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- 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a few hours behind India, any stories I share, or resources I amplify on social media seem to be out-of-the-loop and outdated – behind the times.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.
- 2020 in Review: Videogames and Friendships
In my childhood, I was never deprived of the entertainment that videogames can offer. However, given the number of hours my peers spent on videogames after school hours, my parents found two ways to combat me from doing the same. First, they purchased my a Playstation Portable really early on, as soon as it came out. Second, we only purchased games once a year, and I was allowed to buy two. Third, the PSP was hidden away from me during school-time, and I had access to it only during holidays – of any kind. Finally, I was not allowed an upgrade. So no PS2, PS3, or anything else. That kept me away from playing with my friends and playing for hours beyond what I was allotted. I was never really good with videogames that were competitive, enjoying storylines a lot more. Some time around Grade 9 I was allowed to trade-in my PSP for a PS3, but it came at a time when I couldn’t really enjoy it, so I moved on from it pretty quickly. That didn’t mean I stopped enjoying videogames. I’d still play when I went to my friends’ houses. Even when I didn’t have my PSP as a kid, I’d be able to play Runescape for a couple of hours with my friends each week, and when I visited their houses, their PS2 was fair game.
As a consequence, I think my relationship with videogames was less personal and more community-based. I also don’t think I developed a particular attachment for them; but I did follow along to all of the conversation surrounding them because of my interest in technology and the way my friends described games.
I rediscovered videogames at the end of last year. When I went back to University, I decided that it was something I’d continue to do, to switch off from anything related to making applications or doing University work. Videogames found a place on my OneNote, highlighting my commitment to being entertained by them. Then COVID-19 struck. I relocated home. For the first week, I didn’t play too much at all. I was very focused on figuring out to live alone at home, how to operate stuff, and what all the precautions advised by the Government meant for me.
At some point in the second week, I think I realized I was freer than I had ever been, and at some point, the amount of information around the pandemic meant I needed a switch-off. My school friends, who realized I was in Bengaluru now, reached out and added me to a gaming group. 2020 has been a strange year, and for a large part of it, despite having a community around me, and my parents and family a video-call away, I know I was physically quite alone. This was a deliberate decision, but there were some days where I wondered why there was so much quiet around me. Although we played every day, it was those days that made me most grateful for my school friends and videogames. My house was filled with a cacophony of sound that made me feel like I was in school again. Even when I wasn’t playing I could just watch the others play, or chat with them on our discord server while they gamed away.
So that’s the first thing that’s changed. I’ve recalibrated my view toward videogames and toward friendships I established in school.
Let’s talk about videogames first. Even though I enjoyed them, I’d rationalize how I didn’t experience them myself so much by thinking about how I was spending my time in a better way, insofar as I was always doing something I would have been doing anyway instead of playing videogames. In that position however, I wasn’t ever in a position where I could consider the value of videogames in a fair, objective way. My decision was based entirely on my limited experience and exposure to limited games, and how I emotionally felt – that it was better to be outside playing sports or such, or studying. Through the pandemic though, I changed that. My parents really couldn’t say anything because I did need a switch-off.
So, here’s a couple of things I now recognize about videogames.
Videogames improve your fine motor skills. I read several scientific papers, and it definitely appears that there’s a positive correlation between playing videogames and motor skills. They also improve your cognitive abilities in terms of being able to process novel pieces of information and adapt quickly. This, I think is particularly true of action and first-person games.
Videogames improve your communication skills, particularly where you play team games. You learn how to say things quickly – in shorthand.
Videogames allow you to experience things that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to experience. I played a lot of F1 2020, Football Manager, FIFA 2020. None of these things: being a racing driver, a football manager, or a football player are things that I see myself being able to do in real life. I do not possess the skill-set or the financial backing. I possess the passion, and the desire to learn, which I can put into effect in videogames, and derive joy out of. Flight Simulator also, for example, allows you to satisfy the aviation geek inside you. I can’t replace that.
