A for Always

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I don’t know why I write but I think it’s because I keep returning to it. I return to hear myself when there is too much noise. To relocate my self-respect that is still childishly tied to things that it shouldn’t be tied to, snatched when I’m not looking & sometimes even when I am.

Often, when I am speaking to someone, I try to make myself likable, to show them sides they expect to see, praying they are softened by the yellow light through which I hope they are seeing me, & not the harsh white of tube lights. And when they leave, I ask myself – Why did I do that? Why do I care? And a voice says, ‘OK next time, act cool. Be better’⁣

But when next time comes, nothing changes. I don’t trust myself around people. I used to think I can’t trust people but it’s me I don’t trust. And so I turn to writing, so I can return me to myself.

When I am writing, I feel the least use of yellow or white light. Here I can be anyone, in any light, my self-respect firm in the palm of my hand. I write so I can become likable in person. I write so I can stop worrying about not being liked. So that at the end of the day, if I can lock myself up inside the folds of other writers’⁣ words & my own & allow them to show me who I am, it won’t matter that I don’t belong in a world that is becoming increasingly Savarna.⁣

I write because when I talk, I stutter, like Pa does. I am afraid my language is garbled when I try to speak, to fight. It leaves me when I need it most but comes back faithfully, like a dog returning with a ball, when I have calmed down. So what I can’t do face to face, I try to do face-to-paper.

I think of the women who came before me, women married to gods & villages, touchable enough to be raped and yet somehow, still ‘untouchable’

I write because I am because they were.

I write because I am hiding. I am hiding because I am slowly stealing time. Time to gather power to feel fire in my tongue. Fire like the fire Babasaheb left for us. He learnt to write because when people & systems fail you, words will hold you. Always.⁣

Writing is, after all, picking up the stone & learning to throw.⁣

N for Nuance

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Image credits: @VMSonara via Twitter

(Nuance defined as: noticing a very slight difference in meaning or someone’s feelings that is not usually very obvious)

Bole toh, if a Savarna journalist accuses you, a Dalit writer – of not having nuance, it means that you are not smart enough to look beyond caste. It means that caste is but a mere ‘accident’ in all our lives & it’s not their fault that they were born there, & you were born here. None of us chose it alva? Then why the drama, mama? And if you are not able to look beyond it, then what is the point of education? Of Ambedkar?

Nuance is a quintessential Savarna demand. But sadly, it is not challenging enough for a Dalit writer to do better. Because Savarna nuance is to make all the Dalit people they’ve ever known in their lives stand in an imaginary line & pick the one that appears most authentically Dalit  to them. The darker you are, the poorer you look, the weaker your English is – the better.

If you don’t have these qualities, then sorry – you might be Dalit but you have to unsee caste. In the Savarna scale of imagination, be assured that a dead Dalit is more Dalit than one alive. And if you are alive, well, & kicking – then you shouldn’t be talking caste, bro. You should be working quietly despite it & produce art that is more nuanced & less self-indulgent. 

But bro, if our art & literature is too self-indulgent, it’s not like yours isn’t no? Savarna journalists who win awards for writing about the suffering underprivileged deploy the highest form of self-indulgence. It’s your craft, your merit, your nuance, your sympathy, & your talent against someone who is barely trying to survive.

Jia Tolentino remarks in an essay that sometimes social media allows people to take more comfort in a sense of injury over a sense of freedom. When I read this, I heard the sound of a long, feverish worry being unlocked – the worry that being on social media was like gathering a certain kind of something – an assurance perhaps. That one needed to keep producing an injured self over & over again to maintain it.

Thankfully, Ambedkar had a solution for us long before anyone else did. Because he was a constant learner of things- his passion for violin, gardening, and tea is our freedom. It gives someone like me the backbone to fall in love with someone like Alice Munro. Sadly,  your nuance, and punishment for demanding it from others is Manu Joseph. 

Image credits: @VMSonara via Twitter.

 

Y for Yearning

Chimamanda Adichie was once complimented for not using difficult words in her stories — for writing in ‘simple’ English. She laughed her watermelon laugh and said ‘Thank you very much but that’s probably because I don’t know difficult words.’ I like to imagine that the interviewer bit their tongue and did not recover.

