“I promise there’s a reason I’m flushing my hair!” and other superstitious concerns

“I can’t help but feel that this is my fault.”

My best friends, my mother, and my therapist have all heard me say some variation of the above sentence. This tends to be in response to some kind of bad news, and no matter how much physical distance is between the epicenter of the bad news and myself, I always find some way take responsibility for the ensuing tremors. Lip-biting, hand-wringing, that sentence is both an admission of guilt and a desperate need for reassurance. Usually, the response is “Oh my god Neiha, stop!” or “Shut up. Stupid chit. (angry cat emoji)” or “Now what could make you think that?” from my best friends, mother, and therapist respectively.

The former two usually nip it in the bud. Can’t blame them. But my therapist’s open-ended question gives me – stammering, probably shaking – pause.

What could make me think that?


I’ve alluded, previously, to my superstitious inclinations, but I have never fully explored how my superstitions came to be and what role they play in my life. As with most things, I can attribute a lot of my beliefs to my Pakistani upbringing. My parents never reinforced this, being scientists, but it’s hard not to internalize what society tells you.

South Asians, in general, are an unfathomably superstitious lot. To ghair folk, that may seem absurd and yes, it totally is, but it is also as much a part of our culture as our food or clothing. Our superstitions seem to inform societal hierarchies, biases, behaviors, upbringing, schooling, even where we live. Our superstitions serve as the lens through which we perceive the world. We are morbidly fascinated with what we are, in theory, supposed to be afraid of. A lot of our superstitions stem from religion – such as reciting verses from the Quran to protect oneself, though Islam is most certainly not the only religion that guides superstition – but largely, our superstitions stem from time immemorial and have been distorted depending on the family that the superstition has circulated in and throughout generations. Even the most highly-educated members of the gentry are wont to follow some neighborhood spiritual healer. However, it is difficult to properly research the roots of South Asian – let alone Pakistani superstition – due to said distortion and lack of academic research into the topic. So for the purposes of this exploration, I will be relying largely on my memory and the iteration of superstitions that I was exposed to.

I grew up with a taweez around my little neck. Fairly innocuous, a taweez is a small leather pouch worn like a locket, with the pouch containing a verse from the Quran that is said to protect you against the evil eye. Almost every kid my age had a taweez, sometimes even older kids – but while the taweez soon disappeared from around my neck, the phenomenon it was trying to keep at bay was a ubiquitous power in my life and in that of so many others. The evil eye – nazar, in Urdu, which literally just means sight but as a noun and duly capitalized in English transliteration takes on a much more sinister meaning – has become a well-known concept by now in mainstream culture, having been attributed to a variety of cultures even outside Islamic countries. (As a quick aside, I found it funny as a kid that whenever people used to go to Turkey, they would bring back the eerie blue variations on our taweez. If nothing else, I was impressed at the utility of the evil eye: a souvenir, a protective totem, and very on-trend for the time. Besides, a literal evil eye to ward off the evil eye in addition to our own cultural attempts at warding it off? Beyond extra). For a lot of people, wearing the evil eye or hand of Fatima/hamsa as an accessory might be nothing more than cute, exotic jewelry, but it garners both an eye-roll and genuine approval from me. Hey, intentional or not, you’re protecting yourself I guess.

The evil eye is simply, intentional or otherwise, the result of someone casting a jealous or malevolent gaze on someone. This in turn means something bad happens to you; you get hurt, your finances take a hit, etc. At worst, the evil eye can be attributed to black magic (kala jadoo, a most Pakistani fear). The reason children especially are kitted out with a taweez is that younger children are quick to trust, and don’t necessarily know how to protect themselves from the evil eye; as such, adults must pick up the slack. In fact, pretty much whenever I get hurt, there’s always someone around to say, “Nazar lag gayi Neiha ko” (lit. Neiha got hit by nazar. Also, I’m 22 and this still happens). The process of avoiding the evil eye is a lesson in humility; you ascribe any talent, beauty, accomplishment, etc, to God’s will – “Mashallah, you look beautiful.” God wills it, and thus, can apparently shoulder the burden of malevolence.

Now that I think about it, the lesson is less about humility and more about displacement of responsibility. Lack of humility only attracts malevolent intent, so you make God deal with it? That doesn’t seem completely fair.

There were other superstitions: not stepping on a pillow or you’d give your mother a headache, not stepping over someone who was reclining on the ground or they wouldn’t grow taller, making sure shoes weren’t strewn around with the soles pointing heavenward, getting rid of fallen hair and nails in a way that they couldn’t be collected by evil sorcerers (for real)…in addition to more paranormal fears, for example, that isolated, mountainous – generally veeraan – places are usually breeding grounds for jinn-bhoot (a pretty general term for any big evil phantasmal types), that resting under a tree during the night was a sure-fire way to get yourself possessed by a jinn and subsequently exorcised, or that any number of houses were haunted and that houseguests of the spirit variety could be kept away with a huge, wrought-iron “Mashallah” affixed to the facade of your house.

