The Juniors

They always seemed a bit better off than me whether it was physically, socially, or financially, especially the juniors that were the most admired. Intimidating and difficult to talk to, even to us seniors. But I noticed they had a lot of faces. One face to the rest of the world, and one face for my dear friend A., because she was so nice to them, and also was kind of into their class. They were her old mates before she was levelled up, and they still rode the bus together and lived in the same areas. I still felt rather intimidated by the coolest bunch of long brown girls with long brown hair. Fitted blouses and short light skirts. Just stay outta my way, and I’ll stay outta yours. Of course.

I didn’t know they knew my name, or talked of me or heard me mentioned or looked up and were sometimes awed by random shit I used to do… I didn’t know that in their eyes I wasn’t unseen or totally weird. There was this net ball game, some common sports practice in my final year, and then they had to talk a bit with me, and I to them. It was the little bits and pieces dropped here and there, the way they didn’t totally disregard my suggestions, the way they alluded to some stuff, the way they toned their voices, that made me realize I wasn’t a totally despised freak to them. It’s that senior effect only reversed- just because I was a senior, I carried a little bit of glamour to them.

Just a little bit, but I still appreciated that.

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The Senior

She’s tall and elegant and thin and dressed well- long jeans or corduroy pants with short dresses or dress shirts or T-shirts, stripes and not polka dots. An optional thin sweater that is faded pink and sparkly or beige may hang on her narrow shoulders. Her hair is neat and straight and not curly. Tame. If she wears a scarf, its short with a simple under-chin tie. She smiles widely, is a little shy, the teachers like her, the rules like her, she only bends those that don’t hurt anyone. Obviously she’s extremely pretty, in an elegant way, she’s cool. No one says unwanted things about her. Perfect grades too.

There were more than a few girls who were like this throughout my years of formal education, always the senior new girl, or someones elder sister coming for a visit, or a few sems ahead of me in uni classes. They were always nice to me, gentle, asking about my other friend, asking how she is, and that would be most of our elegant convo. I’m always tongue-tied a little, trying to sound interesting, but failing, stuck in one-sided admiration, feeling a little less, intimidated, nevermind.

She always gets married rather soon to one of the hottest eligible batchelors in town at the time, she starts off a whirlwind peaceful life that is elegant and lyrical. Likely never has an ugly screaming argument in her life, is never fat, and her brain always works well. No curly untamed hair, handles stress with beauty, and is always well loved.

When pressed, she will say life has been difficult for her too, her hair has been out of place at times, cuz its difficult for everyone, but when she says it out loud,whatever it was, however it was, that difficulty, those difficulties, there were too many times when I felt envy and strangeness. There’s a part of me she’ll never understand because of the grinding pain that my mind carries due to OCD, being unfashionable, messy, an endomorph in a family of not endomorphs, struggling with fatness, unable to think well or react well, having too many almost unbearable emotions, being not pretty and unelegant, not gentle, not lovable, not admirable, being disliked as a default in too many situations, and OCD, OCD.

We never really clicked. None of my chosen friends were tall elegant seniors. It wasn’t them, it wasn’t me, it was the pain in me and the fact I didn’t know how to cover it.

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Notebook scribbler

At the end of the day, I think I am a doodler for life. Make that a notebook scribbler, given how official doodling has become. In uni, I would purposely buy those fat A4 hardcover notebooks for each semester, just so that I could sit in class and scribble away whenever I felt like it. Shoes, bags, the crazier the better, stacked shoes, noses, markers, there’s just something quietly rebellious about it. I felt that way recently when I was describing my best practicing place to someone who was much more attentive in class. All the margins, and often not just the margins, I had entire spreads dedicated to the most bizarre ideas. Can’t get away from my roots of a classroom doodler, or a notebook scribbler. Its freeing, it has no rules, no standards, its just about being yourself and letting your lines go wherever you want them too. One of my teachers in secondary school really started me on doodling by letting us scribble on ppls faces in newspapers and add moustaches and stuff, understanding we were just kids, and being too prudish about respect of newspaper photos would kind of drive us mad. And of course there were our history book competitions- who managed to morph that historic personage’s face the best.

