Befriending Laaj & Sharam: Tales From A Female Solo Trip
So, I got a promotion this year and decided to use my new, shiny paycheck to embark on my first ever self-sponsored international trip.
I chose South Asia (because Europe ki aukaat nahi hai) and to make things even more interesting, this was going to be my first ever SOLO trip as well. (Well, kinda. But I’ll get to that in a bit).
There were four stops on the map – Singapore, Bali, Bangkok and Krabi.
Sunscreen, newly acquired expensive glasses and chhote kapde in tow, I was all set to travel very far (3269 kms to be exact) from my 6.30 am alarm.
Now, anyone who follows me on social media would know that my biggest enemies are people I like to call “The Culture Kaku.”
Who are they? Middle-aged to senior citizens (mostly male) in Kolkata who are the self-appointed thekedaars of so-called Bengali “culture”.
They exist everywhere, but in my experience of having lived in both Kolkata and Delhi, I find them to be a lot more empowered in the City of Joy.
Culture Kakus hate me. And I hate them.
All in all, I tick all the boxes on their Buri Ladki checklist.
So when I landed in Singapore and lit my first cigarette, I was always looking over my shoulder for judgmental stares and a word of caution that went something like- “Cigarettes are more harmful for women than men, beta.”
But funnily enough, all that I was asked by people was a polite, “Are you okay?”
Why? Because even to random strangers, I looked anxious AF.
I realised that I was not going to be harassed here. I was off the Culture Kaku’s radar and I would have to slowly let my guard down.
It was a scary proposition. I’d spent 24 years building that fortress around myself, and even thinking of letting it down scared the hell out of me!
In Bali, I also had another first – my first time in a two-piece bikini.
Now, I’m what people would call “thin” all over but PCOS and loads of psych meds means that I have managed to acquire a HUGE belly. So much so that a lady during one of street shopping expeditions in Singapore had told me that a pair of shorts are not for me “because of baby”.
Before my trip a lot of concerned “friends” asked me to “get in shape” for the said bikini. When I instragrammed some selfies a lot of people also asked me to use a “body-toning app” which I didn’t even know existed.
When I was packing up from Bali, and heading to Bangkok. I left my cultural anxieties and laaj-sharam at Jai & Dessy’s – my AirBnb hosts.
After that, I found myself walking breezily down Soi Cowboy – Bangkok’s party and red light destination – in a short black skirt at 1 am, guzzling one beer after the other like no one was watching.
I found myself walking down the roads of Krabi’s small but beautiful Railay island in my swimsuit.
I lay on the beach. I danced, flirted and swam for as long as my body would let me.
During one such walk in Krabi, I found a small shop called Bang Bang’s Bar.
Bang Bang is the name of the shopowner. A chubby guy with long hair and tattoos all over his body. He sells alcohol, shakes, and if you want some…ahem…herbs, he has those too.
As I sat with my first herb cigarette, chatting with Bang Bang about how he used to be a rock climbing instructor, I felt some of the anxiety coming back. It’s like it’d followed me on the same flight from Dessy and Jai’s to Bangkok and then to Krabi.
But I wished it away. There were a hundred people – Indians and otherwise – who saw me, a girl alone, at Bang Bang’s very obviously “Rastafarian” shop and again, no one cared. I was safe. Culture Kakus had nothing on me.
Finally, in my last two days in Krabi, I was surprised by a friend who was travelling in Thailand and decided to join me because I happened to mention how raging till dawn is no fun without friends.
It was beautiful. We went snorkelling, sat by the beach and had some Thai kebabs and got a discount on couples massages.
It was time to go back. I had a wonderful trip and while I didn’t shop at all (because I’m not a shopping kinda person), I carried the heavy but sweet baggage of my newfound confidence.
Cut to Bangkok. I’m on an IndiGo flight to Kolkata. My friend (a man) is sitting next to me. It’s 2 am and I’m sleepy so I decide to put my head on his shoulder to get some shut eye. Work called the next day.
About a minute or so later, I hear the lady behind me say in Bengali:
My heart tightened. I could feel the tears making their way to my eyes.
This was not sadness, but anger. Anger that the fear of society that I’d tried so hard to leave behind had finally caught up with me.
It’d won. I’d lost.
I turned around to confront the woman. I wanted to tell her that all my laaj-sharam was buried at sea in Bali. I wanted to tell her that she and her judgement can go take a hike. I wanted to explain to her how her thoughts are what cause women to get systematically harassed in India everyday.
But instead, I screamed. My anger against every Culture Kaku had manifested and unfortunately, this woman and her family were at the receiving end of my wrath. I screamed and screamed and screamed till the airhostess came to me, apologised and decided to change our seats.
To calm my shaking, angry self, I decided to get some shut eye. Again.
On my male friend’s shoulder. Again.
And woke up to see this note given to me by the IndiGo staff.
The fact that the girls on the crew saw this as “girl power” and not some random passenger going batshit crazy brought back the confidence that the moral-policing lady seemed to have taken away.
It also made me realise this:
I will wear it on my sleeve when I have to, and toss it out of my life when I don’t. However, what I will not do is let someone else decide when or when not I should feel ashamed.
This trip helped me shed and then rediscover my friends viz. laaj and sharam. And while I’ve made peace with them, they are never taking my confidence away again.
Back to Kolkata now.
Where ‘em Culture Kakus? Come at me. I dare you.