These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. I remember thinking that I wasn’t completely convinced by these superstitions. I used to pride myself on that. Sure, I was afraid of jinn stories, but what Muslim kid/adult/old person in their right mind isn’t? I had no fears regarding giving my mother a headache by stepping on a pillow, or of stunting someone’s height. Besides, most people my age were tall enough and should have been grateful for what they already had that I didn’t.

It’s only really in retrospect that I realize how many superstitions I actually did internalize. I avoid lingering for too long under trees at night. I think part of my gung-ho desire to live in a city stems from avoiding the aforementioned veeraangi. But I didn’t realize just how much of the more ridiculous stuff I had internalized until, last year, a friend caught me flushing some hair I had pulled out of my hairbrush down the toilet…

That was a very strange cultural quirk to explain.

But apart from the more concrete superstitions, there is a general spirit behind superstitions that is just straight up part of being desi: this greater sense of culpability, that everyone is capable of causing harm even if they don’t necessarily intend to. It is as victim-blaming as it sounds, that people can also just put themselves up for spiritual harm – that’s a pretty toxic mentality, but it’s one that I observed in myself a lot following my burgeoning anxiety. Humility is one thing, but to be actively deserving of malevolence is kind of an alarming concept to internalize.

But as it turns out, superstition is an easy vehicle to transition into when you already have anxiety. So what could make me think that something horrible that happened so far away and is, by all accounts, unrelated to me, is actually my fault?

I expect something bad to happen after things have been going well for some time. Living in a country where people don’t necessarily say “Mashallah” a lot doesn’t help that fear; but even so, if I receive bad news following a spate of good luck, I immediately blame myself for not being humble enough. I caught someone’s nazar, but it’s ultimately my own fault, surely. Something bad happens at home? Well, that’s my fault for not being an upstanding Muslim, or for staying out too late, or for becoming too self-confident.

Okay, but what does this have to do with anxiety?

According to Kierkegaardian philosophy, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Rather than feeling as if you can do whatever you want, anxiety feels much like the way standing at the edge of a particularly long drop does – except near-constantly. The dizziness of freedom also means it’s difficult to ascribe responsibility to anything. Life just is. But life can’t simply just be; life has to have a rhyme or reason. Surely, that’s what religion is too, a desire to make sense of the dizziness of freedom, to organize yourself around something rather than constantly face off against a precipitous drop. But if existentialism is to embrace the drop, then superstition is the exact opposite. To be superstitious is to analyze every drop within an inch of its life and to assess where you stand in relation to it and – well – how that drop could actively make you and everyone around you suffer. Superstition isn’t absolution or relief or even order the way religion can be. Superstition is, as the wonderful Mashed Radish describes, all about excesses, too muches, over-s, supers – so it is excessive, too much, over-, super-absolution. In short, it is a solid crutch for anxiety to lean on and reinforce its grip on your gut and your brain. It is self-imposed punishment, it is responsibility where no responsibility needs to be taken, it is guilt in the guiltness. If anxiety’s evolutionary role is to heighten ones fight-or-flight reflex, superstition’s evolutionary role becomes what makes you stand there, pointing and screaming as something starts gnawing at your leg.

It’s hard enough balancing your identity if you moved from a more communal society to a thoroughly individualistic one. You feel guilty about something at any given point. But to be superstitious on top of that, and to have anxiety on top of that? Might as well have a flip-flop dangling around your neck that you can self-flagellate with. It’d be a quicker job.

For me, superstition reinforces my self-loathing. If nothing is immediately around to be responsible for x terrible thing that has just happened, well, then it’s my fault. If I bear a cross on my back, it is one carved out of a heinous wood comprised of both anxiety and superstition. Add to that cross various socio-cultural expectations (both communal and individualistic), burdens, pressures, etc, and it’s no wonder that I had to go the ER for back problems this past June (for real).

Does this answer my therapist’s question? At least in part, yes it does. And, well, you don’t have to but if you wouldn’t mind, throw in a Mashallah at me every now and then, yeah?

Advertisements

Hair, or how this blog post turned out to be longer than I expected. Like my hair.

UPDATE: A few weeks after this post, I did, in fact, get ten inches shorn off my hair and donated to a good cause. I cried a significant amount of tears and went through a brief, frantic existential crisis, but it’s been a few months and my hair is steadily growing back.

One of my earliest memories is spurred by a sense of disdain towards my own hair. In kindergarten, I experienced my first crush on another person. To my clumsy sensibilities, he was perfect. I’m not sure what goes on in the head of a four-year old vis a vis attraction, and I definitely don’t want to go that far back down memory lane, but I still remember his name, and I remember being wracked with equal parts guilt and thrill when, in response to what was likely an innocuous comment, he said that my hair was stupid.

