“Perfect”

This is a story inspired by the revelation of a character from one of my favorite TV shows. In a way, it is a story that tells of a situation similar to that of Dr. Julian Bashir, Chief Medical Officer from the show Star Trek, Deep Space Nine.

I stood in front of the mirror and looked at myself. The youngest Nobel Prize winner. I could remember how uproarious the media was. I was the youngest female to have ever been bestowed with such an honor. Suddenly the whole galaxy knew my name. My revolutionary spaceship designs would be implemented throughout the galaxy. I had just accepted my award and my place in history with an eloquent thanking speech. And now I stood backstage. Everybody was so proud of me. Everybody except myself.

My parents entered the room. They had just answered questions about the media’s new infatuation – me. After countless interviews, my parents stood beaming and proud. My father was an architect. My mother, a doctor. They felt so proud narrating stories of their “little” daughter. Not so little, I was twenty-five.

My mother came forward and hugged me. I couldn’t return the gesture. I was disgusted with my parents. My rage was boiling in the deep, dark pit of my stomach. Everybody has their secrets. As do I. Now, I was a beautiful, brilliant genius with a sparkling life ahead of me, supported on a strong foundation of many awards, scholarships and hard-work.

When I was six, I was the exact opposite. I was a slow, clumsy child who was awkward about everything. I had difficulty in grasping the simplest of concepts which seemed to come to all my peers with natural ease. I found it difficult to talk and I had problems differentiating between simple, everyday objects like trees and houses, while all my classmates learnt how to use a computer and solve differential equations. I never could really understand what was going on around me. I never understood what happened and why it happened. It was made very clear to me by all who were around me that I was inferior. I began to realize that I had been a constant disappointment to my parents since the time I came into my existence. Turns out I had a developmental abnormality. I was shorter than most other children my age and I appeared to be less-able than them in other ways as well.

Before my seventh birthday, I paid a visit to the Galactic Medical Federation with my parents. The best doctors all over the galaxy worked there. Yet, it wasn’t completely impervious to corruption. And then those treatments began. It started with my mental growth and ended with my appearance and that caused my change. I was genetically enhanced and engineered. My IQ jumped five points a day over two weeks. My communication and understanding of the world around me became better. My ability to grasp and absorb had increased far beyond than I what I could. Everything about me changed from awkward to normal to outstanding.

But I was genetically engineered. I was not natural. You can call me a mutant, a freak. And genetic engineering is highly illegal. Eugenics was against everybody’s basic code of ethics and morality. Yet that never stopped my parents. And the treatments unfortunately never did wipe away the memory of my previous six years, living as the exact opposite of what I was now.

My father, the architect. He falsified records and identities. He corrected and improved upon the design of his daughter. He engineered a daughter to replace the malfunctioning one he had been given. He says that if it wasn’t for him, I would have spent the rest of my life under remedial education.

I suppose you think I should thank them for changing me from an ugly duckling to a swan. Correction, a genetically-engineered swan. A fraud, an illegal masterpiece.

But in transforming me, they removed what was fundamentally me. I’m an illegal freak of nature now and it’s all my parents’ fault. They never gave me a chance. After all, six is too early to predict the future of a growing child. And behind the brilliant genius and gorgeous looks is an illegal medical therapy.

My mother is crying into my arms now as she sees the steely, cold look in my eyes. She crying into my arms now, where I’m clutching my laurels and awards and certificates. She’s trying to explain her deed to me.

She tells me she kept blaming herself for it. That she spent many sleepless nights wondering what went wrong during the pregnancy and that why did it have to be me. She couldn’t bear to watch me suffer as I fell behind a little by little every day, as I became the slowest learner. Later, after my therapy, we moved to another city and transformed from the class dunce to star genius. My parents tried to hide everything from me. “We’re so proud of her, “was their constant annoying refrain.

But unfortunately, the treatment did not wipe out whatever dull blurry memories I have. I will always remember. Even though they loved me and wanted the best for me, I was unable return the gesture to them anymore, even though I had transformed from something “ugly” to something “beautiful”. The main point is that they failed to appreciate me then and now they wanted to. Why not just accept me for what I was? Why was I not always perfect for them? Was I not their baby? Did I not have the right to be accepted as and what I was? Did I have to satisfy certain criteria to be “worthy” of being their daughter?

Now, I was the galaxy’s most promising young scientist and not to mention my gorgeous looks as well which would get me a great life ahead. But I can’t find it in myself to be arrogant or happy about it. Now that I’m the center of the media’s attraction, my secret’s bound to come out.