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Growing up

I’ve never really lived in a small town. The city I was born in was the state capital, and we lived in a more suburby area. Although that sounds well-off, my Dad was a student, and it was like just that we played so much that made me feel rich. Like the wealth of the warm northern summer sun beating down on your back as you pull a stick and a string along behind you, or the shadows of the criss crossing trees above, some of them were pine trees, others deciduous, dark green maples. It was golden in my memories, except playing and fun back then wasn’t really a want or an enjoyment, it was a need really. It made the things that we pursued with so much intensity kind of fragile and life kind of empty, full of a few states of emotion. Like a huge bubble of contentment had been pulled tightly over my emotions and I couldn’t feel any depth or length or breadth. Isn’t that the price of innocence and not knowing? being a child is not being able to know.

We moved to another country, much lower down the globe, a less advanced one, according to the big bodies out there. Equatorial, as in I live with the equator cutting through me now. It used to feel far more humid back then. Puberty hit faster than it might have, taking me by a certain desperate surprise. There was this moment, a few weeks before, when I was going down some stairs at school, that I felt that bubble light feeling stretch over me. Its the only time I think that I was conscious of it, the only time I can compare to myself now. Then it burst, and although it was difficult and messy and full of bathroom changes and leaks and stinks and too much blood, and that seemed to taint growing up, I remember feeling hidden depths and emotions opening up in my brain. A new dimension entirely, I could feel love, I could feel passion, I could feel sadness and real despair. Or at least the seeds of them. I knew things now, and suddenly what I was wearing wasn’t short enough.

Growing came with a price. I couldn’t play as innocently as I wanted to. Even if all I wanted was to feel free, to run, to treat the boys in my life like we’re still kids, to feel the wind in my face and scarf, it would be misconstrued. Intentions I never had would be attributed to me automatically, and it was suppressive. I didn’t understand the rules, and my parents made me confused because they never seemed to go with the rest of the increasingly reserved girls in my class- they let us go to the playground and let us swing standing up on these immensely long chained swings- and you know it was like flying, as close as I could get, especially when I jumped. They let us hang upside down from the monkey bars, and flip over the sides. Or walk across them- they cheered us on as we raced across the dark smelly parking building that was placed splat in the middle of the apartment compound, or up and down the stairs to the fourteenth floor, against the lift.

I didn’t know how to speak up, to defend myself against my own feelings of embarrassment. I didn’t know how to tell people that even though I looked like an adult to them (Bangladeshi adults and Malaysian adults can be really small to really tall) I wasn’t one. I did not understand why they treated me differently from my sisters- why my younger sister was so adored like a spoiled child, or why my elder sister received so much praise for her quiet cleverness, or why I was teased so much as being less smart, less physically agile, less pretty, less in every way. Maybe in a normal brain it would have hurt and I’d move on. But my brain at that moment, was, according to the teachers and the abstract analysis, exceptional. At least, so I was fed, and so I was told, and so I thought, that if I didn’t develop my IQ now as much as possible, I would never get the chance, that this is it, I could never learn or grow or change when I was really an adult, and there was no time. 18 loomed like a finish line, when I would become a finished final product, and there would be nothing more for me to do. Adulthood loomed scarily, full of restrictions, full of no mores, no more running, no more playing catching. So those slights people made against me, they stuck deep in my 13 year old brain, and I started going off the charts, into crazy. Thats when things went weird and I had OCD.

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I remember that feeling of calm, sunny warm early evening that came with distant beatings of pans in the restaurant of the girl’s hostel, the murmer of voices and muffled laughter behind closed doors, the smell of semi-artfully fried dinners, that unjaded warmth and coolness mixed with a kind of innocence leftover from highschool that the girls exuded. They were still boy crazy, into the crowd, they still had dreams and lives full of malls and crushes and cute guys and clothes, and silly giggling into the night. There was something so warm about her face, her darker Indian features outlined by her long glossy hair. Or there was something so joyous in her exceptional obsession with coloured lenses and eye makeup. Or her wanting a boyfriend. None of them were particularly bad, yet they broke the rules of that place- we all did really, it had too many rules that were way too hard to follow.

