To be forgotten- The way a camera forgets the photographer

By Kashvi Chandok, EIC

I have a problem with documentation, which is to say, I have an obsession with documentation. This is more of a self-confession than an exposé, but being young in the age of surveillance compels you to look at yourself from a distance. Most days I wake up nursing the feeling that life is passing by dreadfully fast and if I don’t live every moment of it, even more so, if I don’t document myself living every moment of it, it’ll disappear into fragments of thin air.

Credits: Moya Mawhinney

For a few years now, I have walked with this lipid realisation of how transient everyday moments can be. Life passes by when you’re reading on the school bus, when you’re shuffling through your playlist in the metro, making eye contact with masked strangers, and so on. There’s something about wanting to live a prodigious life that is so conducive to manifesting an alternative life that most times I feel like I’m living in motion, neither here nor there, but in this daydreaming amnesia of what reality should be. 

For most people of privilege and access to literature and the media, our lives imitate art more than the other way around. In “Cruel Optimism,” Lauren Berlant, discussing the “genres for life” says that we want to think that our lives have an overall trajectory, much like the plot of a book, and that if we could just figure out its arc, we could write it ourselves. For me, the trajectory has often been about visualising my life, if not in the future, then in the present: as an escape. It’s not this longing of abundantly unlived daydreams that troubles me. If anything, it’s in imagined lives that we truly break away from the enigma. Yet it’s the performance in which we often manifest our desires that interests me.

The Self in Self-Documentation: 

Recently, I came across a class called Intentional Documentation on Skillshare which claims that effective visual documentation, i.e., documenting yourself doing menial or mundane chores, can help you live a mindful life. The class description is quite interesting: “There is something beautiful about capturing pieces of your life in a thoughtful way and having these moments to look back on. Their value is immeasurable. They can create a sort of loose outline of your past. They will become portals to see where you’ve come from and what you’ve been through. This class is all about the cultivation of those moments. “

These ideas of viewing oneself from the lens of the other are not new. Some of the early origins of self-documentation have emerged in the form of portraits. Self-portraiture is an art form that dates back to Ancient Egypt, and artists like Rembrandt, Albrecht Düre, and Frida Kahlo have all explored, even based a majority of their now remarkably considered works on this artform. Most of these artists used it as a chance to portray themselves as the main characters and heroes of their own tales. In fact, it is still viewed as a chance to capture a side of yourself that nobody else sees. 

In a study conducted in the UK, it was found that self-portraits or photos of the self were the 2nd most popular category of photographs after “friends and family”.  If we view the self-portrait genre through the perspective of document theory, we understand that they serve as some sort of referential system to provide proof, relevancy and meaning. But in a world where we use devices to track our own behaviours, make web pages for our professional portfolios, autobiographies, visual self-portraits, and other specialized types of information about ourselves, how do we differentiate the self from the document? And who is really the archivist of our identity?

The Affect:

Every moment that we live is governed by an immeasurable and indescribable feeling that is individual to oneself. Sometimes in mid-summer, I would be sitting under a fan and a suspiciously wistful sensation would seep through me that I had lived this before. I recognise this warm air, this sense of mundanity that transports me back to a school day when I was 15 and passed notes to my friends in between math classes, or to a trip I went on with my family, where I bruised my knee and sat in front of a local chemist store eating ice cream. Yet in all these commonplaces of shared feelings, my sentiments differ by my current state of being. This is how the “affect” concept works in correlation to our memory. 

A few weeks back, while having a phone call with my Modern Theater professor for a paper, she introduced the “affect-concept” to me. Talking about the theory, Eric Shouse wrote in M/C Journal that unlike emotion, which is social, and feeling, which is personal, “affect” is considered pre-personal: a nonconscious experience of intensity. In more literal terms, affect theory refers to unconscious forces in our minds like sensations, atmosphere, feelings, experiences, moods, etc that govern how we look at the culture around us. 

The concept was proposed in reference to the French-Romanian playwright Ionesco’s works, and we were talking about the difference between theatre performances and readings of those performances. The visual and theatrical elements of a stage assimilate the “affect” on its audiences through the performance of sounds, visuals, gestures, and lighting. At the core of photography and videography lies this concept. So does the concept of self-performance in documentation.

André  Lepecki, a well-known performance studies professor and author, says  “If performance’s life is in the present, its plunge into unconsciousness is what guarantees its persistent (yet a temporal) presentness, for the unconscious reveals only a temporal present tense of memory… remembering as total surrender to memory is a very effective way to elude the passing of time.”

