How to have better (and meaningful) conversations.

One of the questions I get asked most commonly when I talk about my work is “how do you get people to tell you all these intimate stories of their lives?”. Umm, I don’t really know. I don’t have a strategy. I just love talking to people and have been doing this for really long, so I hadn’t really formally thought about it. Then recently, I found myself reading and listening about conversations, trying to learn from the best conversationists I know, and analysing what I do, realising that there were indeed some very specific steps I had followed that worked.

Now, I am by no means an expert, but over the years with conversations being integral to the work I do, I have come to develop some of these skills and they have been immensely useful – the conversations I have had have inspired me, brought me jobs, taught me so much of what I know, and given me a strange kind of robust support system, one that involves intimate friendships that I can count on as also a whole world full of strangers to learn from. Conversations have seen me through my worst times and humbled me through my best. I have found belonging in the world through these conversations. Which is why, I thought I would put down some notes of what I learnt about meaningful conversations while interacting with strangers as my day job. Kio Stark, who talks about stranger interactions, describes this pleasure of conversations beautifully: “This is almost poetic. These were really profound experiences. They were unexpected pleasures. They were genuine emotional connections. They were liberating moments”.

So, I wanted to write down what I learnt, also as an invite for people to experience the joys of it.

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Before I get started, let me add two qualifiers.
(1) No, I am not fully an extrovert (if we were to at all conform to that dichotomy). I love people, and I get a lot of my energy from talking to people, can open up to anyone, but I am also terrified of large gatherings and large group conversations and will usually occupy an observatory corner spot when I do attend those, love spending conspicuous long amounts of time alone and preferably even away from the internet and cannot have small talk to save my life (no seriously, if you put a gun by my head and told me to have small talk or you will kill me, I will die). The point being, this isn’t an extrovert or introvert-oriented list.
(2) As many stories I have of the most fantastic conversations, I have also messed up more times that I would like to admit, in more ways that I fully comprehend, and have my own share of dramatically embarrassing moments. I shall spare you the details, but this list also encompasses the lessons I have learnt after.

Anyway. Without further ado, here is a seven-point non-preachy checklist for having better, more meaningful conversations, with about anyone:

  1. Do your homework – get your foundation right

“Despite how open, peaceful, and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you, as deeply as they’ve met themselves.” – Matt Kahn

You are “people”. You cannot have a deep and meaningful conversation with someone else if you have never had one with yourself. The best conversations have elements of wholeness, of thoughts and opinions that are connected to beliefs and values, and by extension, to feelings and emotions. One cannot respond authentically to a story about sadness and hurt, for example, if one has no idea how it feels to experience sadness and hurt. You don’t have to have gone through what someone has gone through (and you probably never will) – but the language of emotions can become a shared vocabulary only when one can empathise with what that root feeling is.

And it is not just about responding to emotions. For someone to go to deep places within themselves in conversations, it is important to create a shared safe space where that is okay – and if you are hesitant about those spaces in your life, or if you have never gone there on your own, people know, and that will almost always block off deeper conversations.

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Let me take a moment to clarify what I mean by “deep”. I do not mean the deep dark secret places where all the TMI is stored. I mean more of the things that people hold slightly more intimately, not just in the forms of their stories, but also their perspectives; aka the places where connection happens. These places might sometimes not be as brightly lit or as happy as one would like and might indeed often have stories that are slightly hard to respond to, but in my experience, the best wisdom I have found in conversations, the parts that I have carried with me – they all come from there. And if you have never sat in those places in your own hearts, you will probably not be able to be comfortable in someone else’s deeper places.

This metaphor (also a result of a beautiful conversation) explains this beautifully: you cannot build a strong house on the surface. You are going to need a strong foundation to build a strong house. And that foundation requires some digging. If you have never got your hands dirty, that digging is going to be way harder for you.

