Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

By Sonia Sarkar


All of 5ft, 6 inches, Ramaswamy Madhavan looks unassuming. But as he begins to recite his poem, Empty World, one is drawn to his rich and resonant voice, eagerly telling his story—a story of struggle and existence in Singapore.

Madhavan, 28, originally from Tamil Nadu’s Karaikudi, is a site engineer at a construction firm in Singapore. Every day, after working for more than 10 hours, he returns to the room he shares with five others and sits down to write in Tamil. It is poetry that gives him solace, away from home and family—his farmer parents, three sisters and fiancée.

Like him, many migrant workers in Singapore have taken refuge in the written word. They highlight their daily lives of drudgery and the wrenching heartache of being away from home through their poetry. They publish memoirs, participate in literary workshops, win competitions and make short films inspired by their life experiences.

“Writing is cathartic to me. I write to express my pent-up emotions,” says Madhavan as he fiddles with his phone, which stores about 100 poems he has written in his three years in Singapore.

Madhavan, who earns around $43 (around 3,060) a day, is one of 972,600 lower-skilled and low-wage migrant workers with work permits in Singapore, according to Singapore’s ministry of manpower. Dressed in high-visibility vests, mud-stained trousers, rugged boots and white helmets, migrant workers can be spotted everywhere in this ever-expanding city, but not many Singaporeans and expats interact with them.

Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.

Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.

Besides India, there are workers from Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar, who are employed at Singapore’s construction sites, in the marine sector and at people’s homes. They arrive believing Singapore to be a city of dreams, but soon encounter the harsh reality.

Foreign workers have to grapple with exorbitant recruitment fees to agents, non-payment and underpayment of salary, lack of contracts or employment terms, injury, lack of medical care, forced repatriation and premature termination, says Debbie Fordyce, president of the Singapore-based non-governmental organization Transient Workers Count Too.

The ministry of manpower’s June report, however, claimed foreign workers were satisfied with their working conditions. A spokesperson for the ministry declined to comment on the problems of migrant workers.

But their voices are now finding an outlet. Shivaji Das, a Singaporean writer-photographer of Indian origin, started the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 with a few others. “After listening to their poetry, many people, in a condescending tone, have told me, ‘I didn’t know migrant workers have such sophisticated thoughts,’” he says.

Many cases of abuse or negligence have been reported in this city state. In early August, a Singaporean woman was sentenced to 11 years in jail for physically abusing an Indonesian domestic worker, who was hit with a hammer, stone pestle and bamboo pole. In March, a Singaporean couple was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for caning their foreign domestic helper. In 2017, a Bangladeshi worker died after falling off the edge of a building at a construction site.

Migrant workers generally earn $13-57 for 10-12 hours of work. Sometimes, they work for three months at a stretch. Some workers can afford to visit their homes only once in three-four years. Male workers live in cramped dormitories. Women, most of whom are domestic workers, live with the families they work for. “Many employers of both domestic and construction workers take away mobile phones and confiscate passports too,” says Md Sharif Uddin, an author whose memoir of living as a migrant worker in Singapore won the Best Non-Fiction Title at the Singapore Book Awards last year. Stranger To Myself (2017), which also has a collection of his poems, talks about inhumane working conditions and his longing for home.

Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district.
Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district. (Photo: Reuters)

The stories that don’t make news are narrated by migrant workers themselves. Madhavan, with Zakir Hossain Khokan—a TEDxSingapore speaker who encourages migrant workers to be vocal about their problems through art and literature—has just wrapped up production of their short film, Salary Day. It highlights how a worker’s meagre monthly salary of SGD$450 (around 23,000) finishes on the first day itself after he pays off debts, buys basic necessities and sends some money home.

Another Indian worker, N. Rengarajan, in his poem Life Overseas: Pluses And Minuses (originally written in Tamil), narrates what it is like to live in a foreign land where they can “buy everything that has a price” but not “love and affection”. Thirty women domestic workers have penned down their experiences in a book, Our Homes, Our Stories, released in 2018.

