I was maybe 14 when I first started going out with my friends to restaurants, cafes and the odd halwai shop at the nearest market. The one question all of us in my friend circle would ask whenever we wanted to try a new place was: “Well, who’ll come along with me?”
This question, unwittingly and certainly unconsciously, became the focal point of most of my outdoor interests. I spent my entire school and college life under this one absurd law that allowed me to venture out for leisure only if I had someone accompanying me. I can remember countless Saturday afternoons where I would sit on the bed, dejected, my hair perfectly combed and my lashes perfectly mascaraed, because the brand new cafe I wanted to check out was now far out of my reach because my girlfriend had cancelled. I didn’t find this fazing or oppressive in the least – it was simply the one ham-fisted rule I had decided I had to live by. It was normal, acceptable. Totally cool.
Until it wasn’t.
As I read more and more about feminism and began collecting role models, I started realising all the big and small ways patriarchy had moulded me. If I wore a short skirt at a family dinner, that one older aunt would smile at me with a hint of judgement and keep her eyes trained on my bare knees until my entire evening started revolving around my short skirt. She never said anything, but of course, she didn’t have to. If you sit alone at a table reading a book or enjoying a pasta, you clearly have no friends to sit with you and are, therefore, anti-social or worse – a bore. The first time I read those long essays that detailed the innumerable tiny ways in which we imprison ourselves – acting as both warden and prisoner, I was aghast. I thought I knew what the meaning of feminism was – I’d certainly read enough about it. But I realised, belatedly, that feminism means finding ways to free yourself – over and over again, until the end of your life.
I wanted to be cool with going and doing things on my own. I was dying to go sit with a cup of coffee and a book at a ‘table for one’. Slow to this epiphany, I was prompt in action. I pulled on my favourite jeans, a top that made me look skinnier than I was and set off for Cafe Turtle at Khan Market. As the elevator doors opened into the book cafe, I looked around me to see a world transformed. Instead of overcrowded tables and the smell of old pasta, I saw modern art and carefully hung vines creeping over windows that were slightly blurry as if to enforce the sense of looking out into the world through a less sharp gaze; a gaze mellowed by errant ideas and wonder.
It wasn’t long before unwelcome worry entered my head and anxious thoughts buzzed around in my head like flies.
What are you doing here?
What will people think of you sitting alone at a table?
Do you really think you’re evolved enough to spend time alone with your thoughts?
Isn’t escaping inside a book just as distracting as having a friend with you?
You should stop this foolishness and head home like a normal person.
And I was ready to go back home even before I gave my order, to be honest. But I encouraged that one little streak of pride inside me, which demanded that I stay back, however uncomfortable and awkward I felt, just to prove myself wrong.
And so I sat. I ordered a strong coffee almost apologetically and added a mushroom quiche to my order just so I would have something to do with my hands. After the waiter left, I looked around furtively, hunting for judgemental glances that would put my rebellion to shame. None came. Not one person even caught my eye for a polite nanosecond.
My coffee arrived, steaming hot and rich, and I began to thaw just a little. This smell was comfortable. It was familiar, and I knew what to do next. I popped open my much-worn copy of Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire because it was the one book that hadn’t yet failed to comfort me. And as I dived into the major fight Ron was having with Harry, I forgot about the rest of the people I was sharing the space with. The one guy at the counter went about his business, too used to prickly customers to initiate small talk. The world kept going by past my window and I noticed cute little jars of homemade jam that lined the product shelf off in the distance. Muted jazz music flowed from the speakers, beautiful enough to rouse you, but not loud enough to distract you. I took long, leisurely sips of my coffee and put my phone on silent with the screen turned down.
I was feeling the first few moments of liberation, but I didn’t know that yet. If anyone asks me what liberation feels like now, I would say it tastes sweet with the metallic tang of fear and it comes laced with dollops upon dollops of relief.
Ever cautious, I made sure I didn’t stay too long after that and headed back home with a sense of private joy that was just mine to enjoy. That one tiny step forward unravelled inside me a voracious desire to go anywhere, anytime – by myself. I started hunting for movies I would want to watch by myself; I earmarked cute cafes that promised good beer and even better coffee and I would carve out an hour here and there just for me. The biggest high came when, while running an errand one day, I noticed Artusi’s inviting awning and decided on the spot that I wanted a martini or two and ducked inside for an indulgent meal on the fly – just because I felt like it.
I also noted that the narrative in my head had changed from using the term ‘alone’ to ‘by myself’. It was a big concession my tortuous mind had given me, and I rejoiced in this, too. It took me a long time to figure out that if we spend all our lives thinking about what other people thought of us and they spend all their time thinking about we think of them, then no wonder no one’s happy.
And I intend to be as happy as possible.
Mehar Luthra is a 28-year-old coffeeholic currently living in the always-rainy town of Galway, Ireland. Not nearly as anxious anymore. Survives on pancakes and will work for Nutella.