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Why I can’t be shamed, won’t fit in, and couldn’t care less

Even in 2016, the urban Indian woman who doesn’t check all the boxes is a creature few understand, and even fewer accept.

I’m an Indian woman in her mid-forties, single, childless, jobless, who dresses like an uncool teenager, wraps presents in newspaper, drinks, smokes, occasionally pops into a bar or a movie theatre alone, drives around in the middle of the night, has no ambition, dances tango, has taken to the guitar, is a commitment-phobe and an atheist, and says no a lot. For many people, if there’s a box that this fits into, it’s got a big “Handle with care” sign painted on it. People do.

At a nearby petrol station, there’s a mechanic who’s been topping up my car and checking my tyre pressure since I was twenty-six years old. The first time I ever took my car in for servicing, I jumped down into the filthy pit after him to look up the skirt of my car. To this day, when I pull in to the station, this mechanic asks, “You’re here on holiday?” It’s no use telling him, for the ten thousandth time, that I live in Delhi, right around the corner: he decided, eighteen years ago, that I either am not Indian or live abroad. He believes this with unshakable resolve.

India is a famously complicated place. For women, it’s doubly complicated – we live with staggering mainstream sexism and both casual and egregious violence at every level of the power pyramid. You can choose not to conform, but only if you’re willing to negotiate the crass misogyny and judgement that will come your way, and to risk your physical safety. Driving at night, you might be followed by a car filled with men who try to run you off the road. Walking down the street, you might find people staring and breaking into song, or groping you. People will try to make you aware of your shameful oddness in thousands of little ways.

Shame is key.

India’s goddesses are fearsome, beautiful, bare-breasted power-houses who make and break universes. They hold weapons in their many hands, and represent power. India’s flesh-and-blood women have vaginas, which make them the very fountainhead of shame. This country worships phalluses, but women are raised to believe in their own shamefulness, and taught that female modesty protects the whole world’s honour. There are degrees, of course – perhaps you’re a rural woman who allowed an unrelated man to see her face uncovered, or you’re a city slicker showing too much cleavage – but shame is the monkey on your back, and when it shows up, it imperils your whole family’s reputation. It’s been a long historical fall from the erotic celebration of Khajuraho to the prudery of today.

I appear not to have come preloaded with shame. My parents had more of it; they were raised in boarding schools by Irish nuns and Jesuit priests, but they were also great readers, well educated and forward thinking. They didn’t make a big deal of shame while we lived outside of India. I did ten formative years of growing up in Switzerland and Indonesia, blissfully unaware of the shit-storm that a bare leg or a public kiss could elicit. When we were home on vacation I had spectacular fights with my parents over things like wearing shorts or going out for a late coffee with a man I had only just met, but they argued for my safety, not against shame. I wore shorts anyway, and I went out for coffee anyway.

There was just one time in my teenage years that I confronted their socialisation – my father walked in on my boyfriend and me necking, and exploded: “This is not a flophouse!”

I remember being not ashamed of myself but shocked that he was calling me a hooker by implication. I yelled at him about it later and got a remorseful apology. I never heard anything like that from him again, whatever his opinions may have been.

I moved back to Delhi after college, living alone in my parents’ house while they were abroad. I chose to not choose shame, or the crappy words that come with it – loose, bold, fast, immodest, forward, slut, whore. A neighbour once leaned out of his window, wearing a singlet, and called across to the balcony where I was having a late-night smoke with a male friend: “You shouldn’t do all these wrong things.”

You could point to many things about my life that aren’t terribly orthodox, but the bottomline is I’m not squeamish about bodies. They sweat, bleed, excrete and get horny. This is, first and foremost, what it means to be human, as much as appreciating opera and writing philosophical treatises. Bodily truth is the frontline of existence in the world. I’m given to potty talk, menstruation talk and sex talk. I use my vagina the way I want to, and I am not ashamed of being a sexual being.

How do you go about being like this in a society that bleeps the word “arse” out of TV shows?

I discovered very early that eight times out of ten, doing the unexpected (or not doing the expected) deliberately, calmly and normally can calm and normalise the situation. Twenty years ago, the first time I walked into the local hole-in-the-wall liquor store, which is also stuffed groin-to-butt exclusively with men, you could hear a pin drop. I made my way in, making eye contact, smiling and saying excuse me, and they shifted scrupulously aside. They stared, but they were courteous.

