Tuesday 30 September 2014

Climbing Arunchala with Oma- Shaizia Jifri

It is difficult to write this piece without giving the woman I am writing about some context. I call her Oma. Which means grandmother in German. She's not my grandmother and we aren't related by blood. Yet she feels like family. Her granddaughter is one of my closest friends. Her son treats me like his adopted daughter and her whole family makes it to my A-list, of people I love and hold dear. Her name is Maya Krishnamurthy. A name she kept from an ex-husband who was her college professor, but not the father of her son. She is the daughter of Aurobindo Bose, who happened to be Subhas Chandra Bose's first cousin. 
Aurobindo Bose was a freedom fighter himself and was imprisoned in the Andamans, from where he escaped in a story not unlike "Shawshank Redemption". He made it to Tamil Nadu in a fishing boat and made his way to Tiruvanamalai. In Tiruvanamalai he acquired a property which is now known as "Bose Compound". Aurobindo Bose was well acquainted with Sri Aurobindo, The Mother and Ramana Maharish. Ramana is said to have spent much time at "Bose Compound". 
Today Oma owns "Bose Compound". It is a sprawling property just down the road from the Ramana Maharishi Ashram in Tiruvanamalai. It sits at the base of Arunachala and for me is the place where I learnt to let go of a lot of fear and face many of my own inner demons. 
There is a forest of trees on "Bose Compound", mostly planted by Oma over the years. Various cottages peek out from the trees each one with a special name. Oma mostly stays at "Nirvan", which is a big airy bungalow at the back. 
In 2007 I felt like I needed to get away somewhere and sort out my life. Thanks to her son Aaron, I ended up working for Oma at "Bose Compound" in Tiruvanamalai. I lived in a cottage called "Peace", while I ran six rooms in various little cottages as a guesthouse. We also re-built and ran a restaurant called "Kafé Ram". Together with Oma and Aaron and a team of three men we put together Kafé Ram brick by brick and then painted and thatched things ourselves. When the men wouldn't let me do heavy lifting work, I would spend long hours raking leaves and cleaning out the compound and the various rooms that had been locked. 
Oma is also fondly referred to as "Sarge" by her son. She has worked at the library and mental institute of the US army where she learnt to drive big heavy duty trucks, at some point in her life. Till very recently she used to ride her Java motorbike between Bangalore and Tiruvanamalai. She really is made of tough stuff. The fact that I drive long distance alone and don't shirk at manual labor gained me her approval. She is the sort of lady who doesn't care for either fluffiness or anything airy in someone's personality.
Once we opened Kafé Ram, Oma, Aaron and myself decided that it should be the sort of place where people of all walks of life should come and eat and feel welcome. We had a wall dedicated to saints, spirituality, spiritual sayings and religious symbols. Sathya Sai stood tall in the centre of the wall, at the end we had St Francis staring down from a large antique print. Sayings by Aldous Huxley flanked a photo of "Hugging Amma". Soon our customers started coming up and adding little things of their own to this wall. It really gave Kafé Ram a feeling of harmony and unity. 
The food at Kafé Ram was simple. South Indian "tiffin" in the morning. South Indian "meals" in the afternoon followed by vegetarian specials like Gobi Manchurian and Veg Fried Rice or Palak Paneer and Rotis in the evening. The menu changed according to what we had in the kitchen and the mood of our cook Anand.
Tiruvanamalai is a small town with some small town problems. When our modest restaurant started doing well, people got jealous. I started to have problems with the power going out every evening when business was picking up, while every other place near us still had lights. Finally Oma figured out that someone was cutting our power line. She happened to know the ex-commissioner of the town and called him up to tell him what was happening. Within a week our power problems vanished and the lights shone brightly at Kafé Ram all evening long.
Oma decided that we needed to thank the ex-commissioner and said I should go with her. She fished out a box of chocolates that she had brought down from Bangalore and we walked across town to his house with it. Only his son was home so we left the box of chocolates with a message and made our way back. As we were walking back we happened to cross the entry point to the main route up Arunachala. At that point Oma turned to me and said "Shez have you been to the top of the Mountain yet?" 
The truth was I hadn't been to the top. I had climbed up, but always stopped somewhere along the way and never really felt like finishing the climb. I told her this.
"Well you only climb to the top of Arunachala when you are ready and I think you are ready and need to climb it today" replied Oma.
I tried to begin an argument with her and tell her it was 5pm and would be dark soon. Not the best time to be climbing up. Now the thing with Oma is, once she decides something, you really can't argue with her. So we started climbing. As we began we came across a little boy selling bananas. We picked up a bunch of six bananas and Oma had a pack of Charms cigarettes with six cigarettes in it. We had no water and no torch. Also I happened to be in a sleeveless kurta with rubber chappals on. Not the best gear for a hike up Arunachala.
At first the going was easy we chatted and it felt like we would get up fairly easily. After all Arunachala, just about classifies as a mountain and in my head wasn't that high.