Similarly, capturing these motions in photographic form exposes performance’s unconscious citation while also utilising photography’s power to call to presence through vision, memory, and imagination, even if it is a temporal presentness. The rhetoric of the main subject and, dare I say, “main character” isn’t merely a cynical technique of manipulating others. Revolutionaries may use heroism as a narrative to make sense of their own lives and the decisions they have made. But what about the heroic construct of people living ordinary lives? Are the principles of that skillshare class based on factuality?  Is there anything heroic about coming home to unwashed dishes? Is there anything of significant posterity that deserves to be preserved when I’m separating the whites of my laundry? 

Exploring the performativity of performance in visual documentation 

Traditionally, in Greek, photography means “light writing”. When I sit down to place my phone to capture a shot, I first observe the direction of the light. Will it make me more defined? Do I want to look defined? Can a human even look defined? Or will it make me more obscure? A bone-figure thrust into body dysmorphia. But desire is often a demanding emotion, ravaging one’s body from within. I have these terrible lingering longings for love, experiences, and travel, which manifest through photographs as vessels for preserving those sentimental moments when they finally arrive. 

I am reading, but I’m also performing the act of reading. The frame of building something that surpasses the ethos of one moment is refreshing. But in perceiving myself from the 3rd person’s lens, I alter myself. To think of it, self-concept is primarily a social phenomenon. To establish a sense of self, one must treat the self as an object and observe it in the same way that others do. From one’s perspective, creating a self-concept entails integrating self-perception with the perceptions of others. 

It is this distance from the reality within our pictures, videos, and documentation of the self that interests me. Szarkowski seems to agree with this idea when he says that a photographer’s factuality of pictures was different from reality. He says that the subject and the picture are never the same things, and why would they be? The image, the documentation in question, would survive the subject and withhold memory. Perhaps, the image propels the subject to be looked at from a new perspective, forming an alternate remembered reality. 

But the function of memory is itself quite fickle, what stays and what doesn’t, who is to say? In performing while creating the memory, the truth value of the self-portrait of the self-portrayed photograph is diminished as the artist performs their body repeatedly in such a way that the creative subject, who is both the author of the image and the performer in the image, is unduly enacted as a representation. 

Identity, Surveillance, and Keeping Yourself at Arm’s Distance.

Some of my early memories of seemingly innocuous surveillance have been in grocery stores. My mother would be at the cash register where I would stare at the tiled computer screen to see how I was looking through my back. I would move around, fix my hair, and even try to face the camera while trying to catch a glimpse of myself on the screen. It wasn’t until I started to write this essay that I realised how these extremely common, almost forgettable moments are modern-age ways of how we see ourselves. 

The phenomena of constant surveillance propels an insidious anxiety to unconsciously act as a version of ourselves that is being “watched,” and if we’re not comfortable with the amount or manner in which we’re being watched, a fear of being irrelevant arises.  Perhaps the most significant impact on our identities comes from interactive surveillance. We live in a world where privacy is an arduous concept. Recently, I saw a bunch of “influencers”, maybe some masquerading as activists and entrepreneurs beneath their socialist facade, promoting a smart wearable that monitors heart rate, sugar levels, and everything-that-sums-up-your-cellular-existence levels. The device allows people to communicate information about themselves and their health via social media, “gamifying the body,” as they say. Isn’t this a form of meticulous documentation of every aspect of their lives? Even the invisible ones? 

The fear of being invisible is not just rooted in existentialism but in the way we see and want to be seen. We’re all stories wanting to be told, of finding an arch, a narrative which doesn’t peak until it’s too late. But one cannot always live in the moment and walk with this spearing burden on the shoulder to create art out of ordinary life. This is the curse of artists, isn’t it? To spend so much time finding meaning in the banality of common life is to develop a mechanism of romanticising yourself, in all your mundanity. Even if it means rendering the gravity of lonesome some strength. There’s so much beauty in recording one doing house chores, or leaning against a wall with curled telephone wire smiling, or sitting alone by the sea shore. Quite cinematic in its perseverance, isn’t it? The art of capturing a scene in itself is emotionally two-dimensional,  only shining a light on what appears and not what goes on inside a person. Yet, it is documentation, the capturing of one in movement, in transience, in the humane backdrop of fleeting moments that we find beauty within, wrapped in all our ugly acts of performances.