When you don’t fit in, people are much more likely to assume that you don’t belong and don’t know any better than that you need to be taken down a peg or two. When they know that you do belong, they are very much more uncertain about how to treat you. Uncertainty has two positive points: it is not objectionable; and it makes people hesitate, a breach which you can nimbly fill with deliberate calm and normalcy. When you choose calmness and normalcy, you are often choosing it for the other person too, who didn’t know which way to go.

The columns I write for a national newspaper range in subject matter from the conceptual and political to the wildly personal, and they reflect my life as much as my thoughts. I’ve talked about a chequered love life, about not being built for marriage, about not wanting children. As much as I’ve received appreciation, I’ve also received reader mail like, “I think you are insane... For god’s sake, stop your corrupting writings in a responsible newspaper.”

Unhinged Hindu fundamentalist keyboard warriors cry “Prostitute!” at the drop of a hat, but usually only when a column criticises the government. Men sometimes write to say that they’re fans; those emails are filled with a kind of benign, intense curiosity – “How does your life work?” “What sort of creature are you?” “Do you think we could get a drink sometime?” – forgetting, I guess, that people you like in print are usually disappointing in the flesh.

But most of the people who bother to write say something that boils down to “Exactly!” and “Me too!” (I think there’s a square peg, round hole cohort out there.) Inexplicably, one notable slice of mail comes from readers asking me for a job, or some vaguely worded “guidance”. I’m constantly writing about how financially and professionally clueless I am, so that always cracks me up.

I left my brief marriage, to an absolutely lovely man, for no good reason other than I’m not built for marriage, which, if you ask me, is a very good reason. I knew that before we got married, and told him so. He said that it would just be easier on everyone than if we lived together. I said that if I got restless or unhappy I would leave. He said we’d cross that bridge when we came to it.

When the time came, he said, “Well, you always said that this might happen, and I will support whatever decision you take.” That makes him a jewel among men, particularly Indian men.

Leaving a jewel of a man is not the sort of thing you do lightly. In a society that is pathologically devoted to marriage, and hates free-range vaginas, you can expect shock and horror. Oddly, other than a few close friends who urged me to think about it, nobody said a single word to me, though I know people talked about it a lot. That’s the upside of living in a liberal elite cocoon in which people are too polite to bring up your separation, but love to speculate behind your back about whether maybe you’re a lesbo. After we split, my ex-husband used to take special pleasure in making sure we arrived simultaneously at a party, just to confuse the crap out of everyone.

Excerpted with permission from Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, Edited by Catriona Mitchell, HarperCollins India.

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As corporate India changes from strait-jacketed to stylish, here’s how you can stay on-trend

For men and women, tips to make your office style game strong.

Office wear in India tends to be conservative. For men, the staple blue or white shirt and dark trouser arranged in a monotonous assembly line has been a permanent feature of the wardrobe (a tactic shrewdly administered to ensure minimum time is spent shopping). For women, androgynous work wear has been ever reliable and just as dull.

But camouflage is of no use in the corporate jungle anymore. The Indian office is no longer a place for dull, unthinking conformity, it is a place that expects vibrancy in thought and action. With a younger workforce and a greater mix of multinationals and jobs, there is a greater acceptance of edgier trends. Men are stepping away from their blues and greys and women are reshaping their workwear to be more interesting and distinctly feminine. As corporate India is proving its mettle on the global stage and to itself, it’s also growing confident in expressing individuality and style in the formal work environment. From clothing to office décor and fashion accessories to work tools, the workplace is becoming a place to display merit as well as taste.

Work clothes have shed their monochrome and moved into the light of technicolor. Bright colours have steadily become popular as Pantone’s annual colours of the year show us. For the corporate warrior who wants to be stylish here is our pick of trends worth considering.


Statement jacket. A statement jacket is one that doesn’t merely stand out in a crowd, but blows it open for you. How do you recognize one? You’ll know it when you see it. Most statement jackets have a non-traditional color. They could also have subtle prints on them if you want to go funky.

Technicolor socks. Multicolored socks (or hipster socks as they are known in some quarters) peek out every once in a while and brighten things up in the workplace. From polka dots and caricatures to geometric patterns, you can choose a pair to suit your mood or your workplace. A great way of telling people you don’t take fashion rules seriously (except these ones).

