The alarm goes off, piercing through the cold December morning. It is still dark – all the stars seem to have died. A tangible darkness, like a shroud. Like my shroud. I’d felt at peace while asleep; the alarm changed that, allowing the darkness to sit on my chest like an incubus paralyzing me.
It sings a pleasant tune – more a lullaby than an alarm. In its pleasantness, I sense an evil. A smile that holds knives at the ready. A smile that will slit your throat even as you smile back. Yet it won’t stop ringing.
I grope at the darkness and find a drawer whose steel handle is like ice. I’m about to shove the alarm in, when I find the things I’d lost. Things I thought I’d lost. A long time ago. And among them, a mirror with a golden frame shimmers through the darkness, inviting me to look.
I do and I see again the ugliness I’d forgotten, a resignation, a despair, all woven in. I throw the mirror in after the alarm, and a brief flash shows it to me – shows me the spider’s web in the corner.
I collect my resignation, I collect my despair, and I walk towards the web. I bite my thumb to draw blood. I spit out chunks of skin, erasing off the prints of my fingers. My swollen eyelids burst in pain. And I get the spider’s attention.
My knees tremble for I know it’s the end. Yet I keep walking, one foot after another, on a single silken thread. I see it rise from slumber, its drool spilling, my ugliness mirrored in its ugly eyes. It smiles and reminds me of my alarm clock, the clock that started this mess. I feel no desire to turn back. I walk, I surrender, I’m consumed whole. Then there is nothing but darkness. All the stars seem to have died.
“And what will you say when he asks since when you’ve been unwell?” “Since yesterday afternoon.” “And when he asks if you’ve taken any medication?” “I took some cough syrup.”
At this point, a grin would spread across his face. This scene has been played out so many times in our home that I know what is coming. My fever-parched throat readies itself to whine, call out to my mother. “And what will you say when the doctor asks when you’re getting married?” “Mommy!” I shout out to her to let her know of my irritation that has nothing to do with my illness.
Mommy comes over, smiling at my father’s “dreams” of his daughter’s far-off wedding day. Dreams he has begun to have when the daughter in question is seven. “Your daddy’s just teasing. But one day you’ll have to go.” Her smile turns wistful. The father of the future bride barks out a laugh.
My brother was never teased this way. His fevers and coughs were just fevers and coughs. His visits to the doctor did not have prospective alliances looming over them, brides lurking around in their trousseau. His doctors were never equated to matchmakers waiting for eligible bachelors to fall ill.
Parents, armed with their bedtime fairy tales and their “good-natured ribbing”, are essentially salespeople. And good ones at that. Fairy tales tell you the damsel met her prince and they lived happily ever after. That is the height of your heroine’s aspirations. The ceiling, the sky. For instance, in my dad’s hypothetical scenario, never once does the doctor ask if I maybe wanted to become a doctor myself. Or anything, other than “Would you like a groom with your prescription?”
This height of aspirations, not seeing beyond the “happily ever after”, was perfectly summarized in another conversation from my childhood. The youngest one in our group loved (and I mean LOVED!) to play the bride in our games. Just the bride, mind you. She was quite young, a kindergartner at the time if I remember correctly. Our neighbor’s daughter, who was in college, often came over to pinch our cheeks when she saw us playing. One day, she asked the little one why she liked playing the role of the bride. She whispered something into the older girl’s ear, whereupon her eyes widened theatrically and she exclaimed, “Haaye main marr jaawaan!” This roused our curiosity, and after we demanded, “Didi, usne kya kaha? What did she say?!” a few times, Didi revealed to us that, “Use sajne ka shauk hai.She loves to dress up.”
That is honestly all that’s sold to us. And that is enough. It leads to a lifetime of insecurities and doubts on self-worth, creating scared little girls whose only ambition is to be a bride someday. (Note how I say “bride” and not “wife”) And why? Because it’s nice to dress up? Play a bedecked and bejewelled centrepiece as a linear continuation of our childhood games?
