Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Letters to Myself

This vacation, people have been telling me I look happier than usual. It's been a welcome change from the old queries and concerns about my then apparently incurable shyness. The other day my sister asked me how I managed not to worry about my future (or something to that effect) and I had no answer to that, because I do in fact worry. My cheery face has more to do with my useful ability to sweep my problems under the carpet than any commendable effort on my part. But there is one other thing I've been doing these past three months that has, in so far as I can tell, worked. Bottling up happiness, so to speak.

That artists need pain to make art is our pet stereotype. We tend to become most self reflective when we are sad, lonely, sick. It's our tragic flaw. We let happy times swiftly flit by and spend ages poring over the slightest of difficulties. I honestly don't believe great art, good writing, spring from depression, but that's another issue. Most budding writers and poets I know rarely go out of their way to describe happiness in as much depth and detail as they devote to death and loss and misery. I am as guilty of grief-stricken rants as the next "personal" blogger. Who'd go out of their way to find an empty corner at a party and write about the fun they're having? Come home after a nice date, win an award, and write about it? For some inexplicably universal reason, writing a diary, at least among us "grown-ups," mostly ends up reserved for tears and life lessons.

Sometime in July, I came across a writing prompt to write a letter to your teenage self explaining all the things you wish you'd known then. Pointless, if you ask me. We're never going to be teenagers again and no self-respecting teenager is going to seek advice from an adult on how to be a teenager. People write letters to their future selves all the time. Write heart-rending stories to dead parents or wax poetic to imaginary lovers. Many beautiful reads, all essentially tear-inducing. But this letter-writing-obsession did give me the idea to write letters not just to my future self, but to sad, depressed, wants-to-give-up-on-everything, homesick Priya. And write them whenever I'm at my happiest.

I hate writing by hand. So I have an email address I send all my happy jolly notes to. Dear Priya in Hyderabad, they used to start before, when Priya in Pune imagined homesick is all the other self would be. Now there are happy times from Hyderabad and home, trips and holidays. An inboxful of memories to remind me that every sad moment is as bleak and as brief as I make it. There's only one rule: I only access that email address when I'm feeling low. That's to keep it from suffering a fate of casual dismissal when I'm in my cynical no-nonsense spirits.

Last night, I collected and shelved recent sweet memories for when I may need them. Later, worried about soon having to leave the comfort of my city, I opened up my bottled joys and caught a whiff of this - "the book is heavy in your hands, the bench pleasantly cool and the breeze catches in your hair. It's perfect. You could possibly convince yourself you're at home. And then a friend shows up and another and suddenly you're hit by this wave of spontaneity and you find yourself abandoning the book and the bench and the breeze and the half empty cup of coffee you didn't know you had and heading out for a stroll." I remember that day at the uni and what happened next was even nicer but this made me smile, and if only for a fleeting second last night, I missed being there.

Happy letters to your sad self, worth a shot, don't you think? Sounds a little pretentious, this post of mine, but come on, all I'm saying is, you're the best "self-help" you could get.

Monday, December 22, 2014

On A Train to Nowhere

I miss the train, I actually miss travelling by the local every day. I can't quite wrap my head around the fact yet. Being alone but surrounded, hidden in a crowd and actually happier that way - this, I figure, is something of an achievement for me. Of course, I'm being very selective in my descriptions. Anyway, one of my favourite songs to listen to on the train was this lovely German one by Christian Anders: Es fährt ein Zug nach Nirgendwo, meaning - oh the irony - on a train to nowhere. It's amazing how the song resonates with me. (Literally, though, it's about a breakup.) 

It's a sad song filled with half hearted hope and I love it. Because I think of it as essentially the same as Emily Dickinson's carriage-ride-life. You know, the "because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me, the carriage held just ourselves and immortality," except with a lot more punctuation? That's what the train to nowhere from the song reminds me of. Life. At every moment in our lives, the past is pushing us away, we're inching wearily ahead, dully hopeful of the future but still yearning to run back, wishing a "no" could turn back the clock.

Most people who know me would say I have a generally cheery disposition. But there are days, some days, when nostalgia plagues me. I suppose it does you too. A professor I usually agree with said, over a month ago, that there's no greater crutch keeping us from living our life than nostalgia. Being sentimental about the past is the worst thing you could ever do to yourself. A part of me hoped he made sense, it'd be that much easier to let go of the wistfulness if he were right, but another part of me resisted with vehemence. We'd probably be much happier now, if we lived just in the now, but it seems like a quick-fix solution. Would living in the moment, letting go of the charms of the past, help in the long run? What do I know.

I'm not sure what prompted this vague post. I have been trying and failing to write a cohesive book review on Tabula Rasa for hours now. These days, I'm steering myself back to my German-obsession and Christian Anders with his powerfully-pretty antithesis-ey voice is a stand-out memory of then. 

(I did a bad translation of my favourite lines of the song, but I think they are subtler and contain more meaning than the loosely translated English version that I found.) 

I'm on a train to nowhere, where
no one turns the light from green to red.
Does it really mean nothing to you,
That all our joys could break all at once?

I'm on a train to nowhere,
soon you'll be alone just like me,
say something, say just a word,
and surely everything will be like before.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Find a hobby, turn it into an obsession.

I've been through phases of obsessions. There was art in high school, I don't think I've ever read up on anyone more than I then did on Van Gogh. My German obsession was something else entirely. It was a heady feeling I thoroughly loved of being taken up in a swarm of culture. I listened only to German songs for some six months, watched German movies, read German books and was completely immersed in all things Deutschland. Fun meant Tatort-marathons, Rammstein, scoffing at Til Schweiger movies, more Rammstein, sourcing news strictly from Spiegel and Deutsche Welle, stalking German blogs and still more Rammstein. I remember working at a language help-desk at this education fair with an African guy who taught French, and I was able to tell him more facts on Germany than India. You know, like how many states there are... Oh, don't judge.