My father tells me that he’s willing to serve five years in a low-security penal colony. He’s willing to shoulder the blame for the fraud of genetic engineering. At best he can get a ten-year sentence because he performed the therapy without my consent and only as the power of my benefactor.

I’m touched by his gesture. Even though I despise them, they’re still my parents and I love them for some inexplicable reason. I loved them then and I promised myself that I would try and accept myself, forgive myself for being a disappointment to my parents. And after the treatment, I had to somehow continue to love them. It was the last shred of my originality. The only thing that I tried so hard not to change after all these years. But its difficult. But it’s the only bit of that six-year-old me that will stay with me now and forever.

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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.”

Nostophobia

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I usually post in a flurry at the end of the holiday season, not knowing when I’ll be able to give free rein to my writing. I also sometimes tend to pad it up with inspirational messages about how the holidays have changed me and how next semester will be vastly different from the last and all the mechanisms I have established in place to prevent me from making the same mistakes as before. 

This summer, I was supposed to be interning, and taking a summer class and working on research all through three months. Until my parents put their foot down and insisted that I stay at home, get my food and sleep schedule on track and work passively. I enjoyed the traditional vacations that most families schedule every few years, and honestly, I hadn’t been on a holiday since 2008. For a while, my life seemed more defined with experiences and photos and maps and managing my parents, than it appeared to be of deadlines.

But I was terrified that I would lose the punishing schedule that I had imposed on myself. I believed that if I wasn’t overworked and sleep-deprived, I wasn’t living my life right. When my parents insisted that I stay at home with them, I was sure that I was going to have the most boring and unproductive summer of the lot. I felt insecure about the fact that all my friends had secured internships at fancy places (J.P Morgan, McKinsey, Con Edison, etc) while I was living the pampered lifestyle:  occasionally writing code, blogging and swimming. 

Except now, the three months are over and I find myself saying something that I never thought would pass my mouth. “I don’t want the holidays to end.” I don’t want the holidays to end because I have grown so much healthier and happier since these months and I’m scared that once the onslaught of college begins, my “disciplined schedule” as maintained by my parents will not withstand the vagaries of undergraduate life. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am trying to internalize it so I don’t have to be dependent on close monitoring all the time. But I also don’t want to go back because of differences in my friend group. I have mandated that I find new friends this semester, people who truly make me happy and feel worthy, instead of continually trying to please a group of people who abuse my compassion.

But it’s the third year of college and work will be upon me faster and heavier than before. How am I supposed to find the time to make new friends? Or am I destined to feel alone as the deadlines slam into my days with unstoppable ferocity? 

Hence the nostophobia. I want to go back. I really do miss college, work, classes and some people. But I know I will miss these moments too. I just don’t know which one I will miss more. 

Daughter I

When Sudha had been born, Nikesh loved her just as much as he loved her older brother, Akshay. He had even chosen the name for her: Sudha from the Sanskrit word for nectar. Nikesh had always wanted a daughter and he spoiled Sudha with his constant tender affection. The elders of the community often laughed at his doting parentage. After all, daughters are destined to be married off in the future. They declared that Nikesh was inevitably setting himself up for a heartbreak when the time would come for her to leave the nest. Nikesh would reserve his sharper comments and politely mention that such a departure was quite a while away.

Rohini however wished that Sudha was anything but a daughter. She had chosen to marry Nikesh because he was such a refreshing break with his liberal ways, but she knew that her choice was limited to the fact that their families had arranged their alliance first. She often feared that the liberalism would peel away to the years of tradition and conditioning, and that someday her beloved Sudha would find herself bearing the weight of conservatism just as she and all the generations behind her did. She could not predict when Nikesh would succumb to the pressure of their community to let Sudha be treated just as any other girl child in their community.

Rohini still remembered the night before Sudha’s third birthday. Nikesh had come to her room after ensuring that Akshay and his little sister were safely in bed. He held both of Rohini’s hands and led her to the edge of the bed.

“Listen, I want to talk to you about Sudha,” he began and Rohini suddenly began to feel alarmed from the serious tone in his voice. Nikesh instinctively sensed her fingers curl up and began to softly rub his thumbs across the back of her hand to calm her down.

“What is it?” Rohini was unable to mask the anxiety in her voice. The fear of bearing a daughter was catching up with her and she began to suspect the worst.

“Sudha is almost going to be three, and I was wondering how you would feel if I sent her to a school. An English school.”

“Send her to a school?!”