Now you could argue that this limit on women’s aspirations is a thing of the past. After all, both the examples above are from my childhood. And that now, girls are encouraged to choose other, better ambitions than settling down unwillingly into someone else’s life and getting lost in it. If you believe this, then I’m here to shatter those beliefs (as much as I wish you were right)
These magazine covers are from September 2016.
This is just the beginning of a certain kind of conditioning that states your main aim is to look pretty. That’s your ladder. It starts at a young age and something we carry into adulthood. An unmarried woman past a certain age is automatically labeled a failure, even if she’s the CEO of a company. She’s labeled “angry”, “aggressive”, “frustrated”. Never “successful”. Never “fulfilled” or “happy”. The world cannot compute even the possibility. The world has not taught the woman to aspire to this happiness, this success. How dare she?
Then there are some of those (I’m struggling to not use expletives here) who complain, “But if women really could do better than they are now, why are all the famous scientists men?” These people need to be high-fived. In the face. With Thor’s hammer. (Then they would probably ask why Thor is male, but that’s just not an argument that’s worth getting into.)
As for the “happily ever after”, if there’s a more guilt ridden position than “wife”, I’ll be happy to hear it. If you work, you’re guilty. If you don’t, you still are. If you have friends and a social life, you’re guilty. If you don’t, you still are. There’s guilt anywhere you turn, because you are always expected to be a certain way and somehow, you are always failing to meet those expectations. To use my own example, I’ve lost count of the hints that have been dropped around me that it’s now “time to quit my job and take care of the household”. Ridiculous as it sounds, it appears that I’m a rebel of sorts just because I go for work.
It’s taken me years, but I’m finally learning to let go of the “wife guilt”. Letting go of it one wedding bangle at a time. It’s taken me even more years, but I’m unlearning my “Cinderella Complex”. My “Snow White Complex”. My “Hell-literally-any-fairy-tale-with-a-prince-and-damsel-in-distress Complex”. I won’t deny that I suffered from it – it was a part of my upbringing. It is all I heard every time I fell ill, every time I changed schools, every time a family friend came to visit. Every time I was reminded that I was a cumbersome responsibility that my parents had to shed. All of these expectations that didn’t even lead to a cute dress up party, as my little friend claimed a long time ago, but a disappointing, underwhelming experience (which I wrote about here).
When I wrote the above-linked post, in his comments, Marty Rubin pointed out that women give up so much of their freedom when they get married. It occurred to me that though we all know this to be true in most cases, we still go ahead without a second thought because it never crosses our minds to negotiate better for our future. We put a lid on our dreams because of the fears that have been instilled in us. We don’t even realize it at the time, because our minds have been warped into believing that we’re meeting the ambition that was set for us from childhood.
Why are we doing this to little girls?
This is the Women’s Day week and I’ve written this post as a part of #WomenOfBlogging. If you’ve written a post about this theme, please add it to the Linky:
H joined our team at work a couple of years ago and disliked me almost instantly. I say “almost” because at first (during the first week at least), she tried hard to force her way into our group. We were a tad cliquey back then, but polite nevertheless – after all, we all knew how intimidating it is to be the new team member (plus, we were adults – cliques do not exist in the kingdom of adulthood). But seeing just how hard she was trying made us suffer from secondhand embarrassment – she monopolized conversations, gave out too much personal information, invited herself to our little outings without being asked.
Her dislike grew because I was no less vocal than she once I started noticing her behavior, which had, by then, turned badly unprofessional. The others were quite diplomatic in the way they handled her; I’m not particularly adept in that department. Later on, the others too dropped their pretenses, except my friend B, who was by then the only one still polite to her. B is a good person that way.
Just a few months after being with us, H decided to quit. I was overcome with guilt, and began to wonder if I should have done something differently, tried harder to be nice in the face of her hostility (instead of paying her back in her own coin). I’m pretty sure there’s a list somewhere of people who hate me vehemently, and I’ve always found their hate amusing. So this was no inherent need in me to be liked by all. Why this uncharacteristic change of heart in her case then? Out of fear.
