Friday, April 27, 2012

Anamika (The Girl With No Name)

This woman was looking at me at the Shirin Store. The Shirin Store is a small sewing supplies shop in one of the inner lanes of the Ruwi Market where my mother and I have matched lace and ribbons and iron-on patches for years. I had purchased all my needlework class supplies in the 6th and 7th grades from this shop, and I think everyone else in school had too.

This woman was looking at me when I'd visited the shop two weeks ago. She was the face on a pack of hair rollers. I wondered who she was. She must have a name. Was she an Alice or a Yasmeen? I wondered if she knew on the day of her photo shoot that she'd end up here in this little corner of corners in the Middle East somewhere. I wondered when the photo shoot had been. Last year? In the 70s? Had she been a fulltime model or only pursuing it on the side? How old was she now? Was she happy? Was she alive? Was she American, British, European, Latin American, South African, Australian, Russian? Lebanese? Turkish? Irani? Would I be able to find her if I wanted to? Would I find her disappointing? What would I say to her when I found her? Would she care? Why did I?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Letter to the Departed

Hi Nana Mian,

I made a cover yesterday for a book that Amma is going to get published soon. She's going to compile all the things your peers and others had written about you after you had passed away. That was 22 years ago. I was 9 that year, in Muscat where I lived far away from where you lived in Lucknow. I remember finding out about your passing by overhearing Amma when she heard about it over the phone. I had heard her crying, but I hadn't known why she had been crying. I knew somebody had died though, because that's how we used to find out about these things in those days. I used to get nervous everytime the phone would ring and it turned out to be an international call. I'd only feel better if my mother hadn't started howling in the scary choppy way she used to within one minute of the call. I knew someone had died that time also, but I had only figured out who it was when Amma called Abbu at his office and told the secretary in her chunky English that her father had died. But I had almost known that it had been you. She had cried like that when she'd found out about Kakko Ammi passing away before. That's how I used to find out if someone had died. No one would tell me these things directly; it'd be assumed that I'd heard from all the crying.

Amma was still on the phone with Abbu, and I'd gone and locked myself in the brown coloured bathroom the way I did when I needed space or quiet. I'd sat on the edge of the bathtub and thought about things. Then I'd stood on my toes and looked into the mirror above the sink and made the face my mother had made while she had been crying. I wondered about my 3-year-old cousin who used to live with you in Lucknow. I wondered about how he was feeling. He used to dangle around your neck all the time and laugh, laugh, laugh. You used to chuckle about that. He doesn't remember you very much now.

I haven't seen you in 22 years, Nana Mian, but I remember you like it had been just yesterday. You were my favourite person in the world because your eyes would glimmer when you saw me and you wouldn't mind if I knocked you down when I flung myself at you. You were the first person I wanted to see everytime we'd visit Lucknow for the summer. We'd arrive to stay at Abbu's family's house, but I'd race out of there while our luggage was still being pulled in and dash off to your house two doors down so I could see you. You were always glad to see me. You always smiled when you looked at me. I remember your strong shiny teeth and dark lips under very white beard. I thought you looked like Santa Claus, and for a long time I thought the Prophet Muhammad must've looked like you. What does a kid have to do with a man in his 60s anyway? We didn't use to talk about anything really, but I just wanted to be around you all the time because...because I don't know, you always smiled at me. It made me smile back, and it made me feel nice, like I had been seen. Most people ignore you when you're a kid, many just want you out of their way. Some people are even mean to you because you are small and vulnerable. When you looked at me, you actually saw me. Your eyes would be fixed on my face, and you would be smiling at me. Me. It was so nice. You were my favourite person in the whole world.

I don't know if you saw the book cover I made yesterday. I made 3, and I put your pictures on them. Amma liked the second one because you can see where you wrote 'Azeezaz-Jaan Farzana beti' on an aerogramme in the background. I didn't know when I was 3 or 5 or 7 or 9 and smiling at you that when I was 30 I would put you on a book cover.

Do you remember, Nana Mian, that one time you bought me a bird made of thin metal sheets whose wings I could make flap? And that one time you were crouched in the old stone washroom doing your wuzu for the namaaz? I was standing by the grey wooden doorframe and watching you wash your dentures. You'd noticed me and had smiled and popped the dentures back into your mouth with a wet click, and it had made me laugh. It's still making me laugh. Your green parrot with the red beak that every single household in India seems to have, the one that in every family is called Mithoo, was hanging upside down in his little cage nearby. You had taught him to say my name. Not Khadija, but Asma, my other name.

You were in your study a lot, the room where nobody, especially children, were allowed to disturb you. I don't know if that's a rule you'd made or just something the other grownups had made up for you. I'd peeked into your room a few times. The doors were dark brown and metallic looking, but I could peek through the keyhole. I'd seen a quiet, dark room with light streaming in through the blue, green, yellow, and red glass on the windows. The light was blue, green, yellow, and red. I'd never seen anything like it. It looked like magic. Amma had caught me once looking through the keyhole and was about to drag me away, but you'd heard her and had me let in. You'd been smiling at me. When you're little, nobody can seem bigger and more frightening than your parents, so I thought it was amazing that my mother was rendered helpless with one word from you. Nobody ever stood up for me, so you must've been someone amazing to rescue me from my parents and to let me in to the place that nobody else was allowed. I don't think I spent too long in your room, but it was incredible. I never even saw any grownups, not even my parents, enter your study, it was like some kind of sacred space that people spoke of in hushed tones. But there I was, in that dark room with the colourful shafts of light. I saw some furniture in the parts of the room where the light was dark brown - a sofa, a table, a bookshelf? The room seemed cooler than the rest of Lucknow, less noisy. I didn't know where to stand or what to do. Nobody ever entered that room, so I had established some kind of precedent. That room is someone else's living room now, and it's like you were never there and like I had never stepped in that one day long ago. Sometimes when I'm in that room with other people, I look at the spot where I had stood many years ago and where you had sat at your desk and smiled at me. You're not there anymore. A few years after you'd died, I had been given some spare fabric to help a cousin who had moved to your house with her school project. One of the pieces of cloth had been from your sofa. Narrow orange and white stripes. They always reminded me of sivain. It's like you had never been there, like coloured light had never streamed in through those coloured windows. I have never seen the light from those windows ever look that way again.

