Confessions of a Reluctant Feminist

My town is one of those that counts among one of the most developed ones in India today. With a literacy rate touching more than 95 percent, negligible slums, one of the highest per capita incomes in the country, broad tree lines boulevards, it is comparable to cities in the most developed nations. With an enviable number of educational institutes and a full fledged university with multiple colleges affiliated to it and a very low crime rate, it would seem like the city isn’t far from becoming an example for the rest of the country to follow. Perhaps, if development was measured only by including the male gender, it would qualify easily, but something that seems to be a very glaring discrepancy is the complete lack of ambition among the fairer sex. This is not to say that there are absolutely no career oriented women in my town. This simply means that for such a high level of development indicators and with almost cent per cent women completing their graduation either in town or in other cities or even abroad, the number of women who go on to have successful careers or even start out to have one is abysmally low.

If you were to ask a woman in my town on whether she felt any sort of discrimination or lack of access, you would meet with a resounding no. And this, according to me is the most dangerous sort of discrimination where those experiencing it have made it such a normal and expected part of their existence that they fail to even see or realize it. This is because in theory, they do have access to everything. As most of them come from the upper middle class there is no lack of money for shopping for luxurious brands or making foreign trips. There is also no lack of freedom as most of them come from families that would not think twice about sending them for a vacation abroad with their friends in their early twenties. But then hits the marriageable age when they are ideally supposed to settle down. Even girls who have been working abroad for a few years after having completed their studies simply abandon their careers and come back home to settle down to domestic bliss, where they become the supposedly beloved daughter in law of a new family that is almost like a clone of her original family with the lives of their daughters mirroring their own. There are plenty of distractions at this time with a lot of planning involved in having a wedding that outshines that of others that took place before them and a tizzy of social events begins that rivals the grand 3D parties in “The Great Gatsby”.

 

If you were to visit my town, you would feel that my fears of this sort of discrimination have no basis as you would never see any parents telling their daughters off for having a career or any prospective in-laws forbidding them from working. However, if you were to stay and have a deeper look, you would see that very subtle forces are at work to wean a girl away from having any sort of independent existence and encourage her to become a cog in the family machine. Firstly, there is an absolute lack of role models in the immediate community that can be looked upto as career women or women in their own right. Even if there are headstrong women or seemingly independent women, they are simply so in the domain of their home and outside of the home, it is the man who is seen as the superior entity running the household. Women who have grown up on family money take very easily to now living off their husbands as they have never experienced any sort of monetary independence in their lives and so do not seem to know how liberating it is to be master of your own destiny instead of living for somebody else. I suspect it is not entirely the parents’ fault here as they simply wish to give their daughters comfortable lives free from hard work. But, what builds character and stands one in good stead is to have a challenge and a struggle and to earn your own livelihood and if this is true for men, it is very much true for women as well who are in no way the weaker sex in today’s world. There is almost a sort of ancient caste system prevailing where the daughters of doctors become doctors and the daughters in business families become housewives just like their mothers and other women in their extended families. It seems like there is no freedom to choose what they want to be, not in the conventional way of being forbidden but of never having been exposed to these ideas.

 

Apart from parents unconsciously or subconsciously perpetrating these ideas, the messages emanating from popular culture also seem to be that the sole aim of a girl’s life is to find her Mr. Right and everything else will automatically fall in place. There are invisible rules that it is mostly okay to have a boyfriend or two but once some line is crossed and one has had a boyfriend too many or has slept around or partied out a little more than accepted, there is the danger of becoming an outcaste and never being able to marry in town. The only way out for such girls becomes getting married to someone outside the city who does not have much idea about the heady days of the unfortunate girl’s teenage. There are boys who seem to be perfectly fine with girls in short dresses when they are pursuing mindless degrees abroad or getting some “exposure” but once back home become raging patriarchs who forbid their beloved girlfriends from wearing too short a dress or drinking a little more than the permissible amount or even talking too much to a particular guy that she seems to be enjoying a conversation with a little too much at a party. The girls too willingly comply simply because they don’t know any better. This potent mixture of ideas coming in at the time of growing up becomes firmly entrenched in the mind and becomes very difficult to purge even if one travels far and wide in adult life and is exposed to other cultures.

