To my Love, Listen,…

Imagine an empty room. Imagine a house. Or a world. Imagine an entire star-spangled universe with its make-believe show of beginnings and ends. A show that engulfs us, consumes us and drives us towards each other. Or away from. Even from ourselves.

Now imagine us. Forget the noise. It’s just you and I. All that I say won’t matter in time. All that I say will echo across the stars forever, forming new words somewhere else, for someone else. But right now, in this moment, all that I say is for you. You know that. So listen. I love you. I’ve been looking for you. I hope we find each other, because what else is left when the sun is cold and we are all long gone? All we have is this moment, to be true and to live and to not burn ourselves out in this great cosmic pantomime that consumes us and drives us away from ourselves. 

📸 John Fowler via unsplash.com

I found a Tumblr screenshot on Instagram the other day. I don’t recall the exact language but it said something to this effect: that the universe was basically the interval between two Big Bangs, and we were the dust that settles after an explosion. An afterglow, if you please, if you want to be poetic. Imagine dust became sentient. That was us. I would give credit but I honestly cannot find that post so apologies for the bad paraphrasing. Anyway, it made me think of Olaf the Snowman from the movie, Frozen. Imagine you and I are just like that, brought to life and being at whim, for no purpose at all. We bring in so much strife into that, so much pain, so much longing, so much desire. And all I want to do is whatever snowmen do when it’s summer.

Hello again. I meant to have a post up here a week ago,  on Bloom’s Day. The hundredth Bloom’s Day, in fact. Not because I want to speak of James Joyce, or of Ulysses, but because five years ago, on the 16th of June, I promised myself to restart my defunct blog, to give myself a second shot in believing that my words were worth writing down,  even if only for myself. A friend reminded me that it was Bloom’s Day, and I thought, what are the odds? I am going to go walking around in my head and see if I can make a grand story of it. And isn’t that what we do? Stumbling through our days, looking for our glorious purpose, hoping to find some semblance of significance in the midst of this great make-believe of beginnings and ends?

Some find it in the past, a mythical era of ancestral glories where heroes came home to vanquish their enemies. Beneath a night sky lit by long dead stars, it is a terribly comforting thought. There was greatness once,  and can be again.  In the inevitable wheel of loss and death, they are no longer specks in the cosmos, but inheritors of greatness. Perhaps they too can slay their dragons.

But the dragon is in the mirror,  perhaps dreaming of their own golden age. 

Did you watch the Stranger Things 4 episode where the police were addressing the people in the town hall and the basketball team strode in, led by their captain? And did you notice how much it looked like a pose– the way they fanned out in perfect, symmetrical formation? It reminded me of another scene from a movie where the heroes had walked in into another assembly of confused,  frightened people. 

Same formation, but it had seemed so natural and reassuring back then and yet looked so insincere now. Not to the people of Hawkins however,  who would rather clutch at the chance to go witch-hunting than deal with the fear that came with death and the idea of things beyond our knowledge and control. And sometimes hate is just that, a little chance to dress ourselves in shiny, heroic armour, making ourselves feel good in the face of the infinite unknown. And when the weight of insecurity becomes too much, imagine a glorious past when you had control. But nobody ever had control. Not in the grand scale of things. People are just good at lying to themselves. 

If you’re lucky, you know how to live in the present. But some of us are drunk on hope. Delusional,  perhaps. Or naive. Or eternal optimists thinking things will be a better tomorrow. 

Me, I’ve always looked to the future. Mostly. Towards an ever-shifting mirage promising wonderland. And maybe I never find it, but I found you, now, reading my words. And I found myself,  in ways that I didn’t think possible. Have I found what I was looking for? No. But I have found something. That’s enough. For now.

Anyway, I planned to have a post for BloomsDay and failed because I couldn’t find my words and I was afraid. Afraid that I had lost my words, that I had nothing to say. On all the days that I drew blanks  there were scratched out lines and deleted paragraphs. Yet, here I am,  eventually,  rambling my heart out and afraid that I am not making sense. 

But even so, darling,  stay with me. Listen. Even if it’s for a moment,  love makes it worthwhile. 

And even though it’s all a moment’s illusion, I hope you are listening because I don’t want to be alone in my silence. It’s awfully silent without you. Say something. My ships have no harbour without you.

📸 Maximilian Weisbecker via unsplash.com

If you would like to listen to my music or follow my socials, you can find all the links here.

Poems, memories and moving past heartbreaks

Day 17. Today I wrote a haiku for International Haiku Day, using the phrase ‘gibbous moon’. This was the prompt from the Instagram page Kavyajananipoetry. The prompt from napowrimo.net was quite cool, it was just that I wanted to catch up with some of my reading lists, so I wrote only one poem. But I did think about the other prompt, you know, the prompt not taken, as it were, and it brought back memories. So what was it? Dogs, All the dogs you’ve known in your life. The prompt was  developed by the comic artist Lynda Barry, and it asks you to think about dogs you have known, seen, or heard about, and then use them as a springboard into wherever they take you. Cool yeah?

I have never had a dog. When I was young, I was terrified that the neighbourhood strays would bite me and then I would have to take 17 injections (I don’t exactly remember if the number was 17, but it was a big number). As I recall, the dogs seemed to bark a lot and always seemed angry, but the important thing was I was afraid, so my memory may have shaped it that way. The strays in our current neighbourhood often bark at each other, but they are mostly gentle and friendly. My mother’s uncle had a big house and he had an Alsatian that was supposedly fierce. I never really met him, only heard him barking, because he was chained up when we visited. The other dog, the one that I had completely forgotten about till I saw this prompt, was this black and white dog that stayed in our school campus and shared its name, Loreto. Even now, I can’t recall clearly what he looked like. All we knew was he was the pet of our Principal, Sister Cyril Mooney. Every morning, he would come running to meet Sr Cyril as she rode in on her creamy white scooter. Funny how someone who can be in the sidelines of your life for years and then disappear from memory.

I remember this sweet little puppy that followed me home once, till its mother dragged it back. My bestfriend has a whole team of adorable doggies. And I love watching dog videos now. When I have a  more settled life someday, perhaps I will adopt one.

But to return to my memories of Loreto Sealdah, it was my first school, the place where I learned to read and to count and multiply.  It’s where I discovered Noddy and the Faraway tree, where I first read Pride and Prejudice, made my first friends and experienced the grief and heartbreak that comes with leave-taking.

I remember my early teenage at this school. We were an all girls’ convent school, so we spent all our newly charged, young emotional intensities on our girlfriends. Being someone’s best friend was a big deal. There were even ranks, like first best friends and 2nd and 3rd best friends who were on wait-lists if the first best-friends ever fell out. And there were such fierce falling outs, worthy of the messiest breakups in Rom Coms. 

It all seems so silly in retrospect, but back then it consumed our lives. Anyway I changed schools in seventh grade, and it felt like the end of the world. I was never going to have friends again. I was never going to be happy again. The first heartbreak came with the leaving. The second heartbreak came a few months later, with my reluctant realization that the weekly phone calls and letters (yes, we wrote letters. I am old) meant more to me than they did to the friends I had left behind, that I missed them more than they missed me. But they were right. You are supposed to move on.

In my own slow time, I stopped missing them. I even made new friends at my new school. At first it hurt a little to think forever friendships were over, to not miss them anymore, but then one day I discovered to my surprise even that did not hurt anymore. Funny side story. There was a girl I knew in my first school who was not my friend back then, but became my friend in college. And there were a couple of girls who I may or may not have befriended had I chosen a different college, but I ended up befriending them about five years later in another classroom. I think every friendship comes in its own time, in the time we need them, and perhaps in the time they need us. We learn and grow, and maybe give something back in return, being changed in small, subtle ways while changing others. I think friendship becomes easier as we grow, more secure in ourselves. As a teenager, I sought validation from my peers, desperate to be liked. I may not have completely passed that stage, but I have my own Mind Palace (sorry, Sherlock) now, somewhere I can hide and play with words.


Day 18: The prompt from napowrimo.net today was based on Faisal Mohyuddin’s poem “Five Answers to the Same Question, ” which is an absolutely beautiful poem.  Our job was to write our own poem that provides five answers to the same question – without ever specifically identifying the question that is being answered. The prompt from Kavya was to title the poem ‘Poet’s Garden’ and go from there. I took the title to mean the things that inspire and drive a poet to write, and I guess my five answers are firstly answering the title,  but there’s also another question that is not specified that I was hoping to answer. I really loved writing this one, and I hope you love it too.

Day 19:

 Prompt from napowrimo.net: Begin your poem with a command. Prompt from Kavya: “Use your clipboard as inspiration”. Things on my clipboard were, firstly,  my wordle block today (0/6 because I kept getting the 4th letter wrong through all my options 😭),  the poems I share everyday and the Spotify link to my EP. So, here goes nothing. Tried to keep the haiku stanza structure because it’s fun to try and fit our truth in the space that is given to us, and isn’t that what life is?

