Suncatcher

My Ajji. 1935 – 2020.

The first portrait I ever drew was of my grandmother.

I was about four or five years old. It had been just me and Ajji at home. It was a little before lunchtime, when the house would smell of ash gourd saaru and thuppa, and rice huffed away in several cookers across the neighbourhood. The air was redolent, charged with getting things in order before the hungry crowd came home for lunch.

I don’t remember the particulars, but it is likely I was pestering Ajji for a lunch-cancelling snack. My favourite at the time was a fistful of hurgaDale, sugar and grated coconut/copra, something I ate with alarming frequency alongside mainlining palmfuls of spit-wet Bournvita. Having this far survived a plum 60-year life of nonstop child-origin bullshit, my frankly fed up Ajji gave me the only spanking she has ever given me. I remember being surprised, then wanting to come across as strong, unfazed — and my pride finally shattering when I couldn’t help but cry. Leaning fully into my bawling, I had slow marched back to our room, rubbing my behind. My frock’s bow had come undone and the ribbons had been trailing. I was hiccuping, my nose ran freely, my eyelashes were in clumps.

By then, I’d been used to placating myself while crying. Away from observing eyes, I would tire quickly and would instead engross myself with how teardrops were shaped, the sensations I’d feel when I’d squeeze my wet eyes, the oddities of my toes. There was always something to see, something to look at closer, something to commit to memory. My breath would steady to a snotty mouth-breathing while I amused myself with the universe of details that everyday brought: 

Ajji’s funny burp while she sat on the sofa with her fissured feet up on the teapoy, somedays doing the Kannada crossword directly in pen. Ajji’s nose. The small waves of Ajji’s hair. The print of her saree, how it looked when I eagle-armed swooped down on her lap and closed my left eye, then closed my right. I could bury my nose in its worn-to-tuft cotton and take a walk through the grove of her days: the washline, the rexona bath, flowers at every doorstoop. The garden, the store room, her groaning godrej bureau. My grandfather’s vest, my grandfather’s sofa-doily, my grandfather’s off-to-work handkerchief.

There were so many places to go wandering with my mind. On this eventful day, I’d gone wandering with a green crayon, all along our recently-painted cream-yellow wall.

The next part of this memory features me and my extremely angry mother looking perfectly pitiful. We’re scrubbing the bedroom wall with the kitchen sponge and a trough of soap water, hoping to undo my first ever portrait, mural, public artwork, and act of vandalism:

A sunflower, standing in its pot, leafy hands on its hips. It’s a female sunflower with two nose-studs, and hair worn in an Ajji-style bun. It is an angry all-green sunflower, and it’s screaming at an otherwise sunny and totally green landscape of house, garden, mountains, river, birds.

Portraits are about subjects, but also about what a painter feels about their subject. An electric meeting of two viewpoints: of watching, and being watched. 

Ajji lived a long and full 85 years. Her life was so full of stories and each story was a two-palms large pomegranate brimming with bright red rubies that I could spend all of my life just drawing and writing about. 

It amazes me even now — after haggling with the hearse in the middle of a pandemic, after tearfully whispering goodbye to her ashen bones — how nothing, not death, not the indignity of disease, not the acrid smog of grief, has truly been able to eclipse my Ajji’s sunniness in my mind.

On winter mornings and evenings, my dolled-in-the-sweater-I’d-bought-her Ajji would sit, powdery chinned, flowery haired, smelling like home itself, on the sofa in our verandah. Her arms would be suspended over the armrests of her seat, her glass bangles tinkling their way down. Her small torso would be sitting upright, eyes mostly shut, feeling the sun play on her face and back.

Everything twinkled in this light. Her nose-stud. The apples of her gigglesome cheeks. The silver of her hair. Her gently blinking eyelashes. A soft, diffused halo would spread around her mostly white and shiny head.

Ajji would catch the sun and hold it in her face like a giddy flower in spring. She just couldn’t help herself. Like a child off to play on a surprise-holiday. She’d show up and take it on the chin, everything, every perversion of chance that life threw at her, and she looked forward to at least… a sunbeam. It was her smallest, most private meditation thanking life’s rare ability to be kind. At least a sunbeam kind. 

I see why my grandfather’s rocking chair was poised opposite her sun-seat.

In her last decade, Ajji’s life was upended in Parkinson-tempests. With every stroke after pin-prick stroke, we watched her mind retreat into her slowly locking-itself body. But we were also lucky. We snatched months, weeks, then days, hours, then tv shows, boxes of sweets, and rolls of monaco, then mere minutes with her, when she’d be here. When she’d ask me why I hadn’t yet dyed my hair, or say something that sounded like a hello and a goodbye, till one day she’d just set her eyes on me, and only the flicker of a sunbeam passed her faraway eyes.

I miss Ajji very much. I miss her bubbling, belly-bobbing laughter. I miss her bELE saaru. I miss how much she loved me, how much she loved us, how much she loved a simple thing like soft winter sunshine.

My Ajji.
1935 – 2020.