Sherwin Mendoza of De Anza College in California, in his paper Singapore’s Migrant Worker Poetry, Worker Resistance, And International Solidarity, released in July, writes that such poems are part of the “broad continuum of working-class poetry”.

For Rengarajan, the 33-year-old from Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai who has been working in Singapore since 2014—first as a construction worker and now as a supervisor—poetry “fills the vacuum” in his life. “I write even in my sleep,” laughs Rengarajan, who won the third prize in the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 for Lessons From Circumstances.

For Khokan, 41, winner of the 2014 competition, poetry “soothes and enriches” the soul. Indonesian domestic worker Deni Apriyani, 29, who won the same competition in 2017 for her poem Further Away, says writing gives her “a sense of liberation”.

Yeo Siew Hua, the Singaporean director of A Land Imagined, a film on migrant workers in the city state, says film and literature help create awareness of injustice.

Some Singapore-based independent publishers, such as Math Paper Press, Landmark Books and Ethos Books, have released anthologies and books carrying translated versions of the poems as well as memoirs written by the migrant workers in their mother tongues. Their aim is to nurture these voices in the growing literary community in Singapore.

Locals have started helping migrant workers to get their voices heard. A Bengali paper, Banglar Kantha, has reserved space for Bangladeshi workers-turned-poets to showcase their literary work, while a cultural space called Dibashram has come up in Little India, a migrant-worker dominated area, to showcase their music and poetry. Sing Lit Station, a non-profit literary group, conducts writing workshops for migrant workers.

In this nanny state which keeps a strict vigil on its people, migrant workers often “self-censor” their poetry. “They haven’t written as much on issues such as work-injury related claims and employer apathy. They fear that if they write about these issues, they will be sent back home,” says Das. Starvation, penury and death, however, are often addressed in poems.

Filipina worker-turned-poet Rolinda Onates Espanola, in her poem My Story, which won the 2016 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, highlights the torture of domestic worker Thelma Oyasan Gawidan by her employers. The employers were eventually convicted and jailed in 2017.

It reads: Not allowed handphone not allowed to bathe every day even brushing teeth too/ Can’t talk to anybody not even to my fellow Filipino/ Worst to my disgrace, noodles and slices of bread is my only sustenance.

Sharif Uddin writes about an Indian construction worker, Velu, who was knocked down by a bus in 2013, in Velu And A HistoryLook, there Velu goes with empty hands/ while Development, Progress, Civilization laughs.

In an untitled poem, Madhavan writes about how migrant workers sell everything to come to work in Singapore.

A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore.
A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore. (Photo: Reuters)

Sold off agricultural land/ Left the farming job/ Stepped on to the aeroplane and landed in another land/ Woke up early morning and hurried to shed the tears/blood.

A graduate in civil engineering from Chennai’s Sree Sastha Institute of Engineering and Technology, Madhavan would have stayed back in India if job prospects had been better. He began penning his thoughts, and months after arriving in Singapore in 2016, submitted a poem on food scarcity, titled Offering To God, to Das’ poetry competition. Shortlisted as among the best 12 entries, it motivated him to write more. His poem Empty World, on his desire to meet his fiancée, featured in an anthology of poems called Call And Response, published by Math Paper Press, in which 30 migrant poets paired with local writers last year.

Select publishers may have provided space to such workers but writer Cyril Wong is doubtful if mainstream publishers would take a chance on the work of migrant workers not writing in English. “It would take forever for any migrant worker to gain enough social and cultural traction in order to penetrate mainstream writing. Which migrant worker has the time to gain such traction?” asks Wong, who helped Bangladeshi migrant-worker poet Md Mukul Hossine “transcreate” his book of poems, Me Migrant, in 2016

Indeed, writing comes to them only after a day’s hard work, when they are travelling back to their residences in the empty MRT, bus or company van.

