Girl Trippin

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“Get outta town” was a household expression that I’ve grown to know and love.  It was my mother’s child friendly way of saying “Get the [insert four letter expletive] out of here with that [insert eight letter expletive].” That expression that expressed so much in disbelief, in torment of reality, in sheer shock, has been one I have heard myself say so many times here in India – not just in the way that my mother once used it, but also in its literal meaning.  Ditching Delhi and seeking new sights has become as powerful in my adult life as any expletive ever was in my childhood.

My childhood was encased in a YaYa Sisterhood-like circle of my mother’s friends.  My aunts by blood and/or by bond were everywhere, all the time.  They were at awards ceremonies.  They were at my house.  They were at my grandmother’s house.  They were at their houses with my brother and me (their kids, nieces and nephews too).  They were at the supermarket.  They were at birthdays and holidays and funerals and hospital rooms.  And while it never seemed that these 40-something mothers and sisters and businesswomen, my aunts, actually ever got outta town (literally), I remember them saying it quite a bit to each other.

“Ohhh girl, get outta town” was usually followed by throat gurgling laughter.  There was always a kitchen or dining room table that they were gathered around like the Knights of King Arthur’s court.  There was always food on the table and, more recently as my cousins and I have grown older, there has been more and more liquor on it too.

Just last week I went to a performance of a Durga Puja.  In this dance rendition, Durga, the goddess of destruction, grows her 10 hands by combining the bodies of five women in to one.  I’m not so much into the fiction of her having slain evil Mahishasura with her combined woman powers.  The story doesn’t make much logical sense in my cursory understanding.  But, I was fascinated by the idea of female partnership, by our power to be stronger together than apart.  It’s the fraternity of females that shows in the pantheon, but not in the reality.

What I noticed most when I arrived in Delhi was the lack of female-to-female relationships.  There’s never just a bunch of young women hanging out at a restaurant or bar or a coffee shop or a bookstore together, just them, no male escort in tow.  It has remained difficult for me to understand the need for women to be surrounded by men and to call that protection.  I missed the lack of girl talk, the silliness and the goofiness that gals are permitted when not around men they hope to impress or have to appear proper in front of.  I recognized that the circle of women that I had known and loved as a child was an anomaly in this space, and it pushed me more than ever to “get outta town.”

Beneath this layer of mythological female power, there is a very real Sita complex.  The tortured wife whose identity is based on her long suffering with her [insert seven letter expletive] husband who treats her like [insert four letter expletive] and really doesn’t much give a [four letter expletive] about her as person, so much as her as reproductive capabilities.  I digress.

There are huge absences of women in Delhi places where they could be, should be – on the streets, in the nightclubs, in the art galleries, in the professional work places.  It seems as if the women of Delhi have learned to simply get out of these places, minimize themselves in these spaces, be un-present as much as possible, so as not to threaten (what? I’m not sure) or be threatened.

As time has passed, my mother and my aunts have seen their children grow older, their parents pass on, relationships resolve themselves and now more than ever they are taking their girl gang on the road.  They’ve been to Spain, Italy, Saint Lucia and Germany, and while I’m sure I could beg, borrow, and steal their sympathies to bring them to Delhi I just can’t bring myself to do it.  How can it be that being a woman, enjoying a woman’s friendship is more foreign than being a foreigner?  These women who have had men in their lives, not as handlers, but as partners, wouldn’t understand how what has come so natural to them would appear so strange to these people of Delhi.

So while I long to hear their laughter and banter around my dining room table, to host them here and hear their stories washed down with high-end liquers, I can’t help but encourage them to go to a different destination from their next girls’ trip out of town.  What they see here might shock them.  They might be tormented by the realities of this place, and I am sure they won’t believe some of the ways that women are treated and some of the ways that women behave.  I’ve spent so much time trying to ‘get outta town’ myself, I’m not sure I’d have the capacity to make believable some of the absurdities and to make bearable some of the oddities.

How would my mom and aunts get along here? We may never know.

Lakshmi give me strength!

