It’s a lesson in what trust is & what we mean when we say we trust someone.
It’s really hard to say “Trust me” to yourself. So we build up people who can say it to us. When we call someone trustworthy, aren’t we really saying we are giving them the job of taking care of us? That’s why it’s so hard to say it to ourselves. And so much easier to let someone else take the slack & the fall if things should go awry.
It’s a bad idea to treat trust as currency. Trusting someone does not ensure that they will not break that trust. Being trustworthy does not guarantee that others will. We can’t even say that a trustworthy person will stay that way always. If you saw a crescent moon one night & on another it wasn’t there, would you call the moon untrustworthy?
Why we trust may be more important than how we trust & who we trust.
In one of the lowest points in my life, after ending a violent relationship, I found one idea. “This hurts a lot but this pain IS NOT me. That means I will recover at some point.” I let that idea guide me. It meant at some point, I had to let go of identifying with pain, to release the bandages of the label of abuse survivor. That’s just something that happened to me, it is not ME.
It was my way of regaining trust in myself after letting myself down. It was my way of forgiving myself for trusting someone who hurt me. And eventually it had to become a way of healing myself from seeing trusting as a stupid or weak action. I had to re-trust trusting.
Because trusting is an act of courage. After all, what makes us mistrustful but fear? To trust after being hurt, means to pick yourself up from the world of pain, to once more see that there are things beyond you. It is to simultaneously recognise that you are insignificant & to see that this doesn’t mean powerless. To trust is to know you can always heal & that rebirth is ever possible.
Maybe you can only trust an idea, not a person. Because trusting is personal evolution & that’s too heavy to hang onto someone else. Trust isn’t blind faith. It’s active choice, knowing anything is possible and that this means freedom, not fear.
One reason I like getting older is because I know more, notably about myself. Because what else can be a more interesting & relevant topic to me? And I do like knowledge. That’s a thing I’ve learnt about myself too.
Birthdays are token days but I think tokens are important. They’re reminders of the bounty of life, a chance to celebrate all that is good about it – love, laughter, pleasure, relating. But they are not the entire essence of living & I think it’s unwise to make them so. “One day that is mine” is burdened with resentment that goes counter to the daily gratitude that makes life a joy.
I’ve realised I want a lot of love but it has to feel authentic & that’s usually not as flashy or dramatic the way grand gestures are. People feel forced to spend a lot, say a lot they don’t mean on birthdays & I can sense that jarring disconnect. I don’t like the heaviness of an expensive gift that’s a bribe to rectify time not spent, feelings not considered, love not shared. I’d rather not.
We express joy, gratitude & learning in different ways so I guess that’s why different people want different things for their birthdays. Imposing your idea of what it looks like on someone else’s birthday isn’t great. I’ve had birthdays that were lessons on who was bad for me because they did this. I guess some lessons are rougher than others. But well, a bicycle & a menstrual cup counted as birthday gifts & both came with their share of aches before I could truly appreciate the bounty they brought to my life.
Since 35, I’ve had a full health check around my birthday. It gives me direction for the year, checks my progress & makes me feel good for the things that do work. I couldn’t do this in 2019 because of a family health crisis & then 2020 due to the pandemic. But I’ve been okay so far so I choose to see this as riding without training wheels. And look, I am moving. What a joy is life!
I’ve written lots of birthday notes to myself. They’re my way of time travel. They make me fall in love with myself, cherish parts of myself I’d forgotten & give me hope for the next birthday. What’s a better gift than that?
…said an older friend over twenty years ago. It came up in a general conversation, not as a request to me. He didn’t explain but it opened up a train of thought that has only now pulled into my mind’s station.
This month Mumbai led the second wave of COVID in India. In my own close circle, many people were affected and badly. I have been trying to tell myself that this time round, we’re better prepared than 2020. We know more about the virus, there is some hope in sight in the form of the healing experiences of the past year and the promise of a vaccine, however conditional it may be. But I didn’t realise this is also a new experience of a kind. This is our first major setback after recovering from the shock of a lethal, worldwide pandemic. This is the first time it’s touching some of us closely, at a class or geography level. This is the first time many of us are having to admit that our money, gender, education, address, age or any other form of privilege neither shield us from the virus nor entitle us to healing before anyone else. And this is our first hard reminder that regardless of what we’ve faced before, this experience will not go easy into the night. It demands of us to be more, much stronger than we’ve ever been.
