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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.
- 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 HomeI’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.
- 2020 in Review: Languages
I have a fascination with languages. I really enjoy studying them and learning them. When I study languages, I usually find myself curious about the culture the languages represent. I enjoy learning about the history and the literature that it exposes me to. For 12 years in school I studied French. While each of these years was formative in its own way, my real love for the French language took shape over Grades 8 through 12, where I was taught by a French teacher who cared for the class beyond our academic interest and ability. She took on three students for the French AS Level, which demanded the study of culture and the vocabulary that built beyond the standard vocabulary we learned for the GCSE, taking us closer to native fluency, allowing us to interact in French over a wider range of circumstances. While I wasn’t the best in French in my class, I really enjoyed the subject, and the language, especially the comprehension tasks. I took to comprehension tasks the most because they were the most flexible, allowing you to decipher contextual meaning. The weakest part of my repertoire was my speaking.
My French teacher knew this. She spotted the signs early in Grade 9, when I showed my nerves in examinations, but encouraged me to work with her through Grade 10 and 11 to improve on shedding them. She came in to the waiting room a little early on the morning of the board exam to check up on me, and did her best to assuage the nerves even as she realized we had to restart my recording after she had already introduced me; just as I was getting ready to say my first sentence. Her recognition that I was nervous aided me more than it caused me to falter, because I began to enjoy how nervous I was, knowing that once the flow of words opened like a tap from my soul, the nervousness would disappear.
I’ve had the good fortune of conversing in French outside of the classroom after that, particularly when I lived in Cessy for six weeks, commuting to Geneva for an internship. That played a formative role in the recalibration that occurred over the break.
Something I took up at the start of the year was studying Spanish. During the pandemic, I reached fluency that allowed me to work in the language and slowly began writing e-mails that were riddled in errors to people I was working with. They admired the effort, and to date, my communication with them continues in the language so I can improve my writing ability. I pick up things when they write to me, which adds to my knowledge of the language. During the pandemic, my parents suggested I use the time to learn another language, and – so it was, that I took to attending German classes for about eight weeks.
While it was amazing to be back in a WhatsApp classroom for German, something I told myself throughout this year was that knowing the language theoretically was of very little use to me. That’s where the recalibration begins.
Language was created as a medium of communication and expression. Linguistic rules serve a purpose insofar as they enable consistency in usage, thus allowing for individuals who interact within that language to be able to decipher what the other is conveying – because it correctly observes consistent prior usage. Linguistic phrasing, or the art of placing words to form sentences, I think, is not rule-restrictive, because organizations that monitor the development of languages recognize the expressive power language possesses. Recognizing this difference was at the core of my recalibration, because here’s what I realized.
Theoretically being able to point out linguistic rules and linguistic phrasing was helpful for examinations, but only helpful in real-life insofar as I could claim theoretical knowledge over a language. The more practical part was actually communicating and expressing myself through language, and thus being able to utilize the language for the purpose it was originally created.
While studying this year, I prioritized this communicative ability, which is why I learned Spanish through Duolingo and flashcards. Learning German through class and watching videos helped me gain confidence to speak, at least with my teacher, where it was okay to make mistakes.
What really helped was learning about the CEFR – which provides a useful framework by which knowledge of language is assessed. This prioritizes subject-matter interaction, classifying the subjects for which a beginner, intermediate, and advanced user should be able to articulate themselves across reading, writing, and speaking.
More critically though, I think the approach paid off in that I stopped shying away from making mistakes or telling people I would like to speak in a particular language with them. In comparsion to the personal joy I’m getting out of studying the language to read more books or discover more shows, or generally expand my own worldview – since I’m able to try reading the newspaper, for example, in different languages – the joy that comes out of attempting to communicate with somebody, to form an interpersonal connection, is far greater.
I’m grateful for the realization that language, at its core, recognizes the need to communicate and express. In a year filled with learning how better to empathize, I find myself searching and grasping for more ways to give voice to what is in my heart. Language fills that void on the daily.
- 2020 in Review: Experiences and Relocating
As a dream I had built up and worked toward five years, realizing around March that I would have the opportunity to read more Law outside of India was gratifying. As the pandemic spread around the world, the uncertainty around how my education would play out grew. My parents kept it all very grounded though. I was going to get the chance to study something I cared about deeply from lecturers and peers at the University of Cambridge. While we hoped that I would have the chance to fly to be here, we braced for the chance that I would continue my education from my house in Bengaluru.
