Can I please be sad for a while?

I’m twenty. I keep saying that more in disbelief than anything else. There are certain standards that society (or whatever that weird fog around us, suffocating us) puts before us, and we are expected to follow them. I like to believe that I have one of the most understanding and mature parenthood one could ask for. I’m very close to both my mom and dad, in different ways. And yet they manage to hurt me the most.

Right now, I’m sitting in my room, legs shaking, fingers shaking, because my mom yelled at me for missing a doctor’s appointment. A doctor who’s ‘treating’ me, and so I’m expected to spend three hours in his hospital, every fucking morning. Today I just don’t feel like it (yes, I’m sorry “I don’t feel like doing it” is a real, very real feeling that I hope is respected, some day). So I told her I don’t want to go.

She burst out.

“Of course. Sure. ‘Don’t want to go'(mockingly). Actually, you know what? The doctor was right. It is our mistake. We brought you up this way. Letting you choose what you want to do and when you want to do it. I wish we were like other parents. At least we could be helping you that way. And you think all of this is a joke? The doctor is treating you because your grandfather requested him to. He said he cannot see his grand-daughter like this. He pleaded for help. But sure, you don’t feel like it.”

I walked away.

How do I tell my mother that no one can “treat” sadness? That my anxiety can be suppressed through those fucking medicines, but this…this lump that I feel…that tells me I’m not worth anything (and then the other ‘angel me’ arguing that of course I’m worth something because: “bulletin point 1, 2, 3” liberal arts ftw!).
How do I tell the people who love me the most that I am sad. And that’s okay. That I am okay with it. That they are in fact making it harder for me with all their “concern”.

I wish there was a way to tell our parents (and family) that it is perfectly alright to be sad, without an obvious reason. That we are only growing up, trying really hard to make sense of this world (and failing). That sometimes, with the best of intentions, they only make it harder for us to heal:

“I can’t see you like this”.
“But we’ve always given you everything you’ve needed”.
“Just tell us what it is and we’ll do our best to fix it”.
“But you were such a happy child. What happened now?”
“Remember that if you’re sad, we are sad”. (But why??)
“You won’t understand. Become parents and then you will”.(argh)

You see how it is problematic to care for someone to the point that you’re actually making it harder for them to deal with whatever they’re dealing with? I know my mother only wants to see me better, but Ma, I SWEAR that’s what I want too. Sometimes I doubt that maybe you two (mom dad) want it more than I do (which is again, very weird because how do I make sense of that? Unconditional love, you say. Still weird, I think).

All I’m asking for is for you to trust me. Please.
I know things haven’t been great for me lately, but I’m working on it. Wanting a holiday from a doctor’s appointment might actually be part of my “working on it”. Sadness cannot be conquered by a military schedule, Ma. I know discipline is important (for god’s sake, I’m waking up at 5 am to exercise in my summer holidays. Like, PLEASE)I know there are some absolute yes’s and no’s. But I’m just saying, maybe missing ONE session shouldn’t be an absolute no.

Because what has it given us? You’re angry with me, working in the kitchen, completely ignoring my presence in your life because maybe I feel like a huge disappointment to you right now. I’m cryng to myself, unable to hold myself properly, shaking, all in hiding, because I know even this will make you sad.

19.07.2017

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The God of Small Things- Arundhati Roy

“They never did look much like each other, Estha and Rahel,… The confusion lay in a deeper, more secret place”. p.2

“Her own grief grieved her. His devastated her”. p.5

“A Sunbeam Lent To Us Too Briefly”. (Sophie Mol’s tombstone) p.7

1

“Ammu’s tears made everything that had so far seemed unreal, real”. p.8

“Estha occupied very little space in the world”. p.11

“They provided the care (food, clothes, fees), but withdrew the concern”. p.15

“It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer than the menory of the life that it purloined”. p.16

“So long as she wasn’t noisy about it, she remained free ti make her own enquiries: into breasts and how much they hurt. Into false hair buns and how well they burned. Into life and how it ought to be lived”. p.17

“Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered”. p.19

“That the emptiness in one twin was only a version of the quietness in the other. That the two things fitted together. Like stacked spoons. Like familiar lovers’ bodies”. p.20

“That was all she wanted. All she ever dared to hope for. Just to be near him. Close enough to smell his beard. To see the coarse weave of cassock. To love him just by looking at him”. p.24

“They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.
The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly”. p.31

“Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes”. p.32

“However, for practical purposes, in a hopelessly practical world…” p.34

2

“It was the kind of time in the life of a family when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place and make it a bubble to the surface and float for a while. In a clear view. For everyone to see”. p. 35

