‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ can be found in most rankings of the best books ever written in English. It can also be found on my bookshelf.
I read it for the first time about two years ago, and found myself urged to read it all over again this summer when I noticed a portrait of Oscar Wilde staring at me in a hotel room. Within a day, I became reacquainted with what made me such an ardent fan of his writing.
There is something spellbinding about the Faustian promise and decadence and sin and image, all of which are intertwined with the story. To live a life where all your missteps and falsehoods remain hidden, making deals with the devil that lives in the gutters beneath your feet; as sinister and chilling as it was to imagine, I started to think about the choices I’ve made in my life. The paths I’ve chosen to follow, the people I’ve decided to surround myself with. Do I perceive myself as better than I am? Does the rest of the world think this way too?
Is there a portrait of my mistakes hidden in some dank, musty corner, waiting to sag and fall off the propped canvas, as I live a life I believe to be upright?
Becoming someone like Oscar Wilde’s most famous protagonist is a prospect I largely want to avoid. It seems like an odd fear; to be afraid of possessing a misconstrued sense of self when there seems to be nothing threatening about who I am. And yet, when I hear that someone thinks of me as ‘arrogant’ or ‘aloof’, I feel the paint crackle and the canvas wither instantaneously.
The essence of the book has reverberated within me, in more ways than one. But the silent horror, the fear of not knowing who I truly am, stays most immovably. This past year has been filled with leaps and strides that have revealed so many things about me, covered under years of dust and neglect, as I tried to emulate a version of myself best fitted to the world. I tuned the discordant strings of my mind, salvaged the clutter, and created a home within that radiates who I am. Knowing myself, now even better, I feel that I might have failed to reach the part of my mind that tells me to indulge in the wildest of my fantasies, regardless of how bad the consequences might be. But I can’t really address the portrait in the room if I don’t know if it truly exists or not.
I know it seems counterproductive to spend my days wondering if I’m evil or not. I don’t dream of setting fire to the nearest piece of fabric or create fantastical plans on how to execute the perfect murder. I don’t know if I’m capable of that. Yet. Dorian Gray was 20 when he sold his soul. I think I still have a few more years to find that portrait, and burn it once and for all.
“To be, or not to be,” proclaimed Hamlet. But to become? Isn’t that the real question?
I love talking about change and growing up; becoming someone who is better, happier, and more knowledgeable than the past version of yourself. Dorian Gray’s Faustian promise reminds me that we all have a little sprinkle of impulsiveness that could take over all we hold dear for momentary bouts of pleasure that feel like almost nothing at all. I could have a life like that, hiding secrets from the rest of the world like automatic plastic surgery, unnoticeable to everyone who perceives me.
What stops me is realising that I couldn’t probably find someone who would buy my soul. Mathematical calculations aside, I don’t think anyone would want to buy it, not in this political economy. And even when I think of breaking apart and reaching into my own darkest depths, I have to cross the peaceful living room of my mind, adorned with the achievements and progress I’ve made. Markers of my growth. No portrait in sight.
For now, I’ve decided that I don’t really want to sell my soul. I want to polish it and make it the glowing centrepiece in the living room of my mind. So, I’ve decided to read critically, eat well, spend time with the people I love, and look at the sky more often. I want to be better. Happier. I want to grow.
What I want to become is something. And I know that something’s going to be good.
Since I think my readership consists of a handful of 15-17 year olds, I have decided I will give my parents (my only adult readers) some parenting advice: If you want your child to do something, reward them for it.
Is this me attempting to hustle my way into another pair of Converse for surviving the school year ? Most definitely; but as always, I will try to come up with a crackpot analogy to cover my dirty, US-size-4 tracks.
But I digress.
When I attempt to do something, it always helps when there is some metric attached to the work I’ve done - if there’s a reward. In an effort to get children to do anything of value, my school had a system that pretty much emulated Harry Potter’s House Cup - a tally of plus points and minus points that was awarded to every child for a deed or misdeed. A lucky house would win the cup (well, it was a wooden frame with the house’s name - I don’t think our school very much liked the idea of an expensive trophy on display for every rambunctious, destructive child to demolish), and in our eyes, claiming it meant everything and more. Through my middle school years, I tried to make sure that I never got any negative points for my house; I bent the rules and swerved around restrictions, but I tried my hardest to never let my teachers ink their disappointment for me on the point chart.
