This essay won the Prof. Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay 2021. The theme was Breaking Away. The judge, noted writer and filmmaker, Paromita Vohra had this to say: “An essay full of angular observations, tart humour and serious questions that knits the personal and the political, the earnest and the self-aware with a unique voice and language“
When I was a kid, my dreams and purposes kept changing. One fellow tells me I have kangaroo genes. Perhaps he is ironically right. I kept jumping from wanting to become a pilot to teacher, then a windmill builder, then a lorry driver, then a journalist. Later I endured to forget myself in reflections about becoming. Time and again, I became a caricature of myself. From only of a scenario amidst obscure thoughts, I daydreamed of growing into someone or something. I did grow. But into someone I didn’t identify. I wanted to work on being a better person; I was conscious about enhancing better than aunties and uncles at home.
Once in school, for a storytelling competition, I wore a Lungi. I was a hunter narrating how I hunt wild deers. I said many things that were not scripted in my paper only to charm the judges. I was clear and tenacious with the way I stood, carrying my billu and baanas, describing somethings and the whole ball of wax. My lungi was draped into a dhoti and the arrows that were to show hunting got stuck in the fluffy fabric. I pulled an arrow and lungi fell off. I didn’t realize it and extended to perform. I act and act pointing my arrow to the corners of the auditorium.
Little by little, word by word, and action by action I was mounting my hunter story, and suddenly the audience break out laughing. Some held their tummies and others snickered. Thank you so much? I forgot to proclaim it. I stood there gazing and smiling with not only my lip but with the sights and voice that swayed simultaneously. It was only when a girl started showing her fingers towards me that I looked down. I understood that my lungi was sleeping on the floor alone. This is a spring memory of me breaking away and not whining. Because I won the prize that day. Breaking away reshapes an embarrassment over and over until I find tiny fragments of light that it turns my back on.
After my SSLC, I joined the Pre-university without thinking much about my career and future. Amma honestly told me not to take up science. She was a topper in school, but during her pre-university studies, she failed biology. There are multiple reasons for it. She wanted to ‘enjoy’ life then. She wished to dress up like Zeenat Aman and put a full stop to Langa blouses. She started bunking biology classes to watch old Bollywood films. Why biology only? I wondered. “Dissect madthare, nang bejaaru,” she tells me and her face seemed as long as a fiddle. In between experiencing all her urges to mature, she breathed a voyage of discovery, an intimate adventure. Perhaps passing in a supplementary exam was her break away moment.
I considered her advice and chose commerce. But I didn’t know what I truly wished to do with life amidst all the uninvited suggestions that came my way. It’s like a little fish in an aquarium that gets happy when her owner comes to give food. She flows around, creates her personal peace but doesn’t understand what to do if a cat sets his paw in. Yes, the cat might do it by being overwhelmed by her. But she gets the fear. For the longest time, I was this fish who could never escape reality.
Ajji and Amma are rebels. I’m not. A stranger once asked for a seat next to the window because he felt like puking. Amma and I were traveling in a KSRTC that day as we were returning from Mangalore. When someone elder asks you for help, you naturally do. When you know they are feeling uneasy in some way, you surely do. I did too, though I fancied sitting next to the window and eavesdropping on unplanned conversations that happen in and out of the window. The uncle who I assumed would puke at some point, didn’t puke. He shortly began pressing my thighs when he noticed Amma was asleep sitting. A portion of my body just didn’t feel safe in the man world. I can’t remember off the top of my head if I felt vulnerable but I know I was angry. It remained uncomfortable and I only stared at him. How angry stares work in other’s minds is something I am oblivious of. When a woman is angry, she is fierce and it irritates the man. His claws rose to reach the in-between of my thighs and promptly I got up. I struggled and struggled to talk but I couldn’t. I stood until someone else got down the bus.
If I am strong, I also become vulnerable emotionally. These unprotected moments are the beginning. Breaking away because of these granted me regrets because I was still wandering with a naked mind. I joined the same college for a best friend who calmly walked away in a huff after meeting new friends. I break away again but I contemplated it as loneliness. But merely in a little more burst of blue crashes, I become so much more of my real self. So, breaking away happened to find myself that existed, but rusted all the while I ran behind female friendships and their forever promises. After this I grew into debt for myself, to always learn to owe myself.
