The following three writings ‘on care’ have emerged over the last two years, each as a musing, unreeling the meaning of this shapeshifting word in different constellations. While the first short diary entry is questioning ‘care as a concept’, the second writing is an unsent letter to a dying friend unpacking ‘care as a transaction’ – given and taken. For the third, I took ‘care as an emotion’ to be the overarching theme to write a short fictional story – which weaved itself into a conversation between an old Indian Muslim tawaif (courtesan) and a retired circus performing French bearded woman on the qayamat ki raat (the night of the Judgement Day).
In retrospect, these writings emerged perhaps from my own subconscious desire to understand this word as a new mother in the post covid era; and repeatedly in thought and on paper, care appeared as a dialogical practice. Unlike the neoliberal capitalist ‘care’ given with solution-oriented mindset by providing customers with clearly determined A-B-C options, I understood care as something which is messy, complex and non linear, only appearing when one enters in a conversation with the other with curiosity, uncertainty and humility of not-knowing.
Next to the writings, almost as a reversed ekphrasis, are a series of raw drawings mulling over the same pre-occupation – care as a dialogical practice – in non discursive ways.
On Care – I
I encountered the ever growing conversation on the theme of ‘care’ first through the book of Maria Puig de la Bellecasa – Matters of Care, and since then, it has repeatedly been brought up in the last four conferences and research groups I have been a part of. I find it a bit overrated, and more like a passing fad, in the western academic and artistic world. Or perhaps, the pandemic has made it more urgent. But, I guess, for me I can’t relate to it on a deeper level, as I have been raised in another lived philosophy. A philosophy where everything is interlinked, interconnected, and interweaved. Where you were introduced to the circle of life and death rather young because you were told the dead reincarnate again and again; in different forms and different beings. Your individual self (atman) is linked to atman(s) of all living beings, and not, merely humans; which cumulatively are connected to the all- embracing Brahman (the universe). The atman lives through the materialistic world (maya-jaal), timelessly, before it submerges itself into the Brahman.
I wonder, as a race, when did we become so deviously stupid and narcissistic, to believe that human was a not an interlinked individual self. And, somehow this continuous blaming on the discourse of western enlightenment, industrial revolution and modernity, thereafter, sounds rather in-concrete and dubious. The other thing which makes me question ‘the discourse of care’, looked at through the lens of posthumanism, anthropocene, decolonizing ecology and such, is also how easily it seems to be appropriating and exoticizing the views and philosophies of the global south in a honeycoated and mellifluous tone. Just like before; like always. As the term ‘care’ seeps into the arts from varied tangents, I wonder, would it really open up new ways of practicing and witnessing, or, yet again, become another glossy counterpart of terms like inclusion, diversity and hybridity.
On Care – II
a letter that started as of 21.09.21 and never reached its recipient
This letter has been writing itself for many weeks now. Over the days, it has changed its dates, its beginnings and its stories, but what hasn’t changed is its heart and urgency to reach you.
It was almost a year ago, when we last met in Amsterdam. I remember us sitting on the balcony, on the 11th floor of the bejaardenhuis , looking down at your choreography. Your work, as always, having a mix of wit, fun and rigour. I am so glad we shared that day together. Since then, I guess, life has unfolded many things.
Over the past months, I heard about your health from A. About how you have been fighting the illness with much grace and resilience, surrounded by friends and loved ones. How years of physical training is visible in your body in everyday actions and daily routine. And, how the mind aids the body and the body supports the mind. On my end, in these past twelve months, I too, experienced continuous changes in and of my body, in an altogether different way. Last October, I became pregnant and now as I write to you, my son, Mir, is almost three months old.
I sit here thinking how life has changed so drastically in just one year; our bodies, our thoughts, our urges perhaps not the same as on the cold September afternoon we spent together.