We know this in many ways. You know how we often say “there was something about her that made me want to talk to her”? I made a list of people I would put in that  category and had conversations with them about this. And one thing struck out – they all really did inculcate those traits. Maybe they didn’t start off that way all the time, but genuine interest in someone else’s life, some measure of curiosity, a certain amount of positivity and cheer, a definite kindness – these are all things that they had consciously worked to build within themselves, and that showed. I am sure there are ways of faking this that I don’t know of, but here’s my philosophy – if I can actually be positive and kind and curious with a little bit of effort, wouldn’t that make more sense than constantly putting in the effort in pretending to be so?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Plus, in just more practical terms, this self-work is also a good way to know what works well for you, and what doesn’t, what your triggers are – and allows you to be more alert about them in the conversations.

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2. Practice good conversations

While it is completely possible to have incredible conversations by accident, it can also definitely be induced by a little effort. If you have never before had a great meaningful conversation, you wouldn’t know one when you see one. If you have never shared a deep conversation, when you have one, chances are, you might get inundated. Or let me put it this way – if you have had one of those before, you will be able to respond much better when you have one in the future.

And this is where friends come in – gather your friends, bring out your favourite drinks (and maybe a cupcake) and talk. Really talk. Ask the stupid questions. Ask the questions that came up when you tried digging on your own. Ask the questions that you always thought you should know the answers to, but aren’t fully sure. That’s where the best conversations lie. And having them with people you share some history with are the best ways to learn about the dos and don’ts of navigating these.

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Saudade (the love project) started like that. I was heartbroken in more ways than one, and the more I tried to deal with it, the more convinced I was that (a) everyone else knew some thing that I had completely missed the memo of, and (b) somehow the way I felt things was an aberration. So, trained in research methods, I decided to find out. I began to ask my friends questions like “when you say you feel hurt, what exactly does that feel like for you?” or “do you ever feel like you are hurt and that feels crappy and you want to just really wallow inside your damn warm blanket, but you also are feeling worse because you don’t want to be a victim and so you would much rather pretend like you weren’t hurt, but that only makes you more cranky” (btw, almost everyone said yes). Apart from the fact that I have absolutely fantastic friends who played along and answered my questions, I think these conversations allowed us a sneak peak into each others’ shoes in ways that we hadn’t had access to before, while at the same time giving words to our experiences. With the unintended outcome being that it helped us understand ourselves as well as the world better.

I like to think of this process as building a database – next time someone said they were hurt, I not only understood better what it means by hurt, but also have a vocabulary/ image/ context outside of myself that allows me to respond to them better because I get that a little bit more. But there was also a more nuanced outcome that came from this conversation – a subtle sense of solidarity that gets formed when you know that someone else also hurts in ways that are similar if not the same as you; a sense of comfort that comes from knowing that what we feel is slightly more normal and universal than we care we remember.

3. Prepare

As a student of theatre, I am professionally trained to improvise. And thus for the longest time, I was way too comfortable in my ability to “wing it”. I mean, I know my crap, I know how to use it and how to turn things around, what can go wrong, right?
Then one day, without intending to, I told a whole room full of people I admired, that I essentially had no idea what I was doing in my life and thus single (this is a very mellow version of what really happened). I have had a whole variety of embarrassing moments, but this one really hit me. After I got out, I dissected this: all I was expected to do was introduce myself with a very little twist in the question – how hard should that be? I introduce myself to people all the time! But I had been having a few bad days, I was tense about something, and at that point all of that was on my mind. So, in moment of panic for being put on the spot, that was the first thing my brain found. Now, I am sure most people’s brains probably do not have the same sadistic sense of humour that mine does (it is abnormally adept at always finding the most awkward thing to say with much panache), but since then I have been way more intentional about what I have most accessible in my head before I go to meet someone. And that has made a world of a difference.

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As far as possible, I try to keep at least a 30-40 min recess before and after I meet someone and use that time to “get into the zone”. I schedule a lot more time before I go for a professional meeting, but even generally I’d try to keep at least some space to gather my thoughts. It not only makes sure that I can make the most of the meeting, but also makes it possible for me to be 100% present at every meeting. When in a professional meeting, I actually have a standard set of questions that I make notes on: (a) what do I know about this person – not just in terms of what they do, but also how they think, (b) what they care about, (c) what do I know about those topics, (d) what do I want to know about those topics, and (e) what questions I have for them. I also often actually practice the introductions, or at least think about what aspect of myself I am going to highlight in the conversation, like making sure I have revised what I know about that experience. I know this sounds really strange, I mean, duh, I know everything there is to know about me. But, at least I have found it to be immensely useful to make this information readily accessible in my brain – it frees up brainspace for me to actually process what the person is saying and making all the relevant things I “know” only a few connections away from being found.