I’ve spent weeks in a dark daze, feeling guilty about sharing my fear with people who are going through worse, afraid of being hunted by people who are raging over their pain and worried about the things that I yet don’t know. In the middle of the week, I had a breakthrough when one friend’s COVID-afflicted parents finally tested negative and when another friend & his mother had a better day after catching COVID during chemotherapy visits. It was exactly like that first breath of burning air when you’ve been under water too long. It hurt but it hurt so good. I never thought there would be a day when hearing or reading “I’m fine” would be a reason for joy but now it is. I feel so much relief & gratitude for another day of life when someone I care about says this to me.
I fell sick yesterday with the worst acidity attack I’ve had in years. I didn’t even recognise it as acidity & mistook it for a migraine, heat stroke, allergy attack before realising almost 14 hours later that it was my old nemesis – acidity. I’ve been through it so long and so badly I should have known better but for the hours that I struggled with the acid eroding my insides, I relived the nightmare that I now know is called reccuring thoughts, depression, death visualizations. The real nightmare was not recognizing that’s what these were, even after all these years of recovery. My health is a permanent reminder of the fragility of life, of peace & happiness. Today I woke up much better, feeling the relief of having purged the acid and with it, all the things that had caused it and which it caused. Resentment, rage, shame, worry. I felt able to focus on supporting certain people in what they were facing. And replenishing myself frequently in between to be able to continue doing so.
Towards evening, something happened that made me lose my shit. This is for those of you who have only ever engaged with my content and think I’m always articulate & profound. I lose my shit abysmally often and carry more worry than is worth. Writing & performance are my ways of curating my best self as a guide to myself and I fail more often than I succeed. Maybe this rage was a residue of that acidity attack, the footnote at the end of a very important lesson. Because I was raging not just at the person who triggered it off but at least three others who pushed the same triggers in me this month.
All three of them did different things but they were boundary violations of sorts. I’m calmer now and I realised something. We are in a new state of panic in the second wave – of realising that we may live in this state of not knowing, of limbo for far longer than we thought. It’s causing a lot of idle mind-devil’s workshops. Everyone feels like they have to help. Sitting at home & staying safe feels boring & it feels guilty. What’s a way to escape that? By being useful. But trigger-happy usefulness is called a saviour complex. It’s selfish, dangerous & causes more problems than is worth. It is what drives the FakeNews broadcasting member of your Whatsapp group who one day announces that the police isn’t letting anyone out of their homes without a label and the next day that camphor is a replacement for oxygen cylinders (both of these are WRONG, please do not believe them). It powers the raging crowds haranguing doctors outside vaccine centers when stocks run out.
Remember the airline warning announcements at takeoff? One of them goes, “In case of emergency, place oxygen mask on yourself before trying to help others.” I keep that in mind. During difficult times, let me not be one of the victims needing help. Let me keep myself healthy, clean & safe so I don’t add to the rescue burden. And let me also keep myself balanced & practical so rescuers don’t have to choose between babysitting my emotions & treating the ones actually in crisis.
This is when my friend’s words make most sense to me. It’s easy, tempting really, to rush out and do something, anything. But how wise is that especially in a contact-spread pandemic, a violent political system, a malicious social media? It is irresponsible & cruel to make it about yourself. This is our new challenge. How to stand by, in unimportance, in irrelevance, in fear & guilt & worry and not add to that burden.
I know the people who pushed my triggers were pawing at me to reassure them, to find answers for them to feel relevant and not have to just stand by helplessly. It set me off because I have trouble establishing boundaries; I know this now. This is not a weakness or a flaw, it’s just something that I didn’t know how to and am learning at my own pace. Because this is so new, it takes me longer than may be healthy to realise when I need to draw a boundary. And drawing it takes out a lot from me. I physically feel ill, I have trouble sleeping or breathing right. I am trying not to resent the people who incite this so I can focus on being a better boundary setter.
