Games are just stories we feel we can script. Simulations of a life that we think we can win. Algorithms we run, a part of us hoping for a different outcome.
All the things we wish for in life – love, success, fame, money – every single one of these involves chance. There is some fun to not knowing for sure. Maybe we only feel safe acknowledging that within the boundaries of a cardboard square.
Even the kind of games we pick, says something about us. Empire builders spending Monopoly money. Two-player shooters validating each other’s rage and glorified loneliness. Doing what’s not easy, not viable, not legal, not permissible in the real world, feeling everything that one feels but without the repercussions, only the satiation (which can look a lot like fun). The time-crunched on a quest to build Sally’s Spa. Dieting and failing (or not but it never feels like a victory) and crushing candies in one. It feels like a prize, even if only in consolation. It feels like control, the way moving a clock’s hands around can give you the illusion of moving time. Call after 2 days, disconnect after 3 rings. An illusion of control.
Whodunnits for the ones anticipating wounds, trying to see them coming this time. Because only someone who has been betrayed knows to watch for a knife in the back. Except you can’t watch your back. Or tell what the next dice roll will be (beyond that it’s between 1 and 6). Still, it’s nice to play a game and feel like you’re getting to tell the story. And not be it.
Please don’t ask me to read you I’ve spent far too long looking deep into other people Slipping through the gaps in their expressions Running down the spaces between their words Looking for signposts in their sighs And piecing together slices of them What they say, how they say it Who they love, who they hate What they fear, what they crave
Bit by bit, I put together a picture of them As I think they are under their pretences Often, I’m right Sometimes to my dismay Reality isn’t always nice or agreeable But it is meant to be experienced I’m getting tired of experiencing other people’s realities There is such a thing as knowing too much And I’m losing sight of myself From being so many people’s mirrors All I’m left is feeling like cold glass Broken and dry-eyed
Talk to me tell me who you are and what you want me to see And wait as I learn to close my ears and eyes so I won’t be a tour guide into you anymore
This is from a blog I wrote over a decade ago (called Behind Cobwebs and if you remember it, please drop a comment – I’d love to reconnect with people I used to talk with in those days).
If you find yourself falling sick or feeling emotionally drained without triggers, maybe you’re absorbing too much of what’s going on with other people. We are in an age of over-sharing and not enough taking responsibility for one’s words. Many people online dump what they can’t/won’t examine themselves. It’s easy to get swept along in the toxicity. Thus the behaviour moves offline too and poisons us all.
I’m working on protective boundaries and also doing my bit to keep the digital streams clean – by only putting up the most positive or only things I can take responsibility for. This means nothing that ‘is just a joke’ or ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘who cares, it’s only online’. Sharing is not the same thing as dumping. Lashing out is not conversation. I’m focussing on being a gardener, not a dumper. The world could use more flowers.
I crossed a birthday last month. Being born near a decade switch, my every ten years seem to align in personally with the defining traits of the decade.
At 20, I was a newly minted adult in a newly minted millenium, a forerunner of the generation that would come to be known by this word. At 30, the millennium & adulthood had taught me tangible lessons about money, employment and stability. Now, at 40, what do I have to show as a human representative of the 2010s?
I found this photo taken last year in a green room minutes before I’d go up on stage to tell a story of love & flamingos. It had been 3 days since the second heat of the #MeToo movement began, bringing down men of repute, men of my acquaintance, men I’d liked, men I’d performed with, eaten with, laughed with, clapped for. It was amid stories of assault by women I knew, women I admired, women I wanted to protect, women I related to. Earlier that day, I had dragged myself out of bed having spent yet another sleepless night of trauma. I’d judged a poetry event. I’d performed at another venue and collapsed on stage. I’d changed at a friend’s house, tried to laugh and lighten up. And I’d made my way here.
I think the MeToo movement is the most significant thing in my mind about this decade, blowing the cover off things I’d never thought I’d see exposed in my lifetime, traumas I assumed I’d experienced alone. It is also a metaphor for my decade. I began it surprising myself by getting swept into what would turn out to be an abusive relationship. Before I knew it, I was in my 30s with a failed engagement, which sounds much worse than ‘Single at 30’. I’ve weathered much since then and things did eventually settle. They keep getting stirred up again. All I have is this breath.
I look up at my reflection, seeing a tangle of stories. Then I take a deep breath and remember,
The capacity for joy will not be lost to me When I look in the mirror It will be all I see
When I open my eyes again, I’m in the green room alone as outside a crowd cheers for me. I walk out with a story about flamingos in a big city.