Singaporean film-maker Upneet Kaur-Nagpal, who made the documentary Poets On Permits (2017), featuring five workers-turned-poets, says the conversation about migrant workers is growing, but it still lacks empathy. They are individuals with “dreams, aspirations, joys and fears, familiar to all of us”, she adds.

It’s a long haul but the poetry competition has given them recognition, says Madhavan. “Because of our literary accomplishments showcased at the competition, we have made a place in the heart of a few locals,” he says. “Sometimes, when we eat our lunch at food courts, locals smile at us and say makan well (meaning “eat well” in Malay).”

One of their biggest dreams is to go back home—but they often feel they have no choice. “My family takes lot of pride that I live in Singapore. It is difficult to explain to them my condition here,” says Sharif Uddin, who has been home only four times in 11 years.

Sometimes, huge debts back home tie them to the jobs forever.

And there is never enough money, as Rengarajan writes in his poem MoneyA peculiar disease/ The world’s deadliest afflictions/ cancer, AIDS, ebola/ even love/kill by their presence./ Money alone kills by absence.

Madhavan, however, is looking forward to going home in November for his wedding and saving enough to bring his wife along. For home is where there is hope—“a hope for a new beginning”.

The story was published in Lounge, the Sunday edition of Live Mint: August 16, 2019.



For the first time, there was no hurry to reach AIIMS today. For the first time, I reached dot on time, at 11 am. Or I would say, the second time.The first time when we got Baba to this senior cardiologist on January 1, 2014, we reached dot on time.

In all these years, his cardiologist had been extremely patient with me, answering all my weird questions starting with “what if.” In my earlier days, I used to go with long questionnaire and he would answer them, one by one. He never disappointed us. It was he who taught us, don’t be worried as long as you are doing things in good faith. Perhaps, it was Baba and his cardiologist who were never worried about Baba’s health post stroke. Baba would always give a wide smile whenever he visited him. In fact, he gave that smile to all his doctors, sometimes, I think, the doctors would have thought, if all’s well with the patient, why the hell was this hyper-active daughter worried unnecessarily!

Anyway, as I said, today there was no hurry and there was no worry either. I went to give away Baba’s pacemaker (CRT-D) to his cardiologist so that he could donate it to someone needy. I would say, it’s been eight months since Baba left but it took me near about five months to inform him that he is not there. And it was only earlier this week we could talk and I expressed our family’s desire to give away the pacemaker.

Yesterday, for the first time, I looked at the tiny oval thing. I felt it was a part of Baba which I was giving away. This pacemaker did give him a new lease of life, it reduced the chance of another stroke as it could control the irregular heartbeat. If Baba ever fell down, the first thing we checked was if the pacemaker was running okay, but every time, we saw Baba protecting it with his hand.

Today, when I was giving it away, I feel indebted to it for being there even when I couldn’t be there. It didn’t fail him even when his organs started failing, one by one. His heart was running perfect, we were told, on that night.

As I was meeting his specialist, I broke down. I broke down because I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that today, I have nothing to discuss about Baba’s health with his doc, no reports to show, no advice to take, no consultation on which medicine should stop and no informing him about my father’s next visit to Delhi so that I can bring him for a check-up. I broke down as I was feeling guilty that there were days when I got irritated because I had to go to AIIMS, had to wait there for hours, eventually got late for work. It wasn’t easy sometimes. But today, there was nothing to do. Today, even the wait wasn’t long. Today, when I was walking down to the OPD from the parking area, I recalled the last time I visited AIIMS in May, with Baba. Even that day, I got a bit hassled because it took more than three hours with his check-up and tests etc.

Today, there was no hurry, there was no delay. But there was a void, there was an emptiness. No doctor, no medicine can fill it.

[Not disclosing the name of the doctor because I didn’t ask for his permission].


The pungent smell of herbal medicines hangs heavily in the air. Packets of adult diapers lie on the floor. A tall frail man sits on a bed, holding a book in his hands. He smiles with evident pleasure at the cover and fumbles with his glasses. An aide comes forward and places his spectacles firmly on his nose. Now he can see better — and his smile broadens as he looks at his photograph on the cover of the book.