Sometime in August it became clear I would be able to fly. Things moved very rapidly after that, and within a month I was in the United Kingdom. I’m very grateful for the chance to study here, and every day I set myself up on a journey to appreciate and enjoy what I am given and see how to pay it forward.
I am optimistic about my learning conditions, and truly, I’ve embraced online learning. I love it because of the flexibility it offers and the amount of time it frees up. As a result of that it has become easy to forget that this is not how Cambridge normally is. When people point that out to me I often inform them that there is no counterfactual for me to compare the experience I am having with the experience I would have had. There is secondary evidence, sure – and lots of it. I confess I love all the blogs, all the vlogs, all the tweets, all the stories. None of it is something I’ve experienced. Therefore, Cambridge, for me, is what it is today. With all the talk about this becoming our new normal, despite my reluctance to adopt the phrase, maybe it is time to accept that the city’s experience will be different henceforth. Personally, the warmth of Cambridge and it’s people has continued to shine through the November lockdown and Tier 4 restrictions now. The warmth of faculty remains, even through online modes of communication. My experience has been affected by the pandemic, all of ours have, but personally, there is no tainting or downplaying what I get to experience each day.
However, it is equally important to revisit the fact that my education has continued amidst a pandemic. For the dream I built up after finishing my A Levels and consciously electing to stay back in India, I was disappointed about the pandemic for some time in April. Like I said at the start, my parents helped me a lot. The experience of all of this has led to recalibration – particularly about pedestalizing experiences and people.
This is in harmony with everything I’ve written in the past week. While there are still experiences I am desirous of having, and people I am keen to meet, and things I wish to have, I’m going to always account for the externalities beyond my control. As I’ve seen in the past year, I think that it will allow me to continually be mindful of how the experience I am having is unique to me, whether this is an interaction with a place, a situation, or a person. That just means accepting things better and understanding how they operate. COVID-19 has been, and remains terrible. My learning experience here at Cambridge has been great. Acknowledging both those statements can be reconciled just by accepting how personal these experiences are. That’s what I want to take forward.
- 2020 in Review: Classical Music
If you’ve been reading so far, you’re likely to have noticed that several of these recalibrations are very internal. The same is true of the recalibration that’s occurred in respect of how I view music, and like the other things, just come out of how much time I’ve been able to invest in music this year.
Toward the end of last year, as I began to work on myself more actively, a friend advised I should set some targets that would help track how much work I was putting into myself. In December, I was out with my mum one evening when I remarked to her that one of the things I was most disappointed in myself about was that fact that I had, effort-wise, put very little into my musical education after being provided with the foundation, the resources, and the passion for music. While parts of my musical education are available in different blogposts here and here, the gist of it is that I’ve been trained by professional teachers in Western Classical Piano and Music Theory, but I got tired of the training and quit, and never kept up practice. My dad agreed with my assessment of things and my desire to get back to things, and given I was working part-time, we decided that some of the money I was making could go toward piano lessons in Ahmedabad.
So it was, that once I got back to the city from my holidays, I found myself attending private lessons once a week, while self-studying for Music Theory examinations. I set myself an audacious goal (to say the least), and managed it successfully, which was a personal highlight this year. I celebrated the evening of my just-pass results (April 19) with some fantastic pasta, the taste of which I can recollect even now.
While that was a singular moment that highlighted what the three months I spent gave me, I think the year on the whole has led to a recalibration of my relationship with music, and with Western Classical music in particular.
Until this year, I felt that a lot of it was forced upon me. I’ve previously stated that when it comes to preferences, I enjoy the violin (and stringed instruments) more than the piano. The piano, when played well, prompts a smaller emotive response in me. Combined with how I approached the guitar this year, picking up a fair amount, thanks to my best friend, I tend to believe that I would have much more naturally taken to the violin than how much effort it takes me to play the piano. Even the classes, I reflect back and sometimes wonder whether at any point, I enjoyed it. I know I enjoyed the piano a lot more after I stopped formal classes.
So what I did this year was assess my musical education each day by asking myself if I enjoyed what I learned on that day, or if I enjoyed my practice. Where I didn’t, I asked myself how I could bring myself to enjoy it more, or why I didn’t enjoy it. What I found is that more often than not, the reason I didn’t enjoy something was because I lacked the context to appreciate it. As a result, I decided I would do things.
