Part 2 – Breswana

Kulsuma, Class 5: *forcefully took her hijab off during class*

Me: What happened?

Kulsuma: it is very hot ma’am!

This wasn’t an uncommon feature in Haji Public School, the school hidden in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir. Many girls wore the hijab. The only compulsion was for it to be clean. The girls took it off without any hesitation when they felt like it. Some of them wore it on some days and didn’t on others. Sometimes it would fall off their heads. Without a sense of panic, they would readjust the hijab whenever the task at hand was completed.

I remember a mixed cricket match when Muneeza, Class 7 (piece of my heart) was  batting. The hijab plus the heat and helmet bothered her so she took it off and continued to play in style. She wore it back when she was done. Star.

If you follow @Imsabbah (who runs the school) on Twitter and glanced at her mentions, you would be shocked about the perception people have about children wearing the hijab. Though, visiting the school would tell you how diversity flourishes on its grounds. The girls and boys have school uniforms; girls wore salwar and kurta, and boys wore pant and shirt. On Fridays, the children wore their colourful best.

Most of the girls dressed in salwar and kurta. Ifra, Class 5 on regular days wore a shirt and pant to school. But on Fridays she dressed in salwars, flowing dresses, colourful prints and – wait for it – sneakers. Obviously she couldn’t be bothered by our narrow minded vision of fashion and dressed in comfort. Plus, I suppose sneakers are easier to run up and down the mountain, which the kids indulged in despite our frowns. She had jumped over the perceived pressures of choosing between what is understood to be feminine and masculine and explored the diverse items of clothing available to her.

I think back to my school days when I HAD to wear the pinafore. I hated it. I was ridiculed endlessly about my hairy legs and it was cumbersome to be my unfeminine self in it. It didn’t stop me but it felt tedious. I would have loved to have the option to choose something else. 

As an adult, my access to this choice has been liberating. I dress in loose kurtas purchased from the ‘men’s section’ in stores. I also wear tight kurtas stitched by a ‘ladies tailor’. This diversity in my dressing was always looked at with bewilderment in the city. I would hear comments about how I don’t dress appropriately or didn’t have a style. I dressed this way even while teaching at the school. The kids in the school didn’t notice an anomaly. In fact, going by their goodbye letters to me, they were only worried about the smile I wore or didn’t wear. (I cried a lot on the last day.)

When I began teaching there, Sabbah encouraged me to play sports with them. I loved it. After they read my essay on playing baseball, the curious fellows wanted to learn. I spent an hour teaching them the rules, explaining how to run, hit and catch. They were enthusiastic but bored in no time.

“What do you mean I need to run when I hit?? What if I become out?” – Ajaz, Class 7

It was hilarious. Soon after boredom reached its maximum point, we began to play football together. I was chosen on one team with Humeera and Muneeza was on the other. I was awfully gentle while tackling them. But I stopped for a moment to watch Humeera try to take the ball from Haroon and I realised, this girl is absolutely free on the field. There is something that was ingrained in me that she hasn’t learnt yet.

It was a moment of happiness.

The hijab has begun to occupy our mindspaces in a very powerful way. We tell women to not wear them; to wear them and obsess about what it means when we see them wearing it or not. These might have valid arguments in there somewhere. But, reducing muslim women and girls to the hijab is not helping anyone. If not wearing the hijab/niqab means no access to education or sports, would that be a better option? Yay we have freed the women and girls. Victory at last? The world unfortunately is not black and white. It is lived in the greys. Here are these beautiful girls learning about the world, learning sports and kicking ass at them. Expose them to ideas, to worlds and words, to sports and women achievers – dressed in varied attires. Teach them they can be among them. That is where I would put my effort.

With countries banning the hijab in public spaces and burqini on beaches, countries where women are forced into them, we really must stop and check why we are obsessed with the hijab.

Till then, I take cue from Ifra, Muneeza, Humeera, Kulsuma and many other lovely young girls.

