First Dates: A Not-So-Cool Twenty-Something’s Guide

What (not) to talk about on the first date

I date a lot. (Mum, if you’re reading this, a lot is an exaggeration) By this, I mean that in the past two years, I’ve gone out on at least one date with ten to fifteen people, ranging from friends of friends to complete strangers carefully curated from dating apps, or in one case, someone I’ve run into in a cafe. These have included coffee dates, dinners, movies, bookstore visits, poetry slams, cookouts, and aimless walks or drives around town.

Now if you’re smirking at the fact that I call this “dating a lot”, well, don’t read ahead. If you’re still here, good for you. If like me, you’re less than bothered about not having Angelina Jolie-esque looks, are “not here for hookups”, have only ever awkwardly danced at weddings, and swear by hot coffee instead of chilled beer, well there’s still a date for you somewhere. So, after you’ve crafted a bio, swiped left and right, and found a person you enjoy talking to, what next? Well, you need to meet them. (In a public place, please.)

You could choose not to, of course, but most of the time, a date turns out to be fun, interesting and a genuinely pleasant experience, very different than the perception created by a stream of Romedy Now movies and our very own Karan Johar. There possibly won’t be any love at first sight, or second, but let’s be honest- don’t we often go on dates only because we’re starved of human company? Treat your first date as an experience firmly rooted in the present, instead of the beginning of a pre-planned progression and you’re likely to end up with a smile and some food for thought. (Or just some food, which isn’t bad either.)

There are a lot of articles out there that talk about dating etiquette- who pays, where you meet, etc. What I’m going to talk about here, is what not to talk about. It’s not just the obvious taboos- sex, your ex, their ex, sex (I wonder why), your baggage, their baggage, etc. Apart from my own dates (most of which have been fantastic, thanks to some really intuitive people), the following points come out of significant work experience in eavesdropping on date conversations in cafes and restaurants (Writers are a shameless breed, it’s how we make our living.) –

  1. The Weather: A sentence or two on how hot it is getting is fine, but if they really wanted a blow-by-blow weather update, they’d rather have a chat with Siri or Cortana or whichever AI they prefer.

Overheard on a first date: “When I went to Gangtok, it was October and it was 11 degrees…” “No it couldn’t have been 11 because when I went I’d to use the fan, and it was 10.5 only in February and 9.2 in January…” and so on. Unless you’re both co-workers in the Met department, no. Actually, not even then.

2. Bodily Fluids: Puke stories are funny, but only with your best friends at 2 a.m. For a first date, it’s best to steer clear of any kind of…umm…discharges, and project a really clean image of yourself. If they’re meant to know all your (literally) dirty secrets, then save it for the fourth or fifth date, or maybe even for the actual relationship if it happens.

3. Distance, Time and Speed: Unless you’re a Math teacher, and they get turned on by quantitative details, it’s best not to sit down and compute in detail how long it took your date to get from their office to the cafe you’re sitting in, and whether they could have taken a route that is 650 meters shorter. Google Maps, bro.

4. The “What did you eat for *Insert previous meal* today?” conversation filler: Yes, I understand some awkward pauses are likely, but they don’t need to be filled by this question. Save it for the “sweatpants and farts” stage of the relationship. Ask them what cuisines they prefer, if you’re that into food.

5. Sartorial Discussions: In eight out of ten cases, if someone compliments what you’re wearing, it is a polite ice-breaker(the remaining two might imply that you’re out with a fashion designer). A simple Thank You works.

Narrating your entire sartorial history and the three possible options your tailor offered before making the blouse in this cut- err, no. Trying to be casual whilst saying “ Yeah, it’s from *Insert expensive brand*” doesn’t work either, unless they’re a brand snob and you’re playing it up. (In which case, more power to you.)

6. Obscure Relations: While most people steer clear of mentioning family troubles on a first or even a second date, a funny story about a distant relative can become significantly less funny if you’re spending ten minutes explaining how it’s your mother’s second cousin’s third-oldest grandchild. “No not that cousin, the other one who lives in Gujarat.” Details. Save them for married life, period.

