Hand-holding in the Streets

"I didn’t know who I was when I held my brother and played with him, nor when he clung to my neck with three rolls of fat making up his arms. That consciousness of self-hood was to develop in the coming years.”

‘To hold each other’s hands is to have balance.

Yet it also means having their weight with you,
should there be a sudden fall.” – D. E. Chaudron, Your Body, An Altar.

I keep wondering now if I could have felt differently about the whole thing as a child. Or rather, to understand why I found it so irritating after all. Seven years of being the youngest in the family had perhaps imbued me with an acceptance for solitude that I was never to shake off from myself, not even when my brother was born, his bulging cheeks and tiny blue eyes making him look like a little China doll which was too stout to fit into baby clothes. I didn’t know who I was when I held him and played with him, nor when he clung to my neck with three rolls of fat making up his arms. That consciousness of self-hood was to develop in the coming years, with the continuance of my role as the youngest sibling when it came to running errands and getting groceries from the local market for the house, because my father was never available and my mother was either busy with her clinic, or with the screaming, fussing, rash-covered infant who seemed to be allergic to clothes. 

That particular awareness of being a separate entity solidified, however, before puberty arrived with its many consequences. It changed my body in ways that I didn’t notice, or even fully understand—sexual differentiation wasn’t taught in school before sixth grade, though we were already beginning to menstruate almost a couple of years earlier. It was a global occurrence according to statisticians, attributed to saturated food items and a sedentary lifestyle in urban settings that was considered unhealthy for growing children. My mother noticed what I didn’t, and gave me a simplistic explanation of the biological changes that I was experiencing, but left me to try to untangle them from the social ones for myself. Along with the almost ritualized gifting of sports bras, she laid down a new rule for me: now I had to take my brother along whenever I went out to the local market.

He was no older than four or five at the time, and I had begun to find him dull company with my newly- acquired sense of self. I gaped at her, deflating. ‘Why do I have to take him along? What good will that do to me or him?’ ‘It’s not safe for you to go out alone,’ she would say, in a final sort of way that brooked no argument. ‘Nothing has ever happened! And I’ve always gone out alone before, and besides, he doesn’t want to go with me!’ I would splutter, and really, he would wail and cry if dragged out of the house without being bribed in some way, with the promise of toys or sweets. But my mother was adamant; if I had to go out for any necessary buying of stationery items for school, or for any other purpose, he would accompany me, whether the two of us liked it or not.

Much as I disliked the idea of being saddled with a preschooler who kept stepping into ditchwater and potholes on the road if not warned about them, I hated the battle that ensued every time I wanted to step out of the house even more. I wasn’t used to imposing my will on someone, especially not a stubborn little boy who aspired to the life of Peppa Pig and his family, and spent most of his time surfing YouTube for content. When I did manage to bribe him into coming along with me, a sullen silence would reign between us all the way. Irritated by what I saw as the completely senseless and arbitrary condition of being accompanied by him everywhere I went, I would deliberately not talk to him until we reached the market, silently holding on to his chubby hand as the only avowal of any ties between us. When the fight was more tiresome, and my irritation drove me to a cruelty that I hardly recognized as part of myself, I would tell him to walk at a distance of two feet from me, so that we wouldn’t be seen together. I was slowly learning what I had never known before- how to force someone to obey me, and how to punish them when they did not comply with what I wanted or needed. Without knowing it, I was becoming part of the world of adults who wielded power in all their relations and spared nobody, not even the children who depended on them for survival. I had self- identified as the evil, domineering sister and didn’t know how to act otherwise.

Then, one day, his hand slipped from mine.

It happened when we were in the midst of a crowd. A cow had grown offended at being shooed away from the vegetable carts by the side of the road, and it charged and head-butted the vendor. Suddenly and inexplicably, without knowing what had happened, a frisson of fear passed over the tight knot of people gathered by the roadside, scattering them like particles bombarded with energy. When the moment of unknowing fright had passed, I looked around wildly- my brother was nowhere to be seen. Did you leave him alone to save yourself? a voice inside my head asked in amusement. I walked back rapidly, looking for him all around, trying to not betray how much hatred I began to feel for myself, for my selfishness, for abandoning him when he had been holding on to my hand with such trust. Along with all of this was a sense of panic, a knot in my side; what if I couldn’t find him now, and what if something had happened to him? A kindly old man, seeing how disturbed I looked, asked me if I was alright. ‘A small boy, blue eyes…his head reached my elbow, I was holding his hand but it slipped from my grasp…have you seen him?’ But even before I had completed my question, my brother emerged from what seemed like the abdomen of a tight knot of people close by, cool and unperturbed. I looked at him and almost broke down into tears of relief. He seemed unaffected, however, making fun of the whole incident— perhaps he had grown up far more than I noticed. Perhaps he did not need me as much as I thought after all.