All of those- the hope, the happy light-heartedness, the perfect makeup, hair and clothes- contrasted so much with the horrible inner storm that kept hitting me inside- it was not my storm, it was an outsider, in a way, yet it was me, and it kept lashing out with tendrils made of pieces of me. It was only for awhile that I managed to keep up the facade of normal- that I wasn’t, not at all, began spilling over into my sudden grimaces and twists of mouth and body, into repeating movement again and again, walking through that door again, washing my hands again, picking up that tissue again, lying down, getting up, lying down, again and again with increasingly obvious agitation, my wrinkled food-stained clothes, untied scrunched shoes, and ever wilder hair. It was undescribable pain, because no one had ever described it to me before. In those moments, reality and the truth seemed to heart-wrenchingly clear. It brought an honesty to my life, I was able to live so honestly, with everything I thought and did and said, coming from the clearest places, the least clouded voice in me. Every piece of intense intrusive thought somehow made me more open to that deeper place, where only the spirit matters. It wasn’t that those thoughts were rationally horrifying, they were more my silly fears, exacerbated a thousand times and forced to turn against me. If you pick up this you definitely will go bald, if you walk through this, you’ll end up with kidney failure, if you eat this you’ll be made to be like someone you don’t like… only with an intensity and force that made it seem that it was really going to happen, I couldn’t stop it unless I undid my action- repeated it. That’s just a light simplification of something that was never, in the most intense moments, really rational, it was like my very brain had gone and rebelled against me, very little of a normal person was left under it all.

I only learned to put a name to it, months after I started pre-university, when it had got so bad, I couldn’t function normally, I couldn’t use the bathroom, take a shower, put on clothes, make food, brush my teeth, write, study, pick things up, and move so much of the time, my mental state was so full of this fearful alternate reality. Not that I ever lost touch with the knowledge that it wasn’t normal.. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,or OCD, was what the doctor said I had. Its ironic how little normal people understand the variations and manifestations of this psychological disorder. Most people associate it with its more obvious meaning- obsessive, compulsive behavior that is weird, but can still be understood by normal people as obsessive and compulsive. I couldn’t even study any more, not one word would go into my head, I couldn’t turn the pages, I couldn’t concentrate on any normal thing, I kept thinking thoughts and thoughts, so much of which I no longer had a choice over, disturbing painful fearful thoughts- that had a certain relative power over me. Remember fear is relative to the person, but it doesn’t make it any less.

It was in those moments that I learned to hope, to yearn so intensely for a day, that day I was sure that would come, that I would be free again.

It was in those moments when I’d hear those light idyllic love songs, likely of a K-drama, playing on a students laptop, mixing with the smell of perfumed detergent and shower products, the evening sun, and a girls voice lifted up in the lyrics, and it felt like that girl’s life was so calm, so easy, careless, free. She walked in greener places.

My friendships were not really with the lighthearted shower singers who always seemed kind of out of reach, tantalizingly so. Rather they were with intense sensitive souls who either felt things too deeply, every itty bitty little thing under scrutiny for meaning, or appreciated me doing that. They were intense and as not silly, shallow or superficial as you could possibly get, we were always talking about the most intense things we felt, the problems of the world, the things we’d do different, the things we’d do better. We would change the world and solve all of its problems, we could do it because we had that ‘specialness’ in us, that compassion, that need to live knowing we’d done something to deserve it. It was idealistic, so much so, but we were only 17. Still too young to see the deep cracks and flaws in our selves and in our friendships, still too young to appreciate the wisdom of that sunny, grass green late afternoon shower singer.

Now, more than a decade has passed. As I stand at my bedroom window, feeling intense emotion from an argument, perhaps from suppressing myself for so long-

a week at least- mind you that is my flaw- I argue too easily, rage over silly things-so don’t pity me- pity the ones who have to stand me in all my moods and delusions- and thats true for my OCD too-

a girl’s voice wafts up from the floor downstairs lifted in the lyrics of another hopelessly romantic K-song. The connected bathroom window opens slanted under my sill, and its like she’s singing in the shower- and no wonder if she is, its such a breezy green windy day today, its golden. Green gold. Its like that moment of my past, that feeling of the grass seeming greener there than here.