Ämmu said that Chacko had never stopped loving Margaret Kochamma. Mammachi disagreed. She liked to believe that he had never loved her in the first place”. p.36

“..they had no surname because Ammu was considering reverting to her maiden name, though she said that choosing between her husband’s name and her father’s name didn’t give a woman much of a choice”. p.37

“Rahel’s new teeth were waiting inside her gums, like words in a pen”. p.37

“They emerged without much fuss, within eighteen minutes of each other. Two little ones, instead of one big one. Twin seals, slick with their mother’s juices. Wrinkled with the effort of being born”. p.40

“Ämmu left her husband and returned, unwelcomed, to her parents in Ayemenem. To everything that she had fled from only a few years ago. Except that now she had two young children. And no more dreams”. p.42

“Ämmu loved her children (of course), but their wide eyed vulnerability, and their willingness to love people who didn’t really love them, exasperated her and sometimes made her want to hurt them – just as an education, a protection”. p.43

“To Ammu her twins seemed like a pair of small bewildered frogs engrossed in each other’s company, lolloping arm in arm down a highway full of hurtling traffic. Entirely oblivious of what trucks can do to frogs”. p.43

“What was it that gave Ammu this Unsafe Edge? This air of unpredictability? It was what she had battling inside her. An unmixable mix. The infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber”. p.44

“But most of all, she grudged them the comfort they drew from each other. She expected from them some token unhappiness. At the very least”. p.46

“Ammu said that human beings were creatures of habit, and it was amazing the kind of things they could get used to”. p.50

“Our dreams have been doctored. We belong nowhere. We sail unanchored on troubled seas. We may never be allowed ashore. Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys never happy enough. Our dreams never big enough. Our lives never important enough. To matter”. p.53

“..the twins would shout in high voices. Not together, but almost”. p.59

“This was the twouble with families. Like invidious doctors, they knew just where it hurt”. p.70

“A lucky leaf that wasn’t lucky enough”. p.73

“It was a little like having to sweep away your footprints without a broom. Or worse, not being allowed to leave footprints at all”. p.74

“Not until he saw what his Untouchable son had touched. More than touched. Entered. Loved”. p.78

“They remembered being pushed around a room once, from Ammu to Baba to Ammu to Baba like billiard balls. Ammu pushing Estha away:’Here, you keep one of them. I can’t afford to look after them both.’ Later, when Estha asked Ammu about that, she hugged him and said he mustn’t imagine things”. p.84

“A pale daymoon hung hugely in the sky and went where they went. As big as the belly of a beer-drinking man”. p.87

3

Of Summers.

This summer, I did a course on children’s literature at King’s College, London, United Kingdom. Exactly a year ago, last summer, I interned with Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), at Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, India. The first one required me to read interesting works and attend classes and participate in discussions and write papers, all the while being in a beautiful city. The second one asked of me to read up on land rights and building of dams and displacement of people and then travel to villages in scorching heat with news of when the lands would be submerged, or what needs to be done to not let it happen, or how to claim rehabilitation in case it already has, and file RTIs and go through rooms and rooms of files. The first was about instagram updates, pretty clothes, and good food. The second about no phone, two pairs of clothes, and stacked up biscuits in my backpack.

A friend wrote to me while I was in London asking me if I ever sat back in my cozy room there and compared it to last summer. She wanted to know which of the two made me happier. To be honest, I want to know it too. Sadly, not all things can fit into ‘happy’ and ‘not happy’. Experiences in themselves are neutral, I think. They just happen to us like we happen to them. Once they’ve happened, they leave us with memories, smiles, tears, lots of learning, and tweak a little something inside us. Though I might not have a clear answer for my friend, or for myself, I can share what I’ve been thinking in the last few months: how I chose to be at these places, at those times. I wasn’t forced to be there because of my circumstances and I could get away whenever I wanted to, if I wanted to. It was a choice.

Last year, at NBA, I wrote a poem about inequality in the world, in my world, and I remember my father’s reaction being so different from what I had expected. In the poem, I compared my birthdays to that of the girls I taught at a shelter home, and how that says so much about the society we live in. It was the first time I thought of my birthday as more than just me. Although he appreciated my writing, I could tell that it saddened him; offended him almost. He read it as me rejecting everything my parents had done for me so far: the life they’d given me, the comforts they wanted me to have (because they couldn’t) and so on. It was hard on me too, because until then, I saw my privilege as only mine, as though it was a personal choice that no one could have a say in. Not something that automatically draws in the people I’m connected to.

