“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?

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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.”

The Meaning of Names

I have a propensity for weird names. I’ve been labeled with a fairly exotic name, and so I find that naming things and situations aptly is a skill worth having because I hope that my offspring wouldn’t have to suffer the repeated mispronunciations, misspellings or worse complete transformations of their name into something that is more globally palatable.
To answer Juliet’s question and disagree with her reasoning, there is a lot to a name. I have found names charming and powerful, how one word instantly engages the attention of another human being. In many works of fantasy, true names have been assumed to have some sort of power over the speaker and hence they are labeled with aliases. Some of our names carry the stories of our origin. Surnames especially are common among clans of people who have shared common ancestors. Names also tell of whose offspring we are. Not unlike the Russian “-vitch” suffix, where Ivanovitch means “son of Ivan”, or the Anglo-Saxon “Peterson” which means “son of Peter”. Names in many cultures are borrowed from the religion themselves, as is common to Indian, Latin American and Islamic cultures. It appears that a name is a preview of a person’s identity.
You may wonder why this information is not on my about page. Or why it has featured on my blog way after I have been writing in it. I don’t know why. I tend to overshare my life with everyone, and I was simply too shy to come forward and declared myself with enough credentials so that I could be found in the real world as the author of this work. It was the same with the college I go to. Painstakingly hiding the name and my affiliation with it, so that I could not be found to be a source of all these opinions and feelings and literature that I have created.  But it is time to offer you a humble preview of who I am.
My name is Piyali.
If you Google what my name means, it apparently shows up as a Bengali-Sanskrit word for “wood”. My grandmother had (before the advent of Google in my life)  informed me that I was named after a river. But I was face with a rather odd problem of explaining how my family could have named me after wood, especially since statistical evidence lists that wood is somehow a “more accurate” meaning than the name of a river. Everybody thought it was odd that I should be named after something so plain. But I have secretly learned to rejoice in it. I am yet to learn of anyone who denies how fundamental wood is and was to our lifestyle as human beings. The ability to create tools and shelter began with wood, and if I may be so immodest, wood remains the sole sustenance for 2.5 billion people in this day and age.
I have often been complimented that I have a pretty name. It is easy on the mouth, gentle on the syllables and can be morphed into many nicknames by which people may claim their very own special identity of me. A name is not something I chose for myself. It is something that happened to me. It is a beautiful blessing that happened to me.
If I haven’t bored you already, please read this very thought-provoking  and well-written piece by Tasbeeh Herwees.

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.

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.

4 Indirect ways I shut out Facebook from my life

I don’t know how many of the crazy (and secretly helpful) habits that I have could be applied to anyone else in the world, but I must say that they are pretty effective for me. The weird thing is, I didn’t even know I had these habits, until I let go of them for a while and realized that life was falling apart in all sorts of obscure little ways. Also, Facebook has mixed results with a lot of social researches. Some say that they have done wonders for the human psyche, there are others who say that people who frequent Facebook tend to compare their lives to other people.  Here they are for your perusal.

Habit #1: Having a 60-character long Facebook password

Context: My roommate is one of those people who loves to post random statuses about life, masquerading as me. Therefore, I do not ever save my password on my browser. Also, I have this childhood fear that if I don’t log out of anything that I’ve logged into, I’m inviting hackers to pick at my data. Most of my time on Facebook is spent serially liking things, or messaging friends or actually getting all my club members up to speed on the events/deeds of the week. I could use a really helpful productivity app like StayFocused, but I’m in denial that I need one I need my Facebook time in uninterrupted pockets for “productive” reasons, such as get together with my study group. Therefore, the best way to stop getting addicted to Facebook is to write an essay in the password bar every time I try to log in.

Benefits: This method appeals to my lethargy, makes typing on the phone a very avoidable nightmare (so I’m not posting random links all the time) and keeps my account heavily protected. I stop visiting Facebook simply because I know that typing out 60 characters every single time I’m there is a pain. It makes my typing faster and it always amazes people to watch my fingers fly over the keyboard generating a military-grade password for something as mundane as my social life.

Habit#2: Move the Facebook phone app/widget off my home page

Context: Just knowing that I have to search among the complete menagerie of apps that infest my phone for one tiny single square F  makes me want to not bother with searching it. Don’t get me wrong, I love the clean design of the app and I especially like how unobtrusive the Android button is. Yet, I have so many apps that begin with the letters of the English alphabet before and with F that scrolling through makes my thumb tired and makes me want to forget what I had so earnestly wanted to share to a random mass of people anyway.