Motherhood has unraveled many things for me. It brought with itself plenty slivers of time where the mind had to succumb to the body – the body in a place of inertness, first due to the last trimester of unease and insomnia, and thereafter, to recover and hold the baby, night and day, so he could sleep or not cry or feel safe. Initially, I really struggled with this forced inactivity, conditioned with the dominant narrative that stillness equals being unproductive (this! when I am literally in the process of reproduction). But as I started questioning this constant guilt, I realized how I have internalized dominant ideas of knowledge, aesthetics, productivity, and worth. Like, in the pursuit of being more ‘human’ (read: articulate and intellectual) I had become almost mistrustful of the wisdom the body carries within itself. My body has effortlessly, without any instructions or support from my intellect, grown another human being and continues to nurture him with the wisdom of knowledge systems from generations and generations of mammals. This wisdom, which I felt a strong connection with, in the early years of my life, as I trained in dance.
This inherent wisdom, which in arts academia we box, for a lack of a better word, as intuition, almost mostly apologetically. Recurringly, this word has also been making an appearance as I scroll through instagram posts of mommy influencers: #intuitiveparenting; reassuring (and repackaging) that age old methods of baby wearing, bed sharing, feeding on demand and not sleep training is respectful parenting.
Continuing in the same vein, it was not just that the mind took precedence, as I shifted more from bodily practice to psychological pursuits, it also came along with privileging the vision over other senses. The urgency to be visually alert at all times and to consume knowledge purely through sight; leaving the other senses behind, neglected. These last months, other senses took eminence – my sense of smell (I had severe aversions to certain smells; as a caffeine addict I couldn’t smell coffee without retching), touch, and carefully listening to the sounds the body exhales, during pregnancy and especially during childbirth. I could only pull through my 40 hour labor by shutting my eyes and exhaling out guttural animal- like heaves, which felt so alien and pre-language, that sometimes I suppressed it, rather ashamed, by wailing out words. If anything, this journey has taught me to be less apologetic and trust and reclaim the body back from patriarchal normativity and its hierarchy – encoding visuality as masculine and listening as feminine, ranking the mind over body, culture over nature, implicit over explicit, homogeneity over incongruity and subtlety over too-muchness.
The other thing I am thinking about since Mir’s birth, owing to our long hospital stay, unending visits from kraamzorgs  and verloskundiges  and meetings with lactation consultants and paediatricians, is care. Zorg. Dekh-bhal. Care as an act, care as a noun, care as a sector, care as a concept. To take care, to be taken care of, to care for, to be caring, to nurture, to nurse, to provide support, to be of service. The word is such a shape-shifter – caring for a child translates to nurturing (palan-poshan) and caring for ailing or old becomes serving (seva karna). What kind of meaning it takes and emotions it brings when one is giving it and when one is receiving it, ranging in its extreme from saviour complex to imposter syndrome; the hierarchies, the politics of power, the economics of it. I wish we can talk about it next time we meet, I am curious to know what you feel and think.
As I write this, I am aware this letter might be the last time we will share time together. Is this a befitting way to say goodbye? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe I should take the train to come down and meet you and say how sorry and sad I feel or not say any such things and just share silence and smiles and show you photographs of my son (yes, I am becoming that kind of mama). But I don’t know if I could tell you all these mundane things I wrote in fragments over the days, conjoining each other by happenstances.
Maybe it’s that conditioning again to give precedence to written words than just soak in the ephemerality of a meeting, or maybe it’s my selfish way to hold on to you.
Yours evermore, Me
On Care – III
She is standing at the fag end of the room; in the corner, where the sole naked bulb of this somewhat largish room hangs from the ceiling, next to the sink which is piled up with dirty dishes. The dishes at the bottom of the sink have been sitting there for days and the new ones are fresh with dregs of the beef curry and rice Umrao had in the afternoon. She is standing there, slowly pouring hot water over the top container of the coffee percolator, as it seeps down and meets the freshly ground coffee. The heady aroma fills up the room.