If you like what I do, please consider streaming my debut EP, Timeline, on a platform of your choice. Links are available here

On Getting a PhD, NaPoWriMo & Stuff

Sorry, it has been a while. Things just pile up on one another, you know. But here’s the main news. The thing I’ve been waiting for since last December finally happened. Last month, on the 16th, I got my TARDIS driving license. Which is to say, I successfully defended my PhD thesis. What? I’ve been waiting to make ‘Doctor’ themed jokes for a while now. But you know the strangest thing? Happy as I was (and still am) about the whole thing, the immediate aftermath of it felt a bit deflating. Like, what am I supposed to do with myself now? I mean, I have enough on my plate, don’t get me wrong- classes to teach, scripts to evaluate (how is about 80% of my life consumed by examinations and grading? I seem to remember these being a lot less frequent when I was a student myself!), data to collect and enter into endless excel sheets (did not sign up for this, smh) and then order and reorder, supervising student drama rehearsals, organizing intra-college poster contests and so on and so forth. But what about the things that matter? I go to work every day. Anyone could do that. Anyone could do what I do at work. What difference does it make? And then perhaps the other reason why it wasn’t as exciting was because nothing really changed that much. I dunno, when immensely important life-events happen, you think they would reflect in the external life somehow. Yet here I was, doing the same old things. Four weeks in, the feelings have now settled into more rational, sensible shape. I’ve also begun the slow process of turning the thesis into a book, and guess what, we are already halfway down my fifth NaPoWriMo.  

I did my first NaPoWriMo in 2018, a couple of days after I was introduced to the ‘Write 100 Poems in a Year with Airplane Poetry Movement’ challenge. This was after I had had my breakdown in 2017, and I started blogging and singing and finally wrote the first 2 chapters of my thesis.  Some people advised me to focus on the thesis more, and less on the creative things, but it felt like my PhD work had only started moving forward once I picked up the things I loved again, and as long as I had my poems and songs, the thesis would just go on fine. Oddly, this has been my hardest year. I have been using prompts from both napowrimo.net and @kavyajananipoetry on Instagram, as I sometimes do- partly because I like the challenge and partly because I’m too greedy to choose one set of prompts, sometimes combining both in a single poem and sometimes writing two separate ones, and while I haven’t missed a day yet, it feels more difficult than ever. Perhaps I am exhausted. Perhaps I demand too much of myself. Perhaps it feels hard every year and I just don’t remember.

I have also been struggling to write this blog. One morning in February, when it was still pleasant and cool in my part of the world, I was up on the roof, walking, and I saw a bird perched on a branch and wrote a whole blog piece inside my head, knowing then that I wouldn’t be writing it that day. Or in several days, or weeks and months. And now I am writing, but the spring has gone, and that morning has gone, and the bird has flown away. Who remembers all the words that stream through the mind like a constant soliloquy? All I know is, on some nights I want to stay distracted. Some nights I am afraid to be alone with my thoughts because the loneliness just comes crashing through the silence of the stars, and on some nights, I write silly, light-hearted poems about cat getting your tongue. Anyway, here are my poems written so far this April. We’re halfway there.

Day 1.

I almost failed the challenge on day 1 but bitch, not today.

This is a combination of 2 prompts. First, from napowrimo.net : “The idea is to write your own prose poem that, whatever title you choose to give it, is a story about the body. The poem should contain an encounter between two people, some spoken language, and at least one crisp visual image.” 2nd, from @kavyajananipoetry ‘how to be a poem.’

The reason why this poem took me forever was because I wasn’t brave enough to write a story about the body. But I did, anyway. 

Day 2:

Prompt from @kavyajananipoetry: Ode to serendipity.  Prompt from napowrimo.net,  use a word from the Haggard Hawkins Twitter account (which by the way is awesome,  please do yourself a favor and check it out.) Word I picked: Dèja-rêve.

Day 3. Prompt from @kavyajananipoetry- to read ‘Packing Tips for a Time Traveler’ by Michael Janeiro and write an after to it.

The prompt from napowrimo.net was too technically specific to blend with this, so it became a separate poem. The prompt was to write a glosa, “literally a poem that glosses, or explains, or in some way responds to another poem. The idea is to take a quatrain from a poem that you like, and then write a four-stanza poem that explains or responds to each line of the quatrain, with each of the quatrain’s four lines in turn forming the last line of each stanza. Traditionally, each stanza has ten lines”. This stumped me for a bit because the traditional quatrain style poems I loved (such as Keats) would require a more archaic style of writing if I had to repeat the original lines and then most of the 20th century poems I could think of were not quatrains. Finally decided on Wistawa Szymborska’s ‘Nobody Feels Fine at 4 AM’.

No one feels fine at four a.m.

If ants feel fine at four a.m,

We’re happy for the ants. & let four a.m come

If we’ve got to go on living. 

                                   – Wistawa Szymborska 

A night of running through familiar nightmares, chased by monsters,

Of ebbing and flowing faces speaking

Of promises made in the heady hope

Of youth. The monsters catch up.

Now you die. Now you wake.

Too late for rest, 

Too late to forget.

Sleep only taunts with a fatigued trance.

No one feels fine at four a.m.

The clocks keep books. You can’t run.

You’d rather take the nightmares but

There’s no running from the day:

All that ‘rise and shine’ and fresh starts

You’ve probably had enough of,

Waiting queues, like the ants’ endless trek

For a little sugar speck. Ever wondered

What the ants dream of? I don’t suppose 

That anyone’s asked–

If the ants feel fine at four a.m?

People are all sorts.

Some thrive in the chase

And bloom in the queues. Some at least,

Love what they do. Good for them.

Not everyone can claim to make the world

Shift, or find a purpose to their being.

Ants at least know why they climb, and

Let the air through the soil, and

Find winter bliss. We’re happy

For the ants. Let four a.m come.

Meanwhile you turn in sleep.

The dreams you have failed come

To mock at you. Do you think ants

Are haunted by lost, waylaid grains?

Staying up at night, praying for home

From the rains? Do the ants ever

Wait and ache for spring at winter’s close?

Seasons, unlike fate, keep their turns. 

Perhaps we ought to be more like ants

If we’ve got to go on living.

Ruchira Mandal 03.04.2022

Day 4. Poem 1, prompt from napowrimo.net: To write a poem as a poetry prompt.

Poem 2, prompt by @kavyajananipoetry: To begin with “I am rooting for”. I guess poem 2 was as honest I could be while being evasive. Poetry prompts have a knack of asking too many questions that you are not brave enough to answer at times, but that’s why we write, yes?

Day 5. Prompt from @kavyajananipoetry,  to write an after poem to a Sylvia Plath poem. Poem chosen: Lady Lazarus. I skipped the prompt from napowrimo.net which was to depict a mythical character doing daily mundane tasks. I might revisit this prompt later someday. But  I decided to let it go because I felt uninspired, and the more I thought about it,  the more dreadful it became.  This has been an experience during this year’s challenge,  especially the first week or so. I was so terrified of failing that I was dreading having to write the darned poem. So I decided to let it go and told myself that I am allowed to fail sometimes.

Day 6. With that permission to fail, I ignored the 6th prompt from Kavya. 

Prompt from napowrimo.net: Today, I’d like to challenge you to write a variation of an acrostic poem. But rather than spelling out a word with the first letters of each line, I’d like you to write a poem that reproduces a phrase with the first words of each line. Perhaps you could write a poem in which the first words of each line, read together, reproduce a treasured line of poetry? You could even try using a newspaper headline or something from a magazine article. The quote I chose was from one my absolute favourite authors, the inimitable Sir Pterry.

“So much universe,  and so little time. ” Terry Pratchett,  The Last Hero.

Day 7. This was the first time I had proper fun this month and the writing didn’t feel forced and laboured. Especially poem 1, ‘Cat Got Your Tongue’ was really fun to write. Silly, perhaps, but I loved it.❤ The prompt from napowrimo.net was “Today, I’d like to challenge you to write a poem that argues against, or somehow questions, a proverb or saying. They say that “all cats are black at midnight,” but really? Surely some of them remain striped. And maybe there is an ill wind that blows some good. Perhaps that wind just has some mild dyspepsia. “

The reason I picked my phrase was because their use of the other cat phrase made me think of this one, and because I loved the way James McAvoy delivered this phrase in book 1 of Sandman Audible. The 2nd poem wasn’t funny, I suppose,  but it also rolled off rather easily. The Prompt from @kavyajananipoetry was to write something along the lines of feeling nostalgic. I am a nostalgic person, so I was pretty surprised by what I ended up writing. I also  combined this with the day 6 prompt (that I had previously  skipped) which was to use the line: “I could poem my way out of this shit, but I want to stay and deal with this unpoetically. “

Day 8: Poem 1: Prompt by @kavyajananipoetry: Write an ‘after’ for Margaret Atwood’s ‘Three Desk Objects’.

Poem 2: Prompt by napowrimo.net: Write a poem about your alter-ego (funny because I have been watching Moon Knight and if my alter-ego ever wants to go on a crime-fighting spree as an avatar of am Egyptian deity, I would like them to kindly keep me in the loop so I wouldn’t wake up in odd places with sand in my mouth). 