First, I put myself through this wonderful book (and the allied Spotify playlist) called Year of Wonder, which introduced me to a new piece of classical music (and it’s context) each day. Classical music therefore became more interwoven into the way I approached music. I started to better identify patterns, mathematical logic, and emotion from the story the music was speaking. Each time I was introduced to a new classical piece, I told myself I would read up about it. Whatever I could get my hands on, so I could better appreciate it, and better interpret it. That made me enjoy my practice so much more than I used to.
Second, I pushed myself to study theory in a way that it would harmonize with the practice I was doing, but to try to apply it to pieces of music I was listening to. By making the theory knowledge I was learning a little more practical, I figured I was giving myself the best opportunity to develop a better ear for music, but also see how much the knowledge of theory assisted in the practice of music. Testing the second hypothesis was a lot trickier than the first, but I started seeing how people who enjoyed theory (including the r/musictheory community), found inspiration to create music struck them differently to artists who were gifted with a practical ear.
Recalibrating to think about music has made me appreciate my parents more because I find that they made decisions that introduced me to my passions, and all the blame I attached to them for forcing things upon me was unwarranted. In hindsight, they were more than willing to allow me to quit classes where I didn’t enjoy it, and learning how to play the piano worked to my advantage because the primary way I looked at musical notation was on the piano stave. That was helpful for my theory exams and all of the theory I’ve picked up.
Through all this, it was very helpful to have the backing of my parents’, and the patience and support of my best friend. He even began his own journey into music theory, which means we can talk about what we’re learning together. His teaching style was also incredibly refreshing and very much fit in to how I want to look at music now. As a left-hander who learned the guitar by mirroring him on video-calls, he really encouraged me to find what my fingers and hands felt most comfortable and natural to play, and that allowed me to enjoy the random strumming I did so much more.
In conclusion, what’s changed for me, is that I now view the academic study of music as something that I’ve always enjoyed – with external guidance, rather than pressure. I also recognize that I’ve unfairly laid blame on factors, and I’ve viewed syllabi and performance directions as being binding, rather than suggestive. I love the piano, and I enjoy listening to and reading about the power of music far more than I did in 2019.
So that’s what I’ll carry with me from 2020 for the rest of my life. Whenever I feel like I’m pointing outward for how I think about things, I’m going to look inward instead and see how I can better influence how I think. I’ll put in the yards and the time, and then decide if it’s worthwhile or not. Music, and the piano, isn’t something I should let go of so easily when it’s been such a big part of my life till now. For that I’m grateful.
- 2020 in Review: Health
Each of our lives has been impacted by this pandemic. It would be a disservice to downplay how terrible the pandemic actually is. New strains of COVID-19 are currently being detected, as the virus mutates.
As last year came to a close, I promised myself I would take my health more seriously. I had witnessed how my mental health had gone for a spiral, and sought the right kind of help there, and then seen how my mental health was inextorably linked to my physical health. I also noticed that a lot about my physical appearance and physical health was not something I enjoyed. I had aspirations that were different to the way I was living, and so I sought out to correct that. For the first three months of the year, I ran nearly every day at University. Some days I’d do one kilometre, some days five. But I ran, and pushed myself to run, building up to a ten kilometre run I did sometime in the first week of March early in the morning. That felt fantastic, and I was going to use that as a launchpad for more gains as the year went on. The pandemic halted my running progress because I was not willing to go out for runs while living at home.
However, I think in deciding I wanted to be healthier in 2020 (at the end of 2019), I severely underestimated the range of changes I would be making in my life. I also took a very myopic view to health, tying it exclusively to exercising a little more than I had in the past year. As the year unfolded however, and I read more, and I began to ask myself what I was feeling, and what was causing me to feel the way I did, I found that there were several things that definitely needed to change for me to be happier. Coincidentally, these were decisions that would leave me healthier as well, and that was fantastic. It’s not like I needed tons of introspection to understand this. A few of my friends have told me about this in the past, my parents have as well. I just chose to ignore them, till this year.
Staying at home alone meant I woke up every morning knowing that most (if not all) of my day was going to be guided by decisions I took with my faculties about the resources I had available to me.
The first big thing I changed this year is how much I prioritize sleep.
