All in my head

Every so often, you find yourself in a clammy lecture hall saturated with the scent of body odor and a strange mixture of coffee and Windex, and your tobacco-breathed professor chuckles, grumbling something along the lines of “You guys are young – you can afford to pull an all-nighter or two.”

Breathe, you try to ease yourself, as your blood starts boiling, and you can feel the heat rising to your ears.

But you blend into the throng of chattering students flocking their way to the door, and a wave of vertigo hits. Suddenly, the laughter of your classmates seems miles away, and you find yourself back in the disgustingly white hospital bed exactly four years ago, the uncomfortably blinding fluorescent lights, a distant, raspy female voice screaming “Fuck you all, motherfuckers, I ain’t crazy,” and your racing, eighteen-year-old heart, your fluttering eyelids, as the same four words run over and over again in your head in a loop. Please end this pain.

Each of your legs weighs a thousand pounds, but you try to move them anyways and catch up with your peers as they yell over each other. “The midterm was so easy. I just showed up – I didn’t even have to study.” Your forehead crumples without your permission, and you quickly change the direction of your steps, knowing fully well that at any given point on the crowd, you’d be likely to overhear a conversation of a similar nature.

I wish it were so easy for me.

“Oh, stop it! Stop wallowing in self-pity. Listen to yourself!”

“Go away,” you mumble, and you speed up, trying to escape, knowing fully well that your efforts are wasted. “I’ve got enough to deal with as is without your shit.”

“As if,” she scoffs. “What, do you think of yourself as some war hero? Do you think anyone will buy that bullshit?”

You open your mouth, but quickly close it again. Her lips curl triumphantly, and she wraps a thin, icy arm around your waist. You begin to shake violently, and then your body freezes. You want to protest, but the waves of exhaustion are overwhelming, and every cell in your body is screaming, let it go.

She leans over, bending over you and moving her lips just above your ear, so close that each word leaves a burning kiss, branded onto your skin. “Just know that you’re never really alone. You always have…me.”

“Great,” you mutter, your low voice dripping with sarcasm, but your body has given up. Your legs give in, and you feel yourself sinking into the ground, into the depths of her cool embrace. Your chest heaves as sobs start to build from the pit of your stomach. You try to suppress them, but she rubs your arm, whispering, “No. Let it happen.”

And the inevitable happens. Eyes turn toward you, some with mild curiosity, some with a hint of pity, and most with impatience as they hastily look away, change direction, and rush forward and away to avoid the discomfort that you can’t seem to stop yourself from spreading.

“It’s best this way,” she whispers, still caressing your arm and shifting to allow your head to sink into her chest. “They’ll all see you for what you are,” and she dropped her voice to a low hiss, “Pathetic. Incapable of taking care of yourself. A baby. But at least you’re not living a lie.”

She ran her fingers through your hair, seeming to rejoice at your uncontrollable shudders. Then her voice changed, and her words had an almost deliberate hint of tenderness. “But you’ll always have me. Everyone else will come and go, but I’ll always be here.”

Your sobs become more and more violent, and you try to struggle, but she tightens her grip, squeezing your shoulders almost to the point of pain.

“But,” you gasp, and you take a deep breath. Then, you open your mouth, and whisper, “But they want to h-help me.”

“Help you?” She throws her head back with a raspy, harsh laugh. “Why would anyone want to help you? No one even knows I exist.”

You quickly look around in desperation, and her eyes flicker with amusement. Your arms are pinned down to your sides, frozen in her imprisoning embrace. You widen your eyes and scan, looking for someone, anyone, to help you break free. Help me, you plead with your eyes, knowing that your efforts are futile.

“Give it up,” she said dismissively, a small, wry smile twisting her face. “They barely even know you exist. And it’s better that way. Remember what happened last time you tried to tell someone?”

“But,” you gasp. But the color is returning to your face, and, miraculously, you have a morsel of strength remaining. But you know you have to save it for later. You have to catch her off guard. 

“But, what? They couldn’t handle you. But who can blame them? I mean, look at you. You’re a mess.”

“P-people like me,” you protest. The shaking is starting to subside, and your hands start to clench involuntarily into fists.