Rekindling the relationship with my hometown: Jamshedpur, its Heritage buildings and Libraries

By Priyam Moonka

One out of the endless list of things humans crave most commonly is newness. The kind we think can only be achieved by moving away from the old. While the old brings comfort, the new brings excitement. But the notion that one needs to step out to experience the newness, and that comfort and excitement cannot coexist, was easily debunked for me as my hometown unfolded before me in ways I had never imagined. 

We can live in a place all our lives and still be a stranger to it. We may think we know our cities and towns well while being unbeknownst to where their hearts lie. That was my relationship with Jamshedpur – a city which was merely a densely forested land on the Chota Nagpur Plateau a little over a century ago. It was not even chosen to be a city, actually; it was perfect for building a steel plant. Thousands came from all over the country looking for employment and a city washed into existence as a result of that. Among the thousands was my great-great-grandfather, who hailed from a village in Rajasthan. So, the city I am talking about is not just the place of my birth, but also my father’s, his father’s and his grandfather’s. This is the only home we have ever known. You’ll find people of all ethnicities here – Gujaratis, Punjabis, Biharis, Bengalis, Marwaris, Tamilians, the list goes on; they’d have similar stories to tell. As much as we all love Jamshedpur and know that it’s a confluence of cultures that reflects in its linguistic and food culture that we’re proud of, there is something none of us would deny. More than once in our lives, we’ve cribbed about the lack of modernity; the absence of an airport, malls with premium brands, cafes like the ones in Delhi and Bombay, and those typical city-like high-rise buildings; a symbol of modernity and urbanization. 

While most of its young residents move out for better opportunities as soon as they finish school, just as I did, what’s left behind is the rich history, heritage and culture. Jamshedpur is vastly overlooked and lies mostly unexplored. While I’ve cursed Covid for closing a lot of doors for me, I am immensely grateful for the time I got to spend in my hometown after so many years of staying away from it. It is only now that I know what it is like to be a tourist in your own city. Never did I know that this new journey of rediscovering my hometown, which I was embarking upon, would reshape my relationship with it, the relationship that I only see deepening in the times to come.

I’d set out on my two-wheeler in the early hours of the day. What was truly beautiful about my ‘explorations’ was the fact that what I was now exploring was what had always been around. The buildings that I was so fascinated by now and could not get enough of were ones I had passed by many a time, and thoughtlessly. There was familiarity and comfort, along with newness and exciting curiosity. 

Knowing that more and more old houses and buildings are consumed by the fever of urbanisation with each passing day, I relish in stumbling upon the remnants of the good old times. Most of these traditional mansions were built in the 1930s, within around two decades of the establishment of the city. This implies that people had gradually started settling here, permanently. They’re majorly built on lands allotted by the Tata Company, and on leases. The allotments were meant to attract more workforce for the growth and expansion of the Steel plant and the city in the making. These houses, many of them crumbling, are now occupied by the old and the retired who are seen watering their plants or reading newspapers on their airy balconies in the morning. Overly spacious for barely a couple of occupants, generally an old couple, parts of them are rented out. As I stop in front of them, I imagine the houses in their days of glory and all the stories that their walls contain – the dreams of a new bride, the laughter of children as they run around sowing seeds of memories in each corner, the fragrance of succulent sweetmeats prepared on festivals year after year, the ageing of the old and cries of separation. Another edifice, a mansion from the era of the Raj – Bharucha Mansion (or the Regal Building), said to be built in 1935 using leftover steel from the Howrah Bridge, has fallen prey to the obsession with modernization. It once housed one of the first theatres in our town – the plush Regal Talkies. It was shut down in the 80s with its portions sold off to a couple of businessmen. Today, with many parts of it pulled down and replaced by their modern counterparts, this heritage building is losing its glory. 

One of these mornings, I came across a dilapidated building which serves as a guest house and a mosque. An old man helped me with the Urdu scribbled on its walls – Musafir Khana, it says. Sensing my eagerness to know more, he ushers me to an Eidgah. Built in 1911, a gift from the Raja of Dalbhumgarh, it is older than the city of Jamshedpur itself. A brief Instagram conversation with Shah Umair, popularly known as Sikkawala on Instagram, revealed to me a very interesting fact. His great-grandfather, Abdul Rab Ansari, was one of the first Imams to read Namaz there. 

