Sunday, January 29, 2012

You can't make this stuff up

My diary entry from May 26, 1999, in Lucknow...

"This afternoon, a whole bunch of huge scary monkeys grouped into the bathroom for water and there were only us females at home. So we tried to yell and send them away. I found 3 inside and those were thrown out too. I was so scared. I had last gone to wash my face 15 minutes before. It was a dumb experience. Then all of them went to Fakhri mamoo's house and ate everything (the untouched lunch) in the kitchen. The ladies locked themselves up and sent for Baba to send the monkeys away (no males present at this time)."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Shiny happy people

So many young people.

So young.

It was my first week at the NDTV broadcast training programme. I had started spending over 8 hours a day every day in a room with over 40 people in their early 20s. Most of them were 21-22, there were even a couple of 19-year-olds. I was on the other end of that bridge. In another year I would turn 30.

The last time I had been around so many young people in one room for extended periods of time was in high school. And I had been one of those young people, so it doesn't count. Life since then had been one hard impersonal knock after another. No time to enjoy being young. I was too busy dealing with deaths and almost dyings and God. The last couple of years I had almost exclusively spent in the absence of people my age or younger or even a little older. I had had some sort of inkling about things the whole time but I know it for sure now - life had done something to me. I had gone from 20 to a life-weary 60 that looked like 80. I felt so...desperately (almost gratefully) anaesthetised.

But being around so many young people so suddenly wasn't the only major change in my life. I was in India now, in New Delhi, all by myself. I was in a country I had only visited for summer holidays in childhood and barely at all in the past ten years. I was in a city I had only transitted through too many years ago to bother. My environment had changed overnight from a sanitised, controlled, elephant graveyard to an overcrowded, overstimulating, crumbly third-world capital city. I was so out of my element - and feeling so vulnerable - that for the first few weeks I would not even get out of my chair at the NDTV media institute, not even to go to the restroom or to get a drink of water. I would sit there like a rock for over 8 hours everyday with 40-something young people around me barely able to sit in one place or be silent for more than 15 minutes. I would sit so long that every day felt like a long-distance flight. I didn't speak much either. I was so disoriented by the new faces, new sounds, new smells, new lingo around me, that once back at the shabby room I was renting out, I would not even step out for a walk, even when asked. It took me over a month, 2 months even, to get comfortable enough to allow myself unplanned movement.

That first week, I spent a lot of time observing...absorbing the people in that room with me at NDTV. Collectively they were very exciteable and had very short attention spans. They talked too loud, and they laughed too loud. They seemed to jump straight from neutral to fifth. For many of them it was the first time they had been away from home. With some you could tell from the way they would interact with the opposite sex. They loved taking pictures of each other and of themselves. This was obviously the digital generation. I was raised on that precious non-renewable resource called the 35mm film. They monitored their Facebook accounts more often than they checked their email. Some even kept track of Facebook comments and would come find you the next day if you hadn't been leaving comments on their pictures. It was...overwhelming. On top of everything else for me, it was too much.

I noticed some other things though. I noticed how strange it felt for me to look around and see strong, young, healthy bodies. Strong, young men and strong, young women. Children in grown-up bodies. What a different vibe they gave off compared to the dying and the elderly. It was quite startling. Here there was noise and life and sun. I noticed the strangest of things. Did you know that a young person's hair has a certain shine and a bounce? Their skin looks thicker and shinier, as if soaked in some youth nutrient. Like a ripe golden mango. There is an eagerness in their eyes. Young people talk a lot and smile a lot. Something happens to their body language when they talk to a person of the opposite sex. They begin to smile a little differently, it's almost as if their bodies put on a performance. The boys stand taller, and the girls toss their hair more. The boys hold court with their humour, and the girls applaud them with their laughter.

I don't know why it seemed so strange to me. I thought about it some more. I think I had also started on a phase like that once, but somehow it had got cut short. I had had to grow up and forget about smiles and boys.

That week I felt a strange faraway fondness for these very young people that would be around me every day for the next 6 months. There were so many things I wanted to tell them, so many things they needed to know. About failure, about disappointments, unfair tragedies, and unanswered prayers. I wanted to tell them to channel their youth and their energies to better the world while they still believed they could. I wanted them to believe that their health was more important than money or fame or praise. I wanted the boys to know that clean speech and kindness would make them into better men. I wanted the girls to believe that real men will respect them before they love them. I wanted them to know that in each of them I saw potential, that humility and not arrogance would make that potential flourish. They needed to know that there would be times when their will, their convictions would be tested. They needed to be told that it was okay to stand for something even if it meant letting go of something else. That that's what would separate them from the rest. That it's not going to be easy. That it can tear you apart and leave you on the floor, blind and mute and stupid, wondering for years what it is that you lost.

There was so much they needed to know. These strong, young beautiful, people, each and every one of them. I feared for the realities that awaited them. I feared for the compromises they would make. I feared that they wouldn't ever realise that they always had a choice.

My salvation army

I was feeling helpless and alone. The way you do when you're slumming all alone in a new city and don't yet feel confident about yourself. Especially when you're from a religious minority and it kind of shows in how you look and the way you talk.

The call had come sometime in the first few months of the NDTV broadcast training programme in New Delhi. It was from a family friend I had known for a brief period in my childhood long ago in Muscat, Oman. She was now married and settled in Lucknow but was in Delhi for her mother's cancer treatment. She had been bringing her mother, whom I had known for a longer period of time in Muscat but had not met in years, to Delhi regularly for treatment. Every week from Lucknow, which was 6 hours away by train one-way.

