Shahnaz Writes Things

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Somewhere on the Internet…Muslim women are being talked about (again)

Those of you who aren’t avid followers of Western Muslim Feminist discourse (um, why are you not?) may not yet have come across Mipsterz. The brainchild of two Muslim men (more on that later), Abbas Rattani and Habib Yazdi, known as Sheikh and Bake Productions, Somewhere in America: Mipsterz is a two minute video that depicts an array of stylish, impeccably groomed, young Muslim women looking - well - cool. As they hang out in parks, skateboard down streets, and pose on rooftops, all set to a soundtrack of Jay-Z’s ‘Somewhere in America’, the film looks like it could be an advert for ESpirit or River Island. And in case you haven’t worked it out yet, ‘Mipsterz’ is a tongue-in-cheek, super-ironic term born from the following equation:

'Muslim' + 'Hipster' + ironic random 'z' = Mipsterz.

Ahahahaha, so clever.

Given that Mipsterz involves two of the internet’s favourite topics: women and Islam, there has been a predictably potent level of response from across the spectrum of People Who Like To Discuss Muslim Women and/or Hipsters.

Obviously, we have the HipsterHaterz:

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The topic has even showed up on ‘mainstream’ media channels such as the HuffPost and Buzzfeed, although, like the article featured in Jezebel, these responses are patently rushed copy/paste jobs that lack any kind of analysis and fail to reach a sufficient level of critique.

Thankfully, there have also been more eloquent analyses offered up, two particularly excellent ones by Muslim women: Sana Saeed gives an articulate, nuanced critique of various aspects of the video in her Islamic Monthly article, while Rabia Chaudry’s powerful open letter to the women in the video tackles the tirade of ‘shaming’ that has exploded over the last 48 hours. In her response, Chaudry’s anger is tangible:

"We have an illness, us Muslims. We like to publicly humiliate our girls by pointing out where we think they’ve failed in their religious practice. We don’t do this to our men, ever."

Word.

"I’m sorry that you have to put up with awful judgments from both non-Muslims and Muslims […] I’m sorry that your appearance and behavior has become a litmus test for the state of our community."

Again. Word.

"You’re easy prey. Low hanging fruit. What you wear distracts us from discussing serious issues, like sexual violence, drugs, or domestic abuse; because those are things we’d actually have to do something about. You’re in the center of a shaming-storm and I’m sorry for that."

Can I get an “Ameen”?

It goes without saying that nothing at all can justify the shaming-storm that Chaudry refers to - but the Mipsterz video poses an interesting contradiction: simultaneously exploding one set of assumptions, while also perpetuating a number of myths. It is precisely these confused and confusing messages which have generated such potent discussion in just over 48 hours:


1. Muslim Women Are Dowdy: DEBUNKED

The majority of the backlash against this video has stemmed from the reactionaries who are recoiling in horror in their droves at the fact that that (visibly) Muslim/oriental/eastern/exotic looking women are - gasp! - attractive. The portrayal of these women as being (un)conventionally fashionable or appealing is the antithesis of the usual associations of Muslim woman as dowdy, unattractive, weak and sexless.

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It is frustrating that it takes a 2 minute film to go viral, in order for this centuries-old myth to even begin to crumble. And yet some of the most vociferous complaints about the crumbling myth are Muslims themselves. It’s almost as though by maintaining the notion of Muslim-woman-as-dowdy-frump, we are also maintaining her virtue/honour/chastity/insert word of choice here. Well, for debunking that myth alone, I think Mipsterz deserves one point at least.


2. Muslim Women are Exotic Creatures: PERPETUATED

Oh, world. We Muslim women give you such a hard time, don’t we? We complain about you portraying us as shrivelled old babushkas, but then we also take umbrage at being depicted as exotic eastern creatures who lounge around in harems looking bejewelled and ravishing.

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While I don’t think Sheikh and Bake do this maliciously, there is certainly an element of mythologising the exoticism of the Muslim women in this film. In portraying these women in a ‘never seen before’ way, there is almost a sense of being given access to something that, far from being cast as normal, is made to seem particularly enticing. We see several shots of women skateboarding or riding motorbikes at night - both of which could be viewed as traditionally Western cultural expressions of hyper-masculinities - and we are led to marvel at this. While it is entirely reasonable, plausible and possible that these women might just enjoy skateboarding or riding motorbikes, the fact that there is not a single point where these women’s voices are heard in the entire film, renders the concept unquestionably voyeuristic. We are encouraged to watch these women, enjoy, praise, look at them - but we are not invited to hear them.


3. The Worth of a Muslim Woman is the Sum Total of the Fabric on Her Head: PERPETUATED

The perpetuation of this myth, in fairness, has zero to do with the makers of the video, or the women in it, and everything to do with how the reactionaries have responded. As with anything to do with Muslim women, the majority of the discussion about the film has centred around the hijab. Obviously. Because what is an obvious representation of a Muslim woman if not a piece of cloth on her head?


Many supporters of the video have commented on the diversity seen in the film: there are women from different ethnicities, who wear headscarves, do not wear headscarves, wear skirts, wear pants, wear colour, wear black. And I would wholeheartedly concur that this is one of the strengths of the film. But the sheer volume of comments focused specifically on hijab shows that this really is seen as the pinnacle of any conversation to do with Muslim women. Which is, unquestionably, ridiculous, because no woman, Muslim or otherwise, should feel the burden of having to be representative of an entire faith, or community, or ideology. It is exhausting. It is unsustainable. It is not going to work. As someone who wore a headscarf for two years, before deciding that it was not for me, I am fully aware of how it feels to be carrying a world of judgements, assumptions, assertions and speculations, all in one metre square of fabric. Which leads perfectly to:


4. Everything a Muslim Woman Does is a Political Statement: DEBUNKED

This myth is only half-debunked, because no matter what Muslim women say or do, someone, somewhere will interpret that as a political statement. This very blog post is a testament to that. Sorry. But the point is, we shouldn’t look at these skateboarding, sharply dressed women and think that they somehow are making a pointed assertion about the state of Western Muslim feminism. The likelihood is that they aren’t. They probably just like wearing nice shoes and skateboarding. That’s as much as we can tell from the video anyway. And herein lies the problem of the video: it’s a a visual feast, but there is no substance beyond it. We don’t know if these women are students, or professionals, or shopkeepers, or doctors. We do not know if they are university graduates or not. If they are married, or not. We don’t know if they are Democrats or Republicans; if they are vegetarians, or Creationists, or Marxists. But maybe - just maybe - there are Muslim women who are, shock, just really quite into fashion and starring in short films, and don’t really care about making a political statement. Just a thought. But this is another flaw of the film - in a bid to portray Muslim women as ‘normal’, the makers of the film have ended up with a rather hollow depiction. Sheikh and Bake have certainly de-politicised the actions of Muslim women in this film…because what’s political about posing on a rooftop taking selfies? Maybe that’s the point. Who knows.