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I am a lot less organised when I meet someone for a more casual conversation, but I still take the time to just gather my thoughts – What’s on my mind? What am I looking to get out of this? How am I feeling? Taking the time to breathe. To neatly shelf out all the other thoughts that are boggling me. to ensure that I am fully present in that conversation and not trying to process something else there. It seems like an obvious thing, but at least for me, simply being intentional about it has been game-changing. It not only prevents me from doing something stupid, but also allows me the mental and emotional space to really take in whatever it is that I get in that conversation. And just generally, I think rituals help, particularly on bad days when that state of mind is harder to come by.

4. Ask good questions

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This is the simplest one to learn, and you will probably find much better resources out there on how to do this better. The thumb rules I have with my questions (some of them are on the list because I have messed this up when I didn’t follow them) are:

  • Don’t ask what you could find on Google. Or, as a friend once told me, don’t ask because you are too lazy to find those answers on your own.
  • Open-ended questions. Always. Not just in how they are framed, but mostly just making sure that the other person always has the space to explain, that this doesn’t feel like either a a job interview or a trial. When in doubt, a “why do you think” and “what do you mean by that” are the safest options.
  • Don’t ask if you are not willing to really hear the answers or if you aren’t ready to hear with an open-mind.
  • When I go with a particular end in mind, I always let the other person know that in advance or at least in the beginning of the conversation, and give context to make sure they know why I am asking. This rule is also helpful when someone else has initiated a conversation with me – it helps the conversation feel like a mutually beneficial one rather than an interrogation, because the motive is consensual and no one has anything to prove.

5. Listen. Pay attention. Be present.

Probably the most overstated advice when it comes to conversations. With good reason.

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The tips for this are classic, so I won’t get into it. But here’s something I know for sure: people know when you aren’t listening. They know when you aren’t present in that conversation. When you are not paying attention. Or when you are faking any of it. I am sure there are microexpressions and subtle cues that go into this, but regardless of how, people always know. And nothing pisses people off more. And rightly so! Almost none of us, given how we fill our calendars, have extra time lying around to spare. So if someone makes the effort to give you time and effort, it is basic manners to do all of this.

Everyone does this differently, so figure out what works for you and how you can get yourself to listen, but there is tremendous merit to doing that. But this shouldn’t be a trick, this absolutely needs to be genuine. There is nothing more condescending than someone who pretends to listen but isn’t really. Celeste Headlee, who gives this absolutely brilliant TED talk about having better conversations, says this best: “There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention”.

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6. Invite them into sense-making

This is the one tip you don’t get very often (although the same sentiment is often brought up differently in many places), but in my experience, it is mostly this that gets people to open up. Like I have said elsewhere, vulnerability is different for different people – not just in how vulnerable they are willing to be, but also what vulnerability looks like for them. Some people would be perfectly okay sharing a personal anecdote, but won’t tell you how they feel. Some would never tell you what they really think of something. Whereas some others might tell you the lessons they have learnt from their experiences, but never share the experiences.

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That being said, one of the most vulnerable things to do is to make sense of something with someone, because that encompasses all the forms of vulnerability – it requires you to accept that something doesn’t make sense to you while also allows someone else to being a part of that process, and thus, affecting you. Which is why, I have found that inviting someone to make sense of something is perhaps the most profound way to show that you are vulnerable, while allowing the other person to decide how and how much they would like to be vulnerable. They might decide to do so through their experiences or opinions or questions of their own.

At the same time though, this is also the easiest way to equalise the power in a conversation. Sure, there will always be a dynamic of slight inequality, which might have to do with experience, knowledge, age, stature or sometimes even extroversion and introversion. But, regardless of what it is in the beginning, a shared sense-making not just equalises it to a large extent by making space for that conversation to be useful for everyone involved. All of us have some questions about life, none of us have figured everything out, yet all of us know a little bit about something – inviting someone into sense-making establishes all of that as context, and builds meaning into the conversation. But when you open up the space to do this, it is the one absolute surefire way to have a fantastic conversation that people remember.