Reading Americanah was patting that low grumble in my stomach that is hungry to have written, never to write. It was feeling grateful for Adichie and her ‘simple’ words that brought me Ifemelu, the writer who came into being because she started blogging. It was regarding Ifemelu with a sense of wonder and being in awe of her pauses that allowed her quiet, ceaseless moments of self-respect. And then it was feeling happy for seven years of rumlolarum.com.

Race and Caste are so much the same and so much not. Reading about race is reading about caste and yet there seem to be so many Indians who are more comfortable talking about racism than caste. They don’t know caste, they don’t see caste, they say.
Ifemelu after she returns from America, says that she stopped being Black when the plane touched down in Lagos. Babasaheb said he’d forgotten he was an untouchable in America and that he became one again when he landed in India. I thought of Rajini Krish who wrote about his first time on a plane, and how he described the view from the window as ‘full white, full silence, full powerful, full myth.’ I thought of his struggle, and what he was thinking moments before he took his life.

I thought about Isidore from Togo whom I met last year at an internship program in Seattle. I thought of his hands as he beat his chest with them one day, demonstrating how wildly his heart leaps everytime he tries to speak in class. How I wanted to grab his hands, slow them down and say me too. I thought of Sandra Cisneros’ Salvador whose name the teacher cannot remember. I thought of how dense must someone be to not see the loneliness of others.

In these stories, and in others, I have always yearned to find the perfect sentences to begin writing. But I’m afraid my words aren’t perfect and I’m hungry to make them perfect. What an odd demand it is no? To write perfect about things that aren’t.

l

What 2019 taught me

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At a Gender Bender panel last year, Paromita Vohra said that paying attention to something was a way of loving it. It was truth that I could hold in my hands for hours — and be struck with its simple marvels for a long time after.

2019 was great, funny, curious, strange, and sad. But I wasn’t always paying attention to it when it was happening. After months of feeling divorced from my many versions, I am here today to pay attention to the year that was and to all the versions of me that were. If this is too self-indulgent for you: get over yourself, it’s my website, I paid for it, I’m not going to write about your thatha here.

*I spent the morning of the first day in 2019, sitting at home, and applying for an internship program in Seattle. It was a long shot and I was sure my CV was nowhere close to meriting any notice. It was a one-month program and it felt surreal to be applying but I had fun putting together my CV and taking measure of how much work had been done and how much more remained. Co-wrote a piece for News 18 here.

*Later that month, I wrote about what it’s like to be Dalit and a teacher in a classroom full of Savarna students – here. The piece had been writing itself for a while before it came out, as was the follow-up piece written in a state of serious giggles.

*I haven’t had a stable February memory since 2013, thanks to Meta. I wrote about Meta 2019 here and here.

*In March, I wrote about filmmaker Jyoti Nisha here and paid attention to a song like I never have, and wrote about it here.

*In the mad rush of lab exam season one March morning, I got a call from the US Embassy with a bit of good news. I was standing at my table at work, shuffling through papers, waiting to start the exam, when the woman I was talking to said that I had been selected for the internship. I smiled, went to the bathroom and hugged myself. I couldn’t believe it, and as it happened, I wouldn’t believe it even until 3 months later, when I was boarding the plane to Seattle. I was happy but more worried. That’s the thing with dreams – when you reach there, you are so worried about things that could go wrong that you don’t pause to congratulate yourself for things that did go right.

*April was a good writing month, but a slow reading month. I am still very worried about how long it takes me to finish reading books. Reviewed Kancha Ilaiah’s and Yashica Dutt’s memoirs. Went to Goa alone and made a dog friend named bleach.

*May was spent lying in bed with the fan on full speed, reading Love in the Time of Cholera, eating avocados, and waiting for Seattle to happen.

*In June I was swallowed whole by Deborah Levy about whom I wrote here. After June 28 my time wasn’t mine until I returned from Seattle on Aug 12. I still haven’t figured out a way to write about it. A short-story seemed liberating so I am working on one now. I read a bit, didn’t write at all but spent long hours in the library reading and dreaming about writing.

*August and September were slow. If it weren’t for Kate Hepburn, I would have perhaps never recovered from Seattle.

