CV of Failures // Catalogue of Regrets

For a few months, I mapped out an essay for a writing competition I was eyeing. The essay involved something I have wanted to write about for a long time now. I made extensive notes and researched. I would revisit the word document I had already started my draft on, adding incrementally every day. I made notes on my phone. I put reminders on my calendar. I had post-its on my corkboard. There was a brief hospital stint during one month and I took my notebook to the cafeteria in the evening, jotting down notes while downing Nescafe and fish buns. I visited the website every few weeks to make sure that I had the deadline right.

A week before the deadline, after months of psyching myself up, I was unable to write. I kept making weak excuses. When I sat down, I produced very little. On the day of the deadline, I made an eleventh-hour effort to put something together but it was a long day with a few surprises thrown in and at 7pm exhausted, I crawled into bed telling myself, this is going to be a half an hour nap. I woke up with a jolt at 2am, reached out for my phone and realized I had missed the deadline for the competition.

I was – I still am – so angry with myself. I had no excuse here. You can’t keep saying that life is hectic because after a point that excuse doesn’t hold water anymore. After a point, even you get tired of hearing you say it to yourself. If something is important to you, you make time for it.  If something is essential enough, you work hard towards it.

What happened was also now a recurring pattern of self-sabotage that was seeping through other areas of life – working my way towards something I really wanted and then stuttering and stumbling when I inch towards the final bit.

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I keep a CV of failures. To be honest it’s not very long.

I keep a Catalogue of regrets. Now that – that is another story. It was a list I began impulsively a few years ago. For some odd self-flagellation related reason, I carry it around with me as though one day someone will ask me what my life’s regrets are and I will say oh wait, wait — I have a list. idk, man. This is a list of personal, professional, random regrets.  Missed connections, missed opportunities. Things I almost did and didn’t and now wish I did. Things I should have been bolder with.

When you trip and fall, you have to contend with the sharp sting of failure. But when you don’t try, you don’t fail. This is a beautifully warped logic to sheathe yourself in and it keeps you safe but also stunts you.

The blunt fizz of what ifs and should haves is a wonderfully comfortable purgatory – the shots you didn’t take, the competitions you didn’t enter, the crushes you didn’t approach, the personal and professional opportunities you didn’t reciprocate, the trips you didn’t take. It is the paralysis which occurs at the prospect of not doing something well, of getting hurt, of being vulnerable, of failing. It is the self-sabotage that keeps you wedged in your comfort zone. And it’s far worse than failing.

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Why am I here. Why am I back at a dusty part of the internet that no one visits?

It’s been a weird year and I have been writing and writing and writing to make sense of it. (FYI: daily writing and journaling has been so helpful with this. 10/10 will recommend.) The writing that has emerged is def not for public consumption but it’s made me realize that I need to reclaim my relationship with writing. It’s also been useful to unpack certain things that have unfolded in the past years.

This year, more than ever, I’ve been struggling to find the motivation to write and figure out why I do what I do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a rewarding year and my heart is full with gratitude, but I’ve felt unmoored.

Blogging was one of the things that got me started with writing and coming back to this digital relic felt like a weird homecoming of sorts.

A lot of things don’t fit. The self-confessional style I embraced earlier now grates at the part of me that guards her privacy. The spontaneity that marked my writing is definitely not there – this took 3 months. 3 months! I’m def not anonymous anymore. And then there is a pervasive anxiety that I should be doing writing that can be billed, work writing, professional writing – work that can be slotted into my resume (perennial freelance occupational thinking hazard. What to do.)

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This is very garbled and all over the place and perhaps this should have been tossed into the daily writing folder and not out here in public. Perhaps this will be deleted tomorrow. Perhaps there is a part of me that naively hopes that something will magically unclog after I publish this and I will finish all the half-finished drafts lying around and apply to those competitions I’ve earmarked for years. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about regrets and self-sabotage and work writing and non-work writing and reflecting on chunks of 2019 and this is the outcome of it and thank you for reading.