As the only daughter from her family, Rohini had bowed to the Draconian rules which had denied her an education. From the archives of her faded memory, she remembered a time of classrooms and slate-boards and homework. One day, when she was ten, she was forcibly withdrawn from the school by her family. Rohini had to then learn the exhaustive skills of being a good housekeeper so that she would have some claim to marriageability as she grew older. School ended with her childhood.

Nikesh felt the need to hurriedly explain himself to his wife and he was unsure of how she was processing the information. He did not want Sudha to grow up with the same deep gender bias which was so strongly rooted in their customs. He wanted Sudha to be as competent and capable as Akshay. He was willing to invest time, money and emotion into equating the gap. But he wasn’t going to proceed without his wife’s consent. She was after all more knowledgeable in how a woman would grow and he had come to respect her common sense, despite her lack of formal education.

“For how long?” asked Rohini tentatively after Nikesh finished his speech. Nikesh was caught unawares by the question. “For how long do you want to keep her in school?”

“Rohini, I think school is just going to be a start. I want her to be properly educated and accomplished. I want her to be a member of society who does more than just be a mother. I hope that’s what you want too. I am only one of her two parents.”

Years of suppressed feminism came to the fore and Rohini agreed. Of course I want my child to be educated. Of course I want her to succeed, to be just as good or as capable as any man. It sank into Rohini just what a marvel of a man her husband was. Even though he was the better educated of the two, he had asked her opinion. He had not mandated an order. At the back of her head, she could hear the sneers of her community. Educating a daughter? Completely? What a waste of time and money.

“What will the others say?” asked Rohini, drowning out the chastising whispers at the back of her head with her own voice.

“I don’t care,” said Nikesh almost nonchalantly. He did care somewhat, but only to the extent that it made him feel like a rebel, uprising against the treatment that his mother, his sisters and his wife received. He was not going to restrict her mind and opinions and thoughts and feelings. He could not bear the thought of raising his beloved adorable child like a ceremonial cow, to be disposed off with pomp when the occasion arrived. But he wasn’t going to show his fear to Rohini.

“…But they will ask…”

If they did, she would have to share the blame. The women would ask her why she dared to let her husband educate her daughter when she could be far more useful at home. The women would ask her why she didn’t influence his decision strongly enough. After all, he was a man. What did he know of growing up to be a woman in their society? The gossip would fly. The women would say, “Oh, they probably didn’t think their daughter was pretty enough or skilled enough to be married and keep a home, so they probably educated her in a desperate attempt to make her more desirable.”

“Their talking doesn’t change anything.”

Rohini felt his hands grow cold and she realized that she had to be strong for him and for the three year old toddler cuddled up with her brother in the next room. Some part of her mind despaired why she was going against the tide. Perhaps it would be easier for them as a family to go with the flow and manage their lives as the generations before them had. Then, she realized that being a part of Nikesh’s individual rebellion was a part of the struggle that she had endured all her life and she was no stranger to difficult circumstances. Sometimes, Rohini sought the comfort of religion to soothe her anxiety. She used to bristle at the fact that nowhere in the scriptures was it mentioned that the women should be denied an education. If anything, their numerous pantheon hosted some of the most powerful goddesses. Perhaps time, convenience and biased interpretations had eaten away at the legends like dust. She comforted herself knowing that she wasn’t doing anything sinful. If anything, educating her daughter could enlighten her about religion and perhaps bring her closer to spiritual service than Rohini herself could be.

But then another calamity befell. She remembered that he had insisted on an English school. What if Sudha grew up absorbing the Western culture? What if Sudha should completely forsake and abandon the social customs that had rigidly maintained their world for so many years? What if this education turned out to be their imminent downfall, and Sudha somehow brought disgrace to them and her ancestors by adopting the alien ways of the West?

“Why English?” asked Rohini, hoping that she could find a loophole in his argument this time that her feminine charm could distort back to reality.

“I don’t intend to stay in this city forever, Rohini. If we are to go places and accomplish things, we have to speak the language that the others speak and English is the most common of them all. It’s not too hard to learn, don’t worry. My brother and I had to learn it, and it’s a part of Akshay’s curriculum from next year.”

“But…..do English schools teach our scriptures? Why can’t we send her to a local school? Surely they teach the same numbers and things?” she asked again.

“I don’t know, Rohini. I feel that an English education would be wholesome,” said Nikesh, sensing a real cause for concern. Rohini remained silent but Nikesh felt her fingers retract in the unmistakable way when she found her strength shaking, and his determination faltered.

