One month ago, on the dark, cold, wintry morning of 8th November, I reached Tehran. It's been three weeks since I returned to India, but even today, when I'm in the middle of something else, my mind flashes images of my trip to Iran.

Like the green cotton stole I used as a hijab to cover my head.

Those few days after returning to India when my hand would automatically reach the back of my head to pull my sliding hijab back up.

Walking around the bus stop in Yazd, wondering what to eat or drink: more sweet cake, more sweet tea, more sweet biscuits? More mandarin oranges, or chips?

The dread with which I'd wake up in the middle of the night to pee - because the toilets were almost always located outside the room, in the courtyard, and peeing meant walking in the freezing weather.

The smell of gas when the room heater was on. Room heaters were heated using LPG or CNG, I don't know which.

The many plates of brinjal-tomato gravy that I ate. The saffron rice with the packet of butter on it. The huge, cold, hard-to-tear naan that everyone eating together shared.

The way it feels natural to me to wrap my head with a scarf even in New Delhi to protect it against the cold.

The taste of black tea, which transports back to the many living rooms we were heartily welcomed into for many cups of chai.

How I didn't feel like I was missing anything being out of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for 13 days.

Resisting the impulse to shake the hand of Iranian men when introduced to; most don't do it, some do it when there are no other women around them.

The random German-Iranian stranger to talk with whom I was trying to get my rusty German back into use.

More on Iran soon, I hope, but this was a taste of what the 12 days felt like.

  • For how suddenly winter set in in Delhi. The smog, the chills, the fans being switched off. 
  • For the awkward coexistence of high-pitched excitement about Iran and the sense that it's still distant (although it's not!)
  • For being 30 for a month (and it doesn't feel any different) 
  • For discovering that the Mt. Fuji puzzle that I'd thought had gone for recycling with newspapers was, in fact, safe at home - enough to make me jump with joy 
  • For some promises that I will get to do something new that I'd been waiting for, at work  

After reading a tweet from @_curses mentioning Tu Bin Bataye, I suddenly craved to listen to Rang De Basanti. Searched on iTunes, wondering if I'd saved the songs on my system - they were on a CD that I'd bought at Landmark - my first with my own money from a research stipend or something. I dumped the CDs (Rang De Basanti, Yuvraaj and many others) last year after holding on to them for years, moving house to house - there is something dear to cassettes and CDs that mp3s just don't give. Anyway, the songs weren't on my system, but Apple Music, which I'd signed up for last week, was happy to give me the album.

For a moment, I was disoriented, gaping at the entire album that had loaded on iTunes. Where was this playing from? Were they streaming? In those few disoriented moments, my mind quickly played in a flash the ways I'd listened to music throughout my life so far. Cassettes, AIR, CDs, mp3, FM, iPod and all rests in the ethereal air around, ready to be plucked and played at a moment's notice.

My mind played this scene etched in my memories: of sitting at the table having breakfast, as All India Radio announced 8 o' clock playing a clip from Raaku Mutthu Raaku, the lead-in music to 'Priya Vision-in Priyamaana Neram'. That meant I was running late, and I'd gulp down breakfast faster.

But AIR has more bad memories in my mind than good. It reminds me of the horrible-sounding kutcheris that would play - records from the 60s or older that would be played on a dry, still afternoon, that my family would insist on listening even as the violin screeched and the singer sang terribly at octaves the human ear cannot hear. They would make me want to burst into tears, all the more because I was learning vocal Carnatic music that days from a teacher who was eroding my confidence weekend after weekend even though I was a fairly good singer. Those horrid kutcheris would remind me of the agony that was to come with the upcoming music class.

Appa would buy, on the day of release, cassettes of AR Rahman movies. Only Rahman movies had the privilege, as other songs would usually be recorded by some music shop guy as a mix tape with other songs. My sister and I would pore over the cover, for they would contain clues of the movie, and read the names of every singer and instrumentalist. Those were the days when I knew who had sung every song Rahman had ever composed. Swapna Awasthi in Chaiyya Chaiyya, but Rehaanaa for Thaiyya Thaiyya. Minmini, Malgudi Subha and Sujatha in the early years of Rahman. These days, I don't know most singers. The cassettes would sometimes have the bonus tiny, folded booklet with the lyrics. My speed of reading Tamil as a child surprises me today, when I increasingly struggle to speak it coherently. It used to take me all of two or three days to know all the lyrics by heart.