It’s his own biography — written by Kannada writer J.B. Moras — that brings a smile to George Fernandes’s face. The politician, suffering from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, has lost most of his memory. But he knows who he is.

“He is absolutely child-like now — but it seems that he still remembers himself as George Fernandes,” says Jayati Leila Kabir, the former defence minister’s separated wife who is now back in his life after 25 years.

It’s a reunion that has kicked up a furore. Fernandes’s brothers have accused Kabir of not allowing him to meet them. The 79-year-old MP’s long-time companion, politician Jaya Jaitley, too has been barred from interacting with him. But that doesn’t bother Kabir, who has taken her husband to healer Ramdev’s ashram near Hardwar for treatment. “I don’t care if someone dislikes the idea of my being with him. At this juncture, my only concern is his health,” says Leila Kabir, 73.

Some believe that at the crux of the feud over Fernandes is his property worth over Rs 26 crore. Jaitley’s camp says that his thumb impressions were forcibly affixed to documents by Leila and George’s son, Sushanto Kabir Fernandes, or Sean, as he is known. “We took the thumb impression because we want his money to be spent on his treatment,” Kabir retorts. And she, in turn, is scathing about the Fernandes brothers’ attempts to turn his property into a memorial trust. “It’s as if they are talking of him posthumously,” she says.

“For the past 25 years, I never interfered in his life, nor did I ever have any complaint against him. But now, when I know that he is suffering and there is no one to take care of him, I am here to be with him,” she says.

Kabir learnt about George’s illness in 2007 from Sean who’d just met his father in Canada. She called on him after that, and they met on a few occasions. “Despite his bad health, he came to my house in Panchsheel Park to wish me on my birthday in 2008,” says Kabir, who runs a school for underprivileged children in Delhi.

The estranged wife — out of the news for long years — made her presence felt in the run-up to the 2009 election when she made a public statement, urging that Fernandes be “protected” from the “coterie” that was pushing him to stand for elections. He had been persuaded to fight as an independent candidate from his old Muzaffarpur constituency in Bihar after he was denied a ticket by the party that he helped found, the Janata Dal (United), on health grounds. Not surprisingly, he lost the seat.

“It was a sin to push him to elections,” says Kabir, who was once awed by the charisma of “giant killer” George — an appellate that he earned when he defeated Congress heavyweight S.K. Patil to make his parliamentary debut from Mumbai in 1967.

When the once firebrand socialist — one of the mainstays of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance — was given a Rajya Sabha seat last year by his party, he was already too ill to function as a parliamentarian. Kabir went with him to the oath-taking ceremony. “I had never attended any of these ceremonies earlier, but this time I wanted to be by his side,” says Kabir, who has spent only 13 years of her married life with her husband.

The two got married on July 22, 1971, barely three months after their first conversation on a flight back to Delhi from Calcutta. George, then the general secretary of the Samyukta Socialist Party, was returning from what would be Bangladesh while Bengali Leila was on her way back home from the battlefront where she’d gone as an assistant director of the Red Cross. “He recognised me from our earlier meetings at (socialist) Ram Manohar Lohia’s house, and sat next to me. From literature to politics to music — we discussed everything. Before disembarking, he asked me if he could drop me home. A proposal which I politely refused,” says Kabir.

But she couldn’t refuse him for long. “We met frequently. A month later, he proposed marriage. I said: ‘I am a difficult person. Are you sure you want to marry me?’ He promptly replied: ‘Yes’. It was like a whirlwind,” she smiles.

Marrying a politician was not difficult for the daughter of Humayun Kabir who was a minister in Nehru’s cabinet. Her educationist father, she says, greatly influenced her life. “He taught me not to compromise ever.”

It was this that prompted her to walk out of Fernandes’s life in 1984 with Sean, then just one-and-a-half years old. The cracks in the relationship had started showing up much earlier. “We were holidaying in Gopalpur in Orissa when the Emergency was imposed. George immediately left saying he had to fight for democracy. I didn’t hear from him for the next 22 months,” Kabir recalls.

