Personal Essay

Standing Here on the Outside

On the chilly nights of summer days spent running up and down the hills of Kalimpong, our Police Thulo Ama would gather all of the grandchildren in her room. She’d been given this nickname by her sisters, our other six grandmothers, because she was extremely exacting. But we’d been told it was because her husband was in the local police services. Though, we all called him Kalo Bhajay for his dark-skinned complexion, and nothing to do with his status as a policeman.

Bodies bundled into blankets would bounce across the sprawling, towering house but on arriving at the threshold of Police Thulo Ama’s bedroom would silently slip into the spare spots in her cluttered, cosy room. She would be sitting straight in the single chair near the window—it was always slightly ajar—savouring her cube of chhurpi, waiting for us to settle in, and for the squabbling to end. Usually, she just had to stop sucking on the hardened cheese for us to stop fidgeting. But there were rare occasions where she had to clear her throat for silence. Then she would solemnly tell us the stories from The Bible, and always make sure to punctuate the moral of the story.

Photo by Madhusudhan Atri.

But, this wasn’t the reason that we’d all gather every night of the summer holidays. After these stodgy stories, slowly her sisters—our other six grandmothers—would pile into the room too (much like skipping the National Anthem at cinema halls?). Then, Police Thulo Ama would begin the real performance. From stiff and strict, she would turn supple, telling stories of the many ghosts and creatures of the night that roamed the neighbouring hills of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, and bathed in the furious waters of the Teesta.

She would use her pointer fingers, extending them downwards, at the corners of her mouth to show their sharp, scary teeth. Her hands, with all the fingers extended, would shake at the side of her face, to indicate their ears. She would pump her fists into the air. She would snake her arms around her. She would grin menacingly. She would make her eyes big. She would snort, grunt, stomp her feet, and scrape them against the ground. She would build the world of this nightmare without even once rising from her chair.

We were transfixed, transformed, and terrified.

And then, without warning, she would suddenly stop. It was like the demons had left Police Thulo Ama’s body, and her daily discipline had returned. Her sisters would sweep up the closest sleeping grandchild into their arms to deposit them in bed, and the older grandchildren would round up the sleepy, still petrified lot to take them to the toilets outside. In the corridor, just before the door leading to the backyard with the toilets at the far end, the negotiations would begin. Who was going to go out first?

It was pitch black except for the low-watt, orange, naked bulb at our destination. There were jackals calling to each other in the near distance. There were wild boars. There were bats. There were bears. There were snakes. There were owls. So, while who was going first was the part of the negotiation, no one wanted to be last in line either.

More often than not, I’d return to my grandmother’s room on the first floor, up the staircase on the inside, holding my pee for the whole night. It’s a superpower I’m still very proud of. But I’d still stand in the corridor, disrupting the dealings, throwing a spanner in the works, offering to take a key position but never really committing to it.

Over these many summer holidays, I’d developed a superpower to avoid going from the inside to the outside at night. But I was there to watch my male cousins squirm. I wanted to witness fear—my constant companion—entering their bodies too.

I would act out some of the scenes from the stories, frightened but fully going for it. I wanted to see the way fear worked itself into their skin, sinew, and speech. I wanted to see them find it, fight it, and fold into it. Watching them was comforting, cruel, and clear. How delicious it was to know that even these boys were afraid of the outside, it wasn’t just me.

I hope they’ll forgive me. But sometimes, in search of something sweet, I still return to that corridor crowded with cousins controlling their pee.

There is this demand to make one’s self small when you don’t fit in. So, you find that hiding the gestures, the gait, and the gayness makes this squeeze slightly easier. Then, you begin to live on the inside more and more.

It’s like your eye is only for reading, researching, and recording the activities on the outside, learning to look out for incoming danger before it even knows it will move towards you. It isn’t for awe, or absorbing. The outside needed scrutiny, surveillance, and a security report before stepping into it. It required a self-check before going outside: have I taken the cloak that allows for me to be unseen?

How does one explore the outside from this location?

Gently, you learn to read the world so well that you can predict the outcome of any situation. You’ll even test out your theories while always making sure you know where the exits are. On the occasions that you fail, you will get hurt. And learn to read better.

The switch hasn’t been overcoming this fear while stepping into the outside. It has been the impetus behind the actions of going outside, armed with the teachings of this same fear.

I’m still afraid.

In truth, it hasn’t ever been about the outside. It has always been about other people. It has been about giving people yet another opportunity to say: “See, told you he would fall, falter, and fail. He’s a freak.”

It has been about learning to take all of me outside. The gestures, the gait, and the gayness.

I still find myself looking over my shoulder, still scared on the inside, that someone has seen me trip, seen my terror, or even my thrill. I have had to keep things on the inside for so long.

Now, I’m slowly learning to share. See that pink flower? Look at those butterflies. Isn’t that a beautiful sky? Is that a toad or a frog in the distance? The sea is rough today!

See me: standing here on the outside.

Often, an unexpected joy of working things out through text is learning the location of one’s loves and limits. And then deciding what to do about them in the writing, and in the world. I’m still not sure which one guides the other. But their profound influence on either domain can’t be denied. The act of being invited to write on one’s experience of nature and the outdoors means examining these terms through the lens of one’s own experiences.

When prompted with questions like: Do gender and sexuality, and the performance of these placeholders, have anything to do with building barriers between these two spheres? How does it feel to know you have a body, that you have to forget it, and then re-member it? What does it mean to grant a higher value to one space over another? When do these values get decided? What does it look like to move between, stay, visit, or watch something from a distance? Do these choices say anything about the person?

We found more questions. In my own essay, I wanted to locate this time of discovering: what makes up the inside, and what is the outside. And it wasn’t just about the indoors versus the great outdoors, it was also about knowing what to keep on the inside, and what could be shown on the outside. I found that I had placed all my fears on the outside of my self, and my body. But why?

Through this series of essays, each of these writers and artists deliberate this divide between these domains: the inside and the outside. They assign their personal occupation of a particular domain with meaning.

What does it mean to have pain push a body into a world of pleasures outside of itself, but also be the way back into itself? Why do humans think they are at the top of the pile? When did we decide to draw the line between nature and ourselves? Where will we end up? Who gets to make these decisions? And then, through working it out, each of them guide us into remembering that these boundaries are pliable, porous, and pretend.

That the outside doesn’t just remain there. And the inside isn’t easy to hold onto either. They break, bleed, and blend into each other. You learn to make peace with it, even enjoy it.

About the author

Joshua Muyiwa, not yet 36, started writing because he was told, ‘it is time to stop seeming arty and pretentious and actually earn the tags by doing something’. He is queer. He presently writes on Arts & Culture and Food for various publications. He has worked as Editor–Dance at the magazine TimeOut Bangalore, has written a weekly column in the Bangalore Mirror – Gazing Outwards – that talked about race, sexuality, art and the police force in the city for seven years. He has written for publications like The Week, Tehelka, Hindu Businessline, News9, Firstpost, Mint Lounge,, Chimurenga, LensCulture, Conde Nast Traveller, The Goya Journal among others. He is a poet and has won the Toto Award for Creative Writing in English in 2012 for The Catalogue, a series of nine poems on the history of photography and poetry told through the relationship between a photographer and a poet. His poems have been published in Poetry with Prakriti, The World That Belongs To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia and elsewhere. And he makes poetry-performances like Come, Lie With Me, where strangers were invited to a one-on-one poetry reading experience in the poet’s recreated bedroom.

You can follow Joshua on Twitter @WhyGaze and on Instagram @silverbangled.