It’s a ritual she has maintained for years now; calling it the only prayer she prays each evening. Born in two religions, so separate in their beliefs yet entwined like the siamese-twins; Umrao is an atheist. She doesn’t call herself that, because she isn’t busy in defining her identity and frankly she is too old to be bothered by it either. But she does call her art her only religion, and of course, the coffee. The Vimala coffee from Madras that comes by courier every fortnight. The coffee is her sole luxury now; the rest has dwindled as the years have gone by. The night long mehfils  of dance and poetry in opulent kothas , the heady fragrance of the finest itr  and perfumes, the intricate anarkali suits and jewellery box full of gold and rubies and how the time stopped in those wee hours of the night when she ended dancing her dances and enticing the men who sat there watching her with their eyes full of desire. The whiff of the coffee brings it all back, each night, vividly.
Tonight, she is brewing coffee for two. That’s not the usual deal since forever, or what feels like since forever. The usual deal is only brewing a cup for herself. So she is doubting herself, on her coffee making skills. Should everything just be doubled? Double the powder and double the water and double the time for it to brew? Somehow, life has been more complicated than that; not offering such logical solutions. The other thought that looms over the coffee calculation is that – it’s only for tonight, why bother so much; it’s anyway the last night.
She is here. Melisande. With her grey beard and kind eyes. She walks across the length of the room packed with knick-knacks and bric-a-bracs and the far-too-late far-too-little sammans  and recognition given to Umrao, to seat herself on one of the two old threadbare armchairs. She blends into the scenery almost effortlessly; unlike her years of existence in circus sideshows where she performed the overtly glamorous – distinctly grotesque freak dressed up in sequinned bustle gowns and flowery hair bands portraying the hyper-feminine. She has known Umrao for quite a while now and they have, what can be said, an understanding. Not to be confused with friendship. Friendship is too big a word and rather hollow of meaning if you have lived the life they have lived. They don’t consider each other as friends- even though they have decided to spend tonight, the last night – the qayamat ki raat – the final hours of the doomsday together.
The plan tonight is to sit drinking Umrao’s homemade coffee and eating Melisande’s favourite apple strudels, sharing silence and small conversations; but mostly silence. Even as they had lived different realities in their youth and so-called prime, Melisande and Umrao, they have commonalities. Even as one was the femme fatale and the other the freak, they both have commonalities, they are both the nonconforming ‘other’ woman. An anomaly in the world where the woman is domesticated, where she is a wife or a mother or god forbid a virgin goddess. These two are on the other end of the spectrum. But they can’t be proclaimed as witches either; because they weren’t burnt but perhaps a century earlier they would have been. They are the outcasts. The oddballs. The easily disposed.
The clock says it is 9:25; so roughly two and a half hours are left before it all ends. It seems rather long – two and half hours to just sit and wait – because why talk the banal and mundane – but again why talk profound and heart-wrenching either? Nothing has meaning after tonight. Melisande says in between the bites of her crusty apple strudel “You, what was your favourite thing to eat when you were younger?”. Melisande always found it difficult to pronounce Umrao – an Urdu name, so her germanic efficiency condensed it to You. Not that Melisande was an easy roll off the tongue for Umrao; so Umrao called her Me.
“Oranges – the sweet ones; the sour ones I fed to my dog, Ghalib”, answered Umrao. “And yours?”, she asked. “Apple strudels” Melisande answered, “as a kid, I used to love them so much that all summer I would dream of apples and wait eagerly for autumn when with the first harvest – apple strudels were made. Soft and crusty, sweet and sour, it would almost melt into my little mouth. But I stopped eating them, almost detesting them, when I became an adult, because it smelled so strongly of home. I found my way back to them after many many years when I left the circus and the constant travelling. In the eating of the apple strudel I found home again.” After many minutes of silence, Me continued “the other reason was that the flakes would always settle themselves in my dark beard; it didn’t look very feminine, or very aesthetic, you see.”
