Redefining beauty

Strong is the new pretty.

I saw this a little while back, as part of a story that went viral on social media. A mother posted pictures of her young daughters playing; they were outside, and seemed to be studying centipedes in a puddle and tumbling over each other, with no regard for keeping their hair in place or acting coy or protecting their clothes from the inevitable dirt and rips. It stayed with me.

Finally, here is a beauty standard to which I can relate.

I’ve never really gotten into the conventional standards that are used to judge beauty in women. Long hair doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve had a cropped cut for the longest time. I’d still chop my hair off if I could find a good short hair stylist in Mumbai. Flawless skin? I’m actually quite proud of the scars on my legs, from climbing trees and scraping myself countless times. My face isn’t buttery smooth. I was too busy absorbing everything college offered to go see a dermatologist. Besides, at Brown, I had enough folks challenging me and my limits, pushing me to focus on developing my inside, finding myself, which no cover-up makeup was going to help me do. Thin bodies? Give me a toned, full look any day to undefined, flabby limbs even if they be slender.

Yes, strong is the new pretty.

Now, finally, cultural winds have started blowing to recognize beauty in strength. Strength to play physically, outside, sometimes with rough contact. Venturing into unfamiliar spaces, testing ourselves, testing others for what they think we can and should be. Discovering magical things about ourselves and our surroundings. Discovering the magic of laughing loudly, with abandon, without covering our mouth. Being there for our friends when they fall, being receptive to a hand when we fall. Strength of body, strength of character.

Some women have been doing it all this while. It looks like we might be celebrated for it now.

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A dog on a summer afternoon

The sweat trickled down the back of my knees. I wiped the warm beads off of my upper lip and looked up. The ceiling fan was whirring, but not offering any relief. Outside my window, leaves rustled, giving the illusion of a breeze. It was hot.

I looked down on to the afternoon street and saw a stray dog splayed in front of a roadside stall. Both were shaded by a large peepul tree, and the dog was spreading itself to stay cool. Its big black eyes were open but defeated by the heat; blinking seemed to be an effort for him. Its beige coat of short hair still seemed too thick for the weather; my thin, cotton t-shirt felt like a layer too much for the sultry, still air. I pitied the dog.

I should take some water down to it, I thought. Just then, I saw the stall owner step towards the dog. He put a small bowl of water near him, with care. First to the side, then closer to the dog’s face. He patted the dog, rubbing his coat lovingly. He almost seemed to be reassuring himself that the dog was still alive, if overcome by the humid summer vapors.

There’s a sight one doesn’t see too often, I thought to myself. Stray dogs are usually in the way, to be kicked around and chased off. Yet, here was a man who looked like any other person, except that he was showing kindness. I was struck by his involvement with a being other than himself, and that too, an animal. In those moments, he seemed completely absorbed in making the dog comfortable.

It was a strange sight, I don’t see this much anymore. Perhaps that’s why, in that instant, the noise fell away, and time came to a pause. I watched, it was compassion in action.

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The fruit-seller

“What kind of mangoes are those?” I asked the old fruit-seller on the street corner, pointing at some big, yellow ones taking pride of place in the middle of the fruit display.

He was on the side, busy setting up some papayas in a big straw basket. He turned towards me, one eyebrow raised. I looked down at my feet, abashed, ashamed of my gross display of ignorance. It’s mango season, and if you’re Indian, your gene for mangoes should be active in full blazing glory.

“Those are badami,” he boomed, in a not unkind voice. I looked up. He had a soft twinkle in his aged eyes. “They come all the way from Hyderabad, ” he said proudly, as if describing his children. “They have many names, but most people will know badami. Have you heard of it?”

“Yes,” I said, tentatively. I had heard the name, but I didn’t know much else. It turns out they are a variant of the king of mangoes, the Alphonso. Kind of like a fraternal twin, not exactly but almost the same.

“Take them home, ” he said gently. I felt like he was entrusting me with his prized possessions. There he stood, a peppered Muslim-style beard flowing from his wizened face. He wore a checkered lungi (sarong) and a light cotton banian (vest), the perfect clothing for the sweltering summer evening. He held two softly glowing golden fruits towards me. For a second, I forgot we were talking about mangoes.

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Stolen snatches of childhood

The street kid knocked on the driver’s window on the car in front of me. The traffic light was red, and we were all his captives, if just for a few minutes. He wore Messi’s football jersey, in the Argentinian light blue stripes. It hung greedily over his scrawny shoulders, trying to engulf him and make him disappear. He must have been ten.

He acted like a world-weary adult, though. A dead look filtered from his face, even as he flipped through his ware for the day, a magic book of motion, to the passengers in the car. Look, he said, silently, here’s a tiger running fast. Not impressed? Here’s an elephant raising and lowering his trunk. What about this bicycle, racing forward? See how it moves as I flip the pages? He made eye contact with the mother, holding her toddler in her lap. He looked away, scouring the cars for his next customer. He looked back, as if a last chance to score a sale.

Just then, a young girl called out to him from the side of the road. A fellow street urchin, she held an infant on her hips. He left the car and moved towards them, a smile spreading on his face as he neared. He patted the baby’s cheeks, making faces at it until it started gurgling in delight. His face was transformed as he laughed back. The girl had a big smile too. For a few moments, the harsh world around them melted away. We no longer existed for them. I could see they were in a different world, playing like kids, in an imaginary vast field, making up games for amusement. There were no toys, he did not show the magic book to the little infant. They relied on themselves, using faces, sounds and touch, senses that still belonged to them.

The girl said something to him, and he came back into the world of cold cars, uncaring customers and the pressure to earn enough to eat for that day. He moved briskly down the road, in a business-like fashion, taking on his adult persona with each step.