Aunty needed blood. In the next few hours. Her daughter wanted me to get the word out somehow about her mother's blood type. My blood wasn't the correct type, and I didn't really know anyone in Delhi. Except the young kids who were in training with me, but I didn't know them well enough to ask for their blood. How does one approach someone for blood? I didn't know what to do. I felt helpless and alone.

I've heard stories of people, particularly in India, refusing to donate blood to people they know, friends or respected elders even, just because they were of a different religion or caste. When the time came, they would draw that line. These were often-repeated urban legends from the motherland that would make their way to the diaspora overseas, particularly during times of ethnic tensions. I heard these growing up outside of India.

I was the only Muslim in training at NDTV. I felt self-conscious about it anyway. It was one of the reasons why, after the phone call, I suddenly felt helpless and alone, and why Delhi felt extra empty and foreign.

I hung up the phone. Three of my closest friends at the NDTV media institute crowded up to me and asked me what the matter was. I told them. Turned out that two of them had blood of the very type that was needed. I didn't even get to ask them to donate, they volunteered the minute they found out which blood type it was. They were ready to leave for the hospital immediately. I would've only needed one person to come along, but both my friends with the required blood type decided to go with me. The third friend wanted to come along anyway.

All three of my friends were born and raised Hindus. Bengali, Gujarati, and Rajasthani. The cancer-stricken lady I knew for a while in a past life was a Muslim. They didn't know her, yet they offered her their blood without even being asked. They offered a part of their own personal bodies. They never even let me get to asking them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Newton's Apple: an Ode to Science

"It is no more crazy than a dog finding a rainbow. Dogs are colourblind, Gretchen. They don't see colour. Just like we don't see time. We can feel it, we can feel it passing, but we can't see it. It's just like a blur. It's like we're riding in a supersonic train and the world is just blowing by, but imagine if we could stop that train, eh, Gretchen? Imagine if we could stop that train, get out, look around, and see time for what it really is? A universe, a world, a thing as unimaginable as colour to a dog, and as real, as tangible as that chair you're sitting in. Now if we could see it like that, really look at it, then maybe we could see the flaws as well as the form. And that's it; it's that simple. That's all I discovered. I'm just a...a guy who saw a crack in a chair that no one else could see. I'm that dog who saw a rainbow, only none of the other dogs believed me."

- Stuart, "Kate & Leopold"

It happened sometime during the sound class at the NDTV Media Institute. Most of the 40-something apprentices had zoned out because of the technical nature of the subject, probably PTSD-ing over memories of science classes in school. An unfortunate phenomenon because if explained properly - enthusiastically - scientific principle has the ability to suddenly click and come flinging itself at you, wrapping itself around you over and over until you feel like a mummy helplessly sealed in all the possibilities that have suddenly revealed themselves to you. But most students never get to that point. Most students are turned away from science because they were not presented the science of possibility, the science of heroic vision, the science of revolution. Unfortunate, so unfortunate. Because that click when scientific principle dawns on you, really dawns on you, feels like the moment of shock when you realise that you are in love and you can't do anything about the psychedelic colours that are rotating in your eyes. Everybody knows that falling in love, requited or not, is one of life's greatest experiences. One has not lived if one has not loved with wonder and amazement, their mouths hanging open, their sight having long set out on the journey into the far, far distance. Imagine how much a person misses when one does not fall, really helplessly head-first fall, in love. That is exactly the experience a student who is not presented the real juice of science is deprived of.

The sound engineer who had been addressing us was obviously not one of those students. He was supposed to teach us about microphones but had digressed to the aesthetic quality of sound. He had started talking faster and faster, and his eyes had started sparkling. This was a man caught in the throes of reciting poetry about his beloved.

He had already told us that the human ear could only hear a very narrow range of sound. Human beings were only able to hear sounds between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz. This is not a measure of how loud the sound is. He made us listen to sounds that were close to 20 Hz and also to 20,000 Hz, and we could barely hear them because they were on the very edges of our ears' hearing abilities. He made us listen to sounds that were off our hearing scale, and we couldn't hear them at all. But the sound was there. Just because you couldn't hear it didn't mean that it didn't exist. It was propagating itself all around us, the waves were probably hitting our eardrums, but because our ears were not built to register sound waves of that frequency, we couldn't even detect its existence. That was a mildly frightening experience.

But everyone knows that dogs can hear sounds that human beings can't. But they can't
see colour like we can. Our perception of light is also determined by what our eyes have been built to detect on the electromagnetic spectrum. Along that spectrum, which to our knowledge is infinite, human eyes can only see a very narrow range, specifically 790 terahertz (blue), 400 terahertz (red), and all the colours in between. It is just EM radiation, and the part our eyes can detect we call light. The ultraviolent radiation and infrared radiation right on the edges of the visible light spectrum? It's there, but we can't see it. Because our sight, like our hearing sense, is very, very limited.

And so it happened, right in the middle of sound class. I was sitting in the front row, my eyes (unlike most of the rest of the class) glued to the sound engineer who was still caught up in the embrace of his love for sound. My mind was uncharacteristically quiet, but that often happens when I'm looking at passion playing out before my eyes.

And suddenly something exploded in my face. It had happened. Scientific principle had clicked. And shaken my insides quite violently.

I looked around. No one had noticed. The class was still slump over. The sound engineer was still going at it. But I would never be the same again.