I also have a long happy history with butterfly and bird-watching. They were our pet hobbies as a family, and it didn't take long for both to turn into pet obsessions. The Sunday mornings spent travelling to lakes and hills in and around Pune, chasing butterflies and watching out for birds, binoculars around our necks and guidebooks in hand: they were beautiful. So the other day, when I went on a birding trek-type thing, I expected to be awed and stunned and so forth. But with the enchantment now somewhat worn off, I was also amused.

Imagine a teeny village on the edge of Pune. Just one dusty street lined with stocky brick houses. It's a little after dawn and the people are already at the farms, working, the women probably at the well. Imagine a tired old man dozing at the side of the road, roused by screeching brakes. A gigantic white bus from the city comes to a halt right at his feet, and people pour out of it. These aren't normally dressed city people. They are wearing an assortment of navy and mud-green clothes and funny caps. They talk in loud whispers, following one man who sets up a large black piece of equipment on the ground and the group crowd around it, taking turns looking through it at the top of a tall transmission tower with uncontainable admiration. Imagine the tired old man inching curiously towards the group, justifiably puzzled.

What we were doing was gawking through a spotting-scope at a nest at the top of the tower of a woolly necked stork. We were there for over half an hour and so was the old man whom we barely noticed. When someone did finally see him, all he did was warn the rest of us that the man might enter the bus and steal something. The hilarity of our presence there would never have struck me as an insider, too inextricably involved in the bird-watching activity to notice appearances. There is a thin line between interest and obsession and once you cross it, that's where the magic happens. Hilarity is fun (and, no that's not redundant.) There's no joy like a bunch of people being eccentric together. 

Harry Potter will always be my biggest book obsession. I even wrote a post, way back when, on Tabula Rasa about how I love the series most for all the memories it gave me. I called it Nargles, Wrackspurts and Blibbering Humdingers, and I'm sorry, but I will judge you if you don't know what those are. I've been unfortunate enough to not be friends with any book-maniacs since the Harry Potter days. I joined a book club which introduced me to some, who I am very thankful for, but it was Tabula Rasa that really brought this sense of belonging and opened up a world of exceptionally crazy fun for me. Find yours, seriously. 

For an outsider, writing a blog solely about books for four continuous years may seem a little weird, which it is. But I get this sheer joy from knowing that across the world, somewhere in Sweden or Mexico, someone I know from the blog has bought a book I recommended, is now opening it, breathing in its crisp fresh scent, and taking care not to crack the spine as they settle down to read it. It may be across oceans, in this case, but fun is often all about sharing a good experience with someone. And knowing what you're doing is pointless or silly or very inconspicuous in the unconquerable big picture shouldn't stop you from having the time of your life.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On cats and boundaries

I've jinxed my cat. I should have known this was coming, after my superbly insightful metaphoric post on cats and people and trust. This morning, one of our fatter clingier pet cats whom we keep out in the yard during the day broke into our house. Literally. There's now a cat-shaped hole in my bedroom door. He burrowed through wood to get to me. I'm not sure if I should be flattered. Even as I write this, he's contentedly sitting on my laptop, tending to his bruised paws, forcing me to type around him.

I'd love not to draw people-parallels from this incident, but it feels wrong somehow to keep the other post up without this warning revelation. Cats are clingy. They are oh-so-capable of love, yes, but sometimes you might end up drowning in it. No sooner have you dealt with all the trust issues, than you'll be bombarded with boundary issues.

Cats who burrow into your house. Cats who meow incessantly at the window, begging to be let in. Cats who refuse to leave your lap, who make your bed their own, who follow you to the bathroom and scratch at the door to find a way in. Cats who call you at all hours of the day - now might be a good time to abandon the analogy - friends who want to meet up all the time, friends who expect you to share every detail of your life, friends who are always bursting with unasked-for advice. And you could be that person too, a compulsive pester-er or an everywhere nose-poker.

You might unwittingly burrow into someone's personal space and hurt yourself doing it. You might come face to face with a closed door every once in a while, just as you may find yourself cutting short a long phone call because your favourite sitcom is on, and you've been talking for three hours already. The key is not taking it to heart. I don't claim to be an expert on how to stay friends with people, but I have managed to wholeheartedly annoy but not alienate a few people over the years and being the silent-sufferer type, I've tolerated quite a lot of badgering too. Cats, in their stubbornly demanding way, tell me that they do deserve my attention.

So the next time you realize you are invading someone's space, being a tad bit too pushy, do back off. But don't let this be reason enough to run away. Sometimes, what you can do is tend to your bruises and perch yourself contentedly in a constant little corner of their life. If it's the right person, they'll make space.

Monday, December 8, 2014

On cats and trust

I wanted to write a post on How To Domesticate A Feral Cat on this blog. It would be a very irrelevant post considering the single-digit readership of this blog. This is a precursor to that. Me randomly ranting to explore why I want to post that post. At its heart, it's just that I've come to realize I'm exceptionally good at it: at taming cats. I am a cat person, yes, but as it turns out, cats love me too. Maybe they know that they can trust me, I have no doubt why: I'm very like a cat. I've had some bad experiences, and okay, who hasn't, but have very conveniently and almost unalterably decided to judge the world through those experiences. To be on the safer side, I guess.

People think cats are evil, conniving. Cats hiss, cats scratch, cats steal, aren't loyal and won't love you like a dog could. Honestly, it's people who are evil - and kind of stupid for believing that any animal could have genuine bad intentions or any intentions at all! What cats have are trust issues, and even for that we are partly to blame. I am no vet but I have grown up surrounded by enough cats to be entitled an opinion. Cats get kicked, have stones hurled at them, bucketfuls of water poured on them and superstitions spun around them. And they're the problem!

