Friday, 27 May 2022

Films, Feminism, a travelling festival part 2- a rebellious mural in Jaisalmer

 This is part 2 of a fifteen days experience that I am sharing here. This experience was made possible by the crazy, bright and extremely hard working team at Hers is Ours, who had organised an almost-three month long travelling feminist film and art festival called 'The Outsider'. I was part of their super-ambitious and enthralling plan for a span of fifteen days, where we met and watched films and worked with women, men and children in Jodhpur, Setrawa, Jaisalmer and Moolsagar (I know! Lucky me. )

The first part of this experience has been covered in the previous post on this blog. This post covers mine (and our) experience in two places Jaisalmer and Moolsagar. The reason I have made two posts instead of one is because our experiences in Jaisalmer and Moolsagar were quite different and more complex than in Jodhpur and Setrawa, or maybe we were able to observe certain dynamics more here than in the previous two places. 

For this week, we were stationed in a beautiful, rustic home stay created by world renowned algoza player  Tagaram Bhil. His family comprised of his lovely wife Premi ji, his sons and daughters in law, his grandchildren. Tagaram Ji was the perfect host anyone could have asked for, interested in our work, making sure we were comfortable, jamming with us and even drinking with us and offering us his beedis. It was definitely a delightful place. 

Sitting in Tagaram Ji's aangan and giving beat on the ukelele while he played the algoza
                                                     
                                                   
Oishorjyo smoking a beedi with her morning cup of tea.

The first couple of days we worked with the mangniyar community in Jaisalmer. The community is essentially a performing arts community where the men and the boys earn their living through singing, playing the harmonium, dholak and various other instruments. They usually sing Sufi, Kabir and Rajasthani folk music. We were welcomed at their centre with marigold garlands and a wonderful musical performance by the men and boys of the community. 

What slowly started bothering all of us was the complete absence of women and girls in the performance pit. As we looked around at the many laminated banners of musicians and singers from the community that adorned the walls, we couldnt find even one banner that had a photo of a girl. A young girl wearing the traditional kalbeliya costume sat on one edge of the stairs that led up to the all-male musicians. As the music gained speed, some of us women got up and invited the girl sitting at the staircase to dance with us. Soon a few other mangniyar women started dancing with us. 

Once the performance was over we expressed our desire to meet the girls and the women of the community. For reasons so far unknown to us, the women and the girls couldn't come to the community centre and if we wished to meet them, we would have to go to the place where they lived. We immediately agreed and walked a short distance to the place where the community lives in minimalist, almost make shift homes, in a ghettoized space. 

The place was brimming with women, young girls and children. We had already seen all the men at the community centre, most of them had performed for us, but we were pleasantly surprised to see so many women and girls at the homes. The reasons for why they were not performing and why they weren't even allowed to be at the community centre slowly became clearer to us. 

Naomi showing a film to the women and girls since they were not allowed to come for the public screening

Trina and Oish hanging with the Mangniyar women and children

The mangniyar community survives and thrives on its musical talents and knowledge that has been passed down over several generations. Their music and dance is their primary and in most cases, their only source of livelihood. Most of them have travelled internationally, played in several prestigious venues across the country and are even revered by students from across the world who come and stay for years in Jaisalmer to learn the music. It is clear then, that whoever has control over the music has control over the community. The men therefore, do not even let the girls touch their musical instruments. The knowledge and the skills are duly and diligently passed on to the boys from a very young age but the girls are completely discouraged from singing or even touching the musical instruments. 

Singing with the Mangniyar musicians. Women from the 'outside' are allowed to learn from and sing with them. 


The girls are conditioned from a very young age to only learn cooking, cleaning, child bearing and rearing and how to be a perfect wife. The restriction on their movement is so heavy that they are not allowed to even go to the market to buy milk!

We were in a conundrum of sorts, since true to the name of the festival, we were 'The outsiders'. The dynamics of gender, caste and tradition ran so deep and strong that our intervention of any sort could go horribly wrong. 