She went away to the United States with her son to stay with her brother. Later, when the Emergency was lifted, Fernandes called them back. But things had already changed by then, she says. “George was a completely different person. He was on the dizzy heights of power and position. I came back to give my son a father but the father never showed up. A lot of things had happened by then.”

Among them, she says, was the growing closeness between Fernandes and Jaitley. But despite the relationship that carried on for 25 years and more, he never divorced Leila. “When I sent the divorce papers to him, he sent me two gold bangles saying that they were his mother’s. I got the message that he wanted to convey,” Kabir says.

Her son, she adds, was “insecure” and “disturbed” about his parents’ break up. “When he saw his father engaged in another relationship, he would ask me if I planned to do the same. When I said no, he felt reassured.”

But it was their son who asked her to take care of his father at the fag end of his life. “My son realised that George had been deprived of good care. So he wanted me to be with him,” she says.

Sean, an investment banker, lives in the US with his Japanese wife and 10-month old son. During his visit to India in December last year, he stayed with his father at the latter’s official residence at Krishna Menon Marg in central Delhi. In January this year, he filed a complaint, asking the police to provide security to his immediate family and instructing the guards not to let anyone enter the house without the immediate family’s authorisation. “My son did what he thought is right,” says the mother.

Kabir stresses that all that she is doing is for the sake of Fernandes too. Now, some 200 kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of Delhi, she spends her days with him — the way she did when they got married. “He enjoyed visiting the Har ki Pauri ghat in Hardwar on Basant Panchami,” says Kabir. “In the evenings, we listen to western classical music.”

But even in these moments of togetherness, the thought of Jaya Jaitley is never too far away. “Knowing well that he must be thinking of her, I told him that Jayaji was in Chennai, which was why she couldn’t come and see him. He nodded and smiled.”

It’s time for Fernandes to go for an evening walk — a part of the treatment prescribed by Ramdev. As Kabir prepares to leave with him, I ask her — “What if he doesn’t remember you one day?”

“I know this is going to happen but I don’t fear that day. All I am happy about is that he gives me a benign smile when he sees me,” she says. And then she walks down the corridor, making a conscious effort to match her steps with those of her ailing husband.


Published in The Telegraph, January 31, 2010 :

In the past three weeks, a lot of people have asked me, what happened, why are you touring so many countries together? What is this trip all about? Work or holiday? Are you really travelling solo or you have friends with you? Then there are people who have not asked direct questions but have given me enough indications that they really find it strange that I am travelling and having fun in a year when I have suffered a major personal loss, isn’t this supposed to be a year of mourning?

Well, this post is not any clarification but only a way of expressing myself. First, I have been travelling solo for close to 9 years now, locations may not always be exotic but I have realised, traveling solo is a learning experience. Like many trips before, this too has exposed me to some harsh realities of life and I have embraced them.

But it is not that I have been really planning for this trip for the longest time. I have stopped planning things because foreseeing future is not in my to-do list anymore, I have failed in it badly. I thought of Istanbul because I heard a lot about it; going to another neighbouring country was only a “paisa vasool” strategy for this poor scribe, so it was Greece. And Almaty just happened because of some major visa issue.

Why did I travel now — the whole idea was to get confused about time zones on my birthday! I made the plan in a way that I don’t get the real sense of time — whether I am ahead or behind India time — and by how many hours— when is the midnight for me on the 26th — because I knew, for the first time in my life, the person who loved me the most would not wish me on my birthday! I was not sure how would I handle this pain of not being wished by him.

But on the 25th night before going off to bed, when I sat down in silence and closed my eyes, I actually heard Baba’s voice — he did wish me just the way he wished me before— stressing on “r” and “a” while saying, “Happy Birrthdaaay, ” in a certain familiar rhythm. I can hear it even now while writing this.

Running away from realities don’t help. We need to know, people who love us don’t go away. They are with us, always around.