Slowly, I’m realizing that there is much more to privilege than “Oh-I-think-I’m-privileged”, and “Oh-I-think-I don’t-want-to-be”. Maybe it has more to do with opportunities than anything else. Even if I tell people that I am on aid in college, got funds to be able to go to London, that I travel second class, have a medium sized home in a medium sized city, nothing can take away from the fact that I’ve been bombarded with opportunities. To study, travel, learn and grow in abundance.

I’m learning to accept my privilege while also trying to be conscious that someone else is robbed of it, for me to have it. I’m also teaching myself to be empathetic to those who might not have the privileges that I do (for whatever reason: social/economic/political), or those who might have a lot more than I do. The latter is sometimes harder. I’m learning to accept my middle-ground. This middle-ground is where I stand, thinking about where I come from, where I am, and where I want to go.

Often privilege plays a huge role in connecting (and disconnecting) us with people. The people we meet enter our lives based on factors to do with privilege. The locality or city we live in, the school or college we go to, the family we belong to, all play a role in determining our social standing. Interestingly, social media (read facebook) is acting as a weird leveler. It gives everyone similar access to the space on the internet, making it hard (and irrelevant?) to know how privileged one is. However, the same concept can backfire too. It is much more easier to draw conclusions about what people’s lives are, hence making it easier to attack them. We build opinions about people (and their internet self) and expect them to behave accordingly. We dismiss someone because of who we think they are, or why we think they don’t have a right to have the opinion they do:

Oh, she’s too rich to understand how the poor feel; has he ever lived without an air-conditioner?; you don’t get to say that social media is illusion. you’ve got like 300 likes on every picture!; why are you going to the mall, aren’t you marxist?; you can say dark skin is beautiful, because you’re conveniently fair-skinned; ‘size doesn’t matter’: ha! because she’s zero- sized/ of course he has to say that because he is over-sized! 

We’ll all been in these phrases, on one side or the other, or on different sides in different contexts, proving the transience of it all. Of identities, arguments and the need to be right all the time. Often we fight superficial battles, for instant gratification, or mere sense of authority. I don’t mind people taking to terminology to express their identities if they believe that is what suits them. I am also aware that most of the times it’s not even in our control. The government, our families and societies will generously tell us who we are (male/female/heterosexual/hindu/muslim/indian/blahblah), expecting us to be grateful for it.

What bothers me though is the apathy that sometimes comes with letting identity take over. We dismiss, disregard, or disrespect someone not just because of what they say, but because of where they come from (according to us). It frustrates us when someone is behaving differently from how we know them to behave; want them to behave. When our being a woman or a man, leftist or rightist, gay or straight becomes more than our choice of wanting to be that; when our chosen identities control us, and not otherwise.

It takes effort to keep reminding ourselves that these are all choices, based on a particular amount of knowledge coming from a particular kind of exposure (making it non-exposure really?). It is ridiculous to see people defend (and sometimes fight for) terminology so much. Language- 01. Empathy- 00.

In my second year of college, a classmate walked up to me and told me I’m Marxist. I hadn’t studied or understood Marx enough to take to his ideology, or reject it, which is what I said to my classmate. But he insisted and told me I’ll admit it eventually. That ‘eventually’ hasn’t come yet, and I don’t know if it ever will. I don’t know if I can let one word contain all the intricacies of who I choose to be, no matter what that word is. Recently, another friend told me that the background score to my life should be “I’m so fancy” (it’s an actual song; quite catchy). I smiled.

We’re all in this together, isn’t it? Fighting stereotypes, racism, sexism, patriarchy, trying to be politically aware—all depending on our priorities and how much it affects us (or not). It is very easy to brush off someone who doesn’t agree with us or doesn’t feel the same way about something. Or sometimes feels the same way but not in the same proportions as us (two spoons anger, one sadness, with a pinch of hatred please). Anything else becomes unacceptable to us and we end up fighting with our own.

I know of so many people who could have brilliant conversations with each other, and learn from each other, if only they wouldn’t let their tags shut it out for them. All of us come with our own particularities, and will never completely understand the other. In fact, we’re all constantly learning, changing, growing, reducing, be-ing. When our existence itself is a process, how can we be certain about anything else? Certain, not just to please ourselves and others, but to fight and kill for its sake. In a world that is already burning with indifference, false sense of identities, irrational hate against all ‘others’, the least we can do is release some empathy into the air. And maybe some irrational love?

Like many others my age, I too, am struggling to find my place in this scary universe. Every time I post, write, or think something, I end up questioning which side I might belong to (or come of as), what I might end up doing in future, how much I will contribute to the problems and/or solutions of the world.

