Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 - Highlights of the Year

A year ago, to the date, I wrote a blog post about how I had started writing happy letters to myself, celebrating all the good in my life, bottling it up to revisit when need be. Letters to Myself, I called it. It was a great exercise. Eventually, I shifted it to an actual journal and most recently, though now as only fleeting notes, OneNote. The Facebook "memories to look back on" came as a reminder of the post and of the fact that I haven't blogged in a while. 2015 was long and eventful. Here is a recap ---

  • I had five resolutions. I kept two, stretched to maybe three, which is still more than I can say for most years. 

  • 12.03.2015. I am alone in the room, munching on pizza, after a long-drawn Skype conversation. I am in no mood to look at more bright-lit-screens. The phone buzzes. I receive three separate messages telling me, Did you read about Terry Pratchett? By some eerie Bollywood-style coincidence, the power goes out. The whole hostel is engulfed in darkness. I hurry on to Facebook. A quick look at my favourite Discworld haunt confirms the news. I see those final tweets and I burst into tears. And I don't even know why! I mean, he is this writer, I have never even seen him. What does it say about me that I cried for a stranger? Then again, some stranger. The news feels like a deep cut. What does it say about him. In my journal, the next day, I quote Dumbledore. "To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.

  • Summer 2015. The Mahabaleshwar visit with my mother and the fact that I posted about it, on Tabula Rasa! Another sign of the slow death of this blog, but whatever, I'm not about to mourn. I best remember this, from the trip. On the way back, we stopped the car next to a row of corn-on-the-cob vendors near a dam. It was raining like nothing. Our driver honked, a man ran up to the car, shivering under a flimsy umbrella, took the money and minutes later, brought us three hot freshly roasted cobs smeared with lemon, salt and chili powder. Yummy. One bite and I was a child again!

  • I made new acquaintances and friends and shed some old ones. I finally know what one of my professors meant when he said, "Nostalgia is a crutch." It sometimes is. Oh my god, am I growing up?

  • I became oddly talkative in class. I mean really, really talkative. Very hand-raise-y, Hermione-type! It was probably the wrong age to get so involved in schoolwork. But I have never been that girl. I suppose I just felt time slipping past and grabbed at the last strands of collegeness at my disposal; earned me some teachers' praise for the first time in two decades and basked in the cheeky glee of it. Seven years too late, but hey, what the hell. I discovered Stephen Krashen, very late into my linguistics-love. I read a couple of dozen books on language. The library became my regular hang-out. I spent long days cooped up there. I also discovered Vivian Cook

  • I learnt to stumble around in high heels. Walking should be right around the corner now. I also learnt not to cry (literally) and let people paw my face, put on mascara and eye liner and wasn't too frightened to have them buzz around me with all those little beauty-making gadgets. I bought a sexy black gown with a lacy back and matching lingerie, I also swooned over and bought a pair of pretty pink pajamas. I came out of the closet about my love for earrings and even had a friend birthday-gift me a pair. *beep beep* foreign matter detected. *beep* womanhood confirmed. *beep* new priya!

  • I discovered green tea. And tried my leg at running. And went to a gym (and did not freak out at my reflection in the mirrored wall.)

  • Picture a cold December morning. A dingy old room, paint peeling off the walls, a broken desk or two at the front and one blackboard covered in years of chalk grime. Children settled on the floor, their uniforms shabby and patchy, laughing and fighting and shouting. A teacher desperately trying to return their focus to the task at hand - which is naming words starting with आ. Picture the twelve-year-olds scratching their chins in a genuine struggle. And in a corner, another group of little kids, in the same classroom that is the only usable one in this ramshackle excuse for a school. An eager bunch, the one in the corner, all gathered around - me! Picture me, just as eager, reading aloud a story. A silly tale about a parrot who wants to eat a mango. Later, picture the children writing down the new words (not my idea!) asking for more words and more books to devour... and me thinking, I could do this again. I could do this forever. 

As Dickens would say, 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

2015 was good, bad, memorable. Weird and new and yet in most respects, a year like any other. And I look forward to the next with bated breath and naive hope. Wish you all the health and goodness in the world. Happy New Year!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Musings on Grammar Teaching

Disclaimer? Rather disorganized, somewhat under-researched, entirely heartfelt.
I shall improve. Meanwhile,...

The first time I started "teaching grammar,” long before any real teaching entered my life, was in school to a bunch of people who couldn't for the life of them understand clauses. And I could never figure out why because every one of them used clauses perfectly well! But why, why is "I am reading a book that is interesting" an adjective clause and "It is interesting that I am reading a book" a noun clause? Why, why should I care! Only, no one had to learn it, and that is where language teaching in many scenarios, most definitely in our country, has got it all wrong.

Of course you don't need to know what a noun clause is. If you use it properly and appropriately, you have processed what a noun clause is, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether you wanted to or not and whether you call it a stupid noun clause or not! Language teaching is not making a bunch of annoyed teenagers identify "noun clauses" and "adverb clauses." It is making a bunch of annoyed teenagers use noun clauses and adverb clauses.

