Literary-isms

Ever so often, I catch myself say something that feels like it’s taken out of a young-adult novel with teenage dramatis personae. You know exactly the type: where one of the central characters is a boy who wears hoodies and jeans, with headphones on at most, if not all times, where this clothing is emphasized, repeated as foreshadowing the character who becomes his love-interest and makes him take off his headphones and indulge in conversation – their meeting trapped in time, space, and the novel becoming about everything aside from the routine that interrupts the meeting of their minds. I catch myself having a sequence of thoughts when I’m dressed in similar attire (perhaps a consequence of associative memory), and think to myself, right after, that belongs in a book. A book filled with tropes, but my masterpiece, my Michelangelo. 

I associate my foray into this genre with John Green, an author whose work amazes me for how riveting and unputdownable the novels end up being, but equally, after a friend pointed this out, for the sheer profoundness crafted into people who are wise beyond their years. My friend told me, teenagers don’t talk like that, referencing Green’s use of a cigarette as a metaphor in The Fault in Our Stars. I chuckled along in agreement and queried other nuggets of wisdom I had gleaned from these younger characters. For all my quips about seniority being immaterial to respect or knowledge, I dismissed them, till my reading journey got me along to a point where I realized the generalization, that all these characters be pooled into one single space within a Venn diagram marked with a circle teens was flawed. Their wisdoms, their quips stem out of their lived experience – and disassociating, taking a step back, those pieces seem to fit. Granted, this create a hero arc in their lives, but, it fits. Chapeau, my friend, what else can I say? 

It’s in those moments, when I speak or text these sentences – sometimes compliments I’m passing on to people, or explanations of something I’ve said, oftentimes apologies, and even mundane observations, that I think, I need to write that book. I have that one sentence, maybe a handful, and here I am, dreaming of these long young adult novels that are as page-turning as I found Green’s work. You see the problem here, don’t you? I’ve identified myself as that character making these quips, and placing the onus on myself to write. It takes a couple of hours, but eventually, I come to the realization that at best, this belongs on a twitter thread, and dismiss them completely. No record, no memory. Like the first step of editing a poorly crafted tweet before the internet sees it, my lack of record means I have no recollection of the sentences I’ve waved off into the abyss. 

I caught myself having one of these moments yesterday while exchanging texts back and forth with a friend. In the casual conversation about how much time felt like it had slowed down and days had morphed into each other (a sign of this pandemic for most), my friend said every day feels like Sunday. I seized my literary moment. With no hesitation, in real-time, I said, I’m caught in a sea of Wednesdays. I can recall, vividly, my pride at typing this masterpiece. In dissecting the novel in a Grade 7 Book Club or English Literature class, perhaps a teacher would say, Why did Mr Rao choose to use the word “sea”? To which the bright spark that lingered in greys, hood down, at the back of the class, would shoot back, because he felt like he was drowning. And so the English teacher would have found her star, and a new student-teacher relationship would foster the creation of a Dead Poet’s Society, bonded together by the one moment someone really understood what an author meant. Except, in this case, the author, me, didn’t use sea because he was drowning. I used the word sea deliberately, because I’m floating, one day to the next. More than that, I picked Wednesdays deliberately. An odd choice, as my friend suggested, but one I easily explained, below:

I don’t know. I think it’s the fact that it feels like the middle of the week, despite there being no fixed middle because it’s the closest you can get to a middle on the work week calendar. Or maybe it’s the memory of having good lunch in high school with friends.  Or the long forgotten but never really gone memory of being yelled at for saying régle wrong in french class.

And for the Dead Poet’s Society that emerged, there would be the one kid that researched the author’s background, found this post, and got the actual meaning behind the tour de force that is a sea of Wednesdays. For an outsider, a sea of Wednesdays would make no sense. What does he even mean?, they’d ask, and when someone explained it, they’d say, then why on Earth couldn’t he just have said, “every day felt the same”, to which, literary flair, would be the only appropriate response.

So I had this moment, right, on the train yesterday, coming back from London, and I said to myself, that belongs in a book, and for the first time, having a record of that moment and the realization that followed, I can see now that at the very least, it’s given me enough content to fill a space on a blog that serves as a daily reminder of my place as a writer. 

