Exploring Identity and Belonging through my Ancestral Home

By Akshita Ajitsariya

I live in a house that is about 80 years old. It was built by my ancestors when they shifted to Guwahati from Rajasthan. As bhaiya (brother) and I stroll in our very fast pacing 20s, my family (who have adapted to the growing needs of the modern world) have started their planning for our settled lives. With this planning comes the inherent realisation that our beloved home is not enough. Dear readers, please note the irony in this statement and the situation. The home that became the foundation of my family lineage, the home that withstood the perils of time, the home that sustained all experiences—that home is not enough!

And as the conversations about the comfort of a modern, tech-friendly home picked a serious tone in my household, I was irked to do something to save my heritage. It’s a funny feeling—while I am aware it is preposterous to assemble the memories lived in this home within the ambit of mere words, I feel doing the exact thing is needed. For someone who has a memory span of a six-year-old, these limited words will be carved in my soul, till the end of time. After all, what are words but fuel to life.

For someone who leaves bits of her heart in places and things that touch her, my home was a mirror that reflected my desire to be rooted as a person. It became a reservoir of pieces of my identity; bits that people witnessed as well as the ones unknown to any. On challenging moments during my time in Delhi, I relied on a journey to the cocoon I lived in for some comfort. Maya Angelou said “The ache for home lives in all of us.” I guess, this very ache for home pushed me to make a home for myself wherever I was, while still feeling rooted to my origin.

Papa and his friends posing in front of our shop

Ancestors: Going back to the roots

I have learnt all I know about my great grandparents and their parents from maa (grandmother). She loves sharing backstories, be it about an antique object I am curious about or a contrasting lifestyle that prevailed before me. In efforts to keep her roots alive, she weaves history in a motion of the pendulum—connecting our present with our past and vice versa. On one such storytelling evening, we navigated through our old photo albums. The black-and-white photographs recorded some of the many moments that were created back in the day. I see the younger portraits of my great grandmother and maa smiling into a camera. Maa tells me how great grandma taught her all that she knows about stitching. I find a childhood photo of my aunt, using the typewriter maa bought. Maa tells me how she saved every penny to purchase the typewriter in 400 rupees; an amount that is no longer of equivalent value. Dadaji looks young in one photo, as he is captured brushing. I have learnt he was a reserved person and did not hold onto belongings. In another photo, my father stands with his friends in front of our shop, giggling away. Papa has come a long way from then; he runs the business now.

Maa in her twenties

Amidst the changes our home went under, things remained as they were. The old, ugly-looking fan remains fixed in a very spottable location. We still use some of the furniture and objects that are more than 50 years old. They have stood strong over time and are reminders for my family of the bygone days. And as for me, they enable me to experience my heritage and create new memories in the present.

***

Childhood: innocence across generations

From what I can recall, I remember having a woven swing at the entrance of my house as a kid. My cousins and I spent hours swinging, playing and falling from it. My home became our playground when we were kids—toys everywhere, having tiny bicycles with support, mumma running after me in attempts to feed me. This house also bore papa’s childhood: his playfulness as a kid, his fondness for cricket and kite flying. It is wonderful to note how generations spend their childhood in one place and have so different experiences. With newer inventions, so much of my childhood was spelt out in playing with toys and dolls. Papa, on the other hand, collected pebbles with his friends and played evergreen games like pithu and gatta

Me as a kid in my woven swing

The model of my house withstood the minor yet constant changes that it underwent throughout my childhood. Despite shifting to an LCD TV from the box-shaped one, the essence of our family was carried in the passed down toys and clothes. One was never too old enough to celebrate birthdays the traditional way—maa puts a tilak on the forehead, lighting a dia (which can’t be blown), everybody singing ridiculous yet funny versions of “happy birthday”. There are patent spots within our home that are meant for various occasions. If we do not sit in that one room to celebrate Raksha Bandhan, the festival will be incomplete. My old-built home personalised the sanctity of the traditions and customs and made it ever so more valuable.

***

Maturity: of homes and humans

The thing with an old-built home is that, like older times, it seeks to keep everyone closer. The architecture—shared washrooms in one corner of the house, big rooms to accommodate all—reflected and propagated this emotion. Ideas of singularity such as privacy, nuclear families or just eating alone never crossed its mind. It always made sure someone is around at all times—to love, to care, to fight with, to tease, to laugh at and with. And this is why I felt something was missing whenever I was not here. Whenever I was away for either a vacation or graduation, a constant yearning to get back home filled my heart. It made me homesick on difficult days and appreciate the heritage on the bright ones. All the needs of the current times are imbibed on the strong backbone that this home has proved to be. At the risk of exaggerating I’d say, this home grew with us. This physical location became the core of our family heritage and values. It taught us humility by not giving us all at once; it was gentle to us when we fell and hurt during silly activities; it was homely when everyone gathered at the dining table and laughed our hearts off. While writing this essay, it whispered to me “it’s okay to not remember everything as long as you remember how you felt”. I remember, dear old-built home.

Author Bio:

Akshita Ajitsariya is an English graduate from Lady Shri Ram College for Women. She is a firm believer that words heal, change and inspire people. A dreamer and an observer, Akshita loves to escape reality by following her train of thoughts and landing on the Notes app. Her life moves by the force of To-Do lists and aesthetic organisation. Her ideal hangout places are coffee shops, stationery and book shops. Akshita finds comfort in hot beverages, books, TV shows and words.

