To all the women in this city who saved me
TW: Life, abuse, depression and a long long read
It has been a long time since I wrote here and I am not sure if I will write here again but this seemed like a good place to park my thoughts. It has been weeks of deep anguish and in between all that I planned a trip to this city to meet friends and the children I worked with. I wanted to leave the anguish behind before I arrived. I wanted to speak to the person who I thought the anguish was linked to and they generously gave me their time. But it was still there. When the plane touched down, I felt something shift in my stomach like my body was saying you are protected, you have always been and you can do this.
Ten years ago around this time I left this city, deeply wounded and scarred from trying to save a relationship that had turned so abusive that seeing the person I once loved would fill me with trepidation and anxiety of what would transpire next. Who would they accuse me of thinking of while in bed with them, what would they do to disrupt the mental peace, how would they manipulate me, was it safe to still hang on and could I save this? I went back home and cried and howled into the night. Shortly I was diagnosed with depression.
I hated waking up, I hated light. I wanted the antidpes to just knock me off and never have to deal with what life had become. I had no work, I was cut off from most of my friends and I felt a lot numbness on most days and on other days when I made it to the living room even the slightest violence on TV or somebody's raised voice would cause me deep anxiety, panic would grip my body and I would want to cower and scream loudly.
I guess this is what emotional and physical abuse at the hands of someone you trusted does to you, it breaks your spirit, you forget who you were, you don't know what to trust and how to trust and if to trust or even how to function. You are just so so scared.
But four months later, life as I knew started to slowly trickle back, I returned to the city to reclaim this love that had become so very toxic. I somehow felt it was so connected with my sense of self and my worth was tied to them. So I got myself a job. I had severed contacts with most friends but there were a few I could still call on but just didn’t want to, I had a job working with children and no place to stay, so I thought I should stay with my ex.
He had moved on and though he let me in, he was cold and one evening he said I had to leave. I was three days into my job and I didn't know who to call, so I called the didi who ran the non-profit I worked with.
She picked me up and took me home, fed me and gave me a place to sleep. Soon I moved to the village where the non-profit was. I was so numb, I had to give myself instructions to feel anything, like, "You should cry”. I had no energy for most things especially for connections but at the non-profit I realized that the children wanted my attention and I had none to give. I am not sure what I did there but in those first few months that I worked there, didi let me stay and I am so so grateful. I am sure she knew I was going through something, she gave me time, paid me and going to work gave me purpose because it was such a difficult task. Among the many things I learned about children and their behaviour while working with her, one thing that always stands out is her telling me, "If you have 50 clothes and you want to wear them, wear them. Don't think you are working with underprivileged kids and you must hide what you have or who you are. Because when you dress down to fit in, children can sense you are lying. And you don't know what showing your real self to them must be doing to them. Don’t strip them off that experience" This was a place of great learning and strong bonds and a lot of love. It has been my home, one that continues to nourish me and one I keep going back to.
In the first few days that I stayed at the non-profit, I was also actively looking for a house in Delhi because after all my purpose was to get back my then love. So I spent a lot of time on Flats and Flatmates. I barely had any energy and finding a flat was a scary thing. I didn’t trust myself to do it. In a post I mentioned that I was coming from Faridabad and was looking for a house in Delhi and got a personal message from a girl with a very Malayali Christian sounding name who said she was in Faridabad and would be happy to accompany me in house hunting in Delhi. I felt very relieved. We were to go the next day. She had taken the day off.
By evening she had found a house but told me that she knew the distress well and would still be happy to come with me. I was so scared to do this or anything alone, I didn't say no to this kind stranger. We met at Badarpur metro station, she was reading Where the Rain is Born: Writings about Kerala. I had read the book and thought it was strictly okay but I didn't say anything. We got on the metro, talked, ate at KFC and she spent the whole day with me, going from house to house, none of which I liked. By the time we reached Faridabad it was late, I couldn't go back to the village I lived in and she asked me to stay with her. I stayed. She made me some Maggi. In those very troubled times she made me feel I was not alone, like the universe was taking care of me. It felt so comforting.
I finally found a house because one of my juniors from school got really worried when I told her that I was going to look at a house which had two male occupants. She knew I was in a bad place and didn't think living with two men in Delhi would be a good thing for me. So she said she would make sure I have a house. She lived in a tiny port town in the western India, I almost laughed at her confidence. But she used her management college network to find me a house in Delhi.