I was doomed from that moment on.

I have always had a lot of hair. My parents used to joke – or maybe it wasn’t a joke – that any wretched fly within a certain radius would be snapped up and trapped in my tight curls. As far as I’ve been small, my hair has been large. For many people, my hair was who I was.

So, of course, when my young beloved told me that my hair was dumb, I set out to destroy it. I’ll spare you the gory details, but after my poor mother woke up from her nap to see a bin full of perfect ringlets, she cried for a really, really long time. Apparently, my uncle, laughing as his wife tried to salvage my hair, said I looked like Ava Gardner. My mother cried harder.

I started drawing not long after that incident. Despite the fact that my burning love for a fellow kindergartener dwindled without ceremony, I retained my hair-anxiety. In every picture I drew of myelf, I made my hair straight. And that’s not to say that my hair was defined by rakish lines consistent with poor motor functions – it was a conscious effort to make my hair “silky-straight” like so many of the other girls around me. I began seeing my curls as a masculine feature. Pretty girls had straight hair. Any compliments I ever received were condescending in nature; pretty girls never got condescended. (As you can tell, I hadn’t quite had my intersectional feminist awakening yet.)

As funny as this seems in retrospect, it was also the beginning of a long, difficult battle with self-loathing. The longer I observed my hair, the more I began to notice my face, my blemishes, my thick eyebrows that were not yet en vogue, the slightly crooked bridge of my nose, the baby fat that seemed so much worse than everyone around me – another point of condescending adoration. I started listening to the sound of my own voice and I hated what I heard. But through it all, I begrudged my hair the most. I didn’t necessarily hate it; I could make pigtails that looked, more or less, like Bubbles’ from the Powerpuff Girls, how could you hate that? But it annoyed me because it was silly, it was cute. It was never pretty. I was never pretty.

In my defense, I had just woken up. As a point of horror, I had just woken up.

I grew older. After chopping all my hair off, my curls never grew back quite the same way. The corkscrew ringlets were gone. Now, as if to rub it in, my hair grew in coarse, thick, twisted coils that – and I can’t stress this enough – grew up and out. While, internally, it was pretty empowering to realize my hair was akin to a mythical she-beast that was able to turn men into stone, outwardly, that was a pretty embarrassing image to convey. So, I did my best to turn that embarassment into a thick skin. I cultivated a self-deprecating sense of humor that I convinced myself was sincere until it actually became so. (Occasionally, that sense of humor has backfired on me in the form of some pretty heinous, one-sided relationships, but for the most part, I’ve learnt to own it.)

Things were worse when my family moved to Dubai. It was a different landscape, and more diversity meant more ways you could be pretty: I wasn’t pretty any of those ways. As a kid going through puberty, I got two things: my period and breasts. Like, larger breasts than a girl my height should have had. What I didn’t get was a more graceful face, or an opportunity to shed some of the baby fat. So I was pudgy. And, as someone would eventually put it, I had “gigantic jugs” at 13. My hair was still massive. The side-fringe trend swept my high school, and deciding that this could be a fix for my hair woes, I decided to steal my mother’s flat iron and began straightening just one, thick lock of my hair. It flopped disappointingly down the side of my face, but I was proud of it (I had no right to be).

At some point in high school, I decided that the solution to all my hair problems was to chop it off. So, I had my shoulder-length hair shorn up to my chin, and was pleased with the stylish bob I was given (I had no right to be). Unfortunately, the blow-dry wore off, and my hair blossomed into a majestic mushroom cloud that, you guessed it, went upwards. Luckily, the one solid my hair has always done me is that it grows extremely quickly – which means body hair is a misery – and when my hair got a bit longer-

Well, I’m not sure what happened here. Maybe God took pity on me and decided that I could use some help. Maybe it was the estrogen in my birth control pills*. But I turned 16, and the hallowed period of my life that I have christened Second Puberty took place.

I had recently discovered Instagram, as evidenced by the intense filter. Note the hat. Note the weak eyeliner.

Slowly, but steadily, the baby fat finally started dropping. My body suddenly evened out and while I became increasingly more top-heavy than my frame could necessarily handle, I was an actual shape. As problematic as that body-shaming mentality is, I stopped hating myself as much. I thought I was actually kind of pretty. And, most importantly, the sheer weight of my hair started weighing it down. It grew outwards, still, but not upwards.

I felt a renaissance dawning.

Suddenly, I could talk to pretty people and feel like I was holding my own. I patted my hair to make sure it was still in place. I would adorn my hair with barettes, hats (so many freaking hats), even fascinators. All I was missing was a dress just below the knees and an ascot, and I could have been off to the races!

Of course, it wasn’t that easy. I still spent an unfortunate amount of nights wracked with horror at my face. The shape of my body lent itself to an anxiety of its own, one that culminated in me flinging clothes across the fitting moon at Forever 21 or whatever unfortunate store I shopped at. Few clothes could accommodate petite with a side of curvy. I felt, still, despite the renaissance, not as pretty as the status quo. But at least my hair was the least of my problems.

