Growing up as an only child, books were my playmates, co-conspirators that would never bully me, fellow explorers who wouldn’t laugh or get bored. Books have been my milestones, the way relationships or travels are for other people.
I discovered the gorgeous world of pictures-in-books (better known as graphic novels/ comics) in mid 2000s and unpleasantly- gender discrimination among readers. I had to take on the ‘chick in a boys section’ fight to admire the Sandman, examine Lucifer, crush on the works of then unknown Brazilian twins @fabiomoon & @gabriel_ba. This foreshadowed #Gamergate and #MeToo, both movements of my time & generation.
Social media made me aware of race relations. In Black History specials, I found stories mirroring Indian caste & religion politics. Fiction about a world that one doesn’t belong to, provides a safe way to examine ideas. It gave me structure to think about privilege currency (language, gender, sexuality, caste, geography, religion) + the stresses they apply on our society. I could examine inherited trauma, equitable vs equal, crossgroup relationships without being overwhelmed by my own personal experiences.
These days I’m enjoying stories about women by women, especially from places other than UK & USA. I’ve seen worlds in weeks.
Some reading has been upsetting, my tears staining pages, blurring my vision. But still I do because these narratives reveal depths inside my self, unearthing feelings I didn’t know how to name. ROOM reminded me of what children see & know, how much of that pure wisdom we bury. BIG, LITTLE LIES gave names to hurts that have lain buried inside me and festered because I was shamed for their existence. This is also why we read – to be seen, to have our pain validated.
There have been the comforts, hopes, new visions. I am loving the genres called YA and New Adult because of the kind of characters & issues that storytellers are allowing young people to express. It’s a brave new world that sees young people as our heroes.
Books make my world worth living in. My soulmate really is a book.
I know it’s been a disorienting week for many of us, having had to stay indoors all day, every day. I struggled when I first began working from home. Over a decade, I learnt to manage my health, appetite, sleep cycle, motivation and productivity. I didn’t realise it would turn out to be a useful set of skills for a global scare.
Isolation forces you to face your self, including parts that you may be used to escaping. It can be quite overwhelming when you do it all at once like many of us are having to, in lockdown. It can eat away into our self-esteem and sense of perspective. It can make everything seem dark and hopeless.
I’ve found managing motivation is as important and tricky as managing physical health. We are used to motivation coming from outside us, with structures & habits laid out for us. How do we maintain perspective when we have to hold the frame ourselves? With small steps. Here is one thing that helps me.
I embraced vanity as a value. Dressing well every day makes you care about your personal hygiene (step 1 to God health) and the person in the mirror (the only company most have right now). It makes you have to accept parts of you that the world hasn’t been kind on. It leads you to self-acceptance, the foundation for confidence, stability and peace of mind. It has a way of energising me to tackle daily duties and focus on the future. It lets me feel I’m doing the best I can and it makes it easier for me to accept what is beyond my control.
This is me today. I bought this saree a couple of weeks before lockdown. I’ve been getting blouses stitched all winter in preparation for a summer of sarees. Today I realised it can still be a summer of sarees. I’m very privileged to live in a moderate climate so can manage without air conditioners. Nothing beats a cotton saree for comfort, convenience or appropriateness for everything from sweeping the floor to getting on a concall with a client to hanging out on your sofa binge-watching Netflix. Thanks to the internet, I’m connected to most of my world.
Art that is honest & vulnerable makes you want to be honest & vulnerable too. Well, honesty is infectious, or so I want to believe though I keep learning time and again, that that’s not true. But art showcases vulnerability, makes honesty accessible, believable, livable. It makes vulnerability look appealing by giving it your validation.
I rewatched EASY, the Mark Maron storyline of an ageing graphic novelist. Of course it tapped right into my fears of growing old & irrelevant, of regrets over the choices I’ve made that have turned out wrong. It’s also making me think about one of the projects I started (again) under lockdown.
