Notes from the Road — Heartcore Travel: Mcleodganj

In Uncategorized on June 17, 2010 by Shreya

People who don’t seem to fit anywhere else seem to fit in Mcleodganj.

It is a place that isn’t really, but is India, isn’t really, but is Tibet, and no matter how many people go to Zion Cafe in Bhagsu, isn’t really, but is Israel.

It is here that I meet Inbal and Theo, who both don’t feel like they belong in their countries or communities; people with a deep love for the road and a deep desire to question everything they see.

It is a place filled with good cheer and goodwill. The Tibetan government in exile, complete with the Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan community all live in Mcleodganj. Travelers from all over the world abound. It is full of people having fun, and people who care.

Imagine a great natural disaster – an earthquake, a tidal wave, a cyclone. Think of all the people who come in consistently to help out in any way they can. They always turn up, surely and steadily, these people who give a damn from all over the world. Mcleodganj is like that, except that this great hurt is not natural, it is made by politicians. And it is not a one time rescue operation, but constant.

In June 2010, at the time that I’m here, Mcleodganj has seen the celebration of 51 years of friendship between India and Tibet. 51 years since the Dalai Lama has been in exile here in Dharamshala. 51 years of wrongful occupation, torture, injustice by China.

It is here that I attend and document a talk given by a political prisoner’s wife, Lhamo Tso. I am surrounded by people. We see footage of torture by the Chinese authorities on the Tibetan people, the arrest of a man for simply making a film, the loneliness of the woman who is making bread alone every day in Mcleodganj. After a while, I cannot look. But this is not even happening to me, it is happening to Tibetan people. Their instant smiles betray nothing, until you talk to some of them in conversation class and they tell you about their families, in far away Tibet, in a hostile and repressive home. It is one of the most intense experiences of my life. I am surrounded by people crying. I am not ashamed of my own shaking shoulders.

Mcleodganj does what every travel experience has done to my life so far. It gives me a total positive affirmation for the whole act of living, the choice to live. It also lets me meet people who are open and aware and compassionate enough to question what their own communities are doing wrong. It is a huge relief from jingoism lurking just behind a veneer of patriotism. These are people who know their own communities enough to accept what they can be proud of and reject what should be changed. People who are not indifferent enough to refuse to set standards.

Mcleodganj is full of people coming and going, and the mountains are for everybody to wonder at.


The Sari is slipping

In Uncategorized on May 8, 2010 by Shreya

I am reading The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar.

While I read it I keep thinking about my own writing. I’ve been trying to make the crossover from non fiction, prose poetry, poetry and little slips of short fiction to actual full-blooded short stories. Unless I write speculative, fantasy or travel-type fiction, I do realize that the realities I can best and most honestly portray are that of India’s.

This is certainly not the best Indian writing in English I’ve read, but it’s got some very powerful pages. I especially delight in the masterful use of Indian English, how Miss Umrigar seamlessly blends Parsi and a very specific Bombay (Gujarati influenced – only a Gujarati influenced style can corrupt English so freely and joyfully – freshum-fresh) style of speaking Hindi that only someone who grew up around Gujarati people can distinguish. I giggle at the most inopportune moments, many times against my will, when Bhima calls AIDS a “daaku” illness or throws the word “shameless badmaash” with her eyes and pointedly disapproving looks at the man levelly staring at her. Miss Umrigar almost sneaks these delightful bits of words in and makes them mix like bhelpuri, as she would undoubtedly have said. With these flavors, you can see the characters come to life. Like the mean old woman who calls her modern, educated daughter-in-law “acchut” just because she’s having her period, or the playful Parsi middle aged lady who calls her own husband a “luchcho”. Just one word – kit-pit, deekra, Bai – and modern day Parsi society or Bombay slums are instantly conjured up before the seasoned Indian.

Seasoned from these stories, of pain and defiance in the face of pain. When I think about Feroz ritually beating Sera, I wonder how many homes in this country carry the same story like a sigh on their parted lips. When I think about Bhima, the image of the lady who works at my parents’ house is the one that looms large. Her little one roomed excuse of a house is merely ten steps away from the staid Bengali middle class neighborhood they all live in. When I think about Sera hesitating to go into the slums, but propelled on by her need to tend to a sick Bhima, I think about going to Rita didi’s house down that same narrow lane so many times, with little dirty kids staring at me curiously, a vicious chained dog trying to chase me but failing.

These are my stories. I can talk about closed doors and silence and voices that can be heard no matter how much you try to muffle them. I can tell stories of louts harassing women on the street, to the point that ritual stalking is some sort of twisted courtship dance. I can talk about the leap of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and the Dilli heat and sudden summer storms in Calcutta. Stories of heartbreak, stories of daily cruelty, jingoism – let me invoke all that is ugly and wrong with women’s lives here today. I’m not saying there’s no ray of light. And I certainly don’t want to come across as a man-hater. I mean, look at what this is doing to our women, our men, our children.

Look at the God of Small Things. I can tell these stories. But I don’t want to descend to pain and nothingness, even if I know that special kind of Indian pain about the Love laws Miss Arundhati Roy talks about so beautifully very well. I want to sing a different tune today.

I want to talk about women with their back straight, who can give people dirty looks to put Bhima to shame. Dirty shameless badmaash, shaitaan, behaving like he has no sister at home. I want to talk about women like Bhima, like the lady who cooked for us at my first flat, who would rather do some jadoo over their husbands and stay their hands than feel the humiliation of blows raining on their backs. A woman who can tell her husband to piss off after 27 years of being together. Women who walk out alone, women who walk out in files, men who help their women, men who don’t claim ownership of their women, men who belong to their women. I want to talk about this pain and get it out of the way first, then I will be absolved and the kahaani can begin in earnest.