I still held on to his hand firmly all the way back.

  “Hands,” said Mary Ruefle, with what I imagine must have been a pensive, wistful smile, “are unbearably beautiful. They hold on to things. They let things go.” I didn’t know, for the longest time, what I wanted to hold on to, and what I wanted to let go. As we grew older, my brother and I both became more self- willed; he refused to accompany me all the time, and I learned how to slip out of the house without explicitly asking for permission. Our worlds coalesced around our friends, school and interests, tied to the same roots but growing apart all the time. I resisted staying in the same city where I’d grown up for my college years, and moved to Delhi with a certain headstrong determination that I had to learn how to survive on my own, no matter what the cost may be. He was still in middle- school when I shifted, and slowly took over the role that I had fulfilled for years, only rebelling every now and then (but especially when I returned home for the holidays) when asked to make chai for everyone.

  I had more to learn in the days to come than he did, however. Delhi was an unexplored cave into which I had wandered, armed with a few meagre qualities of idealism and righteous anger. How was one to survive in an atmosphere of alienation, aggression and the most jarring forms of social segregation along the lines of caste, class, religion and gender with the aid of just these qualities? How do we begin to conceive of peace while living in a hostile environment?  I would walk back from college to the P.G. facility where I lived every day, counting my own footsteps all the way. If I chanced to meet a friend as I walked, we fell into conversation gladly- but as we approached a turn where our ways became separate, we inevitably let go of each other.

Olivia Laing, when writing about her experience being lonely as a young adult in New York, talked of loneliness being accretive, growing around a person, extending and perpetuating itself, and once impacted, being by no means easy to dislodge. I wondered often if that was the problem with me; had I become so comfortable with solitude that I hadn’t learned how to hold on to people strongly enough? Or even if I held on, perhaps I let go of them too easily, comforted by my preference for solitude rather than company which required one of us to take an extended route, one that we would not have taken if alone. And a helpless, simmering question would foist itself on my ideas of equality and companionship: how does one forge any relationship without being indebted to the other?

Then, as if ordained by Murphy’s Law, things became inexplicably worse, even though causality is always a pertinent question for the more philosophical and analytical among us. It stemmed from a chance visit to the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya, arguably one of the most ‘spiritual’ places in Delhi. I still cringe when I write about it, imagining the horror that friends who read this might feel. Or perhaps not—too many of us have faced sexual harassment and molestation to be surprised by another story about it. Most people, however، suppress these experiences successfully, accepting it as simply another part of the sordid reality that we must face every day, just like the social segregation and the alienation that grows among us every single day. I failed at this miserably. On my way back from the shrine, as I took an auto with my roommate to get to Nizamuddin metro station, I felt something poking me in the posterior. I hurriedly sat down, thinking it must be a mistake. But it wasn’t— a mistake. A fakir stood beside the auto, leering at us, hand outstretched. When neither of us responded, he placed his hand on my knee, and  I froze. I froze, knowing that it was his finger which—

At that moment, all my outspokenness vanished; I was a mute child, trying to point the hand out to my roommate, because for some reason my mouth had stopped working, the words I uttered were no longer comprehensible. I whispered in her ear that he has been touching me inappropriately, but she couldn’t hear me over the sound of the auto. She guessed that something was wrong, however, and told him sharply to pull the hand away. We urged the autowallah to drive quickly, to move on. Once back in my hostel, I howl in the shower for a long, long time, wishing myself dead. Memories of being molested as a child resurface, and I was lost trying to make out reality from nightmare, afraid of sleeping on my stomach anymore, waking up screaming at the slightest sound…constantly tired out by dreams of being abused by strangers in the street, monkeys in the jungle…perpetrators who are nameless, faceless, never to be accounted for by the law…

A couple of days later, I summoned the courage to attend classes again. Normally, I didn’t abide by the unacknowledged gender segregation according to which girls sit on the right side in class, and boys on the left. But that day, I walked in with a rawness that threatened me with disproportionate volatility. I slid into an empty bench on the right side, and hid my face behind my laptop screen, not wanting to be visible. I could already see the left side looking at me and whispering. My eyes smarted with tears of anger and rage at having to know more of violence than them, and being able to do nothing about it. The lecture made my stomach churn with the urge to yell at everyone who didn’t experience the injustice of the world firsthand. And before the class had ended, I found myself too overwhelmed to remain sitting silently, and walked out with my bag, afraid of what I might betray of myself in helpless rage. It took days and days and days for me to let go of acute suffering, of hurting myself with questions that had no answers and angrily denouncing everyone and everything in the world when they could not change the way things were even slightly.