I'd seen bits of you here and there in your old house over the years since then. I once saw your old passport lying on the ground in an old room where all your manuscripts had been stuffed. Some were original works, and some were translations from Arabic and Persian, some were unfinished because you had passed away while you were working on them. It was bunches and bunches of yellow paper cruelly stuffed in the shelves that were built high up on the walls all around the room. I had heard that the room on the terrace was full of your work too. You worked like a man possessed, your mind was always ticking. I think I know something about that. I had picked up your passport and looked at your photograph. I had felt bad that your passport had been lying on the ground like that. I had been in my early 20s then.

Nana Mian, the world changed after you died, you know? No one smiled at me the way you used to. My parents were always shouting at me or fighting with each other. In Lucknow, your parrot stopped speaking. People set him out of his cage but he'd just sit around in some high-up corner and not fly away. He always looked angry and withdrawn. A cat got to him and killed him one day, and that was that.

I once had a dream when I was little that I'd rushed to your house from Abbu's house two doors away, but when I entered your house, it was dark. Like an old ruin. No one was there. It looked like no one had ever been there. I called out for Amma but no one answered my calls. Your house had felt like it was part of some other world away from this one where there are sounds and colours and people.

I don't know if you have seen me all this time, Nana Mian, and I understand if you haven't, because I sometimes wonder if God even did. I wonder if God exists even. Things have been difficult. The world isn't what it used to be in your time. When you were alive, people used to invest in people. Now people invest in things they can buy, and they are lonelier than ever. They treat objects like people and people like objects. Maybe being a Muslim back then meant being educated and passionate and driven and ethical. Top class. I don't think you would recognise the Muslims of today. Do you know that when I moved to India for one-and-a-half years that most people assumed that I was an expert in Urdu poetry? Even the young Muslims would approach me in that regard, as if that's the only thing we were. We have been caricaturised, Nana Mian. I don't know by whom, but we spend our lives trying to match those caricatures as perfectly as we can. It was scary to see how the young Muslims of India struggle to fit in into the mainstream, and nomatter the world they choose to live in, they feel guilty all the time. The young Muslims force themselves to have an interest in Urdu poetry and to speak Urdu even if it isn't their mother tongue. That's what being a Muslim has become in India. That and Sufi music. The Bollywood Muslim. What has happened to the Muslims I have seen, the ones who used to be intellectuals and used to stay aware of the world and used to have class, where have those Muslims gone? I don't know these Muslims who live in the ghettos, these young Muslims who don't know how to reconcile their heritage with the strange new Islam of veils and poor morale and self-censorship and authoritarianism. I always thought that being a Muslim meant being a paragon of ethics, integrity, justice, and equality. I still think it's about spiritual independence and breaking free from the shackles that people live in and die in. I think it's about the pursuit of rational thought and the spirit of inquiry and individual dignity. Revolution, freedom from superstition, equality for all. Defiance, if required. These silly grinning poets, this is not Islam. The poetry of Islam is fiery and inspiring, not insipid and commercial. Fine divine inspiration, not cheap libidinous couplets.

Nana Mian, I only knew you as the smiling white figure who would play with me, but over the years I learned in bits and pieces that you had been much more. You had been a journalist, a freedom fighter, a mufti, a professor, a writer, a translator, a real intellectual. I learned that you had been a man of integrity whose peers had included Gandhiji and Jawaharlal Nehru. I learned that you had believed in the power of the pen and had been disheartened when politics took over the newspapers you had worked for. You had refused to parade around the Prime Minister as a token of the progressive Indian Muslim. You had turned down a Padma Shri award because the honours of a government that didn't live up to its promises to the Muslim community didn't meant anything to you. I spent a year in Indian journalism, Nana Mian, maybe you knew that because I'd dreamt of you my first week there. I'd dreamt that I was running towards a burning pair of towers that had had planes crash into them. I was running towards those towers that the crowd I was in was running away from because my old photographs of you and that old life were in those towers. Then I'd felt someone put their hand on my head, and I'd turned up to see that it had been you. I'd woken up from that dream, still feeling your hand on my head. I'd dreamt of you my first week in India, but after a few days I realised that I couldn't feel you in the general Indian air anymore. You had really gone. Then the rest of the year I realised that the old journalists I had seen - you and your friends - those were not the kind of people in Indian journalism today. I didn't like most of these people that I saw. I thought journalists were supposed to be the intellectual elite. These were not. None of these people were even close to the classy people you and your peers were. But then, the standard of everything in the world has fallen nowadays. It's a disposable kind of world I live in, Nana Mian. Songs and books come and go without making any real sort of impact on anybody. Just about anyone can become famous if they know the right people or behave badly enough. People's speech has become harsh, it's hard to find any sort of real grace in anybody these days. Men who behave like crude cavemen are called smart, and the women who behave like these men are called success-oriented. The world has lost much of its finery, Nana Mian, I wonder what you would have thought of it all.

