(without) The Mask

“Are boys or girls better?” asked my friend very casually one day. Being raised by parents who believed much more in gender equality compared to peers, I was taken aback at this strange question. Although it wasn’t the first time I was met with that exact same query, it had certainly been a while.

“Um, what do you mean, better? There’s no difference. They’re equal”, I said, a bit too meekly than I would have liked.

“No. Gold and girlfriends cause much of the trouble in the world”, he stated, with an air of a man finally coming to his birthright.

“Ah, but then, who makes the trouble?” I said, winking at him.

He said nothing. I congratulated my quick wit and felt good because I was a nice person.

X—X—X

“We should wear clothes that we are comfortable in” she said. I didn’t like that she was being so assertive.

We were having a classroom debate on ‘Should there be a dress code in society?’ Obviously, girls were made to speak against it, and boys, for. According to our education system, no other type of grouping exists, ideologically or otherwise.

“If you are comfortable in your underwear, will you wear that and come?” my friend said. All of us laughed. No one bothered to hear her reply; there was no way she could possibly have one. I felt good because she was defeated.

X—X—X

“Rape is when a man forces a woman to have sex with him against her will. Even if it is your wife” I told my friends. “What?” they were surprised. “Isn’t it our right as husbands?” they asked. “Of course not. We should respect our wives” I declared. They nodded. I felt good because I showed them the right path.

X—X—X

“Gimme my stuff back” she told him. “No” he replied, holding it out of her reach. “I.said.give.it.to.me.” she said, lunging at him with each word.

I turned to my friend, and asked him, “Why are they behaving like this? Don’t they have any shame?” He swallowed his food and shrugged, “Eh. I think they’re like brother and sister”

I looked back at them. They were laughing. I felt bad because I spoke against their happiness.

X—X—X

“She’s such a slut” my friend told me. “Why?” I asked, being accustomed by now both to the derogatory nature of the word and the culture of calling our classmates by it. “Her bra strap is visible” he replied. “C’mon, she probably doesn’t even know it” I said, amused. “I can feel it when my vest slips out from beneath my shirt. She knows that her strap is showing. She wants people to see it” he said, firmly. I fell silent, but felt a twinge of guilt about her not being aware of the crime she was committing. I didn’t want to embarrass her, so I told her friend to cover her up. She smiled at my sweetness, and assured me that she’ll take care of it. I felt good because I was a very nice person.

X—X—X

“Gimme my stuff back” she told him. “No” he replied, holding it out of her reach. “I.said.give.it.to.me.” she said, lunging at him with each word.

My friend turned to me and said, “Why doesn’t she feel any disgust in doing this? What is wrong with her? Is she even a girl?”

“They’re like brother and sister” I replied, smiling at how happy they were.

He didn’t smile. “But they’re not. And even if they were, they shouldn’t do this publicly. It’s not right” he said, shaking his head.

I said nothing. I felt bad because I said nothing.

X—X—X

“… and that is why a compartment reserved for women is a bad idea” I finished typing my comment and, with a triumphant smile, pressed Enter.

It took me a very long time to realise that I was sexist.

And you know what the sad part is?

I still am.

I try to be as socially aware as I can, subject to the time constraints inherent in pursuing an engineering degree from IIT. I try to fight tooth and nail to get society to treat women as people.

And I spent the night before my last semester exams desperately trying to tell my friends why our daughters should be “allowed” to go out at night.

No matter what I do, or how hard I do it, I am, at my fundamental core, sexist.

I don’t want to be sexist.

Therefore, I put on a mask.

And fight crime in society.

My consolation is that I’m Batman.

And Rachel Dawes told me, “it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you”.

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THE FATEFUL DAY

Him: Guys, we need to tell you something…

Her: It’s something you probably already know…

Him: We… (Holds her hand)

I exchange a puzzled glance with my other friends, but I have a suspicion that I know…

Her: … are in love.

I was dumb-struck, not due to shock or surprise, but because I had been right all along. I just didn’t know what to say. It’s not like the movies where you reply as soon as you hear something. My mind went blank. My brain stopped. My heart raced.