Run from Fear //

 

 

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I was reading Jenny Zhang where she references Tracy Emin and then I  remembered my ambivalence about Emin’s work, specifically her neons (even though I’d walk to St. Pancras station just to gaze at her installation), and then I got to thinking about Bruce Nauman’s neons and then I remembered that I had taken this picture from the Nauman collection at Tate Modern. Somewhere down this meandering thought thread I realized what I was really chasing after was a specific feeling.

It came to me in full force on the afternoon I took this picture – I had played truant from assignments and spent a day with art. I emerged only when the gallery closed and remember walking along a sun-soaked Millenium bridge, with my House of Fashion jacket draped over my backpack, happy but also a little heavy.  Happy with a deep gratitude, heavy with the knowledge that days like these were temporary.

I haven’t fully processed, written or posted much about last year because of this heavy-happiness that kept following me the entire year. A lot of things happened last year that I wouldn’t have dared dream of. For some of us, our dreams are tethered to our middling realities.  Often, we don’t yet have the capacity to dream beyond the things that moor us. Rebecca Elson refers to the “existence of limits” in a poem and it’s a line which keeps coming back to me. A lot of last year was framed through this aching transience, that any moment this would be yanked away from me.

It reminded me of the time I caught a butterfly when I was a child. For a few heartbeats this beautiful thing nestled in my hands, was mine. Then when I touched its wings, it disintegrated into dust and I started crying, horrified at what I’d done.

Anyway, read Jenny Zhang’s prose.

 

 

Adventures in solitude

The first time I went out for coffee alone I was horribly uncomfortable. I felt awkward, conspicuous and acutely aware of the groups of people congregated at the coffee shop.  I skulked over to the nearest table, took out my book and started reading. I tried to flag down a waiter repeatedly, but failed spectacularly. Then to top things off, the menu flew up and hit me on the face (it was one of those open air coffee places. Also, rather windy that day) Mortified, I stuck it out for a few minutes trying to hide behind my paperback and then picked up my dignity and fled.

Things have improved considerably since then (touch wood). I like to think I’ve reached the ripe old age where I’ve shaken off the need to be surrounded by a pack of people all the time. It started off going for art exhibitions alone – none of my friends were keen on art and I didn’t want them to be compelled to come with me – and then gradually shopping, random exploring, working/studying in coffee shops etc. Nothing too big, just baby steps. I’m yet to go for a movie alone or to a proper restaurant. I think I could do movies solo after a while, but somehow a meal alone, well, just seems rather lonely.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not completely anti-social. I’m not the biggest extrovert but give me good company and a good atmosphere and I’ll purr like a kitten. I’m just comfortable being by myself and I quite like being my own master. I do feel awkward sometimes but keeping a book in your bag at all times helps. You don’t feel so aware of yourself (what do I with my hands? WHY is she staring at me feet?) and it keeps you adequately occupied. I won’t lie, there are moments when I do miss the conversation and the company but given a choice between people you’re not entirely comfortable with, forcing yourself to make small talk and being by yourself, usually the latter is preferable.

Notes from Delhi: Etc, Etc

It’s 4.30 am. I’ve just finished four loads of laundry and downed a particularly potent cup of lemon tea (3 tea bags in one cup).

My writing has become worryingly dumbed down. Sentences have become alarmingly staccato-like and the content here on this blog vacillates between touristy Delhi posts or ‘OMG. I miss home’ posts. So instead of griping about lost mojo,  I’ve forced myself to sit down, write whatever pops up into my head and try and get into the groove once again (I can’t believe I just used that phrase). I can’t promise that everything is going to make sense but at least I can get some of the thoughts festering in my head out there.

My work is cut out for me though. The left side of my keyboard stopped working a few weeks back and I’m left to the mercies of the onscreen keyboard because I’ve been too chicken to battle the Hindi speaking computer guys at Nehru Place and too afraid of being ripped off. Let’s do this.

