Unpacking the Dystopia in Gender: A Personal Essay in a Patriarchal Society

By Siddhi Joshi

When I make an attempt to trace the very first years of my existence, I see a blurry silhouette of my favourite flowers blooming into a loo-lorn, harsh Dilli summer. I can smell an air of non-belongingness, the kind that comes from living in a rented space: the sharp lines of keeping your first sharpie markers away from the cream of the walls and the borders of not roaming away two rooms and one kitchen too far. I imagine smiles and giggles. I reminisce about the clanking sound made by my father and me as we loudly banged on utensils to demand food – only two decibels louder than the afternoon lunch bell marking recess in schools. A picture of my mom giddily serving us tori bhindi and the like. I proceed to make an ‘ew’ face to honour the dislikes that I’ve been loyal to over the course of the years. 

In her book, Seeing Like A Feminist, Nivedita Menon shares an interesting analogy. She compares the hours spent on the application of nude makeup in order to make one’s face look like it has not been touched at all to the maintenance of a social order. The social order requires one to commit to a lifetime of faithfulness, solidarity and dutiful adherence to such an extent that its complexities, inequalities, ridges and nuances seem natural. Putting on a feminist lens is all about questioning and analysing the mundane, obvious and prescribed. It is about not accepting the social order as natural, a gift of god, a way of life, or a holy anthill of religious rituals. Over the years, I’ve heard innocent proddings about the pink and blue of clothing sections and the line of distinction between different kinds of toys.  I had a light bulb moment, the beginning of systemic questioning – why was my mother, for years on end, serving the food and eating after all of us were done eating? Why was my mom proud about putting her family before herself? These questions were perhaps a result of envisioning myself as a human growing into my mother’s shadows, duties and expectations alike. 

Who plants the mold of patriarchy in the midst of a family whose members love one another, and are tied together with promises of companionship, care and marriage?  Are there inherent inequalities present in the very foundation of a household? The damp, humid and wet conditions for the growth of this ‘mold’ are the result of the several generations before us laying down the ‘nude makeup’ of patriarchy without realising that they were breathing air into a sturdy beast – a beast consuming the potion of immorality.

Karl Marx’s comrade and fellow thinker, Friedrich Engels, wrote in his famous work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, that early human societies were egalitarian, in that there existed a simple and functional division of labour – ‘a simple outgrowth of nature’. The women formed the centre of these communistic households and controlled them. This changed when human communities began settling in a single place for a long period of time. Once they discovered agriculture, they no longer had to worry about gathering food on a daily basis, and began producing surplus. The acceleration of production eventually changed the very nature of these communities, and fights among groups over resources became common, leading to the first great division of society into masters (winners) and slaves (losers). 

With the accumulation of wealth, the relationship between men and women underwent a change. As wealth was a direct result of production (a male-dominated activity) the domestic sphere began losing its significance – women became domestic slaves. Private property didn’t just include land, animals and slaves but also women, resulting in “the world-historic defeat of the female sex”. Women began losing their exalted status in society and children began identifying descent and inheritance through the father, giving birth to the rule of the father or the patriarchy. 

While this theorization is too simplistic, it suggests the division of labour between men and women is natural and doesn’t account for culture- and region-specific nuances (there existed cultures wherein women actively participated in hunting, gathering or production activities). It underlines the enslavement of women over the years and attempts to give an account of the origin of a patriarchal society. 

My life can be divided into two unequal parts – the years before having to share everything that belonged to me, and the years of battles against a manipulative devil who loves art. I wish I was being overly dramatic, but yes, I refer to my little sister. What’s peculiar about the period before she was about to emerge from my mother’s womb is my very extensive preoccupation with wanting to have a brother. Praying to various gods to grant my otherwise unfulfilled raksha bandhan wishes and being told by my relatives to ask my parents to bring me a bhai, thereby ‘completing’ our family and giving it a coat of perfection. 

A boy and a girl make an ideal, fulfilled family in modern India – the family that tokenistically eschews the pettiness of discrimination against the girl child, giving her a decent education, pretty dresses and braids. Their girls are ready to be held up for comparison against the high-end metrics of “Sharmaji’s Children”. They’re not backward. They don’t thrive by stomping on the existence of others. Unless, of course, it includes bargaining with a local candle-maker, or the children marrying outside the upper-class nexus, thereby bringing ‘shame’ to the family. 

The sight of the small, potato-like teddy, full of life with big goofy eyes, eyeing every corner of the dimly-lit hospital room, was enough to prevent my mind from meandering to the slight disappointment of not getting a brother. I was full of awe and on Cloud Nine with joy. My maternal grandmother and everyone else expressed utmost delight at the birth of a daughter in the family. 

The womb of resistance

Birthed this dagger of change

“Oh no, a daughter!” the world exclaimed. 

In a wretched valley of half-bloom

Against a crescent moon-lit night,

Beneath a graveyard of a hundred widowed torn longings,

Her unfamiliar (unwelcomed) babbles

Strung together, 

A fragmented song of hope, an embodiment of flickering light. 

Crawling in a courtyard of sulken weeds – 

Winters of sharp love

Mountains of griefs – 

Toiling against the wheel of time,

She built ladders with bare hands into the faraway lands of tomorrows,

As the town engulfed into destruction, the yesterdays she weaved. 

Protected by the prayers of women who came before her (and got crushed),

She unflurs like a tender echo of courage

Slipping into another dawn,

Uprooting curses of generations

A war against shadows and shackles,

She marches vigorously

Against the bruises and blood.

To carve a bright sun 

The motherland will remember her name –

She’s luminous and unrestrained. 

Traversing life with my new-found sister allowed me to realise the powers of love sooner than I’d have anticipated. One of the first battles revolved around addressing her magnificent dusk colour, giving tough competition to the elegantly sculpted Krishna idols. Standing up against the casual comments and the homemade facepacks of turmeric, milk and besan gave a dimension of anger and resistance to love. Over the years, I had grown comfortable with everything the world had to offer to me as a young woman. In a household with two sisters, it’s hard to accuse any parent of patriarchal behaviour, and there is limited scope for comparison with boys of the same age. I would like to believe that despite the cushions of safety, grooming, scoldings of elegance and ways to maintain the upkeep of hair, dresses and constant chaperones for assistance, my sister and I bloomed in an equal environment only overshadowed by the hierarchies imposed by age. We shared conversations and laughter and I softly tried to warn her about the world beyond the worldwalls. Rebuking her for not enjoying studying while letting her know that, not very many years ago, people like us were not allowed to access this puzzle piece in the jigsaw of freedom. After all, through social science textbooks, I understood that my country was extremely advanced and ‘great’ in comparison to its counterparts because it extends universal adult franchise to women – the bare minimum. “Don’t take this for granted, Mahi,” I gave her a stern stare while I had my fair share of inhibitions about the mindless mugging up of facts and formulae. 

Juliet Mitchell outlines the four levels of control: production, reproduction, sexuality and socialisation. The sphere of socialisation refers to the various ways in which the family raises and prepares its children to fit in with the demands of the world – performing their defined sets of social functions, working in a close nexus with the religious customs, cultural affairs and norms of community life. 

