Monday, October 20, 2014

Mad World

All I can hear through my mind... over and over... at least for now...

"All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places
Worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere
Going nowhere

And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had
I find it hard to tell you
I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it's a very very
Mad world
Mad world"

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Of Alternate Realities

While researching and reading on something entirely different, less-than-perfect search results led me to this paper. And I couldn’t help reading it, because the content of this paper is something that I have often thought about.

I know I sound like a stern middle-aged matron with her hair in a severe bun, with tight lips and narrowed, scowling eyes framed with thick catty glasses when one reads this post – BUT, I want to believe I am not exactly such a severe, prudish person...

I am not really sure why I need to type this out or even post it, as this brain dump of mine has been languishing in my draft folder for several months. As with most of my posts, I don't see the point it would serve if I posted it, other than perhaps hurt, anger or irritate people. And worst of all, I know I come across sounding bitter, caustic, and judgmental, when I (hope and think and believe) am not holding onto any such emotions. I am merely voicing because I understand myself and my thoughts better when I do. In a way this blog is my narcissistic attempt to mainly understand and help myself. 
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Social networking serves many purposes - mainly useful, heartening, positive functions of bringing people closer, comforting those in need of social support, quickly and efficiently promoting products and services, and voicing out issues that need to be heard and spread.

But to the majority of us, the majority of the time, they are distracting indulgences that subtly and deeply latch onto our insecurities and vices. I have seen this shift in me, and it has scared me; it still scares and disturbs me, so I am not judging. It's an observation - something that many can relate to and are already aware of.

Social networking sites are also a means to carefully construct one’s identity and reality – with narratives that frame idealized versions of how we want our lives and our self to be perceived. It’s a meticulous snapshot (well, sometimes, or most times, a relay) of who we want to be known as, not necessarily, who we are. It’s a tireless attempt at competing for and maintaining this idealized version – always thinking about the next best picture to take, how to take it, how to post it, how to caption it; what smart, witty, and nonchalant observation to make about trending news; how to turn a mundane activity into x number of likes, etc. And this surely encourages a form of narcissism that’s a blow to any attempt at truly realizing and accepting our inner-self – of who we really are and of who we want to be. Worse yet, it robs one of those many many moments within the present, because they cannot be captured through a post or a picture, and hence are lost from observation or enjoyment. Like when a person concentrates very very hard to take that perfect (clich├ęd) picture of wine glasses “casually” arranged around plates of fancy-looking Hors d'oeuvres while also capturing a hint of the background scene to make it look just the right amount of hip, cool, “elite” and sophisticated. After 10 or more attempts with the camera and 5 or more minutes of missed conversation and good food, the person is still focused on posting the picture online to frame the narrative of their elite lifestyle on weekends, and is eagerly checking their status to see the first series of likes and comments. If this is not an obsessive need for validation, that too for merely projecting an identity that one wants to step into, I don’t know what else is. If one fails to ignore the interpersonal connections within the present and tries to seek it through digitized, sometimes mindless, notifications that assuage their notions of identity, isn’t it a cry for help?

And selfies just bring up so many more hidden layers about one’s need for approval and validation on so many aspects, ranging from vanity, body-image issues, self-esteem to perception of social popularity. Sometimes, the insecurities that bleed from a selfie are too embarrassing to ignore. Why would one want to take so many pictures of themselves so frequently and with such calculated precision that makes it seem casual? I think gone are the days when we relied on mirrors to reassure or spike our insecurity. Now, everyone whips out their phone camera (sometimes in front of a mirror – the irony) and relies on the picture rather than the reality staring them in their face to understand how to feel about themselves. And after several attempts with angles, poses, and lighting, when that perfect selfie is taken, what is the point of sharing it? To share what exactly? Of how effortlessly pretty and put-together they look almost every hour of the day? Of how their days are filled with a ceaseless flow of interesting activities and people that want to be near them, hug them, and smile with them? Of how happy they are with their partner, seemingly all the time, wherever they go, and whatever they do? Like several others, I am no stranger to seeing couples that put on fake smiles for a selfie to craft an alternate version of reality. Sharing one’s happiness and special moments with people in our close network is something I definitely understand. But the compulsive need to share fake happiness and smiles to convince people time and again of something that doesn’t exist – is disturbing and sad. Or is it because the picture becomes authentic and “real” in our mind as it garners more likes and comments? Does it take a life of its own and grow into something that we want it to be when we release it within our network? Almost like planting an idea, a thought within ourselves because we want to believe in it so much?

And with all this careful framing and manipulation of reality, all that one does is to show how much they conform to the homogenous clique of people that eat similar kinds of food, that travel to similar places, do similar activities, and post similar kinds of updates. They make a statement that they are all similarly cool, happy, and even edgy. But with each post and picture, there is also an equally desperate attempt to show that they are also slightly, ever so slightly, different. And everyone is scrambling to establish their own “delta” of edginess and uniqueness with repeated attempts with their cameras and mental rehearsals of things to post. But to what end? As with most things in life, will superficiality and fakeness also level itself off at some point and will there be an equilibrium in and of itself within the online world? I think so. There will always be a point when alternate realities crumble and crack. And even within the hundreds of thousands of people that thrive with some measure of external digitized validation, a truly “needy” and "fake" person stands out, eventually. And they would need to start working on “damage control” if they want to be accepted into the pool again.  

I understand that most of us need to create our own haven of reality so that we can live through aspects of our lives that are less-than ideal. I get it. I am not immune to it. All of us have good reason to be selective of what we post and share, and how we choose to project ourselves to the world. Our need to look our best is rooted in our core. So this post of mine is not to chide or judge anyone, nor to make a sweeping, generalized comment on everyone that is active on social networking sites and that post or don’t post selfies. It’s about how destructive this indulgence can be, especially on individuals that are lost, on young adolescents and teenagers that are trying to figure out who they are through the lens of made-up profiles and superficial relationships. Maybe that’s just the next phase of our evolution. Maybe this is how people will make sense of the world and themselves, and this is the future (or rather the present) form of establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships.If you can thrive on social networking sites while maintaining a reasonably healthy sanity - you are one of the fittest that has survived, or that will continue to survive.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Decisions

Where do decisions come from?

Those who believe in their own rationality believe decisions float from the head, the mind.
Those who believe in their instincts, believe decisions come from the heart, from deep within.
Those like me, who are perpetually against blacks and whites, look to a gray area - a place that's between the mind and the heart.

But at the end of the day, it is about a strong feeling. Pros and cons and checklists and spreadsheets and equations and math can only bring you up to a certain point.
The rest is up to the feeling. You wait for that feeling of knowing.
It's also up to the people. The vibe you get off of them, the feeling of trust, of security and geniality.

Life is about living through moments that make your heart sing. And when the heart is happy, the mind is at peace.
I have never felt the mind to be at peace, even in the knowledge of what is right, when the heart is heavy.

Sometimes decisions are made to appease both the heart and the mind.
You are lost in a dialogue between the two. You carry on inner monologues and debates that come back to the same thing.

Trust the feeling.

Intuitions don't have to necessarily come from the heart. They also come from the brain, the root of our awareness and consciousness. Trust them to emanate from incubating thoughts and wisdom that stews unbeknowst to you.