 

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I like meeting new people and I’m always in search of kindred spirits. Kindred spirits are sadly far and few between so most times I settle for conversation chemistry – because there are conversations and then there are conversations.

While kindred spirits are in short supply, conversation chemistry can occur in the most unexpected places. Throw in interesting people and good atmosphere or even an email thread with the right conditions, and the results are positively electric. Good chemistry is completely independent of the content and context of the conversation. The secret is in the people who partake in it and sometimes the most unexpected of people have the most to offer. I may not always be the most vocal in discussions but I love basking in the atmosphere of great conversation. It’s heady, intoxicating  sometimes.

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Delhi is a complex city. It’s easy to lose faith in a city like this. There are times it welcomes you and times when it repels. This city leaves its mark on you – whether good or bad, is entirely dependent on your survival mechanism. But it’s also a city which surprises you. And I love that.

One of my favourite memories of Delhi so far is at a little cafe in Paharganj. M  hadn’t been to Paharganj, so I took her there. It was Ramazan and it was time to break fast. The owner of the cafe ushered us to a table. He asked if either of us were fasting (rohza, it’s called in Hindi) and upon hearing that I was fasting, insisted that we sit with him and break fast. He waved aside my protests firmly and I was pushed into an Ifthar banquet of sorts. Picture three tables pushed together and white bowls piled high with apples, grapes, pineapple, dates and oranges. Plates of pakoras and samosas, bottles of juice and middle Eastern dishes I’d never seen before dotted the table.

The thing is, during Ramazan, I used to break fast with a cheese sandwich, dates and water. I don’t make a fuss about what I eat – I’m far too tired by the time the sun sets and I just grab some dinner later on. So when this stranger sat me down at his table and fed me this veritable fest I was so grateful I could weep.

Thank you to a kind stranger — you may not have known it but you made a very tired, homesick girl’s day that evening.

The Language Conundrum

One of the toughest parts about moving here is the language barrier. It’s frustrating to think twice every time I venture out; to haggle with three-wheeler drivers in broken Hindi mixed with English; to be forced to rely on the kindness (or sullen gestures, depending on the nature of the person) of strangers for directions or for advice and to resort to rudimentary hand gestures to get my point across.

I’m used to going wherever I want without a second thought and given the unsafe nature of this city and my language handicap, all this second-guessing – it’s terribly frustrating.

I’m a little better with the language now. I’ve picked the most elementary Hindi phrases and as long as I don’t encounter a chatty/rude/antagonistic three wheeler driver/vendor/salesperson, I’m safe. But the moment they try to carry on a conversation, counter my bargaining skills or speak in Hindi phrases I’m unfamiliar with, I’m forced to grimace, shrug my shoulders and recite ‘Mujhe Hindi patha nahi’ (I don’t know Hindi).

I miss talking to strangers. I miss the fluidity of a familiar language and forging a connection with a random person. Over here, without the proper knowledge of the language, I can’t bargain, barter and banter like I do back at home (please note the unintentional alliteration. I’m quite proud of it). It’s hard to gauge a person solely on the merit of their body language sometimes and because I’m hazy about their motives, I can’t even smile freely when they strike up conversations. I mean, they could be asking me to hand over my kidneys and I would probably just nod and smile back since I wouldn’t know what they were saying.

Jokes apart, I’m forced to be a bit of a snob when I venture out. I’m the snooty cow who doesn’t talk to vendors and who doesn’t smile at people and I hate that. Some of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had back at home, have been with strangers. There’s a melting pot of diverse people over here, from the turbaned chai walla with a white beard to his waist to the cat-eyed boy who sells vegetables down our lane, who have stories to tell, if you’re willing to stop for a minute and listen.

This is just a part of my language issue. Here’s the second. Brace yourselves, it’s a little long.

There’s a general curiosity from most people when they hear I’m from Sri Lanka. Some aren’t too bothered, it’s too close in terms of vicinity for me to be an exotic import and in their minds, it’s almost a part of India (go figure). But there are others who ask me questions (oh, the questions! Some of them are too funny) and are genuinely interested.