Many, many years ago (and I feel able to say that since it is more than a decade ago and that’s basically three generations in digitalia), I was an anonymous blogger. I didn’t know it at the time but I was pioneering a movement, the way TikTokers are doing today. I was pushing the boundaries of what it means to mine one’s own life for the public, for art. It didn’t feel like any of that because I was protected by anonymity, a single word called IdeaSmith.
But maybe some part of me sensed it because the things that were too vulnerable even for IdeaSmith to say, I said through another name on another even more secretive blog. As a twenty-something Indian woman at the time, I was under A LOT of pressure to get married, after a whole life of being restrained from interactions with the opposite sex. I had burning questions like what does love mean, how do you judge whether someone is right for you, how do you do this in one meeting with twenty-five other people watching your every move and a whole world ready to decimate you for a wrong choice? I was navigating this world through sexual violations, through male entitlement and slut-shaming and the glass ceiling without knowing any of these terms. Well, maybe the last one a bit but not the others. That formed the meat of this super secret blog – my early meetings with prospective grooms and later, my own experiments with men I met in other ways. The word ‘dating’ wasn’t in the middle class Indian lexicon but I (and I guess we) were learning how to find answers to those questions.
I wrote about attractions, I chronicled matrimonial site meetings, I made jokes about the ineptitude of my male peers to have a conversation, I despaired in blogposts of ever finding an equal partnership. Always using elaborate nicknames and descriptions stripped of identity. Some of these themes inadvertently bled into XX Factor, one of my ‘public’ blogs as IdeaSmith in the form of general rants & humour and gained a lot of favour.
Once, sorely tempted, I made the secret blog public and linked it to the blogroll of this one, The Idea-smithy. Some of you may not remember but before there was Facebook, Twitter or even feed-readers, the only way to get to a blog was by typing in the URL in the address bar every damn time. Blogs frequently helped each other out by listing a blogroll in their sidebar, linking to blogs they liked or wanted to promote. I didn’t mention that this link was also one of mine but hid it somewhere between other friend-bloggers links.
Eight hours later, I panicked when I saw the Reader stats of my secret blog and made it private again, taking it off the blogroll. Almost immediately, I received a mail from one of my reader/blogger friends asking where that blog had vanished, who wrote that blog, where I’d found it, etc. More panic. Because I had written about this person too. I squirmed my way out of that conversation. Years later, I had a chance to tell him that I had been the author of that secret blog too. To my mortification he said,
“I knew it! I’d recognised your writing anywhere! You even wrote about me. I’m ‘….’, aren’t I?”
A few years later, I got into a serious relationship. I never told him about this blog. I wasn’t ashamed of it. It’s just I’d been burnt so badly in the past by boyfriends punishing me for having a past. And this one demanded honesty (though he didn’t extend me the same courtesy) but also cut me off from all things that made me, me – family, friends, interests and yes, the past. That relationship took my idea of hell to a whole different level and it was many years before I thought about the blog.
I had used parts of the blog to form a sub-plot of the first book I wrote. When I finally pitched it to publisher, one expressed interest, suggesting that I make it a whole book based only on the blogger character. A few months later, a new blog surfaced chronicling the dating life of one woman and promising a book at the end of it. Maybe not a coincidence that its writer was the same publisher who’d shown an interest in this format of my book. I didn’t own the idea of the format and anyway, my love life in the 2000s in Mumbai would be different from that of a Delhi girl in the 2010s.
I dug up this blog again for an Alphabet Sambar event on digital narratives. Each time I look at it, it gives me the little thrill of pleasure that nostalgia does. But this time when I read the whole thing, I found myself assessing it as a content professional. I thought about what this means in the larger scheme of things like how Indian social systems have developed, our attitudes to each other, our generational learning curve.
For the first time in this blog’s entire existence, I invited someone to read it. Actually I invited several different people and only one actually went through with it. It’s a mean little reminder of a writer’s life where nobody actually sees it as real work or worth respecting how much it matters to you, until there are numbers (viewers, readers, sales). Watching the Mark Maron episode brought up my other fear that once this blog’s contents are made public, many people will come crawling out of the woodwork – the specimens I’ve written about but also others who’ve been in my life all these years and like seeing me in a certain way and will express their BIG disappointment that there’s more. They’ll be upset they don’t appear here. They’ll be upset they do appear and how. They’ll be upset that someone else appears here. They’ll be upset that this chronicle exists. C’est la vie.