Social Media Handle: @sunflowerhues_ (Instagram)

How The Young in India Read: From Paper to Cyberspace

By Prachi Sharma

I often wonder if I would have been the person that I am today had it not been for the books that I read in my most impressionable young years. Is it not true that what we consume, whether it is literature, television, or cinema, has an overbearing effect on our psyche, often unbeknown to us? Our generation, particularly, has grown up alongside the internet. How has this influenced our reading habits and preferences? How do we combat the threat of fake news and misinformation which we face so often? How do we prevent or deal with this sense of utter confusion in times of propaganda? I propose that the answer lies in fostering a habit of patience and close reading. Even more so, in our children.

Reading as adults is a great deal different from reading as kids. Books help us find answers which adults wouldn’t give us. As a kid, I didn’t find my way into the book world very easily and I suspect that it is this unfulfilled longing that makes me present my little nieces with books very often. They can’t help but wonder why I won’t give them something else, like toys! We negotiate. 

Through the pandemic, my dear nieces have been my most frequent visitors. The other day, when this 10-year old dropped by, seeing a map of the subcontinent on my desk, she flaunted, “This is Himachal… Gujarat…” her fingers traversing through the India-Pakistan border, “and this is our enemy!” 

Looking at her, surprised, I asked why she thought this was the enemy. Her young mind had picked up this narrative from television, news, movies, and adults. This made me wonder what we put the minds of our young innocent kids through by feeding into their heads irrational hate and a sense of division. I went on a reflection of my own. When did I start questioning these metanarratives? It didn’t happen overnight but my journey as a reader led me to ask questions. Reading good literature, it seems, helps us think. 

My tryst with books: 

My home did not have bookshelves. We were a family of cinema-goers, not readers. Most schools in India barely inculcate a culture of reading. Forty minutes a week, we would be ‘allowed’ to take a round in the library. Pick only one book and sit with it. When the little me picked a huge Dan Brown title, I was attracted to the cover. Comprehending nothing, distraught, I stared into space and the bell rang. 

My explorations truly began when I was jealous of another kid who was a voracious reader. One time, I saw him carrying a book. The uncovered part of the spine read: ‘The Famous F’. After desperate googling on my family computer, I figured that someone called Enid Blyton was really popular among the kids. I got all editions of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. The summer was swamped!

While transiting into a young adult, when stories about a bunch of kids and their shenanigans did not interest me anymore, I started thirsting for more books. 

The year is 2013. The world has entered the age of e-commerce and apparently, Amazon sells everything. In the books section, the likes of Robin Sharma, Chetan Bhagat, Preeti Shenoy are the bestsellers. The next few years are spent reading relatable stories written in simple language without the literary mumbo-jumbo. Bhagat’s characters are forming friendships, getting into relationships, and making sense of their lives. Preeti Shenoy’s protagonist is struggling with mental health and I have a window to her mind. Eventually, these titles occupy the hands of school-goers. Timid girls, hoping that college life would bring them freedom and find comfort in familiar-looking characters. Besides, we are reading a handful of classics from our syllabus. It is like sinking in a literary whirlpool where all kinds of books exist together. 

Only later when I went to college, books started existing in a hierarchy of ‘classic’ and ‘popular’. What I read decided how much of an intellectual I became. Popular titles, from an obsession, turned into a bitter taste on the tip of our highly civilized tongues.

But we must ask, why do we hate the non-classic so much? Don’t their characters look like us? The privileged urban elite. Our relationships are like theirs. Our everyday problems (which are really non-problems) are like theirs. Do we really just hate ourselves? Beyond the sphere of valid literary critique, isn’t our superficial disdain for the ‘popular’ just a way of masking our own lives from the expectations that we have of it? We all want to be classics, aesthetic sepia portraits of a moment in time but we are not. Perhaps, our distaste of the ‘cheap, easy, simple-looking’ literature is an escape from some aspect of our reality. 

The advent of digital age and reading habits:

While this hierarchy strengthened, it was also during college that for us, the ‘literary’ met with the ‘social’ and the ‘political’. From offline to online, the urban kids had become the literal ‘digital natives’. Line between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ further faded with the onset of the pandemic. 

Our reading habits in the Internet age have been an odd mix of paper and pixel. While the paper was my first introduction to the written word, the internet played a huge role in fuelling my access to diverse literature. We came to know of many ‘writer-sensations’ and ‘celebrity-authors’ before their books. We got Bookstagram, free PDFs, and eBooks. Publishers, authors, and bookshops started coming online. There was something for everyone.

Social media flourished as a space for activism. Voices of activists from the ground were now being amplified. They were listing essential reads which should have been in our school curriculums. We got access to alternative, violent histories hidden behind overriding narratives and rediscovered writers who were long forgotten. 

The internet, I believe, gave my reading a way forward and side-by-side, the (slowly) decolonizing literature departments embarked on interdisciplinary studies. Eventually, I started identifying problems with books that I had once enjoyed – most bestseller titles on Amazon told only the stories of the privileged and the elite, reinforcing problematic stereotypes. Hence, I started to see problems with myself and began a process of reformation.

Azra Haq’s hands for my niece

When my niece called Pakistan “the enemy!” It was a book that came to our rescue and carried us through a difficult conversation. I picked up a brand new copy of Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation from my shelf and invited her to look at it with me. When she saw Azra Haq’s hands (which looked very much like her own grandmother’s) holding a set of pearls, she couldn’t believe that Azra was a Pakistani. Who did she even think a ‘Pakistani’ was? If anything, a Pakistani was suddenly familiar. Familiar and alike. “So the country changed?” To her young mind, it was unfathomable that borders could move. I had probably given her too much to think and it was fine for now. She keeps coming back to my shelf to look at another one of Remnants’ people, every now and then. The seed has been sown, right?