Soon, cassettes were replaced by CDs, and within a year or so, with mp3 collections. Some guy would religiously compile songs from 20 odd recent movies, which Appa would bring home. P!racy only :( I took these compilations with me to Singapore, and would know exactly which CD contained songs from any particular movie. These CDs also found their way out last year.

By the time I spent two years in Singapore, there was an explosion in the range of music I listened to, and these CDs could no longer help. I'd freely take songs from others who'd willingly shared their computers on the university LAN. Sometimes, I'd take an entire lot of songs from someone whose taste in music I thought aligned with mine, in the process discover more songs, and cementing my love for music from the 70s.

From when I reached Singapore in 2004, I'd look longingly at iPods that, it seemed, every Singaporean teenager/university student had. There was nothing I wanted more, but I had my financial constraints. I couldn't use Appa's money to buy myself an iPod when there were tuition and boarding fees to pay. Although by second year I'd started earning some dollars doing research, the money went into funding my flight tickets back home or to pay hostel fees. The iPod was a luxury and it had to wait.

I got my chance in my final year. After a six-month internship that paid a stipend, which I'd saved to pay some fees and flight tickets, I decided I could spare $250 for an iPod. On my birthday, with my closest friends around me, I ordered an iPod Nano on the Apple website, as they cheered. It came through five days later, on Oct 9, 2007, and my thrill knew no bounds. The iPod was my own, engraved with 'Life at its resplendent best!'. It was my loyal companion through my everydays at work, during my post-graduation and the difficult pre-wedding months in Delhi. 4 GB seemed less but I used it day in and day out. I lost it in 2014 along with my purse, which was grabbed by two men when I was in an auto. That night, before I went to bed, tears streamed down my cheeks; not for the money or phone I lost, but for losing my beloved musical companion of seven years. Until last year, if I ever saw an old-generation silver iPod Nano, I would quietly take it and turn it to see if it had my engraving.

Today, I have an iPod Nano that's got a touch-screen and no click wheel. There's a phone with Apple Music that plays songs I know and helps me discover stuff from genres I like, and I buy music from iTunes. The radio is relegated to Uber rides, and I don't have a cassette even for nostalgia's sakes. I'm really curious to know what's next in my journey of listening to music. 
Out of sheer nostalgia, I played 'Poovukkul Olinthirukkum' from Jeans on YouTube while having dinner. I nearly choked on the dry roti when I realised I remembered every step, every outfit, every change of scene in the song. And then went on to 'Hai Ra Hai Rabba'. Repeat. By the time I came to 'Anbe Anbe Kollathey', I knew I wouldn't be surprised. Of course I remembered it all - her clothes, the colours, the steps, the way Prashanth bloody lip-syncs along.

It was hilarious... and embarrassing. How was it that I had so much time on my hands - and why was my memory working overtime as a child?! Yes, I was going through a phase of Ash-crazy and Shankar made her look gorgeous in the songs (thankfully compensating for the ridiculous clothes she wore in her regular scenes)... but this was just unreasonable.

I went through a series of Shankar's movie songs, and realised that until Mudhalvan I could broadly remember all. Watching 'Akkada' from Indian, then my 'favourite' song (for two months probably!) i realised Urmila was hot. And I liked her even then, compared to the boring beauty that Manisha Koirala was in the movie. I remembered this scene in which Manisha draws a blue 'plus' on her palm, to indicate she's a Blue Cross member; it's the scene where this little bit from 'Maya Machindra' plays as background score, a tune that I love. As for Kadhalan, I remember when Sun TV played the video of 'Ennavale' all the way until the end of the first stanza, and I ran up to my sister and boasted that I got to see it first, not she.

By the time Boys released, class 12 had taken over, and while I can still dutifully sing the songs with all the correct lyrics even if you wake me up from deep sleep, the steps in the songs aren't etched in my mind. And ever since, it's been downhill. I recollected songs from recent movies that I really enjoyed - a few after 2004 but practically nothing after 2008, and I barely remember the lyrics, much less the scenes, steps, or the clothes.