Then night fell. At that point Oma asked me to walk in front of her because she really couldn't see. I asked her what she could see and she told me she could make out my white pyjama bottoms. So I hiked my kurta around my waist so she could see my pyjamas clearly and walked in front of her. It was very slow going because I would take a step and literally wait for her to shuffle her feet in behind me. The climb started to get steeper and it was hard going for both of us. We stopped a few times and ate bananas and smoked cigarettes just to keep our spirits up. Soon we only had two of each left.
At some point we both began to sense that the top of the mountain was close and just then clouds descended. What ever visibility I had vanished and  from then on it really was the blind leading the blind. I gingerly felt my way up as Oma shuffled behind me. When I really was in doubt I sparingly put on my old Nokia cell phone which gave me enough light to find a hand or foothold. 
Finally we made it to the top. By this time the clouds had settled in thick over Arunachala's crown and visibility was zero. But we both felt a sense of achievement of finally making it to the top. We squatted on a couple of rocks and smoked our last two cigarettes, with a deep sense of satisfaction. At this point Oma turned and told me "You know Shez, I think I was hallucinating while climbing up. I kept seeing a wall on both sides of me and a white light at the end of a tunnel in front of me." When she told me this I was truly worried. I couldn't help thinking of all those stories of people having experiences of tunnels and white light while they are in comas or when they lose consciousness completely. Did Oma just drag me up for her very last climb to pop it on me at the top of Arunachala?!! Later I figured out that we had climbed on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. She had been thinking about that during the day. The white light happened to be the back of my pyjamas, guiding her failing eyes through the darkness.
Oma on the other hand didn't seem worried at all. In fact she actually made me call her son and granddaughter to tell them we were on the top of Arunachala. Her granddaughter worried me more by telling me to look after Oma and make sure nothing happened to her.
Oma was showing no signs of concern. Instead she turned to me and said "Come on, let's find a place to sleep." 
I managed to find a small shelf just down from the top of the mountain that gave us a bit of shelter from the wind, that had started to blow quite strongly at this point. Oma curled up with a rock as a pillow and suggested I did the same. She was soon snoring gently, like she was sleeping on a comfortable bed. I was not as peaceful. At this point I was shivering and also wrought with worry about her. I kept waking up to check on her and the night dragged slowly on as I fretted about waking up to find her dead beside me. She was after all over 80 and not as invincible as she used to be.
Dawn finally came and it was spectacular. It literally felt like the world was unfolding in front of us. Oma and I ate our last bananas and started on our descent down the mountain. Now climbing up was difficult, but going down was just as hard. We had no water and the sun had started to beat down hard on the mountain. There is vary little shade on Arunachala and dehydration was getting to both of us. "This is how it should be" said Oma "When you climb Arunachala you shouldn't drink water. This is how I always do it." 
Then the sun really started getting to us. A couple of climbers were coming up and they offered us a drink of water. I happily accepted. Oma refused. She was adamant about finishing her descent without drinking a single drop of water. Finally we got to a stunted frangipani tree. I made her sit in its shade. 
"Go on without me!" She started yelling at me. "I am slowing you down!"
"Listen you crazy old goat!" I yelled back "I am not sending a hearse to come collect your body from the body the bottom of this mountain! So just keep going with me!" 
We launched into a full blown argument where she began insisting that she wanted to finish the climb alone and I was more likely to make her fall if I stayed because she sensed some expectation from me. I told her she was being ridiculous and I would just settle into whatever pace she chose. At some point she changed her tune and insisted that she wanted to just sit under the frangipani tree for some time and would only move when she was ready. She then screamed at me to leave her alone and just go ahead without her. I finally relented. 
In my head I thought that she was making me go because she was ready to quit completely. I had promised her son and granddaughter that I wouldn't let anything happen to her. I am not much of an athlete, but that day my feet grew wings. I raced down the mountain and  at the base I managed to flag an auto to take me to Bose Compound. On the compound lives a man called Raja. He has known Oma since he was a boy and apart from doing all kinds of odd jobs around the property for her, he is also her friend. He knows how to deal with her and is as stubborn as she is if he wants to be.
I found Raja gave him a bottle of water and told him to go and get her down. For three hours I sat in my room in 'Peace' and worried about her. At 2pm my phone rang.
"Come to 'Nirvan'!"chirped Oma on the other side "I have beer and biryani for you!"
I ran across the compound to 'Nirvan' to find her happily drinking beer and smoking her Charms cigarettes.
"Come on you!" she said with a big grin "We have lots to celebrate....and you have lots of catching up to do."