“Yeah, like you,” She scoffed, and her eyes glinted. “Have you noticed that the only people who still talk to you are the ones you lied to? If they knew who you really were, no one, I repeat, no one would want to deal with your bullshit. Who would? You’re a worthless piece of shit, and you’re lucky enough that I’m kind enough to stay-”

“I DON’T NEED YOU! If being with you is the only option, I’d rather be ALONE!”

You expect her to tighten her grip on you, but you suddenly hear a thump, and a second later, you feel a searing pain in your head. But you now have more control over your body as you pull your head off the concrete and gingerly peel your body off the ground, rolling up and looking around.

She’s gone.

But you begin to regain sensation in your legs, and the day seems a little less dim as you take a few steps and realize that you’re not completely incapable of walking. You quickly raise the side of your hand to your eyes to brush away the stinging tears, and suddenly the trees and buildings come into focus.

She’s gone.

But you don’t feel alone.

You begin to fixate on little things, like the way the wind rustles as it tickles your neck, and the birds are chirping a little louder, and the trees look a little greener than they did yesterday, and the sun seems to be visiting a bit more often these days. And for a moment, it doesn’t matter.

You can manage now.

You may never be able to prevent her from coming back, but you can manage. You can learn how to challenge her.

Her words are not always true. They are only true if you become them.

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On Buddhists and Tattoos

As a child, the idea of a tattoo was unspeakable. With an inescapable association to convicts and rebellious teenagers on motorcycles, tattoos represented, for me, a disrespect towards the natural order of society and a disregard for the purity of ones own body. However, as I grew older, I began to view tattoos with a sense of curiosity, even fascination. After emerging from a series of painful emotional experiences in high school, I began to seek refuge through storytelling. Tattoos finally made sense to me on a personal level. Whether they were meant to make a statement against undesirable societal norms, an illustration of a personal narrative, or a marker of ones identity, tattoos spoke to me on a much deeper level in my adolescence.

At the beginning of the semester, I was assigned to read an article called “Ironic Bodies and Tattooed Jews,” by Heather Joseph-Witham, an exploration of the relationship between Jews and Tattoos. Although Jews are traditionally opposed to tattoos, the article interviewed a few individuals who use their bodies as canvases to tell stories about their Jewish ancestors. This article made me curious about the relationship between Buddhism and tattoos.

My parents identify their religious affiliation as both Hindu and Buddhist. Although I grew up reciting sanskrit prayers that were meaningless to me, when I was eight years old, I declared myself an atheist. College was the first time when I began to explore religious philosophies, and Buddhism spoke to me on a personal level. Most of the principles are difficult for me to incorporate into my life, but many of my core values align with Buddhist philosophies.

Last year, I had the privilege of studying abroad for a semester at a liberal arts university in India. One of the people who took me on my first tour of the campus was a member of the  university’s outreach team, Nikita Samanta. Although she does not consider herself a religious Buddhist, she incorporates Buddhist philosophies into her life. She was born and raised in Hyderabad, a city in the southern part of India, and she was first introduced to Buddhism by her sister at age twelve.

When I asked Nikita about her take on Buddhism and tattoos, she said that under the broad umbrella term “Buddhism,” there are many sub-religions. While some sects of Buddhism are highly religious, she interprets Buddhist philosophies in a fairly liberal manner. Using her interpretation as a guiding principle, there are no real restrictions when it comes to sex, alcohol, or even tattoos. She says that people can interpret Buddhism in a way that makes sense to them as an individual, and they need not subscribe to a strict doctrine.

“I have two tattoos myself,” she admitted, “one of the Buddhist chant that is the core of our practice.” Above is an image of the design of Nikita’s tattoo. The scripture contains the following phrase: “Nam myoho renge kyo,” which is Japanese (derived from Sanskrit) for “I devote myself to the mystic law of cause and effect.” This phrase describes the karmic law of the universe, one that has been adopted in American pop culture and persists in our everyday language.

When I asked Nikita what connected her to the phrase, she said that it is less about a personal connection to the specific phrase and more a commitment to Buddhist philosophy. “It, unlike any religion,” she explained, “places the power and responsibility in my hands for my life and everything that happens in it.” The concept of karma, a key element of the Buddhist philosophy, gives her a sense of agency over her own life and keeps her grounded.