The way I usually frame this in a conversation is:
<This> is what I have been thinking about (with a line or two about why I have been thinking about it, usually involving a concrete short anecdote that allows for empathy, and why my own prep about making my thoughts accessible helps),
<This> is why I am talking to you about it (this is where the “what does the other person care about” homework comes handy),
And then opening up the space for them to comment with “what do you think about it?”.

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Almost always, the response to that includes them telling you what they know, and then also framing open-ended questions they might have – and that makes a continued conversation so much easier! Plus, in my own romantic way, I like to think that doing this allows me to connect the dots between the people I meet and the people they have known, while also learning more about the world in the process. I believe that this has not only made my conversations more meaningful and how I learnt so much of what I know through them, but has also brought me much much more belonging into the world. Just something about this process makes it easy to walk around with a curiosity mindset, to constantly learn, and while doing that, contribute to a collective sense-making about the strange world we live in, while also opening up possibilities in places and ways we did not know existed.  Also, I make notes about this, which are systematically organised and thus accessible (I use the time after a meeting to do this, or get back to it at the end of the day).

7. Follow up

Again, this part is obvious – write a thank you note, send them the resources you say you would send, and keep writing to them once in a while to stay in their memories.

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Here’s how I learnt to do it better: I write a genuine thank you note, also bringing in little snippets (a line or two) about what I learnt in that conversation – this not only helps me demonstrate that I listened and makes them feel good about themselves (and everyone keeps an email/ message that makes them feel good about themselves), but gives them a concrete context to remember me by. This context I have found super useful in keeping in touch: Say I learnt a really interesting perspective or metaphor for an issue from person A, and I use it in conversation with person B – not only does it make person B trust me more because they now know that I actually remember and listen and quote other people, but also becomes a good reason for me to write to person A and say “I was telling someone about what you said, and they said this, and I thought of you and would like you to know”, opening up more space for conversations. Moreover, this context also becomes a reason they get in touch with me – I often receive messages and emails from people because they were reminded of something I said, and a conversation thus ensues. And, of course, while doing that, I only learn more in the process. It’s a win-win-win.

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Mostly though…

(and you might already know this), conversations often do go wrong. All of us have some of those stories to share. I believe strongly that the solution to that isn’t less conversation, but more, while learning through it. To be able to laugh at that and learn from that, cliche as that sounds. At the end of the day, it is all about getting better, right? (Without, perhaps, taking ourselves too seriously!)

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Hope that helps! Would love to hear people’s thoughts on this, and/or how it goes when they do try it out!

Many good conversations to you,
jayati

Our Feminism is better than Yours.

My friend arrived for dinner visibly agitated. In one of his leadership classes, one of his classmates had shared an example of sexism at work – as an intern in a fancy firm, she was apparently kept out of the conversation in her first week by all the men she was working for. “That’s not a gender thing. Every intern goes through that”, he had protested, and had subsequently been, in his words, attacked by the other women in the class. “You feminists”, he started narrating the incident to me in anger, “so conveniently turn your weaknesses into a complaint about injustice”.

Another friend on the table chimed in, recounting his experience with feminism. He had been in a group activity in class where they had to find a solution to a hypothetical problem that involved stranded ruined planes in deserted islands. One person in the group made a “rather stupid suggestion” that the group heard out patiently, before they decided to go with the suggestion offered by another person, who did in fact, with have some flying experience. The former was a woman of colour, the latter, a white straight cis-gendered man. This distinction was pointed out by someone during the debriefing, as a sign of subtle racism and sexism working in the group dynamic; a suggestion the group found offensive. “I have nothing against feminism”, the third friend said, “I just don’t know why everything has to be about gender all the time.” The first friend nodded. The terms “humanist”, “bra-burning femin*zi”, “men’s rights” were thrown around in the conversation.