It is safe to say that books made me who I am, as much as people and experiences. Although other forms of mass media like cinema and television enjoy their own place, it is only through reading that we learn to patiently spend time with information. In a movie, for instance, the music and the visuals among other elements rule above all else, leaving our thoughts at the moment unacknowledged. Reading is like having a one-on-one conversation with the author. It gives us time to reflect, to agree, or disagree and it allows us to sit on one sentence for as long as we want. 

Prachi Sharma is a writer based in Delhi. She is currently pursuing her postgraduate degree in Literature and exploring the publishing industry on the side. Her academic work has recently appeared in an anthology by Routledge. Previously, she has also written for Feminism in India and Livewire about issues of social justice and ramblings on everyday life. Reach out to her on Instagram where she is her most candid self. 

An Ode to The Last Chapters of Textbooks That I Never Read

By Rushali Thacker

Recognizing Perfectionist Traits

The earliest signs of perfectionism that I recall take me back to my school days. For me, diving into a subject meant starting from scratch, and that might otherwise be considered a good thing if I was researching or something, but maybe not so much when preparing for exams. It meant I had to start from the Introduction chapter, which usually had the lowest weightage for any exam. Doesn’t seem crazy enough? Well, I had to do it even when I was picking up the book for the first time just a day before the exam. And it goes without saying that if I was reading the Introduction, I had never have gone through the other chapters. With this stringent reading habit added to my slow reading speed, I’d barely make it to the last chapter of any academic textbook.

All I did with it was depriving myself of the satisfaction of having done my best. It always, always felt like I could have done more. Which should not, in any way, seem like an inspiration to anyone, let alone a perfectionist like me. I have been utterly dissatisfied with my efforts over the years because of the unrealistic expectations I set for myself. And to have had the satisfaction that I did my best for the two decades of my life, I probably would need one more to give my very best efforts to feel that I didn’t in any way get more than I deserved. But this video by The School of Life tells why this is just a pretty illusion by putting forth an important question, “What is so imperfect about perfectionism?”. To which they say that perfectionism isn’t driven by the desire to do the perfect work, but to feel less awful about oneself.

For most of my life, my mind has attempted to work ideally in the real world. Even though I obviously believe that an ideal way of existence is not possible, in reality, I find my efforts directed towards it. So, all I have been doing is building a house of disappointments for myself and hoping to find shelter underneath it.

The two things that I love doing the most—reading and writing—are burdened with this perfectionism. When I read a book, I have to read it from the top left corner of the front cover to the bottom right corner of the back cover. Every word or non-word has to be registered in my mind. I’d go through the publication details, the ISBN and other such things which normally would be skipped by a reader. Only then did I feel I had read the book completely.

With writing, sometimes before beginning a piece, I have a near-perfect impression of it in my mind. I fantasize about the idea of it so much that when it’s finally on paper; it feels like a failure. Then I’d keep postponing working on it until I knew I could make it perfect, which is never. And that’s the reason I have more unfinished pieces than finished ones. Even though I put no effort each day of my life to get to those pieces, I keep telling myself this pretty lie that someday I will. Reading anything I wrote a few months back makes me cringe. If I would ever get myself to work on an old piece, I’d probably discard it.

The Non-Perfectionist Side 

There are most certainly parts of me where I do not fixate on perfectionism. I’ll tell you about the one that first comes to mind—cooking. I am a haphazard and unsophisticated cook. I guess it’s not tainted with perfectionist traits because I am simply amazed, that I can cook something. I expect nothing more from that.

Discouraging the Perfectionist

I’ve been tweeting a lot these days, for two apparent reasons—I know I cannot edit it once it’s out there (no, deleting and tweeting it again is not an option) and that it’s nothing but a lie when I say those one-liners could have found a home in a perfect essay or poem someday. Because guess what? I haven’t used a single one of those here. And again, I do not want to burden my essay on perfectionism to be perfect!

Perfectionists often tend to feel that if they cannot give their best to something, they’d rather not rather do it. I battle with that thought daily. It is unrealistic and almost disturbing to expect only the best from myself, always. The best does not translate to flawless. And that doing my best isn’t supposed to come in my way of DOING IT.

One quote that I hold on for dear life from Roy’s, The God of Small Things, “That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.” My desire to not be careless with my words has somehow turned into an unhealthy projection of this desire on the people around me. I absolutely adore this quote, but I need to tell myself what this line does not mean…

  1. to put undue pressure on me (or others) to never even mistakenly let out a careless word.
  2. that a careless word can never be remedied. (Depending on the circumstances, careful words can sometimes remedy careless words.)
  3. people cannot love once careless words are spoken. (Despite these careless words, I will love people and people will love me.)

It has never been about not making a mistake, but about how we deal with it.

Now, I have arranged the books on my bookshelf in a colour-coded manner. I am not very good at it (as you can see), but in my mind, the Agatha Christie (first from the right) doesn’t at least go after the pink Jane Austen (second from the right). My sister, blessedly devoid of these whims of perfectionism, placed it here and, obviously, I noticed it. But I do not feel the urge to replace it. I guess that’s some progress?

Let’s hope I read the last chapters first, from academic texts someday and give up on reading ISBNs of books.

Bio: Rushali Thacker (she/her) claims to have her unwavering love for sunsets, ice cream, and mountains. She is paving her way through the uncertainties of life by listening intently and, well, trying not to be a perfectionist.

