The Slow Survival

It’s lockdown 5.t(w)o eternity in my city.

And I wake up this morning to empty roads and the sound of birds once again.

Honestly, I’m in love with this overpowering silence,

The emptiness in the air 

That fills your chest every time you breathe in and exhale to stay sane.

So much of what’s happening demands us to be present.

To be more human than ever.

To stay calm, a skill only a few have been able to master in a normally chaotic world.

To be more patient, “Patient”, they say, “is not about how long you can wait but how well you behave while you’re waiting.” 

To just survive, kissing goodbye to the liberties of a material world.

Me, I have always yearned to be in a world of ‘slow living’,

But never would have asked for a global pandemic to set the stage.

If the joy of living was an endless list

Then, these are things I live for:

For the Youtube comments by strangers who talk about their ex-lovers and demised friends who were reminded every time they heard the song.

For the reviews of a book, I once read on a sweet summer afternoon that turned into a painful day as I grieved for the lovers who couldn’t make it 

I live for the days when I’m reminded of that summer noon out of the blue, because of a music video from the movie adaptation of a book

For the way Sufjan Steven’s ethereal voice tugs at my heartstrings and how unsettling it leaves me, mid-way through the song

The post-lunch conversations about favorite childhood books at work

For the story of my classmate who once picked up a book purely for its title knowing nothing about it and ended up discovering the best books of his life because of his subversive bookshop ritual.

For the live sessions of a music recording on Youtube – when all the artists are collectively consumed in performing just one task – making a song out of scratch.

To see the spark in my boss’s eyes when all the right words come together to form the perfect campaign tagline in his head.

Turning back in the theatre to catch people’s reactions to my favorite scene in a movie I already watched.

For these and moments when I’m reminded of what it means to be alive.

LOVE & LOCKDOWN

And finding new ways to keep the romance and hope alive.

Certainly, the luxuries of romantic relationships have been disabled as is the daily workings of the world, but there’s something innately comforting about finding new ways to keep it all alive through cute alternatives. Be it teaching each other how to grow microgreens with just tissues and soaked grams from the kitchen or just hosting weekly virtual dinner dates and dressing up till the waist to converse over food, getting creative is the only way ahead. Not being able to see each other in person doesn’t have to mean that the romance is paused like the rest of the world. When the whole world rests, love flourishes in ways it didn’t know it could. 

It’s been over a month and every night, the helplessness of not being able to hold, touch, and kiss prevails like a dark cloud that grows in size with raindrops of yearnings. But carnal needs aside, the ever-growing intimacy finds its way around the nooks and corners of the physical limitations. It’s like navigating a labyrinth without holding hands but together in spirit through every daily interaction. There is a huge hollow in the chest that swells up after every online conversation but there’s also an ever-present collective hope that helps two souls get through these unforeseen days.

Every conversation sways between reminiscing about the past that was taken for granted and making wild plans for the most-awaited future post lockdown. At the same time, there is a lot of silence in between these nostalgic talks and promises to build a future together. A gloomy silence that sometimes (or most times) overshadows the hope in our voices. A silence that we accept and even welcome on some days as we get comfortable with it in our skin. 

We fight battles in our heads and mask the pain as we try to smile on the screen. Battles that we know everybody else is fighting with themselves as they wake up every day. But there is also the immense gratitude for this comfort, gratitude for being able to stay in touch although not physically and literally. Gratitude. The only thing that keeps us going on some days. 

Of course, it’s unfair. No one asked for this obligatory house arrest we have imposed on ourselves, but in a way, we also acknowledge that somewhere we have been responsible for this in our own past lives. We have lived ignorantly without being accountable for our selfish acts and we are collectively paying the price every day. 

I go through my days, framing sentences to tell my lover what I did, thought, and made each day in my home. I’d call him and end up not telling everything as planned but it’s okay because the best moments don’t go by the script but are improvised on spot. So we improvise every day and make it a conversation to remember filled with inside jokes and sweet arguments. 

From living the shared experiences pre-quarantine to #sharing each others’ experiences, we’ve evolved ourselves in the face of this crisis. Be it watching each other’s favorite movies or reading out excerpts from the book I’m reading currently or just showing off each other’s culinary skills, the conversation is still alive and somehow we never run out of things to talk about. 