Such sixth sense is the best form of feeling to bank on.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Self Worth

How does one measure their worthiness? 

In terms of the roles they play? Child, spouse, sibling, friend, colleague, parent, grandparent, boss, employee? 
The activities they do? Or don't do?
The things (material and otherwise) they receive or amass?
An interconnection of all of the above to make a delicate web of worthy, meaningful existence?

And what if, at one or point or another, stuff happens in life, and all of the above crumble? 
You are unable to play the roles you want to. Unable to do the things you want to. Incapable of receiving that which you want.
What then?
How does one measure their worthiness then? Where would one begin? And where would one end? How does it end? Does it end at all?

How does one search within oneself to find that speck of innate worthiness, if at all there is such a thing. Cloistered within oneself, in an island of our own, with no roles to play, no meaningful activities to contribute, and nothing to receive, what does it mean to feel worthy of one's existence?

To resurrect sanity and confidence, does one then reinvent new roles, search within our depths for activities to do, and hope to receive something in return? 

Does self-worth always revolve around such external dependencies - on other people, activities that affect the external environment, materials that come from the external space, and love, approval and validation that come from the roles we play?

Is there no way to find any other measure of worthiness about who we are, by just seeking and searching within ourselves, for ourselves, with no reliance on anything external?

Is it possible to do so even when one's life skitters and jogs out of control like slippery globes of marbles that scatter everywhere, yet again? 

As you watch the pieces of your life regressing and you focus on holding onto wisps of your worthiness, how do you hush these incessant questions: How did you slip? Where did you slip? When did you slip, when you thought you walked with such measured caution, placing each foot behind the other and reigning as much control as you could?

I don't have any answers. Only questions...and more questions that clamor and cry and squeal inside me.  The more the questions, the lesser my worthiness of who I am and what I ought to be doing. Are my answers hidden within my definition of my own self-worth? Is it possible to pick one form of worthiness over the other? Ah, miserable choices.

I ought to have answers. I ought to have plans that shape up and come to fruition because I worked hard at them. I truly did. But it was not enough. Every plan needs a stroke of good luck. And luck and me... haha, we never get along.

So I stand like a foolish person who didn't pay attention to where she was heading, who is forced to take the turns that life imposes, because life is always what happens to her when she is busy planning for it. Do I hop, skip, and run to a safe place, or weather this rough road ahead hoping to find a destination that promises to nurse my dying self-worth back to health? I choose the bumpy turn, and I watch as chunks of my self-worth fade and die as I make the turn. Is it ironical that I always lose something in order to gain the same thing?


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Popularity: A fresh perspective

I have realized after several years of denial, that your popularity and your ability to be at the right place at the right time determine most things in life.

It's not about quality.
It's not about persistence or hard work or diligence.
It's not the least bit about virtues or ethics.

It's always about making yourself known and popular, which means of course, likeable. No one cares how genuine you are. The shallower the better, because it is easier to be likeable then.

I have come to accept that one of the very important things (among others) that parents should teach their children, especially if they are naturally shy or withdrawn or introverted, is the social skills to be confident, to promote oneself, and to learn the strategies of how to make oneself be noticed. It might be tiring and even incredibly difficult, but to survive in today's world, one needs to absolutely have these qualities.

If one has true talent with popularity, the sky is the limit, or rather, the end of the Universe is their limit.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Reflections: A Breath of Fresh Air

Our local library was having an awesome book sale. Although I have drastically reduced buying books, it was too tempting. This book caught my eye. Having read Amulya Malladi's Mango Season several years ago, I expected this book to be similar to the former - a light, entertaining read. But after reading the premise, I had a completely different expectation from the book for a more thoughtful and deeper read. So, I put it in my basket. However, upon reading it, I think there's more that could have been done with a very promising storyline. 

Anjali, the protagonist of the book, miraculously survives the infamous gas tragedy in Bhopal, India. However, she carries physical and emotional scars left behind by the tragedy. Her marriage to her handsome army-officer husband crumbles and she remarries an honest and kind man, Sandeep. They set up a humble home in Ooty, where they work as a teacher and a professor. Both of them work to their bones, trying to constantly meet the staggering medical costs accrued due to the illness their son faces. Anjali's life goes on, until one day she meets her first husband and his present wife in her very own hilly town. Anjali goes through an emotional upheaval as she relives her past, and revisits the pain and fury that she had buried. Both families grapple to face the uncomfortable realities of the past as they try to deal with the present and move on. Amidst all this, society's judgmental eyes threaten to destroy everything that Anjali has built since her divorce. Each character is stuck in their own emotional whirlpool until they confront their mistakes and make amends. 

Sounds like a deep and heavy book, right? I was particularly interested in how the dynamics between the characters play out and how the story would progress in India's conservative society. Although there are interesting parts to the storyline, and Malladi delves into each character's mind and analyses their points of view, there were some parts of the book that went astray and read like every woman's ultimate fantasy. For one, the characters were too stereotypical. The first husband is bad and inconsiderate - a Bollywood movie's villain. He does everything that a filmy villain does. The second husband is good, far too idealistically good. Anjali's sister-in-law and parents are also quite cliched and predictable. And Anjali is the naive and strong woman who is trying to rise above the wrongs done to her. Secondly, Malladi narrates the story from the perspectives of the three important characters - Anjali, her ex, and Sandeep. While this was a nice touch, after a while every character's inner monologues ran to several pages of emotional venting and carried the same "voice". Everyone vented in the same manner, they always glorified how wonderful Anjali is and how horribly wrong they were, and I found it amusing that all their inner monologues concentrated on the minutiae of events. Is that how we sort out feelings? Although I have not gone inside a man's brain to exactly know how men think or reflect, I do know that it is different from a woman's way of thinking! Everyone's inner thoughts read like the ramblings on a an emotional woman's diary, such as mine ;)

Finally, the story itself read like a woman's fantasy of avenging all her wrong-doers. After all, it's only in one's fantasy where one's ex, a hardened egoist until days before, would miraculously regret his mistakes, profusely apologize to you, your current partner, your parents, and even more profusely glorify you and put you on a pedestal that reaches the clouds! If only people had so much self-awareness and kindness! So, a lot of the dynamics and characterizations were quite unrealistic because the characters had no shades to them. They suddenly turned uncharacteristically good or bad.

I also thought that some depictions of how conservative Indian society is, were exaggerated. True, it is still a conservative society compared to the West, but things like the treatment of widows is surely not as archaic today (or even 10 years earlier) as depicted in the book. Even the concept of divorce is not as alien in India as it was 20-30 years ago. I am always nervous of books and other media that inadvertently instill an even more outdated view of India than most people in the West already harbor. So, this was just something that I was wary about.