On the 26th, when I came back to my hotel around 9:30 pm after an all-day walking tour, a hotel staffer came to my room with this beautiful cake. He insisted I cut it.

I would remember this pleasant surprise, always. It was very touching!


P.C — Staffer at Byzantine Suites, Istanbul.

With no real ground beneath one’s feet, all else loses meaning


Images of last week’s mid-air crisis of a Jet Airways flight reminded me of one summer evening when I was flying back to Delhi from Gorakhpur in an ATR carrier (AI 9810) — a small craft running on a twin-engine turboprop. The initial 10 minutes were fairly pleasant. It was late in the evening and there wasn’t much to appreciate in the sky, so I chose to sleep for a while. As I prepared to adjust my head over the tiny tray table, I felt myself flung up for about two seconds. Almost immediately after, I fell back into my seat. Perplexed, I was about to check if my seat belt was still fastened when I was up in the air again. This time, my head touched the ceiling.

By now I could only hear screaming passengers behind me — I was in the second row from the front. My eyes moved around looking for unperturbed faces, I couldn’t find any.

Suddenly, there was an eerie silence. There wasn’t any announcement by the crew preparing us for the worst or trying to calm us down either. I noticed an elderly woman shaking as she struggled to fasten her seat belt. A young girl to my left sat straight, holding the hands of her younger sibling. My gaze turned to the floor beneath and I discovered that my pen, identity card, phone and recorder were all down there.

“My phone, my phone,” I murmured. I didn’t have the strength to unfasten my seatbelt and collect my valuables. My co-passenger, a burly man who looked confident of overcoming the crisis with a Hanuman Chalisa, picked it all up for me.

As I put away my belongings into my handbag hurriedly, I recalled that my mother had warned me not to carry this tote bag without a zipper. It got me wondering for a bit — can mothers foresee things? I could almost hear her saying, “Ei jonyei toh bolechhilam, tora shunish na toh karur kotha… I told you so, but you people never pay heed to anyone.”

For about 10 minutes, there was no up-in-the-air moment but there were sudden drops, jerks, vibrations and swings. Or was I imagining things? As the aircraft kept circling around, the regrets swirled in my head — unnecessary arguments and pending apologies — I suppose, just the way they do in the last moments of one’s life.

From my window seat, I could only see a red light flashing on the wings of the aircraft. Did it mean that the end was near and that the plane would eventually crash? How would I jump off the aircraft at the time of the emergency landing? Why did I never bother to listen to the safety instructions decoded by flight attendants? If the plane crashes, would my colleagues in the media have to cover this accident? Would they be able to locate me in the debris? Would I be able to see my parents ever again? How would my parents cope with this sudden loss? Would this crisis turn out to be a hindrance for my sister who was about to fly off to Singapore, where she had taken up a new job?

As I was battling these thoughts, all at one go, I felt miserable that my Gorakhpur story was only half done and my deadline, two days later. I kept wondering if my sister would be able to access my mail and send the transcribed interview to my editor. That way I would have met the deadline of my ‘last’ story.

I realised this anxiety was making things worse for me. So I started to meditate, trying to connect with my inner self. After a while, a sense of graceful acceptance of the imminent end had set in. “If this is a closure, let it be, I am prepared,” I told myself. My head was not spinning anymore. I was much calmer inside, as if I suddenly conquered my fear. I looked out of the window again — the flashing red light didn’t bother me at all.

I craned my neck a bit to look down. Far off, beneath us, I could see some lights twinkling. On other days, I would have clicked a few photographs. That day, these things didn’t seem to matter anymore. In the meantime, the airplane’s cabin lights had been dimmed — final moments of descent.

The landing was surprisingly smooth. I assumed this was the happy ending to a traumatic flying experience.

I was wrong. Even now, four months later, the slightest air turbulence reminds me of the horrifying experience. But then, I immediately recall how my father was amused to see me scared and hear my presumably “near-death” experience. He simply laughed it off. Surely he didn’t want me to get affected by one bad experience of flying. I remember he said, “Ei rakom hotei pare, kintu eto bhoy pawar ki achhe?… It can happen, but why should you get so scared?