Although we did manage to have a few moments of success where we showed a deeply feminist film 'Gulaabi Gang' by Nishtha Jain in the Jaisalmer Fort premises and had a large and curious local audience.  We managed to conduct a beautiful arts based workshop with Tagaram Bhil ji's own family and those in his neighbourhood. We even got to play songs and tell feminist stories to another group in Jaisalmer and distribute and speak about menstrual hygiene with the women. 

Distributing sanitary pads and menstrual cups to women in Jaisalmer

Showing animation films and documentaries on feminism to villagers at and around Tagaramji's house in Moolsagar

Public screening of Nishtha Jain's Gulabi Gang inside the Jaisalmer fort


But the gender gap in the Mangniyar community and also in the Bhil community remained a point of disappointment and despair for us all. 

Whenever it was possible, we went and just hung out with the women and the girls in their ghetto and encouraged them to speak, sing and come up with their own lyrics to popular children's songs. 

There are a few interesting conversations that we did have with the men in the community that may or may not result in any narrative change. 

I am sharing some of these conversations here.

Once, when the men were singing the Kabir bhajans that spoke about how God/the supreme being did not make any difference among human beings then who are we to create those differences. 

We jumped at the lyrics of the song as a great conversation starter on discrimination. 

"How come you sing about God making any differences among human beings and that we must follow the same path, but in your own home you differentiate among your boys and girls? Didnt God make men and women the same as well?", we asked.

The men listened, went silent, smoked a few beedis and then went on playing some more music.

In another instance, one of the older men asked me to read out a message that had been sent to him by an American student who had not paid the entire amount to this man who had taught him his music for an entire year. I read the message and told him what he was saying. I continued the conversation with speaking to the man about educating his girls who all looked so bright. If they could read and write they could have translated the message for him too, and the payment would have been on time. 

Krantinaari sharing a laugh with the Mangniyar girls




Several such conversations took place all the while that we were there, without much reception or reciprocation. We met the women separately and they told us that most of them get married when they are still minors and have babies by the time they are eighteen or nineteen.

A young daughter-in-law who was making tea for us had recently had a miscarriage, and was expecting again. She was all of nineteen. A young daughter who was about fifteen could speak English, which she had picked up from her father's students over the years. She was bright and intelligent but had never been to school and will be married off by the time she is sixteen or seventeen.

When we spoke to her father he said, "Well, what can we do? We have so many children and she is another mouth to feed. Once she is married its her destiny. Where ever it may lead her."

The frustration and anger among the girls was palpable. They were at the beck and call of their father and brothers. For every little thing that they needed they had to plead with their father or brother, whether it was getting some sugar from the market, or getting a needle and thread to sew their torn clothes. 

As the gender discrimination was getting clearer among the Mangniyar community, it was also getting clearer at the Bhil home where we were staying.

Tagaram Ji Bhil ate with us, so did his sons and grandsons, but his wife and daughters-in-law and their daughters ate separately, after we had all eaten. Our multiple requests to let them sit with us and eat went unheard, by the men and the women.

We watched Premi ji working in the house from dawn to way after dusk, she also worked as a anganwaadi worker in the local preschool. She cooked and cleaned and mopped and looked after us, but she wasnt allowed in the shed that contained all of Tagaram Ji's musical instruments. Only the men could enter that room!

One of our tasks at the festival was to create a mural. Krantinaari, Ayushi and Oishorjyo had been creating powerful, relatable murals through our journey. 

Here we were going to paint a mural on the white mud wall of one of the cottages. We racked our brains as to what should we make. And then it came- we were going to paint Premi Ji, the matriarch of the house, the silent figure who was actually the backbone of the home and also the one who had never been acknowledged for all her hardwork and warmth.

Oishorjyo and I ran the idea past the team- Anal, Naomi, Ayushi, Trina and Ashwini. Everyone was gung ho about the idea. 

Oishorjyo clicked a photo of Premiji for reference, in her usual pose of sitting cutting vegetables in the kitchen. 

As Oishorjyo started making the outlines of Premiji on the large, white wall, we wondered whether we should show her in her actual pose of cutting vegetables? No, was the immediate and unanimous response. Then what could we show her doing?