This is Malladi's debut book, and I am sorry to say this, it does indeed read like a debut book. Everything carries potential, but lacks finesse. I cringe when I write this, because I sound supercilious to say all this, especially after understanding how difficult it is to craft an engaging story. However, these are just my thoughts, and I am just one more clueless person on the internet expressing them.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Reflections: The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea

Whales endlessly fascinate me. They have a strange allure on me, causing a curious mix of fear, wonder, and an eagerness to know more. I have heard several personal stories from colleagues and friends from the Pacific coast on how pods of humpback whales have swum inches by their little rafts, making sure that not a drop of water splashed on them while they gracefully rose and dove at just the right intervals to avoid the rafts. Such consideration and compassion is so moving! I regard whales as truly gentle beasts of the sea with so much enigma around them. So, this acclaimed book was an apt gift from my husband who is fascinated with me being fascinated with whale watching.

Anyway, I was quite excited to read the book. I expected it to be a glorious book on whales - expounding on their behaviors, biology, habitat, and a little history rendered through a literary style of writing. However, this turned out to be mostly history - specifically the history of whaling and the misconceptions and metaphors surrounding whales before science clarified and debunked almost all of them. Being a fan of Moby Dick, the author frames most of the book using Moby Dick as his muse. I definitely enjoyed most of the book, but those parts of Moby Dick that were not captivating to me, specifically about the history of whaling, were present in this book too. So, I generously skimmed those pages/chapters.

But what I really loved about this book was my connection with the author's palpable enthusiasm, excitement, and wide-eyed fascination with whales! It was a wonderful resonance! If I had heard him talk in person, I think all my hair would have stood on end with excitement! All those elusive words that I have grappled with to articulate why I am so moved by whales are present bountifully in this book. And what beautiful words and apt sentences are spilled through this book! The writing is truly beautiful and literary. So, my heart raced, my head was nodding and my lips were breaking into a smile as I read through passages glorifying this magnificent beast. I particularly enjoyed reading about all the myths surrounding whales - the beasts of the sea that no one could see before the advent of aquariums and documentaries.

One aspect that clawed at me was my guilt at understanding how whales are (or used to be) transported to aquariums for public viewing. I don't think I will ever see beluga whales at an aquarium with the same mirth.  Side note: aren't beluga whales awesome? Such cheery, calming creatures. The author briefly discusses the costs and benefits (if at all) of bringing these animals to captive habitats - even if the habitat is set up with good intentions.

If there's one thing I would wish about this book, it would be to cut short on the historical aspects and concentrate more on the behavior and biology of whales. I guess, that means I should just walk into a library and pick a biology book. But if only biology books were as well written as this one!

The historical aspects of whaling do have a lot of social and environmental relevance today, so I appreciate that. However, more on the whales themselves would have been fantastic.

To wrap up, this is a wonderful, well written book that idealizes and empathizes with whales. The book engulfs whales with so much romanticism and glory. History buffs with interest in marine creatures or fishing will appreciate this book all the more.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Being the Best

I realized something valuable about pushing oneself to be better, to be the best. The realization is not ground-breaking, but it's something that I need to understand and internalize. And I internalize best by talking and writing about it.

I think it's natural for everyone to want to push ahead of the crowd. This spark of ambition is required for survival, and it fosters healthy competition. However, over the years, I have come to resent this urge within me that constantly nags me to get ahead and be better, because I've been losing inner peace and failing to realize a feeling of contentment despite anything I do. There's always a voice within me that says, "It's still not the best". Previously, I used to be perpetually flustered that I was lagging behind, not doing the best, and therefore thought I was failing. I wanted to be perfect at everything. As everyone knows, perfectionism is the evil that puts an end to every dream and attempt. I was afraid to try anything because I was discontent that I was not doing the "best". So I did what I always do best - retreat inside myself. Opportunities passed by me, and I was safely cocooned inside telling myself I would anyway not be the best, so why even try? I realized that my very ambition came back to hurt me, and I ended up doing the exact opposite - not nurturing an ambition at all to save myself from the fear of competing and excelling and being the best. 

Now, after lessons learned, I have tried to strike a balance between ambition and perfectionism. But only very recently, did I realize something significant that altered the way I was dealing with perfectionism, and being and doing the best. 

There's a difference between being "THE best" and being "MY best". MY best might still not be THE best ever, it might not even be someone's idea of being "acceptable", but it is the best I can be. And I have finally understood this and embraced this. I'm now trying to accept it at every phase of my life. I now know when I did my very best, and when I did not. Some self reflection has taught me my own limits, and that no matter how hard I push, after a point, I am who I am, and my improvements in certain areas can only be a minor increment that perhaps will not count in the grand scheme of things. However, realizing and filling in the gaps within yourself to be your very best is the most rewarding form of self-actualization.

Watching the Winter Olympics taught me this. I had never paid so much attention to the Olympics ever before. But this year, as my own insecurities, anxieties, and uncertainties were whirling inside me, I have been observing people all the more. I was more interested in the hundreds of people that did not win anything at the Olympics. Seeing all the athletes that dedicated their lives to being their very best at a sport lose the medal over fractions of a second or a few seconds, tore my heart. I marveled at their spirit, for trying and continuing to work hard despite knowing the incredible competition they faced, despite realizing the possibility that they would not win. They did not do what I would have done - throw down the towel and say, "What's the use? Why bother? I am not the best anyway". However, they still pushed themselves, they still vowed to dedicate four more years of their lives to grueling training even if it meant they might never win.  It warmed my heart to see the genuine smiles and happiness on the faces of those athletes that did not win, but were proud that they showcased their personal best at the Olympics. What makes them do it? Passion, a realization for what they can do, actualizing the best they can ever be?

We cannot all be winners or the world's best at everything we do. The world is large, and the talented people in it are astounding. Even if we are not the ultimate best at what we do, it does not mean we are worthless. It's only realistic to aim for our personal best and to keep improving ourselves in areas where we recognize room for growth within ourselves; this room should not be measured against everyone in the world or the best in the world. Such a gap is far too huge to close by everyone. Besides, is it even possible to truly quantify "best" in the world?  It is also just as important to realize when we have hit our limits and to accept them. No use banging on an iron door with no key or tools. A sloth can dream and train and practice and work hard, but he will never be a leopard. We are who we are. Cultivate those aspects where your limits stretch out far and beyond. You may still not be the absolute best at it, but make use of the skills you have to try and push the fringes of the limits as much as you can.

Now that I have realized my limits, I need to make sure every work that I do is taken right up to the frontiers of my limits, of my own very best. That's the best that I can ever do. Then, I should sit back and let the Universe take its course. Whatever is the outcome, I should have the magnanimity and equanimity to accept it and be content with the knowledge that I did my best. And bask in the contentment of actualizing the best in me.

It's great to strive to be the best you can be, for yourself.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Reflections: We Need New Names

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and garnering some prestigious literary awards, this is a powerful and raw debut novel that candidly addresses the inter-tangled issues of immigration, identity, and coming of age. Darling is a young ten year old girl in the poverty-striken, ravaged land of Zimbabwe. She and her friends live through their family's despair by playing simple games through which they try to live their fantasies of living a better life; a life in the precious country of United States, a life where they can wear good clothes, eat decent food, go to good schools, and lead a dignified life. Darling's aunt lives in the United States, so Darling nurtures the strong hope that she would one day leave her wretched country and her bitter memories, and start a new life in America. One day, she manages to go to the U.S. But reality is different.

