For the last few years, I have been toying with this idea of impermanence. The idea of death and loss, and then, the acceptance of this impermanence of life. I’ve always had a strange affinity for danger. As with all stories of death and its derivatives. It started small: dipping my fingers into candle wax, taking my seatbelt off a few minutes early to feel the last three bumps as the car comes to a full stop. The danger was in the small things, the things I could get away with. Balancing on a crack along an endless sidewalk like a hovering, with two arms stretched wide, on the thin pavements carved in between roads, island gardens, as if it were a tightrope, and I, a performer. Otherwise, the danger was in walking on, sometimes in the bike lane, and feeling the cars rush by, death ruffling its clothes against my skin. In keeping my eyes open during roller coaster rides. Or in making eye contact with someone, and allowing myself to be seen. Because sometimes, the simple act of looking back, unflinching, insecurities and all bumbling in the background— that’s danger.
That danger was empowering, and I embraced it. It was a way for me to take control of my life: of where I walked, who I spent my time with, and what I did with my time and my body. It seemed dangerous, then, for an immigrant girl, an indian-american, to walk smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk, in the middle of things. Girls, especially girls from the east, were known to be shy and quiet, supposed to be submissive. And so, it was a power statement—a loudness— to walk on, unafraid. One that I had learned from a young african american gentleman or a book he must have written, an autobiography, to walk fiercely on, in one straight path. Don’t react to where others are, he said. Don’t step to the side for somebody else to pass. These words mattered to me somehow. I was a quiet girl except for these moments. And so, I held on to these dangers.
I did not then have the luxury of opinions. I did not think I had the right to voice my opinions, political or otherwise. I was not African American. I was not Muslim. I was not Jewish. All of whose people shared in a collective struggle against racism. Indians, on the other hand, had a fairly brief history and were only talked about offhandedly, in discussion of curry or poor hygiene or funny accents. I always had to distinguish myself from this stereotype, felt compelled to tell people but I don’t eat curry. I’m different. I was in a state of constant self-doubt of how I smelled and looked and acted in front of others, always conscious of how I was being perceived. Why is he at such distance? Does my breath stink? Or is it just something in the brown of my skin that seems to push away everyone? I wanted to tell them that brown isn’t contagious. It isn’t something you can catch, like a cold. I imagine that’s how people with Aids felt, too, back when our understanding of the disease was minimal and people were afraid to touch and homosexuality was not yet established as anything other than taboo. I, too, was oppressed. Like the Jews. Like the Blacks. Like the Muslims. Like the homosexuals. Like anyone, like everyone, I just wanted to feel human, complete. But back then, I was still other, less than. A woman.
I do not know why I was so ashamed of being Indian— an Indian woman. Of course, then, I hadn’t thought of my rejection of Indian culture as shame— just a push against those first impressions. I didn’t want people to look at me with the smug satisfaction in their eyes like they know me because they had an indian girl in their first grade class and she was a bitch. In fact, the first thing I told everyone I met was that I was born in Russia, a small lie, but that was enough to bring people to take a second look, enough to push people to think about me one step further than that indian girl with extremely long hair. Another indian girl with really, really long hair. How long did it take you grow your hair out? Can I touch it? Why do you always oil and braid your hair? Is this part of your religion? I especially hated that question. It was as though all of my decisions, my intentional carefully-thought-out decisions— to be vegetarian, to grow my hair out, to hold onto culture and tradition and eastern values— were not decisions at all, but something I did just because I was raised that way and knew no other way of life. I don’t think people realized that my parents were not oppressive and old-fashioned and sure, they set rules for me to keep me focused on my studies and to keep me safe, but I had choices— for my career and for my life. And perhaps that is how I finally grew outspoken. Telling these small lies to passer-by’s that could never be fact checked, never bringing someone close into my life, close enough to see past my lies. These dangers mattered so much to me, these tiny pushes towards something more. Not just another Indian girl.
And then one day, I found myself preparing to jump off a fifty foot cliff and thinking, this is it. Goodbye. And I really thought I was not going to make it out alive even as I saw the kids climb out one by one with an injured arm or a sore back from the shallow water underneath. I really believed it, that I was going to die right then. And I was okay with it. You can never feel as alive as in the moments you risk losing everything. What was I thinking?
One day speaking in front of a classroom, teaching. Then, sometime later, and more recently, writing to a man in prison through a nondescript and poorly funded website, writeaprisoner.com. It was a fascinating place for me. There were pages upon pages of prisoners listed, of profiles to scroll through, men and women of all ages and races, all looking to find a soulmate, an intimate partner. I had no intention of going through with any such intimate interactions as I knew how many such interactions could result. Still, I wanted to challenge my comfort zones, to amp up the danger. For me, it was simply an attempt to complicate my perception of criminals. To allow someone outside of my normal means of communication an intimacy that I grant persons I meet or come across out on the streets or in my setting, and to acknowledge their existence and their humanity. Why I chose a murderer to connect with and reach out to, I still don’t exactly comprehend. Was it to amp up the danger? Or because I felt murder was an indisputable moral offense whereas shoplifting and petty thefts as more morally ambiguous and therefore easier to empathize. I wanted to feel an empathy for the worst of the worst. I was testing out what it meant to love and what love meant to me. I was thinking about the ambiguity of love, of loving through circumstance, above circumstance. Unconditional love.
I understood, as I continue to do so, that I lived a privileged life, free of many human struggles and I wanted to understand a person’s motives for committing such a crime, something so easily viewed as bad or wrong. But especially, I wanted to see them as more than just a criminal. Just as I wanted people to see me as more than just an indian girl, a stereotype. It was my attempt to humanize someone, a man, who others might look down upon or not want to sympathize/empathize with. That was my goal. It was why I wrote. It was the why to many things: the need to create complexity, a push against preliminary judgements. And after that, it was an attempt to justify my intense love for the world, to explain why was it so easy for me to take this risky step of reaching out, of why I was so generous with my love.
But even while setting in stone all these tiny rebellions, I was afraid. I was afraid of nearly everything I ventured out to do— even afraid of being so alive because I wasn’t ready for it all to one day come to an end. To receive the short end of a great adventure. I thought what would happen fifty years from now? How would I feel anything if I felt everything now? I thought of feeling as something that diminished over time. And to an extent, I was correct. Nothing quite compared to my first feeling of love or waiting by the sidelines for my first martial arts fight or my first experience swimming (drowning, really). And I reluctantly grew apathetic to certain conditions: sights of homeless people with tents set up for the rainy days, ambulances and wrecked cars huddled along the sides of freeways. I was afraid to feel and I was afraid of losing feeling. At some point, I, in my naivety had thought, that if I planned it all right, I would just hit a giant wall one day and lose all these emotions. It was mostly just love which pained me the greatest. I did not ever dislike a person so greatly or feel a relationship so strained or burdened as to resort to a hate. If I ever did hate, it was always underlined by a souring love.
As for love, I was never cautious with it. I thought the more love I gave out early on in my life, the faster I would be able to run out of it. Just stop feeling it entirely. If only that were true. How after crying at my grandfather’s funeral, afterwards I would have found great peace in not being able to feel any more, in the loss of emotions. But instead I felt shame for the briefness of my pain, of his absence, which I felt little of because of our brief exchanges. The grief was short-lived that day, but later on, I found that even when I thought I could not possibly feel more deeply or when I could not be more passionate, my body would surprise me. We continued to feel his loss days after, years after his burial. I found these feelings to be a privilege as well as a great burden. Still, had I been given the chance, I would continue to seek feeling, this aching pain that continues to remind me that I am alive and of those who are no longer.