LIFE IN A FAIRY TALE LAND

Places mentioned in fairy tales do exist. I know that for a fact now. I am living in one such place. For the past two weeks almost. And am apprehensive, am getting used to living in a fairy tale. Whereas i have just about 1.5 weeks more all till this becomes only a fairy tale once more.

But lets rewind a bit and go back to the 4th of July 2013, 6.00 am, Munich Airport. I reached a day later than i was supposed to (why so, and that it turned out to be perfect serenpidity is another story altogether !)

So with my 19 Kilo suitcase and rucksack i took three trains and a bus to finally reach Schwaebisch Hall , where i was to embark on a new adventure with people i didnt know at all , doing work i have not done ever and in a place which had seemed elusive until now.

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Timbered beauties along the Kocher

Schwaebisch Hall has timbered houses . Or as the word in German goes, “Fachwerkhaus”. These houses , some of them, are at least 600 years old and have the same families living in them since they were made. Everything in this “city” is about 20 minutes away from the centre or the “Marktplatz”. Population lies around the 37K mark. And yet the “city” has over 100 nationalities.  And yes i even found my indian “connection”. i discovered a gorgeous shop selling the most breathtaking Kashmiri shwals, with work such intricate, that an entire family took 2 years to make one shwal. And i even got invited for my cup of hot piping Kashmiri Kahwa. Here in Schwaebishc Hall, in Baden Wuerttermberg, in Germany, some 9000 km away from Kashmir. (Ladakh, i think, we need to meet again soon. Its a sign). But again am getting ahead of myself.

I reached the Goethe Institute in SHA (Thats the license plate abbreviation for Schwaebisch Hall) around lunch time and was greeted by my new boss in a very unboss like way: with a hug, food and free luggage pick up . And of course, as i knew i would, we dove straight away into work. The city, meanwhile, paitiently waited for me.

We are staying in a youth hostel. This Hostel is not a half timbered structure but the next best thing: An old stone structure on the top of hillock (my colleague Ly  will probably not agree, that it is a good thing that our hostel is on the top of a hillock. The climb up shall not make it on her list of favorite things :). Opposite the main door (a huge heavy old wodden door that makes sure you tone some muscle each time you open it) is a lovely terrace with wodden chairs, vines growing along the stone-pillars, rickety round tables , some of which hide behind these lovely vines and create another alternate universe along this already incredibly beautful one. Sometimes the graceful neighbourhood cat Olli (thats the name a colleague christened him. She felt he was a olli) deems us worthy of his presence and grants us a glimpse or two.  Sometimes a bettle, a lady bird or a garden lizard that lives in one of the teeny cracks in the stone pillars stop by and grace us with their presence.

Most days we have dinner out on this terrace admist chatter in portugese, croatian, usbek , chinese,german, english and me throwing  in a dash of Hindi (just to confuse my mates :-P ), generally talking nineteen to the dozen, goofing around, getting to know each other. The whole world seems to melt away and for me, it is, as if every other aspect of my life has frozen in time for the moment and this is the only life i know.

Together we are 52 teenagers and 13 “grown ups” trying to learn German, discover Germany and grow together as a part of this international summer course organized by the Goethe Instiute Germany.

For the last 10 days we have laughed together, walked up and down this wobbly “city” together, danced together, dressed up badly together, some brave souls jog up the thousand steps that SHA has, other play mini golf, make friendship bands, try slack line or just laze around the river, on the green grass …

Meanwhile the city and i now finally friends.  Before i came here, i was in Ladakh for a month. And the hardships i saw people suffering there, or when i think of how 8 million of us take the train to work each day ,  for about 20 years of our lives back in Mumbai, or how on a rainy day we have to fight with the taxiwallahs (Taxidrivers), pay exhorbitant fares to just reach home and catch just about 20 winks before the fight starts again, i was almost angry at this city.  it seemed and still seems unfair that people have the luxury of living in this exquisite town.  i resisted this place. You are not true, i kept saying. You cannot exist, i kept telling Schwaebisch Hall. With your cobbled streets, timbered houses overlooking the river, many cafes with happy chatter of the locals, broad avenues, theatre in the main square, small  bylanes 800px-Kocherpartie_schwaebisch_hallthat are teasing you to guess which other bylane they shall lead you to, a delightful beer garden by the river, the beautiful park leading you to Comburg, the Art Museum Würth you are just a dream which a  loud honk from a 30 year old kaali -peeli (black yellow taxi back home) shall rudely wake me up to. What made it even worse was my discovery of “The Revolutionary optimists”, a group of slum kids from Kolkata (remember “City of Joy”?) , who are working towards eradicating polio in their slum, mapping their slum, reclaiming their playground and basically trying to make their world more humane.  You see how the world out there really is, i wanted to shout out. I resisted the beauty of this place. But Schwaebisch Hall was kind. We’ve been blessed with good weather till now and am sure now that we are finally getting to know each other, the good mood (read weather) shall continue.