Website: https://linktr.ee/rushali_thacker

Illumination – A review of an ode

Collaborative efforts of Yashika Doshi and Neeraja Srinivasan

Illumination’ is a 20-minute film shot in the style of a personal documentary. The movie revolves around the life of a notable Indian English poet, Kiriti Sengupta. The prominent themes of the movie as a whole are those of spirituality, philosophy, and contemplation which leave you with a sense of tranquillity. After my first watch, the short film reminded me of Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing as a result of its simple, homely nature and focus on a strong Bengali narrative.  When I finished watching this ode, my initial thoughts were to step back for a minute and think about this line towards the end, “I speak when I write prose, and I read when I write poems.” This is one of those rare times where I felt that I’ll have a new perspective each time I read it again.

And such is the work of Mr. Sengupta – make one pause, step back and introspect. His written work seems to be a reflection of his own characteristics. Both he and his poetry have a peaceful presence. A poet, editor, publisher, translator, curator of a literary festival, he dons many hats and is as skilled as any lover of words can get. To think that a dentist by profession, and with no formal training in writing neither prose nor poetry, his story is inspiring to all. A lesson that I took away from the video is the idea that poetry is subjective. It is a comforting thought since poetry is often perceived as good or bad. Poetry is a language, one that is unique to each individual and molded according to their emotions and experiences. It is a tool that leaves its imprints on people, always leaving us craving for more.

Some of my personal favorite lines from his books are – “The tiny particles scattered in the air absorb the sunlight; they seem to be delighted and drone the song of liberation”; “India meditates across the map, guided or otherwise, sometimes endorsing a pair of faded jeans”; “How many hues have you envisaged so far? I ask about the hues but not your bizarre way of depicting them.” His poetry can be described as Ruskin Bond-esque, the kind that is best accompanied with a cup of hot chai on a rainy day. This film is the perfect watch when you’re looking to relax a bit and take a step back from a mundane, daily routine. It encourages one to keep pursuing their passion because things will always work out if you work hard and stay humble. It could also serve as the perfect classroom film for students studying creative writing or regional literature as it provides them with an insight into the artistic process and headspace of a writer.  


The documentary, in itself, is beautifully made, as it takes the audience on a calming journey through Mr. Sengupta’s inspirations, published work, and literary associations. His son and wife provide personal tributes as the former narrates his poem and his wife shares titbits about the couple’s pre-poetry days. Personally, I also found it quite peculiar that Mr. Sengupta’s entire life was encapsulated within a mere 20 minutes. It helped me gain some perspective and taught me that focusing on the grander scheme of things, rather than brooding over the little details is essential to stay level-headed.  I could not help but wonder if there are certain decisions that Mr. Sengupta looked back on and wished he did something differently or if he’s thankful that a culmination of these decisions, good or bad, brought him to where he is now. 

The use of natural elements like fading trees, the charming evening sky, the usage of warm, calming tones such as yellow and green, and the soothing Indian classical tunes in the background only add on the alluring effect of Mr. Sengupta recites his pieces of work and once again, leaves the viewer wanting for more.

India’s poets are often sidelined in history since our society treats the arts as an unworthy occupation. This tribute is not only a lovely gesture but also a step towards helping understand the fact that poetry isn’t just an occupation to writers such as Mr. Sengupta, it is survival. As his wife mentions, even when it seemed like their life was crumbling around them, he continued to scribble pieces of poetry on his computer. It most certainly seems like poetry to him, is salvation.

Inside an Artist’s Head: Meera Ganapathi

Meera Ganapathi is a writer and the founder of the independent digital publication, The Soup, an archive of Indian arts and culture. She is based in Mumbai and writes books for children and short stories for grown-ups. Meera is @onemeerkat on Instagram.

We absolutely love how you always manage to bring out the beauty in the most routine things. Would you say your writing style has always been this way or has it evolved over time? If it has, how did you first start off?

I have always been writing, even as a child and then as a teenager, I was tempted to write stories. Although everything I wrote then was influenced by the books I read about blue-eyed, auburn-haired girls named Caitlin or Abigail. So, yes, (thankfully) my writing has evolved. Since I was a copywriter for many years, my writing at one point was quick, snappy, and tailored to fit headlines and 30 seconds. But all creative expression evolves with your own personal growth, these days I’m being patient and observant in what I see and what I write about. 

Where I work out of every day.


What is your writing process? Are you an ardent notes-maker? Is there a particular time/place that helps you articulate your thoughts better? We essentially want to know how you get in the process of writing. Is it linear? Does it involve anything peculiar? Our readers would love a personal touch to this question.

For a while, I’d wake up every morning and write for two hours, and this was terribly satisfying because the whole process was smooth and natural. All of a sudden it stopped and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t bring back that spontaneous routine. So instead of stressing myself, I turned to books and movies for inspiration. Now I’ve found a less stressful rhythm where I do tons and tons of research- make copious notes, create a structure or plot, and once I feel I know enough I write for four-five hours a day most mornings. Being one of those annoying morning people, I wake up in a good mood, looking forward to all the quietude morning brings. I cherish being alone before the house awakens (I can just about tolerate my cat circling my feet like a psycho)- so this kind of time, free of distraction, is ripe for research, ideating, and writing. 

About spots to write? I feel ok to write anywhere, as long as I don’t have people talking to me. I like to be left alone. I read recently that Agatha Christie would book a room in a terrible hotel where there was no possibility of any entertainment and all she could do was concentrate on her writing. This sounds like a fabulous idea to me and maybe I’ll give it a go one day. I cannot fathom how writers retreat to fabulous places to focus on writing- to be an element of punishment seems, unfortunately, essential. 