Here’s what I’ve been doing to ‘not do something and just stand there’.
Housework is a good way to stay engaged & keep a functioning life & mind, even if not a happy one. This can lead to turf wars with housemates since humans are primed to politick for power. But there is always something to be done, millions of tasks that aren’t as visibly heroic as cleaning fans, repairing gadgets or spring-cleaning. There are drains to be unclogged, washbasins to be de-grouted, water bottles to be refilled…small tasks that no one notices unless they’re not done and magically need to be done again soon. It helps me feel fulfilled in quiet ways and reminds me that quiet contentment nourishes better than victory parades.
I find myself replenished by engaging with content that shows people being resourceful or productive. Leftovers cookery shows, interior redesign challenges, a design podcast that examines solutions to everyday urban problems. I am not as proficient as any of these people. But it helps me trust that I live in a world that has some proficiency. It helps me hope.
I also have a sense that I’m growing when I’m learning, however patchily, slowly or regardless of the subject. I started blogging because I was browsing a site called HowStuffWorks when I was bored & frustrated at work. And it led to 17 years of exploration of digital technology & my own identity. Right now, I don’t have the schedule stability, the direction or the funds to take on a full-fledged course. But I taught myself how to bake an apple pie from scratch. I made countless iterations, alternating baking time, ingredient structure & more. I baked late at night so I wouldn’t have to deal with criticism stemming from other people’s boredom & frustration. I repeated each success in afternoons when everyone was on zoom calls or watching TV, so I wouldn’t add to the internet load. It took me 5 months, no special equipment and only Youtube/blog tutorials to make one apple pie that held its shape & tasted good. But that apple pie represents weeks, days, hours that I didn’t lash out at hapless bystanders, didn’t violate safety norms in my boredom, didn’t add to general anxiety and didn’t need in general, to be babysat. Yes, I’m very proud of myself.
I am aware that this doesn’t work for everybody. But I’m not even suggesting that my life is a perfect formula that others should follow. The pandemic is pushing each of us to face our biggest fears, our worst responses and without any of our usual escape/coping methods. What are we going to do about it? I’d suggest starting by just standing there & not doing anything.
A friend’s admission about experiencing shaming made me think. All shaming is bullying.
We all know what shaming feels like. We’ve been in the presence of other people’s distress, of remembered hurt, of confusion & fear. We’ve been at the receiving end of people who can’t or won’t manage their hurts better. We’ve been around people when they are not at their best. And we are all people.
Saying someone’s experience is not real or as bad as someone else’s is microaggression. There’s no glory in having been shamed worse or longer or for more things. Playing Oppression Olympics is like cutting other people & thinking that cures your own pain. All it does is make a bloody mess.
Shaming causes wounds to the psyche & only you can heal them. This doesn’t mean shaming must be indulged. Stand up to bullies when there’s no other choice. But otherwise, don’t engage with bullies – this isn’t weak. To let a bully’s words (or actions) define you is to give bullying power.
Whatabouttery is another form of shaming. Attacking people who are doing something for not doing enough, is a way to deflect from the shame you feel over not doing anything.
Remember that shaming is never about you. Neither are compliments. Most things people say to each other, especially of personal nature, are about their own feelings. So why let other people’s moods & reactions define your sense of self?
I’m learning to get out of the blast radius of those who aim the shame gun. Try it once & you’ll see how it’s not about you when the shamer goes in search of another subject. We are all on our own journeys & those who weild firepower must tire of their own burn marks before they set the weapons down. Let them go. Reverse bullying (or shaming) heals nobody, solves nothing.
Shame is burning poison, let it find no home in you. When words hurt you, pick the shrapnel out of your wounds. Look at what parts of you lie sore & in need of loving. Acknowledging it to yourself can be a relief because waiting for other people to hear you through their own screaming feelings, can be very tiring. Heal yourself with patience & watch your wounds turn to scars and your scars become art.