*October 10 is World Mental Health Day and I wrote “I can’t be depressed, I am Dalit.” The thrill to write it arrived one morning when I was watching Trevor Noah’s interview of Oprah and the phrase ‘I can’t be depressed, I am Black’ struck me like an answer I had been looking for.  Sometime in September Parodevi mailed (took deep breaths but still died!) to ask if I’d like to curate a Sexy Saturday Song list for Agents of Ishq. I had fullto fun writing it even though I was confused between Silk Smitha and Dhanush. Although now that I look back, I wish I’d watched more Dhanush songs. Silk Smitha I am saving for myself. I am afraid my affair with her is longer, and much more passionate.

*Later that week I went to Tubingen, Germany to talk to students and faculty at the University of Tubingen. This was at the Department of Anthropology which was in a castle on top of some hill. I walked a lot, ate some interesting potato-meat things, drank a lot of wine and made friends. Loved being here although I couldn’t get much alone time. Even so, I stole an hour one evening to follow the sound of the hang drum. A bunch of people were playing it, sitting out in the open and I sat outside a cafe, drinking wine and listening to it. The memory of it still stings.

*Spent the next week back home writing a short story for the commonwealth prize. It was my first time living with a short story in my head like that. The earlier ones were all written innocently when I believed that I was writing important things, no matter how bad they were. I wish I had the courage that my past self did to write shittily and not be afraid of how shitty it was. The commonwealth story was shitty to say the least and I was supremely embarrassed to send it. But I want to get better and will not stop trying. Met an editor interested in a book. But more on this when I work on it properly.

*In November, I went to Maldives with the fam. It was a huge party with my two new-born nephews also. Absolutely no reading- writing happened. I stuffed my face with food, drank a lot, and was finally brought to admitting that I love kids, even more when they are not mine, maybe perhaps especially because they are not mine. I love being an aunt – I get all the good stuff – the laughs, the fun, the cute little edible fingers and toes and cheeks. Hanging out with them makes me happy. I love them a lot because I really like them and because I am convinced I never want to be a mother. Came back for a birthday that was on a Sunday. Went to Monkey Bar, ate pork curry and rice – said tearful byes.

*Started reading Beef, Brahmins, and Broken Men published by Navayana. Felt like I was getting closer to understanding the artist that is Babasaheb. The book reminded me of the times in which he’d have had to do research and write, surrounded by Savarna people who thought they knew better. No one else makes me want to work my ass off more than this man. The book review was published here. It’s my first for print and I am happy. Speaking of work, November 20 was my seven-year anniversary with the department. I am extremely grateful to all the people who love this place like I do, and also to all the people who hate it. Savarna hate deserves sympathy.  Paapa what else can they do? Cow dung is getting over, arms and all must also be hurting by now no? Do you like our sarees at least? Everyday we are wearing two-two only for you.

*December made me squeeze out this piece in two days. I was terrified of not making it, of not being good enough but pulled it off and it’s now my second byline for print. Has a caricature of my moothi also 🙂 Went to Dilli to conduct a writing workshop for my babes at AIDMAM. Spent long hours talking to my sisters, watching films, drinking wine, and eating chocolates. We wrote about love this time, about crazy aunts, and about wicked bananas. No one writes like Dalit women do because no one laughs like Dalit women do. Bookended this fab year at Goa. Read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, swam in the ocean, ate at Bhatti village, read Miranda July and felt like I only want to read short stories all my life without ever worrying about wanting to write one, wept and drank a lot. Invented a word – epipoofy. Wishing all single ladies loads of epipoofies in 2020.

I became more of a person last year, and yet I find myself thinking about the girl from 2015 who I am always working and writing for. She took forever to recognise humiliation and when she did, stopped writing – fearing what they would say, fearing what they had already said. She would certainly not approve of using third-person to talk about herself. But somehow in that ordinary moment of helplessness, putting up a picture of Babasaheb next to her made her feel extraordinarily powerful.

When having survived feels powerful, little else can equal that.

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The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay 2020 – Making Do

***Disclaimer and announcement both attached***

My mother grew up in a house full of children. They were 7 but it always seemed like they were seventeen. And because there were so many of them, I imagined them all in a large and crumbling bungalow with squeaky, uneven staircases. I have neither lived in this house nor seen it. But years ago, I caught a passing glimpse when it was pointed out to me from a speeding auto. I stuck my neck out and saw what appeared to be a small house, heaving on its haunches surrounded by piles of bricks and cement. The house, as it turns out, had always been small – only its ghost in its own stories had been big like my mother’s laugh, which is loudest when she laughs with her two sisters.

