Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Letter I Just Wrote in 1991

Dear grown-up Khadija,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

PPPS - how tall do I end up being?


Anonymous said...

You have this incredible knack of making me smile and have my eyes well up with tears at the same time. Nobody quite writes like you.

And if I may take the liberty to answer little Khadija's questions -

No, yes, and just tall enough.

Priyanka S said...

Have you begun writing your next book? Because you need to write these stories - and we need to listen to them- and keep on re-reading them.

Brilliant, Khadija, brilliant...and the biggest hug to little Khadija:)

The Constant Critic said...

I can't explain to tell you how moved I am by this piece, Khadija. Apart from relating to it at so many levels (to the point of disbelief)it is such a beautiful reminder of what we lose when we forget who we truly are and focus on everything that takes us away from our true nature, our instincts, our potential and talent. Very beautifully written!

Khadija Ejaz said...

I am 10, and I like my new friends, they are nice. Ringa-ringa-roses, skip, skip, skip, head in the clouds.