Sunday 28 September 2014

Claiming the night...- Neha Singh

I would often hear my friends talk about their night time adventures...stepping out for a midnight snack or for the crave of that one smoke. They would tell me about their heartfelt conversation with the 'coffee anna' as the night time coffee sellers are fondly called in Bombay. Or their misadventures with the stray dogs in the gullies when they had to run to escape the snarling mutts. Or just sitting on the rocks at the beach, pondering over life's mysteries. Needless to say, all these midnight tales belonged to my guy friends.
I wished I could just get out of home without looking at the watch, without having to care whether it was an 'ungodly' hour. I wonder why that term was coined, because for me, breezy, lonely nights are so much better than hot, sultry, crowded days sometimes. 
When why loiter? began its weekly loiterings, I itched to propose a midnight loitering, half fearing it would be shot down immediately. Much to my delight, it was accepted without any discussion or hesitations. That's why I love these girls so much. :)
So we began walking from Prithvi Theatre, Juhu, at 1 a.m. Just four of us. 

We walked past Juhu Circle and the roads were still crowded, we took the Juhu Versova Link Road since our final destination was Yaari Road.

We walked without any fear or worries, laughing, clicking pictures, buying water from the Chemist shop. We walked further, now it was almost 2 a.m and the roads were more empty than I had ever seen them in Bombay. Yet, there wasn't any reason to be fearful. 

We stopped and clicked some more pictures at a divider on a lonely residential road. 

A couple of noisy cars passed us by, maybe they were returning from a party. We kept walking towards our destination, when suddenly a man on a motorcycle approached us with a surprisingly sharp sense of authority. 
'Aap log itni raat ko yahaan kya kar rahi hain?' he questioned us, as though he had a right to ask us that question without bothering to tell us who he was. 'We are walking', was our matter of fact reply.
'Do you know a couple of cars have been following you? I have been watching you girls for sometime now. I am a police officer. Now get into an autorikshaw and be on your way home. This is no time for girls from 'good families' to be out on the roads'. After this, he continued to demonstrate his brazen sense of authority over us by stopping an autorikshaw and commanding us to get in.
We tried explaining to him that we aren't doing anything wrong, just exercising our right to walk on the streets at anytime we want. If he feels that the boys in the noisy cars can harm us, shouldn't he be stopping them, rather than us?
He still couldn't for the life of him understand why us 'girls from good homes' would want to loiter at night when there are entire days available to us to loiter. We told him about the purpose of Why loiter? and how it encourages women to take risks, to loiter in public spaces, at day or night, in groups or alone, and to be seen by others and to reinforce the thought that it is alright to see a woman on the roads, without purpose, at any hour, and you need neither harm her, intimidate her or protect her. 
Things seem to seep into his system and when I asked him 'What, according to you is the solution to women's safety on the roads?' he replied 'I think the only solution is that more and more women come out of their homes and claim spaces'. There was a collective 'Eureka' feeling that we all felt as our hearts melted for this 'protective-conservative-self proclaimed big brother cop'.
To declare peace he offered to treat us to coffee at a coffee anna close by and we agreed. After some more conversation on the pleasures of loitering we bid him goodbye and left.
Now, the funniest part about our entire interaction with him was the fact that he had said that he was a police officer, but none of the things he said to reinforce his stature seemed true. I asked him what his post was or which police station he was attached to, to which he just mumbled something and much later came up with 'I am junior inspector Rishi and am attached with the Versova Police station'. He was dressed in black pants and a black shirt, had diamond studs on his ears and long-ish hair. He even tried hammering his statement by picking up a call (fake) and saying 'Yes, Sir, I have patrolled the entire area and everything seems to be alright' and after he hung up he told us that he was talking to the ACP!! He went on explaining how he had similarly 'rescued' a girl in Borivali a week before.
Even though we gave him the benefit of doubt, we were all pretty sure he was no real cop, just a cop in his head that felt he had to go around 'policing' people into what he felt was right and wrong ways of behaving. We were glad we made a dent in his thought process. And of course, had a good laugh at his desperate attempt at making us believe his 'cop' status. Ironically, soon after Junior Inspector Rishi went off, we were stopped by cops in a patrol vehicle, in uniform, and asked us to head home lest someone stole our purses, but when one of us retorted 'We are fine! Thank you!' they just said 'Jaao jaao ...ghumo...dhyaan se par'! 
By the time we reached Yaari Road it was 3 a.m and we had had a perfect loitering session. 