It is louder when she laughs soundlessly- her eyes watering, face contorted, cheeks red, belly shaking, the rest of the body motionless on the floor – which is were they sat – her and her sisters – chattering endlessly, reminding each other of what they’d done as children.

All their stories are marked with a kind of poverty that they never learnt to forget. The one they often narrated involved a month-long wait to watch Amar Akbar Anthony in a theatre. The oldest earning member of the family, their brother (then 22) had to be convinced. Money had to be earned. So they took turns in selling more bags of tea powder than usual.

Finally, they made a small bag full of coins which couldn’t jingle because it was that heavy, and wound very tightly with a rubber band. Preparations began 3 days before the show. Clothes were washed and left to dry until they were warm and crunchy. They were then put under the beds and left to self- iron.

On the day they were supposed to go, the rain wouldn’t stop, the theatre was far away and they had to change two buses to get there so they decided to go the next day. At this point while narrating the story, my mother and her older sister took turns to imitate their middle sister who, when she was told they couldn’t watch the film that day – had rolled on the floor, beaten her chest and wept. She had made the most earnest preparations to watch the film that evening, so she spent a good few years after that being very angry with rain. Finally, they all got to watch Amar Akbar Anthony and it is perhaps one among the very few films that my mother didn’t mind us watching on repeat.

All the other houses my mother found after that could never become homes. How could they if she had to light a dozen agarbattis everytime she cooked fish? Or if she had to pretend we weren’t home when owners came to ask rent or complain about something?
***
Appa grew up in hostels more than in homes. He tells his stories like Siddalingaiah did – with a lot of heart and stomach. And because his laugh comes from somewhere deep inside his stomach- when his belly shakes violently, it is curious how the laugh comes out of his mouth in whispers, not sounds.

Pranks make him laugh, prank videos make him laugh more, Vadivelu makes him laugh, people who fall, fart, flee make him laugh. His favourite classroom story is about a boy whose bum was apparently pinched a lot, especially right after he gave attendance – so every time he said “Yes saar” – it was always followed by aiiiiieeee.

When my father imitates the boy’s aiiiiieeee, his face never betrays the expression of a properly pinched bum.

I eat these stories the same way I have eaten all their other stories – their humiliations in college, defending themselves against the gods of merit, not having money or food, being bullied for not being good enough, not knowing how to talk to people, and dealing with unkind, ugly, casteist institutions.

These stories live together, not because my parents wanted them to. They were made to. It was how they managed with what they had, it was the only way they knew how to make-do.

This is how I have come to know ‘Making-do’ – what about you? Write and send to barbranaiduprize@gmail.com

***DISCLAIMER: For the kind souls who walk around with a Savarna checklist of political correctness and might take offence at the bum-pinching or might feel that being able to watch Amar Akbar Anthony is not Dalit enough, not poor enough: Naale banni***

Bn 2020 Word A3_page-0001.jpgDownload the attachment here: BN 2020

 

Because of Joan Didion

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I mentioned Joan Didion for the first time in Seattle today. I must have said her name in my mind plenty of times but for the first time today, in Seattle (I cannot say this enough) I said her name out loud to my roommate.

My roommate is from Lebanon. Her name is Maha. She took a blue post it from her purse and wrote Joan Didion’s name down in small letters:

J-o-a-n  D-i-d-i-o-n

and I felt the quiet smile I always feel when I see Didion’s name in print.

At the visa interview in Chennai, when the white man behind the glass door had asked me what my SOP was about, I had said Joan Didion. And when he asked me who she was, I had felt incredibly stupid saying ‘She is an American writer’

***

Maha and I were saying how excited we are that they are going to take us on a study tour to Washington DC at the end of this month. I told her, ‘It’d would be tragic to be so close to New York and still not see it’

Ah! New York! You want to see because of Friends?

Yaaa, I said and then with a calm that took even me by surprise I said, ‘Because of Joan Didion’

It will always be Joan Didion’s New York for me now. In the way that it will always be Parodevi’s Bombay, and Adichie’s Nigeria. Cities are built to keep women away. Women may never belong to a city in the way that men do but cities always only belong to women.