I never imagined my life as an epic. And The Lord of The Rings wasn’t even one of my favorite books. Yet, it’s odd the way things turn out, what you’re intended for and what is intended for you.
At the age of 30, I pivoted my life from behind a computer screen & inside a corporate straitjacket and leapt out into the great unknown. Writing. Digital pioneering. Relationships. Like Bilbo & Frodo, I hadn’t seen adventures in my future but life it seems had other plans. Three years later I found myself battered in body, mind & emotions. I had wounds inflicted by an engagement ring that I realised too late was a trap. It had felt so alluring once.
I began the arduous process of picking up tatters of myself. There was a much loved book, a gift from a reader that my ex had callously damaged. Like me, that book is a permanant reminder that survival comes with scars & forgiveness does not mean reset. I managed to rid myself of the ring but I couldn’t send back all the poison he injected into my life. There was a copy of The Lord of the Rings, an anniversary gift from him. This book causes an avalanche of hard feelings. How could someone who claimed to love me could not know that I already had a copy of this book, a collector’s edition? A perfect metaphor for an ugly ring & an overinflated proposal that would win him brownie points & leave me no room to protest. An inscription in his crude handwriting (my graphology stint whispering that this tells of an unevolved mind). But words of intimacy & affection – this is the hardest to stomach. How to reconcile these extremes of devastation & emotion caused by one person?
I couldn’t bring myself to tear the page or even scribble over the words. Even in my deepest despair, I will not be that monster that mutilates a book. Maybe I was afraid of the rage I’d unleash if I let my pain spill onto the page. I also couldn’t discard the book. There was a raw, bleeding slice of my soul inside that book. So I hid it at the back of my bookshelf & lived a half life while I picked out the shrapnel of abuse from within me. I got a tattoo of a paper plane to cover up a scar and as a daily reminder to hold the pain, fold the page & let it go. I took this to stage, letting just a sliver of pain show in the lines
“A love letter from someone who doesn’t love you anymore. A page from a book that was a gift from someone you don’t want to remember.”
Last month, I took the book out. It was time. Still painful but the pandemic has forced me to let go of all things that are toxic & hold on only to my breaths. My hands trembled as I opened the pages. The memories came flooding back. I tried to evade them by asking @rajni.arunkumar if I could send her this book. She agreed to take it off my hands (and what a good friend she is). Because I knew her kids might open it, I felt I had to mask the ugly inscription page.
I took out my paintbox. When I finished, I was spent in colour and tears. The inscription isn’t visible anymore. Only I know it is there. The wound has knitted together and the scar has been turned into art. I have a tattoo, a life lesson & a spotlight. I don’t even need to make a paper plane anymore. I shut the book & put it into the discard pile. The part of me that goes out isn’t jagged & I don’t anymore miss it. It will be part of a new story for someone else.
Abuse, violence, cheating & lies will never be okay and if you emerge stronger, that end will never justify the cruelty you had to endure to get there. But healing is an adventure. And I am grateful to have gone through it.
Do we know how to relate to other people without fear & hurt driving us?What we call relationships seem to be people taking turns to misbehave.When small children behave badly, it’s called tantrum throwing. They’re parented with punishments to instill fear & distress – adult version of the same. Women throw tantrums, men withold affection. The assertive bully, the passive betray. Bosses & subordinates, clients & vendors take turns to exploit, undercut & demean each other. It’s all just different cycles of alternating misbehaviour. The unique ways we pass-the-distress-parcel are the stories of our relationships.
Is misbehaving the only way to cope with the very natural experiences of fear, grief, disappointment? Misbehaviour does not actually help us cope, it creates even more things for us to cope with, not the least of all, the wounds we inflict on other people. If you don’t believe in karma, consider the vindictive culture that justifies lashing out & weaponises trauma. We all live in it; we are it.
I’m trying to define myself outside my reactions that harm other people. I’m often thrown off track but each day I see myself a little more clearly & I like what I see better.
