When people are born, they don’t have anything much going for them, other than their differently-organised set of genes. They’re born exactly in the same way as everyone else. Nothing special. Nothing different. Nothing better. All the same. Just average.
I, too, was perfectly normal (I hope. You can never be too sure when your parents constantly joke about bringing back the wrong baby from the baby room).
But somewhere along the way, things changed. I wasn’t normal anymore. I wasn’t average. I was deemed to be above average. Everyone around me told me I was above average. And I knew that as well (if that felt like a flex to you, keep reading).
I have always been above my classmates in most regards when it comes to academics. Consistently scoring above average in most exams, that felt normal to me. I could do things that other people around me just couldn’t do.
Even when it came to sports, I was placed in the category that was above average. I could play a whole lot of sports fairly decently, well enough to be mistaken for a semi-serious player.
But when it comes to being the absolute best at something, I falter. Take any discipline you like, any academic subject, any sport. There’s always this one person in my grade who is better than me at that thing. And it annoys me, it always has. I love math, but there has always been this one person in my grade who can solve problems quicker and more accurately than me. I love cricket, but there have always been a couple of people in my grade who play better than me. I’m never the best at anything. But I’m just about there.
I have always told myself that I was the typical example of “jack of all trades; master of none”, and over the years, it has proved to be true.
To offer an explanation to this, the strongest theory I’ve had is that I always seem to settle, I always seem to be happy with where I am at that moment. And I don’t know why exactly that is the case. It’s probably because I haven’t had a strong passion for anything till now. And I’ve been told that it’s alright and I will figure it out. It’s been five years since I first heard that, but I still haven’t found anything. But I’ve been told it happens to everyone.
But I’m not “everyone”. I am not average. I am not mediocre. So why do I always tend to settle?
I don’t have an answer to that yet. I will get back to you when I get it.
And I will get it.
It seems so funny to me, in retrospection, that I bought this book to end my reading slump, as a sort of warm-up before a more critical and thoughtful read. Never would I have thought that I would flip page over page, chapter after chapter, tantalised by the secrets and scandals it uncovers at a rapacious pace. I’m telling you, Evelyn Hugo herself drew me behind the moth-eaten curtains of show business, and winked when she pushed me into a rabbit-hole of murmured secrets, unsavoury rumours, and the seven marriages that spanned across her illustrious lifetime.
The book follows Evelyn Hugo, a Cuban-American armed with looks that made half the world turn, and a ferocious passion that led her to be the best actress in Hollywood. She narrates the events of her life to Monique Grant, a rising magazine reporter at Vivant. But as they meet, and as they unfurl Hugo’s own lifetime together, they find themselves in the midst of the harrowing secret that involves the both of them.
Taylor Jenkins Reid delivers a master-stroke of a plot; one that actively shocks, awes and delights even the most stubborn of readers. The story is easy and simple enough to follow, yet has intricacies and interconnections that are most cleverly thought out. The book forces you to initially believe that it is the husbands who form the core of Evelyn’s life, owing to the framing of the title, and the clear divisions in the book whenever she remarries. Yet, Hugo remains a near femme fatale, with most of the seven marriages having some ulterior motive behind them. The husbands establish a clear timeline, but are otherwise irrelevant. The truly interesting events unfold around Evelyn and the person with which she establishes a ‘forbidden’ romance.
Evelyn Hugo’s characterization is beyond flawless; the story marvellously displays every nuance and complexity of her personality. The same cannot be said about the other characters, especially Monique Grant, the reporter who interviews Hugo and also has a large role to play in the book. While the book clearly is about Hugo, some additional reflection on Grant would have made the story far more meaningful, especially when the stories of both intertwine towards the end.
Evelyn is Cuban, while Monique is biracial, with a White mother and Black father. While the book did show how Hugo reflected on how she whitewashed herself to fit Hollywood standards, very little discussion of her culture occurs throughout the rest of the book. A singular moment stood out when she thought of her own ‘Cuban-ness’, of how she changed her name from Herrera to Hugo, in hopes of becoming a Hollywood star. Apart from that moment, she holds no regret, no nostalgia for the culture she was brought up with, almost making it seem as if it had no permanent impact on her identity. For Monique too, there is a single moment of introspection. That’s all.