I was gradually falling in love with the Jamshedpur I had never known. But what really brought me closer to it was what I had been the most oblivious to, what I had earlier thought was missing but had always been around. My visit to the Muslim Library bridged that gap. The oldest library in the city was founded in 1932. Contrary to what the name suggests, the library is open to everyone and houses books on a wide range of subjects in Urdu, English and the Devanagari scripts. As I enter, I see round tables on the corridor, some occupied and some not, with 8 different Urdu Dailies which I have never seen before in Jamshedpur. There are English and Hindi dailies as well. The corridor leads to a room dedicated to books in Urdu Literature, and for the first time I regret not knowing a language as beautiful as Urdu. I chance upon one English book among the many in Urdu. The title is gripping – Purdah and the status of women in Islam. Many more are to follow. A staircase leads to a library which is called the JRD Tata Students Corner. Among books on Commerce, geography and various sciences, I find a few caked with dust as if they hadn’t been touched in years. These are the ones that draw my attention; Fall of the Mughal Empire by Jadunath Sarkar, Ghalib: Life and Letters (1797-1869), History of the Freedom Movement in India (1947-1857), Guru Nanak by Gopal Singh, Hindu Names by Maneka Gandhi, Bengal Divided and an ancient copy of The God of Small Things. I have clearly found a new home within my home. 

To the people of Jamshedpur – Our city is way more than what we think it is.

Author Bio:

Priyam is an independent researcher and writer. She documents narratives of the Partition diaspora. She is a history buff who loves to read about South Asian history and culture. Her work is an attempt to find the umpteen stories around us, waiting to be told.

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/

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”.

Violence beyond borders: What the Partition narrative has taught me

By Priyam Moonka

The trains taking refugees across the newly created borders in 1947

For those of us who read extensively about the Partition of India and Pakistan, the pain that it comes with becomes a part of us. This pain, which is usually considered a thing of the past, has an overwhelming presence in all our days, and rightly so. It reflects in our choice of movies, books, conversations, and thoughts. This is how we attract more pain, knowingly and unknowingly, and before we know it, the pain that belonged to someone else becomes ours. But do we stop? We don’t. We cannot; letting go of what’s our own has never been easy. So everything that comes with this ownership continues to linger. As writers, we often romanticise pain, but let’s just say it is because we feel too much.

The series of events that led to, followed, and continue to follow the vivisection of the Indian Subcontinent evoke a sense of pain that feels very personal. It is this personal nature of my pain that has led me on a journey of documenting the stories of the survivors of the Partition in 1947 and their families. Violence in the name of religion has been common to all the Partition narratives that I have documented to date. Throughout this ongoing documentation process, I have seen myself transforming- new opinions, emotions, and perceptions of everything around me. It took an awfully ugly dream for me to realise the impact that the horrifying memories I was now privy to were having on me. In this dream, I find myself in the shoes of a victim of the terrors of communal violence. All of us have so many dreams, but we forget about most of them as soon as we wake up. But there are a few that stay with us forever. Allow me to take you through all that I saw, heard, and felt.

In that nasty, imaginary space in my head, I find myself in a room full of people. I know two of them. They are my friends from college. We are in my hometown. A discussion is on one between my friends and me and the other between everyone else. The three of us are like that. We’re always talking, giggling, and sometimes we forget about everything around us. This is one such case. We are in our own world. Suddenly, I feel a strange tension in the air. A split second later, I hear an unfamiliar voice. ‘RUN!’ Someone pushes me towards one of the two exits of the building in which we are stuck. My friends are nowhere to be seen. I do not think I’ll be able to make my way out alive. But somehow, I do. My house is around a hundred metres away on the same street. But I can not take this straight route; it is all but safe. There is no time to think. I take another route- longer but safer, and I run for my life. While I’m still running breathlessly, I realise that I’ve lost my way. I have come far from home. I am panting; I can’t do this anymore, but I want to live and so I keep going. I take a rickshaw. I am petrified; I want to be invisible. I ask the rickshaw-wala to hurry, to take me away from my horrifying surroundings. I pass by a street where fruit-sellers have their stalls lined up on both sides. I see a few ruffians approaching. They have knives in their hands; some of them have guns. One of them goes up to a fruit-seller, lifts his brawny arm to slit the poor man’s throat. The man dies with his eyes wide open. My heart hurts; I stretch my hand towards them as if trying to stop this, but in vain. I pull it back immediately. I do not want to be noticed. There were no questions asked, nothing was said. The soorma in his eyes had spoken for itself. The other goons follow suit, and in a heartbeat, they’re all gone-those innocent men who will never know what their fault was. As far as the human eye can see, I cannot spot a single man with a soorma and a skullcap. Not one of them was excused. I cry with my hands covering my mouth; I don’t want to be heard. This is unfair. They did not deserve to die. By now, I have understood that this is about religion.