Nana Mian, I have often seen people trying to be like you because you are still known amongst your peers and the younger people in your professional field as a singular man. I think the correct way to be like you is to not try to be like anybody but to be driven from inside. You were a man of your time, and you did what you thought was best in the circumstances you were in. I often see people quoting you and trying to sound like you but it seems so out of context now. I think that if they really wanted to be like you, then they would not try to be like you at all. They would simply live in their own time and make their own decisions at every crossroad they ever came upon.

I am a woman of my time. It is not the same world my parents grew up in, which was similar to the world you were from. The world has changed very drastically in the past 20 years, and my parents were not able to help me adjust to it at all. I think you would've listened to me, though, at least I hope you would've. I sure could have used your help many times in the past. Maybe you would've listened to me without brushing me under the carpet like everyone else did. Or maybe you would've behaved like them too. I don't know, but I've wanted to talk to you many times over the years about the world I was seeing and the way it is acceptable to behave now. Things don't even mean the same today as they did before. I've often felt like an orphan in my own family. I never saw much of myself in my father or in my mother. I was too impetuous and too straightforward, and I felt things too intensely. I have walked away from things that other people were dying for because I just cannot compromise on my integrity. I cannot work for people who disrespect me or don't believe in the principles that I live by. I have spent my life thinking there was something wrong with me because I could never shut my eyes when people were being unethical or cruel. Everyone else seemed to always be okay with these things, but it was always me who would call things into question and feel disturbed or even torn in such situations. I can't just shut my eyes and go with things when someone's explanation just doesn't add up. Why couldn't I be like everyone else in
this rat race that the world has become? What was wrong with me that I was always having trouble blindly accepting things the way they were, why was I never satisfied with the choices that were given to me? So when I heard today that you turned down the Padma Shri or refused to become one of the Prime Minister's clingy yes-men because it conflicted with what you believed in, I felt so relieved because I realised that there had been at least one other person in this world that had rocked the boat. Like me. It's not been easy being so rigid about these things, Nana Mian, and I don't want to be this way sometimes. I never even realised that the way I was was undesirable until I realised that it put me out of step with this world. I really always wanted to be like everybody else, because society has a way of punishing you in various forms when you think too much or ask too many questions or don't discriminate between the people and the institutions you question. I don't want to be this way because I have seen that the people who aren't like this lead an easier life. I tried to fix myself over the years, but I couldn't. I can't just stop thinking, and if I stop speaking and just go along with everything, something inside me starts punishing me in ways more horrific than society could ever come up with. I thought I was doomed; nobody especially likes a girl who's like that. Someone had once told me in all seriousness that I ought to stop being intelligent because no one would want to marry me. I just didn't understand what the matter was with me. But today I heard the things you had said in your professional and personal life and the way you had behaved, and it sounded exactly like the things that had come out of me. So I don't feel guilty anymore about being the way that I am. I don't feel orphaned anymore because I finally feel like I am like somebody in my family.

I hope you liked the book covers I made, Nana Mian. Thank you for your legacy. You weren't ever very wealthy because you never sold yourself out, but your children loved you very much and still love you even now that they're all in their 50s and 60s and some have their own grandchildren. You've been gone over 20 years and people still swear by you. Someone still remembers how one cold foggy Lucknow night you gave your expensive shawl to a man shivering on the street. Your children never felt like they were poor. All they remember is how they'd all run up to you and hang on to your various limbs whenever you came home from work. And how much you loved that. I've dreamt of you so many times over the years, and it's always been with you watching me from afar and running away whenever you saw that I'd noticed you. Over time my dreams changed to my running to catch you but never actually being successful with it. Then I progressed to actually catching you. And then you came to me yourself in my dream with the two flaming towers.

Thank you for those 9 summers. And the dreams.

Your granddaughter,


Monday, April 23, 2012

I Saw a Mirage in the Classroom

I always sat on the left side of the classroom for Intro to Sociology. It was the summer of 2000, and I was turning 19 that June.

A curious thing happens in America in the summers: people take most of their clothes off. At least on college campuses. It looks like someone has swapped the university students for beachgoing young people. Girls wear short-shorts - denim or otherwise - and tiny cotton shirts - with straps or otherwise. It was my first summer in America as a university student, and I had recently heard the word 'spaghetti straps' for the first time. That summer, it was fashionable for young ladies to cover their hair with a bandana, as if one were just about to step out to pick corn on a farm somewhere or put on a huge helmet before setting off on the road with one's other Harley-riding friends. The boys' fashion does not seem to have changed much over the years since then; that summer they wore t-shirts and long cargo-style shorts. Khakhis, I discovered they were called. Hey, that's an Urdu word! Hello, my name is Khadija, I'm from India but was raised in the Middle East.

I was very attached to my pair of blue jeans that I would often pair with a bright shirt and a blue denim fisherman's hat that had colourful flowers and butterflies (or was it dragonflies?) embroidered on it. In turqouise, blue, red, and yellow. Chunky dark brown unisex sandals were all the rage, and every young person the nation over had a pair that year. I remember I'd bought mine from Payless. They must've made a killing that year like they do every time a new fashion comes out in footwear.