It was through my school that I understood that teachers needed (strong) boys (not girls) to move around the furniture during fests and exhibitions. It was through the playground that Mahi realised that boys and girls are supposed to be different – the football boys, full of commitment to win against their rivals, did not let girls join their respective teams. Who would want the burden of girls on their march towards victory? My friends and I have been policed through and through for the lengths of our skirts (a reflection of our parental values), our cycling shorts (a marker of our sharamand haya), and our cherry lip balms (a petty seducer of boys). Unfortunately, us women share this common piece of reliability against all the markers that otherwise differentiate the Delhi Public Schools, the Kendriya Vidyalayas and the convents. 

The women of history have either been reduced to the margins of textbooks, their ideas glossed over by their male counterparts, their bodies enclosed within the curses of palace walls, or enraptured against the pitch black of erasure. Connecting the dots from my own life, in retrospect, I realise that I stand on the shoulders of women who came before me – in the absence of their voices, I’d have been reduced to nothingness. 

An Athena is waiting to flutter from her legs, an Aphrodite is blooming in her heart, she’s Ares at the split of day and night. She is running away hoping to stumble across her own self, the one she was before she dived into everything she was supposed to be. I am –

The brisk wind, unfurling an azure satin ribbon

With sapphire raindrops,

Inhaling the golden beams,

Dangling on a makeshift clothesline,

Suspended over the minuscule.

The orbs sketched on the flaps of a hopper,

Its moving stems against

The rusty crevices of muddy potted plants,

Welcoming the pesky monsoon air.

The lint sprouting

From the bed of a floral kimono,

Making earthly constellations.


A lightning startling the comforted. 

References 

1. Engels, Friedrich, 1820-1895. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York : International Publishers, 1942.

2. Menon, N. (2012). Seeing Like A Feminist.

3. Mitchell, Juliet.  (1971).  Woman’s Estate.  Harmondsworth : Penguin

Author Bio:

Siddhi Joshi is a poet and artist based in Uttrakhand, India. She is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Sociology from Miranda House, Delhi University. Warm like the colour yellow, in her company you will find yourself amid warm laughter and witty remarks. To her, mysterious old libraries and hastily scribbled poetry in a coffee-stained journal is the only utopia worth seeking. Siddhi is a blend of strong opinions and lyrical thoughts – a dichromatic soul that searches for answers in the prevailing paradigm and finds meaning in the minuscule.

Instagram: siddhii.joshii
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/siddhijoshiindia/

In Defence of Sad Endings

By Lucía Pereira

It is a widely shared experience to see a book described as ‘devastating’ and think, “I need to read this immediately”. As moths are drawn to light, humans are drawn to sorrow. But why? And what, if any, are the moral implications of this?

Tragic stories, especially those that develop a reputation for being tearjerkers, are often taken as a challenge. But there is a responsibility to be borne when stories that tackle heavy themes reach an audience that is, perhaps, not their target.

Where are the limits when trauma and literature congregate? Contemporary works like A Little Life, My Dark Vanessa or The Kite Runner are not what you would call uplifting reads, and, oftentimes, this aspect has been criticised. But sad endings are not exclusive to contemporary literature. Depictions of graphic death, addiction, sexual assault and wars are rampant in English classics. 

What does this say about the reader?

There is a cyclical discourse in online spaces about the validity of such stories, but a now-deleted tweet caught my attention and essentially inspired this essay. The person who tweeted took issue with the consumption of ‘tragic’ media, and directly called into question the morality of those who can enjoy such sad books. This is not new; several authors who write fiction weaving in elements from their own trauma get told that their depictions are disgusting, unrealistic or that they should not exist at all. To this, I counter: does such silencing fix the problems, or does it create taboos around them? Readers who have encountered novels depicting trauma that is the same as, or similar to, their own, and have found some sort of solace in the stories might internalise such comments and let the comfort they once felt turn into shame. 

Now, delving into a book with certain expectations and then being slapped by an unconventional twist – like a gruesome death in a romance that seemed to be all fluff and sunshine – is a rightful cause for uproar. But, as stated before, most of us either look specifically for books with darker themes, or start reading a work with the knowledge that it made everyone and their mother cry. This is usually made clear on the cover, in the blurb or online (where we pass trigger warning lists like they’re notes in class). So, it is, I believe, unfair to call authors cruel or readers ‘sickos’ for seeking such media – the kind that does not appeal to everyone but that everyone seems to be drawn to. It is like wanting to ban horror because it is just mean to make people read about murders! (This, of course, is an exaggeration, but it gets the point across). Human beings are morbidly curious; the fact that books on terminal illnesses and the tragedies of war are bestsellers attests to this.

Much like in horror, humans take pleasure in tragedies – a twist that leaves those last pages with the ink running. But why? Aristotle, who wrote about this centuries ago, said something along these lines: the value we attribute to tragedies is tied to the pleasure we derive from them, and both of these are contingent on mimesis and catharsis. 

Mimesis is a basic principle in the creation of art, understood as a representation of nature. ‘Art imitates life’ and so on. This is key when dealing with themes of trauma or grief, because it brings to light a painful aspect of life that most people have suffered through. Even in ancient times, people bonded over pain. Perhaps they had never watched a king get stabbed, but they understood a mother’s agonising cry. Pain is a universal language.

Catharsis, said Aristotle, is the purgation and/or purification of emotions through art. Literature that takes us on a journey where a character processes their trauma (without even arriving at a “healed” place) seeps into us, holds up a mirror and says, “this struck a chord; think about why”. It is also a way to deal with your experiences from a safe, distant space, with the reassurance that you can put the book down at any time. The emotional release that catharsis brings, be it through real tears or any other manifestation of the emotion, can be therapeutic for the reader. Even in the absence of a happy ending. Maybe, by the end of the book, the character doesn’t magically walk again. Maybe grandma really is gone. Maybe the depression is here to stay. 

Yes, this is pessimistic. But there is a peculiar pocket of comfort in knowing this. It does not say, at the first sign of trouble, lie there to die! What it does say is: it’s okay to not be okay, to stack mistakes upon mistakes like they’re Jenga blocks. It is an uncomfortable truth for us to reckon with, especially if we are used to stories that end with a bow and a clear resolution. But the muddiness in these stories is drenched with realism and holds heaps of value, especially for those who can relate – those who do not often see their wounds represented.

Art has always been used as a medium for processing conflicting emotions that we perhaps tend to suppress in our daily lives. (Like ostensibly sobbing while watching Dumbo, but because you’re actually mourning your own relationship with your mother). And the on-page illustrations of these devastating stories make us feel understood. We are not a forlorn figure gazing into the horizon, feeling loss for the first time in history. People have been here before; there are footprints on this ground, fingerprints on this page. To understand this does not erase the pain that has been suffered; but it does, perhaps, help us in bearing it.  

We need these stories for the cathartic journey they take us on, and the message they leave us with: that it is okay to be hurt, or to simply not know what lies ahead.

Author’s bio:

Lucía Pereira (Montevideo, Uruguay) studies English Literature and Culture in Spain, where she moved when she was five. There, her poems have been published in literary journals such as Página Salmón. She reads and writes because she craves to merge with another.