But I don’t know if relationships can be more than mutual misbehaviour. What does it look like when we take ‘You-can-hurt-me-if-I-can-hurt-you’ off the table? What’s dosti that rejects the ‘no sorry, no thank you’ rule? Can commitment be more than a combined entitlement to erode each other’s peace of mind? Is romance possible that does not pay for the right to damage by offering yourself up to be damaged? What does a family or a society where we don’t penalise each other for having needs, look like? When we stop letting misbehaviour be the basic unit of our interactions with each other, who are we? As individuals & with & to each other?
The last month has been a stern and worried cleanup, possibly triggered by the death of my friend’s parent to COVID. I haven’t jumped on the Marie Kondo bandwagon, I was always tidy. This has been an emotional cleanup with books as a metaphor for my mind.
First I read Last Chance Saloon again, a book that I must have sensed that I’d need to grow into since I didn’t read it again but followed its author into her entire bibliography, finding other favorites along that way. I found insight, inspiration & even guidance in her other books. Yes, she writes books that are found in the section called ChickLit. But ‘Watermelon’ showed me strong women get hurt by men too & embodied what it looked like to rise above that. ‘Anybody Out There’ gave meaning to the sometimes inexplicable path to healing. And if it hadn’t been for ‘Rachel’s Holiday’, I would never have recognised the aftermath of a nicotine addiction and the manipulation & escapism that are par for every addict’s course. I loved the characters in these stories and their adventures became my lessons, the kind that I didn’t have the fortune to receive from an older sibling or relatable mentor. Re-reading Last Chance Saloon let me see exactly which wounds felt exposed in this story but also showed me how much I’d healed & was able to turn the page. Some of the reviews of the book are unsympathetic to the character in an abusive relationship. I’m now at a place where I can see that this comes partly from ignorance & mostly from a vague fear that this could happen to anyone. Because it does happen to anyone, not just weak/spineless women. Shaming is an attempt to deflect onto someone else’s issues because it feels to painful to face one’s own.
In the past few years I’ve been reading books that I loved as a child, then as a teenager. Many of them are bringing up ‘insights’. But more likely, they’re helping me process long buried memories & emotions from the times I first read them. And by that, I seem to be up to my 20s now. It felt right to pick up my first Marian Keyes again. It prised loose a number of things. For one, I rediscovered blogging. I’ve been writing for Instagram engagement for a couple of years and reposting to my blogs. But writing in the Compose screen of a blog – that’s an unparalleled feeling for me. I guess it’s akin to some writers who say they prefer writing pen to paper. Sans the character limit, without an eye on the engagement stats, there are entire worlds of me that come up and say “I exist!”. These are the worlds that I got to explore in the safety of anonymity as IdeaSmith when I first began blogging.
Propelled by this, I picked up another Marian Keyes that I’ve avoided after the first read – This Charming Man. I read this in March 2008. I was on a very rare-for-me holiday visiting a family home in rural Tamil Nadu. After being relentlessly independent my whole adult life, I’d fallen prey to the comfort zone of the rat race. I was also returning to a family vacation after many years. I took this book along as my vacation read. It was disturbing but I finished it. A year later, I would fall into a relationship that would end badly for the same reason (even if he wasn’t charming). It’s like Keyes foretold some of my futures.
Since I was untangling my past via books, I couldn’t any more ignore a certain stack that has been nagging me from the back for years. Books that I associate with people who hurt me deeply. Books from the ex. A book from an ex friend who love-bombed me then implied that I was unstable & ghosted me. Books with inscriptions carrying words that sound hollow, sentiments that seem fake now. It’s a very upsetting sight.
I haven’t been able to bring myself to dispose of them. So much of the last few years has been about coping with people exploiting my tragedies. Shaming about the failed relationship, bullying over lies spread by ex friends. Each of those strands of poison have grown tentacles & threatened to strangle me at every turn. Sending these books out into the world felt like I’d be giving them even more ammunition to hurt me. I could not bring myself to tear or burn a book, no matter how horrible the associated memories. In the last decade, I’ve had to learn to do and be a lot of things I never thought myself capable of. But I always knew that if I made myself a person who tears a book, I’d hate myself forever. When I do that, I consign myself to the same hell of violence that these people belong in. None of them are worth that.