My first instinct was to judge, brand them as chauvinists. I wanted to lecture them, trace the history of feminism through the many waves and schools of thought and the broad range of issues it encapsulates, convinced that once people know the same things as me, they have to feel the same way; right? I felt like a defender of the whole feminist movement, the same way one feels about one’s family; it’s by no means perfect, but if anyone says anything against it, one must vehemently defend to protect the honour. Being a feminist has been such a huge part of who I am, of the battles I’ve fought and the things I’ve believed – this felt personal. Losing this “battle” not only meant being proven wrong, it also discredited so much of what I stood for.

One of them noticed the frustration evident on my face and changed the tone, “we are on the same side, J”. I didn’t agree with a lot of what they said, but this debate looked a lot different from the same side; it felt less like a battle. It was now no longer about who wins a territory, but rather a discussion about what is best for the territory. Suddenly my defensiveness vanished. “Feminism is complex”, I tried to summarise what I was feeling, “and it’s kind of unfair to reject an entire movement because you don’t agree with some people’s versions of it”. I confessed that I was saying this as someone who has had her fair share of tussle with several tenets of feminism – do I agree with all of them? I don’t. If feminism as a whole perfect? By no means. Is feminism still important? Yes. Absolutely.

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“What is your feminism”, one of them asked. I paused. Usually, I am pretty clear on where I stand on most issues. Pro-choice: definitely. Strongly vouch for inter-sectional conversations in feminism. Vehemently protective when any girl is accused of “asking for it”. Kind of pro-slut walks. Each of these, however, felt like different spectrums that I stood at different points on. To reduce it all to one center point where all the spectrums merge perfectly would probably be a blessing, but if it were a good idea – I wasn’t entirely sure. Also because a part of me wanted to leave the space open to change my mind on those issues, not out of flakiness, but more as openness to points of view hadn’t yet considered. Yet, some sort of allegiance felt necessary. However, on merit of the same allegiance and family metaphor, I shouldn’t have to defend my feminism – despite what places it takes on the different spectrums, they all lie within the basic tenet of equality, and thus within feminism. Why then did it require extra justification?

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Source: https://www.hercampus.com/school/utah/feminism-isnt-funnyso-why-are-people-laughing

Words from Roxane Gay’s TED talk, “Confessions of a Bad Feminist” rang true in my head: “We demand perfection from feminists, because we are still fighting for so much, we want so much, we need so damn much. We go far beyond reasonable, constructive criticism, to dissecting any given woman’s feminism, tearing it apart until there’s nothing left.” For an “intellectual issue”, there was too much feeling, too much decision making in that tiny situation on the dinner table. I could hear the responses I was used to hearing play out on cue in my head “seriously, stop being so dramatic about it”.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am dramatic. Proudly so. I also happily take the blame in being an “overthinker” who “reads too much into things”. But sitting on that table, all these thoughts and feelings stirring up inside me, I couldn’t unsee this. My discomfort came from a place of power inequality – a dynamic that I am as much to blame for playing into – but a dynamic that is very real, despite all the good intentions. A dynamic that comes from a certain assertion of normal, which puts (my) feminism outside of this “normal” forcing me, indirectly, to justify my stand to those standing within that normal to be accepted by them. “Hegemony”, I was taught this was called in college. The “normal” that was created by a group that yields power, a “normal” that gets so embedded, that everyone just assumes it is true. A normal that then becomes an ideology that makes decisions for the people within that dynamic, often without the person even realising that they are agreeing to this cultural domination. Sitting here, in this group of well-meaning men I love being asked to justify my feminism, we were all playing by this normal, perpetuating it, without really being fully aware of it.

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Source: http://www.thedickinson.net/poetry-is-the-best-medicine.html

I tell them that, as kindly as I can. Thankfully, they take a moment to take it in (or maybe just to eat their food, but I am going with the more assuring explanation of the silence that followed) before one of them responds, “but aren’t you trying to create your own hegemony, such that the new normal makes feminism the normal, and those of us outside of that now have to explain to you? Aren’t you fighting for domination, in a fight against domination?”