I found out that she liked Howard Roark, on whom I’d had a huge crush at one point (as huge as crushes on fictional characters go – in many a fantasy, I have wished I was Dominique Francon). I tried to use our mutual affection for Roark to extend an olive branch. She (obviously) did not reciprocate, at which point, I was filled with a cold dread that led to this conversation between B and me:
B: What rubbish! What makes you even think that? The two of you have nothing in common.
Me: She likes Howard Roark. I don’t know anyone else who does. Except me.*
B: Big deal! She’s not Mr. Heckles. You’re not Chandler.
Me (borderline hysterical): The woman is always complaining about me. When I look at her, I see myself ten years down the line – bitter, miserable, bitching about people. What if I really turn into her? What if I die alone like Mr. Heckles?
B (pretty annoyed at this point): You’re not gonna die alone. Shut up now.
*There were other things which I mentioned – but let’s not elaborate.
That’s not the only reason why I never forgot her either (I had a moment a few months ago where I couldn’t recollect her name, but it came back to me eventually). Just a few months after H quit, I did too. Since then, I’ve been landing only in projects/organizations that do not have a team structure for my role (what a weird coincidence), and therefore I do not have any opportunities to mingle with people. I don’t do well when I don’t talk to others – I’m just programmed that way (unhealthy co-dependence and a need to yak with people whom I’m on similar wavelengths with) – and this explains my (joke of a) career graph in the past two years. When I think about that, the guilt resurfaces. Followed by the fear.
What do you think, Reader? Do you ever get accosted by fears like mine?
Of late, this rough little slimy rope has been growing around my mind telling me I sound overly self indulgent, a la Elizabeth Gilbert from what I assume to be a pre-Eat Pray Love era. I have criticized the book in the past because I felt it was the work of a privileged person who had the means to indulge if she so wished. But I stand here corrected, because unless we’ve been on the edge of chaos and confusion, I don’t think we are in a position to judge. So humor me while I too find my footing like she did.
While I do not have the resources to take a year off work and go eating in Italy or cycling in Bali, I do know that I’m going to move out of my comfortable box. For two whole years now, I have been caught in this conflict between stagnancy and listlessness. This is partly because I’m used to things changing – change, as the saying goes, has been the only constant in my life.
Growing up, we changed cities every four years (give or take one year). Which meant every four years, I had to leave behind friends, houses, familiar settings. Which means, even now, while I am surprisingly loyal to my friends, I remain a tad detached out of fear of being eventually uprooted from their lives. This is my normal.
This year, I will complete eight years in Bangalore. That’s double of what I’m used to. This February, I will have lived in my current residence for four years. Those who know me know that every part of me rejected this house since the day I moved in. The reasons why I have my name on the contract, the forceful ways I’m tied to it – all of it only caused me to reject it more. You cannot turn a house into a home if you’re so busy disconnecting from it. Did I give it a try? Yes, because as I mentioned above, it’s a house that’s been forced on me, so goddammit, I tried to make it work. But eventually you reach a breaking point. One where the dissonance around you shakes everything you know and you’re willing to let go of it all. Why now and not before? That’s a story for another day.
The next part of my grand 2017-figure life out plan/idea is that I’ve decided to move to a different city. Which city? I don’t know. Am I jinxing it by speaking too soon about it? Maybe. Is the world a hostile place right now (quite possibly on the brink of war)? I do believe it. But eight years ago also the world was a shaky place and I still quit a cozy job to move cities for my own reasons – a move which was unanimously labeled “hasty and stupid” by family and friends. I still like to think I made it, professionally at least. Only back then, I knew where to move and what I wanted to do. Elizabeth Gilbert knew where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do. Right now, I do not know either.
I had life all figured out as a six year old. There was nothing to it – you grew up, became an adult, and then everything would be at your fingertips. Quite simple.
It was as I grew older that I felt I was losing fragments of my grand plan, and that things weren’t as transparent as they seemed. This led to maturity giving way to immaturity. Like I’m Benjamin Button, but on the inside. Frankly, I was at the peak of my maturity and ambition at age six.
How did I get here?
There’s a reason why we are told to make decisions with a cool head. The reason being, the decisions we make at a metaphorical gun point are often terrible.