The classroom that I took my sociology class in that summer was a small one. The floor at the back of the room was raised high and tilted down the closer it got to the front. The way an amphitheater's seats are arranged, I mean vertically and not horizontally, of course. The seats were arranged on either side of a narrow walkway that ran down the center of the room to where the instructor's area was. I don't remember the name of the professor who took that class, but he was a white American man in his late 50s or 60s. His hair was very white and the same colour as his skin. He was stout, not very tall, he was built like a kindly block. I can't remember if he wore glasses, but he did wear a hearing aid. He couldn't hear very well, which posed a problem for me a number of times and bumped me down from a sure A to a B. The professor, in his desire to instruct according to the Socratic method, had made class participation a large part of the grade. He'd unfortunately not be able to hear me if he was positioned at a certain angle from me when I'd raise my hand and call out to him with a question, insight, suggestion, or answer. Once he'd stood right in front of me with his back turned towards me, saying, "anyone? anyone?", looking for student participation. I'd raised my hand and called out his name a number of times, but he hadn't heard me and had gone on with the rest of his lecture. How embarassing! But it's not like anyone would have noticed in that class anyway. There were around 15 students in that class, most of them white Americans, all of them young and bored of the Socratic method and theories about social deviance and conformity. I remember them from where I used to sit on the left side of the classroom. I remember this one particular handsome young fellow. He was tall, white, a little pale, and with short dark brown hair. He had the bony build of so many young white American boys, and he wore dark brown sandals similar to mine.

Then there was this girl. White American too with a short straight blonde bob that behaved itself under the bandana she wore over it. She used to sit one row behind the tall brunette boy. I would often get distracted by her during the lectures of the kindly but hard-of-hearing professor. She usually wore a thin cotton shirt with spaghetti straps, and she seemed to favour light summery prints, the kind that have small flowers on light backgrounds. She was small and thin. Her back would often be exposed, and I'd be able to see her shoulder blades, small and razor-sharp like chicken bones, looking like they were about to tear out of her skin everytime they moved. She was a skeleton dipped in skin, a machine of metal and pins tightly covered with an empty balloon. She had small, very thin lips that she'd keep pursed very tightly. Her nose was small and very sharp. The skin on her face looked like it would tear any minute; you could see the malaised light blue veins lying lazily across her cheeks. Her arms were long bones and frightening. You could see her bare legs because of the short shorts she often wore. They were as thin as her arms and slightly curved. The dark brown sandals on her feet used to make me feel uncomfortable - what if their weight snapped her ankles?? She used to snack on dry Cheerios. She'd take them out of her backpack without moving too much - she never moved too much. I never saw her talking to anyone or participating in class. She'd sit in her chair, place her textbook and notebook out on her pulled-down flapdesk and sit very still and very properly for the duration of the class. Except when she'd snack on her Cheerios. She'd reach out for her backpack and slowly pull out a transparent Ziploc bag with the Cheerios in it. She'd then count out a certain number of Cheerios and arrange them on her desk. She'd then eat them very slowly one by one. One. By. One.

I would often find myself staring at this girl. It was hard not to. The young man who'd usually sit directly behind her in the topmost row would be looking at her chicken back as well. She was frightening to look at, like the pictures we've all grown up seeing of starving Somali children.

I've been thinking a lot about her these past few days, particularly since I recently started learning Photoshop. I've always known about Photoshop and the things it can do, but I didn't really understand the almost reality-molding extent of it until I actually saw it happening before my eyes or even by my own hands. It feels like everything I had ever been told about beauty and the way I was supposed to look has been undone. Like Ctrl+Z. Bam. I have suddenly stopped minding my flat hair days, skin outbreaks, new grey hairs, sometimes visible double chin, short legs, imperfect figure, back fat, cankles, muffin top, man hands, eyebrow regrowth, facial hair, body hair, fat, flab, one huge ugly walking-talking collection of flaws. A monstrosity. Flaws that they've now invented names for even. I don't care, you know? I don't see any of it now when I see myself in the mirror. I'm just having such a good time, I feel like I'm a kindergartener again. I don't know what all these grown-ups keep talking about - figures and diets and calories. I'm just having such a jolly good time rolling along in life. I just comb my hair and pin it back and dive right into the world with a new colour of nailpolish and fun costume jewellery. I am pretty again just like that, so now I don't have to worry about that anymore.

God, what about all those other young women? And those other young men? Generations of them who keep rejecting each other and even themselves because they don't know what real looks like? Cosmetic surgeries and compulsive exercising and not eating? To become like other people who don't even look like that themselves? I'd seen it in America, but now I saw it in India too. Is the whole world chasing mirages now? You can't ever catch a mirage because it isn't really there, but what happens to you while you're chasing it? Do you become a mirage too?

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


flavour flavour
i lick my lips
real sour
colour is
bright green
bright blue
bright yellow
leaf rain islands sun
i can touch
sticky honey
hard apple
under my fingertips
cut coriander from the kitchen
white air
hot french fries
apple cinnamon candles
my lungs full
such sounds
tick tick wall clock
dance dance dance
i can dance so well

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Doormat Speaks

"Mujhhe kya bura thha marna agar ek baar hota." - Ghalib

I died at the age of 19. Or rather, that's when I started dying. There were so many reasons, but really there was only one.

Self-censorship. Minding my manners. Brushing my own self under a thick carpet.

They don't tell you that it's dark under that carpet. It's dusty, and you can't breathe. There are insects and frightening bits of ancient dirt that get inside your lungs and inside your stomach and make you hack and claw at yourself. You lie like a cockroach on its back under that carpet, and when people walk on that carpet, you get crushed. It makes a crunchy sort of sound, but the carpet is so thick that nobody can hear it. Except you.