 A Sikh being attacked by the mobs in 1984

On reflection, I recall an episode similar to this one. My grandfather had once told me about the communal riots that had happened in our hometown many years back. Hindus had been subjected to violence in Pakistan, and that had infuriated the Hindus in India. Hindu fundamentalists had burned down the houses and stores belonging to Indian Muslims, who were innocent and had nothing to do with what had happened in Pakistan. But the feeling of vengeance had taken over, erasing the line between right and wrong, good and bad. My grandfather had also mentioned going to a refugee camp that was set up for a community of Muslim fruit-sellers who had lost their homes. The contents of the dream were now making sense. 

The rickshaw keeps moving. My eyes witnessed a sight, ghastly and barbaric beyond measure. A middle-aged Sikh is being forced to cut his hair. His eyes are full of tears, his heart is full of misery; he seems lifeless. In losing his Kesh-symbolic of his devotion to God, he is losing himself. The world stops making sense. Is this what religion is for? Does religion decide who lives and who does not? This world, devoid of humanity, should cease to exist. All these men with hearts of stone should cease to exist.

It took little thinking to comprehend why something like this was a part of the nightmare. In 1984, reason had lost its way when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards, both Sardars. The Sikh community in the rest of the country had nothing to do with it, and yet thousands of them were mercilessly burnt alive, killed, raped, murdered. The world calls it the 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots. Riot is not the right word, massacre and genocide are. A few of my interviewee’s families had lived through both- the Partition and the 1984 Sikh Massacre. Their stories, and so many others that I have heard, read and watched, have stayed with me and continue to make my heartache and my blood boil.

Victims of the violence in 1948

What happens to me, a Hindu, in the dream? I am still alive. I feel like all of a sudden, ‘A Hindu’ has become my new identity, and it has started to seem like my only identity. Should I thank my stars because being a Hindu would probably save my life, or curse myself for being a mere spectator while there is so much suffering around? Before I can decide, I hear a loud thud. A few of those wicked, bloodthirsty men stopped my rickshaw. They get in. I tremble in fear. I try to explain that I am a Hindu. How do I prove it? I show them my Durga locket. They pay no heed. These inhuman creatures do not wait to ask one’s religion, only destruction quenches their thirst. This cannot be the end. I am so young. My entire life is ahead of me. I want to go home. I cry; I scream. But in the end, violence and hatred spare no one. Not a Muslim;not a Sikh; not a Hindu. Where there is hatred, extremism and the motive of destruction, no one is safe, whichever religion they may belong to. 

Another interviewee reading to me a few lines from his book in Urdu

As I think about the relevance of the dream, and how accurately it connects various events from the past and the present and gives them an order that makes sense, I am not surprised. It is a perfect example of how what we consume, in any form, constantly shapes our subconscious mind. Every time I listened to someone share their story with me, I remember being in two different time zones at the same time-the 1920s/30s/40s and the present. Selective memory plays a significant role here. My interviewees would not remember what they’d had for breakfast that morning, but would still go on for hours about an incident that took place seventy years back. Tears would roll down their cheeks for the nth time, because of the same poignant memory of an event, decades old. Similarly, out of everything that I have heard, read, and seen over the years, my subconscious mind has chosen to become the permanent home to a few elements that I now believe will stay with me forever, and that is evident in the experience that I have shared. Memory is fascinating; I am constantly learning and unlearning, remembering and forgetting, forming new ideas and discarding old ones.I find myself destroying the borders that once existed in my mind, and that is the most I may do. If only destroying ‘actual’ borders was this easy. But these borders are temporary, unlike memories, which are borderless and become permanent once passed down. 

Each time someone shares with me their story, which has stayed in the depths of their heart forever, my heart becomes fuller. It becomes heavier with gratitude for the gift of memory, the most prized possession of all. And what do I have to offer in return? The promise of safekeeping. 

Author bio:

Priyam is an independent researcher and an aspiring writer. She documents narratives of the Partition diaspora. Through her writing, she condemns violence in the name of religion. She is a history buff who loves to read and study South Asian history and culture. She believes that there are umpteen stories around each of us, waiting to be found and told. Her work is an attempt to find these stories that were always around, yet unheard or forgotten.

Instagram Handlehttps://instagram.com/thegiftofmemory_?utm_medium=copy_link