i was secretly glad and felt slightly consoled by the fact that all the team members (mostly of german origin) are not from here and even for them this place is like a dream .   i had, then a mental divide of “us” (guests to this peaceful town) and “them”  (the inhabitants of this town). They were still invisible for me and hence , not that real.  I had painted them in my head as rich, slightly unaware people with no idea what the “real” world was like.  But of course, Schwaebisch Hall decided to prove me otherwise.  i very recently discovered that the “Launda” of our team (my mates shall figure out who this is) is a localite.  Hmm. I take back my unspoken words. My prejuidice towards the townsfolks. Sorry.

So what is this? an Illusion?  i guess, this place is a break for all of us from our “realities”.  These four weeks are simply a gift for me.  And my mates  here are the cherry , the icing on the cake. From my Boss, to my Bankier , my Launda, the Nor, the Bio Woman, the Ly, B ,  Vi the three Maedels, and the Thai…et all… We r the nuts in this too good to be true place…

Cheers!

PS: Nor, you asked me to take it easy. Relax a bit. Now i can …

PPS: Launda, you owe me a dance lesson. Or maybe two…

PPPS: Boss: er….dont be mad at  me for calling you boss…

PPPPS: Bankier: MUAH!

Lost In Ladakh : Part 2 (The School)

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My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.

–Maya Angelou

Often i find this particularly untrue in India, where the number of degrees/certifications earned in academic institutions is considered to be directly proportional to the intelligence of that person. Or the matrimonial worth of the person. Or the “talk worthiness”… Or Respect-worthiness… etc…

Us “Educated” folks spend years learning (read: rote learning) whatever got us those coveted 0.000001 % more from books which are often full of errors. So go to school, get those marks and get out.

Sadly even at 10000 feet in the heart of the lofty Himalayas the attitude prevails

My short stint at the Ibex Colony private school reminded me a few things i had forgotten.

Before i reached Leh, i had been informed of the background of the school, the teachers, the working conditions and my tasks there. Yet nothing prepared me for what i experienced the first few days.

But first let try to give a basic idea of the school there.

Often in schools in the cities or coaching classes the teachers and students lament about the lack of infrastructure, the outdated technologies, or the inadequate resources etc…

Well this school has no electricity. Forget copier machines or internet. If you think about it, you might realize that even in the cold months of November, March and even most of April too there is no heating.The month of May this time was unusually windy, cold and it even snowed lightly sometimes. And yet some of the students wore only a thin pullover with maybe two shirts. No gloves, no jackets nothing…And not because they felt heroic about doing this

The school has just three rooms: two classrooms, one staff/storage room, one real long corridor… A Ladaki toilet for the teachers and the older students (for the younger one’s have the school grounds to their disposal (literally)). A small room where the midday meals are cooked and a hand pump to drink water, wash hands, wash their plates after the meal, and of course, have some fun. Even my kindergarteners would hang (again, literally) on the pump and fill their bottles or wash their hands and lovely smiling faces.

The older children (class 3-5) would take turns to clean the classrooms, conduct the assembly. Ah, the assembly. Initially i was speechless when i fist saw how the assembly was conducted. But with time i realized, that even in this rudimentary formed it served an important purpose: it gave these kids a sense of belonging, a sense of “we”, of being together in a school. So my morning would often start with a 3 year old’s rendition of ‘Macchli jal ki rani hai” (a nursery rhyme in Hindi) as his/her contribution to the assembly.

But even though the children did so much work, i never heard them utter a single complaint,or make a face or answer back. Nothing. They seemed, in fact, to be grateful for just about anything they got.

What amazed me was their hunger for learning. They hang on to every word you utter, they are waiting to lap up each thing you teach them. Even simple games, a small piece of chocolate, a balloon or that some adult is actually listening to them makes them happy.