Nikita acknowledged that not all Buddhists are as liberal as she is when it comes to the concept of tattoos. While it has become a trend among some Buddhists to get a tattoo of the head of Buddha, in Sri Lanka and Thailand, such tattoos are not encouraged. Nikita does not view Buddha as a deity, but Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhists worship Buddha. With some research, I learned that a British tourist with a tattoo of the Buddha was denied entry to Sri Lanka, and there have been similar threats in Thailand to outlaw tourists sporting tattoos with iconographic Buddhist symbols (Willem Jones and Matthews-Jones 2015: 171). According to Timothy Willem Jones and Lucinda Matthews-Jones’ Material Religion in Modern Britain: The Spirit of Things, the mass reproduction of Buddhist images is not the issue, as tattoos are not unique to modern westerners, but it is more a failure to adhere to the conventional rules of tattoo placement. Based on the Tibetan rules, tattoos must be placed above the waist. Placement on the feet, for instance, shows a disregard for Buddhist customs (Willem Jones and Matthews-Jones 2015: 172)

David L McMahan’s Buddhism in the Modern World discusses the twofold debate about tattoos in the Buddhist community. While some people view tattoos as a permanent marker of their Buddhist identity and a commitment to the practice of Buddhism, others dismiss tattoos as an insufficient substitute for hard work towards the noble path to enlightenment (McMahan 2012: Section 20). While there are undoubtedly some people who get tattoos of Buddha’s head without understanding the implications of their actions, I believe that there are enough people who have informed themselves of the traditional connotations of the symbol, and are reshaping it to fit their contemporary sensibilities.

One of the main ideas behind Buddhism that attracted me was that the root of all suffering is attachment. I think that this is an incredibly powerful insight, for much of the anxiety I face on a daily bases stems from fear of losing what I am attached to. In my first year of college, my roommate identified Buddhist philosophies as guiding principles in her life. “Change is the only constant,” she would repeat to me, chuckling at the irony of the phrase. Nothing is permanent, including the body and the illusion of a sense of self that an individual might face. Impermanence is key to Buddhist philosophy (Gowans 2015: 20). The very idea of a Buddhist tattoo, a permanent brand of one’s identity, is riddled with irony.

Works Cited

Gowans, Christopher W. Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

McMahan, David L. Buddhism in the Modern World. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Willem Jones, Timothy and Lucinda Matthews-Jones. Material Religion in Modern Britain: The Spirit of Things. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.

Letter to Aniket (1995-2016)

Dear Aniket,

Logically I know that you won’t ever read this but somehow in my heart, I still feel like you’ll see this and respond with the good humored, supportive note you always carry with your words.

I’m so in shock and there are tears streaming down my face as I write this. It just seems so unfair that such a kind, supportive, curious, empathetic, beautiful soul could just be taken away so suddenly. That I won’t be able to wish you a happy birthday every New Year’s Day, and I won’t be able to read your response and your wishes for my birthday two days later, that I’ll never be able to read your encouraging words about my writing.

I feel so guilty for taking all your kindness for granted and not talking to you more while you were still here. I just wish I would have gotten to know you even better, because during the few deep conversations we had, it was always so easy to talk to you and you had a sense of maturity and awareness far beyond our years. I have a lot to learn from you.

I just hope that you know how much our whole family appreciates and loves you. I’m starting a new writing project, and because of your encouragement I want to try to write more often, because I feel like if you were still here you would want to keep reading it. I don’t know what else to say but even though we lived miles apart, nothing will ever be the same without you.

Denial: Reflections on the Freeway

You’re just a glimmer on my ring finger.
From the sea of red and white lights flying past me on the 134,
all I see is a glimmer, a sliver of what came before.
Shining modestly through the darkness,
beckoning me forth with a suggestive glance,
breaking through the barricades
I’ve spent years reinforcing to shield my heart from your destructive blades.
I’m gliding past all the glaring headlights but unable to remove you from my line of vision. You’re a tough stain on a white carpet that no amount of whiskey and tears can wash away. You’re in every face I see, your light shining through the eyes of strangers, a chronic reminder of the broken promises and the stories that ended mid

CWC Slam Poetry Night

Hope is a dangerous emotion. Hope has the power to lift you up to unimaginably lofty heights, but the trouble is that there is never a safety net to catch your fall when hope deserts you.