There was a stray cat that used to sneak into our house to steal milk. One day, I started leaving her milk and cat food outside the house around the time in the afternoon that she used to stop by and from that very day, she never stole, not once. She wasn't sly, just hungry. You couldn't blame her for that. A feral cat, or a stray (likely a housecat that's been abandoned or has lost its way, has been living outside for a while) once it learns that you mean it no harm will love you like every dog you've ever met and more. Cats beg to eat out of your plate, they play with you, they want to sit on your lap, they literally vibrate with purring adoration whenever they're around you - even as I write this there's a cat sitting contentedly on my laptop, forcing me to type 'around' it. Strays, ferals and pure-bred Persians alike make amazing, often hilarious, sometimes really clever pets.

Why am I so invested in socializing feral cats? Because, these trust issues - I have them too. I made a good friend recently who made it clear on the day I met her that she prefers point blank honesty to sweet flattery. I used to be sceptical about people who claim to be a to-your-face kind of frank, because it's almost a norm that they aren't ready to handle the occasional indelicate truth delivered to them. This friend I've made is like that, a little hypocritical for abhorring hypocrisy, unfairly expectant of trust for someone so furtive - but I don't mind it, nor do I have any right to, because all trust issues stem from unresolved suffering. (Suffering is a big and small word, the most subjective of words in its scope, so don't chide me for using it here.)

The only way to get someone to trust you is to not try to get them to trust you. I'm a firm believer in letting people deal with their problems all on their own. Let time do its job and wait for them to ask you for advice it they need it. And even then, be the Lorelai to every bird-versus-turtle dilemma. Don't push them, don't just tell them what to do and don't crack that resolve no matter what. Give them an unwavering routine of a friendship and a lot of time, and they'll thank you for it later. That way works with cats, it would work on me and I have a feeling it would work on her too.

This may sound like a stretched metaphor, but the way you to get that cat to abandon its hideout for your home is not simply to bring it into the house and place it on a warm cushion. The way to keep it from climbing in through your window to steal your milk, is not to give it a saucer of milk every day for a month but leave that window open through the month, just in case. You can catch a person unawares with trust. Let it sink in, before expecting them to shatter a long-held belief, however wrong. Change may be constant, and for the better, but for me, please make it slow.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Embracing the crazy

Last night I was telling a friend that each of us should have a way of dealing with frustration, getting through those times of self-criticism and painful helpless angst. And this way should ideally not involve sitting in front of the TV, alone, and gobbling up ice-cream. As I tried desperately and failed to offer solace, I came up with this whole idea of active hobbies versus passive hobbies, and how it helps to engage in an active hobby to vent your stress and frustration, without having to even acknowledge the true nature of your problem.

You see, while solving problems is certainly great, sometimes we just want to ignore them for a while, to feel better, if momentarily, for the sake of it. But then, I'm not sure something as passive as long hours before the television, drinking your way through your problems, or haunting Facebook and social media till all that remains of you is this bland permanent formless stare at the computer screen - where you essentially achieve nothing else but ignoring the problem - would help as much as an "active hobby." Creation does trigger some semblance of self-reliance, even if all you do is make coffee. The things I went on to suggest were writing, cooking and going for a walk, a run, taking pictures and making a conscious record of what one does so as not to lose oneself in unwanted thoughts. I don't know if I managed to convince my friend. I hope I did.

The concern was what came next. Me. For all my happy advice, our harrowing conversation that ended sometime before dawn left me completely exhausted and very, very annoyed at nothing in particular. I hate feeling depressed. (Okay, who doesn't.) But I haven't felt the needless desperation, or depression, in ages. Being homesick or worried about exams and people problems are all somewhat concrete. For once in my life, I decided to take my own advice. I could have written or blogged, but I prefer to be fully conscious when I write, not just edit - contrary to the apparently-misattributed Hemingway quote. (Tried and tested.) So I did something that didn't require presence of mind. I filled my new sketchbook, poor girl (yes, it's a she,) with pages and pages of mindless doodles with one principle to go on:

Inspiration struck at around four in the morning, and now I'm halfway into a pretty collage that could turn into something worthwhile. I don't know if I solved any problems but I did end up with at least the consolatory conviction that I am not good for nothing. Books, blogging, cats do make me relax but artsy-craftsy stuff is my go-to way to deal with the awkward inexplicable sorrows that come out of nowhere and grip even the best of us. You, not unlike me, may have already found your own ways to deal, but you should give this a try. The best thing about art is that there's no right or wrong. One time, I spent three hours tearing up pieces of paper and cutting up old clothes and then made bookmarks out of them. I probably sound crazy. But that's my point: embrace the senseless, absurd, ridiculous. Years ago, when art was all I thought about, Keri Smith taught me to make a mess. It's good to be crazy every once in a while. It makes being sane the rest of the time much, much easier. (I feel I'm paraphrasing someone here, but the credit goes to me till I remember who.) 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

On going veggie and the eternal indelible moral dilemma

(This is something I have talked and written about way, way too much, but here I am again, for what I hope is the last time. I do love the cartoon.)

It's been over a few years since I turned vegetarian and I seem unable to explain to people why I did it in the first place. I was an animal-lover vegetarian as a kid for some fifteen years, till one day I thought okay, let's try not to be and then I wasn't. My decision to eat non-vegetarian food is completely incomprehensible to me. I ate it on a new year's eve, at a party and I guess it was okay, in the mood. And continuing with it could have been some kind of flocking-together attempt with my then-friends and cousins. We were just out of school and went places, and you know how people are annoyed by vegetarians for having to order a whole separate dish. I don't know.

A year ago, I was reading a book and in it a man snapped the neck of a chicken and it made me sick, and no rational argument in the world that I have offered myself, and my mother, and others kept me from feeling that way. So I stopped. And I haven't once wanted to eat it again. We went to Kerala after, where I didn't eat any seafood, despite all my sister's attempts to make me eat it, and I've even started loving vegetarian pizza, which for me, is a colossal achievement. 