As I’ve decided to start recording each of these phrases I concoct, these literary-isms that occupy space in my heart as novels that are never written. The plan is to blog about them and what they meant when I said them originally, for anyone to adopt if they’d like, but more crucially, for me to remember what on Earth I actually meant, lest I think someday that a sea of Wednesdays was a number of shops called Wednesday’s, like Sainsbury’s

Tintin / Captain Haddock Meme - What a week, huh? Captain, it's Wednesday -  HD Restoration / Remastered (2864*2480): MemeRestoration
This twitter account has become a favourite of mine: What a week, huh? all Wednesdays

Technological Dinosaur

This idea for this post originated on last evening’s call with my mother. While on Zoom, I became a little perturbed (she’d say aggressive) about her poor technology skills. It was really nothing major: one was poor technology etiquette (not muting one call while taking another), and the other was poor effort (claiming to not find something that was easy to search for with ctrl+F). Neither of these so-called “misdemeanors” deserved the disproportionate wrath I unleashed. I chided her for her poor technology skills, and told her she had to up her game if she wanted to be able to adapt to a changing world. She took it on the chin with a smile, but I felt guilty enough about what I said to write her an apology WhatsApp message. In the 5 minutes that passed between ending our Zoom call & writing her that text, my mind cast itself to the shores of the distant future. 

Thus began the montage of a fear that’s been bubbling underneath the surface for a very long time. Me, much older, in the future, struggling to get onto a spaceship that will get me home. Me, much older, not knowing how to access the mainframe cloud computer that houses all my memories. Me, forgetting. 

My maternal grandfather and my own father are two of the most flexible people I know. Although rigid with planning and organizing in advance, once things are in motion, they are the least likely to resist to occurrences along the way. Contrast this with my own style, being in a constant state of flux between organizing & being chill about life. Their flexibility gives them a unique leg-up in this fast-paced technology driven world. While they are both creatures of habit, they find a way to use new tools as they are made available for them. I have no doubt the two would have thrived in the 1970’s. Actually, there’s evidence for this. My maternal grandfather did thrive – with his cameras. My dad would have too, I’m certain. I’ve seen this play out since I’ve been a young child. Here are my top two illustrations. 

The Computer: Personal computers gathered steam in the late 70’s, early 80’s, and my grandfather, an early adopter made sure he had one at home. My mom did some work on that PC, while my chikkamma learned how to type properly on it – it’s why she’s got one of the highest words-per-minute in our family. Of course, this is also down to the lifestyle they led, but my grandfather took his knowledge of these computers and ensured he was never left behind. I saw him move to laptops with relative ease, moving these gargantuan database files he had gathered over time with him – and developing the tools that he needed to ensure that the database could sustain itself on the latest technology. He knows the most code of us all, and learns new coding languages if they fit his project requirements. With computers, he’s a real geek, and he’s wholly responsible for my computer literacy. His partner-in-crime is my father, who ensured that from a young age, I was exposed to the computer. I’ve interacted with every Windows OS that’s come out since I was born – because I played computer games and watched CD’s on our Windows 98 and 2000 computers, and that is due, in large part, to my dad’s desire to stay up-to-date. My dad used to present regularly at GITEX, so when the time was right, he used to ensure we upgraded, as a family, to the current systems in use – we moved to a family laptop, and on my mum and Uncle’s cajoling, I ended up with a PC of my own in Grade 4. His work has seen him move across the various versions of Microsoft Office & cloud computing with ease – and I used him as a guide while learning how to make the best use of OneDrive. He also has – and uses a tablet with much more skill than I can. 

The Mobile Phone: Similar story. Without a fuss, I saw both these characters move from User Interface to User Interface as their needs demanded it. My grandfather of course had to learn how to interact with the phone from scratch, but he moved to a touchscreen smartphone around the same time we all did. My dad, however, is the star here. He moved from the old brick Nokias to the Communicator range to the Blackberry to the iPhone – where he’s planted himself currently. As a working professional, this makes perfect sense: the Android OS was never intended to be an office-use driver. 

So basically, I look back at the 23 years I’ve been in this world, and I can see both my maternal grandfather and my dad transitioning seamlessly across platforms and across devices – and last evening, I’ve lost my patience with my mother for not doing so. Of course, this is putting it crudely. My mom is a star with technology in her own right, and both my dad and my Tata have asked me several questions about the latest technology – which I’ve either straight-up lied about with unabashed confidence (to then be told I was wrong), or assisted with my limited knowledge in.

