Friday, December 7, 2012

Stepping Out of Old Shadows

Last night I dreamt that I had gone back to school to join my old classmates, except that I was 31 and the rest of them were still teenagers. These dreams usually are panic-ridden for me because I feel like I have missed a lot of classes because I was out living my real life for over 10 years and will now fail my school exams.
 
It was different this time. I felt very confident and sure of myself. I knew that I could make up the missed lessons by myself. I knew that I did not have a year's worth of notes and that I would have to borrow someone else's and plough through them for my exams. I remember looking at other people's notebooks and wondering how much it would cost to photocopy all of it. Making up in a short period of time would be very difficult, but for the first time I knew that I could do it. No question about it.
 
I remember a slick young History teacher talking about Italy and showing off to my young and inexperienced classmates, and I wanted to tell him that I had written history books. He did not impress me.
 
A guy in my class tried to hit on me in a disrespectful way, and I turned back and put him in his place. I would've never known how to do that before.
 
I remember some parasitic female friends from back then, they were trying to put me down again in my dream, but I didn't feel like I needed them this time. I ignored them. They were children to me and not important at all.
 
In my dream I had just come from living in Delhi, working with NDTV, and visiting Bombay, and I felt so wise and confident. I had already lived in America and Canada. I had dealt with very difficult situations and had spent most of my 20s alone and in foreign countries.
 
I decided to leave the classroom early. I carried a huge camper's bag on my back, but it did not feel heavy at all. I was able to carry it very easily, which surprised me because I am quite short. My old parasitic friends tried to follow me but they couldn't. They were even treating me nicely because they realised that I had changed.
 
But I didn't need them anymore. I was not the same. I would never need to return to this classroom again.
 
I was smiling because I was free.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Hated One

On October 30, 2011, some young people I had met at the NDTV media institute became one:

""One year," the old man almost growled as he wagged a gnarly finger at his daughter. His son, his younger more menacing version, darkly looked on. "One year, and then you are back."

The young woman stood looking down at the ground with her arms crossed over her chest. She had been leaning against the wall, and if she had had eyes at the back of her head, she would have noticed the chalky whitewash stains that now ran down her back. Her armpits burned, her forehead had been knotted for a few days.

The old man put his finger away and eyed the Sphinx before him. He didn't trust women, particularly silent ones, even if it were his daughter, especially if it were his daughter. She never listened. Well, she'd hear what he'd tell her, she had no choice, but she never listened. She never confided. She always held back. He could tell. It's when those knots would appear above her black eyes, and when a shadow would pass over those eyes, like as if a dark curtain had been drawn between him and her mind. He knew this about his firstborn. He could never break in. She wouldn't let him. She wouldn't let him reach in and touch her thoughts, guide her thoughts. How he hated the woman she was growing up to be, it disgusted him. He didn't like those kind of women. They were ungodly, sickening. They had too much will, they could never be possessed because they'd just lock you out. It didn't matter if you pushed or bought them things. It was like forcing someone to acknowledge that you existed. It was more like pleading. Pleading with someone who was supposed to be obeying you instead. It was insulting. Humiliating. It made him feel like the tempestuous child, it made her the one with the power. She would have the power to deny him an audience. Him. The father. Repeated humiliations from this child since the day she had been born. Her mother, Allah bless her departed spirit, had not been like this. She would listen to him. She would protest but at the end of the day he was the head of the family, and she knew her place. She never questioned his judgment. She did what he told her, what he knew was good for her. She was a good woman. But this daughter of his, how he hated her. If only she would just listen before she ruined herself, ruined herself, and shamed them all. It was only a matter of time before she did, whether she knew it or not.

"If Zafar knew better, he would not permit this. You must keep your honour, or what shame, what shame you shall bring upon yourself."

Shame. Zafar. The things that had been planned for her. The things she wanted to do. All the things she wanted to do, all the thoughts, all the possibilities that were always in her mind. She could never share them, there was no one here to receive them. No one listened to her. No one had ever listened to her. Zafar?  Would he listen to her, would he see her? She remembered the first time she had stopped herself from telling her father the things that had been on her mind. She felt the same about Zafar. And her brother? They were all the same. There was no one here. No, she would have to do this. She would have to step out and see if there were others like her out there."

Dream Tenant

On October 3, 2011, I fictionalised myself because I thought it would help me make sense:

"The short, fat, smelly landlady had never had a stranger tenant. The girl went to work and came back, she paid her rent on time, she was always polite and spoke in an old accent the landlady had only heard in her childhood. Lately the girl had stopped going out. She still paid her rent on time, but sometimes the landlady could hear her crying in her room. In the middle of the day when all the other girls were out at work or at school. The landlady didn't know but the girl would cry at night too, but on the terrace where she wouldn't disturb her roommate. That strange foreign tenant in that room. Not really foreign, the girl was Indian but had never lived in India. Until now. Now she cried, she howled locked up in that room. She talked to herself sometimes. The landlady once thought she heard the girl say, "what is real?" between sobs, but she couldn't be sure. What kind of a person talks like that anyway, it made no sense.

The girl had first started asking that question 5 years ago. "What is real?" she had asked her mother, but her mother had not understood the question. "Amma, tell me what is real?" They were in America then, the girl had been a success - American degrees, an American job, a green card on the way. An American accent, an American attitude, American dollars in the American bank. But lately, it had all started seeming unreal. The popcorn at the theater had started tasting chalky, her mascara had stopped helping her once sparkly eyes pop. She'd started realising that every hot, young, new Hollywood starlet had fake lips and fake breasts. She'd tried so many things, but before long they'd run out. They weren't real. The female role models on TV weren't real, all the makeup she had bought wasn't real, her beautiful apartment that no one visited wasn't real. One day she realised that soon she was going to stop being real too.

What is real, what is real."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Skinnydipping in the Juice of Life

From my diary, dated May 7, 2012:

"I don't know, everything in my life was so stunted and sad looking these past 10 years. My writing, my art, my website, my relationships. Now it's all exploded with substance and colour and texture. I'm having some sort of creative awakening, and it's so beautiful. I have rainbow light coming out of my eyes and mouth and ears and nostrils. That is exactly what I feel like. It's so beautiful. It's even more beautiful than when I was younger. My website has only had 1 page completed, but the design looks so juicy and yum. It's like a Skittles website. All froot juice. Yum. I am so happy. I feel so free and larger than life. Everything in my life is fruit juice now. You can see it in the way I talk, the look in my eyes, the way I dress, the food I cook, the scented candles I burn. I am living again!! I am creative again!!

I am so full of colour nowadays. I swear to God, past few weeks I've started feeling that the colours I see in my usual world seem richer than usual. It really is quite delicious. I feel like my wiring's changing, like my neurons are connecting into a newer network. It's so wonderful, I feel like I am constantly having my breath taken away by every stimulus. :)"

Muse Speak

From my diary, dated April 9, 2012:

"What's the difference between an inspired idea and my own thoughts? The former come out of nowhere and feel like someone is giving me good advice. My own thoughts are on-purpose, sometimes I'll be forcing myself to think even...

...things are talking to me. My body talks to me in moods and sensations, my inner voice talks to me in a solid voice from a dark hole between my lungs, and now inspiration and insight is talking to me in breezy echo-ey multiple voices around my head. Wow. And I trust this. I trust myself. I trust all these things that talk to me. They have never misguided me. Shit, shit, shit. This is incredible. :o"

Girl

From my diary, dated February 7, 2012:

"If I look in the mirror, I can see that I look like a grown-up mature woman now. I like her. She's pretty, beautiful almost in how open and refreshing her face is. She has so much intelligence in her face. She's gentle and caring and nurturing. She's a wonderful, wonderful woman. I really like her. She's also brave and protective. She's such an incredible woman. I can honestly say that I don't feel like a girl anymore. I feel like a woman, a wonderful, wonderful woman. The girl transformed into an amazing, graceful woman. I am loving, protective, just, intelligent, pretty, and very, very strong. I also don't stand for disrespect. I really like how I turned out. It happened in January and this past week. I am not a girl anymore. I am a woman. I love what I see in the mirror. I love what I see when I look back on my life. I have lived and loved bravely, with so much heart. What a woman, what a woman."


