When you shift houses, cities, schools a few times, you come to realize that home is not really a place. You get attached to a place because you attach memories to a place and you get attached to the memories - probably why most of us consider our childhood home special, something of a sanctum.
I love the place I grew up in, but it is a book, not a place, that is the repository of my childhood. Like with people, you can fall in love more than once but you will only ever have one first love.
My first true love was Johanna Spyri's Heidi. I was six or seven when I read it first; I loved it so much that I engraved my name on the front page in childish cursive, declaring that 'this book belongs to Mahathi (7 yrs 8 yrs age). I've read it so many times since that I'm not sure I can distinguish the first experience from the rest. Reading is so integral a part of my life that my immersion in Heidi feels like the dawning of consciousness.
I was drawn inexorably to Spyri's Switzerland, to her goat's cheese, rustling fir trees and fiery sunsets. It sounded like heaven on earth - perhaps it was hers, and the vision she conjured was so captivating that I fell in love with a place I'd never been to; an experience I would only have again with L.M. Montgomery's Prince Edward Island.
In this veritable heaven, Spyri creates one of the most beautiful portraits of childhood and one of the most moving evocations of innocence I've ever read. It's very easy to empathize with Heidi, and it seems apt somehow that this book that feels like home captures so perfectly the feeling of acute homesickness.
I first felt the pangs of homesickness when I failed to be absorbed by Heidi - for the first time. A lot of people have a favourite toy or a favourite blanket: I had Heidi. I read it whenever I was bored, sad, angry, happy - all the time, really. Sometimes three or four times a year. Heidi was my pal. Her comforting presence looms large throughout my childhood.
I was one of those kids who was always sure of her footing. I knew who I was, I knew what I liked, and I very emphatically knew what was right and what was wrong. Teenage put an end to certainty and opened up a world of grey. I've written about it before; in my first post for this blog, in fact.
For a year or two, I didn't read Heidi. Then suddenly, one day, it all felt like too much, and I wanted my old friend. I was fourteen. So I opened my trusty brown hardcover and began to read; only, this time, it didn't do the trick. I couldn't escape. I couldn't hear the magical sound of the wind rushing through the fir trees, couldn't feel Heidi's wonder when the sun set fire to the mountains; suddenly it was horribly clear to me that I was simply looking at ink blots on a page.
That is a moment I will never forget. For me, the death knells of childhood began to ring right then. From that day to this, I haven't read Heidi completely again. That didn't stop me from carrying her with me to the US when I went to college, and it didn't stop me from feeling as if I'd lost a very dear friend or maybe even an appendage when the airline lost my baggage the beginning of sophomore year; but it was a paradise to which I'd lost the key.
There were many, many days when I woke up and wished I could just be a child again. That I could see again with unclouded eyes and undimmed hope the many horizons I'd sketched, over and over again. I longed to enter that oldest and dearest landscape once more, but I was horribly afraid I would see those inkblots again.
In February, I tracked down the same edition I'd had on Amazon and ordered it for an extravagant sum. You see, it had to be the very exact same copy.
When it came, I looked at it in wonder. It was the same, but they had added colour plates to the book. So it had my beloved illustrations, and the same translation, as well as colour paintings by the illustrator.
I thought this time I was ready. I thought when it came that for a few hours it would be just me and Heidi, that we'd find our old rhythm again.
But somehow it was enough to just look and hold, to caress the spine and run my fingers over those beautiful, vivid, full-colour illustrations. I found, when I turned to the first page, that the words were as familiar to me as my reflection. They had become a part of me.
Do I lack all discipline? Am I in a rut? Does time hold no meaning for me?
Who knows. When you lack courage and conviction in yourself and your work, it can be a destructive cycle.
Don't get me wrong. I know my strengths, and I think I am a reasonably confident person - most of the time. But when it comes to writing, my mind can exploit insecurities and fears I didn't even know I had. Add to that compulsive perfectionist tendencies, and you have sadly abbreviated, sporadic - there's that word again - and incomplete output.
I'm a smart person. I know that the remedy for this problem is to write nevertheless and write as much as possible. Eventually, I'll get the better of my old nemesis, Self-Doubt, for long enough to produce something worthwhile. It's a common enough problem among writers.
So why is it that I never write as much as I want to and know I should?