What did I want to hold on to? What did I want to let go? At first it didn’t matter; the brain retains its own significant memories, and I bolstered everything I felt as a consequence of my brain’s decisions to remember certain events as more important than others. But following this theory was like giving in to relentless torture at the hands of an adversary who has an advantage over you in being unseen…and the more you didn’t fight back, the more it began to influence you and your life. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to revive that small voice in your head which says, I will not concede to being controlled by my subconscious. I will not allow myself to be eroded by the binary of oppressor and oppressed. As the memory of helplessness grew more distant, I realized what I wanted to say while fighting back. I will hold on to the hope that things will be better than they are now, and I will let go of the thoughts that convince me that this is impossible to practically realize.

The next time I faced harassment in the street (because there was always a next time in Delhi) was in broad daylight. Two boys in an e- rickshaw whistled and leered at me as I was walking back from college, while an uncle standing by the side of the road watched it happening silently. Anger took hold of me again, but I tried my best to remain rooted. I didn’t isolate myself this time, and didn’t fall silent beyond explanation. I confided in my friends, whose horror was the only outward channeling of the incident that acknowledged what it is to be unsafe every minute and every hour. One of them offered to accompany me to the P.G. after class, and I declined immediately; the idea of being dependent on someone else for ensuring my safety was a crutch that I did not want to rely on. He brought up the offer again the next day, and I declined once more. Then, one day, when it was almost evening by the time college ended, he simply walked beside me all the way to the P.G., keeping up a conversation that hardly let me notice that this was not the route he usually took. By the time I reached the hostel, a lump of gratitude made  itself felt in my throat. For the first time in many days, I did not think of what new trouble may fall on me at every step. Not because he ensured my safety, but because I was drawn out of my spiral of anxious thoughts by his company and conversation. And though there was a consciousness of being indebted to him in a way, there was also the sweet half- relief of knowing that a debt of friendship, a debt of simple kindness saves us from alienation, from the agony of being trapped in a hell from which there is no liberation, no salvation, whether in wakefulness or in sleep.

That night I stayed awake thinking of what it means to be in someone’s debt, whether for protection, love or companionship. How is such a debt to be paid off? And how is one to judge who is the one in debt, and who is the one to whom the debt is owed? My mother had placed me in my four- year- old brother’s protection, but I had often found myself becoming his protector, instead of the other way round. Did I resent him for being indebted to my protection while the world saw things only from a gendered perspective? Did I always see his company as a burden instead of an opportunity to grow close to him? I wonder if life would have been more pleasant had I softened and befriended him on those trips to the market…perhaps I could have liked Peppa Pig too, and he would have grown to enjoy my company…perhaps I would have been less prone towards anger, more towards love…

I have often found myself repelled by the overt sentimentalism that has made us view the heart, culturally, as the seat of all emotion, and particularly of love. There is something so mechanical in the durability of the heart throughout our lives that we hardly acknowledge the importance of its role in helping us survive all sorts of days. And yet the longing for softness, for the capability to turn towards what offers us hope, never fully lets go of us.“The heart is the toughest part of the body,” acknowledged Carolyn Forche, in her poetry collection, The Country Between Us, “Tenderness is in the hands.” Ever since I came across this quote, my mind kept returning to it frequently, speculating about a way to reach the heart through the hands. The next time I went home, I began to look for opportunities to spend more time with my brother. I told my mother one day that I was going out to have pani batasha from the chaat stall two streets away. She agreed readily enough; she seemed to have more confidence in me now, having seen me survive in a strange city, despite everything. But I postponed the outing when I heard that my brother was asleep. “He likes pani batasha too, he kept mentioning it over the phone,” I said, “I’ll go out with him when he wakes up.” She smiled, but didn’t say anything. Another hour passed before he woke up. He was still rubbing his eyes when I asked him if he wanted to go have street food, but he agreed immediately. We walked all the way, and he chatted about his newly- formed football team, whose teammates kept bumping into him everywhere. I listened to him now, learning about his team which had both junior and senior players, about his friends who are not as tall as he is, and who gets injured most easily while playing…he forgot to look out for the traffic while talking, and I exclaimed, “Look out!” and involuntarily reached out my hand to him as a bike swiveled past us, narrowly missing him. He didn’t think twice before putting his hand in mine—an old childhood custom almost naturalized in this simple act of trust. I looked askance at the hand, grown so large now that I end up clutching at his palm with my fingers. I laughed a little, remembering how his chubby fingers used to hold on to mine once…how the whole of my hand is only the size of his palm now…I kept walking, undeterred by the green traffic light just ahead of me, tenderly attached to him by the mere tips of my fingers. He followed, the light reflecting in his eyes.