I could see where he was going with this. I had recently entered into one of those futile but heated Facebook debates about this with another friend, who had shared that godawful video mocking political correctness and “oppression olympics” that went viral recently (I refuse to share the link because, like, contributing to that demand (not happening!)). For those of you lucky to not have seen it, it shares the story of a “privileged man” in a classroom, who essentially gets ostracised for everything he says because it offends some group, and in the end, despite being deserving in his merit, he doesn’t win a certain prize in the math class because equity rules take away points from him and give them to others in the class. Now, if that video was more good-heartedly funny, I would have probably loved to use it engage in a discussion about the the balance between assuming good intentions and pointing out inherent deeply coded systems of injustices, something that I would love to be able to get perspectives on. But, this video made me acutely uncomfortable instead, not because of its exaggerated tone, but the crude way in which it tries to justify its message through a lens of meritocracy.

In the discussion that followed, the much-too-common debate trick of exaggerated exceptions was used neatly, wrapped in reason-appealing notions. So there was the classic “but what about the women who take advantage of these moments and cry wolf in cases of rape”, to discuss the undue misuse of feminism by women to get their way, or worse, to get attention – apparently that’s what happens when we create conditions for women to feel safe and be supported for things like rape. I would probably have agreed to the extent that men need to be given the benefit of doubt when making a decision in these cases, a narrative that sometimes gets skewed. However, the fact remains that the fight against victim shaming/blaming, the fight to give women right to complain against rape without feeling afraid is still too real. While there would definitely be cases of women misusing this power, it is still only the exception. The “self-defense murder” is used so frequently too, but one doesn’t question the need for that law. Several schools misuse the funds that they receive to improve education, but we don’t question the need to push in more funds into education. “Why then does this fight get questioned”, I asked, I must confess, rather aggressively/ defensively.

To which, another commentator said – “look at the context of the video; why does privilege need to feature in a discussion in a math class. It takes away from the learning math”. Conveniently forgotten here is the point that unfortunately that discussion hardly ever shows up in classes other than the social sciences and humanities, but I see his point. A fellow (male) feminist joined in and tried to reason with the barrage of men supporting that video. In a long back and forth that followed, on and off facebook feeds, one of the men said, “look, I am all for equity, but the competition is already intense, and then some populations get unfair advantage because they belong to populations that were once discriminated against”. A point that my friend on the dinner table was also perhaps alluding to; that sense of threat, very real and disconcerting to them.

On the dinner table, I tried to engage with the same thing a friend who fights for racial justice once said to me – “Ideally, we could take a blank slate and start off equally. You know, give everyone the same starting points, same rules, let the best runner win. The problem is, this is a long marathon, several people have already started running a long time ago, and now we are trying to give some people who weren’t allowed into the marathon at all, the chance to catch up by giving them shortcuts in the initial parts of the race. It does not sound fair, and I constantly wonder if it is, I mean everyone else did run the whole route, but it seems also just, once they make it to where the other runners are, who by the way, are still competing, they have a chance to become equal runners. Some of these runners we provide shortcuts to might be Bolt-like fast, and may zoom ahead in this marathon, and all those people who have been running this whole time might have every right to be p*ssed, but I do intend to fight for that Bolt-like person to at least have a chance to fight the race”. My friend didn’t seemed convinced, unfairness always seems too uncomfortable, but when put in the context of the justice issues, the latter feels way too important not to fight for. In my work in inclusion and belonging, I truly struggle with this balance. It is hard to always be able to clearly distinguish between fairness and justice – fairness cannot always be promised or even possible, but justice is ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to access situations where fairness is possible. The means to this are complex, often with much space for improvement, but the debate needs to be about the best way to seek justice, not about whether or not justice is required.