So will you listen? I can tell you about how anybody who abuses you is a bully who is quaking hard in his own boots, out of the reach of your downcast eyes. Look up, fight back. Let me tell you about the time she confronted someone who said something grossly inappropriate to her on the street. He apologized in the end. He had to. He was scared, he knew he was wrong. I can tell you about the cold rush of indifference she, gentle one, is capable of feeling towards someone who thinks he can get away with forcing himself on her. Repeated unwanted contact is not love, it’s about power and control. And watch her give a shit. Watch her laugh. Look at these people who cling to the hem of her skirts, cling because they are so dependent that even a negative response will do, like a drug. Look, she can dance, alone in her own apartment, buy her own groceries, laugh and live and do everything a fish can do without a car or a bicycle.

See that’s the thing — anyone should be allowed to do that, not dunked in milk or social expectations or silence, anointed with some false fate hanging over their heads the second they were born. Both girls and boys. This is for all our children, all our heartbreaks.

Do you know that word her mother uses for her? Jabri. The same one Freddy uses for that mean old Banu, his wife in Miss Umrigar’s book, mean and jabri. Brazen. Only this time it is meant with intense admiration. Jabri girl. Brazen, brazen girl. I’m so proud of you. Why can’t my stories have this leaping joy, instead of the brutal, straight heartbreak from Miss Arundhati, or the underlying melancholia of Miss Thrity? Have I answered my own question, considering this whole post has been so sad?

But still, Dalrymple has said this, and I will repeat it – The sari is slipping.


For people who don’t know India intimately, this post will be near incoherent. But here’s something to help you decipher the words:

Badmaash — wicked

Daaku — burglar

Bhelpuri – a kind of Indian street food with puffed rice and spices

Acchut — untouchable

Luchcho — rascal

Kit-pit — bickering

Deekra – son (as used by Parsis, and Gujaratis)

Bai – in this context, what Maharashtrian domestic help call their lady employers

Shaitan — devil

jadoo — magic

kahaani — story

jabri — brazen



In The Writerly Life on May 4, 2010 by Shreya Tagged: , , , ,

Just last night I was joking with a friend about how all us writerly types are actually miserable bastards. When we’re blocked, we moan and whine and bitch like nobody’s business. And when we’re unblocked, we’re hunched over a desk and heaven save anyone who interrupts us mid-sentence.

I don’t know about you, but I was blocked for the longest time. Maybe it was because I’d spent too much time trying to pay the bills and forgot to pay attention to the fact that I wasn’t getting any quality writing done. Or maybe I just got stuck in a rut. Whatever it was, I’m un-blocked now, and boy it’s a relief.

Here are some things that pushed me towards getting un-blocked —

1. Really pushy friends:

So all of us have those, right? I have this friend, she’s a dance movement therapist and a darn good one at that. Goes to work every morning, has a planner and everything. She’s stable, she’s functional, and she’s doing some amazing work. One of the people she’s helping is me, by being really patient and supportive. The last time I was hunched over a desk (NOT typing furiously), and complaining about not being able to write, she simply said — “I’m giving you five days to pitch an idea to this magazine.”

Within a day, I thought of a few ideas. Within a couple of days, I had a pitch ready. A day later, my editor approved it. And just like that, I was thinking up many more ideas and crafting more and more pitches to go with them.

Of course, some of my other friends are less gentle. The one I’m talking about now is a writer himself. Told you they’re all miserable bastards, right? Now, he tells me I have a week to send this major publication either a poem or a short story, and that he’d send one on the same day. When I say major, think MAJOR. Like, there’s no way in hell they’re going to be interested in some girl who aspires to write but mostly complains about it and lives halfway round the world. I protested and laughed like a hyena, but my friend wouldn’t take no for an answer.

The great thing? I started writing! I am on the road to being rejected by one of the biggest and best publications ever, but who knows, maybe one day, I’ll really get published there. By giving me a ridiculous goal, my friend pushed me to explore my limitless possibilities as a writer. And hell, that’s why I got into this whole thing in the first place, right?

2. A really pushy Mom:

Don’t believe me? Your family can really push you to do things you normally wouldn’t do. Like drive a zillion miles to the train station to pick up relatives you didn’t know you had. Like sitting through extended family dinner with a smile that is actually clenched teeth on display. Like bad-soggy mother’s day poetry.

Tell her you’re blocked. And ask her to sweet-talk/nag/daily-remind you into starting. Just one sentence, just one idea, even if it’s going nowhere. Mothers are persistent creatures. You should know, they put up with you while you were growing up. Especially you, that goth one.

3. Just One Sentence:

Down a glass of wine or whatever, and just grab a pen and scribble something, anything. The hardest thing is to get started. Once you get started, you will likely be on a roll. You’ll scribble on anything that resembles paper: leaves, napkins, tissues, a white t-shirt, a wall. The ideas will rain like frogs on a really tropical (or Fortean) evening. Well, maybe not, but you never know! For me, at least, the hardest thing is to get off my behind and get started. After that I pretty much have to slow down and remember to go out for some groceries or for class.

I know that I’m un-blocked when I’m doing more than just making lists of all the editors and publications that could be publishing me every second I sit and complain about being blocked. I know I’m really raring when I need to make a list of possible ideas that I can’t wait to get started on. But the best part doesn’t involve any lists or anxiety at all, because the best part about writing is that every second you’re doing anything is potential material, and potential food for thought, and sometimes it’s okay to be blocked for a while.