A photo of a desk I write at in the home I’m temporarily living in. The internet doesn’t reach here so it’s great.

How would you describe the relationship of your cultural identity to that of your writing?

My cultural identity is a hot mess. Haha. I grew up all over the country in a collection of homes, with an ever-changing circle of friends because my father, an Army officer, got transferred very often. Even the schools were inconsistent as I had to change nearly 13 of them, so I never felt I truly belonged to any place entirely. I’ve had to dig deep to find that I don’t feel connected to my cultural identity, instead my identity is based on memory –– as this is the only thing that grounds me. I relate to old photographs from a time I haven’t even witnessed as these are rooted in stories swapped by members of my family- a sort of oral history, I also feel close to unique aspects of places I grew up in, my grandmother who was always a solid, dependable presence in my life and Mumbai-which is where I’ve finally spent all my adult life. I suppose this memory-based identity reflects in my writing where people are addressing the same anchorless feeling. 

What was the impetus behind establishing Soupgram? What are your thoughts on the need for digital content platforms for literature?

It’s The Soup actually, Soupgram is only the Instagram handle. 

I had quit my advertising job to start a space where I could tell all the stories I had no room to tell within the constraints of brand work. The internet is free, but readership is supportive and loyal only if you have something urgent or honest to say. At Soup it is an ongoing process of sticking to a certain discipline- of not getting into content contests- but creating stories that are meaningful. 

I’ve seen a lot of digital platforms mushroom over the past four-five years- while sometimes there’s too much noise, it has to be acknowledged that all these platforms are distributing the power to be seen and heard. The task as a reader is to be discerning about what you consume. And I’ve noticed that platforms that speak of books and literature tend to dig deeper to find unique voices, stories, poems to combat the clamor online. 

‘Onemeerkat’ – any interesting anecdote behind this unique handle?

Not really.  

Lastly, what are some interesting projects that you’re working on currently?

Everything is WIP until it’s out. 🙂 But there are few interesting things in the offing. 

The Queen of the Hills

by Snigdha Manna

CW: Anxiety/Depression

Every day I wake up with a longing in my heart – a strong urge to escape the labyrinth of daily life. These days, waking up feels like an exhausting task in itself. Then comes the excruciatingly painful part – surviving the day. Another day with nothing to do, but to wait for things to get better. Even hope has its limits. As a person who relishes working, two years of unwinding pushed me off a cliff and I fell into a spiral. 

In school, I was known for being socially active. I loved interacting with as many people as possible. Cracking jokes was an integral part of it. People would laugh and their laughter would fill my heart with happiness. The serotonin secretion in my body was catalysed by the beautiful curve on their lips. ‘She is our sunflower girl’, they would say. Little did they know it was just a selfish deed to content myself. Things changed quite drastically. In the last year of school life, I felt like mucky confetti scattered on the ground from last night’s celebrations. Sitting at home in front of a black mirror for hours drained me out both mentally and physically. Solitude took power over me. Succouring others didn’t matter anymore. Texting ‘hi’ to a person became a scary task. Every time I managed to fathom some courage; I fell back. Meeting and talking to someone became a distant dream. Hence, I embraced my loneliness. 

In my solitude, I craved one thing – Darjeeling. It is a small hill town in the northern part of the state of West Bengal. To everyone, she is the ‘Queen of the Hills’. To me, she is a therapist, a provider of solace. Standing tall in her queenly demeanour amidst the Himalayas, the Queen knows me better than anyone else. She wears a gigantic emerald green blanket. In that very blanket, she produces the finest quality of tea available to mankind. Tea from her plantation is devoured by people around the globe. She keeps little for herself. After all, she is a queen, and her job is to fulfil the needs of her people before satisfying her own. She managed to grant herself the title of a UNESCO World Heritage site – The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – where the century-old steam engine still manages to chug its way down the lofty slopes of the hills.

I met her first when I was ten years old. She welcomed me with open arms. There was warmth in her embrace even at an altitude of 2,042 metres above sea level. She has been a source of comfort ever since. Whenever there was an opportunity to sneak out of the hectic schedule, I would ask my father to plan a trip to Darjeeling. I didn’t mind the monotony of my journeys. No matter how many times I visit the Queen, it will never be enough. The thirst is unquenchable. During one of my vacations, I couldn’t go to Darjeeling because my father had some work. There was a niggling itch in my throat. Not a cough. A vexatious itch which is worse than a cough. At first, I wasn’t able to figure out why it was bothering me massively. Later, I realised, the sunflower girl was nothing without the Queen. I was able to keep it all together without breaking into pieces because she was there to hold me, console me. Under the façade of the bubbly girl was a worn-out and terrified soul. Without my knowledge, Darjeeling was taking care of my deranged mind. 

It has been three years since the last time I paid a visit to my therapist. Inside my head, there’s a war going on. Sleeping hours are the worst. I’m wide awake in the middle of the night with my heart pounding inside my chest. In the silence of the night, I can hear screams and my head aches in pain. With much difficulty, I manage to fall asleep and when I do, I don’t feel like leaving the bed in the morning. It pulls me in and refuses to let go.

The only thing I wish for more than a lovely cup of tea in the morning made by my mother is a walk down the streets of Darjeeling. I want to wake up at 4 am to watch the majestic Kangchenjunga bathed in gold as the sun rises in the east. I want to feel the cold breeze to caress my hair. My ears yearn for the sound of children playing in the lap of the lush green hills. A cosy breakfast at Glenary’s while I devour the view of the mountains from my table. I want to play with the clouds at Batasia Loop. A train ride to Ghoom station. A visit to the Oxford Bookstore to get myself something to read while I enjoy the heavenly taste of Darjeeling tea in the evening. One cone of chocolate softy ice cream from Keventer’s to end the day. Most of all, I need assurance from the Queen. I need her to remind me that if happiness is fleeting, then so is sadness. Even the worst storm will pass and I will survive them all. 