I'm not dead anymore. I forced myself to live again. It felt like defibrillation except it was my whole being - mind, body, and soul - that was being violently jolted with the electric current of life. Electricity. High voltage. The monster lives!! A bunch of dead body parts sewn together move again! Have you ever stuck your finger into a power outlet? You know how your whole body shakes so fast and so helplessly in the one second that it takes you to pull your finger away? You feel pain and fear and stupidity and relief and safety and a sick sense of speed? One after the other but so damn fast. All these things one after the other in one second. Well, I shoved my finger into the power outlet of life. I shoved it in real good, screwed it right in as deep as it would go. Make me feel pain, fear, stupidity, safety, speed! I said. Arouse me, crush me, raise me again! I forced more fingers in, my toes, my tongue, my eyeball. I spat into the power outlet and watched it sizzle and burn me even more. Punish me! I said. Burn me, here I am!! I let myself die, this is my punishment! Like when you have become so numb that you cut yourself deeper and deeper and even deeper just to feel something primal and raw again. Like when you slap someone to snap them out of a rut. Scare someone when they can't stop hiccupping. Scream when someone won't listen.

Being dead while still alive has taught me many things. It has taught me that I'd rather die of starvation or of a filthy dehumanising degrading disease rather than go back to feeling dead again. It has taught me that the terror of having to return to living inside a decaying corpse is greater than the fear of hunger, rejection, abandonment, old age, handicap, exploitation, failure, bullying, trauma, betrayal, even anonymity. Because this is a different sort of death. When you die this way, you are split into two. One part of you, the one on the inside, the one that is ether, swirls and swirls inside you like a great storm with nowhere to go. It still feels everything, and it hurls itself against the insides of the Iron Maiden that it's tearing itself on. The other part of you is the Iron Maiden itself, strong and steady and disciplined on the outside, but crucifying its own self on the inside, one sharp metal nail at a time, all sharp metal nails at a time. Nine inch nails that seal the coffin lid nice and airtight. When you die while you're still alive, you're like someone who has been buried alive. You pound against the insides of your coffin, but really, no one can hear you because you are buried six feet under thick black wet soil, and it's dark in there. No one will come to get you. No one will ever know that you were still alive. And worst of all, you were the one who put yourself in there. You were the mortician, you were the gravedigger, you read your own last rights, you were the people who shed tears at your own funeral, you read your own eulogy that you wrote quite beautifully yourself, you lowered yourself into the ground, you sealed your grave with a polite respectable tombstone. And then you realised what you had done. You had become the corpse and the coffin.

I tore my way out of that grave. I still can't get some of the dirt out from under my fingernails. If you come near me, you can still smell the earth. Do you see it, can you see the shadows of that grave in my eyes? No? Come closer. Look deep.

"And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." - Nietzsche

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Caricaturing Yourself: A Do-It-Yourself Guide

You know, I used to be able to write. It wasn't an effort at all, it was just how I was. Some people laugh when they are tickled, some cry at the movies, and I used to write. Didn't everybody? I still can't understand why some people say that they can't write. I mean, people can talk, can't they? I used to hear my own voice in my head, speaking my thoughts out loud in my head, and all I used to do was transcribe it, put it down on paper. Didn't everybody do that? What's so difficult about it? One day in high school I felt a rhythm beating inside me, so I wrote a poem along to that rhythm about all my friends to whom I had given Star Trek nicknames. English class was the most fun, it was so easy. You want to know what I did on my summer vacation? I'll tell you about how I ran throughout the house like a delivery girl helping my parents pack. About the person I love the most? I wrote an essay in primary school about my favourite uncle - a young man - who had left Oman for Canada - almost like exile in the 80s - and how he'd recently had heart surgery, so I wanted everyone to pray for him because I loved him so much. He used to take me out for joyrides in his black car when everyone else had just about had it with my 5-year-old self. He'd buy me red nailpolish and chips and play disco music in his car. My father had asked the teacher to let him keep my test paper with him for an extra day so he could make copies of my essay and sent it to my uncle in Canada and to my grandfather in Lucknow. I'd seen my grandfather whimpering when he read the part about my wanting everyone to pray for my uncle - his youngest son - in a country that was too far away for all of us then.

English class was so easy, even the non-creative part of it, like the letter writing and the reading comprehension questions, because I'd hear the answers in my head except rearranged in a better more smart-alecy way from the usual way we were taught to answer. All I had to do was write down what I was hearing. Sometimes I'd see the words in my head - big, black, with sharp edges, like stone-and-mirror buildings. Didn't everybody? Sometimes I'd think of a cool scenario and wonder how it would pan out. So I'd write that out as a story and see where it took me. I once wrote an essay on the spot with other contestants about the state of India on the 50th year of her independence. I just wrote out whatever my family used to discuss at home all the time, and I won - third place. I had just gone out there and written down my thoughts on the matter. I didn't give it a second thought. And I'd won. I hadn't even prepared or practiced or read a bunch on that topic before going. I know the other kids had been coached by their parents and teachers and did not really care about the topic anyway. I'd just gone and put down my thoughts and left the testing room. That had been prize-worthy? But it had not been an effort at all. Wasn't it supposed to be? Writing for me was like how some people sweat when they're warm, it just happens. Doesn't it for everybody? I wasn't doing the writing for anybody else. I was always laughing and amusing myself with it, and I didn't understand why anybody would call it talent. I mean, everyone took English class, right? We had all learned how to write essays and letters and telegrams, right? I did my assignments like everybody else. It was fun because it felt like a game. Talk, they'd say, and I'd speak. I had something to say, so I'd say my piece and be done with it. I'd never look back, the way I wouldn't go back to discuss a test paper. Why would anybody want to go back and dissect things that way? There was no great design to it, no great strategy that made it work, it just happened like a flash of temper, a cloudburst, and it was gone. Whoever went back to judge the mechanics of rain so that that exact storm could be reproduced exactly that way? Why would anyone want to? I had talent, they used to say. I don't know why they would say that. It didn't feel like talent. I didn't like it when they would call it talent. It made me feel like I was obligated to repeat my performances, the ones that worked, and abandon the ones that didn't stir applause. Cut-and-paste myself onto my own self. Cut out parts of myself. Replicate the best thunderstorms, light by light, thunder by thunder, like a carefully coordinated Pink Floyd concert.