“If you’re worried that she will grow up wrong in any way, she will still be housed under our roof.”

He felt empty saying it because he felt as though he did not have a strong argument to support him. Now it appeared that he was resorting to the value-system of the very same mechanism that he was rebelling against. Any culture that stagnates is eventually doomed to die. But Nikesh was unsure that Rohini would accept his abstract philosophy. Some part of him claimed that Rohini didn’t need to understand and she probably didn’t. Why should he bother with asking her opinion anyway? She was no more than a product of strict upbringing behind narrow walls and narrow minds.

Hypocrite. Nikesh banished the thought immediately, recognizing that he was giving in to the pressure. He would have to provide the safety net for Rohini and himself, and he wanted to treat her as an equal in this process, no matter how difficult it would be. It was easy to point out the flaws of the culture they lived in, but as parents he had now taken on the additional responsibility of filtering the better aspects of a cultural upbringing to their child.

“Rohini, I know this is difficult. But please trust me when I say that we are doing the right thing.”

“I’m not questioning that but…”

“I may not know all the pitfalls that come our way, but I need your support,” said Nikesh and he had never sounded so vulnerable.

“…We are bound together in this,” admitted Rohini rather lamely as she tried to rally all her strength.

“I’ll fill in the paperwork for Sudha’s school,” said Nikesh rather suddenly and he left the room. He wanted to distract his mind with action so that the deeper ramifications wouldn’t eat away at his conscience. He was also very suddenly alarmed that his guard dropped before his wife, and he needed some time alone to figure that out.

When Nikesh left, Sudha invoked the divine in the practiced Sanskrit whispers and prayed that the deities would protect and guide her family. As she chanted the names and legends, she felt that she would take Sudha’s religious education personally into her own hands if required. Let the schools teach her what they will. Sudha would not grow up to dishonor the universal force which kept Rohini’s world together, even though Nikesh was radically restructuring the methods behind it.

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

It’s going to be my twentieth birthday in two days. All the growing up I have had to do has happened within a span of seven days instead of 10 years.

24th of March, 2014 has till date been the worst Monday of my life. One of my dearest friends committed suicide.

I’m usually not one to support emotional writing, especially on my blog, because I feel that my opinions that I express here should be carefully thought out and balanced. But to possibly convey the depth of something as devastating as this is beyond words. For a long while I rambled on and on in my diary, trying to provide some form of expression to the sudden, mind-numbing grief that made time stop around me.

I discovered what true grief feels like. I discovered what it means to remember all the memories that were said and done, and more importantly, all the things that were left unsaid. There is this silent screaming that goes on inside, and the only thing you can do about it is wear a smile on top and pretend that everything is proceeding as normal. Only 7 of my friends know, because I don’t want anyone to pity me, or know the turmoil that I am going through.

More so, this is a suicide. There’s a large blame factor involved, although you cannot blame anyone. The sole authority who had to shoulder the blame has left us all on this earth to seek his happiness in a place far beyond us. I used to think that Death was the sort of happiness that is earned when you have survived life’s challenges. This restful, complete, full sleep untouched by any sort of sorrow or fear is a paradise that can only be earned. Except my friend has acquired it at a cost that is too expensive for us to bear.

I don’t think my wounds have healed enough that I can write a respectable eulogy to him. Or maybe keep writing eulogies to him forever.

I have discovered how strong I am. I never thought that I would have to go through this, but he has left me with no choice but to be strong on his behalf. His mother had called me earlier in the day asking of his whereabouts. I had spent the last month being upset with him because he simply refused to pick up my calls, talk to me or hang out with me. I have sent him several ignored texts and messages through ever possible communication media. When his parents called, and I was worried, I began to search for him all over campus, sure that I would find him physically. I waited. I searched. I wandered. Repeat.

He wasn’t anywhere. He was literally off the grid for four hours and nobody knew where he was. I excused his absences as perhaps a chance occurrence, maybe he wasn’t around when I had got to the venue. Maybe he went to buy a new phone and was distracted. Maybe networks were down. Maybe there were a million reasons that he couldn’t be there.

Turns out that there a million reasons he left us all. Except I cannot extrapolate what they are.

Later on in the evening, we were all informed of a demise on campus. I have never survived blind shock, but I know now that the only way I was functioning was on some sort of auto-pilot.