 

While the men run their family business, the women dream up new ensembles for their next outing and the hair or makeup that they would have to outshine others at the next social event. It becomes quite a full time job to not be seen repeating an outfit and some dexterous mathematics is required to figure out the number of people who would be common in two possible social events so that the same clothes are not repeated. The running to and from boutiques, malls, exhibitions, browsing the internet for a la mode styles, figuring out how to do the latest hairdo from the Game of Thrones, finding matching purses and footwear, getting appointments for facials, it is no less than a full time job, except that it doesn’t pay and simply feeds your false sense of importance and vanity. My town, mind you, is no Saudi Arabia. Women on paper are equal to men according to the codified laws of the land. They go to the same schools and the same expensive colleges abroad, get the same amount of pocket money from their parents and the same amount of freedom to blow up the money, the same night time curfews as the men and the same cars to drive as them. Why then do they become domesticated dolls and men become the breadwinners? At this point in the article, it seems to me time to issue a clarification that I’m no mean feminist of the sort who thinks that a women who doesn’t have a career is a waste of space. On the contrary, I belong to the creed that thinks that everyone should have the freedom of choice. Girls should work if they want or stay at home and mind the children if that’s what gives them joy. Taking care of a house and making it a home is also a full time job and is in no way less important than having a career outside the house. However, what dismays me about the current state of affairs in my town is that if there was actually a freedom of choice and no entrenched attitudes of what a girl should or shouldn’t do, there would be mostly an equal number of women being career women and an equal number who stayed home. A girl growing up would be able to see all sorts of role models around her in her immediate or extended family, a domestic goddess, a restaurant chef, a business owner, a doctor, a bureaucrat, a stylist, a teacher, an artist, a writer, an actress and the list goes on and on. What she sees mostly instead is stylish women clones of each other attending coffee clubs and parties, commenting about who is wearing what, match making the young crowd around them or having an odd glass of wine when feeling particularly rebellious. What you would expect to see with each successive generation is the narrowing of the gap between the way boys and girls live their lives. What you see instead is a repetition of what’s gone in the past perpetuating itself to eternity.

 

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Love conquers all!

I think it was love at first sight, but I just didn’t know it then. The first time I saw you was when you were sitting with a common friend, and I caught you off guard by suddenly appearing when you guys had just been talking about me, some friendly banter, trying to rate my looks, like people do in an Indian academic institute where the girl boy ratio is balanced at a precarious 25:75. You looked sheepish and that impish smile just drew me in. I didn’t give much thought to you until I ran into you again, when by some stroke of fate, you ended up walking just behind me during that day long trek on the hills. There was not one moment of silence between us and each of us excitedly tried to talk over the other, as if trying to confirm whether we had really found each other, by gauging each other’s reactions to what we said and how much we resonated with each other. It didn’t matter what we talked about. All I knew was that your voice was music to my ears. I have had my fair share of attention from the opposite sex, and as a result, have devised a number of maneuvers to ward it off. However, when you decided to pursue me, I could sense something very different about it and all my usual defenses simply fell away, perhaps because I saw in your eyes a great sort of love, the kind of love that looks for a mirror and when it finds one, has to inevitably reflect off it and create infinity like two mirrors reflecting each other.

 

The twist in the tale was that you were Tamil and I was a Punjabi. And thus began my grand education about the Southern part of the country which up until now, I had taken to be one lump where dark-complexioned people adept at pelvic thrusts and funny dance moves lived and that I had minimum interest in ever encountering. The South for me was simply a channel on TV that I turned to when bored by the same old shows to laugh at the movies that seemed strange and silly to me. Up until now, I had a definitive notion of what is beautiful and for a person fed on Hollywood and Bollywood movies where fair is beautiful, and a state where girls rub cream on their faces and avoid the sun like the plague so that they can get the perfect peaches and crème complexion, the first thing that a person had to be to be attractive for me was to have a complexion on the lighter side, which in more offensive terms means that he had to be fair, the whiter the better. Brown hair and light eyes would probably represent the Adonis in my head. But destiny had other plans for me. I found you, who had beetle black eyes, jet black hair, and skin the shade that qualifies to be called “kaalu” in Punjabi which is something that you say to someone when you wish to offend them. All my notions of what I would want my dream man to look like came crashing down. What didn’t change however is how I had imagined I would feel once I actually met someone who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. The feeling I would get when I looked into their eyes, the way my hand would always seek theirs, the way I would just want to snuggle up on their chest, and the delicious feeling I would get simply when he was around, saying nothing, doing nothing, everything that you think exists in some fairy land (even while typing I realize the embedded notions of what constitutes beauty embedded in the English language, for example fairy comes from the word fair folk) far far away and that you wouldn’t expect to find in reality. All of this and more is what I found, and boy, was it a surprise package!