Oishorjyo making the mural


What should Premiji be shown doing in the mural?- became a question that we asked everyone around. Her kids, grandkids, neighbours, herself. Everyone.

Making rotis, someone suggested. Peeling potatoes. Cooking vegetables. 

When we asked them to think out of the box we got great responses- holding a mobile phone!, holding a camera, a laptop, a radio set. The suggestions kept coming in. There was a little crowd that had gathered around her, thinking with us. 



And then the picture was finally complete- she should be holding a musical instrument, an algoza! 

Of course, yes. What could never have been realized in reality, could atleast be painted on a white mud wall, isnt it?

While Oishorjyo started drawing the algoza in Premiji's hands, me along with several women and girls from the house started filling in the mural with different natural colours. 

The mural was complete late at night, too dark for anyone to see what it was all about. We went to our cottage, washed the colours off our hands, gleeful in our little rebellion and nervous about what the reaction from the men, especially from Tagaram Ji would be in the morning!



In the morning the wet paints had dried up and Premiji looked at us with her dark, deep eyes, holding the black algoza with all her strength. The family huddled around us, women and girls, admiring and giggling at the politics of the mural. The giggles turned to silence as Tagaram Ji walked up to the mural, for the first time since we had started painting it.





"What have you made?", he said disappointed and confused more than angry.

"Its Premiji, holding your favourite, black algoza.", we responded innocently.

"But why would you make this? She doesnt play the algoza, in fact she has never even held the algoza in her hands.", the anger was apparent.

"Well, art imagines things that dont exist in reality, isnt it? Just like your music. It takes us to the mountains and the rivers and the cool breeze of a seaside, sitting here in the desert, doesnt it?", we were being very cheeky now.

"But it would have looked more beautiful if you had made her cooking, or fetching water in an earthen pot on her head, you know?", he wasnt giving up either.

The women and the girls looked on at this battle of words, silently, their hearts hoping for us to win (or thats what we think, atleast)

"Well, we think this is also beautiful. Doesnt she look beautiful?", we asked hopefully looking at our audience. 

They nodded non-committedly. 

"But why have you given her my black algoza. Its my favourite, you know!", Tagaram Ji battled on, almost in a childlike manner, his conditioning not letting him appreciate what lay in front of him.

"Well, its just a painting. The real one is all yours.", we had to pacify him like a little child who refuses to share his favourite toy with his friend. 

It was heartbreaking to see what patriarchy does to men, how it takes away their will to share, be happy in someone else's glory, even if it is their wife of thirty years, the mother of their many children.

Tagaram ji left, probably thinking we were mad woman who didnt understand good reason. 

and the women huddled around us, laughing, giggling, talking, a strange, hopeful bright light shining in their restricted eyes. 

"Why did you make this, didi?", a young girl asked us.

"So that you see this and one day grow up to know that you can also play the black algoza, or any other instrument you like, if you wish to.", we said.

As we packed to leave, as this was our last day at the village, we hoped and prayed that Tagaram Ji wouldnt get the mural painted over. We dont know if it is still there. We clicked photos of a very shy and reluctant Premi Ji with her mural. 

Premi ji sitting with herself :)

Premiji dressed Naomi in traditional Rajasthani attire


Tagaramji obliged us with parting photos. With the whole team. 



On our way to the train station we stopped by at the Mangniyars' basti.

We met with the warm women and girls from the community, had a last cup of chai  with them, sang a few more songs and clicked some photos. With a promise that we will be back soon. 

"When will you come back, didi?", they asked us.




Soon, hopefully.

Afterall, what is life without hope?



Monday, 28 March 2022

Films, feminism, a travelling festival- perfect reasons to loiter!

 In October 2021 I had the marvelous opportunity to collaborate with a group of crazy people that call themselves 'Hers is Ours'. They asked me to join them for two weeks, traveling across Rajasthan in their 'Magic Van', showing feminist films, painting murals and conducting gender based workshops with the communities that we were engaging with. The film festival was aptly called 'The Outsider Travelling Feminist Film and Art Festival' . 