In the U.S, her aunt lives in a different kind of poverty and desperation. Darling sees her aunt working round the clock to send money and materials to the hungry family in Zimbabwe that assumes that everyone in the U.S lives a wealthy, comfortable life. The family back home appears parasitic to Darling. Amidst all the changes, confusions, and bitterness, Darling grows into a teenager who realizes she is now in no-man's land. She does not have enough money to go back home, nor a valid visa status to legally study or work in the U.S. Her only option is to work for low wages, be in constant hiding from the authorities, and make ends meet in a foreign land that does not offer any of the things she was hoping for. She has to face the heart twisting reality of probably never seeing her mom, her friends, or feel the familiarity of her land again.

When I read the book last November, I did not think much of it. It seemed like yet another book on immigration concerning a lost African child. What did strike me was how confident the writing was, and how un-apologetically raw, sharp and honest everything about it was. It has a rather abrupt ending, but rightfully so, because such stories have no ending in real life. Such real life stories are left hanging, just like the people that are hanging onto fragments of their past and present in hopes of making something of a future. I have realized that the more I let a book live with me in my thoughts, the more I learn about it, the more honed and mature my opinions of it are. After all these months, thinking about this book has made me revise my initial neutrality towards it. All the scenarios described in the book are coming back to me with rich, vivid frames that will always stay in my memory when I think about immigrants that have left their lands to barely make ends meet. And I think such strong recollections of key scenarios and characters of the book are marks of a good book. I can forget the story and the details, but I will never forget Darling's emotions and that of her aunt's. I may even forget Darling's name, but not some of the core scenes.

There is one scene in specific that clinched the book's essence. It's something I will always remember. Darling's aunt who is making her living in the U.S. decides to phone-order something for herself from Victoria's Secret. Her conversation with the sales representative from Victoria's Secret was so poignant and evocative of all her internal struggles and sadness that I will never forget the emotions that transpired. Her struggle to make herself understood to a foreign representative, her adamance to not change her accent because it is who she is, and her attempt at convincing herself and the girl on the line that she can, she ought to, and she deserves to order an expensive inner garment for herself said it all about the illegal immigrant experience.

Zimbabwe's socio-political scene is extremely complicated and riddled with historic legacies of racism. Bulawayo doesn't go into details, but merely outlines crucial aspects of it through the observations of a child's eye. This makes it all the more tragic.

In all, this is a strong and impressive debut novel that seems to require some time and reflection for the raw sadness to settle in. Although the book is short and the writing is simple, the writing evokes scenes and characters in a unique way, making the book memorable and powerful. I am looking forward to more of Bulawayo's books!


Friday, May 02, 2014

A Tribute

With smiles and happiness all around me, I find myself unsuccessfully controlling my tears. 

Because I am reminded of you, R. I am in tears knowing that I will never see how you would have been proud, happy, and satisfied to read and see what I did with all your words, tears, thoughts, views, and emotions. I was so close and yet too late. And for that, I will be forever disappointed in myself. My gigantic document sags with the realization that people to whom the content matters the most are not around to read it. I can hear your jokes and wisecracks about my tears, and I smile and cry a little more.

Last week, you would have celebrated your 30th birthday. As I thank the Universe for one thing, I curse it and demand explanations for many things on behalf of you. Karma does not make sense anymore. Nothing - no theory, no pacification, no explanation makes sense anymore when I see the world through you.  It is unacceptable. But you managed to see above all that. With all the pain and tragedy you lived in, you still smiled at a senseless, cruel life, and gave back so much love, laughter, warmth, and goodness as a wonderful son, uncle, brother, and friend. As unfair as life can be, you showed how to live through everything with grace, dignity, and a sense of humor.

And your smile, it is forever etched in me. Your smile will continue to teach me to value the deeper things in life. You showed me that it is possible to see the goodness and positive light glinting within every moment, and you taught me to live life through these small, shining moments. The lingering memory of your smile will always light up the darkest alleys I have to cross in my life. 

I cannot begin to thank you for sharing so much of yourself with me; and for trusting me enough to let me in to your most personal and private space.

You will be dearly missed, even by those of us that only knew you for a grand total of eight hours of your life. Only a few among millions can touch people like you did within a small slice of time. And you really were one in a million.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fitting In and Standing Out

A snippet from the sitcom Modern Family

Manny, a middle-schooler, feels bad that he gets picked on by his peers for being "weird" and "different"
Mitch, a smart gay man, tells him,
"Yeah, they [kids in school] would, um… they'd call me weird. I was weird… fun weird. But I… this is the funny thing about growing up. For years and years, everybody's desperately afraid to be different, you know, in any way. And then, suddenly, almost overnight, everybody wants to be different. And that is where we win."

I don't know if people like us ever really "win".

However, this is a tussle that is more than just a phase that people go through. It is a constant, continuous struggle to get the balance just right - to fit in just enough, while still standing out just at the right distance away from the crowd. Not blending in, but not ostracized either.

No matter how many years have elapsed since those "growing up" years, no matter how well you (think) you know yourself, the desire to fit-in (to just the right degree) lingers. Despite your inner monologues, rational chit-chats that invoke the power of your individual choice, the expression of your true self, the impossibility of having been anybody else or done things in any other way, a part of you withers for standing out - a little too far out. You tell yourself that you are tired of always being different, of always being the "weird" complicated one, and once in a while, all you want to do is walk a simple, straightforward, uncomplicated, natural path to get to a few conventional things that add meaning and validation to your life; like everyone else that did and continues to do so, seemingly effortlessly. 

Even as I write this out, in my characteristic way of venting to a computer screen rather than talking to someone, I wonder why I am being so...
Why I need to think so when most people don't...
Why I struggle to just keep moving and pushing through, brushing off things without the need to analyze and ask the nagging "why" questions...
Yes, the last question is a classic irony... Why do I ask "why"... 

Because I am, and will always be weird, complicated, sensitive, and different. Always trying to catch up with the course of "normality", I end up on convoluted detours that give me joy on one level and a dull ache of inexplicable yearning on another. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Story of Krishna - Part I

People intrigue and fascinate me. My conviction is that everybody is essentially trying hard to live a life as best as they can, and therefore along the way, they acquire traits and habits, some that are viewed as positive/good and some that are viewed as negative/bad. But there are always reasons for those “good” and “bad” traits. And I’m drawn to those reasons and the ways in which people mutate or evolve because of them. For a while now, my mind has been jostling with caricatures of interesting personality types, because I can now begin to see overarching commonalities and patterns across categories of people who go through similar experiences. As a creative writing exercise, I'm attempting to write descriptions and stories of these characters. These characters are a mixture of fact and fiction, not representing any one particular individual, but a persona of characters. Any direct allusion to any living individual is purely coincidental, but since the stories are born from reality, they will probably remind us of someone in our lives. This exercise is to mainly to let out some of my thoughts and to truly understand what it takes to write a story and develop a fictional character rooting from reality.

More than a year ago, I started this exercise/experiment and have been slowly writing once every few months, whenever inspiration strikes. And then I forgot about it until I was clearing out a folder today, and saw this untitled document. One of my kind and generous friends keeps insisting that I write a book someday. I tell him that I have a long, long way to go and I’m nowhere close. But he is consistently encouraging and reminds me that I have to start somewhere, and be ready to make mistakes. So, I am sharing this little tidbit, bravely. Thanks to you, Karthik!