Sometimes, I feel that the demons in our heads are bigger than the real ones. I had denied myself the pleasures of breezy, lonely nights outdoors just because of the fear of something wrong happening. I don't deny the fact that crime against women are committed every day, every minute. But I also feel that it is high time we learnt to take risks in order to lead a life that in a parallel, un-oppressive universe would be a regular life with the freedom of movement without fear, no matter what your gender.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Loitering in Bombay- Mrinmayee Ranade

Thinking of all the times I have travelled alone or done things alone that one is supposed to do with somebody. The first play I saw was Tee phulrani - Marathi adaption of My Fair Lady - at Shivaji Mandir, Dadar. I was in senior college I guess. At least 25 years must have passed after that, that I watched a play alone again. White Lily Knight Rider starring Sonali Kulkarni and Milind Joshi. At the same theatre. Have watched a few movies alone too. I have realised that I pay more attention to what is happening in front of me than what is happening around me, when I am alone. 
But when it comes to loitering, one of the best times was when Shivani, my niece came to visit from Pune, in the vacation after her class ten exams. Shivani and Gargi, my daughter came to Dadar from Mumbai in the local, Gargi being a year older and a true blue mumbaikar was cool about travelling by that mode. For Shivani, that was the beginning of the adventure as in Pune she would always travel either in her dad's AC car or with her mom on her scooty. 
We met near Sena Bhavan. We walked past Shivaji park to Chowpatty. I was visiting Dadar chowpatty after ages. We sat on the tripods, took photos of the evening skies and the Bandra Worli Sea link, watched boys playing football on the beach. And talked. And sat in silence. When the sun had set, we left. None of us wanted to leave, mind you. Sitting by the sea was very calming. 
Then we walked on the Cadel road, I showed the Mayor's bunglow, Savarkar memorial, Vanita Samaj, etc. We crossed over to the Park side and took the girls to Samarth Vyayam Mandir. We were lucky to find Uday Deshpande and Neeta Tatke, the two pillars of the Malkhamb school. As I am a past student of Neeta, it was easy to go in and have a chat with the two. We watched the evening batches practicing Malkhamb, awestruck, and various other sports and truely wished we lived somewhere near Shivaji Park so that we could go there every evening.
We were looking for some place for a nice dinner and Oven Fresh was the best choice. Even on a weekday, we had to wait for 15 minutes to get a table. But it was worth a wait as we were served a delicious melt-in-the-mouth dessert. Complimentary!
A lazy walk back to Dadar station, a slow local to Thane, some shopping inside the ladies' compartment ended a lovely evening. Shivani summed it up beautifully - Kaku, I have fallen in love with Mumbai. Wish I can come and live here. I could see where she was coming from. If you go to Pune, you would notice how hardly anyone was walking on the streets. Everyone is on two or four wheels. 
Next evening, we went to Matungam. Just to eat dosas. So plonked ourselves in Shreesunders and gorged on the yummy spicy dosas. Topped it with kapee. Wandered around the vegetable market, selling everything from the exotic to the traditional south indian veggies.
Next day, Gargi and Shivani went to 'town'! Colaba causeway being Gargi's most favourite road in the world, she has been there N number of times. They did the customary shopping on the streets, ate at Leopold's and came home tired and happy.
So much to do in Mumbai. Waiting for Shivani to come back. A walk around Dharavi, anyone?