Depression does not allow you to have a cool head. It is a permanent gun pointed at you when you have it. Your actions seem mechanical and you feel you’re just going through the motions. At the same time, there’s an incessant restlessness in you, a tingling in your feet that tells you to run away, do something reckless just so that something happens and you feel something. Anything to forget what’s hurting you; anything to feel anything else.
In December, I made some poor choices out of the desperation that comes from being there – I got back in touch with a group of people I had broken ties with because I intensely dislike their hypocritical and negative outlook towards life [it drains your energy right out], just so I could have someone to talk to. I was so terrified of the fact that if someone did not tie me up, I might harm myself, and my future looked so blank and bleak (mostly blank) that I just wanted someone from the future to come and tell me everything was going to be OK. Reassurance. I wanted to take a trip, just to get away from everything. I wanted to relocate to a different city, because I felt claustrophobic over here all of a sudden.
I held myself back. For once I let lessons learnt in the past rule me. While I did reconnect with the people I mentioned above, and also may have said/done some borderline imbecilic things, I did not let myself make any decisions that would in the long run have severe repercussions. I decided to give myself a month to “calm down” so to speak.
A month later, the immediate restlessness had subsided and I collected my follies from the previous month. Whatever hurt me then was still hurting, but not in a slice-your-heart-open way. I was definitely calmer, could sleep better, and while I still desperately wanted to see a therapist and get help, I was stopped by the doubts I have on the competencies of Indian therapists, given some less than satisfactory experiences I had had in the past [If anyone reading this has a recommendation, I would surely welcome it]. I considered a career change, and when nothing came to light, and I began to feel restless and directionless again. I did the only thing that I could think of then – call up my oldest friend in the middle of the night and cry (this is not alarming – she’s used to it by now, I think).
My friend and I look alike; everyone tells us so. When my son was a year old, he met her and was confused as hell. It is because of this that when I look at her, I think of her as me in a parallel universe – a universe where I have not made the mistakes I’ve made. I always looked up to her for her independence and her levelheadedness. She never bowed down to parental pressure (yet another gun point of sorts) and has so far made a good path for herself. So imagine my shock when I was crying that night about how lost I was feeling and she replied with, “Dude, we’re all lost.” Of course, I insisted I was more lost, and that at least she had a plan. Turns out she also did not have a plan. No one has a plan.
There was a time when I thought of myself as a hopeless romantic. Even as I wrote endless reports on Shakespeare’s villains for school or wrote about gruesomely severed heads to amuse myself, my secret ambition was to write a love story of epic proportions. And when no one was looking, I would let the facade crumble and write poems of love (which sound horribly cheesy now) on the lines of “I haven’t found you yet.”
All of this was before I became the hopeless cynic that I am now.
One of the reasons why I was a hopeless romantic was, I think, because unlike everyone else I knew, I was single (is single too heavy a word to be assigned to teenagers?), and the proverbial grass beckoned me like the glint of green glass. My grandmother and her sister firmly believed I was destined to die an old maid, and my academic achievements were therefore null and void. We are, sadly, after all, raised to believe that if you do not find a Prince Charming for a companion, you’re worthless. It took a lot of years for me to come out of that demeaning mindset, but the day they uttered that “prophecy”, I think a part of me believed all of life was meaningless, and everyone I knew had something that I did not. But I digress.
One day, while helping a friend choose a birthday present for another friend, I found myself looking at a greeting card. A simple one, no fancy fonts or glittery picture. All it said was “For you”. It appealed to the romantic in me, and I thought if there was a chance in hell that I wouldn’t die an old maid, then this would be something to gift whoever it was I hadn’t found yet. I bought the card, and kept it hidden in a notebook.
That was the first in a series of “tokens” I bought. My fairy tale idea of love was cemented with each token I bought, fed and watered by all the notions pop culture offered. More song lyrics, more secret poetry followed. All of it hidden in the same notebook with the greeting cards, quotes and sometimes, even old bits of gift wrapping paper, if they happened to have hearts on them.
