the above, or was it my depression?

These are difficult truths to type on a public website that everyone is going to be able to see. I am typing them because I once believed there was something almost-romantic about being depressed. Perhaps popular culture led me to believe so. In books and in movies, suffering in different forms is a central element of a character’s development. In real life, perhaps it doesn’t always contribute towards what one might call one’s development.

Development would have been if I had built a strong and healthy self-image, learned the skills I needed, discovered my passions and allowed my soul to lead the way. Development would have been if I had allowed my intellectual capacities to strengthen, planned the trajectory of my future, fed whatever pre-existing talents I might have possessed, sought directed guidance from people who were in positions to guide me.

Instead, depression led me to believe that it was not my empathy and sense of compassion, my beliefs about how the world should function, my still-forming opinions, and my life experiences that contributed to who I was as a writer (which is one of the primary roles in which I have often taken to justify my worth to myself) and later as a researcher, but that it was just the depression that did it. That it was the only reason I was creating, the only reason I was experiencing anything worth talking about, the only reason I was, and the only reason I may choose to not be. And yet, I could not talk about it without disguising it in metaphors, and dressing it up in poetry.

Well, today I am tearing all those walls down. I am stepping out into the open. I am choosing to be stripped of all excuses, of all the times I have blamed my depression for things that have happened to me in my life.

Because, yes, I do not always know where the depression ends and I begin. But I have embraced it as a part of me. I have gotten good at living with its shadow over my head. At accepting that I can still be a ‘me’ who is worthwhile and efficient and contributing to society, despite my depression.

And I didn’t do this alone.

For any friends or acquaintances in the US who might be reading this, it might be helpful for you to know that the American healthcare system has, strangely enough, played a huge role in teaching me how to learn about and manage my depression. For others, back in India (and even in the US and elsewhere), this might be a reason to think about breaking down the walls that we hide behind when it comes to talking about depression.

But more than anyone else, there have been some people who shone like beacons of light and have helped me on this journey. Perhaps one day, I will talk about them here or elsewhere, in more detail.

I was reluctant to write and share this story (for fear of being vulnerable in public), and even more nervous about not being able to do it justice on paper. Perhaps because I live with depression, and the fight is never over. Perhaps because is such a delicate part of my life, and so influential that I wanted to put all my writing skills into talking about it. Perhaps because I thought it was an important story of my existence, and needed to be told beautifully. But I realized I didn’t have to give depression that power over me either. And so in the end, I just wrote.

And thank you, most of all, to the person who told me, ‘…writers have never feared how <other> people will take their work.’

Your words gave me courage.

Until we speak again.

PS: If this was of any use to anyone at all, I might choose to go into more details in future parts. I haven’t yet formed an idea of how to do this. There are countless stories that I can share, but most of them are intimately painful, and I may not be ready to tell them, at least not yet. However, as a reader, I know that it is often helpful to feel a connection over paper with someone you may not know (or may know very little or very well but not well enough perhaps) who expresses a relatable struggle.


About Love.

She drew him on the kitchen floor
With ink of tears, her heart of gold
Wept upon that masterpiece
As it was swept away by a winter breeze

She knew he would forget the song
Or pretend he knew it all along
But never let her know she stirred
Its meaning in his stone-cold heart

She signed her name everywhere she went
So he would trace its pattern and
Meet her when it was safe to be
The person she thought she could see

She jumped the fence and stole him flowers
But found them strewn and torn and thrown
She buried them in her backyard
And prayed to her imperfect god

She watched them bloom little buds
That reminded her of what she’d lost
And in her heart, the memories
Play hopscotch on those cobbled streets

I found a simple poem about love curled deep within my heart, and it came pouring out like molten gold. It didn’t take long to write, it isn’t exceptionally polished, but its echoes are in my heart tonight 🙂


The Researcher (that I want to be…)

Why am I here? I have asked myself this question a few times and the answer is that there is no where else I would rather be. I’ve chosen the roads that appear the hardest  to me and have the least number of signposts along the way, the roads that offer few answers and throw up many, many questions. I cannot say that I have been happy- not in the prolonged mental state that most of us wish to be- but I have learned so much about how to become fulfilled, to control my impulses, to be patient and forgiving in the face of hardships and judgements, and to know what I want for myself.

And yes, I pick the hard roads but only because they have the most scenic views.

And this week I saw another one of those scenic views. It hasn’t let go of my mind since.