At The End of the Rainbow

From my diary, dated January 23, 2012:

"I don't know what to believe in anymore. I used to believe in:

1. putting myself through pain now if it meant avoiding greater pain in the future
2. being the bigger person
3. doing the right thing even if it meant endangering myself
4. being sincere in my personal and professional life
5. being straightforward

Now I realise that there is no point to any of it. Trashy people will always get their way more often, people will beg you to manipulate them, they will punish you for being unpretentious. Talent and hard work are rarely rewarded. There are more disappointments in life than happy times. Sometimes nomatter what you do, you will not be valued. Nomatter what. Sometimes you wil be insulted by the company you have to keep, the people you have to work with and for...

...I don't know anything anymore. I don't know if there is a God, if anyone will give us justice for the wrongs done to us on earth, if we have a soul, if there is an afterlife. I know there is something more to reality than we see, I mean I've had dreams that came true like visions. I have my intuition."

Look

From my diary, dated January 14, 2011:

"When he looked at you, your eternal soul, your soul which has no age or form or name knew it had finally been seen. It's like how they show in movies - a ghost suddenly realises that one person can see them and is looking straight at them, is talking to them. The reaction that ghost has - "you can see me??" That is who I am. That ghost. People don't just look through you, they don't even know you're there."

Mad Desperate Scribbles That Were Breaking My Heart

A year ago, a year after living in squalor in Delhi and seeing some things too closely, I picked the corner table in the dark Ruby Tuesday in Nehru Place. It had been one of my favourite restaurants in the US. I remember how I used to go there with a boy who was my friend and whom I secretly liked and always ordered salmon there with him. I remember one young waitress - a white girl - who wore a Celtic cross. I like Celtic culture, I'd told her. She had been very happy.
 
She was not there at the Ruby Tuesday's in Nehru Place. The boy I used to like wasn't there. That had been a few years ago, they were a thing of the past. I was in Delhi now. I had been in India for a year looking for something, and I had bottomed out because my time there had taken from me instead.
 
I ordered a dish I can't remember and took out a piece of paper from the raggedy bag I had carried as a reporting intern at NDTV. I had so much to say but no one to say it to. No one who would understand the things I had seen and the things I had understood and the things that were racing in my mind and not letting me rest. I had taken to scribbling on pieces of paper because my thoughts felt like scribbles in my mind, like bits of torn paper that even when put together were not adding up, and I continued to scribble at the Ruby Tuesday's in Nehru Place:
 
"I was raised in comfort. I always had enough to eat, my stomach was always full, I barely ever sweated. Then what am I doing here? This country, this nation is filthy. Have you ever looked into the eyes of the average citizen here? Their eyes are hollow, and they look back at you, asking you - why are you here, aa hee gaye tum [in Hindi and Urdu]? And why did I return? To mourn a time of my life that is never coming back. And what now? My tears have been shed, I can go back to my life, where I came from, the world where I'm never hungry or too hot or too cold. So why can't I leave? What is it about this nation of shattered dreams, shit, and piss and bacteria that is not letting me go? I can't be one of them. I never was. I am part of nowhere. But they think I'm a part of them. What do I tell them, that this isn't my life, that I have to go? Where do I go to now that no other place can ever feel like home? What now, what now, why won't you let me go? You don't know me, I'm not one of you. I never lived here before this year."
 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Display Pic

Title: 'Like' My FB DP

Method Writer

Newspaper cutting from Muscat about an opera set in ancient Egypt
 
I'm writing a book on ancient Egypt, and while I am not allowed to say much more about it, I want to share that this project is different because it treads a fine line between fiction and non-fiction. It's difficult making a setting come alive when no one's really seen it, and I have found from experience that whenever I have to write about an era gone by, it helps to immerse myself in as much everyday detail about life back when. Seems like I write best when I can shut myself in a room and feel like I'm walking amongst the people I am making up and eating the food they are eating and feeling the fabric they are wearing. When I was a little girl and used to live mostly in my head, I had become a little obssessed with ancient Egypt and had wanted to live there. This was in the time long before the Internet or easy access to books, but I still remember a children's book about ancient Egypt that I had borrowed from the British Council library in Muscat, Oman. I can still see the book open before me to a page where the artist had drawn the picture of an Egyptian home. The artist had also drawn people walking about the mud house - through the door, on the stairs, in the kitchen. I felt like they were my friends, that if I went outside I would run into them. Of course I knew them. These little people made of ink, they had names and hobbies.

I later went and rebuilt the house using a shoebox and used my miniature animal toys to play in it. My favourite was the cat that was of the colour of the chicken curry my mother would make. The cat was always the heroine of all my games, and often another animal would be in love with her, but she would be too alone in her great thoughts and adventures to notice.

These days I feel like I'm living in ancient Egypt again. I've come across similar drawings of houses in all the research I've been doing about that time, and I think I've lived in all of them. Everytime I research this way and after my project has been finished, I carry with me a feeling of fondness for that time, that country, those people lost in the dust. I think of them often like I would of an old lover I once sparkled my eyes at because he smiled at me. It almost makes me cry sometimes.

No Pet of Mine


I hate keeping birds in cages. The whole time I was growing up in Oman my mother and I would clash over the sort of pet our family could have. I wanted a hamster, but my mother wouldn't let me have one. I then wanted a cat (I'd called many places that had cats up for adoption but my parents never helped me get beyond that point) but my mother wouldn't allow an animal indoors. So I took to making friends with the neighbourhood alley cats. Over time they figured out where I lived, and one started regularly giving birth in our ground floor balcony. Every 6 months for a few years. I'd bring those kittens inside to play with when they got older. Those were my happiest moments. Kitties playing with me, lounging about in my lap because they trusted me. Because they wanted to play with me. Because we were different animals but we understood each other through our eyes and body language. I miss them. My lap has been empty for so long.

My mother thought the safest pets to get were birds. Over the years we bought single budgerigar pairs - I always got to pick the colour - because we'd heard that they'd lay eggs and have families. We knew other families whose budgies bred like rabbits. And smelled like them too. Now that I think of it, I don't know why it was so important that we have birds that breed and have families and generations. In cages. What was the point? So that it would amuse us? Oh, look, they're like us too!

I never felt attached to our birds. We would bring them home from smelly bird shops in a shoebox that had holes stabbed into them with a knife or scissors. I remember sitting in the back seat of our car with the shoebox in my lap and feeling the birds scraping across the cardboard as they blindly slid around in the dark. Then we'd move them into their cages. Were they supposed to be pleased about that, their brand new cage? I hated seeing them sitting all day long in there. There was no room in there for them to properly fly even; how suffocating would that be, how maddening. I'd wonder how I'd feel if I was made to sit in a cage my whole life, even if I got all the food and water I needed.

I never took ownership of our birds, I left them for my mother to tend to. I'm not the one who put you in that cage, I think I was trying to say, your imprisonment is not on my head. I'd stop by to say hello to them every once in a while though. I liked my cats because they were free, because they didn't make me feel guilty, because they could do what they wanted and come back to me when they needed me.

At least the birds weren't alone. We always bought single pairs, so at least they had each other to talk to. Sometimes they'd chirp so much and for so long that my family would want them to stop, to let us take our afternoon nap in peace. Sometimes they'd chirp all night long, so we'd have to drape a cloth over their cage to put them to sleep. But at least they had each other. I liked it when they talked to each other, I wondered what they were talking about. I always wanted them to have something to talk about. I always wanted them to nibble each other's beaks, it made me happy to see them have each other. They were technically not my pets, but I still felt bad for not setting them free. What would my parents say if I just shook them out of their cages and let them go? We must've had at least 20 birds over the years, and I kept an emotional distance from every one of them.