Benefits: It curbs my urge to spam my wall or my friends’ messages with random online content, simply because it is too tedious to locate the app button on my phone. It allows me to be deliciously lazy and prevents me from coming across some alarming notifications along the lines of “COME TO MY WEEKEND PARTY BECAUSE I KNOW YOU DON’T HAVE A LIFE. HERE’S ME RUBBING IT IN YOUR FACE #YOLO”. My thumbs are a lot more functional and occasionally, I come across an app that I never knew I had installed and waste my time on that instead of feeling pathetic that I am not in Florida/Mexico/<exotic locale> doing exotic things.

Habit#3: Abruptly change phone lock pin when going through a random mood swing.

Context: Since I’m a creature with a knack for terribly long passwords (see no.1), I don’t see the need to change them often. However, I keep my phone pin lock short so I can access it in the event of…well, life. Once, when I was super-upset, I changed the password to something I couldn’t remember even 20 seconds later (when my phone locked off). Even though my online accounts remain secure, I still feel the need to keep my memory of passwords up and running.

Benefits: Serves as a good memory-building tool, keeps my account safe, deters me from checking every single notification I get within 30 milliseconds of it’s arrival on my device, lets me use that time to do something else in my life, like crack codes which the past me uses to set these numbers up, <usual password reasons>, etc.

Habit#4: Use up all of my phone internet bandwidth within the first few days of my bill cycle

Context: Wow. My phone. Seriously. I’m not denying that Facebook on my phone has served several wonderful causes, such as diffusing awkward moments in the elevator by providing me with valid scroll-able content. or being anti-social in general. But there are those times when I’m supposed to be finishing a project and my hand gives into the Pavlovian reaction of pulling my phone out and admiring pictures and videos of ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Benefits: I obviously get a lot more internet bandwidth then to watch TED talks, listen obsessively to SoundCloud ( I feel like I should provide a complimentary link to my profile as evidence of just how active I am on that site) and read pages after pages of goodwill-bearing advice on Lifehacker. This also makes me want to curb later days of the month, when I’m stranded between midterms and hopelessly waiting for a page to load. When I’ve used up my bandwidth, each webpage takes a minimum of ten years to load, so my impatience makes me want to enjoy the reality of life, smell the roses midterms and so on.

There you go. Please feel free to let me know of some of your ideas/methods/habits that you have in order to stop social media from becoming your only media. I might even try some of them out!

Second Chances

Today, I’m going to talk about two teenage girls who have been on very different ends of second chances. Before I begin, I must insert a disclaimer about how I don’t really know either of these people very intimately.

I received news from some friends back home that a student in my school who was in senior year of high school, committed suicide. Now, I didn’t know this girl, and I don’t really know what her problems were but I was rather rankled by all the sanctimonious comments on Facebook about how suicide is wrong. It’s hard enough as is to classify something as complex as the termination of your own life as “wrong” or “right”. More so, if you are the person who has to take the decision, surely you must have arrived at the conclusion after some thought.

She was 17 years old, talented, capable and most people were too blinded by their rosy glasses to find any fault with her life.But clearly, she did and that’s why she did what she had to do.  I am now going to do one of the most unfair things that I have done: attempt to understand her situation. 17 was one of the harder years of my life. I was under dual pressure from the academic standards of two very different countries, attempting to rein in my raging hormones, struggling to find some meaning, some light at the end of this endless vortex of intensity.

For the first time in my life, I scored a 10/50 in a school exam, knowing full well I would have to hand my report card in during college applications. I spent all my time wasting away in the hopeless desire that some entity who barely knew my existence should be obliged to return my passion. I was desperate for social recognition and searching for some sense of worth in the midst of all these rapid changes which were forced on me too fast and too harsh. My self-esteem was eroding and every time I would try to recombine the crumbs, a new onslaught of stress and pressure would reduce me to bits.

There are times when I was so wrapped in my own bubble of demons that I had contemplated what it would be like to not exist. I knew that there were people who would hurt themselves and show their scars proudly, in some pathetic embodiment of bearing all the angst in the world. There was a time when pessimism was cool, and unfortunately there are still people who thrive on cynicism and negativity. But I wasn’t one of them. It annoyed me to no end that these people sought public sympathy by displaying their wounds.