Mipsterz: yay-sterz or nay-sterz?

I really, really wanted to like this video more than I did. While I enjoyed the celebration of expression, dress, joy and activity in the film, some of the stronger and more substantial positive messages get lost amost the stilettos and scarves: there are a couple of scenes featuring Ibtihaj Muhammad, a member of the United States fencing team, wearing an American flag hijab. I want to know more about her. I want to know the stories, the real experiences, the personalities of these women. Not just marvel at their clothes. And so, this video, ultimately, fails in its objectives which - I assume - was to portray the ‘reality’ of what Muslim women are like. Because all I came away with from this video was a reinforced message that there are some women (who happen to be Muslim) that are far more stylish than I am. Well, duh.

Perhaps this is a problem with the medium of video in general. Other formats may better lend themselves to a more nuanced, in-depth exploration of Muslim female identities, with more success. Love Inshallah, a volume of collected stories edited by two Muslim women, Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi, is a fantastic example of how the diversity of Muslim women’s experiences and perspectives can be more effectively depicted. It would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that this video was produced and directed by two men, and the influence this may have had (fairly or unfairly) on popular reactions. It is not to say that the gender of the film-makers is inherently problematic, but why is it that this video went viral, when all these many other examples of women representing themselves haven’t made the same shockwaves?

Mipsterz was a creative move, but sadly slightly lacking in any kind of meaningful message. But maybe that is the point - that sometimes, Muslim women just want to “be” and not have every item of clothing they wear, every song they listen to, every action, every movement to be politicised, scrutinised, pulled apart, and ultimately, judged by the crowing audiences of haters and liberators alike. And if that involves taking selfies on a rooftop to a Jay-Z soundtrack, then so be it. It isn’t the sum total of who they are and what they stand for. To know that, you might actually need to speak to one.

Filed under muslim women feminism jay-z somewhereinamerica mipsterz myths diversity hipster

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Shabnam

"Trailblazer".

It is a significant accolade to bear. One imagines a figure of great physical prowess, a tower of might and success. Greatness and glory. Fearlessness and feistiness. Vision and visibility. All wrapped up in this one word. The most significant trailblazer I have encountered my life is far more nuanced than this image. Standing at barely five feet tall, her physical presence is hardly the great stature so commonly associated with being a pioneer. And certainly more of a listener than a talker, she can sometimes be initially overlooked in a new group. Yet, she is undeniably a trailblazer. She is my big sister, Shabnam. By circumstances of birth and fate, Shabnam was my first friend growing up. But despite there being four years between us, Shabnam was also my best friend growing up. Almost all of my earliest memories - like those matte-effect photo from the 80s - involve her at the centre of them, or at least hovering around the edges, half of her body slightly chopped out of the frame.

We grew up in a deceptively large Yorkshire terraced house, with a tiny back yard but a huge loft area which my parents had converted into usable space by installing dormer windows. The left room was my father’s study, where he would sit and mark his students’ exercise books with a red pen, occasionally doling out the odd red star using his ink stamp to acknowledge ‘excellent’ work. The room on the right was mine and Shabnam’s playroom. In it was a heavy, old wooden bed that was used by our grandmother on the rare occasion she would come to visit us, as well as our collection of toys. Our books were considered too precious to be in this room, instead being housed in our shared bedroom on the floor below. In our imaginations the playroom was regularly transformed into whatever scene we desired. At times it was a classroom, other times it was a spaceship. Being a relatively open space, most of the time it was simply a site for playing raucous games. Definitely the more boisterous of the two, I was often the architect of these escapades. One of the most inexplicably hilarious games involved us putting cushions over our faces, having first twisted our lips into some kind of strange grimace, and then charging at each other until one of us fell over. Another one involved us laying a pillow on the floor, then one of us lying on top of it, before being ‘sandwiched’ by another pillow on top. The sandwich ‘maker’ would then leap on the sister buried in the pile of pillows and repeatedly jump on them in an act of wild and uncontrollable mirth. Despite her outward appearances of being the sensible older sister, I always got the impression that Shabnam secretly enjoyed the chance to drop her guard and be silly and not lose face - I was happy with that arrangement if it meant I had someone to tumble around with.

We made a very fetching pair of boys.


One year Shabnam received a chemistry set for her birthday, and then our room became a science lab where we would conduct ‘experiments’ (a term I insisted on shortening to “expez” much to her amused disapproval). The chemistry set marked a turning point for me, which I’m not sure she ever realised. It had a “not suitable for children under 10” label on it, and Shabnam being a strict adherent to rules and regulations made sure no opportunity passed without reminding me that I was not allowed to touch her chemistry set unless she was in the room. At six, I found this exercise in authority both annoying and offensive, and yet, I never went against her instructions. But to this day, I mark the arrival of the set - with its test-tubes and petri dishes and tweezers and microscope - as the point where Shabnam ‘outgrew’ me as a sister and we started to spend more time separately than as constant companions. It was also around that time that my younger sister was making her presence known more. Four years younger than me, Sabreen was often looked after by Shabnam when my mother was busy - Shabnam would feed her milk, pick her up when she was crying and sometimes put her to sleep. Naturally, Sabreen was much more at ease with calm and responsible ten year-old Shabnam, than rowdy and impulsive six year-old Shahnaz.