Right when the pandemic broke out, school was shut for an indefinite period of time and any semblance of this discipline was lost. During that time, like any other bored teenager, I watched The Good Place - and what I saw was that this system of ‘pluses’ and ‘minuses’ is basically what the show revolved around as well. Michael, the keeper of the eponymous idea of heaven in which the show is set, is explaining to newcomers how people gets chosen to get into the Good Place; he says that everything you do in your time on earth has some positive or negative effect, and your final score at the end of your life determines whether you go to the Good Place or the Bad Place.
Here’s the kicker, though.
No one had gotten into the Good Place in the last 521 years.
I can’t say I remained (or ever was) loyal to the Cleveland Browns, but I do keep calculating my wins and losses like some unhinged scorekeeper. Whether it was my outfit (the jeans looked weird on me, -1) or if I accidentally made a grammatical error (you’re*, -10), my errors solidified and all added up to make a large amount of negative. It didn’t help that I felt like the grades I got also took away from my inherent value as a person - the .25 I lost in History, and the multiple I lost in math - they took away from the sum total my life would at one point in time boil down to. I would never actually win at the game of life, never tally at any respectable number. I was doomed to be average, or worse - I would be forever dwelling on the bottom of ladders and never moving up the leaderboard.
But from what I’d watched, it seemed like it was nearly impossible to have a high “score”. So who decides what I get a plus and minus for? This moral calculator that computed my self-worth in binary code - whose idea of “good” and “bad” did it corroborate with?
I didn’t need rewards and reprimands for allowing myself to be just that - myself. I refuse to deal in binaries.
(That being said - Ma, I still need those Converse).
On a beautiful sunny day, the curtains in my room are almost always closed. The only time I make sure to open them is when there’s a thunderstorm outside.
My habit of blocking out things that make me feel better certainly doesn’t stop at curtains. I always need to be hiding at least three things from everyone I know. Those things range from parts of my life to my hobbies and interests; even certain activities that would be frowned upon for legal reasons.
It’s easy for me to sit alone in my dark room, staring into the void, but that actively hurts me and my ability to interact with the world. It clouds my perception of it and warps it into something a lot crueller than it actually is. Because the world is not a rotten place full of horrible people who don’t care about me. It’s a beautiful place and I’m surrounded by people who do care.
When I don’t tell people things, I feel like I “protect” them from my problems so that they don’t affect them. What I fail to realise is that the people who love me want to know about my life and help me in whatever way that they can. Not telling them about myself and then lamenting that they don’t understand me is like keeping plants in a dark room with blackout curtains and then complaining when they wilt — completely pointless and easily avoidable.
While being overly cynical and closed off may seem to be a “cooler” option, it actually makes me an idiot with massive trust issues who can’t form basic healthy human relationships. Opening up to people and trying to make my life a place in which I can be happy is entirely my responsibility.
This isn’t something that can be fixed in a day or a week, it’s a daily effort to put myself out there and express my emotions in a way that’s both true and not hurtful. It’s not easy and it’s honestly not always fulfilling; but I think it’s necessary.
While I may be scared of the dark, I’m also terrified of the light because it makes me feel a lot more vulnerable. The clutter in my room (and in my head) can easily be ignored when it’s just a pile in the dark.
But light has this uncanny ability to make seemingly huge problems look fixable. And I’m scared to put in the effort and fix them out of the fear that I’ll end up making it worse - but I’ve now realised that the decision to do nothing is a thousand times worse than doing something wrong.
Shutting the curtains doesn’t make the sun shine less brightly, it just makes it harder for me to enjoy its light. Cutting myself off from the people around me doesn’t make their love for me disappear, it just makes it difficult for me to feel and understand it.
I think I’ll leave my curtains open today.
Over the past couple of months, I have noticed increasingly that my friends stress themselves out during exam seasons - they stop listening to their body, stop taking care of themselves and get unhealthily engrossed in their work. I have experienced firsthand that it causes more harm than good.