Sunday 14 September 2014

Reclaiming the chai tapri - Neha Singh

I had always been fascinated with chai tapris, whether in Bombay, Delhi or the ones in my hometown, Haldwani. Whenever my family went to Nainital, Ranikhet, Almorah or the other mountain towns, we always stopped at the beautiful mud sheds, with creaky old benches and breathtaking views of the hills for some chai and pakodas.
In Bombay, minus the breathtaking views, the chai tapris seemed welcoming and peaceful, with the sound of ginger being crushed and the vadas and samosas frying away in the large kadhais. I saw most of these tapris buzzing with people. Men in groups, men alone, men devouring four-five cups of chai with samosas and discussing topics as far and wide as politics, films, cricket, their own professional and personal lives. I saw these chai tapris come alive early in the morning, groggy eyed men sitting around in their shorts and flip flops, sipping that glorious first garam chai of the day, reading newspapers or quietly contemplating their day's to-do lists.
As evening approached, the tapris were abuzz again. I was fascinated with the amounts of chai that must come out of that one big pan in one day. A thousand cups? Five thousand, even? All consumed by people that were not there just for the chai, but also for the sense of brotherhood, of belonging, of having someone to talk with, or just being able to step out of the house for an activity as mundane or as beautiful, as having a cup of tea. The tapris shut shop only in the night, serving that last cup of chai to that customer who enjoys his tea past dinner time.
I wondered why I never saw any women at these tapris? I did see a woman or two in so many years, but never as a trend, never as a space that belonged to women as much as men, and definitely, never, a woman alone.
When I moved to Goregaon West, BEST colony, I discovered a beautiful chai tapri a stone's throw away from my home. Just a young man making chai on the pavement, right next to an old tree. Behind him was a staircase with about six long steps, and on these steps sat the customers. Young men, old men, middle aged men, devouring cups of chai. Whenever I crossed the tapri, I had an urge to go and park myself on the steps and have a cutting chai. It just seemed so inviting. But I never did so, because I never saw a woman sit on those steps for a chai.
Fortunately, I was in a relationship at that time, and I coaxed my boyfriend to accompany me to the tapri. He ordered two cups and we sat down on the steps, looking at the old tree and the road ahead, with all the vegetable vendors, tiny grocery shops, egg sellers, bakery go about their business as we sipped on the chai.
There is something very beautiful about this tapri. In a city always running from one place to another, always in a rush, this tapri seemed to help us slow down a bit. It, in a way, sent out the message that it is okay to just sit, look at the rest of the world go by, while you enjoy your chai and stare into nothingness right ahead of you.
It became a routine for us to go to the tapri in the evenings, and we also made friends with some of the other tapri-goers. I loved this daily outing more than anything.
And then, one fine day, my boyfriend and I broke up! And among all the other intense emotions my heart and mind were dealing with, there was this nagging question at the back of it all, who will accompany me to the chai tapri now? It's not a priority, I tried consoling myself, but I missed the tapri so much.
I stopped going, but one day as I was buying vegetables from the vendor, I saw some of the regular tapri-goers and they invited me to sit and have a cup. I accepted the invitation and tentatively sat down on those beautiful steps, devoured that cup that I had longed for, and left soon after. Why did I leave so soon? I wanted to stay and look at the old tree, the pavement, contemplate on things.
By now I had figured out the schedules of the tapri goers and would venture out on some pretext or the other at the perfect time. Someone or the other would invite me to come and have a cup and I would innocently accept the offer. Soon, my stays became longer, more chatty and I became friendly and comfortable with the tapri goers. Some of them were actors, some writers, theatre enthusiasts. I started spending most of my evenings at the tapri, chatting sometimes, quiet at other times, gently nursing my broken heart.
Then one day I came out of home, craving the chai and the time at the tapri, and to my horror, there were just some other random men sitting there, none of the tapri-goers. I headed home, disappointed.
I came up with a strategy. As soon as it would be tapri time, I would call up one of the regulars, and ask him if he was, by any chance, headed to the tapri. If he said yes, I would accompany him, if no, then I would call someone else and see if he was going. The strategy worked and I resumed my regular tapri outing.
Over the months I developed a strong sense of association with the tapri. It was healing me. It was helping me not feel so lonely. Sometimes I reflected upon my life, my goals, my dreams, staring at the old tree. Sometimes I laughed so much at the funny conversations that I felt refreshed and alive. Sometimes the tapri goers didn't let me pay for my chai, on other occasions I bought pakodas and offered those to everyone as an accompaniment with the chai. Everyone knew my name, I knew everyone's name, I also now knew the name of the person who made the chai. One day, I said 'Mukesh, ek cutting dena' and it felt so good that it became my opening line most evenings.
I sat up at night one day and thought, why do I need someone to be there at the tapri? Can't I go there, alone, just with myself?
I had a breakthrough. I decided to go to the tapri alone. I did. And none of the familiar faces were there. I hesitated for a moment, and then walked towards it with confidence, parked myself on the highest step and said 'Mukesh, ek cutting dena.' The skies didn't shower flowers, the traffic didn't stop, no one froze and looked at me, there wasn't an applause, but somewhere inside me, I had become my own, personal hero.
I sat and drank that chai, with a plate of pakodas. Some passersby stared, but I didn't care. But I didn't stay too long either. The next day, I repeated my heroism, sat a little longer, a little less tentatively. The day after, a little more confident, a little longer.
Months have gone by, its always great to hang out with the regular tapri goers, but its also a beautiful feeling to sit alone, early in the morning or late in the evening, sip on that cutting chai, contemplate on things, look at the world rush by, without a care in the world.
The tapri has now become an extension of my home. I don't worry about what I am wearing, how I sit, how long I sit for, whether my eyes seem vacant or purposeful, who is sitting besides me. No one stares at me anymore, they all know I am just another person who likes her chai at the tapri.

