08:45 ~ a near-death experience

These days, my life is dictated heavily by what day of the week it is. Sunday I have to bathe my dog, Monday I am going to eat rotis and sabzi from home, Tuesdays I am going to make a pot of boiled rice and veggies, Wednesday could be soup day, Thursday is (mostly) laundry day, I give up on Fridays and make eggs, maggi/masala oats and some knorr soup, Saturday I am on my way back to Ambernath, etc.

It was a Monday morning. I had to reach work at 11, and not 11:10 as my boss had said. Reaching Malad at 11 from Ambernath meant taking the 09:07 fast train that comes all the way from Karjat. 09:07 is a notorious train: known for broken bangles, terrible fights, suffocation, breasts getting squashed in the rush, tiffin boxes boring into the sides, and a lot of praying to come out of this alive. Another reason why this train is notorious is because there are no fast or slow CST trains after this one for at least 30 minutes from Ambernath.

In order to avoid this notorious train, I decided to board another notorious train: 08:45 from Ambernath. But the reasons for 08:45’s notoriety are different: first off, it is a train that starts from Ambernath – by virtue of which it should be better behaved, but is not. Secondly, there are many people who come ‘down’ from Ulhasnagar, and even Kalyan I have heard. And thirdly, the people in this train are known to be rude, uncompromising, and unhelpful. I should have hailed the saying “known devil is better than an unknown angel” because I have taken the 09:07 many times in my life, but not so much the 8:45.

So on a Monday morning, I left home wearing my strong Reebok running shoes, my casual pants with the nada, and my sturdy bag holding my laptop, books, and the precious food my mother had packed while she herself rushed to catch the 09:02 slow train (a tedious train). The reason why I was being so particular about reaching on time is because I am always associated with being late. It is not without reason since I am always late and I (think I) am in the process of changing that. I don’t remember if my father dropped me or if I took the 10 rupees share rickshaw to the station. Anyway, by the time I reached the station, the train was already at the platform and I started a slow trot to reach the compartment. I did not go the middle compartment because it was already 08:43 and I did not want to see the train go in front of my eyes after all the effort my whole family had put in to get me there on time. Also, for some reason, I thought since it was an early train, and a train that starts from Ambernath, of taking a second class ticket. This was my first mistake.

I entered the compartment to find it packed. The inside (where the seats are) was packed – all the fourth seats were occupied and there were women standing in between the seats as well. Fourth seats are an invention of necessity: when it gets too crowded, as a way of adjusting, four people sit on the three-seater. Outside too, women were lining all the walls of the train and two of the four sides of the train were blocked – one on each side. Blocking is done to prevent people from getting in from the side from which people get out. I walked in, a little wobbly from the weight of the bag, morning stupor, and anxiety. Of course then, I stepped on someone’s foot but it was mostly a brush so it was let go with just a little click of the tongue – indicating discomfort. I looked around, trying to find a safe place for myself. I could see none and I settled for the one by the door. But then, considering that I was feeling wobbly and clumsy, and also that I had a heavy bag with me, I did a rethink. Once again I looked around and found that there were only 3 women standing by the blocked side where four could fit. I immediately started moving towards the fourth standing place and stepped on the same person’s foot once again. This time, I had to apologise, which I did. I then settled on the fourth place and put my bag down by the wall separating the seats from the outside. Choosing the fourth standing place was my second mistake.

The train had still not started moving and one more person got in and went to the door – the same place I had abandoned moments ago. This person was friends with the person standing first in my line and she expressed her discomfort about there being a fourth person, leaving no space to adjust. I ignored her and thought how this is going to be an hour-long ordeal. Just when I thought this, another person got in and the train began to move.