The thing about living in a capitalist society is that if you aren’t a part of the privileged 1% of the country, the education system in India is one of the biggest risks to a student’s mental health. There are hundreds of thousands of students but only a limited number of seats in colleges. Naturally, this leads children to aim for the 95 percent and above grades because more often than not, that number needs to be exceedingly high for you to get into a college.
As we have all seen around us, this system has created a population of students whose instincts are to overwork and who spend most of their waking hours studying more than their bodies and minds can handle. The thought process is that more work means better grades means a better chance of going to college and having a better future. The thing is, life is mostly not going to be any different in the corporate world - the students who will later become employees will be subjected to the same amounts of pressure by their bosses and their deadlines. In my opinion, trying to get better at controlling overworking would be easier in school than in the corporate world where our entire income and livelihood are directly affected by what we do, which is why I think it is important to make an effort early on rather than when it’s too late.
We could start by identifying how long we study in a day and slowly start setting limits for ourselves. For example, we could decide that we cannot do work for an hour after school, so we have some time to rest. Or, we could decide to stop studying right before dinner and not do any work after. One thing to remember is that limits are set for a reason, to ensure you can do as much work as you can while also prioritising your mental health. And this makes it especially important for us to stick to the limits we set.
As we start working less, we tend to also become more efficient in the time we work.This won’t be immediately seen, but will help us in the long term. The important thing is the decrease in work should be gradual with conscious efforts to listen to our body. An important step is also to learn how to prioritise when we realise it is not rational to do all the work we have for our sake. Which work is more important? What subjects? Which chapters can I already know and do not require in-depth revision? Which assignments can I afford to ignore?
Sleep is important. Compromising the rest that your body may need is usually not a viable option, although it may seem like the best one to begin with. Without sleep, we lose our cognitive capabilities for the following day. Your body needs to rest after you move around, work, and play all day. The best way to ensure you don't overexert yourself is to try to start listening to your body. If it says that we need to lie down, drink water, stop working, and go to bed, it is a sign that we should do those things because we need to.
Overworking leads to massive burn out and in some cases where you refuse to listen to your body when it asks you for rest, it can cause long-term illnesses and disabilities. Believe me, I would know. Avoiding permanent health conditions is definitely better than getting 10% less in an exam. One is permanent and could very well be the end of the world as we know it, but most times the other isn’t. Of course, sometimes exams can very well be life-changing to people, but in most cases you can afford to work a little less. It can even benefit our performances in exams when we are more rested.
Even though it doesn’t seem like it in the short run, setting limits and listening to what our bodies have to say is the right choice to make for our own health and futures in the long run. It is difficult for a lot of people, but in the end, as long as we make even a little effort to work towards bettering it, we will be able to see the benefits. No progress happens in a day or a week. Slow and steady wins the race, and even a little effort can go a long way. The important thing to remember is to listen to your body; it knows what it's doing.
Your breathing body should receive your graduation letters and not your breathless corpse.
Hearing music in poetry
Today’s article is a return to this column’s roots: we’re discussing how to love poetry, which is what For Better or For Verse is built on.
I recently attended a creative writing class where we spent a lot of time on spoken word poetry, and turning poetry into music. I write free verse. My poetry doesn’t follow rules, at least not consciously. But music is inherent to poetry.
One thing that distinguishes poetry from prose is the way it sounds. Even without a clear rhyme scheme, without a rigid structure, verse is inherently more rhythmic than prose. Poetry understands that the lines between prose and verse and music will always be blurred, and inhabits that in-between place. To ignore the music in poetry is to do the poem a disservice. Just like everything else in the world, poetry requires attention and effort to be understood. And most importantly, I’ve found that noticing the music makes me enjoy the poem more. What you say is important, and so is how you say it. Today’s poems don’t have a theme when it comes to content, but they all have rhythm that gives me a delightful little buzz. Read these out.