Inviting women friends to the tapri

Saturday 13 September 2014

Wagle ki duniya - by Ashwini Wagle

Why would I start my first blog post ever by that name especially as I have never even seen the sitcom?  Well, over the years as people have got to know me through Facebook, many have referred to my doings and whimsical musings as “Wagle ki Duniya”.  Growing up in India as an army brat meant a fun filled childhood full of outdoor activities and large spaces in uncommon towns such as Shikargarh, Panagarh, and Mamun to name a few.  I was never restricted to explore and my parents gave me the wings to fly.  As a college student in Mumbai back in the 80’s, I explored sometimes alone and sometimes with friends.  Going running on Juhu Beach was a favorite activity then or nothing could beat just walking in the rain and then eating a hot vada-pav near Vile-Parle station.
Coming to Pennsylvania as a student gave me a new level of exhilaration.  Instead of the crowded streets or beaches of Mumbai, I had streets where I could walk for miles and not see a soul.  How could that be, and where were the people? How could they not be outside to see the fall colors or the snow or the icicles that formed as the ice was melting?  I began to find the solitude welcoming and loving every minute of it.  Even a single person who wanted to come and explore with me seemed like a crowd. I would run sometimes or walked as I felt like, but nothing made me happier than being outdoors.  Moving to California was even better as the weather was great all year round.  I started running seriously around 20 years ago and would be out 3-4 times a week doing my thing.  The feeling of wind blowing in my hair, sweat pouring down my back and feeling my heart beat made me feel alive.  I even ran during my pregnancies as the doctor said it was ok to do so and that did create a flutter amongst all the relatives but I felt good and for once there was no one around me to tell me not to do so.  I would sometimes run with the kids in the stroller and to hear a baby gurgle with laughter as the stroller hurtled down the street was pure joy! Life did get somewhat restrictive as the kids got older and day to day activities started interfering, however I would still go out to run when I could and most times that meant running around 9 or 10pm at night.  Night runs became my passion and I would look forward to those at the end of the day.  It was less than a year ago that I stopped running alone at night as I was spooked by a van that crawled along with me for a couple blocks and the fear set in.  I am still not sure if I should have stopped but I did for my own safety, although I still sneak a night run in with my 85lb dog sometimes.  I refuse to be scared to give up something I love, but somehow the reasoning of being safe and staying safe filters in.

Somewhere along the way a few years ago, I came up with a goal to run 50 races (all 10K’s and above) before the age of 45.  I can almost taste the success as I will be running my 41st race in 3 weeks and I still have a year to complete my goal.  Hiking also remains a passion of mine and I hike every chance I get, and I have found a great bunch of girls who are motivated to hike also.  We can be as silly as we want, giggle and gossip too.  The crisp mountain air and the cool breeze on the skin is rejuvenating and better than any meditation I can do.  Being in nature makes me feel closest to God and I am addicted to it.  My three friends and I have done the Half-Dome in Yosemite National Park and the Grand Canyon in the last two years and plan to do Mt. Whitney soon.  My bucket list also includes doing the 4-day Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu in Peru and Mt. Kilimanjaro soon.  I think the possibilities are endless..
I do realize that I am one of the lucky ones who has the luxury of going out on a hike alone and not be worried about anything except being attacked by a mountain lion.  I do realize that I am one of the lucky ones who can wear a running skirt and run down the street and not be leered at.  But I am also one of those who runs on the streets of Mumbai, Pune and Talegaon or any place I visit in India, and I have had men stare at me as I run.  I have heard the laughs, and the cat calls and I usually respond with a thumbs-up sign for I know that the man leering at me cannot out run me! Some pictures for you to enjoy!