By Candlelight

I enjoy candles. They’re different from the ajji’s-handmade-wicks and spot-of-oil deepas from the home I grew up in, they sometimes smell like somewhere else, and they’re so sweetly impractical: built to be put out with a hearty lung’s breath, their valiant attempts against coconut-frond-susurrus breezes rouse a pompom cheerleader in me.

I favour aromas that are rounded. Vanilla-based, woods, pines, maybe spiked with citrus, or sandy. Heady florals and musks take me on start-and-stop car rides to wedding receptions, forced photos, itchy clothes, and spark an acid wash in my stomach. I also like when scents are dispersed enough that catching a whiff feels like welcome interruption. I usually begin my candle-chorusing a little after dusk, when sunlight begins to ink quickly.

High daylight at my desk is mercifully clouded, cat-proofed, and canopied. It gets toasty and rushes colour to the cheeks, yes, and a languorous fan between 1 and 2 is sometimes advisable. So when it’s daylight, I light just incense. 

Currently, an ash vetiver is playing.

It moves me that metaphors and mementos like deepas, candles, incense can work like panacea. Surprising hushes of well-being. Small reprieve, like a bite of chocolate after crying, or a spot of sunshine on a cold blot in my ear. Every time I begin this matchstick > candle > tinkering > fixing ritual, it feels like I place my most searing pain outside myself. Little fires from within me that I bring out — that I may tend with a little less urgency, with fuel other than my spirit and will to live. I tend them like a hearth, like the literal light that keeps the night going, and try to get on with my life otherwise. Drawing. Writing. Stretching. Cooking wobbly sunny yellow eggs. Thinking. Trying to make my way through the sprawl that is the whole world outside my mind.

I don’t actually know what I do with my pain during the day. Sometimes I am able to see that it keeps me ball-and-chained in bed. Sometimes, the ball pulls along as I stumble through laundry, phone calls with my mother, fussing over how much light, water, and cat my plants are getting. Maybe it goes into the vigour with which I scrub the bathroom floor. Perhaps I pour my pain into the small patch of grass that I’m nursing just for the cat to unearth.

Tending candles teaches me that anything alive enough to stir could do with attentive fuel and shelter.

The strapping and grey-at-its-temples old rain tree outside our home mingles with a bottle green young tree that bears these earth-brown fruits I don’t yet recognise. The tree’s leaves are wide and hearty, waxy, hardy, and they’re attached to tertiary-ish branches. I think they report to HQ themselves. The tree looks cashew-ish: its fruit grows downside-up, and is a plump gourd the size of my prayer-joined palms that have lapsed mid-prayer. 

This is first detail of the fruit’s design that I love: it grows at strategic points at the outer extremities of the cashew-y tree. Each fruit is wisely distanced from the next, which I imagine is to maximise the odds of successful seed dispersal when the wind one day explodes the fruit and carries its teardrop missives everywhere.

The second detail that aptly blows my mind, is the fruit’s suspension. Anchored on a thicc stalk in vrikshasana, the fruit’s weight is at all times able to counter a) the wind and b) the branch’s surface tension (what is a branch but a tightrope?). At all times the fruit stands tall, ripening in the sun. Inside the fruit, I imagine, is cellulose flesh drying itself hollow in a frosted-glass sun to make caves and cavities and prepare the tree’s seeds to be flung far out into the world one day. 

If you dreamy-play join-the-dots with the tree’s fruits (or have a machine run various path coordinates), you will, in one instance, trace the young cashew-y tree’s canopy. 

The only practice from my very religious upbringing that stays with me — is caring for light.

My fingertips are hardwired to manage a wick till the flame that erupts from it is a prudent, diminutive size, like my family’s ideal of a bottu: a humble performance of femininity a little above the eyes, a smudge enough to indicate quiet values – nothing of the raging fire that feminine beauty is. I still have a scar on my thigh from my wick-tuning years, and it makes for the world’s most boring story at “tell me how you got that scar?” games.

Like the crowns of trees, no matter the season, like fluffed-cotton clouds, like curls of incense huff, I figure skate my days around small rituals of fire. I arrange my candles in small knots and crowds at sensible distances away from the pool of light in our living room. Their pea-large flames push and jostle with the breeze like children at a puddle. When it drizzles, like it did today, the glass and ceramic votives hiss. Eyelash-wispy raindrops vapourise in crisp finger-snaps.

My little fires rage into the night.

Wallpaper Sunrise

It is that time of morning when I’d wait for the school van.

It is cold in my uniform–even when I’d ironed it with extra vigour to crisp the stubborn collar and pack in some warmth–so I tug my school bag’s straps in opposite directions, and pull my bag closer to my body. I’m excited. I hope I’ll reach school early enough to leave my bag in class, and go exploring. Maybe I’d catch a turn at badminton, or beat the crowd by the swimming pool, or watch the school helper aunties and uncles sweeping up the school with a broom in each hand, rousing dew-lazy dust clouds and piles of rain tree leaves. At best, I’d go wandering to the other end of school near the principal’s office, and sneak a peek at the small pond with fish under the fragrant coniferous trees, and the boughs of bougainvillea in cat-stretches over the cool stone buildings of the younger classes and hostels.