But that is the difficult part, grammar instruction. Today's rant is only about one problem in the haystack... the medium. Anyone in an English-medium school is generally expected to leave their mother tongue / first language / regional language at home. Strict only compulsory English blah. Recently, a friend told me the teachers from his daughter's school told them not to speak to her in Marathi at home! What foolishness. Then my mother goes and says my school had made the same suggestion.

Let us not even get into the whole realm of social anxieties this ban on first language expression must cause. Just think about this, what is a child to do upon entering a grammar class in such a school and being told that cat, umbrella, sadness, rain and bunch are words that all belong to this category called "noun" and that "a noun is a naming word," and to make matters worse, that "every noun has an article."

I was a total Wren & Martin nerd in school. I always had an eccentric amount of fun solving grammar exercises, go figure. But glancing back through the book, it is incredible to me that the first comment on articles that the book provides is this, "they go before nouns." All right, good point, but that is not nearly enough. Whats and hows have no weight if unaccompanied by the why.

To a child who has only ever spoken Marathi, or let's say Hindi, at home, articles make no sense. What is this "the" business? Why can't I say - "I eat banana," that is how I say it in Hindi. Oh but no no don't bring Hindi into the mighty English classroom, god forbid you directly translate something! Let us waste the years of linguistic knowledge you possess. Let's make you memorize "articles go before nouns" till your stomach churns and you grow up into that annoyed teenager who cannot figure out a noun clause. Let's just rob you of the opportunity to actually acquire English grammar!

We start listening to and speaking a language somewhere between the age of null up to three, perhaps four. This first language or the L1 is what the growing brain must acquire for full development. Acquire, not learn. The human brain is built for language acquisition. Chomsky says we are pre-equipped with the "language acquisition device." This LAD seems (so goes an admittedly much-contested hypothesis) to function at its fullest at a young age...

And young is what they are, these classroom-ful of tiny uncanny beings equipped with a treasure-chest of a device that has already mastered at least one language (and with what? three years of haphazard input) and can process possibly every other language thrown its way... and what do we teachers do? Order them to stick to one. Attaining L2 fluency, do not necessitate a boycott of the mother tongue. The first language won't be an interference but a support system! Welcome it into the class and it will be any language teacher's best friend.

Picture this, you find a child whispering to his friend not in English. Do you tell him to shush or find out the topic of conversation and turn that into a learning opportunity? In a language classroom, pretty much anything can be converted into classroom material, and sadly I don't see many teachers capitalizing on this.

Every child in the my whole world has problems learning tenses. I don't mean learning the names of tenses, erm progressive simple past what? but the concepts. How often do you ask a learner, how would you say it in your mother tongue? Chances are, not many actually use tenses wrongly in their own language. Surely very few answer "Which school do you go to?" with "I am going to XYZ school," in the first language? (No one has in my tiny two-year experience.) And there it is, if the tense has been processed once, but still not in English, the problem lies in your teaching, not in the child's capacity nor his choice of language of communication.

(^I received due criticism for my tendency to embellish and leave out pesky crucial examples. Hence this little edit, to whomsoever may actually read this.)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Foreignness

I just read an absurd German book recently, set also partly in Ireland, which I loved for its very oddness. Our perception of the world is shaped so entirely by our experiences, the people we meet, the places we visit, the food we taste, the things we see. Someone in another city, someone across boundaries and seas and oceans sees the world with a view that might never resonate with mine. It is why German humour is so unfunny, Japanese beauty often so bland. This foreignness is to me both fascinating and disconcerting. Fascinating because we have so many windows into the unfamiliar, from armchair connections to travel - so that we have a friend now who loves British humour and another with an obsession with Italian cuisine. And here I am in love with all things German. And yet it could all simply be an illusion of insight and closeness. It is disconcerting, obviously, because it makes me feel small, apprehensive of everything beyond my comprehension and out of my reach. And yet I am even more wary, oddly, of things that are, after all, within reach, the broadness of our scope, the ever extending horizons. Of sitting in a corner of Hyderabad reading a German book by a Swiss immigrant in Ireland, and nodding in agreement.
I love how our perception of the world is shaped so entirely by our experiences, the people we meet, the places we visit, the food we taste, the things we see. Someone in another city, someone across boundaries and seas and oceans sees the world with a view that I might never comprehend. It is why German humour is so incomprehensibly unfunny, Japanese beauty often so bland. This foreignness is to me both fascinating and disconcerting. Fascinating because literature, now technology offer us windows into this uncanny, 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Advice To My Sixteen-Year-Old Self

Yes, yes, I said I find this pointless in an old old post, but I caved. Actually, I read this - Stephen King's advice to his 16-year-old self: Stay away from drugs. What would yours be? (Also, hasn't Stephen King got so very cute lately with his adorable Corgi Molly aka The Thing of Evil?

