“What is college like?”

Is it just four years of your life that you will spend a lot of money on, trying to be an adult, knowing that your family and financials are a safety blanket which you don’t need to immediately worry about? Is it the four years of your life when you discover that a science or an art that you wanted to make your life about is something you detest completely and that you’d rather do something else? Is it the guilt of exploring better options out there with someone else’s money or hoping that whatever else you find better be an investment which brings returns? Or the shame that you are wasting youth and time and emotion in trying to attach a few meaningful letters after your name when the trauma is done?

Is it the beauty of discovering independence? Of learning that sometimes loneliness can evolve into quiet nights of watching police sirens blink away three blocks from your dorm window and feel comforted knowing that at least you will never grow into that person? Of learning that there are times when the sun rises and you are trapped into a conversation that is stripping your soul of lies? Of discovering the true dimensions of people as they show and hide different aspects of themselves?

Is it the competence of doing your laundry right? With the colored clothes sorted into one pile and the white things in another? Is it realizing that the high of managing to complete your gym routine, homework, breakfast and room-cleaning before 10:00AM is the same as the turning out to be the only student in class who scored 94% and that this, in turn, is the same as being asked out by that shy boy who you secretly crave looks at your eyes more often than he does by hiding them behind his fringe? Is it the awkwardness that will follow when you realize that he thinks you’re a creep and that the line between romantic and weird is very fine? That superficiality is sometimes heavier than souls and thicker than the measurement of your chest-waist-hips? Is it wondering if they are even on the same quantifiable scale?

Is it just the four years of eating extremely oily pizza and a ton of bagels and oceans of cream cheese knowing that you’re one of those few girls who will graduate with your body looking the same, but being exhausted from within, deprived of the enforced maternal nutrition at home? Is it just the four years of coming across people who will have parents who have been in jail, who will have parents who will have cheated on each other, who will have parents who are unable to fund their child’s education for lack of understanding their child’s major, who have parents who have only dreamed of higher education? Is it the four years of learning why alcohol, drugs, drinking, sex and depression, TV, badly-edited writing and five consecutive bottles of Nutella are extremely dangerous because these things let a person run away from the reality that will inevitably slap them in the face? 

Is it the pride with which you will tell your stories back home, by saying, yes, I go to this college and how prestigious it is and look at all the things I’ve accomplished? Will that matter so much to their glazed over eyes who are waiting for you to tell them that you have not found affections in a “foreign” boy and are keeping yourself chaste and perfect and naively unaware of things like depression, suicide and bars? Will that matter so much when you try to explain what your research project is about when they are too busy trying to use you to inspire their own children into poring over books they hate? Is it the shame you will feel when they will hold you to be the perfect example, and your conscience coughs loudly at the back of your head, knowing that at their age you were no better than them and the atrocities you have committed to yourself and to others are nothing compared to what this sheltered oppressed being can comprehend at the age of 13/14/15?

Is it praying that your “gentle” preview of life will carry you though right when each semester sets fire to a different part of your soul and carves mountains out of another? Is it praying that this accompaniment to adulthood is not just the engineering degree but also the capacity to negotiate, argue, deduce and rationalize or even philosophize life into terms that you will feel less terrified of running away from? Is it the many nights of parties in cramped rooms and bent objectives bouncing off the walls as stress, tension of unexplained natures, political and sexual maneuvers and finding the right to belong in an ocean that sweeps in the new everyday?

Is it realizing that you are no longer a child and yet, a child of the world?

Growing Up

The mansion was so old that only the strength of the creepers along the wall was keeping the structure from crumbling to bits. The mango sapling that Pakhi’s great-grandfather had planted had grown into a shoulder for the withering house to lean on. Humidity and harsh sunlight had long since worn off the physical exterior of the structure, and the shade provided by the canopy of the mango tree was the only respite for the residents of the historical relic. The pond nearby, which had once been clear and filled with fishes, was now a sickly green with large populations of undisturbed algae on the surface. Its tranquil surface was disturbed by the occasional leaf that settled on its surface, courtesy of the mango tree.

The quiet of this stiflingly warm tropical afternoon was interrupted when a lady in a sari tried to descend to the ground floor. The humidity made the fabric chafe against her skin. The flowing drape had been been tucked into her waist in order to avoid being an inconvenience to the daily chores of the household. Tired, she suddenly found herself incapable of chasing Pakhi.  In a manner that defied grace, she summoned Pakhi as loudly as she could from the top of the stairs, hoping that her voice could follow the girl where her physical body couldn’t. Several of the sparrows roosting atop the mango tree flew away in alarm as their afternoon siesta was interrupted.

“What’s the matter, Didi?” cried Jhumki in alarm, rushing out of the spice-filled kitchen to the bottom of the stairs. Mita’s call had interrupted her aroma-laden reveries and she gladly accepted any excuse to leave the poorly ventilated kitchen. Clearly, when the house had been designed, the proximity of the pond seemed calming enough. Now, the windows were closed during cooking to avoid attracting insects from the pond. The stagnant air served to make a neat oven out of the entire kitchen itself.  Jhumki’s husband was the younger brother of Mita’s husband. As the two wives of the family, they felt the burdens of the household together, commiserated about everything together. As her older co-sister, Jhumki called her Didi, a common term of endearment that younger sisters called their older sisters.

“Have you seen Pakhi?” asked Mita.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Jhumki, I tell you, this girl is undoubtedly up to no good. She refuses to grow up. She refuses to accept responsibility. How am I supposed to chase her at this age? Why doesn’t she understand what is expected of her? I am no longer a young woman, and she is no longer a child!”

With this declaration, Mita sat down on the stairs, panting and exhausted. Jhumki hurriedly grabbed one of the hand-made bamboo fiber fans that lay on the table and began to fan Mita and herself. She assumed that this outburst was spawned more by the oppressive heat than any actual rage for Pakhi. Though given Pakhi’s history of being a mischievous child, it wouldn’t have surprised Jhumki at all.

“What happened?”

“There’s a family from Rishra coming to visit us. They have a son, who is soon to take over the father’s textile trade. His parents are looking for eligible brides. They have come to know of our Pakhi from our uncle in Rishra, and they wish to meet her soon.”

“When are they coming?” asked Jhumki, in some trepidation, fidgeting with the drapes of her sari. Guests always involved an extensive cleansing of the house. There were obviously some aspects about the house which were beyond the able capacities of two mere Bengali wives, but it was especially important that they show that they were from an upper socio-economic bracket of society as well. She sincerely hoped that they would have enough time to make the best of it.

However, Mita had other concerns. In order for this union of families to be successful, the bride would have to come across as a desirable, suitable, comely match for the enterprising young man. Feminine grace, or household ability had never been one of Pakhi’s virtues. But now that she was of a marriageable age, it was important for her to cultivate some skills that were basic requirements of a Bengali housewife. It was a truly gargantuan task to teach docility and grace to a rebel like Pakhi.

“Didi, I asked when they were coming.”

“Oh, they said they would be leaving Rishra within the week.”

Jhumki calculated that they would arrive in approximately two weeks. Hardly enough time, but they had to try.

“Didi, that would mean…”

“Yes, I know what it would mean. Now you know why it is imperative that I find Pakhi!”

Tinku, peeked her head out from the door of the nearest bedroom from the stairs. “What’s going on?” she asked her mother.

“Do you know where your cousin is?” asked Mita, sounding harassed.

“No,” said Tinku nonchalantly. Almost five years younger than Pakhi and recently roused from a nap, she fidgeted sleepily with the folds of her skirt, wondering why it was so hot and why the women of the household seemed intent on being noisy.

“My dear, I thought you were out with her in the morning?” asked Jhumki of her daughter.

“I was. We planned to go by the river in the evening. But I fell asleep. I don’t know where she is.”