I’ve learned to recognize the minute difference in the pitch of my boyfriend’s voice when he’s upset. The first ‘hello’ can tell how his mood has been all day and that’s a skill I’ve been honing through these days – to learn to sense his mood beyond the screens. I know he’s had a ball of a time when he spams my phone with videos screaming out to me with irreplaceable joy, so much so that I’d starting questioning the relationship. 

At the beginning of the call, he’d start wistfully and by the end of it somehow he’d end up laughing till his stomach hurts. And he’d tell me, he’s smiling for the first time that day.

Melancholy is now a frequent visitor and we have learnt to show her the door when she’s overstayed her welcome. Being isolated has taught us to stay with our thoughts a little longer.

Still, on some days, I’d whine about my problems and he’d listen patiently till the end. Because, sometimes, all we need is a pair of ears from a compassionate lover with whom we could be vulnerable. In the end, isn’t that the only road to intimacy?

 

To new beginnings!

Waking up to a day where you will finally get to work in the place you love is a different feeling but not just one but two cab drivers fucking up their only job on your way is altogether another state of mind. Especially when u pay 10X the travel expense just cause you wanna show up fresh at least on the first day. Now that my dear readers have gotten a glance of my Monday morning state of mind, I’d like to pacify your pity for my bad luck by telling you guys how I was over-estimating my office management which was pretty chill. Sorry, not over ‘under-estimating’. So there was no security or HR who went, “Late on first day itself uh?” as I entered the office. I was asked to sit in the office and wait until my creative director showed up. So I scroll aimlessly while stealing glances of my to-be workmates or the ‘second’ family.  And I see two pretty girls. Back to aimless Instagram scrolling.

And then something nice that would possibly boost my Monday blues happens. So I’ll explain first. Not explain, paint a picture. I’m seated near the glass wall that’s a part of the creative director’s room. And there’s this tall table next to the glass wall, next to which I’m seated in a high chair. So from my shoulder up, I’m visible to everyone in the lobby. So I’m bending forward scrolling into my phone and I lift up suddenly and out of nowhere this handsome guy… Handsome is an understatement. So this guy who reminds me of my music teacher who used to be the most attractive guy in my life, he walks into the lobby whom *wait for it* I catch staring at me like real curious. And I turn my head acting like this is an everyday thing that happens to me. Handsome guys getting wooed by Sherin’s Stardust. ALL THE TIME! And then the time passed by pretty easily.

And in comes my creative director, and he calls me to the lobby to meet everybody probably to introduce me and of all the stupid things I could do I carried my bag like a school kid and as he was about to introduce me after another new joinee, he turns and makes this embarrassed remark saying to himself, “Ooh! You carried your bag!” Unimportant events. Then comes the biggest embarrassment on my very first day when my creative Director gives this whole introduction about me telling about my Gulf stay which was unrequired and seemed to me like I was boasting cause people just think you are cool when you say the word “abroad”. And after that unsolicited but rather cool intro, he reaches the part where he has to utter my name and he just gets stuck. Wow! That’s my first confrontation with my creative director’s cool memory power and a whole bunch of creative crowd just staring at me and laughing because of somebody else’s fault. I, out of embarrassment, just shouted Sherin! In a voice that was not even mine. See, that’s what social anxiety does to you. It gives you funny powers. Anyway, looks like he really wasn’t stuck but rather thinking if it was Sherin or Shruthi or Stani that comes first. Pretty reasonable, I thought. “S cube” goes a chirpy guy in the bunch and that’s not the first time I hear that algebraic reference for my name. Anyway, thank you Dad for making my name a conversation starter. Little would have my dad known when he did it. *Silently sobs about the past daddy’s girl days of mine*

You know how when you see a familiar face in the unlikeliest of places makes you feel warm and welcome. That’s how it felt when I met this girl in my office who was my senior at college. And what’s more, she offers you homemade chocolate cake on the first day. The day when you intentionally forget to pack snacks out of embarrassment and doubt. And then remember that chirpy guy? He was the best. People like him are really treasure. I could go on and on but that’s pretty much it. Apart from the endless questions I got asked questions like, “Are you always this quiet?”. “Do you drink?”, “Do you smoke?” – No, she doesn’t look like she does. “Are you Jenifer’s sister (ex-employee) cause you look exactly like her” and “Are you a foodie?”- Hell yeah! Who isn’t? Food is love.