Now, here's my dilemma. A few weeks ago, I was eating egg biryani that someone had brought over, and suddenly I had this mental image of a hundred chickens cooped up in a cage, miserable, ready to be thrown out or killed once out of use. Ugh, it gave me the creeps. I quit eggs. I just couldn't eat them any more without feeling utterly freaked out.

As a once pretty active animal rights advocate (I went for rallies and stuff) I know the suffering of a cow that's milked. I also love milk, butter, chocolate and everything in between. Where do I draw my limit? Because the way things are going, I might soon be a vegan. Or maybe turn into that absurd old neighbour of ours who had an assortment of pets, whose house was infested with cockroaches and pests and who rubbed jaggery on the walls to attract insects. Why not be him? If there is such a thing as too extreme, then the whole facade should collapse.

My father used to say we shouldn't limit our lives, give up new experiences for the title of "humane," because in the end, it is all subjective. The case in point is my mother, who is from a family of pure non-vegetarians. My grandmother used to make the tastiest fish curries and my mother never ate them, because she couldn't bear the thought of eating animals. But she's often told me over the years to not get overly attached to the cats in our neighbourhood, to not pet them, because then I'd be required to give them constant attention, I wouldn't even be able to travel without worrying about them (and that does happen.) 

So, in her world, it's okay to let a hungry stray cat stay hungry instead of adding to our burdens. That it may eventually die of starvation or disease or a fight with another feral is immaterial, because it won't happen before our eyes. She didn't mind circuses, either. They'd taken my sister to one. Even as a kid, I was very disapproving of the fact and refused to go. Eating animals, though, is still out of question for her. This is the limit my mother has drawn for herself. 

So which is mine? Whose suffering can I swallow? The death of a mosquito who may hurt me unless I hurt him, or the calf who is separated from its mother or the cow who wallows in filth and hormone treatments till she is prematurely "culled" (because though we regularly do it, we prefer not to say disposed of or killed.) No argument for or against vegetarianism holds until it makes personal sense to you. And here I am hoping I never feel I have to give up milk, not sure if it'll ever seem too cruel to me, as if I have no control over my feelings. It's idiotic, don't I know it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


I'm home. And happy. What do I do at home? Nothing, that's the point. Home has always meant this feeling of utter formlessness. It's not laziness per se, even when I work or run errands, the feeling is there. At home I reach this level of comfort that takes me out of my physical self and it's just my head and my thoughts floating around in yellow coloured (my bedroom walls) bliss. I'm a daydreamer and it's back here that I am at my most secure, I feel the safest to disconnect from everything and just, dissolve. I can push away any and every worldly concern and simply become: a swirl of ideas. It doesn't mean that is all I do, but the comfort comes from knowing I can. 

This home, for me, is not about the people. It's not my mother who keeps pestering me to get up already, or my sister. I do love them, but home has to do with the place. The yellow-green-walled, amazingly unprejudiced place that has been a patient collector of my experiences, good and horrible, for twenty two years. It's a connection with the past. It was past-me who survived, and loved and thought a great deal, and who transformed to make this-me happen. But she left a part of her in this room, that is my home. I sound like a hopeless romantic, I  probably am. 

I'm all for change, now. In the words of an awesome friend of mine, change is fixed and constant. And I'm surprised, I actually like it. I have only tiptoed away from my fluttering nothingness, I am well aware of that, but even in those three steps I have discovered a little treasure. But as wise old Terry Pratchett put it,

"The important thing about having lots of things to remember is that you've got to go somewhere afterwards where you can remember them, you see? You've got to stop. You haven't really been anywhere until you've got back home."

Isn't that perfectly true? Home is remembrance. It's Wordsworth's couch.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Once Upon a Bag

I love this bag, I stumbled upon it at a small obscure shop in the heart of Pune. I'm a sucker for nostalgia. That's why I like period dramas so much. In my old cupboard, in a cozy little balcony-turned-room, back home, I have a bagful of memories - trinkets like handmade jewellery, painted stones and shells brought home from beach-trips, photos, notes about and from old crushes and newspaper cut-outs of my favourite stars, among other things. It's my childhood at-a-glance. There's also a small collection of quirky buttons, because I thought stamps and coins were too passé. Then there's the still growing collection of bookmarks. In that cupboard there's another paper bag from when I first went make-up shopping with my sisters and stored in it are all the greeting cards I've ever got. Can you imagine, I have a bunch of friendship bands from way, way back when, pages from sappy old diaries and snippets of fabric cut and saved from favourite old clothes. I was a cheesy kid, awfully romantic. That girl is gone, but like I said, I'm a nostalgimaniac (just made it up) and kind of a closet hoarder. I like to believe objects store memory. And one of my pet hobbies is fantasizing about history.

I'm also a sucker for bags. Not dainty purses, huge - ginormous - bags. I have about ten at the moment, which for someone who rarely steps out of the house to buy stuff, is a lot. My nostaligimania (yes, I love this word) is one of the reasons I bought this bag. It was perfectly wistful, wonderfully odd and just made me want to find out more. (It is chunky but prettier than in the photo.) The bag has earned the strangest of looks, much to my amusement; but it does get quite a few intrigued compliments in college, which make me realize how in-the-right-place I am here. I mean, today at the train station, this guy called me over just to tell me he liked my bag. Cute.

The image is from a painting of St. Catherine of Bologna, the patron saint of artists, an artist herself. I love it when I find surprise connections between books and other things in my life. I recently read a curious book about a young artist called Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis. That's where I'd first heard of Catherine of Bologna. Here's the excerpt:

The patron saint against temptation sits straight-backed in an Italian convent as if mortised into her chair, and she is dead, dead, dead. Her name is Saint Catherine of Bologna, and nuns have been lighting candles at her feet since Columbus asked Isabella for those ships.  
Rainey Royal, in the reading room of the New York Public Library, peers at the photo in the book so closely she can smell the paper. Her shiny hair spills over the page. Saint Catherine is not just about temptation: she's the patroness of artists, for Chrissake—just what Rainey needs. She thinks they could be sisters, five hundred years apart. Rainey is an artist, and she embodies temptation. 