Hiking in the mountains..just me and Sammy. 

Jumping for joy on the beach.. 

She is Beautiful 10K Pink Run..

By Ashwini Wagle

Wednesday 10 September 2014

When you lose everything, you have so much to gain - by Shaizia Jifri

After my father passed away, my mother and I had various property issues that needed to be sorted out. One such issue involved a flat in Bangalore that had belonged to my father. We wanted to sell the flat  But the documents to clear it were with a friend in Chennai who were the original builders of the apartment building.

I was 19 years old at the time and not very familiar with Chennai. I had always visited with my parents, which meant a flight or train in and then being whisked away from the airport or station in a car to the Madras Club. On this first trip alone, I took a bus there and got down and took an auto to the YWCA where I was staying. At the time I didn't know the YWCA was walking distance from the bus stop and railway station. All good auto drivers can smell opportunity and an outsider. So it was inevitable that I managed to find one who drove me around for a good half hour before dropping me off, so I never really had my bearings of the city from the word go.

I managed to some how get my work done there and get what I need within a day. I had already booked my return on the train and already had my ticket with me. So it turned out that I had a morning free to myself in Chennai, since my train ticket was booked for 1:00pm. I decided to checkout of the YWCA and spend some time at Landmark Bookstore till I had to leave. I knew Landmark because Mum and Dad used to always take us there on our family trips to Madras(before it became Chennai).
Somewhere between getting out of my auto, going into Landmark and going up to pay for my books my wallet had gone missing with all my money. I had put all my money in one place and had nothing else on me. It was the sort of mistake only an inexperienced traveller makes.
With much embarrassment I put the books back and walked out of Landmark. Outside I discovered that all I had was a pack of cigarettes and ten rupees that had been stuffed into the right pocket of my jeans. So I flagged down the nearest auto and offered him both the money and cigarettes in return for a ride to the railway station. He smiled and nodded. Half way through our auto ride he rotated his head around to leer at me and pointed at my breasts and started making lewd kissing noises. He then and pointed to my boobs and to my horror asked if he could suck on them in Tamil. In shock and horror I asked him to stop the auto. As I'm tumbled out of the auto this sick old pervert told me to look up because we had reached the station. Sure enough I was at the side entrance to a station. So I ran up the stairs slightly jelly legged from my experience and pulled my train ticket out of my bag. The ticket said Platform 3 on it and I looked up and it turned out I was standing on Platform 3.
I settled down on a relatively clean and empty space on the floor, with my bum perched on my backpack since the station was fairly full. A train to some tiny place in Kerala came and left. Then a train to Salem. Then one more train to Kerala. 1:30 came and there was no sign of any train to Bangalore and the station had emptied quite a bit.
Tears of sheer desperation were now welling in my eyes. I really just wanted to get on a train and get home. So I went to the station master. He saw me and instantly took pity on me. He asked me what happened. I tried to explain in my incoherent Tamil, with English smattered generously in with it. I also told him I had to get home to Bangalore. My story must have had an effect because he clicked and tutted and head waggled with the deepest of sympathies as only a Tamil man can. He shook his head once more and replied that this was Egmore station and that I needed to get to Chennai Central.Then he pulled out fifty rupees from his wallet and gave it to me. He then proceeded to call the station peon. He narrated my story and more clicking, tutting and sympathetic head waggling happened. after which he instructed the peon to take me via inter-city railway to Chennai Central and put me in seater class for any train bound for Bangalore. Apparently on seater class I could get away with a Bangalore bound ticket from any train going on the same day. There was hope.
There aren't too many people who's feet I have touched. But I hugged him and touched his feet before dashing off behind his rabbit of a peon.
The peon turned out to be as much of a gem of a man as the station master. He asked me what happened and between mouthfuls of air as we darted along and wind blown shouting on the inter-city railway I tried to explain again as best I could about what had happened. I tried to use all the Tamil I know to make it a bit easier for him to follow. When we got to Chennai Central he put me on the Lalbagh or Brindavan Express. I can't remember which one, but I know it was named after a botanical garden. He then grinned at me and dipped into his shirt pocket for 10 rupees. Probably the biggest note in his pocket that day. He shoved it into my hand and turned and darted away.
On the train, I happened to sit down next to a drunk. The drunk as it turned out had the same ticket situation as me. He had a ticket to Bangalore for a train that day and not a ticket for that particular train. The T.T came round and took one look at his ticket and tossed him off the train.
I hurriedly moved across to the old couple sitting opposite me and asked them if they would help me translate to the T.T because my Tamil was terrible. Through them I told the T.T my story and all three were sufficiently moved as only Tamil folk can be. There were deep exchanges of head waggling, clicking sounds, eiiyoos.....oooo...ooos...mmmms and aaas, in my direction. At the end of this long exchange the T.T let me stay. The old couple turned out to be truly generous. They fed me. Gave me a blanket. Fed me some more and chatted away at me. I confess that I was the one interjecting with mmms..aaaa..aaas...eiiyoos and head waggles of my own to keep pace with their stories.
When we got to Bangalore the old couple had a driver coming with their Maruti 800. They dropped me home and drove out of my life forever. In one day I had lost everything and been given more than I needed and delivered back home all in one piece. The world is a generous place and when you have lost everything, you really are open to all it's unexpected gifts of kindness from those around you.

