Sitting down to write is one of my favorite hobbies. Settling myself comfortably in my high-backed executive chair, rolling it along the marble flooring until I face the glowing screen of my desktop monitor and hearing the gentle hum of my CPU as I wait for the great best-selling ideas to come rushing to my head is something that has become natural to me, and I manage just fine… right up to the part where the ideas should come flooding into my writer mind. I’m absolutely confident that they’re out there somewhere, en route to me. It’s just that it’s very easy for people and things- and I guess ideas too- to get lost in the hustle and bustle of India, all the more in Mumbai, and I have a strong feeling that they’re too proud to ask for directions.
So here I am, every single time, straining to somehow connect telepathically (in my brother’s words- pathetically) to the poor ideas that are stuck out there, my fingers always ready and poised- hovering over the keyboard- just in case I hit the lotto, and my ears waiting in untiring anticipation to hear the steady clack of the keyboard. But every now and then, a little respite comes along, in the weary wait, in the form of some old experience of mine, dug up from one of the albums in my mind, and my fingers accompany the story as I relive the moments. Sometimes they’re thrilling and exhilarating, so much so that I can barely come up with words that do justice to those times. Sometimes they’re suspenseful, slow and melodramatic, and my experience as a binge-watcher of murder mysteries comes in handy then. But sometimes, they’re just plain funny, filled with the innocent humor of misunderstandings and harmless embarrassments.
The tale I shall now retell is a chip right off this block.
I was preparing for a science practical exam. It was pretty big, and I was doing everything I could do to be well prepared for it. My mother was, as usual, twice as charged up about prepping me up perfectly. She would keep foraging for places where I could hone whatever I knew, and as soon as word reached her ear, she signed me up for a half-day camp that claimed to be the ‘go-to place’ for this particular exam. The camp was far away even by train, and I would have to cut my cousin’s trip short to attend it, so naturally I was reluctant to go, but my mother would hear not a word. And I’m glad she didn’t.
I reached the venue late, thanks to my family’s insistence that they wanted to travel by cab. Cabs are hard to book, especially in times when you really need them, and we spent the better part of an hour trying to get one. Finally, our efforts paid off, and the only downside was that I reached fifty-odd minutes late at a camp where first impressions make all the difference. There was nothing I could do to make a good first impression, so I decided to make a great last impression. That was all I thought as I hurried up the ten flights of stairs of the old college building and barreled into the lab room. I was greeted by expressions of distaste and a slightly annoyed shake of the head by the guy whose lecture I had evidently interrupted by my grand and sweaty entrance. I muttered a few ‘sorry’s under my breath and putting on a remorseful face, quickly surveyed the room. It was a classic government college laboratory, with white walls having chunks of plaster missing and long cupboards looking like they hadn’t been cleaned since the time of Genghis Khan. Long white tables were arranged along the walls with microscopes and test tubes and all sorts of lab equipment adorning them. The plastic chairs were arranged for all students to sit on and a wide space was left in between that inadvertently separated the boys from the girls. I took all of this in within a few seconds, and hurried to the girls’ side, settling myself down on a chair.
That’s when the fun began.
The girl seated next to me squirmed slightly in her place. It wasn’t very noticeable, but I caught it. I was slightly confused. I shrugged it off, thinking that after all, no one would be very comfortable sitting next to someone who had just made an entry as splendid as the one I had. I fished out my notebook and pulling out a cheap ball pen, got ready to jot down anything I felt might come in handy. Then I felt it. The slightly uncomfortable feeling that hung in the air. My head slowly came up, and I saw the lecturers and volunteers looking at me- some with a confused look, some with a look of well-disguised outrage. A few of the students were twisting in their chairs to get a better look at me, and with wide eyes stared at me as though I had just jumped off a spaceship into their midst.
I felt slightly put off. I mean, come on, I had just reached a little late, that’s all. I was only human and had every right to slip up every now and then. It wasn’t like I had committed a crime. Feeling surprisingly self-convinced of my stand, I did what I always did when people would look at me for longer than they should- I stared at them, straight in the eyes. Not an angry sort of stare. Just the empty, ‘what-are-you-looking-for’ kind of stare. One by one, they all dropped their gazes. This happened very quickly, within a few seconds, and everything almost returned to the way it was. Almost. I could still feel the stares when I was busy writing or almost hear their inquisitive whispers when I asked a doubt to the lecturer. It really began getting on my nerves. This sort of division and lack of understanding between me and the other kids wasn’t getting me anywhere, and would only serve to spoil any chances of me making friends, no matter how good I was at it. I fumed silently, helplessly, determined to find out the real cause of all my troubles. If it turned out to be my late arrival, I would do whatever I could to set it right. But I knew, and I’m sure you do too, that something as trivial as that wasn’t it. Then what was it? Be assured, how I found out is sure to surprise you.