And they'd always die. They never seemed to lay eggs in our house. It was always the same story. The chirping bird couple would chitter-chatter for a few months, then one day when I would go to say goodmorning or howareyou then I'd find one lying dead on its side at the bottom of the cage. The other bird - the husband/wife, I could never tell - would be sitting quietly in the corner farthest from the dead bird. And it would never sing again. I would feel bad for it and spend more time talking to it, but it never really noticed me. It would just sit there by itself and not move much. Definitely not say much. I'd bring my cats over to meet it; at first the bird would feel frightened and move away into a corner, but over time it learned to not fear my cats even if they were lying sprawled out over its cage.

But it was always a matter of weeks before I found the bird dead too, lying on its side with its eyes shut. Have you ever seen a dead bird? Have you ever held it? It feels light, like it's made of wood chippings and sawdust. I was always surprised everytime I held a dead bird because it felt like it ought to have been heavier. The closed eyelid of a dead bird always looks like it belongs to an old man, a tired old man who is tired of life and tired of blinking and wants to sleep. It's wrinkly, it's thick and thin at the same time. The claws are always curled into a loose tired fist. It looks asleep. It looks too still. Too still.

I hate keeping birds in cages. I hate it. I want them out there, living out their lives, flying wherever they are supposed to go. I don't want them dying on my watch, not on my watch, not on my conscience.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Nothin' But Mammals

Grandchildren deities of the creator god: Nut of the sky and Geb of the earth

According to one ancient Egyptian creation myth, the creator god who was both male and female gave birth to the cosmos and other gods by masturbating. Nothing unusual - the ancient religions were based on nature's cycles of creation, death, and rebirth (think seasons and harvest). I find it funny how for thousands of years polytheistic traditions around the world worshipped male and female genitalia (and still do in India), but today most people are raised to dread and even ignore their nether-regions. And masturbation? Don't touch that dial!

C/O Anybody

Find me in the bottom-right corner.
 
I was standing outside the NDTV corporate office in New Delhi, chewing some gum. It's an old habit of mine that my family has always strongled condemned as American. When I was in high school in Oman I was a fan of bubblegum. I liked grape-flavoured Bib Babol, and in college in America I discovered a strange new watermelon flavour. I used to enjoy blowing bubbles but I have now settled for the less effort of chewing gum. Even if you give me bubblegum now I'll probably just chew it and not put in the effort of bubbling it.
 
I carried this gum habit of mine to India in 2010 when I joined NDTV's year-long broadcast training programme. On that one particular day I was standing outside the building, probably on a break, with a few friends from the programme. They were talking about something, and I was chewing some gum I had bought from the dhaaba that smelled of excrement just down the very short, busted inner street the NDTV office was on. As my friends kept talking, I absent-mindedly flipped the gum pack over and glanced at the address at the back. That's another habit I've had since I was little. I always look at the address that's printed at the back of gum packs everywhere. The address is always of somewhere else, a big city far away - usually in America - that I've only ever seen on television, or a small city somewhere else in the world that had made a pack of gum for me that passed through goodness knows how many unknown hands across the world into mine. I always wondered what the building at that address looked like. Was it a skyscraper or a factory in the country? What if I wrote a letter just to say hi and mailed it out to that address? Who would receive that letter? Who would open the envelope and touch the paper I had touched? Would it be a woman called Susan or a man called Colin? Would they have straight hair or curly hair? Would they be happy? Would my letter make some difference in their lives? Would my life mean something suddenly just because they knew I existed? I would wonder. So much. In a casual glance that had become an automatic reflex by now. I don't even think about it now everytime I flip over my packs of gum. I don't look at the whole address, just the city, state, and country. I feel attached to all the people whose lives are linked to all those addresses in all those faraway cities that are on streets that have their own stories. It feels like looking at a photograph made of words. Like the pack of gum is a phantom letter that was sent to me. It's almost a lonely feeling.
 
 My friends kept talking. And I noticed that the address on the pack of gum I was chewing from was of New Delhi. Oh. How funny. I was in New Delhi.
 
I looked over the rest of the address, curious about if I had been to those areas in Delhi yet. It said 'Okhla Industrial Estate Phase III'. That's where I was at that very moment. I felt a little bit excited and a little bit sick, but I don't think anyone noticed. The floor of my stomach tightened a little bit as I moved my eyes to the building number in the address.
 
206.
 
Wait a second.
 
The NDTV office, the one I was standing outside of, the one I was spending around 10 hours in everyday, was 207.
 
I suddenly felt weird. Frightened even. I almost felt panicky.
 
My friends were still talking. I lifted my head away from the pack of gum in my hands and looked at the two buildings that were on either side of the NDTV building. I saw 206.
 
Oh my God.
 
I suddenly blurted out to my friends that we were standing next to the building whose address was on my pack of gum. They smiled and thought it was cool, and then went back to their conversation. But I felt so strange, excited, frightened. I felt like I had arrived, that I had made a connection, that in all my travels to find the truth, to find life, that I had finally arrived. At an actual address. I had finally shown up at the right place. Those people at those addresses that I'd always wanted to give my life meaning, one of them ended up being me. 'Somewhere else' was finally 'here'. I could rest now.
  
 

One Head, So Many Voices

From my diary, dated January 10, 2012:

"I believe I have a significant chunk of hosh back now. I am able to listen to my intuition quite clearly again. I thought my intuition had gone quiet in Delhi, my inner system was screaming at me all the time, it was so awful - the noise from the outside, the screams from the inside. I was overwhelmed in Delhi. Now that I realise it, my intuition was screaming so much to counter the voices from the outside to make sure I always noticed it. It was trying to save me. It was fighting for me...things were actually okay until I started considering things against my intuition, that's when I began to suffer. Khadija, please always center yourself at the end of the day and blindly trust your intuition if it raises red flags and worst comes to worst, starts giving you recurring nightmares."

Delhi Stole My Divinity

From my diary, dated November 30, 2011:

"I'm in some kind of funk. I keep myself very occupied with work, and I try not to think more than 24 hours into the future. I try not to think about dreams, goals, ambitions...

...I don't know what to believe in anymore. I was driven, self-assured, because I believed in God. But that got sufficiently rattled in India. I feel like a steam engine whose engine has gone cold. I feel like I could go 100 mph but I just feel so heavy and hollow. I am trying to figure out what I believe in now, but I can't come up with anything. I feel slow and panicky. Then I remember not to let myself think and feel too much. I remember to let myself be selfish and territorial. I am a house of cards these days. I want to call on God, but I suddenly feel like there could be no such thing. My steam engine's coal room has no fuel anymore.

What a crisis I am in. And you wouldn't know it from my face. I look so calm and speak so softly, like I am sleepwalking. I want to go home, I want to put a distance between myself and my memories of Delhi this past year. Everything hurts too much, and it's been 4 months already."

Dilli ka Disease

From my diary, dated December 20, 2011:

"I was so belligerent my last 24 hours in Delhi. The bank (SBI) was giving me shit, the PG aunty gave me shit about the deposit, the airline people gave me shit, and I threw a fucking fit. I spent 2 hours at customs waiting for them to clear my stuff, it was yuck. Thank God the shipping guy was reliable. He was very, very dependable. I was like a raging lunatic by the time I boarded my plane. I went to the sleep the minute I sat in my seat."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Bombay Girl from Elsewhere

"Where are you originally from?" I asked the young Times Now graphics producer who had been raised in Kolkata and gone to college in Delhi. She wore seeing glasses, a dark blue summer dress, black Roman-style sandals, and her long dark brown hair was loose about her shoulders and back.

"Oh, you will have never heard of it," she had said, "it's a place called Saharanpur in UP."