Confessions of a Homesick Stomach

By Neeraja Srinivasan

“But will you find good rasam rice there? You can’t survive without rasam rice, you know that right?” My mother says to me after I tell her that I want to leave Chennai, where I’ve lived my whole life, to study English and Creative Writing up north, in Delhi. Rasam is a South Indian delicacy; its consistency is soup-like and it’s made by blending tomatoes, tamarind and lots of other spices and herbs native to the South. In our house, rasam rice is usually served with hot paruppu (a dal prepared using boiled lentils, topped with fried onions and chili) and seppankizhangu varuval (taro root fried with mustard, cumin, and copious amounts of masala). Back in 6th grade, every time rasam rice was packed for lunch, I would take enough to fill two glasses; one for me and one for my North Indian friends. After giving my friends their share of rasam, they’d offer me a portion from their lunch box— usually ghee-soaked rotis and ladies finger fry. I remember constantly cribbing that the chapatis made at home were too thick and dry, I never liked them as much as I liked the rotis I’d get from friends in exchange for my rasam.

Now that I think of it, lunch breaks at school, for me, were a strategy to people-watch. There was always food being traded and through that, traditions and customs as well. Rasam is said to have healing properties, often offered to people with colds to warm their throat—I don’t think I needed to be sick for it to give me warmth. Even now, when I hold a cup of hot rasam in a glass, I can’t help but feel more connected to my inner child. I would give anything to be 12 and go back to my school’s lunch break for a day—just to observe food being enjoyed freely and carelessly, given that the primary purpose of it is to keep us happy. Adulthood often steals the joy of eating leisurely, subsequent to diet culture raiding our brains.

My childhood was also filled with trips to my parents’ childhood haven, Madurai. To me, going to Madurai was accompanied with a tinge of annoyance—it wasn’t as modern as Chennai in terms of the way people dressed, spoke and behaved. My “obsessed with western media and culture” self didn’t think it was “cool enough”. I do remember loving one aspect of these trips, though; the food. We’d routinely visit a restaurant called ‘Konar Kadai’, famous for its flavourful kari dosai, which is essentially a dosa stuffed with spicy mutton keema. I didn’t care about the aesthetics of the restaurant, all that mattered was the dosa in front of me. Amma would order a side of half-boiled egg for us to eat along with the dosa. I recollect how comfortable it felt to have a loving relationship with food; unrealistic portrayals of eating habits in popular media have shattered the way I think about and consume food. It almost feels like skipping meals and surviving on caffeine is quirky—because eating well is now, more often than not, associated with sharp pangs of guilt.

One of my earliest memories back in Madurai consists of ‘Nila choru’ which literally translates to ‘rice eaten under the moonlight’. It is a Tamil tradition that involves eating a meal, usually dinner, under a full moon. The meal takes place on a terrace, with family and friends seated in a circle, bathed in mellow moon glow. Amma would sit in the center, holding a mud pot filled with rice and chicken curry, dip her hand into the pot, take out a handful of the mixture and roll it into balls, which she would pass to each one of us in turn. A constant stream of anecdotes and jokes filled the air as we ate, stories that would inevitably stick to corners of my memory for the rest of my life. Food and laughter, both so critical to sustenance. Both so deeply interrelated.

Sundays in our home, like many other Tamilian homes, translated to only one thing—biriyani for lunch. Classmates from school and neighbors would promptly assemble at our door on hot, humid Chennai afternoons. The aroma of chopped onions sizzling in bay leaf, cardamom, cumin powder and clove would spread all across the house and, by extension, the rest of the apartment as well. There is a specific delight in living in a flat and wondering what’s being cooked up in everyone’s houses—we’d try to make guesses based on smells that made their way to us from kitchens all around. According to my mother, however, biriyani always tastes better the day after it is made. She’d routinely leave a box in the fridge for me to gobble up after school; many days were spent reading (or people-watching, or just generally loitering around) instead of eating during lunch breaks, to save up all my hunger for leftovers.

Subconsciously, although I didn’t realise it back then, I became more accustomed to eating in solitude at home, as opposed to inside a classroom filled with kids my age. I liked being able to assemble my meal at my own pace; warmed up biriyani with a side of curd and a chili to crunch on between bites. I still struggle with eating around other people, especially with my hands. My biggest fear as a child was being perceived as messy, and eating with my hands meant a certain level of chaos that I could not let myself take part in front of others. While alone, I would allow myself to appreciate food the way I’ve been taught my whole life: by eating with my hands.

I’ve made mental notes associating the food I grew up eating with certain emotions and feelings. Curd rice and mango pickle for when I’m sad, oily medhu vadais (doughnut shaped crispy fritters) for drowsy, post-food coma festival evenings, nine different types of sundal (various types of chickpea seasoned with coconut shavings, ginger and mustard) for each exciting day of Navratri and mini ghee idlis soaked in sambhar and peanut chutney for breakfast on exam days. These associations are simple reminders that food doesn’t necessarily have to be categorized as healthy and unhealthy, good and bad. If it makes me happy, I’ll allow myself that freedom.

Distance wise, I’m pretty far away from South Indian food. The good kind, at least; which is to say that I’m far away from home and all the food it continues to offer. As I write this, I’m trying to find recipes on YouTube for ‘thakkali sadham’ or tomato rice, a simple dish that I can manage to put together in a communal college kitchen. I’m listening to a Tamil woman giving detailed cooking directions; remember to add salt, let the rice steam well, add ​​puréed ginger and garlic. Something about it feels right.

A Year of Reading Women

Unlearning and Rediscovering Literature

By Anoushka Zaveri

I am a ferocious collector of quotes. Stumbling upon this seemingly inconspicuous post on Instagram made my hoarder-brain dance with joy, but as I scanned wise words from the most prominent painters of our time, I had an epiphany: what did the women artists say?

Only one of 17 panels features the words of a woman artist — the irreverent multimedia artist, Yayoi Kusama. Afraid that the ratio of the contents of  my prized bookshelf was just as disproportionate as this post, I began surveying my old school grammar textbooks, the multiple ICSE-prescribed Shakspeare plays, the critical theory collections from college, my tattered copy of Eliot’s Wasteland, and my most detested — Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Everything I had been taught — right from my fifth grade Wren & Martin to Derrida and Foucault — was produced by men. 

Appalled by the paltry number of women writers I could name, besides the customary Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, I made a commitment to consciously and almost obsessively reading only women writers for a year. In 2018, editor Alice Fishburn conducted a similar experiment by setting it up as a competition with her brother: “for every woman he read, he got a point. For every living author he read, he got a point. An alive woman won him two points while a dead man took two away.” 

Encouraged by Fishburn’s experiment, I walked into my year of reading women as a hopeful, self-assured young woman of 22. A literature game with a points system, something to stroke my competitive ego? Hell yes, sign me up. I’ll do anything to win, even compete with myself. As pandemic life swallowed me whole, I grew greedy for points and recorded my observations.

January to March: Worshipping Western Women

In his infamous Minute on Education of 1835, British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay declared outright that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. My education bears testament to the fact that we inherited the idea of the “intrinsic superiority of Western Literature” and infused it into our own educational and literary culture-making Shakespeare and Wordsworth compulsory for high schoolers, and studying Eurocentric literary theory in university. 