The signs were there, clear as day. The calls, the hangouts, the laughs, and the not-so-subtle watching movies together… now that I think of it, this has been around for more than I thought. The question is, how long more… wait, why am I thinking about that now? What is wrong with me? I should be happy for them.

Yeah, I am happy, and sad. I want to hug them both, and I want to stay away. I love them more, and less. Okay, what is happening to me?

The answer came quickly this time. What IF, in an extremely hypothetical scenario (which would never happen if I can help it), they have a… disagreement of some sort, and… you know… stop talking to each other? What if, due to that, they stop talking to me? I won’t be able to handle it.

“What the hell? Just how much of a pessimist are you?” roared my mind. “I’m narcissistic, I’m pessimistic, I’m obsessive, I’m insecure, and I am so afraid of intimacy that every one of my relationships is a journey of self-sabotage that inevitably ends in a black vacuum of shattered expectations and despair!”, I shot back, quoting J. D. from Scrubs. “This isn’t about you, GROW UP, for God’s sakes!” yelled my mind. Wow, I must be developing schizophrenia.

“TREAT!” shouted my other friends, jolting me out of my stupor, and we all started laughing. I looked around and realised that their state of mind was far from mine. All of them were happy, and I didn’t want that to go away. How selfish I was, wishing all this to go even remotely wrong, though unintentionally. They were in love, and more importantly, they were enjoying it. Why on earth should I want anything different?

Sometimes we create our own heartbreaks through expectations. I think I am afraid to be happy. Because whenever I get too happy, something bad always happens. “All the more reason to be happy until it does”, I mused. “That’s the spirit”, said my mind with pride.

Before we separated, I shook their hands and, with a hint of a smile, said, “Congratulations”.

Might be continued…

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THE FOUR LETTERED WORD

“Well, I’m done with relationships. From now on, I’m gonna be like you.”

“Why would you want to be like me?”

“Because you never fall in love with anybody, so you never get hurt.”

“OK, listen to me, being hurt sucks, but love is the most beautiful and noble of human conditions. It’s what gives a man hope; it’s what gives his life meaning. Don’t turn your back on love, Jake. I did, and I regret it every day.”

Charlie Harper, Two and a Half Men, S04E04

That was, as far as I know, The Best Dialogue from Chuck Lorre, the scriptwriter and director of the show. When I heard it for the first time, I paused, rewound, and played the dialogue again. It just seemed to be aimed directly at me. Because, once upon a time, before IIT Kharagpur, before The JEE, and much before The Coaching, I too had dismissed love.

It’s not exactly the most wonderful feeling in the world. Do you know how hard it is to say “I love you”? Be it to your parents, siblings, or your crush. It’s just too awkward. Long ago, in my immature mind, I associated this with the pain of loss. I figured out that it’s awkward because you are afraid of losing those whom you love. How could you handle it when they leave you? My young mind worked out a simple solution: don’t love.

Till date, I haven’t said those three words, at least not aloud. Well, it’s partly because I never initiated conversation with girls until I was in eleventh grade. I know, I know. I’m a loser nerd who is afraid of women. But don’t judge too quickly; you don’t know my back-story.

The place I spent my pre-adolescent years, was a school where you get mentally harassed by your friends for looking at girls, let alone talk to them. I had to be careful never to be seen with a girl, or that day was ruined for her. For this reason, I was always under the impression that they were somehow different. I had to handle them gently, or they may… I don’t know… break. Over the years, these experiences changed my perception of “the weaker sex”.

Eleventh grade changed it all for me.

I rediscovered old friends and met new ones, most of them girls. We hung out in the back benches, gossiped about anything ranging from the latest movie to teachers’ pronunciation to classmates’ love life, shared our food (sometimes involuntarily, though) and always had each other’s back when teachers caught us chatting during the class. Gradually, I realised that there were no them, it was all us. We were all the same, members of One Big Happy Family. I found love, and I enjoyed it.

Then The Coaching happened, for the second time in my innocent life.