Weirdly enough, that was the best thing that could have happened to me. My ambivalence towards my hair was an opportunity to let it do what it wanted to do. My hair grew longer with each passing year, and the only real dramatic change it went through was two instances of pink ombre – a childhood and, well, adulthood wish that I wanted to fulfill, and I loved it so much that I did it a second time. The only real difference in my routine was that I started caring for my hair a little more. No heat, no dying after that second time, and occasionally, a bit of argan oil. My hair appreciated this, evidently.

Here’s the thing. At some point, I realized how long my hair had gotten, and I freaked out a little. I let my hair grow out since that misguided bob, but I always just assumed my hair was short no matter what length it had gotten to. Eventually after the first couple of nights that I spent accidentally pulling my hair so hard while asleep that I woke up, I had to contend with this new reality: my hair was actually, truly, fashionably long.

Featuring Sabrina, who has seen me through all phases of my hair.

And it was curly. It was curlier, truly curlier, than it had been since I lopped off my ringlets in the name of love. I was awed by this new power – power? – that I held upon my head. I could braid it, I could put it up, I could even leave it down and it wouldn’t go everywhere! And if it did, well, apparently that’s stylish! People started asking to play with my hair – not with a fever-pitch, as if frenzied by the thought of taming the beast with a flat-iron and some mousse, but because they wanted to admire it. Like an art installation, it held people in its thrall, and not even in a literal sense like with those poor flies when I was a baby! It was, and still is, an awesome feeling.

So, of course, being the superstitious South Asian that I am, I grew afraid of my hair.

If there’s one thing I’m never going to deny about my heritage, it’s that the fear of the evil eye is a valid one. Too much praise, especially masking envy, is a huge no-no. Say Mashallah, I often think at people, locking my jaw and straining to project fear-of-God unto my unassuming companion. I try to humble myself every time I have too much of a good hair day. Okay, but you forgot to go to the gym, and you said you were going to, so really, what gives you the right? One well-placed, strategic barb later, and I feel safe from the evil eye.

Anytime my hair sheds, and it sheds quite a lot, a fleeting panic makes its way through my bones. The beginning of female pattern baldness! Or hell, male-pattern baldness, what does it matter! I have to be careful about how I bind my hair at night or I’ll wake up from the sharp pain and shame of having had my hair try to commit seppuku under my elbow. At this point, I’m a little afraid that I’ll wake up with my braid coiled tight around my neck, like a particularly fuzzy, tresEMME-scented boa constrictor.

If Second Puberty was a renaissance, this is, like, baroque. Extravagant, filled with religious paranoia, and distinctly impractical. But damn it if baroque isn’t my second favorite period of art. For all that I’m afraid of it and guard it kind of jealously against the ill-wishes of the ill-intentioned, and against my own pride, I love my hair because it’s an indication of how far I’ve come . I’ve come from having cut my hair at the behest of my first love to proudly, and then apologetically, whipping it against the faces of people I love.

A huge part of me wants to donate my hair before I move to the Netherlands for my last co-op. It feels right, to pay forward the lessons I have learnt and amassed in each lock of my hair. Besides, I’m kind of curious to see how my head feels 10-inches lighter.

And, well, if my hair starts growing up and out again, I can wrangle it into place with hair smoothies and argan oil. Plus, that’s 10 fewer inches to be paranoid about. It’s a win-win.

*don’t even start with me, I needed to stop missing school because my periods were that bad

My internal politics of dress

Of the many good qualities imbued in me by my father, one of my favorite ones is the love for fashion he inspired in me. I loved fashion even before my appearance reflected it, to the point that I seriously considered studying Political Science at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, because, “Can you imagine how perfect studying politics surrounding by fashion designers would be?!”

It behooves me to mention here that at this aforementioned point in my life, I also dreamt of being married and pregnant by  grad school. 1) I was so, so wrong, and 2) if any one tells my paternal grandmother this, I’m not above committing an imprisonable offense. She’s already waiting for me to get married as is, and I refuse to add fuel to the fire (read: her co-opting of my brother’s marriage in order to orchestrate mine).

Anyway. My father has always been an impeccably well-dressed man, for as long as I can remember. Most profoundly for me, my father dressed well even when circumstances allowed him – or at least excused him – to dress down. His father’s death, family problems, personal health: he was immaculate in every carefully ironed pleat. And this is not to say my mother isn’t beautiful herself. Each day begins with carefully choosing lipstick and applying the eyeliner-kajal combo that always rims her eyes. She too is immaculate in her signature sunglasses and every perfect wave of her hair.

We are not wealthy. The stereotype associated with how my family presents itself begets the image of a privileged international student from a privileged international family with no conception of financial troubles or the weight of loans. I beg your suspension of disbelief, and remind you that this is part and parcel of my love of and appreciation for my parents’ image.