She was ready to move on to the next subject, but I didn't let her. "Saharanpur, of course! I've stopped there before while travelling between Lucknow and Delhi; they're known for their pottery!"

The girl perked up, and we chatted for the next half hour about our experiences as women in the anachronistic Avadh Dust Bowl. I will now always think of her everytime I see the mug I bought from a roadside street shop in the middle of nowhere in Saharanpur in 1997.

A Conversation with the Man at the Museum

"I'm taking a panorama photo, it's not a video!"

But the museum employee would not listen to me. "I don't know anything about that," he said, "but you have to pay 2000 rupees to take videos."

I showed him the 200 rupee permit that I'd bought to take photographs in the museum with my DSLR camera, but he insisted that I had been taking a video. I tried to show him the panorama photo I had taken with my smaller camera, but he didn't want to see it. "I don't know these things," he kept saying.

The more I tried to show him the photo, the more agitated he got, the louder and more shrill his voice got, and he then went off to report the 'video' to the authorities. He returned a few minutes later by himself - looking sheepish, I thought - and then suddenly straightened up and said that I was using two cameras but had paid to use only one.

I just kept looking at him because the whole encounter was ridiculous, and he soon ran off, but not before telling me to delete the 'video' I had taken because I would be 'checked' upon leaving the museum. Of course, nothing ended up happening.

Museum Directions

There was something very creepy about the Parsi-looking man from the Jehangir Art Gallery. I had asked him to tell me where the Prince of Wales museum was, and even though it was down the street, he'd almost leapt to take me there himself.

What a creepy man. He was probably in his mid-30s, light-skinned, stout, clean-shaven, and with no expression at all. He mumbled and stared directly into my eyes the whole time, and about 2 minutes into our awkward walk to the museum where I could feel him looking me up and down and rubbing his hands with silent slimey glee I told him I could get there myself and I very happily left him behind.

The Song on the Radio

"Saajan!" I shouted in the crowded NDTV shuttle, but the song on the radio meant nothing to my friends. How could it, I realised, they were all mostly born in the late 80s. The movie had probably come out before they started kindergarten. Everyone in the minivan - other NDTV employees whom I didn't know - looked at me; none of them remembered Saajan.

"You know, Saajan!" I continued, returning their startled gazes. "The Madhuri Dixit/Salman Khan/Sanjay Dutt love triangle! Sanjay Dutt was a poet whose pseudonym was Saagar?"

Everyone was looking at me funny. Who was this crazy woman having a happy meltdown to an old Hindi movie song on the oldies radio channel? Was I the only one who remembered how Saajan had turned India and even Pakistan upside down with its solid starcast and Pankaj Udhas songs? When did Saajan become an oldie?

"Haanji, the songs were very nice," said the usually silent driver quite suddenly, "jiyein toh jiyein kaise bin aapke."

I was happy.

A Death in Bombay

A crowd of men with handkerchiefs wrapped on their heads carried a large coffin through a drizzly sticky muddy busy inner Bombay street.

The coffin was covered with bright green fabric that had Arabic calligraphy on it and strings and strings of red roses and white jasmines.

People stopped to watch as the men quickly moved the coffin into the back of a waiting ambulance.

Some of the bystanders touched their hearts with their fingers and then kissed them.

A small crowd of the nearest passerbys - Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi - started to gather because Death will someday touch everyone.

It is the great equaliser, the unifier.

And I remembered a dream I had in high school half a lifetime ago where I was wandering in some dirty Indian city, and I saw both Hindu and Muslim funeral processions passing by in front of me.

In my dream, I had heard a disembodied voice telling me not to stare because that's how riots get started.

Today I saw my first Muslim funeral procession, and I chose not to stare because I didn't want to make a circus out of it.

As I quickly averted my eyes and started to move on, I passed an Indian man who could've been any Indian man mumbling to himself, to no one, to everyone.

The only words that made it to my ears as I passed him by were, "it's not polite to stare at these things..."

Bombay Photo

Maybe I felt peace in Bombay because with the
rains and the mud and the humidity that keeps your hair
damp and wet all day long and the mass of people that keeps
coming and coming and coming and the young people
and the old people and the babies and the
animals and the couples kissing under umbrellas by the sea and the people
dying on the street and the old British
buildings and the old Parsi symbols and the bacteria in my
food you can see the big picture and feel
part of the forever moving human story like a link that
believes the chain exists because it can see the other
links like an arrow in the diagram of an ecosystem that
has finally been neatly put into a box.

What a relief to feel part of something what a relief to have found a
picture to paint myself into even if the scenery around me
is
falling
apart.

Title: a scene from the life of Khadija.

Fiona and the Universe

Dedicated to Fiona Poojara

In Bombay by the sea
By the Arabian Sea
On a humid afternoon
Fiona sat in a cab that was yellow and black
And looked out the window and saw
On the grey tarmac
A black and grey crow with a long black beak
Picking out jiggly thin pink stringy bits from the corpse of a rat
Quite casually

Fiona looked away
These things she said make her upset
She don't want to see

My dear Fiona
Little girl
Raised on birthday parties
With clowns and movie star Miss India guests
And an Anglican school for girls
Long skirts and ladylike shoes
For the girls of Saint Mary the Virgin
Saint Mary the Virgin

It's just life in the foodchain
One death for every birth
One death or more
Somebody to eat somebody else
It's everyone's turn sometime
Nothing personal it's okay
Just life in the foodchain
Don't look away Saint Mary
Look upon your God's glory
One death for every birth
One death or more
Don't look away Saint Mary

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Good Idea Turns 16

Like 2012, 1996 was an Olympic year. That was the year I turned 15. That was also the year my high school in Muscat, Oman, was turning out an Olympics-themed issue of our school magazine.

My English teacher was in-charge of putting this issue together, and I had very excitedly gone up to him with an idea I had had. I had told him that I had the lyrics of the Gloria Estefan song 'Reach' and that it would be a great idea to include those lyrics at the very end of the magazine. The song had been released as part of the Olympics, and its lyrics were very inspiring. These were the days before the Internet; song lyrics were either published in expensive or hard-to-find (especially in Muscat) book collections or on a flimsy sheet of printed paper inside the pastel-coloured plastic cases that some audio cassettes came with. I had an ear for song lyrics and usually wrote down those of my favourite songs and shared them with my friends who desperately wanted to be able to sing those songs correctly. I had found the lyrics of 'Reach' in a youth magazine and had torn the page off and saved it. I still have it with me somewhere.

But my teacher ignored my idea. He never even shot it down, he just plain ignored it. He almost made me feel like I wasn't there standing in front of him. I even think he looked over my head and continued about his business. I didn't know why then. He was an unpleasant sort of person, and I now can recognise him as the sort of person you don't want to hire or work with. I've met people like him over the years; these are the people who recognise a good idea when they see someone else come up with one, and some dark bitterness in them makes them want to kill it immediately. They do this by using humiliation, shame, discouragment, mockery, or repeated silent dismissals. My teacher used the last technique on me on this particular occassion. He used the others on me and other people the rest of the time. For everything. These kind of people ought never to be allowed near children who can't recognise or know how to interpret this brand of toxicity. These are the kind of people who can never be happy for someone else, who flinch at the sight of a smile, who feel relieved only if they can say or do something to dampen another's success somehow and get them to just.stop.smiling. These are the kind of people who feel big by making others feel small. My teacher had once told me that I thought too much of my poetry and that I was arrogant. I hadn't understood what he had meant, I was chirpy, chatty, and quite sensitive about feelings that belonged to me and also to other people .

The lyrics never made it to the school magazine. I still think including them would've been a great idea. So here is the song. It's songs like these that make me want to direct and edit a music video someday. It's people like my bitter high school English teacher that keep people from reaching. Thank goodness we eventually learn to recognise them and don't let them get in our way.