Song videos mean nothing these days, and the fact that they are readily available makes them so... uninteresting. I can't think of a new song, even from a Mani Ratnam movie, that I would run out of my room to watch, like I did as a teenager, for Pacchai Nirame or Chaiyya Chaiyya or Yaro Yarodi. Funnily enough, despite them being on YouTube, it would be all malarum-ninaivugal for me if I caught any of these songs online, than any of the newer ones. I do miss the role that fate, chance and probability had in my favourite song being played on TV. Despite watching a song a few times - and once (or twice!) on the cinema screen - I'd know enough to secretly dance to them as a kid (for I was a bad dancer).

Sadly, this seems to be the theme for life. I derive hardly any excitement from a Rahman release (have barely listened to Mohenjo Daro tracks and heard not one song from 24 or 'I'). I do long for those times when these simple things could make me want to go on long walks and forget silly troubles like assignments and project teammates. 

 During my university years, someone said “Beauty X brains is a constant.” That is, you (a woman) can’t be both exceedingly beautiful and super intelligent.

While we can get into discussions on what these two terms mean, I can tell the person who made this statement that beauty – at least in the sense of dressing up – requires intelligence. A LOT of it.

Having spent the last twenty minutes of my time trying to force a stud into one of my ear piercings (only to realize I was turning the screw in the opposite direction), I can say with certainty that my beauty-related intelligence is not quite as much as I’d like it to be.

I’ll unabashedly state that I like dressing up. That applies mostly for clothes, sometimes with a minimalist accessory. In my mind, my dressing style is understated, with lots of blacks, but with a dash of hippie, with some floral and bold block prints.

Where I fail is I have less patience. If enough time went into figuring out the best clothes for the occasion, I can’t bring myself to wear the best accessories, shoes, get my hair pretty, wear light makeup, etc. My attention span lasts only for one part of the dressing up – sometimes I force fit that necklace (because I feel like it, not because it flatters the dress), and other times I struggle in wedge shoes because I saw it gathering dust in the shoe rack and felt pangs of guilt.

It’s alright if I were at peace with this. The problem is I sway between frustration at my lack of patience and pride at my ability to not fall into the societal “trap” of “looking good.” This ambivalence is most manifest when I look back at my wedding pictures and feel that I could have looked so much better if I had taken the pains to follow up with the tailor, picked better accessories, and not been afraid to tell the makeup artist that I didn’t like what she was doing to my face.

Which is why I think it takes brains to be good looking, defined purely as what makes you happy – either by societal standards or your own. It needs confidence, an understanding of market trends (if you like going by what’s in), a sense of colour combinations and most importantly, the ability to see into the future – whether this is the best design in which to tailor the fabric and whether this lip colour would look okay given the colour of my skin.

On the other hand, it needs intelligence to show the finger to conventional or trendy ideas of beauty. It takes courage and brains to simply do what you want and feel good in your own skin, the clothes you like and the colours you want on your face and hair.

So while I struggle to figure out which side I’m on (and whether I do need to take sides at all), here’s to the wonderful, intelligent women who have figured out the equation either ways. And to the guy who proudly explained the “beauty x brains” equation, may you please learn the lesson soon. 

This morning, I woke up convinced that I was going on a much-awaited trip... until I realized that it was a dream and my much-awaited trip was cancelled last week due to the Jat agitations and road/railway blocks. For a few disoriented moments, I sat up on the bed staring at the bag I had packed for this trip (that I still haven't had the heart to unpack). This would have been my second solo trip, and the month of February has gone by without me stepping out of Delhi/NCR (blasphemy, in the mind of an unemployed person who likes to travel). 

My mother has always been amused (I think) with my interest in going out of town this often. Now that I'm married, she asks 'ippovaanu oorsutthardha nirutthen!' (why don't you stop loafing around/travelling at least now?) I don't know what marriage has to do with travelling, but my parents are to be complimented for instilling in me the confidence to be out (often by myself) and take public transport (and by extension, I took it to exploring). 

When in school, I took the public bus back home, and the walk from the school to the bus stop is something I will always remember fondly. Together with a bunch of close friends - all girls, or sometimes alone, the walk was always full of nonsense, laughter and thoughts. On the way was a beautiful cemetery - lush with greenery and beautiful white stone angels - that I wanted to enter, but never managed to, in the seven years I walked that route. I only stopped taking the bus a couple of months before I finished class 12, when two boys from a college nearby stalked my friend and me for days together. I wish I could tell 17-year-old me to confront them.  

