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In Other Words

In Response to In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Before I started school, I was fluent in Malayalam, my parents’ mother tongue, as well as Gujarati, the regional language of the state I lived in, making it my neighbours’ mother tongues. But after I started school, I switched to English. As far as I remember, I didn’t struggle in that language. It was the language I learnt to read, write, and express myself in. It was the language that’s at the backbone of my verbal comprehension, reasoning, and general understanding of the world. I was brought up with books written in that language, and I found meaning in trying to improve myself in all aspects of the language – vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and all. Everything about the language excited me, excites me. There is nothing more amazing than how the world makes sense simply through the different permutations and combinations of the 26 alphabets of the Latin Script. And I’ve been content with it.

I also learnt Hindi around the same time I learnt English. But it was purely conversational, just like Malayalam, and Gujarati. I was excited for the time I was to start learning to read and write in Hindi and Gujarati. And I remember the perseverance and the discipline that goes into learning a new language. And at times, because of the similarities, not just in script, but also the pronunciation, and vocabulary, I remember being extremely confused with both, because by that time, I’d stopped conversing in Gujarati and switched to English in school, and Hindi out of. My Gujarati neighbours were comfortable in Hindi, so there was no problem. Two years of Gujarati later,
we were taught Hindi, and in another two, Sanskrit followed. And for some reason, it was much easier to learn Sanskrit, than it was to learn Hindi or Gujarati, especially considering it was pretty much a completely new language (excluding the script).

When I switched residence to Bombay, I was bombarded with a new language: Marathi. But by now, I was tired. I couldn’t take another language and try to study it. I was done.
That was until Jhumpa Lahiri came into the picture. I read The Namesake for classwork (well, additional reading), and fell in love. This time I wasn’t just fascinated by English, but also diaspora as a theme, and Bengali as a language. I don’t know how or why or when. It just happened. I was fascinated by how learning just a few words in a new language opens up a new outlook towards life, as we learn intricacies about the culture of the people who speak it. Soon, I was asking all my Bong friends (somehow, I have a lot!) to tell me their daaknaams, and asking them about their naming ceremonies. Then, I obsessively read other books written by her, and finally, over this weekend, I managed to read In Other Words. And I was blown away by her, just as I was the first time I read her work.

She writes about the sense of depravity she felt, somehow mixed with the usual sense of comfort that any writer would feel towards her first language. I get it with English. As if it’d never fail me. She got it with English. (Well, the Pulitzer didn’t win itself). But somehow, somewhere, she felt the need to switch. She started learning a new language: Italian. The entire book is her story of perseverance, as it is it’s outcome. Learning a new language is hard work. Nothing is more frustrating, nothing is sweeter.

She writes about her struggles. She writes about the turmoils of trying to express oneself in a completely new language. And I somehow get that too. I have had experiences with being in and out of comfort with languages. There have been times when my Hindi was exceptional, and there were times when I just couldn’t string a sentence together. I’ve been out of touch with Gujarati and Sanskrit for years now, but my ears still perk up when I hear them, and my heart swells with nostalgia.

She writes about how she’s grown, how she’s somehow different. I feel it when I’m communicating. I’m a different person when I’m talking in English- more self assured, more confident, more creative. But when I try to Express myself in Malayalam- I’m more obedient, more submissive. When I try Hindi (not the Bambaiyya Hindi), I am confused, clueless: a mere ghost of what they were in English. I try to translate my thoughts in English to words in Hindi and they make no sense. The flow and the beauty of the language is completely lost. I wonder if she feels like that too? Since she’s trying to reinvent herself completely, I guess there’s only growth, not a dissociation in Identity.

She talks about the feelings of incapacity in herself, as if she were lost and suspended in the void, the voices in her head refusing to bulge to her commands of thinking in Italian. She talks about how others question her about her ability to speak good Italian, about how many told her it’s suicide, but she never bulged. And I love her for that. I love how she came forward and barred her soul. I love how she’s still struggling, but she has a book about it. And I love how she’s never given up. Because I know I have. On several occasions.

And she writes about the strength of her belief. Yes, she may have doubted if she’s doing something incredibly stupid, but she never doubted her conviction. And to me, that speaks volumes about who she is. She is the one I want to emulate. I want to be sure about myself, despite multiple failure. I want to learn to break my walls, and start apiece. I want to let go of my comfort zones and tread the stormy seas. Because she gives me the courage to do that.

In other words, thank you for the book, Ms Lahiri. You’ve opened my eyes, just a smidge more towards this confusing world.

Read about another role model talking about Malayalam, which also, I identify with.
I now have a Poetry blog on Tumblr, where I’m posting originals, and compiling good stuff from here. Read it here.



She wasn’t one to have a lot of crushes, but on him, it seemed long overdue. What was not to like about him? A little hinting from their friends was all it took for her to fall for him. And damn it, he was worth the agony!