Light. It’s an idea I’ve yet to wrap my head around, a word I’m still to learn to spell right, a reality that I still don’t entirely fathom. And I’m a woman of imagination and words.
I used to write a blog titled Behind Cobwebs which many readers told me was my best work. Gruesome feelings and dark poetry all written in the ink of despair and pain made it there. After awhile, I didn’t want to live in the dark anymore. Because we live in our words, our narrative of ourselves and the world around us.
Does city living make us more prone to negativity, more likely to wallow in despair, to enjoy pain, to revel in the toxic? I want to think not. After all, I’m a child of cities. And even my fractured, shabby city has gorgeous sunsets and flights of flamingos. The people of this city make the biggest film industry in the world. Are they selling just escape and not dreams? Is internet culture inherently toxic? Why are trolls so powerful when we all learnt that this word equals monster? When did we start carrying guns into a friendly conversation? I know we all just want to be heard and seen. I know it in my bones, deep where neither the city I live in nor the bandwidth I’m on matter. So, why are we in mayhem?
Maybe the newness of things always feels dark. I wonder what the experience of being born must be like – passing from comforting darkness into something entirely new. Light.
Let’s think about regret. Decisive people rarely seem to have regrets. As a decisive person myself, I weigh what a situation is worth & if dithering will help. Regret seems to not be worth it. Who has time to regret the past when a lesson can be gleaned for the future? FOMO life doesn’t allow for regrets.
Yet you may come upon a time when even your speediest, most decisive self isn’t able to escape regret. You call it age catching up. You name it fear or cynicism. You realise that you are no different from others trying to escape people and feelings they don’t like. Your nemesis is regret. Escapism always looks like running away, no matter what the cause.
I am sitting in a garden of regret now. I call it a garden because I’m realising this is a feeling, an emotion that grows in me, from me. I’m trying to keep from bolting. I’m looking around to examine what is growing around me. Blossoming & festering are two words for the same act.
I thought we regret the bad things in our lives. But I’m finding regret in the times I’ve trusted, the ones I’ve loved, the hopes I’ve nurtured. Honest self examination means allowing every possibility to exist. I must admit that regret grows even in the most decisive, courageous, responsibility-taking, careful self that I’ve created.
Regret means admitting there may have been better choices. It means acknowledging your decisions weren’t always best. It means accepting that you weren’t always your best self. And what of the selves that aren’t the best? They cannot be escaped or ignored. They are the bigger part of you. The ones enduring mistakes, making even more. The ones personifying the messiness of living. Of emotions, memories and navigating a way forward.
f I didn’t have these, my life would have been a straight trajectory from adolescence to death, choosing the most optimal roads, going to fixed destinations. The mistakes cost me time and effort and many rewards. In coping, I found other paths, other gifts I didn’t even consider, let alone work for.
Maybe regret is a reminder that living is never going to be a simple sequence of right decisions.
I like the word ‘abundance’. It signifies so much more than wealth or any other kind of material possession. Abundance is not about owning at all. It is a state of mind, not a state of finances.
Feeling abundant is feeling like you are everything you need to be. The universe is being exactly as it should be . All things are okay and good and in harmony. It is a state of being undisturbed without that meaning unmoving. It is peacefulness that can exist in silence or noise alike.
I know the feeling of abundance even if I don’t always live in that mind state. My worries and feelings are things I carry in my head. Sometimes I get lost in them and forget that I’m always standing in a garden of abundance. Plants are a good reminder.
Any gardener knows a plant is a daily source of wisdom. It is a constant reminder of the miracle of life – how a seed can combine with mud, a little sunlight and water to make a paradise of colour and fragrance and good food. Gardens tell us how the beauty of life is in the fact that it is not forever. Standing among plants makes me feel abundant for being among and a part of this joyous, unstoppable, finite thing called living.
The image on the right is a tarot card called ‘9 of Pentacles’ and among other things, it represents abundance. When I saw myself in the photograph on the left, I thought how much like this card it was.
Remembering my state of abundance helps me move past things that usually slow me down like worry, anger, pain and regret. Feeling abundant allows me to experience these and still hold hope, joy and love for myself, for other people and the world.
What does loneliness sound like? A scream that no one seems to hear. Gasps that don’t make it past the throat. Sentences written in invisible ink. The redacted words on a page.
It’s feeling unwanted, unnecessary, irrelevent even. Then you remember. You still exist. The print under the graffiti, the face under the veil, the writing on discarded applications. The breaths you leave behind in desolate corridors hang in there, unobliterated. Loneliness can sound an awful lot like peace then.
