Saturday, February 12, 2005
I still remain fuzzy about certain things concerning youth and freedom. To be honest, (which I think is a sound habit), I find the word 'youth' and its connotations a little boring and its meaning slightly puzzling. I am 27, and I still haven't figured out where youth begins and where it ends.
There are stereotypes associated with the word 'youth' - you think of it and images and faces appear - the corporate, the idealist, the yuppie, the arty, the frustrated, the ambitious, the patriotic.
Unfortunately, most of these stereotypes are largely true.
Who are we? Where do we exist?
We, who do not wish to be categorised and put away neatly in rows and columns, just so that it is convenient for everyone else.
We, who do not want easy labels slapped on us - labels that are legible, easy to understand, and thus easy to accept or dismiss.
We, who do not want shelves marked out for us in the social supermarket, where we can be arranged efficiently.
Of course, it is at this point that I anticipate the most unintelligent question possible, which is, "How can you say this when you are labelled as a writer?"
The answer to which (in civilised terms) is, "I have been labelled a writer only after being published internationally, very recently, but I have been writing seriously for the last eight years..."
Coming back to us, the Unlabelled Ones, we might teach street children, but we do not want to be seen as 'Social Activists'. We might live to write, but we do not see ourselves as 'young, bright authors'. (I was actually called that recently — it was very embarrassing. It made me sound like the Head Girl of a school, someone who had just topped her class, had a very promising future and was being congratulated by the School Principal. Never mind that I might struggle with my next novel for ages, never mind the hope and the despair and the anxiety of it all).
And yet when it really comes to helping young people who are trying to live a particular kind of life , work hard, escape labels, our society is not particularly helpful.
I faced a lot of suspicion when I was looking for a room to write in - suspicion of the most idiotic kind.
One day, I went to see a room - to write in. The rent was reasonable, the place was quiet, a retired bureaucrat agreed to let it to me. I collected my stuff from the railway station cloakroom and moved within an hour.
Some time later, when the winter evening had set in and it was completely dark outside, I received a visit from the bureaucrat's daughter-in-law. Apparently, she considered herself the mistress of the house and was livid at the room being let without her permission.
I was a little nervy then. It sounds arty-farty, I know, but I was very close to a nervous breakdown at that point in time. The slightest noises startled me, trivial incidents upset me.
I was unpacking when I hear loud knocks on the door, knocks that were loud enough to make my heart hammer and set up an instant throbbing in my head.
"Who is it?" I called out, my voice trembling a little.
"Your landlady," she answered.
I opened the door. I did not know what was coming. Of course, some rooms and years later, I would become familiar with variations of this and learn to roll my eyes.
But I did not roll my eyes then.
There she stood at the door.
"I am Babli," she said in rapid English. She was tall, with a pinched, colourless face. "We don't usually let this room to young girls," she said.
"But I have already moved in," I said, slightly unsettled by her hostile tone.
"Who are you?" she asked me.
I was completely nonplussed at this.
We stared at each other in silence for a while.
She tried to help me.
"Are you a student?"
"Are you working?"
"Government or private company?"
"No, you see, I work everyday, but actually…"
Her thin nose took on an even more pinched look.
"Where do you work?"
My temper was rising now. I tried to appear calm.
Losing my temper was against my notions of being dignified.
"I have rented this room so that I can work. I write. I'll stay indoors all day. And write."
She was thrown off track for a moment.
But she recovered quickly.
"You write what?"
I was very tired, and my temper was fairly high now, though it did not show in my face or my voice.
In a controlled voice, I said, "Various things."
"You are married?"
Her eyes narrowed into slits now.
"Live at home."
"Why don't you live with them if you don't go to office?"
I said nothing. I wasn't about to explain solitude, space and identity to her.
Then comprehension dawned on her face.
Again, I said nothing. I am non-violent by and large, but by then I was longing to slap her.
Just one tight slap, I thought wistfully.
"No," I said.
"Inter caste? Family problems? We can't take the responsibility. And I don't want men here. We are a decent family. No disturbances."
I walked right up to her till my nose was almost touching hers.
"What do you mean, you don't want disturbances? I don't want to be disturbed. I don't want any men around either. Or women. I have paid my rent and this is my room now. Make sure there is no noise. Because I have a lot of work to do."
I slammed the door grandly on her face. But when I turned back and looked at my half unpacked bag, the bare room, my notebooks and pens, I felt desolate and lonely.
That is when I first coherently realised to what extent our society's desperate need for labels can traumatise an individual.
It was five years ago that I was travelling from Delhi to Bangalore in the Karnataka Express. I had the window seat. Right opposite me sat a guy probably in his mid-twenties. He had a neat face, neat hair, neat clothes. Despite the fact that we were in a second-class compartment, he looked freshly bathed throughout the journey.
He began by introducing himself to his neighbour, a sleepy, disinterested man in his fifties. His name was Sumit Verma, he had an M.B.A degree, worked in a private company in Bangalore and mainly talked about private companies in Bangalore.
Then he turned to the 18-year-old daughter of the man.
She was sitting next to me.
"What do you do?"
"I am in Class XII," she said sullenly.
"What subject?" he asked with a bright smile.
"Very good," he said. "Very good career options." His smile had become even more fixed.
I tried to bury myself in my book. But it was inevitable. The bright, fixed smile turned to me. "And you?"
"I am not sure" I said. I wasn't feeling very bright anyway.
"Where are you from?" I asked him desperately, as he opened his mouth to ask more questions.
His smile faded a little.
"You could say I am from Delhi," he said somewhat cryptically.
I remained silent for a moment. Then he said quietly, "Actually I am from Kanpur. But I work in Delhi. These days you have to live in big cities if you want to become Someone."
Sumit Verma's smiling mask slipped a bit, anxiety showed behind it, and for a moment, I felt sorry for
The Labelled Ones too.
At the Bareilley railway station, two years ago, I stumbled and spilt some of the contents of my handbag — a few medicines, a railway ticket, pens, an eyeliner pencil. A 22-year-old helped me pick everything up. He later got into conversation with me.
He addressed me as didi and spoke in the purest Hindi, though he had never been to school.
"What do you do?" he asked me.
"I write," I said.
He seemed satisfied.
"You like it?"
"Yes, very much."
You get money for it?"
"No, not much. I do other things for that."
He had obviously sized up my class. He said, "But you don't have to support a family."
"That's true. You? What do you do?"
"Cleaner in a transporter's office. That is what I am known as."
Both of us smiled.
"You like it?" I asked him.
"I have to support my family. But I am learning to be a cobbler." His face lit up. "I am learning everything - measuring cutting, sewing, glueing."
He looked blissful now. "I can almost make shoes on my own now. I will have my own business one day. People think I am a cleaner. But actually I am a cobbler already. When I start my own business, everyone will know. My neighbours, my relatives, friends - everyone."
He was silent for a while. Then he looked directly at me and said, "This job is just a job. That will be mine. Aaazadi to aazaadi hai na, didi?"
I nodded. I could understand.
Independence Day Parades, Republic Day speeches, school functions and special newspaper issues apart, I hope, on the behalf of all The Unlabelled Ones - writers, cobblers and all, that people never forget in real life, everyday, that aazaadi to aazaadi hai.
Freedom is freedom. From labels, from
constraints, from boundaries.