My exercise is to focus and write on just one character’s journey through life. It’s not a story, just a character sketch, that is seemingly long and endless, now that I have begun writing. Yes, there is redundancy and need for editing, so please feel free to give me feedback for improvement!
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The Story of Krishna 
(Inspired from Flowers for Algernon, a deeply touching book that makes me cry just thinking about it. And inspired from parent-child relationships I have seen over the years)

Krishna was born on a sweltering summer’s day.  At his moment of arrival, his grandmother had received him with more relief than any other emotion akin to joy, because she had been panicking if her daughter could make it through much more of her labor. When the old woman's thoughts were wrung with anxiety on whether to call the neighbors for help, and if her daughter could endure a ride on a bullock cart to the only hospital situated at the outskirts of their village, Krishna had miraculously made an entrance. The old woman first checked on her gasping, but alive daughter, and then fixed her gaze on the small infant in her hands. It was a boy, and for this the old woman fervently thanked Lord Krishna. Her daughter had delivered her first born child, that too a son! Oh how much more relief could she bear. It was only when the old woman hobbled to her feet to show the child to her daughter did she realize how quiet the child was. Her panic came rushing back, coursing through her body and pounding on her feeble heart. She swayed in a black haze of dizzying shock. She careened unsteadily with the child and cried, “Why is he not crying?!” Although she had given birth to 7 children in this very room, and had been the midwife to countless women in her village, her emotions as a grandmother holding her divinely still grandson took over and erased every last thought of hers on how to revive the child or do anything. As Krishna’s mom began to wail in alarm, his terrified grandmother shouted her anguish to the maid, hoping she remembered how to help the beautiful child lying in her hands. Just as the maid rushed in to take the child, Krishna let out his first cry. It wasn’t a piercing scream of a child announcing that he was alive and well, but a mellow coo, a gentle whine like that of a little bird. All the women blinked and listened closely, bringing the child close to their ears, and cried with relief and happiness when Krishna continued to breathe and cry softly. And so, the child was named Krishna, for his miraculous survival.

Krishna was a beautiful child. He always wore a beatific smile on his face that made him look even more beautiful and endearing. Although he was a really small child, his features were sharp and alert. While nobody called the child active, his eyes were bright and glowing. They closely followed people and objects, betraying an infectious vivacity and pure goodness of spirit. Krishna’s birth was often talked about in his family. He was good-naturedly called a slow-crawler, because his birth was slow and arduous, his first cry was slow and feeble, and even all his milestones were slow in arriving. He sat up late, crawled late, walked late, and uttered his first word only when he was 3. “Slow” became an adjective that was constantly attached to Krishna.

His father, a stern and domineering man with his own wounds and insecurities, couldn’t stand his son being called “slow”. He treated it as a personal affront. He fumed and raged from within and resolved that he would mold and raise Krishna to be a successful and smart man who was anything but “slow”. He assuaged himself by imagining the pride he would feel when Krishna proves everyone wrong. With this fierce resolution in place, he built a strict and ambitious regimen for Krishna. Everything was planned for the child - from the time he wakes up in the morning to the time he goes to bed - every hour was meticulously and carefully planned so that Krishna didn’t have to waste any minute doing something that would detract him from his goals. And his goal, which was decided for him, was to become an engineer, no less. So, at 5:00 AM every morning, 4 year old Krishna was dragged out of bed despite his mother’s protests, to start his day. His face was splashed with cold water to jolt him from his sleep, a toothbrush was thrust into his mouth, and the child’s morning rituals thus began. He would then sit next to his father and practice his writing and reading. Every time he slumped on his little desk because his weary eyes closed, he would feel the cool slap of the metal ruler on his leg, and he would snap up awake, fearing his father’s anger. Though the fierce discipline in his father’s heart thawed every so often, he reigned in his emotions and tied them up tight. Rationality before emotion, he told himself. Krishna needs to do all this to be successful and happy! He will thank me one day, I am sure. And so, the father, a man of steel, consoled himself every time he faltered, and relied on rationalized justifications whenever Krishna’s mom pleaded with him to relent.

Krishna didn’t mind waking up early, didn’t mind staying indoors and peeping through the the metal grills of his window to watch other children play in the yard, as long as he could get his father to crack a smile at him. The boy longed for his father’s love and tried really hard to win his affection and approval. Every day that passed, his father had nothing more to offer than rattle off a list of attributes that Krishna lacked. It seemed to Krishna that he was just a boy with an endless list of things that were wrong with him. As an innocent 6 year old, Krishna repeated the list over and over in his mind, and thought of going to one of those factories that his father keeps talking about, and asking one of the smart engineers there to replace his brain so that he could be as smart as the engineer himself. That’s what engineers do - his father had told him. They build things and make them move! They fix things that are not working, and they replace parts of a machine to make it work better! Don’t you want to do all those things?! Krishna couldn’t find it within him to nod, because he was completely awestruck with what engineers could do! It’s like being God! And how could he ever become a God?! Maybe the engineers knew, he thought to himself. So, the first step was to meet one and place a request to replace his brain or fix it, because he knew it wasn’t working properly, and it was upsetting his father.

But he needed money to fix his brain. Krishna knew that much. His father reminded him of the value of money every day, especially on those days when he playfully squirted a little too much toothpaste or accidentally spilled some of his milk.

But where could he get the money?

To be Continued… 
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I don't know when I will finish part 2, but hopefully sometime within the end of this year!

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Standing Together

There are not many successful people in Hollywood that have intelligence accompanying their talent. Lupita Nyong'o is one of those rare people that is breathtakingly sophisticated, intelligent, and articulate with an old-world elegance and grace. Her every speech emphasizes how refined and truly beautiful she is.

Her speech on beauty has become quite popular on social media. And I wanted to record some of the beauty of her words here, especially since today is Women's Day. 

Her speech rings true to many women around the globe. Women in India still obsess over whitening their skin; attributing beauty, reducing and crushing it to just one ideal - white, pale skin.

It disappoints me that no matter what one's education, their professional ascent, the size of their house, their modernity in external appearances, their mind is still closed on this matter. Education surely helps one unlock the many doors and windows within one's mind, but not everyone chooses to do so. Such people, women being the majority of that group, still pass cruel judgments even on new-born babies and the color of their skin. 

In a country where there are still shameful commercials for skin-whitening creams that imply that a woman's skin color can crucially determine her future career, and her prospects for a decent husband and a happy life, there are millions of young girls and women that focus their thoughts and energy on a ridiculously silly endeavor towards external "beauty". And what is the ugly truth? It is us women, more often that not, that continue to perpetuate this nasty stereotype. 
The mother that rejects a woman for her son because she is not fair-skinned.
The grandmother that is disappointed in her grandchild for not being fair-skinned.
The woman on TV telling you to buy skin-lightening creams to look like her.
The fashionista that tells you not to wear certain colors of clothing because it will not suit your complexion.
The clique of mean girls in school that bully and taunt you because of your complexion.