Nothing excites me more than engaging with people from different geographical, economical and social strata. I jumped at the opportunity and sat in a train to the first destination- Jodhpur. 

The very first day we all went to a community centre run by The Sambhali Trust. Around thirty five girls and women were being trained in Karate. I do not believe that teaching martial arts as a form of self defense to women and girls solves the issue of sexual or physical violence, but I do believe it is good for any person to learn a martial art form to remain physically fit and find strength. 

What really attracted me to this bunch to women was the enthusiasm and joy they all exhibited. After they watched a beautiful feminist film, that was curated by the core team - Naomi, Anal, Trina and Ayushi- it was time for my workshop!

Over the years if there is one thing I have learnt about conducting workshops its this. Make as detailed a workshop plan as you can, and then be ready to throw it out of the window as quickly! I realized that this group of people were already so attuned and sensitized to gender politics, I could do a lot more than I had planned. 





It is always so much fun to see women loosen up their bodies and minds and become childlike. I conducting theatre exercises and created scenarios of public spaces and how different ages, different genders would behave in the same environments. It was fascinating to see that as I asked the women to depict different genders in ascending ages, the gender gap kept growing wider and wider, until the 'women' became completely subdued and helpless and the 'men' took over the public spaces as though they were their private spaces. 




The reflections at the end of the workshop brought up issues of safety, familial restrictions, unfulfilled desires to access public spaces more than one is able to, and eventually, to our own judgements of other women that do not behave as is acceptable in such communities. The group did agree that even though we want to be freer and have more access and safety, we perpetually judge other women and in some ways 'pull them down' to be in situations that we find ourselves in. To break the cycle of restrictions then, we all agreed that we must stop judging other women that are breaking molds and in fact, encourage such steps of rebellion so that one day it will be normalized. 

Our rapper friend, Krantinaari then put the icing on the cake by involving all the participants in a rap song that she had written and composed. 

The next day, we were at another centre run by the Sambhali Trust and again, the delight to work with women who are already so aware, articulate and empowered was huge. 

While Oishorjyo worked with a set of women on an art workshop on desire and sexuality, and Krantinaari got busy working with one set to create rap songs, I worked with a group of girls and women on women and public spaces.




Apart from the exercises that I had conducted the previous day, there is one exercise that stood out for me the most. I asked one girl to walk on an imagined street late at night, while all the other women could choose either to judge her, comment on her or stare or not do anything. 

I asked the 'walker' to behave in two contrasting ways while walking the lonely street at night.

In the first instance, she walked as if she was scared, in a rush and was blaming herself to have put herself in this unsafe situation.

In the second instance , she walked without a care in the world, humming a song, greeting and making eye contact with her harassers. 

After the girl walked both times, I asked the 'onlooker' women about which version of the girl they liked more- the scared one or the carefree one.




This is where the conditioning came up, most women said they preferred the version where the girl was scared. When I probed further they did say that 'this is how women should react' but eventually they did reflect on how this is conditioning and not really about how safe or unsafe the girl was.

When I asked the girl who was walking which version of herself did she like better- without blinking an eye lid she said that she prefered walking without fear and in fact felt more empowered and safer and more in control when she walked humming a song. 

We bid adieu to Jodhpur and reached our next destination - Setrawa. Unlike Jodhpur, this is a village. We pitched tents and slept soundly, all excited in anticipation of the next morning when we would engage with the local community. 




Much to my surprise, again, I threw the plan I had created out of the window. 

Like in Jodhpur, this centre was also managed by the Sambhali Trust which is doing the most extraordinary work in Rajasthan. 

We started with a song that most women knew how to sing and did sing along- an old Hindi film song called 'Ajeeb Dastan hai yeh'. 

This led seamlessly into the two folk stories we told the women, one about a woman that hasnt sung or told a story in years, and the other one about a woman whose husband exhibits his wealth with the size and weight of the gold nose ring his wife wears. 

These two stories led to some discussions about how women who were passionate about music or dance or painting or any other art tend to blur their passions out once they get married or even when they get their first period! Although many women in the group did say that they do pursue their passions when their 'menfolk' are not at home. 