So I’ve lived with the festering wounds between these pages, hiding them at the back of my bookshelf, scattering them across different stacks so as to space out the negative energy (sort of), leaking some of my hurt in a line in my poem Paper Plane (“A page from a book that was a gift from someone you don’t want to remember”).
Some time ago, I spoke to a friend and explained this. And immediately she said, “Just send them to me.” I breathed a big sigh of relief. Finally the poison would be away from me and disposed off safely. Still, I delayed sending them to her. At first I thought I’d scribble over the inscriptions so her kids wouldn’t inadvertently chance upon something they shouldn’t. Then I thought how nice it would be to paint over the inscription instead so they’d have a pretty book (even if it was slightly mutilated by this). And in this, I’ve struggled so much.
Painting used to come really easy to me, honest. Before I wanted to be a writer, before I was even noticed as a performer, I found my home in colour & art. I was frequently in trouble for scribbling all over my notebooks or drawing when I was supposed to be answering questions. I once won an art competition whose judges called my work innovative as I sweated buckets for my messy colouring beyond the lines. When I fell into an abusive relationship, by happy chance I also discovered fabric paints. And for two years through assault, violence & body-shaming, I turned out teeshirts, kurtas & shirts intricately hand-painted & good enough for people to stop me on the road and ask where they could buy one.
But yesterday, I was a mess. Buoyed by the energy of the Keyes’ re-reading, I decided to tackle the pile and set up my art station, paintboxes, brushes, everything. And nothing. The inscriptions leered back at me, laughing at what a fool I’d been to think they were true. Then the words took shape & I found myself wondering if maybe things had not been so bad. Almost immediately I’d hear the jeering, the cruel barbs and taste the blood flowing down my face. On the page, my brushes only left weak streaks that muddied the white but didn’t hide the writing. I tried, again and again. My hands shook and my eyes blurred. Once upon a time, my rule-breaking techniques, my line-breaching colouring were my artistic superpowers. Now with my confidence gone, I felt riddled with holes. The paint was leaking and the inscriptions were rubbing salt into those wounds.
I realised I couldn’t send this on to my friend. It felt filthy and wrong, as if I was parceling my vomit and pretending it was a gift. With a lot of shame I messaged her an apology for my delay. As I said that, I realised what I needed to do. I couldn’t have her hiding the poison for me. I had to heal myself. And healing, like cleaning, is messy. So I took the smudgy streaked books and I put them in the discard pile, where they will be sold to some anonymous reader who may notice that there are words under the messy watercolours. They may try to decipher or not, they may assign meanings & build fictional stories about the messages passed in that undecipherable inscription. But that’ll be their stories to make and tell. Nothing to do with me. It’s not poison I’m sending out into the world. It’s material for other stories.
In the night, as I picked up ‘This Charming Man’ again, I found myself shallow-breathing again. It hurt to read, like when one has eaten something nasty or when there’s a needle left inside the dress you’re wearing and it’s sticking right into you. This book was probably written when Keyes was wading through depression. It makes a valient effort to be her usual buoyant writing self, with self-deprecating humour & startlingly honest confessions. But the men are monsters, the women are laughing so they don’t cry and the entire story is cast with a pall of sleazy too-bright gloom. It’s the way hospital lights look in a gory film. It also reminded me of the dark years after my engagement ended, as I blundered about trying to cope, putting on the bravest face I could summon and still attracting so much venom. Like flies to an open wound, is how I think of it.
I am not going to finish reading this book. I don’t have to. I know this is not reality or even a comedic take on it. It’s an open wound and right now, I’m not a fly drawn to it. Because I adore Marian Keyes (through her word), I feel like I should hold on to this book even if I don’t read it. It is my way of showing support for the harder times of someone I care about. The books are a metaphor for my emotional state, after all.
Ask for what you need. Don’t beg for it. Don’t demand it. Don’t rush it. Don’t force it.
