I spent 500 days in Jaipur contemplating my navel! Cooking, cleaning, resting, wearing pretty silk kurthas, reading, writing, hoping, and trying to learn patience. I did two blazing hot summers where it realistically gets to forty seven degrees on a daily, rather than a rare occurrence. And am now embarking on Winter number two that gets so cold, my toes go numb!
I made not one single friend, which may be a record! I saw most of the sights, spent three afternoons with visiting friends that was a joy, and of course there were the extra couple of days from the crazy visitor we had to ask to leave. I did go to and attend lots of lovely parties where no-one spoke English, some of them were actually in my house! I did meet some lovely people, and they have all been lovely to me. I still laugh, two of Anil’s dear friends, have finally managed to break the habit of calling me Madam, and can at last, say, hi Jojo.
500 days without a single friend to meet for a coffee, or a walk is madness when I think that the most stark of meditation retreats only lasts for ten or twelve days. I sat at a little table somewhere, with my sketch book, and phone, and sometimes had wifi, and sometimes did not. I must have gone to “Beaneries” more than one hundred times, to sit and wait whilst the boys played pool.
During the extreme hot weather, it was hard to actually think, let alone put all, or any of my good intentions into action. I did not make it to yoga classes, or join the public swimming club, and I did not do circuit walking in Central Park. By night, when the mercury started to drop, those are not the things that you can do, here, or anywhere really, with the exception of walking Pradakshina around Arunanchala which can and does happen literally throughout the night.
To mark the first 100 days, I wrote a list of all the things I was pissed off to have not seen, and slowly we worked through the list, and saw mirror-halled palaces, and forts, and visited museums, gardens, and garden centres. It all started so innocently, we bought four or five teeny tiny plants for our sun-drenched terrace. So much happened next, we ended up learning about potting, pruning, watering, fertilisers, composts, turning soil, re-potting, and soon had two garden tools, a hose, and we were suddenly more serious about this than we could have imagined. By last August, we were already here for close to 400 days, and the garden took on a life of it’s own. My partner, had sketched, designed, measured and been contemplating for months how to design a garden room. In less than a day, fabrics were cut, sewn and delivered, and bamboo poles cut to size, polished and delivered, became an indoor-outdoor oasis.
I have been gifted this true soul medicine garden. Roses blooming, and jasmin trailing and frangipani pushing themselves towards the sun. Tomatoes are transforming from seeds to flowers, and eventually towards a teeny, unripe baby. It has been my world, it was my entire 2016.
I flew back from Sri Lanka at the start of 2016, and was stuck in fog on the runway at Jaipur airport, and the flight was supposed to go to Delhi where a taxi was waiting. It kind of sums up the chaos of this year, being in two worlds constantly at the same time, and mostly having not much way to know which is which. Eventually, a few passengers made a break out at Jaipur airport! And had to sign lots of paperwork, and then of course pay the cabs at Delhi who had their time delayed and ultimately cancelled. It was typical of the many confusions that the year would bring. We missed flights in Goa, and we seldom take expensive flights, but we lost our money. We took flights to Nepal for a visa run, to be turned away at the counter, because the rules for Indian travellers had changed, and at 8am we overpaid to get on a long, long, overland bus-ride.
There were many things in my life that I had going on in the background that worked well, and I had got used to a small, regular income, and could literally tell the time by the regularity of the tenants. That changed, and they wanted to leave early. They refused to honour the contractual marketing period of two months and that left me three months rental income down. They trashed the flat and it was left in a condition that actually was as close to squalor as the photos could convey. Filthy water stains on curtains, mould infested walls, and carpets, and every single appliance possible broken and in-need of repair. The tenant was one of those executive types, with an above 150,000 pound a year income and was a high ranking compliance officer in a multi-national company. Compliance officers, don’t they usually comply with terms and conditions? Oh my idealism was wearing thin. I was starting to see the truth was that a legal document would be used not to help me, but would be used aggressively to ensure that I would submit without redress to this mess. A fifteen hundred pound bill for repairs and damages, three months loss of rent, and a currency rate of exchange now 22% less than the last eight years in a post-Brexit adjustment.
Still, there was the garden. Stay focused. Forget spending money. Forget it all. Find a corner and sit quietly and read, and breathe and just keep going. That was the only thing, I knew to do.
There were so many other mini missions that could not be accomplished in 2016 that I lost count of my frustrations with reality. We spent five weeks in a guest house in Kerala waiting for a lawyer who kept saying tomorrow, when in fact he was on holiday, far away and really did not mean tomorrow at all. Then we tried to go back again, and finish the documentation, and came back empty handed but actually more hopeful that it would happen. The final bit of paperwork that we needed to be able to travel to Nepal, was applied for and we thought that would be a simple procedure and the documents would follow in the next three weeks. That was more than three months ago, and no, they have still not arrived.