The next exercise was a rather complex one.

I asked one group of women to depict a scene at an outdoor eating joint where they are all playing men. And its late at night. The other group had to guess who they are playing, where they are and what time of day or night it is. 

Immediately the women acting like men started talking loudly, backslapping each other, ordering large amounts of food and drinks and cracking silly jokes. Almost immediately, the watching women figured who they were playing, where they were and what time of night it was. 

The observation here was the immediate shift in body language, language, the feeling of being free and joyous, that one could do absolutely anything without any fear of being harmed. 

Next I asked the second group to depict the same scene, but as women. You can pretty well imagine how it must have gone. 

Then I added a third suggestion- I asked the girls to imagine an ideal scenario, or how they would have liked their experience to be, and behave like that.

Immediately, the sense of freedom, safety and joy returned in the bodies, voices and eyes of the acting group. I asked my colleague Oishorjyo to step in the improv as a 'hooligan' and much to everyone's delight, the women put the hooligan in his place and fought for their right to be out and enjoy themselves regardless of where and when. 

We left the centre with warmth in our hearts that we atleast know now what it feels to be free and not be constantly scared, even if for just an hour. Its so important to sow the seed of freedom and liberation, to get a whiff of what it could be like, to actually then take those everyday, tiny steps to lead to the realization of that dream. 

The next two days we spent making a huge mural depicting a sewing machine (since thats one of the main skill thats taught in the centre) that is spewing out a dupatta of various colours on the wall of the school. Oishorjyo made a woman who is dancing, without a care in the world! Anal and Ayushi took the lead in making sure we finish the large mural within the stipulated time!







The women from the village came and saw us as we painted, some even painted with us, others generously brought us cups and cups of chai and snacks.

We left Setrawa and headed to Jaisalmer- with a lifetime of experiences and memories in our hearts. 

The next blog post will talk about our experiences in Jaisalmer and Moolsagar. 


Friday, 4 March 2022

Loitering in the times of Corona - Neha Singh

 Ever since we first started loitering in the year 2014, every year we have walked past midnight on 16th December in memory of Jyoti Singh, the victim of the Delhi gang rape. 

In the year 2020 and 2021 we couldn't loiter at all due to Covid restrictions and lockdowns, so when the lockdown lifted, the first session we decided to do was our yearly 16th December Midnight walk, in memory of Jyoti Singh. 

It is strange, but also not strange at all, that women walking together doing nothing is always so much fun, so filled with laughter, stories, craziness and poignancy. Women who join us the first time for a session always ask me what it is that we are going to do in the session. And I always tell them that we are just going to walk, nothing else is ever planned. This usually causes a bit of anxiety, understandably so. We are all so conditioned to have everything planned. We are always taught to 'make use of time efficiently' and never just be wasting time.

Archana wondering why this advertisement for public cycles has an image of a man on it?

So obviously, when a campaign that is, in fact, based on 'wasting time' in a mainstream way, it can lead to anxiety. But us, who have been loitering for eight years now, know how vital this waste of time is! How vital it is for women to be seen 'wasting time' in public spaces at ungodly hours, with absolutely no guilt or inhibition. 

What do women want? Good street lights (to click good selfies under)

And of course, like I said earlier, there is a certain magic that happens whenever women come together to loiter. Even without any agenda or plan, we end up discussing things that are most important to us. Our experiences in public spaces, of trauma and triumphs and adventures and small acts of transgression. We feed off each others' wisdoms and experiences to feel like we are not alone in this struggle to reclaim our life, our time and our bodies in public spaces. 

Walking the untrodden path!

So, thats exactly what happened this time as well. There were some of us who have been loitering for eight years now, some who have been with us for a couple of years and for some, it was their first time. 

We met at 11.30 p.m and began walking. The meeting point was decided but where would we end up after walking, and also how long we would walk for, was undecided. We ended up walking for three hours straight and had the most adventurous night. 

What do women want? An autorikshaw with colourful balloons!