The mind inside me then was like how you’d scroll through the phone all day and at bedtime, your ears and head simply don’t stop slamming to and fro. Though these incidents led to breaking away I didn’t truly discover myself enough. I jumped from a course because it scared me with psychology. While I know that it only intimidated me, I am happy about hopping over. The new course welcomed me to reading and writing. It was the only breaking away moment that made me smile while I was still crying.
It is through reading and getting lost in that world of words I found myself. I hate writing but it spins and flies obliging me to come back and write. When I read it is easy to overlook influences and the seiche of people. After I read it is comfortable to eat panipuri alone because I am savoring my minutes to the whole and chill like any other person. Breaking away is fast, it comes, waves at you and goes away. But there is an enormity that it leaves for you. The first book I read was by Sandra Cisneros. I read it because the teacher that day narrated one story of it in class with a lot of passion. During school, I only read textbooks. Reading a novel was never compulsory in my school. People at home also seemed like they were interested in making me the school topper; academically excellent but not knowledgeable enough. This brought me colours but its shades were silenced around me.
In the book, “The House on Mango Street” Cisneros writes, “I am tired of looking at what we can’t have.” In the story, Esperanza, a little girl and her parents want to visit a few sophisticated regions or areas. They want to do it to simply fantasize about what life could have been if one day they win the lottery. But the little girl embraces zero joy from these drives. It is just like how I kept jumping from my aims and how I kept running behind companions. It is breaking away because it easily hints at what I don’t own. Other people do carry my bits and pieces but it is limited. I break away and then I carelessly want my story to be fresh. There is no time to notice any hints that are only of sickness. There is no time to notice any hints that are full of pleasure either.
A teacher once said that if you want to get over a breakup you should read seven and a half books. It can be a breakup with a friend, with the love of your life, or even parents. Because by the time you read all these, break up will turn into breaking away. I don’t have to cling onto the yesterdays’ anymore. I then don’t become so much startled by the people I broke up with. And the life of living with an abrupt maze around the clock, day or night is no more. It aids to discover that the only reliable space I craved for is with me only. No one is putting it off anymore.
Sometimes I am ashamed that I am not writing down the things that are on my mind. Those are the times I feel like all the breaking away bits that happened to me were a mere waste of time. To me, often there is invariably a lot more to see and very little to say. One uncle unfortunately close to me says he doesn’t have to wash his legs each time he comes back home. This is also a reason why his wife often argues with him. He says that he is not a lower caste man to clean his legs each time he enters his home. Another aunty, also unfortunately close to me, tells me that periods are natural. To all the neighbours, she explains how inherent pain is for a woman; how a woman tolerates the intense pain; how everyone should normalize it. But at the end of the day, the same aunty doesn’t let me inside her home for five days each month. I want to break away from situations like these; when their stinky fables end. This is one thing I hate about breaking away, it doesn’t happen to you when you want it to happen. But when it happens, it the most fascinating event anyone could encounter.
Breaking away doesn’t completely happen between humans. When you have been afraid of dogs or cats your whole life, and suddenly there is one tiny whelp or a kitty that conceals your fear. You might break away the second you witness that it is so easy to potty train your pet. You are soon under obligation to defeat your fears.
One of my beloved teachers, who is also everyone’s beloved teacher recently left all her students only with memories. I took too much time to figure out why was she perpetually annoyed but still won everyone’s heart. No, it’s not because of her eternal departure. I am not writing this to tell you that you concede a person’s worth when they’re gone. I adored her because I have testified how she touched her breaking away moments in class.
Only of a scenario with intricate patterns, I will tell if those were her breaking away moments too. When she was angry she would rush up to her mind, choose that one classmate of mine who was the reason for her anger. “I will catch you, pisk you, and throw you out of the window,” ma’am would yell. But within flashes, she will start counting ten to one. She is then not angry, no more catching and pisking, and throwing. Maybe it was always the flimsiest sign for me to run with whatever I have been discovering from panics.
Breaking away from writing, from people, pets, my precious stuffed toys befall in that split second. But the thoughts after that moment kept hastening inside me until I discovered that I am happy when I write. If reading encourages me to write, writing makes me giggle and scream. But it doesn’t disappoint to make me happy. When I break away my memory oozes and my body becomes pale, but with pleasure. It nourishes me to stop hurrying and take a pause.
A pause to escape and not be the fish I once was.
Featured Image by Serena Seetra via https://www.flickr.com/photos/seetra/