I stumbled upon a little corner of hope on the third floor. Full of plush green candy apple coloured chairs surrounding smooth wooden tables shaped like guitar picks and the smell of coffee wafting through the air and colourful paper star crafts. But beneath the warm smiles, there was a suffocating sense of strain, a dark cloud looming above and growing and growing until it exploded, burst into flames, crashed and burned and blew up into smithereens.

There are two sides to a story and I can only relate to one. Because when you run from Delhi to Sonipat to Panipat and back, collecting furniture and decoration to bring to life the dream that you have been conceptualizing in your head and on computer sketch programs for months, and you put in your life, your soul, your blood, sweat, and tears into your project, and you create something wonderful from absolutely nothing, you inevitably develop a huge bubble of hope in your heart. And each time they burst your bubble, you emerge with another bubble of hope…until hope deserts you.

There are always two sides to a story, but when good people get hurt, good places get crushed, and those menacing motherfuckers try to snatch away my only corner of happiness, I don’t fuck around. I vote with my feet.

Tribute to Alana

On what seemed like a highly typical Tuesday afternoon, I unloaded my backpack and plopped down on a plush bean bag chair at the CWC. Ever since the first week of the semester, I had spent almost every morning, afternoon, and many evenings and nights there. At first, I had used the center merely to sit down quietly and finish my numerous reading and writing assignments, but soon, I began to prefer the writing center over my dormitory room as a place to relax and unload my stress. In spite of the fact that the CWC is a place full of ambitious, intellectual, and extremely talented minds, there is something about it that makes it a comfortable, home-like place. The chairs in the room are bright and candy-green-apple coloured and it is sprinkled with art projects; there are multicoloured paper stars, paper-machet trinkets, drawings, scrap pieces of paper, and an unfinished mural that a few students have been painting. In just a few months, the CWC has already become a meaningful space to many students, but it continues to bloom and grow every day. It is an unfinished story that is just waiting to be fleshed out.

I had scarcely started on my usual de-stressing routine, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and recovering from the long day of classes, when I heard one of the tutors call me.

“P-dog!” Lauren, my teaching assistant who also worked as a tutor at the CWC leaned out from the news room, a room in the center separated by a clear glass window and a set of glass doors. “Can you come in here for a second?” She looked to the other end of the room and called another girl who visited the CWC regularly. “Uttara, can you also come in here for a second?”

I hesitated, and possibilities started to fill my mind. Was something wrong? Was I in trouble? Why would she want to talk to me? And if she did want to talk to me, why would she call the two of us in private? We were friendly with each other, but we had virtually no connection aside from our frequent hours spent at the CWC.

I scarcely had time to think as I stepped into the newsroom and spotted another girl, Manisha, who looked as if she was about to burst into tears. My heart started to race; whatever it was, it definitely would not be good.

Lauren could probably sense my apprehension, as she took a deep breath and said, “Don’t be worried.”

Manisha started to wipe her eyes, and even Lauren, who never seemed phased by anything, looked tearful. “I just wanted you guys to hear this from us before someone else tells you. Alana has resigned.”

Everyone started to wipe their eyes feverishly, including Lauren. At the sight of Lauren’s tearful face, I felt my eyes stinging, and tear poured out before I could stop them. Lauren’s face crumbled, uncomfortable with the outpouring of emotion, and she buried her face on the table. I couldn’t say that it was completely unexpected, but it was extremely upsetting, no matter how foreseeable it might have been.