We stood under street lamps and clicked selfies, got into long conversations with autorikshaw drivers and walked on lanes that we had never walked on before. We stared at the beautiful moon, talked about how satisfying it is to meet other women and just talk, and how good it feels to be outdoors especially after the lockdowns. 

We walked on deserted lanes, something we otherwise wouldnt do. No incidents of harassments happened, unlike many other times when we have found ourselves in such situations. It was a beautiful night of 'non-incident', if you could call it that.

Its magical how quickly women befriend women. 

And thats what women want, for all those who are forever wondering 'what do women want?'

Women want uneventful nights of exercising their agencies that have non-agendas and non-fear and non-anger. 

At the end of three hours of doing practically nothing, most of us sighed about 'how wonderful and beautiful and empowering' it was. 

Loitering women are happy women.

It just reinforced in me, the politics of the 'Why loiter?' campaign. Women having fun, without any other agenda, is extremely powerful and political. 

Here's to many, many more nights of doing absolutely nothing!



Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Mumbai Meri Jaan- Candice Dsouza

 



I still remember all my firsts - as a young woman with a disability, I had had a lot of firsts a lot later than most people. No, not my first time drinking or going to a club - I’ve had those too - but my most memorable firsts were my first experience of independently going out of the house,  using public transport, crossing the road, my first ever independent shopping experience and even my first time riding pillion with a friend on her scooter.

As a child growing up with cerebral palsy, I had been (much to my annoyance) sheltered greatly by my mother to the point where I wasn’t sure what I would do, unaccompanied in public spaces. But as will all things there is a first time for everything. So it was with me.

 On an especially rainy evening in June 2015, I found out I’d gotten into St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. This would’ve been an occasion to celebrate for anyone else. After all, I’d done fairly well on my exams and “made it” as we starry eyed teens looking for the fun Bollywood-esque “college life” experience would have described it. But for me, this spelled a host of new challenges, that I was certainly anticipating but didn’t recognize the gravity of what lay ahead (well, who am I kidding? Perhaps I did, but I didn’t want it to dampen my spirits.)

                                           

                                 Me with my friend who took me on the Andheri Local Train

                                               (Ironically on Independence Day in 2018)

 How would I travel over forty two kilometers from home, I wondered, in a city whose trains were brimming with harried, hasty commuters, permanently in a rush to get on this multi-compartment colonial monstrosity that whistled its way past me nonchalantly? It was almost like the train mocked me, for my inability to be among the extremely determined, agile horde that pushed its way into the compartment, something of a rat race worse than any exam I’d ever taken. People jostled right past me, and I heard the whistle blow and the train move, realizing my feet were still rooted in place on the platform, almost like the roots of a tree unyielding despite my desperate brain riding them to lift me into the train in front of me. For the first time in my entire life, I truly understood the meaning of what my surgeon had told my mother seventeen years ago - the weight of his words  “ She’s living with an intelligent mind trapped in a stubbornly disobedient body” dawned on me at the ripe old age of eighteen.


                                           St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, Farewell, 2018

 A week later, at the insistence of my worried parents, I unwillingly hauled myself into a cab and headed to college. But dare had other plans, and as the old Bollywood adage goes, I found a way to get what I always wanted - a “normal” college travel experience. After some hesitation, I found my place in the hordes of students at Xavier’s - the imposing Gothic structure stared down at me, yet another dreamy eyed hopeful young person, waded (or should I say waddled?) my way through the hordes of students - to the notice bird with my timetable. My classrooms were mostly on the terrace, where the ancient 18th century  teakwood elevator didn’t go. So I clambered my way up the narrow staircase and finally entered the class and even crossed the busy streets near CST by myself with a triumphant air about me, as if I’d just experienced my life’s greatest victory.

                                                                 

                                                                College Farewell! 2018

It’s been 6 years since that day, and I’ve almost mastered all modes of public transport, except the local train. The turn of events came three years later, when (rather ironically) around Independence Day in 2018, when my set of equally adventurous and (my professors and my petrified mother would agree) rebellious friends, who against their better judgment took me on the train with them. We had to come up with the safest plan and my rather ingenious friends decided to board from Vile Parle (a slow train station and therefore less crowded one). I was barely done taking a horde of pictures from the train (window seat, of course) when the women in the compartment began noticing my unflinchingly gleeful grin, realising  with some amusement, that this was my first time.