If our senses are so limited, what makes us think that our understanding of everything isn't? What makes us think that only what we can see or touch or feel is real, and that everything else cannot be? Maybe there are more colours, maybe there are more sounds. We know for a fact that there are and that other living beings around us can sense them. Will you let a dog convince you that there is no such thing as green? Or a painting? Will you let a dog laugh at the senselessness of a Rubic's cube or deny you the rainbow you can see right in front of you? Can you even imagine what existence feels like to a dog? To a fish? To someone with a differently-abled brain and sensory organs? Some creatures can detect electric fields, tell direction based on the Earth's magnetic field (an inbuilt compass!), they can even see in what you think is the dark. Some can see UV and IR radiation the way you and I can see pink. What would you do if you could suddenly see the radio waves around you when you couldn't see them before? What if you could see them in the sky? What would they look like? A new colour? What if you could see them going right through you when you couldn't see them before? Do feelings have a colour? Do they have a sound, or even a temperature, a scent, a texture, a flavour? They say animals can smell fear. How about memories, intentions, intuition, or even sex?

Maybe there are many other ways to exist that we not only live in passive oblivion of but that we actively and sometimes violently deny. And why? Because we cannot detect them? That is like trying to measure time with a ruler. And we don't even know what time is. We don't even know if it exists. We assume it exists because we see change around us. If there is no change, then there is no time? Does change cause time? Is time merely a by-product of change? Bacteria exists not only around us but inside of us. What else may be existing, and in what form, around us? Inside us?

That's what I got from just being introduced to the audible sound spectrum. 20 Hz - 20 kHz. Just a numerical range to the eye, but all the things it could mean... Just one small fact that didn't mean anything by itself, but like a seed that's been planted invisible into fertile soil, it burst out into new life when the conditions were right. When the time was right. Just because you couldn't see it before doesn't mean it wasn't there, waiting, the whole time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My skin colour around the world

This past year in India I have been told more than once that I am 'fair'. I wouldn't have thought so much of it except that I know what 'fair' means in India. It means that it's more important than your educational or professional qualifications, more important than your ethic, more important than everytime you failed but had the inner steel to get back up for another blow. It means that you are somehow better and more deserving. Especially if you are a girl. That wouldn't be so bad except it also means that the struggles and dreams of the other darker people around you are worth less. That someone who is even lighter skinned than you is better than you just because of that. That who you are doesn't really matter. Even when you know that everyone is better than you in some way, that some people live lives that would have extinguished you a long time ago. It means that a lot of good, honest, decent people - the kind that humanity continues to survive because of - are told in so many ways that they would be better if only they were more 'fair'. That that's more important than being good, honest, and decent.

I had spent all my life hearing I was 'fair' in the Middle East and in India, and suddenly in America, I was not 'fair' anymore. America relegated me to a new position on the colour spectrum, somewhere in the middle. I was now olive-skinned. I was exotic. I was brown sugar. Brown, brown, brown. Then bronzers came into fashion. You were beautiful if you were brown. 'Fair' is losery, 'fair' is pasty. Ew. You got more sexual attention (often times unwanted) if you were brown, but that also meant that that's all you got. After ten years of Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce and Shakira, I accepted it. It took me 10 years, but now I was brown, and I was proud.

It's not like I did that all on my own. I got a lot of input over the years. It made me realise that the way I saw myself was a lot different from how other people saw me. That I couldn't do anything about it. That I was imprisoned in my skin. I specifically remember a very white coworker coming up to me at work once and telling me that the skin colour of my Yahoo! Avatar was too light. He didn't mean it in a bad way, but I was surprised. I had set it to a light brown. I thought it over and changed it to a darker brown shade, even though, all ego set aside, I was sure that's not how I looked. I didn't like how it made me feel. I felt like I was being forced to change my basic understanding of my own skin even though I was the one in control of the computer mouse.

I don't think too much of skin colour anymore. I find it irrelevant. I usually base how attractive I find another person on how healthy and open they seem. I think I am colourblind, even when it comes to myself. It took a lot for me to get to this point. Maybe that's why I react badly when I am now included in various 'Fair & Lovely' references or asked with movie star wonder and fascination if I'm Kashmiri. That kind of attention makes me cringe. This has happened too many times. And it's always unwanted. I am more than my skin colour. My beauty is because of my ferocity and my vulnerabilities. Everyone's beauty is because of that. I have lived and contributed to other people's lives. I have meant something to people along the way. Other people have meant something to me. Those people were good, honest, and decent. They were more than their skin colour. I am more than mine. And I'll be damned if I let anyone change the way I look at myself again.

We're experiencing technical difficulties

I am a strong person. I believe in certain things. I have put in my time, I have paid my dues. I stand up for other people, and I stand up for myself. These are things that have rescued me from the dangers of quick-fixes and instant gratifications and superficialities. By now I have learned to rely on these things that I believe in blindly. I expect them to work the way I expect my hand to obey me when I tell it to get out whatever's fallen into my eye.

What does one do when the moral machinery of one's life fails? When something has fallen into one's eye as somethings always do, but one's hands don't obey one's commands, one's expectations anymore? Your eyes begin to water, you can't blink, you can't not blink, you feel like you have a razor blade jutting out of your eyeball, every second that it's in there feels like you are being irreparably damaged, and you can't do anything about it. You can't even breathe properly. And you're panicking. You just stand there feeling stupid and exposed, vulnerable, unable to help yourself with something so small because somewhere along the sensory and motor neural pathway something has started malfunctioning, something is preventing you from fulfilling your basic primal instinct - the ability to protect yourself, the ability to do something to minimise pain.