“That girl…” said Mita, shaking her head, about to start on another one of her maternal rants once again.

“Is it true that someone’s going to marry Pakhi Didi?” asked Tinku, apparently not as asleep as she appeared to be.

“How many times have I told you it’s a bad habit to overhear the conversation of adults?” asked Jhumki sternly, feeling a bit  shamefaced before Mita.

“Ma, how am I not supposed to hear what you’re talking about if you’re being so loud?” countered Tinku defiantly.

“Jhumki, you better watch out for that back talk. She’ll grow into her Pakhi Didi if that’s not nipped in the bud.” Mita’s stern tone made Tinku hurriedly shut up.

“Go make yourself useful! Find out where Pakhi is and tell her she is wanted at home,” said Jhumki. It suddenly dawned on her that she might have to entertain suitors for Tinku someday, and that seemed to be a frightening prospect.

It was too hot to venture outside, but Tinku realized that if she didn’t obey her mother, she would be in bigger trouble than Pakhi was. Reluctantly, she set out for the river. Pakhi Didi had promised to show her how to make those fancy paper boats that could sail down the river. Everyday, she and her cousin would look for interesting artifacts trapped in the wound up nets of fishermen who had finished the morning’s catch. Sometimes, when the religious festivals commenced upstream, the river would bring down the banana leaves bearing flowers and incense sticks, tokens of their devotion to their deities. Inadvertently, some of these would be caught in the fishermen’s nets. Pakhi used to untangle some of the flowers and throw it back into the river. She didn’t want to be responsible for someone’s prayers not being answered, because some fisherman interrupted the passage of a divine message. It was inauspicious, she would say to the impressionable Tinku.

The heavy humid air seemed to restrict her movements which made a short pleasant walk a punishment. When Tinku approached the riverbank, she sat down for a few minutes under the welcoming shade of the mangrove trees.  Maybe if she had just kept her head down, she could have continued her delightful nap. Even now, she could catch up on some sleep here. But then her worried mother would be in the same state as Pakhi’s.. Some of the fishermen’s wives from the nearby huts came by to collect some water in their pots. Since each of them had several pots, they took their time to fill them in, updating each other on the family or village gossip. Tinku watched them from under the canopy. She could tell that they were judging her for being a lazy girl.

Wet, smelly flowers began to pelt a few of the wives. The unmistakable giggle followed, right above Tinku. The wives began to scold Pakhi, perched high up on the tree, collecting fruits and flowers in the lap of her skirt. She laughed at their scorn, and dangled her legs with glee. She suddenly noticed her younger cousin below the tree. A wet flower landed on Tinku.

“Hey Tinku! I didn’t see you there! You are finally awake. Come, we’ll go explore a bit downstream, if we can hitch one of the boats. It’s going to be a fun ride!”

One of the wives snorted at her and said, “Wait till you get married, girl. You’ll know what it means to be so wild and impudent then.”

Pakhi ignored them and descended near her cousin, who was busy disentangling the flower from her hair. Much as Tinku loved her elder cousin, she still thought that some of her methods were immature. “Pakhi Didi, we can’t do that. Not today.”

“Why? Stop being so lazy, Tinku!” She called out in a sing-song voice.

“Jethima wants you at home,” said Tinku, referring to Pakhi’s mother in the appropriate Bengali term of respect.

“So?” asked Pakhi. Her mother needing her immediate presence was not a new story, and would undoubtedly involve scolding and criticism about her behavior.

“Pakhi Didi, there’s some talk of a young man from Rishra who wants to see you. Jethima was running around the house telling everyone about it. If you don’t come back home with me, we’re both going to be in very deep trouble.”

“Why does he want to see me?” asked Pakhi.

One of the wives overhearing the conversation laughed at her. “Your parents want to marry you off so they don’t have to hear your neighbors complaining of your misbehavior anymore.”

Pakhi made a rude face at them as they all collectively jeered at her.

Tinku tried to steer her away and get back home before the sun set and the mosquitoes and insects began their nocturnal activities. Pakhi was surprised, and quietly frightened with that discovery. She wondered why her parents would want to dispose of her. She always thought that she was the sweet heart of the household. Now, it was apparent that she wasn’t going to retain that status any longer. She didn’t mean anyone any harm. Yet, they persisted in sending her off to some alien home, far from the comforts of family.

“Tinku?” she asked her escort, as they walked through the dusty village road washed red in the angry sunset. The silent contemplation was punctuated by the occasional sound of bicycles ringing as they came around the corner, the ripples formed in the water by the occasional cow taking a sip and the gurgling pots of the  fishermen and their wives.

“Yes, Pakhi Didi?” asked Tinku, slightly worried at Pakhi’s sudden withdrawal into silence.

“When are these people coming? Am I supposed to be doing something about them?”

Tinku had never imagined her bold and flamboyant cousin sounding so helpless. “I don’t know when they’re coming, Didi,” came the measured response. “I think Jethima just wants to teach you some household skills that you can show to them when they come. My mother says that aspiring wives are required to know these things.”

“Is it so important to get married, Tinku?”

Tinku tried to provide her with some solace. “I think it’s just an obligation we have to our families, as daughters. We have to uphold our family’s dignity, by being good daughters and good wives. After all, we can’t go about running around mango trees and picking on fishermen for the rest of our lives, right? We have to grow up some day.”

“How do you know these things, Tinku?”

Tinku couldn’t help but feel a sudden rush of affection for her elder cousin. But she couldn’t vocalize what she wanted to convey. Wasn’t docility and keeping a good home apparent in every one of the town’s respected women? They all seemed to carry themselves with grace and poise. They all managed to get all the work done of the house, and were still social enough to host and entertain their husband’s guests. How could she explain to Pakhi her methodology? While Pakhi had been running around, being wild, Tinku had been quietly observant.

“I have a feeling you won’t be as worried when your time comes, Tinku,” said Pakhi perceptively.

“Didi, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. People get married all the time.”

Tinku spoke with the quiet confidence of someone who was sure that her time was to come eons later.

The sisters tacitly knew that there were several gossip stories spun around failed marriages as well. For a wife to leave her home was disrespectful to her family of birth, even if her new family was the reason of her departure. The wives would always be the first to be blamed. They would also be the first to take the mantle of responsibility in dire circumstances.

When Pakhi bounded up the stairs, two at a time, she walked in on her mother having a serious conversation with her father. “There, explain to your daughter how important this rendezvous is!” gestured Mita, angrily.

“Mita, I don’t think there’s any need to be so angry with her. Let her enjoy the last few days of her childhood,” said Pakhi’s father gently.

“It’s because you spoil her so that we can’t tame her!” said Mita.

Pakhi stood meekly at the door, trying to hide her tears. Why did it always feel like her mother didn’t love her enough? Anything she did was a mistake in the eyes of her mother. There were many days when Pakhi wondered what it would like to run away from the stagnant atmosphere of the village, to be free, to fly. Her name meant bird in Bengali. She was born to aspire for greater heights. Yet, she had a mother who constantly chased her with disciplinary matters.

Even though she wanted to fly away, she knew how much it would hurt her parents to see their only daughter leave. More so, Tinku would have nobody to play with and talk to. While Tinku may not admit it, Pakhi knew that was the truth.

“My dear, come here, we must talk to you,” said Pakhi’s father, placidly. “There is a very handsome young man who is visiting us from Rishra, and he may want to consider you as his bride.”

Pakhi kept her head bowed as a token of respect to her parents. This was old news, courtesy of Tinku.

“We would like you to be as nice to the young man as possible. Show that family that you are a good girl, like your mother and I know you are.”

“Why?”

Mita scoffed in the background. How had she raised such a socially inept daughter? This girl was going to be the disgrace of their family if the young man did not have a favorable impression of her.