And it was motivational and surprising, scary because I wonder, ‘what kind of researcher am I capable of being?’ but wonderful because the possibilities to answer that question with are endless.

I’ve been drawn to qualitative research for a very long time now, and in getting a master’s degree, have had some preliminary experience under my belt of what it means to do qualitative research. But I’m still learning of course. Yes, that learning will be a lifelong journey.

I was recently told that qualitative research is a way of life. The instructor of one of the most spellbinding classes I have ever sat through, rattled off minute details etched in her memory from an ethnographic study she had done years and years ago. She could re-live that scene piece-by-piece, reconstruct every moment of it because she had recorded it so deeply as part of her research. Qualitative research improves your memory, she insisted, and then you have to learn to draw boundaries between your research and your real life just to stop it all from becoming too much for your head to handle.

I found myself agreeing completely with that point, because I already experience some of it. Even ordinary moments have never been ordinary for me because I am caught up in the details of my mind, and of the conversations, sights and sounds that surround me. I believe that is one of the reasons why social interactions are so taxing for me, why I am so overwhelmed by people and places, and why I need so long to recover from my own experiences. But I have always been that way. In a way perhaps, I have always had that latent potential inside me to be a qualitative researcher. Now I only have to unlock it, systematize it, let go of my fears that surround it.

The most important thing, my instructor reminded me of was something I think I already knew- perhaps somebody had already told me about it, or perhaps it had come to me in one of those subconscious moments of realization that you can no longer remember. She said that unlike in other forms of scientific query, in qualitative methodology you -the human being, are the research instrument. As such, it is not just your intellectual capacity, but your emotional, psychological and physical states that will also impact your work and the research you do.

Unlike other kinds of researchers, a qualitative researcher can never disengage from her own body, experiences and life. That makes the task as exciting as it makes it dangerous.

Exciting because she must engage every atom of her being into the research that she wishes to do, in order to be true to the research and her cause. And dangerous because at every point, she must confront her full being and be aware of who she is and why she is doing what she is doing, and that just might be enough to drive her out of her self.

In a conversation with a friend recently, I asked him why he did not record (what might have been) some great observations during his recent travels.

What’s the point, he said, of recording anything?

Well, one clear answer that I always have to that question is that writing allows you to understand and reflect upon yourself. But what if someone does not want to do that? Why is it important then?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. I write, and I believe I will write until my very last breath. This doesn’t mean there haven’t been periods in my life when I barely wrote, but that was a mistake. Writing is still my best tool for processing the world around me. Beyond that, I do not really know why I write. Why do I want to record the world? Why do I want to understand and interpret it, when I believe that there is no one correct interpretation, only different angles?

I can’t answer these questions except to say that I would be miserable if I did not do so anymore. It isn’t about a noble cause or conviction. At the end of the day, it is about me.

And that is what I think Dr. Sarah Amira de la Garza meant about qualitative research being a way of life. It requires cognitive consciousness, but also emotional and physical reflexivity and mindfulness, and care for your own self- the instrument of understanding this world.



Oh but you have lit a fire underneath me.

You turn away and merged yourself with all those who may call themselves my shapeless nemeses. I am not one to be ignited by bitterness but I acknowledge the free-floating aura that is you. You,  who flit in and out of my imagination now. You pick careful spots; mushy and matted with fatigue. You squiggle your way in, broadening that space with your lips and your gums, making it home.

And you may find me prone to the moistness that diffuses the vapid city air on the choicest day of summer. You may find me sticky with the blood oozing out of gaping holes that you created, and that I refuse to bandage up. You may look inwards and watch the drip-drip-dripping of these feelings with a fascinated smile curling across your lip. Is there something inherently beautiful in a rumpled soul? Are its creases and folds so exquisite that you cannot turn away?

Is that why you stay?

For I would think you were rumpled too. Smiling though you are, as you look upon me from this hidey-hole inside me, and I look in upon you perched in there, I have a revelation that means something to these toothless mouths that you have created on me.

 I have left holes on you too.

Did I assume that the atoms that make up your skin are any different from the ones that once made up mine? Perhaps I did, but that illusion is definitely broken now. I can see my holes mirrored in yours. In fact, your skin is creeping and crawling with them. Are they almost mobile? For it doesn’t matter where I look, all I see is liquid- rushing and gushing out of us. Spilling over these strange lips until we’re both drenched.