But like the girl who died, there are some wounds that we inflict on ourselves that cannot be seen. Some demons that we decide to grow inside our heads, whom we grow dangerously dependent on. We call them different names. They thrive on different external sources: that low grade, that rejection, that disappointment that our parents tried to hide and so on. I don’t know what hers was. I do know that life wronged her in some way. But, even then, even as she is gone, I am left with the incredibly stupid hope that maybe if she had given life that second chance, she could have still lived for the little things: sunshine, nature, love and a future.

The second person I’m going to talk about is Rebecca Black. No, I’m not trying to trivialize something as serious as suicide by talking about a pop star, but today I watched the video of her new song, Saturday, and I’m actually moved to talk about her.

Granted, Friday wasn’t a song that I liked, but every celebrity makes some awful faults from time to time.  I watched as the masses unleashed their seemingly infinite reserve of cruelty on her. I’m not trying to make a statement here by saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to have negative opinions, but I’m also saying that YouTube video comments appear to showcase a highly caustic section of our society.

But forget all that. Forget what happened two years ago, with an awful song and the notorious ridicule that followed that girl.

Today, I heard the song Saturday, because like the rest of the world, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Like the horrible biased creature I am, I walked in expecting to be disappointed, expecting something that would disgust me and then I could walk out with the satisfaction of shaking my head and saying, “Nah, I knew this girl had way too much time to waste.”

Here is what surprised me. The song wasn’t bad.

It wasn’t earth-shattering, ground-breaking, miracle-inducing awesome, but clearly Rebecca had matured as an artist and customized her work better to suit her target audience. I don’t know how much effort went into this and I dare not contemplate but when the video ended, and I actually pulled the seek back to re-listen to some of my favorite parts, I wondered what an enormous change it must be. Here she was, a teenager trying to make something of herself, changing one prejudiced person at a time.

What touched me about the song was that she actually mocked her own former work, Friday, in the piece. Hats off to the courage of the girl who can pick up the pieces and start again from some of the most unforgiving audiences in the world, accept that her previous work was not it and mold her creative efforts into making something more palatable. She is so brave that she is willing to try again, even though she knows what the risk of failure on such a large magnitude feels like. I didn’t have too many positive opinions about the video of the song, because as always, it appears that audiences seemed to like parties that are sexualized or alcoholic and so on. But the very fact that she had grown up enough to take charge of her responsibilities and try again actually makes me admire her somewhat.

I know I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I think it’s amazing that she did. I want everyone in the world, everyone who had formerly hated her, or her work or anything, to give this 16 year old a second chance.

Why do I feel so strongly moved to bestow my supposed power to grant her a second chance? I don’t even know her. I’m literally just one more data point in the YouTube count of views. But from one view to another, I very naively want life to be a little more forgiving to this girl than they were to the girl in my school. Because I know that there are times when we come to heavily depend on those second chances and that we never find them when their existence would mean everything.

I understand how illogical it is for me to compare the lives of these two teenagers. Rebecca Black is obviously a celebrity and even though people cringed at her for quite a while, she was still a very popular figure. Nobody probably knew this girl in my school, but then again she never had to face the same magnitude of ridicule that Rebecca did. They’re different people. They lead different lives, yes. So what?  Life was unfair to one of them, and the other is trying to fight the rising tide.

I also watched her own reaction video to Friday. The more the video progressed the more melancholy and awed I felt. This girl has the courage to belittle her own best efforts before an entire audience that made her bow to their nastiest of opinions. She is strong and her tenacity is admirable. There are some responses and claims which say that she did only to make herself more likeable or whatever. Yes, maybe she did. We all want to be liked and appreciated. Is it so wrong for her to ask for some redemption?

Clearly, she loves doing what she does so much that despite the fallout, she is willing to invest so much more of her time, money, emotion and energy into making another work. I don’t know what her driving forces are, and I (probably incorrectly) assume that she faces just as much pressure, if not more from within, than the deceased girl did.

I will end this on a note to my past self. The self that has passed from the same shadows that haunted the poor girl who died. The self who, much to her own surprise, emerged victorious enough to accept an admission to an Ivy League Institution. No matter what our reasons and decisions are, we have eventually reached the points we wanted to be. We all wanted a second chance. We all wanted to give second chances to those we could have, but we missed. Maybe the girl who died really did try, and for reasons that only she could have explained, this seemed to be the only way out. Maybe Rebecca will someday be the idol of many. I certainly know that if it wasn’t for second chances I wouldn’t be the person I am now.

