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.

Reclaiming my orgasm?

by Shubhangi Thakur

I think I was really young when I first saw a man masturbating in broad daylight. Young enough to not know what he was doing. The visuals were disturbing just like every unsolicited dick picture that slides into my DMs but I moved on. However, I can’t put my finger on a moment when I actually learned about it or when someone sat down to tell me about it. But I do recall the feelings of guilt I associated with the act of masturbation initially. It stemmed from this really big sense that it was maybe something I wasn’t allowed to do or definitely something people shouldn’t know about me. 

I think I’ve been a late bloomer in terms of masturbating, thanks to zero sex education and poor sexual curiosity. (I also very strongly feel that sex education is more than just using condoms for sex)

It was when one of my female friends casually brought it up in conversation and “I was too shy to admit I had never done it” that got me thinking down the spiral of owning my self-pleasure. 

I wish the idea of masturbating wasn’t so taboo for us women and I had explored my self-pleasure earlier. Oddly enough, it took a boy to tell me that women could masturbate, and then Google to tell me how. 

Why are we so coy about self-pleasure? Why is self-pleasure relegated to an innate sense of shame and embarrassment, or horror?

 I never had an open conversation about masturbation in school and it kind of bothers me in retrospect about the conversational limit that we women put on ourselves and our sexuality. It was largely and liberally related to corny jokes among boys.  No wonder there is still a glaring discrepancy in the way male and female masturbation is cited in mainstream conversation today. 

Even to this day, it’s uncanny how my female friends would be open to confessing about masturbating in one on one conversations with me but somehow the openness of talking about it in a group seemed uncouth or simply not worthy enough. The secrecy around masturbating and female pleasure is something that revolves around a lot of female friend groups. It’s the sanctimonious characteristics that we attach to being a “girl” that associate female pleasure to moral transgression. It sets the tone for the character assassination of a woman who’s self-assured of her sexuality and is able to talk about it without any apprehensions.

Masturbation is always critiqued with an air of deep-rooted misogyny in which a woman who plucks up the courage to touch and pleasure herself is deemed and labelled as very unladylike and inviting labels to be called ‘ slut or a whore’ 

Breaking the cultural conditioning and the stigma attached to female masturbation is exactly what we need to do to help the young girls stumbling out of their puberty who are mortified of touching themselves because of futile societal threats.

There is always an extreme abashment attributed to something as natural as sexual desire and pleasure, which for us Indian women is just limited to a social obligation of procreation. We are persistently taught to think of ourselves as objects of sexual pleasure rather than delegates of it.

I fail to understand how female masturbation can arouse any moral panic in our society — It isn’t shameful to want to learn and explore our own bodies. The moral panic very well delineates the patriarchal roots that frame the need to curb female desire. Is taming us into sexual austerity just another way to control us?

 I feel the most intimate relationship is the one you have with your body and it’s very important to know what you like and how you like it otherwise you’ll be dependent on your partner to figure it out, which isn’t fair, to be honest. 

Taking control of my sexual pleasure makes me feel empowered.  Gaining control makes me feel complete — I don’t depend on anyone else to achieve an orgasm. Whether or not you have a sexual partner, your orgasms are always important for your sense of self. 

Trust me, ladies, you have to take your pleasure into your own hands. 

I’m not here to tell you how healthy masturbation is, google can do that. I’m here to tell you it makes me feel empowered and it is something you can and you should talk about in a room full of people.