At this point, if you’re an introvert bordering on ambivert and obsessively plan conversations in your heads before they happen, you might be looking really pissed off wondering which weird questions are actually allowed. Yes, contrary to what those other articles will tell you, you do have the right to ask some unconventional questions if you so please, but this comes with a disclaimer.

If you end up making ordinary, polite conversation, you’ll definitely have a peaceful first date, which is what most people want, and possibly even get a second one. If, however, like me, you’re not sure whether you’ll have a second one (for me it’s mostly because I’m never in one place that long) and if you have the unabashed directness of a four-year-old on roller skates, you can ask the weird ones. The disclaimer is that this will scare away some people. But not all people.

(If anyone, at all, is reading this and wants me to do a piece on potentially awkward questions you should try asking on a First Date, please leave a comment.)


Starry, Starry Night

it is only recently that i have realized that the lights of the world through tear-blurred eyes look like stars. do you think Vincent stood outside that night, wondering if he wanted to paint or die? i think he’d been at that crossroad many times before. haven’t a lot of us been? those nights when you sit, holding strings or pen or brush in one hand, that choice in the other. those nights when you barely manage to shake off the urge to do something that will leave you no further choices, and go create something that is lauded as beautiful, months or years later, by yourself if no one else. i go back and read my old writing sometimes, on such nights- not because it is a particular masterpiece, but because each of those works captures a choice, a faith that the younger me had, a faith that questions me even now, and makes me want to get up and take charge. and i know that some night, perhaps not far from now, i’ll read this, and to you, if you’re reading this, know that you went onward in faith. don’t break.

don’t break.


Writing would be so much more fun with a typewriter, she muses, scrolling down a set of pictures of a friend’s latest acquisition. It is a particularly captivating specimen in shining red and black. Those keys- she can already see, in her mind’s eye, the strings of words that will jump to the fore as their owner drums down on them. Plot-lines waiting since months will perhaps be inscribed in a matter of days. Maybe they’ll even last longer in people’s memories because of the old-fashioned medium used to draw them out. Somehow, that which belongs to the older generation – songs, buildings, relationships-tends to have a familiarity that defies an ending. She looks for it in everyday things- paper letters instead of emails, dried pressed flowers, fingers on fingers instead of Skype screens. But like everything else today, old familiar comfort is incredibly scarce and comes at a price she can barely afford. And so she backs off from the pictures of the shiny red typewriter, and goes back to the squished laptop keys. Because, honestly, it’s about the story. And any writing is better than none at all.



Turn on the light

The lead vocalist asks us to raise our hands if we’re proud of who we are, as people and as artists.

And something suddenly unravels inside me, a tightness that’s been there for a while. And with a few other wavering hands, I raise mine up in the air and smile.


There’s a gentle drizzle. The accompanying breeze makes the yellow paper lanterns sway, as if in rhythm with the light strumming of the guitar and banjo down below. The drums weave a comfortable,solid presence as fifty-odd people, friends and strangers hum along. Music does this to people- it makes one body out of individuals, a body moving in seemingly eccentric patterns but with a wonderful coherence.

There is silence towards the end of the show as the performers play the opening bars to a song they have dedicated to survivors of depression. What amazes me is that it isn’t an awkward pause. In this audience, there are people who, in some odd way, understand, either first-hand or through their loved ones, what it is like to not want to get up at all, to not eat or bathe or write or paint for days, or to just do all of it in a frenzy until you’re not sure what you’re doing anymore. There are people for whom turning up to a live show like this is one of their greatest achievements this month- they might not have stepped out of home for weeks. There are also people who are lucky enough to be mostly non-depressed, even happy, and who take this moment to understand how that isn’t necessarily a “normal” every one is used to.

As I raise my hand, standing here in this city that I’ve been both non-depressed and depressed in before, it is because I am proud today- of myself, of being able to sing along, of showing up alone, of continuing to write even if it seems to be most ordinary on some days. It’s because I can now raise my hand without feeling weird about being happy about my own existence. And because I have done a lot of things in the past year, good, fun, somewhat crazy, mundane, only for myself, and have loved doing it. It’s because the rain, and the lights, and the songs have the ability to make the darkness beautiful and bearable. And so does my writing, and your art, and someone else’s strumming, or playing or mere existence.