Somewhere along the way I became self-conscious. I had talent, I had been told so many times, so that meant that I was supposed to become a 'writer'. What is that? I'd been writing since kindergarten, and I'd first been published at the age of 7. I'd first been paid for writing at 9. But I wasn't a writer yet. Real writers write books, so I promised myself to have a book published by 24. I made that promise to myself one night sitting in my dorm room alone in America. I had been young, not older than 22. It felt like it should be a novel, that's what the Bronte sisters and Charles Dickens and all those other English writers that Indian students are raised on had written. I started a novel on my old PC in my dorm room - it was supposed to be a post-apolcalyptic futuristic adventure story of human rediscovery, it was supposed to be work that would give the world insight into the human condition, but I just could not get past the wall after the first few pages. I felt so ashamed. I had no talent at all.

In the real world, in America, I discovered that real writers got published by the big magazines. I started small. I turned a few stories in to a magazine that was run by the English department at my university. I had written those stories in the style of an up-and-coming genre in the Western world in those days - English-speaking South Asian writers. That's what I was, so I wrote like that. The magazine never called me back. But I had always been told that I had talent. Maybe I didn't really. My grand gestures of genius shattered in the brittle breeze of anonymity. I felt so ashamed. I was 19 or 20. I stopped writing around that time, mostly because I had nothing to say anymore. My technical education was making me so right-brained, I had to worry about life and death and immigration and God and terrorism, I was so tired, and I didn't want to embarass myself anymore. I had no talent, but I wouldn't tell anyone that. I would just not say anything at all. I was trying to be a writer but I couldn't do it. There was nothing in my mind anymore, no running dialogue, the Oracle had stopped speaking. Without it I was useless. I had nothing to transcribe anymore. So it had never really been me that was talented.

Around the time I stopped writing, I also stopped speaking. Stopped speaking my mind, stopped taking a stand. I didn't know who I was in this new country, I hated what I was studying at university. I tried to sound like all the engineers but I couldn't. It was such an unnatural forced way of being. Who talks like that anyway? People usually talk about what they feel, and everyone around me was always talking about binary code and learning the languages of machines. I tried to talk like that, but I couldn't. I had failed at writing, and I was failing as a technical person, despite all the money that my family was spending on me - and reminding me about - on my university education. I used to be good at everything once upon a time, and I had vague memories of never feeling this pressure inside me to just become what people wanted me to be. Everyone else seemed to be doing it fine, becoming whatever their degrees were teaching them to become. Then why was I having such difficulty blending in? I had been trying so hard too. So there had to be something wrong with me, I couldn't seem to do anything right. I wouldn't tell anyone that, though. I just kept going, smiled harder, and people thought I was doing so well. I tried so hard because I didn't want to fail at this too. The only writing I did in those days were emails and university papers. I used a lot of 'therefore', 'herein', 'in fact', 'as follows' in my writing. My emails were quite long, and people used to tell me that my capitalisations and and grammar was always perfect, that one could tell that that email had come from me. I heard from people that my emails were always so much fun to read, that they were like stories, but I was no writer. I could never be like Ghalib or Jhumpa Lahiri. It hurt sometimes so I tried to not think about it. But it would come to me late at night when I'd be trying to sleep.

Once I started my fulltime IT job, I joined a writing club and attended a number of meetings and conferences where I heard speakers - poets, published novelists, editors, agents - talk about mindmapping, character development, paragraph structure, punctuation, character archetypes, manuscript formatting, cover letters, niche markets, genres, submissions, pitches. I wanted to learn how to write because I obviously didn't know how to. I wanted to learn from the people who had done it. I had to compensate for my lack of talent. I even subscribed to Writer's magazine. There was so much I didn't know - dangling modifiers, misplaced phrases. I felt even worse. I had never known any of these things when people used to say that I had talent, when I had been published before. I must've been really green. I felt so ashamed of myself. So I tried to learn as much as I could from as many people in the business. I learned about the 3-act structure, about opening with a hook, I learned about active versus passive voice, I learned about opening a book with action. I knew all these things now. And you know what? I still couldn't write that big amazing book that would make me a writer. I wrote a non-fiction book about being a Muslim and sent a cover letter, synopsis, and sample chapters to over 100 publishers in the US, and most did not respond. A handful wanted to see the rest of the book, but turned me down after. One publisher who'd wanted so badly to see my work started avoiding me later and then told me angrily that my writing had put him to sleep. I had been surprised at how rude he had been, considering how he had been pursing me himself. Another editor was really nice to me, and though he didn't buy my book, he told me that he had liked my voice.

My voice, my voice. It had stopped speaking to me.

But I liked the aspect of hanging around other writers. They used to talk about hearing voices all the time, even the ones who had written 50 novels. Fifty novels! Ten even! I couldn't even write one. I couldn't write anything. I was not a writer, just someone whose grammer and punctuation was clean. I wrote 4 books for a US publisher later, my first book coming out on my 28th birthday. My publisher said that I was the best writer they had ever seen, and that their staff would take first dibs on assignments that involved working with me. They said that they never had to make any major changes to my manuscripts. I had a couple of stories appear in two major US magazines that were founded by Norman Vincent Peale. I even dropped by their office and met their staff in New York City, right across from the Empire State Building. I got a couple of fan emails because of the stuff I wrote. But it was all non-fiction. I was not a writer. I had half a dozen stories and a novel, all unpublished or abandoned in the early stages, sitting in my computer. But I lost count of the number of people who'd told me that I should never stop writing. But writing what? I couldn't write anything. I had evidence in my PC. The pressure inside me was growing, so I gave in and started a blog. For myself, for my sanity. I used to write a personal diary when I was a little kid in school, but I'd lost the habit once I'd started university. I picked that habit back up after I read about Anne Frank in a book about influential women in history. Her writing sounded like mine.