I don't know anymore if the things that have worked for me without fail so far and got me through times of despair work anymore. I just don't know anything anymore. It's been like this for 6 months now. I thought maybe I was exhausted and needed to get back to the things that usually recharge me, but those aren't working now. I don't really know what the point is of being born, taking all those tests through school, worrying about your face or your body, watching television, being the bigger person, pushing yourself to be the best you can be, working so hard all your life for people you don't even like, getting knocked down over and over and over again in various flavours just so you can get up everytime and get back on the hamster wheel for until the next time you fall off. One day you say, I'm tired, I don't think I want to get back up. I'll only get knocked down again anyway. Why did I have to get knocked down anyway when I was doing all the right things and putting in my time and showing up and being sincere? I must not be doing something right. Maybe it's all crap, all that stuff about teamwork and compromise and doing the right thing. At some point, when you're lying in your hamster cage with your face buried in wood shavings that smell like the litter needs to be taken out, you realise that you're tired and maybe want to keep lying in your own litter. You realise that the wheel can wait, the litter can be taken out tomorrow, that nobody was ever looking at you. You, the pathetic faceless ball of fur lying lifeless at the bottom of the cage. One day you say no, you want to be selfish, you want to say, goddammit what about me??

Then what do you do?

Monday, January 23, 2012

In the Queen's English

Insight from the 50s into the colonial hangover. Helps me understand what I once heard my father say about how people used to look up to Britain as the center of all that was noble, pure, and perfect. A remnant of that phenomenon was seen in action during the wedding of Prince William. I didn't understand why the Indian media was saturated with some foreign royal wedding to the extent that it was. It's not like the concept of royalty is an exotic novelty in India. The whole thing faintly smacked of a colonial hangover, but I wasn't so sure until I read the following excerpt. What makes my inability to relate to India's fascination with Great Britain a little frightening is that I can now recognise bits of a colonial hangover in me before I actually went to live in another foreign country I also thought was my own. Change 'British' to 'American' and you have history repeating itself all over again with the American Dream.

"Belief in an ideal dies hard. I had believed in an ideal for all the twenty-eight years of my life - the ideal of the British Way of Life.

It had sustained me when as a youth in a high school of nearly all white students I had had to work harder or run faster than they needed to do in order to make the grade. It had inspired me in my College and University years when ideals were dragged in the dust of disillusionment following the Spanish Civil War. Because of it I had never sought to acquire American citizenship, and when, after graduation and two years of field work in Venezuela, I came to England for post-graduate study in 1939, I felt that at long last I was personally identified with the hub of fairness, tolerance and all the freedoms. It was therefore without any hesitation that I volunteered for service with the Royal Air Force in 1940, willing and ready to lay down my life for the preservation of the ideal which had been my lodestar. But now that self-same ideal was gall and wormwood in my mouth.

The majority of Britons at home have very little appreciation of what that intangible yet amazingly real and invaluable export - the British Way of Life - means to colonial people; and they seem to give little thought to the fantastic phenomenon of races so very different from themselves in pigmentation, and widely scattered geographically, assiduously identifying themseves with British loyalties, beliefs and traditions. This attitude can easily be observed in the way in which the coloured Colonial will quote the British systems of Law, Education and Government, and will adopt fashions in dress and social codes, even though his knowledge of these things has depended largely on secondhand information. All this is especially true of the West Indian Colonials, who are predominantly the descendants of slaves who were forever removed from the cultural influence of their forefathers, and who lived, worked, and reared their children through the rigours of slavery and the growing pains of gradual enfranchisement, according to the only example they knew - the British Way.

The ties which bind them to Britain are strong, and this is very apparent on each occasion of a Royal visit, when all of them young and old, rich and poor, join happily together in unrestrained and joyful demonstrations of welcome. Yes, it is wonderful to be British - until one comes to Britain. By dint of careful saving or through hard-won scholarships, many of them arrive in Britain to be educated in the Arts and Sciences and in the varied processes of legislative and administrative government. They come, bolstered by a firm, conditioned belief that Britain and the British stand for all that is best in both Christian and Democratic terms; in their naivete they ascribe these high principles to all Britons, without exception.

I had grown up British in every way. Myself, my parents and my parents' parents, none of us knew or could know any other way of living, of thinking, of being; we knew no other cultural pattern, and I had never heard any of my forebears complain about being British. As a boy I was taught to appreciate English literature, poetry and prose, classical and contemporary, and it was absolutely natural for me to identify myself with the British heroes of the adventure stories against the villains of the piece who were invariably non-British and so, to my boyish mind, more easily capable of villanous conduct. The more selective reading of my college and university life was marked by the same predilection for English literature, and I did not hesitate to defend my preferences to my American colleagues. In fact, all the while in America, I vigorously resisted any criticism of Britain or British policy, even when in the privacy of my own room, closer examination clearly proved the reasonableness of such criticism.

It is possible to measure with considerable accuracy the rise and fall of the tides, or the behaviour in space of objects invisible to the naked eye. But who can measure the depths of disillusionment? Within the somewhat restricted sphere of an academic institution, the Colonial student learns to heal, debate, to paint and to think; outside that sphere he has to meet the indignities and rebuffs of intolerance, prejudice and hate. After qualification and establishment in practice or position, the trials and successes of academic life are half forgotten in the hurly-burly of living, but the hurts are not so easily forgotten. Who can predict the end result of a landlady's coldness, a waiter's discourtesy, or the refusal of a young woman to dance? The student of today may be the Prime Minister of tomorrow. Might not some future important political decision be influenced by a remembered slight or festering resentment? Is it reasonable to expect that those sons of Nigeria, the Gold Coast, the West Indies, British Guiana, Honduras, Malaya, Ceylon, Hong Kong and others who are constitutionally agitating for self-government, are completely unaffected by experiences of intolerance suffered in Britain and elsewhere?"