On judging and being judged

Judgement (Image Credits: thetarotdieter.blogspot.com)

(Image Credits: thetarotdieter.blogspot.com)

I’ve spent a large portion of my adolescence watching and discovering other people. I think one of the sole reasons that I am an extrovert is that I tend to absorb a lot of the world that is around me, visually and aurally. Given my compulsion to over-analyze details about my life and a pseudo-flimsy self-esteem, I think this bad habit was something I indulged in with unhealthy frequency.

It’s odd how I suppress all these internal realizations as I am a very transparent extrovert. I have difficulties lying or deceiving. This is not due to some obligatory moral ethos holding me back. I am simply unable to fake it. It can be construed as a good or a bad thing. Good in that, I am intrinsically honest. Bad, in that, it allows other people to manipulate me rather easily. One of the easiest ways I used to get embroiled in high-school battles was because someone would approach me, pretend to care about me, tell me of their emotional problems and expect me to agree with them. I’ll admit that I gave in to that all too easily. Empathy seemed like the only route for friendship to a lonely person.

Despite all my transparency, I could not openly express anger or spite as well I needed to. Through some force of personal grooming, I would isolate myself and let the negativity fester inside me till it had permanently stained the memory of that event.

For all my aggression, I mutely accepted the world’s rubbish by excusing them as immaturities. It dawned on me that at some level this was intentional. People did want to hurt me for no fault of my own. Or perhaps some perceived fault of my own. But despite that, I tried not to let these instances cloud my general opinion about that person. I make mistakes, too. It’s only right that I forgive someone else’s.

Except that’s not how the world always works. Positive slogans that claim, “Treat others as you would like to be treated” are not often followed by people. You do not get treated by others the way you treat them. Some will treat you like princesses even on the days when life seems gloomy. Some will spite you no matter what. Some will merely smile back politely and make small talk as you wait next to them in the elevator. I learned that everyone, under the external layer of politeness, was judging me, evaluating me, closing off parts of themselves to me, categorizing me into some stereotype or niche in their head. For some people, this first impression process is cast in stone, with others, the labels change with time.

I’m not going to be very self-righteous and say that I don’t judge people, because I do. There used to be a point when I wanted to make friends with everyone so badly that I didn’t set up any stereotypes in my head at all. I wanted to know people for the actual real people they are, not what they represent. This liberal outlook was rewarded with coming across some very unhappy people all the more willing to siphon off their negativity onto me. But, like chasing all the good things of life, I persisted.

I am lucky that this trait has survived with me. In some way, how a person presents themselves to another person does influence my understanding of them somewhat. One of my prime judgmental criteria lies in how people talk about things around them. Are you constantly complaining? Are you using way too many superlative objects for mundane things about life? What are you passionate about? Those are the things that I will notice about you. If you show passion and dedication, or appear knowledgeable about a subject of your choice, you have endeared yourself to me. I may not necessarily agree with your opinion, but I will appreciate the loyalty with which you stick to it.

After high school, as I started meeting more of the world, I realized that there were other criteria as well. People liked me because I was skinny. People did not like me that I wasn’t pretty enough for their attention. People did not like me because I wasn’t fair enough or something. I still don’t quite understand how you can judge a human being based on their physical appearance, because I don’t they can help it. You are born and have grown the way your genetic structure and health habits have led you to. But pessimism, optimism, sarcasm and the like are all cultivated, by the person’s own choice, so everything about that is under their control.

I got into an argument with a friend once. She claimed that she would date only guys who fulfilled a certain physical criteria, as in tall, well-built, fit, etc. It sounded (and still sounds) rather shallow to me. She justified by saying that a well-maintained body shows some dedication and passion. Her stance was that a guy who knows how to look after himself is equally well capable of looking after her, if she should choose to be in a relationship with him. Physical maintenance seemed to be a way of showing how much a guy was willing to invest into well-being. While I cannot disagree that health is important, I still cannot reconcile that to the idea that all fit people must “look” a certain way. You can be fit and not be skinny. You can be fit and not have a six-pack.More so, she then turned the argument and asked me whether I didn’t estimate the dating potential of a guy through his looks. I didn’t and I’m proud to say that I still don’t. I may casually notice aesthetics, but even that is at an arm’s length. I start observing about you the instant you start talking. That tells me not just of a guy’s dating potential, but also of his friend potential.