Innovative ways of getting in and out of relationships

Sonia Sarkar

A few weeks ago, a friend conducted a poll on Twitter. The question: If you had to end a friendship, what would you do – ghost or drift or confront or write a letter? To this, 53 per cent said they would like to drift, 20 per cent went with the letter option, 11 per cent chose to confront and 16 per cent said they would prefer to ghost. Ghosting, according to the, is the practice of ending a personal relationship by suddenly and without explanation ceasing all communication. Usage. “I thought ghosting was a horrible dating habit reserved for casual flings.”

Having been ghosted at least once, I could not agree more with the above sentence. But ask the person who ghosts and he or she would say it’s the easiest thing to do. Stop taking calls, stop replying to text messages, mail, stop explaining what went wrong, no hints, just cut yourself off. Easy.

Ghosting is a 21st century dating phenomenon. Since a fair many relationships these days are born off dating apps such as Tinder, happn, OkCupid, where you select soulmates with a left swipe or right, a lot of time is spent knowing each other just virtually. So when things lose their zing, it’s easier to ghost by “blocking” the person.

But if you are nodding and thinking this is a college-goer or a 20-something problem, you couldn’t be more wrong. You could be ghosted by a man in his 30s or 40s – we’ll come to the women in due course. Someone whose profile descriptor reads “progressive and liberal”. He could be a professor who loves to discuss Marxism over a glass of Old Monk or an engineer who is a self-proclaimed poet or a documentary filmmaker who looks genuinely concerned about the rise of young Right-wingers in the country. Then, just when you start to get along, one fine day, he disappears. And you are left wondering why such a “progressive and liberal” man hesitated to tell you that it’s not happening and he would like to move on. After all, you do deserve to know where you went wrong. What’s more, you might also like to hold on to that tiny little skein of hope that he might come back.

A friend who is aware of the trend has a theory. She says even liberal men get intimidated by career-minded independent women and find it difficult to handle them. They know such women will ask for a reason for the break-up and they do not have a convincing reason to offer. Does that mean women don’t ghost at all? No, they do too. The friend reasons, “Sometimes women think informing the other about the decision might force them to stick around longer and get stuck in this unnecessary but unavoidable rigmarole of accusations, counter accusations and sorting out. That is why they choose to disappear.”

Ghosting isn’t an Indian phenomenon either. In 2012, the Journal of Research in Personality, an academic journal focussing on personality psychology and published by Dutch publishing house Elsevier, listed “avoiding/withdrawing from contact with your partner – like not answering texts or calls” as one of the top break-up strategies the world over. Internationally, psychologists say, these days, everyone wants ways for “easy in” and “easy out”. You are most likely to be ghosted the moment you dare to ask, “Where is this going?”

Of course, if you have been there and done this long enough, you will be able to tell a ghost early on – guys who are effusive in private but refuse to even hold hands in public or someone who never makes definite plans to get together.

And it’s not a way to exit “casual flings” alone. Many choose to end steady relationships by ghosting. A friend was ghosted by an ambitious professional she dated for barely three months. The man, however, reconnected with her on several occasions thereafter for work. He follows her on Twitter. Over the past few years, he has sought her help for business contacts, inputs, information on a fellowship she cracked, etc. But not a word on why he disappeared and never replied to her personal messages.

Was he a coward to have avoided a confrontation or smart to keep the professional equation intact, or simply shameless to even ask for help from a person he dumped without any explanation?

So is this breadcrumbing?  if you go by this blog (, “breadcrumbing is essentially exactly what it sounds like: Leaving little tiny fictitious crumbs for another person to latch on to, leading them on even when you’re basically over it.” The writer further adds, ” Unlike ghosting, breadcrumbing doesn’t end all communication. Instead, breadcrumbing is the deceptive practice of giving someone just enough to keep them interested, even when you’re not. Breadcrumbing keeps someone around at your liking, taking the form of a half-hearted Instagram “like” once every two weeks, or even a text once every few months.”