Some dreams live on in time forever
Those dreams, you want with all your heart
And I'll do whatever it takes
Follow through with the promise I made
Put it all on the line
What I hoped for at last would be mine

If I could reach, higher
Just for one moment touch the sky
From that one moment in my life
I'm gonna be stronger
Know that I've tried my very best
I'd put my spirit to the test
If I could reach

Some days are meant to be remembered
Those days we rise above the stars
So I'll go the distance this time
Seeing more the higher I climb
That the more I believe
All the more that this dream will be mine

If I could reach, higher
Just for one moment touch the sky
From that one moment in my life
I'm gonna be stronger
Know that I've tried my very best
I'd put my spirit to the test
If I could reach

If I could reach, higher
Just for one moment touch the sky
I'm gonna be stronger
From that one moment in my life
I'm gonna be so much stronger yes I am
I've tried my very best
I'd put my spirit to the test
If I could reach
If I could, If I could
If I could reach
Reach, I'd reach, I'd reach
I'd reach' I'd reach so much higher
Be stronger

Monday, July 30, 2012

Hijab + hood = hijood

From a Times of Oman special in the sports section called 'Ramadhan and Muslim Athletes: Overcoming Greater Obstacles.'

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Letter I Just Wrote in 1991

Dear grown-up Khadija,

I am writing to you because you've been trying to find me. I saw you trying really hard over the past few years, and you've come really close, but I think it's my turn to reach out now. I need to cover these last few steps and close the distance between us.

I am you, 10 years old, and from where I am, the year is 1991. Do you remember 1991? It was in the early 90s that you started doing some really cool things. You pestered Abbu into showing you how to work his Yashica SLR camera. You just kept asking and asking and asking until he had to show it to you. You'd go on to win a Middle Eastern photo competition with it. You also started spending hours at the DOS PC at home, the one that only displayed text, that too in green. That's where you learned how to type so fast without needing to look at the keyboard. You spent hours writing all sorts of things on that computer. You wrote two mystery novels based on a character similar to Nancy Drew. You even made pretend book covers for those novels. One was about sabotage at a farm and the other was about the sabotage of a high school music department. You'd even started writing a Nancy Drew novel based in India. You also wrote a collection of short horror stories. There was the one about the guests who died on their way to a party but still showed up. Then then one about the young male student at an English boarding house who was ragged to death and stayed behind to mourn his fate for all eternity. You wrote a commentary on each an every one of your classmates. You wrote an essay on your thoughts about how being educated and being knowledgable seemed to be two different things. You'd go on to use that concept on your TOEFL essay after high school when you had to write down your thoughts about if you preferred education over experience. The staff at the testing center would be really impressed with your scores, they will have never had someone score so highly before. Back at that old DOS PC, you would spend so much time staring at those green letters as you typed all your stories that when you were done, everything white around you would look light pink for a while afterwards. And one day the computer crashed and you lost everything. Everything. All those stories and characters have remained in your life though, like miscarried children.

You would then go on to writing a story on paper and stapling the pages together into a book with a front and back cover. Do you remember the story, it was about 4 children - brothers and sisters - who got lost in a forest and found their way out by following the movement of the sun across the sky. You had even made an ever-growing short story collection by adding pages of short stories (with illustrations!) between two pieces of cardboard covers tied up with ribbon. Do you remember the first story? It was about a girl who lived in the forest on a hill and saw her first human from where she hid in the trees - a boy from the town in the valley. You wrote about how she fell in love with him from a distance and waited for him and then followed him to the valley, only to discover that he loved someone else there. Her heart broke and she returned to the forest on the hill without ever facing the boy she loved.

Around the same time you discovered the magic of recording your own voice on audio tape, and you started spending hours every afternoon, when the grownups would be asleep, at the music system, at first simply recording yourself reading from books like the British women who read stories on Oman radio. Then you graduated to reading from the newspaper the way they also did on the radio. Then you started pretending to be the news anchor and the correspondent and would record your voice as you spoke through the phone intercom to capture the effect of a real phono. Then you started recording music request shows and mixed your own tapes from your own music collection. After a while you'd pester Abbu to show you how to use the giant video camera. You couldn't do much with it, the whole thing was made up of separate pieces of a large camera, a large VCR, and a very heavy light that would get hot very fast. You couldn't even move around too much because the whole thing had to be plugged into a power source. You didn't have many subjects, so you'd record your kittens instead. Do you remember that time you were waiting to capture your two kittens rolling across the living room floor? All your video and audio tapes are still lying around that house you live in in 2012 where you're 31 years old.

This is who you are. You draw, you write, you design, you film, you edit. You are not the robot people forced you to become as an adult, someone who talks about machines with people who themselves are machines. I know people made fun of you, called you weird, abnormal, and even laughed at you in groups. I know that's when you stopped listening to me and started doing things to make people stop laughing at you. But they never stopped. You stopped drawing and writing and creating things, though. Because I went away, because while you paid so much attention to the people outside - people who weren't very smart in the first place - I felt bad that you felt ashamed of me and had to hide me, even apologise for me. You never stood up for me. You thought the others were right. So I went away. Like that girl from the forest on the hill. And you weren't able to create things anymore.

But you came back to find me. I saw you standing up for me. I had been so hurt, but you put yourself through your biggest fears to find me again. You left everybody and everything to find me. You'd almost become me again, but I realised that I needed to return your gesture. If the boy from the valley came back to the forest on the hill and looked everywhere for the girl, she would need to hear his calls and go to him. Otherwise they would never be able to meet. So here I am. Ten years old. I like eating plain cornflakes with dollops of ketchup on it. I doodle faces of women all over the phonebook while talking to my friends over the telephone. I don't know what a landline is because in 1991 we only have regular phones at home. Many of us still have rotary phones, and Abbu recently ordered a wireless telephone from Dubai because they aren't available in Oman yet. That's the phone through whose telecom you recorded your voice as a pretend radio correspondent. Amma hasn't started insisting I start wearing grown-up shalwar suits and cover my legs yet. I don't know about menstruation, I don't seem to notice my hair or my face yet, I like to play with my cat and her kittens. She gives birth every 6 months. I don't watch too much TV because cable hasn't come yet. I have a group of friends at school that I huddle up with every recess to take turns and narrate ghost stories to. And I write stories and draw and record in audio and video. And I'm very good at it. I don't know what the other kids do, but the things I do don't seem like work because it's like breathing. It just happens. Doesn't it to everybody? It seems like it should. But it doesn't. But I don't know that yet. I know you do in 2012.

You're remembering these things again, aren't you? You've been trying to get back to being the way I am right now, so imaginative and productive. But you've been having a hard time becoming productive again. You've got everything back except the effortlessness. You're forcing yourself to be creative and complex. You're trying to be yourself by imitation, by paint-by-numbers. You're trying to become like me as if you and I are different people. You don't have to do that. You don't have to become like me, you just have to let yourself be.

Do you know the one thing that's standing in the way of your recovery? It's that you're so self-conscious. You think too much before creating something. Before you've even started you start wondering about style and structure and metaphor and marketability. You start worrying about what you will do with what you create. Stop it. You don't have to do anything. Why don't you just be the way I am right now, oblivious to the world outside? I don't think about what anyone will think about my work. It's not even work for me, it's just...me. Do you remember how your roughbook in school would fill up with art work and stories and illustrations? Do you remember how one day in 6th grade you wrote a story, almost in passing, about two characters - Ketchup and Hot Sauce - who almost fell into a bowl of water and dissolved away? Their father, a tomato, was furious at their carelessness. You wrote about how he yelled at his children about how they were made of him and his wife, their mother, a container of salt. You'd even drawn a picture of the whole thing. You hadn't planned it. You just saw some pictures in your head of two characters, and you made the rest up as you went along. You didn't think about anything else except how much fun you were having. Why don't you do that now?