There will be bad days. But try and hold on long enough, and there will be good ones.

Listen to these guys (When Chai Met Toast) here:

On turning into my mother ( And how it’s fine, really )  


At 18, in college, as I slowly grew into my “wild” side, casting away the demure facade I’d maintained all through high school, I gave my parents some cause for concern. Suddenly I transformed from having no social life to staying out late, going on trips with my friends, and discovering the phone and internet in ways that many of my peers would have already experimented with a few years earlier. In my headstrong, teenager mind, I decided that I would have a cool life, full of new experiences each day, as if to compensate for the stagnant calm of my life hitherto.

The one thing I utterly disliked was being compared to either of my parents, be it in terms of academic excellence or personality. I was especially determined to not resemble my mother in any fashion, and derived great pleasure in telling her how I was so totally “not her”. And yet, a mere five years later, living with a set- ranging from brilliant to not-so-great- of my own choices and actions, I find that I have, in a lot of ways, realised that very fear.

My Friday plans now include figuring out which clothes to wash on Saturdays. I can’t go to bed with dirty utensils in the sink. I don’t randomly say a yes to late night bike rides with friends I don’t know very well, even though I love bike rides. I don’t indulge in crying my eyes out for more than ten minutes at a time, choosing instead to do something practical, like cleaning the room or my cupboard. I still entertain the words of lovers, but don’t really believe them as willingly as I used to.


Of course, I am also not my mother in many ways. We are two women with vastly different character quirks. She hates being alone. I love my solitude. She can laugh off many things with a careless ease that my twenty-three-year old over-thinking self envies at times. She moves on quickly, and I have never really moved on from anyone or anything.

But look closely, and you can tell how related we are. It’s not even something we focus on most of the time, but it’s there. We both believe in six impossible things before breakfast, just that they differ in specifics. We both shut the world out when we read, and eat chocolate when someone is being indifferent to our feelings. We can finish a tissue box between us when we watch Lion King, but we also have the ability to step up to make all the logical decisions when necessary. Keeping my head when others about me are losing theirs, is something in which I’d rather take after her, than anyone else.

So yes, as I become more me, I am, in some ways, turning into my mother. And that isn’t really a bad thing.

Lipstick Dreams

The last scene of Lipstick Under My Burkha resonates, in a rather curious fashion, with the book I happen to be reading at present, Reading Lolita in Tehran. As the various men in power say their piece and move away, ostensibly to get a good night’s sleep, the women protagonists of the movie are left, quite literally, to pick up the shreds of their existence. They gather around the remains of the forbidden romance novel capturing the sexual fantasies of Rosie, in what is, on the face of it, an impromptu reading session, but in effect, captures the essence of what director Alankrita Shrivastava is trying to say throughout.

What makes Lipstick an engaging watch is that its women are feminist by the sheer dint of being real. The characters range from the college-going Rehana (trying to reconcile teenaged rebellion with her cultural identity) and Leela (the beautician whose dreams are bigger than an arranged marriage in a small town) to the older Shireen (a saleswoman struggling to carve a niche for herself within and outside her marriage) and middle-aged Usha (rediscovering her sexual identity through telephone sex). Each is flawed in her own way, and therein lies her perfection.

Perhaps it is the gift of a stellar cast at the hands of a female director, but Lipstick manages, for the most part, what movies claiming to be pro-women generally don’t — well-fleshed out female characters that make both appropriate and inappropriate choices, and have dynamic personalities extending beyond but not necessarily in alienation of the men in their lives. So, Usha Buaji (aunt)’s desire to read racy romance magazines is not at odds with her solid business sense, and Shireen’s success on the professional front does not erode her desire to keep her family intact at any cost.