Of course, not loving was no longer a choice now. You simply HAD to give up all emotional attachment, because you HAD to sacrifice yourself to The Joint Entrance Examination, because you HAD to “get into IIT”. No one knew why, but everyone knew how: I should be imprisoned for two years inside a reputed (read expensive) Coaching Centre without any distractions (read girlfriends, smartphones, and novels) surrounded by other students (read competitors). And so I did.

It was hard. Very hard. One of the hardest things I’ve done till now was to severe ties with those who were once near and dear to me. I kept contact only with a small, close group of friends. I stopped visiting my relatives. I shut myself in a room and isolated myself from the rest of my family.

“Centuries ago, people who sacrificed their sleep, food, laughter and other joys of life were called Saints. Now they are called Engineers.”

At last, I did it. I cleared The JEE and was admitted to IIT Kharagpur. But the damage was done. My brain could only process certain keywords and numbers, and new faces were associated with their All India Ranks in my memory. I was once again reduced to a machine that reads data, compiles it and writes it on an answer sheet. In fact, I was getting used to it. I was prepared to live a life devoid of love, if that meant I didn’t have to go through that hurt any more.

“Really? You might wanna reconsider that”, said my mind, and I realised I was sitting in my lecture hall, staring at the most beautiful face my brain could comprehend in its current state.

And suddenly, Charlie Harper’s words made a lot more sense.

To be continued…

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THE BEGINNING

Oh, damn. That was the first thought that crossed my mind as I woke up at 7:06 am on 28th July 2015. It was the second day after my classes started at IIT Kharagpur, and unfortunately, was also a Tuesday, which meant that there was a Maths class in about twenty-four minutes. As I jumped out of bed and got ready to have breakfast (which, sadly, was again toasted bread, butter and jam), my mind began its journey across the dimensions of space-time. This has happened before, and in fact, is one of the reasons I’m here. I mean, it is because of my mind’s strange habit of thinking many things simultaneously that I cleared JEE and was able to study at this great institution. Look, my mind is not focused even now.

Anyway, back to my story. Or, back to the year of 2009. I had gone to my uncle’s (since it is a patriarchal society we live in, “aunt’s” doesn’t sound good) house for the summer vacations after sixth grade. They were moving, so the house was in a state of turmoil. As I was walking through the rooms, I discovered an old book lying among a heap of junk. Despite its age, it looked readable, so I picked it up. It contained some math questions meant for seventh grade competitive exams. I asked my uncle if I can take it home, and he just nodded without even giving it a glance.

I began solving it, sometimes when I got bored, or when I felt too confident. Nothing seemed to work in the beginning and I used to get frustrated with myself. But I kept on pushing, because, frankly, I felt that I’m too clever to be stopped by some math questions. By the end of seventh grade, though, much of the book was still unsolved, and I had lost hope. I put it away.

Next year saw me facing another challenge: the National Talent Search Examination. My mother had come to know about it, and started telling me how this is the single most important exam in my life. Initially, I was thrilled too, because being an NTS scholar meant I would be awarded with a scholarship, and it felt good to think that I was earning too.

Then the Coaching happened.

I was desperate to stop it all, and go back to living a normal life. But soon, I realised that the life I considered ‘normal’ will no longer be mine. My friends, my family, everyone I love; I would have to sacrifice them all, for some ‘greater good’ (strangely, nobody knew what that was).

I cleared the first level of NTSE, but missed the cut-off for the second level by four marks. I was both devastated and relieved at the same time. I think this was the experience that led to a series of clicks in my brain which culminated in the strange feeling of numbness which fills my heart after every achievement or failure I encountered since then.

But, now, I could study whatever I wanted to, as long as I wanted. There were practically no limit to my ‘level’; I could study tenth grade portion just as easily as eighth grade, twelfth grade seemed similar to eleventh grade…

“Good morning, everybody…” I was snapped back to reality by these words, and I realised that I was sitting in my lecture hall. “Thank you, mind, for that awesome journey into the past. Now, if you will excuse me, I have some work to do”, said I to myself (first sign of madness? Pfft. That ship has sailed) as I began fumbling with my notebook.

To be continued…

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