You're so much older than I am. You know so much more about the world. I am 10 years old, and I go to school. That's it. You've lived in 4 countries - 3 of them by yourself - and experienced things I don't understand yet or even know exist. Maybe you've grown up too much. You've certainly cried too much. What, you thought I wasn't watching? But I'm here now, and we are one. Come back to simpler things, to cornflakes with ketchup, to simple stories. Forget about the world, come back to 1991, before the Internet, before cable TV, before cell phones, before judgments, before perversion. I don't even know the word 'pervert' until a few years later when a girl in my class tries to explain it to me and I still don't understand. You can sit with me and tell me about all the things that are going to happen in the new century. You can tell me everything. We'll write it all down as simple stories. The world will be tomato fathers and condiment children, nothing more complicated than that. We don't have to save the world or win an Oscar, we don't have anything to prove to anybody. We don't have to be famous, we don't have to win prizes, we don't have to be afraid of what the world will say. You're my hero, and you don't have to be afraid anymore.

From,

Me

PS - does '20th Century Fox' change it's name to '21st Century Fox' in the future?

PPS - am I beautiful as a grown-up? Has anyone fallen in love with me yet?

PPPS - how tall do I end up being?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I Wanted to be a Graduate Student

I wondered if the Italian American professor in front of me could tell that I was dying on the inside. His last name was Romano. Like Ray Romano, like Romano's Macaroni Grill. Did he know how badly I needed an assistantship? I was 22 years old and in my final semester as an undergraduate student at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. I had promised myself that I would only go to graduate school if I could finance at least part of that expensive education. Tuition racked up to at least 6,000 dollars every semester for international students, and that was not including the other few thousand dollars that got spent on rent, food, expensive textbooks (many cost over a hundred dollars) supplies, transport (air and ground). Most foreign students did not qualify for any sort of financial aid as undergraduates, but they could try for assistantships in graduate school. Assistantships were packaged differently in different universities, but they all got you work experience either teaching or researching with a stipend. OSU, for example, often tossed in free health insurance and waived out-of-state tuition. They would only charge you in-state tuition, which was like one-third of what international students usually had to pay. And I desperately wanted to teach or do research, the thought made me happy on the inside. Being happy though was not my first priority at that time, I needed to be able to afford grad school first, and that was through an assistantship. Any kind. From any department. Doing anything.

But this was early 2003. The American economy had crashed so badly in the time since 9/11. Assistantships and other forms of financial aid had dried up at colleges and universities across the country. I only knew of a handful of international students on assistantships at OSU. They didn't even advertise for them anymore. I had applied for graduate study at OSU and 4 other universities across the US, and I'd got in everywhere. But I needed an assistantship. School would be too expensive otherwise, and I'd have to look for a fulltime job and someone to sponsor a work visa for me, and if anything was more difficult than finding an assistantship, it was looking for a job in the US as a foreigner. And I was only 22 years old with no real-world experience. I knew nobody would hire me. There were thousands of foreign students out there that employers would prefer to hire over me. These foreign students were the older ones or the ones with a master's or a doctorate degree or with previous fulltime work experience. I was at the bottom of the pile - 22 years old with only a bachelor's degree and no fulltime work experience in my field. Only until a couple of years ago foreign students were being picked up by giants like IBM and Microsoft from universities across America and being offered startup salaries like 60,000 dollars per year even if they didn't have any experience. That had changed. The America I witnessed in the 2000s was one of lack and scarcity. Foreign students were now returning to their home countries empty-handed because they had been unable to find a job in the US even in the one-year grace period the immigration department gave them after graduation. I didn't want to go back empty-handed, I knew I was smart, I knew I had potential even though I had tanked on morale. Home is where careers and dreams went to die. Bottom line: I absolutely had to get an assistantship to go to graduate school. I really wanted to study, I wanted to be more qualified, I loved academia. And maybe the job market would improve after 2 years, at least for me, when I was older, had a master's degree, and maybe some research or teaching experience on my resume. I didn't want to go back home. I had worked too hard and lived too alone and sacrificed too much happiness at an age when I was supposed to be partying and dating and learning about make-up and wearing nice shoes. I couldn't go back now. I had to stay in the race.

Did this professor in front of me understand that? I was sitting with him in his little temporary office in the business building at OSU. He was tall, thin, and had a head full of short, very curly dark-brown hair. He wore glasses, and at that moment, he was sitting across from me with his head bent, looking down at a copy of my resume that he held in his hands. I'd never met him before, he actually used to teach at the Tulsa branch 80 miles away. Did he understand that my heart was pounding because he had actually replied to my cold-call email about needing an assistantship and had wanted to meet me? I had sent hundreds of those emails over the past few months, not just at OSU but to every conceivable department at the other 4 universities where I had been accepted. I could not afford to leave any stone uncovered, there was no room for oversight here, there was too much at stake for me. Over the past many months I had physically visited every single department - academic or not - at OSU and left a copy of my resume and a cover letter in every single mailbox. I used to go one building at a time and walk through all the floors and visit every single office. That's a lot of buildings. That's a hell of a lot of printing work and paper usage. If it looked like some kind of office, I'd enter, ask to see the mailboxes, and leave my resume and cover letter in every single box. No one ever got back to me. I must've physically visited at least a thousand mailboxes across the entire OSU campus in Stillwater. I even visited the veterinary sciences department. It wasn't even attached to the main campus. But no one called me back. I couldn't physically do this at the other universities where I had been accepted because they were in other states, so I had had to resort to email instead. I had emailled my resume and cover letter to every single professor at each of those universities. That's when I discovered that my Hotmail account had a limit of sending 200 emails a day. It was an annoying discovery, but I guess all it meant was that I had to wait 24 hours for my email account to be able to send the next 200 emails and so on and so forth until I had covered every professor and staff member in every department at those other universities. I needed an assistantship. Please. But I mostly got no responses. I had a handful of people respond in the negative. I didn't know what more I could do. The head of the department where I had been accepted as a graduate student at OSU had personally told me that no assistantships were available at her department either. They had a waiting list though, and she offered to add my name to it. I knew of at least a dozen people on that list.

"You don't have anything even in the Tulsa branch?" I had asked her without thinking in a flat and dull way, which was how I had become in those days. I felt small, helpless, and emptied out. I had nothing more to offer. All these months, all that effort, all that initiative, and nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. It was not fair. This wasn't how it was supposed to be.

"Oh," the department head said. "I'd never thought of the Tulsa branch. I don't know about our department there, why don't you contact them directly? We only keep track of our Stillwater assistantships." The Tulsa branch of OSU was just a handful of small buildings, a small extension of the sprawling campus in Stillwater. So I emailled the professors there with what remained of my extinguished spirit. I was not going to try for anything after this. There was absolutely nothing more I could do.

And I got a response. From a professor in Tulsa who said that he wanted to meet me. He was going to visit the Stillwater campus in a few days, and I could meet him in the temporary office he had there. I was terrified. He was the only person who had got back to me with something other than 'sorry', got back to me at all actually out of everyone else. I set an appointment to meet him in his office in the business building on my campus. From that moment on to until I sat in his office before him, my heart kept pounding and I kept breathing badly. I watched him looking over my resume in front of me. He's thinking my resume is unimpressive, he's going to tell me that he hates my face, that I'm underqualified, I am not special, how dare I waste his time. I wanted to cry because hope felt more terrifying than giving up did. It was cruel, it hurt. I sat there before him in my cheap ill-fitted jeans, worn-out sports shoes, and discount jacket. I was 22 years old, and I was wanting to die. Just say no, just say no, please don't make me wait for you to change your mind about me.

He looked up at me.

"I am impressed that you made the effort to contact me. I can take you on as a graduate assistant, I need some help with some research that I'm doing..."

What?

"You made the effort to contact me on your own, I can appreciate that, that is why I had wanted to meet you."

The whole meeting didn't last more than 10 minutes. He didn't even ask me any questions. I was going to get to go to graduate school. My life and career was not going to end at 22. I didn't cry in the office, but I must've afterwards.