Wisps of smoke from centuries of candles, she reads, have stained Saint Catherine's hands and face mahogany. In the photo, the saint wears a gargantuan habit, her nut-colored fingers laced in her lap. Rainey wears a halter top and holds a dry clay egg in one hand and a silver teaspoon in the other. 

While she reads, she burnishes the egg with the back of the spoon on her lap.  

In her mind, Rainey lifts the musty black fabric. She looks up Saint Catherine's legs. She sees this: not an old lady's crinkles but the lucent flesh of a fourteen-year-old virgin. One morning, Cath walked out on her rich foster family, with its tutors and grooms, and offered herself to the nuns.  In the cloister, Cath will never listen at night for the marquis padding toward her through chilled marble halls.  Why Cath endured that setup at all is because her own father sent her there, to serve the marquis's daughter. There's always a man, right?

The painting is of some significance, it seems. It is apparently a rare sight for a donor's daughter and wife to be represented in a painting as well. It's those two women who are present on my bag, I wonder if this is of some significance also, or just a random selection of fair painted ladies.

Another dear-to-me trinket worth mentioning is a slim blue copy of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, which I found at local book sale, with a short handwritten anniversary note in German on the first page, from 1970-something. Precious.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why I Like Reading Blogs

I spend about an hour a day visiting blogs, and I have a whole schedule of how I do that. Book blogs on alternate days, personal on the rest, celebrity blogs (which these days is limited to Gaiman) on weekends, and some twelve blogs by people I know - old acquaintances, online and real-life friends - that I check up on daily, if only to reread the older posts. This may sound stalker-ly to some and I have been scoffed at for my blog-obsession often enough. But that fact remains - blogs are interesting.

Regular everyday conversation rarely presents the opportunity to really understand someone. It's all poofs, fluff and inconsequential blahs. How many people do I know who actually like discussing things that have little of the immediate reality of the weather and lunchtime? Very few. When people write, even the unlikeliest of my friends, they sift through their thoughts and present a selected few with more coherency than small talks or chats can hope to summon. And when they write blogs, they do it with the underlying assumption that someone would read them. It's a presentation, and the closest one can get to an honest one, by virtue of not being face-to-face. People bare their emotions on their blogs, the opinions that they might be too embarrassed to share out in the real world because they don't suit their carefully constructed images or simply because they don't want to risk being taken too seriously. I was once told that it is easier to speak the truth in a foreign language or in English because it is more impersonal than your mother tongue. The same applies to blogs I think. It is easier to be sincere on a blog rather than in real life.

I love language. I love dissecting people's words choices and peculiar sentence constructions. People have the cutest tics (not to be confused with the blood-sucking insects.) Like, one blogger I follow throws around a lot of uncanny Britishisms and another has this very storyteller-like tone employing phrases such as, "well well well," "lo and behold" and "voila!" I apparently write incomplete or one-word half-sentences that make no sense like, "I did something, just because," which in my head means, just for the sake of doing it. Some bloggers swear a lot, others ooze punctuation!!!!! There's a lot you can judge from the way a person writes and I love how so very often, what you make of a blogger-personality doesn't match up to their real-world image. It's a weird kind of fun, the failing to fully figure people out.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Do we take comfort in someone else's pain?

A friend told me the other day that a professor told them that stereotypes are incomplete. Google will lead the uninformed curious to a quote by Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Americanah.)

"The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

I love the "The Danger of a Single Story" TED talk. It's one of those that I can watch over and over and still find myself nodding in agreement every time. 

I often wonder if we take comfort in stereotypes. I don't mean this in the sense of conforming to a preformed biased idea of how we should be - that is undoubtedly harmful to us, that was what I meant when I wrote about the myth of being yourself. What I'm referring to here is far more delusional and, by extension, dangerous.

In her talk, Chimamanda talks about her American roommate's idea of Africa, noting that: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. It is this well-intentioned pity that I think we easily seek comfort in. 

When I was a kid my mother told me to take comfort in the fact that there were people out there going through worse. I thought it was a twisted logic then and now I find it a dangerous consolation. Be happy with what you have, because there's someone out there who has even less reason to be happy? Misery is not the problems you face but what you make of them, how you let them affect you. Someone shared a quote on Facebook the other day, which went somewhere along the lines of how unhappy people are attention-seekers who like to wallow in self-pity. While I don't completely agree with unhappiness being a wholly conscious decision, I do think that it's odd to be happy that someone out there has been a dealt what my bias assumes is a worse fate. As if knowing that a poor orphan with cancer has lead a happier life than I should make me feel guilty for not loving mine, thankful for not sharing those problems. It's miserable, and it is a reflex reaction of those who have lead generally stable lives. We swallow the half-representation of reality, the stereotype, because it makes us feel good about ourselves. (I may have got side-tracked here a bit.) Not Schadenfreude, something like Schaden-reassurance.

This randomly reminds me of a quote from Khaled Hosseini's brilliant novel, And The Mountains Echoed, about a poetess romanticizing the normal lives of her staff, and their indignation at becoming her puppet-characters.

That night, the poem she chose to read caught me off guard. It was about a man and his wife, in the village, mourning the death of the infant they had lost to the winter cold. The guests seemed to love the poem, judging by the nods and the murmurs of approval around the room, and by their hearty applause when Nila looked up from the page. Still, I felt some surprise, and disappointment, that my sister's misfortune had been used to entertain guests, and I could not shake the sense that some vague betrayal had been committed. 