But is it really? Is it? I got a lot better at living my life, and that is the question that still stares at me, written invisible in the air, engraved yet floating across that picture window…

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If almost any man were made to feel the grief you feel they would go mad, stark raving insane.

The reeds blow in the wind. They are pale and white, and the wind that moves them carries tears. The storm is here in pieces and in waves, some stronger, some lighter, all in their own insidious ways carrying its wailing grief.

I imagine I am there among the reeds my hands held out, tears streaking down, the eternal grief coursing through me, that one where we only get to know people only to say goodbye. You have to stand alone one day, I cannot be there forever, you have to go on without me. I stand there, and there is that horrified expression on my face mingled with bewilderment as I feel so gut wrenchingly that no one can understand my universe, or its horrors, they can only stand and watch and listen from afar, spectators to what is ghastly, or what is like the spring, or like these grey storm clouds hanging so low over the reeds and the bit of pond between them. Its for rented fish catching they told me, the rod and string kind, not the massive net pulled through the water by a little boat’s boatman in the thundering full bodied river back home. Its for catching one at a time, the glory of the catch, the glory of what comes afterwards. Tall pale blonde reeds with pale heads blow the way we were going. It filled me with deep sadness and terrible thoughts that circle me in the me in my universe, inasmuch that I am alone.

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Bodily functions are the weirdest oddest thing. The most important people have them as well as others. I wonder if spies ever took advantage of the desperate need to poo after a milky breakfast for the large numbers of lactose intolerant south asian subcontinent people, or if battle strategies were held in place simply by providing adult diapers to the soldiers. Farting is something that still strikes me as odd. Its rude to fart in some places, yet its unhealthy to hold it in. Either you learn to hold it in or fart silently or go and not care about the annoyed reaction around you. Or campaign for a more fart tolerant society. Of course everyone could just laugh it off. It is funny. Imagine if that was commercialized as an experience. Like a food that made people fart loudly and smelly-ly was sold at fair stands and people stood around eating, farting, laughing.

Burps are always slightly more acceptable due to obvious reasons, but they can be loud and smelly and commercializable too.

I wonder if indomitable formidable people ever paused to fart or burp or vomit in the most vulnerable of ways, or was it part of their tyranny or force to be impeccably not gassy all the time.

These type of meanderings can only come in the dire need to poo, after eating the said lactose filled meal. Do you find pooing- a good pooing- satisfying or annoying?

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Autobiographical accounts tend to be dripping with ego, unless you can put the truth of you in it.

You know that feeling when you turn to those whom you are accustomed to getting answers from, and they tell you this time they don’t know, and they are quiet as their eyes look far at something you can’t see or understand. They are busy their actions say. You never realized how busy they are or how much you must waste time or have been a time waster without knowing it.

You want to grab ahold of their lapels, their hems and beg them to tell, to give the anwers of life, you want to writhe and scream and cry, tell them not to be aloof, if thats what it is, tell them to divulge what makes them so calm in the face of it all. Did they too feel so anchorless, so anxious and afraid of doing the wrong thing, so badly that there is no turning back, like a small thing like an unnecessarily extracted tooth by a possibly inept dentist or something bigger than that, or did they feel so restless, wasting time, and feeling so terrible about it and yet unable to not waste time? Did they feel like that too, that everything is just chance and luck and there is a constant possibility that you will fall away into the pit of mortal peril and not be able to climb out?

Did it hurt so much in finding out uncomfortable truths about themselves like how you don’t pay attention enough to people or the things that make them run, because you are too into ideals and big broad gestures to see, too into the world of your head to pay attention to whats going on all around you all the time? You literally cannot see a thing as it is or anyone as they really are. Learning quickly is the only way to go from here, but where is that? Why is it so scary and unknown?

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Bittersweet always reminds me of Naira, a girl back in school, because it was the most profound essence of the incredible essays she would write for English class. Our teacher would rave about them. She was quiet, bookish, introverted and a kindred spirit to me in Form 4 and in the science stream, and she was loud and gorgeous and boy crazy and very popular in the arts stream in Form 5.