* * *

One of the offices I had discovered on my very thorough coverage of the Stillwater campus was the Career Services office. I had left a copy of my resume and a cover letter with the lady at the front desk. And I'd forgotten about it. I had zero expectations from non-academic departments, assistantships were usually only for teaching or academic research, but I just did not want to take a chance. Might as well leave them my papers while I'm scouring the whole damn campus anyway. And I ended up getting a call from them, from the Career Services office. Their department head had wanted to meet me. His name was Amjad Ayoubi, and I set an appointment to meet him. I had no idea what to expect, this was a non-academic department.

Amjad was really nice. He was from Palestine but now lived in America and had a family here. He was short and had a glow to his very open-looking round face. He was sitting down, but there was something very happy, eager, and rarin'-to-go about him. I sat across from his desk, completely unsure what to expect. He had a very nice, shiny, wood-and-carpet office with motivational posters on the walls. Someday I wanted to have an office like that. Maybe even a whole house like that. It was possible in America.

He slid a shiny little credit card in front of me. It was actually a mini-CD in the shape of a credit card. I remember it was metallic orange in colour. Orange because that was our university colour. We were orange-and-black, the tigers. Amjad's dark eyes shone as he looked at me. He was very excited on the inside.

"We're planning on using this to teach students at OSU about using credit cards responsibly." His eyes shone some more as he looked at me. "Can you make a website using the contents of this CD?"

A website? I didn't know how to make a professional looking website. I didn't have the software, I hadn't even been trained. I had only taught myself the basics of HTML from a book and made myself a personal website with only 1 page - one very long tedious page - with pictures of my favourite actors on it. This was on the now defunct Geocities. Apparently it's only available in Japan now, or so Wikipedia says. I was a Computer Science major but they didn't offer any web design classes back then. I had no sort of training. I had only recently graduated to tinkering with my website using MS FrontPage, but there was no way I had the technical or design knowledge to pull off a real professional website. Amjad would laugh at me. This whole business of putting yourself out there for something you wanted was humiliating.

But I didn't tell Amjad any of this. I didn't even know why he was making me do this. I asked him for details on what he expected from the website (mostly because I had no prior professional experience to base this new task on), but his face only glowed more and he told me to do whatever I wanted because he wanted to see what I could do. That was what I had been afraid of.

But I went back to my dorm room anyway and made on my dear old PC what I would now think of as a horribly flat, sparkly website with the most unappealing and dull colour scheme ever. I had tried to use OSU's black and orange theme, but for some reason the whole thing turned out chunky and primitive looking. All the links worked but the whole thing just looked so amateurish. But it was the best I could've done at that point. I uploaded the website to the new hosting space I had recently signed up for with Netfirms and sent Amjad the link. I cringed at the thought of how disappointed he would feel. I had created the website, and I knew I could've done better if I had the tools and the training, but I was handicapped by my limited knowledge. He called me back for another visit. I dreaded it. He would tell me that that was the ugliest website he had ever seen, but I was so much on autopilot looking for assistantships for graduate school that I was seriously just going through the motions. I was prepared for the humiliation, for fingers pointing at me telling me how I didn't deserve to go to graduate school and that I was a waste of the world's time.

Amjad ended up telling me that one of his employees needed someone to help her with technical work on the Career Services website, and that I ought to go and set up an appointment to meet her next. I did. Her name was Tina. She was a petite white woman in her late 30s with short dark brown pixie hair, and she looked a little bit like Kate Beckingsale. She was friendly and had the energy of a happy hummingbird. She chuckled a lot. One of the questions she asked me was if I had ever worked very hard towards something and had still failed. I knew all about that sort of thing, and I told her about the various assistantships I had applied for at OSU itself and had not been called back. I remember putting my heart and soul in one particular application and being turned down. I'd lain in bed and stared at the ceiling for a long time after that.

"Oh!" Tina had blurted out, probably not expecting to have me answer that so quickly, "I'm sorry you had to go through that." I didn't know what was happening and why I was being interviewed. I needed an assistantship, and this was just looking like the usual minimum-wage part-time job, the kind international students like me had already done so many times before. Assistantships paid more, were more serious work, and at least at OSU got you in-state tuition, health insurance, and a stipend. That's what I needed. I had to go to graduate school.

And they hired me as a graduate assistant. Around the same time as Dr. Romano did. I ended up with two assistantships for the duration of my master's at OSU and became somewhat of a legend in the international students population. Scoring one assistantship was rare, two was unheard of. Both positions had been created for me and at least the one at Career Services was discontinued after I graduated and left to work with Deloitte & Touche 2 years later. I remember how a number of international students who never used to speak to me or even used to be rude to me had started coming up to me in my last semester with fake smiles to suck up their way as my replacement at both assistantships. I don't think any of them got in. It felt good to have won. And Career Services and working with Dr. Romano ended up becoming the best professional experiences I have had to date.

Amjad and I on my first homecoming after graduate school
Tina and I at lunch somewhere on the way back from a seminar in Oklahoma City

The Woman in Accounting

Her office was tucked in the back somewhere. She was the accountant at the Career Services office where I worked part-time as a graduate assistant at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. I don't remember her name. I barely ever interacted with her. I barely ever saw her. Was she a Sharon? A Carol? She was in her late 40s, a thin, slightly bent white American woman. A white shadow.

I was sitting across from where she sat at her desk. I had won the Business Suits for Students contest, and I was here in the accountant's office to finish off some paperwork. The Career Services office had held the contest to award a lucky student 400 dollars worth of a brand new business suit and shoes from Dillard's at the Woodland's mall in Tulsa 80 miles away. Applicants had had to write an essay about why they needed a new suit. Mine had won. Four hundred dollars! For clothes! Brand new clothes! From Dillard's! We didn't even have a mall in Stillwater, and I sure didn't remember what nice new clothes felt like. I had spent 6 years at university counting pennies, skipping meals to save money, and frequently overdrawing my bank account. I used to choose to walk almost an hour to the nearest WalMart to save on a 5 dollar cab ride. God-awful times. I was only a year away from finishing up with graduate school, and I needed to find a job for after so I could stay on in the country. The economy was crap, hardly anyone was hiring, and I needed to find a job or pack up and go back home where careers go to die. I was only 23 years old and had been running on empty, emotionally and financially, for 6 years. I used to feel so bad at career fairs in my makeshift suit; everybody else had shiny well-fitted ensembles. I felt small and exhausted. The first draft of my essay had reflected my life:

"Not again will I be taking 45 minute walks to WalMart (for want of a car) for groceries, all the while secretly harboring desires of magically finding a pair of cheap comfortable shoes that will go well (in the dark anyway) with the imitation-silk blouse from Goody’s and the pair of great fitting though slightly worn-out grey trouser-like pants that I’d fished out from the clearance pile at JCPenney’s. My Frankenstein of a suit. My eclectic grown-up collection in my blue-jeans college life."

Winning 400 dollars for a brand new suit and shoes that I desperately needed but could not afford for critical job interviews was something that almost made me want to get down on my knees and cry. All on the basis of my writing too, a personal skill that had all but died by then. It was validating for me. Shocking, but powerfully validating. My writing...it was still good? Good enough? To help me with something?

The award committee had really liked my essay. The accountant lady had told me so while making me sign a bunch of documents.

"“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,”
William Shakespeare

A part I’ve been playing for 20 years (almost my whole life) is that of The Broke Student, during which time my parents paid for all of my expenses. The last 6 years have been spent with their financing my education and life here in the United States as an international student, converting a fistful of foreign currency into a lot less dollars. It’s been even harder what with tuition for international students being 3 times as much as their in-state counterparts. Part-time on-campus employment only provided pocket money.

But it’s time for The Broke Student to take her exit from the stage.

