We’re Back

I’ve returned to Cambridge after two months away, which is the longest duration I’ve spent away from the city since I moved here about a year and a half ago. Previous best: two weeks, achieved in November 2021. That feels surreal, especially given that when I was in Gandhinagar, I’d routinely spend two months away for holidays between terms, and in Bengaluru, I’d spend four months away for term. Aside from work, it is the pandemic that has led to these circumstances, and it was only natural that I had several apprehensions about leaving. This town is tiny, and it is filled with quietude. Being at home, anywhere, is as far away from this as possible. There is always someone to meet, or something to do, and it was only on my last day in town that we sat as a family and did nothing. It was in the full knowledge that I was departing for foreign lands that my parents and I spent all day in each other’s vicinity, not doing anything meaningful or memorable. Except, every moment of that day, Saturday, felt filled with a gravitas beyond compare. Amid breaks from my laptop I caught my dad staring at me in wonderment, and I found myself reciprocating that gaze. In the silence that filled those moments, I sensed – and he confirmed this later that evening – he would miss me. I will miss them too.

I am filled with emotion being back. This is where I feel my life is, despite my non-attachment to places. This is where my friends are, several of whom have messaged, whom I’m waiting to meet. This is where all the knowledge I seek appears to sit, and the ease of finding any book I desire is not something I take for granted. Despite everything feeling familiar, it has been long enough away for me to step away and ask, is this how it’s always been?

That is something I feel thankful for. It feels like I have on a new pair of glasses (I literally do), and all I hope for over the next few months is that these lenses help me change the bits and pieces I didn’t quite enjoy in the last stint here. First step: piano. The rest will fall into place.

Working in the Quiet

I have spent the past two months at home visiting my parents. Having spent two years away, there was naturally a period of settling back into each other’s rhythms and learning about how we had changed and grown. The most obvious change perhaps was that I was working now. I had hard deadlines for things I was working on, even if they were personal pieces. I did not want this trip to interfere with the system of working I had set up for myself in the UK. Before my trip, I began preparing my parents for this shift. I told her she had to give me the space I needed to work on the daily. Sure, there would be quieter times, but I needed the time and space each day without the distraction. I threatened that I’d find a co-working space if the house got too loud. She did not take this particularly well – and naturally so. I mean, we were meeting each other after 24 months apart, and here I was, telling her I would leave home to step outside at the most minor inconvenience. This was just strategic though. I knew it would leave an imprint in her mind, and I was right. This entire period, if I’ve been working, if I told my parents I had something I needed to do for work urgently – they have been nothing but accommodative. Classes have happened, project vivas, marking, and a slew of commitments, especially in the past fortnight. They have understood, learned, and adapted. I am ever so grateful.

This is not to say that I’ve just been working. I should say, that one of the first things I did when I came here was figure out precisely when I was comfortable working. I did not like the idea of working when everyone at home was free – that was the time I would rather be with them than alone in the room on my laptop. So it was, then, that I found quieter hours – the late nights, and some (although my parents will dispute this), early mornings. A few hours in the afternoons where I knew both parents would have meetings, and some such. I learned their schedules and adapted as well, and for that, I am incredibly grateful.

Naturally, of course, this has led to some discoveries about my patterns of work. One in particular stands out, and is the subject of today’s meditation.

When I was at school, all my academic work was confined to my room, which was on the first floor of our house. My mother spent a majority of her time downstairs. Given this was the case, although I had an inkling that I enjoyed working with music in the background, and I had a certain preference for multitasking, wearing earphones was prohibited. At most, I knew I could get away with background music at a quiet-ish volume in my room. Loud enough for me to hear without my mother ever finding out. This was predominantly so I could hear anything she said if she called out to me, but it also served the very helpful purpose of knowing when she was coming up the stairs. That never really changed what I was doing, but I was prepared for the break in my work that came with her presence – the conversation and liveliness she brought into my otherwise silent space.

With this pattern of work being habit, and my impending move to a hostel, in my final year of high school, my mother took it upon herself to impart critical trainings in the art of focusing my mind to work irrespective of my surroundings. She was the most disruptive. I say this with a lot of love, because I came to appreciate that she would interrupt my studying with lovely snacks, good gossip and humour, and some of the memories I hold on to dearest, but man, sometimes I think back and wonder how I got anything done at all. She told me she was going to disturb me, and she disturbed me every single hour almost. The boys hostel did not stand a chance. I knew then, when she was talking to me in the middle of a practice paper or some such, that earphones would solve everything – but I kept that secret hidden away, employing it the second I got to University.