Esra, who is from Turkey and now a student here like me, said that Orhan Pamuk is a psycho and we both giggled like children. She said – “Back home we don’t like his writing in Turkish very much. If we want to make fun of someone, we say you are talking like Pamuk writes”

Then she told me that he once put his phone on the balcony and took pictures of the city. “Same time each day and he saw different things it seems – such a crazy that man”

And now it is Esra’s Turkey. Like it is Elif Batuman’s Turkey (but it will never be Pamuk’s)

***

Here I must add because after years of not knowing, and then knowing, I am not going to suddenly unknow who I am – How do Dalit men and women figure here? Can cities ever belong to us? I don’t know. Maybe other cities can belong to us – perhaps even more than ours ever will. Then again – not all of us can afford to walk into strange, new cities and make them ours. But because of some odd luck that I am here now – I want to try.

Seattle is empty without my Basavanagudi cows and their dung, without the trees and their rains. But it is still mine. Today I woke at 5:30 and made it mine. I made it mine as I made hot water and drank it from a red mug. I made it mine as I walked on the same street up and down, effortlessly avoiding Starbucks. I made it mine when I was so distracted by the houses, I missed a turn. I made it mine when I saw a huge Ferrari showroom, said bah, and took a picture. I made it mine when I walked into Ba Bar last night and ordered Garlic Crab Noodles with a glass of wine.

I sat by the bar eating my food, drinking my drink and watched as the young bartender in front of me (grey dress with a slit down the side) climbed up the ladder in her black Nike shoes, and gently picked a bottle of scotch. I watched as she smoothly came down, her right hand clutching the bottle, her left holding-not holding the ladder.

This city is hers more than mine. But because she is now locked forever in a moment that I am writing about and because the next time I eat crab noodles, I’ll be in Bangalore, I will think about how she brought the bottle of scotch down and just like that – the city will be mine again. I sat today and put all my things in this city, so it is not empty anymore. That’s why I am sitting here writing this at 3 in the morning. It could be jet lag also, but lol.

 

 

A case for Podcasts and Rom-coms

This semester was odd but gratifying. I was just back from a surgery – so every step I took on campus was measured, aware, and keen on changing history – or at least understanding it. Would I not have broken my ankle if my fuckall big bum hadn’t landed on it? If it hadn’t rained, would I have slipped that badly? Was this a conspiracy? Were aliens involved?

Even so, it took me months before I returned to the accident site for revenge. Standing a good few feet away, I watched the spot achingly. Some mild time-travel type exercises later, I concluded that I should have just taken the bloody lift that evening.

When I wasn’t busy avoiding those stairs, I was worried that I’d now have to sit like a normal human being at the desk – with my feet firmly on the ground and not in some weirdass asana on the chair. Of all the things I thought I’d miss the most about my pre-surgery days, I never thought it’d be my sitting style. But it’s true. I cannot sit that way without worrying about a slicing steel-type pain in my ankle anymore.

***

Some lazy reading happened across the semester. I fought with people on Twitter – all of them Savarna, most of them women. Felt murderous rage at various points, kicked myself when I wanted to be unkind – was unkind anyway, told myself to shut up a lot. Needed urgent lessons in humility which only some time-off could have taught me.

Offline, I faltered often – feeling drowned by deadlines so I made to-do lists in at least 3 different notebooks, and then on my phone, and some post-its. All reminding me to do things that weren’t reading and writing. I mostly remember January as the month where I was straddling in between attacking and being attacked. Wrote 3 pieces.

Like every year, February was swallowed – didn’t write anything except a lot of Meta-related emails, and announcements. Lost 3 kilos – which didn’t show anywhere- fucking nonsense. Felt like it was the best Meta – loved working with students, loved walking back to the department with them, and watching the moon from the bathroom window, loved returning home tired and collapsing on the bed, loved waking up to a hundred odd things already gone wrong overnight, loved fixing, loved freaking out — mind mostly calm – not pissed and angry like last year, which might have been the most disappointing Meta to say the least.

Did some dabba translation for a piece that I was going to read out on the last day of Meta. Had a lot of fun writing and reading it out in Kannada – slowly discovering that English and Konkani are not languages for the ridiculous and what are my family stories if not ridiculous?