There were lots of false starts for work opportunities. There were schools and colleges and universities that were eager and hungry to fill vacancies, but not actually offer contracts. Zero hours, and hourly rates that an auto-rickshaw driver would sneer at. The final creative collaboration of the year in true Rajasthan style was an incredible money-grabbing process. You do the work, and we take the money. It was tiny amounts, not worth fighting over, and yes, they presented us with a bill for two lime-sodas after 16 hours of two adults working, serving, and making something great happen. It may have been what I thought was the final straw, but you know, 2016 was not like that, it would not stop, just because I was laughing and saying Enough Already. It was just not that kind of year.
UK fell or was hurtled out of Europe. It was a close vote, and those that really wanted it to happen have been unbelievably harsh to those of us still saying, Sheesh, my entire identity has gone. I grew up with a British passport, and a British identity and was a European. It felt confusing to suddenly not be that after a whole life time. But, we were called, Liberal Fucktards, Communists, Snowflakes, and were just not given space to re-configure the who am I. That was harsh. I did have two eminent Indian intellectuals argue with me, no, wait, not argue or discuss, insist and dismiss that I was an idiotic woman who had NO clue what I was discussing and that Britain had never, ever joined the EU. That was one of the more lucid moments when I could see the crazy-making for what it is.
I have seen grown men, throw their heads back and laugh when they can see that they almost got the foreigner to cry. I have seen men in vests laughing and jeering at a woman three floors down in the street facing some personal confusion. I have seen so much this year, I have no idea how to archive my experiences. I have seen the global rise of nationalism play out, and I have seen it on a daily basis in my own very small domain. I have seen friends repeatedly point to me as ‘the foreigner” who is a dumbo who cannot ever understand Indian culture. I have seen myself be defeated a thousand times by a thousand strong community of facebook friends and family stand in opposition to anything I am about, anything I say, create or think, with the swift response that I am crazy, and that I simply do not understand.
I do actually. I do very much understand that there are differences in our cultural frameworks. And I very much understand there was a past and there is a now. I have seen legendary Indian woman shift their paradigm and welcome me right into the heart of family life and say to family and friends, She is here, I love her and you can all take a running jump off a short pier if you have a problem with this. I have seen leadership and total respect given and received far more times than I can count or write about. I have also had 500 days of enclosed, isolation to ponder on these cultural differences. I can only repeat, repeat and repeat again and again, that it never occurred to me in my entire life to see life though a feminist lens. I was the woman who loved to wear girly Nicole Farhi cocktail dresses and satin Mui Mui shoes. I was the one who kind of sold her soul to work in marketing and Business development and use every ounce of being a woman to earn my keep and pay my mortgage. I did not burn my bras and demand equality. I never even so much as expected it. I grew up with old fashioned values, that Boys would earn more than girls, that girls should get married, and men should take care of them. Well, some of that was just bollocks. I never did marry, but I also never ever expected to be treated as an equal. It was futile, and it was not the cultural norm, so why bother.
It is funny, it was only the first time I really committed to a relationship, and suddenly the real issues of equality and fairness arose. For many reasons. Mostly because I wanted to ensure that I did not demand of this incredible man, that he tie himself in knots to be some parody of a man, that would work in some soul-destroying corporate job to play the role of the Good Man. I knew with every fibre of my being that I wanted my man Alive and Kicking, not a dead robot. So, I was willing to really take a look at what did it mean to be half of a partnership. I have had more than a thousand days and nights to enquire into this, and every-time I think I have found some sincere truth it turns out I am wrong.
I have been wrong about my revelations, and I have overlooked the Orwellian nature of 2016. Truth is lies. Lies are Truth. If I am to survive in Indian society I will be greeted with full and deep Namaskar if I am wearing impeccable silken clothes, and matching duppatta. I must live my life under the scrutiny of not personal integrity, but Neighbourhood Watch. It is the most powerful social network that exists. I may not comment, or express any opinion whatsoever on any matter, public or private. I may simply, show, dazzling transcendence. The idea of a personal self is still for many Non European peoples, the most absurd, idiotic, illogical thing that they have ever heard of. The society, and the approval and the merging within the culture is far more important than an individual self. As a woman, I have been told countless times that the things I have commented upon in my personal life make me the Crazy Woman. I am not right. I was recently asked, Do you have an opinion about everything? Well, to be honest, as an alive, breathing human, not on life support equipment, Yes, I do.
My opinion may well be, I do not know, or I do not understand, or please tell me more, but the sarcasm that underpins that question really tells me all I need to know about 2016. It has run through every single day, issue, struggle of my life. From Estate Agents, unanswered emails, trashed home, Brexit, the derision of progressive ideals, loss of income, every single day I have to face this very real culture that is saying, Who do you think you are to say that? To ask that? Be quiet.