Singapore was a blessing to the loner that I sometimes become. In my college campus, and later the areas where I lived, I would often walk alone, mostly with the iPod and ice cream, turning over thoughts (and sometimes story ideas) in my head. I only need to close my eyes, and images of the long lonely stretches, clean pavements with an odd pedestrian or cyclist, and the orange lighting in the road, fill my head with nostalgia.

Of course, unfortunately, such worry-free walking is not always possible on Indian streets. The few times I’ve tried it in Delhi at night, I’ve been annoyed with the idea of being ready to dial a number at short notice and tired of constantly looking back or slowing down to let a ‘suspicious’ person or car pass before I walk again. That doesn’t stop me from trying, though – I deserve my right to solitude and public spaces as anyone, and should be able to trust my gut instinct (and NOT be blamed if something, god forbid, goes wrong).

I truly owe it to my parents for trusting my senses and giving me the freedom to travel by public bus, walk or cycle alone during my school years. For not constantly harping on adult company or asking me to call as soon as I reached a friend’s home. For teaching me that it’s not beneath me to travel by public transport (as is the idea I get from many in Delhi), and for encouraging me to figure out maps, interchanges, ask for help and understand bus connections (something that becomes very useful in international trips!) Aided by this upbringing and the exploratory freedom that Singapore gave me, I casually roam around in Delhi without hesitation. I can take informed risks to access public spaces and tut-tut concerns of going to ‘shady’ places.

Perhaps my parents realise this too. Amma doesn’t chide me for going to look at monuments by myself. When I told her about my now-cancelled solo trip and she asked me questions on where I was going and when I’d be back, her voice didn’t betray even the tiniest bit of worry or anxiety. Nor did she once discourage me or ask why I had to go alone. It may be because she thinks I’m beyond redemption when it comes to travelling, but as I was talking to her, I swelled with pride. Amma truly trusts I can go by myself.

Managed my 'Pakkathaathu Ponnu' post-of-the-week on the last day of the week! I also wonder if  I should rethink the 500-word limit. I always seem to have a lot to say and cutting down on my typical way of writing doesn't seem fair. Let's see what next week brings! 

Yesterday, I chanced upon The Guilty Feminist podcasts, in which the first episode was on a ‘nu6ity challenge’ that the hosts took up, where they went in the nu#e someplace and posed for people to sketch or photograph.

As they talked about the discomfort they felt with their bodies while posing so (hence the ‘guilty’ feminist tag), I thought about my own experiences with the concept of nudi|y.

I’d say that the average Indian woman has a very confusing attitude towards being less clothed (forget naked). We’re asked to hurriedly throw on a dupatta when a guest (or any man!) unexpectedly visits home, and b!kin!s aren’t even in our typical line of sight. But in a few carefully selected environments we also let our guard down without much thought.

Take, for instance, the few Hindu temples that allow women to take a dip in holy waters. In the changing room, it’s a sudden show of camaraderie, with women not caring to cover up – it’s like they suddenly realized that all women all have b00bs and, well, fat! And then there are the female family members who, in a common changing room at home, spring their uncovered selves upon an unsuspecting you, while you wonder whether to look away, or pretend not to care because hey, what’s there to be shy – we’re all women here?

Having never really swung either ways, looking back, I went through my own rites of passage when it came to ‘exposing’ myself to a stranger.  

Massages were a great place to start. While I’ve never been a fan, the friend I often travelled with loved massages, so I ended up getting a few just to give her company. Once in, you have no choice but to give in as a bored masseuse holds up a towel and asks you to roll over so she can massage the other side (after the towel covers strategic body parts, of course!) Being someone who gets tickled oh-so-easily, I had to focus more on not laughing than on my uncovered body.  

The second burst of ‘growing up’ happened in a Turkish hamam. Lured by images of women sitting gracefully in towels, I went in, changed and emerged unclothed in nothing but a towel that I held on to for dear life. As the woman who would give me my luxurious bath got in, she yanked my towel away, and I stared in stunned silence. When she saw me cringe and try to cover up, she said ‘I old lady. 60 years old!’ I eventually came to terms with it, because that was the only way I could enjoy the luxurious soapy bath she was giving me while singing ‘Que Sera Sera’ and ‘Aawaara hoon’ (which she sang when she realized I was Indian).