 

I love aesthetics, be they in paintings or in books or even in interiors. Even the way you put food on a plate and the way you go about eating, I would want to be aesthetically pleasing, and anyone who slurped or dirtied their hands while eating would be a huge turn off for me. A gentleman in Victorian England who ate daintily when in company and never made a sound when the cutlery touched the plates was the epitome of what constitutes perfection for me. But surprise of surprises, here you were, who didn’t even believe in cutlery! You plopped a variety of things on your plate in a very random mixture and didn’t care if the different dishes were separated and then you dug in, with your bare fingers without sparing any thoughts for a possible spoon or a fork. I dreaded the day I would go out with you for a dinner or a lunch date, anywhere in the northern part of the country and had prepared an elaborate plan on ensuring you used cutlery so people wouldn’t stare at us. But, when we did go out and you did eat the rice with your fingers, I found myself not giving a damn! For it was a pleasure just watching you eat and enjoying everything I ordered for you, and sharing the taste of exquisitely prepared dishes and feeling like the heavens had blessed me for giving me the pleasure of your company even though it came with curry laden hands that didn’t seem to want to hold a spoon! Even though over the years, I have embraced the way you eat, I insist on ensuring that you wash your hands with soap and repeatedly gift you handwash which you take in good spirit and even actually use most of the time.

 

Next came the culture shock! You loved music, especially Tamil music, and in the beginning, I just couldn’t bear to listen to the cacophony of sounds that meant nothing to me. But, your dogged insistence on sharing something that you love and adore finally paid off, and one day, I finally opened up my ears to the beauty of the music of your land. Your excitement rubbed off on me and I found myself listening to the music from your ears, and actually enjoying it so much so, that whenever I want the feeling of solace or of feeling like home, I find myself tuning in even without your persistence. I don’t know what it is about it that appeals to me, and it is definitely not the fact that Tamil music is the best in the world, as you insist! I think it is the fact that it connects me to you and offers me a window into your world that makes me turn to it in times when being apart from you seems to become especially unbearable. The connection through music was a two-way street, to my pleasant surprise, and my heart sometimes still does a flip when I find you suddenly crooning “Ambersariya” a Punjabi folk song. My penchant for Tamil music however is not taken very well by my fellow northerners, who are used to listening to the peppy Punjabi beats or songs from foreign shores and I’m close to finding myself disinvited from a lot of places for my new addiction.

 

One thing that completely separates the state you come from from the rest of the country is the fact that you take immense pride in your language and wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. On the other hand, where I come from, there s a running joke that “If you want to teach a Punjabi English, give him a few drinks” for after a few drinks, every Punjabi thinks he is adept at the language and wants to come across as suave by conversing in it. More than me talking romantically or professing my love to you in high sounding poetic terms, the easy way out, to my great amusement, to make you feel almost euphoric was to simply speak a word of Tamil to you, even if it was something as banal as “Enna aachu” (What happened) or Vanakkam (a greeting). Anyone with a different pronunciation of what constituted English for me was met with inner laughter and sense of derision followed by multiple corrections. But you, you made me fall in love with even your “whiiiiiiiiiis” instead of “why” and your “weaaaaaaaar” instead of “where”, so much so that I want to destroy my own smug, self-satisfied way of speaking English and adopt your musical way of talking.

 

Although I didn’t find what was conventional beauty in my head with you, I find beauty in you that is a thousandfold more beautiful then anything that was in my head. Your thick, curly eyelashes that frame your beautiful eyes, the butter softness in your hands, the smile that reaches right up to your ears and makes your eyes glitter, the pale whiteness at the bottom of your feet, your perfectly shaped nose, your slender neck, and most of all, simply the way you are, and a lot of other things that I still discover every day and that I am yet to discover in the still to come journey of life that I hope to share with you!

