I’m talking to you. That part of you behind closed eyelids. Inside a deep inhaled breath. Tucked away into a memory so intense, you don’t look at it often so it becomes a secret. Who are you in that darkness?
I think we’re all the same. The same disproportionate halves of a body. The same anxious uncertainty. The same disorganised desires. The same imperfection that makes comfort and poise look like two opposites.
Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be seen away from the light? Is there something slightly magical about the eyes adjusting to darkness even as the mind adjusts to incompleteness? Is it intrusion to be seen in the dark?
I guess that depends on you. Me, I crave being understood. I am terrified of being misunderstood. I fear being miscounted, being left behind or being carried along with a people and to a place I don’t belong. I burn to fit right, to find my tribe, my home, me.
I also know the tricks our minds play on us (before each other). I know about camouflage. About defence mechanisms. About confirmation bias and seeing only what one is looking for. About becoming fluid, chameleon, mercurial and being whatever the eye demands. And I know these are the endless games of living, the repeating charades of relating. Maybe clarity is possible only when a story is over. Or maybe not. Thank the universe for a sun that shines on us all equally.
Hey you, with the bored shadows rising in your eyes. Hey you, fallen into the cracks of your own fractured dreams. Have you looked my way lately? I exist.
Have you been hurt badly? Betrayed? Fooled? Discriminated against? Violated? Injured? Destroyed, ruined, shattered? So have I. So has every human being on the planet. This doesn’t nullify your pain or mine. It doesn’t make it bigger or worse or more worthy of attention, consideration, empathy, respect. It doesn’t make it easier because contrary to popular belief, misery does not love company. But how you respond to it, is up to you.
If you choose vindication, you let the person who hurt you, be a continued part of your life. If you think revenge, you add to the pettiness, the fear and hate that no doubt, drives the person who violated you. If you hate because of this, you make this hurt your identity rather than one of the many things that happened to you.
And if you lash out and attack those around you, you add to the weight of injustice in the world, except now you are also a perpetrator. You live in this world. This is your home. And you’ve just added to the garbage that someone else dumped in your living room. Who lives with the stink?
I’m not saying ignore your hurt. No, acknowledge it. Give it the respect that profound emotions deserve. Don’t be in a hurry to convert it into bitterness, rage or cynicism. Wars came from hurt but poetry also came from hurt. You get to decide what you want to create with the stone you’ve been given – a weapon or a statue.
Courage/strength are not appendages one is born with. They’re active, conscious, minute-to-minute choices. Not to treat the people who’ve hurt you in the same way. Solutions over one-upmanship. Healing over revenge. Growth over gossip. Being yourself over being toxic. Choosing constantly. It’s tiring too.
The high road is a choice one makes for oneself, regardless of circumstance, background, gender, caste, class, age or any of the things we hide behind. No one else can rescue you or carry you up that road. You don’t do it for moral brownie points. You do it for yourself. Walk the high road because that is the path that YOU deserve to walk on.
Who are you when there isn’t anyone around to recognise you? Do you know this person? Even if it is but a few brief moments (and it can’t be anything but that because other people have a way of fixing us into specific contexts). Say you’re in a new place, waiting for someone who hasn’t yet shown up. No one knows you. Nobody looks at you or talks to you. You can be and are being ANY PERSON. You start to relax into the ambiguous ether of no labels, no definitions, no judgements, no decisions, no frames, no scripts. Savour that moment. It’s what liberation feels like.
I experienced such a moment three years ago when I was waiting for a friend. I knew the minute she arrived, we’d launch into a vigorous conversation, deep in ideas and rich in nuance. We’d play out dramas and they’d all be great. I paused, taking in a slow breath I realised I may not remember to, once she was in the picture. And I noticed the bird on the wall. And that it matched the flowers on my top. That friend isn’t in the picture anymore and neither are the things we used to bond on. But this moment has stayed.
I’ve played with identities my whole life, most recently and deeply as IdeaSmith, a largely online and occasionally onstage avatar. Each time it began in a place of ANY PERSON. My first blog was even called “A faceless voice. Just a statistic.” Much came from this. Sometimes I find myself weighed down, trapped by the burdens of identity. Then I remember I’ve always got wings. I just need a minute outside the labels.
The universe makes room for us in so many ways we never even notice. It recognises us before our identifiers and our stories. It’s all good. There’s room for you even if you don’t know who you are.
I’m saying this to men, to women, to married people, to gay people, to colleagues, to acquaintances, friends, family. I’m going to treat every meeting with you, like it’s a date.
If you were going on a date with someone you liked, you’d prioritise making it happen. You’d be too excited about the prospect of meeting them to keep them hanging. Work, life, health and other people would be valid justifications but you would make sure they didn’t become excuses. You’d ensure you didn’t need an excuse. You’d be on time.