As we grew up and she moved on to high-school, Shabnam morphed into a barometer of ‘cool’ for me. I’d avidly listen to whatever bands she was into: Ocean Colour Scene, Kula Shaker, Cast, The Cranberries. When she got into certain TV-programmes, I decided I wanted to watch them too - The X-Files (despite the fact that I was clearly far too young) became surreptitious weekly viewing for us both. I also diligently  memorised the names of her friends, where they lived, what they were ‘into’ so I could follow her stories and conversations. My enthusiasm was duly rewarded when I finally joined her at the girls’ grammar school at the age of 11 and was met with warm welcomes of ‘oh, you’re Shabnam’s sister!’ from the older girls. My first year compatriots were suitably impressed, and it doubtless helped bolster my own ‘cool factor’ from the start.

Shabnam and her high-school crowd.

It wasn’t just the social side of school that having a big sister counted for. I soon came to realise that I had big academic boots to fill. Really big ones. Teachers would beam at me in the classroom before they even knew my first name, simply because they’d spotted another ‘Ahsan’ in their register. Shabnam was an all-rounder but her talent definitely lay in languages and literature. While I beavered away at French and German and got good grades, I always felt that our language teachers were slightly disappointed that I was neither as talented nor as committed as my big sister. When it came to literature, we were on far more of an even level and spent many hours reading and discussing our favourite writers. It was in keeping with our early years, I suppose: Shabnam was the one  who taught me how to read. Despite having more patience than anyone I have ever known, even she tired of my frequent demands to ‘read me a story’, so she decided to just teach me. I remember working through Peter and Jane with Shabnam, rather than my parents. And I remember being read stories by Shabnam more so than anyone else. She read me Stig of the Dump, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Little Women, among so many others. She also used to buy me books through a scheme that was offered through our primary school (on reflection, quite a pioneering one) whereby children could choose a book from the trolley that came around every week and pay for it in installments. By paying 5p, 20p, 30p, a week, children could slowly build up their own little libraries - something that most of the students would not necessarily have otherwise been able to do, being a school with many children on free school meals, and the majority of students being from less well-off families of South Asian migrant origin. Despite being blessed with aunts and uncles who showered us with books, Shabnam committed to establishing her own literary kingdom, which often included buying treats for me: a book about starting school was one; a collection of animal nursery rhymes was another.

It might seem that Shabnam’s penchant for reading would naturally segue into her pursuing literature at university, and indeed she did, in both English and French. But Shabnam’s status of being a ‘trailblazer’ is markedly apparent at this juncture. Shabnam was the first female in our family to ever attend university. My maternal uncles had attended university, and my father was a professor of Bengali literature. But while my mother had pursued a diploma through the Open University while bringing up children, Shabnam would be the first female to study a BA full-time. While everyone was unquestionably supportive of her pursuit of higher education, there were conflicting opinions as to what exactly that should involve. Extended family members made their opinions clear that anything short of a professional qualification (doctor/lawyer/engineer) would be a waste of time. Even my parents expressed some slight hesitation about the job prospects available after pursuing literature (not entirely mistakenly - after all, what do you do with a BA in English?). But on this, Shabnam stood firm. Her love and passion for reading and writing was so deeply rooted, that all critics soon realised that their words were little more than tiny puffs of pointless wind beating at an unshakeabe trunk. This was Shabnam’s way of winning a debate. Not by reacting, or shouting, or getting impassioned in the way that Sabreen and I do. But by standing gentle and firm. And so it was that Shabnam sailed off to Oxford to study her greatest passion. At 15, I loved having a sneak preview of university life through my visits to stay with Shabnam. I experienced the freedom to roam around the cobbled streets, studied in her college library, sat with her friends in cafes and felt utterly sophisticated. She snuck me into lectures, took me on tours around secret gardens and quads, and fed me the famed Oxford kebabs (with only one terrible experience when I got into a fight with a man in front of Hassan’s kebab van and ended up hitting him with my handbag). It was no surprise that I fell in love with the city, and four years later I followed in her path. And five years after that, we were both followed by Sabreen. But neither Sabreen nor I would have even contemplated the idea had our talented, understated, quietly determined big sister done it first.

It comes as no surprise to anyone reading this, then, that it would take a special kind of person to be deserving of Shabnam. Frankly, I didn’t think anyone could ever match up, even when she got married at the age of twenty to Amir. My poor long-suffering brother-in-law of almost ten years was met with a tough reception in me. I wholly admit that I was unduly harsh at first, being deeply suspicious of this tall, bearded physicist who was waltzing in and taking my sister away from me. But nine years, and two children on, I hold up my hands and say that there is no-one more worthy of my big sister.  My big sister who is a mother now to a bossy, rules-obsessed, histrionic young lady, and a charming, playful, food-obsessed little man. If I were to talk about them at length here, this post would never end, so I’ll suffice by saying that never have there been two children so blessed with such a thoughtful, intelligent, talented and loving mother. And nothing is more inspiring than seeing her raise her children to be kind, affectionate, caring human beings. Not only is this reflected in her parenting, but in her writing too. Her reflections on male role-models, ageing, gender equality, parenting are funny, thought-provoking and sincere - read them, you’ll understand what I mean.

We three sisters with Yusuf and Nouri.

Recently, Shabnam announced that she will begin training as a teacher this year. I already know the impact she will have on the lives of her future students. I already know that for so many of them she will be the teacher that they remember well into the rest of their lives. I should know - I was her first pupil.

Today my sister turns 30. Happy birthday, Shabnam. You are not only an inspiration, but a trailblazer like no other. Thank you for everything, always.

Filed under sisters birthday thirty tribute family sister happy birthday reading books

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Foreigner

It is not supposed to rain in December, at least not there. The storms that greeted us were freaks, anomalous - heralded with both awe and suspicion. Not unlike ourselves, I reflected years later. We, with two homes and two names and two tongues. We returners face a schizophrenic crowd.

The rain was fast and hot and relentless. It scored my vision in diagonal stripes, from top left corner to bottom right, as I peered out from under the faded yellow hood of the rickshaw. My body was pressed against the flimsy edge of the carriage, my mother’s arm around my shoulders to stop me from falling out as we lurched along the potholed road. As we journeyed I watched the painted wheels spin, flecked with muck, dragging in the wet clay of the sodden red path that led towards my father’s family compound. The darkness was such that it looked as though a cosmic hand had reached into the night and simply lifted off the lid that was the sky, taking with it all luminescent hazes, and leaving only the aching throb of empty blackness.