Having two people of colour as the main characters in this book was refreshing to see, but the lack of discussion on race and identity made the book lose dimensionality. It’s impossible that both these women aligned perfectly in society, never for a second doubting who they were, and where they came from. I would have loved to see how both Evelyn and Monique possessed entirely different cultural identities, yet how the female struggle in society persists across marginalised minorities and among people of colour.
‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ is a bold book, but it doesn’t bring anything new or revolutionary to the forefront of modern literature. It possesses a solid plot, a complicated and thoroughly interesting protagonist, and a slightly rushed ending, but proves to be a worthwhile read. If you’re not too picky with your books and just want to read something that isn’t all that consequential, read this book. I’d say it’s worth it.
The Heart, the Soul and the Funny Bone
A neutron walks into a bar and asks the bartender how much a beer costs.
Since I was 11, I’ve made it something of an involuntary personal mission to be as funny as I possibly can, always. That means my subconscious is always a little like Rumpelstiltskin, except instead of spinning straw into gold, I spin a normal conversation into a semi-tolerable pun that often gets me either punched or booed.
For a long time, I just accepted that fact - I never really gave this need to be entertaining a second thought. As is the case for most of us, though, the pandemic coerced me into a crippling old bout of self-critique; and upon questioning this incredibly fundamental tenet of my personality, I did what my generation does best when having existential crises: literally nothing. I ignored it and instead listened to an indie artist sing about how empty they feel without their ex (or their dog, I don’t have the best memory).
Weirdly enough, that didn’t seem to work, so I decided I’d genuinely think about it - why do I feel the need to be funny?
Well, one pretty simple reason is that I want to make friends. People like funny people, right? That’s why we enjoy stand-up comedians, sitcoms, and watching world leaders talk about COVID. It makes a lot of sense that I’m more likeable when I’m funnier. In that sense, it’s not as much a need to be funny as it is a need to present a likeable version of myself in order to form real connections and relationships. This is, however, a conclusion I didn’t quite like, because I like to think the connections and relationships I’ve already established are built on something more stable, personal, and meaningful than pure comedy.
I then entertained the possibility that being funny made me feel superior to others. If I’m the one people are deriving most joy from, I also have the power to deprive them of that joy. Naturally, all my friend groups grow to live off of my presence and fall apart when I’m not around. I hold in my hand the ability to make and break hundreds of friendships and make my way to world domination, and I can do it all in a single snap, just because I made a couple of jokes. Again, this isn’t a theory I favour all that much, mostly because it paints me as an emotionally manipulative supervillain, but also because it’s possibly the lamest form of leverage.
It was at this point that I came to the rationale that I was most satisfied with - and it just so happens to be an incredibly selfish rationale.
I have considerable difficulty with conventional displays of love. I’m terrible with compliments, I find it hard to directly tell people I love them, and almost all forms of physical affection make me feel like I’m the filling in a human sandwich. What comes easiest to me is just making the people around me laugh. It’s a way for me to make sure they’re happy, even if it’s only for a few seconds. Maybe my need to be entertaining is just my need to show affection for my loved ones and show them that I care for them.
Humour is to me what words and the human touch are to most people - a love language. In many ways, saying “Knock knock!” in anticipation of a “Who’s there?” is very much my way of holding my friends and family in the tightest, warmest hug known to mankind and letting them know that they’re incredibly important to me.
“For you,” says the bartender, “no charge.”
My friend Akshaj (or Chaand, to friends) has a poem in this article. It’s a gorgeous piece, one that deserves an entire article built around it. It exists in a peculiar space between violence and recognition, one I write in very often myself. I tried to make this article one about violence, or pain, or war, but I couldn’t. Maybe because I love Chaand so much - or maybe because the poem is so compassionate. Whatever the reason, I found myself gravitating towards poems about love and connection instead while drafting this article. I think they work a lot better.
Oh, and sink your teeth into the recommendations today. They deserve it.
Punching the wall
By Akshaj Balaji
I don’t skip a beat,
Don't take a single second.
Absorbing all the heat,
Projecting it right back and
Not thinking twice.
A cool shiver down my spine,
I will pray the price
For lashing out, crossing the line.
I paid the price.