But then I travel outwards and the holes disappear. You disappear. You are nameless once again, and faceless like all my dreams. All I see in this dusty city then is my own reflection, staring back at me from the tops of the heads of countless strangers.  Your aura no longer haunts. No longer does it linger with me on the edge of the abyss from which I dangle. No longer is it there when I am pulled out and upwards towards the starless night sky which is still gorgeous in its emptiness, by helpful strangers and sweet loved-ones . No longer am I swimming dizzingly inside its curved countenance. It’s…gone. You’re gone.

But yes, you did leave behind a little heat.

And it is in my spine, running from my neck down to my tailbone. The heat tingles and tickles and radiates, little by little every day. Sometimes, it hums almost-songs late into the stillness of the night. I wait for the heat to subside, and then I am almost me again.

But me with a little bit of you.






All the Letters I Won’t Send


The sky has been frozen blue today
And it reminded me
To leave my yellowing prison behind
To feel the life around me awhile

I consciously bared my skin today
It breathes in the last of November
As the seasons, in their rotation
Remind me of the life I’ve lived on paper

For the pale white orb of the sun today
Seems caught in a death grasp, but I sense
A peacefulness growing within me, as I
Think of all the letters that I won’t send

Often written in moments of passion
Some lie rotting inside me, others I sold cheaply to the void
But most of them were silent songs
And I often wonder why they came to be

So the world keeps moving, rotating every day
But for now, in this white stillness
I am grateful for all the now-lost words that I
Once dreamed up in my head
Into all the letters I won’t send



Reflections on COPs (and more) following the Frankfurt detainment incident

A lot of thoughts regarding my recent experience at Frankfurt airport are still going through my mind. For those interested, here is post two, reflecting more on the research-side of this incident. As always, these are budding thoughts, but I am happy to be able to express them here!

The Conference of the Parties or COP plays an important role in the international governance  around climate change. For those who remember the Paris Agreement of 2015, that international treaty was created and signed at COP 21. However, in addition to the representatives from various countries who come to the COPs for the important job of discussing the intricacies of a complex global agreement, the conference is also open to a number of environmentalists, businesses, NGOs, researchers, and civil society leaders. These stakeholders come to COPs for their own myriad purposes from networking and advocating, to advertising and researching. Thus there are two parallel vibrant spaces at COPs where a number of different activities can take place.

I was concerned with exploring what kinds of opportunities are available for students that attend the COPs from around the world. Why do students like me spend the time, effort and energy to come to a COP, which isn’t a traditional academic conference where they can present their work or network with peers in a normal academic setting? Is there anything to be gained by there being here? The COP has not been designed to accommodate students and yet, among other actors, students have found a place at this table. What does this place represent for them? That was what I was hoping to get at, but my underlying goal was to understand if there is a different in accessibility for people from different parts of the world.

Like everything else, the climate change regime is fraught with justice issues. A number of common themes come to mind, some of which may be familiar to a lay reader: developing countries are asked to switch towards renewables and away from traditional energy sources that allowed the developed parts of the world to advance in the first place, and often on the backs of resources obtained from the developing world; communities and countries most vulnerable to climate impacts include places such as the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that are, in many cases likely to be underwater in a few decades even though they contributed the least to the problem of climate change; within the international governance regime for climate change, policies and funding options continue to be skewed, and it is common knowledge at least for those familiar with the Paris Agreement that what is being proposed under the agreement is not going to be enough to combat some grave climate impacts, especially in vulnerable parts around the world.

In such a scenario, and with so many justice implications at stake, the ability to arm countries with the skills to deal with climate change on their own becomes very important. Simply put, this is called capacity building where actors within countries get to take the reins within their own hands and take decisions about what they would or would not like to see within their country, without powerful global corporations or governments dictating their mandates. Opportunities for capacity building need to be created around the world and especially in the Global South. And as students are one of the key players for the future, and students who are chosen to attend COPs are likely to be passionate about climate change in the first place, I have been wondering how accessible the COPs are for these students, and whether or not there are divisions around the Global North and Global South that make these conferences more or less accessible for people born in or living in different parts of the world.