For more in depth discussion of the music of poetry, read this lovely article from Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/92652/the-music-of-poetry
Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out by Richard Siken
Richard Siken is a poet, painter, filmmaker, and an editor at Spork Press. In her profile of Siken, Nell Casey wrote, “he effectively juxtaposes holy wishes with mundane images—making them both seem beautiful by some strange lyrical alchemy.” His poems unwind on the page effortlessly, barely pausing for breath; the speaker’s voice wracked with sexual obsession. Siken is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is also a full time social worker, and he lives in Tucson, Arizona. (Poetry Foundation)
There was an Old Man of Thermopylæ by Edward Lear
Vivien Noakes fittingly subtitled her biography of Edward Lear ‘The Life of a Wanderer’. On a literal level the phrase refers to Lear’s constant traveling as a self-proclaimed “dirty landscape painter” from 1837 until he finally settled at his Villa Tennyson on the San Remo coast of Italy in 1880. But wandering, in that it suggests rootlessness, aimlessness, loneliness, and uncertainty, is also a metaphor for Lear’s emotional life and for the sense of melancholy that so often peeps through the playfully absurd surface of his nonsense verse.
I Find Myself Defending Pigeons by Keith S. Wilson
Affrilachian poet Keith S. Wilson is the author of Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love (Copper Canyon Press, 2019). His poetry and prose have appeared in Elle, Poetry magazine, the Kenyon Review, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. Wilson's nonfiction has won an Indiana Review Nonfiction Prize and the Redivider Blurred Line Prize, and has been anthologized in the award-winning collection Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy. (Poetry Foundation)
Great or Nothing
-- - -- Grace
On the one Pinterest board I turn to for motivation, I have these very quotes highlighted - ‘I want to be great or nothing’ and ‘a person should spend the first third of his life getting as much education as he can, the next third making as much money as he can, and then the last third giving it all away’. Multiple ‘#bossbabe’ accounts on my algorithm practically handed them to me, and I’m sure you will find them too. Being a “#bossbabe” is so much more deeper than Pinterest quotes though. And as much as I hate [or apparently, love] to quote Pinterest; ‘it’s an attitude’.
With motivational quotes comes a familiar realization; that everything isn’t black and white. Can I just work to achieve my goals? Will constant work help? Realizing the glorification of hustle culture has been a familiar topic doing rounds in recent times, surprisingly at the same time as productivity apps and functions have been on the rise.
It’s a complex field to navigate as someone who wants to be productive, but also constantly suffers from exhaustion and burnout - with the simultaneous guilt of not being productive enough and not using their time confidently. Even as of now, there is so much one can do with time, and one regrets not fulfilling all of it to the maximum. Time is so subjective, and only recently have I come to realize how much the phrase time means money is true. I recently saw a tweet that went like this:
I always hear from everyone how much working is good, keeps you active, and helps you stay in the game. The everlasting standard for productivity does not resound with people who have privilege handed to them. They will often look for easier ways out, essentially being more efficient. Why then, are we taught that the only way to being a #bossbabe is hard work, when clearly, a lot of us have very different standards of work?
I know I have the luxury to recognize that I need to call out my toxic productivity standards and take time to recharge, because generations before me have worked to give me the ability to have the time to recharge, and come back just as strong, without losing anything significant. I am able to recognize that there is so much more in the long term, and that survival is not my first instinct. Does everyone else have the same needs and wants as I do?
The last “need” you can have is self-actualization and it scares me that I may never achieve it. Our generation has lesser wants not because we're healthier or better, but because we are more provided for, and because we have the knowledge that there are easier, more efficient ways. We know that the way to being a #bossbabe is not indefinitely hard work.
And then the recurring, lasting question-
What will you become when you grow up?
“I want to be great or nothing - Amy March”
Knowing that everything is provided for, it seems almost unfair to the people providing for me, that I don't achieve the maximum possible.
I can only hope that these achievements are ones that are in my own limits, and ones that can be achieved without putting my health at high risk .I don't think I will ever be an Amy March - I will never have the aspiration to be entirely Great or consider myself as Nothing. Amy March is one of the true #bossbabes. But she does not preach about how she got there. She does not define it, in a manner that is not intersectional.
There's another part of the spectrum that is rarely represented or considered. The middle. The middle is quite a comfortable place to be. It doesn't set standards for the unachievable or perfection, and doesn't berate you for being the Nothing; it also has a definition that is never stable. You see, being a #bossbabe also means berating yourself for when you’re not being productive. Why are we defining our worth by our work?