I think I was in a crappy mood one day, sulking in that uniquely teenage way, when my mother told me to get up, take a shower, and put on my favorite clothes. She said it’s what she does when she wants to feel better than she is. So  I tried it. I never stopped.

Puberty took me for a wild ride and I hid it all under absurd ponchos I re-wore way too much. Needless to say, it took me a few years to figure out my style, but I did, and now unless I’m really, really, horrendously late for something, I need to have a full face of make up on. Sure, there’s a lot there to unpack regarding my own well-documented struggles with self-loathing, but dressing up is my time as much as reading, writing, drawing are.

As long as I’m dressed the part, I can play the part I need to play – I can be the human being I need to be. No matter the internal state of my mind, I know I can at least look put together, and if I can look it, I can feel it. Is it superficial? Well, yes and no. But I put a lot of myself in every outfit I wear. Every day I try to wear something from Pakistan, or an outfit that has a history; maybe I’ll remember that my father told me I looked beautiful in a specific dress; maybe someone will compliment me on my jewelry and I’ll say “It was my mother’s;” maybe I’ll wear bright blues and pinks and know I’m representing Pakistan in every stitch of my koti or kameez.

And, as ever with my blog posts, here’s where the self-critique comes in: am I misrepresenting who I am?

I’m an international student, and that’s reflected most keenly in the 100% tuition I have to pay to stay in college. Thing is, that tuition is carefully and nervously spaced out in a way that doesn’t bankrupt my family. Loans have been taken out – very painful, very large loans I will add – co-ops have been strategically placed, part-time jobs have been taken on, just so I can get a degree. That I’ll have to strengthen with another degree.

It’s hard not to be despondent and wonder if this was all worth it. Retrospect is 20/20: no one could have seen the sudden financial hardship that befell my family, least of all an 18-year-old that was as giddy and excited as I was to go to Boston and (without exaggeration) follow my dreams. My education is as much an opportunity as it is my cross to bear, and I bear it every single day as surely as I have a lick of concealer under my eyes on any given day. And it’s hard to admit this to myself because I feel like I’m breaking a taboo by doing it.

I fidget uncomfortably in my heavy, Pakistani earrings and bright lipstick. What do people think when they see me? More importantly, what do they think when they hear me speak and the soft but evident accept slips out, some days more than others?

Do I look like just another rich international student?

And that bothers me more than it should. It doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t matter, because I know what I am and what I’m not. I’m the sum of my parents’ faith in me and their endless, hard work. I’m the sum of my stubbornness and my own hard work.

But what do I look like? Who do I look like?

I suppose the reason this is bothering me more than it usually does is because I’ve had to deal with a lot of ups and downs on my way to my dream co-op. The first one, unavoidable, was the visa issue – I had every thing in the bag, minus the bit where I couldn’t get a visa in time. So, I took out a loan to stay in school, readjusted my co-op cycle to the Fall instead of the Spring, and took a deep breath. In that order. And then I decided, you know what? I’m going to fund this co-op myself. Yeah, I’ll pay for the flights, the rent, everything! So I got a job on campus (which is not necessarily as reliable as I thought, but at least it’ll take care of grocery money?) and put my heart into applying for a scholarship to fund my co-op. I was guaranteed some money, up to $6000, and I was going to get that! Or at least $4000!

For a little while, I felt good. The whole Trump thing tripped me up quite a bit, and I didn’t (and don’t) know what the future holds regarding the Muslim ban, but at least co-op was certain?

So imagine my feelings when I got my scholarship back and realized I had been awarded a generous $2000 for my pain.

The worst part is, I was so resigned to being tripped up that I didn’t even have it in me to cry all that much. I set about emailing who I could to try and appeal it. It took me 3 weeks to see if I could appeal this, and I hid the fact from my mom for as long as I could. I know my parents, and I know their love for me, and I was assured that it would work out if they had any say in it.

I’m going to fund this co-op myself.

I started looking for another job. I talked to my future co-op employers about worst case scenarios. I started working on research proposals that I could use to supplement my living expenses while in the Netherlands. And I finally, finally got some kind of an answer about why my scholarship was so low despite the fact that I literally begged for enough money to keep me self-sufficient.

Remember that loan I took out? I got enough money so that I could fund this current Spring semester and the subsequent Summer semester, which I needed in order to graduate on time. The Spring loan was disbursed to Northeastern while the latter stayed in my account until it too needed to be disbursed. So, I have a tantalizing amount sitting in my student account that will go untouched until the Summer semester.

The person working on disbursing the loans assumed that very substantial amount was for my own recreation, and that clearly, my request for more money than the 2k I’d gotten was perplexing. Clearly, I could fund my co-op with a sum of money that is literally, cent for cent, the tuition cost for a Summer semester.

