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I dread this probe more than the dreadful visits to a government office. No response can validate my existence. Nothing comes forth, but the trite reality of the last few years. When I was younger, I had an excuse for procrastination. After all, I was working towards something, towards some bright future behind hopeful eyes. I could answer with ease back then.

Now my mind searches for internal consolation at my supposed lack of success. “I’m still kinda young” is one such rationalization. But this excuse will serve its time as well, and then what? I’m sure I’ll come up with something. The expectations of others weigh too heavily on some of us who still do odd jobs for money. I know it isn’t just me, and I know this sounds a bit whiny. They just expected so much of me.

So much money spent and so many years of education later, I can not even remember most of the information I memorized and regurgitated. So many years of working, and somehow, I still find myself sitting on a heap of bleeding pens, crumpled manuscripts and a scattering of unpaid bills. If my life were a game, I would have to take five spaces back. I justify my whining. I can justify anything these days, like a defense mechanism against my discontent with all I haven’t done. However, there’s always a ‘yet’ to insert. A future where I have things figured out and people think of me without concern because behold, I am successful!

So this is it! I'm driven by fantasies of a future that is as real as my next daydream. What if all the motivational articles were true? ‘Ten Steps to Make Your Dream A Reality!’ as promised. For a moment, my hope is renewed. What if I quit dreaming and started living? What if I defined success on my terms? What if I could just shrug off those silent expectations and rest in confidence that I am doing my best? Am I doing my best?

"Oh, you know, I've been working, evolving and enjoying life and such." That is the best response I can come up with.

Their hope for me dims.

Excerpts from my series, City On Wheels.

[Excerpt from my series, Whispers To My Shadows]

We all say words that we do not mean every day. We say it because it is expected of us. We say it because we live in a world that can barely survive lengthy, winding talks without feeling judged. We say it because when minutes turn to seconds and the idyllic shades of dusk paint the skies black in swift brush strokes, the emptiness starts bursting against the corner of the room, leaving you with an impossible choice. To divulge or to hide?

How many 'I am fine' rolled between your tongue despite the heaviness you feel in your chest? Despite the emptiness slowly spreading out to your throat, the pit of your stomach, the edge of your shoulder blades? How many 'It’s okay' spoken between gritted teeth when you really just felt like a tangled heap of messy hair and dirty muck caught in the drain?

An epiphany hit me the other day as I said 'Sorry' for what felt like an eternity of apologies. I apologise profusely. I apologise for the mistakes that are sometimes not even mine. For a long time I even apologised for my existence, for not being your version of me. I apologise for the tragedies and exhilaration. For eccentricities and imperfection, vulnerabilities and silences. Hell, even for my state of mind. I apologise for the what-ifs and the could-bes with regrets creeping into my system like a slow poison. I apologise even when there is no need for words.

Maybe, we need to stop saying things we no longer mean. Maybe the rare words that engulf the recesses of our hearts and minds are more precious than those that we say daily. So when we apologise and mean it, it is no longer just an apology. And when I say, "I am fine". I finally am.

Written for Almaarii, a collaborative storytelling project that collects all kinds of narratives surrounding what closets mean for people in South Asia. Artwork by Mrinalini.

As a kid, whenever I felt out of sorts, I'd retreat to the terrace of my building and lay down on the hard cement floor, put on my Walkman, look up at the stars, take a deep breath, close my eyes so I could truly see, and disappear into my ‘almaarii, my sanctuary; away from the noise of the world around me, the numbness I always felt but couldn’t quite explain and wake up to my world. One that I could form and manifest by my own will. One where I could wander freely in my skin, just my skin and not feel the piercing eyes of the world left behind.

This place is wide as the infinite night sky. It is radiant and thriving as an ancient forest. A realm where I can sleep with the dust, eat it and revel in it; where I am a tempest, a storm, unyielding and untamed! Where I disrobe, disintegrate and deteriorate my soul and rebuild myself again. Here, the outside world retreats to the underground, and the cold and hard surface of the cement is replaced by a soft moss-covered ground of the forest floor. Here, the howls of the outside world are silenced by the cacophony of wild sounds accompanied by the trickling sound of the gentle stream of a river, resonating through the air, forming a magical orchestra. Beside the river is a tree. Always a willow tree, but with sparkling silver leaves that shine under the 7 silver moons, painted against the glorious black sky. In the distance, a brilliant turquoise twilight. Look! There's a unicorn flying by.

Here, I am not me. I am many. I can exist; not as a man, not as a woman, but just me. Sometimes, even as vapour. I am not alone here. This world is thriving with all kinds of beings and creatures that myths and legends are made of. Life here looks nothing like you’re used to. Different colours, different scents, but all very pleasing. Everyone is in harmony and they are all my friends. Everyone is in pairs of all kinds because no one should have to be alone.

I live in Mumbai now, and it doesn’t have too many terraces. A window view of the moon is rather rare, and the sky is never that clear. Not too many escape routes out of the oppression! So I just lay down on my bed and stare at the ceiling, and follow the trajectory of the fan blades as they revolve, until my eyes drop, until I slowly slip back into my almaari, through the portal inside my mind.

Away from the expectations and the judgements of the human world, from the callous, indifferent and savage laws that govern that world, and far from the haunting shadows of my past, the present. Here, there is congruence, there is a certain peace. Here I am not defined by my physicality, my anatomy, my language, my birth. Here, there is no malice, no pain, no bullies, no evil, no nasty stares by strangers, telling me my 'different' isn't welcomed.

Here I can breathe. This is the one place I truly feel free, where I've always felt free. This is my almaarii, and it may change in form and space, but it is open for all who need it, and in its tender embrace even you can feel whole again.

Varsha Panikar,

Pansexual, Gender Fluid

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