Pakhi’s father, for the first time in all of Pakhi’s life, said something stern to her mother. “Mita, I will not have you disrespect the girl. If you think she brings us disgrace, don’t forget that she is your daughter and that reflects on your capability of being a parent.”

Shocked at his comment, Mita looked at her daughter for a while. She looked as though she might argue, but then her good wifely upbringing overcame her and she then hid her face with the hood of her sari. Pakhi looked up in surprise, and exchanged a look with her mother, before hastily bowing down again to suppress the giggle that followed. For once, Pakhi’s mother was going to be blamed for something, instead of her. Pakhi felt delightfully vindicated.

“My dear, it is important that you get married. You are still young. There will come a time when you will be too late for suitors.”

Pakhi was disappointed with the answer, as it didn’t make any sense to her. She didn’t wish to incur Mita’s wrath any further and submitted meekly to the intensive schooling of housekeeping skills as mandated by her mother. Jhumki taught her some of the know-hows she would be required to know in the kitchen, the basics of preparing some dishes. The indulgent aunt as always, Jhumki promised to dress her up in the most alluring way possible before she was presented to the entourage from Rishra. Glad to have some company in the claustrophobic kitchen, she told Pakhi about her own stories of being married, of being a mother and so on.

Pakhi didn’t know whether she should find them amusing or horrifying or both. She found her aunt’s advice confusing and conflicting, so she began to ignore most of it and tried desperately not to burn herself in the kitchen.

The protocol required Pakhi to speak only when spoken to and if so, in a tone of deference only.

Occasionally, when Tinku had dispatched her younger brother to school, she would come back and attempt to rescue Pakhi from the wear and tear of daily household chores. But Mita was having none of it. She was very adamant that Pakhi stay at home and learn to curb her restless nature. However, Jhumki was perhaps more keenly aware of the end of Pakhi’s childhood. She would often take over the cooking from Pakhi, in order to let the poor child spend some rare moments with Tinku and in order to ensure that the family wasn’t accidentally poisoned.

On the cool, crispy night before the arrival of the family from Rishra, Tinku and Pakhi sat under the canopy of the overarching mango tree. The stars  peeked out through the branches. The crickets along the embankment and the pond kept the night from being eerily silent and the moon shone brightly down on the two playmates.

“Tinku, if I get married I’m going to have to leave everything behind. This village, the trees, the river, the pond, the fishermen, everything. Even you.”

Tinku felt a sense of foreboding. It wasn’t like Pakhi to talk this way. Besides, this departure was normal. Why was Pakhi making it sound so alarming?

“What happened, Didi?”

“I want to run away, Tinku. I’d rather leave home of my own accord than be forced to go to a group of stranger I know nothing about my new family.”

Tinku was a little frightened. All these days of preparation would go to naught if Pakhi decided to make an unwarranted exit tomorrow. Imagine the shame to the family if they called a respectable family over all the way from Rishra only to discover that their bride had fled. The rumors would spread like wildfire through the village. It was altogether too awful to comprehend.

“Didi, there’s nothing to worry about. Really.”

“Isn’t it strange how I’m the older one and I’m seeking comfort from you, Tinku? It could be sign that I’m not destined to grow up. Ever.”

“That’s not true, Didi. You’re worried. Its natural.I’m sure everyone feels this way before they get married.”

“I doubt your mother thinks of you as much a failure as much as mine does, Tinku.”

Tinku faltered for a moment in searching for a reply to that. She was obviously in no position to comment on adults, let alone on how they raised their children. Granted, Mita’s methods may have been harsh, but she was perhaps just bowing to the pressure exerted on her by the entire society.

“I’m sure Jethima means well,” said Tinku, wondering if she sounded convincing enough.

They went back to staring at the stars overhead, the crickets getting louder as the night progressed. Pakhi couldn’t help but suppress a pang of anticipated homesickness. If she got married, she would miss these days with Tinku very much.

Exactly two floors beneath the hesitant architecture were the two wives of the family, seeking some company in sharing the last meal of the night together. It was traditional Bengali custom that the wives of the family do not eat until everyone else in the household has been fed.

“Jhumki, I don’t know what I’m going to do with that girl,” repeated Mita, mulling over the rice on her plate.

“Personally, she’s been a very good girl these last few days. I don’t think you have any cause to worry ”

“I don’t understand why it took her so long to understand everything. The other day, she actually asked her father why it was important that she should get married. Can you imagine the impertinence of it? When our fathers and elders asked us to do something, we obliged them to the best of our capabilities. We were told that the fruits of our labor as parents would be repaid by our children. Instead, we have to constantly hear them talk back to us when we try to show them society’s ways.”

“I think it has something to do with the generation gap, Didi,” said Jhumki, wondering if she would be going through the same anxiety when the time would come to marry Tinku off.

“The girl has been very angry with me these last few days, Jhumki. I haven’t let her go back to her childish games. I don’t know if this is merely a tantrum or if this is cause for a serious rift between us. Maybe its because of this separation that she hasn’t grown up the right way.”

“Didi! Please stop taking the blame of everything onto yourself like this. I think Pakhi has grown up to be a delightful child. She may be a bit impulsive at times, but she’s got her heart in the right place.”

“You know what really saddens me, Jhumki? Tomorrow, my daughter is going to be on her best behavior. Undoubtedly, she is attractive enough to engage a suitable husband. The wedding plan will not take too long. Before we know it, that girl would have left the comfort of our home to make her own way in her husband’s household.”

“We too were inducted into this household in the same fashion. Its a tradition that our religion, our culture expects us to uphold.”

“What saddens me is that my dear sweetheart will leave my arms feeling that she has proven me wrong, when I don’t think I want to let her go. Yet, if I don’t marry her now, we will have to endure society’s punishment. More so, she will always hate me for forcing her to grow up.”

“Hate is a strong word, Didi. I don’t think she hates you. In any case, she’ll grow over it. She’ll realize it as she gets older and has children of her own.”

Mita wondered is she was really leaving any more comfort space for her child to grow any more. Perhaps Jhumki could sympathize with her better only when Tinku’s time came along. The night progressed, as the girls were called back inside, and then the final preparations made before the guests arrived in the morning. Anxious, the inhabitants of the tired mansion retired to sleep.

Pakhi couldn’t sleep. She crept out of bed and began to slowly pack some of her favorite necessities into a cloth bundle. The dolls that she and Tinku used to play with, the grass bracelet one of the fishermen had woven for her, a flower she had retrieved from someone’s religious offerings, an unripe mango from the tree that covered their house and so on. Little trivia that captured the best moments of Pakhi’s past. The windows of the house were large enough to jump through, but Pakhi didn’t want to leave via the garden. There were wild cats on the prowl, and Pakhi did not want to encounter them if she was going to leave.

Stealthily, she made her way across the sleeping residents. Tinku would be very upset with her. So would Tinku’s mother, who had been so nice to her during this entire ordeal. She could imagine their disappointed faces, fighting off the village rumors. She could imagine her mother and father asking each other in tears, Where did we go wrong? How did we raise such a wild child? Did she not consider our feelings even once before disgracing us like this? Was she truly that heartless and cruel, to not hesitate in damaging the dignity of the family name? Pakhi quietly suppressed her sobs. She was going to leave all these people and their expectations behind. She was going to be selfish. She was going to fly free.

“Where do you think you’re going?” asked the most dreaded voice Pakhi wanted to hear.

Mita’s silhouette descended slowly from the stairs, heaving herself down the unreliable structure. Terrified beyond measure, Pakhi froze. All those imagined scenarios were coming to life. In that moment, when speed and defiance were necessary, they failed her. She stood there, rooted like a thief caught in an inexplicable situation, confronted by the very thing she feared the most. Her resolve failed her. Feeling stupid, hurt, scared and dismayed beyond anything she had ever felt before, Pakhi began to cry. It was a heart-rending weep, and Pakhi felt increasingly stupid and helpless as the deluge of tears continued. Even then, Mita’s silhouette did not stop it’s descent. Pakhi braced herself as Mita approached closer.