                                                        

                               Just before I received my degree! Graduation Day, 23rd June 2018

When I finally built enough confidence to defy the cautioning words of concerned teachers and peers, I went on a solo trip to the metro, which was a pleasant surprise, as it had ramps with banisters that led up to elevators that took me directly to ticketing booths and the platform. It was less crowded and the magnetic doors meant that unlike trains, there was safety and no possibility of me being pushed off the train. The added thrill of doing this without anyone’s knowledge only inflated my sense of accomplishment.

This episode only served to embolden me, and I soon found myself in a series of firsts. I realised that despite its uncertain frequency, BEST buses were a safer mode of transport, because the front entrance meant the driver saw me and didn’t start until I’d slowly hauled my way up the steep steps. My seemingly “normal” appearance when I was seated meant I drew hateful stares from elderly people, who felt I was “using” their reserved seat, until sending my embarrassment, fellow travellers explained I was disabled. Thereon, it almost felt like yet another contest - a contest of whose suffering was “greater” and therefore, deserved the comfort of being seated on this bumpy long ride home. Initially , despite the vehement protests of fellow travellers, I gave up my seat for these elderly people, until some neurotypical adult guiltily (albeit begrudgingly) relinquished his back end seat for me.


                                                    Loitering at Maritime Gardens, Mumbai 

 My first solo shopping experience (at the huge Phoenix Market city in Lower Parel) was another story. Every few minutes, a random person in the mall stopped me and enquires why I was “left unattended” in this public place. I could feel the waves of sympathy for me, judgment towards my “neglectful parents” and horror at seeing a disabled adult for what was probably the first time in their lives. Trying clothes on with no seating in tiny trial rooms not equipped with stools or seating was exhausting, and the walk from end to end of the mall in search of the elusive elevator (My reflexes are too slow to get on to and off escalators) was so exhausting, that I couldn’t get out of bed for almost 2 days. But the experience taught me not to assume I couldn’t do something until I’d tried.

                                                       

                                                           Loitering at the Upvan Lake in Thane

These seemingly innocuous struggles made me realise how inaccessible the city was for someone like me. Staircases and even ramps to most public buildings had no banisters, impossibly high and broken footpaths, overcrowded trains and no elevators meant I needed help with a lot of spaces. Naturally, this meant I wasn’t truly as “independent” as I’d imagined. As a woman who bought into the narrative of female independence as a prerequisite to be a true feminist, this did make me feel hypocritical, particularly when I needed to use wheelchairs at museums or airports to avoid missing out on my flight. 

                                                                      

        My first time wearing the safety hazard better known as the saree at Traditional Day in college

But that got me thinking about spaces and how much easier it is being able-bodied in a country as unaccepting of difference as ours. It made me rethink a lot of things - such as my understanding of the word “disability”. Was I truly disabled by my body, or by the system and the infrastructure around me, that held no consideration for my needs? After all, healthy bodies are ephemeral. Everyone will age, fall ill, or otherwise need assistance at some point. What’s to become of us when the frailty of age or infirmity catches up with all neurotypicals in a society that is so capitalist that it only prizes the productivity and financial viability of our bodies?

 Over time, although it’s still a struggle at times, I acknowledge to myself that for me, “independence” wouldn’t necessarily be absolutely complete, and that I would still need to ask for some help in certain inaccessible parts of Bombay. But none of that made me any less feminist, independent or worthy. My struggle to feel “adult enough” continues but now I’ve come to see them more as an act of rebellion against a system designed to exclude me than a struggle to fit in, because why fit I’m in a world of people dying to stand out?

About the author- Candice Dsouza is a young therapist who lives with cerebral pasly. She loves reading and talking about everything ranging from politics, social justice, disability rights to the newest TV shows. She thoroughly enjoys the thrill she derives from taking risky local train ridesin Mumbai and drinking countless cups of Iced Tea!