As a result, I internalised the notion that novels begin and end in this canonised collection of white male narratives. I consider the classics worth my time. I organise my reading life to make space for them and wait for the world to stand still so that I can visit a relic of world literature. I am trained to appreciate its value.

For the longest time, the difference between reading a male author and a female author was the essential difference between a hardcover and a paperback. The former: the sort of book so widely read that it needed to be bound and strengthened for preservation. The latter: the kind of book made to be pressed and pushed into backpacks on the go, something that exists to wear out, something that doesn’t need preservation. I thought that a couple of paperbacks read between two hardcovers will suffice, and I will live up to my self-image of being a diligent literature nerd, a global, well-read person, a winner in this little game.

In January 2020, thanks to my years of conditioning that led me to believe that European novels are “essential reading”, I reached first for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and then Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Don’t get me wrong; I admire these women for their immense body of work and the generations they have influenced, but I wish I had picked something closer to home, perhaps Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf or Anita Desai’s brilliant In Custody, both remarkable contributions to world literature. 

It already took a bit of unlearning for me to consciously pick women authors, but ensuring that I read Indian women’s writing would take a sharper, more discerning eye. I began to dig through a wealth of reading lists curated according to ethnicity and region, pointing me towards women’s writing on pleasure, on rest, on art. I would never have found these titles unless I had inserted the specific keywords: womenwritingbooks. Perhaps you don’t find them unless you’re actively looking. They won’t seek me out from window displays or Amazon or codified curricula. I will have to seek them. 

April, May, June: Getting Around to Non-Fiction 

By journeying through classics, I was finally able to unknot my obsession with them: canonised texts were great for appearances. In university, name-dropping Milton or William Faulkner earned me more brownie points from professors and peers than mentioning Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar or Ambai. Because, to talk about Sowvendra, you must provide context — who she is, why she writes, why more people should read her. 

As a student, I steered clear of books that needed context; I wanted desperately to participate in the larger literary conversation, and the canon was my golden ticket. If I had enough brownie points, if I got hooked on brownie points — amassing more and more of them — I’d be one with the 1% that reads these texts. So I trained my mind to look for books that I could cash in for points. Turns out I was playing Fishburn’s game long before I knew it. 

I read only European literary fiction and could finally call myself a connoisseur of high LitErAtuRe. It became difficult for me to pick women writers, especially Indian women’s work in translation because there was no readily available, visible discourse for me to buy into. I needed to do some deep cleaning in my brain, Mary Kondo-style. 

To escape what I might confront about myself in the drawers and cabinets of my brain, I decided to reach for some light, non-fiction reading and found myself amidst such gems as Freny Manekshaw’s Behold, I Shine, Taran Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and, of course, Arundhati Roy’s incisive My Seditious Heart

Women writing about women was, in a word, refreshing. Engaging with these works became a creative exercise instead of an analytical one; I was no longer negotiating with the author’s voice or justifying their claims. As opposed to the overly academic, forced satire I had suffered in some men’s non-fiction, the women writers’ relationships with their subjects seemed beautiful and free-flowing. 

I wasn’t questioning their position, their methods, or their authenticity; I trusted them. Most importantly, I don’t think I would have traversed through the turbulent Kashmir of the 1990s or post-war Kabul if I had not contained my reading, for a while, to women writers. 

July, August, September: New Leads

I began July by reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s dark but cheeky My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I could relate to the unnamed protagonist — a disillusioned young woman who wants to hibernate forever. A few more fiction reads later, a breakthrough! I was moving out of my genre of comfort, into previously unexplored territory: science fiction!

I am unendingly apologetic for despising classmates who read The Martian or anything by Stephen King. In my weak defence, my understanding of the genre rested on a handful of books such as H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I mean, what was science fiction if not these books? 

I felt ugly and ashamed that it had taken a global health crisis and a Goodreads list to introduce me to the formidable Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler who paved the way for women in science fiction. Butler’s Parable of the Sower builds you a dense, post-apocalyptic world, the kind that you need to escape the pandemic’s tragedies, but also makes important comments on climate change, religion and freedom. I wish, sorely, that I had read her earlier in life. 

I also veered into fantasy fiction through Madeline Miller’s Circe and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. However, I ended this immensely rewarding period of reading by crawling back into my comfort zone, with Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea — a classic in itself. 

Mid-year, I had somehow managed to incorporate in my reading three non-fiction books I could count as Indian writing in English. On the fiction front, however, I was still wrestling with the scoreboard. For the moment, I rested in the comfort that I had rediscovered an entire genre of literature through its powerful women forerunners.

October, November, Christmas: Faulty Finish Lines

My philosophy for this experiment was simple: read as many women writers as I can, steal the points, and move on. Far from simple, it turned out to be an exercise in appreciation and control. Not only did I discover the diversity within a narrowed category but also learned to resist the allure of over-celebrated, prize-winning books and appreciate narratives that were excluded by award-conferring authorities.

As a next step, I began to scout for women who had revolutionised Indian writing in English. I made some obvious choices: Krishna Sobti’s The Music of Solitude and Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire. I also read Mahasweta Devi’s fiery short stories and Shanta Gokhale’s documenting of Mumbai’s vibrant 70s theatre culture in The Scenes We Made. My most immersive experience was Annie Zaidi’s Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing.

Around this time, I decided that categories were good. They helped me channel my reading and make a deliberate, systematic approach towards diversifying my consumption. Perhaps if we are immersed in a category for a little while, it will become our dominant way of reading, of seeing. It should not have to be a game; there should be no points. But if going the Fishburn way helps us unlearn our reading habits and come closer to literature, then why not?

For me, categorising was liberating, but it was also nothing new. I had been reading one category — male writers — for a long time; I just didn’t know it. Maybe this year I will only read works in translation or books that have Queer protagonists. I could spend a few months on short stories from the Northeast. Or better still, I could dedicate a whole year to poetry. There is no finish line, but I think I’m on my way to somewhere different, somewhere diverse.

Author bio:

Anoushka is an emerging writer from Mumbai. She graduated at the top of her class from FLAME University with a B.A. in Literary and Cultural Studies, and has been immersed in reading, writing, arts, culture, and storytelling ever since. She is now pursuing a Masters in English Literature. Anoushka began her writing career with Conde Nast Traveler India and The Culture Trip, both leading publications in the travel and lifestyle space, and worked in arts management with the booming youth theatre movement Thespo. Now, she is focused on studying reader-response theory and Indian writing in English, and writing fiction that resonates with the urban Indian reader.

For Slowed Progression: My Dealings with Time and Youth

By Tara Kalra

The past year has made me unlearn the absolute linearity of time. Processing one’s surroundings and emotions comes with difficulties. Floating through a time lived in retrospect comes more naturally.

The year has given me a fondness for company, the kind that is indicative of both quality and quantity. My bildungsroman coincided with the pandemic and, as I set out to write it, I discovered a love for the ordinary and a glimpse of the extraordinary incessantly shared with other people. A perfect blend of anxiety and a flickering sense of relief, I discovered there’s comfort in going out, taking the same route, but without accounting for any of my steps. Turning eighteen, nineteen and then twenty, one slowly transcends into this deluded state. It feels like I have the reins of time voluntarily traversing out of my hands. Yet I never stop to notice how the commotion is steady, never frenzied. Be it a drive or two till I reach my local Harvest Gold bhaiya or a walk around the colony that has nestled my whole existence, I’ve learned to notice, if not cherish, the minute intervals of time spent wandering and discovering spaces both familiar and unfamiliar. 