I think I got a small slice of my answer, even though I was unable to carry out the research I had intended to do. One reason I so admired the COPs was because by reducing barriers to travel between countries for the purposes of the conference, they became more accessible to people from different parts of the world. In that one sense, this allowed climate change activists, leaders and researchers to transcend international politics and be able to focus on the other more important stuff. When this mobility is taken away or even restricted by mechanisms and systems that may not always serve their original purpose, aren’t we basically circling back to some of the justice issues I mentioned earlier? Whose voice is being heard in decision-making for climate change? Who has access to the information and resources countries and communities might need to deal with the challenges of climate change? What are the degrees of ease of access for those from around the world? Who is being kept out of the conversation and what could the long-term implications of being kept out be?

These are important questions for those of us who want to see the climate change playing field made more just and accessible. Often, we are so caught up in how our old ways of doing things, even when they do not serve us, that it becomes hard to redefine ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ based on changes in the world around us.

I do not have any answers yet, but I do know that my desire to seek them remains as strong as ever. These reflections are an ongoing process and I will come back with more later! Thank you for reading.


Detained at Frankfurt Airport

I am sharing this story not because I wish to hear your opinions regarding what I did wrong (or right) but merely because I am sick to my very bone of all of us pretending our lives are picture-perfect, and of judging one another for flaws when we do release things that have gone wrong. Ironically, for this I am thankful to the internet in general and to social media for giving me a platform on which to be courageous and share my stories.

Over a week ago, I was traveling to Bonn, Germany, for the Conference of the Parties 23 (COP 23) to research capacity building opportunities for other students like me who get to attend this global annual climate change conference hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC). I had attended the same conference in November 2016 in Morocco, and so I assumed that I had a pretty good grasp of how things worked and what I was to be doing.

Turns out I was wrong.

With my Indian passport, Morocco normally requires me to apply for a visa. This is what I had done when I had visited Morocco for a study abroad in summer 2016. However, when I returned to the country for COP 22 in November of that same year, those very visa requirements were waived as I was attending on behalf of my university as an observer to that conference. So, I assumed that the same was true this year as well.

Turns out it was not.

To be clear, neither my university nor any professors told me that the requirements for Germany were different. On the other hand, these instructions were available on the UNFCCC website for everyone to see, and I never looked. After having contemplated on this for the past week, I have reached the conclusion that it was not because I was being careless, as I was completely aware that I hold an Indian passport and are that that passport has certain conditions attached for entering Europe. This thought was on my mind but I merely reasoned that those conditions were waived for the COPs, as a result of extrapolation from my past experiences and those of others around me, and that if they weren’t, I would have been told. I did not think to check the website, but I did write internally to my university’s administration to make sure I had everything I needed. I had the same papers this year that I had taken the last year to Morocco.

However, when I arrived at Frankfurt airport, I discovered that I was not to be allowed into the country as ‘Germany does not work in quite that same way’ (when I mentioned what had happened in Morocco the year before). Fair enough. I was detained at the airport for 24 hours where some individuals from the German police showed kindness to me, while others did not. I was then put on a flight back to the US, and sixty harrowing hours after I began, I was back home.

I will choose to keep other details about the ordeal private. In fact, I am not really sure why I am choosing to share this story here. I have spent most of last week avoiding conversations about this, except with a handful of people. I haven’t returned messages or calls, and avoided social media. And yet somehow, scrolling through my Instagram and Facebook a while back, I felt sick to my stomach of how we all pretend to live these perfect lives, especially when we travel to exotic places. I had planned to do a bit of it myself when I was in Germany! But when things go wrong, we choose not to share those stories with the world maybe because we are ashamed or because we have been taught to hide our pain and misery, to hide ourselves when we are most vulnerable and afraid and not at our best. That leaves people thinking that everyone except them is leading a happy, perfect and fulfilled life. I guess a part of the reason I wanted to share this story was to jolt us all into the reality of how this just isn’t true. Writing is my catharsis and it is also the tool with which I choose to reveal my subjective truths to the world. So here is a subjective truth for all of us: when we start to venture out into the world, we run into loopholes and we make mistakes (and hopefully learn from those mistakes), and that is the price we pay for all those beautiful Instagram selfies and boomerangs and all the rest of that jazz. It can be easy to forget that there are flawed human beings behind our curated social media self-images. But there are.

There is a lot of processing still left for me to do. I may return with more stories as I do so.