Nobody was more shocked than I when my writing assignments were praised at the NDTV media institute in Delhi. Praised a lot. By people I thought were smart. But it didn't add up. I'd given up trying to sound talented by then. I'd been blogging and writing my diary for a few years, and our writing assignments were supposed to be personal reflections, so I would just write on. It frightened me and disturbed me when I was appreciated. I had no talent, I wasn't even using big words or thinking too much about something great to say. It was upsetting. It was confusing. I wasn't sure if I was being mocked. It frightened me. It was cruel. I hated being introduced as the 'trained writer'. I hadn't even figured out how to be a writer, let alone a trained one. I don't think there is any such thing. I had no talent at all. I knew so many people who had written so many novels, they'd churn them out the way my mother makes rotis. Punch, whack, slap, fire, and roti. Punch, whack, slap, fire, and roti. Punch, whack, slap, fire, and roti. They were the writers, not I.

But now I can't stop writing, I have so many diaries full of words, I can't stop reading, I can't stop writing. None of it is about the human condition. It's just about me and what I see. I don't know how other people feel. I don't know how someone in post-apocalyptic France would feel. I just don't care about being talented anymore. It's tiring trying to become Salman Rushdie. It's tiring trying to be fascinating. No one's writing a book about me or making a movie based on my life. I'm not famous, and I don't have famous friends. I don't think I would trade my oddball collection of friends for famous ones anyway. I have always liked Stephen King's writing a lot because he talks straight, and it feels like he's talking to me. I'm talking to you, I'm talking to you now. I've been hearing whispers in my head lately, visions of images that need to be described, people whose stories need to be told, bits of life that will haunt me forever and show up at the edges of my dreams unless I tell you about them. I'm not doing it to expand my resume, I don't care for the talent. The voices are talking back to me again, they're showing me pictures again, and you need to see them too. I don't care if people don't agree with what I have to show them and even if they get offended. That's their right. But if the voices stop talking to me again, I will have no one to take dictation from. And then I'll just be useless. Like a forgotten pencil lying at the back of the dark closet of your childhood.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

One Jewish Girl

She was a petite young woman. It was the 1940s, and she was in her early 20s. Her shoes were chunky yet sensible, her long skirt was thick and a dull shade of light brown. She wore a loose full-sleeved white blouse under her short dark grey jacket. Her hair was dark and tied up in a quiet bun, but not many ever saw her hair because of the scarf she always wore around her head. It exposed her ears and stayed in place with the firm knot she'd tie at the nape of her neck.

I wish I knew her name. She was a serious young woman, but those were serious times. Her skin was of a pale colour that was brown, yellow, and blue all at the same time. She never spoke much. She never looked people in the eye for too long, but her eyes were dark and rich and quick. They were eyes that were meant to be looked into, and if she had lived long enough, she would have met someone who would've gently held her small face in his strong hands and looked into those eyes that never looked at anyone else for too long. He would have undone her scarf and her hair and, when she looked up at him, realised that she was the most vulnerable thing he had ever seen. She was from somewhere in eastern Europe, and if she ever spoke, you knew she'd carry the jagged edges of her native tongue to every language she ever spoke. She had been working as a secretary in a small office for the past couple of years. She was good at her job. She was efficient, neat, and kept to herself, only approaching her employer if she had a question, which she would softly but firmly ask without pretense and without raising her dark eyes. She worked like she lived - sensibly. Like her shoes.

Her shoes were making a dry scraping sound on the street. Sometimes there was a crunch. She was walking down the street with the few belongings she had had time to retrieve. She'd wrapped these belongings in a small tablecloth and was now holding them to her chest. She didn't know where she was going, but neither was the rest of the crowd. They were all women, and they were all walking down that wide street. Most of them were older than her; she was one of the younger ones. She was also one of the prettier ones. Some of the other women had too long straight legs, others had cheekbones that cast long shadows across their sunken cheeks. She had looked at the woman on her left. She looked like she was in her early 40s. A tall woman with dark strands escaping from under the scarf that covered her hair. Her face was long, her mouth was wide, her lips were thin, her eyes were looking ahead but not really looking at anything at all. She looked like she was dying on the inside, but her face never moved. Her mouth was slightly open. She looked like she knew she was condemned.

The crowd was dragging its feet, almost sleepwalking towards a destination I couldn't see. It was too far into the horizon. We were in Europe, or at least they were. I was visiting. I was dreaming. I was in my dream and watching them all.

I didn't know the young woman's name. I saw her sitting in the back of a long metallic bus in the middle of that last long seat. She was smaller than everyone else. She was neater than everyone else. Her scarf, her hair, her skirt, her jacket, her blouse, her shiny eyes, her small mouth, her little hands, her short clean nails, everything was in place. She was a neat and orderly girl. She didn't know where they were all being taken, just that they had all been asked to leave their homes so that they could all be resettled somewhere else. She had had no family for a long time now, and she had stopped feeling frightened in her aloneness sometime ago, but I felt so sorry for this proper young woman who was really a little girl who had been trying to be brave and grown-up because that's just what you have to do sometimes.