But nothing made me more feel body positive than being in a Japanese public path. I’d escaped through two onsens, having had no one but me in the heated pool for a luxurious soak. In Kyoto, however, I went to a public bath, which meant there’d be many women using the facility. I entered the changing room gingerly, wondering how I’d handle it. But the second I entered, I lost my inhibitions. It was a glorious moment of enlightenment that I will always remember. Inside were women of all shapes, ages and sizes, with scant regard for body hair or fat – there was simply no space for shame – and through them came my lesson in respecting and enjoying my body, no matter its flaws. For all of 250 yen (125 rupees), I soaked in one pool after another thanks to two Japanese women who taught me the Japanese public bath regimen (cleansing shower --> hot pools --> mineral salts pool --> sauna --> cold water pool --> rinse).

All my experiences baring it all have been in front of women, so I have a long way to go before I can declare that I’m absolutely comfortable in my skin. Also, thanks to my genes, for now I have a body that doesn’t fall close to either ends of the body weight spectrum – so I recognize that socially I’m in line with the current ‘ideal’ body type, which makes my battle ridiculously easy. That doesn’t stop me from wishing my body would somehow fit the curves that clothes come in. But call it age (or maturity or pure ‘I don’t give a f*^k’), I’m increasingly comfortable about my body. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll muster the courage to wear a b!kin!.
For some background to what Pakkathaathu Ponnu means, see this.

Growing up, nothing quite infuriated me more than the words “aathula illa”, literally “she’s out”, an annoying euphemism for being on your period. My grandma would generously “warn” folks visiting us about my "condition", lest they unknowingly touch me, while I would be quietly seething with anger in a corner of the house.

In case you’re lucky enough to not know what I’m talking about, many families believe that menstruating women are to be kept separately so as to not “pollute” the place. At my place, we were made to sit, eat and sleep separately, not enter the kitchen or the puja room/space. Worse stories are of rooms that the woman walked through being cleaned with water, and just the thought of this makes me want to cry.

Needless to say, there used to be frequent arguments with my mother about this subject. She’d claim that these were days of rest from the household chores that she enjoyed. “These customs came about to give women this break, and also because it can be quite difficult to work through those days” (sure, so let’s have her sleep on a mat in a hut outside the house?) While rules were strict when my grandmother was around (we all lived together), I got a period “holiday” when my grandparents were traveling. My mother would let me eat at the table (yay!) and we’d generally be a little less fussy about the “no touching” rules.

Through my years at home, I made many little transgressions. Like not “revealing” the period on one new year’s day because I didn’t want to start the year with that idea. That day, as I marched to the temple with the family, I quietly wondered if I would be punished somehow. God, I hoped, please don’t take this out on my 10th standard results!

It wasn't always this clear-cut, though. I remember I burst into tears when I got my period a day before my birthday, because that evening, I was due to collect awards for class 10 performance (turns out God didn't mess around with the results!)

The day I left for Singapore for the first time, I got my period, but nothing was going to stop me on the most important day of my life so far! I told Amma, we arrived at a secret understanding to not mention it, and I hugged and shook hands with all the relatives who’d come to see me off. Of course I also didn’t mention it to the relatives who met me in Singapore and took me around (to a temple, again!), and this time I went in with a little more confidence. I still remember the way I ruffled all the clothes in my cupboard, only because I could rightfully touch them!  

Now, the period hardly matters for anything except the pain that comes with it and the PMS that announces its arrival. Whenever I visit home, Amma is also so chilled out that she hardly bothers when I tell her I’m on my period. I remember the wry smile she had on her face when I told her that I went to the temple with the friend who was visiting, because I couldn’t see a reason as to why he should know I’m on my period and hence “may not” visit a temple. For the first time in my life I swallowed period delaying tablets last year to participate in a family ritual (and the only reason I did it was because I found the idea of sitting outside while the rituals happened inside humiliating), and I swore after that I would never ever take those again – unless it’s for some much-awaited trip that involves water-related fun!

Very much aathulaiye iruppen, thank you.

(This post crosses my self-imposed word limit of 500, but like we'd argue with our English teachers, word limits come with a flexibility of an extra 100 words)