- ER Braithwaite, "To Sir, With Love"

A Black man in Britain

From the chapter where the author - a well-educated, well-dressed, well-spoken Black man - has been openly turned down for work a number of times because of the colour of his skin in the Britain of the 50s.

"I had now been jobless for nearly 18 months. Disillusionment had given place to a deepening, poisoning hatred; slowly but surely I was hating these people who could so casually, so unfeelingly deny me the right to earn a living. I was considered too well educated, too good for the lowly jobs, and too black for anything better. Now, it seemed, they even resented the fact that I looked tidy.

When my demobilisation became imminent I had written to my uncle about the problem of clothes rationing, and, over a period of months, he had sent me a supply of underwear, shirts, socks, ties and four nice looking suits which fitted me tolerably well; the clothing coupons I had received at the demob center were used in purchasing a few pairs of very serviceable shoes.

Caught like an insect in the tweezer grip of prejudice, I felt myself striking out in unreasoning retaliation. I became distrustful of every glance or gesture, seeking to probe behind them to expose the antipathy and intolerance which, I felt sure, was there. I was no longer disposed to extend to English women or elderly people on buses and trains those essential courtesies which, from childhood, I had accorded them as a rightful tribute, and even found myself glaring in undisguised hostility at small children whose innocently enquiring eyes were attracted by my unfamiliar complexion.

Fortunately for me, this cancerous condition was not allowed to establish itself firmly. Every now and then, and in spite of myself, some person or persons would say or do something so utterly unselfish and friendly that I would temporarily forget my difficulties and hurts. It was from such an unexpected quarter that I received the helpful advice which changed the whole course of my life."

- ER Braithwaite, "To Sir, With Love"

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Let them have cake

I wondered about a lot of things after receiving my fellow intern's text message. It had been a long physically exhausting year at NDTV. It had even been an emotionally exhausting year. I wondered about what the intern had just told me, that she'd heard that a number of NDTV's shows had ended up winning at the ATA and ENBA awards. I was at home that day, but she had a shift at work. She told me that the famous faces of NDTV were celebrating on an upper floor with cake and champagne. Some of them were a bit tipsy too. It was a big achievement, winning those awards.

Only a few weeks earlier I had been temporarily pulled off a show that I had been helping transcribe footage for and made to help the intern who had been assigned to help put together NDTV's submissions - correctly formatted showreels and application forms - for the ATA and ENBA awards. They were already past the deadline and needed all the help they could get. Every passing day was like a dragon breathing fire down our necks. These were the shows that NDTV is famous for. A lot of famous tempers would get upset if the submissions didn't make it. A lot of smaller heads would roll. Ours were the smallest, so the blade of the guillotine hung silent and sharp and extra large over us.

The intern and I worked hard on those award submissions. We managed to not get caught in the politics that was playing out between the two fulltime employees who were managing the submissions. We stayed back late, really late, like until 5 in the morning, in the edit cabins for a few nights even. Those were the nights of soggy Subway sandwiches and McDonald's deliveries. At some point we started to get the feeling that one of the two employees was starting to dump her own work on us. We started to feel taken advantage of. Sometimes she was hard to get a hold of. Sometimes she tried to psyche us - unpaid interns who were actually paying for the training - into doing more of her work, but we were told that we were already doing all the work she should've finished earlier. It was difficult managing all of it. But the intern and I finally got the bull by the horns and got the submissions ready into nice little efficient manila envelopes all by ourselves, one envelope for each show, complete with neatly filled out application forms and two copies of the showreel burned onto separate CDs. Everything clearly marked out with black markers. The whole thing had been so unmanageable and disorganised at first, it was satisfying to look at those manila envelopes, so well-behaved in their crispy bulging yellowness. The intern and I had done a great job, we were so proud of ourselves. All those late, late nights at the edit machines, all the panicky running between archives and evasive employees and half answers and uncooperative middle people and technical failures. We had taken over from a fulltime employee on a task that we had known nothing about and had executed it like professionals. Because of the two of us, NDTV would make it to the awards that year.

So that day, with my cell phone in my hand on my day off, I wondered what colour the cake was. I wondered about the feelings of exclusion and anonymity that were suddenly squatting stupidly in my stomach. I felt like I had just found out that I had been dumped because an acquaintance had seen my lover with someone else. Celebrating my insignificance with cake and champagne.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Serious Sophomore

Dated August 21, 2000, in Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA...


It's been 19 years since I first got here, and I have understood and realised time and time again that I have been one who has never been understood. I guess it's partly my fault since I put up a very superficial cover. In fact, I have put that cover up for so long that it's now a part of me. Who am I? I don't even know myself. Am I insane to be thinking on such lines? Or does everyone's mind work that way? I wish I could know.

The Homesick Freshman

Khadija's log, stardate April 21, 2000, probably in my dorm room in Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA, age 18.

How much I miss home

Not until I saw a picture of the very place I lived in for the past decade and more did I realise how home-sick I really am. Surfing the net quite randomly, I came across a picture of Muscat in which you can almost see my house. Sigh. My head and heart could implode (or explode, as far as I care). I have some amazingly wonderful memories of home and I am very, very homesick. I wonder if I will settle down there later in life, like my family before me...?

Sleepless in Tulsa

Twenty-four years old, and yet another guy had left me, this time in record time. So I continued to scribble...