The first thing my friend said after she started reading was,
I once sent flowers to a boyfriend. He called me desperate & cheated on me. It was toxic masculinity feeling so threatened by flowers that he felt he had to punish me.
Luckily, I had people who kept me from internalising that wound. Every man I spoke of this to, said he’d love it to have someone do this. One friend said, “Men like flowers too.” It gave me hope. I started taking flowers to people. Friends. I figured women would be more accepting. I wasn’t always right. Some told me I was being ‘weird’ and asked if I had a crush on them and if they should be ‘worried’. Another lesson in patriarchy. So many people set in the idea that flowers could only be gifted in a romantic context by a man to a woman.
I thought about the times I’d received flowers. Rose Day in college where the giving & accepting of flowers were fodder for gossip mills. Banks sending me bouquets that were more plastic than petals, on my birthday. Events handing out mass produced single wrapped roses to all delegates. Gajras being offered at traditional functions always with a joke about how my short hair made me not feminine enough. Flowers were always fraught with feeling.
A flower is a plant’s ability & willingness to procreate – to attract insects that can carry pollen & seeds. It is the universal symbol of desire, life, connection to the rest of the world. These are big things. No wonder people are so scared of them. Perhaps they realise instinctively that they cannot afford to ignore or treat frivolously.
Flowers are beauty, gentleness, the ephemeral. There are flowers that bloom for just a day but what a magnificent day it is! Flowers come from life that needs nurturing but bestows the carer with these gifts. It is a poor life that makes no room for flowers.
If you have the space in your life, grow flowers. Nothing reminds you of life like they do. If this is not possible, even a cut flower will share its joyfulness for a day. Give it fresh water and it may live longer. For now, look at images of flowers where you find them. We have not yet lost them. Make way for flowers in your life. You deserve them.
This feels like a time to remember the things we’ve taken for granted. Walks. Conversations. Friendships. Laughter. Exploration. Experiences. Because isolation is cessation of all of these.
Too many of us have derided these things for too long. We live such over-stimulated, overexcited, hyperactive, frantic lives. An excess of anything can cause overdosing. But famine isn’t great either, as many of us are starting to realise.
A good story knows when to stop and when to pause. It holds its boundaries. And so, it can also move powerfully. We, the storytellers, need to be masters of this ability. To willingly seek ideas and to release them without pain. Sometimes this means going forth with no map but the resolve to find an experience for the joy of it.
I started #StorySeekers on @alphabetsambar to expand my endless thirst for sights, sounds, smells, ideas, people & conversations to others. Ideas are found in these, not in homogeneous coffeeshops. On each episode, we’d pick a place to experience with a Story Guide.
This photograph is from #StorySeekers: The Secret Life of Engineers. We experienced a temperature drop within a kilometre, watched birds over a lake, enjoyed a gallery of graffiti, peeped into the laboratories that nurture some of the brightest minds in the country and talked through poetry & fiction written by them. It was the perfect day.
Because there was this, I know there will be more. There are worlds beyond my room. Everything has a boundary, even pandemics. You just have to find it. Or outlive it with hope. For me, a page from the past will do to remind me that there are yet stories unwritten.
Fleeting, mutual intimacies are the promise of a digital life. Button-precise firing, swipe right swooshy ease. Sex on tap, conversations at a click, a scream space on demand. And cessation with minimal effort, left-swipe, unmatch, block, ghost.
Fleeting, mutual intimacies are like sour candy coated with sugar and painted in many colours. They exist to remind you that sweetness exists and to punish you for tasting too much. And we forget such things as honey also live in the same world. Brown and messy, with no aftertaste but also no health issues.