I will be graduating in May next year, out in the real world, acting out my new part – The Unemployed College Graduate. Hopefully that won’t last too long. I’m wishing with fingers crossed really tightly that I will then leap into my next role – The Full-Time Worker. Perhaps playing this new part will help pay back what was invested in me, if not in dollars and cents, then in some other way.

“Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Sans suit?

Indubitably, The Unemployed College Graduate will need to dress to impress to initiate the metamorphosis into The Full-Time Worker. A good suit, however, is way out of The Broke Student’s budget. Wonderfully, this is where the ‘Business Suits for Students’ program comes in. The Broke Student seeks to take her very first steps in bringing The Full-Time Worker onto the stage, in some way helping her family by first helping herself."

I was shyly listening to the usually withdrawn white woman as she praised my writing. Nobody else used to do it anymore, my creative writing skills from my childhood had gone completely underground by then. Silent, dead in the dank underworld along with the rest of me. I was surprised that someone had liked my writing enough to tell me. She sounded sincere. And she kept talking. Her voice was small and tired sounding, almost as if she hadn't spoken in many years. Her face had already started wrinkling in thick chunks. She didn't look me in the eye but kept talking as she slowly shuffled through her papers. "Your writing is wonderful," she had said to the weary young thing I had become, "never stop writing." And she kept talking. She told me that she used to work for a very large company, that she had been doing very well in the corporate world, but she hadn't liked it. Then her husband died in a plane crash, and she left her big office and her old life and moved back to tiny little Stillwater in the middle of nowhere with her children. She was happy here in her small hidden office. Then she smiled a small but real smile at me, and I felt so moved on the inside, although I didn't say anything because I was too young and too numb to understand what she was making me feel. I ended up getting a job at a big corporate office a few months later and left Stillwater. I never saw the invisible accountant from Career Services again.

Small Dog, Big Fight

Aw, an essay I had written as a 22-year-old applicant for the Mercedier Cunningham scholarship at the Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. I had not won, but I can admire the little chipper's spirit!



Statement of Need


“Small opportunities are often the beginnings of great enterprises.”
Demosthenes

300 something years before Christ, in the part of the world that once used to be the magnificent Greek Empire, one self-conscious under-confident youth struggled with a weak voice and poor delivery. But later in his lifetime, he metamorphosed into an awe-inspiring fiery political orator. Today, Demosthenes is remembered as a great, no, the greatest of Greek orators. And over 2000 years later, hundreds of lifetimes past, the Mortar Board of the Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, felt compelled to quote him in the 2004-2005 edition of the Mortar Board calendar.

Let’s extend our stay in the present day for a little while longer. In 1981, I was born an Indian citizen in the Middle East, and my parents financed my education (and my life really) ever since then. Of course, every cost associated with me increased many, many fold when I came to OSU in 1999 to start working on my undergraduate degree, what with tuition for international students being almost three times as much as their in-state counterparts, all the while converting a fistful of foreign currency into a lot less dollars. I worked as many hours of part-time jobs as my status as an international student would allow me, but at the end of the day, that only helped provide pocket money. All the same, I tried to look at it all through an entirely different perspective. I chose optimism and struggled to view hardships as opportunities, small yet path-forming.

Today, I am enrolled in the Management Information Systems Master’s program, and for as long as I have been working hard at it, I have been trying to support myself in some measure with a financially more satisfying status as a graduate/research assistant. I’m not financially independent yet, but I’ve been seizing whatever opportunities have been tapping at the door of my life. Carpe Diem has become the tune my soul’s been dancing to. It’s not a new dance; I had been taking baby steps during my undergraduate years (albeit unknown to me at that time), clumsily tripping over myself and often feeling graceless and frustrated at my ineptness. Teeth-gritting perseverance, however, made the tune louder and faster; the dance trickier and nearly acrobatic. Today it is a much-cherished intuition.

The opportunities have been getting bigger swiftly, and I’m almost afraid to break for a breather and inadvertently (shudder!) slow down. I do not know what great enterprises these opportunities herald, but today I feel the need to quote a countryman of Demosthenes’, Pindar the great poet. He once declared, ‘learn what you are and be such’. A merry dance my Greek friends lead me at from across the millennia. The real world awaits me at the end of my life as a student, and in mirthful anticipation of what wondrous new melodies lie in the vast unknown, I can hardly dance any faster.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Everybody's Favourite Aunt

Aunt Alice's advice to my teenage self in a November 1996 issue of Young Times. Remember her? Good times, good times.

My Friend the Astronaut

It's 2012, and Sunita Williams is making headlines in India. She is an astronaut with NASA and is going to be heading back out to space. She is also of Indian origin from her father's side.

I heard about her on TV a few hours ago here in Muscat, Oman. All the Indian news channels are talking about her.

And I suddenly miss Kalpana Chawla. Do you remember her?

It was 16 years ago in 1996 when the world first heard of Kalpana Chawla. I was 15, and it was such a huge deal for me as a young Indian school kid in Oman to hear about a female Indian astronaut. There were no Indian news channels in those days, but I did rip out stories about her from a youth magazine I used to subscribe to. How amazing was she! In those days I almost used to live in an alternate universe where the Star Trek world was real, and here was an Indian girl like me who was going into space. The final frontier! From NASA! As far as I was concerned, NASA was the real world's Starfleet Academy, and I had a crazy amount of respect for that. I had another Trekkie friend in high school who had a thing for Mr. Spock (I was a Kirk girl myself), and all I ever heard her say was that she was going to grow up and work at NASA too. It felt nice to have one of our own - brown skin, black hair, black eyes, a name that didn't sound like Smith or Sarah - out there, someone who was actually going to see the final frontier my Trekkie friends and I were always obsessing about.

The next time I heard about Kalpana Chawla was many years later in 2003. I was 22 years old and emotional-light-years away as an undergraduate student in my final semester at the Oklahoma State University out there on the American Prairie. A tragedy had occurred, and the Space Shuttle Columbia had disintegrated - along with everyone on board - over several miles in Texas while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. From what I remember, it was because of a faulty heat-resistant tile on the body of the shuttle. The shuttle had burned up and fallen apart out there in the next state in a region only 4 hours away from where I was. And Kalpana Chawla had been on board.

The American news channels had carried stories about the Columbia crew for days. One of them told a story about Kalpana, about how she had felt while looking at the Earth through a window from inside the Columbia while in space. She had seen her own reflection looking back at her, and she had been able to see the Earth in her eyes. And she had said that the Earth had looked so beautiful and so calm and quiet out there in space, and that if everyone could see what she had seen, that no one would fight each other anymore.

I miss her today. I've never had any real-life role models, never really looked up to anyone particularly while growing up, but she had felt like someone I had known. Her smiling pictures in her astronaut suit, the ones from NASA with the American flag watching over her from behind almost like it had her back, those pictures felt like she had been smiling at me. Like she knew me too. She had kind eyes. She looked like a nice, normal person. Kalpana my friend. I miss her today.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

They Say Success is Relative

"To help my clients formulate their visions, I give them the following exercise, which almost always excavates what it is that brings them fulfillment:

Complete the following sentences by writing down your responses on a blank sheet of paper. It is not sufficient merely to complete the sentences in your mind as you read them; you must commit your answers to paper. You can change what you wrote after you see them in print, but make sure you write them down.

1. The people I view as successful are...
2. I feel successful when I...
3. My symbols of success are...
4. I will feel like a success when I...
5. If I were to write my ideal obituary based on the fact that my life was a success, it would read like this..."

- Cherie Carter-Scott, 'If Success is a Game, These are the Rules'

Those Evil Ad People

Prrrrooobably not the kind of beauty Eleanor Roosevelt was talking about.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My new magazine!

THE EXHIBITIONIST is here!


The first XZBT comes out August 1, you don't want to miss it, do you?

Visit the website at http://thexzbt.wordpress.com. Like and share the Facebook page at http://facebook.com/thexzbt. Subscribe to the monthly newsletter at http://eepurl.com/nqwfP.