Sadly the teachers are, as of now, not equipped to quench this thirst for learning: Didactic and methodology are as good as non existent. Even in terms of knowledge there is a huge vacuum. What makes the whole thing worse is that English is the official medium of instruction. So while the teaching is done in a mix of Hindi and Ladaki, the students are expected to write their exams in English. And they struggle (of course they will) and hence under perform. And thus get labelled as “mediocre”, “dull” and even “dumb”. Or as one teacher even told me,”These hill kids are not as smart as your city kids”.
Am sure that is not a new story. Its the same in most government schools or even in most families for that matter. We find the easy way out (the lazy way) and tell ourselves,” es liegt nicht an mir”..i.e. its not me, its them… or “Its anyway not going to help. So why waste energy this?”. Of course i have often seen the other extreme in many city schools/families too: the child is spoilt to the core, or pushed so much that the child never really gets a chance to be just what he is (at that age) meant to be: a child. Mini Adults is what i often feel like calling them.

Its almost like the two extremes are in this way trying to balance each other out..

Often instead of trying to teach life skills like basic hygiene, motor skills, cleaning up after ourselves,being yourself we insist on shoving lot of unnecessary things down their little throats, choking them, leaving no room for them to spill out their new ideas, deciding for them what is right/wrong or good for them. So any wonder these teachers there do the same? Feel the same?

Having said that i felt motivated when i visited the nursery/pre-primary school run by DIET (District institute of Education and Training) and saw how open the environment was and how much efforts the teachers were taking to try out new ideas, use interactive methods of teaching and increase their own horizons so that they can do the same for the kids. And the school is just 6 months old!

Most importantly hats off to Payal Mahajan and Sandeep Mahajan (Art of learning foundation http://artoflearning.in/) for believing in these kids, trusting me to do be able to do something for them (though honestly i have not done anything as yet) and for not giving up. The kids really look forward to your visits!

Children have big hearts. Really big hearts. Let’s please not try our best to squeeze them and make them as tiny as most of ours and feel happy that now they are “just like us”!

A Little lost in Ladakh!

“East, west, south, or north makes little difference. No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.”

Shams of Tabriz

Having said (rather quoted the above) i think  a journey without does help you to journey within …especially if it is set 11000 feet (around 3500 M) above the sea, amidst snow topped mountains, brown sandy mountains, sometimes purple (yes , purple), sometimes red mountains. With streams with water so sweet, so clear, you can just cup your hands and drink it (and yet not spend the rest of your days confined in your WC/Ladakhi toilet)…smelling the sweet apricot and apple blossoms, watching weather-beaten, shy faces greeting, “Julley” along the way.

Of course there are other reasons too. The fact that its freezing cold, without any heating in room/cars etc, no hot water showers (in fact , no showers at all: bucket style baths  with just about lukewarm water, that chill your bones further are all you get on a shoe string budget), coupled with wearisome weather , such that on some days one can experience all four seasons in the span of a few hours. Even the air is so thin that a short hike can make you totally breathless (unfit that i am), in a way that your loud panting can be, am certain, heard many kilometers away.

And that’s how it was for me. For over three weeks. In Leh, Ladakh, India.

When i reached Ladakh end of April , i really did not know what awaited me. All i knew was, i was going to be teaching at the IBEX COLONY GOVT PRIMARY SCHOOL for around a month, try to share some tips with the teachers there and basically have a gala time with the Kindergardners! (To be honest:  this way i could officially get away with playing around with puzzles, crayons, nursery rhymes, read a lot of children’s stories etc… It’s after all, important for the kids!). I had armed myself with a lot of books (no, really they were for the kids, not just me ;) ) for the kids, craft material to play around with, a few toys, some videos and lots of new ideas. I wanted to make a real difference, introduce some modern methods of teaching, make a difference. Everything would be hunky dory. After all, Ladakh was a dream destination, right?

Of course, as you know, i was not quite right. A bit off the mark. Ok, really off the mark.

I struggled. I was sometimes frustrated. I asked myself, why was i here. I left a job i  loved for this? “Ooh, so breathking”, is what all would probably say on seeing the pictures of Ladakh. But the mountains are tough taskmasters. They demand you prove your worthiness. As beautiful as they are, they demand you rise to their heights and show your mettle. I shivered (literally and figuratively. After all, it was often around zero degree Celsius in the night, at that height!). I felt cut off from everything i had known (well trust me for a month, i didn’t send a SINGLE SMS, i could not…Network was that inconsistent), i was alone (was travelling alone). But somehow i stayed on. Despite all these doubts i managed to hang on. So much that i want to go back to the mountains as soon as i have some moolah (Or if i find a/some sponsor, i can go there NOW) This is the beginning of a love affair for a life time.

In the next 3 blog entries i would like to write about my experiences in the school, a little about the very little travelling i managed to squeeze in and about the lovely people i met along the way.

I am a bit slow in writing. So it might take a few days, but it will be online…that’s a promise!