Anyhow, writing a post for my sixteen year old self seems like such a me-thing. I am always on the fence about what to do with Conversations, as anyone who has read even a single post would know, but then a topic like this comes waddling along. Well, here goes nothing.

Dear teenage Priya, 

Yes, you will read this and roll your eyes till they hurt, because that is what all teenagers do, and a little part of me is still sad that I am old enough to address teenagers as a separate class of people that I no longer like or relate to, but give me the benefit of the doubt - I am still you. So, here are three four pieces of advice.

Get over it. Because nothing - not even your biggest problems in life - are worth all the very not-productive worry / regret / anger you put into them. Also, stop waiting for someone to pull you out of your miseries. No one is going to care one bit what happens to you, except yourself and your self matters the most, let's establish that. The best life advice that you are going to get is: get off your butt and live, and you don't get to say that that is not good enough.

Okay, I must say this. Stop reading Ayn Rand. The obsession has to end. Yes, it is great fiction, meh philosophy, but there are so many better books to read out there. You spent too many years only reading Harry Potter already! You will reach a point when you have thirteen books at least that you desperately want to read next and often not enough time for even one. So take that battered copy of Atlas Shrugged you are reading for the seventeen-hundredth time, keep it on the shelf and there it should stay till you are thirty two and between reads. Hank Rearden can wait. Go out and explore. Read classics, some romance, a self-help book here and an erotica there. You never know what you'll like.

And that is another life-advicey thing. You never know what you will like, what you are good at, as if it were one confirmed piece of truth. There are no unalterable facts to Priya. Don't let it take you another seven years to understand what you should already know. Give yourself a chance, reality is a lot more malleable than you have led yourself to believe. Be open to change and see where it takes you. Trust me, it is worth discovering how far beyond your perceived limits you can go. 

Also, and I suppose you might have reached this last part by yourself upon reading this awesomely organized letter, but Priya, dear, please improve your communication skills. I know, who doesn't love a good rant? But believe it or not, you are going to be this really cool writer / teacher, people will love what you have to say, and let us face it, you don't want them to get majorly confused along the way and find it hard to keep track of your impossibly long clauses, do you? So, work on that and make things easier for me, won't you?

Love,

Grown-up-ish Priya

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Life Lessons from my Cat

(our favourite tom, from when he was still young and less fat)

There's something to be learnt from the unwavering self absorption of a cat. Cats love themselves. That may as well be the truest truth of all time. They need no help cleaning, no petting, no sticks or balls thrown their way. Even though a bored cat may often hunt a variety of tiny objects with mind-boggling dedication, all it really needs from you is food and shelter. And if you refuse to provide that, all self-respecting cats know just the devious means to acquire it on their own. You are not all that important to cats, in fact, they hardly pay you any notice. That's the thing about them, let them inside or throw them out the door, they exude cool nonchalance and self-sufficiency.

In this aspect, I am the complete opposite of a cat. I'm a dog. I am apologetic, silly and when it comes to people I know well, I'm greedy for validation. I can't for the life of me learn to be independent. I'm the lab that slouches on the doormat with sad eyes, head on paw, till someone reaches home and gives its life a happy purpose. I'm often the dog that needs to be taken outside for a walk, the goofball that obediently performs circus-like handshakes and twirls at the whims of mere humans.

I should learn a lesson from the cat that slinks out of the window the moment the house is empty. That brings home its own dinner of dead mice and pigeons. The cat who climbs trees knowing well that it may get stuck, and not giving a damn, because of course its silly human will devise a way to fetch it down. A well-fed pet cat who steals and fights on the streets for the heck of it enjoys life like few creatures. Dogs are cute and loyal and all, but I want to be a cat. Because, at the end of the day, one feisty hiss from the black street-cat is all it takes to alarm a pampered pedigree.

Friday, June 26, 2015

When the very right word seems very wrong

I may be technically challenged, but in my own way, I am an internet baby, with the blog and the incurable Facebook addiction. I am an active and inactive part of many virtual writing communities. And they all have many wonderful things to offer - interesting ideas and prompts are only the tip of the awesomeness iceberg. But here is the downside, the internet has made writers out of everyone. And it is they who go on to popularize absurdities like these: 45 ways to avoid using the word very. I mean, seriously?


Firstly, will someone please explain to me the need for posters telling writers which words to use! Is it that simple to express yourself precisely, beautifully, as to pick up a thesaurus and go all Joey on your work? What kind of writer takes advice that is coolly spewed with no mention, I must add, of context. If "very wise" does a better job of expressing your thought than the mighty replacement "sagacious", then by all means, write it. Saying "vivacious" in place of "lively" because you should avoid using very is falling prey to purple prose, and let's face it, overwriting is a far greater crime than the supposedly amateur usage of 'very' to convey degree.

My second concern with lists like these - it remains to be seen if "very old" really conveys the same meaning as "ancient" or "very afraid" means exactly the same as "terrified."