The list goes on. Women sometimes bring down other women. Down to a deep, deep, dark place of no return. One of the first things we need to do as women is to always stand together and support one another. From matters of education, dowry, abuse, to the several other social prejudices unfairly bedeviling our women, we, as women, really need to stop perpetuating the destructive cycle.

In this particular case, change truly comes from within, and starts with every individual accepting themselves for who they are, and investing their efforts and energy into worthwhile things of substance.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Reflections: The Lowland


Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland is a sweeping saga revolving around complicated characters reconciling with their individual loss and guilt, and connecting with the people they truly love.

The story starts in Calcutta, with two brothers - Subhash and Udayan. Subhash is the elder, more serious, studious, practical brother, while Udayan is the  impulsive, idealistic, smart, and charming younger sibling. The two brothers share a close relationship of love with a sprinkling of envy for each other. Their underlying tussle of sibling rivalry motivates each other to move in different directions. While Subhash heads to the U.S for his PhD, Udayan fervently joins  the newly emerging Naxalite movement. The brothers lead their separate lives, discovering new experiences and revelations, while mostly unaware of each other’s journey. Inevitably, Udayan quickly finds himself embroiled in the movement and faces the danger of being killed. The disconcerting issue is - he now has a young scholarly wife, who is carrying his child. Subhash, playing the role of  the dutiful elder brother, needs to make some tough decisions to pick up where his brother left and restore some balance to his broken family. The story swoops and sweeps across two generations with each character struggling to cope with the chain of events unleashed by Udayan and desperately seeking to fill the gaping voids in their lives.

It was refreshing to read a book by Jhumpa Lahiri that had little to do with immigration and identity. Yes, there are surely parts of the book that deal with it, but it doesn’t take center stage. The story primarily explores the aftermath of loss, and the journey through recovery and guilt. It shows how one person’s actions can ripple and affect so many people’s lives over so many years in the most crippling ways possible. Actions multiply and mutate as they pervade the emotions of people around them, and Lahiri very sensitively showcases this. At its heart, it is a simple story, but it is brought out beautifully by knitting socio-cultural elements with the political atmosphere of India in the 60’s. What is just a footnote in history translates to a rumbling storm in so many people’s lives. The emotional tapestry swirling in the storm flows with all the elements, and no stitch seems jarring or out of place.

The characters define this book. Although every character is unique and interesting, I could not relate to anyone, except perhaps Subhash. I was initially drawn to Gauri, because she was the most complicated one with the greatest emotional turmoil, but there were many moments in the story where she is hard to sympathize with. She distances herself from even you, the reader. I find that Lahiri sometimes over-complicates her characters while portraying their external reactions to their inner tumult. I don’t think it is completely realistic or even necessary for characters to always act out in irrational, bizarre and exaggerated ways to deal with emotional trauma. So, Gauri’s progression through the story was a little frustrating, although arguably, the most intriguing. On the other hand, Subash’s character was excruciatingly touching and endearing. Initially, his motives seemed dubiously double-edged and I wasn't convinced of his good nature. I fearfully expected him to turn “crazy” or weird and complicate things, but he consistently remained "simple" in his motivations and just kept going with the beat. His character was rendered true to many real life souls whose patience, kindness and resilience are inspiring. Bela’s journey from child to adult was honest in its portrayal, but her rebellious stage seemed a little too long. I guess that’s just a slice of reality. I grappled to understand her during her years of emotional estrangement with Subhash, because I was uncomfortable in the knowledge that no matter how much one parent does, children need both parents, a complete home and a family to grow into their own, find themselves and mature into confident, secure individuals. It broke my heart that despite all of Subhash’s unconditional love and effort, Bela still loses her way and meanders for a long while.  

This is another book that is mainly driven by characters. Lahiri delicately handles the mess of emotions that plague a family after a tragedy. I was emotionally invested while reading this book and remained interested in the characters’ individual journeys to make peace. This is a quiet, introspective, and absorbing read. 


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Reflections: Last Man in Tower

Vishram Cooperative Housing Society in Mumbai is home to many interesting residents - lonely, corrupt, insecure, ignorant, and ambitious. But life goes on. Gossips and petty squabbles are usually brushed aside, and common decency intermingled with friendships, even if they are opportunistic, hold the two apartment towers. One day, a powerful real-estate developer that's hungry to clear out some land to develop a grand building to bolster his ego, offers the residents a substantial sum of money to vacate the land. Money, the all-intoxicating green monster, slowly lures every family to accept the offer.... well, all except one stubborn, idealistic teacher that refuses to leave his old apartment in exchange for any sum of money. Masterji, the teacher, aggravates the collective sensibility of Vishram, for no one can understand why anyone would be so intractable when Goddess Lakshmi  in the form of an unimaginable amount of money) was ready to change all their middle-class lives for the better. If Masterji doesn't accept the offer, no one gets their money, and all their hopes of rebuilding a better future in the form of a better apartment and a better bank balance are all torn to shreds. One man is pitted against all the residents and the calculative people of the ruthless real-estate world. Adiga shocks his readers yet again through this thought-provoking novel that explores how far the allure of money can push people to the edge of morality, or rather immorality, while trying to make a living in an unapologetic city of constant rat-races.

This book is most memorable for its characters. There are not too many characters, but just enough to give flavor to the different types of personality that one usually encounters in a typical apartment complex. Each one is realistic and brilliantly depicted. The characters have their own back story that plays into their individual needs and motivation to procure the generous sum of money. Their desperation to gain the money is completely understandable, even if some of their motives are loathsome. There is a part of you that gets it - the primal part that connects with the greed and desire to move onto better pastures. And that's what shocks you the most. You are as repelled and turned off by the greed as you are frustrated by masterji's adamance. Masterji's character is fleshed out in a very intelligent and interesting fashion. His refusal to leave the apartment seems rooted in a non-capitalist agenda, but as the story develops, Adiga brings out so many interesting shades to his idealism and stubbornness, it's fascinating. You see a lonely man clinging to memories of his dead wife and daughter in his old flat, a scared old man holding onto his principles because he is afraid he has nothing else left for him, and a lost man not knowing how to reconcile his ego. At a certain point in time, every battle loses its meaning... the reasons and principles for initiating the battle are long forgotten, but the battle wages on and on, because no one knows how to end it. Everything just boils down to a battle of egos. 

I really liked this book. The ending does shock, and it might seem exaggerated, but the characters' arc of growth (or deterioration, in this case) is built with realistic and measured strokes of story telling. The ending is almost a parody, a satirical take on the darker side of human nature. Adiga intelligently explores what morality means to each of the characters, and how "good" and "bad" are so intertwined in each of us that the so-called "good person" can be connived into repressing his conscience, while the so-called "corrupt person" can be pushed to confront his conscience. It's a beautiful character study of greed, analyzed from multiple perspectives. All of this is laced with an incisively insightful social commentary on the real-estate world in Mumbai, where there are more people than available land. As India develops and booms with bigger buildings and more opportunities, there are still people being squandered and trampled in the mad stampeded to grab the elusive opportunities.