Crystal Clear! and COLD

Till then, Julley

Free…

My Dream waited for me
While I sat, crouching,
Too afraid to take the leap.
Each fiber trembled
From anticipation
 of flight, of freedom.
Of adventures that could be.
And then a small voice nudged,
Go, plunge, dive, jump,
And let set your sails free…

 

Art work by SANDY SETIAImage

Return of the boldness

I have woken up from my deep slumber. Finally.

It happened like this:

The Universe: knock knock!

Me: who’s there?

Universe: mi

Me: me who?

Universe: Mi Amo

This simple truth was all I needed to hear.

Thank you. Danke. Gracias. Shukran

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Daily Prompt: Plead the fifth?

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/daily-prompt-plead-the-fifth/

OOOhhhhhhh i have to write today. Mainly for two reasons:

a) i have had no electricity at home for almost two weeks now,so i have not used my laptop in this time (which is also nice). Hence i have not been able to really read other blogs or write properly …except using the WordPress-App , which is great for updates , yet not as user friendly for writing as a laptop. My laptop and i are finally friends again after a two week hiatus.

b) I have not one but two questions i hate. And it would do me good to write about them, and for once and for all close this chapter.

Question 1: Posed in all variations:

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Blunt variation: Are you married?

Indirect version 1 : What does your husband do?

Indirect version 2: Is your husband picking you from the station?

Indirecct version 3:

Do you have kids? ( Here Marriage = Kids)
4. So, when are you giving me good news? (yes, its that bad) 5. So when are you giving us sweets ( don’t shake your head in disbelief. People ask this all the time)
5. When will you take some more responsibility? (This one is often posed only by parents and some aunts and uncles. Read: Single= no responsibility)

And every second , oh hell, every person you vaguely know will ask you any of these variations. It could be the usual suspects and even unusual ones like your taxi driver/ ricksha driver or the neighbourhood grocery store owner you know…just about anyone.

Do i even need to explain why this totally makes me want to tear my hair off?

This question is often followed by a talk on how i need to change my expectations, adjust (read: settle for less. More importantly get married), how time is running out. Time is always running, isn’t it? For everyone?

The other thing i dislike: Here in our culture whenever you meet someone after a certain length of time, the first thing you get to hear:
Hi! How are you doing? Look at you, wow! You have lost so much weight! OR
Hey! You seem to be progressing in life (read: becoming fat. Funnily, traditionally becoming fatter is thought to be directly proportional to prosperity or having a “jovial” nature …)

So personally, i have had it with these two questions. I hope now at least some people get the hint.

Daily Prompt: Dear Mom

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/daily-prompt-19/

” Maa” , that’s what a mother is called in Hindi. And I find this word more soothing, more musical and more melodious than other variants . So am addressing my letter to my Maa.

Dear Maa,

you are right now across the seven seas, and we have not seen each other in a few months and u shall be away for a bit longer . So I feel this is probably the best time to write to you.

It amazes me, whenever I think that my Maa can speak almost eight different Indian languages! Be it the north, south, west or east, you can find one common language and express yourself. What amazes me is the fact that two of those you learnt after you came here to Mumbai!

From Allepey in Kerala to Mumbai at the age of 22 , married to a man who was almost a stranger to you. From living in a house that was right at the beach in quiet and calmness to living in a house right outside a railway station , where every 4 minutes a train thundered by. From land of Malayalam to land of Marathi. How terrifying it must have been for you. From a nuclear family of four in a big house to a joint family of twelve in a two room apartment. How claustrophobic you might have felt.

And yet you made a place for yourself in everyone’s heart and a place for each person of your family in your heart. Like most women here, you too have slogged and sacrificed your life so that we, your children get the best of everything and move up in life. It is because you sacrificed so many holidays , did we get an education that took us places. It is because you woke up each day at 5 am, did we never miss any class or any meetings. I admire your capacity to give.

At the same time I wish that now our horizons have become so different that we maybe share and celebrate these differences. I wish I could , for a day, show you what my life REALLY looks like! That the bridge is strong between us and we can easily cross into each others worlds.

And mostly I admire you for being happy with two weirdoes like dad and me :)

Home is waiting for both you ! Come back soon!

Daily Prompt: Circle of five

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/daily-prompt-circle-of-five/

Daily Prompt: Circle of Five
A writer once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” If this is true, which five people would you like to spend your time with?

In school we often were asked to write an essay on topics such as ,” My favorite Personality”, or “My idol” “Whom i admire the most”. And I used to absolutely not like this exercise. How can one select just one person? I admire different people for different reason and would rather be a mix of their best. Would we not become too uni-dimensional if we just emulated one person and just as flawed? So invariably I would write the same name each time, like all these essay “guides” would : Mahatma Gandhi.