I’ve taken the place where I grew up for granted. My love for my neighbourhood — or even for Delhi — was entirely dependent on the freedom to move out by myself. Evenings are no longer a time of quietude, brushed past while I am bent over my laptop basking in the eyesight-ruining warmth of the corner lamp. While those evenings are significant in their own way, I’ve started to enjoy slow walks around my colony — walks that aren’t part of a fitness regime, but tender nurturance, replete with matched steps and fleeting shoulder rubs. I sit on the bench, in the company of a friend, previously lost because of the solipsistic tendencies of teenage life. We talk steadily, with less excitement and more familiarity, updating each other on the occurrences of the previous week. 

I ask her about her hot chocolate recipe and whether she heats the milk in the pan or in the microwave. We go on to discuss the multiple uses of an electric kettle and how our mothers taught us how to make tea only to trick us into brewing it for them all the time. We don’t talk over each other; we ask very specific questions about odd and exceedingly routine tasks. By asking her what she’ll have for dinner or how she manages to get up early every day, I try to borrow aspects of her habits. I imagine her cooking a warm plate full of nourishment and eating it in her ruffled bed. The same bed she very bravely leaves the next morning to start her day five hours before I do. 

She makes me realise how distance in any friendship can sometimes be a nurturing nudge. Slowly, we form our rituals. The bench by the basketball court does not seem as inviting as the one under the banyan tree veiling the footpath. A walk isn’t complete without us visiting our favourite houses in the neighbourhood. Mine, a corner house situated at a quaint turn. Resembling, in all its shaded propensities and strings of yellow bulbs, a hill house, replete with intellectuals or people immensely fond of baking. Hers, a house situated strategically at a dead-end, transforming into a retreat of utter bliss and awe. With its arched entryway, big bay windows and textured facade, it’s what a lot of people would call a ‘dream house’. 

I look forward to our rituals; I know they aren’t embedded in sacred legalities, but in a genuine inclination to spend part of our time together, just before life takes on its true form. There is an unspoken understanding that we do not walk together every day, but when  we do, we pay close attention to every song or book recommended, every detail provided, every epiphany expressed. 

Time nestles itself amidst relationships — relationships with people and materiality. Time calls my name through the red brick house at the corner, adorned with lanterns made of crimson-hued paper, alerting me to the onset of winter and Diwali. The lady of that house walks her Siberian husky — also named ‘Husky’ — every other day. Unapproachable, until my mother decided to talk to her and tell her how I look forward every year to her unique, personalised adornments. 

“You’ve turned twenty, shed your ego and smile,” Time never fails to remind me, as I take another round of my colony. I am compelled to smile at inquisitive aunties, stopping and saying hello to the ones who have seen me since the time I was a shy kid with an unadmirable attitude. 

Time irritably pokes a finger at my arm and orders me to imagine a life away from home. A life away from my parents, siblings, childhood friends, and the acquaintances one comes to like or detest through scattered scraps of neighbourhood gossip. Perhaps, as a young person, I’ve got used to a sustained imagination of how my life would look when I went away — displaced, in cities I would never want to call home. 

As much as I dislike romanticising the past two years, they’ve undoubtedly curved my perception of time. I am compelled to find satisfaction in the fact that I’ll always feel like I am running out of time, not realising how Time itself has a way of unravelling, mending, and providing all that I’ve wanted or needed. 

It is as if through the trifecta of being young, finding our youth in shared spaces, and realising the mundanities that escape time and age, I observe a need for a silenced progression. Time has proffered me a middle space — not for me to assess and figure out what I want, but to capture those houses in my mind’s space and hold my friend’s hand to make mine warm. 

I know Time won’t stop for me. But sometimes, we both match our steps and take slow rounds around the neighbourhood. 

Hope Floats: On Reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning

By Samya Verma

Some time in September 2021, I found myself enthralled by Viktor Frankl’s ’46 classic Man’s Search For Meaning. It is a testament to Frankl’s prescience that his question, on what the bestseller status of such a conspicuous title implies for the state of humanity, echoes down the years into the river mouth of the pandemic. 

Frankl wrote amidst the desolation of the post World War II years, rebuilding life, and meaning, on the barren soil of the distant past. Having lived through the very worst of what man is capable of doing to man, his words were as much a salve for a collectively-wounded civilizational psyche then as they can be now. Hope is a succulent of muddy waters; it grows out of your broken ways, winding around your cracks like a lining of gold. Your very own Kintsugi. 

The lesson to be learned is not that ‘the magnitude of my suffering pales yours by comparison’; a person who drowns in three feet of water is as dead as someone who drowns in seven. Rather, Frankl’s conjecture is a philosophy to guide us through the very worst of our times — the prospect of facing the debris of our pre-pandemic lives and still finding the ‘why’ to thrust ourselves to the surface; or, as Frankl quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a ‘why’ to live for, can bear almost any ‘how’”.

I had long held onto a stale breath, turning purple-faced with the unrelatability and chaos of surviving… until I turned the pages of Man’s Search For Meaning. I now realize that love is crucial to anything you do, the most important ingredient of meaning, of survival. You take love out, and education becomes a hustle, a business; you add it in and education becomes knowledge.

The surest decision I ever made in my life was to chase history on a wing and a wish. I just knew that nothing else could appease my soul. But the long jump from school to university ‘broke my back’, so to speak. I laboured through a long period of illness during my higher secondary; come the dream sequence that was my four months at college, even the verdant campus couldn’t quite make up for the pain of the years past. In short, I was plagued by apathy and acute meaninglessness during my college days. The process of waking up, showing up for class and penning papers was almost a mechanical detachment from the emptiness of reality. For someone who had dreamt incessantly of poring over historical tomes in hallowed college classrooms of the country, the shock of having made it was almost too much to bear. Passion slept a fitful sleep, and I lost my ‘will to meaning’. 

When I awoke it was dusk, and I, another blind conspirator of the future, ran out into the dark with candles of hope. In Dickinson’s words, “I am [still] out with lanterns, looking for myself.

Bit by bit, as the long months of the lockdown dragged on, I taught myself the art of hope. Meaning-making is a perpetual process; as long as you take responsibility for your life, each new dawn will find you hopeful and in anticipation of whatever the next 24 hours have in store for you. I tided over a point of crisis in my life by appraising every word that I read, and every verse that I bled, with placid hope. 

Slowly, but surely, everything began to seem meaningful once more.

In hindsight, I realize that all through my school years, I was running on autopilot. I was compartmentalizing my studies while focusing on a far-off goal of ‘studying history at a good college’ in order to give meaning to my suffering and to survive the trauma of my schooling from one excruciating day to the next. For years, there was one cautious step after another, one small goal and then the next, in my quest for the biggest Goal of all. You wouldn’t dare misstep at the gallows, would you?

The machine of my life was conspicuously broken, and the damage was only compounding with each new session. Today I ask, just how far was I planning to fly on a wounded wing? Wraggled and drenched, I washed ashore at college, the bitter taste of Nothing in my mouth. 