I've always been quite middling, and doing better than middling is the aim I have for life now, and at times I'm not at my best.
Better than middling allows for improvement. Better than middling allows for growth. Better than middling lets me have my pride and gives me something to work towards. I’m not telling you to aspire to be middling. I don't have an ounce of authority to tell you what to aspire to be.
I'm in the first phase of my life, getting as much education as possible. I could be much more than middling now, and I aspire for it in my daily efforts. In the second phase of my life, making as much money as I can, the efforts become political and not as simplistic as studying is.
your heart is a ripe fruit in my hand, and i sink
my teeth in until you bleed; it tastes almost sweet.
and the air, it sticks to your skin like a forbidden lover
it is heavy with the hum of dragonflies, and they show me
even a godless summer eventually turns colder
now wildflowers grow from my broken bones
though i know they’ll grow from anywhere
still i find some respite in knowing that despite
it all; the life in me remains unaware
nothing ever lasts, not the sunflowers in june
not our rotting bones, what will remain of me and you
but until then you will stand barefoot to pick fruits
from our backyard, and peel away the same tender hue
as the setting sun, as pasta sauce jars and untied shoes
and that will be enough to know how i love you.
Over the past year of living with cats, the most valuable thing I’ve learnt is the art of just hanging around.
With their fearless and unapologetic disposition, cats basically do whatever they want. They stay around in favourable conditions and they hop out of the window when they’re bored of you. Personally, I think that’s an entirely rational way of functioning and I wish it was socially acceptable for me to function that way. Cats don’t care enough to stay put if you want to photograph them. They don’t care enough to move, even if you were just sitting there. So, cat owners have had to master the skill of making the right spaces for them to hang around in. A great example of such a space is a blanket fort, with its sheltered, womb-like nature.
Just like cats, we deserve to exist in environments that nurture our brains. And well-crafted spaces transcend immediate physical surroundings. States of mind are spaces too; they’re spaces we spend our entire lives in and can’t simply walk out of. Even the people we grew up around contribute to our spaces. What kind of books did you have around you growing up? Were you a LEGO kid? What were the conversations you heard amongst people around you? What we learn and internalise from these things, we carry with us everywhere. How is the system in which you were educated?
Growing up, I was surrounded by a variety of great books. After a certain age, though, my parents stopped getting me books that were ‘targeted toward children,’ and began insisting that I read books they enjoyed growing up. Now, in retrospect, I’ve been thinking about the books kids my age read as middle schoolers, and why so many of us grew out of our John Green phases so quickly. I noticed how many middle grade books dumb down the content to make it ‘digestible’ to kids, and how most people can’t tolerate them as soon as they’re capable of independent, critical thought. The more engaging and stimulating books are, the more we can take away and retain from them. But for many middle grade books, they’re enjoyable as long as you don’t — or can’t — think too much about them. I find that patronising and insulting to middle grade readers. Children deserve good books, too.
This is just one example of how kids often aren’t taken seriously by adults. Growing up, I constantly felt like I was spoken down to just because I was younger, and something that happened very recently reinforced this feeling. A few of my friends and I were experiencing bad treatment from some of our school faculty, and when we tried to have that addressed seriously by our authorities, they said that kids were dramatic and often exaggerated problems that shouldn’t be taken so seriously. When kids grow up in spaces where they aren’t adequately attended to by their caretakers, they refrain from asking for help. According to a study mentioned in this article, only 20 percent of children in the UK with mental illness receive the help they require. This survey shows that in India, that rate drops down to less than 1 percent. This is a result of hostile spaces created by adults through perpetual denial, disbelief, and ignorance towards children.
I want to address, lastly, that not all of us have access to spaces — be it mental, physical, or social — that are inviting and inhabitable to us. What makes a good space? Freedom of expression, perhaps, and the ideals of individualism; access to resources of the best quality; a home with a pleasant environment. On a larger scale, maybe inclusion in society or representation in one’s government. Nearly all of these things are associated with upper-class communities and Western heritage, or to put it concisely, wealth. And they’re often out of reach for people, particularly kids, of other backgrounds.