Who are you when the screams die down, when the words fade? Maybe we are all lonely.
I found my insides erupt in rapture, during conversations about maths, punctuated with memories of every mood. And through everything a steady beat, because what else is mathematics but the joy of patterns, the collective staccato of beating hearts? Rhythm reminds you of the notes you only pretend don’t exist but you hear them in your head anyway. Always.
Afterwards, I walked in silence by myself, briefly entering conversations of eyes and lips while crossing roads and running an errand. Still on beat. The shrill taps leading the unheard booms.
Later, I read a book sitting in a bookshop. Periodically I’d look up, watching other people like myself, readers moving through bookshelves, each in a dance of their own thought streams. These were the skipped beats, the pauses that make up melody as much as the notes. The romance of this, is what drives musicians and writers to wax eloquent. It is the null state of mathematics, the shunyata of meditation.
Loneliness is its own song, when you learn to hear it.
Ten minutes ago I looked up from the Netflix show I was watching and the calendar screamed a date at me. In a few hours, it will be 9 years since I made one of the few impulsive decisions of my life. It is a decision I’ve been punished for over and over again. It keeps coming up no matter how many times I try to finish out the sentence, heal it or bury it. It gets used as a hydrogen bomb by nasty, dysfunctional men trying to hurt me for their low self-esteem. It slips out in the lashing out of friends who find this easier than accepting their own fucked up lives. It shows up in the judgement of relatives, of ex friends and even future colleagues. And it gets co-opted by people trying to prove their crusader status. It just refuses to die.
In 2010 I met someone at an Open Mic, a newish event in the city that happened just once a month, which I began attending as audience and slowly, tentatively, as a reader. I’d missed a couple because of personal issues and that day I’d decided to venture out seeking some joy for myself. I spotted him at the door and remembered him from a previous event. Chances for fun, pleasure are so rare when you live your life feeling burdened by duty, responsibility and imposed labels. How could I let this one pass? I struck up a conversation, pushing away my own natural shyness.
In ten days, we’d walked the beach, attended two concerts, shared a bottle of wine, eaten at a hole-in-wall joint and exchanged hundreds of messages. And then he told me he wanted to be with me. “A real relationship, not this open relationship shit” and “Brutal honesty, no plan Bs, jumping in with both feet” – his words. I told him I’d take a week to think about it. The next morning, 17th of July, I woke up with a single thought.
What was I going to learn in a week that would change the way I felt?
I knew it was uncharacteristic for me to jump in on impulse. I hadn’t been impulsive with my affections even at 16. And after the tumultuous 20s (heartbreak, assault, two recessions, unemployment, MNC politics, sabbatical) I had walked into 30 embracing the future and leaving behind old expectations. The new me I decided was strong enough, not too afraid to, to say yes. And I did.
I was so wrong. In the following week, that very day in fact, he told me things about himself and his family that any honest, decent person would have put on the table BEFORE suggesting a relationship. And then he said I was free to walk away if I wanted. Generous? No. He told me this at the airport on his way to a funeral. I did not want to feel like a monster dumping him hours after I’d said yes, and just before he went to a funeral.
So I told him to set that worry aside, to be there for his family and that we could talk more when he got back. This never happened. I’ve run this over and over in my head. There were so many lies caught out later, so many omissions of truth surfacing only when they absolutely could not be hidden. Always too late, always in situations when I would not have been able to walk away.
I am aware that I fell into the clutches of a monster. It does not matter whether he was himself a victim or not, what the state of his mental health must have been at the time. None of those matter because none of those were my doing. And I’ve spent nearly a decade trying to repair a life that he systematically and brutally shattered. I’ve struggled with so many people rushing to support and enable him, many of them people I’ve loved and trusted. And I keep taking on attack after attack.
I keep trying to leave this memory behind in my past and then find myself having to deal with people trying to bring it back. I also struggle with the weight of this decision. What is the lesson? What is the lesson? I can hear myself screaming inside my head. It’s very hard to remember to tell myself that life is not a school and that lessons are things we tell ourselves to feel like enduring hardship was worth it. The randomness of this horror is too much to bear. So I persist in seeking out the lesson.
Nine years ago today, I went down a path that has taught me only things I wish I did not have to learn. I have learnt to fear men (something that did not taint me even after facing child abuse and assault by a partner). I have found a self that prefers the company of books and silence to a life of being pawed and mauled and attacked. I have learnt that I must look with suspicion towards anybody with even a hint of mental illness, of sexual dsyfunctions, of violent backgrounds, of claimed childhood traumas. Because any one of them could destroy a decade of my life and not even care.
