Yesterday I went to school to collect my TC. We met the principal, who, after the well-wishes and queries about college, asked me how I had been spending the holidays. I could only say ‘reading… ( I have finished a single book in these 2 months)’ and laugh my way through the awkward pause, trying hard to not blurt out ‘eating and sleeping!’.
The truth is, I have been engulfed by this overpowering laziness since March 15 (when my board exams ended), a state punctuated by short, sharp bursts of energy, creativity and awesome ideas. The casualties of this semi- couch potato existence are (or is it ‘were’? For someone who writes, I have a pretty low grasp of grammar) many excellent projects discarded halfway, or left in limbo.
If you have a Medium account or read the Times Life supplement, you are sure to have come across articles on the ‘art of doing nothing’ which extol the virtues of taking a break from the urge to do something and sitting back with a cup of coffee. But you know what? ‘Doing nothing’ is really easy- you just need Internet, a Netflix/Prime/Hotstar account (or the password to one) and potato chips.
So what is this post really about? It’s about what I did these 2 months, interspersed with reflections on life (or hot Pakistani actors). But mostly it is an attempt to assuage the sudden existential crisis I found myself in this afternoon: the usual thoughts that go like ‘what the hell am I doing with my life?’ and ‘why am I wasting so much time? I’ll be going to college in 2 months and I don’t know anything!’. I am getting these more frequently than before, probably the pre-college nerves acting up.
If you are reading this because you have been filled with this overwhelming numbness after looking at the results of the exit poll, know that I empathise with you. I can’t promise that this will make life cheerful again (nothing can after this) but I hope it can distract you from the impending doom. Trying out Snapchat filters on your daughter’s face is also a remedy that you can learn from my dad.
‘I love Pakistani movies’ I texted my mom one day. This statement sounds as if I spend all my free time watching these movies but the truth is, I have watched exactly one Pakistani TV drama (Zindagi Gulzar Hai) and one movie (Ho Mann Jahaan). While I have problems with the misogynism in ZGH, I absolutely loved the movie.
While the messages in ZGH left a lot to desire, what caught my attention was how realistic the portrayal of the characters, and the setting, was. People didn’t cook in designer sarees and the house of the middle-class family didn’t look like a movie set. Another admirable thing was the length of the drama- most of these are about 25-30 episodes long. This was refreshing after being used to Indian serials that last for a minimum of 5 years, probably to test how long and in how many different ways you can make the women cry.
Life on the other side wasn’t that different at all. Sure, there were some specific intricacies, like the quaintness of the Urdu words for greetings and goodbye (I still can’t pronounce them properly but find them beautiful), but norms, moral codes, dreams and aspirations of people were all the same.
This feeling intensified after I watched Ho Mann Jahaan on Netflix. I laughed and cried through it and felt a sense of contentment afterwards, especially when thinking of its message of tolerance for people with different beliefs and ways of life. The movie was totally fun and enjoyable.
I could relate to the characters as much as I would have if it was an Indian movie on the same topic. In the post-Pulwama polarised atmosphere, I found myself asking why people so similar were fighting with each other. This might strike some as, and it is, an emotional response that doesn’t take into account the politics, technicalities etc etc but I feel this basic realization is important to preserve one’s conscience through it all.
Going on to lighter stuff, the Pakistani actor Sheheryar Munawar is incredibly hot. He looked so good with that beard in the movie. Now, you must realize that this is a big thing for me- I have never really been a fan of any hero, and certainly never thought that an actor was ‘hot’. The funny thing is that my worst nightmare was being this typical, frivolous teenage kid interested in lipstick and fandom, but hormones can mess up everything unexpectedly I guess?
I discovered Marie Kondo in January through the show Tidying up with Marie Kondo. And you guessed it right, the very next thing I did was throwing all of my clothes in a pile on the bed. I tried looking at each item and asking whether it gave me joy, but decided in my circumstances the practical thing was to define joy as ‘useful and in good condition’- this helped get rid of the really old and torn stuff, and things like a pair of tight jeans I was never going to wear.
