My mother has perfected an evening ritual to follow her daily tutoring of students. She will chop up a veritable smorgasbord of greens for two wheeking furballs — our guinea pigs who are currently experiencing an identity crisis between deciding if they are puppies or bunnies — rummaging around their enclosures. This will be followed by a long and tedious cleaning procedure for the mid-sized fish tank we have nurtured for nearly 4 years. Lately, the fins on the goldfish show vein-thin strands of red and their bellies have been irregularly bloated. Two nights ago, my mother— arthritis and a heavy bronchial cough in tow— rushed out to the nearest aquarium supplies store like a boomerang on acid. The boy who manages the place is also the resident fish doctor in-charge. On most instances he has shown a greater degree of awareness about aquatic life than our neighbourhood veterinarian. My sister and I waited in the living room with the guinea pigs. All of us lazily sprawled on the dari, including the usual lightning bolts that are my guinea pigs. As is habitual with my mother, often her sudden departures and arrivals are shrouded in utter mystery about where she is coming from or where she is about to vanish into. It is a bad habit, she agrees as she slips on her sandals and says in immaculate Hindi — Hum abhi aate hain. Translation : I am just coming back. Thats the other thing, she never leaves the house for an errand by saying where she is going, instead it is always : I am just coming back.
And as we have learned— my sister, the guinea pigs, fish and I — to live with what she will just bring back: with a bottle of algae treatment, a gourd that resembles Lord Ganesha, a sickly baby bird, a large flatscreen TV, a story about how two flower sellers got into a verbal spat over a shared boyfriend and she sat them down for a cutting chai and nearly got them to string up friendship bracelets for each other. The just will usually last from an hour to four and when she returns, she will be carrying a grab bag of anomalies, a not-so-terrible Pandora’s box designed into a globe, without inspiring the least amount of suspicion in you about what it is. If we could bottle her energy, we could easily outpace a barrel full of red bull. Often we ask her about her clockwork routine of making herself available to an entire collection of lives she attends to on a daily basis. Her response— but what else can I do?
My vocation and passion coalesce with my general and sometimes annoying curiosity about observing how animate bodies behave in relation to their social surroundings. This is possibly the founding stone for my career as a social scientist even though it immediately separates me as a party weirdo since all I do is stand in a corner with a drink, glaring and not talking. My personal peculiarities aside, as a mixed-race woman of colour who spends a considerable amount of her time around other women of colour, I am always drawn to gazing at our habits, solemnities, routines, ceremonies, praxis — the yo-yo of joy or woe-tinged humdrum affecting the demonstration of circadian rhythms; ourselves as immaculate systems. One of my longterm observations has been linked to how Indian women like my mother so often seem to equate tiredness with uselessness. It is as if we have been indoctrinated to the idea that being tired is some kind of personal failure: somewhere between wilful lethargy and corrosive passiveness. Over a long period in time and after enough kitchen conversations with my own mother, aunts as well as my late grandmother, I came to recognize that most Indian/South Asian women in generations preceding mine were constantly conditioned to the do-something-ALWAYS ethic. This would explain why when my mother is forced by the two of us to take a nap, she manages to wriggle out from the sheets we tuck her under using some superfluous reason ranging from a cat crying in the bushes under her window to the possibility of our kitchen stove starting a forest fire in our concrete jungle. It is sometimes heart-breaking to recognize how we have been handed this unwanted inheritance of self-lessness. I hyphenate the word to indicate that so many women of colour are periodically and tirelessly involved in shouldering so much of the world’s emotional labour, our selfless presence nearly lessens the self from our own lives.
We are taught to disengage from the legitimacy of our tiredness as if it is a disease not a valid survival tool that equips us with the necessary faculties to maintain physical as well as psychological homeostasis. Often as I flip through high profile travel and leisure magazines that sell the more expensive respite from tiredness—vacations— as a plush hobby, pages upon pages of polished skin, blonde hair and blue eyes stare back with recommendations about the best beach resorts and the hippest tote and thongs to carry to the said beach resort. Then, I see a woman who looks a little bit like me— skin browned to a roasted peanut, unkempt hair, an insoluble burnout hanging low from her eyes—stare back with a tray of drinks and a dead smile. In these lavish pages that are designed with the sole purpose of selling the usefulness of tiredness and taking a break, the one person who does look like me is busied with work and responsibilities.
My mother often laughs when I tell her that she is paranoid about being “useless” if her hands or her feet (and her mind) are not constantly occupied with some task.
“You are Scherezade. You should appreciate the importance of steady labour. Your namesake survived a beheading because she was tireless in her telling of her tales.”
In her humour, my mother flawlessly discloses a sealed part of me. Much as I had previously believed that I would not acquiesce to being a clockwork mouse, I, in fact, have replaced the physical aspects of non-stop labour with emotional and creative work. I always— by some stroke of omen—self-elect as the responsible party in most casual of situations. I am the one who doesn’t drink so I am the one who hangs onto the coats and guides people out of whatever trashcan they just vomited their beer into. I am a psychologist so it is a norm for a lot of friends, especially white friends who always append “since you come from a more familial and emotionally strong culture” to their informal consultation requests. I am a woman so my male friends think I automatically can morph into an encyclopaedia for Why Women Do Womanly Shit. And even for a fairly assertive, self-regulated individual, I mostly comply. I don’t do it as some hollow orchestration of people-pleasing tendencies, I do it because I am habituated to thinking that between an empty hour to myself and a friend bawling away about his on-again off-again girlfriend who has dumped him for the 13th time that day, I should pick the latter because it affords some kind of “constructive” angle to what I did with my time.