It was a little over my budget but I had a friend visiting from Mumbai who told me that she would come with me to look at this place, I was relieved and we went. The girl who opened the door seemed very business-like, pleasant but not too friendly. I decided to take the house because it was close to where my ex lived. I thought we would eventually get together and there was no way our paths wouldn't cross. My flatmate and I remained very distant till one day we got close. And now she is one of the few friends who I feel most safe with. I know she has my back no matter what. She makes me feel so included whenever we meet or talk and I love it and I can't quite say how she does it. We never discussed rules but we just knew when to give each other space, when to be there and distributed tasks without ever discussing it. It isn't like we didn't get on each other's nerves but this person who is so so different from me taught me so many different ways to be, especially how to casually and directly ask for what you want by being herself. I don't think we would be friends had we not been in this house situation but I am so happy we got into this house situation, I learned so much about self respect and conducting oneself in the world and being nice to oneself, being cared for in such an enriching way and cooking meals together and depending on each other without overwhelming the other. She continues to be what I call my home. I feel safe with her and everywhere she takes me, I know she will make sure I am included or left alone if that's what I prefer. I love her.
Living with her may have not started on the most friendly terms but that wasn't something I wanted or was working towards. Three days a week I had to do the task of going to a village in Faridabad. It meant taking a rickshaw to the metro station, taking the metro to Badarpur border, taking another rickshaw or a bus to a part of Faridabad, walking and then taking another auto to the village and it stressed me out so much. But everyday I went to work, N, a very well known columnist and writer whose fortnightly columns I and the world consumed word by word would text me to ask, "Janoo, kaisi hein?" Everyday on my 20 minute ride, she would hear me out, tell me to hang in there and that things would eventually get better, laugh with me and be there. For me she was a very well known writer, we followed each other on twitter, one who got her children to my workshop and I didn't expect her to be my friend because who was I but she chose me and offered me her friendship. I latched onto it. In the years we were close, she brought me mangoes, talked to me and gave me financial advice, opened up her heart and her house, found me work and loved me enough to let me go.
While all this was happening there was a lot of strife in my life and that’s all I could see. I still did everything to get back with my ex. I pretty much walked through life like life was happening to me and I had no agency. Work was still very very difficult. The long ride to the non profit would have me very exhausted, and didi knew that all wasn't well and she couldn't help me beyond a point. It was fair. She said she would place me on a probation for 3 months and check how I did and if I didn't do well I'd have to leave. Around the time G who was a runaway kid came to our non-profit. She was the youngest child at our home for children. She was so defiant and strong that most kids hated her guts and made it difficult for her to stay. She fought everyday. When things weren't smooth for her, she would plot and run away. We spent many days searching for her. Slowly she started to relax a little but it wasn't easy.
When all the other children went to school, she would be at the non-profit and it was my responsibility to make her school ready. She was fun but also defiant and a lot of work, she just wouldn't listen but we had a bond, she would call me bhauji. When she learned the ABC, it would be "H for hen, I for ice cream," and then with great seriousness, "J for Jai Prabhu", no matter how much I tried showing her "J for Jug". I could only laugh and accept. She would demand that I sing her Nanhi kali sone chali whenever she wanted, somedays she would bring me flowers and say, “Mein aapke liye I-love-you laayi hoon (I have brought you I-love-yous)”. On some days when she was being very very rigid and wouldn't listen to me, I would angrily say that I was going to make sure she gets no food that day. She would say, "Mitti khaa lengey par aap ki baat nahin manegey (I will eat mud but I will not do what you say)." Here was a young child, all of 5, who grew up on the streets, faced so much animosity, who not just survived but thrived and on her terms. It was difficult not to be inspired. She slowly started to teach me how to stand up for myself and not twist myself into a jalebi to please others.
I still talk to her and she has grown so big. Once when I told her that, she said, "Didi, aapke liye toh mein bacchi hi rahoongi (I will always be a child to you)." I am always amused by what she says and does and want to tell her, "How are you so smart? Teach me your ways."
The work started to feel less scary and I started to make friends with the children but I still needed money to survive in the city. S who ran a children's bookstore in the city would get in touch with me often and pack me off to schools in the city, introduce me to libraries and artists, I am not sure if S knew anything about my condition but she made sure I had work and with so much warmth and generosity. She says she just loved my work and that's why she did it but it felt so good that she did it.
S introduced me to A who would open their home to me and talk about my work to folks, talk to me, make me pasta, and make sure I got more work. Their pushing my work meant I got to work at international schools where I received so much love and a new name - Mrs Indue.
S also introduced me to R, one of my closest friends who ran a children's library. The first time we met in the library, she was going through a lot and so was I. I don't think we talked about books but we talked about our pain in some abstract way. She would invite me to the library often. She was and is so full of brilliant ideas. I am not sure when she opened her house to me because I always felt I belonged there. She lived in the most poshest part of the city but not once did I feel out of place in her house. She would sometimes tell me to go rest in her house even when no one was at home and I would be on my way from the international school where I taught on Wednesdays. I would hang out in her house, I would be fed, her children would engage with me, I could cook in her kitchen and she would make sure she fed me dinner before I left, I would fuss about not wanting it but was so happy she insisted!