I soon understood that the place I had chosen wasn’t the best – my bag was too big to fit where I had put it, there was not much back-support, and the woman standing next to me was a newbie. She did not know which side Ghatkopar was going to be so you can guess her level. I thought this woman has some angel behind her since she does not know what hell she has got into but at the same time has managed to find the safest place there was on the train to be able to get off at Ghatkopar (same station I wanted to get off at). Ulhasnagar came by and went – it was not much of a problem for my side since most women went to the opposite side from where I was standing. Some women squeezed by me to go inside without hassle. Vithhalwadi, too, came and went since it comes on the other side and this time too, the ones who got in went to the opposite side. But by now, the outside was completely packed – there was no space for a person to go past anybody without pushing, shoving, and feeling at least a little pain. But unfortunately, the journey had just begun.

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Then, we reached Kalyan and a lot of women got in – including Tall Girl. Most of them got stuck just in front of the door. There was still some space inside but it was almost impossible to get in. Halfway through the other side of the outside of the compartment, people who wanted to get off at Thane were standing. This line ended right in front of me with Old Woman. But where it ended, the line of people wanting to get off at Bhandup/Ghatkopar also ended. What followed was quite dramatic and painful. Tall Girl had a big bag she had taken to the front and was determined to get inside. Now Tall Girl and our friend Old Woman met back to front. I was the audience to this unlikely and unfair battle. I looked behind me and saw that there was place enough only for 2-3 women to get in and thought the struggle was pointless, but Tall Girl didn’t think so. She pushed and pushed and pushed but Old Woman proved to be a worthy opponent – she was like one of those trees with deep-set roots that can’t be displaced easily. Tall Girl didn’t know this and continued to push and yell, but the Old Woman did not budge or utter a single word or sound in retaliation. I was pissed, I wanted Tall Girl to stop but she persisted and started shaking Old Woman, trying to get her off of her feet. At this point, I objected and so did a few others because Tall Girl was being inhuman but the protests didn’t reach Tall Girl, who finally managed to get past Old Woman but now the zip from her bag was stuck in Old Woman’s hair. She stopped only because Old Woman had finally made a sound. Now everyone was on Old Woman’s side and Tall Girl had to wrench her zip from Old Woman’s hair. Old Woman had to accept defeat and stand to the side. Somebody had the guts to say “Saglyanna kiti traas zala” (that was a lot of trouble for everybody) to Old Woman which I found outrageous but Old Woman had found her voice: Mala nahi zala traas? (wasn’t it for me as well?)

Because of Tall Girl’s abuse, another girl got in, but it was easier for her since Old Woman had been pushed into an uncomfortable position.

Before we (by now I had started feeling a strange sense of solidarity with the women around me) could recover from all this drama, we had reached Dombivili. Maybe it was because we were nearing Dombivili that I was feeling the sudden solidarity. We reached Dombivili and I felt the full blast of more people getting in – I held on to the bar with my right hand and shrunk myself to get closer to the woman next to me. I did this to make sure I don’t get thrown off of my feet by the impending pressure of more people getting in. At least 10 more women got in where there was space for none. Only 2-3 women were safely inside, the rest were hanging outside for dear life. The usual plaints of “arey andar jao” (get in) “humlog gir jayenge” (we’ll fall) “kitna jaga hai andar” (there’s enough space inside) began.

But I, a seasoned traveller, am so used to these pleas that I was indifferent to them. In fact, the general feeling inside the compartment every time we make it to Dombivili is that of scorn. It is so because there are fewer trains for the far-off places like Ambernath, Karjat, Badlapur, etc. And naturally, since the distance is more, most of these trains are fast. And the people of Dombivili love fast trains, in fact they are obsessed with them. But for the people of the far-off suburbs, the ones from Dombivili don’t have it so bad. One, because they have plenty of trains – slow, fast, semi-fast, of two different lines (Karjat and Kasara), as well as ladies specials. And two, because their journey gets over at least 20-25 minutes before the people of Ambernath/Badlapur and at least 60-90 minutes before the people of Karjat/Kasara/Khopoli. Because of this unfair distance and infrastructure realities, I think the scorn, the anger, and the disdain is fair. Moreover, I found myself thinking, if you fall, your death is not on me. When one civilian is thinking about another civilian in this manner, what has the world come to?