That picture of me isn’t something I can relate to today, over a decade later. A few years ago, I was back home, in my old room, and decided to throw all the tokens away. I just decided it wasn’t me, and all those bits had no place in my life. Interestingly, I could not find the notebook. Maybe somebody found it, had a hearty laugh and threw it out. I can’t say.
Or maybe, it will turn up years later, when I’m older, to remind me who I used to be – full of wide-eyed innocence and dreams of impractical puppy love.
A few weeks ago, I was discussing Past life regression with an acquaintance. While I was always interested in the study of the mind, and the subconscious, and Freud’s theories, past life regression is a wholly new area for me. I had, of course, heard of it, but it was not something I gave much thought to. To me, until then, reincarnation, or past life, or the manifestations of accumulated karma were a largely religious concept, and therefore something to be dismissed as hokum. They were also, to some extent, a Bollywoodesque idea, that had run its course somewhere in the 90s.
No matter, because the idea was still intriguing, and I have to say, all of a sudden, I wanted to know if I had lived lives before. Wait. I’d be lying if I said the idea took root when the discussion happened. The fact is, I had been curious about past lives ever since I read Ashwin Sanghi’s The Rozabal Line, back in 2009. It has come and gone like a whiff every now and then since then. If such a thing exists, then I’d like to know something about it. Anything. It is difficult not to romanticize about it once the idea has planted itself.
But this particular discussion dug its toes deeper into my head. Suddenly, I was googling past life regression in the middle of the night, in the midst of a splitting headache, and reading all I could find on the subject. I dreamed up all kinds of scenarios, where I sat with a practitioner and discovered who I was, and dramatically discovered my relationships with those who are in my present life. Most prominently though, I secretly harbored this fantasy that I would discover I was Sylvia Plath or Anais Nin in a past life. A girl can dream, eh?
One of the articles I read said that the only people who are advised to perform past life regression are those who feel there is something lacking in their present life, or those who are trying to find the root cause of a problem or emotion. I have always felt this strange sense of “not belonging”. Not to this world, not to this period in time. Always a little lost, always searching for “home.” Always trying to figure something out. I have written several posts about this as well. This explains the Sylvia Plath fantasy!
The reason why I am a writer today is partly because I have been trying to explore these questions. On the other hand, I believe writers must keep an open mind – to all hypotheses, to all ideas, to all experiences. I also believe writers must give in to instincts and emotions. Writers grow through excesses. The excesses they fit into their short attention spans. The whys. The hows. The alrights. The welcomes. The loves. The lusts. The harmonys. The cordialitys. The honestys. The opennesses. The acceptances. The understandings.
My error was, however, I bracketed all writers into these open-minded souls. I forgot, at the end of the day, we are humans. Humans with our pettiness and our general smallness of mind. I went out into the world expecting the same openness from everyone around me, placing the burden of my heavy expectations on their broad but weak shoulders.
Where I went looking for open-mindedness, I found the same kind of world I sought to abandon – closed, small souls, calling themselves creators but being nothing more than lice trying to trample each other on one head of hair. Angry souls. Dishonest souls. Backstabbing souls. Lonely and afraid souls. Friendless souls. Judgmental souls. Mocking souls.
Not souls. They were mere humans.
I went looking for people, who, perhaps felt as lost as I. I believed I would find the honesty and humility I was looking for in a crooked world. That maybe, in being among my own kind, or who I thought were my own kind, I would find myself. That together, we would better ourselves. Instead, all I found was a subset of the same people who already thought they were higher than the rest simply because they could string sentences one after the other. Who I found were those looking for instant fame. Writers on the outside, nosey, obnoxious neighbours on the inside.
Not writers. They were mere marketers.
Often, even in friendships, my expectations of others have been too great a weight for them to bear. Perhaps, this is an extension of it, and perhaps, this feeds my somewhat dormant misanthropy. It cushions the disappointments that come my way.
I wonder if I were to actually do the regression (since that is, after all, what we were discussing), what would I find about myself that would explain my boredom? What would I find that would stop me from placing so many expectations on simple-minded folk who do not deserve it.