Arrivals and Departures

I wrote the following piece about moving to Abu Dhabi – specifically, the  very first day of being here.  It was for a class called Questioning and Writing the Self: Memoir and Anti-Memoir.

I remember a journey I once took.
Well, actually, it was just two weeks ago. Somehow, all ‘intense’ life experiences only seem to happen in the random moments. You’ll come home from school one day and realize that your mother has wrinkles. She has wrinkles and the sun is setting and you are getting older but she is getting old and we are all ageing all the time. The kind of ageing that Olay face cream can’t fix (but what can face cream fix anyway?) Or you’ll be making toast at 4pm on some blind Tuesday, and that’s it – you’re in love. You discover, first-hand, that all the love songs and poems had to have come from somewhere and maybe it’s this feeling of half-soaring, half-falling inside your chest that won’t go away. Even when you’re making goddamn toast on a goddamn Tuesday.

It’s still a Tuesday at home when the plane lands in the blue fog of Abu Dhabi. Half -soaring, half-falling. The lights and buildings are seemingly sparser than in Dubai, which is where everyone lands on their way to somewhere else. People back home always thought and probably still think I am coming to Dubai. It’s all they know of this region – Dubai, the lone, glittery pearl in a swath of sand. Flash. Glitter. Bang.
I don’t bother telling them that they’re wrong. “It’s Abu Dhabi, not Dubai,” I say a dozen times. Like hitting the edge of the bullseye, but not quite. Not quite.

I walk down the aisle of the plane. Cabin trolleys, sticky hands, little children, neck pillows. How ordinary, how mundane. I have made the most radical change in my life and all I can think about is the shade of purple on a neck pillow.

I’m sure I’m going to write about this, maybe not tonight but sometime. It’s my great adventure, my new beginning; I keep murmuring ‘this is it’. Cloying, clichéd words on starting over, on clean slates and finding success. I expect the rest of me to follow suit, to fill out these words with colour and feeling, to intensify this blank newness into vivid novelty. But I feel nothing. Half-soaring, half-falling. It’s as if my heart decided not to come along with me; it closed its eyes and, when I wasn’t looking, crawled into my old bedcovers in Botswana, refusing to uproot itself.

I walk out of the plane, someone’s purple neck pillow in the corner of my eye. I have uprooted myself.

***

The first thing I feel is a wall of heat. It is so oppressive, so forbidding, so totally and completely hot and alien, that for a flash-second, I think of running back into the plane and cowering amongst the economy seats. The air hostess behind me is all red lipstick and white teeth and clean, bright future. My glasses fog up and I cannot see. I have a strange urge to laugh and cry all at once. Opaque vision now. I’m walking into my future, my new life, blind blind blind.

Waiting for me are bedsheets so invitingly white, they put the clinically pretty window-view to shame. I sit down in my new bedroom, my luggage at my feet like a bomb crater, the bookshelves gasping for something, anything, but emptiness. This is it. Yes, I have made it. This is the dream. There is no music, no fanfare, but only the hum of the air-conditioning. ‘This is it’, it says to me.

On the way to campus, my mother had spoken in Hindi to the taxi driver. She had asked him if he’s happy here and I know she did not ask for him but for me. It suddenly strikes me that I will have to learn how to miss my mother. Any day, I would rather take calculus.

Instead, I think about my friends. Their letters are as white as my pillowcase. Hasty farewells, hasty ink.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.”

There is a tumbleweed in my throat, gathering hurt by the second. It tumbles and I crumple. I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again. How lonely this is. I didn’t think it would be this lonely. Final hugs in the departure lounge. Seeing my father cry for only the second time in my life. Carrying luggage that is too heavy because I packed too many novels and too many clothes and now I think I packed too much of my memory too.

Half-soaring, half-falling. This is it.

 

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On Grandiosity, Depression & the Ivy League

I knew exactly what it took to get into college – it was to press a newly-bloomed flower between the pages of a notebook. To fade the colours into bland theses you made up for Cambridge. To align the sweeping petals with the compact paragraphs of a 650-word personal statement.
I knew exactly what it took.