A few weeks ago, I was walking to the train station from my college, when I saw two small children , no more than eight years old, carrying half-empty alcohol bottles in their hands and a suspicious sway in their gait, blabbering nonsensicalities at passers-by who didn't seem all that bothered. I felt no pity or anger or horror, I didn't feel anything, I just registered my complete disconnection to the situation. We barely know the reality we are surrounded by, far be it from us to judge or understand someone else's world. Every time I look at one of those artsy portrait-photos of old working-class men and women with their characteristic weary eyes, I search for the beauty people appear to find in them. All it is is taking comfort in someone else's misery and marvelling at their obvious acceptance of what we find unthinkable. It's a local version of the admiration given to an exoticized half-truth like Slumdog Millionaire. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

On the Beauty of Accents and Mixed Languages

I'll never understand the obsession with having a British or an American accent. Sure, English English and its many dialects sound sexy when it's Englishmen speaking them. But to tell you the truth, there's something adorable about a local Indian accent, especially when it is pronounced enough to seemingly affect fluency. It's true - the less accented your language, the more proper it becomes - but I feel, the more proper it is, the less personality it has. I  know someone who speaks perfectly good English with a charming Tamilian accent that makes me jealous. Mine is a funny half (school-learnt) Indian, half (nicked-from-TV) bad American accent. I've been told I don't sound Marathi. But I'm not sure I sound anywhere.

I don't think accents deserve the prejudice they're given - although, what does, for that matter. I think accents are beautiful. They add character, carve out an identity. Your accent is your heritage, your culture, a bit of home that you can carry around with yourself, and carry with pride. And I think it goes without saying, there is nothing less attractive than an Indian faking an American accent to sound khool.

Hinglish used to annoy me. Writers like Chetan Bhagat who Indianized their English with desi words seemed to me to be committing some sort of crime. I strutted around, nose in the air, for being one of the 'correct' people who never sneaked Marathi or Hindi words into their English. Very priggish of me. I love now how people in India can easily mix languages, slip into their mother tongue and back. English is a foreign language, all we do is make it comfortable by giving it a touch of ours. Nothing wrong with that. In a country with so many languages, English becomes a uniting bhasha, and we have every right to personalize it. Just think how casually we play with our bi-, often multi-lingualism: it's awesome. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Myth of Being Yourself

They say, you should just be yourself. They probably think, as long as you are yourself, everything will be all right. That's what I would call another fool's axiom. There is no such thing as yourself. And there is certainly no such thing as all right. 

"Being yourself" implies that you have control over a set of virtues and vices that came together to build you. That is a myth. You are no fixed combination of qualities; you are constantly changing, growing and adapting. And the fact of the matter is, you have little say in these changes. You don't make them, more often than not, they happen to you. And if you decide to simply be "yourself" - or whatever you interpret yourself as - you diminish your scope as a person, you limit your life. Now what kind of advice is that? Don't try to be anyone, I'd say, let life come to you. It should know its way around pretty well by now. 

And what is all right, anyway? When is everything all right? Never, that's when. You cannot delude yourself into thinking there's such a thing as control. Everyone has problems, everyone goes through stuff. You will make mistakes, you will have vices. All right only ever lasts for five seconds. So why hanker after an impossibility? Think about it - once you accept it, even lack of control can be reassuring. And truth be told, we do need to have felt bad for good to feel good. 

Mostly, if you are tired of change (comfort zones are comfortable, after all) and think you're better off just being yourself - imagine if you'd made that decision five years ago. Aren't you glad you aren't that version of you any more? I know I am.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Fixing Me - Not another waiting room conversation

Picture me in a tiny waiting room. I'm not alone, as is unfortunately always the case lately. I stare blandly at a newspaper, hoping it appears as if I'm immersed in it. But who am I kidding, I can't act. Do I just have a face that people want to talk to? (Really? No, I doubt that.)

"This is so boring, right? I mean, this really is boring. I don't know why they expect us to just sit here, and they take their own time. The professors, I mean. This always happens. Just because we are students doesn't mean we have all the time in the world to spare. I have so many assignments due, you have no idea. Do you have any assignments?"

I barely manage to look up and nod, when he continues.

"The other day this professor made me wait outside his office for an hour for one signature. It was so irritating. I have a life too you know. But he is a good teacher, so I won't really complain. Do you know him, Something-or-the-Other?" 

I open my mouth to answer, but settle for a nod instead, as he spirals on.

"He's good, right? But maybe not so good as This-Other-Guy. He does know how to manage a class well. Last Friday he was discussing feminist theory. I know, it sounds boring. I mean, that's what he said. There's so much stigma attached to the word. Like you add unnecessary bad implications to things like mental illness. But he explained what it actually is, and he had all these other ideas about our culture, and it was genius, all the things he was saying. I mean, most of it was completely over my head, which is what happens when he talks. That's his real charm. But the thing is, when we think of feminists, we have this typical image, don't we...?"

I wonder how many words he's getting out every minute. I have never seen a mouth work so fast. It's like he doesn't need to breathe. He pauses, suddenly and looks at me, fleetingly expectant. I hurriedly nod. That seems to do the trick.

"...exactly! Well, he explained it very well. I don't think I can tell you exactly what he said. You should take one of his classes next time. The-Other-Guy's, I mean. Something-or-the-Other is also good, like I said. But he doesn't give such good grades. That is the only complaint everyone has against him, anyway. But do you really think that grades are that important?"

I sneak in a nod, that sadly goes unnoticed.

"I mean, don't you think that if you do your work well, you'll get that good grade? Do you think it matters in the long run which grade you had? No, right? Who is going to ask you how much you scored all those years back. No one, that's who. So the quality of teaching is more important, yes?"

A pause. This time, I'm ready with a succession of nods. His face glows with unbridled pleasure at being agreed with. He momentarily struggles with suppressing the joy to get back to his point.

"Exactly. So where was I? I forgot." Astonishing. "I talk a lot." No kidding. "Anyway, forget all of that. We've been in the same class for so long, and I hardly know you. Why don't you ever talk? This professor, we're here to meet... what do you think of him...?"