Last summer, working with NBA was my wake up call to the harsh realities that I was so comfortably protected against. Even today, when I look back, it feels like a reality show that I successfully completed: no food, lots of struggles, people fighting for homes and lands and existence. Me, in the middle of all that, fitting in/standing out. It numbs me to think that these are simultaneous realities, at this very moment. Realities that people cannot walk away from.

This summer at London was more about how to be independent: do your own laundry, shop for groceries, wake up by yourself, sleep alone at night, send postcards to family. I cannot reject either of the experiences to completely claim one. While talking about London is relatively easy (boastful!?), to talk about NBA would mean tapping into the deepest of my senses, and carefully let out what I experienced; felt. There are no pictures from last summer that I can hide under, hoping that they would tell my story, as is the case now. Now that I think of it, I’m left in the middle-ground again. A middle-ground that allows me to travel the distant world, while also being sensitive to my immediate world. It’s a good place to be.

The Neverland of Childhood

The Neverland of Childhood

            Childhood, despite, (or perhaps because of) our attachment to it, is something that exists only as an idea. It is always only in constructions, thoughts and memories. No one actually remembers the beginning and end of their childhood as a period. One’s access to childhood, can then be understood as a continuous re-writing of how things were—that is, how one wants to remember them, and not necessarily how they happened. The period of childhood has to have ended (or not happened at all), for this retrospective construction. One needs to get out of it to long for it; the ‘it’ that never was.

The idea that one needs to grow out of being a child, in order to become an adult, is itself problematic. There is a huge assumption about childhood and adulthood being two different spaces that need to be inhabited, one after the other. What we overlook in this process of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, is that these demarcations are only in our heads, assumed by common consent, and adhered to as the norm. It is interesting to think about what happens when these imaginary (and strict) lines of differentiation begin to threaten us. What if childhood and adulthood stop being clear phases that should happen one after the other, but rather flow into each other, finding points of intersection? How does this lead to the frustration of having to be a child and adult at the same time?

It is not uncommon to find ourselves shifting between these two spaces, as though we have no control over it. In simplistic sense of the terms: We feel like a child, but act like an  adult; think like an adult, but desire like a child, and the list goes on. There are these tensions all around us, either pushing us to do something or restraining us from doing it, and sometimes both at once. Whether or not they manifest into evident behaviours to be characterized as that of an adult or a child, it is safe to say that these tensions do play out. One particular field that allows us to think about these ideas much more critically is that of children’s literature. It includes not just the ideas of childhood and adulthood, but children and adults as people in its discourse. Books are written by adults, for children, and hence children’s literature strives on the imbalances arising from these spectrums (that of childhood and adulthood) at all stages: be it creating, producing or consuming it.

In this paper, I will first explain the concept of a ‘child’ and ‘childhood’, and then go on to use children’s literature to explore the ways in which adults and children respond to and through this medium. I will also explore the intersection of the adult-child world, and the tension it causes, commenting on how childhood is an imaginary idea, a sliding signifier that has to slip away, to exist.

Virginia Blum, in Hide and Seek: The Child Between Psychoanalysis and Fiction, remarks, “Psychoanalysis is the story of the adult’s relationship with an internalized, repudiated, but nevertheless ceaselessly desired child – not the actual child the adult has been, but rather the ‘dead’ child mourned by a present-tense self”. She talks about the ‘child’ not as a person, but an idea. The ‘child’ in the adult becomes that which has to die, for the adult to live. The “present- tense” self is what rejects this child in the adult, while yearning for it; to yearn for it. Often this inner child is associated with the Freudian Id.

“Childhood is not an object, any more than the unconscious [is]…The idea that childhood is something separate that can be scrutinised and assessed is the other side of the illusion which makes of childhood something which we have simply ceased to be” says Jacqueline Rose in The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. Childhood, then, becomes a way of leaving all the irrational, untamed (even dark) desires behind, in order to become mature, sensible beings. That childhood is associated with innocence, but might actually be a hidden place for desires is a thought to hold on to.

A Freudian understanding of the unconscious would tell us that we repress the untamed desires in our childhood, but they find various ways to come back, whether consciously or not. David Rudd, in Reading the Child in Children’s Literature, writes, “…childhood is not only the source of all our later neuroses, but also the place which, once revisited, might be cleansed and renewed”. He suggests that childhood is a process—of going back, erasing, writing and re-writing.

It is interesting to think about childhood as that which can constantly be written and re-written. Children’s literature seems to be a medium which allows for this re-writing quite literally. It does so in two ways: First, in the case of adults who summon the ‘child’ in them in order to write for children and second, adults who read for the ‘child’—in them, or in their life.