After another hour of theoretical teaching from the booklets they provided, they gave us a break for an hour or so before we went on to the practicals. This was my chance, I thought. I was going to find out what was it that had pushed me out of the crowd, out into the open, and then find a way to get back in. But before that I might as well have my lunch, seeing that it was well past my stipulated lunch-time. I followed the signs that led to the washroom. There was a wall that separated the washrooms from the lab, and doors that led to the girls’ and the boys’ washrooms respectively. As I walked into the girls’ washroom, I heard a young, female voice say, “Excuse me.” I turned around. The girl who sat next to me stood at they door, and she had a very haughty and proud look on, as though she were talking to a derisory frog. I hate people with those sorts of attitudes and this certainly enraged me, but I put on my best smile.
“Yes?” I countered her arrogance with a questioning look. She seemed visibly taken aback. Then gathering herself again, she stuck out her chin, and spoke slowly, as though speaking to one with a mental illness, “This is the GIRLS’ WASHROOM.” I stared.
I’ve never been too fond of long hair. True, it improves my looks- something I could really do with - but I’m not exactly the taking-care-of-myself type. I would rather get lost in a good book than sit and oil my hair or do all those long, traditional processes that supposedly make my hair ‘thicker, darker and longer’ (one of them is making egg-yolk an alternative for hair oil. I mean, eww right?) And I could avoid all that trouble by just paying the barber a visit every time my hair grows long enough to fall over my eyes. And then SNIP- a month and a half of trouble vanishes into thin ‘hair’.
But this, this was something completely out of the world. It came so suddenly that I barely realized what had just happened. This was the cause of all those uncomfortable dealings back outside. I was totally stumped. I had no idea what I was supposed to say.
“Yeahh.. I kinda guessed that from the sign.” I motioned with my chin towards the woman’s symbol outside the washroom.
By now, the girl had a pitiful expression on. If I could have heard her thoughts at that point of time, it would be something along the lines of- Oh boy, you are one seriously misguided male bathroom goer. She asked, “Are you a girl?” I thought, why not enjoy this while I could. I replied bitingly, with a sarcastically thoughtful expression, “Depends. Which answer will make you leave faster?”
That’s when it hit her. She went all red, and back-pedaled out of there as fast as she could. A lady walked in there right at that moment, and stopped when she saw a girl gone all red in the face hastily running away, and a boy leaning against the door frame, dying of laughter. Needless to say, the girl changed her place. Well, I made many friends that day, but still had to spend a considerable amount of time convincing them of my gender.
This was just the first of many incidents to come. Wherever I go, I leave people staring at me out of the corner of their eyes, as they try to pinpoint my gender. My tomboyish sense of dressing is not exactly a clue-giver either. People sometimes get my gender right when I speak, but until then, nada. When I meet someone, I can feel their confusion radiating off them. Only for the sake of mannerisms do people ask me my name first, or the first question to escape their lips would be- “Boy or girl?”
Confusion erupts very frequently, and is my reliable source of entertainment. On many other occasions I have had to convince people that I can indeed read the signs on toilet doors. There is no end to the troubles when I go to malls and guards insist that I should be in a different security line. Same with airports. I have to often convince people that I was the "woman" whose voice they heard on the phone. I have heard people talking casually to my mom, and then suddenly saying, “Your older son is so quiet for a boy- doesn’t do any mischief at all. How have you brought him up so well?” My mother still hasn’t come up with a way to respond to that.
Most of the times, it's fine. No big deal, it's part of the routine, and sometimes I let people think I am a boy if it isn’t really of much consequence. Sometimes, it's quite fun, especially when people my age get really embarrassed after they realize their mistake. Sometimes, it's a great conversation starter with new people. Sometimes, it helps to shut up people I don't want to talk to. I find all of this really hilarious.
But, on a deeper wavelength, I think my hairstyle is really a lifesaver for me. It is my ultimate weapon. I mean, in a country like India, where women constantly fear their safety, I have almost non-existent worries. If I want, I can roam freely at night without worrying much about catcalls and worse. As long as I don't open my mouth, I can get away with so much, it never fails to surprise me.