Day 9. Prompt from napowrimo.net: To write a #nonet : “a  nonet has nine lines. The first line has nine syllables, the second has eight, and so on until you get to the last line, which has just one syllable.”. Prompt from @kavyajananipoetry : To write an after to Neruda’s ‘You can cut the flowers, but cannot stop spring.’ As I couldn’t find the poem, I wrote a response to the first line. Also yeah,  I got the date wrong on that screenshot.

Day 10. Prompt from @kavyajananipoetry: Imagine you are a vending machine. What would you be vending? Prompt from napowrimo.net: write a love poem. This is honestly one of my favourites, along with the day 13 poem.

Day 11. Day 11. Poem 1. Prompt from napowrimo.net: To write a poem about something huge.

Poem 2. Prompt from @kavyajananipoetry :  write a  foodie poem. This is a haiku because I wanted to keep it thought. I have realized I really more on thoughts and less on sensory impressions as a poet, perhaps I shall work on that at some point.

Day 12. Poem 1: Prompt from @kavyajananipoetry- a list of things that need fixing.

Poem 2: Prompt from napowrimo.net- a poem about something tiny. 

Day 13. Ah, I  got to combine the prompts again and this was deeply satisfying. Prompt from napowrimo.net, to write a poem that joyfully states that “Everything is Going to Be Amazing.” Sometimes, good fortune can seem impossibly distant, but even if you can’t drum up the enthusiasm to write yourself a riotous pep-talk, perhaps you can muse on the possibility of good things coming down the track. Prompt from @kavyajananipoetry- to write a piplikamadhya poem (consisting of unrhymed tercet stanzas consisting of 12-8-12  syllables).

Day 14. Prompt from napowrimo.net: Write a poem describing the first scene of your biopic. Skipped Kavya’s prompt because couldn’t think of déja-vu moments. 

..

Day 15. Poem 1, prompt from napowrimo.net: To write a poem about something you are not interested in. So I read this long article called ‘Cryptocurrency for Dummies’ and no, I still don’t understand. I really didn’t want to write this poem but I guess that was the challenge. 🤣

Poem 2, prompt from @kavyajananipoetry : To write a love-poem to your favourite word. I don’t know if I have a favourite word, but ‘longing’ is the first word that popped into my head when I read the prompt, and here we are.

Day 16. Prompt from napowrimo.net: To write a #curtalsonnet , which has 11 instead of 14 lines, the last line being shorter than the preceding 10. Prompt from @kavyajananipoetry : To write an #ekphrasticpoem inspired by one of the paintings from the National Gallery of Art. The painting I chose was Classic Landscape by Charles Sheeler.

From the moment I read the 2 prompts, I knew that I was going to write an ekphrastic poem that was also a curtal sonnet, but I really struggled with Kavya’s prompt because while I have written ekphrastic poems before, the artwork on display wasn’t quite my type, which is to say, it didn’t feel Romantic or evocative to me,  even if I liked the art for itself.  Had to do a second scroll past to discover Sheeler’s landscape. And here we are.

And that’s me, halfway through my 5th National Poetry Writing Month Challenge. Something that seemed to have changed since I first started posting my poems on Instagram is the decline in engagement. Perhaps it’s only happened to me,  in which case I don’t know what I am doing wrong. While I have never been particularly popular on social media,  I remember getting more views during my first NaPoWriMo. Now, I can only depend upon a handful of regulars to read my work. On the other hand, as soon as I post a poem, or a song, I get at least 1 or 2 comments that go, “Hard DM @thewriterswarmth”. During this April, I’ve had about 20 such comments and I blocked every single one of them. What’s this about, then? When did Instagram become the platform where these ‘promo’ accounts get more engagement and more followers than the creators of the works whose work they use, and the creators actually pay them to share their work, to zero benefit for themselves. And then they have a shit ton of bot accounts who swarm like mosquitoes as soon as they smell the scent of a new poem, which is often within a second of the work being posted. Absolute energy vampires, this lot. And creative artists need to stop falling for their promises.  Our work shared on their pages bring them traffic, not us. I just wish I could figure this whole promoting your work thing.

Anyway,  if you like my poems and would like to read more, please follow me on Instagram (@ruchirarambles). And if you would like to congratulate me for completing my PhD or just generally support me,  please stream Timeline: EP by Ruchira Mandal on Spotify or Apple or Tidal or Amazon.  I know I recorded it in my bedroom on my phone, but anything can be listened to once, right? The links to all of these are on my linktree page.

Thank you for reading, and hope I’ll be back soon.

Monday Musings

I have a folder full of grading to do. Just the grading. Put a number against the white, no evaluation required. I am paid for my signature, not my opinion. I have four different excel sheets to fill up and I can’t bring myself to open my laptop. I keep wondering when you reach the breaking point. I keep wondering what tells the straw it’s the last one. What if the camel’s back gets so used to the pain it doesn’t realize when it finally breaks? Maybe it broke years ago and we just carry on out of habit like the coyote chasing the roadrunner across the air before it remembers to look down?


So anyway, as an act of rebellion, I have been holding off listening to those voice messages and reading poetry instead. And there are words so simple, so casually written that shake you up. Like, how could they know? These strangers? And why couldn’t I write it? Or maybe we all wrote our poems and wove them into our collective dreams. And who knows,  maybe someone has read them too. And one day, they will let us know.

So anyway, if you like the words I write here, maybe you will like the ones I turn into songs. Take my hand, stand by me, hear my song, isn’t that all we ask for?

(Timeline: EP by Ruchira Mandal is now streaming on all digital platforms. Links here. )

The Anatomy of Waiting

I’ve been looking for things to say.  I have been afraid of staring at blank pages. What if someday I have nothing to say anymore? What if nothing I say interests anyone anymore? What if no one hears me? What if they hear me and laugh at my naiveté? So what am I going to write about?

Like most of my recent posts, this too has been weeks and months in the making. I’ve been running away from saying the things I want to say. What if I say too much? Share too much? What if they laugh and roll their eyes, muttering about my presumptions? What if no one says a damn thing and I fall through the rabbit-hole of silence once again?

On some days, I listen to one song on loop, willing it to weave a story in my head that transports me from my present. On other days, I run through my playlists, discarding old favourites like a moody teenager picking at food, too distracted to allow for the distraction of music and rhythm. Somebody perhaps I’ll sit down and write songs again, feel the words coming for me like old friends. Someday I’ll break this cycle of distraction and disappointment.

All this is nothing but the disconsolate ravings of a heart craving for stories. For in stories we find somewhere to go home to, to someone to go home to, direction, a purpose, a narrative fulfillment where things happen for a reason and nothing is ever caught in the mire of nothingness and stasis. Unless you are Beckett, of course. Then nothing happens twice, and keeps happening over and over again as bicycle wheels go out of wind and hills grow steeper and no one knows where the windows are anymore.

If I thought less, perhaps it would be quieter inside my head. But we can’t all be existentialist philosophers. If I roll my stone up the hill, there will be music in the sound of the friction. It may not be much, but it carries my heart in its notes. And maybe that’s reason enough to do it again. “Tomorrow night, if the dreams come along, I’ll catch them all and spin up a song…”

A part of me wants to rail against the unfairness of nothing ever changing. The other part chides me to remember all the changes within me, of the little steps I have learned to take, and how different that makes me from who I used to be. The first part quietens down, but not quite. But what’s the point, it whines, if nothing changes on the outside? Did you make a sound in the forest? What is more important, the tree or the one who saw it fall?

I wake up every morning expecting a miracle that never comes. And the hands of the clocks tick away, day rolling into another night of praying, leading to another morning of hope, and days into weeks into months into years. Yet I never stop, because without hope, what would be the point? And we carry on the days of sameness shaping up into our ordinary lives. Yet the extraordinary happens, and when you look back through the lens of years you see how today’s ordinary had seemed impossible five years ago. Perhaps the external circumstances of your life hasn’t changed so much, but you learned something, you failed at something, you did it again, hey at least you tried! Isn’t that a miracle?

For the longest time, I’ve been living and repeating a cycle of hope and heartbreak. It used to be my friends, movies, planned outings: waiting for something good to happen, counting down to weeks and days to one afternoon of miraculous escape from routine, only to return alone in the cold light of dusk, upstream in a street of happy crowds, amongst people who all had somewhere to go, someone to be with. There were books by beloved authors, but stories end as sure as they begin, leaving you starved for more and more and more. Until you breathe, close your eyes and take a leap of faith. And start creating your own stories.

I remember the heady feeling of elation when my first poem was published. I remember too, when my first story was published. The world, as they say, was an oyster, and I wanted to do it again. I did too, a couple of times. And then the cycle started. Attempt, hope, rejection, void. I remember pinning all my faith and all my desires on one piece of submission, for weeks and months, only for it all to end in nothing again. Then I decided that perhaps I didn’t have what it took in me to write. Perhaps I wasn’t a poet after all. I didn’t sound like the poets who were published in these journals, yet my language was my own and I could not fake a voice that did not belong to me. And so, I didn’t have it in me to be a poet. Old Man Eliot had talked about how the true poets were the ones who continued to be poets beyond their twenty-fifth years, and I was giving up, taking those words as further proof of what I didn’t have.