What do I mean by summoning one’s child in order to write for children? If we were to go with Freud’s understanding of repressed desires, an adult writing for a child will have to try and access this repressed space in themselves. In thinking like a child, or on behalf of a child, the adult has to lose control over the “rational self”, ultimately drawing back to that space which was supposed to be rejected, left behind, forgotten. The adult is now in a confused space of adulthood, with threatening remnants from childhood.

The writer of children’s literature integrates all of these thoughts, consciously or otherwise. The result is a seemingly fantastical (even silly, to some) work, with shouting undertones of “adult matter”: paedophilia, violence, misogyny, xenophobia, to name a few. Lewis Carroll’s Alice and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, were both based on real children from their life. They were both accused of having objectionable sexual feelings towards the children. In a poem dedicated to (the real) Alice, Carroll writes: “Still she haunts me, phantomwise”. He points to the lingering (almost ghostly) presence this child has in his life. The use of the word “haunt” is interesting too; it goes back to the psychoanalytic idea of the repressed never going away completely.

Reading children’s literature, too, is a layered process. The target audience is of course children, who internalize these stories without really knowing what they might mean. They become passive receivers, taking in the thoughts of adult writers as the voice of authority. It becomes problematic only when they grow up having internalized ideas that were imposed upon them while they were younger.

I am interested more in the layered readings rather than the passive ones that children are targeted to. By that, I mean adults re-reading children’s literature as active receivers (involved in meaning making). This kind of reading reveals the hidden undertones to the reader now. The rabbit hole that Alice falls into, is no more just a hole, but her entry into adulthood; the wonderland now becomes an unlocked world of desires; Peter is more than just innocent child; he is a sexual being: violent, psychopathic. The same tales tell different stories now.

In Negro and the Psychopathology, Franz Fanon says, “In every society, in every collectivity, exists – must exist – a channel, an outlet through which the forces accumulated in the form of aggression can be released” (p. 464). It is not hard to see the parallels in the way literature works. Through these stories, writers and readers do more than just producing and consuming works of fiction. Literature becomes a way of understanding psyches—individual as well as collective.

Fanon goes on to say, “This is the purpose of games in children’s institutions, of psychodramas in group therapy, and, in a more general way, of illustrated magazines for children -each type of society, of course, requiring its own specific kind of catharsis. The Tarzan stories, the sagas of twelve-year- old explorers, the adventures of Mickey Mouse, and all those “comic books” serve actually as a release for collective aggression” (p.464). He talks particularly about a Negro growing up reading white literature and relating to it. The black child, while reading Western writings, thinks of himself as the white hero, forgetting that he is actually the black savage in the story. This realization comes to him only after he sees how the real world functions. In a way, what he reads as a child, only hits him when he grows up and revisits his childhood.

At this point, we see the lines between the producer (adult) and the consumer (child) of children’s literature blurring. We started off by saying that children’s literature is written by adults, for children, but we can see from above, how that would be a simplistic argument. For Jacqueline Rose, “Children’s fiction is impossible, not in the sense that it cannot be written (that would be nonsense), but in that it hangs on an impossibility, one which it rarely ventures to speak. This is the impossible relation between adult and child […] Children’s fiction sets up a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver), but where neither of them enter the space in between.” Rose’s argument, however, assumes the adult and child as two different entities, never colliding. But the impossibility that she speaks of, arises from the very fact that both the adult and the child (in the adult) try to enter “the space in between” all the time, constantly failing.

The impossibility is that the adult (author, maker, giver) and child (reader, product, receiver) can never be independent of each other. The author and reader have to come together to produce meaning; the maker and the product cannot exist without the other; the giver and the receiver are in fact both giving and receiving; the adult and the child, both are being one while wanting to separate from the other.

Children’s literature becomes this interesting moment of stutter which gets the adults (as writers or readers) to confront the ‘child’ in them which they had repressed. The ‘child’ comes to signify all those moments which the adult cannot make sense of—the irrational wants, socially inacceptable desires, and all the hidden mess of thoughts which don’t fit in with the personality the adult consciously constructs. Just as the process of writing literature, the idea of childhood too, is re-written, re-read and re-visited. Every peek into the psychological world of childhood adds something, takes away something, and changes things around. The adult sees childhood as a closed chapter, done and dusted. But what it really remains to be, is blank pages one after the other, constantly being written, erased and re-written.

 

Works Cited

Blum, Virginia L. Hide and Seek: The Child between Psychoanalysis and Fiction.          Urbana: U of Illinois, 1995. Print.

Carroll, Lewis, John Tenniel, and Alexander Woollcott. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-glass and the Hunting of the Snark. New York: Modern Library, n.d. Print.

Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, Or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984. Print.

Rudd, David. Reading the Child in Children’s Literature: An Heretical Approach. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.