“I understand, I had similar mixed emotions for paan – the Betel leaf”, You said. “I chewed it for the aesthetics of it initially; of what it represented and symbolised; but much later did I develop a fondness for it. By that time it was too late….hmmmm…. It’s rather too late now. I sleep by 10 mostly, nowadays, I don’t know if I can keep myself up for two more hours.”
“This isn’t a New Year’s Eve party, is it?”, Me said. “It’s not like we will ring something in. It’s a night to ring it out! Out, all of it! The rich, the poor, the beauty, the beast, the years and years of so-called civilisation. We are all going out. Lock, stock and barrel.”
They have been quiet for some time now. It could be for multiple reasons – Me is not speaking assuming You is snoozing or You is thinking Me is snoozing or there is nothing to talk or it’s just that they have no need to talk. You shifts her position and the armchair creaks; breaking the silence and jolting Me from her reverie.
(clears throat) “Do you think it’s time yet?”, Me asks.
“I am not sure, I have not read the Quran; I am sure it mentions it.” You replies and then asks “Does it have a stipulated time mentioned in the Bible?”.
“(scuffs)…Why ask me? Do I look the kind?”, Me replies, visibly disgruntled.
“Forget it. Anyway, where is the rose tonight? You decided to skip it today of all the days?” You says.
Another thing that, You and Me – have in common is – they both wear a red rose in their hair. You ties her thin hair into a bun and wears a rose on the top whereas Me keeps her medium length hair (and beard) loose and pins a rose behind her left ear.
“I can find you one, if you want.” offers You.
“I thought, tonight is about returning to the basics”, Me says, “Not having to pretend, hiding behind aesthetics and what is considered cultured and civilised. I wore the rose in my hair to nullify my beard. It was a simple calculation in my head: 1 minus 1. Of course, it didn’t work that way, but you know, You & I – we aren’t the perfect mathematicians or perfect anything. So I thought, if the end is here – tonight I will go bare, cleansed, detached from the politics of body and hair I have borne all life.”
“hmmmmm….. my Ustad  used to say to me when I was young ‘Take the time to smell the roses; and you will become a better person and unknowingly a better poet and dancer.’ I don’t know if I followed everything the old hag said; but that, I kept. In this materialistic world where everything was valued, negotiated and sedulously bargained for; the smell of the rose remained my only incorporeal pleasure. I sensed it as a way away from the cultured and civilised to a place of nature and non discursive.”
They both sat again, quiet, thinking about beauty, thinking through beauty.
You whispers, “I love you when you wear a rose.”, and then asked, “The end is coming; should I get you a rose – I have a red and a pale pink? Or would you like them both?”
Me smiles, her kind eyes full of love, “One rose is enough for the dawn.”
 Bejaardenhuis – Dutch – old people’s home.
 Kraamzorg – Dutch – a postnatal service in the Netherlands for the mother and the baby for 8–10 days after birth.
 Verloskundige – Dutch – mid-wife.
 Mehfil (meh-fill) Urdu – a festive gathering or party for the purpose of entertainment or art.
 Kotha (ko-tha) – Hindustani (a blend of Hindi and Urdu spoken in the northern regions of India) – brothel 3. Itr (e-tr) Urdu – perfume
 Itr (e-tr) Urdu – perfume
 Samman – Hindi – recognitions or awards after achieving excellence in a specific field
 Ustad – Urdu – an expert or highly skilled person, especially a musician.
Nikita Maheshwary, originally from New Delhi, is a choreographer and researcher based in The Netherlands. Her art inquiries lie at the nexus of gender, culture, and identity. Through her work, she is deeply invested in telling stories of plurality, female agency, forms of marginalisation and class divide. Since 2018, Nikita has been engaged in her artistic research project Naachne-wali: The Dancing Girl. which has materialised into two performances and a recent publication ‘Dear You, Yours Lovingly Me’. Currently, she works as an independent choreographer and teaches artistic research and dramaturgy at the Fontys University of Arts, Tilburg.