My love for writing started when I was fairly young, springing perhaps from my love of reading and of stories, but also from the simple pleasure of putting words together and watching something grow. Recognizing this, my mother entered me into an essay contest when I was in Junior High School. The contest was in Bengali, and the topic was the generic ‘Your Aim in Life’. While my mother meant well, there were two problems with this situation. First, we hadn’t started essay-writing in school yet so I knew nothing of the philosophical paraphernalia about rudders and ships that was expected in this essay. Second, I wasn’t shaped yet, not bothered by the relentless thoughts of significance and the truth of life, so how could I write about my aim in life? It was a simpler time, not having to think, not knowing to think, and the very thought of continuing through life like that makes me gasp for air. Nevertheless, young, clueless me stared around the room and clutched on the one thought that landed, and I wrote about how I wanted to be a singer and how I needed to practice hard for that. So the good thing that came out of that debacle was that my parents signed me for music classes.

I continued to go those classes for around thirteen years, once a week, making friends, learning things, but sometime during those years, I learned to hide in the corners, recognized there were better singers than me and shifted my ambitions back into expected academic lines. Thus when I quit my music lessons some six years back because I couldn’t cope with adjusting the demands of my job and showing up in class every week, I did so only with the slight regret of letting go of a hobby that had overstayed anyway. It wasn’t as if I was going to be a singer, I remember telling myself. I had a clearly defined career path as a young academic, I loved my job and I was still yet to experience all the existential questions about purpose and meaning.

It took about a year more for that rosy tint to fade. Then in the middle of 2017, I had a breakdown of sorts. I functioned adequately on the outside so nobody really saw how I had to drag myself out of bed every morning because I couldn’t bear to go through another day but I did it anyway because the possibility of having to explain was even more exhausting. I felt absolutely disconnected from everyone. My life had run into a tight little box that was choking me out. And I couldn’t bear to imagine the future stretching out before me, like the deserts of futility. I only had a couple of temporary escapes, sleep and the book (series) I was then reading- Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

I had then recently rediscovered Gaiman and fallen in love in the second attempt. His first work that I read was ‘The Problem of Susan’, probably in 2012 and while I loved the story from Susan’s perspective, the end always creeped me out. But then in early 2017, thanks to a book review of American Gods by a Facebook friend, I went to the kindle store and looked up the novel. And I think it changed my life. Not on the outside, perhaps, but that single decision helped to widen my world just a little bit. That review was by Alex, who had only become my friend because we were both in a Percy Jackson fan group. I had only got into Percy Jackson (and A Song of Ice and Fire, for that matter) because I wanted to expand my reading of fantasy literature for my MPhil research. I had only got into MPhil without any sort of planning because a friend called me out of the blue and asked me if I was going to apply because a couple of universities had their forms out. Funny how life leads you, sometimes. And that is why I am a big believer of synchronicity, and of little things adding up.

But anyway, one evening in June 2017, in the middle of a silent breakdown I was pacing in my room and I heard myself humming a song that I hadn’t heard before. Just a couple of lines that went- ‘Give me tomorrow night/I’ll make things all right/Sweet Lady Death, give me tomorrow night.’ I have no idea where that came from, except for the Lady Death part, which certainly came from Sandman. I had not planned on a songwriting career, ever. Even back in Junior High when I had casually written an essay about becoming a singer, I didn’t think that singers could write their own songs. The singers I had grown up listening to were not songwriters. In my head, the singer was one person and the lyricist was a different person and the music composer was a different person, names I had read in all the inlay cards inside cassette cases. But I sat down and wrote that song, and it is now called ‘Tomorrow Night’, the third song of my debut EP, Timeline, released just a couple of weeks ago. And since I didn’t know what to do with my new song, I started doing a couple of other things. First, I told myself, if nobody would publish me, I’ll write on my own blog. And second, I started doing vocal workouts again. Thus my then defunct blog, Ruchira’s Ramblings started its second innings on 16th June, 2017, and by the end of the year, I had created my own YouTube channel, uploading cover versions with the aim of ultimately singing my own songs. Blogging led me to other friends, and in early 2018, inspired by one such friend, I signed up for Airplane Poetry Movement’s ‘Write 100 Poems in a Year’ challenge in 2018, and a few weeks in, I started believing that I was a poet after all. And last year, APM brought out its anthology titled ‘A Letter, A Poem, A Home’ and I found a place in it, right next to Rudy Francisco, no less. I know there are better poets out there, and sometimes I read stuff I love so much that I almost regret that I didn’t write it myself, but then, sometimes I revisit a poem of my own, and I think, hey, I’m okay too.

Last year, Taylor Swift released not one but two albums, the second one, Evermore coming right after I had (finally!!!) submitted my PhD thesis and what with the resultant vacuum, the lyrics about feeling unmoored in December somewhat hit home. And I very, very naively thought, what does it take to make an album? How many songs? How do you release them? By the end of 2020, I had written around six songs in bits and pieces, only two of which- Timeline and Flying are actually in the current EP. By January, I had my research completed. I knew how many minutes it took to make an EP and how to get your songs distributed. And then I waited. I recorded and deleted songs because I hated how I sounded. I couldn’t figure out what to do about the music because I did not have an orchestra or even a keyboard or a guitar and I knew my ukulele strumming was less than perfect. I wrote another song called ‘Everybody Gets a Little Tired’, decided to dig ‘Tomorrow Night’ out of the archives and shelved some of the songs I had originally written for Timeline. Recorded and deleted again. Then I had covid at the end of May. It was pretty mild, but it put my voice out of action for a couple of months. From mid-July to the end of August we were dealing with the online examinations of five different semesters and I could probably write a whole different blog post (or several posts) on that subject except the thought of it makes me want to curl up and cry. By early September, classes for the new semesters had begun. I was growing increasingly desperate, frustrated and furious at my own failure. More recordings were made and deleted. The last song, ‘Thinking of You’ was written on a whim just a week before the final recordings, and I thought, bugger it, I am not going to make a perfect album with my current time and resources, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?

If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Depends on how the tree feels about it, doesn’t it? Okay, wrong analogy there. If nobody watches a hatchling take its first flight, the wind still rushes beneath its wings. My point is, sometimes we are chasing dreams not for the world but for ourselves. To tell ourselves we can do it. To teach ourselves we can do it. And those are our little miracles.

I keep listening to tarot readings hoping they will tell me something new. I keep falling asleep hoping the world will be different in the morning. I keep scrolling through my timeline searching for something I’m not quite sure of. I keep weaving symbols into thin air and meanings unto symbols. Perhaps I am becoming a mad woman. Someone once told me I’d die a crazy cat lady. I don’t have cats. I’ve never been drunk except on joy, on little moments and words I could relive for eternity. 60 streams become 71 in a day, then 74, 78, and then another leap to 90, and I look at listeners from Philippines, Vietnam, Germany, the USA and count my little blessings. Thank you.

Someday in the future all of this will make sense. The waiting for magic, the anxiety and the disappointment and the steady slipping away of time–it will all lead to a magnificent homecoming. Isn’t that what all the stories say? The stories we bond over, the stories we kill for, the stories we define ourselves by, the stories that make us who we are: they all promise a reward at the tunnel’s end, a happy ending.

If I refresh my feed enough times, will it be already time for the new episode, the new movie, the new-whatever-I-use-to-fill-up-the-pages-of-my-days? My hours slip away like I’m constantly crossing time zones to the East, trying to create sunrises out of despair. What next? What now?

And in desperation for an answer, I’ve put my imperfect but honest songs into an EP (I learned this term while researching album technicalities) and sent them out into the world. My heart and my voice are all I have.

Wishing a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you. May 2022 bring out the magic within us. Happy Holidays.

Timeline: EP is now streaming on SpotifyAppleiTunesAmazon PrimeTidalGaanaAnghami, and a bunch of other places, available on my Linktree page. Let me know what you think.

The Data Cycle: Teaching on the CBCS Syllabi during the Pandemic

‘Why am I doing this? What am I changing? Am I doing any good at all?’ In my professional teaching career in Higher Education of over six years, I have often found myself confronted with these questions. 

As I sit here almost regretting my hasty promise to Arunima to write this piece, I am drowning in a virtual whirlpool of overlapping exam schedules, batch-wise email addresses, and timings and uploading to portals, and the only thing that I can say with any certainty about my experience as a college teacher under WBES during the pandemic academic year is that we are woefully understaffed. Not simply for the online mode of examination, but also for the new (running on its third year now) CBCS system, with its ambitiously wide syllabus and its multiple-component examination scoring system. This becomes increasingly apparent as we advance further into the system, with higher semesters unfolding and new batches coming in, leading to multiple semesters running simultaneously which results in a constant rush to meet multiple deadlines.