A friend kept asking me what my mother tongue was. ‘Well, it’s Sinhala or Tamil for most people back at home, but I’m more comfortable with English’ I replied. She made a face. ‘No. Your mother tongue’ she emphasized, ‘it can’t possibly be English. What is it?’

The thing is, I really don’t know.

I’ve had the mother tongue debacle for as long as I can remember.  Both my parents grew up speaking Tamil and are equally fluent in English. The maternal unit’s Sinhala is excellent, when the paternal unit speaks in Sinhala, people run away (it’s terrible. Lots of fodder for dinner time conversations). As far as I know, both my maternal and paternal grandparents grew up with fluency in Tamil and English, while only my maternal grandparents know Sinhala.

Apart from the few Tamil lullabies, my grandmother would croon, I grew up in a household of people who predominantly spoke in English to me.  My bedtime stories were written in English. I think in English. I’m most comfortable writing in English. I dream in English.

I studied in Sinhala while in school. Struggled in Sinhala would be more appropriate, really. While we were in school, we didn’t have English medium (I’m not talking about the International Schools over here) I remember being completely flummoxed during my first Sinhala classes in nursery and coming home, sobbing to my mum. (That marked the beginning of my long stint with Sinhala tuition)

For 11 years I struggled, since all my subjects for O/L’s were in Sinhala. My flow of thought was in English, so I would have to constantly filter my thoughts, translate them into Sinhala, sometimes struggling for the right words and then put pen to paper. It wasn’t easy, but I pulled through.  I’m just grateful that we had the option of having English medium during our A/L’s.

Now, I’m finally fluent in Sinhala. I can’t swear yet, but that’s okay. I have a feeling my expansive knowledge of English swear words can tide me through any situation but my Tamil leaves much to be desired. I can read if I keep pausing after every two words, but my spoken Tamil is as good as my dad’s Sinhala.

Most of my paternal relatives speak solely in Tamil, so whenever we visited them the language barrier was the elephant in the room. They weren’t fluent in English, I wasn’t fluent in Tamil – it was one big family party.

I think I earned the title of the snobbish Colombo cousin. Relatives thought that I considered myself ‘too good’ to speak in Tamil. But really I was far too shy, because my broken Tamil phrases would immediately have my brigade of relatives smirking behind their shawls.

What determines a person’s mother tongue? Your nationality, ethnicity? Geographical location? People of my ethnic group situated in the North and South of the country, speak different languages. Little breakaway groups even have varied dialects of one tongue. And then there’s the diaspora – what of them?

The internet informs me that a person’s mother tongue (also known as first language, arterial language) is,

1) The language first learned by a child

2)  One’s native language or parent language; the language learned by children and passed from one generation to the next.

3) Or the language that a person speaks best and so is often the basis of socio-linguistic identity.

 If it’s the first and the third, then it’s definitely English for me but it also brings up the problem of my socio-linguistic identity (I have no idea what the native language of my ethnic group should be. Arabic? Tamil?). If it’s the second, it should be Tamil, since that’s the common language predominantly passed down from my family, but as I’ve explained, it’s not.

I had teachers in school who constantly emphasized that you weren’t a true ‘Sri Lankan’ if you couldn’t speak in Sinhala (I kid you not) and that it was scientifically proven that children who studied in their mother tongue were xyz% smarter and excelled more than those who didn’t. Hence, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable about my linguistic identity, wondering if somewhere down the line, I’d lost my way and as a result dropped fragments of my identity on the wayside.

Is there anyone else who has had a problem with their mother tongue or native language?  Or have all the lines we so love to draw around languages, identity and culture and the pigeon holes we like to pop people in, dissolved in the 21st century?

Should I go back to studying Tennyson instead of having identity crises’ at 2.30 in the morning? Should I worry that I haven’t finished a quarter of my syllabus for my finals which are in less than a week? Please advise, friends.