I've begun to realize that our lives can be self-fulfilling prophecies to a terrifying extent. There was a time when I unfailingly believed that I could do and be better. There was always a tomorrow. And while I believed that to be the case, there was always reason to keep striving. There was a future in which I wrote all the time, everyday, in which I was a creative, fulfilled person who was disciplined and fit and lived life on her own terms. I just knew it.
But when that tomorrow failed to materialize quickly enough for my impatient young self, some subconscious part of me began to believe that I was just fated to be one of those people who never live up to their potential (which also happens to be one of my biggest fears). As soon as I began to believe that, I gave myself permission to stop trying. Make no mistake, believing the worst of yourself can be a cop-out. It's a lazy, self-pitying way of saying I was born this way, so why bother? or Circumstances have made me who I am and I can't change that.
Until next time, dear readers. If all goes well, that should be sooner rather than later.
It's hard to know where to begin when it's been four months since my last, enigmatic post. Especially when those four months encompass a wide variety of experiences, and my first few months of having a full-time job.
Shall I summarize as I used to attempt to do after long gaps? Shall I go for a meandering, indulgent stream-of-consciousness type excess?
If at all you have observed this blog over the years, do you notice the pitch to which I've perfected evasive techniques even in writing?
I'd mentioned my feelings about the uncertainty of adulthood and a life without the safe restrictions of academic life. Freedom, it seemed, was not always an unqualified gift; without clear purpose, it can mean an aimless, empty wandering that leaves you with a feeling of ennui.
I wish I could say that I remained as sprightly as I was in that post made a month after graduation, and went at my future with gusto. Truth is, though, that I was unprepared and felt unmoored. For a few months I succeeded in suppressing the fear and insecurities that lurked beneath the surface and sometimes even managed to let go and enjoy the freedom of having nothing to do. I read like crazy, as I hadn't done in a long time, and I loved it; being able to read like that again made me feel as if I could breathe more freely. I recognize that people have other passions that give them the same sense of relief and solace; for me, nothing else will ever give me quite the feeling of being understood. Perhaps this need to bury oneself in a pursuit is the hallmark of a lonely introvert who remained sometimes ungratefully lonely despite having many wonderful friends.
How do I describe that loneliness? It's not a loneliness that comes from lacking company; it's a loneliness that comes from not possessing in adequate measure (yet) the skills to express those difficult thoughts, those complicated emotions, those delicate and complex ideas built so carefully in the hours of reflection I cannot do without. It comes from not being able to share an entire inner world, and so, inhabiting it alone.
I digress. I read; I met friends and had some lovely times; I attended the wedding of a close friend (which is when the reality of adulthood actually began to set in).
At this juncture, I have to admit that I was enjoying myself too much to actually want to find something to occupy my time perforce. I couldn't help wishing that I could have my time to myself for a while longer, to do with as I wished, and to recover from some of the stresses I had put myself through as a student for so many years.
Since I have people looking out for me, who - not without reason - were afraid that I could spend any amount of time this way, I eventually felt obliged to put more effort into determining my immediate future. Again, I have to admit - not without shame - that I went about this task quite reluctantly, even grudgingly. The perfect student and model daughter was suddenly feeling a little rebellious, and not a little horrified at the mundaneness of the jobs that seemed available to someone as entirely clueless as I was about my next steps.
At this juncture, you might be wondering: what happened to the girl who grandly declared that she wanted to make a difference, that she wasn't interested in the humdrum rut of a corporate 9-5 existence?
I was wondering that myself. At the ripe old age of 21, I was feeling washed out. My deepest of convictions were wavering under the onslaught of reality - by which I mean that I had lost faith in myself and consequently failed to hold myself up to the standards of my younger self. It's not that I took some inconsequential job that would have added nothing of value to my life - it's that I had ceased to look before I had even begun, and that I had concluded absurdly prematurely that I wasn't good enough for what I really wanted to do.
The stars, though, have always been on my side. Through a friend, I came to know of a young microfinance company named Vaya. I perceived with mild interest that this would be a great opportunity to find out more about microfinance and its practical applications. In my IB years, I had written my 4000-word research project on microfinance, and it remained a subject of interest.