I take a deep breath and open my mouth to finally begin my end of the conversation... and the door pushes open.

"Oh, it's time, do you want to go in, first? Or should I? I do have a class right after. And I need to have breakfast before that. Did you already have it? Maybe I'll be done quickly. Can I go in, first?" 

Nod. Nod, nod. Another nod. My neck hurts.

"Great, see you later. Wish me luck." Nod.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The best thing about keeping a diary is reading it.

I wrote this on 29.07.2014, part of this virtual journal I always forget to keep. I reread what I've written so far a lot, it's like some sort of weird self-obsession. I like (and hate) how everything I write falls into cliché in retrospect. This is one of my favourite days. It was the day before I left for Hyderabad, feels like a world apart.


It is sinking in, finally, this feeling I can neither fully understand nor even begin to describe. It’s unreal. Like waking up early on one of the annual gathering days, getting dressed and hurrying to school at dawn - so far off from the routine, it might as well not be happening. It’s like every early Diwali morning, or a late night stay-up waiting for Baba to come home from his trips. The only permanent proof that it exists is a wrapped up memory that won't fully unravel until it repeats itself. The only proofs that I have of Hyderabad actually happening are my packed up bags, a flimsy letter that says I got into a university. Aai in all her bee-like busyness seems quite unable to understand the sheer gravity of this… this move. There. I said it. I acknowledged the unreality of me going away. I know what you're thinking and I hope you are right. 
Let all my drama be unnecessary, I can hope.

This afternoon I stocked up on another strange incident that feels improbable now that it's in the past. Me at a temple.

Today we went to Kasba Ganpati Mandir, Aai and I, to hell with the rain. It’s a beautiful place, a quintessential cold-stony temple – unlike Sarasbaug which I don’t like – and here’s what I prayed for:

The courage to make a choice, a decision, and the strength to stick to it. A man in front of me held his ears and did a bunch of sit ups, asking for forgiveness, perhaps? And that reminded me not to beg for it. So I asked for non-forgiveness, for the sum total of all my faults and misgivings to weigh on me and keep me in line. I asked for the ability to help me be myself, and to help me help myself.

It was a good, complicated prayer. It went in circles that seemed to make sense at the moment.

And then I looked at the people around me and I wondered if they really were happier by doing all of that. Did setting themselves at the foot of an interesting shapeless Ganesh idol really make their lives better? Were they more successful, more satisfied knowing they’d eaten a holy prasad? Did they not have fathers who suddenly died, or exams they failed to pass? 
So much self-pity. I need lessons in empathy.

Where does happiness come from really? Doesn't it come from the inside? Do you need to go to a temple to find it? Or is it more complex than my scepticism allows me to assume? Can God reach in and touch that inside that not all of us can find, like - a half-baked metaphor is happening here - kindling a fire there. You can rub two stones on each other all you want, but a matchstick, if you happen upon it, really will do you good. So why not use it - when it may be right there? Maybe God is your matchstick. 

I'm rambling.

But I suppose "He" can be a helping hand. Belonging to someone who isn't a neighbour or a friend or a colleague, someone who won't tell on you or judge you or refuse outright to help you - so you won't feel guilty asking him for help. It's not wrong to ask for help, is it? 

(And if you're asking for help from someone mighty and powerful and one who has all these whims (I'm thinking of Olympians, the Greeks really knew what Gods were all about) you are better off having something ready in return, just in case, if only a few rhyming lines of cowardice.)

Also, the place has roots. Aai tells me it was the temple Baba went to to pray, when he lived there, when he was still young enough to vehemently believe. I like the histories of places and that's a sort of connection with him I'm unlikely to forge again, he being no more and everything.

Maybe I need to visit temples more often. Maybe I will.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Teaching: What I miss the most about being home

The other day we were discussing Chomsky in class and the idea that we slowly lose access with our innate grammar after adolescence, which is why children are better language learners than adults. (I am being vague here, but only because this post isn't about whether and when this hypothesis was disproved.) It's about children and languages and how desperately I miss teaching.

The discussion reminded me of a "German for Kids" class when I taught verb conjugations without actually teaching any of the fearsome grammar that all parents strictly told me to avoid. See, these eight year olds just needed to know German or speak German or read it, without having to learn the grammatical rules and terms, which would obviously suck out all their interest in the language.

"Why do we change verbs?" I looked around expectantly at my group of five learners.
"Because...", one of them started tentatively, "Because, I run, but he runs." He fell back into the rehearsed pattern.
"Yes," I agreed, "But why?"
There was a long pause and amidst the few distant and puzzled gazes I noticed one of them struggling for the right words. It's amazing how you actually see it in their eyes, the expression as it travels from dazed confusion to twinkling clarity.
"Because...?" I asked her specifically. 
"Because... then we can say two things." She declared, adorably oblivious to the simple brilliance of her assessment. 

I was thrilled. In a bunch of school children who'd only ever been taught "I run, he runs, because I say so, now learn it by heart," I'd found someone who had just given it some thought of her own. 

And I miss that so much. That feeling of excitement at getting your point across successfully. At making a disinterested kid understand that spellings are important because what more is there to a word than its spelling? (so when Priya makes a spelling mistake, she gets called Triya for the rest of the class, for believing one letter is not all that important!), at helping a kid understand verb conjugations and noun articles without really teaching them.

It's indescribable, the sheer delight I felt when the kids didn't want the class to end, when they wanted to finish reading that German book or playing that quiz, when they asked me to teach them prepositions because they just had to say something, when they developed a fondness for the language so great that they continued to learn German even after I left the city. That they loved German more than they loved having fun in class - that's my greatest happiness.

Monday, August 18, 2014

On dreams and goals, or a lack thereof

(Edit: Reposting from my old blog, Conversations with Dead People)

(Note: I wrote this back in July and perhaps I should have posted it right then, or perhaps no one would read it anyway. Either way, I'm back to posting and honestly, writing, if only for me, so here goes.)