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Ladies special

I recently moved to Bombay to work on a project. Bombay itself is a beautifully, well-connected city. It has been just three weeks of taking the trains and I’ve already been pushed against the door, fallen flat on the platform and broken my phone’s headphone socket. But it still has not deterred me from taking the trains everyday. Only cause it’s the easiest way to get to work and the most suitable for me.

Last week, I moved to Chembur which is on the Harbour Line. This line seems to be relatively calmer than the Central Line which I earlier took. What is a joy about the Harbour Line is the Ladies Special train. (I’m not sure all the lines have it. At least the Central one didn’t. But I digress.)

It has just been three days of taking this train and I’m in love.

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The alert woman announces the arrival of the 12 dabba ladies special pulling into Chembur at 9.04 am. Women step forward and occupy the entire platform, otherwise restricted to the markings of First Class or Ladies coach. A sea of colour is one’s first sight. Once I board the train, I patiently look for a corner to sit down and scribble this post or read, a little in awe of affirmative action.

What this special has done is fill a train with women going to work. But that is just not it, is it?

It is a train where women can occupy seats with abandon. A train where women know each other. The gentle nods of recognition. The smiles. The hellos and goodbyes. Some talk about their work, partners, homes. Laugh. Joke. Accomodate each other. Play on their phones. Listen to music. Read. Pray. A variety of working women all possibly looking for a little less hassle in the morning.

The train stops at every stop and ambles it’s way to CST. For those ten minutes in the morning, platform number 1 at CST is mostly women. Going to their respective workspaces. Hopefully in a better mood.

To Periyar and beyond

I enjoy travelling. Part of what I hope to do more of every year is travel. Both with people and alone. There is a sense of calm I feel when I am away finding small spaces of belonging. Sitting under trees. Falling asleep in a chair. Drinking beer staring into fields. Falling asleep while reading in a hammock. Walking around aimlessly. Talking about books, the world, life. Looking at sunsets with a twinkle in my eye. But what I like most is the things I learn about myself while travelling.

Recently, A and I went to Periyar. I was a little anxious about travelling cause my body has not been in the best shape. But I went packed with my regular medicines, pain killers and a can-do-it spirit. It started off rocky with me taking a train ride with a baby kicking and screaming throughout. Something I seem to attract on train/bus journeys. Yay, babies. Then it spiralled into a strange sleeper bus ride with no divisions between two seats and a uncontrollable driver who made me turn to stone all night and A sit up with her nose out the window. But we reached. One piece et all.  Promptly after reaching, we drowned ourselves in the smaller things in life. Dew drops. Butterflies. Organically grown strange looking fruit. Picking pine cones fallen on the ground. Our day was spent unwinding from the journey (two consecutive ones for me) and just relaxing in the chair, which by the end of the trip was the space my butt had memorised. By evening, we realised our plans to visit the actual park seemed vague and close to non-existent. Frantically, we looked up a few websites and I used my limited Tamil to book us on an early morning, full day trek. This task wasn’t easy and left me decently sceptical about our trek. Will we actually go? Will they feed us to sloth bears? Did I just confirm tickets with a man who has none? Will we be sitting at the park in the morning ticketless?

We did make it to the trek though. Not without me knocking on a strange door, picking up tickets from a burly man and getting an early-morning view of said Mallu man without his shirt. Yay, men. And we were off for the trek. With a few unplanned, havoc-ridden detours. The trek was chaotic to say the least and marvellous to say the maximum. We ambled behind two couples (one French and one Brit) who were nearly twice my age but so fit. They assumed A and I were a couple and threw our way a few well meaning questions with the undertone of coupledom. It all started well but went on to get difficult and off the regular route. The search for the elephants was on and I was sure if we found any, I would just lie down and let them eat me. By the time we spotted the elephants, my knee had decided to wage a full blown war. We didn’t chase the elephants like the rest of them. We sat in quiet reflection under the canopy of trees. The tall, lush trees were a delight to gaze at. The nooks with streams of water were places to spot A spotting butterflies. Watching the Malabar squirrel jump gracefully from one branch to another made us wonder how we were more evolved than that elegant fellow. It was a place to be present and lost at once.