You’d treat the meeting like it was conscious manifestation of what you wanted. Not a tolerable alternative when you had nothing better to do & didn’t feel like the effort of saying no. You’d not turn it into free therapy or professional advice to be more productive because meeting them would be gift enough.
You’d bring your best self. You’d dress nicely. You’d speak with consideration and thought. You’d care about their wanting to meet you again, not assuming that it would be default. You’d make the effort to be good company.
You’d care about their opinion of you. You’d show them. You’d acknowledge the effort they made to please you. You’d be respectful of the thought they put in and that they could have been elsewhere but they chose to spend this time with you.
I promise to treat every meeting with you like this. I expect you to do so too. If you don’t, I can write you off as a bad date rather than internalise your inability to treat me well, as reflection of my abilities. This means I will not have as many dates but that’s okay. I’d rather have one great date with you in six months than ten lousy ones in a month.
My time is precious and so is yours. My emotions are valuable to me. I invest both carefully. If you do as well, maybe we’ll have a great date soon!
It seems like I’ve healed every few weeks or months or years. “You’re sounding a lot better since that one conversation of ours in the coffeeshop” says one friend. And I believe it because I want to. I must. Forgetting (somedays I call it self-deluding) is an integral survival skill. I don’t know if it is actually healing but most times I suspect it isn’t. Not really.
Right now, I’m remembering. And when I do, as at other times, it’s as fresh and real and vivid. I’m surrounded by clouds of words like ‘triggered’, ‘therapy’, ‘moving on’, ‘self-respect’, ‘gender politics’, ‘intimate partner violence’. Words. They are powerful but in the way of sedatives. Not healing. Not making wounds disappear.
I know there was never love. I know that now. But there wasn’t even friendship. Not kindness. Not empathy. Not respect. Not even human consideration. He treated me like a public toilet. All the things that one does in and to a public toilet. Yes.
I’ve never based my identity on my looks. It’s always been my mind. And he eroded that, one brick by brick. With words like ‘social whore’ and ‘fucking bitch’. With auteur opinions about what a pile of shit the Kala Ghoda Art Festival that I was a part of was, and how he as a Kolkata person had seen far better and how this was just Mumbai’s pathetic attempt to pretend at being cultured. With derision about my friends because they didn’t deserve basic courtesy. And eventually me. Because mistrust in a relationship is like bringing a sword to a friendly party. I did not do that.
I fell down deep into a black hole of his violent derision. I couldn’t find a foothold to claw my way back. I couldn’t remember what other people sounded like, let alone what compliments, support and affection felt like. It was as if those things ceased to exist, like they never had existed. All that was, was a pathetic WRONG that was my existence. Yet, my breath continued and I woke up every morning. Struggling to deal with the guilt of being alive though I was so WRONG to do so, coping with the punishment he heaped on me daily.
And this was way before the physical violence begin. When I’m asked why I didn’t leave (and I so often am), I have no answer. Why doesn’t the slime clinging to the sides of a well no one has used, leave? It’s going to be destroyed eventually anyway. So why doesn’t it leave?
In the years since then, I’ve built a stage called a personality. I’ve run so many stories on it. Of a performer. A writer. A community manager. A poet. A lover. A friend. A player. A swimmer. A gardener. A consultant. A thinker. A talker. A listener. A patient. An emergency contact. I work very hard to keep this stage up and beautiful. I am obsessive about maintenance and repairs.
But when the story closes, all I can see is the slime, the mold hidden under the stage’s foundations. I know the stage is always precarious because what can balance atop slime for long. I can’t clean it no matter how hard I scrub.
Because I am that slime. And each time I cry, it gets more runny and unstable.
I don’t know if you ever have days when you feel like you’re the only beating heart in the world. The last real thing in the universe. Like everything and everyone around is just a prop. Paper people, hot air actions, entirely fictional situations.
And this is not a place of sorrow or pain or grief. It may be boredom, briefly but that’s only because one is used to thinking in terms of bustle and entertainment to feel alive and meaningful. Yet, if this place is to be held and beheld for a minute, the judgement shifts, the restless thoughts settle and it’s quiet. Serene, even. Peaceful. Calm. All but restless. Everything that you’ve been told life is not. And yet this is living in a very different way. Like you are all that life is and you’re keeping the universe alive.
Yesterday, I went swimming undisturbed by sunlight or crowd. I discarded paint, fabric and words by the poolside. As I plunged in, even the indistinct noises of other swimmers faded. And with every stroke, the water moved closer to the rhythm of my breathing, the beat of my heart. Underwater looks a lot like moonlight. And this night, the universe was quiet and pulsing to just one rhythm. Mine.
When I came out an hour later, the paper world stood waiting quietly for me to dry off, to forget the rhythm of my heart and to believe that all that is paper is real again. I’ll do it. Just until the next time I fall between the pages, underwater into the only real thing. Me.