The reason why I was compelled to write this rather rant-like post is because I have this acquaintance, who judges people and proclaims it proudly. We call each other our friends, but more often that not, he is brusque and nasty. More so, he isn’t afraid of dealing it out to me. Through the last few months, when my self-esteem was convalescing, I’ve shrugged it off. But now I have this instinct to hand my opinion of him on a platter. I try to tell myself that I am more mature than he is and that I shouldn’t let it bother me so much. He is not necessarily a bad person, and maybe I’m simply overreacting to his twisted humor, but somehow, I don’t think that I should accept his bad treatment. Pardon me, I seem to be reverting back to the behavioral cycle I referred to in the beginning. I think I’m just going to avoid him, minimize contact so I don’t have to invest mental energy in worrying about whether I have evaded his scathing criticisms.

Which brings me back to judging. Why should you judge someone? After all, do they not deserve an opportunity to feel special in their own right? Some people say that judging is a defense mechanism. Somehow by categorizing someone else in their head as something demeaning, awful or caricatured, people try to boost their own self-esteem. Blame it on my naiveté, but I honestly didn’t know that could be true. Until I heard a story from another friend who told me that the guy she liked rejected her because she was “too chubby” and then went on to gloat about it. I’m not here to evaluate whether or not my friend is chubby or isn’t or maybe she has self-esteem issues or whatever. But I do blame this guy for having such a shallow criterion. Are you really going to abandon a girl, walk out of her life, break her heart into possibly irretrievable pieces the day her clothing size grows by one unit? I realize I may come across as slightly sexist with the number of male antagonists in this piece, but I know that this sort of opinion is not just limited to gender, age, shape or any demographic.

There are many ways to shrug off the feeling of being judged. Usually, the most effective method is to ignore. I’m sure there are several others, but learning to ignore is the most effective tool I’ve cultivated thus far. Don’t worry future self (and readers), someday, we’re gonna be above these nagging doubts that keep trying to claw us down.

Religion Realism

A guest post by Jo-Anne Loh as she tries to come to terms with some of the fundamental forces in her life. 

The Church of St. John, the Divine.  Image Credits: Jo-Anne Loh

The Church of St. John, the Divine.
Image Credits: Jo-Anne Loh

I have been largely defined by two words all my life. ‘I’m Christian.’ There’s a photograph at home of my 6 month old squalling self being blessed by a pastor with holy water. Right next to it hangs a certificate stating the date of my dedication to the Lord.

There is a fundamental difference between my parents’ faith and mine. Their Christianity is not my Christianity. I was born in to it. They found it at the mature ages of 18 and 19, almost adults, able to make a decision about paths they wanted to follow. And they have done so unflinchingly, unwaveringly, without once looking back. I wish I had that privilege. I have known no other way.

What a difference teenage me was compared to my parents! I started telling people that I was ‘spiritual, not religious’. I can almost hear my father scoffing in the distance. “Either you’re in it entirely, or you’re out of it.” Don’t get me wrong. I believe in an almighty, benevolent God. I believe in miracles and angels; sins and demons. What I don’t believe in is the rigid set of rules and regulations that make you ‘Christian.’

I want to desire to go to church. I don’t want to feel like I should. At what point does religion start becoming less about faith and more about duty? Back in high school, I received one of the highest grades in a subject simply called ‘Bible Knowledge.’ Amidst the congratulatory wishes from friends and church elders, a solitary thought leeched itself into my mind. There’s nothing more to this than brainpower. It does not stem from the heart.

A close friend of mine recently admitted that he was bisexual. There was no sense of relief, no peace at making concrete something that would define him for a long time to come. He was shattered, scared. Born and raised in an orthodox Catholic family even more religious than mine, he quailed at the thought of telling his family. Does that make him a lesser child of God? I would be among the first to fiercely defend him if anyone questioned his morals. Does that make me a sinner by association?

However, there are times when I feel an outburst of passion and an all-abiding gratefulness for having Christianity in my life. When tears fill my eyes at the familiar lyrics of ‘Amazing Grace’. When I feel an ethereal peace settle over me in the tranquility of church.  When I open my Bible in times of need and a verse jumps out at me, implants itself in my heart and soul. “Yes, that is what God wants to say to me.” Isn’t that true faith? Beyond rites and community service and Sunday school sessions, is that not what religion is?

I can see the roads that lie in front of me. I can see the paths, I know where they will take me. But I do not want to make the choice.  I am a totally different kind of lost.