I had always loved to write and read, but I had never considered studying it before the summer when I applied to the university. I had spent most of the summer furiously scribbling down anecdotes, personal reflections, and streams of consciousness in my journal. I had completed a study abroad program in Italy, and I brought my journal with me almost everywhere I went. It was what helped me get through the stress of the experience, and I started to consider the possibility of becoming a professional writer. When I heard about the description of the CWC, I was extremely excited at the prospect. My previous university had a writing center, but it was a small, windowless room, and my experience with the tutors had been overwhelmingly disappointing. I had the feeling that it was a half-hearted project, set up in the university almost as an afterthought. Based on the description, the CWC seemed to be quite the opposite. It seemed to be an extremely important element of the vision of the university, and it seemed that the director of the center, Alana, had been through painstaking efforts to make it an intellectually stimulating environment. Alana then interviewed me for the admissions process, so I got the chance to ask her about it face to face, albeit through a Skype window. I was extremely surprised to learn that she had read my favorite book, Veronica Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho. She is the only person I have met who has read it so far, as it is one of Coelho’s less well known novels. I remember that she asked me why, in my admissions essay detailing my favorite book, I had not included one crucial element of the book, as she believed it was one of the most interesting parts of the story. This launched us into the topic of relative thinking, and how different people might read the same story and have different ideas about which elements are important.

During the first week of university, I came to visit the CWC before my morning class. It was my first time visiting, and I walked slowly and deliberately, unsure if these were even the hours during which CWC was operational. I inched closer to the door, peering in, when I spotted the opening to Alana’s office, just outside the center.

She waved when she saw me. “Hi, Paheli.”

“Hi,” I said cautiously. “I was wondering if I would sit and read in the writing centre?”

“Yes,” she said slowly, smiling. “We’re not open right now, but you can still sit there. I’ll tell the tutors you’re there.”

She led me into the room, and I sat on one of the light green chairs and began to focus on my work, drowning out the chattering noises as the four tutors began to settle into the room. Then, slowly, Alana approached me. “Do you have a minute?”

She introduced me to the four tutors: Susannah, Lauren, Katherine, and Nina. She told them that I was from the United States, as were three of the tutors. She and Katherine pulled up two plush green chairs to sit next to me. They began to ask me about how I was finding Ashoka so far. “What do you miss?” Alana asked me, and there was a genuine sense of curiosity in her bright blue eyes. I almost wanted to spurt out all out all the difficulties I had with food and adjusting to the culture, but I hesitated. “Well, I don’t want to be negative…”

“Don’t worry,” she assured me. “This is a safe space.” Somehow, her words stuck with me, and I soon began to see the CWC as just that. A safe space.

During the first month, Alana was always extremely present in the CWC and in student activities. At our first student newspaper meeting, she was there, beaming and stealing photographs of excited students. She organized for us to come and paint the wall in the back, turning it into a mural. She and the tutors stayed in the center until as late as ten o clock at night so that we could work there. She also made sure that the wall was a group effort, and that no one student would become too dominating. I had been thinking about starting an animal rights organization on campus, and she was very excited about the possibility. She sent me links about interesting dog-friendly initiatives in other countries, and she told me that she would help me with what that she could. She organized for fun workshops at the CWC, and each night, one could find her meticulously hanging carefully selected posters on the walls. She was nailing them into the wall all by herself, refusing help from anyone who offered. She was absolutely devoted to the CWC, and she was an active, independent, and consistent presence there.

Not only was she devoted to students’ intellectual and artistic enrichment, but she was also very open on a personal level. She insisted that everyone call her Alana, rather than the more formal Professor Sobelman. It took me a while to get used to, and I went through an intermediate phase of calling her “Professor Alana.” During the first few weeks, she invited me to go on a walk with her around the campus in the early morning. It was very pleasant; the weather was subdued, the birds were still chirping, and on the way, we met two friendly stray dogs. Since we were right near the faculty apartment building, she ran upstairs and brought some bread for us to feed the dogs. I remember marveling at the precious experience, as I could never imagine connecting with the daunting faculty members at my previous university on such a personal level. I also confided in her about a personal issue I was having regarding rude comments that a staff member had made, and she was incredibly supportive. She struck me as an extremely sensitive and caring person.