The disdain in the compartment grew with each stab of the tiffin in the neighbour’s bag, with each force felt on the chest because of overcrowding, and with each bout of suffocation as a result. I told my neighbour to do something about the pointy thing in her bag and she obliged, but it did not help much. The bag kept digging into my side and the pressure of the people around me kept suffocating me. I felt like I was going to break down because of the pain and in the same painful breath I vowed to never ever subject myself to this – why did I opt for a second class ticket when I could afford a first class ticket? At least I had a choice, I had an option. But then I looked around and wondered about the people who do not have a choice. Just a year ago, when I wasn’t making enough, I did not have a choice but to suffer through this journey on my way to work. And anyway, the first class compartment was different in only the criteria of smell, really. The women there smell better because they can afford deodorants and perfumes. And that gives one a sense of betterment even if it isn’t really any different from the second class experience. This is what living in Bombay has come to mean to me: the illusion of having a choice to a better life.

At this point, I saw a tree with red and green leaves. It looked beautiful with the rays of the sun falling on it. The sight made be breathe, reminded me that even at this wretched hour, there are beautiful things happening in the world. The pain became a little bearable. As if on cue, then, we reached Thane and the crowd got off. Tall Girl came back out and stood in front of me again. Both of us wanted to get off at Ghatkopar. I was once again pissed with Tall Girl and with the idea of her getting off before me. She was talking to a friend of hers who was asking her how she managed to get in despite the rush. She just said: I somehow got in – she did not dwell on Old Woman and her resoluteness, or the fact that she shook an old person and had rent her hair. I felt upset and angry; we were nearing Ghatkopar and I promptly stepped in front of Tall Girl and her friend. I managed to get off before Tall Girl to prove a point. To whom, I don’t really know.

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Working with anxiety

Often, the best of us find ourselves in a place where nothing feels possible. Sometimes, it happens almost every day – and living life becomes toxic, like a constantly ticking bomb. Just yesterday, I came across this comic by Extra Ordinary Comics which illustrates the feeling just right.

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Someone on Facebook commented on it saying “Anxiety?”, which was the right word for it. Also, it is very important to be able to articulate what you are feeling – that’s half the job done. The comment did exactly that for me. It put into words what I feel almost every day – or on days that I want to accomplish something (which is every day).

I also came across a book review of the book Thin Slices of Anxiety on Brain Pickings. The illustration below gave me a new perspective on anxiety.

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This illustration is a trick that can be used in our day to day lives to deal with anxiety in an effective way. I’ll give you a personal example. Every weekend, I have to travel for 2 hours to get home. Living in two places at one often takes a toll on my mind. Because there are so many things I have to remember to do and to carry that I often find myself worrying about not having some book or a particular pen with me. These things are supposed to make my life easier, and help me write.

Also, this scattered way of living makes me dread the train journeys home – though once I am home, I am happy. But on these dreaded train journeys I’d be worrying about things that I might have forgotten or of the plans I have made that might not work out because the stars won’t align at home. So, the trick that the illustration suggested is to turn your perspective from inside your head to the surroundings around you. Since observing the surroundings around you help with keeping yourself in the present, in the moment. Because you are not stuck thinking about something that happened in the past or some thing that could happen in the future – desirable or undesirable.

It is just like the trick I learned at Vipassana, a form of meditation I find very helpful in dealing with day-to-day living. The Vipassana trick is called Anapana meditation, which is, simply put, being aware of your breath. What being aware of your breath does to me is that it keeps my mind from overthinking – overthinking being one of the things that causes anxiety.