Theirs wasn’t a perfect relationship from the start. There were month long fights, but both seemed to come back for more. She hated his guts and his overconfidence, and he hated her stupid jokes and boundary issues. She hated his stupid smirk, and he hated that she was so touchy-feely. This ensured a lot of venomous outbursts and tears and foulest kind of languages. She slapped him, and punched him and he gave zero fucks, making her even more agitated. But they got through it all, and grew up to be good friends when all their friends came together to make a group.

Both of them figured the best way out of this was to be friendly, and the slamming of doors and blocking on social media came down, and many frenemies posts and listicles were shared. She started smiling at him often, and he stole glances. And before she knew it, she fell hard.

It was easy, though, wasn’t it? They knew each other well enough, their friends were supportive, they liked the same kind of stuff, and they made memories together now- hanging out together, and eating out together, partying together, and vacationing together. She figured it’d be so easy – but the rational part of her didn’t agree. That part urged her to snap out of it, but the romantic in her fell harder.

So when that big graduation party came, she danced with him, and she got him water and food to get him to sober  up. But he didn’t. He downed all sorts of alcohol and was drunk beyond control, so she let him be. But she left early for another party, and that was that.

It started off with bits and pieces. They fell out for a couple of months. She hadn’t any news and she heard he was seeing another girl. So she didn’t bother. She could not be in love with him. So when he shifted cities, and didn’t text her often, she ignored him. She let him go.

The next couple of months were agony. But she got through him cold turkey. The girl rumoured to be with him turned out to be his cousin’s girlfriend, and later fiancé (they lived in the same city, now). But she was finally, finally over him.

And now when he texted, she was glad that she didn’t feel butterflies in her stomach. Now they could be friends without anything attached to it. And when he was back in town, she met with him and let herself lose, knowing full well that she felt absolutely nothing for him.

But then she heard fragments of it. ‘No she doesn’t know’ she overhead him say to that girl she hated the guts of. She knew he was hiding something from her. She tried not to care – it was annoying that she didn’t know something apparently so huge about him. Then she picked on bits and pieces. A month ago, a couple of her other friends changed the topic when she asked what it was about him that they were hiding, and they talked about academics. She asked him later, and he said something about an internship, but she wasn’t stupid, she knew how to pay attention. And she did, and was devastated to hear what had happened.

He had kissed a girl! He had made out with a girl at the same party when she was being that pathetic loser who was crushing on him. There they were dancing for a bit and she dreamt up the name of the fourth dog, and two hours later, he was making out with some other girl!

She felt agitated, and embarrassed about herself and decided that that was that. She wasn’t letting another boy toy with her emotions like that. She felt disgusted, and used, even though it wasn’t her fault. If he couldn’t see what he had when he had it, it wasn’t her fault. And may be that’s part of growing up. Crushing on one of your homies and him shattering your heart, and because he’s such a good friend

, you

can’t tell anyone else, and hence you’re left to mend your broken heart. The boy you like getting drunk and making out with a total stranger at the same party that you’re in. Maybe growing up is realizing who’s just a mayfly and who is a swan.  And maybe growing up is learning not to care about that bastard who did nothing but break your heart a thousand times.

And maybe growing up is learning that you deserve the best, and learning not to settle.

Shares of the Pie: The Sexist World We Live In

What is it about being a woman that you’re proud of?

It was a Counseling Psychology class, where this question was posed to us. They called the module Counseling Diverse Populations. We got a range of responses, some saying they like the fact that they could wear pretty clothes and others saying they wouldn’t form their identity based on gender roles. What was it that made me proud of being a woman? While I was trying to understand how to respond to this question for class, I thought of feminism discourses that I’d so frequently engaged in- with my parents, friends, and other relatives. How was I, as a woman, different from my male counter-parts? And how much of it was based on only the fact that I was a woman?

Growing up with only a sister for a sibling, both of us were never had to question gender differences. Perhaps, giving every need and luxury was only based on what we required and earned never taught us much about feminism. And as over-achieving children, we never had to question if we were better than the boys in our classes. We knew we were better, and the only differences were where we were seated in class. Nobody dared tell me, in my elementary or middle school that I couldn’t do anything because I was a girl. And I wasn’t barred from having a fair share of guy friends, with whom I was as comfortable as I was with my girl friends. The only time we hung out seperately was during P.E., and that was because I, for one, hated sports.

