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.

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