Pakhi continued to sob, unable to supply an explanation for her deed, bracing herself for the torrent of rebuke that would follow.

Instead, Mita merely outstretched her arms and called her daughter to them. When Pakhi went running back to them, her mixed anger and pain resolving themselves into self-doubt, her mother closed her arms around her and quietly said, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’s going to be all right.”

Red Lipstick

I had this very uncharacteristic epiphany as I passed by the Sephora near Times Square, on a bone-drenching Tuesday afternoon where I was trying to navigate past the stampede of DSLR-bearing tourists without an umbrella. I don’t know why, and I perhaps can’t explain this is in any other way except for a sudden uprising of my feminine side, but I really wanted to wear a red lipstick. Call it a flashback of Marilyn Monroe, Gwen Stefani and every other woman in the world who has wielded the red lipstick, but it doesn’t just ooze color, it oozes confidence.

I hope this post doesn’t make me appear superficial because I seriously am investing my words and time into describing red lipstick and what I feel about it. But honestly, I had never experienced such a strong, inexplicable feeling from owning, wearing or even using a tube of red pigment.

There’s a milieu of research and articles and information about how red lipstick has been known to boost self-esteem because many women deem themselves worthy of self-care when they apply it. There has been research that shows that in times of economic hardship, red lipstick is the most frequent and common impulse acquisition. Corroborate this with the fact that red lipstick brings attention to our mouth and what comes out of it. Lastly, red lipstick serves as a marker of sexual arousal. Therefore, women who wear red lipstick are perceived as sexually confident, attractive, dominant, assertive and feminine.

And I, a straggling, awkward, wet, somewhat lost, umbrella-deprived just-barely-post-adolescent decided, right after finishing a $5 pad thai and battling the screeching wind, that I wanted to wear red lipstick.

As I’m a poor non-financially independent college kid, I decided that making my virgin purchase from Sephora from New York City (8.875% retail tax, thank you very much) was pushing the financial freedom I had been bestowed a little too much. So I splurged on an affordable stick of Revlon. To be honest, I was overwhelmed with the shades and colors and variants. After all, what is the difference between lipstick, lip-butter, lip-tint, lip-stain and basically every other item that is prefixed with a “lip”?

The next few seconds found me frantically asking Google which generic red would serve my purpose. I say generic because there apparently exists a whole other science in color-matching with skin-tones, which seemed to require another college education to master completely. Honestly, I just wanted a red lipstick and I wasn’t having any of the baggage or expertise or qualification that came with acquiring one humble tube of the stuff.

I almost felt shameless in ripping off the packaging as soon as I had swiped my credit card for it, but I did. I was so scared of being judged for putting on red lipstick in public, that I sneaked into a cubicle at a public restroom and used my phone-camera as a mirror. I don’t understand why I should feel safer putting it on inside a cubicle, when I very well could have used a public mirror outside the stalls, But I eased myself into it gently.

One swipe. Deep gasp. Too much color. Look at that, you look like a vampire after a lunch buffet. Blot. Blot. Blot. Blot. Wipe. Wipe. Wipe. Wipe. Then blot some more until the tissue paper is wearing the entirety of the one swipe and my lips look reassuringly normal. In an instant I felt as though all my stupid, naive and momentary dreams of sporting red lipstick had faded. For that one crushing moment, I remembered how I had been labeled “not pretty enough” and instead of a noble quest to discover the feminine, I felt as though I was part of a cheap charade. That somehow my awkwardness had made me unworthy of desiring to be confident, let alone desired.

But I didn’t give in to the cowardice. Everybody has to start somewhere. The only person judging me is myself. If I don’t experiment at this age, then I will never experiment at all. Fostering what could perhaps be called a scientific curiosity at the outcome of the experiment, I tried again. Half a swipe. Blend with finger. It took me a while, but I added on layer after layer until my lips had reached what I deemed as a very appropriate shade of red. Not vampire drool but just red.

And I wore it home. I promised myself that once it was on, I wouldn’t fidget with it. Leave it alone. You can’t see what’s on your face anymore, so it’s not your problem. I didn’t think it would last for more than an hour, but once I verified my reflection in the waning daylight, I actually felt happy with myself. I actually felt as though I wanted people to see and validate my red lips. It’s stupid and I know it sounds very silly, but as a few heads turned, I wanted to smile and tell them, “Look, I’m growing into a woman now.”

But I didn’t. For making baby steps, I surpassed my expectations and maybe someday, I won’t even need to tell people aloud. Even if I might look like another girl with make-up on, at least the mirror smiles back knowingly to me.

Reference Links (all the historical lipstick knowledge didn’t dawn on me from nowhere):

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/12/psychological-benefits-of-lipstick_n_4722612.html

https://psychologies.co.uk/body/the-power-of-red-lipstick.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lipstick

Real research here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278431912000497

And another one: http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/ijps/article/viewFile/15080/11738

 

Daughter II

Akshay and Sudha stepped off the transit stop closest to their house and Sudha had a premonition that her mother was upset. They missed the school bus because Sudha had been late leaving her classroom. Akshay silently glowered at his 16 year old sister for delaying his meal.

“What’s your excuse this time?”

Akshay was not given to conversation which made every attempt seem abrupt and almost always accidental. When they were at home, their parents insisted that they speak to each other in their first language. But the heavy influence of English at school and in the world made their conversation a bilingual fluctuation.

Sudha felt that her silence would be a greater crime than her delay, so she started with, “I was helping Avani…”

Akshay scoffed as he heard the name and Sudha shut up hastily. She would not tolerate her brother’s judgement on whom she called her friends.

“You don’t see me scoffing at your lame friends!” she protested, hoping that it was more hunger than an actual distaste of her preferences which annoyed him.

“That Avani is a bad sort,” remarked Akshay, unfazed at the comment leveled a his own friends. He was more immune to her opinions than she was to his. Avani was one of the popular figures in school who could only be idolized or despised. She was not given to moderation and neither were the people who formed an opinion of her.

Sudha had nothing to say to that. Her brother’s peer group might comprise of awkward Call of Duty playing nerds who were socially inept, but they didn’t make as striking an influence on their family as her friend Avani.

“Even our parents don’t like her,” he added cementing his argument.

Rohini was a conservative religious Indian woman who had nearly passed out when Avani turned up at their door step at her daughter’s request. She was in heavy make-up and a very short, tight leather skirt which revealed a tattoo on her thigh. Rohini couldn’t understand her English queries but she assumed this girl had something to do with Sudha. Sudha was duly summoned and she had never felt more embarrassed under her mother’s piercing glare, though Avani was oblivious to it. She had quickly ushered Avani into her own room before her shell-shocked mother could recover enough for a response.

“My goodness, who is that girl? Look at her terrible appearance.” were Rohini’s first words as the door was shut on Avani. Sudha was grateful that her mother didn’t know English and that Avani couldn’t make sense of what she might have overheard.

“Ma, she’s a friend..”

“A friend?! Child, she has no modesty at all! Is this how the women of her household teach her to present herself to the world?! How can you call such people your friends?!”

“We just….She needed help in the math assignment, so…I didn’t want to turn her away.”

There was a very pronounced silence, and Sudha was sure that the divine names were silently invoked upon her to find the right guidance in her life, and upon Avani to see the error of her ways and adopt a more scrupulous lifestyle. Continued visits did not alter the first impression. As the anxious, stay-at-home mother, Rohini suspected every evil of peer pressure to befall her innocent daughter, and Avani seemed to her the very embodiment of all the corruption that she imagined.