I wish I could put in words
What the wind whispered to me
As I left the place I called home
Wanting to leave and yet not wanting to go
My hands balled up into tense fists
And my eyes glazing over with a film of dust
Of every missed opportunity
In the place I called home

And from the catatonic drone
Of the airplane that carried me
I decoded a special message for that journey:
The days will grow long and then short again
And your limbs will untangle after life’s wrath
Is done with you, is through with you
You’ll see that where the shore leads
Is a beautiful and special space of warmth
A place you can call home too

But it wasn’t too clear then
When all I could see were strangers on an airplane
How my sense of home could grow
From beyond being held by my mother
I was misty-eyed with pain and that lack of special hope
That washed me away from people I had once known

And it isn’t always clear now
Why the smoke of hatred and the stench of fear
Has never been enough to extinguish me
Because sometimes I see that the world has become smaller
Scarier, yes, but more loving too
Indeed, my sense of home is growing
Like the links of a chain over strange shapes and objects
Into something warm and fuzzy and familiar.

What is home, I wonder? A place where we are comfortable and safe? A place where we are content and ourselves? For me, home has also been a place where I could hide, become invisible to everything that scares me (and there is so much that does!). But this poem was triggered for me by a dinner I went to last night; a send-off to the Conference of Parties 23, where I will soon be going. In the lukewarm October air of a beautifully lit garden, I met a group of people who were open and welcoming and accepting of who I am and what I stand for in this foreign country. Listening to stories and telling a few of my own, I came home with a belly full of earthy food and a heart overwhelmed with love. The skeptic in me took a step back last night and embraced the spirituality of the people I was surrounded by. The feeling was different and new to my melancholic heart. I just felt accepted and…in one of those rare surprises that life sometimes throws at you, I was even happy. That feeling burst forth into this poem today- does it mean that my sense of home has expanded for all eternity? Probably not, but it is growing. I am forever thankful to this space that I have found on the other end of the world where I feel like I can belong and fit in and be someone worthwhile. Despite all the self-doubt, self-hatred and agony that still haunts me, the present is washing over my past, those colors etched on my heart are fading, and I am becoming more than I was. And it is a strange experience for me to not be as scared of the little things anymore- to be letting go of complaints, of accusations, of scrutiny, of hatred. A part of me is slowly embracing a sense of peace, after all these years. And to me, in certain ways, that feels like coming home.


#MeToo: An Uncomfortable Post

My social media has filled up with women using the #metoo; some narrating stories of sexual harassment and abuse (some rather harrowing stories) and others just using the hashtag to express solidarity with others who have been through something similar. And has this hashtag blown up!

I’m not surprised. I would be surprised if there were women who had never undergone any kind of harassment or abuse at all in their lives! I’m still waiting to hear even one woman admit that she hasn’t.

So I’m writing this post to add my voice and perspective to this issue.

First of all, why only women? I’ve heard it asked, why is this hashtag not ‘open’ for men who are abused? A valid point. More than one male person I know have shared stories of sexual abuse. The important thing to remember here is that sexual assault is not inherently a gendered phenomenon, but it becomes gendered in the way that it is socially constructed. The exertion of control and power that comes with sexual assault is understood as a masculine trait, and anybody who is at the receiving end of it is reduced to the feminine, looked down upon, ridiculed. It is absurd how much harder it is for men to even use a hashtag like #metoo to express that they have been harassed or assaulted sexually.

And so, my point is, that assault is not about gender in the sense of the genitalia you possess, but it is gendered in terms of how we understand it socially.

The attention to the victim is important, but so is attention to the perpetrator. The perpetrator of sexual assault is imposing upon the world a very specific persona of ‘manhood’ that is then supposed to define what all men should aspire towards. This is locker room talk, and persons with male genitalia who do not conform to it can be termed as feminine and thereby weak.

A few weeks ago, I was shaken by an incident on a bus. I take the bus to school every day, without thinking twice about it. But on this particular day a man climbed on to the bus. He seemed a little high, not that that mattered. But he was acting a little strange. He seemed captivated by a girl sitting one seat to the left of me, and she smiled back at him. At first, I thought they were friends.

The bus kept going and the seat between that girl and me emptied out. The man in question took the liberty to sit down there. He still had his back toward me, and was smiling at that girl, saying something to her. I was still unsure of whether she knew him. But then he put his arm around her. The girl appeared a little uncomfortable now but she still did not leave her seat or move. And then he asked her, in a very distinct voice, ‘can I kiss you?’

Without waiting for a reply, he leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek.

The girl in question was frozen now but she still made no move to get out of the seat. She was still giving a feeble smile.