Finally, they are fun. That’s been the biggest, biggest change in my perspective toward videogames. I still am terrible at videogames, but even when I lose, I find myself having more fun than so many other things I do with my time. Therefore, when it comes to making decisions about how to spend my time – if I’m trying to decide how to have the most fun with a block of time, there are times now where I would genuinely choose videogames, and be very comfortable with that.
I learned that I’m somebody who enjoys sports games – and arcade games, the most, followed closely by story-line based games and role-playing games. Which is why Runescape is still a favourite. First-person action and shooting games I will play for my friends. I will always be terrible at them. I don’t have the patience to spend hours improving my skill.
What I also witnessed this year that deserves conversation is how videogames became a place where fans of a particular sport were brought closer to real-life players. F1 drivers were playing F1 2020 and struggling in places, which was hilarious for us. Real-life football players started playing FIFA more because they had some more time off.
Now I’d like to talk about my high school friends. I loved them at school. After school I know I struggled with our relationship. We weren’t in touch as much, and initially I didn’t understand how or why we went from talking to each other for eight hours a day to less than eight hours across months. I don’t think I was mentally ready for that. It took me a while to recognize how busy we had all become, and then it took me a lot longer to accept that there were times we’d be in the same city and be unable to see each other. At some point, I began to ask myself if as individuals, we were likely to be friends if we had not gone to school together.
My answer was, I don’t know. I can’t say, because so much of our friendship stems out of the circumstances in which we were introduced. It is difficult to displace that an look at our relationship.
However, what I do know is the reality of things. We were introduced under a very specific set of circumstances. All of us ended up at the same school. We shared five years together. I wouldn’t replace those five years with any other set of people I know in my life; nor would I replace this set of people with any other combination of people.
Acknowledging that, what I’ve learned is that our lives and our circumstances are going to change throughout life, but the fact that we went to school together is not something that any of us are going to be able to escape. Our friendship is therefore not conditional or predicated on anything else in our lives, because any condition to our friendship has already been fulfilled. We’ve shared the experience that we were meant to share with each other. We got to spend five years together, which is a substantial period of time in any of our lives – right now, it’s close to 1/5th of mine. We became close in those five years. That’s not going to change irrespective of anything that happens in our lives.
What that led me to realize is that the relationship we shared then is one that’s trapped in time. None of us can erase that. So if we’re in touch or not in touch, we’re all school classmates at minimum. We’re people who’ve seen each other at our most childish. That cannot change. What’s clear to me, therefore, is that unless circumstances change in our individual relationships significantly, we’re going to stay friends for our lifetime. I’m so pleased to be able to cherish that, acknowledge that, and accept that, finally.
That’s allowed me to let go of a lot of the hurt I felt when I visited Bangalore and wasn’t able to meet too many of them. That’s allowed me to let go of the momentary joys I used to feel when I’d get a message from them out of the blue; especially because I was in a different city. It allows me to be more at peace with our relationship – and just appreciate it, instead of doing anything else.
It’s been beautiful.
The best thing it did was that it pushed me to reach out to as many of my school classmates as I could, to say hello. To enquire, honestly, how they were. The thing the pandemic made clear to me is that I shouldn’t be waiting for anyone else. If I want to speak to someone, I’m going to reach out to them and ask if we can chat.
My school friends responded to mothers’ request to be in this insane birthday video she made for me this year. I got to spend time and see several of them before I moved to the UK (one of them came home in the last week before I left); and I still chat with them frequently because this group now exists.
I will appreciate and cherish all of this. I will cherish each one of them. By extension, I’m going to cherish and appreciate every single relationship I develop henceforth. My perspective on the smaller stuff has changed. Having the opportunity to know another individual in any capacity is a blessing because it’s an opportunity to see the world through a different pair of eyes. That’s something I’m so grateful for, and something I have only my school friends to thank for.
