On being mentored

Sometime in my last semester of college, I found myself crying on my therapist’s couch.

Okay, this is vague – I spent a lot of my last semester of college crying on my therapist’s couch. In retrospect, I was genuinely in the throes of an existential crisis, but a major perk of being incredibly high-functioning is that I’m able to compartmentalize my anxiety away to do what needs to be done. As a result, when I wasn’t spending whole cursing out my capstone, I seemed as put-together as anyone on the cusp of graduating could be expected to, uh, be. But make no mistake: every single therapy session I had that semester, I spent crying into my therapist’s succulent that I was cradling to myself.

During one such succulent-cradling occasion, I cried to my therapist about how, despite the fact that I felt like I was a mentor to so many people, I didn’t have a mentor myself. How at that moment, with the dizzying array of possibilities ahead of me, the one thing I wanted above all else was a mentor. I felt petulant. Had I not been lucky enough with the support of my peers and professors? Why did I need a dedicated mentor?

I still don’t know why it hit me so hard then. My guess is I was self-flagellating at all the things I hadn’t done during my five years at Northeastern. Like so many students, I was terrified of going to office hours. I didn’t want to bother professors. I felt like all I would do was make a fool of myself. It was enough to be a presence in class and know that, at least, the professor knew my name (maybe) – but to go out of my way to bother them? I didn’t want to hoist myself as a burden onto anyone.

But since my third year, whenever I was at a panel or in a position of advising undergrads, I always said (and still say) that the one thing you should do as soon as you come across a professor you’re interested in is to go and see them. I was exposing myself in saying that. I was extolling the virtues of having a mentor and revealing the secret to finding a mentor after years of having missed out on the same experience myself. The best pieces of advice I give all come from my own mistakes and misfortunes. But when I’m not advising people, those mistakes and misfortunes sit deep in my belly like a rot. In therapy, the rot translates to crying into a succulent while running my fingers over its fleshy leaves.

(Have I painted a vivid enough picture of my lowest moments for you yet? Should I mention the amount of used tissues scattered at my feet? I’m baring my soul to deliver this quality content!)

What I was really getting at was that I didn’t know how to reconcile the mistakes I had made in college with my then-uncertainty. There was so much I could have done: I could have offered to do research for faculty, I could have tried to get things published in earnest, I could have joined more clubs, I could have spearheaded more initiatives, I could have made a better show of things during my co-ops. I could have, and – by my logic – all of these mistakes could have been rectified had I just had a mentor to guide me. It would have been that simple.

It wouldn’t have been that simple, but I needed to think in black-and-white at the time. As always, it was about accountability: by blaming myself, by pinpointing a singular cause for my condition, the uncertainty became slightly more surmountable.

Now that I’m sufficiently divorced from that situation, I can say, with relish, that I was being dumb and reductionist. (ASIDE – that’s one of my favorite words: reductionist. What a good word. And what a great insult, even at one’s own expense, both academically and in real life). Of course it’s nice having a dedicated mentor, but in doggedly pining after a mentor, I had my shutters closed against what I’m so immensely privileged to have: a whole constellation of support, comprised of friends, family, and professors.

It’s been a year since, and I’ve recently come into some good news. A large, decidedly South Asian part of me always wants to hold good news close to my chest. I’ve been burnt by nazar before, and there are just certain things I don’t want to ruin for myself by casting the news far and wide. I’m not ready to share that news on this platform just yet (soon, hopefully!), but as soon as I got this particular piece of news, I set about telling the people closest to me. My family, of course, my dearest friends – but beyond that, I realized, I had professors whom I desperately wanted to tell about this news. Right after firing off an email to a fifth professor, I realized – full of warmth, and – that I had been doing my betters a disservice. I’m not going to pull up the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of mentor (though, uh, here) but I had talked myself into such a specific definition of mentorship, that I had forgotten just how many people have been in my corner since I first got to Northeastern in 2013.