Then started the folding. I painstakingly Kondo-ed all of my shirts and pants and anything else that could be reasonably rolled, constantly chastising myself because they didn’t stand perfectly upright like they did when she tried. My clothes seemed especially unwieldy when compared to those of the people on the show. Also, I didn’t have those costly little boxes that made rolled up clothes look neat. Despite all that, when I was finished, everything looked awesome and I resolved to Kondo my clothes for life.
Then I packed entirely by myself (for the first time) for a 15-day trip to my cousin’s. I folded clothes the conventional way to ensure that they fit in the suitcase. Packing them back after the trip was over was excessively tiring, and I burst out wondering why on earth I had so many clothes- I should have been like those businessmen who just have a basic set of clothes to save time.
After coming back home, I was so exhausted that I didn’t want to do anything but curl up in bed all day and gorge on Pringles. I kept procrastinating on the inevitable task of Kondo-ing my trip-clothes all over again. When I finally started, nothing was going right, I just couldn’t roll them up properly. In a fit of rage, I threw all my clothes on the bed yet again, but this time, to un-Kondo them. When it was done, I slept like a log.
That was the story of the rise and fall of my Kondo- obsession. Dear Marie Kondo, you look perfect and everything you do is neat and perfect, but forgive me for saying that I have had enough. Between stress + incredibly neat shelves and peace + reasonably neat shelves, I chose the latter. Because sometimes all one wants to do after a tiring day is to come home and sleep.
Two of my best friends have taken the NEET. Another friend is preparing for JEE Advanced and requested us to reduce chatting in our group because she was not able to concentrate. A relative has enrolled in CA coaching that lasts for 5 hours every day. Heck, a class 9 girl I know is attending AKASH classes 4 times a week for 4 hours, during her summer leave!
What am I doing? In the last week, I have: started watching Mahabharat on Hotstar; consistently woken up at 9 am (yes, I deserve an award) and ooh-ed and aww-ed over Ranveer’s admiration of Deepika’s looks at Cannes. I have absolutely no commitments for the next two months, making me free to do whatever I want.
After the roller-coaster that was Oxford, my other college applications went very smooth and hassle free. I certainly didn’t work hard or anything. I applied to three more places- let’s call them A, B and C. I received offers from A and B and decided to go to A. My preparation strategy for the board exams was relatively reckless, considering how much effort I put in for 10th boards. The results were reasonably good.
Despite everything going well, there was this nagging feeling about it being so easy. Didn’t getting into a good college involve burning the midnight oil? It is true that I didn’t have to take nation-wide standardised entrance tests that require rigorous preparation; but even in the one such test I took, isn’t it true that it didn’t matter if I didn’t get in? (I didn’t. Alas! I was too lazy to do complex math sums, so just randomly chose the options since there was no negative marking :)). I realized that popular media had cemented this notion that you can get into a good place only if you shed sweat and tears.
I read this article on Andy Murray’s almost-retirement. The author was a sports psychologist, and he had written about how we encourage athletes to push their bodies to the breaking point by glorifying hard work, sacrifice and pain. Success through all these is seen as the mark of a true sportsman, thereby perpetuating a ‘culture of risk’ in sports. By doing this, sport neglects their quality of life after retirement. Since one’s sport becomes the identity of a sportsman, many of them feel useless and wasted after retiring, especially if it’s due to injury. Because their whole life has been woven into a ‘performance narrative’.
When I told him about this theory, my dad said that was exactly what I had been made to feel about college admissions. It struck me that what he said was so true. The same qualities of hard work and sacrifice were being glorified in academic success. Why else do you cut off the TV connection during your child’s exams? I have been a victim to this ‘performance narrative’ for far too long in my academic life. Academic success helped me get rid of my inferiority complex; the problem started when I used it to define myself (which is a very dangerous thing to do). Each time I got a low score, I would be shattered.
Due to the support of well-meaning classmates and school teachers who set an example, I have been changing. I still feel bad about a low score, but am definitely more relaxed about exams than ever before. My parents and those of you who read what I write have helped me realize that so many other things define me than marks received in a factual question paper.