The Secret Guide to Chennai’s Street Food

When you hear street food’, you probably are drooling over Pani Puris or Bondas from hole-in-the-wall shops in your mind. But here’s an infamous street food, widely known in North Chennai and to a selected few souls in South Chennai. It’s a food that reflects the history of the Tamil people and one that has developed a cult following of its own.

Not everybody likes Atho the first time they try it, like a new A.R. Rahman song.

The first time you listen to the song, it sounds like complete chaos. But you take another chance and eventually find yourself coming back for more. You can’t stop yourself and before you know it, you are already addicted. So, don’t be disappointed if the Burmese cuisine doesn’t please you. You need to experience it twice to confirm and find yourself coming to the Atho shop every other day.

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The savoury dish called Atho is authentic to the streets of Chennai and can be found nowhere else. Still, the people in Chennai aren’t acquainted with Atho well enough to guide you to the nearest Atho shop. But you know an Atho shop when you see it:

Look for the large round pan filled with the thick, yellow or orange-coloured noodles with the vendor scrambling the eggs right in the middle of the same pan, either in a pushcart or a hole-in-the-wall shop. The guy, tanned from the high-flaming stove, is seen serving the egg noodles in bowls while pouring the soup from a huge vessel unto the half-eaten bowls of noodles at the same time. This tiny stall is surrounded by a bunch of customers who don’t seem to mind the heat or the limited space despite having had a tired day at work, most of whom are vegans.

At Parry’s corner, you will find these Atho shops crowded with lawyers still wearing their coats gulping down what looks like stuffed boiled eggs. Voila, you are here!

Welcome to the infamous Atho shop! You are welcome, Google Maps.

Now, let’s dissect the food in the shop.

  1. The Atho

The thick noodles cooked just right is tossed with shredded cabbage, onions, tamarind water, chilli flakes, chickpea flour for the thickness and a generous amount of garlic oil in a large bowl. This hand-mixed goodness is topped with crumbled Bejo or rice fritters to add crunchiness to the soft noodles.

Take a spoonful of the scrumptious Atho and the diversity of the ingredients are sure going to stimulate your senses making you deeply bewildered. You can’t wrap your head around it to decide if it’s the tanginess of the tamarind water or the crunchiness of the Bejo that compliments the soft noodles.

You find yourself eating the Atho from a bowl. Which the Burmese and the Chennaites consider a perfectly reasonable thing to do at 7 pm on a weekday and frankly you cannot agree with them more. But remember to eat it with your heart and mouth, not your head.

  1. Plantain soup

In a world where the banana stem is slowly disappearing with its health benefits, the banana stem soup is mandatory in every Atho shop. The soup is served in the end unlike conventional practise and is a major part of the meal. It complements the Atho and gives you a whole new gastronomical experience.

Ask for the soup only after you have tasted a spoonful of Atho in its purest form. Atho with the soup brings about a whole different taste. Don’t shy away if you run out of it in the bowl ‘cause the soup is unlimited! Normally, the plantain soup is had in a large quantity towards the end and can also be consumed separately.

  1. Mutta Masala

Its nothing but boiled egg slit in the middle and stuffed with fried onions, chilli flakes, a tiny amount of the sweet and sour tamarind water and garlic oil poured on top for the final touch just before it is served. The vendor pours the garlic oil enough to get your hands oily and slightly dripping from your lips as you gulp it down. Just like how you gulp down a Pani-Puri but tastes nothing like it.

This is definitely not a dish for the faint-hearted as it demands the complete dexterity of your hands and working of your jaw muscles to truly enjoy it in one gulp.