At University, as is well documented on this blog, and pretty much everywhere in my life, I did everything at the cost of sleep. If I had a choice between anything and sleep, I would pick anything apart from sleep. I can’t think of how much nights I stayed awake. That meant I woke up late every morning (for class), napped throughout class, and then came back to my room and caught naps while working through the day. It was hardly anything to write home about. I hadn’t always been like this. Till I was in Grade 9 I slept at 9PM, and then in Grade 10, that became 10PM. It was a steady increase of one hour till I was in Grade 12, I was allowed, if needed, to stay awake till midnight. I slept in on weekends if I could, and my parents really set the example for me. They had a strict sleeping regimen that was only deviated from as an exception. That’s why it surprised them so much that I had changed. What occured to me as my final year rolled around and went away was that it was very unsustainable. Outside of University, sleeping as little as I did would have fatigued me way too much, and sleeping during the day because I hadn’t slept at night would take away any scope for human interaction.
My problem, however, was that I am a night owl. My productivity is a lot higher at night than it is in the mornings. As a result, I’d have to change my entire outlook to sleep. Reading Why We Sleep was pivotal to this. In essence, after a lot of trial, and a lot of mistakes and deviation, I got to a point where I sleep around midnight, and wake up early in the morning. I’m happier as a result of it, truly, I am – because I suddenly feel like I have more hours in my day, and I get to see the sun rise on several days. Sleeping around seven hours a day, on average, is far more than I’ve averaged in the last five years. Eventually I hope to move to eight. If works picks up, I’ll pull down to four or five for a while, but compensate at some point: the weekends if need be, or anything. Sleep is important. I need it to function. It makes me happy. I enjoy sleeping.
The second thing that’s changed for me is my diet.
I could east fast food every day of my life, I love it so much. I’m also in love with processed food. I think it’s delicious. However, the weight it causes me to put on, I’m not so much a fan of. I also find that I’m less happy with a meal that’s tasty, than a meal that’s hearty and filling (but maybe comparatively, less tasty). Around April I found it tougher and tougher to reconcile all of the stuff I was interested in studying in life, and working on, with some of the choices I made in my daily life. So it was that I began to transition toward veganism, and now, I’m there. The United Kingdom makes it affordable and easy to be vegan. Having vegan friends and vegan options to choose from at every place you eat at and buy things at makes it easy as well. I’ve found myself shedding a little weight, which for me has led to happiness, but also found that the diet-switch I’ve made is sustainable for me, and for the planet, which resolved the reconciliation problem I was having at the start of the year. There are still several things with cheese I’m trying to understand how to replace within my diet (as I still crave them), but I’m finding that it’s just a matter of placing my mind and my life’s broader ambitions ahead of certain short-term satisfactions. Every single day. It’s a lot of work, but the happiness I’m experiencing makes me feel it is worth it. The consequence of doing all this is that I’ve become more interested in the science of food and micronutrients and why we eat what we do, and how our body processes it. I think it’s bloody cool, and supremely facinating that our bodies possess so much power.
The third thing that’s changed is my outlook toward exercise.
I’m still very stop-start with it, and lockdowns don’t really help too much, but I’m pushing myself to be more active each morning I wake up. Developing that consistency has been easier because in Cambridge, I’m forced to ride my cycle or walk wherever I have to go, and it’s very easy to walk around here – which means you can cover a large distance without feeling the strain on your body. That holds true for running around as well. The fact that there’s no lazy option is something I’m thoroughly grateful for, because it’s forcing me to make the choice that will make me be more active. I’ve learned that exercise can be incorporated very easily into your daily life just as a result of that choice, and that’s been a revelation. I’ll do the work because my body has the strength and the capacity to do it, and because I want to push myself each day. When my dad can do it, and he started quite late, that gives me enough inspiration to do it each day too.
The fourth thing that’s recalibrated for me is just a continuation from last year, but I’m more cognizant of how my brain is doing now than I ever was.
The pandemic has assisted us in having conversations aroud mental health because suddenly everyone’s been put in a position where they feel like something is off, but they can’t point to a physical manifestation of what it is. That has forced us each to ask ourselves if we are okay, and has led to more awareness, I think, of how mental health operates. When I ran the daily blog, for how much ever I wrote, I found that it helped me keep a track of what my brain was thinking, and where it was at. I’ve spoken about this before, but when I don’t blog, I do feel slightly fuzzy. Stopping the daily blog has meant finding a sustainable alternative that assists me in a similar way. My answer has been daily journaling, and constant reflection. I’ve been forcing my brain into asking itself: are you okay?