There was no balk on ideas here: everyone spoke a dialect of your soul. Now, when people ask me why I gasp for air while talking incessantly, I tell them that to speak and to be understood is a luxury that makes my lungs gape with relief. 

But there was a catch (there’s always a catch). For years there had been a Goal, a Meaning, and now it had ceased to be a potentiality. It had, instead, transmuted into what Frankl calls an ‘actuality’ frozen in my immediate past. I was sitting at the seat of ideas in a sun-soaked history classroom. How would I distract myself from my pain now? With nothing to hold it back, the void, the black hole of my being, grew at an exponential rate. College was loud, vibrant, sunny and summery, a carnival of sorts. But it couldn’t fill the void. Frivolity couldn’t fill it either.

“What next?” For someone who had been compartmentalizing her life for a significant portion of the last seven years, there was no answer, there was no meaning. And the pandemic forced me to live through this meaninglessness, face myself, really take responsibility, and rebuild hope.

For years, there had been one day after another — a short-sighted, tunnel vision-esque focus on surviving from 7:30 AM in the morning to 3:00 PM in the afternoon. And suddenly, the pandemic meant that there was no new day anymore, just the same 24 hours on an endless loop. The pandemic forced me to stop, contemplate, and face the broken machine. To quote the preface of Man’s Search for Meaning, I had to weave these slender threads of a broken life into a firm pattern of meaning and responsibility.

I have now realized that knowledge, an inexhaustible quest, gives me meaning. I love the mental dynamics involved in the process of learning, the ease with which I understand, the occasional click of ideas, and the intertwining of interdisciplinary knowledge into a conceptual clarity of the world as it really is beneath the veneer of daily life. I stagnated for a while because all my life I was forced to study under the duress of report cards and weekly tests. Thus, the sudden emancipation from a lifelong pressure to excel ‘deformed’ me. As I stumbled beyond boundaries, it took a while but I came right home to books and knowledge, evermore in love with the process. I do not wish to adhere to a herd mentality that would make me hate the process of knowledge acquisition and studying. To me, knowledge is a lamp burning away into the night with no concern for the morning.

 I owe a great deal to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning in helping me piece together the emotional turbulence of the past few years into a precious belief: hope floats.

Author bio:

Samya Verma is a final year student of history at Hindu College, DU. She is an aspiring international journalist. She swears by caustic sarcasm, political satire, and dark humor. You can reach out to her at samyasverma.work@gmail.com.

Empty Vessels

By Sandhini

This year, my mother told me that the silence following Diwali haunts her. She told me that she used to carry a knife on the bus on her way to college. She showed me the bedsheet she had painted and said that she couldn’t stand the smell of paint any longer. She told me that she didn’t have the same relationship with her father as I do with mine, and that they didn’t really talk. She told me how she wrote her PhD thesis by hand because there were no computers at the time, and how that thesis is now in the storeroom.

She told me all of this, and I felt as if I had never met this woman before. I never thought of her as a woman; I think of her as a mother.

Is it possible to love someone without knowing anything about their past? As if my history is my mother’s history, and her life began with mine. I keep a journal, post on Instagram, and write opinion pieces for a student newspaper; I’ve begun to immortalise myself. My stories can be found somewhere in the universe. But the women in my family, my mother and grandmother, will never have the chance to be immortalised. What happened to their stories? It’s not in a journal, it’s not on the internet, and it’s not in my memories.

My mother can converse with complete strangers. She always converses with the woman who keeps track of every piece of clothing taken for trial while I try on outfits inside the changing rooms. I’m not sure I’d ever be as open to others as she is. When I asked her about it, she replied with a wistful look that said, “We’re all living lives we don’t want to live.”

Maa, are you living a life you don’t want to live just to give us a life that we want to live?

Maa, are you living a life you don’t want to live?

I was asked to write a column for my college magazine. For the first issue published in August 2021, I described how my mother sits in the Chauth Pooja draped in a red dupatta and recites religious passages. Now that I think about it, it’s strange that I found that single incident worthy of mention out of everything she does. Seeing her as the embodiment of Marwari culture — I belong to Rajasthan — as she has been conditioned in this for fifty-four years. Not only am I perceiving her as if she has no past, but I am also constructing my own image of her — one which is directly influenced by how my culture moulds me. 

But is this a universal phenomenon or a cultural one? Is it true that all Marwari families regard their women as empty vessels to be filled with culture and traditions? Do all Marwari women perform poojas, memorise mantras and fast for their families? And are all Marwari women expected to be everything their mothers and mothers-in-law were, and perhaps even more?

In ancient Rajasthan, a woman who committed sati was deified and worshipped by the local people. After the act of sati, she loses her identity as a woman with a name; she is referred to as sati mata. In fact, her identity was lost even earlier, when her ancestors decided that her existence would cease with the end of her future husband’s existence. 

In my culture, women are spoken of in terms of their relationships with men. This culture constructs temples for women who died at the hands of the patriarchy, whose empty vessels were filled to the brim with sanskaar. My culture has produced women who have experienced a collective trauma.

But who will tell these women’s children that their mothers are more than the ‘cultured’ women they are, that their mothers could have been rebels like them, that their mothers are still looking for freedom in their faces? Who will ever tell their children that they were never empty vessels in the first place? Their children will never be able to speak their languages. Not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t understand the rules of their language, its vowels, syllables and rules of grammar. Do they themselves know the language that could speak of their past?  If they do, why haven’t they articulated it yet?

I’d ask my mother whether she remembers the tree that grew in her courtyard. Was it mango or imli? I’d ask her if she remembers something of the first friend she made as a college student. Have you ever thought of looking them up on Facebook, which you keep scrolling on nowadays? She once told me that I should always have a person in whom I can confide about anything; I’d ask her who that person was for her. I’d ask if she ever wrote poetry, if she even fell in love. 

I’d ask and keep asking until I knew who she was, who she could have been. I’d keep asking until I knew how much like her I am. I’d keep asking until her heart was full of the aroma of whichever tree was in her courtyard. 

I’d keep asking until she knew she wasn’t just a muse.

Author Bio:

Sandhini is a literature student at University of Delhi, originally from Rajasthani city of Ajmer. She is a Kathak dancer with a passion for gender and culture studies. A wannabe writer, she concentrates on penning personal narratives, much of which is pondered when out on a walk. Sandhini is a literature student at University of Delhi, originally from Rajasthani city of Ajmer. She is a Kathak dancer with a passion for gender and culture studies. A wannabe writer, she concentrates on penning personal narratives, much of which is pondered when out on a walk.

Untitled

By Karessa Malaya Ramos Aguiñot

A veces pienso en la bala que entregó tu último aliento

Siento haberte llorado tan poco.
Y lo poco que lloré, no estaba salado.
Siento no saber dolerte.
Me dijeron que me buscabas
y que me tenías como referencia,
que necesitabas un ancla.
Me enteré de que aguardabas
el día en que pudieras
comprobar en vivo y en directo,
que tu hermana existía. Y que existías
para ella.

¿Te dio tiempo a enamorarte?
Tu lucha, ¿Fue fructífera?
Estés donde estés. En diferido,
al menos, lo estás comprobando:
tienes una hermana.
La que te lloró poco.
La que te lloró poco salado.
La que no te sabe doler.