25th of March left me with the conflicted discovery of managing the waves of grief. First came the phase in which I felt nothing. I was empty and numb and filled with memories of him. The way he touched my hair. The arguments we had. The times when he, his younger brother and I were a trio. Our myriad adventures. Our myriad stories. The promises we made, and the promises that are left broken. He had promised to get me rain-boots on my birthday, and now he will never be able to celebrate my birthday.

Perhaps the waves of grief were compounded by the fact that this friend had once asked me out. He wanted me to be closer to him emotionally. My reasons for graciously declining were many: his mental instability (perhaps we was projecting another’s feelings onto me?), the fact that his mother and I were really close and this would have been a problem, the fact that he didn’t know me well enough to let me be so intimate with him.

I blamed myself for a while, unable to suppress the survivor’s guilt. I blamed myself for not being proactive enough. For not reaching out to him enough. For not being able to change his mind. I also carry the hidden layer of blame that maybe if I had agreed to the relationship, we both could have been in an infinitely happier place. More maybes. More what-ifs. More what-could-have-beens. I am not prepared to deal with the world at all.

I was conflicted about whether  should I tell his friends or not. Making a pathetic transient Facebook post is not something he would have liked, and it would only earn me the sympathy of many, not the respect of his memory. I am desperately searching for ways to remember him, to contain this flood of memories and feelings and emotions, to accept this pain because it is taking a lot out of me.

26th of March was the first time I went to a funeral. It was beautiful. And terrible. The family is beyond devastated. The younger brother is in denial. They broke down once again, when they saw me. I have to step up to fill in the shoes that he left behind. I have to be the surrogate older sibling. I have to be the replacement, if such a deplorable word be used, daughter to fill the gap in their hearts. I know I will never be able to take up such a responsibility completely, but I have to try.

This grief is so tiring. It is so exhausting. It remains like a heavy weight begging for expression, even when every single tear that could be cried has been wept, and every possible despair that could be felt has been felt. Why did he have to go? Why is this so hard? Why is there this never-ending capacity to feel pain and compassion?

As my professor said, “The human spirit cannot be denied to right to search for light, when it is in the darkness.”  He is in the light now. He is so eternally peaceful. He looked so rested in the box, and the world around his is destabilizing.

Everything that is now Sikh, or Punjabi or that remotely reminds me of him in any way has now become a source of attachment. Now that he has gone, I will do my best to respect the culture that he was raised in, so I can remember him in a fashion that feels right. There is no right for these things.

Afterwards, I was informed that when his phone was recovered, he had deleted all of his contacts except four of them. His father. His mother. His brother. Me. Even in his dying moments, he chose to think of me. I cannot even comprehend the depth of how much I touched him. His mother wept into my shoulder as she held me tight. “Take care of yourself. Children never know just how valuable they are to their parents. You are so special to us, you will never understand.”

The dry spell on my soul has lifted. I have to let this sorrow out.  I must depart abruptly now. I promise to come back later.

Parents, bikini pictures and trust

If the better weather outside didn’t tell me that Spring break was here, then the sudden profusion of beach, bikini and boyfriend pictures on Facebook is indication enough. I know that a lot of people put effort into getting into shape for this stupendous moment when their minimalist experiments will adorn their walls. Even though I know that I would personally never have the courage to post a picture of me semi-nude on a public forum, I like these pictures because I think that subconsciously we all seek validation through the Facebook “like” button.

So here I was, one particular evening, liking away images, some more out of pity than true admiration, when my mother spotted a friend of mine in the aforementioned state of grace.

Before I continue further, I feel obliged to provide some kind of background on my parents to establish context. I have been blessed with the privilege of parents who understand me better than I understand myself. Unlike every other teen classmate or friend, I’ve never had to complain that my parents were rooted in archaic principles. They have taught me to be rational and well-informed before making a decision, which means I have been treated as a respected equal (a form that continues to evolve with time). Similarly, I feel obliged to maintain the same level of trust with them.

My parents were the first people to know when I had a boyfriend, when I sampled my first alcoholic drink and when an equation in class has escaped my comprehension. I feel comfortable telling my parents everything about my life, even though they don’t demand it. I feel as though it is only fair that I reciprocate what is an established respected channel of communication and support. Many of my friends are surprised that I share so much with my parents freely. Some say my parents are progressive. Some say that they are extremely understanding. The more I’ve been exposed to the world, the more I discover it is true.