Today, the cat and I are watching the staff at the darshini opposite us set up. As quietly as they can, they bring out tables and chairs, and fold out the metal counters of the chaat stall and the juice and ice-cream stall. They switch on the large chimneys over the endless-hob cooking range at the back of the kitchen, and I finally have an answer to just what that hum throughout the day is.

I tire at twenty minutes of writing. I pause, and feel weight on my eyelids, the crumple of my body, the thrumming of my heart, and my thirst. I feel tired, the effort of breathing is tiring, and something inside the caves of me wants to fold over into a slumber that will on a merciful day come peacefully. I drink water, I remember I took my medicine, and I look for the cat that I know is asleep in the little quilt-tent I’ve made for him at my foot.

On some of those school-van early mornings, my 70-something-year-old grandfather would walk the short road from our house to the end of the cross to wait for the van with me. I mostly held his attention with my pattering on about look! my breath’s making mist, look! I’m mimicking my mother’s wheezing, look! dew on flowers and on windshields — while he always held mine with stories of his sister who looked out for him in the 30?- 40?-strong household of his boyhood, of all his dogs and how each died, of how he met his wife and made his first best friend, of how he’d wait by their classroom window for that small single tiffin box that an uncle would cycle to their school to bring all the kids–a fistful of curd rice with a dollop of pickle.

I dodder through the house in socks and slippers, I’m a housecoat short and a sock too thick. But I pay attention to the breeze my body makes, the scent of mouthwash, the mist of an all-day morning. It has been a while since outside has felt like a balm. The cat is curled on my blue quilt, a round-palmed creeper is blotting over someone’s utility room, and the palm trees are rushing with nowhere to go.

I am tired. But I’m writing. Writing tires me because all I ever write about is my feelings. Feelings that are so full, they leave me empty. It feels like something deep within me radiates an ache, and the rest of me is so hollow, the ache reverberates. The echo inside a white whale.

I don’t know what this state of emptiness is, but I call it loneliness.

My loneliness is currently the one force in the world that compels me, but it’s too painful for me to simply state this is so to another person. So I write. I don’t think my loneliness is the stately white-dude loneliness that generates Joyce. But it is a paltry, personal loneliness full of highly specific minutiae. Like ‘you should’ve been there’ jokes. It weighs too much on me to simply see a person receive my loneliness; to put someone on the spot by having them have to do something in response, graciously or otherwise. It weighs on me like only words said and unsaid can. So I take my feelings and wrap them into wordy-little parcels, and leave them a little away from my person—not surreptitiously, like the pile of trash you leave at your doorstep and it’s magically not your problem anymore, but like a non-threatening suitcase in the middle of the street: children would use it as cricket stumps and kitchen-set stoops, a young man in the night would kick it about, adults by morning would note to each other with eyes that one of us has underthings sprawled on the street. I leave this parcel out to bake in the sun of other people.

Writing tires me. Sometimes it takes twenty minutes. Sometimes, twenty minutes takes five hours, with 13 hours of kicking in my sleep, six meals, two hours of therapy, four days’ worth antidepressants, five days of brownies (making them, cutting them, fixing them with resting, ice cream, dishes, talking, Ludo, the diary, cleaning vegetables, sitting up, nuzzling the cat, feeding myself, bribing the cat, brushing my teeth, noisy news, washing my hair, playing with the cat, sitting in the living room with Dathi and R, gas cylinder guy, messages I don’t know how to reply to, updates about my ticking-away grandmother, putting-off cleaning the fridge, counting money, reading poems). It takes things out of me, and leaves me empty of breath. It leaves me breathless so I don’t know what to do so I push. I push like I’d push my thighs and my calves to remember to grip the sand-brown Hawaii chappals of my childhood that my grandfather had bought me, running and running on tar after that downhill-to-the-cowshed runaway four to save my team a run. I push, I chuck the ball back at the keeper who yells “howayza?” before catching it and the teams and the umpires erupt, I clutch my knees and I hungrily push air into my lungs. I push and I write, because I don’t know how else to fill my yawn of caves.

The license for my proprietary word processor has run out. I let it run out because the word processor’s security system failed. Somebody somewhere with email address sh4 asterisks continues to benefit from my license (that hangs wilted over the corpse of an expired card), and I could not be arsed about fixing it. One of the winning features of this license-illa version is that I am locked out of my own writing. Years and years of my private letters and whispers to nobody and everybody are being held ransom by an entity that owns the means by which I wrote them. Upset that I’m squatting on their proprietary carpet that I put in my computer to doodle on, they feel entitled to either keep asking me to buy a hologram sticker, or at least reassure them that I have no means to threaten their bottomline. For the luxury of making a living by typing into a computer, I have to embroil myself in a dignified protection racket. So I angrily rip into the file’s metadata and change the file’s soulless-as-their-generic-software file format (I rename the file extension), and open the file titled Wallpaper Sunrise dot D-O-C on an alternate word-processor to snatch back my precious doodles.