I can’t begin to describe my anger.

If I was an American student, that assumption would have never been made. I’m an international student, and therefore, it’s a 9/10 chance that I’m probably really wealthy. At the very least, wealthy enough to have multiple digits in my Northeastern University student account just sitting there for my recreation.

Take a look at my actual bank account and you’ll know that’s very clearly not the case.

My family has given an unjust amount of money to Northeastern, most of the time money that I’m still not sure how they managed to come up with. There were never any questions asked, but this time, I’m adamant about asking questions and I don’t like the kinds of answers I’ve been getting. I also really don’t like that it’s making me double-guess how I present myself. The person allocating scholarship money does not know what I look like, so why do my earrings feel heavier?

I think I’ve been tripped up so much over the past couple of years that I’m double, triple, quadruple-guessing who I am and who I’ve become as a person. It feels melodramatic, and maybe it is. But I’m tired of feeling like I’m constantly short-changed through little to no fault of my own, and I’ll have you know that I am very, very good at admitting when something is actually my fault.

This was hard to write, which means it’s important that I write it for some reason. All I know is, I’m working hard to remedy what seems to be a string of bad luck. I hope that will be enough to make me feel comfortable in my own clothes again.

An invocation towards kindness

I don’t like keeping resolutions, because I know I’m going to break them. If you’re one of those people that thrives off resolutions, I envy you.

Ever since I watched Ze Frank’s Invocation for Beginnings, I’ve found myself ingratiated to the idea of a manifesto or invocation whenever I start something; whether it’s a notebook for school, a new semester, a new journal I’m hoping to actually fill up all the way. It forces me to think about what I’m going to write, and writing something down – for me – injects a certain permanence into the manifesto. It gets burnt into my memory, and especially the bit of my brain that’s behind my determination (and overambition of course). It becomes an ego thing.

I don’t like admitting I have an ego, but I totally do. And at least in this case the ego serves me well.

So here is my invocation: Towards Kindness.


 

I will charge forward into this blank slate with confidence in my steps and caution thrown to the wind. I will be ready with a smile and an open heart to welcome opportunity and friendship into my life; I will remember that I have trusted and been broken for that trust but that it has never stopped me from trusting before, so why should it have any effect now? I will remember that the best nights are those where I had no intention of staying up late and do anyway; I will remember that that is how I made my best friends and met those who I love. I will not be cranky if I only get 7 hours of sleep as opposed to 8, and I will (try to) not regret being bleary-eyed and exhausted the following day.

I will remember that life is about art and the written word and music. I will remember that I have learnt about the meaning of art from engineers, about the nuances of the written word from computer scientists, and about music from beauty gurus on Youtube. I will remember that life is all around me and that it is the grandest Work in Progress; and I will remember that the best art I have created is that whose final manifestation I had no inkling of when I started drawing.

I will not compare myself to other people. That’s not fair to anyone involved. And I will not tell myself I hate myself even when I do; I will not say those words again.

I will remember on my darkest days that I can create. I will remember when I am angry how it feels to love and be loved. I will remember when I fail that I have succeeded. I won’t remember my mediocre IGCSE grades because that is how irrelevant they have become to my present; and that is how it should remain and how it will be when I am an adult, whether cum laude or not, magna or summa notwithstanding.

I will remember that laughter is only a breath away. I will remember that my loved ones are only a phone call, text message, walk, or some number of train stops away. I will remember that love sneaks up on you in beautiful ways. I will learn that friendship is a matter of retrospect; so reflect. I will remember that people I used to dislike are now my close friends. I will remember that adulthood is a sharp learning curve, and that’s okay.

I will remember that some music hurts to listen to because it meant so much.

I will remember that there is no greater feeling than that of being held.

I will remember that I have as much to teach as I have to learn – and I love teaching.

I will remember that there is nothing like losing yourself in a book – so read as much as you did when you were younger.

I will remember that if I can’t sleep it’s probably because I have a poem I need to write – so write it.

I will remember that if I still can’t sleep properly, it’s because I’m fantasizing instead of drifting off – so, I don’t know, is it a really good fantasy? Because if it is that’s okay.

I will remember that I have been shown kindness in ways that have and will shape my life. I will remember that my life’s goal is to change the world; and if the world is made of 7 billion individual lives, and if change starts from your immediate circle, I cannot be unkind even if it is unintentional.

I must be the light in the darkness that I seek in my darkest moments. I must be the open arms I myself rush into when I hurt.

I will invoke kindness and beauty and grace in everything I do. I will feel rage but I will turn it into creativity and not destruction. I will ease my anger into sweetness. I will be honey and the honeybee.

And I will invoke all this unto myself.