In 6+ years of college teaching, as a teacher of English literature, I have drawn the following inferences:

  1. Students who have scored above ninety percent in English in their school-leaving examinations often struggle to construct simple sentences in English. While this is not true of all students, the number is still significant enough to raise questions on the state of English learning in school. So where does the rot lie? My money is on the increasingly general tendency to make education a scoring system rather than a system that focuses on what the pupils actually learn. A common rebuff I hear these days is that one needn’t learn the colonizer’s language to be deemed educated or respectable. True enough, but that doesn’t explain why a student aiming to take up English language and literature as a bachelor’s degree course is unsure about the basic grammar of the language. And if this is what happens in one subject, one can’t help but wonder about the gap between scoring and learning in other subjects as well.
  2. Something of that mindset is carried over in the CBCS system where all the extra columns of data contribute to making scoring marks easier but without any scope of originality of thought and analysis. Don’t get me wrong. I am not against students scoring marks, seeing that I was one not so long ago, but I am exhausted by the endless cycle of reading made-to-order essays and compiling more and more data. Compile, upload, save, print, repeat. It’s an endless cycle.
  3. The CBCS system is, on paper, a more flexible system. But it does not take into consideration the disparity across India in student-teacher ratio and student demography, nor is the individual college teacher given any autonomy in designing their courses and assignments. During the early days of lockdown last year, before the official directives for online classes came in, I experimented with assigning out of syllabus short stories and poems to my tutorial group, asking them to write their responses. At least sixty percent made an attempt to come up with original responses, making grading a more joyous experience than it usually is. A system where departments/teachers are given more autonomy could actually encourage students to learn to express their own ideas rather than reproduce the learned by rote material of guidebooks. On the whole, I don’t think our education system is designed to make students think. As a result, we get the same rehashed material in the form of thousand-word essays submitted as projects. Producing a redundant cycle of grading and uploading of marks causing increasing disillusionment and constant exhaustion.

On a related note, I was privileged enough to not only have parents who enjoyed reading and inculcated that love in me, but also to go to schools that actively encouraged reading in the form of a weekly library class in the routine. When I was a school student, everybody read. Even friends who later on went on to study engineering and medicine. And they continue to read today. While in my classes I encounter an increasing number of literature students who don’t read. Neither in their mother tongues nor in the language they professedly ‘love’ enough to come and seek a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in. As a student of literature myself, I have a naïve faith in the power of fiction to inculcate empathy, understanding, and imagination, the therapeutic ability to create one’s own inner world – qualities I believe are needed in today’s divided world. It’s unfortunate that this finds no place in anyone’s election manifesto, but we need more libraries. Instead, we get ballot-politics-driven cosmetic surgery of the education sector to garner quick brownie points– more colleges (without infrastructure), superficial syllabus changes, and the supposed choice-based credit system.  

Under the CBCS system, all core and general papers have three components (four, when you count attendance but as a saving grace the University has been giving full attendance to everyone in lockdown) – internal assessment, tutorial, and theory. In the offline system, the teachers upload marks for attendance, internals, and tutorials. In the online mode, the attendance component has been replaced by theory/end semester exams which are now held online and arranged by the colleges/departments. The process for uploading these marks for all these different components is complicated. First, one must generate foil numbers for each of these components from the examination portal- generally one foil number per component per batch of students, but for bigger batches, there are often two or three or more foil numbers for every single component. Next, one must enter the subject and paper code for each component to make the marks entry. Then enter the details again to verify. And then enter the details for a third time to generate the statement of marks. This process is repeated for every single foil. Even without network crashes, which are frequent, uploading data for a single department might take two or three hours. The OTP for log-in is sent to a single phone registered to the institution, which means some 19 departments with one phone between them are trying to upload details of 50+ components (per department) in the limited period when the portal is open. At the end of the ordeal, one wonders why one studied literature (or anything) at all!

Ironically, in offline/non-quarantine mode, the supposedly digital CBCS system generates more paperwork than the previous system. While earlier an examiner filled up one big mark sheet per paper, also signed by the scrutineer, now there are the foil numbered sheets for each of the 2 or three components per paper, duly filled in and signed, and an equal number of portal generated statements for the examiner. And the scrutineer generates their own set. What with frequent server crashes, network glitches, and the disparity in teacher-student ratio, it seems to me that we have adopted a system we are not equipped for, demographically or technologically.

I did a quick math for our upcoming exams as I was writing this, and we have 37 components of marks to upload to the university portal at the end of March, and the number could go up to 58 if the university office splits up our two longer batches into separate foils. If this all sounds a bit technical for an article about teaching experience, it’s because the teaching part seems now to be subsumed by endless, redundant cycles of technicalities.

That last observation holds true in other areas of the job as well. For the last four years, my college has been preparing for National Assessment And Accreditation Council. Same data, different formats. Sent to X. Re-formatted and sent to Y. Edited and sent to Z. Sent to X again in a completely new format. And on and on the data cycle repeats. Because at the end of the day, what counts is not creativity, but data. One of my 2020 work-from-home highlights was converting above seventy documents from PDF to word files and then renaming them in the course of an evening. On the plus side though, I’ve learned all the MS Excel stuff that three years of actual clerical work for the Jadavpur University Department of English BA admissions didn’t teach me.

I was a bookish nerd as a student. I enjoyed going to college, sitting in the classes, watching my teachers open whole new worlds every day. I had assumed that the experience from the opposite side would also be as magical. But now, 6 years in, I find myself increasingly mired in a cycle of data and paperwork, and more paperwork. The CBCS system was supposed to make education more flexible. We have Honours papers broken into internal assessments and tutorials now, but all that they have come to mean is just more columns in the datasheet. Mechanically grading projects that are merely repetitions of the same old questions that have been asked. And a part of me can’t help but think- it would be fun to have a theatre workshop as a tutorial for the Shakespeare paper instead of writing the same rehashed thousand-word essay. But where is the time for that when we are speeding to meet university decreed deadlines? After all, what’s the material value of a theatre or a poetry workshop? Instead, the ‘project’ has become another exercise in the familiar book-learning dead-end. Perhaps one reason for this state of affairs is the imposing of the ‘science’ model on all disciplines, without taking into account the course objectives. The tutorial is after all the Arts stream’s substitute for the ‘Practical’ component in the science disciplines. This tendency spills over in other areas of academia as well. The requirements of promotion for college teachers involves, among other things, the stringent accounting for time spent inside classrooms, not heeding the time spent preparing for lessons or out-of-classroom interactions. The same tendency to quantify what are essentially qualitative concerns is seen in one of the criteria of NAAC, which tries to assess the mentor-mentee relationship and the quality of student counselling through MCQ surveys. 

When the lockdown initially put a hold on regular schedules and examinations, I used the online medium to mix up things a little.  Apart from the weekly assignments on out-of-syllabus fiction and poetry, I arranged a mini-seminar where the students read their own papers on film and television adaptations of Wuthering Heights and set ‘Google form’ quizzes to assess their understanding of in-syllabus texts in terms of current world events. After all, how could anybody teach Faulkner’s Dry September in 2020 without talking about George Floyd? When we did return to full-fledged regular classes and exams, albeit via Google Meet, I tried to use the tools of the digital mode to my (and I hoped, the students’) advantage. For my classes on Comedy as a genre, I edited clips out of Shakespeare productions and uploaded the video to my own channel. After a week, there were exactly five views. After the initial disappointment, I understood why. The system didn’t require my students to laugh at comedy or to appreciate comedy. It only required them to learn some words about comedy and reproduce them on paper.

And yet, I know that our students are capable of creativity if given the opportunity. One rewarding experience for me has been supervising the English drama/musical for the last three years. The calendar of the semester-divided year has now put this little breath of fresh air into question. Last year, we had to curtail one day of the programme to accommodate last-minute exam schedules that ran right up to Christmas. And yet, shouldn’t a true ‘choice’ based credit system include credit for innovative activities?

But whatever my impression of the system, I can’t deny that the journey has helped me in many ways to discover myself. Back in my own college days, I used to stare at my teachers with awe. I was sure I would never be able to talk by myself for a full forty-five minutes, and if I did, I thought I wouldn’t be assertive enough and for the first few months of my career, this second part was true enough. I remember being mistaken for a student by the library staff on my first day of work and being mistaken for a student by a candidate on my first invigilation, and I think it had more to do with how nervous I felt rather than how I looked. And then, to my surprise, I learned that I knew how to raise my voice. That I had things to say and I could talk for forty-five minutes and more, and people would listen. I’ve enjoyed hours inside classrooms that have gone a long way in compensating for all the tiresome, redundant, mechanical labour. I’ve discovered I’m not bad at my job. But the other lesson has been this, that sometimes, my abilities to connect and communicate depended on my students. This last lesson has been emphasized by the lockdown experience.