 "We’re almost home!" called out my cousin from the rickshaw ahead. My father sat beside him and I could not see his face to discern any response. My cousin had come to fetch us from the station that evening as we stumbled, exhausted from our train: my mother, my father, my sister and I. He had come as our "guide" as we were proudly informed. I recall thinking how strange it was that we should need a guide to come home.
 

Read more …

Filed under home foreigner Bangladesh fiction memoirs family

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Lessons in Life from Mindy

It’s the icebreaker that is rolled out at virtually every slightly-awkward social occasion: ‘What actor would play you in a film of your life?’ 

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Although the familiar, slightly faded game doesn’t have the creative potential of ‘Would You Rather?” or the established rules of “Twenty Questions”, it does serve a valuable purpose. It’s a good litmus test of ‘crazy’. You can tell a lot about someone from their response to this question: the self-deprecating, the aspirational, the downright deluded. My eternal problem is this: there is actually nobody in Hollywood who looks remotely like me. I am 5’3” worth of curvy brown woman. There isn’t even anyone in Bollywood who looks remotely like me. Apparently, people like me do not exist in films, and the extended message that we can take from this is that we should not exist in life, either. 

Occasionally people will make suggestions of who should play me in the film of my life based on parts of my being that are less glaringly obvious than the fact that I am substantially several shades darker, several dress sizes larger, and many inches shorter than the actresses in the woods of both Holly and Bolly. 

"You have dimples!" they say. “You could totally be played by Selena Gomez!”

OR

"You have dimples!" they say. "You could totally be played by Preiti Zinta!”

"Shut up!" I say (in my head, because I don’t want to be rude). "You are being totally patronising!" 

But then I get over it. Because it’s hardly a new complaint. I am used to not seeing myself anywhere in the media: they don’t make TV programmes about girls like me. They don’t put girls like me on the front of magazines. They don’t write books about girls like me (if they do, it ends up on Waterstones’ ‘Black and Asian Fiction’ stand alongside volumes such as 'Why I Didn't Want to Be a Suicide Bomber, But Became One Anyway, And Then Rehabilitated And Now Earn Bags Of Money From The Government As A Consultant' and ‘My Hard Won Freedom Following a Forced Marriage To A Pervy Old Man’).

In fact, for girls like me, feeling completely at odds with every public depiction of ‘a woman’ is an entirely normal feeling. When I was growing up, the only non-white Disney princess around was Princess Jasmine, who sashayed around in her little crop-top and harem pants and was about as relatable to me as John Major. In my Reception class I recall there being only one doll that was not modelled on a Caucasian baby, and nobody ever wanted to play with it. The studies are true.

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Things I have in common with John Major: we had the same NHS-issue spectacles back in the 90s.

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Things I have in common with Princess Jasmine: none. 

So back to who would play me in the film of my life. One day, we were playing the game in my office over lunch.  Before it even got to my turn, my eyeballs were inwardly rolling. What was I going to say? Bill Cosby? Reese Witherspoon? Both equally far-fetched, both equally ridiculous. But right before it got to me, one of my colleagues (to whom I will be forever grateful) interjected. 

"Mindy Kaling! Absolutely. You would totally be played by Mindy Kaling."

Mindy who? A quick iPhone-aided Google search aided my ignorance. 

This is Mindy Kaling:

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My instinct was to roll my eyes around some more. Oh great, the ONE brown actress who appeared to have broken the American mainstream (only just reaching Britain) would play me. Thanks! I love having options! My identity, my (non)choice! And yet…I couldn’t deny how refreshing it was to see an actual, normal looking woman, who happens to be of similar heritage to me, out there flourishing in the public eye.

What Bollywood says Indian women should look like:

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An Indian Woman I actually bear a passing resemblance to: 

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But this is not the point. The fact that Kaling is ‘different’ somehow, is not even remotely the most impressive thing about this actress, comedian, writer, director and producer. As I came to realise from reading her book, watching her show and following her work, Mindy Kaling is impressive because she is unapologetically herself, and resoundingly brilliant at what she does, as this article neatly summarises. 

So here are the real reasons why I would be thrilled if Mindy Kaling were to play me in the film version of my life: 

1. She refuses to be put in a box

As she says herself, “I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists. I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?” YES, Mindy. 

2. She writes real characters

On her lead character in The Mindy Project: “I want her to be realistic and authentic. So many of the female characters that I see on TV, they’re just kind of put-upon and boring. They’re so worried about viewers not being able to handle them being nuanced or occasionally selfish. But every woman I know is occasionally selfish—and also can be heroic and funny. I just try to make her interesting and nuanced, and if some people think she’s obnoxious sometimes, well, people are sometimes obnoxious, and they can still be heroes.”

3. She used to look like this

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Look at this photo. LOOK AT IT.

Mindy Kaling put this photo out there on the internet - voluntarily - as a comfort to me, and every other weird looking child, that we weren’t the only ones. And those glasses totally came back in hipster fashion. 

 

4. She was not cool in high school

This: “In high school, I had fun in my academic clubs, watching movies with my girlfriends, learning Latin, having long, protracted, unrequited crushes on older guys who didn’t know me, and yes, hanging out with my family. I liked hanging out with my family! Later, when you’re grown up, you realize you never get to hang out with your family. You pretty much have only eighteen years to spend with them full time, and that’s it. So, yeah, it all added up to a happy, memorable time. Even though I was never a star. I just want ambitious teenagers to know it is totally fine to be quiet, observant kids. Besides being a delight to your parents, you will find you have plenty of time later to catch up.” 

5. Because these were some of the alternative titles for her book

  • The Girl with No Tattoo
  • When Your Boyfriend Fits into Your Jeans and Other Atrocities
  • The Book That Was Never a Blog
  • Always Wear Flats and Have Your Friends Sleep Over: A Step-by-Step How-To Guide for Avoiding Getting Murdered
  • The Last Mango in Paris (this would work best if “Mango” were the cheeky nickname for an Indian woman, and if I’d spent any time in Paris)
  • There Has Ceased to Be a Difference Between My Awake Clothes and My Asleep Clothes
  • I Don’t Know How She Does It, But I Suspect She Gets Help from Illegal Immigrants

6. Because this? Could have been lifted from a diary of my life. 

"I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t chubby. Like being Indian, being chubby feels like it is just part of my permanent deal. I remember being in first grade, in Mrs. Gilmore’s class at Fiske Elementary School, and seeing that Ashley Kemp, the most popular girl in our class, weighed only thirty-seven pounds. We knew this because we weighed her on the industrial postal scale they kept in the teacher’s supply closet. I was so envious. I snuck into the supply closet later that same day to weigh myself. I was a whopping sixty-eight pounds. Some of the first math I understood was that I was closer to twice Ashley’s weight than to her weight." 