Don’t wait for another second. Hold it a little longer and watch your Mutta masala crumble and fall from your hands and die a slow death on the floor. You really don’t want to offend the true Atho connoisseur eating somewhere in the corner. There’s at least one of them in every shop who spent all his day dreaming about Atho at work or during the boring lecture.  Straight from hand to mouth after the vendor hands it down to you as if it were some precious property.

As your mouth takes the shape of the egg trying to accommodate it and consume at the same time, all your taste buds are awakened. Each taste is defined making all your taste buds busy in one go. It’s not just a mind but a mouth-blowing food, quite literally.

The Not-So-Boring-but-Inspiring History

Unlike other street foods, Atho represents the Indo-Burma relations, the war and the survival of the Burmese refugees. This is a food that reminds you of the freedom struggle of the people who travelled all the way from Burma to Chennai on their foot. These immigrants settled in places the government allocated for them in Chennai after which they started working to support themselves.

A typical day in the lives of these daily-wage earners begins with a simple breakfast. Lunch is skipped and instead, Atho is the early dinner to their tired and hungry minds. It might be your budget bite but for them, it is an economical second meal for their tired bodies.

The idea was simple. When the Burmese Tamil refugees settled down in the parts of Chennai, they opened these Atho shops to feed their community; especially the daily-wage earners who were too tired to cook on their own.

Now their own descendants are catering to hundreds of customers each day in every corner of North Chennai and selective parts of South Chennai. As time passed, the city-dwellers tasted this everyday dish of theirs and today, Atho is a food that brings these people together uniting everybody.

Just like how Burma rebranded its name to Myanmar, the Atho also has rebranded it’s recipe across generations to accustom to the needs of the people. The Atho you taste today is the recipe passed down across generations tailored to the taste of the growing populace.

It’s not just a mere street food but a food that stayed despite the course of time.

This soulful food is found in every corner of North Chennai, especially in the famous Burma Bazaar. It’s found in selective places of South Chennai like Choolaimedu where the vendor, a Burmese descendant, comes all the way from Ennore to serve the young crowd.

As you eat this Burmese street food as a traveller in Chennai, remind yourself that this food is a tribute to the history of Chennai welcoming the refugees with open arms, the same way it welcomed you.

It is a food that fills your stomach and heart at the same time reflecting the hardships of the survivors who brought the food all the way from Burma. Atho is not your average crowd-favourite or people-pleaser dish! It’s food for the soul.

 

A pedestrian’s guide to anxiety-free monsoon.

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I have always dreaded the rainwater on the streets, especially the muddy ones. I’d rather risk my road safety and walk in the middle of the road rather than walking near the water that’s logged in the street corners. Why even give me 1000 bucks and I would still not walk closer. I’ll go any length to avoid it at all costs but being born poor has only a few privileges. (If you ask what’s my take on Suhana Khan being on Vogue’s cover page: no comments).
As already mentioned, I have always dreaded monsoon for this one reason that I’ve actually made a few notable insights on how to save yourself from getting infected or stop cringing by unknowingly placing your feet on the huge puddle of drainage water. Here goes:

1) Say goodbye to your Flip-Flops if you spot a rain cloud.

I know how easy it is to wear your flip-flops when you are running late on a rainy day. For students and office employees, it’s a relief from wearing a formal shoe. And it makes cleaning your feet easier if in case you accidentally step into a puddle, right? GASP! It took me a whole monsoon season of coming to college with mud-spotted pants to learn this wardrobe malfunction! I can hear all the “I know, right” from the ones who have had familiar experiences. But if you still don’t get it, you are probably: a) Too cool to care with your privileged ass b) already a dirty piece of shit in which case you should probably stop reading this.

Now, let me break it down for you privileged asses, who might get a lucky chance to walk on muddy streets in the future. If you wear long pants, or even worse sorts or skirts, with a slipper, chances are the mud gets lifted from the ground every time you lift your feet landing on your calves. Yea. That’s right! The 711 Levi’s jeans you never washed, might get these classy mud spots on them. You really wouldn’t want your Zara statement pants, to be even more of a statement, receiving all the attention you don’t want. If it’s white bottoms, then God save you!

You really wouldn’t want your Zara statement pants, to be even more of a statement, receiving all the attention you don’t want.