And I pray that I
Will learn from my cries
And that part of me will die.
I reflect on the past year,
And I make a call.
For me and those dear,
Think before I punch the wall.
Hear I did; from mistakes, learned
I worked on myself everyday,
And I seem to have steered
To promising better ways.
I may seem shaky now and then,
But I take note of the shivers,
And don't fumble again.
I promise to try and deliver.
The next time I feel the weight
The next time I draw in anger -
Talking, not leaving things up to fate,
I promise to sheathe the dagger.
I promise to cool down and
Learn to get up when I fall.
I promise to realise it is only my hand
That will hurt when I punch the wall.
Akshaj (Chaand) is a high school student who loves writing and is considered by many as a generic music student. Akshaj dabbles in poetry whenever possible and really enjoys writing.
For M by Mikko Harvey
Mikko Harvey is the author of Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit (House of Anansi, 2018). He currently lives in Saugerties, New York. (poets.org)
Perhaps the World Ends Here by Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Harjo draws on First Nation storytelling and histories, as well as feminist and social justice poetic traditions, and frequently incorporates indigenous myths, symbols, and values into her writing. Her poetry inhabits landscapes—the Southwest, Southeast, but also Alaska and Hawaii—and centers around the need for remembrance and transcendence. (Poetry Foundation)
The Quiet World by Jeffrey McDaniel
Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry (1994 and 2010). A recipient of an NEA Fellowship, he teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in the Hudson Valley. (Poetry Foundation)
It’s that time of the year again — time to scour the internet for a planner with cute illustrations, a pastel colour palette, and a set of stickers that I’ll absolutely adore but never use. I flipped through my mostly empty planner for this year a few days ago, and saw the section at the end that is meant for storing memories. The blank pages meant to hold ticket stubs, polaroid photos, and journal entries are empty as usual but they don’t bother me as much as they used to. (That's probably because this kind of emptiness pales in comparison to that of my soul.)
Instead of talking about all the things that have changed this year (and believe me, a lot of things have changed, mostly for the better), I want to focus on the things in my life that have stayed the same. While I may not be able to explicitly state certain things as they are “criminal offences”, here is the list that my legal team has approved:
My love for lists: One thing you must know about me is that I love keeping mental lists of many things that interest me. Whether it’s my favourite kinds of food (French desserts), my favourite paintings (The Water Lily Pond, 1899 by Claude Monet), or even colours that I like (Pantone 448C, though Very Peri is very beautiful too), maintaining a list of them is something that I find extremely enjoyable. However, in spite of loving the list-making process, I find it incredibly hard to write my lists down, because I feel like some lists are better as 2 a.m. conversations than words on a post-it.
(Monet’s gorgeous painting, The Water Lily Pond)
Musical Theatre: My love for musical theatre has only become stronger this year, thanks to a school friend with a golden heart who made me listen to a certain musical over call once in early July. Late nights of spinning in three-inch heels, sobbing on the floor, and almost committing arson would have been incomplete without show-tunes playing in the background.
Cats: While I do believe that I am more of a dog person, a certain stray cat has adopted my family and allows us to feed her regularly. Her presence is something that forced me to have some semblance of a morning routine (which is slowly falling apart now that my mother feeds her in the morning). But I truly believe that my life would not be the same without her angry meows and grumpy face.
As I wrote out this list, I realised that these supposed “constants” in my life are actually a lot more dynamic than I thought. Although my love for lists has stayed the same, the items on them get reordered on a daily basis. My favourite musicals change over time and so do my favourite songs from them. And the cat has kittens now — four of them. As someone who actively despises change, this realisation shook me to my very core.
But as I think more about all the things that have changed in my life, there’s not one thing that I would rather have remain completely constant. These changes have caused me to experience things I never would have even imagined myself to be capable of, they’ve allowed me to create things that I am so incredibly proud of, and they’ve made my path cross with people whom I care about so deeply that it has caused me to rethink my definition of love (which may or may not include blood pacts).
The only thing that is constant about the items on this list is that these things have continued to be important to me throughout the course of this year in more or less the same way.