I’ve learnt from firsthand experience how much of a long-term difference having early access to pleasant spaces (blanket forts, if you will) makes, and my cats have taught me that we should be unapologetic about leaving spaces we don’t feel safe in and entering spaces we do feel safe in. All my life, I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by a plethora of safe spaces, both online and in real life. They’ve taught me how to express my needs, desires, and emotions in a liberated and uninhibited manner. They’ve taught me that we all deserve to occupy space in this world.
MY AVERSION TO HORROR
I hate horror stories.
Not just the deranged-toy-that-got-possessed kind, but even the ones where six kids go in and five come out, filled-with-gore kind. From IT and The Conjuring, to The Exorcist and Dracula; I've avoided it all. The dread-filled whispers from my friends recounting their sleepless nights plagued by certain ‘monsters’ and fictitious creatures that may seem all too fatuous to you now, but certainly alarmed me when I was nine years old. Now that I’m fourteen, I beg to differ as I contemplate my existence every time my friends wait with a bated breath to watch the upcoming horror flick.
My parents' substantial indifference to the genre confounded me, as I always recollected watching Tamil movies filled with slaughter and carnage, which left me flabbergasted as to why they weren't scared out of their wits like I was. I avoided the genre like the plague. Well, until I couldn't anymore.
Recently, my English teacher assigned us, much to my repugnance, the task of writing a horror story. This left me dumbstruck, my qualms not changing my fated outcome, as I was forced to tackle this obstacle of magnanimous proportions. For a week, my pages stayed as blank as a canvas, with no blue ink blotting its ruled lines with scenes right out of a cliche horror film.
The deadline neared, my teacher’s reminders echoing in my head, as each day passed by, with nothing outright terrifying happening in my life to inspire me. Perhaps you could blame it on my ‘fatal flaw’, that any story of mine could be a good story, whether it was a horror piece or not, if it had a multitude of adjectives. So I sat and filled my pages like ornaments sitting emptily on a Christmas tree, as I created an image that lacked any horrific element at all, but still had the setting of an ideal horror story.
Horror. The word had conjured up an abandoned street, the dilapidated cobbled road littered with debris; so quiet you could hear the shrill tone of the cricket lurking in the corner and the menacing cackle of the ravens. You could see putrefying trees with branches that seemed like the fingers of a witch protruding from each side;an eroding tombstone filled with dust and cobwebs, the grave however empty, and the perfect victim for this masterfully set scene.The dazzle of this fictitious picture clouded my judgement, giving me false hope that maybe I too could be delve into the intimidating genre of horror and enjoy it, like everyone else around me did.
THE RACE-FROG AND TORTOISE
- JOSEPH MATOSE
Emerging from the bog
Came a challenge from Frog.
Tortoise has no pride
He took less time to decide.
Then the race was set
Where panders took a bet.
As Frog skipped forward,
Tortoise paddled onward.
On the winning line
He grabbed a bottle of wine
To celebrate a win
Then heard a booing din:
“Both of you gentlemen
“Show all of us how you ran.”
Tortoise traced his route
He, marks of skipping boot.
They then marked a place
Frog to demonstrate the race.
“You’ve omitted many a laps,
“See the untrodden gaps.”
The route Tortoise took
Was clawed well when you look
So, Frog was called a cheat
That’s how he faced defeat.
FIRE IN JULY
- ISABELLA LOBO
Tires struck black,
Skidding 20 miles over on our roads
Between echoes of the voice
And outlines of the words carved in ash
That poured from her seat,
Pouring until I choked on the remnants with each syllable
A drop of venom.
And there was only that clatter:
The voice bending through dark and
The road and the wringing of wrists and
Never more silent as they broke from my throat,
Tore from my throat,
Up through the wall of flame.
And the chill from the ice of her words stinging,
Freezing the edges of myself as I burned.
WHAT ARE YOU IN THE MOOD TO EAT FOR DINNER?
- APPLE GILMORE
Vegetable soup, maybe
Or just some fresh bread with cheese
Some of the good wine from the cellar
A casual conversation with someone I knew in
Someone to talk to about the weather and the government
Someone who distracts me from the emptiness in my stomach
It looks like hunger, doesn’t it? Is that why
Well, it feels like loneliness.
Anyway, something light. Something warm.
Do you like fondue?