Sudha was tired of defending herself. Often there had been nasty outbursts. Sudha had claimed that if they trusted her rigidly enforced morals, then perhaps they were strong enough to withstand the alleged moral degradation brought on by influences like Avani. She wondered why her family didn’t trust her with her own safety. After all, she could make decisions herself and she was mature enough to accept the consequences of her choice.

Nevertheless, Sudha tried not to bring her up in conversation with her family. It wasn’t her fault that Avani liked her. She wondered if Avani would think her less cool if she knew that her mother wasn’t educated, or that she had never owned anything remotely risque or that she didn’t have boyfriend, or that she wasn’t from as liberal a family as her own.

“What did she want anyway?” asked Akshay interrupting her reverie as they walked home.

“She needed some help with the biology homework due next week.”

“And that took so long?”

“We ended up talking about…..stuff.”

Akshay didn’t want to know further. He didn’t understand what all the girls had to constantly keep each other updated about all the time. As adolescents, they were still evolving into the world of discovering adulthood. As much as Akshay didn’t want his little sister to grow up, he knew he couldn’t challenge the forces that did. Spare monologues between his group of bespectacled introverts were always a concerted effort to avoid mentioning the “stuff” because a lasting awkwardness would prevail. It was the sort of discussion that their parents would cringe if they heard, but it was part of getting along with a cosmopolitan peer group.

“Stop letting her use you for her homework,” growled Akshay, changing tactics and feeling suddenly protective of his chaste sister.

“Why do you, of all people, have a problem with her? She can’t be ‘too modern’ for you.”

Akshay snorted at the euphemism. “Too modern” was how his parents classified anything that was unpalatable to their customs.

“Come on, tell me. What’s your problem with her?”

There was the obvious fact that there were far too many stories about her navigating the word of mouth as they traveled from the corridors of her classroom to his own. He knew that she strung about the boys in his class to get what she wanted and had left behind many rumor-mills, broken hearts, unfinished stories and a very sour aftertaste. Whatever little he knew of her, he didn’t want her to be his sister’s friend.

“You know what they say…”

“Since when did you start believing what the gossip says? She didn’t even know who you were before we spoke to each other. How can she annoy you when you don’t even know her?”

“She’s too….too annoying,” he justified, pouncing on the pathetic word as though it perfectly captured all that he was trying to convey about her. He could have called her that perfect expletive, but his conscience would not permit him to swear in front of his sister in either language. She probably knew what he was about to say but he didn’t want to test the boundaries of her vocabulary. After all, the same mouth might be called to chant the holy Sanskrit names in the evening prayers.

“Why does she want to talk to you?” came the deflection. Sudha was too sheltered to be considered remotely glamorous and it surprised him that someone like Avani would seek out his goody-two-shoes sister as a friend.

“I’m just a good listener, I guess,” shrugged Sudha. “She likes to talk you know, about her boyfriend and…”

“Spare me the details,” cut in Akshay, wincing at the thought of her discovering some of Avani’s fabled amorous atrocities.

“Ma will definitely yell at me,” mused Sudha as she took her shoes off as she stepped inside the door. She saw Akshay turn his back to her and wondered if he felt that she deserved the chastisement that was to follow. After all, she had never worn shorts or smoked or even remotely attempted anything suggestible to a boy. But she liked to hear of Avani’s conquests like incredible fables from a different world.

“Children, why are you so late?” came the inevitable despair mingled with relief as Rohini rushed to serve the food warm.

“Ma, I..” began Sudha on cue, bracing to face the storm at the mention of the notorious name.

“My last class stretched on and the transit was late,” said Akshay, overriding his sister.

His mother and sister calmed instantly for completely different reasons.

“Oh, you poor children,” continued Rohini in a flurry. “You could have called us at home and told us you were late. Wash quickly, the meal is almost cold now.”

Sudha silently acceded, confused at her brother’s magnanimity. Akshay silently congratulated himself on preventing another one of his mother’s long-winded interrogations about Sudha’s life decisions.

“Here, do you want another helping of rice? Sudha, why don’t you try the Spinach curry? How was school today? What did you learn?”

The questions continued but a response wasn’t expected. Sudha munched her rice slowly, wondering why he had stepped in for her. Maybe she would tell her the truth later. Akshay, on the other hand, rationalized that if the women must have their shouting matches they could do so once he was safely locked up with his xBox.

“I owe you, big brother,” beeped the text message on his phone. Akshay shoveled food ravenously and wondered if his protectiveness was spoiling Sudha’s ability to stand up for herself.

Rainy Neon Dreams

I have a memory of the rain. On every day that we moved from one city to another, it would rain. I remember staring at the blurry streets that I was leaving behind knowing that I was perhaps feeling emotions too deep to put into words.  Often, I have caught my reflection weeping in the glass windows as the raindrops slide down the translucent cheeks effortlessly and I have scoffed because I have always been too optimistic about leaving my past behind.

Mumbai, Bangalore, New York. The offspring of an urban jungle, I have seen rich, poor, metal, grass and people alike and I know that I have yet seen nothing at all because I do not know where this life will take me. I take comfort in the sound and bustle and noise of the city because I know that it is a tangible evidence of the world’s ruthless progression.

I used to partition my life into small objectives: complete Grade 6, complete High-school, get into college, graduate from college and so on. Yet the more I grow up, the more it appears there is to do. Be a good person, be a good daughter, be a good student, be a good engineer, be a good friend, be happy, be kind, be compassionate, be less abusive towards yourself and so on and so forth. These are the fluid goals. The ones that have no deadlines, the ones that will inevitably come to pass, the ones in which I can’t seek a solution manual because there is no right way to do these things.

I have memories of the quiet mango tree alcoves of Kolkata suburbia, the asphalt-melting heat and the unbearable humidity. Even in that heat, we seek to ruin mangoes and interrupt afternoon siestas because we are too young to feel languor. Yes, grandma, I really would like to have cool coconut water. The protests that we had against the second evening shower because we were in denial of the sweat-clinging clothes. The ground burns as the sun sets and people gather around with hand-made bamboo fans and sigh, my goodness, wasn’t it a hot day?

I have memories of the lovely cloudy days of Bangalore, days which were so beautiful that I wish I could capture the rain forever, memories of playing in the rain and watching the paint run from new walls, muddy school uniforms, puddle-jumping conquests, mud and piping hot coffee huddled inside. Cloudy days that were so dark that the lights had to be put on in the afternoon. Cloudy days where the fog protected the nest of pigeons nearby from the dripping water.

Days when the sky was so picturesque that it seemed unreal, and the times in the café I have spent trying to become one of the many typical tomboy nerds, trying to make myself matter, trying to belong and eager to cast aside my stark differences. I have tried too hard and yet, I am grateful for the shelter and comfort of the all-girls’ school environment because it appears that things look a lot easier in the past.

It is raining again today, and the faint memory of a Bengali song makes me weep in the corner of the library, because indeed it had been so long since I have been home. I’m waiting for the future. I, who has constantly been pushed forward in my life, is waiting to come back to the past, to wrap it up in some dripping neon-colored memory that will smell of nostalgia, childhood, adolescent melancholy and the burning need to feel like I belong.

Excuse me, I murmur to my past, and start walking along Manhattan streets faster than my past is catching up beside me. I have things to do, places to be, I repeat endlessly striving to find meaning in this perennial madness of being trapped among geniuses in the world’s best city. The brutal wind will not let me stop and think about deadlines and work and the pressure of performing well enough to find that niche in which I belong. I have to be constantly aware of not stepping into a puddle because my winter boots are supposed to be on a holiday, and the Starbucks on my hand is my guiding beacon to warmth.

“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”, say Simon and Garfunkel and I hear the million clattering shoes on the asphalt paved roads to futures that dissolve behind innumerable avenues and crossings as large pools of people drift in and out. In the echo of their multilingual, multicultural identities, I hear the ghosts of the cites I’ve left behind and the ones that will come. If I have to call that one absolute place where I belong my home, then what of the transient journeys through the places where I have found different pieces of myself? Will I ever find that one perfectly shaped hollow in the geometry of life, where all my edges and curves will fit perfectly?

