History Historical Badasses

This unstoppable feminist set fire to Bengali society

Whenever we hear the surname Tagore, our minds drift to the Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. Truth be told, the entire Tagore family, or what we Bengalis call Thakur poribaar were stalwarts of their time, and each contributed to society in one way or another. During British rule, they were one of the most influential families and played a key role in the Bengali renaissance.

When I first came across the Thakur poribaar, I was five. For most, it began with listening to a Rabindrasangeet (Tagore’s poems-turned-songs). However, I was introduced to the family with a quite different person: Jnanadanandini Devi, the wife of Satyendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s elder brother. Flipping through the dusty pages of my ma’s old books, she introduced me to Devi for the first time. 

“She was so strong,” ma always said. Jnanada, as Bengalis often call her, was my original feminist icon, and to say she was strong is putting it mildly. As ma would read to me what Jnanada had done during her life, a feeling of power would flood through me. It was foreign, yet familiar.

During the 19th century, the attitude of Bengal towards its women was misogynistic, restrictive, and immensely sexist, even for the 1800s. People were extremely conservative, and women were forced to obey their husbands and never express their own ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Throughout their lives (from their marriage which happened even before the age of ten) until their death, they were forced to live entrapped within the four walls of their quarters, unable to even go out for a walk.

Such was the condition of Bengal women, and Devi took it upon herself to trailblaze change.

As ma would read to me what Jnanada had achieved during her life, a feeling of power would flood through me. It was foreign, yet familiar.

At the mere age of seven, thanks to child marriage, Jnanadanandini Devi married Satyendranath Tagore. Although education was not commonplace for women during the 19th century, Devi’s family exposed her to education and learned to explore the world beyond what she already knew. However, said exploration was confined to books because of the purdah system.

But this setback didn’t stop Devi from breaking free of society’s confinements.

To receive probationary training for his Indian Civil Service, Tagore set out to England while Devi stayed home. When he returned, the couple moved to Bombay (present-day Mumbai) where Devi plunged into educating herself. She even took a solo trip to England, at a time when a woman walking out of the house was unheard of. She transferred this change of environment to Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), which shifted the condition of the women. 

Devi was the first woman from Bengal who crossed the Abarodh, or the purdah system. She started on the first thing that identified women as second-class citizens: how they dressed. During the 19th century, it was tradition to wear the sari differently, in an uncomfortable way that restricted movement. Women always had to wrap themselves up (quite literally) and drape a ghomta over their faces so that they weren’t visible to others (think wings for Handmaids in Gilead, but longer).

Inspired by Parsi style, Jnanada created a new technique for draping the sari with pleats over the left shoulder and tucked in the waist. With this more comfortable style, women could finally move freely. She added a blouse and petticoat to offer an elegant look. Advertising this in Bamabodhini Patrika, she inspired and taught other women to wear the sari the Brahmika way. 

Devi was also a pioneer of literature and the arts. She wrote multiple articles for Bharati, and wrote about the patriotism and freedom that every Indian deserved. She wrote, “every benefit that the British have bestowed upon us is a blow to our mission of national liberation” in her article Ingrajninda O Deshanurag (Criticism of the British and Patriotism).

In 1885, she published a children’s magazine called Balak. She wrote two plays, Takdumadum and Saat Bhai Champa, both of which are considered irreplaceable in today’s Bengali literature. If these accomplishments were not rebellious enough, she also took part in multiple plays like Raja O Rani, written by Rabindranath. She also urged the women of the Tagore family to partake in these plays. Not surprisingly, she received waves of criticism from journals and society, but that never broke her independent spirit. Before her death in 1941, she even wrote a few memoirs that were published as Smritikatha O Puratani, carving an ultimate mark in the women’s literature spectrum.