As an experiment, I decided to step off from the hamster's wheel of constant work I have been offering to all and sundry for an incalculable amount of time. Between writing, managing a newly established private practice and running a community building project curating women’s voices against gender based violence I realised that I had spent a week haggling with myself for enough time to rub off the chipped nail varnish. That was my tipping point. One look at the anaemic, half-moons of my fingernails and I tapped out. From everything. I needed myself for myself.
This was an aberrant novelty for me. It was hard at first—to politely decline repeated entitled demands on my time from family, friends and strangers alike, to not respond to every email without imagining a wormhole opening up to swallow the whole world if I was delayed with my responses and above all, to sit back and contest my conditioning that would find its own sneaky ways to induce guilt about my timeout.
As part of my renewal ritual, I started by allowing the daybreak to not be a summon for mindlessly tripping out of bed and throwing myself, body & phone, into the considerable churn of daily to-do lists before I had even fully opened my eyes or dropped my extra-crunchy (decoded : burnt) toast into the kitchen sink.
Here is what I gave myself the time & space to indulge in —
1. Morning walks. Living in an asphalt jungle means limited elbowroom to so much as consider the possibility of a happy jaunt to a leafy expanse. However, I decided that I would daily walk the stretch of my own stomping ground at least for 15–20 minutes every morning or at night.
2. Books! I am an avid collector— coins, vintage knives, posters of B grade horror movies from the 70s and 80s and above all, BOOKS! In the last few years though, the amount of time I have been able to spare towards my own mini-library has been inversely proportionate to its expansion. Overflowing cardboard boxes, laundry baskets & DIY hobby stuff occupy much of the floor length in my room. I decided to devote a few hours every day to the amazing books I have amassed. This was still easier for me to do because I feel sufficiently “occupied” when reading even if it is leisurely and subdued. Reading became my “gateway drug” into more obvious and explicit modes of selfcare.
3. Fruits-on-face. There is no other way to describe this practice. I pulp fruits or veggies like papaya,strawberries, bananas, tomatoes and cucumber (depending on availability and the fluctuating girth of my wallet) on different days of the week and chilled with homemade smoothies with the leftovers!
4. Hong Kong’s finest kung-fu flicks. This has been my antidote through every depressive cycle I have ever found myself buried under. Chiang Sheng, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li, David Chiang Da-wei, and *swoonfest* — Andy Lau. It is nearly impossible for me to swim around in a blue funk after watching the Venom Mob in action for even an hour.
5. I installed a superapp for daily fitness that was more of a routine-setting exercise for myself than any peculiar or obsessive need to whip my body into shipshape. I enjoyed the daily challenge of holding the plank (a somewhat tough position to execute) for an incremental span of time. It was a repetitive boost of endorphins and I felt a sense of release after each 15 minutes workout.
6. Duolingo. On its most persistent avatar, duolingo is like a soap opera mother-in-law and I find it amusing as well as annoying. Unless you have been hibernating in Siberia, you already know that this is a pretty easy-to-use language learning app that offers a bouquet of choices for you to pick from. I am currently fathoming the umlaut in German and it is yoga for my tongue no less. On days I skip my lessons, I get reminders which eventually build to— “These reminders aren’t working”. In a way, it served as a great coaching session to ignore the reminders and pick up when and where I wanted from. If I’d ignore the reminders a few days, my mailbox would receive the neon green birdie with a frowny message “We miss you! I didn’t labor too hard to adhere to the daily drill but doing a little interactive exercise every night before bed was pretty cool.
7. Lounging. Did as it says on the jar. I just sat in my living room looking at the roses and the basil plant in the balcony while listening to Swet Shop Boys’ and disco pop. Occasionally, I would swap music with home spa treatments and tutorials on the perfect fishtail braid.
8. Asemic Writing. I have been inclined towards sigils, automatic writing, cartomancy et al for a while. I find asemic writing a peaceful form of self-realisation and guidance protocol. On some days, I would combine this with colouing mandalas. A cool gush of oceanic blue lapping against the inner workings of my heart-mind.
9. Sleep. All my adulthood, sleep and I have been something akin reluctant roommates forced to interact and cohabit after running out of all other viable options for affordable distraction. I have suffered intense migraines, on account of broken sleep and waking up at 3 am to browse and declutter amazon wishlists for friends 2 oceans away. During my self-imposed exile from all things unnecessarily strenuous, I had to learn to overcome the rapt instinct for getting up in the middle of the night and making myself useful. I designed a doable solution — I would look at my digital succulents via Virdi and let its dulcet ambient sound lull me to sleep. It was difficult at first but as a student of human cognition, I knew fully well that any mind can be diverged even from its seasoned algorithms. It is just a matter of opening yourself to some trial-and-error.
After a week, my ability to stabilise my own psychological disturbances while channelling my emotional energy in a more pronounced and less unmediated ways, became all too apparent.
I don’t think the millstone of emotional grunt-work can be fully whittled away to create an anchor instead but I do believe we owe to ourselves, as women of colour, to put our own needs and requirements at forefront on a more regular and unapologetic basis.