Can you tell the difference between a coffee headache, and a dry-eyes headache?

My eyeballs feel dry, my mouth feels pasty, and my shoulders ache from my drooping. I can’t stop watching the sky. A laptop wallpaper sunrise is playing and I’m finally full of something. I’m full of the quiet. I’m full of some people waking up gently, quietly filling water in the vessel, holding their breaths at exactly when they pop the lighter at the gas, exhaling collectively to the hiss of the gas catching and the water swirling in the pot. I’m full of some heaping spoons of coffee into the filter, and tying their hair, and walking to the washbasin. I’m full of some going to the back of their homes to wash feet-hands-face with a green soap bar, then maybe wash a plate or two. I’m full of the smell of the soap, the dull heat of the fire, and the cold.

I’m full of a walk in the morning with my grandfather watering the garden. I am in my first school uniform, still warm from my bath, my cheeks flush with a powdery confidence. But my feet are bare. This feels mischievous, without the order of socks and the tap-tap-tapping of black shoes, with just the mix of mulch, morning, and missing-the-school-van mixing with my toes, and he’s watering the nitya mallige he has grown. Like me, a proud little tree in our house compound, full of the twinkle of teeth and white flowers and eyes of a girl spoken-for.

Light and Space

I like evenings in my house.

I like the sliver of warm sunset that I’m privy to with what I can afford of a view living in a crowded city. I live alongside arrangements where it sounds like groups of twelve, fifteen people live in the same span of space that I share with another woman (and of course R) that I feel safe with, and a loving cat who is also a rogue (but in a truly charming, vocal way). I sometimes overhear carrom games. I hear singing and language and laughter when the group tentatively steps out together. There hasn’t been a game of cricket in a long time.

I like the warm glow of the moody yellow table lamp that I put on my desk. I like its warmth, like my grandfather’s sweater, over my shoulders. I am lucky I was held. In light like this. A lone, tall bedside lamp with a switch on the wire by which I read Asterix for the first time. The neat smell of my grandfather’s room. The orderliness of its shelves. The sparseness of its person.

I have banal notes I have tacked on the wall at my desk, of things I must remember to write about in the novel I want to write. On some days, they’re mocking post-its to who I want to be. But they’re sweet-tempered and good-natured too. I allow myself that they’re sincere.

I am oddly relieved I’m not able to understand the language my neighbour next door is speaking to someone on her handsfree in her balcony. I am in admiration of her commitment to enjoying the weather, and sometimes I’m brave enough to try it out too. There is a renewed-vigour idiot still blowing his conch. I hear her laughing over it.

I miss Bombay. At some point in my life, I’d dreamed of living in a city like Bombay. There’s a static of something disorienting and worn-down-to-primal, like the cobblestones of Causeway, in the light of Bombay. It tints the dust-motes off-camera, and the sweat on the faces of the men and women awe-struck, a little mouth-agape that they are in a Bombay sunset watching a whole piece of something larger, something with more spectacle than our selves being made. I no longer have the energy for Bombay; I say this with little-to-no self-pity. Cities sometimes change us and teach us who we are in different places, what of us still sticks and holds true. Cities lure us with who we could be. And many times we have tell these cities, oh well, maybe some other time.

Light changes quickly in this house, and the table lamp eases that a little in the evenings. R has put the large-batch noodles I made last night in the fridge (not to overstate, but it’s a needlessly painstaking Maggi-updo) and I’m fearful of how it’ll turn out today. I could make pakodas out of it. A tribute to you, Mescabe ladies of MCC. (This is a T9 Dictionary of the 3300/6615 joke: at the time I was in college, T9 did not list Nescafe in its database, so when students typed Nescafe under their desks about hanging out, the message sent would, in all likelihood, read, Mescabe.) I could try making cutlets too.

I was discussing lighting P’s house with him—the lovely but unused criss-crossed lantern in the living room needs a naked yellow bulb in it. He told me that there’s no need to be apologetic about needing so many chances, because sometimes the only way to get some people to try, is to keep giving them chances.

Last night, I also kept whisking-and-freezing my day-long milky cup of coffee, and it made the most intricate slushie, a star-studded pre-frappe. It’s a, as is my signature, needlessly painstaking process of how I show coffee more patience than people.

My flatmate, A, has come home. She is palpably relieved to see me at my laptop, typing. I am laughing. We’re going to play Ludo. The young men who live over the darshini nearby have stepped out downstairs, and they’re laughing too.

Feeling cute, might delete later.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt female, or *feminine*. 

Every fun activity I’ve ever been exposed to, I’ve enjoyed as a person and not as a female — drawing, writing, eating sweets, playing with a kitchen set, playing house-house, playing doctor-doctor, lagori, baddie, building with fancy-store-bought-fake-Lego blocks with their tiny potted plants. Watering the garden with my grandfather, watching Power Zone in the afternoon because that’s the only time I had the TV uncontested, terribly lettering lyrics of Alice in Chains songs and making worse-still drawings of Eddie on my rough note books. Lax-rules cricket, watching it in our balcony and secretly hoping to make a heroic balcony catch, and once, being cheered by all my friends when I, crisply chicken-poxed, came out to see them. Dressing neatly, eyeing stickers and inventively shaped candy, cultivating different kinds of handwriting. Trying to make my own site and Winamp skins. Dreaming of owning a pair of Nikes whose ads and air-themed features swore I could walk the clouds or spikes that would turn me into a ripple-muscled automaton-feline that would sunder a notion like human limitation.

