For as long as I can remember, I’ve been torn between the two irreconcilable halves of my person- Tanisha, my name on every official document, and Khushi, the name that my parents call me by- that I cannot separate from my being, but also cannot unite in one whole.
Tanisha: For as long as I can remember I’ve been in love with the intoxicating scent of paperbacks. It promises escape and wonder more certainly than anything in the world- an echo of what lies between the lines of the book. The actual reading, however, always eclipses the superficial pleasures given by the book; the feel of the firm, rigid spine under your fingertips, the cadence of the flipping page, and the beauty of the typed words are merely the flesh of its being, and as we now universally acknowledge- there is greatness beneath the surface.
Khushi: For as long as I can remember, the old cobbler who comes every Tuesday has my eyes dampening because for all my words and sympathy I do nothing but watch. He sits outside the dormitory courtyard, fixing up our torn shoes with frail, gaunt hands that cannot stop quivering because while his fingers remember the work, his brain is too worn out to support it. His torn socks don’t shield his weak feet from the creeping cold of tiled floors. I turn away,always in the same fashion– it is okay darling, you’ve got seven assignments to complete.
Tanisha: For as long as I can remember, I’ve wished to produce the magic in the warmth of narrative- fiction and nonfiction alike- one that surrounds, envelops, us like a mother shielding her children from brute reality. I’ve dreamt of life-changing pieces, for both reader and writer, of truthful pieces that lay bare everything in unabashed honesty. Truth be told, I am desperate to write something more lasting than the weakened memory of human beings, worn down by Time and Amnesia, to create life encased in the mortal frame of paper and ink (in this situation- pixels and the internet).
Khushi: For as long as I can remember, the sound of Aafiya’s dreams of gynecology have echoed in my mind. One month is perhaps short to get to know thirty children well, but it had been enough for me. On 6th June 2017, I got a call from Teach For India that would change my life. They liked my application so much, they wanted me to start immediately at a low-income Muslim school forty five minutes away from my house. I would work between 12:30 PM to 5:30 PM. There was no strict dress code, but they encouraged me to cover up. I spent the next two days shopping for traditional Indian kurtas and Googling what to teach fifth graders. I was only fifteen, I hoped to God they wouldn’t laugh at the thought of me as their new teacher.
Tanisha: For as long as I can remember, every Saturday afternoon has been reserved for Poetry reading in the back of my school library, between the shelves and windows. The sunlight filters through the glass to fall upon musty, yellowing pages of Tennyson, Browning, Byron or, if it be a good day, Maya Angelou. I can sit there for as long as time stretches out, the low bookshelves hiding me from the view of everyone who isn’t really looking- no one ever is. I’ve spent forever there, listening to Bastille reruns or One Republic’s latest. It’s easy to lose myself then, in between no feeling and every feeling, in between floating words and printed feelings.
Khushi: For as long as I can remember, the sight of F.D Jamalpur School’s crumbling building, fan-less ceilings and wet corridors has been imprinted in my mind. I went prepared to teach them a new lesson, but had to rewind when I learned that they barely had third grade knowledge, let alone know how to solve word problems. Some of them could not read a sentence without fumbling, or even point to me where Mumbai was on the map! But they knew how to dream, they knew how to listen carefully when I read them I Am Malala, and they knew how to love. I brought to them my dreams as well. They knew I would be late on Fridays- I had my SAT lesson that day. I came into their lives fleetingly, and messily. And I left that way too.
Tanisha: For as long as I will remember, I will remember what it felt like to stand by while copy after copy of the hand written and hand drawn Chrysalis came out of the big printer at the English Big Depot- all of me naked and unadorned in ink and paper. I felt vulnerable, exposed, but I suppose that’s how all writers feel. The Chrysalis– my school’s literary magazine- had been my dream for so long that I had forgotten why exactly it meant so much to me. I had forgotten that the reason I had fallen in love with the art of reading and writing was because of the extraordinary way in which it transported me into another life- the life of a painter in Vienna, an actor in Los Angeles, a Jew in Auschwitz, a child in Narnia. It allowed me to escape the reality of myself, and be more than half a writer between the sea and the hills. It allowed me to believe that the insignificant details of my quotidian existence were perhaps not that insignificant after all. So that rainy day of September, when the grey sky poured down on the city, I stood in a bookshop that sold coffee (or a coffee shop that sold books) recalling all my reasons.
Khushi: For as long as I will ever remember, I will remember my last day at F.D. Jamalpur School. The children had decorated the walls with handmade streamers. The table was covered in paper-wrapped giftsand a huge handmade yellow card that I couldn’t possibly accept. I had to blink rapidly to clear my vision. I left that day in tears, and so did the children. I ducked away fast, eager to avoid the parents who would be quick to see me for what I was- a fifteen year old wearing an expensive new watch, giving charity lessons to make herself feel better about being so blessed. I got into my silver car which barely fit in the narrow streets of this area of my city. Its hood glinted in the sunlight. The children looked on- even after a month they were in awe of private transport. When I reached home my mother carefully opened the card and gifts that they had sneaked into my backpack. I opened the card and my heart broke. When I opened the first one I saw it was a normal five-rupee blue pen that I had never thought could possibly constitute anything emotional. And yet, suddenly my mother and I were both sniffling, because I knew what difficulty Asma must have gone through to acquire this for me.
For far too long, I’ve struggled with who I truly am. Tanisha, the one who roots for feminism and LGBTQ+ rights and speaks eloquently about the meaning behind Sylvia Plath’s Daddy or John Keats’ An Ode to a Nightingale; or Khushi, the one who staggers across the world hoping she can bring life to the ideas of the lower strata in a world that has granted her a stellar education, while denying others the same.
I do not know how to name one of them the stranger, when in fact I am still acquainting myself with being both without being a hypocrite.