Another heartbreak. I'm better now as opposed to two weeks ago, but I still have relapses. My mood swings aren't as extreme, thank goodness. I'm going to be 25 in a little over 3 months. I feel just like my teen self though. My life has changed a lot since I was 18. I could've never imagined then what'd I'd become. No way at all. My life has totally always been unexpected. It's a little frightening how some things are out of one's hands. But it's cool. I'm not complaining. Certainly my life is the scenic route. Oh but I'm still the sensitive girl. I've always been sensitive and that's made my life traumatic many times. Over the years I'd learned to portray a tough tomboyish exterior, but I know that all that's just for show. I am scared of lots of things but I try not to act on it. I make myself emotionally availabe for all external sources too many times, and that has a tendency to wrangle my nerves. Oh but my heart's still hurting, ow. I feel grief and I feel suddenly alone yet again with no equal companion to settle my soul. My heart breaks. I thought that I had found a mate to open up to. I was being myself and finally feeling fearless for the first time in my life. And now that it's gone so suddenly, my heart aches. The first day my throat was all locked and dried. My stomach sank. I felt my soul go silent. Oh why do I feel all these feelings. Why why why. Why can't I just be numbed out like the rest of the world I live with. Why am I such a misfit. Why can I not find someone to keep up with me. Why have I always felt so awkward. I never belong anywhere. I never belong. Ouch, my heart's breaking. Oh, help. Such sorrow, this is unbearable. My heart aches. Damn it, I am just a stupid girl trying to protect myself from everything by pretending to be tough. Oh, I hate pretending. I am not the same person I used to be a long time ago. Goodness gracious, my heart aches so.

Then I woke up in the middle of the night in tears and began scribbling again...

Oh, my heart. Oh, what's wrong with me. Why can I not move on. What is happening to me. I feel my soul in chains. Oh, God, please, please, help me. Help me, please, take off these chains. I feel like I cannot live. I feel like there are two people inside me. One that longs to be free, and one that just cannot be free. Oh my God, oh my God, please help me.

Note to Self

An old personal note from when I was 24 and had started my first real fulltime job at the brand spankin' new Deloitte & Touche office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. I had been living by myself in America since I was 18, and I would continue to be there for another 3 years.

Another Moment of Awkwardness

India, Oman, the USA. Where do I fit in? Am I going to live my whole life like the mockingbird that I now feel like? Where is my home? Why does it feel so far away? Is this how everyone feels like, or is it just in my destiny? When shall I develop a circle of my peers? My peers, my own peers, exchange thoughts and ideas, go to the same events? I feel quite alone, although I'm less aware of it somedays. I feel like a misfit, I have always felt awkward, but I thought that things would change once I grew up. I am consistently disappointed with quality (or lack thereof) of intellectual minds around me. Where are all of my companions? Where is it all? Shall I ever fit in, be part of a group of friends and like (or unlike) minded individuals? Why do I always feel like I am on another plane most of the time? It pains me to speak to apparent peers and feel an invisible wall separating me and them by light-years of understanding. It is frustrating to be this way. It's like being in one of those nightmares where I am screaming but no one can hear me. Ugh! I express disgust!"

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Message in a Bottle

I remember this page from the summer of 1999. I had finished my 12th board exams that March (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Biology - my parents' concept of 'keeping one's options open'), and like any other Indian student that year and every year until then and every year since then, I had been shoved into a volley of university entrance exams. Engineering, medical school, and architecture (a token option for me because, well, 'she always drew well'). I had been wanting to study interior design, art, literature, or mass communications, but those were not 'serious' careers, so nobody gave it a second thought. My family had shuttled me to our hometown of Lucknow which I had only ever visited over summer vacations past, and there I went over my textbooks over and over, everything that had already been memorised for all the exams I had sat through in school over the past 6 months. Summertime in India is entrance exam time. The giant cog of the giant machinery that is the Indian education system. If the education system was the pyramids, then the students would not be the building stones, they would not be the slaves pushing those stones, they would not be the slaves applying grease between the stones and the ground so that the stones could move easier. The students would be the grease.

I can remember myself very clearly that day. I was 18 years old with very long straight dark that went up to my waist which was probably tied up in a bun to give my neck and back some much needed air. I weighed 45 kilograms. That evening I was sitting in the courtyard of our crumbly ancestral home because it was too hot to sit elsewhere. I must've sat the way I'm sitting right now, cross-legged, perched on a rickety wooden chair or a rope-and-wood charpai, perched between the end of a clueless childhood and the beginning of a farce which became my life. I had my writing board, a shabby cardboard-and-metal Indian one, on my lap, the same one I still have with my favourite Urdu couplets neatly written all over with a thick blue marker. I was bored, I couldn't study any more, I didn't know where my life was going because no one would tell me. It had already been made clear that no one wanted to hear where I wanted my life to go.

I used to doodle. Everywhere. On everything. I used to draw faces and curvy paisley abstract act. That day I doodled the ancient bathroom door in front of me, the one that was crooked like the leaning tower of Pisa. I was bored, so I doodled it. I was even more bored so I drew the other biology diagrams I knew like the back of my hand around the bathroom door. I was so bored.

I found this page in my old papers today, over 10 years later. I remember doodling this page, I remember feeling bored about it. I remember no one noticing where my skills lay, and I remember many days in my 20s when I'd sit in my computer science classes or at my IT job with a green card almost under my belt and wonder why I felt like screaming, screaming, screaming. I remember being that 18-year-old who couldn't have known that she was on the edge of the greatest betrayal of her life. I wish I could race back to her in that courtyard and tell her to get up and run from the decade of meaningless life that lay ahead of her. The poor child, the poor kid. Somebody, tell her!