This happened to me too. This is why I still hate maths. 

7. She has the immigrant parent expectations thing going on too

On kids that have free-time: “As a child of immigrant professionals, I can’t help but notice the wasteful frivolity of it all. Why are these kids not home doing their homework? Why aren’t they setting the table for dinner or helping out around the house? Who allows their kids to hang out in parking lots? Isn’t that loitering?”

8. She knows there are no shortcuts

"Sometimes teenage girls ask me for advice about what they should be doing if they want a career like mine one day.There are basically two ways to get where I am: (1) learn a provocative dance and put it on YouTube; (2) convince your parents to move to Orlando and homeschool you until you get cast on a kids’ show, or do what I did, which is (3) stay in school and be a respectful and hardworking wallflower, and go to an accredited non-online university.”

——

So, here’s to Mindy Kaling. The only relatable (to me) woman in Hollywood. Thanks for finally arming me with a response to the awkward dinner-party question.

Filed under mindy kaling the mindy project mindy lahiri indian indian women body image identity dinner party games bengali women

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Father’s Day

My father is most likely to be found sitting in his study. ‘Study’ is rather a grand title for the room, the smallest in the house, which used to be my childhood bedroom. It contained little more than a single bed, a small chest of drawers and a fold-away desk where I sat and wrote masterpieces that would never be shared with anyone else. Now it contains a computer desk, two bookshelves, a chair, and a small portable heater that my father uses when the weather is cold, or when his back hurts, or some combination of the two. Sometimes when my father is in the study, he is working. We can tell when he is working because we can hear him bellowing down the phone, alternately in English and in Bengali. Since retiring from fifteen years as a high school teacher, my father works part-time as a telephone interpreter. The work largely involves helping benefit claimants be understood by the authorities which administer their cases, and vice versa. My father has since become an expert in the intricacies of the Department of Work and Pensions, and has a full coffer of amusing stories of fraudulent claimants he can recount on demand. Sadly, he has an even larger number of upsetting cases he has worked on, through his work interpreting in hospitals, courts and police stations.

When my father is in his study, not bellowing down the phone, he is most likely to be writing. Since downloading a Bengali script on his Windows 95 desktop circa 1996, my father has formed a firm and lasting friendship with his computer. On it, he has designed language worksheets for his students, typed numerous letters of complaint, and started writing his own memoirs. But most prolifically, he writes page after page of verse. My father is a poet. Since before my sisters and I were born, my father has written poems – political, melancholy, and presumably, romantic verses have all been penned by his hand. Even his turn of phrase is often poetic: I have heard him refer to my mother’s ‘khalo horeen choke’ (which sounds somewhat less poetic in English: her ‘dark, deer eyes’) and he often remarks that my eyebrows are ‘like the arched wings of a bird’. When we were younger, my father would write poems to help us learn Bengali – poems that taught us the days of the week, or the names of the months, or even the names of fish and fruit. He also wrote specific poems for each of us – sometimes on our birthdays, sometimes when the fancy took him. One poem he composed for me when I was around eight or nine years old was written in the first person from my perspective. In it, ‘I’ bemoaned my plight of being the middle child, complaining that my parents always nagged me, that my older sister was seen as the golden girl, and that everyone loved my baby sister more than me. And so, as ever, my father demonstrated an uncanny ability to know my feelings, and present them back to me in such a way that I could not dispute his light-hearted accuracy.

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My father’s published books.

After almost thirty years of persuasion, my mother finally managed to convince my father to have his poetry published. Last year, he published two books: one collection of nursery rhymes for children, the very same ones that were written for my sisters and I, and one collection of more mature, adult poems. We are still trying to persuade him to have a book launch in this country, having already had one in Bangladesh, and I am quietly certain that we will eventually get our way.

When my father is at home, but not writing in his study, he can usually be found in the garden. Growing up in Bangladesh, he was used to fields and paddocks and open courtyards in and around the family home. He learnt soon after arriving in this country that English houses in northern industrial towns did not, by and large, have as much open space. The first house that I remember, where we lived until I was six, was a small terrace which had a back yard of about seven feet by four feet. The yard was clad in broken paving stones and was surrounded by a small, low wall that separated the yard from the pavement. All it could fit was a dustbin and, occasionally, the mop and bucket that my mother would leave outside. But after several years of saving and struggling, my parents’ proverbial ship came in and we were able to move to a larger house which, much to the joy of us all, had a garden.

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On the way home from school, 1997.

Out of all of us, it was my father who enjoyed and valued this extra green space most. He would carefully tend the three large vegetable plots we had, growing potatoes and radishes and spinach. In the summer, he would rigorously mow the lawn, occasionally mowing over the power cable which would result in a yelp and a scramble to the power supply to shut it off before any sparks flew. He would plant flowers, sometimes getting confused (one year we had sweetpeas growing in the vegetable plot as my father misread the label and thought they were actual peas) and, in the early autumn, he would hold a basket while I would stand on a chair and pick ripe, sweet Victoria plums from the tree at the end of the garden. The end of the garden was my domain which I shared with my sisters – sometimes. We had a swing and a little wooden summer house where we would read, play and generally hold court. Now the old swing – which my father misguidedly painted a sinister shade of black one year – has been replaced with a trampoline and a seesaw and a swing that my niece and nephew play on. It is they, now, who keep my father company as he weeds and mows and plants. They have taken over my old job which was to trail after my father with a little plastic rake and a bucket, and collect the cut grass and compost it. Gardening always was, and is, a labour of love for my father as he suffers from virtually debilitating hayfever. One day of cutting the grass means that the next day my father cannot leave the bedroom. The curtains are drawn, and his eyes are puffy and red. And yet, he refuses to allow me or my mother or even my brother-in-law to step in and help.

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Cornelius in the snow.