Where my answer is no, and sometimes, it is, having gone through therapy has helped me to understand what steps to take, and when to seek out assistance to help make things better for me. Where my answer is no, that means asking myself what the causative factor is, or the causative factors are. Being aware about this just means I’m more careful about my brain’s health. I find that the most concise way of presenting this is that I am aware my brain has a brain of it’s own.
Finally, I’ve learned how important it is, in matters of health, to trust the science. And be a little more sanitary than I’ve lived in the past five years. The Boys Hostel at my University was not the most sanitary place, nor was it the best place to try to keep clean. I’m supremely grateful that our University administration allowed us to leave campus when we did, although I was displeased about how it was communicated to us. It has forced me to confront how much more sanitary, and therefore safe, our hostel could have been.
I’m essentially now on a journey that demands I put in work to living healthier – and happier, each day. Starting that journey was a good first step I did this year. The work is difficult. For me, however, it demands to be done.
- 2020 in Review: Curiosity
I’d like to think I’m a curious person. I enjoy questioning things to understand them better, and questioning people to understand them better too. I like reading to learn more about things I don’t have any knowledge about. When I discover I like something, I spend some time reading up about it more. I can’t remember being any other way. Since the last year, I’ve had more time for myself, and as a result I’ve had the chance to spend my time reading about anything I’ve been interested in.
What I’ve discovered as a result is that very frequently, as a child, there were things that I developed biases for that I refused to be curious about. I’d close off my mind to the extent that I wouldn’t entertain any form of literature about the subject. Based on the little information I had, I’d form conclusions and just refuse to entertain the possibility that if I explored it, perhaps it would appeal to my interest. I refused to acknowledge that it was valuable to spend my time on the subject, even if reading it may lead to learning, or even just make me happy. I think this is why as a child I never read any Princess Diaries books (I only read them last year), or why I didn’t really read up about Conservative parties in politics when I first heard about what they stood for. The initial impression made me feel that perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy it. Reading up about both those things has made me feel no regret.
In the past year, I’ve become more interested in spirituality and philosophy. I view these as allied subjects. During the course of the pandemic, I started reading primary literature about spiritual existence, and I found that it fascinated me. It raised more questions for me, and these questions were, and remain worthwhile for me to explore. I’ve enjoyed some lovely discussions with my parents about both these subjects, and with a couple of close peers. This has been momentous because I had mentally closed myself off to reading primary literature until the start of this year. I often felt like I wouldn’t understand any of it, or that it wouldn’t really interest me at all. Given how intrinsically linked spiritual and philosophical reading is with religious practice, and how I was wishy-washy on religious practices in the past, I never really thought I would care about some of these things at all.
However, something sparked a sense of curiosity in me, and I’ve remained curious about the subject since. I’m eager to read more, and to learn more. Each time I learn about a strand of these subjects, I feel a rush, and when I read these subjects to search for my answers, irrespective of whether I find them or not, I feel at peace for having tried.
That’s been recalibrating for me. I no longer desire to form judgment on subject-matter, or on human beings, or anything really based on secondary views or hearsay, or on first impressions. I’d just like to remain open-minded and curious, and form opinions that reflect my true beliefs, rather than being guided by anything else. And I’d like to do that all the time.
I anticipate this will be difficult, but the path of learning that this year set me off on as a result of this conscious choice I made has been immense. It has led me to discover my likes and dislikes in a way that I don’t think any other choice has – and for that, I remain grateful.
- 2020 in Review: Podcasts
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly when the word podcast entered my vernacular. It’s been around in my brain for a while and in my first year I helped to edit one for a while, because I knew how to edit audio. I didn’t listen to too many before 2020. I got into them in January, and kept finding podcasts I liked, following along to a few during my first three months because I was on a real running spree, and because of things in my personal life, boy oh boy did I miss conversation. I love conversation, and I love stories – and I found that podcasts felt like both.
I know that podcasts became a trend this year. Everyone at home began to start one, and almost everybody I know has started listening to podcasts this year. I’m very wary of trends usually, because I dislike being peer pressured into anything; I like to think that most things I’m suggested by my friends, I do out of a personal desire to do or abstain from the thing. So I monitored, and this podcast thing just kept growing. Through the entire year, as webinars grew in number, the number of new podcasts I saw on Spotify, and recommended to me by friends or social media kept increasing. I was blown away.
Personally, for me, three things have happened with podcasts this year.