I was amazed by life. I secretly wrote sincere-feelings short stories and astonishingly aching poems, edited B&W photographs shot in 2/3rds composition on a modified point and shoot, burnt CDs and traded torrents, hand-drew story boards of films I would one day make, and made friends on the internet – all in my grandfather’s room because that’s where the computer was.

I’m so lucky that I get to see how happy and loved I really was; I grew up in a difficult home. And it hurt even more that just outside my door, I seemed to attract so much pain. I just couldn’t understand why. What about me was wrong? Why was I a lesser person, a secondary human? In what way had I unwittingly, or even knowingly erred?

Why was my hair, why were my teeth, why was my vagina, why were my breasts so troublesome?

This is what I’ve known of what being female means. It means a life that keeps pinching the side of my boob on the bus, at the movie theatre, in a street after dark. It means having to sit with my knees together lest how I sit invites a fitting reply. It means being fearful of wearing something that I think I could celebrate my body with, because it’ll invite judgement, and on a bad day, an expression of it. It means feeling ugly, unwelcome, incomplete, inadequate. All the fucking time.

It means constantly constructing bizarre and unkind logic to cope with how unfair it is.

I have seen every woman I have ever loved struggle with this: the oldest of whom is now 84.

It’s so exhausting that I spend so little time inhabiting my body, (one that I don’t at all feel is *female*, like everything in the world goes out of its way to tell me it is) and I spend all my time shrunken into just my mind. Watching it, managing it, taking care of it.

I am not a person motivated by the idea of having children. Because life is so painful that I would rather not have someone I’d deeply care for go through it. This is such an upsetting view of life – because look at that – I was so happy. And then I saw that it was only because I was playing inside such a small box without ever being able to touch its walls. 

And now that I do, I feel trapped. In a small box.

I am in a small box with a sticker tacked on it that says, “Female”.

A Report of My New Blue Dress

My new blue dress bleeds colour.

It bleeds without provocation. It has no hesitation, discretion, intent nor prejudice. It is a dress with a lot on its mind, and with nothing to lose.

I have never—deliberately, at least—owned anything that has the potential to cause so much trouble. I love my dress. But it is dangerous. I’m terrified of what it, in a machine, would do to my clothes and my flatmate’s. So I wear it a lot, my patience in ready competition with the dye, waiting for the bleed to get better.

It is a dress, but I treat it like a disease that I’d rather treat like an inconvenience. Not something as face-splittingly painful as a rotten tooth. But maybe more like a corn in the crook of an unimportant toe, or a mysterious, highly specific ache in my shoulder.

Whenever I wear my dress, I sit exclusively on dark coloured sofas and granite slabs, stand despite the rare fortune of seats in the gleaming metro, and when I forget, I lean against a wall. Once, I caught myself sitting in a paper white chair. I didn’t know how to bring it up with my host. So I left, a little giddy with a secret that she would only uncover when (if) she washed the chairs and lined them up in the sun. My chair would be that frustrating white sock sacrificed to liquid blue.

My dress fits me well. It fits my chest with a snug, grown-woman fullness. It hugs my waist and flares at exactly where my self-consciousness begins. It’s a heavy dress, batik in technique, contemporary in motif, anarkali in inspiration. In temperament, it is an indulgent craftsperson summoning an extravagance of fabric to put to employ in making me look beautiful.

The first time I’d worn the dress and taken it off, I had noticed that my white panties (my favourite with blue lace trimming) had been dusted blue by contact. The blue folds against the white cotton had looked like the stretchmarks along my sides. When I bathed that evening, blue rivulets had run from my feet to the drain.

Yesterday, when I drew my hand out of my pocket, I found blue grit under my fingernails.

My dress is the blue of night. Not nights of stolen, sodium-vapour-lit, shawl-swaddled walks through Hanumanthnagar. But of a night on my back on Surathkal beach, watching the star-stippled sky and the lighthouse cutting slow ribbons through it.

I match my dress with serious-seeming earrings and feminine-enough sandals. When I walk, my dress swishes as is appropriate for my age (not like a synthetic sun-dress on holiday). It is reluctant to play with passing drafts, and it rustles like I have important business to do.

In my dress, I’m daubing my city in a blue carbon-copy-paper patina. I am a vandal, leaving imperceptible blue graffiti in the shape of my seat.

I am guilty of laundry discourtesy. And theft of a slice of sky.

140: Bullet Journal, hey!

One day back in May, extreme fundae maven, tasteful item-number maverick, and #1 reason why mothers are naming their child so, Aadisht, asked what the big deal was about Bullet Journals.