But those five minutes were moments of serious reflection. 

I’m not as flexible as either of these generations before me. In fact, I struggle more than most with technology changes as they happen. Learning about how to interact with new user interfaces takes me some time. I’m good with hardware switches and hardware generally, but software is definitely a bit of an enemy. Again – this is putting it crudely, but you get my point. 

You see, I’m a little old-school. If I was given a chance, I’d go back to the non touch-screen phones. I’d add most of the smartphone features, but I would want a physical keyboard. I used to love Blackberry’s. Things just felt easier to do on them – typing felt so much more natural. Even with touchscreens, I never have been able to understand how to use the swiping keyboards – where you can type just by swiping? I much rather prefer typing out each letter that I need to – to see the words construct themselves, letter-by-letter. I loved the Windows phone – not because of anything except the fact that it looked like something familiar: the OS on my PC. Till this year, I almost exclusively used Android phones. Transitioning into the Apple ecosystem? It’s been hard work. I’m still not sure if I’m extracting the most out of my iPhone, and frequently, I speak to a friend of mine who made the same transition alongside me to sort out my doubts. 

I’m skeptical about moving to macOS. I’m skeptical also about how I’ll interact with tablet devices like the iPad. I’m not sure if they’re worth their cost, or whether I’ll be able to use them as nicely and comfortably as I use my current set up. I took a good eight months of going back between Chrome and Edge before settling on using Edge for the foreseeable future to browse the interwebs.

I am slow, relative to the industry.

A lot of this is fear. Of what, I’m uncertain. But, given my outburst with my mother, I think I’m scared of becoming a technological dinosaur. The world moves very quickly, and to be able to exist in the world of the future, it feels like I will have to, at the very least, accept some of the changes and innovations that come with it. 

I don’t think I can keep up. It takes a lot of capital to keep up – and just existing takes enough capital from us all. I don’t think I want to keep up either. My goal is a de minimis, so to speak. I just don’t want to be a relic of a bygone era when there’s something more efficient that is accessible to me for my use. I don’t mind being somebody who prefers old technology. Retro tech is very cool. I like it. But, I can see myself becoming someone who struggles with new technology and adaptation. 

That scares me.

My dad’s been telling me I should move to a Mac soon. He was also one of the first people to ask me to use secure cloud services to save files, and to scan everything important just to ensure I never lose an accessible version of it due to natural circumstances. I usually just dismiss him. Most of the time it’s because of the investment these transitions take, both financially and in terms of time – but, perhaps, I should give him more of a ear. Maybe he spotted my rigidity at a young age, and this was his way of nudging me toward a path of more flexibility. 

It’s now time I listen. Hopefully I’ll become more open-minded, empathetic, and comfortable, both with elder people like my mother struggling with current technology (she’s going to grill me for calling her elder), and me using new, modern technology. 

From a Foreign Field: COVID-19 at Home

I’ve been wanting to write nearly every day for the past six months, since my posting habit actually stopped. In these months, I’ve written a diary daily, which means that there was some kind of writing & reflection hapepning. After a couple of months though, I’ve come to recognize that this blog has provided me with a lot of comfort when my mind is racing, and so, I’d like to write here again. Eventually the newsletter will return too, and that is when I think I’ll feel a writer once more. For the first time in three years, I missed all of GloPoWriMo, for example, which is a true aberration for all the writing I feel is in me waiting to be written.

That’s why I’m writing now. Thank you for reading.

Everything that I’ve done in the past two weeks has carried the extra weight of knowing I was away from India, where the COVID crisis is unraveling once more. Without delving into an analysis of causation (Government mismanagement being the majority contributor in my view), the number of lives lost, and the number of lives struggling is gut-wrenching. As the numbers rose, what I think happened for most of us is that they stopped being numbers to us anymore. For me at least, I started associating these numbers with names – of extended family, or the family of close friends, or close friends themselves. For a while, I didn’t want to use social media to amplify anything. Being a few hours behind India, any stories I share, or resources I amplify on social media seem to be out-of-the-loop and outdated – behind the times. That started to become a very nauseating feeling, because I descended into helplessness.