It was during high school, when I’d moved cities that such differences were highlighted. It was a bigger city-a metro. You’d expect people to be more egalitarian, but they were not. There was a (friendly?) sense of competitiveness for just about everything- who got to use the better computers, who would be group leaders, who should do the homework, so we could copy it off?
Girls are better and Boys are better war-cries were everyday incidents. Girls did the artsy-craftsy things, while guys played sport. Girls sang and danced, while guys played sport. Girls volunteered to do elocutions and debates, while guys would volunteer, at most, for science exhibitions. And let’s not even begin to talk about the teachers! A particular female professor exhibited blatant sexism even while teaching! She would look only at the boys’ rows while lecturing, with her back towards the girls! She would only encourage boys’ doubts, while shushing the girls! And she would frown and yell at the girls, while happily pulling guys’ cheek and shuffling their hair. She would even give them more marks than the girls, for the exact answers. Once, she even blatantly declared something along the lines of Of course! Why would I tell them anything? Girls are good only at gossiping. Another teacher, this time a male, would joke around only with guys, and give them more marks. And to think these people were supposed to be role models!

The other day, my sister (who’s now in the same high school that I went to) was annoyed at yet another sexist rule the school had exercised. They had decided that only boys will be made the President and the Vice President (the top two positions) of the student body, regardless of the number of votes, while girls will only get to be the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. Thus, the face of the school in all inter-school competitions and events would be a boy, by default. My sister was furious about this, because she was close friends with both the guy and the girl who were the President and the Prime Minister, and was of the opinion that the girl definitely deserved the title much more than the guy (and when I am in Class 11, and allowed to stand for the elections, I will definitely protest)

When I finally moved on to college, I found a worse kind of differentiation. In my class of 110 students, only 10 were guys! Over the next couple of months we found out that there were more guys (maybe 15 to our 10) in the class which had Math as an elective, while those classes which were dedicated to the Science stream (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and the other hard science subjects; as opposed to our Arts Stream, consisting of Psychology, Sociology, History and the other Social Sciences/Humanities subjects).

One of the papers I took in college was Economics, which had 75% of the guys in our batch. The class consisted of an approximate 60:40 ratio, which was a huge achievement considering the fact that my other paper was Psychology, and we hardly had, again 10 guys in a class of 120. By the time we entered our final year of college, there was no guy wanting to major in Psychology, and most of the 75% in the Econ class chose Econ as their major.

On the other hand, my friends over at the various Engineering Colleges across the country cribbed about not having girls in their class. Some of them said in a class of 800, an odd 75 were girls, and most of them specializing in Computer Science (and the good looking ones, to their dismay, either committed or swung the other way, but I’m swinging dangerously away from the point).

For those who are Statistics-averse, this means bad news! Not only are we exercising inequality in the way women are treated in general, but also in the kind of careers they choose! Like they say in the movie 3 Idiots, If a boy is born, he’ll be an engineer, and if it’s a girl, we’ll make her a doctor! Not only are those poor sods opinionless in what kind of careers they get to choose, the careers are tailored for their gender!

So when in a Counselling Psychology class, they taught us about Counselling for the Female population, it pissed me off. I do not understand why Females are considered a ‘Diverse’ Population. Was Therapy only meant for men? (Definitely not!) Why couldn’t we look at Females and Males as not seperate from each other and treat them with the same levels of empathy, and unconditional positive regard? Why is there that need to seperate on the one discipline that urges you to see your client on the same level as you and everyone else- the one that propogates equality?

They say the reason why patriarchy is so irresistible for men and feminism as a movement is like a slap in their faces. This is explained through the following analogy:

Imagine the resources and freedom and every other thing in the world as a pie. Traditionally, the pie was divided as 70:30 in favor of men. So, of the 10 pieces, the boy child in the house got 7 pieces, while the girl child got only 3. Now, as the girl started understanding the unfairness of the situation, she started demanding an equal share of the pie. The next time, the boy got only 6 pieces, while the girl got 4. The boy suddenly noticed that he’s getting 1 piece less as compared to what he was getting earlier. And hence, he lashed out against the girl for stealing what was rightfully his own.

So, apart from the issue of fragility of a man’s ego and other such complex issues, the backlash for feminism can be understood as because of a simple reason. It is rooted in men getting lesser shares of the pie, and not in women getting a larger share.

Sexism isn’t only about if women are in a purdah, or are raped by the minute, or how it’s unsafe for them to get out of their house after dark. It is about how everyone gives them a questioning look if they wear short shorts, or their boyfriends get them pink teddies on their one month anniversary. It isn’t just about gender-specific jobs, and glass ceilings; it is also about the classes they are allowed to be interested in, and excel in. It isn’t just about a GI Joe vs a Barbie debate, it is about how the infant girl’s nursery is painted pink and that of the boy is blue. It isn’t just about infanticide or foeticide; it is how much nutrition the mother gets after knowing it is a girl, rather than a boy.

Do you also see other kinds of discrimination around you? Do you disagree with the points I have to make? Let me know in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what you guys see in your communities!

This post has been evolving since February, 2015. That probably explains the inconsistency, if you may find any
Twitter: @WallflowerBlack