There’s a line in Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ where the poet declares that women’s beauty is nothing in comparison to the amorous greens of his precious garden. Apollo and Pan chased maidens, he says, but found in the end that the laurel tree and the reed were far more superior as sources of solace. This dismissive retelling of what are essentially stories of attempted rape always incites a sardonic comment from me when I am teaching the poem in class- nothing practiced but an automatic eye roll, a shared chuckle with the students. This semester however when I paused to declare how the speaker sounded like he was bitter about a bad rejection, I suddenly found myself unsure. I didn’t know these first semester girls, never interacted with them in a physical classroom, I couldn’t even see their faces (due to network issues, our students keep their cameras off and interact through the comment box or by unmuting themselves), and I wasn’t quite sure if I could be as informal through my laptop as I was when actually interacting with students in person. I had no way of knowing if they were laughing at my jokes. And sometimes, this feeling of uncertainty was true even in offline classrooms. Sometimes, the only questions I am asked at the end of a class are about potential examination questions or the selection of pages one should read for the exam. Sometimes, teaching is a two-way performance in which I am only as good as my audience. This is especially true for literature as we are dependent on teacher-student dialogues and interactions between students themselves. And I’m not sure that simply imposing the model of the physical classroom into an entirely different system can do justice to the discipline. Perhaps we need to devise a new set of tools for this ‘new normal’.

 I’ve always wanted to share with my students the sense of wonder that I experienced (and still do) as a student of literature. Fresh off a grueling examination season that generated excel sheets quite proportional to the sense of futility it evoked, and facing another semester of speaking into the void of online classes, I only have one question. Does the data cycle have any space for wonder?

“Photo by Christa Dodoo on Unsplash

*All views expressed here belong to me and not to any institutions I am part of.

P.S.: I made an album!!!!!! Well, technically, it’s an EP but my songs are on Spotify now!!!!!!! Also on Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon Music, Tidal, Gaana, Deezer, Pandora, Yandex and Shazam!!!!!!!! Whooooo! I’m going to write more about this in my currently in-progress post, but you can find it through my linktree page here.

When I Fear I May Cease To Be

Isn’t the Mercury Retrograde over yet? Everything seems suspended in a strange sort of stasis. We return to our lives that used to be with the shadow of a fear. I just want us all to be happy again.

In the room where I got my vaccine doses, the lights on the ceiling were soft and dreamy, and the rows of cushioned chairs slanted down a steady slope. I looked around and realized we were in a movie theatre, although the screen was covered up by the make-shift cubicles where the nurses met the unvaccinated. The realization hit me like a slow ache, bringing back memories of movie dates and lunches and friends I hadn’t seen in ages.

When our biggest festival came round, I spent the time in my room, flipping through facebook memories, recollecting a decade’s worth of plannings and anticipations and picking out dresses and mad traffic and melancholy evening goodbyes.

This is an old bereavment of mine, this traveling home after a happy hour or two, the crowd somehow always flowing opposite, a happy stream from which I am alienated, because I had left my world behind.

Vacations end, and we return to the grind, from home or otherwise. Except, I don’t know what I am doing anymore, and why. What purpose do I serve in the grand scheme of things? Birth, fill up the data sheets, death, is that it? Is it too much of a mauvaise foi to imagine that things ought to mean something? That there are living hearts and minds behind the data, and they ought to count? Do they count? Am I just stupid?

Things that I fear- that I shall die turning this futile cycle and it will amount to not a single damn thing. That I will never hug a friend again. That the magic mail will never arrive. That I will pour out all the love in my heart and they will just be words among words– funny shaped scribbles against the blank.

All of this means nothing anyway. I think I have forgotten to write. Maybe it would be easier if I felt it less. I dunno. Who reads this anyway? Why? Do I ever make sense to you?

YouTube
Instagram
Facebook
Twitter

(Photo by Anna Shevts via Pexels.com)

Anniversaries & Anxieties

16th June, 2021. Bloom’s Day. I mark the date because it’s my blog-anniversary. This is my space to think aloud without judgment and prudent advice, to ramble my heart out, to find my way as all who wander lost may someday find theirs.

By Rohit Ghadge via Unsplash.com

It’s been a strange world, a strange time. Where would you wander when paths were closed? And the people died, without help, without love, without dignity. And the world carried on, in light that was always eight minutes late, as moments turned into memories, as memories faded into dull, half-forgotten heartaches, as all aches blurred into the fog of the blank spaces. And the light was always eight minutes late. We woke, opened our eyes, saw the world in delayed light, tried to make sense of it all, and no wonder we got it all wrong. When the darkness came, we looked up and said our prayers, pinning all our hopes on God. “Move him into the sun”, we said. And God was eight minutes late.

I wonder, if tomorrow, in some moment of inexplicable cosmic mystery, the sun exploded, what would happen to us? Would the earth shift first, or the warmth? Or would we have eight minutes of borrowed light from a dead star? I’m sure the astrophysicists know. Perhaps we would be long gone before the sun. I am just thinking aloud, like I always do.

Someday, this will all be over. We shall pick up the pieces and walk out in the sun, again. Someday again we shall touch each other, letting the wind lift our hair off our faces as we run to embrace long-lost friends. Or maybe, we shall sit down to grieve, in silence, and those of us who survive shall avert our eyes, swallow our words and know the guilt of the living. And then we will move on, because that’s what we do.  We shall live like we have lived before, longing for the stars, dreaming of the skies, and yearning for love. We shall survive. We hope.

17th June, 2021. I have to put down words for the blog, and I have run out of things to say. Not that I don’t have thoughts crawling to come out, but some of it is political with a chance of provoking ugliness, and some of it is perhaps too specific for the general tone of this blog. For instance, my feelings about the approaching series of deadlines for yet another cycle of semester end formalities and the futile pile of paperwork and intense, joyless screen-time that comes with it, feelings I have expressed quite thoroughly in my article about my teaching life for the blog section of the academic journal, Sanglap. As the meetings pile up and the dates advance, I increasingly feel this overwhelming inclination to hide away in a bubble where none of it can reach me, coupled with the slightly paradoxical, mild anxiety to resume my classes and complete my assigned syllabi, something that I have been unable to do for weeks now thanks to a mild visit from the Covid19 virus.

Should I even be writing about this stuff? Do I even have the right to complain when people I know are fighting for their lives? A sort of guilt weighs me down, interwoven with gratitude for my own survival. Gratitude and guilt, guilt and gratitude, fear of what’s to come, anxiety for what might come, turning away from the newsfeed, feeling even greater need for the respite of a bubble.

18th June, 2021. Slept off the whole day. Had cups of hot tea. Coughing bout in the evening after receding for a day. This thing doesn’t seem to go away.

19th June, 2021. I remember looking at the windows of patisseries on happier days, looking at chocolate boats and blueberry muffins with you. I remember the madness of reckless laughter in the stolen weekends of our exhausting schedules. Was that in another lifetime? Then why does the exhaustion remain while the laughter feels so remote?

I remember days that felt like adventures, Sunday afternoons walking through empty by-lanes of an old, sleepy city that felt so different from the rush-hour hustle of our weekday routes that it almost felt like I was someone else, some character in a book I would enjoy reading. We could have found a dragon egg that day, or an infinity stone. I wish we had. Perhaps we did, in an alternate timeline.

30th June, 2021. Ooh, long break! I ended up not marking Blooms Day on the blog this year after all. Part of it was because I had just posted on the 13th and didn’t want to change the link in my Instagram bio so quickly. That’s my second problem with Instagram, they don’t allow links in the posts themselves. (The first one will always be photo-cropping. Ugh!) But the other reason why I didn’t have a Blooms Day post this year was because I didn’t seem to have things to say to warrant an entire post.  I’ve always been afraid of that, that someday I wouldn’t be able to come up with a new blog post, someday I will be all out of poetry, someday I will not know what songs to write. It’s why I announced renewing the blog on Facebook back in 2017. I thought if I made a public declaration of it, I would be compelled to motivate myself to keep on writing. Not that it works that way. Social Media is both distracting and distracted, and it has a rather short term memory. No one would have minded if I had not posted anything in 2017 after the FB announcement, no one did mind when I took a hiatus last year to finish writing my thesis, and no one will mind if I go off again, I think. No one except me.

The voice inside my head that will go crazy trying to figure out the purpose of going on from day to day without making a mark. And when I am done writing, that same voice will ask the point of writing something that nobody reads. But I’ve always found the flow of words a goal in itself, even without a tangible meaning. Terry Pratchett once said we were trying to understand the mystery of the universe with the aid of a system of signs and sounds that was designed to communicate where the best fruits were, and thus we forever fall short of our intended meanings. Who knows the meaning of all that I ramble here? I certainly don’t! Yet words are all we have, to see and understand and love one another, picking a clue here, etching a pattern there, weaving a hopeful, tentative design. And isn’t that beautiful?

2nd July, 2021. Birthday month. The onset of July brings me mixed feelings these days. One gets old, you see. Old and tired and disillusioned and wondering if one is too late for miracles. But one enjoys feeling special for a day, nevertheless. Chocolates and cakes and birthday greetings. The anticipation for the little wishes that make you feel good, the unexpressed hope for a little sprinkle of miracle from the universe that never comes. Or maybe it does. I am alive, still dreaming, still hoping, and that’s something, isn’t it? City of stars, are you shining just for me? Just a little bit? Could you maybe give me a hint?