“Please stand away from the platform edge,” says the station recording and the train rushes in to scoop millions of aspirants to the future. Excuse me, I say to my future, taking a step back. Excuse me while I wait for the rain to fall.

“I am not my suicidality”

This post was written by my friend, Rakhi Agrawal. She is a brave, strong, woman and I feel that in light of recent events that have happened in my life, her story has touched me very deeply and I think it is worth telling. 

"I am not my suicidality."

“I am not my suicidality.”

http://www.whatibeproject.com/portfolio-item/i-am-not-my-suicidality/

Trigger warning: suicide.

“The seventh grade. I have wanted to die since the seventh grade. Sure, it sort of started off as an attention thing. “Oh, okay. You won’t include me in your plans. That’s fine. You’ll be sorry when I’m gone.” But somewhere along the way, it became real. Very real. Perhaps it was the death threats at home. Or maybe my inability to keep any friend for any substantial amount of time. Maybe it was the hundreds of lunch periods I skipped just so I wouldn’t experience the overwhelming reality of how alone I truly was. Perhaps it was the countless nights where I drove around for hours on end until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, and finally found a dark corner to sleep in.

Whatever the reason, as I matured, so did my suicidality. It became something I kept as a deeper secret, and that I actively desired. And craved. And fantasized about. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to kill myself. I am suicidal on a daily basis. I know that probably sounds crazy to most, but I am. Every day I wake up knowing that if I ran into the perfect situation—a gun casually lying on the sidewalk, a runaway car with no driver or oncoming traffic, a burning building—a way that minimized my pain and didn’t cause harm to anyone else—I would choose to die in a heartbeat. Philosophically, I believe people should have the right to die if they want to—it’s your body, after all. Who am I to tell you that you must live if your pain is that high, your suffering that real.

I say this as someone who has lost a friend to suicide. As someone who knows people who have lost loved ones to suicide. As a person who very much would love anyone who wanted my love. As someone who works to help stop suicide.

But there’s this: every time I am on a subway platform by myself, I look at the incoming train and have to stop myself from jumping. Every time. Every time I’m on a plane, I wish and hope that the plane miraculously crash in such a way that would keep every part of the plane in tact, and every passenger alive and unharmed, except for myself. Every time I hear of someone suffering, I wish every cancer, disease, illness, and misfortune upon myself and away from everyone else.

There are days when I am more suicidal than usual—when most things in my life seem to be going wrong and I see no light at the end of the tunnel. On these days, when I am actively suicidal, I exhibit some tell-tale signs of what everyone else would see as depression—I want to rot away in bed, shut everyone out, quit every activity, job, and commitment that I may have, and crawl into a hole.

I have tried to kill myself. I’ve made a couple shitty, impulsive attempts. I’ve come so close to being kicked out of school for my suicidality that I could taste the pavement on the street. I’ve been hospitalized four times, all which have left me worse off than I had been before.

A former friend who visited me the last time I was hospitalized sent me an article on trauma. As someone who has dealt with her share of PTSD, I eagerly read it, searching for something that resonated and rang true with me. In this piece, they described two types of people needed to survive trauma: firefighters, who will come running in a crisis, who will battle the blaze with you until you are ostensibly safe, and builders who will be there in the long run, who will give you the steady care you need to reenter the world. I think this structure holds true in life more generally, too. And as far as I have found, crises come easy (firefighters abound), but builders are the rare ones. I’ve lost most of my friends because they couldn’t handle my honesty. My dark, gloomy, intense honesty.

I’ve been poor, I’ve been homeless. I’ve been raped, I’ve been beaten. I’ve lived out of a car, I’ve starved. I’ve been essentially orphaned, I’ve been abandoned. I’ve been wished dead, I’ve been told I’m going to rot in hell, that no one will ever love me, that I’ll be found in a dumpster on the street. But nothing ruins me more than being alone. When I look around and don’t see people—any people to call my own, who are consistently there, and will be there for some time to come—this is what intensifies and solidifies my desire to kill myself.

But even with all of this, I am so much more than my suicidality. I am not crazy. I’m not insane. I’m capable. On most days, I am functional. I am warm, I am positive. I am loving, I am not dark and gloomy. (And even if I was, why is that bad?) I am intense, but I’m also fun. I am capable of laughing. I do not need to be coddled or tiptoed around. I need as much support and love as the next person. But I am not my suicidality.”

Columbia’s 2014 Mental Health Awareness and Random Acts of Kindness Weeks

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=6H35s_kTmH8

Photo by Steve Rosenfield

 

2: A tribute to the last week of being a teenager

What are you supposed to feel when you discover that the person who has left you forever was the one who truly cared about you all this time? What are you supposed to feel when care, love and affection was right under your nose except now it has gone forever?

It feels like you will never be able to reconcile the fact that the one person who could have been everything was too weak to let you go. Blame destiny. Blame fate. If it was meant to happen, it should have happened. Blame yourself because you had to deny the affection, to gently, carefully reject a person because of reasons that you deemed were wise.

“Sorry, but I don’t think you’re actually attracted to me. You’re just projecting your feelings for someone else on me. You don’t know me well enough to like me. Our families would never be okay if we started dating each other. I don’t think you’re ready for a relationship. People shouldn’t be seeking relationships when they have to find inner stability first.”

I said these things. Some directly. Some indirectly. I thought my reasons were justified. I had other reasons of my own too. I was pursuing someone obviously incompatible and unavailable, because I was seeking some twisted form of internal validation. I too was lonely, and scared and investing all my effort into making this problematic liaison work. The scars of my first “relationship” will take a while to heal, and though it has been painful, it has been thoroughly enlightening.

In all those moments of pessimism, of pining away for what I obviously couldn’t have, of obvious, bone-chilling, exhausting despair, it never occurred to me that there was that one person who could, perhaps, meet all of those requirements willingly. Except now that person has died. He has left this world. He has left me with this overpowering eternal guilt that I didn’t know I had chosen to bear.

When his phone was retrieved after the incident, it had only five contacts stored on it. His mother, his father, his brother and me. I was the only person that was not family that he considered me close enough to him to think about me in his last moments.

I am left wondering. Even if I couldn’t have loved him, I would have devoted my emotion and strength to him. I would have been there for him if only he had reached out to me. If only he hadn’t ignored me. If he truly did care for me, why did he not consider reaching out? Even as a friend?

We had once gone on a date to a restaurant nearby. Just the two of us. Conversations. Him making fun of me. Me laughing along. Talking about things of all interest. He paid me a compliment, saying that I was a great conversationalist. He complained how I was under-dressed for the snowy weather and he joked that his birthday gift to me would be a pair of snow-boots.

It was my birthday yesterday.

There were no snow-boots.

 

{Dev}fest 2014: How I evolved into a better person and programmer

So, I’ve been gone for a week. I have literally been disconnected from social media and from my friends and usual coursework for a week.There’s a hacking/app-developing fest that happens here for a week and I participated in it for the first time. It was an interesting, exhausting and draining experience, but I have emerged from the experience with a boost to my self-esteem and some serious resume credentials. I don’t mean to brag, but it seems that the complete detachment from the human world for a week has left me with several ideas that I want to say. For the record, I am running on two hours of sleep and I have written code for approximately 86 hours cumulatively. Therefore, please excuse me for any errors that may inadvertently happen.

It’s a beautiful feeling. That delicious joy of exhaustion, fulfillment and creating something entirely new and your own. The joy of watching your effort work. The joy of creating a tool that will make everything so much more accessible and awesome and in an infinitesimal, but important way, contribute to the continuum that is human progress.