 

 

 

 

 

The Allure of the Dark Side

A dark, cloudy sky with rain bearing winds and the hints of a storm brewing with flashes of lightning and thunder. A day such as this in my childhood was enough to send me over the edge with my over-active imagination reading too much into the atmospherics unfolding around me. What was simply the first monsoon rain of the season in the parched North Indian summer would turn into a kind of harbinger of terror in my mind. I would view the frequent flashes of lightning as some sort of a nightmarish weapon being unleashed from the sky meant particularly for me and as the sounds of thunder got nearer and nearer, I felt more and more agonized and ran into the innermost depths of the house in a bid to take cover under a table or some other piece of furniture lying about so as to evade this ghostly killer from the sky.

What was a completely natural weather related phenomenon would turn for me into one of the most terrifying days where my life and that of all those I loved was at stake. A few times in the beginning, I did try to entreat everybody who was sitting on a verandah or a terrace enjoying the weather and sipping cups of hot milky tea to hide inside along with me, but on being met with laughter and amusement, and feeling quite enraged, I had decided to leave them selfishly to their own fate and not bother with them at all. I was almost the circus clown of the family whenever the rainy weather hit us as all my cousins or any friends visiting stood amazed at my shedding continuous tears and praying with folded hands to the sky to spare me and refusing to believe otherwise about this lightning that was out to get me no matter how many times my mother tried to hammer this fact into me.

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On retrospect, I wonder how these ideas became embedded in my mind. Although it is tough to recall a single moment when I became so terrified of the natural elements, it would have probably been because of a horror story I had read or a lightning-strike related documentary I had seen that would have accounted for this sort of inner conviction that somebody up there was out to get me. My childhood love for horror stories that sent my adrenaline pumping has survived into my adulthood and I still hungrily lap up any narration of supernatural stories (the ones being claimed to be true of course being the best ones) or the silly gore that Hollywood decides to pass off as horror.

This fascination for the supernatural and the resultant thrill felt as a result pervaded our lives in many ways as kids. One of the games we used to play as children was a kind of modified version of hide and seek that was not meant for the faint of the heart and only the brave children could possibly play this game. This involved an indoor hide-and-seek where all the lights of the area being played in were turned off and the house was left in complete darkness. This was a sort of secret pleasure to look forward to as well as this could not be done while adults were in the house for it would disrupt their activities. It was simply terrifying for those who hid to wait alone in complete darkness without making a sound or talking to anybody else. You would sometimes have scary thoughts like what if nobody came to find you at all and after the initial delight of having found the perfect secret place wore off and the terror slowly started to creep in, you would abandon this spot to go somewhere that felt a little safer even if it was not that well-hidden. This sort of a game was the most terrifying because it brought out a sort of primal fear of being left alone in the dark with no one to converse with forever. It was also quite scary for the person who was seeking as he/she had to stretch out their hands in the dark and try to find everyone else and during this time, he would sometimes feel a rush of air or sudden quick movements in the dark as one of the hiders would pass through trying to evade the seeker. This could be downright terrifying as you had no idea of knowing who was moving about in the dark all around you. It is said that the maximum fear comes from the fear of the unknown and the darkness became the complete unknown for all the players. It was not infrequent to have the whole game disrupted by one spoilsport who could simply not take it anymore and would suddenly turn on the lights in the process losing their privileges to be ever called to play this game again.

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There were other games as well that simply involved the enacting of some kind of a scene with all the players being given parts associated with apparently scary stories ending with a simple game of catch and run. Two of them that come to mind were called “Ghost in the graveyard” and “Witch in the Bathroom”. They were probably attempts to make the catch and run game more interesting by play acting as the catcher would become known as a scary witch and those being chased would be the children who had discovered the witch in the house bathroom. There was a terrible thrill received from pure imagination and enactment of this scene and the use of words that conjure up horrifying images like “ghost”, “graveyard”, “witch” in popular culture, especially the part where the witch was finally discovered and everyone started running seemingly for their lives.