Saturday 6 September 2014

Selfies4School Campaign- Neha Singh

We all know that early marriage and pregnancy has been a social evil prevalent in India and other parts of the world since time immemorial. We also know that it is more of a rural and semi urban phenomenon than urban. It seems to not affect us in our day to day work or sphere of thought. But did you know that India accounts for 47% child brides in the world, making our country number one, in a criterion that is, to say the least, shameful.
The bleak scenario doesn't end here, it only begins. UNICEF data reveals that women under 15 are five times as likely to die during child birth than women in their 20s. Women between 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die during child birth than women in their 20s. Not just this, children of mothers under 19 are 60% more likely to die before their first birthday than children of mothers in their 20s.
Child marriage and school drop outs have a direct connection, with women invariably dropping out of school after marriage in order to support their families and busy themselves in household chores.
So why am I talking about child marriage in a blog called 'Why loiter?'
Let's go back to the basics. Why do families feel a strong need to get their daughters married off as soon as they hit puberty? Among other reasons, one of the prevalent reasons is to save her 'honour'. What is this 'honour' that is so sacred and is only a possession of the girl of the family? It is the risk of her being raped/molested or sometimes, her having a mind of her own in choosing who her life partner should be. This desirable (only to her) life partner maybe from a different caste/class/religion and that strikes the family honour worse than lightning.
Where does the risk arise? When a girl hits puberty, and the only time she is stepping out of home is to go to school, the best way to reduce that risk is to make her drop out of school and stay under the hawk's eyes of the women and men of the family. Schools are sometimes far from home and the only way of reaching is to walk to it or take a public transport. Public spaces and public transport is far from safe for girls and women. School girls are as much at risk of sexual or physical crimes on their way to school or back as any other space. With the recent news, even schools seem to pose a threat to women safety.
I personally feel that my education, whether it was in school or college, or after that, has set me free in more ways than I could have imagined. Most importantly, it has made me question, WHY? Why do we have to bow down to certain norms decided by the society for us? Why are systems in place the way they are and any deviation from them are frowned upon? Why do I have to choose a path for myself that is tried and tested and safe, why am I not allowed to think for my own best? It has equipped me to deal with new and challenging situations, to adapt to different situations, to hold valuable conversations with people that are far removed from my own journey and most of all, to think of people without biases, pre conceived notions and with an open heart and mind. I don't know what I would be doing or if I would be a sensible, productive, confident citizen had I not had my education.
So what is the solution? How can we retain girls in school for as long as possible? The only possible way is to assure the families that public spaces, roads, public transport, schools and the school's surroundings are safe for their girls. Why loiter? supports girls in schools till they attain maturity and are capable to choosing a life path that is best suited for them. We hope to make our cities and our villages safe for girls to roam around freely and to help change the perception of society towards girls in public spaces.
Please use public spaces and public transport as much as you can to help change this 'risk' of being a woman in the open, because a small initiative from your end can go a long way in changing our statistics as far as child marriages go. Loiter as much as you like, utilize your right to take risks and the right to freedom as any other citizen of this country. There is no public space that is out of bound for you, we only form the boundaries in our heads. Unleash yourself and embrace this world with open, fearless arms.