There, earphones were usually my go-to-DND signal. Within my room, I knew my roommate and I shared a love for our own space, and so wearing earphones meant that we were on full focus mode and in our own private bubbles for a little bit. My love for working with background chatter and sounds I wanted, discovering podcasts and the art of watching TV shows while working – these were learnings from five years of experimenting with things that played while I got on with life. I carried that with me to the UK too, especially since I live with a family – and earphones provide the cut-off from the outside world I sometimes need when I work, and the opportunity to listen to something I want to, instead of perhaps, the construction from a neighbour’s house.

I got used to working with sound of some kind. Even on days I didn’t have my earphones in there was the relentless chatter of the hostel, or the hushed whispers in the library. I lost the ability to work in the silences I was used to – that I grew up on. Till I got back home.

You see, rules don’t change just because I’ve grown. I came back knowing I would only wear earphones if I was in a meeting or watching a YouTube video or some such that would disturb everyone else at home if they heard it. Otherwise the audio from my laptop or phone was fair game. And so, I began to work in silence once more. Yes, my mother disturbed me on occasion, but for the most part, if I was working on something – she understood I was busy. Yet there was silence. No music in the background, no big monitor to multitask on.

Even at night, when my parents went to sleep, given the opportunity to play music and watch something in the background as I completed tasks before logging off for the night – I chose, for an entire month, to go back to working in silence. That has been a discovery and a half, because I thought working with sound had become so hard-wired into my system that I would be unable to concentrate in silence, especially with how much my mind wandered. That’s been useful. It is probably something I will carry with me, and I know has brought some confidence into my system because I no longer lean on the crutch of my earphones to help me focus. My brain doesn’t feel like it needs external stimuli to switch on that mode anymore – and being able to work in the quiet again, comfortably, is something I am thankful for.

And Amma’s conversation in the background too.

Why I Haven’t Written

If you are here expecting a post that outlines genuine concerns that explain why there is nothing new on this blog, you may skip to the end and come back tomorrow. Here is a concise summary to help you on your way: I have convinced myself of multiple reasons to procrastinate writing over the past days, weeks, months, years, and this post chronicles my brain’s observations/attempts to procrastinate once more. I have merely prevented myself from doing this by writing an entire post about the thoughts in my head in real-time as I actively combated the procrastination monkey.

As you are undoubtedly aware, I have not been able to write on this blog continuously or consistently for the past two years. As you are also probably aware, I have grown to accept this and come to terms with it. This has meant understanding that on some days there are no words to write, and no stories to tell, or nothing I wish to share publicly into the void. It has meant giving myself the flexibility of being comfortable with not writing, which is vastly different from the two-three years I spent pushing myself to write. On some days, I query whether I did the right thing in relentlessly pursuing a blogpost everyday, especially if it has robbed me of things to say to the void, or to people in real life. On most other days, I give myself a free pass. I tell myself that writing has become like second nature to me, that because of the two years I wrote, the words will forever flow from my brain. Except, on reflection tonight, I know that is not the case. Words have gotten stuck, and I have become an editor more than I have been writing. I have critiqued drafts and not posted them, going fundamentally against the rules I set out when I started this blog. There have been so many reasons I’ve given myself for a holiday. I’ve written so many posts exactly like this one: for recent examples, see here, here, here, and here. All of them have the same theme with such little pay-off. I explain what’s going on, how I struggle with writing, and make a public commitment to write. Invariably I console myself by saying that I’ve been writing in private. I then go back to my ways and this blog sees no activity for a number of days. Then I come back. This cycle repeats. No constructive writing is done, nor am I wiser for this experience.

Therefore, today, I’ve decided to do something different. I’ve decided not to make a public commitment, but a more private commitment to writing everyday again. You may wonder at this point: Tejas, you’re writing on the blog, surely this is another public commitment? That is absolutely fair. Except, my intentions with this post are not to some audience (that is completely a figment of my imagination, only two people actually read this blog, and I currently live with both of them). This post is intended solely for me. I want to use this space to list every excuse and thought process my brain turned to before churning out what you are reading. My purpose with this is simple. Hopefully, by showing myself what I have thought, future me will rationalise that these thoughts are not constructive for writing, and begin to dismiss them whenever they emerge. This will mean hitting the reset button on a lot of habits that have developed in the two years I have been inactive, but I am certain it can happen.