Sometimes I think of the bullet that delivered your last breath

I’m sorry I cry too little for you.
And when I do, all I shed are unsalted tears. 
I’m sorry I don’t know how to mourn you.
I was told that you were searching for me
while looking up to me
balanced on a ledge so you could see. 
I heard stories of how you bid your time…
all logic and common sense defied
as you sought to justify, undeniable,
that while your sister is, you are for her, as well.

Did you get a chance to fall in love?
Was your struggle worthwhile?
Wherever you are
dissenting space, mocking time
you can observe, deferred,
your sister exists; she is
crying too little for you
shedding unsalted tears,
ignorant on how to mourn you.

“A veces pienso en la bala que entregó tu último aliento” (“Cosechas del insomnio”Diversidad Literaria 2021)

“Cosechas del insomnio” (“Insomnious Harvest”) is a 135-page love letter to myself and to POC migrant feminine artists like me. It is also a thick ticket to freedom and, at the same time, a pact with the imposter in me. 

I didn’t just write about bliss, I wrote about mourning as well. 

Yes, I penned down my dreams, but also my insomniac evenings and savage fantasies. 

Not only did I describe how I transited love, I included a step-by-step narration of self-fingering to cast a spell on the reluctant lover. 

I did not limit myself to honoring my son with a poem, I also commemorated a baby daughter I lost along the way.

Most importantly, I didn’t just preserve the past, I forgave myself for it. 

But all of these had to be drafted in Spanish.

***

During the first 17 years of my life, I was one of the model students in English and Filipino (Tagalog). I was diligent with grammar and fussy about every detail in creative texts. For instance, I would spend time debating with myself over how “glee” (tuwa) doesn’t carry the same density as “joy” (ligaya) or how one may be damp with melancholy (balisâ) but not necessarily drenched in sadness (malungkot)… It was as though the more I familiarized myself with those tongues, the more I caged every word I learned inside very specific emotions. 

This kind of dexterity was what made my initial writing correct, entertaining, romantic when called for and always pleasing to the reader. But with expertise came the loss of courage to explore. So I remained comfortable, delightedly stuck with my pleasant content, regardless of my inability to cross the threshold between life and death, love and indifference, blame and redemption.

Until one day, I had to undergo a forced reboot—my family migrated to Madrid when I was in college, compelling me to learn Spanish in turbo mode. I was 17; it felt like I had been stripped of my identity, incapable of understanding and being understood using any of the tools I possessed.

During the first few years, I relied heavily on translation, but soon discovered that it could only take me so far. Besides, I would commit blunders like “La aspirina es un vascodilatador” (“Aspirin is a Basque dilator”). I should have used “vasodilatador”, but I defied logic, arguing that “vascular” is the term used for anything pertaining to blood vessels. Hence, “vascodilatador”... Or I would ask for “pago fracturado” (“fractured payment”) instead of saying “pago fraccionado”, which is the correct translation for “fractional payment”.

I considered this hindrance for a long time. Although unsure of whether it was the right thing to do, I changed tactics and learned Spanish the way a child would: from scratch.

Outside of school/work, I pretended I didn’t have any other languages as a reference. I made it a point to unlearn the equivalent of many English and Tagalog terms in Spanish; I dug into the thesaurus for the word that fit whatever was suggested at a given moment most harmoniously. I built on my day-to-day experiences to expand my options of expressing a thought or a feeling. I also started to find out how other Spanish speakers did it: I read extensively and had many intense conversations on a wide array of topics with native speakers of the language, both from Europe and from Latin America. 

I took things to another level when I started mimicking accents and writing patterns (Benedetti, Allende and García Márquez were my go-to authors). I also observed idiosyncrasies, stayed alert to stereotypes and basically lived like an imitator/parrot for a little while. 

***

I was 33 by the time I enrolled in a creative writing workshop. That was when the Imposter was born. Drawn from the Imposter Syndrome, this alter ego first emerged to help me brave an adult life of not knowing how to accurately express myself. She’s the part of me that copied how others would speak and write. But at a later stage, I realized that not knowing actually allowed me to lean on uncertainty to navigate the liminal spaces bordering life and death, or the frontier that divides falling in love and crashing in lust. 

As I got inspired to share my craft, the Imposter became more intrusive; she started to question me. It escalated the day I received an offer to be published.

“Why are you writing, when others have already shared similar experiences more eloquently?” 

“What makes you think you deserve to be here?” 

It was hard, but I let her in. 

I made space for her beside me during the whole process of writing my first book. I showed her that, in very important ways, it’s easier to express myself in the new language than in my native ones, because not enough pain has been rendered in this tongue. This helped me gain the courage I had lacked to delve into obscure places. Moreover, I was free to not always be reverent! What a joy it was to create without being bound by decorum! 

That’s what “Cosechas…” is all about. 

The Imposter still sticks her head out to remind me what a copycat I used to be, always casting doubts on  just how original each poem or short story really was. Despite the pain caused by self-doubt, I hug her and keep on writing. It’s a seed I constantly sow; a seed I look forward to tending alongside her. Siempre.

Author Bio

37-year old Karessa Malaya was born in the Philippines (Nueva Écija, 1984) and migrated to Spain when she was 17. A reskilled economist, she now balances a job in communications and her artistic pursuits. Aside from working on current writing projects, she is also learning photography, loves reciting and watching poets onstage, listening to live music and is very active when it comes to exploring other ways of self-expression. Her name means “caress of freedom”.

Wordle Watching

By Neeraja Srinivasan

If there is one thing I love doing, endlessly, incessantly, ceaselessly, it is observing. However borderline creepy this sounds, I’m a watcher. Not in a ‘Joe Goldberg; I will hunt you down and stab you to death’ way but in a ‘Your Instagram story about Chocos from two weeks ago made me write a poem’ way. The little gestures, conversations and scenes I surround myself with shape my personality, and as a result of that, the art I create. In a post-pandemic world, a large chunk of my ‘artistic lurking’ exists in online spaces – namely Twitter. I like to think of Twitter as a cesspool of the world’s deepest, darkest, most random thoughts. My timeline is usually full to the brim with the perils of emotionally unavailable teenagers, extensive dissections of Taylor Swift’s songs, naive hopes of college campuses reopening in India and everything in between. However, recently, it seems like all of this collectively comes to a pause at midnight – for a good ten minutes, my timeline is taken over by little squares coloured in green, yellow and black. ‘Wordle’ is an online, once-a-day game that invites players to guess a five-letter word within six tries. After each attempt, the game tells you whether any of your letters are in the secret word and if they are in the correct place. The recent buyout of Wordle by The New York Times facilitated even more buzz around its sudden success. 