I had several different feelings about joining this project. I know that I am somewhat capable of writing code, but I always had the assistance of homework or a syllabus to structure my learning. This leaves me somewhat sensitive to the fact that despite all my years of experience, I have felt under-accomplished. As it turns out, there are several friends in my friend group who are programmers. All of them decided to go ahead and register for the project without asking for me. I was quite upset about it because I thought they were insidiously (or not) implying that I wasn’t competent enough to be a part of them. They were exclusively a group of six males, and this venture was supposed to be a “bro” thing. My friend justified that clearly, my presence was unwelcome for a completely different host of reasons beside my competence.

I struggled to come to terms with it somewhat, and though I understand the gender-normative requirements of “bro-time”, it still didn’t change the fact that I felt slurred. So I was determined to find a crazy, insanely hard project where I would be valued. I managed to come across a group of five graduate students working on a machine-learning system. Perfect. Not only could I be exposed to wisdom of the <ahem> not-so-ancient, but also I could get first-hand experience in something I’ve wanted to do in forever: machine learning. I was the youngest of the group for a while (we eventually picked up another undergraduate freshman to help us with HTML), but I was still the only girl in the group. Even though I felt immensely grateful for the opportunity to be in such an environment, I was also completely in awe of the people I worked with. We were going to design a three-dimensional recommendation system that would parse through all of the English articles in Wikipedia and based on a combination of some cutting-edge machine learning algorithms be able to fetch better articles.

For a while I thought my presence was unwelcome. All said and done, I’m a fresh-faced sophomore in a group of experienced graduate students. They’re basically doing me a favor by having me on board. So, I pushed myself constantly to deliver, to perform, even if the deliverable required of me were relatively mundane. There were times when it failed. I was required to use a programming language that didn’t have any sort of documentation on it whatsoever. We were taming the mutant beast formed from hodgepodge code of millions of free examples over the web.

My project lead told me that he was actually grateful that there was at least someone in the team who was always cheery and optimistic and funny, because without it working on such a complex, exhausting and immense project would have been difficult. My project lead is an amazing man. He is a visionary, a good human being, a kind soul and more so, an extremely charming man. He is also ambitious, driven and very receptive to feedback. Without him, I would have still been a pouting weenie. Now I call myself a programmer. We are one step closer to creating his dream, which is, in fact, our dream.

During the span of the week, I spent every day writing code from 6:00PM to 11:00PM. Combine that with the 24 hour hackathon the night before. I have learned HTML, CSS and Javascript (Three.js) in one week. I have re-drawn co-ordinate systems and made my math education worth its money, by squeezing out formula for transforming 2D co-ordinates to 3D, working with the changing geometry of shapes as a camera zooms into a screen and the co-ordinate system stretches out, staying patient while scraping the best I can off internet examples only and more so, working in a language that has no formal support system. I’m not saying our team was smooth and non-disruptive. We had our disagreements. We had our conflicts. We resolved whatever we could. We presented the final best of whatever we could. I realized that I wasn’t doing this immense project because I wanted recognition and credit, which was indeterminate. I was doing this simply because I loved it and I created it.

Our project demo wasn’t too spectacular, because our team lead was exhausted beyond measure and so were we. But I was still happy that I had participated and I knew that I had evolved into something else. We were presenting to some of the spectacular people in the industry of hacking and app-development and I was rather disappointed by fate that we were all so tired that we couldn’t make our final pitch properly.

Then two hours later, they announced the winners in different categories of the week-long Devfest. We were awarded the Andreessen Horowitz award for Most Technically Challenging Hack.

Yeah, people are talking about me now. I have the street cred I wanted. One of my friends from the “bro”gang went so far as to suggest that I should work for a company and start making money of my own already. I am admired and loved and envied and perhaps some combination of all of these or none at all. But I do know that I have finally tasted the pure joy of creating on the fly. Of recognizing a structured, final end-goal with limited unstructured resources. I have finally realized the pure unadulterated joy when your code compiles and your screen renders exactly what you imagine it to be. I have finally grown into that person who can shrug off what other people think of me. Only now, when people whom I have never known are congratulating me, have I realized just how empty the rest of the world is in relation to the goals I have accomplished in my mind.

I don’t know how else to say it without actually saying it. I have actually surpassed my own expectations as a person and as a programmer. I know that it is truly within me to strive for something higher and literally I am radiating gratitude to every force and being in this universe. Thank you for everything. Thank you truly, most sincerely, eternally for everything. For the friends I’ve made in this journey. For the incredibly talented people I’ve come across. For the person that I have now become. For the person that I am yet to become.

Efforts to be taken seriously

It would be a cliche for me to begin with how much of a struggle college and life has been ever since I’ve been back. Several things have been working out to my advantage, and surprisingly several things haven’t. If the Universe was an unruly teenager, I feel exactly like what its parent might feel like. Sometimes, I try to compromise. At other times, I put my foot down and make demands. At other times, I calmly wait until the terrible mood swings get damped to the stable static of normal. I don’t know when these times come. I do know that I have the option of grinning and bearing with it.

Throughout winter break, I have actively been searching for research opportunities. It’s been a complex, vague process that seems to foreshadow all the job-hunting that my future will someday do. I have discovered that the formal term for making official friends is called networking, and this process is no less methodical, cut-throat and precise as any other. The dress-code may be business casual. But there is absolutely nothing that is casual. It is a very carefully orchestrated parade of skills, critical thinking, out-performance and psychological observations.

I had to write up a resume and a CV and a few statements of purposes. As it turns out, I am yet too young to be applying to my fields of interest, namely Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. Maybe I am lucky because I want to specialize in something so esoteric, as this narrows my competition pool somewhat. Besides the occasional perusal of new developments and fueled by some basic ideas learned off Wikipedia, I do not have any legitimate experience in this domain. I have worked on a few projects from time to time, but those were out of sheer passion and not for a grade or anything that can be quantified in terms of a resume-comprehensible format. Hence, I have spent the last few weeks reading more research papers than newspapers.

I will be enrolling for the classes I want only next semester because graduate students and other specialized students are obviously given a preference over a mere youngling like me. In my mind, I have already decided that this is something that excites me and that I am passionate about. Hence I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t try my hardest best to get it. I’ve flooded the department inbox with request emails. I’ve borderline spammed professors from other universities with request emails. For every 47 emails I send, 5 reply back. Maybe 2 or 3 of them are looking for people like me. Maybe I can clear the interviews of only one. Or maybe two.

One of my crippling weaknesses is this needless endless worry and anxiety that I won’t amount to anything. What if I can’t get anything? What if I under-perform? What if I cannot live up to the project expectations? What if it turns out that research isn’t really my thing? What if my GPA sabotages my endeavors? Worse, what if I sabotage the interviews? How do I dazzle the readers of my statement of purpose and make sure that they all find me as equal fit for their project?

Three lessons here. Stop asking bad questions of yourself. Stop worrying. Be true to yourself.

In doing my research as to how to write a statement of purpose and what are the things readers look for, I realized that the only way I was going to strongly present my case was to expose my true passion in it. My passion in artificial intelligence comes from a staple background in science fiction, exploratory tendencies and the curiosity to discover what exactly runs the machine-human dynamic in our constantly evolving society. But these are far-fetched ideas, and like the child who loved them, I cannot legitimately present these as a formal reason for why I would like to be a research assistant in these highly esteemed laboratories. I need to be taken seriously, and not just as a child who wants to play around with some ideas and expect them to evolve into something miraculous.

In calming my own frustrations and managing the Universe’s, I have acquired enough patience to actually make it a resume entry. Skills: Expanding reserves of patience.

I have several factors which differentiate me from the rest of the applicant pool. Some work in my favor. Like the fact that I am female and interested in robotics, because women are an under-represented in such circles. Some don’t. Like my GPA. Some can work either ways. Like my age and experience. Or the fact that I attend a prestigious Ivy League institution, but still don’t have an overly respectable GPA.