For some years, my father was joined in the garden by his most loyal follower – Cornelius, our grey and white mackerel tabby. Cornelius, or Con as we called him, would merrily frolic around my father’s ankles as he worked in the garden, or would stretch and sunbathe close by. When my father was out, Con would wait and listen for the sound of his car returning. Then, the cat would bound out of the front door and welcome my father back at the wrought iron gates of our driveway. Con left us some years ago – he went missing and never came back. We all dealt with it in different ways – my sister cried. My mother continues to demonstrate her loyalty by chasing all other invading cats out of our garden, with the battle cry ‘this is still Con’s garden!!’. But my father revealed recently, his secret belief that Con is still out there, and has not forgotten us. The evidence he cites is an occasional offering that is left on our back garden steps from time to time. A dead bird or a dead mouse is sometimes found on the stone, almost as an offering from Con to his master, much like he used to do when he lived us.

When my father is not at home, he is usually out and about with his various friends. He has the ability to charm and befriend people whenever he likes; he also has the ability to make the most accurate snap-judgements of anyone I have ever met, and often, in a matter of minutes can identify a person as honest, wilful, weak, manipulative or any other trait. He is rarely, if ever, wrong. Widely respected in my hometown, my father is known as the universal ‘Sir’ because of his history of teaching. Former students would stop and address him in the supermarket, or would hail me in town and ask ‘are you Sir’s daughter?’. Sometimes his former students still ring our home to speak to their ‘Sir’, to update him on their lives, or to ask advice, or just generally, to catch up. Even some of his friends, using the local vernacular for my father, still refer to him as ‘Sir’ even though they were never taught by him. My father has a small, but solid set of friends who he holds in mutual high regard. One of them is Mr B, who owns a local newsagent. Mr B will sometimes ring our house and ask for my father, to see if he wants to ‘hang out’ in the shop. If my father tries any food or my mother makes any dish that he thinks Mr B will like, he will package it up and take some for his friend. Likewise, Mr B keeps a ready stash of treats that my father likes, behind the counter of his shop, including a tube of Carnation milk that he uses to make hot, sweet tea for them. My father has friends from all backgrounds, Muslim and Hindu, Bengali and non-Bengali – but still, when I ask him who his best friend is, he replies ‘your Ma’.

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Ammu and Abbu: still best friends.

My father’s social life has always been busy, but it took on a new lease of life when he learnt to drive. Both of my parents were late to learn, and passed within a few months of each other when I was about eight. My mother got a company car, a beautiful forest green Renault Laguna that was sleek and smooth and impressive. My father, on the other hand, inherited a tiny, gold Nissan Micra from a family friend who was emigrating to Canada. My uncle would slyly poke fun, calling it a ‘woman’s car’  - my concerns, on the other hand, were more to do with the fact that the middle seatbelt (mine) appeared to be held in with a piece of blue cord. Alas, the life of the Micra was unceremoniously cut short one year during a particularly violent storm. The almond tree in our front garden was struck by lightning, snapped in half, and crushed my father’s poor little car that was sitting innocuously in the driveway.

In fact, my father never had particularly good luck with cars. His beautiful black Mazda 626 was smashed into by a sleeping driver, again, while parked in the street. This was then replaced by the ugliest car he ever owned, a red boxy Toyota. When it eventually failed its MOT, he agreed to the mechanic’s offer to sell it as scrap metal for the princely sum of £100 only to see it being driven around town, two weeks later, by an elderly couple. Despite his bad luck with cars, my father was, and is, the family chauffeur. Apart from long distance journeys, when my mother takes the helm, it is my father who ferries the family around, shuttling my niece to school and back, picking me up from the train station when I come to visit, or dropping my sister off at her friends’ houses. But most of all, driving allows my father to indulge in his one true love: food shopping.

Last time I came home to visit, I was confronted with the sight of four 5-litre containers of cooking oil lined up in the kitchen. Exasperatedly, my mother explained that she had gone to the supermarket and seen that they were on a buy-one-get-one-free offer, so bought two. My father, the same day, had also gone shopping and could not resist the offer either - and so, we were now plagued with twenty litres of oil and nowhere to store it. Another time, my father bought two trays of forty eggs, meaning that my sister had to swiftly learn the art of making omelettes, frittatas, soufflés, quiches and pancakes, as well as bake countless cakes, in order to use all the eggs up. My father is also pathologically unable to walk past a fish counter and not purchase something – from gilthead sea bream, to shiny fresh trout, to tender fish roe, and juicy meaty prawns. He also loves to buy the Bangladeshi fruit  and vegetables we sometimes manage to find here in England: tender crunchy potol, long, thin lotha, chunky gourds, sweet papaya, crates of lychees, soft orange mangoes and  - very occasionally – katal, or jackfruit – the rich, pungent smelling national fruit of Bangladesh.

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I know my father to be many things: a writer, a teacher, a poet, a gardener, a gourmand, a socialite. But more than any of those things, I know my father to exactly that – my Abbu. My Abbu, whose tread I recognise when he walks around the house; my Abbu who is the only person, to this day, who I allow to nurse me when I am ill; my Abbu who still rings me almost every other day to ask me what I’ve been eating for dinner; my Abbu whose advice and guidance means more to me than any number of professors or holy men. My Abbu who has been a father for almost thirty years, a grandfather for five, and an incredible, brilliant man his whole life. Happy Father’s Day, Abbu. May you live a long, blessed and healthy life. 

 

Filed under abbu father fathers day memoirs family dad daddy

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Esther

It is the feeling of knowing you will never be lonely - or at least, if you do, that sense of isolation is only one conversation away from dissolving into nothingness.

It is the feeling of being able to reveal whatever you choose and not be judged, and being able to veil whatever you choose, and still not be judged.

It is the feeling of having a companion treading the path alongside you and diverging at times - sometimes by mutual assent, at others, unannounced and sudden - but knowing that your roads will converge again when you are both ready.

It is a feeling that I imagine few people are blessed enough to experience at any point in their lives, let alone almost consistently from the tender age of six.

It is the feeling of having a best friend.

