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.)