I thought this book was better than Adiga's acclaimed White Tiger for his portrayal of complicated characters in a seemingly simple, straightforward story. If you enjoy character sketches, this book is sure to impress you.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Reciprocity

For the last few months, my husband and I have been having intense discussions on reciprocity. Our arguments are so diverse and complicated (when jumbled in our heads) that I’ve reached a point where I need to assimilate my thoughts by writing it all out.

Ayn Rand was the first one to instill this idea in me that everything we do is selfish and rooted in appeasing our self. Any selfless compassionate act such as philanthropy is shaded by selfish instincts, because the acts make us feel good and less guilty. It sometimes makes one even feel superior, magnanimous and powerful. I understand that this is a cynical way of thinking.

The other perspective that changed my worldview is the concept of reciprocity as theorized by evolutionary biologists. Altruism stems from self-interest or genetic interest in protecting our species and in making sure we get protected. In our complex society, one needs to be cooperative and nice to others in order for the favor to be returned to us. If you get someone a gift, you know or at least expect (at some deep level) to receive something “good” in return. And if you believe in Karma, you subconsciously or consciously expect good Karma to follow you. So you expect to reap what you sow. This balance of reciprocity is what makes our society function. This might also be a cynical perspective.

But understanding the above two perspectives has made me that much more critical when it comes to “giving”. I try to be helpful to people from whom I know I will receive nothing in return… not even a thank you or a genuine feeling of happiness on their end. It is my way of cracking my ego and my inner need for any kind of reciprocity. It doesn’t mean that I pick out only such people to give or help… but I make sure that every year, I have a list of people that I give to unconditionally, truly without any strings of reciprocity. But even so, perhaps at some level, I expect good Karma to save me in times of my personal need and I do feel good that I helped someone so unconditionally. So, this nags me constantly. What do I do to commit at least one genuine selfless act, if there is one?

Here’s what I do - I give to people who are not (to put it mildly) nice to me. If someone is insensitive and callous and rude, I smile and give them a homemade batch of baked goods that I slaved over. This annoys my husband to no end. But I think this is Gandhi’s excellent philosophy to keep one’s ego in check - by giving to those who don’t treat you well and who will not give you anything in return. Even though one can still argue that this is not a truly selfless act, it is far less selfish than giving to someone who is good to you and who is sure to reciprocate. But maybe the knowledge or belief that the act is far less selfish by itself is a self-congratulatory one, thus nullifying everything.

I hate taking an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. As someone once said -  if everybody did that, we would all be eyeless and toothless. But according to my husband, do good (twice or thrice as much) to someone who is good to you, and do good to someone who truly deserves it (even if they will not return the favor to you in any tangible way). Don’t waste time on those who treat you bad or cannot care less about what you give. Treat them with the same disdain as they treat you with.

Writing it all out, it seems like my husband’s simple and efficient point of view makes more sense than my complicated one. I agree with him on all counts, except the last one.  
Here’s an example: If someone never wishes you on your birthday or special occasion because they have purposely omitted you from their annual “occasion reminders” and never bothers to add your date to the reminder (but has everyone else on their calendar-reminder list), and you know and remember their birthday or special occasion, would you decide to not wish them just to even the score? Because an eye for an eye and all that? How can you not wish them knowing and remembering what day it is? Forcing yourself to not wish them is feeding on your ego and revenge mentality isn’t it? But if you decide to wish them and get them a gift, are you trying to prove that you are a bigger person, thus bloating your ego anyway?

A conundrum. I would rather do the latter than the former, because you can’t really prove something to someone who doesn’t care. Building up on anger and revenge is such an unwanted negative energy… it leads to nothing constructive. However, if you took the latter approach, you are giving your relationship with the person a chance to amend and grow, and there is a possibility of positive changes. Even if nothing comes out of it, you are training yourself to give unconditionally. Right?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Believing in Free Will

Ever since I read this article last September, I have been wanting to quickly post my thoughts - mostly as a record and reminder for myself in the future.

Like every other person, I used to obsess over whether or not we humans really have free will or if we are living in a delusional deterministic Universe. The curious thing about Science is that it both pokes fun at and hints at the Universe being causal and deterministic, for the most part. So, realizing that the mysteries of the Universe can't just be neatly unraveled in my lifetime, I have been resorting to the idea that one has to just follow the beliefs that practically work for us. If the beliefs make us better human-beings and help us (and others around us) grow, that's all the reason to embrace them, even if they don't have solid rational proof of any kind.

The article above was a sign, and a measure of proof for the rational-minded, that believing in free will is much more healthier for us than believing in a fatalistic, deterministic world where one feels rudderless and without control. A strong belief that we have the freedom to make our own choices makes us more ethical and responsible towards our actions, and most importantly, makes us more content from within. And according to me, the right balance of spirituality and a belief in free will is the key to finding peace and happiness from within. For those that believe religion and spirituality are the same, I will just clarify by stating that I (merely, ignorant me) define spirituality as the philosophy underlying religious tenets. The reason I bring spirituality here is because of two lines of thought:
  1. Most religions espouse the notion of a preordained destiny, that is to say, a deterministic Universe. So, why bother about our actions when everything is written out for us? While the dogma surrounding karma, after-life and fear of punishment makes people of faith act moral, that kind of morality does not involve everyday simple actions and thoughts. People of faith can still fester inside with negativity while outwardly doing the prescribed rituals of "right". Interestingly enough, many people use religious faith as one way to take control of their lives, because they believe there is no other way to change their destiny. They pray 20 times a day, perform 10 different rituals a day, hoping to change a host of things in their lives, while becoming increasingly deluded and miserable. However, the spirituality (or philosophy) behind many religious scriptures  implies that although the Universe follows the law of causality, every individual has a role to play. They are in charge of their actions and are not mere puppets in a deterministic stage show. I won't quote texts, because it is sure to invite tangential arguments. But, this gives back the belief of control to us, and teaches us how to use it properly. Unfortunately, this aspect is buried underneath all the ritualistic, superfluous dogma.
  2. When choices weigh on you negatively and bring out guilt and sorrow, spirituality has antidotes in the form of practical/theological justifications for why you should let go of guilt and the past, and look at the bigger picture of how causally connected the Universe is. It helps immensely to find peace within oneself and in making peace with others around us.
Belief in free will is practically sensible. But it comes with baggage, because too many choices are not always helpful, and burdening ourselves with too much responsibility can be overwhelming, especially when the choices are hard and the decisions are not easy. The slippery and comforting nature in which spirituality defines causality, free will and determinism, offers us solace to move on. It's not about whether the texts are right or wrong, logical or illogical, true or false. They are like pain-medications to help you recuperate and forget. They are coping mechanisms to help you realize that you are insignificant in this grand scheme of things while simultaneously making you believe that your actions are still meaningful and powerful to your destiny and to that of the Universe. Win-Win.

The Universe acts in accordance with the law of causality. Some aspects of our life and Universe are undoubtedly deterministic. But free will can still exist.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Reflections: Americanah

This is a strong and bold novel that primarily focuses on immigrant experience and the subtle and not-so-subtle kinds of racial discrimination faced by people of color in the West. 