But no one can reach her where she sits by herself in that courtyard in summertime Lucknow in 1999. She doodles on, almost as if to say, 'Khadija was here'.

Today, I can read what she had written on the back of this page in blue ink:

"It's been 1-1/2 weeks and I am bored to death, in case you'd want to know. There's nothing to do except stare at my texts and look blankly at the walls; if I'm hungry, there's nothing constituting the term 'snacks' and I haven't left the place for all this time except once. I feel absolutely drowsy for some strange biogeophysical reason, and so all I do (other than the above mentioned energetic activities) is sleep. I wake up late, have lunch, strive not to sleep in the afternoon (after failing at the monstrous task), have dinner and sleep. Not to mention the extreme lack of light and water and the abundance of dust and mosquitoes (quite enough to trigger my inhalatory problems concerning the former). No faces to see, just the walls (oops! How could I forget the ceiling), no walking any place and of course, monkeys. Ok, so I'm spoilt. So I'm a brat, but I am shit bored flat. In short, I can't imagine how I'd ever live in this country permanently and feel at a loss of nationality. Painfully bored, and that's not the first time. Personally, I call it a waste of my time. I could've done plenty in all the days I've lost.

PS - Oh, did I mention the tape recorder's not working?"

No more. No more days shall be lost now. That day a child doodled simply because it's who she was. But today, more than a decade later, I have noticed her, I have found her note, even though that's all that is left of her. I will go and find her. I will go and tell her that on the other side of what were supposed to be the best years of her young life is me, and that I see her even if no one else ever did. I will not let her be betrayed again.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Shedding my skin

Today I am 30 years old. My face has suddenly started looking harder, I've lost a lot of the puppy fat that used to pad the hard edges of my face. Today I am also letting go.

This is a t-shirt I have had for over 10 years. I was 18 years old when it was given to me where I worked (and thoroughly enjoyed my time) as a desk clerk at Wentz Hall at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. I had held a job before, but only for a short time, and I had disliked the negative atmosphere there. The desk clerk position which I ended up holding for a year was the first time I was getting paid for being part of a team that was happy and where the dynamics were constructive and cooperative. And I got to smile at boys who'd stop by the desk and talk to me.

I remember the day I got this t-shirt. I hadn't even started working yet, I had just been hired. I had wanted this job for a very long time, it had just seemed like something I would be so good at. It was December, I was going to start working in January. I had attended my first all-team meeting and was riding high. That's where we were all given these t-shirts for free. It had the names of all the residence halls - Wentz, Stout, Iba, Parker - on it in sign language on the front, and on the back it had the categories of the community programmes every floor was expected to organise throughout the year, like health, sexual, social, etc.

I was 18 years old, and the Fruit of the Loom t-shirt was too big for me. I remember that day. I had recently started wearing my long, straight, dark brown hair loose and had even more recently bought my first very own shade of dark brown lipstick. It was the late 90s, makeup was brown back then. I wore the t-shirt immediately after the meeting on top of what I was already wearing and loved the way it fell on my little body. The team teased me for the way the t-shirt fitted me. I was laughing a lot that day, it was a happy day. I remember how on my way back to my residence hall, two Arab guys who also worked at the desk - we called them Omar A and Omar G - laughed and said, "hey Khadija, nice dress!" I was wearing the t-shirt over jeans but it could have sufficed on its own as a short dress, Spice Girls style.

The t-shirt never lost its shape or texture for many years. At first I used to wear it proudly around the university campus. Then it got demoted to being worn under sweatshirts and then with pajamas. It was a nice soft shade of grey, and everytime I wore it, no matter if I was an struggling 22, a disillusioned 25, a worn out 29, I knew I always had that happy day when I was 18, when I really, really felt part of something.

Today I am 30 years old. Today I am in Oman where my parents still live. Today I walked up to my closet and noticed that I had 3 separate sets of clothing. Three separate sets of clothing for 3 separate Khadijas I had been. One was the remnants of my wardrobe from my 10 years in America. This included some work shirts, particularly one orange one I used to wear with my black suit for recruiting events at my university whenever I'd go back as an alumnus from my company. And a Queen t-shirt because I used to believe in their music when no one used to believe in me. Another set of clothing was all the rich satin and silk Indian party clothes my mother would keep getting made for me compulsively in Oman in my absence when I was in America. Most of them I've never worn. They've just hung there, the collection growing over the years, desperate evidence of a panicky mother who wanted to convince herself that her daughter was still with them and that things would never change from when they all used to go to parties together in happier days. The most recent wardrobe I have now is of the cheap off-the-street clothing I had hand-washed and worn to death living by myself, as purification or penitence, in Delhi. Three different wardrobes for 3 different Khadijas, and she couldn't remember being any of them, even the most recent one. It was time to let them all go.

I sorted through all 3 sets of clothing. I sorted through every item, acknowledged the memory of it, the times we had been through together. The Khadija of that wardrobe peered over my shoulder every time. I put aside a lot of items for donation, but for the first time, I decided to let go of the t-shirt I had got the day I had worn my hair long and loose with brown lipstick at 18. For the first time, I didn't feel the need for its armour anymore. So I decided to let go of the girl I used to be because today she is 30, she has lived in 4 countries, worked many jobs and volunteered many places, written poems in secret for men she's fallen in love with along the way, and her body has finally stopped changing. She has figured out how to make make-up work for her. Brown lipstick is even making a comeback. Life has finally come full circle, and another lap now begins.