If I’m being honest, I don’t even know what my definition of mentorship entailed. All I knew was that I didn’t have one of those. On the contrary, I have several mentors, many of whom probably had no inkling I looked up to and wanted to emulate them, among both professors and peers. It’s natural for us, as humans, to feel like we are alone in our moments of pathos. The existential crisis is not a particularly social experience. Tunnel vision does not afford the opportunity to glance around and see the many others who are trudging along beside you, and, more importantly, those that are cheering you on from the other side of the tunnel. But joy is exultation, and in exulting, we open ourselves up to a shared experience. In the course of my exultation, I allowed myself to follow my intuition, and I realized I already had people in my heart to whom I wanted to parse some of my joy for the sheer reason that they helped me get to my joy.

If there is a definition of a mentor more appropriate than simply “someone who guides you towards finding joy; someone with whom you can mutually exult,” then I don’t want to know it.

Revisiting rejections

Many, many years ago, when I was far more active on this blog than I am today, I used to write music reviews, book reviews, day-to-day updates, anything that I wanted to just get down and out there. A part of me misses the lack of self-consciousness with which I treated my own writing. The other part of me knows that at least the stuff I put out has a some sort of quality control restraining it, so it’s not worth belaboring the point.

That said, I find myself in a moment where I can’t help but think about a fairly common type of blog-post I used to put out: the college acceptance tracker. I applied to undergraduate programs twice. The first time, during Year 12, when I was only 16 and rearing to go out into the world. I was confident that I was ready, but even with the rejections I received, I was convinced against going to college on the grounds that I had a lot more to show for myself than my 16 years would allow me to. Begrudgingly, through tears, I agreed to see out the entirety of my A Levels. It was the best decision I had ever made up until that point in my life. It’s amazing what an extra year can do for you – and how much more fun college is when you’re actually 18 at the time of starting.

But I digress. Back then, while waiting to hear back from colleges, I would put out blog-posts reporting whether I had been accepted or rejected. I would describe how I felt about the application decision. I tend to be embarrassed about nigh-on everything I did when I was a teenager, but I look back at those memories with some fondness. I was so excited for the next big chapter of my life that I was desperate to share my journey with everyone, even if no-one read my updates.

This isn’t to say I’m going to start doing that with my grad school applications. I played out the cuteness of that experience back when I was a teenager. It isn’t quite as endearing when you’re a 24-year-old adult woman with a job and loans. But I can’t help but note some of the parallels. Whether consciously or not, I ended up applying to 9 programs. And whether I’d like to admit it aloud or not, there are certain schools I’m applying to out of a sense of obligation, not necessarily because I see a future there. Even though I submitted all my applications a few weeks ago, I can’t help but regret some of the choices I made. At the very least, this time I’m not investing my whole self in one school, but even having a “top choice” is terrifying to me. I’m ready to have my heart broken, if only to realize the best place for me is somewhere else – but I’m not ready to have my heart broken several different ways, only to realize that there is no best place for me right now.

I’m not the ideal candidate on paper. My GRE quantitative score leaves about 25 points to be desired. I don’t have a masters degree already. But there is so much I want to do, and only so many years to do those things in.

In 2005, the Kashmir Earthquake hit some parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir and India. I was in my home in Lahore, lounging on the couch and watching cartoons when the couch began to shuffle forwards. The french windows of our TV room rattled, and I immediately knew: zalzala. I rallied my mother (I feel like I’ve always played the role of the rallier in my family), who bade me go outside. I stood in our porch nervously, watching my grandfather’s jeep sway as the quake continued.

Reports of the destruction, lives lost, witness testimonials equating the earthquake to endtimes poured in. Lahore was spared the worst of it, but there was devastation in northern Pakistan. I was nervous all day. I once fled to the garden, wearing only a bath robe, because I felt an aftershock. I was only 10, and this was my first true brush with a natural disaster. My uncle and aunt, who were visiting when the earthquake happened, pulled me aside. They had understood the crux of my fear: I was confronting mortality. For better or for worse – and now that I’m 24, I have to say, maybe they were a bit premature on this – they explained to me that death comes to all of us. Some people sooner, some people later. The best thing to do is embrace mortality and hope we are ready for our death when it comes, however it comes.