By this point in her life, she’d made a name for herself, but it still wasn’t enough for members of her family to give her the respect she deserved. Debendranath Tagore, Devi’s father-in-law, didn’t approve of her independent spirit, which caused disruptions in the family. So in 1868, she left the Jorashanko house to live in a mansion by herself. Even though Devi and her father-in-law lived close by, they never interacted, which was unimaginable in those days. Living against tradition, she moved out with her husband and children and set an example to the rest of Bengal (take that, Debendranath).

Even though she came from a very privileged and influential background, Jnanadanandini Devi went above and beyond to spark change. For a woman in Bengali society, existence was like a prison, and Devi confronted that head-on. Today in most countries, the female experience has come a long way since Devi’s time, but there are still issues that must be addressed. The word “no” never thwarted her, and Devi’s story reminds us that when it comes to defending what’s right, nothing can make us give up.

To read more about the evolution of women’s roles in Bengal, read The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, 1849-1905 by Meredith Borthwick.

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Book Club Books

“The Passing Playbook” by Isaac Fitzsimons is The Tempest Book Club’s June Pick. Here’s the first chapter.

We’re so excited to announce Isaac Fitzsimons’ novel The Passing Playbook as The Tempest Book Club June read. The Passing Playbook is about a trans boy trying to fit in at a new school after being bullied when transitioning in his last school. As time goes on, he blends in perfectly–big brother, soccer athlete, and proud nerd. All this is at risk when a discriminatory law forces Spencer’s coach to bench him. Now Spencer has to decide: cheer from the sidelines or publicly fight for his right to play, even though it would mean coming out to everyone—including the guy he’s falling for. LISTEN

As always, we’re collaborating with Penguin to give away a copy. Enter here!  

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Spencer’s morning went to hell when some asshole on a dirt bike swerved in front of Mom’s Subaru.

Mom slammed on the brakes and flung her arm across Spencer’s chest, despite the fact that he was wearing a seat belt, and even if he weren’t, it’s not like her arm would keep him from hurtling through the windshield and becoming sausage meat.

At least she’d already finished her coffee. The last thing he needed was to spend all day smelling like the inside of a Starbucks.

“Is everyone okay?” Mom twisted around to check on Theo in the back seat, but his eyes remained glued to the nature show playing on his tablet. Spencer was impressed by how nothing seemed to faze his little brother.

“Maybe we save the vehicular manslaughter for tomorrow,” said Spencer. He didn’t want to be known as the kid whose mom ran over someone at drop–off. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be known asanything. As far as he was concerned, the less he stood out, the better.

Mom ignored him as she steered the car more carefully up the tree–lined drive and parked at the curb. “Promise me you’ll make an effort today. Talk to people. Smile sometimes.” She tugged on one of his earbuds, pulling it out of his ear. A muffledda–da–da–dun–da–da–da–dun from the song he was listening to trickled out into the car. “It wouldn’t kill you to be more social.”

“It might.”

Mom’s jaw clenched. “That’s not funny, Spencer. Not after last year.”

“Too soon?” said Spencer. If he turned it into a joke he could pretend that he didn’t still wake up in the middle of the night, heart racing, drenched in sweat thinking about The Incident. He called it “The Incident” so he wouldn’t have to remember it all in excruciating detail: the threatening email, the picture of his face in crosshairs stuffed in his locker, the call to the school that prompted a lockdown, huddling in the corner of a dark classroom, the cold tile leeching heat from his body, and knowing that if someone got hurt, it would be all his fault.

“I’m serious, Spence. We don’t have other options if this doesn’t work.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” The back of his neck grew hot and prickly like it had whenever he was awakened in the small hours of the day by the creak of the staircase as Dad crept up to bed after spending all night preparing for the extra college courses he was teaching that summer to pay for Spencer’s tuition.

Even with the extra work, it didn’t take a math genius to figure out that Dad’s paycheck was barely enough to send one kid to private school, let alone two. So after two years in a Montessori program his little brother, Theo, who was autistic, had to go to public school for the first time.