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Source: http://culturalorganizing.org/the-problem-with-that-equity-vs-equality-graphic/

For anyone who has been following the news lately, this fight feels way too real. And to be honest, I am terrified of having that conversation. I am sure there are things I can learn in the conversation, things I hadn’t considered before, and there is value to me opening up my mind about it while also sharing what I have learnt, but the issue feels too sensitive to allow for that, perhaps even too personal lately. In my head it always looks like this: say there’s a destructive object that we are all trying to diffuse, a goal we all share in common, and one way to do that is to shoot it at the right spot. Now, if a person holds this object in their hands, wears a bullerproof jacket and asks me to shoot the object, I would still not do it, because I will still be worried about shooting the person. The best way would be to put the object on a more neutral table, and then try and diffuse it. A conversation about complex topics like these feels like this object – when we refuse to address the complexity of it as a given, oversimplifying it or avoiding it because it is complicated – we cannot diffuse it. We cannot diffuse it if we hold it on our bodies, where there is always a fear of getting shot, of it becoming personal. It needs to be put on a neutral table and diffused collectively, where the differences in our approaches to doing that might just bring us closer as a whole to doing that. But if we don’t diffuse it, it is going to blow in our faves. I don’t even know if we will ever diffuse it entirely, but isn’t that still a fight worth having?

The issue on the dinner table was never resolved fully, but it could have been much worse. For me though, that conversation feels like a reminder of hope – hope that it might be possible to somehow engage in these conversations more deeply and empathetically, learning through them, that some people in this debate might still be on the same side, and perhaps, by accepting the fears and feelings, all of which are very real, and acknowledging the complexity of everything that we are all fighting for, we might at least begin to start working together. Without this hope, I wouldn’t know how to proceed in the world that we see around us lately.

A shameless plug to end this: A hope that lays at the center of the “Library of Perspectives”. To get started on this, I am currently working on an experiment in feminism, and the sides to it. Get in touch if interested. More on this experiment, soon.

Jayati Doshi
Aug 26, 2017. 9.13 am

Auto-ride lessons in negotiations.

Through my auto journey today, we come across several signals. Each with its own kind of beggars. The usual suspects. We meet a cripple, a mother with a son, eunuchs. Each have their own negotiation strategies that they use, inspiring a different evasion strategy from me.
Aap ko yeh bura lagwayenge. Kuch logon ko dhamkayenge. Aisa hi toh chalta hai (they’ll make you feel bad. some of them will threaten you. this is just how it works), the autowale-uncle says. Leads to a fascinating conversation with him about the politics of begging, the dynamics of guilt and privilege as he sees from his driver seat. There’s certain kinds of passengers who would pay, he tells me. Out of guilt, pity, generosity and also spite. And some who would look to him for help. Some who would be downright rude.
What is your stand on begging, I ask him. He starts by telling me how people who refuse to pay him Rs. 20 at night might pay Rs. 100 to an eunuch out of fear. I laugh and give him an unsolicited lecture about how sometimes it really is impossible to negotiate with both groups. He agrees. And then tells me in all seriousness that all of this is at the end about what one think deserves to be paid for, and what deserves more pity, and thus more help. You’d pay the shirtless cripple in coins; the eunuchs start negotiating at a Rs. 500, he points out.

The conversation turns to one about opportunities. If begging really is the only option. And who am I as a auto-affording citizen to comment on their opportunities, I mumble. Kisi ke chehre pe nahi likha hota unhone Kaise din dekhe hai (it isn’t written on anyone’s face what kind of days they have gone through), he tells me. Woh minute ke signal mein, aapko jo lagta hai, usi soch se paise dete ho. Agar aap ki shaadi nahi ho rahi, Aap chakke ki duaon ki bhi keemat karoge. Agar aap job karti ma hain, shaayad bacche ko dekhkar jyaada taras khaoge. (In that minute-long signal, each one makes snap decisions about what they are willing to pay. If you aren’t able to get married, you will value even the blessings of the eunuch. If you are a working mother, you would feel more empathy for the kids that beg)” We speak about the assumed hierarchies of what is considered under-privileged, and what, deserving.

We arrive at my destination. I pay him in notes of Rs. 10; there is a gap of Rs.5 that neither of us have the change for. We look around for shops to get change, while I search frantically through my purse. He knows that I’m late because of the last 2 phonecalls through the trip that he heard. I tell him to keep the change. “Rehne dijiye (let it be)”, he tells me instead. “Aur agli baar langde ko de dena (next time, give it to a cripple)”. Smiles. Waves. Leaves (Me thinking.)

Jayati Doshi
29th May, 2016. 1.30 pm