I met her on my first day at my new school. She was assigned the job of showing me around, guiding me in the lunch queue, of recommending what to buy from the school tuck-shop (Mars bars were only 30p and a much more solid investment than a 10p Chomp), of teaching me how to make the Sign of the Cross before and after grace (this was a Catholic school and the only form of prayer I had seen until then was my parents prostrating five times a day, my father on his maroon prayer rug and my mother on her matching green one). She also protected me from the advances of Andrew Waters, an aptly named blonde, watery-eyed boy who offered to let me keep his Mr Blobby eraser “FOREVER”. Although I was grateful for this insider knowledge the connection I felt - even then - was much more visceral than simple gratitude. I had finally come across someone who was bright and sparky and unashamed of doing well at school but was still popular with her classmates. I had met someone who I wanted to be a little bit like. I had met someone who would get things.

My instinct was not proved wrong. I don’t know why it was - it wasn’t just a meshing of personalities alone. On reflection, I think the commonalities between our families certainly played a part - we were both the children of parents who had emigrated to the UK (both her mother and father from Uganda in her case, just my father from Bangladesh in mine) and who had high expectations of their children in terms of academic achievement. I remember my father advising her father on which verbal and non-verbal reasoning practice books to buy, and that on the day of our 11+ entrance exam for grammar school, my dad dropped us off (after buying us a nutritious McDonalds lunch beforehand).

Our parents also shared an expectation of cultural social ‘etiquette’ too that I think is common, but certainly not unique to second-generation children of ‘immigrants’. We wouldn’t describe it as ‘strict’ but it certainly seemed firmer than what our other friends had. While I was dragged off to Bengali poetry recitals and made to perform at social functions packed full of Bengali ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ and their invariably snotty (literally and figuratively) children at a young age, Es was being carted around various extended family members homes for Christenings, Weddings and Parties, being forced to acclimatise and get along with a vast array of nameless relatives. Such experiences undoubtedly stayed with us in later life, both of us generally being comfortable in groups of new people probably as a result of this. In a way, I suppose we both developed the art of balancing ‘family’ with ‘everything else’. While the rest of my friends would sometimes fail to see why I couldn’t meet up to go shopping on a weekend where my grandma had decided to spontaneously visit, Es didn’t even need an explanation - she got ‘it’ - the same went for her.

Throughout the years of primary school we remained companions in a way that was different to our other friendships. We didn’t always hang around together, being in different classes, but it didn’t seem to matter. We knew the other one was there when we wanted or needed or just felt like talking or playing. When we went to high school, it was the same - we were never in the same form until our very final year - but we were often in the same set for all our other subjects (aside from Maths when she left me far behind). My memories of high school generally involve working hard - we were both unashamed geeks and our grades reflected it - but also include lots of passing notes during class, often accompanied by fits of silent hysterical laughter. Each of us now has a box full of notes that we wrote each other, sometimes with drawings. The contents vary: rages against parents, ridiculing teachers, gossip about classmates, new music recommendations, plans of how we could skive off P.E, and plenty of space dedicated to analysing and deconstructing the actions and non-actions of boys we were convinced we would grow up to marry one day.

Reading them now, the notes reflect the reality of then - they are the musings, inane and profound alike, of two bright, good-humoured, precocious overachievers. There is a tone of certainty in these letters, a pervading air of confidence that is refreshing to read back on, being absent in the present - at least in its uncomplicated, straightforward form. The reality of now is somewhat different, I suppose. I don’t think we’ve lost our intelligence or our humour despite the trauma of those post-uni/early career years where, to quote The Rembrandts, ‘no-one told you life was gonna be this way’. We’re both still overachievers, but the level of certainty has muted somewhat. The unqualified ambition is tempered slightly by the taste of disappointment, the passions have been reined in just a touch, and the realisation that we are both excessively self-critical has yielded a greater level of compassion - not just for others, but towards ourselves - the holding ourselves to unreasonably high accounts has waned somewhat, and I suppose we’re starting to learn how to relax.

Increasingly over the last few years I’ve wished for a guidebook or a ‘how to’ manual - something, anything, to be able to navigate this thing we call getting from A to B. Some kind of wisdom set down by those who have done it all before. The stark realisation has set in that no such thing exists - and if it did, it would be completely redundant anyway - my life being my own, nobody else’s guide can navigate it completely. The point is - I’ve had company throughout it all. Growing up is hard to do, but at least I’m not having to do it alone. And I hope, pray, that I never will have to.

Here’s to you, estherjaneodida, and to another 18 years of Growing Up Beside You.

Filed under estherjaneodida friendship best friends bff

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2012: the year the Union Jack came back

“This is the flag of Great Britain,” lectured my four-year old niece pointing to the coloured in picture she had brought home from school one afternoon.

“Actually”, I thought, “it’s the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Shetlands and Orkney and the Hebrides and all those other silly isles, and also the Scilly Isles, and while I understand the origins and reasons for the having the prefix of “‘Great” before “Britain” I really can’t shake off the colonial connotations of the name, so could you maybe just call it ‘the flag of the United Kingdom’ or maybe even just the Union Jack?”


Of course, I didn’t say this. Instead I said something else very insightful like “oh, that’s marvellous colouring within the lines!”. But later when my pedantry had abated, I began to reflect on what had just occurred. My niece, a fourth generation British Asian child, was merrily touting around this Union Jack with absolutely no consideration other than that it was the flag of the place we live in (the awareness of that fact alone was notable - I don’t remember ever being shown any national flags at the age of four in school). To her, the innocuous flag carried none of the overtones that it had for me: connotations of the Far-Right, or Empire, or Geri Halliwell’s dress. It was simply a symbol of a country, something you stuck on a pole and waved in the air and smiled about.

It struck me that 2012 has been the year in which the Union Jack was reclaimed. Rather than the associations with the BNP that pervaded the early Noughties, or the National Front in the 1970s and 1980s, the Union Jack has undeniably re-entered the public domain in a much more dormant form. And whether you loved them or loathed them, it’s undeniable that the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games - the stand-out events for the UK in 2012 - played a vital role in this re-appropriation. We began to see the flag in places other than Nick Griffin’s rosette. In fact we began to see the flag everywhere - from school flagpoles to shop fronts to train stations. Village high streets and Oxford Street alike were decked out in Union Jack bunting. Even my local East End fried chicken shop was swaddled in tiny little flags. We saw Marks and Spencer design special Jubilee packaging, high street chains launch t-shirt ranges, gift shops doing a roaring trade in Union Jack memorabilia. Of course, this commoditisation of the flag inspires its own very valid critique - but whether viewed as a fashion accessory, a symbol of national pride or just a cake decoration, it can truthfully be said that the red, white and blue criss-crosses are slowly losing their identity as a symbol of supremacy and exclusion.