As of today, I have two offers in hand. One has already committed me for this semester. The other will consider me for their summer laboratory project.

I kept reminding myself that this wasn’t a life or death matter. Initiating my career now wasn’t something that I couldn’t wait for perhaps a few more years. I just wanted to be honest and original and truly work on something which I love, and I hope to love more. That’ probably how I survived three rounds of consecutive interviews. Some were easy. Some were hard. I had obviously done some homework on what was expected before I turned up, and I took every opportunity to let them know that I had. This skill was deployed in the medium of asking specific questions. I didn’t blankly stare and say, “Sir, what is your project about?” but I asked things like, “Sir, why can’t we use this machine-translation algorithm to parse Chinese oral corpora to English?”

I don’t know how things will get to work. I don’t know what to expect from embarking on this new journey, or even how to go about it. My parents constantly tell me that they’re immensely proud of me and despite all the layers of discovering my true worth, I am somewhat proud in my new-found calm. Now, it’s time to gear up.

Cracks In My Armor

This may just be my most honest blog post yet. I’m going to talk about why I’m scared to be myself. I’m going to talk about why I have this perpetual need to keep comparing myself against other people, and how I resort to punishing myself for simply being me. As it is, dear reader, I don’t want your pity or sympathy, even though you may be humane enough to give them to me. I don’t want them because I’m going to tell the story of me unadulterated, to remind myself that I have conquered several demons, most of whom have lived inside my head for years and whom I battle even now.

There was a time in my life when I was afraid of being alone. I was always scared of new people who interacted with my friends because I was terrified that my friends would always abandon me for that new fascination. As a kid, it used to be the new resident with the shiny toy. Over the years, this perpetual fear of isolation has morphed into a judgment of not being worthy enough. But I have come to love solitude. I have come to respect the fact that even I need space, if I am to search for truly worthy companionship. I have build my self-esteem to the point where I don’t have to feel like I hate myself.

Sometimes, I have this desperate need to be understood. I talk to my friends and family and they all advise me, and they make my problems look so small and stupid that I feel as though I’ve been a burden on them simply for existing.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m not interesting enough for a person. I am surrounded by so many talented brilliant people that I feel hollow within. It frightens me that other people can see through my facades and tell what’s going on because they know they have me at an advantage. So they do take advantage. Once that ordeal is done and their utility satisfied, they leave and I am left to wondering about the pieces of myself. I don’t play sports. I don’t watch TV, or at least I don’t watch what everyone else likes to watch. I don’t listen to the kind of things or read the kind of material that “everyone else” likes to do. I was given to understand that in this large world of people, I would surely find that one niche of people who would be like me.

It wasn’t school. Or High school. I was deluded when I thought that admission to an Ivy League institution could mean something. I haven’t yet found those people who like me enough to spend time with me.

My best friend rarely spends time with me because she’s always busy and because she’s in a relationship. Granted, we all have that phase when we are deeply enamored and therefore deeply vested into that one solitary person and his/her quirks. She doesn’t realize that I miss her. But then again, I’ve made these demands to her and somehow I am not important enough, so looks like I’m just going to have to accept it. This is probably going to sound incredibly whiny and you can heap scorn on me as much as you please (World lesson: people love to do that), I’m not important enough for anyone.

I’m a repository of other people’s dreams and expectations and their extremely fickle standards and somehow, anyhow, I am searching for that one answer to what my self worth is truly worth.

I would have talked more about relationships, except that’s probably not a Pandora’s Box I want to open just yet.

Or maybe I do. I live in constant terror of rejection. By friends, by that one crush, by that family who loves me so much. I feel as though I’m not doing enough to make these people proud of me. It makes me tear up every time when my parents say that they’re proud of me because deep down inside I wonder if I have truly earned the love and admiration of such people. I am trapped in my own convolutions. I have a problem with not getting enough love and not feeling I’m worth it when I am getting it.

I live in constant fear of being “annoying” and “lame”. Because that was what led to my abandonment several times, and I consciously try to fit in so hard that I don’t have to be seen as the weakest link. There are times when people around me don’t extend the same courtesy to me. For the most part I grin and bear it. For the rest, I run away.

Most of the time I don’t feel good enough or funny enough or anything enough. I read this very insightful post the other day about how people who are truly funny are people who have survived emotional wounds in order to recognize the true value of humor. The humor I’m surrounded with is merely pathetic wordplay and lame puns, and somehow everyone in the world loves those. I feel as though they are eroding away at my sense of self-worth. Have I stopped understanding people to not be funny anymore?

The other day I went to a friend’s party and two friends complimented me on looking “pretty” and “hot” respectively. One was a stark sober acquaintance. The other was a very drunk best friend (same one as above). I thought the former was being too kind and the latter was too drunk to know what she was saying. My friend is superficial at times and it bother me very much, but I’m coming to terms with it. The world has told me enough times that I’m not pretty or attractive and I’ve managed to deal with it by telling myself, “I don’t need to be pretty or attractive to be a successful, happy person.”

I can’t tell you how pathetic it feels to be unrecognized or deemed ugly. This is one of the reasons why I vacillate between extremes. Universe, either make me beautiful, so beautiful that there is no doubt as to my true worth. Or make me ugly, so horribly ugly that I can revel in the fact that I am this way and that nothing can compete with my ugliness. My best friend, when sober, claims to be a good judge of such aesthetics and I have always been labeled with the “Not Bad”. Almost as if an afterthought, as though catering to that desperate hungry overwhelming need to be accepted and recognized and loved and appreciated. Isn’t that what everyone wants? To be happy?

Let’s now ignore this very large chunk of reality and focus ourselves onto more practical and necessary ideas – such as academics, a career and so on and so forth. Recently I got a 0/150 in a programming assignment where out of five files (four of which were solid code and the fifth was a little tool to stitch them together), I submitted only four (forgot the fifth). Without that one two-liner of a file, the rest of my code doesn’t work. It compiled but it didn’t “work”. And voila, a 0. I had several opportunities to re-check my work.

I am terrified of being careless. It’s not that I don’t know the material or that I’m not smart enough to understand it. Luckily, that’s one of the few things working in my favor. But the very fact that everything hinges on that one small detail which I missed. It might cost me a letter-grade, which might me a cost me a research position, which might cost me a job, which might cost me the disappointment of my immensely loving and caring family who do not deserve this for their efforts.

My father says I worry about the future too much. I know this thing for sure. Even though it wears my mental energy down significantly, I have this obsessive compulsive need to worry and it eats into my health, my sanity and moreover my happiness.

I worry that I’m not resourceful enough. That I’m not justifying the $60,000+ that my parents have invested into me in order to make something of myself. There have been times when I simply break down and ask them why did they choose such a futile endeavor and they justify by saying that they know this investment of their time, love, emotions and money is not going to fail. That I am molding myself into something worthwhile, even though I don’t know it.

I used to be scared of growing up. Because I didn’t want to abandon the love and joy of childhood for whatever it was. I remember being the melancholy little child wondering about the Big Bad World, and now that I am in the Big Bad World I have no way of going back. More so, I know that if I do go back I’ll end up repeating the same mistakes.

Tonight I have finally finished 6 hours of continuous finals. A decisive battle has been complete, but not won. I am so exhausted after last night’s weeping about my self-esteem. But more so, I have finally found a reason to be proud of myself. My parents tell me that one of my strongest attributes is the ability to pick myself up and continue. Today, I feel as though I might have accomplished that. Despite all my fears, I have come to moving beyond them. Solitude has become my friend. There are times when I need self-reflection, not self-criticism, but reflection. I am not as ready to chastise myself for the smallest things as before.

I’m still fighting the hardest battle yet, and that is to hold on to my sanity and somehow love myself.