Then there is the obvious question of familiarity. Words are very fascinating. The entire existence of these seemingly random arrangements of letters is wrapped up in the images they conjure in our minds. (Morphology / orthography be damned, the linguist in me agrees.) See, there is a reason I would prefer to be told, "I love you very much," to "I adore you." Associations.

A poster that tells you to avoid a word must at least attempt to explain why it is wrong. And what, then, makes a word less wrong? The right word is one that conjures up the biggest clearest most technicolour image in your head. You, the writer. 

I love rain. The refreshing, soothing smell of damp air after the first shower of the season makes me tingly. They say it's called petrichor. But sitting at the window, staring out at the lush green and still sort of wet grass, taking in that very scent, the word petrichor (though a nice sound, with the "pet" and "chor") sends no shiver of comprehension through me, which is its purpose. And any word that fails to make me jump up in recognition is, to me, very very wrong. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

How To Give Your Cat A Bath

(Edit: I spruced the post up a bit after unexpected free time turned up on my doorstep.)

People call me cat-lady all the time, and about three years ago, I gave up protesting and embraced the job. There has been a serious lack of cat drama in my life the past year, and I am so going to use this long vacation at home to make up for it.


My sister calls the cat Snow White, I call him Stuart Little. Lately he had been looking much too gray for both the titles. Gave him long overdue much needed bath - a half an hour of distressed meowing and me fighting all the twisting around with an agility I did not know I possessed. Later, he endured the towelling off with surprising patience. And then, with evidently no clue of what had been happening, he spent fifteen meticulous minutes licking himself "clean." Every attempt to pet resulted in him fixing me with this bewildered, betrayed stare. He fell asleep three seconds later, hogging my favourite cushion.

Of course, I am convinced that in a day I will find him coolly prancing about the house covered in dust bunnies. But what can you do. We use the Himalaya Erina Pet Shampoo, the only pet product without that distinctive mediciney smell which invariably sends my cats shooting off in the opposite direction. Here are a few general instructions on how to give your cat a bath. Each cat comes equipped its own unique set of quirks, but these safety tips should apply to all.

1. Do not do it on a full stomach, either you or your cat. And make sure the cat has "done his business" recently, for fairly obvious reasons. However, to be on the safer side, wear something you wouldn't mind throwing away. (Refer to tip #4)

2. Lure him in the bathroom, or the bathtub, with food. It always works. Don't let him catch a scent of what you are about to put him through until the moment you advance on him with the wet sponge.

3. Now this is a personal tip. Cats really are not fond of water. So instead of dipping him in a tub of water or running a tap or shower on him, sponge him down. Less of an ambush, and it makes it easier to keep his eyes and nose clear of water or soap.

4. Don't be uneasy about getting down and dirty. Sprawl on the floor, sit in the bath, hold him upside-down in your lap to wash his tummy, and let yourself be drenched in pet shampoo, cat hair and soapy water in the process. This is his bath, not yours, you can clean yourself later.

5. Don't enjoy yourselves. Cats are mean creatures and with meanness comes a heightened sensitivity to fellow villainous intents. Schadenfreude will be noticed, and bitterly punished. No awws and giggles at the matted fur and soaking pride. A bath is a harrowing experience for your cat, be his best buddy through it.

6. Cuddles afterwards are a must. Towel him wholly dry, give him a thorough brushing, pamper him with treats, lend him your favourite cushion to rest on. My cat refused to wake up for six hours after.

Happy Petting!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Alphabet of Songs

An escape from house-cleaning for the classic nostalgimaniac is digging through old old old stuff, in this case CDs and folders, under the pretext of clearing them out. I happened upon this series of "My Alphabet of Songs" lists through the Worpress Daily Post blog a couple of days ago and the idea has been on my mind since. It condensed here into one post featuring A-Z songs I binged excessively on back when I was at home. It has been at least a year since I listened to most of these songs, so of course this afternoon was a heady blur of instant-tear-inducing memories and happy correlations. Nostalgia, so says a professor, is a crutch, and I agree, having learnt this the hard way. But I only revisit what 26 songs here. Some letters were easy picks for lack of song, but all were once favourites in some way. There are no repeated artists, had I allowed myself that concession, the list would have had three, maybe four, singers.

Annie's Song, John Denver


Breakaway, Kelly Clarkson


Can You Feel The Love Tonight, Elton John



Dear Madam Barnum, XTC



Englishman in New York, Sting



Fountain, Sara Lov




Girl from Mars, Ash



Here I Am, Bryan Adams


In Venere Veritas, HIM


Just Like Jesse James, Cher


Karma Chameleon, Culture Club



Lost Highway, Bon Jovi



Magic Carpet Ride, Steppenwolf



Norwegian Wood, The Beatles



Oh Oh I Love Her So, Ramones



Playing God, Paramore



Quit Playing Games, Backstreet Boys



Rock the Casbah, The Clash



Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, Billy Joel


The Look, Roxette



Utopia, Alanis Morissette


Venus in Furs, The Velvet Underground



White Wedding, Billy Idol



XO, Beyonce



Yahweh, U2




Zombie, The Cranberries


That's about it for today. A fun little exercise, I must say. Bis morgen!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Under-Appreciated Art of Ice-Cream-Scooping


A guava ice cream, to fend off the insane city heat. Lived up to expectations taste-wise with the texture grainy like a slice of fruit. But the ageing-hunchbacked scoop left much to be desired. Clumps of ice cream tumbled and dripped their way to the trash. Hence, with hindsight, a little big thank you - to all the diligent ice-cream-scoopers out there who make ice-cream-eating what it is. Claim your due, you'll go right up there with those millionaire flugelbinder-makers.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Are you your own person?