Ask for what you need because it is an exercise in knowing yourself, facing your many imperfections & other ways you connect with the world. You must acknowledge these before you can build rich connections with life. Only questions have answers and only you can correctly frame the question of what you need.
Ask. Don’t scream, don’t whisper. Find your voice that comes out clear, that articulates what you need with dignity. Ask yourself what that sounds like. Keep asking till you hear it. Then the world will hear it too.
Ask for what you need. Don’t assume people can read your mind. Don’t assume they will give it to you either. Ask after you’ve determined whether the other person is capable of giving or not. Ask when you are absolutely sure that there is a question in your asking. All questions allow for all answers.
Ask like it is your right and when you know that it is, even in the face of opposition. Some people don’t know how to say no & instead they say you don’t get to ask. Ask when you can carry the fact that you may not be given & still have the courage left to ask.
Ask for what you need. Learn how to do this before you carry negotiation into asking. State your need. Not how it is to be fulfilled, when or by who. Let the world do its part in connecting with you.
Ask for what you need when you also have the space to receive other things. Expectations, transactions, advice & other things. When you solicit, nothing is unsolicited anymore.
Ask when you have the ability to say that’s not good enough for me and to walk away.
I am re-reading ‘The Last Chance Saloon’, a book that I was gifted in 2006 according to the inscription, by a person who is no more in my life. It was my first Marian Keyes and through my late 20s I would chart out a life that was guided by writers like her. I did my time with the more popular Sophie Kinsella but her frantic plotlines left me feeling more anxious than was worth. I also drifted the way of Milan Kundera, very appropriately introduced by a good-on-paper boyfriend who also told me that the background score to his life would be from a French film.
Yes, this nostalgia trip into the mid 2000s has me writing the way I used to then, with run-on sentences, a hundred flights of fancy within a single thought and a lot of honest sharing hidden under book references. Because to re-read this book, is to revisit parts of my mind that I’ve locked away for years while I tried to stabilise the shaky ship that was my life. I don’t know if this happens to other people but I have vivid memories of my time with books, especially ones that I feel deep connection with like this one. I remember places I carried them to, times I read them while waiting, conversations I brought them into, blogposts they inspired, decisions that they weighed in on. Maybe it’s because I didn’t experience enough fulfillment with other people at the time and I was not yet fully formed as a person who chose solitude, I formed with books the kind of relationships that others usually form with people. It’s like reliving my mid-20s, an eclectic time of so much attention, abundance & experiences that I haven’t made sense of them all yet. The birth of my blog and the rise of IdeaSmith, which some of you may know represents the life I chose.
After this book, I would go on to read many more Marian Keyes books, giving myself permission to love the supposedly trite genre of ‘chicklit‘. The Walsh sisters’ series continues to occupy place of pride on my bookshelf (though I’m partial to ‘Rachel’s Holiday’ and ‘Anybody Out There’) through numerous re-readings. But this book, my first, I’ve been reluctant to open so far. Yet, I’ve carried it with me through numerous book spring-cleanings and notwithstanding the fact that its size makes it an unwieldy fit in my shelf. Why?
I guess nostalgia is a very good reason with me. And this book, after all, was a gift. But it stopped being about the person who gave me this book a very long time ago. For one, she read books that I considered beneath me. It occurs to me only now that it may have been a silent message of support that she felt unable to articulate in any other way. You see, a vital part of the book’s storyline involves cancer. And in the five years prior, I’d watched two different family members lose the cancer battle and along with them, the relationships & lives of people around them twist in painful ways. I still don’t know. There is too much to unpack in my relationship with her. Here’s a post that I wrote on the day she gave me this book. One of the things I’m realising now is that I don’t have to learn all lessons TODAY.