I accidentally kinda sorta answered this on Instagram Stories (instagram login needed!), so I’m schlepping it here too. Here we go!

(Extremely) simply put, BuJos break calendar years down into manageable timelines –

  • To help you plan and put goals and tasks into their appropriate buckets (yearly, monthly, weekly, daily goals)
  • To offer you retrospection with different lenses (what happened today, what happened this week, this month – though this leg tends to be heavily skewed to the daily)

The information is compacted using bullets instead of running sentences, and codes tracked with an index.

It’s not uncommon to see beautifully brush-lettered, watercoloured, carefully art-directed layouts of BuJos on Instagram. They’re used to track just about anything from finances to water intake to TV watched to circulation of salad dressing. There’s a tonne of gorg. stationery taking cue too (par exemple: this coffee journal, sketch journal, travel journal). But overall, there seems to be a super-creative, artsy and craftsy, expensive, heavily key/legend-ed *look* to BuJos that could come across as intimidating.

Just like the path to knowledge, god, or that other obvious analogy, there is more than one way to do this.

Before I get into that, let me get something pressing out of the way. I hate the nifty, smarmy coinage, BuJo; it has the cult-vibe of OPOS and smacks of AoL yuckery.

So Bullet Journals, hmm?

  • They’re quick
  • …also because the idea is to keep them with you wherever you go
  • They’re super-flexible and customisable — usually a stumbling block in standard diaries
  • They’re focussed: you want some sort of direction in/template for what to keep track of everyday
  • This isn’t a priority for everybody – but just like old school diaries, they can be made pwuddy and treated like a creative exercise too.

I devised a retrospective system of my own using the parts of the Bullet Journal system that I found most beneficial.

I have some creative chops, but painting and lettering isn’t something I want to do everyday. I recognise that if I mandate it to everyday, it is going to be a hurdle. The creativity in this for me, is in devising the system itself and breaking a complex question into simple, measurable parts.

The result?

Treating my days like a data set answers questions for me in this fashion:


A few questions came by. And yes, I couple this monthly tracker with a to-do list, and a daily bullet-style summary.


A part of this exercise for me is that it’s an excuse for me to work with stationery after a day of screens. You could do this on Git. You could just as easily do this on Excel and spin them pivot tables, you Spreadsheet Jockey you.

And now, some words of …discouragement:

  • You’re going to fail a few times. In the beginning, in the middle, in the end.
    • when you lose interest
    • when you get a hit of accomplishment (like quitting smoking for about a month: nice to know you had it in you after all)
    • or, best case scenario: when you’ve found closure on all the tabs you wanted to keep
  • It is going to frustrate you:
    • Bending the timeline to suit your cause is going to be gnarly
    • You may start too ambitious – it only means you have to make it more basic
  • It will take some of your time and attention – but ONLY at first, it gets almost reflexive if you let it. I’m venturing a guess that it’s a bit like growing a beard.
  • It is going to be MESSY at first, so start in a notebook you aren’t too attached to (you know, Canara Bank type diary, or that glittery flowery notebook someone gifted you three years ago), or start on loose sheets of paper that you can stick into a more favoured diary
  • Have extremely basic expectations:
    • Admit to yourself this IS a commitment for it to be meaningful in any way
    • Just start with wanting to make this a part of your everyday – then go pedal-to-the-metal
    • Make the system really easy and intuitive for you – like I said: recognise what your hurdles could be and simplify it for yourself
    • Finally, be honest, nobody has to know what you’re measuring, nobody cares if you’re failing at your goals
  • Social Media can somewhat be your friend
    • If you run on validation fuel*, share your progress: a week of table conquered is such a high – acknowledge this and applaud yourself!
    • Repeating myself – don’t fudge your data because you don’t want people to know you suck at restraint or discipline
  • You won’t find *answers* here:
    • At least, not most obviously
    • Getting to the right question will take trial and error. Lots of error.
    • Any which way, be prepared to be *surprised* by your data; like any data, it will give you insights
  • This is not a sign that you have it together
    • It is, however, a route to get there
  • It’s ok to ditch this altogether and do something more worthwhile with your time: I mean, in ten minutes, you can watch half a Brooklyn 99 episode.

In concluuuusion: this has proved helpful for me. It’s well-suited to my attention-incapacitated, stationery-hungry, colour-fueled upstairs. In especially dark periods when I ~feel~ I haven’t accomplished jack, this has q. visibly demonstrated otherwise, or has simply been proof of life.

* I actually tracked this for a month, but I needed to rephrase the question and metric.

# My apologies for the less than ideal image grids; my blog’s layout favours text.
^ Of course you’re welcome to share the contents of this post, but please link back and credit me!

139: The Haunting

I constantly want to have it all, haunted by all my lives unlived. It’s difficult for me to accept that there’s only one job one can work in, one city one can live in, one experience one can have at a time. I fear this tendency may affect the big life decisions to come. Thoughts?

Atulaa K

Hi Atulaa!