In an episode of Gilmore Girls, Lorelai wonders whether she likes Pop Tarts only because when she was little her mother did not want her to eat Pop Tarts, so when she rebelliously did, they tasted of sweet sweet freedom. Eating Pop Tarts made her feel like she was finally her own person. Today's random musing what somewhat triggered by that. 

Born in a painfully cynical family, I've grown up being sceptical of just about everything. I still scoff at many things, on principle, just because I always have. Alternate medicine, astrology, spirituality, romance, vulnerability, self-indulgence, even shopping - just the most random things. All they have in common is, we as a family never did them and poked fun of people who did. I still sometimes don't know how to turn off my inner sceptic. It always makes me wonder how much of me is myself and how much I grew up picking up on.

And then I wonder if there really is anything as "being your own person." I wrote a post on this blog once about people who take others' opinions and spew them as their own, with complete self-assurance and no explanation. Parrots, I called them. In a way, we are all parrots. Every opinion we form is, in some way, borrowed or adapted. Has to be, right? Because we exist in relation to others, the world is subjective, we are all connected. So all you can really do is, expand your reach, expose yourself to different outlooks, open your mind to newer possibilities, ask questions and engage in conscious introspection. I suppose the closest you can come to being individual, being your own person so to say, is to be a thoroughly informed parrot.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Importance of Stupidity

This blog has become my own personal running gag. I don't want to address the latest change of name and appearance. I find the new background pretty, it reminds me of mysterious old hotel lounges and magic tricks.

So getting to the point, this morning I read an article called The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research by Martin A. Schwartz, in which he talks about how a certain kind of stupidity, productive stupidity, goes into creating the right research mindset and that smart people who are used to getting their answers right may not hence be built for research. He says,

"One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries."

Interesting essay, right? It made me think a lot about whether I am, in fact, research-minded. I have been reciting, for the past few days, that I don't make a good student, which is not  to say that I don't put effort into studies - that has been taken care of lately. Even when I do score well, it does not give me the same satisfaction as I had when I taught myself (long story) phonetics, for instance. Excelling in German class was nothing compared to the sense of achievement brought by looking up intricacies of the conjunctive tense with my sister. What I mean is, I don't perform my best in your typical classroom setting and have been lately assuming this might stand in the way of me studying further, as a researcher. Not wholly logical, I agree, seeing as how research is essentially different from taking courses and giving exams - and the fact is only corroborated by the article. However, this post is not about that, or even about the essay, really.

It's about how important it is to let yourself be stupid every once in a while, to place yourself out there to be judged, criticized, mocked. It doesn't make sense to stay inside a closet forever for fear of being made fun of, for fear of seeming stupid. It is very important to, beyond a point, simply not care about past stupidities. To not be embarrassed. To not delete a blog only because it fails to make sense to you half a year later. Or edit a post that someone dismissed as silly for an inarguably justified reason. It is important to give yourself the chance to do stupid things because they are the ones that will help you learn, change. And it is very important to keep the stupid things alive and kicking, in your memory, on your blog, in a photo album, as a reminder of how far you've come, and mostly as a reminder for you to just stop taking yourself so seriously, already. Hence the revival of the blog. Oh no, did I say I won't address that?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Learning the Art of Telephone Conversation


Image courtesy of Kamnuan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

(I know telephones are like so archaic now, but it sounds appropriate considering how this all began.)

Years ago, upon being asked how many people there are in my life that I can just call up and talk to, completely out of nowhere, I came up with a pathetically tiny number. Subtracting family from that left me almost empty-handed. Over the past three months, I have somehow managed to double the number of people I can have impromptu phone conversations with.

Back in school, I had this friend who called me up every single evening. After spending eight hours together in school, it was astonishing that she still had things left to say that couldn't wait till the next afternoon we'd meet each other in class. Half my evenings went trying to come up with excuses my mother could give her for me not taking the call. But every "She's eating now," "She's out," "She's asleep" invariably met twith "I'll call later!" And she did. And we talked. Apparently I was a good listener, though all I ever took away from our conversations was my unfailing ability to "Hmm!" and "Ohh!" at just the right moments. It took me a whole year to shake her off my trail.

But that was then. Now that I have doubled my phone conversation capacity in under three months, I naturally consider myself something of an expert on the topic. So if there's anyone out there who sucks at it as I used to, and there must be someone at least, here are five steps that would get you from where you are to where I am. An achievable goal; it doesn't help to aim too high.