The main characters of Katherine, Tara & Fintan (like a lot of Keyes’ other characters) felt very close to me, though they were Irish 30-somethings in London while I was an Indian 26 year old in Mumbai. The people who were supposed to be my friends – classmates, childhood playmates – I couldn’t relate to. Reading this book made me feel seen (to use a term that would only become popular a decade later). I was interested in dressing in the latest styles (rather than what would make a guy’s family see me as marriageable and the guy see me as fuckable). I also wanted to be seen as independent and strong but also feel loved & supported. I frequently felt overwhelmed & I didn’t know how to articulate it so I dealt in ways that were deemed mistakes by someone or the other. I became jaded then surprised myself with my capacity for joyfulness, mistook it for immaturity, blundered into bad decisions, got shamed & gaslit for other people’s (usually men’s) faults & had a long, passionate run with low self-esteem. If I could, I’d tell my 20-something self that things eventually shake down but at the time I stumbled along, stubbornly hoping that was true and often getting knocked off course for that.
I was too young to be able to see my colleagues as anything other than competition. To be fair, maybe that’s what most of my peers felt about me when it came to love life. Even if that was of zero importance to me, their fervent interest in it made them see me fearfully as a rival. This book made me see that I shouldn’t have to make a choice between independent & loving, between respect & support, between attraction & consent. It was almost too many lessons to absorb at once in addition to the realisation that my world was too small for who I was becoming. I think I sensed all of these at some level even if I couldn’t quite make sense of it all. I had already began blogging by then and my early posts are full of the relentless hunger for identity, for recognition of my right to exist in a world that was too small for me. Reading and writing are two parts of conversations with the world and since I had nobody to talk to, books & their characters spoke to me. This one is that interesting person who was friendly but who made me feel a little beyond my depth. And because it was chicklit, a genre associated with silliness and I was so invested in Smart Ramya, I couldn’t accept that. So I kept it around.
It sparked off a string of other more palatable books for me and along with them came people more palatable – the beginnings of my tribe. A merchandiser at my favorite bookstore who knew my blog. The wife of the friend of an ex, who met my blog identity before she met me. People whose first impression of me became IdeaSmith, that persona that I’ve come to realise is the very best, most comfortable fit for my life. This post is turning out to be more about the book than two of the characters that I originally wanted to talk about. But maybe that’s the stuff of another post. For now, I’m just happy for a reunion with an old almost-friend. I’m grown up now and can hold my own.
Update: I just realised I have tried second-reading this book before. Even picking up the book again was such an intense experience, I wrote about it. But I have no memory of it so I must conclude that I must have given up. The time wasn’t right but it feels right now.
Final year, I was regretfully back in a course I’d tried to escape, squirming in a world that never stopped feeling foreign. Old associations die harder than habits so I didn’t have friends. I returned to the original social circle, books.
I had Prof.A, feared for his acid tongue, eccentric teaching & derision of anyone that didn’t worship calculus. He was the reason I was back in the course. As exams drew near, we plunged into journal work, racing to record the year’s labours in oversized books. I snuck a look. A was asleep in his chair. My classmates were busy in silent pursuits. I slipped out TheTwoTowers. It fit easily into my journal.
I felt the burning eye of A before I saw it. He awakened, looked right at me, walked over & pulled out the book. Returning to his desk, he fell back asleep. It was over in seconds.
The bell rang & A thundered out of the door. The class sighed in relief. Not me. Shrugging off my classmates calling it a narrow escape, I followed him. He still had my book.
I found him in the library. He had already forgotten me. Glaring, he barked “Yes?”
I pointed to The Twin Towers. He stared as if noticing it for the first time.
“Who gave you this?”
My father, I stammered,for waiting for the inevitable horror to descend.
Instead, he said “What did you think of it?” And when I didn’t answer, “What else do you read?”
Alarmed that each unanswered question would get him angrier, I began speaking. Words fell from my mouth about hobbits, rings, dragons, trolls. When I ran out of breath, he said the most unimaginable thing ever.
“My dear child, I didn’t think you had the mind to appreciate Tolkien. You must come talk to me when you finish the book. Have you read Kahlil Gibran’s sublime poetry?”
Prof.A.belonged to the fellowship of readers! I shook my head. I’d never heard the word ‘sublime’ spoken before.
When I saw Prof.A again, he didn’t remember me. But he once said, “We don’t make friends; we only recognise them.” It’s true of readers too.
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