First, thank you for your wonderful, tender question. It has given me cause to reflect on my own feelings about this — which means that I’m now going to expound theories by presenting personal anecdotes and limited life experience as data, and the best I can hope to offer is warmth by way of commiseration, some perspective, and a bit more accurately, a suitable delusion or two that you could try on for size.

I believe this is a struggle for many of us. I hate to call what you describe FOMO, because I despise the casual, empty-of-nuance, vapid dismissal our age renders this impasse. (Or maybe I’m just a batty old lady who’s skeptical about its ironic use.) But dear Atulaa, take heart, because your haunting is the curse of imagination, the ache of optimism, and the weight that dreamers carry. I am certain this has plagued the human condition for centuries now, and was probably what drove explorers to discover entire new continents, new schools of thought and philosophy, and generally dream of happier times. I understand its intensity too. It is likely that this dilemma – both yours and mine, beeteedubs – just seems more inescapable in our documentation-obsessed times.

I see your situation as a two-pronged problem — that you don’t see yourself as leading enough lives, and that you feel your one journey isn’t, well, singular enough.

So, the first: how many lives can you stuff into your one life?

I’m not very good at Maths, but in your question alone, I have counted more than one.

You see, each of the things that you say you have resigned yourself to, that you deem as “just one”, is really each a parallel life. Your one job occupies a part of you that your one city does not engage with and that varies from the each one part of you that experiences each one of the things that you put yourself through. And that’s just all the ones you’ve framed in your question.

You’re (hopefully still reading, and) thinking, “But A, sure, these are each individual choices I have made. How do I know they’re the right ones? What about the choices I have eliminated?”

I suspect you know this already, but I don’t think we ever know about the choices we have not taken. We have never known. We will never know. And I find that a bit reassuring. You see, the question doesn’t always stop at, “What if?” Sometimes, the whole question is, “What if… I hadn’t done this? That means I wouldn’t have done << insert every. favourite. thing. ever. >>”

Look back at the deepest details of your history, and pause in wonder of how your imagination could not have possibly conjured all that you have witnessed and endured. It’s true. It’s real. You’ve made all of this happen. You fashioned it out of will and circumstance. Will – pretty much the only certainty you brought to the table. Circumstance – the shit you had zero control over. In every decision you’ve taken, there has been, best case, 50% certainty of outcome. Again, I’m not good at Maths, but as an estimate, that looks like you’ve pretty much winged things all the time. No matter how big the question, you prepped the best you could, ate your nails for lunch, and you made the decision — an event that was both relieving and… surprisingly empty — and what came after the decision was a Republic Day float titled Ad Fucking Hoc. It featured a few things kicking your ass, you emerging victor, and mid-braggadocious dance, you falling off the float, giving it chase, and inadvertently making yourself and that hyper Hindi commentator an internet sensation.

My point here is that every one of your decisions, big or small, has been a direction you took part-blindly, but has led to a colourful collection of surprisingly original minutiae. Yup. Every decision. You chose curtains with sheer panels for your bedroom window because you wanted to wake up to soft morning light every day. And then, one windy afternoon, you see sunlight dancing in white lines along your walls — a simple pleasure that you had never accounted for, and one that you now look forward to.

You have, largely, never seen much of life coming. And by that logic – you can actually never have an idea of what you’re missing out on. The haunting is a ghost who also does not know Maths, and so is unable to count neither what you have, nor what you can’t.

Now that you have your retrospection glasses on, you’re (hopefully still reading and) thinking, “Okay. I’m counting. Three in my mind, two on my fingers. Oh, wait. What am I counting, again? Does what I’m counting… count?”

This brings us to the next stop: the idea of how singular our lives are.

Let’s look at the opposite of that first. Just how similar are our lives?

Since we participate in a society and are a community-oriented species, we’re bound by several (rightfully heavily debated) coda – economical, social, moral, you name it – that dictate that our lives follow a systematic template for the betterment of our pack at large. While we have the choice to identify ourselves solely by our place in this society, it isn’t where we look for our individual-ness. (Though hey, this unit-of-the-pack you is yet another life that you have stuffed into your one big life.)

The reason the human species stands apart from most any other species on the planet – especially AI and the AI-is-the-future bros that come free with it – is sentience: intelligence that includes a steadily growing awareness of one’s self, and one’s individuality. And the same intelligence that kindles in each unit of our pack the, well, arrogance, hubris, and vanity that the unit is indeed one heck-of-an individual with free will, hot damn.

The good news is, this is the same preloaded human feature that gives you you. You, with your own idea of your personal history. You, with your passion and pride. You, with the most tender things you find endearing about the world. You, with your shame that you trust with nobody. You, with your very you shower-setting. You, with your contradictions that surprise you. You, the you you throw into everything even if you didn’t want to in the first place.

Having (hopefully) read my paean to ad f. hoc, you can probably guess I’m a *big* fan of this part of individualism. It is true, and I mean it in the most sincere, un-mocking fashion I can muster: everybody *is* singular, everybody *is* unique.