I don’t know why I wrote that, except its that depth that she had under all her chasing after Lee, the one guy who wasn’t into her, not even a bit, and just about every other guy, that should be noted. I for one did see it. As an introvert who succeeded in graduating as an introvert, I did very much understand the appeal then of being all gorgeous and popular and boy crazy in highschool. It wouldn’t matter so much anymore anywhere else.

So bittersweet is a word that seems to describe me, my self, and my inside world right now, in a small way like it seemed to describe Naira, who would faint in school due to her migraine challenges and whose best friend tried to commit suicide and survived for an undetermined bit of time only to regret it in another country that Naira once lived in, and who Naira rushed to visit in hospital and listened to the tears of a dying person’s regret. That was her greatest essay, the one none of us will forget, the one about the moment her friend swallowed all the pills and watched, bemused, as the room slowly spun.

Right now, 17 year old Naira stands again before me, with that demand in her eyes asking to be counted as an adult, and I want to be quiet, silent and sad. The past comes and goes, and I no longer have the energy to insist on anything in my own ‘adult’ world now. I can only just leave things be and trust that everything will be okay in the end because I don’t have it in me to do anything else. This is a shield and I wish this bittersweet shield around me wouldn’t leave me, except I have to follow its precepts and principles otherwise it will go away. I wish there was a way to put this shield into my writing, to set the voice, the tone, the notes and the strings, instead of saying it directly, because as quiet and sad and silent that it is, its beautiful. Like Sorrow, and Wistfulness.

What happened is what happens and it doesn’t exactly become un-happened, not in our heads, not in our memories, not in friends from way back when, nor do things change just like that, but the sheild still slowly builds around me more every passing day. I feel sick these days, my head aches with it, the longing for something more than just these small little things that yell at me and my brain “you are too much and too little all the time now.” What dreams fade for people and what hopes go away, never to return, not in the same way they once came and once guided them to do incredible circumstances-defying things! How much one used to love and hate life’s bitter things with such passion and intensity!

How many distorted bitter tears Naira must have hidden from us in the very last days of school.

Does this all matter when you may not understand what I am trying to say, and I cannot be more clear than I already am being? Yes it does, because at least I do. And maybe Naira does. And that is more than enough.

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Portrait of Sue

I wanted to write bad stuff about you and hide them all behind some complicated play of words. Instead I feel like crying because my thoughts keep turning back to myself like a strong search light, and all I see is my flawed self, and yet even then, I can’t see me perfectly, nor can I see all of me.

You’re tall and graceful, including in that purple sari, your beauty is understated and subtle, and yet you dress and hold yourself so smartly. You seem to conform in ways I never could, and stand out in ways I didn’t. A flower should be in your scarf, tucked in just above your ear. The people you hang out with are coloured by you. They all seem happier simpler people, even in their brightest be-deck-ery, their most elaborate painted faces and lovely straight-not-curly hairdos. Its fun rendering it all in gold, except you look better in silver and purple, back straight, bag shiny, and your book of dreams in your hands, clasped close to your chest.

I used to know another girl who shared your name. She too wanted to run to far away places, to Paris or New York or Auckland or Sydney, she too wanted to live uninhibited by family. She’s not in Facebook world anymore, I don’t know what happened to her.

I try to point out your flaws in my usual cynical way, and all I see are my own back lit by the setting sun, all I know is that we all sin, and I just have them hidden better due to no fault of yours or mine, due to living in a different country from the native land, due to being able to chose what person I wanna be to everyone else back home. Its both easier and harder than it sounds.

Now that you’re almost done with your degree from that prestigious university in Dhaka, what do you see from your high vantage point? What difference does it make? What dreams do you see?

The biggest thing that confuses me is how, although not more than four years separate us, I no longer feel that understanding of fellow youth, an automatic grasping of whats what and whats not, of you and your generation. I know I would be dubbed that frumpy goody goody from whom all things should be hidden to avoid any trouble whatsoever. Its such a silly thing, I think I don’t really care, I always face that perception anyway and sometimes it breaks, sometimes it doesn’t, yet now I feel again that search light.

Do you think I don’t know that, or that I never changed? That perceptions never drove me to desperation? Stay in your assumptions, it just fits the pattern of your portrait better. There are things in me and my history that I will always hate and your perception cannot take that vantage point away from me.

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