We waddled our way back to flat land and I spent the next day recouping from fat knees and A from angry toes. I spent most of my time in a chair reading Atwood and giggling to myself. We also ate delicious fish at our organic farm stay, consumed Papaya like I have never relished it before.

As movement returned to our knees and toes by evening, we made early morning plans to go boating. The boat ride was magnificent (words fail to describe) and one didn’t need a fancy camera to take breathtaking photos. We did spot more elephants, wild boars, deers and several lovely birds. Many of our co-passengers were not half as enthusiastic as us.

It was a lesson in many things for me: a) Indians like to boat. b) They can call women with short hair – ‘Saaar’. c) They wake up early to go boating, stand in long queues, push people around and then sleep on the boat. d) Periyar lake was one of the most beautiful bits of nature I have seen. e) People can get super dressed up to come boating. I mean some of them looked like models.

After we finished our hour-long boat ride, we walked out slowly through the park. Enjoying the birds, the monkeys, the silence, the sound of trees talking to themselves and big plus, very few humans. The rest of the trip was mostly uneventful.  We took an auto ride where autos should never go to see views that were underwhelming. Plus though was that I got marriage and travelling advice from the driver. He did take us to a waterfall. Maybe waterfall should be in quotes. Cause there was really not much fall and very little water. Like all waterfalls, this had a tragic story of lovers committing suicide.

We ended our crazy auto ride with a tour of an organic, ayurvedic farm. The woman might have been the best salesperson I have ever met and a really tough school teacher. She snapped at A and me for giggling and not listening to her. We left amazed at her ability to sell products with a strong message that all illnesses will henceforth be cured. Amen.

As our trip began to come to a close, I began to feel uneasy again. Being away suddenly meant more calm than getting back to the routine. I was ready to run. Again.

The trip was an important reminder for me to look after myself; love myself more; be still to notice the smaller things; glance at the skies everyday around sunset; just keep swimming. Being still for a few moments everyday made me see that I had a lot of unresolved emotions. These things take time to heal. I was being impatient and wishing for it to end. But processes needed to be followed and slowly, I would see the end.

I am always glad to travel with my INFJ partner because she doesn’t react drastically to my breakdowns; and she is more giving than I will ever be. We are always greeted with some chaos on our trips. They never fail to make us laugh, reflect on life and bring us closer together.

Till our next trip and our next overwhelming chaotic life lesson, then.

Tech vs. asking

Everybody keeps telling me these days how it is so much easier to travel with smart phones. You don’t need to know the language. You don’t even have to interact too much with people, unless you need the Wi-Fi password. Needless to say smart phones and the Internet have made travel much easier. You know what to expect in a strange land. You know the best places to go to eat. You know what you will need to carry to have a pleasant trip. But everytime someone rattles on about how great and easy it has become, I’m reminded of a trip A and I took to Pondicherry. I was eager to go to this great pizza place that everyone was raving about where I could sit back and enjoy a glass of wine and pizza. I typed the name of the restaurant into google maps and followed the high-pitched lady’s instructions. “Turn right. Walk 300ms.”

We turned and we walked. We turned and we walked. At this point I was certain we were walking around in circles. A was optimistic so we dragged on. After a while, she exclaimed with delight, “you’ve reached your destination. It is on the left.”

In that dark road, we both stood silently for two seconds before we burst into loud laughter. On our left was a huge dustbin.

As much as I am a huge advocate for technology, I know to not depend on it too much. Sometimes it oh so innocently leads you to a dustbin. We could have asked someone for directions to that restaurant, I am sure. But in that moment we decided to just walk into another one and have a (shitty) meal.

(We did debate for a while though that maybe the dustbin had a Diagon Alley like entrance. Who knows right?)