As a good little Muslim girl, I tried to take that lesson to heart. I succeeded. Since then, I have been cavalier about death – at least, my own death. I harbored fantasies of being killed for my political stances. My lot in life was to live spectacularly and die spectacularly. In retrospect, I’m shocked at how well I took to that. It’s only now that I’m an adult that I realize the dangers of living that way, and the problem with learning that lesson so early in your life.

Here’s the biggest problem with that: I still feel the need to live faster, succeed harder, work longer, plan farther. Life isn’t long enough, so the sooner I live spectacularly, the better; that when death, comes I’m ready for it.

Didn’t expect this to be about dying, did you? Neither did I.

So now when I see the first two decisions regarding my PhD applications turn out to be rejections, I am confronted with the fleeting nature of my life. Even though I know that a year can be as long or short as you make it, even though there’s a chance my generation will be the longest-lived generation thus far. But there’s far too many people for whom that will not be the case, who will die young or unduly because of messes I’m still not ready to fix, or in a position to help avoid.

It’s never been about my dying – it’s been about others’ deaths or ill-living folk while I am still trying to get somewhere. I feel gripped by an urgency of purpose that I didn’t feel as intensely when I was 16 or 17. I’m trying to remember that the road to success is paved with rejection, and also that success is so entirely relative that I shouldn’t measure myself by constructed metrics. I’m also trying to remember that haste is a great way to corrupt oneself. And, sometimes, when I’m being thoughtful, I try to remember what my boss once told me: you can believe you were put on earth to serve, as long as you also remember that you were put on earth to eat pizza and hang out with your friends.

But every rejection makes me feel like I’m not actually ready. And that means I need more time to get ready. If climate change does come for my throat before I am ready, what will I have to show for it?

This is all a dramatic response to 2/9 rejections thus far, but I’ll let the quality control falter momentarily. If there is a lesson or moral here, and I always try to find one, I guess it’s this:

Maybe don’t turn a natural disaster into a moment to condition a 10-year old into accepting mortality?

Short Note: Isolation Abroad

This tree is a metaphor or something, I don't know.

I have always been hyper-aware of my ambition, to the point that I am constantly appraising myself vis a vis others’ accomplishments. I wish I could say with confidence that it is benign appreciation, and a desire to better myself. I’ve recently started accepting it for what COULD be: envy, a truly exhausting emotion to boot. What worries me now is not knowing whether my ambition comes from a place of sincerity or whether it is spurred purely by envy, a desire to be better-than-x. I am perfectly willing to admit that this could be me jumping to conclusions and selling myself short, but trying to be mindful of how I react to others’ success is a good practice regardless.

That is just the backdrop for what I really want to talk about: isolation. My ambition, whatever it may stem from, has led me to try to pursue original research during my intern ship in the Netherlands. I knew going in that I was overextending myself, but I was ready and willing to put in the work. But putting in the work requires sacrifice, and it’s one thing to overextend yourself in a familiar setting, with familiar comforts, but in a new country? I feel like I’m coming undone. I’ve been here almost two months – wild! – and I’m worried that I’m losing the nascent relationships I had established with people I have met thus far. I have to apologize for my absence at social events. I have to renege on promises I’ve made because a deadline is coming up and there is more work to be done than I expected. I can’t make plans even weeks in advance because – given the nature of my research – I don’t even know if I’ll be in the country then. I don’t fault the people around me for making plans without me. I totally get it. But the feeling of isolation it spurs has me asking whether my plans and ambitions are worth it.