Like many others, I tend to escape from the hectic, monotonous life. To travel, is to find myself anew. It works like a mojito on a hot summer day. Reality can be harsh at times. Packing bags and booking tickets are ways of evading the harshness, and to experience, to create a world of our own – a fictional escape. Often, it is misapprehended as ignorance. One can never elude reality, no matter how hard they try. But they can, most certainly, find ways to conquer every bit of it. That is what Darjeeling helps me with – a source of courage, wisdom and strength. COVID-19 has surely made it difficult for us to travel. With so many restrictions and the fear of catching the heinous virus, escapist travelling has become impossible, especially when it is needed the most. Confined to the four walls for more than a year is not a pleasant treat. Sometimes, it feels as if the walls are caving in and suffocating me. I am stuck in the wheel of life which continues to run without any disruption. 

Right now, life is irritating. The uncertainty of tomorrow is constantly looming over my head. Life feels like a fancy, ill-fitting garment that I was forced to wear. I can’t rip it off because the party is not over yet. And I certainly can’t meet the Queen in homely, casual clothes. But she stretches out her hand gently and tells me that one day, I will be able to meet her without fancy, uncomfortable clothes clinging onto my skin. One day, I will be cured of my misery. One day, I will become a healer just like her. Every day I hope for that one day. 

Snigdha Manna is a Literature student at Calcutta University. She is a vehement dreamer who finds peace in writing. Her work mainly focuses on art, culture, politics, mental health, history and personal narratives. She reads a lot of books and drinks a lot of tea. She enjoys painting, sketching and photography. Snigdha despises plastic bags and loves Jake Peralta.

Social media: instagram – @sniku_piku 

Rooh Afza, a drink of rosy nostalgia

by Saman Jawaid

I never really liked using memories as the only source for my essays. The thing with memories is that they are in constant flux. To me, memories are not stationary; they keep getting created, modified, and destroyed with time. 

For instance, I always thought that the red blanket I used to wrap myself in as a child was mine. I treated it as one of my prized possessions. It stayed like that in my mind for several years. But, after some time I got to know that it belonged to my cousin, then it was passed on to my sister. Turns out, I was the third and the last person to use the red blanket. It wasn’t specifically made for me, after all.

Now, when I see the red blanket again, I think of six-year-old Saman wishing someone made a blanket for her. The memory is morphed in my head now. I can no longer  imagine myself as the sole owner of the blanket. I often find  myself wishing that it wouldn’t have been a hand me down. As the second child, my shelf is full of hand-me-downs – elder sister’s textbooks, cousin’s clothes, brother’s toys; for once, I wanted to have something that only belonged to me. 

For me, writing on the basis of memories is like collecting old sepia-tinted photographs and trying to weave a story out of them. The story is bound to be different from what actually happened.

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As I sit to write this essay, I have various thoughts running in my mind. Should I stick to the narrative and write about my rose-tinted memories of a rosy drink? Should I play with time and make a contrast? Should I just go with the flow and write whatever comes to my mind?

When you write a piece based solely on your memories, you lose the element of reliability. I do not want to be an unreliable narrator; I’ve always wanted people to trust me and I like not breaking their trust.

You must be wondering the reason for my digression. It’s an attempt to somehow facilitate myself going against my opinions. I’m going to write an essay, constructed out of memories. And I want my readers to trust me. For that to happen, first I have to have trust in myself.

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Rooh Afza literally means soul refresher. I’ve always liked its name for not only its poetic quality but its vitality too. Red being the colour of vigour, vitality, and josh has always suited this summery fresh drink. 

In popular discourse, Rooh Afza has been associated with Islamic culture and the tradition of Ramadan in particular. I feel like my earliest memories of Rooh Afza are intricately linked to Ramadan. The king of our dastarkhwān, and the refresher of our parched throats — Rooh Afza used to be a staple of Ramadan.

Conversations used to start around Rooh Afza. I remember going to my khala’s place and befriending only that cousin who drank Rooh Afza. It was a silly thing you do in childhood — making groups out of one odd similarity but when you look into it, it does make a lot of sense. Don’t all of our present relationships revolve around shared interests? Most of the friends that I have now are there because I found a similarity with them — they loved Jane Austen as I do or they listen to Taylor Swift on loop or they like watching video essays on YouTube.

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Relationships used to be built around Rooh Afza.

Countless marriages in India are arranged over a cup of chai. ‘Going out for coffee’ still means going on a date. Beverages do play an important role in the formation of a relationship.

My earliest memories of Rishta and Shaadi are associated with the red glass of Rooh Afza. The colour red, again playing a prominent role signifying the red of henna, the red of the bride’s outfit, and the red of the wedding flowers.

As a child, I totally bought into the idea that if you look at someone through the rose-coloured glass of Rooh Afza, you fall in love with them. Now, when I revisit the memory, I think how this notion is eerily similar to looking at someone through rose-tinted glasses and eventually ignoring all of their red flags; back then I just used to think of it as a romantic thought.

My Khala introduced me to a new pastel pink drink, which was, as I came to know later, just a mix of Rooh Afza and milk. I, a passionate hater of milk, finished the drink in one go because it reminded me of some of my favourite things like cotton candies and pastel pink skies.

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Rooh Afza is not just a drink, it’s a concoction of childhood nostalgia.