We have a warped notion of what it means to be strong or independent. To be strong is not to be unbreakable. To be independent is not to be devoid of need. To be a whole person is not to be cut off from all other people.
We live through need-shaming, connection-blaming. Workplaces hold up those who ask for the least, as paragons of ‘good’ workers, as if the needs they’re suppressing won’t take their toll on health & productivity. Relationships are all about assessing who is likeliest to give most and demand the least in return. Cue, the transactional nature of everything from arranged marriages to the hookup culture. Guilt-tripping is the champion currency of all regular relationships. Perhaps because it feels unthinkable to say let us embark on this journey of realising each other, listening, sharing, helping, asking, always communicating.
The picture below, was shot in Goa a few years ago. Nearly two years after surviving a broken engagement with an abusive person and all the shaming that is par for the Indian course, I said to a friend, “I need to make a trip. It must be outside Mumbai because it has been my cocoon but also the place where all this trauma happened. And it should be Goa because I went there with him last and I need to reclaim it beyond the memory of him. I do not have it in me to travel alone, even to a distant suburb of Mumbai. Will you help me?” A month later, he met me at Goa airport, flying in from another city but also timing his arrival there so I wouldn’t wait alone, staying on the phone with me till I got on the plane and he, on his. In the four days we were there, I read, slept, ate and swam while he worked. I reclaimed my smile, my travel suitcase and Goa. And after I got back, I built a stage career, a body of written work, a new partnership and my own health.
Anybody who shames you for asking for help, is probably not in a position to help you anyway. Because there’s nothing more human than need and the ability to communicate it. And there’s no better way of affirming your own humanity than in the willingness to address that need, without agenda.
A classmate called. He said he missed true friends. I said, “It’s early mid-life crisis after the disillusionment of the 20s. We are all in it.” The 20s are a maniac’s dream. Everything is available & possible. There is an unrealistic shine on everything. It takes a few knocks to realise how harsh it is.
A month before my 30, I quit a job I’d coveted for a decade. I needed to, to be able to look back without regret. I’ll never trade the sense of achievement from my career highs. I wouldn’t exchange the confidence built brick by brick. It would be unrealistic to hold onto these but not the things that made them possible.
I look at my life and then all around me. There’s divorce, suicide, career failure, drug abuse, financial crises, abortions and dead-end jobs. There are also reunions & rediscovering people who were close an eon ago. There are healthy diets, exercise regimes, budgeting, tax planning. There’s cutting back and there’s making time.
I spent a long time wanting many things very much, some of which I didn’t get and much else for which I paid too dearly. I had some bad stuff happen to me which messed me up. But those people are not connected to me by anything but memories. It wasn’t my fault they were bad people or bad decisions or bad luck. Unpredictability is what you sign up for when you quit a career cold-turkey. Or get divorced or don’t get married ‘at the right age’. Or well, are born.
People make mistakes. Sometimes they get lost. Maybe you get to remedy it, maybe not. You just cope better the next time.
My friend said he’d wanted to be a big success but it felt so lonely at the end. I said I hadn’t spent enough time on the things I now know are important – Love. Friendship. A body that works without medication. Food in my stomach before I’m hungry. The safety to walk on the roads by myself.
He said that was the MBA talking. I said, “That’s just one more thing on my resume now, not my identity.” What is my identity now? Who knows? I have a new life to discover. Maybe 40 is what comes after one masters survival and starts looking for life instead.
I wish learning were about curiosity, not a degree. I wish I didn’t live in a world where questions were deemed stupid, caring was uncool, interest was intrusive and curiosity killed. Because my curiosity is my compass, leading me mind-first into every path that makes it possible to be me.
When what we know is bartered and doled out like so many bowls of pitiful, tasteless soup. No wonder then, we treat it with hatred and fear. Information as power and knowledge as currency keep us all fearful and stupid. The most richly bound Bible is still just a fancy paperweight, unless you open the page and read. And we’re meagre in the knowledge of ourselves, scared to go inward and read and suspicious of anyone else who wants to.
The quest for knowledge has always been driven by all-consuming passion. Marie Curies and Galelios strayed blind into the valley of death, in its pursuit. Van Goghs and Sylvia Plaths soldiered against pain, in a quest to understand, to know more more MORE.
I wish we didn’t have to beg fearfully for answers, veritable Oliver Twists begging for another bowl of soup. Because knowing, unlike possessions, is free. How can you put a price on the experience of meeting an idea, welcoming it into your mind, turning it into thought and finally giving it a home inside your life in the form of knowledge?
Knowledge is not power. It is life, sustenance for hungry minds.
If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I’ve been swimming pretty regularly of late. I love swimming. It’s my favorite physical activity of them all. Yes, ALL. Proof that swimming is the best thing to happen to human beings and in short we should never have gotten out on land. #swimlife […]
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