Another young man sitting opposite us, looking as uncomfortable as I felt, said to the perpetrator, ‘Don’t do that.’ His stop came then, and he got down. So did the girl.

By this point, as the only other girl on the bus, I was extremely uncomfortable. It was evening and there was still light outside, but the bus was almost empty. I had already moved one seat away from this man but now he turned to look towards me. I turned my head the other way, deliberately avoiding eye contact or acknowledging his presence.

He reached out, nonetheless, and put his hand upon my hand. I had a visceral reaction to his touch, and I moved my hand out from under him and glared at him in a way that was obviously discouraging.

This seemed to enrage this man. He got down at the next stop, which was also my stop, and I followed him off the bus. He ventured off into an alleyway that led nowhere and I broke into a half-run as I went home.

That night and over the next day I narrated this story to a few people. I was given a range of interesting advice (you should have told the bus driver, you should carry a pepper spray or Mace with you), the strangest of which was by a girl who told me she once shouted deeply in the ear of a man who was about to assault her, and that shocked him. That’s interesting, I told her, but in that moment, I just froze.

And I don’t blame you, she said. Remember, it is never the victim’s fault.

It is never the victim’s fault.

What a strange thing to have to declare out loud! My reaction always is, it never is the victim’s fault of course.

And yet somehow, incidents like these always have an impact on me. They take me back to the first time I recognized being sexualized by a man: I was eleven. They take me back to the countless times I have had men press their bodies against mine on public transport, trying to fit their body parts into the curvature of my waist to feel…something, the times I have been catcalled or followed briefly, the time a couple of men on a bike flashed porn into my face and commented on my underwear.

But there is something more here- something we are forgetting to talk about. It came to me as I wondered why this hand touching incident on the bus shook me so much. I’ve seen worse. It always shakes me, but what was different this time? Had I merely forgotten what it was like to be objectified, given how less explicitly that happens to me since I have moved here to the US?

Perhaps that was a part of it. But it was more than that. Over the past three years I have surrounded myself with people and narratives that have empowered me. I am always on my guard- not against all men- but against men who exude that particularly stench of masculine entitlement that I now recognize so well. I like to tell myself that I will fight back against them now, not give in and let them get their way.

And yet, here I was on the bus with a man who could, just by touching my hand without my consent, flood my mind with everything that I have worked so hard to overcome. How strangely powerful he is, just by being him! And how reduced that makes me, just to have to be powerless like this!

And that, in one sense, is the sort of self-blaming internal dialogue that an act like this can trigger. It isn’t simply about the physical act of having your hand touched, but the mental agony of relating that to the myriad ways in which this world is masculine. And everything that that stands for.

I see posts of men touting that they are not the problem, but a part of the solution because they don’t look at women like that. They’re missing the point. This is not about your choice to not kiss a woman on the cheek, but about her lack of choice if you do choose to do so. I thought for a long time about the girl on the bus who was kissed, and did nothing. I wondered how she spent that night, how shaken was she by that man? Would she be comfortable riding the bus again?

I look out for that man, or for other men like that, every day on the bus now. I don’t expect to see him again for some reason, but I often expect to encounter someone else like him.

I gave that man the benefit of the doubt, I tried to put myself in his shoes. A male friend recently opened my eyes to the other side of sexual assault in ways that nobody else ever had. Without supporting the perpetrator, he asked me to imagine how a young man with all that male hormonal energy coursing through him, might feel the first time he sees up close a woman- any woman, given that he does not know what women are like, what consent might mean, what he should or should not do. Why does the conversation always revolve around cutting off the balls of this man in question or throwing him in jail for the rest of his life, or taking his life, my friend asked me.

The problem is deeper than that. The solutions required are deeper. I do not pretend to know what they are, but I can see in the eyes of a man who is desperate, the coursing of structural injustices that lead him on to grope, touch, feel…and do more….

There have been countless times that I have thought of myself as a victim. I have been fortunate enough, when it comes to physical abuse but the lingering emotional abuse of masculinity has haunted me for years, it has brought me where I am today. It is responsible, I firmly believe, for a large portion of who I became when I relinquished control.

Others who are less fortunate have suffered more. I shudder to think what something worse could have done, to a soul like mine. What something worse does every day to souls much stronger than mine. The internet today is chocked full of stories.

It is uncomfortable, I know. And not every woman will speak, nor should we expect them all to. But don’t shut down those who do. Let’s not ignore them. Let’s have a conversation here.