Another stroke of brilliance that the script possesses is a fine sense of balance, be it in its portrayal of right and wrong, or in capturing a whole spectrum of sexual desire. So, on the one hand, where you find yourself rooting for the women taking the obligation of a Burkha and turning it around to live their dreams, you also find them facing up to the repercussions of some of their ill-thought out actions. The women of Lipstickknow that all is not well with the world, and thankfully, the director doesn’t sweep in with a magic wand to make the young swimming instructor fall for Usha, or for Shireen’s husband to suddenly realise how much potential his wife has, or for the police to let shoplifter Rehana off with a warning even as Leela’s nice fiancé comes back with a clichéd “Main thaamunga tumhara haath” (“I will take you back”, or some such shit). Lipstick Under My Burkhaconcludes the way such events in life usually do, with a lot of tears, an occasional giggle and a mountain of understanding, collapsing upon you all at once.

The best part isn’t even really obvious until you focus on what’s not happening in this movie. Halfway across the movie, it hits me that these women are, for the most part, all very non-judgemental of each other. In what is a refreshing change from the “A woman is another woman’s worst enemy” trope, we see Shireen helping Usha buy her bathing suit, and Leela acknowledging that Shireen’s need to be touched affectionately by her husband isn’t something she should be hiding. Even as Rehana’s classmate gets her arrested and lashes out at her in anger, we don’t really see the typical “You stole my boyfriend” scene. The anger is directed towards the legitimate recipient, the man who got one woman pregnant before leaving her for another. The final scene is a silent war cry and a flame of solidarity all at once, as the women read the end of the novel and share a cigarette. And as you watch, perhaps you would wonder, like I did, if the next day, Shireen would hand in a resignation at work, and the widowed Usha be sent away to Kashi (a city where abandoned widows live in India). Maybe Leela would choose to not run away to Delhi with her boyfriend, and Rehana would eventually complete her degree through distance-learning. And if you’re reading this, maybe you’re a woman who has the ability to make some, or all of these choices for yourself. The question is- If you aren’t wearing as much (or as little) lipstick as you want, who and what are you waiting for?

Sputnik Sweetheart: Of mirror worlds and split souls

To my companion in all things Murakami (and many others),

You are a storyteller yourself. So tell me,have you ever just picked up your pen and written down something, seemingly normal,  and begun to realize its depths only much later?

A little under two years ago, I penned down a story called ‘The boy and the mirror’. It was written within an hour, reflected some of the very conventional romantic turmoil in my life at that moment and it was a concept that just flowed, without much thought being attached to it. It is fascinating how much your own mind can conceal from you. I see that story now in ways I hadn’t even thought about earlier.

Sputnik Sweetheart refuses to leave my brain, and this is, in particular, because of one specific incident that ties in to these other thoughts. One of the women, Miu, is trapped in a Ferris Wheel at night, and she happens to have a pair of binoculars. With nothing much to do except wait, she trains her binoculars on her bedroom window visible in the distance. And then she sees herself inside her bedroom. I won’t give you details lest it ruin the book for you. But to cut a long story short, it is as if her consciousness is split into two. She is in two places at the same time, if you know what I mean. And no, it isn’t a time-turner story.

Which brings me to, Horcruxes. I know it isn’t quite the same idea. But I have always wondered if there are other ways to create horcruxes, accidentally perhaps. Is it only murder that can tear one’s soul? Perhaps love can as well. This is a good question to research- does love in facts rip the soul, and if so, is the rupture permanent or temporary? But that is for another time.  (By the way, it is interesting how Riddle’s diary would have had fifty percent of his soul, and it was created with the murder that is perhaps the most justifiable out of all that he committed- that of the man who abandoned his mother.)

Moving on from that detour into Harry Potter,  I don’t know if you’ve felt this way- torn, between parts of yourself. I have, on occasion. It is interesting because of late, I have been reading some bits of spiritual philosophy that are focused on considering oneself whole, as an integrated being. You aren’t torn, or split, or divided, it claims- it is a construct of your mind. Well, of course, it is. But I do need to live with my mind. I cannot arrive at a certain destination in my mind-map before it is time.Perhaps the process can be accelerated, but honestly, I have a feeling that conflict leads to the best stories.

So coming back to you, the storyteller, would you keep the peace or the stories?