I can afford to make such a claim because I have not seen enough of the world, or met enough people, and I know I won’t ever cover all of humanity stationed in every corner of inhabitation – so even if the numbers (yup, still bad at them) suggest otherwise, I do not and will not ever know of two people who have the *exact* same personal histories, passion, pride, endearments, shame, shower-setting, contradictions… motivations, mental health, preference of GSM of paper, levels of personal hygiene — you get the drift.

This is what makes other people interesting to us: how they fill the gaps and lacunae of our blessedly limited life experiences. Other people are so wonderfully weird – because they are nothing like us, and offer us a chance at empathy, at multitude, at breaking the singularness that is our beings, bound to our bones. It is true – everybody else has led a vastly more interesting life than our own, because we can never have an accurate, full idea of the contents of their life. My flatmate, for example, has soaked some sort of alcohol with bhoot jholokia, and has adorably marked the steel flask’s head with a Sharpie-drawn skull and crossbones – to me, at every turn, a blatant display of how wonderfully her own her mind is. We are right in having a sense of envy that we are not capable of everybody else’s brilliance alongside our own. But it is important to remember – we are, umm, shucks, a bit brilliant too.

Really. Invert that sense of wonder onto yourself – that no matter how much you’d like to pigeonhole yourself, you are nothing like anybody else. Your life is, and never could be, like anybody else’s.

I’d said I see your situation as a two-pronged problem — that you don’t see yourself as leading enough lives, and that you feel your one journey isn’t singular enough.

I call your attention to, if I may, the truest crux of your haunting here: the word, enough.

You are enough. You have been enough. And you will be enough. Believe in this a little more, and your choices will do what they should for you: enough.

I wish you my share of luck with Maths, and I wish you well with everything else too.

Much, much warmth,
Me.

P.S.: If you’re still wondering how to pick stuff – try inky-pinky-ponky. When ponky falls on the final choice, and you realise that is not the choice you were hoping for, there you have it – what you really, truly want.

138: An old, old post

Hallowed Ground

My memory of red-oxide is tinged with the sound it made.

There was a quality of foundation to that sound. A thick fatherliness. Solidity. Perhaps it came from the fact that it was mixed directly into cement, poured onto rigid ground, ironed with persistence, dried stern, before deemed terra really, really firma.

Anything that fell on red-oxide floors, fell heavily. Vases made almost musical sounds. Tantrums were exceptionally loud. And coins fell and rolled into impossible places with such crispness.

This ground felt like the Earth that Science speaks of – the one that actually offers an equal and opposite force, and goes on to demand reckoning as formidable. Jumping with abandon on red-oxide made feet tingle with guilt – even without the watchful eyes of disciplining aunts. Walking on it bestowed feet with a dull Bharatnatyam red. A sort of subliminal branding – spelling a home that rang MS’s Kausalya-Supraja each morning, smelled of tamarind & (forbidden) onion sambar each noon, and slept to a mallige-talcum headiness each evening.

I remember adding curls of white paint along the floor’s edges, and getting a rap on the knuckle for letting my imagination run in a few places.

Down the 90s, the red lost its lustre. A paradox, because as years wore on, red-oxide would acquire a glow that could be kissed alive by early morning sunshine.

Learning lessons from booming “flats”, and cashing in on descending prospective-tenants from exotic parts of the country, ambitious landlords began building homes floor upon floor while it was still legal. Red-oxide, quite a cheap alternative to many other materials, suddenly encountered a problem that was unheard of until rapid urbanization – specialization of labour. Red-oxide was an art, done by hand, and didn’t see mechanization for a long time – a window of opportunity that was not lost on competing materials. Factoring in vital things, like time, effort, and our inherent need of keeping-up-with-the-times, it was decided: this would be the age of Mosaic, the understated, clipped accent of a sufficiently English educated middle-class home.

To be truthful, I don’t like Mosaic. It lacks the seamlessness and careful grace that red-oxide had. Disruptions in red-oxide floors had the treads of thin, waif-like ropes. Mosaic floors, however, are exactly what urbania loves. Square after square. Building after building. Block after block. Feigned organization. Red-oxide could glide right around the bends, trace them with the dexterity of a finger. But the best Mosaic can do, is express curves as several clumsy quadrilaterals.

Summer on red-oxide floors had the exact feeling of sweet water from an earthen pot in the same summer. Fond memories include letting my skin steal some cold under my as-raised-as-aunt’s-eyebrow seam of cotton frock. I have shelled peas, played countless games of Ludo, and watched the TV’s reflection on this hallowed ground.

Sure, new homes are retracing metaphorical steps to where they started. It’s heartening to see online forums discuss the Do’s and Don’ts of DIY red-oxide. I get a feeling, though, that the story of red-oxide will follow that of block-print fabric. It’s waiting for a Fab India and a few activists to rescue it from oblivion. It’s waiting for its mall-organized, buffed-up-by-marketing ironic comeback.

I realize now. My only real grouse with red-oxide is this: if it’s not old enough, it doesn’t matter how much talcum I sprinkle – I can never slide on it.

Dec 08th, 2011.

Thanks Aadisht, for reminding me of this thing I’d written ages ago. ❤