1/1/16

 

Note to self

You fought so hard to love yourself and found that love in other people. And then your self-love became intertwined with company; a give and take, you gave love and in doing so fell in love with yourself. Slowly. Excruciatingly slowly. It was uphill for the most part, but a rocky terrain nonetheless, and sometimes you found yourself on your hands and knees in a pothole, clawing at ever-loosening rock until your hands found a tough vine, and you pulled yourself out. And then you kept going that uphill route. You found yourself in company again and that same ecstatic happiness hit you like a cool breeze against heat-chapped lips (self-love feels like morning dew).

Occasionally, you find yourself alone. It’s usually okay. But too long and the ground starts melting away into quicksand and if you don’t move fast enough, you’ll be submerged and suffocated and all you’ll have is thoughts in your head saying Remember how easy it is to hate yourself and claw at your skin and revel in the self-loathing? Isn’t that comfortable? Familiar?

Until one day, neck-deep in quicksand, you decide, “Actually, it’s hard to hate myself. Also, screw you.”

Taureans are stubborn shits and the smug set of your lips is liberating. So after that great proverbial middle finger, you instead take the loneliness as an invitation to dance, dance hard with your sore hips and sing loud from your throbbing throat. Before you know it the company descends once more and your laughter scares away the creeping toxicity, and the warmth of the hugs you demand from those you love turns your blood brilliant scarlet instead of rust. You thaw.

Look, what I’m telling you with all these metaphors is that all loneliness is temporary. And you’re not truly lonely unless you resign yourself to it.

And need I remind you that you resign yourself to nothing save for the inevitability of the light at the end of a particularly dark, dank tunnel. So take heart. Bon courage. Take pleasure in your own company, make the love come from yourself instead of constantly outsourcing it.

You’ve come this far – why not jump over the potholes instead? And even if you don’t make the jump, the vines always sprout and hold true when you grasp them in your hands and tug until you’re free. Terraform. Bend the terrain. You’ve done it before. So do it again.

Take pride in the tenacity your bloodline afforded you; there is no dishonor in being alone. Not anymore.

Go on.

– Neiha

“I swear this isn’t an accent!”: It totally is.

I don’t think I have ever been more aware or conscious of my accent than in the United States. Frankly, I didn’t think I had that much of an accent until I got here and started getting complimented on it. I always thought I had a general American accent with a slight Pakistani twang to it, but apparently, it’s Pakistani with a slight general American twang to it.

I still don’t know how that makes me feel. Accents are beautiful – they stand as testaments to home, to culture, to roots, and yet when I hear myself talk I can’t help but cringe. Sometimes. In other instances, I take pride in how distinctive I sound; the Pakistaniat I want to exemplify in my very being comes across when I speak! Fabulous, that falls in with my brand new “Aggressively Pakistani and Unapologetic” look.

And yet (you knew this was coming)…and yet, I still feel a vague embarrassment when I hear myself speak, or when someone points out my accent. It comes out when I’m nervous. Hell, at times, it’ll come out no matter what, and I find myself trying to force a “neutral” accent. What the hell is a neutral accent, anyway?

I feel like a hypocrite, waxing poetic about the importance of being proud of where you come from, yet blushing at the sound of my own voice. Worse, it takes me back to the days where I would judge my peers for not speaking English as well as I did, for having heavy accents and not quite grasping the nuances of English proNUNciation.

Much of the aforementioned judging was in direct response to being mocked for not speaking Urdu as well as everyone else. That and, you know, internalizing linguistic elitism. And it is that linguistic elitism that I will blame – in part – for my knee-jerk reaction to my own accent. So much of Pakistani high culture (particularly in urban settlements) hinges on a grasp of the English language and the relative lack of accented speech. Growing up, I spoke primarily in English with my friends who, surprise surprise, tended to value English more than Urdu. I glowed whenever I received compliments on my superior English. My proficiency in the language was a source of immense pride and I would be lying if I didn’t consider myself at least a little bit more “literate” than my peers. Completely ignoring the fact that English is ridiculously difficult (beautiful, though) and you could spend a lifetime learning it but still be fooled by its subtleties.

Lingua franca of the world. Good job, guys. Good job.

I will not be too hard on myself though. I was merely a victim of that vile byproduct of media, cultural conditioning. I figured as long as I could speak like the Americans on TV, I had it made. The more I divorced myself from the standard Lahori, the better I would fare.

That is complete and utter bullshit, of course. No one language is better than the other and I’ve written an entire essay about my complex relationship with Urdu. I’m determined to teach my children chaste, perfect Urdu (Inshallah) and to pursue the perfection of my own Urdu.

…but still I cringe when my accent is brought up? Come on.

I suppose a lot of that stems from my deep-seated self-esteem issues, too. Either way, I need to be unapologetic. Sure, I have an accent. Sure, my pronunciation may waver sometimes (THOUGH I SWEAR TO YOU A LOT OF THAT IS BECAUSE OF PRONUNCIATION DISCREPANCIES BETWEEN AMERICAN AND BRITISH ENGLISH). But I can still write. I can still speak. And I can sure as hell can hold my own against the English-speaking world.