Its smell is registered in my limbic system where it is stored with all of the other long-term memories – some happy, most embarrassing. 

It reminds me of summers when I drank Rooh Afza with a dash of lemon in it. It reminds me of festivals, family dinners, and cousin camaraderie. It reminds me of the formation of new relationships. It reminds me of something beautiful and innocent that is forever lost. 

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Nobody really drinks Rooh Afza nowadays. It has become an exquisite Old Delhi drink or a Ramadan sharbat. My cousins have probably forgotten its taste and none of my friends knows that such a drink exists.

Now, in 2021, as I take a sip of Rooh Afza, I try to think what does the red signify now? Red is the colour of revolution. Red, now denotes my burgeoning interest in communism and Marxist philosophy. Red reminds me of the hardcover copy of Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels that I saw on Instagram but couldn’t buy as it was too expensive. Red now denotes the vigour, vitality, and josh of a different kind. It’s no more about happy summers and energising drinks; it’s about standing up to a cause you’re passionate about. It’s about demanding a space for yourself and your peers in a system that is made to oppress people like you. 

I’ve never really stopped drinking Rooh Afza. There was a phase when I tried to move on to supposedly “trendy” drinks but that didn’t last long. 

Rooh Afza remains in conversations but only as a distant memory. It has occupied a place in that ‘in our time’ discourse. It has a place in people’s minds but not a place in their kitchens. Perhaps people have grown out of it; they don’t like its taste now. Or perhaps they don’t drink Rooh Afza because they don’t want to get the taste of the past on their tongues. Their present is so remarkably distinct from their past that if they’ll try to remember the past, they will forget the present.  

Somehow my relationship with Rooh Afza is still intact. It’s funny to think that all of my childhood friends have become strangers to me but my childhood drink still occupies the topmost place in my kitchen cabinet.  

I always come back to Rooh Afza for safety, nostalgia, and for refreshing my soul.

Saman Jawaid is currently studying English at Delhi University. Like all English majors, Saman loves reading, writing, and trying their best to find homoerotic undertones in all of the academic texts. They refuse to be defined by anything else than Lorde’s lyrics. Their goal in life is to become someone’s muse. Their poems have been published in Live Wire and The Monograph magazine. Most of their works deal with the themes of grief, longing, the process of growing up, and the power of memories.

Instagram: samfrom_anotherland 

Pronouns: they/she 

On Reading Kafka’s Diaries Before and After Pandemic

By Aashna Nagpal

I remember this exact moment. I was on the terrace, lying down to soak the winter sun on a mattress. I was reading Franz Kafka’s Diaries: 1910-1923 while a Ray LaMontagne song played in the background. One of my little quirks is that I need to listen to a song playing on a loop while I am reading a book or I get distracted by my own thoughts. Both the book by Kafka and the song playing had so much to do with the emptiness of life, yet in that moment I felt so full. Full of calm. Full of hope. It sounds Romantic but it wasn’t. I felt so full because of the simplicity of that moment, realising how little I needed to feel that way. It was an uncomplicated feeling and yet it evades language.

Only a few weeks later, the sun became too much, a deadly riot took place in my city and my college was shut down because of the pandemic. That feeling stopped feeling simple anymore. It felt distant, a thick veil of fog kept it out of my reach. Unable to read anything new because I felt so overwhelmed, I searched for comfort in the familiar. I decided to read Kafka’s diaries on my phone again. Unexpectedly, it felt like I was reading a completely different book. The bleakness of a single month transformed the way in which I perceived Kafka’s diaries. Kafka’s iterations of his loneliness, his frustrations, his anxieties and his oddities came across in a completely different way. Sentences that I didn’t even register in my first reading stood out now, louder than any song playing in the background.

If I was asked to tell a single thematic concern of all of Kafka’s writings, I have to say estrangement. Several months after 2020 has ended, several of us are still trying to process the events of the year. The estrangement is multidimensional- estrangement from the people we used to meet everyday, from the world which we used to experience and the worst of all, estrangement from ourselves. Kafka writes, “ A segment has been cut out of the back of his head. The sun looks in and the whole world with it. It makes him nervous, it distracts him from his work, and moreover it irritates him that he should be the very one excluded from the spectacle.” Shut within four walls and stewing in our thoughts, having no option but to confront things we successfully evaded before the pandemic. I feel these words scratch and gnaw my insides as I attempt to digest them.

After having been in the pandemic for more than a year and a half now, having gone through the traumatic second wave where I and my family got infected, I am sure that if I read Kafka’s Diaries again for the third time — it will be unlike either of my previous readings. I will hold off on that though, I am carrying enough scratchy words under my skin for now.

A Note on Distorted Perceptions

By Aashna Nagpal

Lately I’ve been thinking about the way water distorts everything when we look through it. Pristine, clear water scrambles straight lines into deep curves and breaks the continuity of an object into unaligned fragments. This got me thinking how much do we distort when we perceive the world, even with a supposedly clear state of mind.

We also know that color isn’t inherent to an object, that it absorbs some part of the light and reflects the rest. What it reflects is then translated into what we perceive as a certain color depending on how it interacts with our eyes and brain. We don’t even perceive the colors in the same way- what appears red to me could appear orange to someone else. Neither of them is wrong when they argue that the object is definitively red and orange. 

Perception changes from person to person, even from time to time. To someone, clouds can seem like explosions happening in slow motion in the atmosphere and flowers can be seeds bursting at snail’s pace. I once read somewhere that since our perception of reality is constructed through the five senses, there could be so much around us that we are incapable of perceiving because we lack the sense to perceive it.