Interviews are not my strong suit. I have the odd good day on which I feel confident and articulate, but most of the time, my brain seems to separate itself from my body and I just end up feeling incredibly foolish. Not to mention my idiotic need to downplay my achievements, in this age of self-marketing, where more is more. When somebody says I've done good work, my first instinct is to say, 'it could have been better,' or to excuse myself on the grounds that I was younger and didn't know much, or some such nonsense, as I've I'm expecting disapproval and haven't yet registered the fact that what I received instead was approbation. Ever heard of the Impostor Syndrome?
I'm working on it. Anyway, I went for my interview, which somehow managed to stretch out over two days because the office happened to be shifting location and everyone was busy. Eventually I had an offer, and I accepted.
Caged A prison
Not of my own making
It taunts me
So real in appearance
Leaves me forlorn
Unable to express
my burden of despair
Sighs and tears
do me no good
Escape seems impossible
The universe, it mocks me
For my desires
I am a denizen
of a world I want no part of
from my Ideal
Will freedom ever be mine?
Not the greatest poetry perhaps, but straight from the heart:
You cannot be confined
You must not be
Why then do you try
To cast yourself in a mold
So utterly foreign
To your deepest nature?
You will never be
One of them
You will never own
The same stripes.
One cannot change
One's very soul.
You were born to be free
To speak with the sun and the moon and the stars
Step lightly in the river
Converse with the wind
Pontificate with fire
Rest with the earth
To be at ease entirely
With the foliage that reaches for the sky
And the green folks that reside within.
To hear the bugle call
Of another universe
Entirely of your own making
And yet already alive
Your sirens, my dear, they will not be ignored.
Your muses, too many to be numbered,
Will not be quieted.
The itch in your fingers, in your bones,
Will not be denied.
How much longer will you run?
How much further?
Where will you escape to?
A forsaken place where poetry holds no meaning?
Where prose is so prosaic as to be utterly functional?
Where art is a by-the-by, only seldom indulged in to aimlessly pass the hours?
Will you thus wrong your body and soul?
Can you not see how blessed one is who can see beyond the mortal, the physical, the human?
Foolish, blind soul, return to your native hearth.
Accept thy name so presciently bestowed
And refuse to cave to dreary familiarity
For you have a duty to yourself, bright being,
To not let the light die from your heart.
To keep alive the poetry that resides there
Despite your best attempts to squash it.
And to nurture the music, ever-present
As a note, a melody, an instrument, a song.
Paint those vistas only you can see.
You, my dear, do wrong yourself when you suggest
That such gifts are less bountiful
Than the worldly knowledge and political acumen you seek.
In seeking to know human pain and love and joy
You, my dear, perform one of the highest functions available to a human being.
Proudly deploy all that has been given to you
For there is only one of you
And one day the world shall hear
Of the unbearable sweetness that plagues you.
These last few days have been rather ghastly for the world. Ghastly, and a little relentless.
Today, on a walk down windy, rain-washed streets, I thought: Is this the Earth's way of mourning? Does it keen through these gusts in continuing sorrow and drizzle unstoppable tears?
I was comforted by the poetry in those thoughts, a little to my chagrin. Am I shallow to be so easily comforted? Shallow and selfish? Then, I realized that it was merely a release through expression that consoled me.
Besides, what can one do in retaliation but live? Live boldly, our flames burning brighter against the darkness in exultant defiance and painful knowledge of the uncertain brevity of life. No matter what monsters seem to descend amongst us, they cannot wipe out life and joy.
A year and a half ago, when the world was shocked at the brutality unleashed in Peshawar, I wondered if compassion could survive in such a world. I wondered how human beings could unleash such terror.
But as we hear of more and more that could make us doubt our humanity, I become conversely convinced of the true goodness that lies in our hearts. Human beings can be extraordinarily compassionate. Most of us continue to lead regular lives, laughing and loving, and clutching those closest to us closer still when we hear of tragedy. In my own life, I have faced nothing but kindness. Perhaps this is my good fortune, but I cannot be convinced that we are selfish, not kind within. Some intuition tells me otherwise. Something tells me that we can be inspired to become our best selves, to soar to unbelievable heights, as much as we can be goaded to the basest of crimes.
I hope and pray that our faith in humanity is not further tested. If it is, as I am afraid it is likely to be, I hope we prove to be up to the task.