This is not an effort to discount the glories of hard work, but merely to question why everything has to be a struggle. I am aware that the definition of a good college also plays a role in this- according to me, it is a place that allows you to explore your academic interests, a place where teaching happens through discussions. We seem to put so much emphasis on getting somewhere. Shouldn’t we concentrate more on what is going to happen once we reach there? I believe your interest in a subject is more important than your ability to get into a top college by cracking a test. And getting there is only a small step ahead in the vast journey of intellectual stimulation; it is not the end.
So dear Vibha (if you don’t know she scored 500/500 you are living under a rock), I am in awe of your achievement- especially how you studied for six to seven hours a day regularly. But I have decided that my choice to binge- watch Good Wife was definitely a better way to spend the tyrannically long study holidays. Best Wishes!
My latest hobby is writing fan-mail to favourite authors. It started when I reread Leelavati, my comfort book for more than 2 years. Written by Nandini Bajpai, it is the simple and charming love story of Rahul and Leela set in 12th century India. With a fiery and brilliant female lead, and a broad-minded male one, it is the perfect young-adult indulgence for a summer afternoon.
When I finished rereading it for the 4th time, I felt this urge to contact the author. Going to her website, I found a contact form. She had made it so easy. I thought of how nice it would be if all authors were like this! I wrote her a message, saying the book hadn’t lost any of its charm 2 years down the line. She replied that same evening, telling me that she enjoyed making up Leela’s world though the book wasn’t a commercial success.
A nice, respectable person would have stopped at that. But giddy with pleasure, I directly emailed her again (profusely apologising like a polite person). She was nice enough to reply again, complimenting me on my subject choices. I replied, spouting some stuff about how I also found them exciting. Obviously, she didn’t reply back. Why would anyone be interested in what my favourite subjects were? Clearly she had better things to do.
Next, I wrote to Amitav Ghosh. He is a great person- his email address is displayed on his website for the world to see. And guess what? Yes, yes, yes! He actually replied. (I feel like shouting this out from the rooftop). It took 6 days for him to respond, and I had almost lost hope. My joy knew no bounds.
It started like this. Ever since I read The Great Derangement, I have been connecting everything on earth from Trump to identity politics to the French protests and the Gaja cyclone to the ideas expressed in the book. Everything in it was so brilliant (especially the literature part) that I couldn’t stop thinking about those ideas. Then I found out that Richard Powers’ Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a story about trees and people who love them. The first thing I thought of was how Ghosh had said in the book that most stories dealing with environmental issues get pushed to the realm of science fiction. But this was mainstream fiction, and it had received one of the highest recognitions possible!
In this rabid state of excitement, I wrote a long email to the writer, talking about this and the other real world happenings that I was able to connect with the book. I waited eagerly for two days; then I lost hope. After all, he probably wasn’t interested in reading such a long letter. On the 6th day, I received a short but sweet thank you note, asking for my permission to post the letter on his blog. Of course I said yes. I was raving about this the whole day. (He still hasn’t posted it on his blog).
But there’s more. After sending him the mail, I go to his Twitter account and find out that just a few hours before, he had tweeted about Overstory’s Pulitzer. I have an email subscription to this magazine called Aeon, and he had shared an article about climate change that I had received in the mail that day. What better ego boost is there than the fact that you read the same things as Amitav Ghosh?
I seem to suffer from this weird disorder suddenly- I am not able to read one book at a time like before. Right now, I have read bits of Homo Deus, Letters To A Young Poet, With Borges and Being the Other: The Muslim in India. All of these are interesting but I have lost focus. I believe there’s even a term for people who read like this. More worryingly, I am just not able to read books some days. I can only console myself saying that this is because I am in a transition phase (nowadays I am blaming this for everything).
The one book I finished reading was Eat, Pray, Love. I loved Gilbert’s wacky humour and wit. I really enjoyed the part of the book set in Italy (the newest addition to my bucket list is going to that divine pizzeria in Naples). The Indonesian part was good too, despite her belief in the predictions of the medicine man (I wasn’t sure if she was really serious about it). I read through the Indian ashram story too, egged on by her enthusiasm. But going to the fourth state of consciousness…wait, what? I really couldn’t buy all that stuff about going to a state of eternal bliss- call me a sceptic if you want. I started reading criticisms of the book, and found out that her Guru was basically a fraud.