- 2020 in Review: Recalibration
Writing this blog, in general, is equal parts comforting and frustrating. Writing this set of blogposts is the same. Since 2015, the blog has been a huge part of my life. There’s daily narratives and internal monologues interspersed with attempts at writing fiction and social commentary. At the end of every year, however, there has been reflection, and with it, the opportunity to review an entire year thematically and examine what the year that has gone by has been.
It feels insufficient to capture 2020 through ten posts. I push on because this blog is my personal tapestry, and stories deserve to be woven in. This year, for me, has been all about recalibrating. Not resetting, mind you. Just the art of remarking what the standard is. The next ten days on this blog will recognize that in different spheres of my life. Today is about providing the broader outline for those posts.
In writing this series of posts, I recognize that my voice and my experiences are ones of privilege insofar I have had the opportunity to recalibrate. The impact of the pandemic has been disproportionate not exclusively because of nature, but equally because of inconsiderate human intervention. The pandemic is not over, but my aspiration remains that when we figure out a solution, to contain the spread and to cure, as a human species, we are more empathetic individuals and a more empathetic society.
It is easy to forget how much has transpired since January 1, 2020 given the dominant role that SARS-CoV-2 has played. Everything else appears to be sidelined, with January, February and March (Q1) pretty much being sidelined to the smallest part of this year’s history textbook. Telling this year’s story fairly however, in each of our personal histories, I think, deserves an acknowledgment of those three months in equal measure. So that’s where I will start.
The beginning of the year saw me return to University for my final semester of being an undergraduate law student. Having made various applications for postgraduate education, I returned knowing that I had given myself the best opportunity to continue my legal studies, but I wasn’t sure where I would be after June. I was determined at that time to enjoy every last minute on campus, with the people who were my closest friends. Little did I know I would make new ones. In my final semester at University, I met someone I can safely call one of my best friends from Gujarat. The dominant narrative that played out in my head is, how do I use this remaining time well? How do I take as much away from the experience as I can? Having spent four years giving, it only felt fair to think about that one question. I explored and started taking piano lessons and meeting friends in the city more frequently. I ran in different parts of the twin cities and ate at new places, and slowly but surely began to tick things off the bucket list that had built up over four years.
I was on a flight to Bengaluru, my home, three days after receiving a conditional offer from the University of Cambridge. My mother, one day prior, had flown out from Mumbai to Dubai. Originally our intention was for me to stay in Gandhinagar itself, but that was unviable. Getting to Dubai was ruled out because I had forgotten to carry my passport, at the start of the academic semester, from Bengaluru. In January, my mother and I had flown to Bengaluru together, and she kept my passport. I just forgot to take it from her, and in so doing, ended up treading the path that led to six months staying in my house, alone before relocating countres.
When it quickly became apparent I was in Bengaluru for the long haul, I began to think about several things. Suddenly I had 24 hours to myself. No University commitments, no social life commitments. No commitments at all. 24 hours*7 days for an unforeseeable number of weeks. After four and a half years of things eating away at any routine I tried setting for myself, this was heavenly.
The next six months is when the recalibration happened. In deciding where my time went, in deciding how each of the 24 hours got spent, what I found myself doing was slowly and certainly answering how I wanted to use my life. The opportunity and privilege to do this shines through in that I was able to make that decision, every hour, consistently, devoid of external pressures that others face. This doesn’t diminish my own challenges, but it certainly provides some perspective about how we magnify or amplify our lifes’ own challenges internally.
I’m an optimistic person who likes putting silver linings on things, but the pandemic shouldn’t be perceived that way, so I won’t be putting a positive spin on it at all. It remains a devastating, brutal part of our lives. In the next ten posts, I hope to outline in what ways spending six months alone at home has impacted the way I think about things, ranging from the personal to the professional. At the end of it, as always, will be a post investigating what these changes mean for me in 2021.
If you choose to follow along, then I hope you enjoy it.
As always, I remain grateful.