Well, you can avoid this: 1) Go for a sneaker or crocs instead 2) Let the flip-flops hibernate during monsoon.

2) Don’t walk too close to people

Yea that’s right. You read it right, my dear. I’m proclaiming this from personal experience and when I say personal experience, you better listen. Remember how I dread the muddy waters? Imagine me, such a person, getting splashed by muddy waters right on my face and glasses. (Yea, I wear glasses and no, not by choice!). Imagine all that rat poop and drainage water mixed water droplets on my face on a Friday morning on the way to work. And what’s worse, you can’t scold the person who caused it because chances are he might be too poor to care or would probably laugh at you, which would only make your day worse.

I went home that day and washed my face God knows how many times.

Yeah, the moment I had the worst rain experience of my life, I decided that I’ll always keep an arm’s length of distance and never walk too close to another pedestrian or passenger while boarding a vehicle. I went home that day and washed my face God knows how many times. What I do remember clearly is how helpless I was not being able to shout at anyone.

3) Repeat the above advice while walking near vehicles.

I can hear a lot of you going, ‘yea’. A moment of silence for all those souls who got puddle-soaked on the road. And if you are the one who caused the splash; rot in hell! In England, it’s a public order offense to splash water on pedestrians while driving. What else? You can report to the police and lodge a complaint against the rich snobby driver with the Audi who made you look like Vadivelu from Chandramukhi. Another moment of silence for Indian pedestrians. Why they even have a Pedestrian Liberation Society and Movement in England. How fancy, huh?

Sadly, we Indians are doomed to be ill-treated while walking cause why walk and save money when you can pay a car EMI, collect debts like trophies and show-off, right? Cause let’s be honest, what’s the most you can do when the speeding car that just splashed all the water passes by? You can swear at the top of your voice and that’s it. There’s no other incident that can make me feel less significant and inferior than getting splashed by a BMW.

But happiness is a choice and so is not getting soaked by the dirty water.

When I walk near puddles, the amount of focus and mindfulness is so enormous that I can be the next Elon Musk, if only all that energy was used on space rockets. I calculate every step I take further near a puddle and get saved. I lost faith in motorists and drivers being considerate of the people on the road. So much that even if every motorist or driver gave me a ride home, they wouldn’t restore even a mustard seed of faith in me. I’d still freeze and run back if I spot an approaching vehicle near the puddle. And by puddles, I mean puddles of all sizes and depths. Yeah, cause I don’t wanna spend the rest of my life cleaning my white chucks which I happen to wear on a wrong day.

And thank God for my Levis pants and Converse chucks that survived through 3 monsoons.

As far as the bad monsoon experiences I’ve gone through during my stint in India, this is all I can re-count for now. And thank God for my Levis pants and Converse chucks that survived through 3 monsoons, but R.I.P. to all those bellies aka cut shoes that have been ruined on the streets but still somehow brought my feet safely till home.

In case, you want to add up to the shitty monsoon experiences and lessons learnt, share your story. Because no human is entitled to live with pain in secret. Go on, share your story like Nanette did!

 

The Scandal of the Gendered Dictionary

The first girl I called Bitch (straight to the face) got so offended that she brought her fist to my face out of infuriation.

Bitch, please! The word Bitch doesn’t even have an *offensive* label in the dictionary, making it like any other boring word like bag or ball unlike the word ‘nigger’.

Bitch means: 1) Female dog;

2) Lewd or immoral woman

3) Malicious, domineering or overbearing woman.

Used both as a noun and a verb.

Bitch is used to mention a girl who doesn’t conform to the societal norms.

To a girl who is ‘considered’ by others to be bad.

Or, to your closest friend!

A word that can be so offensive or be innocuous to friendly!

It’s likely that you knew all the above information about the word. But not this:

It was used, years ago, to refer to the same kind of personality of MEN too! But never saw the light of the dictionary. Cause men, duh! Cause men in the lexicon department thought it wasn’t a VALID use of bitch when the word addressed to men. Cause even the dictionary was supposed to protect the sanity of men.

“If you can’t trust your bartender, you can’t trust anybody.”

I say, if you can’t trust your lexicographer then, you can trust the language!

Everybody is a bitch.