Rather surprisingly, my mother was shocked to tears when she saw my friend in several rather compromising bikini pictures. Having been raised in an Indian household, with a heavy emphasis on modernity and modesty, there are some limits to radicalism as well, and I think bikini pictures are that fine line I do not want to test. I consoled her from what I assumed was a culture shock. and laughingly mentioned that she didn’t have to worry that it would be her daughter. I don’t know what bothered my mother more. The fact that such a picture exists or the fact that it’s in full view on a public forum. My father gave me to understand that it was probably the latter.

I didn’t tell my parents that my friend’s escort  was a boyfriend that her parents didn’t quite approve of because of his religion. Again, it is one thing to argue that love transcends religions but it is another thing to question a parent’s belief for what should be a relevant factor in their child’s welfare. My friend has always shrugged it off because she is so far away from home, and she knows that her parents will never find out. Unlike me, she hasn’t added her parents on Facebook, and therefore can “get away” with a lot more than others. I don’t know if I will ever dare to do something which I know would disappoint my loving parents, let alone worry if I can “get away” with it. If anything, they would be the first ones to know of such a crime, and have almost always been the first ones to provide a valid solution. Now, I understand that not all parents are alike. But surely, parents don’t deserve to be in the dark about things that matter in your life? 

I tried to justify the image, saying that as long as her parents didn’t know about it or mind it, we shouldn’t either. It was then that my father said something which set me thinking. He said, “Do you think, someday in the future, she would like it if she discovered that her child was doing something like this behind her back?”

I continued to defend my friend, somewhat. After all, she had said that her parents would be perfectly okay with what she did with her life, as long as she was “independent” (financially). My father, who was championing for the parents (absent and present) retorted with a “Do you really think it’s all about the money? Why doesn’t she ask her boyfriend to pay for her education and living expenses then? ” And that’s where I lost the argument. What further possible justification could I have? It’s not really within our scope of jurisdiction to wonder whether her family is okay with her beach escapades, but I’m sure they would prefer to be informed about it from her than from the images cropping up years later from a malicious search in a never-ending database. 

I could tell that my parents were mildly disappointed. It wasn’t so much as reconciling the differences in our value systems, but the fact that there was a lack of forethought involved in making images of the sort public. I guess there’s a justification in saying that everyone’s doing the same thing. so why is that a problem? But given the several cultural nuances of modesty that I’ve imbibed, I can tell that there is a difference between an indiscretion made public and an indiscretion in private and an indiscretion in itself.

Afterwards, when my mother still seemed a bit shaken, my father reluctantly admitted that as much as he didn’t want to praise me to my face, he was still very proud that I had chosen to abide by my ideas of modesty. I wont’ deny it, there have been days on end when I have wondered if perhaps I covered a little less surface area of my body, could I be bestowed with superficial attention? I have come to learn that perhaps that is not the sort of attention I want. Maybe that’s why my parents are proud, and as complex as it is, I will try my best to uphold the very same reasons that continue to make them proud.

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.

How to keep my new-found sanity from disappearing next semester

Winter break is ending and I am binge-blogging because I know that once college catches up with me, I will barely have time to sleep let alone write. A lot of things have happened during this break, things that I’m proud of. I’ve worked on myself to change my outlook on many different aspects of life. I’m worried that once college begins, and the external pressures that I have been pushing out of sight crop back up, my new-found resolve will crumble.

I want to trust myself better.

One of my resolutions is to not be a pushover. This should come rather naturally to me because I am quite aggressive and can even be territorial about the things that matter to me. I’ve been told that I “come on too strongly”. I’m not going to punish myself and say this is bad because it’s a part of me. Suppressing it for all these years has led to other people using me and getting away with it. Unfortunately, the new safeguards that are in place may not be finely attuned. Which means I am now paranoid about other people using me and treating me like a human doormat and at some level I am being reduced to someone who is transactional instead of generous.

I need something to remind myself of my goals and ambitions and needs. I need something that is capable of telling my barriers when to lock down on the situation and when to permit things to pass. I need to find other instant stress relievers. Writing is one of them, but in the vortex of blind rage, the last thing I am going to do is sit down and compose my thoughts coherently, let alone record them.

So I asked for advice from some of the most trusted sources in the world: my parents.

My father says that the primary cause of my insecurities and my unnecessary emotional stress is my poor health. He is right to a large extent. I don’t know why I thought I had bragging rights to the fact that last semester I survived for nearly 7 hours on a single green apple. Then I thought I was going to prove my strength by pulling off nearly 4 hours of sleep every two days. And then, I was expected to code up a proof for Leibniz’s formula for pi in less than 100 characters in a nightmare of a programming language called Lisp.  To top this all off, I would obviously be unable to solve the problem, burst into tears and start questioning everything from my math capabilities to the fundamental reason for my existence. Yep, this is the Amazing Race to Mathematical Understanding. I have inserted a proof here, for those people who do understand that this is truly less than 48 hours of nerve-wracking stress and worth only 5 points of my homework.