While there, her youngest daughter and I struck a friendship. She was probably 5 and would wait to tell me about the experiments she was doing and sometimes ask me to play with her. I was in my early 30s constantly thinking that time was running out and then there was this kid who thought I was her friend and her age and would ask me to swiggle under the tiny bridge she made with her body. One day, out of the blue, she told her mum she wanted to talk to me because she missed me. Another time she saw my book at her fancy school and came home and said, "I saw Indu's book at school and I felt so proud." We baked cakes together, she showed me the clothes she made for her dolls, she asked me to do craft with her. Once for her birthday we baked a cake and I was so scared of it being non fancy but when her friends walked in, she said, "Indu and I put in a lot of effort, I hope you will like it and appreciate it!" Along with her mother's, this young girl's extension of friendship made me feel so wanted and loved.
But while all of this was happening, the one thing that I thought of constantly was of my ex who didn’t want what I wanted and rejected my love. All I thought of is how to win him over. I couldn’t see all that was coming my way. The love I had in the world. And this is the love healed me a little every day.
The fear of the abuse still remains in my body. Trusting isn’t easy for me. When I see violence against women in cinema, especially what is called edgy cinema, I have cried and run out of theatres because I have known what it is to live with fear in a house with someone you think you love but who can completely destroy you. But over the years, I have learned to see my own rigidity and have forgiven myself and my ex partner for all that transpired between us. The thing that still pinches me the most is not that they did it to me but that I stood there and let myself be dehumanized.
I have dated and been open to loving or so I thought but in hindsight I know I have kept everyone at a distance, I have wanted love but have also waited for everyone to disappoint me and leave. I didn't want anyone to see what I wanted or needed because the only time I did that I lost everything I knew about life. So I have given, given myself, gauged what they wanted and given them that and more and complained about not receiving back and felt resentful and left. What I didn't know then was that I was too scared to be seen, to be loved.
Last year, I decided not to date and not to be useful and solve other's emotional problems and just sit with myself. Who was I to be this greater person looking at the rot outside while I was full of anxiety. I decided to tend to myself. It meant cutting down on social media, looking to fix my finances, applying to every grant and fellowship possible, sitting with feelings of inadequacy, shame and failure. It meant not to constantly connect with my friends and tell them I ate this, I did this, they said that, did you watch that and what were they even thinking and how are you ya, when will we meet, when will this end? As I stopped to numb myself by constantly engaging online, the world inside me started to show up.
No it wasn't and isn't beautiful but slowly, I started to pay attention to it and it didn't bother me as much and so I decided to draw it. Mostly because I felt time was running out, the virus could take any of us away and I had pending work to finish. I had the urgency to do things I had kept for a far away future when I had more time. Dancing, singing, cooking, hiking, the graphic novel about my family, financial security, sexual intimacy all started to find time in my agenda. Not that I was good at any of this but I wanted to be more accountable for my joy and safety.
Then recently, maybe because of all the work I have been doing on myself, unknowingly I lowered my guard while with a date and became open to receiving and enjoyed receiving and didn't hide my needs and soon it overwhelmed me so much that I suddenly shut down. The fear of someone reading my needs was so scary, how could I let it happen. How could I show what I covet, how could I let them ease my oldest wounds in ways that are soothing, in ways that I can get used to, in ways that I can be completely destroyed in. I froze, I cried. I felt deep anguish. I couldn't quite make sense of it.
And then in my Yoga class, I told my teacher I had this feeling like there was a cool and minty feeling all over my body when I did yoga one day. She said, that's great. It is probably the universe's way of saying - You are not alone and that it is taking care of you but I also want to say don't expect this in every class because when it doesn't come, you will wonder if you are doing something wrong.
I found that so insightful but my anguish stayed. And then I touched down in this city and I saw something shift in my stomach. On my first night here, I told one of my didis over wine how much this city has given me in my darkest days.
I felt grateful and very emotional. I called everyone or texted them for what they did for me 10 years ago. Women who just came out of nowhere to save me. I slowly started to ease. My yoga teacher is right, this wonderful feeling I have felt is a gift but if it goes away it has nothing to do with my worth. I don't need to be fearful and capture it in a bottle. Slowly, it helped me be more present here in this city that has held me even when it took away from me.
It took coming to Delhi to realize after 10 years, that when I thought I had nothing, life was always giving me but I was obsessing about how I was not getting what I wanted from the one person, in the way I wanted. It made me feel that where I had placed your attention, only helped me delve on lack. And when I make emotion-backed demands on how something / someone or life should be, I will never see the gifts that are coming your way. Delhi seemed to tell me - Be present and that’s what I did and hope to do.