1. Pick the busiest time to call. The best time to call them is when neither of you are free. That assures you'll never run out of things to say. Make sure, for instance, that you'd have at least three answers to the possible first question, "What's up?" "Nothing much" puts a stop to the conversation. "I'm very busy, but I'm calling you anyway," that's the message you want to send. It's best to sound all hyper-excited.

2. Make sure you have a problem or two. There are few greater pleasures in life than giving advice to helpless souls. Capitalize on that. Ask for help, suggestions, only a moment of their time. Stand in front of a mirror, hell - go so far as to record yourself, and practice sounding sincerely worried. Balancing the excitement and worry in your tone, that's an art in itself.

3. Concoct a secret. Then, share it. Once you've given them the satisfaction of being one of your accomplices, I'm telling you, they'll just keep coming back for more. The key to making this work is to not share the entire secret in one go. Give up titbits of juicy information in every conversation and make it even better by strewing clues along the way. Reading mysteries may help.

4. Keep a pastime at hand. Be it a book, the television or a game. You don't want to seem bored nor let the excitement in your voice fade. A good listener is genuinely interested. That, of course, is an impractical goal. Aim low. Recognizing and feeding your need for a distraction every once in a while will take you a long way towards successfully putting on the guise of a good listener.

5. Remember: no good conversation ends at the first "Goodbye!" Stock up on little nothings to add after the first indication of an end to the conversation. It always helps to begin these with, "Hey, by the way, did you know about / I almost forgot to tell you... never-mind." (Also, never-mind is basically your golden word.)

Once you've mastered these, you can go right ahead and share your phone number with any- and everyone you meet. Don't hesitate to make the first call. Change your "Seeya" into a "Talk to you later." Who doesn't want to be liked, aren't we all just desperate for validation? Well, I have it from trusted sources that calling each other up is a sure-shot way to utter likeability. Worth a try, huh?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Fixing Me # 1 - One crazy incident at a time

(Originally posted on my old blog on November 4, 2014. I didn't want to recycle posts, but I want to continue writing about my attempts at fixing me. So, reposting the first of the previous posts, duly edited to have a rather more elaborate ending.)

This was the reason I decided to shift away from home: I needed to mend the broken pieces. Basically, I really needed to get a life. It's not working out all that well, but it's going better than I'd expected. Dealing with my social ineptitude is going to be one crazy incident after another. I'll start at the beginning, three months ago.

"My father died when I was twelve years old. In a car accident, which is why I am still mortally afraid of roads." Imagine me walking up in front of a class of twenty on the first day and blurting this out, when what I was supposed to do was make a presentation on My Family, a presentation I had spent at least two days rehearsing, a presentation that was not supposed to start that way nor even mention his accident. Ever since we got the topic, as our very first class assignment, I'd been regretting taking up the course. So I'd decided to speak on the topic of family, in general, and what it means to me, carefully avoiding any awkwardness. Who was I kidding?

I love my family. I hate talking about it. The inevitable "What does your father do?" followed by my sad little admission, the pitiful gazes on me and the following "I'm sorry," and "It's okay;" even ten years after, that's a ritual I dread. So of course, as I got up from my chair (the first presenter in class, that's my luck) all I could think of was: Don't ask me about my father, God, please don't bring him up. And so, forgetting my, "Family is more than just the members in it," beginning, I confessed. 

And then I burst into tears. As I tried to wipe them away, one non-sobbing part of my mind registered the fact that it was the first time I had volunteered this piece of information to anybody, let alone a whole twenty people. For a long six years, when someone asked me what my father did, I used to reply, "He's a doctor," because it sounded so much better than the truth, because he had always been this fire and light in my life that was so much more than "no more." Before his accident, I could proudly brag, "A doctor, a writer, a travel agent, a lepidopterist, that's a butterfly-study-er for you lay people." Now all he was and could be was not here. And I wasn't a teenager any longer, I couldn't get away with a little white lie. Now if they asked me, I'd have to tell.

They looked shocked and very uncomfortable, my class. And I don't blame them; there I was, a twenty-one year old crying like a baby. It was weird and unstoppable. I tried saying "I'm sorry, I have never talked about this. Family is a difficult subject for me. So instead of talking about the members of my family, I'll tell you what family means to me..." Only, I didn't. I just kept on wailing, till the professor asked me to excuse myself and just, go. He called out the next name, seemingly disconcerted by my endless sobbing. Back at my seat I felt this sinking realization that it had happened, all over again. Except, I couldn't run away home, to my room, this time. If I had to continue on in the class, in the new life, with none of my self doubts, I'd have to fix the situation. Fix me.

So I did something I'd never done before. Took charge. As soon as the person after me was done speaking, I turned to my professor and surprised myself by volunteering to finish my speech. I still remember the fleeting crack in his famously tough exterior; he asked me if I was sure, and a big part of me wasn't, I admit, but that tiny look of disbelief on his face emboldened me. I faced the class, let my bloated face break into a reluctant smile, stared at the people, pointedly ignored the camera and rushed into my rehearsed speech, "So, like I said, family is a difficult subject for me..." I don't know how it went. I've since often been told I was good, and I almost believe it's not all sympathy-talk.