So let’s get into it. Here’s everything I thought while writing this:

  1. Titles Suck: I have used horrible titles in the past that make posts unsearchable. How am I supposed to know what I have written when I have used the Day #/Date as the title? What have I conveyed? What purpose am I writing for? What is the point of a title if it does not communicate any of this to the audience, or to me? How am I supposed to search my own posts? What should I title this post? Titles Suck.
  2. Writing is Hard: I have written such pointless pieces on this blog. They communicate nothing, nor do they serve any grandiose purpose, despite my lofty ambitions for this blog and from my writing. What should I write today? Do I have anything valuable to say? Do I need to write only if I have something valuable to say? Can this be a journal entry privately instead of a blogpost? Do I need to realign the way I think about writing? Am I just a content creator if I am not writing impact-pieces? Have I ever written for the joy of writing?
  3. Deleting is Easy: It is far too easy to delete something because it does not live up to my expectations. Two keys and it is gone forever. How is the shortcut to delete something so simple, when there is no shortcut to create a piece of work? Oh, but I cannot possibly delete this now, that is hypocritical. Maybe I can save this as a draft and never come back to it, that is definitely the easier option
  4. Where are the Reviews?: Why are you not writing reviews of things you see/read? John Green wrote an entire book called The Anthropocene Reviewed that had the simplest premise, and you could have done it too, on your own blog, just commenting on stuff you have seen/experienced/lived through. Except you didn’t, and he did, and it was the execution of a marvellously simple concept, well done, that made it enjoyable. Why aren’t you writing reviews? Why isn’t this a review post?

And then I started typing, and the words have come out, and for today, this is all I have been able to produce. I know that this is probably a very disorganised post, that makes very little chronological sense (or any sense, to be honest), but this is what my brain has been thinking as it has been typing the words you see. To simplify, I have not written simply for one of three reasons:

  1. I have convinced myself that there is nothing that I am happy to write;
  2. I have convinced myself that what I am writing is far worse than what I could be writing instead – and proceeded to read about what I would rather be writing, instead of writing it – and then never written it [my drafts contain ideas for 10 Longform Essays];
  3. I have convinced myself that I can write at will, and therefore there is no loss that is born out of not writing today because I can come back to it tomorrow – and then never come back tomorrow.

Today, as you can see above, it appears that the excuse I wanted to lean on was #2.

The problem with these, in turn, is plain to see:

  1. If I do not write, it is impossible to say whether or not I will be happy with what I produce – it is only in the act of creating, or creativity, that one can assign value to the process or output. If I decide that irrespective of what I write, it is the fact that I am writing that makes me happy, which is actually the case – and does not need much contemplation – surely, it is easy to be happy just because I am writing. This is tautological and can be expressed more eloquently, so here: Writing makes me happy. That is enough to be writing, rather than finding something I attach “happiness” to be writing about. Therefore, I should be writing.
  2. There is no way to know this unless I write and compare two pieces. I historically do not compare two pieces. Therefore, I should be writing.
  3. I cannot. I am not a natural-born talented writer. I struggled to write essays and had to work on composition prompts relentlessly to find a writing rhythm that I could carry with me into exams when I studied English. I need to exercise my writing muscles if I want to be writing with ease. I struggled with writing the last post and the post before that because I am not someone who can write at will unless I force myself to write so frequently that it becomes an unconscious stream of words pouring out into paper/this void that is the internet. Therefore, I should be writing.

So, it is, therefore, that I am writing this. There is now time blocked off in the calendar to be writing, and a reminder to read this before I do that writing. Tomorrow, I should be writing. Will I be writing? Yes.

Grief, and my Big Ajji

My maternal great-grandmother, my Big Ajji passed away a fortnight ago. Ever since, I’ve been confused about how I was feeling. While it did not take me too long to accept that she had passed, particularly given her age and deteriorating physical condition, I did feel the sense of loss that came from her passing in pangs, rather than a constant cloud hanging over my head. It would hit me at the strangest times, knowing that my Big Ajji was no more, maybe on the walk to the grocery, and once, late at night when I was preparing for family law tutorials and reading about people who might have parental responsibilities toward a child. My confusion, however, arose from not knowing whether this was grief. You see, when my great-grandfather, and my grandfather passed away, I had a distinct sense of what grief felt like up-close: I was studying in India at the time, and was able to be with family in the immediate aftermath. This felt a little more distant.