I don’t do things in spite of my accent, or despite it. I do things in tandem with my accent. And maybe it’ll take a while before I’m perfectly comfortable with my general American Pakistani-twanged, or Pakistani general American-twanged (whichever, as if it matters) accent, but hey. I’m here, aren’t I? And good on me if I can be aggressively Pakistani when I so much as speak. I’m doing my self-appointed job right.

Mother tongue: Being an Urdu Lisper

Khatt-e_NastaliqI have 40 pages of dense reading to do for my classes tomorrow, so in the spirit of procrastination, I’m going to put this essay up. My major is a BA, so it demands proficiency in a second language; as such, I was required to write an essay detailing my proficiency in and relationship with Urdu to waive the language requirement. I’m still taking French, but I figure if somewhere down the line I have to take extra electives, I want to be able to drop French.

Fun fact: my essay was accepted and my language requirement is waived.


I debated, initially, changing this essay’s title to “Tongue-tied Mother tongue” but I felt like that would be betraying my recently established confidence in the language I was raised with. Instead, I decided to lay my interesting history with my beautiful native language plain in this essay:

I was born and raised in Pakistan, in the vibrant city of Lahore, speaking (an admittedly skewed, slightly urbanized and Punjabi-fused version of) Urdu and studying the language til the end of 7th grade, when my family relocated to Dubai. My relationship with Urdu in those early years was definitely less than ideal, but as I mature as a person, I recognize just how beautiful my language is; and for the purposes of this essay specifically, just how fluent I actually am in Urdu. Revisiting my tumultuous foray through Urdu, however, is still a bitter feeling. I was what we call in Urdu ṭoṭli – that is to say, I had a lisp unlike a conventional English lisp. This lisp serves as a testament to the complexities of the Urdu language: with 38 letters, it’s no wonder I couldn’t pronounce most of the different T, D and R sounds that really have no representation in English. Once I became aware that this lisp was a hindrance and not just something adults would condescendingly chuckle over, I resented the language. I dreaded being called on to read a piece of Urdu literature in class. I knew from experience how terrible the exasperated sighs and amused snorts were for my self-esteem.

For a girl as patriotic as me, that was painful. So I strived, instead, to excel in English, but there was still a distinct void in my life that could only be filled by Urdu. I still spoke the language at home with my family and, interestingly, with my Pakistani and Indian friends at school.

In a way, it’s strange how moving to a country other than Pakistan helped me gain such a heightened love for Urdu. There was a surprising factor in addition to that, however, and in retrospect it makes sense; I found that certain words in English did not have the depth their Urdu counterpart(s) did. I pride myself on my vast English vocabulary, but Urdu is a language that trembles with sheer poetry; English may have love, but Urdu has ishq, muhabbat, pyaar, dewangi…it is a language tailored to fit the needs of the literarily inclined, thus it doesn’t come as a surprise that poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mirza Ghalib and Pakistan’s own national poet Allama Iqbal have crafted intensely beautiful works of art with its nuanced palette of words.

Upon this realization, I took it upon myself to download Urdu dictionaries, pick up Urdu books, and immerse myself in this linguistic Nirvana; and certainly, it helped me break out of that cycle of resentment and bitterness that I had built. Prior to this, I had taken to replying with a tentative “Yeah, I speak Urdu but English might as well be my native tongue” whenever I was asked if I knew Urdu. Looking back, it breaks my heart that I had distanced myself from Urdu, and it further scatters those broken fragments to think that this was the result of a young girl being so negatively impacted by the words of her peers and the adults who should have encouraged her instead of deluging her drive with patronizing chortles.

But few things remain broken – I piece together my heart by realizing that in my moments of pain, my mind’s voice resorts to Urdu; that I can read Urdu to myself with complete accuracy, if not yet aloud; that Urdu music resonates with me on a level as deep as – if not more so than – English music; and that no matter what, Urdu still remains my mother language – a mother that coos sweet words and has a soft, familiar embrace.

As I bring this essay to an end, I’d like to point out that word I italicized: familiar. The point of this essay, despite my emotional spiel, is to underscore my proficiency in Urdu. The bottom line is that I spent 13 years of my life in Pakistan, formally learning Urdu, and a further five years in a foreign country surrounded by Hindi and Urdu speakers; as much as I had convinced myself otherwise, I never lost my mother tongue. It evolved with me. It matured with me as much as it helped mature me. I can converse fluently in Urdu, and with a distinctly Lahore accent at that, if one slightly injected with a Karachi twist; I can read and write the language; most importantly, I can recognize that it is my language in a way English will never be. Urdu meri zubaan hai; and no one can take that away from me, least of all myself. And so, it is with extremely happy confidence that I sign this essay off with the knowledge that my Urdu is more than sufficient to waive a BA language requirement – and I hope that whoever reads this essay can see that.