I know I have exams, and personally, my focus remains on them, but it’s very difficult to hear about what people are going through (and how discriminatorily the effects are being felt) and sit on the sidelines. I’m grateful that this sentiment was something a few online resources addressed, and with the help of some friends, there should be some way to feel less helpless and less distant, when I want to be as connected with home as possible.

One of my friends told me there was a dissonance between her physical space and her virtual space. I could not agree more. My instagram, twitter, and facebook reflect India, but here in the United Kingdom, restrictions are easing and the situation appears to be a lot better. This pandemic does not distinguish though, and while I am grateful that the situation here is okay (one less place in crisis), I’m not willing to enjoy it completely as yet. A part of me still fears the possibility of cross-border infection & transmission – given flights and travel is still taking place.

For the most part, I’ve also been ignoring the news. The reports are mostly just numbers. I don’t want to see numbers. At the end of the World Wars, there were Tombs of the Unknown Soldiers set up to commemorate the lives humanity lost – and all the unknown soldiers who were killed in war. Reporting feels like that. It genuinely feels like there is no record of all the human stories that we are losing daily. Some will always go unreported, unheard. That is crushing. I’m therefore going to continue ignoring the news, but not the people.

I guess this is what most people are doing as well.

There’s of course been good things that have happened in the past couple of weeks, and I’m very grateful for them. I’m just going to hold on to them till this cloud of sadness lifts and the sun shines again. I just wonder what that sun will look like.

Vaseline Jar

“What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay . . .”

I was in Grade 9 when I was introduced to Maya Angelou and her writing. In particular, we read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book made a lot of impressions on me as a young child, ones that continue to linger in the mind even today, working away at my perception of this world. I remember reading and re-reading that book. For my academic study, I hoped to be able to quote the book verbatim, and I think most of us got there – with quotes we took to.

As I sit down to write this, all I can think about is how Angelou references Vaseline. In the prologue, when describing her thoughts reciting poetry at Church, she describes the image of her body, with her skinny legs greased with blue seal Vaseline. In introducing her daily routine under her grandmother’s care, she tells us about applying cold, stiff Vaseline as moisturizer. In showing, rather than telling us about heat, she describes how the sun had baked oil out of her mother’s skin and melted the Vaseline in her hair.

I was born in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and spent ten years of my life there. As the impact of global warming was felt, peak summer temperatures rose well beyond the 42-43 degrees Celsius threshold I experienced as a younger child. I have no memory of wearing lip balm at the time. Despite hot temperatures, I can’t remember having chapped lips. If I look far into the pits of my memory though, I can recall some instances of my mother wearing lip-balm – apart from all the times I messed up the tipped shape of her lipstick by pressing the lid shut when it was fully open. I can also vividly remember a big jar of Vaseline at home, available for use.

My first brush with any lip moisturizing products was in Grade 6. We had this History project where we had to bury some objects in the sand pit near Primary School, and then, as we excavated them, write their descriptions and imagine their possible uses for early cavemen. My contribution to this was an old lip balm casing my mother had. It looked archaeological enough, so we thought, why not? That episode was also when I learned the word chapstick, which was another sign of the Americanisms I was picking up. I had never heard the word till that point.

My lips started to chap frequently after. At least once a year. We’d invest in the blue labello lip-balm roller, we tried out the Himalaya lip-balm, but with the chapping of the lips, I never felt like I could prevent it. I could only treat it. On regular days, with unchapped lips, I never moisturized them in particular, nor did I wear lip-balm or lip-protection of any kind. I didn’t care too much about my lips being chapped – except when they burned as I ate hot food. It also made me crave water. As such, I drink a large quantity of water. This increased that volume.

University is where the entire lip-chapping business really took off, and that’s where this story begins.

Gujarat is not a moderate clime. In summers, there’s a dry heat that captures Gandhinagar. It’s enough for soil to crack; and for turning cricket pitches to develop wherever a strip of lawn goes unmowed. It’s enough for you to see the heat, enough to be described as sweltering. In winters, the breeze turned frigid. The open architecture of the hostel and my broken window didn’t help, and I felt the cold to my bone, every bit of it. The hostel is where I really got into thermalwear and sweaters.