Well, I care. It is my life. Sometimes I think the only thing that saves me from the things I experience, is my ego. Ego rescued me from the devastation I experienced at 20 when I told myself that my life mattered more than a man who didn’t care if I lived or died. Ego decided for me that a rapist was not going to dictate how my body functioned. Ego even allowed me to say to myself with remarkable clarity on the day this monster threw me out onto the street that,
This is happening to me. This IS NOT me. This will not define me.
Maybe it’s bravado. But I’m still alive. It doesn’t make remembering dates like this easy though. I thought I was on safe ground after I nullified the effect of his birthday and the day he proposed (also Valentine’s Day). Seventeenth of July ambushed me.
But another thought creeps in, one that has been at the back of my mind for a couple of days now. In a few hours it will be the birthday of a man I met at a WordPress event a few years ago. I was there to organise an event of Alphabet Sambar, one of my proudest endeavours taken on in the life I built post monster. This man has met me only once but we’ve exchanged dozens of emails and messages over the years. He has a curious knack of not being at the top of my mind at all but showing up just when I need a little brightness in my day. Sometimes it’s a song recommendation, sometimes a painting that his daughter made. Sometimes it’s a message asking how I’m feeling that day, friend? And sometimes it’s a little Bible truism with a reminder that Jesus loves me too. Even my radically non-religious self feels comforted by this.
In a few hours, it will be his birthday. I say a few hours because where he lives, it is still the 16th. The day of the lunar eclipse, an event of prime import to all Cancerians (him, me, so many others). I guess that’s all I need to say to myself. The seventeenth of July is a lot of things. I hope my fortieth takes me into a future self of wisdom, not fear.
Today is the last day of The Thirty Diaries, a series I started a little over a decade ago. Tomorrow, I turn 40, a number that brings its share of weight in the form of platitudes and stereotypes, some of which I’ve already encountered and battled. I am not sure if there will be a Forty Diaries. For starters, I don’t know how long I will continue to blog and in this manner. I don’t know if anybody else will be interested in the ruminations of an over-40 single woman. I’m not sure that journaling my ageing is going to serve the same purpose it did when I was in my 20s or 30s. And most of all, I don’t see any reason to start a new decade with references of the past.
It has certainly been a hard decade. It only became clear to me in the last few weeks that the past ten years of my life have been marked and influenced by three major relationships – one romantic, one friendship, one professional. All three of them were toxic in exactly the same way. They all started with people who were seemingly enamoured with me suddenly and dramatically. People who did not have a pattern of such behaviour (or claimed they did not). The attention, affection, adulation was heady. It turned my head every time.
In the second phase of this pattern, I fell headlong into some kind of close involvement with the person. Every one of these people told me about what a strong person I was, how they admired/looked up to me. And in every one of those cases, I let that adulation lull me into letting them drive the other parts of my life. I let go of other people because they didn’t like them. I changed my appearance, my dating habits, my ideologies, even my health regime to please them. And some part of me still struggles to see these as bad – don’t we all do things like these for the people we love? Maybe I do it too much and for too long. I am aware of that and how that gets labelled toxic. The thing is nobody is able to tell me at exactly what point it stops being accommodating and starts becoming toxic.
The reason these three relationships stand out as a pattern to me is because of how they ended. Every single one of them involved a violent and sudden betrayal by the other person. Certifiable abuse, lying, exploitation and in one case, physical violence.
The first relationship started when I was probably in the best place in my life till that time. I was 30, financially independent, had quit a successful corporate career and had ventured out into something I felt a lot of passion for. I was also single and not joint at the hip to any friendship the way a lot of women are, being that the one person that might have happened with had got married and moved to another continent. This one I’ve analysed over and over again and I conclude that I fell prey to a carefully planned trap by somebody whose only intention was to exploit me – specifically my gender to keep away social pressures. The plan worked well – charm, isolate, gaslight, control, violate and finally exploit. I guess it wasn’t really that sudden after all if the intent was always to go down this path.