My mom just got offered a job that sounds tailor-made for her. And for the past ten years she's been working a job that seems anything but. From what I know it consists of long hours, the grimy feel of hospital, medical jargon, lots of social networking and ordering people around - things she's always claimed not to like. The benefits that made her take the job in the first place have sort of become irrelevant over the years. I'd have thought she'd take up the new offer in a heartbeat, but it appears she's finding it hard to consider quitting the non-mom job. And it's funny, because dull as it may sound to my ear, she actually loves it. Would she have thought years ago she'd end up doing what she does and enjoying herself? I doubt it. But that's the thing with loves and hopes and aspirations. They change.

When I was a kid I wanted to be an artist. Because, while my sister got all the great scores and teachers' praise in school, all I excelled at was art. Sketching, drawing, cartooning, craft, you name it. My grandfather once told me when I grew up my job could be drawing pictures on greeting cards. I was quite taken by the idea, I loved making greeting cards. In high school, the love developed into a full fledged painting and art obsession and I had art grades to support it. 

I stopped considering it a career choice, though, because having lost my father somewhere along the way, being financially secure was a big concern. What's the option to go with for a doctor's daughter who knows all the icky details of pursuing medicine? Engineering. But lucky for me, I reached my lowest low - academics-wise - even before I could join a degree course and with my marks, I couldn't even have dreamt of getting in at a decent engineering college. So there I was, with no idea what to do with myself.

I ran back to my old love - art, my fall back option, as I thought it was. But no self-respecting practical person with their eyes on a secure future could just draw stuff and hope it sells. So I chose the next best thing - animation. I got admission to some course, appeared to have a good hang on the theory and basked in my teacher's compliments. Over the next couple of weeks, all the low self-esteem came tumbling back, fueled by the evidence that my so-called class was filled with lost causes such as me. Anybody who'd hoped to be a good animator or designer, and had worked for that, had been admitted to better universities. As good at my job as I could be, I'd no chance of being the cream of the crop.

Next dream: German. This was a big one. It lasted four odd years. This was where I really shone. I was the top of my class throughout the courses, and the teachers appreciated my natural talent. It felt amazing, I'd found home. German brought two distinct career choices - teaching and translation. The former sounded ridiculously non-me, the latter unimaginably dull. Still, I considered it better than the nothing I'd faced only a couple of months ago. 

When I decided to do a Bachelor's degree in English, I was discouraged in all kinds of ways. With German I had better job prospects, a German teacher was paid way more, my to-be job was almost practically fixed, I was finally good at something - it would be stupid to give that up for the hope of something better. "But it just seems like the right thing to do" was a lame response, but I stuck to my choice. 

Now, about a year after the whole affair - it has been a productive year, mind you - I am convinced I am on the right course. Years ago, if you'd told that little noodle haired kid she would be a good teacher, she'd have laughed in your face. If you'd told her she'd love teaching, love languages and literature and be as ''pretentious'' as her sister, she'd have thrown an unending tantrum, just because. Crazy - the girl who believed she had the emotional maturity of a hamster ends up blogging for over four years. Ends up, possibly, as a writer. 

I don't know what I want to do with my life - that's such a relief, saying that. The problems are far from over, but life will sort itself out as it always has.

Dreams change. Hopes change. So do you. And what you're convinced you're good at? Even that changes. You don't know yourself as well as you think you do. And you don't know what you'll like unless you try it. Marks - they don't matter. Nor do emotional problems, failures of every type, perceived shortcomings, job offers and university acceptances. Not necessarily. You decide what matters. Dreams don't always need to be chased, it's not like they're trying to get away from you. What makes you think they're out of your reach? It might be right around the corner: that thing that makes you the happiest. Or you might already be living your dream. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

The lengths people go to judge others astonish me.

Whenever someone smokes on TV, the caption tells us how awful it is. Then there are those painfully graphic advertisements. Every time this Smoking Kills advertisement comes up on TV, I want to puke - not because of what they show, though that's no party, but because it's the most absurdly manipulative thing I've ever seen. Sure - maybe smokers do need to be made aware of the harmful effects of what they're doing, although even that's arguable. But why all the hatred? Who put you on that high horse? Passive smoking means it affects us too, smokers don't exactly smell like roses, blah blah, I get that. But I'm pretty sure people still have a lot to say about those who smoke in closed rooms with no one around but fellow smokers. Take this for instance: 

"Creative ceiling art" a friend shared on Facebook

"Smoking kills." - God, it doesn't kill you if you're not doing it, and if it kills someone else, slowly or fastly, it's their choice. Someone can smoke a little and reach his ultimate inevitable demise slowly or another someone can smoke away his life - it shouldn't have to be like the ultimate worst sin you can ever commit. You could have forty reasons for not doing it, but why be disgusted by someone who can counter-argue each of those. Sure, there's no harm in awareness, but thrusting your opinions on people doesn't help them. The topic should be open to discussion, between two friends, a couple, a parent and their kids, not unlike any other "vice."

You need to stop being so prejudiced, stop judging and considering yourself so morally superior as to torment completely normal people, good people, because of one habit of theirs that you've decided is bad. We've all got weaknesses and we all decide which we try to overcome and which side effects we can bear with. If smoking hurts, so does every other obsessive behaviour, and there are so many that flit by unnoticed by the self proclaimed heath police.

A partner who sneaks out for a smoke once in a month is far better than one who has an affair, in my opinion, though one shouldn't have to sneak out - which is the point. Someone who prefers to relax with a smoke is better than a rash driver. Adventure sports are far riskier, I think, than an occasional cigarette. No one likes a pretentious goody-goody any more than a chain smoker. It's better to be understanding, I feel, than confrontational.

It's not weird to take behavioural advice from a 1940s children's cartoon, no, it's not. So do yourself a favour and always remember, Thumper said it best: