“Referring to the recent ‘Slut Walk’ held in the Capital, Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav said we had naked women walking down the streets with tattoos on their cheeks, whereas Indian women did not even look up while walking.” —Report on the Parliament Zero Hour in the Hindu, 12 August 2011
I am not always sure what you are, Lalu ji, but I know you are not an Indian woman. I am an Indian woman. And I look up while walking. I sit ghoda taang on motorcycles. I ride airplanes as comfortably as rickety buses. Some nights, I come home from work at 3 AM. I am still an Indian woman. I cook aloo-gobi and chicken tikka. I mix concrete more easily than I make chapati. I balance marbles on pebbles, use matchbooks as playing cards, race tyres through smog. I am still an Indian woman. My mother raised me on puzzles, books, clouds. She does not want me to write this poem. She too is an Indian woman. My grandmother walked out of a bad marriage, learned to drive, got a job, knit my childhood sweaters. She too is an Indian woman. I run barefoot through sand. I can wrap six yards of silk into a sensuous sari. I wear a dupatta to the mosque and the gurudwara. I am more often seen in jeans and orange slippers. I am still an Indian woman. I have a sister with four tattoos and a Facebook photo showing her braless bare back (she is not an Indian woman, but not because of the tattoos or bare back). I hold young women through their tears and young men through their tears, and I ask friends for hugs when I need to be held (sometimes, these friends are men. I do not then sleep with them. But if ever we both want to, I may). I am still an Indian woman. I avoid a road because of a man who stood there fourteen years ago. I am anxious in tight crowds that carry memories of touch and helplessness. I am learning to shimmy out of colours I did not choose. I remain an Indian woman. On Diwali, I stain my eyelids with kajal and my fingers with the smell of marigold. I am not less beautiful when I turn compost and smell of sweat. I make excellent chai with adrak and dalcheeni. I drink my coffee black. I love without apology. I am still an Indian woman. I have a friend who called the cops when her father hit her mother. I have gay friends. I have friends who were raped. I tell them they are more important than family honour. They are Indian women, and so am I. I tell little girls they belong on the football field and in the library no less than the brothers they do not have. They will be Indian women. I have won awards for science and for poetry. I have lived on three continents and chosen this as home. I am an Indian woman. I dream in three languages and make tea for my mother. I find oceans in deserts, weave spiderwebs from fresh clay. I am twenty-six and unmarried and not worried. I am still an Indian woman.
This poem was first published in The Feminist Wire in May 2013.