Every January, and every April, my lips would chap. They would take a week to heal. In that week I’d purchase a new lip-balm, lose it, and then rely on regular Vaseline moisturizer to get me through the week. I’d increase my water intake, avoid spicy or hot foods, and eventually, as these things do – they’d heal, returning to their soft texture and pink shade.

They’d never chap in Dubai, or in Bengaluru. Just when I was in Gandhinagar.

This one time it got so bad that I woke up and I couldn’t open my lips. It felt as if I had some skin growth on the lips themselves. That was winter 2016, my second year – and it was a scary time because Gandhinagar still felt super new to me. I called my mom several times to understand what was happening, and my friends helped a lot too – introducing me to branded lip-balm, for example. Something you paid a lot more for, but got better value out of. I really got into the lip-balm thing for a bit, exploring all these wonderful tastes they had. As someone who really enjoyed the chocolate-scented moisturizer that Vaseline put out, some of them caught my attention, and I gifted one of my friends Coca-Cola flavoured lip-balm too.

In April 2018 I took a trip to Washington, D.C. for a competition. It was cold there, far colder than anything I had experienced. Thankfully for most of the competition, I was in a suit, which made the cold bearable. After it ended, my friend and I went to Boston to see my school friends, and then onto New York, exploring Universities and the city itself. We were in New York for four days, living in Jersey City and taking the bus through the Holland Tunnel straight into Lower Manhattan and to Times Square. On our second morning there, I woke up with chapped lips, and before we got onto the bus, we took a detour to a drugstore so I could buy myself lip-balm.

Everything at the store looked way too expensive. I was only willing to buy something I wouldn’t lose immediately, so I decided to buy myself a portable Vaseline jar. Not that small round box, mind you – I knew that’d slip out somewhere. I picked up a proper jar, and shoved it with my power bank into my pocket. I was wearing large jeans to accommodate my expanding belly (given everything I ate in America), and pocket depth was not a concern at all. Over the course of our day, I must’ve scrubbed the petroleum jelly across my mouth maybe 6 times? After every meal for sure, and once in between. By the next morning, my lips had healed.

I remember thinking to myself that this would cure me every time I had chapped lips in the future. It’s not that other products hadn’t worked for me – it’s just that this did the job without making me feel like my chapped lips were a burden, and it did the job quick. Real quick. Alongside that, and without me asking – it healed the dry skin at the periphery of my lips that usually came with them being chapped, something I had taken for granted.

That Vaseline jar has been with me since 2018 April. Every trip, everywhere I go. It’s a part of my toiletry kit, and I never take it out unless I’m using it. It’s worked, every single time. Like some magic cream. I’ve been floored in the best possible way.

I’ve never been cognizant of it’s waning power, or it’s expiry date. I remember reading that petroleum jelly just begins to become less effective after three years or something. As if on cue, in December 2020, as my lips began to chap for the winter cycle, I noticed that my jar of Vaseline was at it’s last mile. There was very little petroleum jelly it had to offer. As if to prove a point – that it was getting close to three years, it stopped being as effective. My lips have been chapping off and on since December – healing for a week, recovering for half a week, and chapping once more. I’ve been hoping every week that the jar would serve me well, praying that it would succeed as an effective remedy for my lips. Unfortunately, this was to no avail. With the last sliver of jelly I could get, I tried once again, but yesterday, I saw I had extracted maximum use out of it.

And that was that. This jar, my traveling memory of a trip that made me fall in love with the world, with the subject I study, and the people I was with – now, emptied. When skin cracks, it mends, it heals, rarely leaving behind a trace of the crack. Vaseline helped that process, and today, I’m left with a fragmented piece of my soul that no jar of jelly can cure. Even where it mends, I will be left with scar tissue that carries forth this experience of loss.

I’m reminded of how much I want to take care of my lips; to prevent chapping, to prevent this horrible cycle I put myself through each time it happens – and yet, as this jar sits empty, I wonder if, when I buy a replacement product, I will remember to care.

I think about this rhetorical question, searching around for answers, and all I am faced with is my now-empty, lifeless Vaseline jar, which, with it’s lid, open from last use seems to mock me, as if to say,

“What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay “

Thank you for your service. My lips & I are eternally grateful.