I saw her next at a campsite. It was almost dark. The people who ran that campsite wore uniforms, and they had taken all personal items from the women who had been brought there by the bus. The young woman was slowly passing by a pile of confiscated belongings. They had taken everything from her as well, everything that had been wrapped in the tablecloth she used to cover the small bedstand with in the plain dark apartment she used to live in. She had hidden one thing from the people in the uniforms - a book? I couldn't see. She had hidden it in her clothes, tucked it in the waistband of her skirt under her jacket. She couldn't let them take the book away from her. It was her most prized possession, she could never part from it. It meant too much. Then I saw it. It was my book, a scrapbook of my life that my friends in Delhi had made for me. No one had ever given me such a present before. It was one of my most prized possessions. A small scrapbook with a paper mache pink cover. She could never part from it. She couldn't let them take that away from her too.

She walked ahead some more to where the beds had been laid out in a straight line out in the open. It would get dark soon, and cold. She didn't know why they had all been brought here. The people in uniforms wouldn't tell them. Maybe tomorrow they would say something. She hadn't had time to tell her employer that she would be going away, and the landlord would wonder where she had gone. She hoped she'd get to go back tomorrow. There was so much to do, so much to keep an eye over. She would explain things to her employer and her landlord when she got back. The people in uniforms weren't saying anything, and they had taken away the things she had brought with her, but she would never let them find her scrapbook.

Who knows who this young woman was? My dream ended, I never got her name. I couldn't figure out the name of the concentration camp that she had been taken to. I know she died soon after that. She had been surprised when she was dying, because until the very end she had thought that she would be sent back to her job and her apartment, to her life. The camp swallowed her and all the others. I don't know what they did with her body, if it was buried in a mass grave, if it was cremated in one of the ovens at the camp. Her scrapbook disappeared, and her employer, who had been so happy with her work, and her landlord, who was so happy having her as a tenant, never found out what happened to her. They asked around about her for a while and then gave up and found a new secretary, a new tenant. It was as if she had never existed.

She was a good girl, she was a hardworking sincere girl. She was shy but intelligent, and she was supposed to have become a great many things. She was supposed to have met a man who would have run his great fingers through her loose hair. She was meant to have known that kind of love that makes one's body blush, and she was meant to grow old with him, her dark hair turning white because she was meant to have become a petite little grandmother. She was supposed to have family once again and to know that kind of immortality. She existed once, but before anyone could get to know her, she was taken by the holocaust. Nobody knows what happened to her at the camp - the people in uniforms destroyed all their records of the inmates when they lost the war.

I felt so bad for her, for all the things she missed, for all the things she could have been. She did exist, you know, even if there is nothing left to say that she did. But it's okay now, I know she once lived. Somebody now knows that she was once here.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Elements of Style

"Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald's style, we don't mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation - it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.
Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realising that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style - all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.
Style takes it final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, "Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar." This moral observation would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style. If you write, you must believe - in the truth and worth of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message. No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence, or whose attitude is patronising."

- Strunk and White, 'The Elements of Style'

Creative People Who Hate Themselves

"Making a piece of art may feel a lot like telling a family secret. Secret telling, by its very nature, involves shame and fear. It asks the question "What will they think of me once they know this?" This is a frightening question, particularly if we have ever been made to feel ashamed for our curiousities and explorations - social, sexual, spiritual.

"How dare you?" angry adults often rage at an innocent child who has stumbled onto a family secret. (How dare you open your mother's jewellery box? How dare you open your father's desk drawer? How dare you open the bedroom door? How dare you go down in the cellar, up in the attic, into some dark place where we hide those things we don't want you to know?)

The act of making art exposes a society to itself. Art brings things to light. It illuminates us. It sheds light on our lingering darkness. It casts a beam into the heart of our own darkness and says, "See?"

When people do not want to see something, they get mad at the one who shows them. They kill the messenger. A child from an alcoholic home gets into trouble scholastically or sexually. The family is flagged as being troubled. The child is made to feel shame for bringing shame to the family. But did the child bring shame? No. The child brought shameful things to light. The family shame predated and caused the child's distress. "What will the neighbours think?" is a shaming device aimed at continuing a conspiracy of illness.

Art opens the closets, airs out the cellars and attics. It brings healing. But before a wound can heal it must be seen, and this act of exposing the wound to air and light, the artist's act, if often reacted to with shaming. Bad reviews are a prime source of shame for many artists. The truth is, many reviews do aim at creating shame in an artist. "Shame on you! How dare you make that rotten piece of art?"

For the artist who endured childhood shaming - over any form of neediness, any type of exploration, any expectation - shame may kick in even without the aid of a shame-provoking review. If a child has ever been made to feel foolish for believing himself or herself talented, the act of actually finishing a piece of art will be fraught with internal shaming.

Many artists begin a piece of work, get well along in it, and then find, as they near completion, that the work seems mysteriously drained of merit. It's no longer worth the trouble. To therapists, this surge of sudden disinterest ("It doesn't matter") is a routine coping device employed to deny pain and ward of vulnerability.

Adults who grew up in dysfunctional homes learn to use this coping device very well. They call it detachment, but it is actually a numbing out.

"He forgot my birthday. Oh, well, no big deal."

A lifetime of this kind of experience, in which needs for recognition are routinely dishonoured, teaches a young child that putting anything out for attention is a dangerous act."

- Julia Cameron, 'The Artist's Way'

Trim the Fat off Those Words

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

- Strunk and White, 'The Elements of Style'

Precision Writing

"If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the readers attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers - Homer, Dante, Shakespeare - are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures."

- Strunk and White, 'The Elements of Style'