I grew up on a diet of A*s, certificates and report cards more flowery than my teenage prose. The hushed envy I attracted sated me, as did the silent applause I always seemed to hear. It was a drug. And like all drugs, it left me in shreds, wondering when I had sold my ‘self’ to a comprehensive SAT guide.

After I read William Deresiewicz’s essay Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League, I felt a kind of slow-sinking sadness. His arguments on the ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset of elite students made my mind shake. And I found myself grieving for the girl I have been through my high school years – fed on plastic pills of false success and perfection.

I was the definition of an ‘excellent sheep’. My academic record was a smooth sheet of silk, free from the snags of failure or risk. I read large books and used large words but did not understand their beauty or power. I practised flute and piano to earn cream-coloured certificates; you couldn’t have heard a more soulless Beethoven. In fact, every art form I indulged in, from ballet to music to literature, was simply an act of exploitation, milking my talents for hollow prestige. Eventually, I reached a point where all the art I made was technically flawless, but lacked the gossamer warmth of spirit. Each pirouette, each trill, each pretty metaphor, was just a plea – a silent bid for self-worth, collected from the claps and compliments of everyone but the one who mattered most: me.

It’s dangerous for self-esteem to hinge on the top position. Top of the class, top of the list, top of the school. In his essay, Deresiewicz mentions how this aggressive ‘grandiosity’ can impact a student’s mental health. The panic of meeting a deadline means stress. But that stress becomes toxic when it’s having to meet a deadline with a perfect product. Eventually, you feel like a soldier facing an endless barrage of assignments, each needing to be executed with the precision of a surgeon. There is no time to daydream or delight. There is no time to enjoy just breathing for a moment. The pressure of moulding yourself into an admission-ready template grows more rigid and relentless with your rising ambition. And stress morphs into a silent, colder kind of monster – depression.

They say knowledge is power, and education is the way to attain it. But it seems that education itself has turned into a frenzied race for only power, not knowledge. A significant point that Deresiewicz makes is the crazed desire for an Ivy League education. For many students, it’s ‘Harvard or the gutter’. Because being an ‘exceptional’ student comes with the invisible yoke of moon-high expectations – get perfect grades, flourish in your extracurriculars and attend the likes of Ivy Leagues or Oxbridge. A neat line of arrows pointing to imminent prosperity. The problem is that most students will scramble to an Ivy just to gain a status symbol, a flashy brand name to drop casually in conversations – “Yes, I go to Harvard“.  I see very few students really thinking about how Harvard, or whatever college they apply to, will stretch their perspectives and awaken thoughts, ideas and innovations they never knew they could have. How will their place of study challenge and nurture the kind of creativity and projects they are specifically interested in?

It seems that picking a university has turned into a kind of classism. When I told people I would be attending New York University Abu Dhabi, many thought I was being ‘brave’ and ‘unconventional’. But I didn’t understand it. The fact that I had not selected a university based on its name, but on how its values and atmosphere would catalyse my aspirations, was somehow deemed ‘weird’. When did it become radical to choose a university that caters specifically to you rather than society’s applause?

In the rat race our educational systems have become, students are addicted to the destination of their studies, rather than the journey. So many of us feel adrift on a wave of textbooks and graphs, unsure where on the page our heart even flutters. Is it in a maths equation? Is it in the caesura of a poem? In the quest for gold stars, people forget to ponder and wonder. So they settle for safe, salary-guaranteed career paths because they’ve had no time or space to explore who they are and what hobbies and pursuits kindle their hearts.

Ever since I began to write poetry, I have started seeing people as moving, breathing verses. They teem with unspoken meanings, a multitude of desires, burdens and feelings flowing beneath their skin. We are all poems, and life is a journey in which we learn and try to understand the stanzas of our ‘selves’.

But I have no idea what kind of poem I am yet. It was never on my syllabus.