For the record, this is the Leibniz proof in human-comprehensive math. Image/Proof credits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leibniz_formula_for_%CF%80

For the record, this is the Leibniz proof in human-comprehensive math. Image/Proof credits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leibniz_formula_for_%CF%80

Indeed, I have lived the zombie life. No matter who you brag about this to, they will wonder how you are alive and marvel at your strength. Silently, they may think that you are surely on a path to an early death. Deep down inside, I know this is not sustainable and treating myself like a prisoner sentenced to hang is not something I particularly enjoy. So full points to father. Healthy body = healthy mind = 100% functional sanity = 0% worrying about what other people think/do/etc.

My mother reminds me of something else entirely.

Back  in India, every Saturday evening, we would go to a nearby Hanuman Temple (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanuman). Every month, we would attend a long ritual, I forget what the precise name of it is, but it was a sort of recounting of the heroic tales and prayers asking for forgiveness and blessings. At the end of the prayer ceremony, all the attendees would have to tie a sacred yellow/red/orange strong on their hands. This string was so strongly bound that there was simply no way to take it off without cutting it. All day and all night it would stay on the wrist of your choice. It was a string that would protect you from all evil and guarantee the blessings of the deity in whatever task you chose to perform. Maybe it was years of conditioning, but I have become so used to it that without wearing the bracelet/wrist-band my wrist feels a little odd about it.

I think it was this ceremony, the Satyanarayan Puja. Image credits: http://www.daijiworld.com/news/news_disp.asp?n_id=98851

I think it was this ceremony, the Satyanarayan Puja. Image credits: http://www.daijiworld.com/news/news_disp.asp?n_id=98851

I don’t know if it protected me from evil, or whether I felt that I had divine approval about any task by virtue of the string alone. But I do remember my mother telling me that whenever I was angry/depressed/hurt, I should look at the string and remind myself to calm down. Years of wearing the string taught me that every time I look at is, it serves as a divine reminder that I have better things to do in my life than be frozen by my own stupidity.

I haven’t been able to attend any such ceremony ever since I arrived in the States. But in memory of that turmeric-dyed string, I now wear a sports wristband with me. It has the flag of the United States on it, so religious symbolism aside, it serves as a direct reminder to what my overall purpose here is: to educate myself and become a better, upstanding member of human society.

Like Wonder Woman's bracelet, this has the power to let e be truthful to myself. Also, it resembles her costume and so is doubly awesome and supercharged.

Like Wonder Woman’s bracelet, this has the power to let me be truthful to myself. Also, it resembles her costume and so is doubly awesome and supercharged.

As long as I remember these two things: stay alive and stare at band when in trouble, I think I’m going to be okay. Finally, I feel a bit more equipped dealing with the next semester now.

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.

Flashback: Durga Puja

It’s that time of the year again. Mid-October, when the skies are finally clear from the monsoons, and schools have finished their first series of exams and everyone’s pining for a holiday. In Kolkata, stores are probably giving insane discounts and sale offers. People are buying all sorts of new things for themselves and to gift other people during the Puja. The idols of the deity are finally painted in and are about to be installed in themed canvas tents. We call those enclosures “pandals”. Always beautifully decorated, sometimes each town competes with another’s in terms of variety of theme and expression of the deity. After all, Goddess Durga is back home from her residence in the abode and she has brought her children along with her. Although the festival is for ten days, the last five are the most fun.

Durga_Puja

Image credits: Top ten Indian festivals of all time omgtoptens.com

It’s that time of the year again when my grandmother will gift me new clothes to wear for each of the five days. If she’s visiting me after a few months, she tries to estimate my growing physical dimensions from a grainy Skype video call and brings a salwar suit along with it to match. She also buys me accessories and jewelry to go along with each of those five suits. She brings sarees for all the female members of the family, and one even for the domestic help and the chauffeur’s wife. She brings t-shirts for everyone else. Every morning, there are prayers and rituals followed by breakfast. Once we’ve arranged some mode of transport, my grandmother would take me along with her to visit the different temples and pandals all over the city.

You may think that this influx of the new is exaggerated, but it’s not. In the trains and buses, every man, woman and child is decked in something new, if not downright festive. The ladies usually carry a tray of offerings to the deity and gifts for other visiting members as well. It’s a great communal activity. For large expensive pandals and fairs, a community usually sponsors the installation of a deity and all the members volunteer.