One reason I find the Wordle phenomenon intriguing is the lesser-known history of crossword puzzles, which is what inspired its birth. The first-ever crossword was created by Arthur Wynne, an editor at the New York World to serve as a source of solace during the First World War. When the news began to be dominated by bleak headlines as the war progressed, he saw a need to give readers refuge in the form of puzzles that they had control over, as opposed to the fragmented world around them that spiralled out of control. Moreover, every puzzle had to pass the Sunday Breakfast Test; that is, clues and answers needed to be appropriate for all ages. Although the objective behind crosswords transitioned from relief to ritual, one thing remains constant – they bring diverse people together. We might speak different languages, belong to various cultures and lead contrasting lives but as long as we come together to solve the Wordle, something so microscopic yet so monumental, we’re all essentially the same right? This is precisely why I play and love watching others play Wordle, this habitual activity is so much more than a game. It’s a reminder that day-to-day rituals, laced with warmth and comfort will never change. 

The utterly charming origin story behind the invention of Wordle is also what accelerated its fast-paced popularity. Josh Wardle conjured it up for his word-game loving partner. Now, along with 300,000 others around the world, they’ve built a little tradition of their own. In ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’, Jake realizes that he wants to propose to Amy while watching her solve a crossword. He looks over at her as if he could watch her do just that, for the rest of eternity. When you think of someone solving a word puzzle, you instantly think of solitary enjoyment; a head bent over the morning newspaper, faces scrunched up in concentration on buses to school, scribbles of clues on bits of paper. Still, I think we’d all like someone to solve the daily Wordle with. Someone to share our results with. Someone waiting to hear our thoughts on today’s answer. Someone to indulge in domestic sweetness with. I really do believe that the oldest of human needs is wanting someone to share our teeny, tiny redemptions with. There is hidden intimacy in basic tasks; buying orange juice, baking a cake, washing vessels, picking up laundry.

I’ve also been thinking about pandemic induced urban loneliness and how it has washed over us. How all our hearts could use some stitching back together. This is a genre of loneliness specific to overcrowded cities that never sleep. Of course the market’s bustling, movies are running and street lights, ever-shining. But that’s not what I’m referring to. Despite access to the internet, the promise of physical touch if I need it and close proximity to modern civilization, I’m often overcome with a post-leaving-your-best-friends house kind of daze. I’m convinced we try to interrogate this sadness by relishing in the ordinary, like playing a game of Wordle. In holding on to the knowledge that there are thousands of us who make it our mini-mission to finish the Wordle every day, and that there are other mini-missions we share, I find consolation. 

Why Bojack Horseman could’ve been written by Murakami

By Neeraja Srinivasan

“Dear Diane,

It’s me, your old pen pal Leo. It definitely isn’t Bojack Horseman writing this. You’re a good person, Diane, and that’s the most important thing. Even if no one appreciates you, it’s important that you don’t stop being good. I like how you always bring your own bag to the grocery stores and how you’re always organized to go places. I like how you always chew gum on the airplane so your ears will pop. A lot of people might not appreciate that about you, but I do.”

To say I’m always thinking about this quote from Bojack Horseman is a little bit of an understatement. I’m never not thinking about it. There, that’s a better way to put it. I started this show back in 2019 and still haven’t finished it – I simply can’t get myself to. Similarly, every time I close the last page of a book by Haruki Murakami, I’m left with a lingering unease. The kind that settles in the bottom of your stomach, entangled with feelings of loneliness, unworthiness, and grief. Power dynamics, drug abuse, mental health, and childhood trauma are all addressed in the show. Throughout its 6 seasons, we see characters’ behaviours and self-destructive tendencies being deeply scrutinised under a microscopic lens. By watching them attempt to overcome trauma responses and break cycles of their own toxicity, one thing is clear – these characters were not written to be loved and cherished by the audience. They were written to portray the inner battles of the human mind; how we’re always our own harshest critics.

When I say that this show could’ve been written by Murakami, I mean that he has a way of not just getting under the skin of his characters, but also getting into their minds, their psyche, what makes them who they are, why they think the way they do, and how their past, imperfect as it is, shapes them and their future – indefinite and uncertain. For example, I can’t help but think about the way Toru Watanabe, the protagonist of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, was written. In some ways, he is eerily similar to Bojack. On the outside, Toru is quite ordinary. But, as the novel progresses, we learn that he is practically a loner, riddled with self-doubt. His complicated relationship with death as a result of his best friend’s suicide is explored and used as reasoning for his commitment issues; how he avoids getting close to anyone so as to not get hurt.

Bojack is a severely depressed, retired actor from a former hit sitcom. He longs for a simple, loving life (like the one depicted in his show) but never really takes the steps to create it for himself. His untreated mental illness absorbs him like quicksand every time he tries to break himself away from the shackles of his own damaging, problematic instincts. Both Bojack and Toru sleep with many women, rarely seeking to form any sort of real emotional connection. Numbing their way through life, it’s almost like they find solace in loneliness. Like they fear being known or loved. 

Despite their inhibitions, one can’t help but feel bad for them. I was recently reading a book called ‘Maybe You Should Talk To Someone’ by Lori Gottlieb. In one section of her book, she explains how individuals often unknowingly sabotage a troubled person’s (in this case, Toru and Bojack’s) recovery. She goes on to explain how someone has to fill the role of the troubled person in order to maintain the status quo and ensure the homeostasis of society. Someone who blurs the lines between what is objectively moral and what isn’t, someone to feel sympathy for, someone to look at and think ‘I will not end up like this. I will be better.’ Which is why I’m left wondering if Toru and Bojack continue to be the way they are because society unconsciously resists positive change from people like them.

“Am I just doomed to be the person that I am? Diane, I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person…tell me that I’m good, Diane.” At this moment in the show, it’s almost like we’re the ones Bojack is talking to. In a strikingly alike scene, Toru says to Midori,

“I don’t want our relationship to end like this. You’re one of the very few friends I have, and it hurts not being able to see you. When am I going to be able to talk to you? I want you to tell me that much, at least. “It’s an undressing of emotions coming from two immature men who pride themselves in not talking about their feelings. They’re begging for love, but can’t explicitly convey that because they were never taught how to. Both of them expect forgiveness and seek validation from women whom they know do not have the heart to cut them off, despite their dangerous behavior. So, how do we forgive people who’ve caused so much pain? Are you a bad person for the ways you’ve tried to kill your sadness? Is anyone really capable of change?

Shireen Qadri coined the term ‘Murakami Bingo’, referring to the usual tropes that Murakami consistently resorts to in his novels. While many accuse him of being repetitive, it is undeniable that the fictitious worlds he crafts in his novels exist elegantly in a time warp between reality and fantasy. In these worlds, little things do not matter. You are instead allowed the space to introspect and ponder deeper questions, like the meaning of life and death. This genre of magical realism is one that Murakami has successfully mastered, which is another similarity between his work and the show. The creative team behind the show creates a dimension filled with goofy antics and animal puns, but also one where characters’ existential crises, caused by manifestations of their trivial worries, are addressed.

This is all to say that, at the end of the day, the media and literature we consume are all interwoven. Stories are meant to be consumed in relation to other stories, the people around us, and the world we live in. After an emotionally draining day of critically analysing Murakmi and re-watching some episodes of Bojack Horseman, I’m thinking about how we function normally and go about our day, eating breakfast, attending class, whilst casually carrying frightening feelings about ourselves in the pocket of our hearts. These feelings are hard to bear. How do they not wash over us completely, drowning us? How do any of us ever get out of bed? Maybe that’s why we read Murakami and watch Bojack; because they teach us how to go on living with these feelings without being suffocated by them.