Plaid: Well played is well, plaid. Great for your 9-to-5 and even performs well after. Plaids, in shirts and jackets, are perhaps the most versatile tool in the corporate warrior’s armory, and straddle the fine line between formal and casual effectively. They’re also age-resistant meaning a young buck in his twenties can rock them as much as your seasoned forty-plus campaigner. Plaid, though Scottish in origin, has an Indian connection too, in the Madras checks that became popular all over the world after the World War.

Inside collars and cuffs. If you like to keep it classy but still a little edgy, nothing does it like contrast or printed insides of your collar and cuffs. After the work day, when it’s proper to roll up your sleeves, it even adds a touch of evening character.

Coloured Shoes. Alternate your staid blacks and browns with variants like burgundy, light buttery browns and ashen blues. Play with moccasins, tassel loafers and lace-ups. Go beyond leather and try suede and maybe even canvas. But do remember to take a quick course in matching.


Floral prints. Flowers are back (though one could argue that they never went out) and now they’re storming the bastion of your office. Even the traditional Indian paisley is making its way into formal wear. With the prevalence of digital printing, with a little hunting, you’ll even find beautiful florals in watercolour style.

Scarves. The first rule of wearing scarves is to rid yourself of the notion that they are to be worn only in winter. A colourful scarf paired with a monochrome top works wonders. A dozen online videos will teach you to wear it in a dozen ways. Plus, it always comes in handy when the thermostat isn’t to your liking. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw wears scarves frequently, and is a great example of how you can use it strikingly.

Pants. Yes. Pants. Experiment with different styles and you’ll be surprised how they can really spruce up a boring look. Silhouette is everything when it comes to pants. Choose from high-waisted, wide legged, pleated to ankle length pants and what not! The best part is offices rarely prescribe silhouettes, so you can always get by with some style even if your workplace demands a uniform.

Houndstooth. The houndstooth pattern is at the sweet intersection between casual and formal and can be worn to make a splash in either occasion. Whether its jackets or a dress or a simple top, a houndstooth pattern is incredibly versatile.

Chic suits. A sharp suit is a must for a modern professional’s wardrobe. And please don’t even look in the direction of black. Pastel colours or even greys with patterns are great options for suits. Uncoordinated suits are also a great option depending on how edgy you want your office attire to be.


It isn’t enough to be well-dressed in the modern workplace. A good professional is known by his or her tools and how they carry it.

Designer laptop sleeves. Your high-precision instrument deserves a cover chosen with as much care. Black Neoprene is out. Pastel monochromes, geometric patterns and bold designs are very much in. Different materials like cotton, leather and even paper are a great option.

Natural fiber or leather bags (yes kill your black synthetic one now). Briefcases are ancient and black messenger bags are done. Go for a color variant or a subtle pattern. Pay attention to the different leather finishes. Adding a few nicely done metal trims can make all the difference. But convenience and ease are top priority. If you travel a lot, get a stylish strolley and thank yourself later.

Commute pack. The urban corporate needs to be productive at all times, or at the very least, needs to be accessible. A modern commute pack should include wireless headphones, a USB battery pack (power bank) and a wire/gadget organisation pack just so that you’re always prepared.

Machine. We’ve all showed off our latest smartphones. Your work machine is way more important. And like in smartphones, a good laptop is no longer only about performance. The specifications must be top-notch but it has also become an expression of your personality. It can up your style quotient and significantly impact your experience.

Source: Dell
Source: Dell

The Dell XPS 13 is one device that achieves excellence in both form and function. With a virtually borderless infinity display that maximises screen space, and measuring a super slim 9-15mm, the Dell XPS 13 is an unalloyed delight. A sixth generation Intel® Core™ processor and the latest Intel HD graphics gives cutting edge performance for 18 hours and 14 minutes per charge—the longest battery life in any 13-inch device. The Dell XPS 13 epitomises the ethos of the modern day corporate warrior—chic and smart. To make even more of a fashion statement, you now get a free TUMI laptop sleeve worth Rs. 9000 with your XPS notebook purchase (offer valid till 31st October). For more information about the Dell XPS 13, see here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Dell and not by the Scroll editorial team.

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