In the Ptolemaic system, the Medieval man would look at the farthest stars in the sky and believe that he was looking at the edge of the universe. Before Galileo, just because it seemed like the sun travels across the sky, the Church was insistent on believing that the sun revolves around the earth. The Little Prince believed the flower on his planet was one of a kind in the universe. What represents Hamlet’s father’s ghost will differ from reader to reader. 

In the times we live in, when most people state their opinions as if they were facts, it’s worth reflecting on the ignorance of people who fail to notice how much gets distorted when we perceive things. We are limited most by our own perceptions and confusing them for the truth. We often believe with all our hearts that our inner and outer turmoils are unique to us, that no one before us has felt a particular emotion with that intensity; that our predicament, our ennui, our thoughts begin and end with us. Our ego fools us and we can spend all our lives in this illusion. While we all may perceive things differently, we’re all the same in essence, with essentially the same restlessness. Past our differing perceptions, we all just want to feel heard- which is why I think people shout their perceptions at the top of their voices these days. This similar loneliness in all of us might make us a little less lonely if we perceive it differently: if everyone is lonely at the end of the day, maybe no one really is, maybe we’re just supposed to feel this way, maybe this is the cost we pay for being able to think and feel and love.

Interview with Aryama Sen

Aryama Sen is a final year student of engineering living in Kolkata. Her interest in a lot of things all at once led her to begin ind.igenous. Good films, books, and music are three of her most important driving forces in life.

What motivates you to write about the Indian Subcontinent? Besides personal affiliations, what is it about the region that speaks to you?

I have grown up with a lot of exposure to Indian art and culture. Music, literature, cinema, dance – all forms of art from the Indian subcontinent have shaped me into who I am. While I’ve continued to discover brilliant work from my country, I haven’t seen a lot of people around me being as attract- ed to it as I was. I started writing about things that are close to me because I wanted them to reach more people, and microblogging on Instagram felt like a good start to it. I wanted my 20-something friends to be as excited about a Shyam Benegal film as they are about the latest episodes of Game of Thrones, to have Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee on their playlists, and to appreciate Abanindranath along with Gogh.

What is your opinion on the decline of Urdu and how do you think it has affected Indian entertainment? Does it retain its essence through cinema and pop culture?

I cannot read or write the Urdu text, so I do not know if it is my place to comment on this. All I can say is, most of the Urdu I’ve learned and loved has been from films made a few decades ago – be it Gulzar’s Doordarshan series on Ghalib, Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, or Merchant-Ivory’s Muhafiz. I haven’t come across a lot of films in recent times that have delved deep into the language, and there definitely should be more. On the plus side, however, there’s more online content than ever today, and websites like Rekhta make Urdu accessible to people like me who haven’t grown up learning the language. The anti-NRC-CAA movements saw the return of Urdu in protest songs and poetry. Perhaps there are brighter days waiting for the language.

Hindi and regional cinema have in the recent decade started exploring the values of femininity and the way we define it in mainstream culture. From your perspective, how has the female character arc evolved in films over time?

Strong female characters in Indian cinema of earlier times had emerged mostly from the parallel cinema movement – be it Mirch Masala or Mahanagar. The woman in mainstream Indian cinema was mostly portrayed as the wife, the mother, or the sister, with no agency of her own and blatantly conforming to a patriarchal mindset. That situation has definitely improved a lot. There are more women-centric films even in popular cinema, female characters have found voices of their own. This is perhaps also because the makers today feel answerable to an evolving audience.

India is a diverse country with cultural and communal identities varying from region to region. We’re interested in knowing the variations that different language’s cinema produces in “human behavior”? Is it true that some cultures portray human characters with more depth, more cadence than others?

I wrote about Satyajit Ray’s ‘Hirak Rajar Deshe’ a while ago – a children’s film which is inherently very political, and someone commented, ‘I think such a film could only be made in Bengal.’ Being a Bengali, as much as I would love to be happy hearing this, it isn’t true at all. In India, language changes every twenty kilometers or so, but the basic human emotions, experiences, struggles of the working class aren’t very different across the subcontinent. Watching a Telugu film may feel different from a Marathi one, but that is because of the language and culture of the region that the film portrays. I do not think there’s any difference in depth. Brilliantly poignant and powerful films have emerged from every Indian language.

In India, language changes every twenty kilometers or so, but the basic human emotions, experiences, struggles of the working class aren’t very different across the subcontinent.

You’ve taken quite deep and resilient takes on cinema. We’d like to know when and how your tryst with Indian regional cinema began?

I grew up watching a lot of films in my mother tongue, Bengali, and to me, that wasn’t ‘regional’ cinema, but simply an introduction to the beautiful world of films. Calling Bollywood films Hindi cinema and labeling films of every other language as regional cinema is one of the saddest things that continues to happen. It was my love for cinema as a form of art that gradually led me to discover Marathi, Telugu, Assamese films. Only when we carry on with the Bollywood-regional divide, we limit ourselves as an audience.

Referring to musician Suman’s songs, you’ve mentioned “these were songs that one could play at a protest march or on a first date, all alone in the middle of the night or with an old friend at a coffee shop.” We’d like to know more such gems, do you have any recommendations for our readers? (Any language, any genre of art will work)

So happy you asked this because I’m at my happiest when I give recommendations! You may explore the music of artists like Moushumi Bhowmik and the band Mohiner Ghoraguli from Bengal. A very different genre of music, but with this question I’m also reminded of Iqbal Bano’s renditions of Faiz – beautiful songs of love, freedom, and life.