That might be an overreaction; of course it’s worth it, conducting original research is a personal goal I’ve wanted to accomplish since I started college, and my research is on a topic I think is immensely important, that I care about deeply. I have somehow acquired funding for it, so it’s not even a question of if anymore. I literally have to see it through. But the prospect of staring down three more months like this, filled with half-commitments and apologies, is daunting nonetheless. I hope I can strike a balance between abating this isolation and still getting my work done. If not, I hope I have the emotional fortitude to be able to weather it.

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.

On discipline, or how I’m learning to stop self-flagellating

Processed with VSCO

I started bullet journaling over winter break. It has been one of the better decisions I have made in the past few years, and I’ve seen the direct results of embarking on this organizational journey in my day-to-day life. I’m less anxious, more organized, I remember both short-term and long-term goals; the act of putting together my bullet journal spreads is something that soothes me immensely. I use my bullet journal to track my habits (badly), my spending (mostly retroactively), the books I read (which is awesome!), my research ideas (also incredibly useful) and to chart my goals for the coming year and how far I’ve gotten in attaining them. Part and parcel of this was deciding what I wanted the defining theme of this year to be – not a resolution (I would most definitely break that out of sheer defiance) but a broad theme under which I would operate myself.

I chose discipline and creation. Creation because that has always been a part of who I am, and discipline because I need it in order to keep at my creations. I was proud of this. I felt like “discipline” would capitalize on the momentum I had garnered the semester before – my long-awaited 4.0 semester where everything would finally fall into place and where I wouldn’t let set-backs hurt my grades. Neiha today is a far-cry from the girl who loudly proclaimed in high school that grades aren’t more important than extra-curricular activities and what you do (or the girl who wanted to be pregnant and married by the time she got to grad school, which now makes me feel crippling terror but that’s neither here nor there).

…I mean, I still believe that. I just don’t really have the luxury of functioning under that one-sided dichotomy.

I have always tried to be a good daughter. I never gave my parents any trouble, I never fought them on things, I accepted the curfews and the modi operandi of the Lasharie household knowing that once I went to college, I would need to nurture my responsibility. And I did. I stayed out late, but I always got home safe or made sure I had a couch to sleep on somewhere I was comfortable. I traveled, knowing I was responsible for my own well-being and itineraries. My parents were always okay with this, with only the occasional “Be safe!”

I did my laundry, I minimized eating out, I budgeted my spending, I filed my taxes, I looked into my credit, I applied for loans when I had to, looked at scholarships without much of a result, funded my own therapy, applied for jobs – both co-op and part-time – just so that the end result was that I could be less of a burden on my parents.

The unopened monthly billing statements are why.

My parents have told me they don’t care about my grades. They want me to be successful and happy in my ambition. But my grades are a way to prove something – “Look! Your investment is paying off!”

It wasn’t that my 4.0 was why my parents were so proud of me this past semester. It was because that 4.0 included an A in math, a subject I’ve struggled with so much that it became a family joke. We measure my success by looking at the things I struggle with and seeing to what extent I can overcome them.

We.

I, on the other hand, being the loathsome and self-minimizing person that I am, measure my failure by looking at everything I have wanted to do but haven’t done. I have so many personal projects that I want to do, ideas I have conceived, research I want to undertake, plans I want to execute – but there’s always, always something stopping that. And yes, I know that rationally, I can’t do everything I want. And that rationally, not a big deal. I just need to discipline myself and then I can assess the extent to which all my projects can come into fruition.

But it feels like everything I want to do is being done better, faster, by other people; my peers at that. Or it feels like I’m not qualified to do the things I want to, and pretending otherwise is irresponsible. This blog is an example of the former. I’ve had this WordPress since – god, tenth grade? It’s been 7 years or so, and I still don’t have a format set up; I don’t have a reliable uploading schedule, and I don’t really have a theme apart from occasionally off-loading my opinions or existential crises. Hell, I’ve been playing with the idea of buying the domain name since Freshman year of college and I haven’t gotten around to doing that.