Another thrill seeking activity was the customary childhood one of getting together in the dark with torchlight to narrate horror stories. In my case, it would be my grandmother doing the narrating that would make the whole experience a hair-raising one as we would not even have an iota of doubt about the veracity of these stories and simply accepted them at face value. This resulted in multiple sleepless nights with all the lights on with my mother ultimately forbidding us to indulge in these story-telling sessions again, and we would of course refrain not wanting to be terrified to the point of sleeplessness but only till we felt the urge to feel the thrilling sensation of being terrified one more time.

This spilled over into my choice of reading as well and for a while, I would only go for books related to horror or to do with the supernatural. Once my mother started to notice the veritable collection of such books that I was starting to now build with titles such as “The World of Beyond” or “The Most Haunted Places on Earth” along with the usual “Goosebumps” and “Scary Stories for 8 year olds”, I was forbidden to buy any more of these books as she tried to put a leash on my thirst for ghosts, ghouls and spirits and divert me to happier, more sanitized things by trying to bribe me with the usual books I used to like before by gifting me the big fat omnibus collections of “St. Claire’s” or “Marlborough High” that would keep me occupied for at least a month owing to their huge size, but in vain as stories about boarding school girls did not jus do it for me anymore. I had had a taste of blood and I was not going to let it go so easily! As I started to grow older, the Goosebumps were replaced by Edgar Alan Poe, Mary Shelley and even Alfred Hitchcock but the love affair with this genre still remains as fresh as it was when it first began.

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On digging a little deeper into why people all over the world like horror stories and horror movies and how urban legends in every country and local stories meant to terrify still continue to have believers, a lot of different theories come up. But, the one that seems most plausible is the one that says that as early men and forest-dwellers, our lives had a lot of everyday thrill, what with chasing animals as hunters and being chased by predators higher up in the food chain that set our adrenaline pumping on a regular basis. It was not an easy life and every day could mean life or death with even a single misstep. Perhaps, modern life has become too monotonous for most people with no real thrill in daily situations and the primal man inside of us craves that raw, animal terror once in a while which is what probably makes people all over the world walk into a theatre again and again and pay to get terrified or to pick up Bram Stoker’s Dracula yet again and even explains the grand success of shows like “Supernatural”, “The Vampire Diaries” or “American Horror Story”. It is more an act of the mind and the willing suspension of disbelief that makes the experience such an overwhelming one. Like Arthur Conan Doyle once remarked:

 “Where there is no imagination – there is no horror”

How London shocked a Victorian Time Traveller

It was a bright sunny day in June and I stepped out onto the kerb wearing my sensible cotton day dress and a pair of comfortable boots. No one even so much as glanced towards me or even my big brown hat. I looked around and discovered that the pedestrians of 21st century London were quite ridiculously dressed. The clothes were quite plain and lacked any sort of elegance or sophistry. Whoever thought of women donning on plain office suits with not even a flower or a bow on it. And the lack of hats just amazed me ! I wondered if people had suddenly become rather poor or cloth had simply run out ! Although hordes of people were wearing a plain dress, now and then,  I did see some of them wearing a different set of clothes with all sorts of colors in them making no sense whatsoever. I couldn’t seem to make head or tail of it. I could not, for the life of me understand what the prevailing sense of fashion seemed to be as all manner of dress could be seen once you started to go about the town and see different sorts of people.

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Once I had taken some time to gather my wits a little, I noticed a very peculiar, mysterious thing. Everyone on the street had some sort of tiny, thin brick in their hands that they kept on poking at with their fingers. Some sort of eerie, unearthly light was also being emitted by it that I could not decipher at all. Whatever it was, I did not like this one bit. The spectacular thing was that everyone carried around this brick in their hands, kids, adolescents, adults, old people. At first I thought only some people had it as I saw only some of them holding it, but if I started to observe someone without it for a few moments, they would without fail take it out of their pockets or bags soon enough and start poking at it and touching it in quite a funny manner. I had to try my best not to forget my manners and break out in hysterics at their concentrated expressions when they did this as if their whole world lay in these funny-looking bricks; however, I controlled myself, only to be polite!