So, while dealing with all this anxiety and resultant stress, getting some actual work done can become almost impossible. But being patient with oneself and not getting disheartened; having some faith in the process and in yourself helps. And though training the mind is a technique that has guaranteed results, sometimes the chaos in our minds tends to get the better of us. There could be numerous reasons for it: being stuck in a difficult work situation, a dislike for the kind of work we’re doing, an inability to focus on the task at hand, distraction caused by social media, or simply a lack of motivation.

So when all else fails, there’s poetry. For more than a year, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Chand roz aur, meri jaan” has been a constant source of reassurance. Here is the complete text of the poem:

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चंद रोज़ और मिरी जान

चंद रोज़ और मिरी जान, फ़क़त चंद ही रोज़ |

ज़ुल्म की छाँव में दम लेने पे मजबूर हैं हम,
और कुछ देर सितम सह लें, तड़प लें, रो लें
अपने अज्दाद की मीरास है, माज़ूर हैं हम |

जिस्म पर क़ैद है, जज़्बात पे ज़ंजीरें हैं,
फ़िक्र महबूस है, गुफ़्तार पे ताज़ीरें हैं |

अपनी हिम्मत है कि हम फिर भी जिए जाते हैं
ज़िंदगी क्या किसी मुफ़लिस की क़बा है, जिस में हर घड़ी दर्द के पैवंद लगे जाते हैं?
लेकिन अब ज़ुल्म की मीआद के दिन थोड़े हैं,
इक ज़रा सब्र कि फ़रियाद के दिन थोड़े हैं |

अरसा-ए-दहर की झुलसी हुई वीरानी में
हम को रहना है पे यूँही तो नहीं रहना है

अजनबी हाथों का बे-नाम गिराँ-बार सितम
आज सहना है हमेशा तो नहीं सहना है |

ये तिरे हुस्न से लिपटी हुई आलाम की गर्द,
अपनी दो रोज़ा जवानी की शिकस्तों का शुमार,
चाँदनी रातों का बेकार दहकता हुआ दर्द,
दिल की बे-सूद तड़प, जिस्म की मायूस पुकार,

चंद रोज़ और मिरी जान फ़क़त चंद ही रोज़ |

For a complete word by word translation of the poem go here. It is quite sad that Mustansir Dalvi has not yet translated this.

Anyway, the poem to me is like an older, wiser person telling me patiently to be patient with myself. It almost feels like a parent who is explaining to me the way the world works and is giving me simple and straightforward advice. Of course it is up to me to take the advice or leave it. But even if I take the advice and try being patient with my failures and rejections, not keeping at the work at hand will bring the house down in no time. And anyway, one can’t really fail or get rejected without trying to get something done.

While all these things seem easier said than done, there is only one way to actually get to doing them – doing them. Instead of spending hours thinking about an undesirable thing that has to be done, just getting it done with will be effective and less time-consuming. It all depends on you – which is a very scary and a very liberating thing at the same time.

So here’s to doing things despite the fear and the anxiety of failure and the possibility of adversity!

To writerly aspirations and Maya Angelou

Today, I woke up feeling doubtful and stressed because of the changes happening around me. Then there’s this fear of not being able to fulfill expectations I have of myself. But everyone goes through this, right? And they manage to deal with changes that happen in their own ways. I am told the best ways are to have courage in your daily life and to not be afraid of working hard.

I always liked to think I was never afraid of working hard. I tried to study well, go deep and understand something, be able to contribute in class. But even then, I was a terrible organizer of things and I always operated out of fear and stress.

Here I am again, reacting the same way to the next dilemma I find myself in. And this time, I can’t just make myself believe what I’m doing is ‘working hard’. I can’t go on operating out of fear and stress. The only way I see out of it is to pursue things that scare me, that put me out of my comfort zone. Things that make me question myself more often. But I can’t lose my mind as I try to do this – which is why organisation.

But really, this heavy word *organisation* is simply the following of routine and focusing on the work you have to get done. In my case, using words to express the ideas I manage to catch. It is as simple as that. There is nothing romantic about it, which is why it doesn’t appeal to young people like me.