This whole idea of gaining bliss or enlightenment seems so selfish to me. It is saying that no matter whatever happens in the world, I will preserve my happiness and attempt to attain an other-worldly bliss. It is more important to deal with the problems of this world first. I do agree that self-care is essential; I am only against this supposed state of ‘bliss’ that doesn’t take into account practical problems. Just imagine going to a poor man and saying if you meditate, you will overcome all your suffering. When you think of this, it is not difficult to see why only some people go and meditate in Kedarnath.
The other book I have been reading is a Tamil translation of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. Reading history in Tamil is quite challenging and it takes me a lot of time to finish a page than when I read in English. But it is also really interesting to read national history in a language you can easily grasp. I love how Guha has used letters and speeches in his narration as I have become passionate about textual interpretations of history. This makes the book an engaging read.
From Nehru’s speeches quoted in the book, I realized how much importance he gave to protecting the idea of a secular India. In a letter to Sardar Vallabhai Patel, he has said something like ‘If even one Muslim is scared of living in India, we have lost as a country’- what a prescient statement! Going by this, we seem to have lost long before. I don’t want to lose anymore. I can’t bear living in a country that has discarded this ideal.
Humanities research is highly exciting. My email subscriptions to The Conversation and History Today started only because Oxford professors were writing in these magazines, but soon became an independent interest, which is why I maintain them even after getting rejected. My recent obsession is with https://aeon.co, a magazine that publishes essays on a wide range of academic topics by philosophy to mental health.
Reading about all this research has strengthened my passion to study humanities. I feel that a humanities education in this era can be highly rewarding; it strikes me as a vibrant and dynamic field, one where I feel at home. I’m going to be studying History, Literature and Philosophy in college.
Aeon sends me one or two essays on a wide range of topics daily. I have read about Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, about how humans externalize memory by creating ‘networks of memory’ so that not everyone has to remember everything, about how time in prison affects a prisoner’s sense of self, the generation gap in China (which was quite revelatory), this awesome essay about why disorder is important by a professor with both a science and humanities degree and a highly interesting piece about how analytic and continental philosophers define what it is to be a woman differently.
There are some essays I have been forced to leave in the middle or somehow get through them because I have no idea what the acclaimed author is trying to say. This honorary group includes an essay on Descartes and his impact on mental health (I didn’t understand a word), an essay on the origin of nihilism (I got a vague idea of this one) and an excessively cryptic one on how the mind computes which delved into the Church-Turing thesis (needless to say, I was lost).
But when sometimes I try to explain some philosophical concept to a member of the family, I am subjected to ridicule. Like that day, I had read a essay in which the author had said that we define perception only based on vision and objects, therefore discounting the dynamics of movement and events. Her reasoning was that this does not allow us to understand in detail, for example, how human bodies gyrate instinctively to music. I found this essay quite interesting.
She had also written about a simple experiment. We define the present as ‘what is happening in that exact moment’. Then how are you able to see my hands shake even though I don’t show you slide by slide each minuscule step of this movement (like they do in animation)? Does this mean that humans are capable of sensing change and movement, or should we redefine the present?
I found this theory extremely fascinating, and started asking everyone to try the ‘hand shake’ experiment, asking them this question (I was at my cousin’s). Then I learned a bitter lesson: there is nothing like the scepticism of family members to tear down a budding philosopher. My elder cousin thought something was wrong with me. My younger one said I shouldn’t mess up with what little brains she had. And what did my dad do, are you asking? I told him when we were in the car, and he started fiercely focusing on the road.
But fear not; I am not dissuaded. I will reach greater heights when I study philosophy in college. Maybe I should become a philosopher? Seems a great way to detach oneself from the modern dystopia!
Yes, you are right. My next awesome idea is to write two or three more long posts like this and turn it into a book, probably titled The Obsessions of a Seventeen-Year Old. Better title recommendations are welcome.