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People are messy

One time, a long time ago, I was in an inconsolable state. Someone I liked must have done or said something mean, and my rational mind couldn’t grasp why. After patiently trying out some theories as explanations, my friend, in resigned exasperation, said, “People are messy, Archana.”

I looked at him, blankly at first. And then the penny dropped. Yes, people were messy. They didn’t stay within the lines. Instead, they meandered all over the page. Sometimes this meant delight, as a friend unexpectedly wrote a heartfelt letter about how much he cherished me. Other times, it induced upset, as a thoughtless, unanticipated comment was thrown my way.

This was a profound insight into people. People didn’t behave predictably. They said and did things out of character, things you would not expect. And further, even more confusing, they thought they were being perfectly reasonable in what they were saying or doing.

I’ve tried to read up about it – there’s a whole bunch of people out there fascinated by this, and they’ve dedicated their lives to understand such essential questions as, Why do we say stupid things? Why do we behave in clearly childish ways? And, why do we feel okay about this?

I’ve learned the following:

1) We decide by how we feel, not how we think.

That’s because our emotions have a head start on reason, when it comes to evolution. Our rational brain developed a long, long time after the emotional brain, like millions and millions of years later. That’s why it’s 8 times slower – our gut responds first, then the reason comes out much later.

2) that’s the second lesson: we love to rationalize.

We make up reasons for our behaviour. We will go to the ends of the earth to explain just how sensible we were being when we punched you in a pub brawl. It’s really important to us to come across as rational. Apparently, there’s an evolutionary psychology story there (I’m reading about it in The Moral Animal – why we are the way we are by Robert Wright.)

As a child, I loved, LOVED, colouring within the lines. In fact, I would etch the border again with a black crayon to reinforce the lines. When I looked over, I would be aghast at my younger cousins who dragged the crayon from the princess to the dragon. How could they both be in the same colour? And just how was one to explain the connecting lines, crossing the boundaries of the figures? When I challenged them, like good human beings, they would gape at me for about 8 seconds, and then come up with a good story to justify why their colouring was superior to mine.

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Tongue-tied at “What’s new?”

“What’s new?”

Those 2.5 words stop me cold every time they are uttered. My brain short-circuits, I can hear the crackle and sputter of my neural network, unable to fire. It’s like Homer Simpson’s head, the words bounce around an empty cavern, echoing on themselves.

what’s new. What’s new? I grope desperately in my mind’s crevices for something titillating to say. It almost panics me. Did I try bunjee jumping since I last saw you? Have I published a best seller book? Did I get picked up as India’s next biggest thing?

As you can see, I really don’t know how to answer this question, “what’s new?” Nothing short of dramatic will suffice as an appropriate answer. Since I consciously work on minimizing drama in my life, it is no surprise I end up muttering an insipid “not much. How about you?”

New is overrated. New is detrimental. Take wine. When it’s new, it is disgusting; it has to sit, and age, without any stuff being added or taken away. Nuanced alterations that are not talk-worthy are what make a good wine good. Same thing with people. The ones that really have something worthwhile to say take a long time to get to that point. They experience. They reflect. They chew cud. And then, one day, there is something to say.

I’m in the midst of experiencing, reflecting, and chewing cud. Ask me in a few years and I’ll have a good reply to “what’s new.”

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Getting closer to nirvana

It was my birthday over the weekend, and despite having done it 41 times, and despite knowing that every other person on the planet has one too, it continues to feel like the most important day of the year, one that should be momentous not just for me, but also for you. And your friends. Plus your friends’ friends. And their friends. Really, everyone in the whole world should be happy because it’s my birthday.

This day, effectively, is a license to self-obsess. The more enlightened way to say it is that I’m becoming self-aware. So, towards making some good out of this dubious habit, here’s a short list of things I now know about myself. Maybe you’ll make your list on your birthday because, you know, you’ll probably be fascinated by how unparalleled in significance that day is. It’s kind of fun.

So, here’s my short list:

I like mangoes. I really, really like them. I didn’t always. One time I flapped my unflappable father, when i revealed my distaste for them. “Whaaaat?” He said, incredulously. As if it would help him hear better, he removed his glasses, polished them clean, and put them back on. Unfortunately for him, I was still standing in his line of vision, grimacing at the golden yellow fruit in my hand. “Mangoes are the king of fruits!” I still remember, he wanted to disown me. Now, I happily gorge on them. I wait for them, more than I ever waited by the telephone for that boy to call.

I chose to spend my birthday weekend with my parents. Yeah. I never saw that coming. I’m liking being in their company, even though I’m nothing like them. Or maybe it’s because of it. They provide unintended comic relief, and I know it goes both ways.

I’ve got regrets. They mostly have to do with how I made other people feel. I’M SORRRRRRRRYYYYYY!! Individual apologies will happen when the opportunity presents, since some of these folks live halfway around the world.

I’ve discovered the best jazz station in the world, Jazzfm91, which I listen to on the Internet. I feel like I’m in Toronto and I’ve got the best jazz belting out. The timing is kind of weird because they’re talking about morning commutes when I’m winding down for the day, but that’s okay. It’s still a treat.

I’d like to own a dog. I think I’ll be a better person. I like cats too, but I think a dog would be good. Or a baby cow. They’re so gentle, those eyes must be the most trusting eyes in the world. Any animal will do, actually. Their “what you see is what you get” disposition quite suits me.

See? I’m really getting to know myself. There’s lots more, but those discoveries will probably sound better next year, when I’ve given them 364 days to ripen and mature. For now, with these self-truths, I’m on my way to nirvana.

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