But romanticizing something is a very useless thing to do. For the longest time I romanticized working hard. But I really thought I was working hard when I was merely sitting in one place worrying about the wrong things. Wrong things like whether this will get me good marks, whether these marks will get me into that college, whether getting into that college will make me one of the cool kids, whether this assignment will please my teacher, whether this story will please my boss and make me go viral.

When instead, I could have made better use of that time by trying to address things like whether I understand something from what I am studying, whether I really want to go to that famous college, whether my assignment is really good, whether I have cracked the story I am presenting to my boss to my satisfaction.

Like I said, I am in a difficult and/or exciting phase in my life – it all depends on the way I choose to see it. There are big changes and big learnings. There is love and there is heartbreak. There is youth and there is growing up. So on this dull, sad and stressed Saturday, it’s Maya Angelou – the knight in shining armour – to the rescue. (no female equivalent for knight? I shall use it as a gender-neutral term then!)

My day is suddenly better. This poem below is the reason why it is necessary for writers to do their unromantic, relentless work: to be able to pass on the struggle to the next generation without letting them focus on the fear part of it.

Am I romanticizing writing this time? Well, circle of life.

So in case you are having a bad day, here’s the poem that turned my day around. And if you aren’t, bookmark it for a rainy day.

Still I rise

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You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Tale spun

Spin a yarn and keep alive the art of storytelling urges Katha Kosa’s new challenge.

Remember a time when all you really wanted was to be hushed by an animated “once upon a time…” and a happy lull would settle gently upon the world? British writer, Philip Pullman says it best, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

Stories also have the power to inspire, to engage, to inculcate knowledge and cultures, and to entertain. It’s a sentiment that Dhara Kothari, founder of Katha Kosa that endorses. Katha Kosa, is a year-old organisation dedicated to the art of storytelling, has plans to organise activities, events, and meetings around “storytelling” in a bid to revive the dying art. Their latest initiative, Stories on a Postcard Challenge is a fun enterprise jointly conducted by Katha Kosa, Settle Stories, UK and India Post. The collaboration with Settle Stories is a result of a chance encounter Kothari had with founder Sita Brand. Kothari sought assistance from the good old India Postal Service, who unexpectedly responded positively.

Participating in the challenge is simple: anyone from anywhere in the Indian subcontinent can write a story that physically fits on a postcard and drop it in an old-fashioned red and black post box. In an age, where technology has taken over almost all forms of communication between human beings, the Stories on a Postcard challenge will be a unique experience for folks who’ve probably never seen a postcard.

The story entries could be in any genre- fiction, non-fiction, true experiences, thriller, sci-fi, or romance. They could also be in any form- prose, poetry, illustrations, even. Participants are allowed multiple submissions but the rules dictate that every entry have its postcard. Exhibitions featuring all entries will be held in the month of October during Postal Week in India and at the Storytelling Festival in the UK. There are plans to publish the submissions both in print as well as digital versions.

However enthused Kothari is about the first Stories on Postcard Challenge (which she plans to hold annually), what concerns her is the less than enthusiastic response from media houses, writers, and the lack of expected participation. More than children, it is the adults who need to be motivated to start writing, she feels. More than one person Kothari spoke to has assumed that the initiative was for kids and therefore would cheer her along, never once giving participating themselves a thought. We lamented jointly over this tragedy; people need to be shaken aware, and we assured ourselves with the possibility of a story doing that. Maybe, it will be a story on a postcard.

“The main purpose is to have fun” Kothari said when we met with her. So pick up a pen and start spinning a tale!

Address your postcards to Katha Kosa, c/o Director, Mumbai GPO, Mumbai-400001. The deadline for sending entries is Mon Sept 30. Also, visit kathakosa.com.

A version of this article appeared in Time Out Mumbai.