First, in a time where human contact was limited, and at home, I got to hear other humans very less, I was given company by podcasts. I’m aware about how lonely this makes me sound, but, it’s true. I’m not going to deny that my circumstances made me feel alone on some days. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs clearly explains that we need belonging and love. Virtually, I felt both so much. My parents showered so much love on me, my friends caught up with me and my family gave me company and support. I never felt lonely as a result, but the house felt alone on some days. What I learned early on, when the pandemic started, was that I was at ease when I heard noise. I was very comfortable working with music or shows playing in the background. These mediums don’t really speak to you though. What podcasts do is that they make you feel like you’re actually having a conversation with someone, or that you’re witnessing a conversation, in the same room as another set of human beings. It’s that physical proximity I definitely missed this year, and podcasts felt like a wonderful way to experience that – and more often than not, learn new stuff. The same was true of audiobooks, and very soon I found myself listening to these more than music (how?)
Second, podcasts made me appreciate human stories more. I’ve always been grateful for people and for this planet. Although we have science and the vocabulary to explain things, when I step back and thing about how much must take place for a human to experience life on this planet, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe. Which is part of the reason I blog. This is my life’s story. My life’s experiences on the internet. The pandemic has taken away so much. There were so many stories untold. Humans of New York introduced us to the range of human stories we ignore in our day to day lives; and the other Humans of… projects that spun off from it introduced us to more of the same. I became intrigued most by conversational podcasts, which introduced me to people and stories I wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to ever experience, or hear about. If I was someone obsessed with chronicling my life’s stories, I wonder why I didn’t stop and hear what other’s life stories were. I mean, I’m being harsh on myself, I definitely do listen to what people say and what they’re communicating, but I think about it now and I don’t think I really listened to learn. I’d always listen to respond or to react. Never just to hear about someone else’s life. As a result I think I missed out. I’m not going to get that back, but I know that podcasts have made me value human stories more, and listen more closely to the human stories in my everyday conversations and life. I’ll be searching for them. All these podcasts that came up this year made it clear to me that people had stories they wanted to share. All they needed was a platform. Blogs and podcasts, as media, are super democratic (as of now). I’m glad people feel courageous enough to share their stories. I’m grateful to be able to listen to them.
Third, I started a podcast. I jumped into the trend. My mother and I started a podcast called Tuesdays with Mummy. Out every Tuesday, the podcast is just conversation I have with her on the different subjects we’re traversing in our lives. I’m influenced by Mitch Albom and Tuesdays with Morrie. I love my parents and I’m extremely grateful for them. I also think they’re oceans of stories because they’ve lived so much longer than I have, and I want to hold on to them forever. I’m an auditory person, and I’ve heard my parents’ voices for the longest time in my life, since I’ve been born – from the lullabies they sang to me as I slept, to their rage when they yelled at me for something stupid I did, to their words of encouragement as I picked myself back up when I fell. I love their voices, and I never want to forget it. Recording auditory memories I can listen to felt like the perfect cure. The only reason I run it with my mum is because she’s free-er at the moment, but we feature my dad so much, I’m very pleased. There’s so much stuff I speak to my parents about, but there’s also so much we don’t speak about, and I’m so eager to pick their brains each week on the podcast, because I know my mum speaks to my dad about stuff too, to get ready for the podcast. I love that. People listen – which I find strange, but it’s just a reflection of how curious people are about human stories. The feedback we’ve received has been positive, but also very constructive. I’m grateful to have such an open relationship with my parents, which allows me to record this podcast and share her stories, and portions of my own in a new way.
So where’s the recalibration? It’s implicit in everything I’ve said above. Prior to 2020, I think I was willing to claim that I was okay without human contact or friendships, that I’d survive just fine, because of the hobbies my parents have made sure I’ve developed and my general interests in figuring out where I am, or living peacefully. I don’t think that’s true anymore. At minimum, I need podcasts and human stories. I wouldn’t want to live alone on a desert island forever; or anything of that sort. I genuinely love human beings and their potential and their stories. That’s what I’ve recalibrated to.
In a way, podcasts and podcasters are my friends now. They’re with me from when I wake up to when I sleep. When I walk, when I run. When I’m not meeting people, I’m usually listening to a podcast, an audiobook, or music, depending on my mood. Good headphones are a clear priority (if you’re gifting me hehe!). I’m very grateful for the company, and I’m in awe of human stories. There’s an adventure I’m going to embark on in 2021, to continue to stay curious about human beings I meet and learn from them. 2020’s set me on the way.