I guess I was primed for another exploitative person who definitely saw me as a trophy. This one was interesting because it made it clearer how a toxic woman operates differently from a toxic man. First the mirroring that made me think we had a lot more in common than we actually did – ideologies and interests. Then the subtle(r) transition into controlling my actions – people and activities. Suddenly there was no one who remembered me from before I met this person, because they had all been distanced. And everyone who I was in constant contact with, had been introduced into my life by this person. They had been chosen for how quickly they’d turn on me with complete control by this person – or perhaps they were also being similarly ‘managed’. I never had a whiff of how I was being manipulated. I can’t believe how completely I was fooled. For instance, this person made astrology a daily part of our conversations, referring to people in conversations as ‘You know, that Taurus thing’ or ‘Typical Scorpio behaviour’ or ‘Piscean? Has to be terrible’. This person’s own sign is known for manipulation and lies and still I went along, semi-indulgently and perhaps because it felt comfortable and easy to do so. I feel like an idiot and a lazy one at that. It really only struck me when during this person’s exit, one of their attacks was “Everything has to be astrology for you. Get over that and take responsibility for your own life.” Libra sure knows how to gift-wrap deceit and spray perfume atop callousness.
My third mistake even warned me that they were going to hurt me. Mental illness is the latest buzzword the way gay rights was about a decade ago. Make no mistake, I believe there is a need for each of these causes to exist. I’m aware (as I was ten years ago) that misinformation and co-opting larger causes for personal agenda are par for the course. And it is still true that there will be people who use their existence in the cause to justify their terrible behaviour. A decade ago, someone stalked and harassed me (including suggesting that I’d change my mind about being straight if I spent a night with them) and when I said no, they put it out that I was a homophobe and lost me some friendships and work. Most recently, I’ve been called insensitive to mentally ill people, systematically harassed out of a space that I introduced the above person to and had strangers sicced on to me claiming that I’m saying terrible things about them. The reason this relationship makes it to this list is that this one also followed the adulation-mirroring-identification-control-attack model.
I’ve spent the first half of this year allowing myself to sit in the wreckage left behind by these people. I have been afraid to speak to anyone or even write because each of those brought on a fresh assaulter in the past ten years. But seeing them in a pattern gives me courage. Patterns have always felt like a safe space to me. This is going to sound odd but recently I’ve been involved in a discussion about how mathematics is perceived and communicated. It made me reflect on what about the subject appealed to me. And it is part of what let me tap into something that I’ve always been good at, something that has given me a profession and an emotional bedrock through things that would have killed me – patterns.
I don’t necessarily know how to break a pattern once I’ve spotted it. But maybe plugging the gaps where a toxic person like this finds a way to get in, is a start. I don’t trust adulation anymore, which probably explains why I’m not as interested in going on stage these days. The trouble is it’s difficult to separate adulation from simple admiration or even affection. It took me long enough to break the terrible pattern of love = insults (no thank you, years of gaslighting Hollywood and rape culture Bollywood). So…I don’t know. But that’s okay because it just means I still have work to do. Maybe accepting that is part of owning being 40.
It occurs to me that there is a cheesy kind of symmetry in there being three major mistakes in the third decade of my life. I also wonder what my life would have looked like without these people. I did a lot of things in this decade but all of these things are inextricably linked to these people – because they participated in these, because they pushed me to these or because I took these on to escape/heal from these people. I suppose there is a lesson there about how they happened for a reason but I don’t want to glorify the existence of toxicity. I am done doing that and I deserve to be happy and successful without having to deal with abuse, manipulation or violence to be so. I guess I’ll never know. Can someone invent time travel already? Maybe by 2029.
I grew up feeling like my life would follow the same path as other people – work and you shall achieve, be and you shall receive. It baffled me when I was attacked or called entitled for this, when the boys I knew, weren’t. I wrote about this often. I created a comic about a […]
I just finished reading Masters of Sex, the book on which this TV show was based. My opinions have shifted, somewhat. There is of course the difference in the two media. With the book, I’ve been able to ponder it over several months without feeling the need to retrace my steps. With the show, I […]
I’m really enjoying the company of books and my plants. For the first time in my life, these don’t feel like temporary or even like escape from the loneliness between men. Because I’m realising my times with men have been my loneliest. I know I’ve probably had bad luck in this regard. I also believe […]
I’m currently watching the TV series, Masters of Sex. It was the first show I began on Netflix when I first subscribed. I had to stop and move to other things that were easier. I’ve tried to come back several times and I think this time I’ll manage to finish it. I’m also reading the […]
I don’t understand what the problem with selfies is. I remember a time when people would keep handing their camera over to others and asking them to shoot their pictures. THAT was really annoying. Selfies put people in charge of their own vanity. Also, vanity. It’s defined as ‘Excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, […]