French, on the other hand, meant everything to me, but I am less visibly obsessed with it because I no longer study the subject. Even though I have tried to fill as many aspects of my life with as many French things as possible — I think my column is a great example of that — it’s just not the same. The same thing is true about some of my old friends. Our routines used to intertwine like the multiple ribbon bookmarks attached to my planner and separating us was almost as easy as untangling these ribbons (For clarification: not very).
When I moved away from these friends and when I dropped French in eleventh grade, I honestly did not know how I would be able to just go about my life without these essential elements there to hold me together and keep me sane. These seemingly tiny things had become a huge part of my life. I thought that I would fall apart like my plans for maintaining a decent planner.
I now know that these things wouldn’t last forever. Because nothing does.
I think that’s the best and absolute worst part of being alive. I have created a solar system of friendships within nine months that means so much to me. This magazine and this column mean so very much to me. And I know that, realistically, they will not last forever. But I think that obsessing about how it will end will only make it end sooner. One of my closest friends does their level best to live in the moment and be mentally present in every single situation. They’ve taught me that if the only thing we do is dream about the future we want, then we’ll be dreaming forever. And life is meant to be lived in, not dreamed about.
Something another one of my closest friends told me is that if we spend a lot of time planning out every single action of ours, then we don’t get to experience the moments of spontaneity that truly make experiences memorable (this was probably not the best thing to put in an article about planners). I think that the only way for me to do that is to allow myself to believe that some things will last forever. Because that gives me the mental space to enjoy it while it lasts and my memories can comfort me when it ends.
If I get really lucky, maybe these people will choose to change right next to me and our bond will evolve in the most wondrous way. But even if they don’t, I will love these brilliant people forever because the time I have spent with them is stored in something more permanent than a planner — it’s stored in memories that fill me up every time I look at photos of us.
Smiling with our legs in the pool during summer. Pretending to be scared of a dinosaur statue behind us when the only thing we were truly scared of was drifting apart. Dancing at apartment functions while trying not to mess up the choreography that we learnt only hours ago. Wrapping our arms around each other and laughing at a joke that was only funny to us. Staring at a lake as an evening breeze swept through our hair, the biting cold barely noticeable over the warmth of being in each others’ presence.
All of these photos could have easily fit into my planner’s last few pages. But putting them there felt like I was tying them to this year and I didn’t want to do that. Those were all moments that felt like they would last for infinity. And that was what made them so special to me.
To everyone who has frozen time for me — I am grateful for your existence. I love you more than I could ever put into words. Thank you, for everything.
Merci mille fois.
I have a bone to pick with glass.
First of all, why is it called “glass”? That’s such a sophisticated sounding name for something as boring as glass. It sounds like someone made the technological advancement of the century when in reality this high-tech gadget has the amazing feature of completely shattering when dropped from the height of a foot. The only part of glass that I find mildly acceptable is mirrors, because hey, at least I get to look at something cool in them.
Someone should’ve told the Romans when they used molten liquid and started sculpting it into things such as window panes that they would eventually be used in high-tech gadgets like snow globes and then be called the most important human invention of all time. Don’t get me wrong, I love glass when it is used properly, I wouldn’t be able to see anything without it and my spectacles sure are a spectacle, but most of its uses aren’t even that practical, like a sky-scraper filled with glass panes from head to toe. Do you really want to burn the population of poor humans who walk near these pointlessly large buildings?
Whoever's idea it was to instil in my brain that breaking glass was bad luck, well congratulations! I’ve lived the past 16 years thinking about how everything was going to go wrong because of it. Mind you, it’s not only the bad luck I have a problem with. Every time I hold something or am in close contact with something made of glass, my mind immediately thinks about how it will shatter and I cower behind something to protect myself. Glass is harmful even when broken. No, wait, glass is harmful especially when it is broken (just like your fellow human right here). Yep, let that sink in. Shattered glass, which is already broken, can easily give you a cut that is centimetres deep.
Everyone talks about seeing the glass half full or seeing the glass half empty - try telling that to me. I see the glass about to fall down and shatter into a million pieces while the half empty liquid in it floods the room that I am in. Now, isn’t that poetic? While everyone either looks at things in either a positive or negative light, I decide to overthink the whole glass situation and make everything a billion times worse.