It embarrasses me that the whole class has a video of me crying, but it's incredibly reassuring that they also have the next one, the fixed one. I mean, it does still bother me that I was moronic enough to cry in class. But the silver lining here is, the next time, I won't cry. It's been ten years, it'll be ten full years on November 9th. It's time I accepted that there is much more to my family than the one admittedly huge tragedy that hit us. The next time someone asks me (after this I doubt anyone will, though) to talk about my family, I will. They're definitely worth it.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Resolution #1

(This is a long, long, long post. I could snip it shorter and conciser, but who cares.)

I have never been much of a New Year's person. My sister was always the one to go out and party with her friends, while I cuddled up at home and partied alone. Or with a book, as had lately been the case. This new year's eve will be no different. I am always more interested in the first of January than the last day of the year. Whatever could have been done in 2014 by me must already have been done, so the last night is a non-night. When a butterfly comes out of a cocoon, don't you wonder what shed debris remains of the larva? For me, New Year's is somewhat like that -- a butterfly of a new reality is taking shape, and me and the rest of my world, on the last of December, are the leftovers, the caterpillars holding on to our final puffs of breath as we are about to morph into something that is us but not quite. New Year's Eve is not being here at all. It's a waiting room, and we all know waiting rooms don't really exist outside our minds. So that's what I do, I wait by myself, a listless cow chewing and chewing on a yearful of memories as we usher in another life chapter.

^ I wrote this on the last morning of December. But I never got around to posting it, because it is so rough and raw and leads on to nothing in particular. I never completed it, because this new year's midnight whizzed past me wonderfully, with no lonely-memory-chewing at all. But it did lead on to one thing. My five secret resolutions that I posted vaguely about. Chewing on my memories the next morning, I stumbled across those that I'd rather suppress, bringing me to my first completed resolution of the new year: 

3. Fix one mistake you've made in the past even if it means making a difficult decision, apologizing to someone, overcoming a fear or losing something or someone you'd rather not part with.

The vague-specific resolutions were vague for specific reasons. I don't think it's wise to share just what the mistake was, nor more importantly, should the mistake matter any more. (It almost doesn't, it's kind of silly in retrospect, which is what I was going for.) But I do want to share some small and big lessons learnt along the way and surprised musings on what fixing a mistake from a long-dead past entailed.

(I may write "you", but what I mean is me. The assumption that one experience gives me the right to preach life lessons to you is a fool's axiom. Oh wait...)

Making a difficult decision - 

Last year, a professor told me that it seems like some aspect of my past weighs down on me, and I nodded a yes (when I should have replied, duh, that happens to everyone.) He told me a simple solution that I decided would be words to live by; it's the past, just forget it. But it wasn't even close to being profound, I realize now. Forgetting past mistakes is only natural. That's how you function, you get up every new morning and manage not to dissect all of yesterday till sundown, and then you wake up to another fine morning, full of possible regrets that you clamp down on, and so it goes on.

It is so much harder to remember the past. To remind yourself of it when you'd rather not. This week I decided to resurrect a monster of the past, face it and kill it. I am tempted here to draw a killing-cockroaches analogy. You know, just because they are hiding in their holes doesn't mean they are not there; spray a pesticide and they will all come out and make you run around a bit and scream and hit and smack at them, before they finally succumb. So even if your cockroach of a past gives you the heebie-jeebies now, wouldn't you rather be rid of it than let it lie hidden, just waiting to pop out unexpectedly in your behaviour and make professors give you unsolicited advice? Yea, I never know when to stop metaphorizing.

Apologizing to someone - 

There are online guides on how to write apologies. For this resolution, I didn't refer to any guides. But later, last night, I made the mistake of reading one I'd rather not link to, because it turns out, I broke every rule on it: like, don't say how your actions affected you, don't give justifications, don't... my point is, I had only one strict rule: be sincere. Sounds simple enough, but give it a go and you will see, it is really not.

Overcoming a fear - 

I started a personal blog intending to get rid of that routine where you meet someone for the first time and they keep learning new things about you and you wait with bated breath till along comes the revelation that brings your friendship a fatal ending. (Am I too critical of relationships? It is experience that has made me so.)

What is your greatest fear? Not the spiders-kind, spiders you can squish (oh my god, I hope you don't). What you can't get rid of is aspects of yourself. I cannot be wholly wrong in assuming that you, like me, live with a more or less constant fear of being ridiculed, of presenting yourself to the world as you are with brutal honesty and most importantly, the fear that goes with a reluctance to welcome scrutiny.

Spoken words are lost in the air. A letter is forever. Writing to someone, writing a blog, an email is essentially opening up to criticism, so that whether or not it reaches your ear, it's out there, happening. Where you have a reader, you have a critic. For a blog, it is an unspecified reader, you don't know whose eyes your words may reach and you can take comfort in your ignorance. That's not true of a letter.