Fleeting , mutual intimacies look & sound really good but make you feel very little. There’s a reason movies use them so much. Because you’re never really in the story. The best you can be, is in a theatre, watching from what you think is outside. But it’s just light & shadows on a cloth screen with spilt popcorn on the floor.
Fleeting, mutual intimacies are like this name. The second word isn’t even necessary because it’s not intimacy unless it’s mutual. But it sounds nice and carries a visual balance. The title can afford to forsake it because it’s disposable.
But not everything that is fleeting is. Not all that’s mutual can be thrown away. And intimacy may live out its life but it can’t be frozen. Together though, these words form something that looks & sounds sharp.
A conversation lets you be fluid in who you are, touch another person briefly and allow yourself to be touched. Words are like liquid, flowing, overlapping, merging with each other. That’s why it’s often hard to remember who said what in a true conversation.
The self is shaped & maintained in conversation. When we aren’t talking to others, we’re talking to ourselves. So we can’t actually do without conversations.
When you converse with another person – not just take turns to talk – you operate from a place of vulnerability, openness, of willingness to be shaped. You also enter their space of vulnerability, not an experience that leaves you untouched. There’s no way to enter someone’s being & transform their life without being transformed youself.
Every conversation holds the chance of transforming your life. You come away changed, with new thoughts, feelings, fresh perspective. And sometimes these are not pleasant experiences. Change is hard for most of us.
Some of us do not enjoy sharing. We carry our traumas & wield them as weapons, burying our identities. So it’s one set of traumas jostling with the other because traumas don’t share; they only fight. And we mistake this acrimony for conversation.
The digital life set us adrift in an open sea of conversations, as polluted as the real waters of the world. To survive we attempt boundaries. We use artifices like time to measure how long we allow this sharing, as if it’s punishment to endure. We confine it to certain topics as if it’s possible to isolate some inhabitants of water. Conversations can’t be nets.
But if we are vigilant, there are treasures to be unearthed. Treasures like intimacy, empathy, trust, affection, learning. The things you learn about people in the reactions they slip in, to your sharing? “Same here”, “I know that feeling”. These are keys to people’s insides. We must remember to listen even as we speak.
And thus we navigate this biggest of human adventures.
Eena, I sang for an hour today I like it when they clap I like it when they tell me I sing well He says I have a silvery voice I’m like silver, I am silver I like silver I hate singing
Eena, I read Lolita today That pervert But he loved her But she was only thirteen But he loved her Maybe it’s even harder to love than to be loved
Eena, I got the sharps right The notes too but that’s never hard I missed a chord He gave me a kiss and said it’s fine My fingers hurt Something else does too
Eena, my arms go all the way round the guitar now I’m a big girl now There’s a Beatles song that goes While my guitar gently weeps
Eena, J said her sister took lessons from him too J said she stopped going That bastard Eena, he did the same thing to her That bastard Don’t swear, child Eena, he did it to others Shh, the world can hear your thoughts Bastard Fa la la la la la la
Eena, the neighbours are considering guitar lessons Their daughter will soon be ten It doesn’t matter The silver songbird is silent There is peace without music But tell her, tell her, I told my mum If someone had told us… I didn’t finish. She was already dialing.
Eena, I saw him at the doctor’s today And I nearly didn’t recognise him He looked so sad and frail Like a deflated balloon after a child’s birthday party Who loves the streamers when the party is done? Who remembers a balloon after its air is gone? Eena, he was so sad
Eena, I’m reading a book About dwarves & dragons & trolls & giants It says pity stayed his hand, pity may have saved his life I am 21, Eena and my biggest heartbreak is a boy six months my senior Not a 40 year old man who was my teacher
Eena, they call it CSA now And we are not victims, they say, we’re survivors But Eena, I was never a victim and I’m no more a survivor than any person who reads a murder mystery and gets to the end, is With or without tears
This story did not kill me, Eena I turned the page when it was time to move on Books saved me or maybe pity did Goodbye Eena and thank you Go remind another child she can be her own hero too. Me Too but you know, hashtag YouToo.
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