She even offered to make food for me once, as I was struggling with keeping up my vegan lifestyle. “I make a killer vegan chilli,” she had told me. “I was able to get tofu from some of the more bourgeois markets in Gurgaon.” I truly admired her for her sense of adventure and fearlessness. The fact that she had been to the Haryana village markets to get vegetables completely on her own, as a foreign woman, not to mention the underlying fact that she had come all the way to India on her own, encouraged me to venture into the city to obtain food for myself. I ended up buying a lot of material to make meals for myself, and the first thing I did when I returned was send her a long, proud email about my adventures on the Delhi metro and at the crowded and unfamiliar markets. “Congratulations, Paheli,” she had responded almost immediately. “You are officially a traveler, rather than a tourist.”

During the next month and a half, Alana was still there, but she was less present within the center itself. She was always slaving away at her desk with her copious pile of work, or attending one of her frequent and never ending meetings. I remember feeling confused, because she was less responsive to emails and appeared more distant in person. Previously, she used to greet me cheerfully every day in the CWC with a conversation, a pat on the shoulder, or at least a wave, but now she seemed hassled and preoccupied. For a while, I wondered if it was something I had done- had I said something too personal? Did I make her uncomfortable? Was my constant presence at the CWC annoying? Such thoughts nagged the back of my mind for weeks, until one day when I left the CWC to go to lunch at around the same time when she was leaving her office. I walked down the three flights of stairs with her. She had certainly changed. She seemed distant from the conversation, and her responses seemed delayed. She had always been graceful with all of her movements, but something about them now seemed lethargic, almost robotic. What struck me the most were her eyes; they seemed distant, glossed over, and it seemed as if she could barely keep them open.

“Are you alright?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking. “You seem really tired.”

“Oh, I’m so tired,” she said, and a grin started to spread across her face. “But my husband’s just moved in, and my cat, finally, so I’m very happy.”

I smiled, and felt an overwhelming sense of compassion. Even though she said she was happy, I couldn’t get over how drastically the exhaustion had changed her appearance and interactions. I didn’t know what was keeping her so busy, but whatever it was seemed to be beyond me. I decided to leave her alone for some time and try to give up my pride. I felt silly for thinking as if I were important enough to instigate such a huge change. I could try to figure out some of the difficulties with the animal organization on my own; it wasn’t necessary to add to her already teeming plate. At the time, I thought that everything would die down and she would soon return to the normal, bright and cheerful, caring, helpful, and adventurous figure that I had come to admire so intensely.

There is no doubt in my mind that she has thought through the decision to resign carefully, and she must have truly believed that it was the best option. She is a go-getter; she was extremely devoted to her project, and she is not someone to just give up without an extremely good reason. It is incredible how she was able to touch so many people, in such a profound way and in such a short amount of time! I know so many students who made the tough decision to come to this university because of her, and everyone who has interacted with her and experienced her kindness will be extremely sad to see her go. The tutors, who are taking over her responsibilities at the center until they hire a new director, have not been themselves this week. They have still been diligent about their teaching responsibilities, but there is an underlying sense of gloom in the center. Alana was was the one who gave birth to the CWC, which had become a favorite haunt for an increasing number of students. The university has lost an extremely valuable asset to the community, but she will certainly not be forgotten. I believe that she has left behind an amazing legacy in the CWC and in everyone who knew her. This legacy will certainly continue to shape the culture at the university.

While I am sad to see her go so soon, I truly believe that her adventurous, go-getter attitude will encourage me to explore more, and venture further out of my comfort zone. It will continue to impact me wherever my life takes me next.

Los Angeles

Almost everyone envies the fact that I grew up and still have a permanent address in Los Angeles, California, the city most well known for its association with Hollywood. It is a dream for a lot of people. Temperate, consistently balanced sunny weather, palm trees and beaches. But there is so much more to the city than what meets the eye. When you’ve lived there for eighteen years, you learn that much of the culture in Los Angeles, particularly Hollywood, can be vicious. It can build you up, but it can also kill you in the blink of the eye. Behind all the sun and plan trees, glamor, and fame, Los Angeles can be the scariest and stormiest place. When you’re at your most vulnerable state, it’s so easy to be whisked away and taken advantage of. I have moved away from the place for this reason, yet every day, I long to go back home. It draws you in and disgusts you at the same time. But once you’ve lived there, as much as you might wish to do away with it, you’ll never be able to erase it from your world. No matter how many miles away I am, I will always be an LA girl.