Gosh, I hate overthinking. One second I will be listening to music and reading a book and having a great time and then all of a sudden I’m staring at something intensely while gritting my teeth and thinking about how my friends don’t love me as much as I do them or thinking about how I will fail everything and not get into college. You could compare me gritting my teeth to shattering the glass as in both cases, when large amounts of pressure is applied, it causes breakage, and yes, I hurt both myself and the people around me when I am broken.
There are times where the absolute opposite happens and I get into a mania-like state where I am unnaturally cheerful about everything, but that's just temporary. You can compare it to how when you drop a sheet of glass from the top of a large building, it will free fall for several metres until it finally touches the ground and shatters. Just like that, I feel free and joyous for a volume of time until I annoyingly come crashing down once again.
Oh god, why does glass have to be so annoyingly perfect as a metaphor for me? This has gone from a rant about glass to an examination of my mental state. Glass is, well, glass. And as for me? I learn to collect the shattered pieces and melt it down so I can once again mould a sheet of glass for myself, this time sturdier and stronger, less prone to shattering. Technology evolves doesn’t it?
Of course, there are those off days when a bullet goes through it and it immediately shatters, but recently it has been steadily getting sturdier as I slowly morph into a type of bulletproof glass. And who knows, maybe one day in the near future, I’ll leave the glass behind and evolve into an element that’s able to hold its own when the situation demands. Fingers crossed. Until then, I can look into mirrors and think about how not all glass is bad and how mirrors usually make me happy because it shows me something I find immensely cool.
I dream during the night,
I dream during the day,
And I dream most of the time.
Though I try to save them,
Many of my dreams
Like vapour in the sky.
The ones that stay,
Leave hope in me,
To take on each day.
Every one of us,
Has great dreams of our own,
Though sometimes they are buried inside.
Discover your dreams,
And once you do,
You must chase them,
Remembering to enjoy the ride.
Don't ignore those dreams,
Because you will regret it if you do.
Follow the path made by your dreams,
And let them guide you through life.
Sometimes dreams feel like they leave you,
They never do.
Although I do not actually celebrate Christmas, I still quite enjoy Christmastime for several reasons: the vacations, the general cheery spirit, but most importantly, the food. Although I don’t make fancy Christmas feasts, I love making and eating sugar cookies.
The perfect sugar cookies, characterised by a blonde (just barely lightly golden) colour, are soft on the inside, but are still slightly crisp on the outside. They are wonderfully crumbly and buttery and, of course, sugary.
And then comes the frosting.
The frosting elevates the cookies and adds that extra sweetness and vanilla flavour. It also transforms the cookies from regular old cookies into Christmas cookies with attractive, vibrant colours and familiar designs.
This year, I decided to make the cookies by myself. That meant ignoring my mother’s anxiety about me making a mess and/or making a mistake while following the recipe, and trying to make these delightful treats. Baking these cookies should have been simple, but of course, as with any perfectionist trying something out for the first time (while being watched by an eagle-eyed mother/baking expert), it took about 5 hours longer than it would take the average person. From sifting the flour to piping the icing, everything seemed to need 75% more effort than it took the maker of the recipe – or would have been required for the average person. The end result was also 20% less satisfactory than it would have been to the average person. And that is the curse of the perfectionist.
No words can really describe the amount of effort it took to transform the lumps of sugar, butter, eggs, and flour into beautiful Christmas cookies. Imagine a marathon runner who, after no training, managed to complete the full 42 kilometers. I felt exactly like that runner, not just in terms of a sense of accomplishment, but also in terms of how tired I felt.
I still enjoyed every second of making them. For me, making sugar cookies has always involved friends. The whole process is associated with spending time together making delicious treats to share with each other and our families. There’s that feeling of nostalgia from that one winter’s day 5 years ago making a mess decorating Christmas cookies with friends. Even though this year I made the cookies alone, I was reminded of the good times I had had in previous years. That first bite into the cookie completely transported me back in time. One of my favorite aspects about food is its ability to transport you to memories, and that is just so rewarding in my opinion.
While the cookies did not turn out perfectly, I still had a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment (and a stomach pumped full of sugar) at the end of it. My cookies definitely looked better than they tasted. So I guess the moral of the story is that what really matters is not the cookie on the inside, but the cookie on the outside. Happy holidays!