During the day, there are mostly prayers, rituals and visits from nearby members of the Bengali community. If there’s something Bengali people love doing it’s knowing how to while time away in good conversation. The Bengali word for it is “adda”, and it’s meaning extends from gossip to a report on recent events and anything in between. Friends, good food and very flexible schedules are mandatory requirements for a good adda session.

The Bengali definition of good food includes luchi (inflated cornflour flatbread), aloo dum (potato in rich gravy) or rice. A fish curry may be served as well if it’s lunch time, finished off with a rice pudding.

Bengali food in full glory
Image credits: Poribeshon.com

 Goddess Durga is considered to be our mother, because she conquered evil and she protects our homes and families and brings joy, prosperity and strength to her devotees. But in our culture, we also take to viewing her as our own daughter. She is the young bride of the family who has left the home of her husband to spend some time with us. It always seemed to me that in the morning, we would treat her to be officially a goddess. All the rites and rituals, carefully planned and performed. The offerings placed in a certain way, the right mantras chanted, the right fasts kept and broken. In the evening, when the pandal lighting has been switched on, something different happens altogether.

Morning ritual preparations

Morning ritual preparations
Image credits: Mother

Most pandals are constructed such that there are two platforms. One for where all the deities are installed and the other for public performances by people of the community who participate. Dance groups, poetry challenges and music performances dominate the evening. Add another healthy dose of adda and more food. Most of these performances have the central theme of Goddess Durga’s glorious conquest. Occasionally, there will be a parody of Bengali culture or an exhibition of Tagore’s works. Under the invocation of Goddess Durga’s blessing, rare exceptional talent takes over the second podium for five spectacular nights.

Usually, my grandmother and my mother would be my constant adda companions. I would ask her to re-narrate the epics when I felt a bit out of place or ask her to explain some ritual to me. Or we would take the opportunity to people-watch, and my grandmother always had something to say if I stared at a cute Bengali boy a little longer than necessary. But that’s part of what defines our very close relationship. My grandmother would talk about how the deities were decorated and arranged at different sites, and then we’d talk about food, life and so on. All around us everyone was updating their friends and close family about news of other relatives, who got what for the Puja, who wore what to which pandal and so on.

I’m remembering all these today because I’m very suddenly homesick. The physical distance between us feels immense. I haven’t tasted a mustard fish curry in almost a year, and I have a very weird craving for luchi right now. But more so, I miss the holidays, the bustle, the general aura of being Bengali and doing Bengali things. All through today, I’ve been listening to Bangla songs, feeling more emotional than usual.

Today is the last day of that festival. The gorgeous deity will now be immersed in water. Everyone is sad to see her go. All the married women smear themselves on with sindoor, the red powder that women use on their forehead to indicate their marital status. They will smear some on the idol too. They want Goddess Durga to bless their families and homes, and they smear this on the deity so that she carries this token back with her when she metaphorically leaves for her abode. My mother and grandmother are usually the first of the household to wish each other and put the red powder on each other. Someday, when I get married, I hope I’ll be able to continue their tradition.

The Sindoor smearing followed by the idol's immersion Image credits: festivals.iloveindia.com, hinduism.about.com

The Sindoor smearing followed by the idol’s immersion
Image credits: festivals.iloveindia.com,
hinduism.about.com

The elderly bless the young. Gifts and wishes are exchanged. Everyone is quiet towards the end of the evening, as the pandals are cleared out. The youth usually chant the slogan, “She’ll come again next year” as a reference to how the festival will be celebrated annually.

My mother called me today and said that she remembered how last year she had prayed to the deities for my academic success and for the well-being of our family. Exactly one year from now, I’m in an Ivy League institution. She called me up to say that she was very proud of me. For everything that I had done. She said that when she went to visit one of the pandals, she saw a deity that resembled me in its likeness and she was so grateful to the divine authorities for their everyday contribution in putting our big dreams to action. She said that one of the younger wives at the pandal wished her well and said that she someday aspired to become a mother like my mother. She talked about how much it touched her and how she felt that she could have been only where she is today by having a daughter like me.

I allowed myself to shed a few tears. I don’t think I deserve such high praise from a mother who has done infinitely more for me. We ended up being more sentimental than usual. I watched a few videos on Youtube about the immersion, and though I feel so removed from my grandparents and friends, I   know their best wishes are with me.