As ever, my conclusion is that I’m too hard on myself. But for every excuse, no matter how reasonable and justified, I have to wonder – will there ever be a perfect time where I can give justice to all my projects?

Probably not.

So I guess here’s a second conclusion: there is a time for everything. It will suck, and I will most definitely get bogged down by my own deficiencies, but if my goals right now are to a) give my parents a return on their investment, b) be financially independent, c) keep my mental state from fraying (again) and keep my PTSD at bay (yikes); and d) pave a way to an actionable future, then I guess I need to give this current zeitgeist of my life its due.

I’m always bitching about how it is part of the postmodern condition to reflect back on all of humanity and wonder why we don’t have a defining array of characteristics for our time, but isn’t that exactly what I’m doing? I’m experiencing the postmodern condition in the microcosm of my own life.

That’s dumb. Instead, well, I guess I’m going to try and celebrate what I am able to do by doing it to the best of my ability. Here’s to another 4.0 semester, good mental health, financial stability, and continued poems and research endeavors. The Speakeasy Symposium, personal branding and such will have to wait until I’m ready. And that’s okay.

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.

Short note: Contrasting passions

I don’t know. I’ve pretty much decided to give my life to the world as a vessel for the greater good – whatever that may be, it’s 6am and I’m feeling dramatic – and become a harbinger for positive revolution and sundry via studying politics and international affairs, but I really really love fashion and design. Always have, always will. My love for pink is infamous but I’ve also been told by relative strangers how great my taste in fashion is and how I seem to have an artistic eye for these things.

Look.

I don’t really care about being modest right now. If I’ve given up the desire to be a fashion designer/stylist, I’m allowed to at least gush about my own brilliance with aesthetics. And it wasn’t really an easy choice to make – going into the field I’ve decided to go into was inevitable but it didn’t come without heartache. I spent my whole life convincing myself I was going to go into some or the other creative field, only to wake up one day and realize what I actually want to commit to is something much bigger than myself. And yet, even when you decide on one thing, your other passions surface and resurface, breaking through your decisiveness and making you sigh wistfully. My dad always wanted me to go into design but he’s pretty biased himself, seeing as how I got a lot of my creative impulses from him (I mean, for a guy who has degrees in computer science and business, he sure does love his couture).

But I guess that’s why when I find an outlet for my creativity, I latch onto it like a very pink, very feminine leech and sap it of its uses until I get bored. Dress up games, make up, sewing, Polyvore, fashion illustration, whatever. My urges towards fashion are violent – as any good passion ought to be – and they demand some kind of platform to serve as catharsis.

People always raise their eyebrows in surprise when I say no, I’m not going into fashion design, I’m actually going to study the stuff of dinner table debates. And although it makes a small, traitorous part of me long for what could have been, I also take a strange pleasure in it; the bows, the frills, the lace and the pink just add to the unassuming persona I want to cultivate.

And with that unsettling thought, I must sleep.

The end is nigh!

…well, the end of my exams anyway. No, that’s not strictly true: the end of my exams brings with it the end of a great many other things. It’s the official-official end of my high school career. Let’s be real, for all the tears I shed, graduation was mostly for frills and to satiate us students. I mean, really, though I still get emotional thinking about it, it doesn’t feel like we graduated when there’s exams to worry about.

But I guess that’s good. Keeps me on my toes, gives me something to do, and I’ve always been the type of person who needs to keep busy.

Okay. That’s not strictly true. I just need to know there’s things I can do while I procrastinate. Makes me feel important and not as bad about procrastinating (in a very strange, slightly perverse way).

Wow, this is an unstructured blog post, but I won’t lie, it feels good to get all of this out. It feels good not to have to keep structure in mind and just write, write, write with little regard for what The Examiners are going to think. I think what’s most stressful about my exams is that all I need to do is pass – I have everything lined up in front of me regardless of my grades, but I need to satisfy my own ego. And I’ll be honest – last year’s grades are a pretty hard act to follow.