Thus I move from one beginning to another, from a blog-anniversary to my own turn round the sun. So many lessons, so many renewals, it’s got to take me somewhere, right?

3rd July, 2021. Back when we travelled, I would sit by the train window and look at little roads disappearing into places I never learned the names of. Where were the roads going? Where could I go, if I followed the road?

Sometimes in strange towns I have crossed twilight streets beneath a magic lamp, half-expecting to run into you. And maybe you were there, just a little early. Or late. Perhaps we were both there, or will be. Wibbly-wobbley, timey-wimey stuff.

Majid Rangraz via Unsplash.com

    … All the immense

images in me—the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,

cities, towers, and bridges, and un-suspected turns in the path,

and those powerful lands that were once

pulsing with the life of the gods—all rise within me to mean

you, who forever elude me.- Rainer Maria Rilke

….

My social media handles:

 Facebook

Twitter

Instagram

YouTube

I also have this blog on blogspot.

.

A Game with Time

For the past several months since my thesis submission, I’ve made a few attempts to return to this blog. Here’s what those attempts look like. This is not where I am right now, although perhaps I am a little bit or it wouldn’t take so long to finish this piece and get back to these pages. But mainly, I would like this to remain as a record of a mindscape, if that makes sense.

December 2020

So, *deep breath*, I just submitted my doctoral thesis on Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels. When I submitted my MPhil thesis (on the politics of secondary fantasy worlds) some seven and a half years ago, the most overwhelming emotion I remember feeling was relief to have finished, seconded only by a strong desire to never, ever read my thesis again– I was that sick of it. I eventually got over that second feeling and over the last few years I have gone and re-read bits and pieces of it, but I don’t think I’ve ever done a full read.

I got into the PhD programme around a year after submitting my MPhil thesis. I had been a UGC-NET JRF at JUDE and I needed to enroll in PhD to be able to keep my fellowship. But I was intimidated by the prospect, and I just couldn’t come up with a research question that was good enough for my supervisor. I thought then that I would feel the same kind of relief when I submitted my PhD thesis as I did when I submitted for my MPhil, that I would feel just happy to be done with this thing. Nobody had told me that I would feel so… adrift. Which brings us here.

I have been trying to work out why I feel so differently about the two submissions. It was not that I didn’t love the subject of my MPhil thesis. I did. I still do.

All of a sudden I don’t seem to have a purpose anymore. The work I do, it’s not mine. The work I want to do, I somehow can’t seem to manage.

All my days and all my nights I find myself longing for that one thing. The thing I can’t name. The thing I‘m not sure is real. May be I’m just a little funny in the head.

January 2021

Well, it has been a while. I began this blog back in December, right after I submitted my thesis. Then I couldn’t write. Then I thought I would take a couple of weeks and then bid the year goodbye. But, I still couldn’t write. Then I was going to come back for the New Year, but I didn’t want to write. And besides, I was too tired.

February 2021

And here we go again.

Days rolling in an endless tumble of same old nothingness. Words I think of in my head that dissipate like morning dreams when I hold my pen, sketchy plans I am afraid to work on- of what, I’m not sure.

I mean, if I fail, I remain where I am, where I already am by doing nothing. But then, as long as I haven’t tried, the possibility remains alive. If I try and fail, it’s gone.

Am I so very wrong for seeking purpose? Everybody lives and dies and everything that’s wrong with the world keeps on happening yet what can I do? Am I so very mad for wanting to be happy?

Looks like February isn’t going to be my writing month either.

But I’ve been lately thinking about who I am. On Twitter in particular, and in life in general. My bio reads- Nerd, Fangirl, Academic.

May 2021

Nerd, fangirl and academic. That’s where I stopped last time. I think it’s cool being a nerd, it gives me a multitude of universes to play with inside my head, and it helps me connect with others with a shared platform. The ones calling for social media platforms limited by borders just don’t get it. I joined Twitter to follow Harry Potter actors, to participate in #FlashFictionFriday, to follow MCU accounts and calls for paper on #AcademicTwitter. My Instagram feed is a mix of Doctor Who, Merlin, Sherlock, Percy Jackson, HP and Marvel memes. Some food and travel, some fashion, because everybody needs a little TLC. What on earth would I do on Koo? Who would I talk to? The other day I panicked and downloaded three years’ worth of Instagram poetry. Which was probably wise to do in retrospect, even if not immediately necessary. I ought to keep back-ups of these things.

June 2021

Yeah, downloaded all my poetry from Instagram. At least, I hope I did. Did I miss something?

And I took more than half a year to gather my thoughts. I wonder why that is. The world has been a mess, of course. People you know falling sick. Then I falling sick myself. But that was only last month.

The thing is, for a long time now, I have sought safety in classrooms- actual physical ones as well as the idea of it as in finishing a course/thesis. I suppose because the classroom offers this comforting sense of being in progress, still learning, still growing, still becoming. Without it, I’m only the societal labels ascribed to me, and I’m suddenly left to find a direction without anyone teaching me.

And the world goes around the mulberry bush and drags you with it.

Do you want to run?

But where to?

No one’s given me a syllabus. Or a deadline. Yet every today that passes on just like yesterday leads me to an ominous tomorrow of nothingness, and I ask myself, what ought I do? What am I doing wrong? What am I not doing? How do I go wherever I want to go? Is there a somewhere to go?  

© Ruchira Mandal. Photographs by Brett Jordan via Unsplash.com

Follow me on other media:

Twitter

Facebook

Instagram

YouTube

Alternate Blog

Thursday Throwback: Two Travelogues

For a variety of reasons, it has been difficult to get back into the groove of blogging. I will try to come back but meanwhile, here are a couple of travelogues from the past. The first one about the Midnight Sun was published first on Yahoo Travel India in 2012, and the 2nd one on Antarctica was published around 2019 on travelandy.com. Since we can’t travel now, let’s revisit some old trips.

I

In the land of the Midnight Sun

First published on Yahoo! India Travel 


It was summer in the land of the Midnight Sun. Summer drawing to a close, admittedly, seeing that it was almost August, but the sun was still holding out pretty strong against the impending darkness. It was bizarre, getting used to the never-ending daylight of Tromso. We pulled down the window shutters of our hotel rooms before going to sleep, trying to pretend it was really night outside, but the shutters couldn’t keep out the cries of the seagulls, that like the sun, were on duty 24 hours a day.

On the date we had chosen for a midnight rendezvous with the sun, however, it remained hidden behind the clouds. It was a damp, wet sort of a day and the dip in the mercury did nothing to help our already plummeting spirits. However, luck smiled on us later in the afternoon, as the skies cleared. We packed our scarves and mufflers, had an early dinner at the Chinese restaurant we had discovered on our first morning in Tromso and then set off towards the Arctic Cathedral on Bus No. 26. (I’d like to add here that the bus service in Tromso is wonderful. There are charts detailing information on routes and bus timings at every stop, and the people are friendly and eager to help out the tourists with directions. The buses also have something called a ‘one-hour ticket’ for return journey provided you return by the same route within an hour).
We arrived at the Arctic Cathedral to find the striking, somewhat triangular structure bathed in glorious sunshine, and its doors firmly shut. The notice on the door said the church remained open to visitors till seven in the evening in summer; we wondered why it was closed in broad daylight before remembering it was nearly 11 pm by the clock. We could have waited of course, for it to open for the midnight concert, but we wanted to experience the Tromso midnight from a higher viewpoint.
So we left the cathedral behind and walked on. Stopping to ask for directions a few times, we finally arrived at the cable car station. One cable car ride later, we were atop a mountain, the monarchs of all Tromso, with a wide expanse of fjords and mountain ranges unveiled beneath for our survey. Although the ‘Paris of the North’ is mostly pleasant in summer, it was freezing cold at such high altitude, and there was a strong wind blowing, chilling us to the bone. But we braved it all, waiting for midnight. All around us, people were getting their cameras out, ready to capture the moment. We were nearly there; the sun was right above the mountains facing us, blazing bright, as if daring us to contradict its presence. And then the clock struck twelve. It wasn’t like a sunrise in the hills, or a sunset at sea; there were no blending of colours, no play of light and shadow. But the Midnight Sun was still magical, in its own inexplicable way.


But our night wasn’t over yet. We dawdled for a bit, before taking the cable ride down, and consequently missed the last bus to town. There was nothing else for it, so we began walking.
The city was asleep. The very air breathed slumber over the peaceful Scandinavian cottages. We walked along empty streets, past silent houses and closed shops. It wasn’t dark, but the sun had disappeared for a few minutes and was now coming out again. We could see a faint pink blush along the eastern sky, while on the west hung a ghostly silver moon. It felt like we had walked into the picture of an enchanted city in a book of fairy-tales.
We had to cross the long bridge connecting the mainland to the island city. After walking for more than an hour, we reached our hotel. The warmth inside was inviting. We wished a cheery good morning to the man at reception who returned the greeting with an amused smile. Up in our rooms, we hit the pillow straightaway; daylight or not, we weren’t about to relinquish our sleep.