Ifemulu is a bright and strong-willed girl in Nigeria, who seems to have her life in order. Her intelligent and doting boyfriend, Obinze  has planned out every detail of their future together. She is determined to make something of herself, but according to Obinze, that means getting out of Nigeria and securing an admission into a university in the U.S or the U.K. Although she is resistant to the idea, she eventually succumbs to the grand plan when her university remains closed due to protests and riots, leaving her rusty and restless. She leaves behind Obinze and embarks on her journey to the land that beckons many such eager students - the United States. Once in the U.S, she is stricken by the harsh reality of the ways of life. Slowly, she fumbles her way and negotiates the new social & cultural paradigms within her new country. She begins severing her ties and relationships back home as she gets mired in her own mistakes and growths. Soon, she becomes an educated scholar, and begins to dissect the social hierarchies inherent in the U.S from the perspective of racial and ethnic discrimination. Back home, Obinze travels to London and faces debilitating humiliations of his own, and realizes for the first time that he will always be regarded as an outsider in the West because of his skin color. Disillusioned and withered, he comes back to Nigeria and makes something of himself. One fine day, after several years and a U.S citizenship, Ifemulu decides to go back home. Visiting Nigeria for the first time since she left, she has many bittersweet experiences, but most importantly she needs to come to her own, to realize where she belongs, what she is meant to be doing, and how to resolve her ambiguous emotions towards Obinze - now a husband and a father. 

Adichie is a fearless and smart writer, much like Ifemulu herself. Through Ifemulu, she takes  another daring stand - of not creating a conventionally likeable, personable protagonist. Why should the protagonist be "nice" in every story?, she asks. I agree, well, mostly. I understand that likeable, ideal protagonists are boring. A multidimensional and quirky personality makes the character and the story much more interesting, deep, and honest. I'm all for it. However, I couldn't warm up to Ifemulu. She annoyed me to no end. Ifemulu is audaciously self-absorbed, self-entitled, opinionated, and ruthlessly critical and judgmental of everyone and everything around her. She is one of those individuals that complains and ridicules at everything from up her high-horse. Even if people are kind and nice, she finds excuses to ridicule them. She puts herself at the center of everything. For all her criticisms and judgments of people around her, she is completely and utterly insensitive and oblivious to how she treats others. She is quick to take offense and even quicker to offend others. So, though I could relate to her initial student experiences in the U.S, I couldn't ever (and I tried really hard) understand or sympathize with her selfish decisions. It is tricky when you struggle to sympathize with the protagonist, because you are no longer invested in her story. You don't root for her, and you want to constantly reach into the book and give her a piece of your mind. I have read many good books with a flawed protagonist, but they have all been shaped such that the reader understands why they are flawed, and finds sympathy and good will toward them - in some measure. In Ifemulu's case, her personality is just so brazen that even though you find her warm heart peeking through in glimmers,  she doesn't ingratiate herself with you. She is an honest and excellent embodiment of such real-life characters, no doubt, which is why she evoked so much emotion and anger in me. Kudos to Adichie for bringing to life such a character, but I think she overstepped the line a bit much in making her too difficult.

So, now that I have hammered my distaste for the protagonist, I'll move onto the story and the content. Adichie has vehemently lifted the rug under American/Western society to expose all the carefully neglected dirt and dust surrounding racism that still persists beneath politically-correct statements and notions. Through this novel, she has voiced, cried, attacked, approached, and analyzed racism with a zealous and confident flair. The reader can sense her own disappointments, frustrations and wounds. She brings up every kind of cultural and racial nuance that dictate interactions between Africans, African-Americans, and Whites. I applaud her discussions, all of which resonate with truth and insight. However, I did feel that some of it was getting a little too sour and bitter, and might I dare say, exaggerated. Being a colored immigrant myself, I understand much of what she talks about. But I also believe that anybody can get riled up over anything if they choose to always read between the lines, hunting for proof to confirm their assumptions, and assuming the worst. 

For example, I don't read between the lines when an American hears my name and compliments that it sounds beautiful. I don't wonder if they are overcompensating for being uncomfortable to pronounce an exotic sounding, weird name and the compliment is just to mask their feeling. Nor do I gloat with pride by taking their remark at face-value. I just move past it with nary a thought. But Adichie doesn't. If someone calls Ifemulu beautiful, she questions the authenticity of the remark and argues that it is a rehearsed statement to reaffirm to others how liberal, open-minded and politically correct one is,  to prove and to proclaim how greatly progressive, gracious and magnanimous they are to a colored immigrant in their superior country. To me, this type of dissection is stretching the discussion on racism a little too far. Maybe there is some truth to it, but it's mostly speculation and mostly harmless, even if someone does overcompensate a little. If I met Adichie and struggle to pronounce her middle name, but honestly tell her she is beautiful, would I be suspected of overcompensating too? If I am obviated from suspicion, is it because my skin color is similar to hers? If so, isn't this also a form of racism towards whites? Another example that most Indians can relate to: Do you take offense if a white person compliments on your English being good? I don't. Many of my friends do, and so does Adichie. I don't expect every person outside of India to know India's history, its current educational system, and its socioeconomic diversity. I can't tell them that every Indian knows English, and knows it well. That's not true. So, maybe their remark is in comparison to certain other Indians they had met. Besides, English is not our national language or native tongue. So, there's nothing offensive about someone remarking on the fluency with which you handle a non-native, non-national language, especially when the remark is from a mono-lingual American who finds it impressive that people can be fluent in multiple languages. I don't relate this comment to any form of underlying racial stereotyping. I just attribute it to simple lack of knowledge of world history. It's not a crime if you don't know enough history or geography. I don't know much world history myself, but nobody would accuse me if I said something naive or ignorant, because I am colored and from a developing country, right?

I think such relentless accusations of racism over every apparently harmless instance drives people into harboring more negative attitudes. It perpetuates the hate and umbrage nursed by those that continue to believe they are victimized, when in reality they just have to utilize the many opportunities staring at them and keep moving on. So, in that regard, I did feel some of the discussion was too much, especially when it came from Ifemulu, who is already highly critical and self-absorbed. Combined with the discussions and rants, I felt there was no end to pleasing her. In a sense, she fails to acknowledge how much this country had also offered to her and made her thrive.

Once she is back home in Nigeria, Ifemulu's experiences and thoughts ring true. Every immigrant can relate to or at least understand the rude jolt when back home -  the bittersweet experiences, the guilt, and the secret wish that we could magically have it all - our sense of identity, home, family, and everything that a developed country has to offer. Adichie sharply brings out the identity crisis of returned emigrants - when the "neither here nor there" phenomenon and the hangover hits. 

At this point, Adichie rushes through the story to bring closure to Ifemulu and Obinze's strained and complicated relationship, when there was so much to explore. The ending seemed asynchronous to the unbridled honesty and realism of the rest of the book.

Despite all my strong opinions, I have to say this book triggers a wealth of intelligent discussion and thought. There's so much more to write about and so much more to analyze about Ifemulu and racism. Given that I read this book last July, this post is a testament to how engaging and memorable it is. The writing is crisp and spiked with Ifemulu's colorful  thoughts and experiences. Everything about it is fearless, honest, and vibrant. Surely a book to read if you are interested in the topics it examines.