Aside from the geographical bridge, what with me in the UAE and my extended family in India, my Big Ajji was the last of her generation I shared any attachment with. I, the first of her great-grandchildren, was always told how fortunate I was to share any time with her at all, yet, when she did pass, it didn’t feel like we were particularly close. After moving away for University in 2015, I only ever visited her when I went back to Bangalore, and I didn’t get a chance to meet her in-person after early 2020, with the pandemic making it impossible before I left the city I called home.

So, I was confused. I didn’t know whether grief could taste like this, packaged in this strange flavour halfway between the knowledge of absence and the holding-onto of memory. I was uncertain if, given how quickly I accepted things, I was feeling any grief at all. I viewed my grandmother’s acknowledgment of how much time had passed since – what with a counter – “it has been 8 days” on the family group, with a tinge of “yes, but we need to come to terms with things”. My nuclear family, Appa, Amma and I, were aware of and in touch with the rites taking place at home, but we weren’t fully present or in the moment. There were no Zoom calls live-streaming proceedings, and I even declined, politely, the opportunity to see her body on the day itself, largely to keep the image I have of her in my head safely intact. Locked up in my own palace of memories, bells, whistles and all.

My confusion would have probably bottled up that way had it not been for one evening last week, when my chikkamma initiated, and my family reciprocated a desire to come together to celebrate her life. It was unspoken, the invitation merely asking whether we wanted to get-together over Zoom, but it was apparent. We were there to talk about the Big A, matriarch of our homes and hearts. I dreaded this a bit initially. Our family Zoom calls are not known for being focussed. We are all over the place, even when we’re in the same city, and seeing each other on the screen is usually a wonderful opportunity to catch-up to each other’s lives in what I term ‘not-so-private bilaterals’. We did a few of these during the early parts of the pandemic, prompted by different members in the troupe. Those were planned to be focussed sessions too, in particular to relive nostalgic moments from family trips. They only partially accomplished that aim, the remainder time spent in parallel conversations across the board about what everyone is up to.

I was also skeptical because fiction books often use the trope of a “celebration-of-life” event as being an instantaneous healer for grief. As though the one collection and consolidation of memories from a whole life lived out would rid a human being of the heaviness they feel from within. In books I have read where these events do not offer resolution, the plot meanders and carries on with someone’s passing merely being a subplot to aid character development and growth. If life mirrored literature, this would have felt nearly perverse, particularly given that this sentinel of a woman had not just lived through births and deaths of human beings, but of entire nation-States themselves.

So it was that I turned up on Zoom, neatly dressed, feelings very much clogged. I only knew her for 23 years. Her children knew her for over 70. We hung around, and tried chatting about other things briefly, but chikkamma moderated the call so well, that she verbalised everyone’s emotions in asking one of my grandmothers to read out a prayer in Sanskrit, composed especially as an ode to Big Ajji’s life. My own mother read it out to me some time ago, but hearing the depth of meaning started to release some of what I was feeling inside – till it all came spilling out when it was ordained that we’d go around sharing our memories of Ajji till everyone had their turn, starting from the youngest on call.

And as I heard everyone chat, there was a lightness that started to lift all these thoughts swirling in my head about Big Ajji’s passing and the loss of a generation when I trace my direct lineage. I recognised and acknowledged that I did indeed feel grief, and I was actually grieving in the back of my head. I realised I needed to be with family to overcome that, and have the opportunity to see people who may have felt similar things, or different things, or experienced their grief their own way – all bound by this incredible woman who saw us all from infancy through to the large humans we have become.

So it appears that life does mirror literature in some respects. Celebrations of life do help. I’m certain Big Ajji would have had a chuckle at the fact that we all got together to talk about her. She enjoyed when we did that in front of her. No wonder then that we were on our best behaviour in her presence, and so we were in her absence. Even the internet cooperated. I have no doubt she orchestrated it all, pulling some strings up from where she is now – to impart one more lesson.

I know she passed peacefully, having lived a life of total acceptance and grace. And some naughtiness too. No wonder then, the entire time on call, I imagined her calling out to me, If we are all together, where’s the cake?