Whatever your feelings on the monarchy, the Games, or nationalism in general, at least the Union Jack will no longer be the preserve of the Far Right. In reclaiming their most powerful symbol we have succeeded in removing not only a marketing tool, but a monopoly which they should never have been allowed to take.

Well done UK. Keep up the good work.

Filed under olympics jubilee britain union jack flags nationalism UK

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Familiarity

To be bound in her silken, smooth coils. They are unwavering and unfazed, unswayed from their purpose. There is nothing threatening in the firmness of their grip, slipped around my wrists, wrapped around my eyes, and between my parted lips. Her embrace is encompassing and warm shielding me from the unknown and willingly I tether myself to this Trojan goddess. In her arms I am squeezed so tightly that I cease to feel. There is a throbbing, a creeping dullness and then finally - nothing. But at least I am protected. I am safe.


She will kill me if I let her.  

I have known this all along and she has known this all along.

If I let her.


I am doubting now. I crane my head for a closer look and she recoils from me. Too late, I have already seen her paper-thin skin, the glassy eyes of insecurity and her waxy mouth. It is painted red, the pigment bleeding from the ridges of her lips. An effigy, she is an effigy, oh god, oh no, she promised me, she promised so much and now and now I see I see that she will think nothing of defaulting on her promises and pushing my face deep into her chest and holding my head there until my convulsions cease and I am killed but not by Curiosity but because she never let me go and I never tried hard enough to leave. 

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Moods

It is in the most extreme of moods that I feel compelled to write. By which, I do not mean the ‘hysterical’ - born either from joy or from pain. Ecstasy does not move me to create; nor does Agony. These are not the extremities that assail me. 

For me, it is the swirling waves of deep, ancient Contentment that coax me, assuring and strong. For me, it is the pricking needle of Displacement that bleeds me, crimson and delicate. Together they intersect, tessellating, locked in a cosmic embrace, sometimes cloaked in other guises: Clarity and Uncertainty, Knowledge and Doubt, Fearlessness and Fear. It is when either of these opposing faces shine upon me - the dark and light sides of a silver orb suspended by an invisible thread in an inky barren sky - that I am compelled to thread words together with an urgency and need that even I do not fully understand:- 

When I am embraced by the tide of Contentment, it is because I am anchored by a sense of belonging that I feel safe. I am rooted, and secure and so feel brave enough to communicate my thoughts. I am galvanised, protected by my certainty and I share freely, wanting to offer and give and engage unselfishly. My words are my supplication, my contribution, and I am eager to apportion them to whosoever may be willing. 

But when I am goaded by the metallic point of Displacement, it is as though my words drip from my rupture, viscous and relentless. I am exposed and vulnerable and unable to stem the steady flow of uncertainty. Stricken by the fear of not knowing, I write out of compulsion, as though my words will somehow weave a bandage of relief. Words, ferocious in their search for coherence, a cure, an end. There is a wantonness propelling them, a shamelessness in their naked assault, no care given to those spectators with their ‘O’ mouths and wide round eyes who did not ask to be spoken to, but were caught in the crimson tide. 

Although extremes cannot be sustained, to attempt to write in a magnolia climate of neutrality is unthinkable. It is in the most extreme of moods that I feel compelled to write.

And so, I write. 

Filed under moods writing contentment displacement

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Senses

It wasn’t that she felt numb. Had that been the case, the whole thing would have been a great deal more straightforward. To feel numb meant to be neutral. And to be neutral was to be blank. To be empty. To feel nothing. To feel nothing, she reasoned, was surely a less complicated matter. If one felt nothing, then by extension, that meant that there was nothing, and if there was nothing - nothing at all - then there was no problem. A problem had to be a thing - an quandry, a dilemma over a tangible issue. In an absence of feeling, then any supposed ‘problem’ was automatically extinguished. Or rather evaporated. Like magic, a simple puff and a snap and disappeared away. 

No - the thing was, she felt quite the opposite. It was an excess of feeling that was proving bothersome. Not a sudden cascade of emotion that would cause some kind of inner tidal wave - rather, it was as though an unknown valve somewhere had been creaked open to let out a steady hiss of feeling that would rise up high and wide and eventually enfold her in its all encompassing hazy cloud. And she would yield - not unhappy, not in ecstasy - but in an accepting, almost stoic, form of submission. 

She was unsure of what had caused this heightened sensitivity. It was as though every receptor on the surface of her not-rough not-smooth skin had been charged with some kind of current that pulsed restlessly as though it was waiting for something to happen. The creature in the pit of her stomach was also restless; it writhed, not unpleasantly, coiling and unfurling, as though ready to spring without warning when her guard was down. To try and rein it in, she worked relentlessly by day - throwing herself into her work, her books, her projects. On the floor of her room lay heavy pieces of cartridge paper end-to-end. They were laden with thick strokes of crimson and amber in swirls and undulations that were incomprehensible even to her. By the side of her bed lay an unlit pyre of pages covered with her sometimes-neat-sometimes-not black, inky script. If anyone were to pull back the covers that were pulled neatly over the four corners of the bed, they would find a small photograph album slipped under the right pillow. In the album lay her figures of salvation - but they had gone away. Or rather, she had gone away, and even the photos had gone away, most of them having slipped from the loose-leaf pages after being stored upside down in a trunk beneath the bed until their recent recovery. Her daylight efforts to contain what she did not understand were exhausting - but at least it meant that her sleep was uninterrupted. She lay unmoving, a deadweight, laden down at night with exactly what kept her afloat by day. 

It was not unpleasant. Nor was it comfortable. It was new, and she was unaccustomed to its unapologetic incursion into her hitherto straightforward existence, even months later. She was afraid at times; it meant an education that she had not been taught. An exploration and - ultimately - acceptance of something seemingly alien. And yet, she knew - and was strangely comforted - by the fact that it would not feel alien for long. She knew that it was part of her and she would become part of it, shrouded in it, their fibres melting into one. All that she needed was patience. 

Filed under writing senses