Got some new writing gigs – all of which had to be pushed until college work was over – stressed at various points. The mounting deadlines – writing and otherwise led to a couple of small outbursts – which I did not manage very well – learnt to remain calm by eating.

In the middle of  Feb madness, I stole a day to go to BIFFES – caught 5 movies – loved all 5 – took the metro back home, noticed a young man who refused to go to the men’s side and stood sadly adamant in the women’s – wondered if it was because he felt safer here than there.

Reading Kancha Ilaiah was slow – took time but learnt a lot of things about writing. One evening, after finishing the book, I realized that all writing comes from a place of humility – not expertise. It was a rewarding evening.

Woke up early the next couple of mornings to finish writing Ilaiah piece– moved to Yashica Dutt’s memoir. Reading may have been quicker but writing the review for this one took longer – realised that it’s probably because with Ilaiah – I was already writing in my mind while reading the book.

Spent the last week of April finishing the Dutt memoir review and running around for passport renewal. I might be going to the US for a one-month scholarship study on Contemporary American Literature (more on this when I finally believe it is happening)

Proceeded unwillingly to do valuation work. Felt delirious joy when I finished. Want to now devour the rest of May with a lot of books and some early muscle-flexing for writing fiction. Currently reading Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? which is dangerously close to home. When I can’t write – I listen to podcasts on writing – and end up finding some outrageously good ones:

  1. Adichie, when her parents wanted her to be a psychiatrist – considered it seriously – and decided that if she ever became one, she’d use all her patients’ stories to write fiction (grinnn!)
  2. Anne LaMott on coming out of alcohol addiction, and returning to writing (“I was full of holes”)
  3. The Cut -Women discuss Ferrante – a few really good moments, only small annoying bits — It is severely painful when white people seem to know more about caste. Even so, the podcast ends on a funny note – best moment is when someone says “Ferrante comes from ‘ferrous’ meaning iron which is funny because women have an iron-deficiency. Basically we are all anemic readers getting their Ferrante supplement”)
  4. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls– Refreshing to listen to an 8-year-old girl interviewing Lowri Morgan, a television presenter and marathon runner. Loved the questions which also include the only question I ever want to ask runners (Do you listen to music when you run?) Favourite line: “Running makes me happy. But what makes me happier is when I get to the ultimate limit of my endurance, I realise that my limits don’t break – they bend and then, I start to enjoy the experience and I start to revel in the challenge that faces me”
  5. The Writing Bull Podcast – favourite so far. (“One thing you don’t want to be thinking about while writing fiction is…anything else. You don’t want to be thinking about anything else”)

I love listening to podcasts. I do them every morning when I go about making breakfast and tea for myself. Listening to a podcast is a lot like flying a kite, you can get used to it easily while your mind wanders to other things but you have to keep pulling the kite back to see where it is – and more importantly – to see where you are.

***

When it rained like the world was ending one afternoon, the doormat was wet and took 2 days to recover. I was happy because I didn’t have to wash it and when it finally dried, it was warmly hot, and I liked standing on it.

***

In the department one afternoon, I longed to be in Seattle already so I watched half of Sleepless in Seattle and remembered the days when I had a huge crush on Meg Ryan.

***

Spent much of mid-April nursing a solid crush on The Avengers – watched all the MCU films. Loved Thor Ragnarok. Finally understood what people see in both the Chrises. They are both extremely cute human beings no? Pleased to say that I really liked watching Chris Evans and to salvage the big love I suddenly had for him – proceeded to watch 2 of his films on Netflix – Playing it Cool and Before We Go.

Chris Evans is forever running after people who drop things accidentally or deliberately. And for no reason at all, I am now making the case that all MCU films are Romcoms.

***

Learning to take great pleasure in making my own breakfast. Understood why Avocados are expensive – what a brilliant thing to eat in the morning. Damn it.

***

~ Pinching anxieties – becoming old and helpless, never being able to live on my own, growing distance between parents and me over marriage-nonsense.

~~ Words to live by – AM once told me “Avarna people can never have real friendships” – I am beginning to accept this. It’s more difficult than I thought it would be, but I am learning to give what I can, and take what I get.