It is almost 8pm at the Red Fort, and there’s been no reason to stick around to listen to the rest of the ‘Sound and Light’ show. The show gives an audio version of the history of the monument – those who lived there, in palace and imprisoned. But, we were already at the point when Mahatma Gandhi started to reject British colonial and cultural superiority. So, we knew the end of that story. It’s Diwali, after all, and we’re just a stone’s throw away from Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk – a site my companion for the evening hasn’t seen yet.

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Her father is Guyanese Indian and she’s in India for the first time, in Delhi for just one day, and back in my life after ten years. We went to high school together and happened to be connected on facebook – and so, the stars aligned for an evening under Lakshmi’s lights.  As we exit the show, we pass by the closed stalls and deserted shops. But one remains open. They have jewelry and bangles, and sheeshah pipes and pens – and this is her only night in Delhi. So, we stop. And so the shopkeepers, too, must stop. Their ‘puja’ that is. But, they say, ‘we are praying to Lakshmi so that she brings prosperity and wealth into our shop, and you’re here when no one else is here and no other shop is open, but this one. So, she brings you in. We are happy. No problem.’

We shop and we bargain, and I beg the bhaiya to drop his price for a brass hookah for my high school chum.  We banter a bit and I ask what is it they’re doing with the fruit for Lakshmi. “Do you eat it or throw it away tomorrow?” she asks. ‘We can give it away, but it must stay tonight for Lakshmi.’ “Ok, well I’m sorry. I feel bad that we interrupted your puja,” I say. ‘You know about my puja? I am so happy. You not from here and you know about my puja,’ he says with excitement. “Well, yes, you know about my President. I know about your puja,” I say with a head bob and a chuckle.

We bag our bundles and head to the Gurdwara for a loud scene of firecrackers and marigold dust. Yet it feels as if we’ve taken home more in our bags than just our trinkets.

My ears are ringing from the firecrackers in the street, launched by housewives and their school age children.  This is not the part of Diwali that I like. I don’t like the chaos, but prefer the prayer – the oil and the lights, the fruit and the altars, the chants and the good intentions heard by Lakshmi-ji. I reach home focusing on a new day with a city full of her goodwill around me, and I know that I’m in for some changes.

In her own Shiva-esque (destructive) kind of way, good ole’ Lakshmi-ji has been bringing me prosperity and light ever sense. This week has been one of shedding spotlights on truths I would rather keep hidden. The relationship I am not over, the money I’m not spending well, the weight I’m not maintaining, the PhD program I haven’t decided on, the promotion I need to get, the onward assignment I’d better fight for, the aunt that’s in the hospital, the forgiveness I can’t give, the greatness that I need more convincing to believe I deserve…

And oh how much I need that light. What an exhale it is at that moment when you admit that you are not where you want to be, but that you know – without hesitation – that you will get there, you will live that reality, you will become what you seek. Lakshmi puja is about asking for divine intervention to improve well-being and enhance prosperity of all kinds. It is asking for help – something that I hate to do, but must damn well get better at – to be a better you (or me, I should say). I feel a respite in that; not a surrender, but a settling down like firecracker ashes on pavement.

Something quiets in my soul and a certain stamina regenerates itself. After all, Lakshmi is also characterized by a positive, results-oriented kind of energy. So, this is not your pansy, ‘wake up zestfully clean’ energy. This is your ‘extraordinary perseverance to push through emotional exhaustion to concur new stages of mental, physical, and spiritual wellness,’ kinda Shakti! Lakshmi ain’t no chump.

So, she put me to work. I blame her for making me call my ex to face some hard learned facts, but damn it if I can’t credit her for setting me straight! She got me tickets to an exclusive summit that put me face to face with a powerful professor at the university I’d like to attend for my PhD. Homegirl even had me sit down and go over my finances today, so I could ‘trim the fat’ and get on the good foot. This week she and I laughed, we cried (well, mostly, I cried). And she let me have a chocolate chip cookie after she saw that I weighed in 5 lbs lighter than 2 weeks ago. I mean, really, she and I have had an interesting week since that night in the Red Fort.

I’m not so sure what I did to deserve her attention in a city full of people beckoning her into their lives. Maybe I caught some residual puja purity or I was in the right place at the right time all too frequently this week. But what I do know for certain is that since Tuesday night, I’ve been sure that I have a star in my corner. And, with that, the future is looking mighty bright.