The cultures that I meet are robust, intelligent, intellectual, learned, accomplished, political, astute, and deeply sarcastic. They express their contempt for being stifled in their art, sculpture, poetry, politics and life style choices.
The young women at Baroda that party all night on several bottles of Imported vodka, wear short skirts and experiment with casual lovers, are the same ones who will say to me as a foreigner, Who do you think you are? The men who depict rape and pornography in their public art will say, Ah she is crazy and does not understand our traditional values. The divorced women, or tinder seeking afternoon sex players, will say, Who does she think she is, not respecting our culture.
The liberal, progressive friends will demonstrate for transgender friends and rights, but if I say, Why are you dismissing my opinion as a woman, will get furious, raise their fists, clench their teeth and say, Who do you think you are?
It is time to actually start answering these questions. So far, into 2017, my plans for how I wished, shared and requested to spend the day, got trashed, and disrespected, but that is okay. The whole point really was to say, Why Should I. Who the fuck are you? You are simply a foreigner dumbo, and we will not ever do, agree, respect, honour, enjoy a single, idea, wish, hope that you ask for. We will not honour your talents, skills, writing, or your culture. You are a foreigner, and you have NO place here with your demands and requests.
500 days sitting on a bedroom floor, makes me look back and see how hard I tried to be an accommodating, smiling, pure, feminine, loving, perfect you can take home to your mother kind of woman. I guess the thing I had to do once I first saw the tiny windows of the ancient Havellis in Jaipur was try to understand and grasp the society, the underbelly, the unspoken rules, the culture, the glue that holds it all together at the intersection of modern life and ancient history. I wanted to know, what would it be like to simply surrender. Become a pampered woman, protected and shielded from the grubby outside life. It made me feel less safe. It made me feel afraid. It made me believe that I had no voice, and no point, and that I had been stripped off my beauty, power and soul.
My experiment with Purdah is not yet over. I am more trapped than I have ever been. I literally do not have 100 rupees to my name. I cannot run and hide in a coffee shop. I can not go and eat Sephardi orange cake at Anohki to cheer myself up. I cannot go to the shopping mall to be frivolous and buy kajal and mascara. I can not even afford an auto ride across town to the park that I love to walk in. I cannot. Finally, It came to this. Stop making a noise. Stop, your very existence, stop your desire to be seen and heard. Stop celebrating who you are. Just, stay home, like a dog, and be quiet.
I can count the days, until I travel to Nepal. I can not pay for food and accommodation there for at least nine days, until some rent may or may not arrive from the UK. I will in some ways become a humble beggar. I will have to trust that the Tibetan and Nepalese people of Boudanath will see right into my soul, and they will see something that tells them exactly who I am. They will not ask, Who the hell do you think you are? they will see that I simply am. And to be fair, if that requires the humility of a beggar, to be seen, to be honoured, then I get back more than I could ever hope for.
I don’t think I am anything. But thank you so much for asking, and giving me this opportunity to discover that I am the foreigner. Thank you to so many hundreds of people that for 500 days have told me “she does not understand”, “she is a dumbo”. Tell her simply, show her, teach her, to be quiet, and not make a noise.
I am not ‘an artist” and will never be accepted within the art community of India, but I did sketch some ideas today. If I could, I would. I would create an installation of panels, and doors that would represent my labyrinth journey. I would build a huge door, and I would barricade it with all the reasons I may not enter. I would depict all the obstacles to getting deeper into the heart of the people I have loved. I would dedicate another three years of my life, if I could, to decorate these panels with the mixed messages that were the neon pointers of these past 500 days. I would decorate those panels with tiny fragments of clay pots, and mosaic tiles, and the emblems of Rajasthan, flowers that bloom in the desert. I would tell my story in silence, in pictures, and I would invite my fellow artist friends to take a walk through my India.
These are not ‘my troubles”. I do not really have a troubled heart or mind. And I am far, from from crazy. I would invite my Beloved Indian friends, and colleagues, to see through my eyes, how deeply I cared. How much I have loved. How very much from my own baseline of knowledge, and insight, that I have understood.
I bow in sweetness to those neighborhood ladies that offer full Namaskar to me. That always say, Good Morning dear and Good evening dear. I thank them a thousand times, for their upstanding, elegance and refinement. For their full possession of sensibilities and the clear-sighted way they live without any confusion. I thank those seventy-five year old Amma’s that have checked every seam of my clothing, that have scrutinized every inch of my face, and looked into my heart, and said, Welcome Daughter. Welcome.
I did not know when I started writing this, it would of course, simply be another story, another vignette, in the collection of already written anecdotes. Here it is, 2017, and this turns out to be Leaving the City of Men, Part Three.