Ironically I would start with him again this time for my BIG FIVE:

I admire the sheer DETERMINATION this man possessed. Almost single handedly he got a “nation” ( i firmly believe India is a huge collection of multifarious groups rather than ONE country in the real sense of the word) up on it’s feet and moving. He gave the world the alternative of showing the other cheek. And for that I love him.

JALLALUDIL RUMI:
Ach Rumi! You teach me each time I read you, what it is to love and hence to live. The simplicity and yet the sheer elegance in your thoughts/ words have been an inspiration to me. Just like you said, your beauty has set my life on fire.

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My Dad

As clichéd as it sounds, my dad is also one of my BIG FIVES. I have not met a person as kind, as warm and as loving as he is.

JRD TATA:

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He was warm, sharp and founder of almost all the biggest industries in India. He was way ahead of his time and India owes him the beginning of modernization. He was the first Indian to obtain a pilot license issued in India. He showed that you can set up an empire without corruption, without black money.

Babies and children:

Well maybe am cheating here ;-) , yet I know that children inspire me the most. No matter how much you think you know, they know and understand even more. They are straightforward and also know what to say when and where. Loving comes easy to them. So does forgiving. They accept people as they are. Think out of the box. Experiment. Get up easily when they fall down. So call me a cheat if you will, but They remain in my BIG FIVE

Daily Prompt: Mix Tape

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/daily-prompt-20/

This is was an easy one. Really. For me personally there’s one “song” that kind covers most flavors one may get a chance to live in one lifetime:

I salute the thoughts, the power of this voice:

Everybody is free ( to wear sunscreen) by Baz Luhrman

Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of ’97,

Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long term
benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis or
reliable then my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice….now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, nevermind, you won’t understand the power and
beauty of your youth until they’ve faded, but trust me in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of
yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous
you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future, or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra
equation by chewing bubblegum.

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind: the kind that blindsides
you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Sing.

Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts; don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is
long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive; forget the insults. (if you succeed in doing this, tell me how).

Keep your old love letters; throw away your old bank statements.

Stretch.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people
I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives; some of the most interesting 40 year
olds I know still don’t.

Get plenty of Calcium. Be kind to your knees — you’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll
divorce at 40; maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary.

Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself, either. Your choices are half
chance, so are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your body: use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or what other people think of it; it’s the
greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Dance…even if you have no where to do it but in your own living room.

Read the directions (even if you don’t follow them).

Do not read beauty magazines; they will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents; you never know when they’ll be gone for good.

Be nice to your siblings: they’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in
the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but what a precious few should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps
and geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you
were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.

Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.

Travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old; and when you
do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children
respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund, maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse,
but you never know when either one might run out.

Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you are 40, it will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia;
dispensing it is a way of wishing the past from the disposal–wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and
recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me, on the sunscreen.

Confessions of a Serial Yeller.

I am a little impatient at times . Okay , am very impatient at times. Oh well, might as well admit it: am extremely impatient all the time. Then I rant and rave, yell, be rude, very very sarcastic , bite others and generally display all Godzilla or for that matter any of your typical Bollywood villain/vamp traits. The fact that I have extremely unruly and long voluminous wavy hair that fly all over the place doesn’t help. Medusa or the Hindu Goddess of wrath Durga have strong competition from me.

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(the foto looks much kinder than I do at these times)

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(foto courtesy: imagine)
This is more like me. Plus being a teacher I can raise my voice, modify my tone to make the other person feel what I want to. And of course am not talking of a warm fuzzy feeling. More like a I – want – to- crouch – beneath – the – sofa or dig- myself – a- hole – feeling.

And then the moment of insanity passes. And I feel terrible. Guilty . Full of remorse.

So I try . Not to loose my cool. I tried to count to ten. That’s over too fast. So I tried to count up to fifty. Too much counting.

I tried taking deep breaths. Didn’t help. Apparently they weren’t deep enough.

Tried to meditate. Too antsy for that at that moment.

Thought age would help. It did. It helped me to become even more impatient with people who i felt were not getting me.

Then one day i happen to catch a look of me when i was angry in the mirror. I saw how ugly I looked. How like a monster . And I knew what I was doing to myself. I was becoming that monster. Which I didn’t want to.

Of course i occasionally still loose it. Then I just hold a mirror , a virtual one and tell myself : it’s ok. Let it be

Ashish Shakya

Writer. Stand-up comic. General idiot for hire.

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