How to get there: Tromso is located in Northern Norway. One can reach Tromso via road from Helsinki (there are daily buses in summer) or take a train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, and then a bus to Tromso from there. There are also SAS (Scandinavian Air Service) flights connecting Tromso to Oslo, Bergen and other Norwegian cities.


II

Antarctica: The wild wild South

It was far away… a rather small and indistinct structure. But spotting your first iceberg is special. And it was the first of many firsts for me that happened on our trip to Antarctica. But let me start from the beginning.

Safety drill

We reached our Buenos Aires hotel at three in the morning.

It had been a long day with delayed flights and all I wanted to do was sleep. But breakfast was at 5am before the next flight to Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost town, from where our ship would depart. Once we got to Ushuaia, we found out the ship would be ready for boarding only in the afternoon. So, we did a bit of local sightseeing before returning to the pier and queuing up to board MV Fram, our ship.

We had barely managed to drop our bags when the ship’s public announcement system came to life and we were asked to assemble on the various open decks for the regulatory safety drill. We learned where the lifeboats were, where to assemble if the alarms sounded and how to put on a life-jacket.

But most importantly, I learned never to come to open deck without hats, gloves and socks again, no matter how desperately tired I were.

The solitary bird

Perhaps it was the effect of those icy winds, but once all the action was over, I suddenly wasn’t sleepy anymore. My mother and I explored the ship, settling finally on Level 7 with long, slanted windows and chairs, music and tea for comfortable sea-gazing.

We watched as the mountains of Ushuaia slipped away, and the horizon opened up as a solitary bird braved the waves at dusk. Where was its family? Where was home? Who knew?

That night after dinner, we met the captain of the ship, and more importantly, the Expedition Team, who we would see a lot of in the next two weeks. They were a mixed bunch of highly qualified experts — an ornithologist (expert on birds), a geologist, a couple of veteran adventurers and snow sport enthusiasts, trained travel guides, marine biologists and mineralogists. It was a veritable faculty, and yes, there were daily lectures on Antarctica onboard. Schedules would be announced on the PA system in English and German, and anyone who wished to learn could attend. But first, we needed to get our sea-legs steady.

Rough waters

As the Captain warned us of the dreaded Drake Passage in his welcome address, the calm waters of the evening had already given way to a more restless ocean. From the windows of the seventh deck, we could make out the rising and falling of the waves. When we woke up on our first morning on board, the ship was rocking like a pendulum. It was impossible to walk around without clawing at the walls.

After breakfast (some chose to skip it due to the nausea), I stepped outside in the open deck to breathe in the fresh air, and was dazzled by the sight of petrels and albatrosses gliding along the invisible slopes of the air. Black and white wings against the deep, rich inky blue of the ocean broken by snowy white froth where the waves crashed: all sharply defined colours acquiring a richness far greater than the mundane world I was used to.

Some time during the night, we had left the ordinary familiar world behind, and stepped into a fairytale.

Iceberg

Later that day, we spotted our first iceberg. It was far away, a rather small and indistinct structure, but for us it was a miracle, our cameras failing to capture our amazement. It was the first of many.

By the third morning, it was smooth sailing. After breakfast, we were called to try on the boots for our landing expeditions, having tried out the water-proof parkas the previous day. We settled into our new gear, vacuumed our pockets and backpacks to make sure we carried no germs or seeds on shore and occasionally popped out onto the open decks to photograph a bird or the blue-white, myriad-shaped icebergs which were now appearing with increasing frequency.

On the lounge on the seventh deck where most of us hung around, there was tea, coffee, cakes and the pleasant aroma of anticipation.

Right of way

Antarctica was, as John Chardine, the resident ornithologist explained in the compulsory orientation class held that afternoon, wilderness like we had never seen before, and it had to be protected.

We received practical training — a demonstration of how to dress, and were made to memorize a ton of rules:1. Keep to the paths marked by red flags. Do not wander off on your own.2. Do not take anything from the continent — not even a blade of grass or pebble or moss, for one minute speck could contain a huge ecosystem.3. Do not leave anything behind. No flags, scarf or even a cigarette butt.4. Do not touch or approach any bird or animal. If approached by one, stand and let it pass. In Antarctica, the penguin has the right of way.

All these and more were together a set of rules that were part of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators agreement.

Our first close-up view of Antarctica happened that afternoon when we passed the Elephant Islands. There was rain and snow but we all scrambled to the open deck to take pictures of the glacier and the penguins dotting the vanilla slopes. Later, the Expedition Team arranged 30 minutes of zodiac (air-filled rubber boat) cruising for everyone. We sailed passed stunning blue-white icebergs, exclaiming at seals and penguins while trying to handle cameras without taking off our gloves. It was a magical half hour.

Reward beyond all riches

Soon we fell into the rhythm of the Antarctic routine. Waking, showering, breakfast, waiting for announcements. Then the layers: thermals, woollens, jackets, waterproofs. Waiting for our boat group to be called, then going down to the armoury to don our shields and weapons — wriggling our feet into the boots was a challenge, taking them off proved an even greater one — and the lifejackets had far too many straps. 

Filing out in single queues to the boats, we felt like medieval soldiers walking out of castle doors. Into battle we go. Except that the battle was with ourselves, and the reward beyond all riches.

Boarding the polar circle boats from Deck 2, we would arrive at the landing site where the expedition team would be waiting to brief us on the hiking routes. The terrain was slippery, but those muck boots had good grip, and we mostly managed, taking a few falls in our strides. Sometimes the snow needled our faces, sometimes we sweated beneath all those layers, and sometimes the wind was so strong that one feared toppling off the slopes and into the sea.

The penguins mostly minded their own business, sometimes wobbling like little people, sometimes crawling, sometimes simply resting. A curious few advanced near enough to check us out. We saw Adelies with fully black heads, the Gentoos with white stripes on the top of their heads, the Chinstraps with the black stripes below the beaks and the occasional Macaronies with their yellow crest feathers.

There were seals sunning themselves, sheathbills as white as the snow, and skuas that hunted as if we were invisible. The silent snow-song enchanted the soul, and we drank in.

At Arctowski, we saw the Polish research centre. Neko, Cuverville and Half-Moon islands provided great views from the top. At Deception Island encircling Whalers’ Bay, where the water was warm, some adventurous souls decided to go swimming. I wasn’t brave enough.

Blizzard

At Danco Island, we encountered a blizzard and the world went white and opaque. I had taken my own pace on the hike and suddenly, I was alone, middle of nowhere, my glasses fogged up, my face frozen, the ship and the penguins hidden by the snow curtain, and the cold wind was like a living, moving, wrestling wall.

After what felt like an eternity, I managed to reach the top. Waiting for me there was a magnificent, unbelievable view of a glacier. I could have stared forever, but time was limited. By then it had stopped snowing and the island, along with the surrounding ocean with our ship in it had shifted back into focus. But the paths were gone. Fresh snow had made them disappear. After trying to trudge through knee-deep snow, I decided to slide down the slopes and eventually reached level ground.

When we were not on land, we watched the sea from the ship. There were icebergs in so many shapes and sizes — tables, gateways, boats, abstract art, the blue underwater ice-chunks making the sea look like spilled ink. Films of ice covered the almost frozen sea, little pieces of ice scattered over still waters like diamonds. Snowflakes fell in Brownian motion — each flake seemingly weaved to the others through some invisible material, making the world shimmy through the glass windows, turning the tables and deck chairs outside into Christmas cards.

We reclined on the lounge-chaises with a book and warm drink in our hands, and gazed at the Antarctic “wilderness” that was “paradise enow” [Omar Khayyám: ‘Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough’, trans. Edward Fitzgerald]. The whales loved playing hide-and-seek, dipping on the starboard to rise on the portside, and we chased them on the freezing deck with hastily pulled jackets. Sometimes, the penguins swam along, dipping their funny little heads into the water, taking occasional breaks as they sunned themselves on the icebergs.

Later on, we encountered the frozen ocean as our ship cut through the ice. Everywhere we looked, the sea was endlessly white. We were at the forgotten edge of the world.

End of a dream

We had a second cruising in the magnificent Lemaire Channel amidst huge, majestic icebergs that could have only been sculpted by a race of giants from the age of fables, now forever gone from the world, leaving behind only the remains of their former homes. It was a dream, and dreams end, and so one fine morning we arrived at Port Lockroy for our final landing in the world’s southernmost continent. This British island had a post-office and a museum about the earliest explorers, and penguins and sheathbills as usual.

Our return journey from Antarctica began. Icebergs became less frequent, the sea unfroze and the slanted window panes of Deck 7 cleared of melting snowflake. We had gotten used to beauty, and now beauty had passed and as the melancholy set in, we realized how much we had taken for granted. How much we take for granted every day for the last complete wilderness to be so far out of man’s life.

The dreams lay behind, we returned to the world.

© Writing and photographs belong to Ruchira Mandal

Follow me on other media:

Twitter

Facebook

Instagram

YouTube

Alternate Blog