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But, there were plenty of good things as well. One of the first things I realized was that I no longer had to screw up my nose or hold my kerchief to my face to avoid the terrible stench from the Thames. The river seemed as good as new. I had to go close to the bridge and look down to see carefully if the river was actually there as I could not for the life of me imagine how come the river did not stink anymore. I did not have to lift up my dress to navigate the streets as well as the roads seemed to be quite clean. There were no beggars in rags and tatters either trying to catch hold of me or to pick my pocket. I soon came up to the Tower of London hoping to catch a glimpse of the notorious criminals of the day but I was sorely disappointed. There were no heads cut off put up on the Tower to deter the public from a life of crime and sin. However were they to prevent crime if they did not bother to scare the townsfolk by nailing the criminals to the walls. I began to feel a little uneasy as I started to think that there must be a lot of crime here now that the people were not scared anymore. In fact, the Tower seemed to be completely empty of them. Or, they must be doing something worse to get rid of them, I shudder to imagine!

I began to walk besides the shops for a while and saw that many ladies, if you can still call these pants wearing girls ladies, were out and about on their own with no male company whatsoever. You would think that I was being judgmental about this considering that I was out alone as well. However, I would think my status as a time traveller quite secured me from any such thing as I had no option but to travel alone. All the shops had signboards on them. Not only the shops, but the entire town had written instructions and signboards up everywhere. Some of them were even magically moving. I had an eerie feeling that this was somehow related to the bricks I had seen earlier but dismissed my discomfort in order to explore this fascinating world a little further. I wondered what was the use of so many signboards when half the people were uneducated and could not read to save their lives. Seemed like quite a waste of money which is something I cannot quite abide by. Although I come from a very well run house in Yorkshire and my father owns all the lands in the parish for miles about, I cannot stand for such waste and extravagance. One must be mindful of such expenses and exercise prudence in these matters if one has any good sense.

I entered into one of the shops that seemed to sell goods of daily use to ask for some flour and butter. I proceeded to what seemed like a counter and asked for the things I needed only to be told that I could go and pick them up myself. What an affront! I could not believe how rude the shopkeeper was. How could he expect to run a business if he treated his well-paying customers with such snobbery. I had half a mind to turn around and leave and never set foot in the shop again but was stopped by the sight of a lot of people milling about behind the counter picking up things from ceiling high shelves into little carts. I wondered whether these were all helpers. But then, I saw some of these helpers come up to the counter and paying cash. I thought I had begun to understand a little bit of what was going on when another customer came and instead of paying gave a piece of strong, thick paper, the kind Mother and I use to make cards to send out at Christmas. The shopkeeper swiped it into a box and gave it back. Now, I was mighty confused about how this shop worked. After a lot of deliberation, I concluded that this was not a very well-run business and I would be better off buying my goods elsewhere.

By this time, I was quite famished and thought I would go and get myself a cup of coffee and a scone somewhere. Unfortunately, I found myself in a street where there were only public houses. I could not even think of stepping into these bawdy places or my reputation would have gone for a toss for a lifetime. So, I sat down outside on a bench on the street to catch my breath for a while. To my amazement, I saw quite a lot of women enter these public houses bearing the sign “Pubs” in short form and some even took in their children. I must say, the women in this age had fallen quite low and I had no interest in looking at them anymore.

The sight of the road was amazing. There were these metallic boxes with tires that people seemed to be getting in and out of. I wondered where the horses were to be able to pull them. Were they hidden inside? But, there did not seem to be enough space for them be able to fit inside and also be able to carry people. Everyone seemed to be traveling in these boxes. However, I am sorry to say that this was definitely a step backwards as horse carriages were able to take you places quite quickly and now there were so many of these metallic boxes on the road that they were simply stuck  behind each other and seemed to move agonizingly slowly. I wondered what the use of them was as it was simply quicker to walk wherever you wanted to go.

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Although I had had quite an adventure exploring the streets of my city, albeit in a different time, I began to feel lonely and uncomfortable soon. There was no Mrs. Martha taking her babies in her carriage near the park or Lady Ellensborough out on her shopping spree that I could have a quick chat with while I was about. I could not even see Mr. Hawthorne who carried people around in his horse carriage for a fee. In fact, people were too busy rushing about to have any conversation with each other or invite them over for tea or luncheon. So, I began to walk over to the place I had originally appeared to start my journey home.