One of my German teachers once taught us the etiquette for apologies in class, because you get to study the silliest, most obvious things when learning a foreign language and its foreign culture. Apologies should always be in person, she'd said, and I get how that is the most polite and fair thing to do. But I do believe a written apology takes guts. Because it's a piece of you stored in something concrete, physical, forever. (Ooh, horcrux... Sorry.)

Losing something or someone you'd rather not part with - 

Fixing the past entails one change bigger than all others, changing your idea of you. Getting forgiven, getting rid of a fear, discovering that relief was right around the corner all this while, lifting a weight off your shoulders that you hadn't even realized was there, it's big and beautiful and scary. Scary, because it brings a drastic shift in perspective and the re-realization that memory is just one opinion, yours, it's not fixed in time and can, and should, be looked at with new eyes and new perspectives. 

Remembering the past is reinventing it, I realized the other day, as something I've spent years mulling over suddenly went from being crucial to my self-image to completely inconsequential in a big twenty-two year long picture. The feeling of losing a fixed idea, parting with a conviction - about you, someone else, or an incident - is just something else. And no matter how unnecessarily profound or pretentious my post reads (I am aware it does, thank you,) don't roll your eyes at the possibility of that feeling. It's worth at least the littlest effort. 

On a somewhat unrelated note,

when I was about to leave home to come to Hyderabad, I was incredibly nervous about the whole thing, and felt totally embarrassed to admit the fact to the world, being old enough already. My bestie gave me a piece of wise advice, that I'd soon build my own "support-system" of people, to turn the tough times into routines, perhaps. So far all I've managed to do is shape myself into a support system for me, but that also is an achievement. Oh, I've talked to people about my problems, I still do whine and blabber. But, these past few months have witnessed me continually telling myself that I would be okay. Reassuring myself that it's all fine. That's new.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A late Happy New Year and some vague-specific-Resolutions

I have been thinking... it gets annoying inside my head, now you've been warned, you are free to leave. No? Gee, thanks, you deserve a cute cat, enjoy your stay.

With 2014 I had to say goodbye to this little guy who for the short
while he spent with us, meant everything to me.
Surely I'm not the only one struggling inside to be two things, three types of people, four kinds of better. It is a price you and I must pay for our self-awareness. There are parts of me that tell me not to be me, little demons that chide and poke fun and analyze and criticize. For ten years, if someone had asked me if I liked being myself, I'd have said no. It's a good thing no one actually asks you such questions. It would have been a default answer, it would also not have been entirely true. 

I like being myself. I know there are ways I could be better. But I actually like being the introverted, kind of weird, somewhat scaredy, cat-magnet, book-nerd-sy, happy know-it-all (-who-actually-knows-not-so-much-about-so-many-things) however hard it may be to believe this. I know the voices telling me I can't do without change are demons. I'm not averse to change, but the part of me that's not a demon wants me to change or grow on my terms. If only that part were left alone long enough to put thoughts to action...

I rarely make resolutions, and even when I do, I generally prefer not to declare them to my small world, because then I'm answerable to people. And that's too much for my lazy self to handle. What I like even less than making to-do lists is making non-concrete promises that are oh so difficult to bring to realization. Like saying, "I'll change!" Whatever does that mean? New's Year Day had me in a bad, bad mood. It only got worse when I read Neil Gaiman's blog entry on new year's wishes. Make glorious mistakes? Dream dangerously? Walk into the darkness without fear? That's all awfully trite, if you ask me. And certainly not doable. I'm sorry, but resolutions just do not have the luxury of being so indefinite. 

I want to list definite resolutions for this glorious year ahead that are not vague and essentially realizable. But this blog has been getting dangerously close to entering the whiny overly-personal territory that I've been expressly trying to keep it away from. I want a blog where I'm me under the Disillusionment charm: sort of camouflaged into the background, so that only my opinions remain, and my voice to express them, and all you know about me is what you glean from the two. It's going only OK so far. Anyway, returning to the point, here's my attempt at a list of very achievable goals that do make me answerable to me or any reader left here by the next year-end, but without any details. I know what each thing on the list is and the list would be considerably more concise if I just named it, but this is oddly more comforting. If and when I do complete any of these things, I'll blog about them with juicy details for likely no one but me to read and revel in.
  1. Consciously develop a liking for and an understanding of something you're convinced you don't understand or won't like.
  2. Pick a skill or ability that you would consider principally useless and master it.
  3. Fix one mistake you've made in the past even if it means making a difficult decision, apologizing to someone, overcoming a fear or losing something or someone you'd rather not part with. 
  4. Adopt what you think is a boring habit that by definition will only help you in the long run.
  5. Give something up that's insignificant; prove that you can do without it.
I have all year to make these happen and to expand the list if I do follow through on all of them before the end of 2015. Here's to concrete change. Happy New Year!