Perhaps, these men who ghost or breadcrump won’t know these terms but they should certainly know that what they do amounts to emotional abuse.
But then, chin up girls…I am sure, by now, you know whom to avoid on dating sites — The phone is aflutter with new notifications and to swipe is but reflex action. Cheers!
( A version of the story appeared in The Telegraph, India. This article is an edited version after being published in The Telegraph)

THE FINGERTIPS of the cobbler have turned yellow and pale. He must has been mending and polishing shoes for years, I assume. For me, the smell of polish and glue in his colourful boxes – black, brown and chocolate – brings a sense of identity and a sense of a home; a home which is not there anymore.

Standing on platform No. 1 of Dhanbad station, suddenly, this smell sparks a flurry of childhood memories – memories of several train journeys from Dhanbad to Calcutta, along with my parents and sister.

  • File photograph of a double decker train at Dhanbad

Black Diamond Express is usually on time. Even today, it leaves Dhanbad station at 4.25pm, as scheduled. As its wheels and piston gyrate over the rugged tracks, my mind begins to ooze nostalgia.

I recall how these five-hour-long train journeys led to endless conversations with my father about many things: the class-divide in our society, the need for civil resistance in a democracy, the roots of the Naxalbari movement in Bengal, many more such and similar things.

When we (my sister and I) were much younger, travelling with him would mean brushing up on general knowledge. Every time the train stopped at a station – Asansol, Andal, Durgapur – there was something new to learn about the place or its neighbourhood.

As a child I felt a certain sense of joy when the train arrived at Durgapur. Suddenly the black, dusty roads disappeared, an indication that we were leaving the coal belt and nearing Calcutta. I loved the fact that the next few days would be different – free of coal dust, potholes and incessant power cuts. We couldn’t imagine our life in Dhanbad without any of these evils though. Over a period of time, we even stopped complaining. In fact, we learnt to laugh at our own miseries like many others who lived in what was still Bihar.

  • File photograph of illegal coal loading in Black Diamond Express at Dhanbad Station

One may remember how the former chief minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad, coined a metaphor for bad roads that later entered the lexicon of political hyperbole. He said, “Bihar ke sadkon ko Hema Malini ke gaal ke tarah chikna bana denge (We will make Bihar’s roads as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks).”

Needless to mention, that never happened. Taking potshots at him, there was another joke that did the rounds. ” Sadke Hema Malini ke gaal ke tarah toh bani nahin, Om Puri ke gaal ke tarah ban gayi (The roads never became like Hema Malini’s cheeks but they certainly remind us of Om Puri’s cheeks.)” No offence to the late actor though!

Neither my parents nor I live in Dhanbad anymore but I must admit that the thought of potholes and coal dust makes me nostalgic today.

There is something else that is making me nostalgic now. It’s the smell of the scrumptious singara (samosa) served to a burly co-passenger by a vendor at Burdwan station. The man also asks a teaseller to pour him some tea. “Beshi chini nei toh (Hope there isn’t too much sugar in it),” he asks. The teaseller replies, ” Roj sokale morning walk korun (Go for morning walks every day)!” The man is at a loss of words. He probably never expected repartee like this.

While travelling alone, overhearing conversations of others makes a train journey interesting for sure.

If you are lucky, you may get to hear some interesting monologues too. Say for this one by a man trying to sell “air-conditioned” socks. He says, ” Apni hoyto bhabchhen ami bhaat bokchhi, kintu motei na… shei Black Diamond jakhon double decker chhilo, takhon theke ami jinish bikri korchhi (You may think I am talking gibberish but that’s not the case. I have a reputation of selling things on this train for many years, since when it had double decker coaches).”

Now the mention of double decker coaches reminds me of another eventful journey when I had lost my way to my seat. But of that, another day!

For now, it’s time to get off at Howrah with a fresh sense of longing for Dhanbad.

July 9, 2017. The Telegraph.



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