A story I was told

I once had a supervisor for a short while at this job I worked at in America. He was Asian, originally from Cambodia, and extremely handsome, classy, polite, and humble. Everybody thought he was so charming, like a movie actor or a model. He was soft-spoken yet articulate. He dressed well too. He was young, probably in his 30s, and married with children. College-educated with a well-paying job, he had done everything right. He always had a very soothing sort of quiet energy to him, he never talked more than necessary. Turns out though that he had come over to the United States as a refugee when he was very young. His father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, and his mother had migrated to the US with all her children. They all used to live in a small house in shady North Tulsa, and they kept getting evicted because there were too many of them living in it. They didn't have a lot of money and the mother couldn't speak English; all the children grew up working jobs to keep the family going. So many years later, my supervisor and his family had moved out of that small home he grew up in and was now living the American Dream, but he occassionally went back to that broken-down house in that bad part of town to quietly look upon it from the outside. He didn't remember his father at all, he had been too young.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Living Fast

"I live with a constant sense of being pressed for time. I have to do everything now - get married, have children, win races, make money, ride motorcycles, jump off cliffs - because I might not have the chance later. It's an odd gift, that sort of concentrated living, and perhaps I don't always apply it to the right things. I'm either going at 150 percent, or I'm asleep."

- Lance Armstrong, "Every Second Counts"

L is for Lance

"She was right, and I knew it. I apologised, and gave some thought to winning and losing, and how to handle each. When you win, you don't examine it very much, except to congratulate yourself. You can easily, and wrongly, assume it has something to do with your rare qualities as a person. But winning only measures how hard you've worked and how physically talented you are; it doesn't particularly define you beyond those characteristics.

Losing, on the other hand, really does say something about who you are. Among the things it measures are: do you blame othrs, or do you own the loss? Do you analyse your failure, or just complain about bad luck?

If you're willing to examine failure, and to look not just at your outward physical performance, but your internal workings, too, losing can be valuable. How you behave in those moments can perhaps be more self-defining than winning could ever be. Sometimes losing shows you for who you really are."

- Lance Armstrong, "Every Second Counts"

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


"I was a success story - for the moment. But if I got sick again, I would no longer be a success story, and the truth was, at times I was still as scared and anxious as a patient. What if the cancer came back? Each time I visited a hospital I had an uneasy reaction. The first thing that struck me was the smell. If I did a smell test I could find a hospital with my eyes closed: disinfectant, medicine, bad cafeteria food, and recycled air through old vents, stale and artificial. And the lighting: a leaky radiant, it made everyone look pale, like they didn't have quite enough blood in their bodies. The sounds were artificial and grating: the squeak of the nurses' rubber-soled shoes, the sound of the hospital mattresses. A hospital mattress is covered with plastic, and I remembered how it felt and sounded as I shifted in the bed, the crackle of the covering beneath me, every time I moved, crackle, crackle, wrinkle, wrinkle.

These are the odors and sensations and images that all cancer patients carry with them no matter how far removed they are from the disease, and they are so traumatic, so concentrated, that they can bring about reactions years afterward.

Some people even get physically ill when they encounter sights or smells that remind them of illness. There was a story in the New England Journal of Medicine: a woman was treated for breast cancer with very arduous chemo, and she suffered violent bouts of nausea. Five years later, she was walking in a mall when she ran into her oncologist, the doctor who had treated her. She threw up. So that's how cancer stays with you. And it has stayed with me."

- Lance Armstrong, "Every Second Counts"

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Solitary Reaper

"The fun was over. I was no longer a part of them. I watched them dance and that terrible emotion, which I rarely allow to surface began to assail me. I wondered if there would ever be a man in my life. Would a man see beyond my body? Would anyone put their arms around me and dance wth me? Would anyone kiss me passionately? Would I ever be needed by a man emotionally or would I always be regarded as a burden for someone to take care of? A silent tear unseen by any human eye trickled down my face as Lionel Richie's 'Hello' blared in the background, the dancer's put their arms around each other and were lost in discovering each other's world.

I was left alone with my thoughts. The realisation that I would be disabled all my life dawned upon me. I had always imagined that when I grew up, I would be normal."

- Malini Chib, "One Little Finger"

Sunday, January 1, 2012

First day at school

"It was my first day at Xavier's, and I did not know how others were going to react to my disability. I entered the classroom. There was a stunned silence. The silence was interrupted by the irritating, incessant noise of the motor of my electric wheelchair. There were whispers and unsure shuffles. The professor himself looked most scared and apprehensive.

They must have wondered who this heap of undulating mass in an electric wheelchair was. Has she entered the wrong class? I parked myself in the front row. The class began. At least the entrance was over with.

'Your names please', said the professor, turning to the person next to me.

'Malini Chib', I said my name, which I know sounded completely garbled to all around me. No one understood. The professor looked perplexed. He asked again. I spoke again. He thought I had not understood the question. He was irritated, so were 88 other students. I tried spelling my name. He did not get me. I began to panic. I tried again. My speech was getting worse and worse. He looked away impatiently, He had not understood. I heard a cry from a student from behind. 'She said "Malini"'. Eureka! She had understood at last. I had held up the class for 15 minutes. The professor smiled reluctantly but I did not care. At least I had overcome the first hurdle. Now, 88 of my clasmates knew my name. They also knew I had a speech problem. Although it was awful to have all those piercing eyes staring at me, I was happier than before I came in. Now I had some identity. I was not just a lump of flesh on a wheelchair."

- Malini Chib, "One Little Finger"