My best friend, Alyssa, always derides me for this (and fairly so), saying, “Dude, you’re literally the only person who expects anything of you.”

Well. Yes. I suppose that’s true.

I’ve lost count of how many times she had to tell me this yesterday. It’s my need to feel accomplished more than anything else. My parents are completely content no matter what grades I get – it’s my fault for promising my teachers straight As when they didn’t really ask them of me.

I’ll always have unrealistic expectations of myself – I think we all do – and that’s just part of my work ethic, I guess. I need to reassure everyone around me (and in doing so, myself) that I can pull my own weight. It’s interesting how all-pervasive one self-esteem can be; something as simple as worrying about my appearance slowly manifested as a part of my overall performance and persona you could say.

I’m just glad the bulk of my exams are over. It’s a bit bittersweet but I’m definitely ready to move on.

Just two more exams to go and then I can focus on the next big part of my life.

Short note: I’m getting there

Fun fact about myself – I only just recently acquired the skill of self-confidence. It’s a feeling of freedom juxtaposed with a little bit of guilt, because you feel like you’re overstepping the boundary between healthy self-affirmation and sheer, unadulterated vanity, and lemme tell you: in the grand racecourse of my self-esteem that is an unfairly thin line. Anyway, getting straight to the point…

Sometimes I get a little scared when things are going beautifully, as if I’m being duped. That all my accomplishments are doled out to me in accordance to a quota of pity. …it’s quite a petty thing to be worried about but I’ve spent so much of my life lowering my expectations that peeking my head out of my self-made hole and seeing a word full of opportunities for me, feasible opportunities within my grasp is…too good to be true.

Even now I don’t trust myself with all these successes. It’s just hard for me to believe that someone with mediocre grades for quite some time in her life can be…world-class. That I managed to literally top the entire country in my Sociology exam last year still feels like a delusion.

I was talking to my best friend, Alyssa, about sociology and we reached the conclusion that I couldn’t fail sociology if I were dead. And I said something about being good at sociology, really good, and then I felt like I had to follow up by apologizing for my “immodesty”. It felt both good and bad to be…vain. It’s not really the right word to use, but that’s how it felt in my head.

I hope one day I can reach a point where I can be unabashedly proud of myself. I think I’m getting there, albeit slowly and haltingly. But at least there haven’t been any sudden depressions in that little corporate chart that is my psyche and for what it’s worth, I’m doing my best to ensure that that remains the trend.

Love Letter to Sociology

Sociology, my love-

I hope I have not offended you by turning my attention from you for but a few minutes. You need not worry – I’ll always come back to you – but I sincerely felt that this could not wait. I need you to know that I love you. Deeply. Unerringly. Irreparably. That I am willing to commit to spending my life in pursuit of the knowledge and insight you give me; that I want to spend everyday feeling the exhilaration and excitement I feel when I thumb through textbooks and scroll through articles and write testaments to your beauty in the form of sixteen mark essays; that you are easily my great love in life and that I feel there is no greater decision I have made – though it was a non-decision, really, a no-brainer – than ticking the “Sociology” option for my A Level subjects.

You lounge on the tip of my tongue, you, in all your manifestations as theories, names, perspectives, waiting to dive headfirst into any conversation I have because everything – everything – is so relevant to you. I marvel over you in long metro rides against the backdrop of music and dim, monotonous, crisp sounding announcements of what station is next.

You – my favorite subject, my future discipline, my life-long partner if you will it – light up my life. And maybe more than a love letter, this is a proposal – a request for you to accept me in holy academic matrimony, for now and forever, till death do us part.

Perhaps I go too far. I apologize. All I want is for you to know how much I love you – that I promise to be a faithful adherent of you as a student, as a life-long learner, and as a citizen of the world.

I should get back to you. I’d hate to keep you waiting.

Yours, in academia and in love,

Neiha.