Theo had spent his summer stretched out on the living room carpet in front of the TV watching anything and everything with the word planet in the title. Spencer wasn’t sure how well an encyclopedic knowledge of the mating behavior of amphibians (called amplexus, according to Theo) would go over with other eight–year–olds.

“Hey, what’s with the face?” asked Mom. “This is going to be a great year. For both of you,” she added, reaching around to pat Theo on the knee.

Spencer picked his backpack up off the floor and squeezed it to his chest. He reached out to open the door when Mom said, “Are you sure you want to keep that there?” She pointed at theI’m here, I’m queer, get over it pin on the front pocket.

Spencer’s fingers brushed over the pin. He’d had the same conversation with Aiden over the phone last night.

“Think of it as a test,” Aiden had said. “If someone makes a big deal out of it, you’ll know to steer clear. Besides, how else will you find the other queers?”

“I’m just saying,” continued Mom, “it’s a bit . . . provocative for your day one. Why don’t you wait and see how the QSA meeting goes first? That’s today, right?”

Spencer nibbled his bottom lip. Last night he had agreed with Aiden, but now, seeing the glittery, rainbow letters sparkling in broad daylight, the idea of walking into the building with it on felt like sticking a target on his back. Sure, Oakley might brag about being the most liberal school in the county—-after all, that’s why they’d chosen it—-but it was still in rural Ohio, where just that morning they’d passed by half a dozen churches, one of which had a sign that said:Don’t be so open–minded your brains fall out.

He undid the clasp and tucked the pin in his backpack, hoping Aiden didn’t ask him about it when they debriefed after school.

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“All right, do you know where you’re going?” asked Mom.

“I think so,” he mumbled.

“If you’re not sure, you need to ask for directions.”

“I know.” He tried to keep the tinge of annoyance out of his voice. When Mom got anxious, she tended to treat him like a baby. But this was a big day for all of them.

“Here,” said Mom. She rolled down Spencer’s window, and leaned over him, calling, “Hey, you with the bike!”

Spencer slouched lower in his seat as several kids, including the boy on the dirt bike, turned to stare at them.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

The boy on the bike reversed, rolling backward to the car and stopping outside Spencer’s window.

“I’m sorry about cutting you off earlier, ma’am. I didn’t want to be late.” His voice was low and gravelly and muffled inside his retro motocross helmet.

“That’s quite all right,” said Mom, clearly charmed by his slight Appalachian twang. Her own accent, courtesy of a childhood in West Virginia, came out stronger. “This is my son Spencer. He’s new this year.”

“Nice to meet you.” The boy stuck a gloved hand through the window. The worn leather was as soft as a lamb’s ear against Spencer’s palm.

“Do you think you could show him to his first class?” asked Mom.

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The helmet visor hid the boy’s expression, but Spencer imagined the amusement in his face at being asked to play babysitter. “It’s okay—-” he began, longing to turn around, go home, and try again tomorrow, but then the boy lifted off his helmet and Spencer’s words died in his throat.

He was cute—-all farm boy tan in a navy polo and Wrangler’s. But what really made Spencer’s insides feel like he’d just been dematerialized and rematerialized in a transporter was that this kid, with his brown eyes and megawatt smile currently aimed right at Spencer, was a dead ringer for Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Spencer’s nightly ritual was watching Star Trek with his dad, who would disown him, not as a son but as a fellow Trekkie, if he knew that the only reason he put up with the cheesy special effects was because of his teeny–tiny crush on acting ensign, wunderkind, Wesley Crusher.

Mom gave him a little nudge. “I have to go put Theo on the bus. Have a good day, sweetie.”

Spencer climbed out of the car, careful not to trip over himself, and slammed the door behind him. Did she have to call him sweetie? In front of him? What was wrong with bud? Or sport? Bike Boy’s parents probably didn’t call him sweetie, especially not at school.

He waved them off, watching the Subaru disappear around the corner, and trying to ignore the hollow feeling in his chest.

“So, what grade are you in?” asked the boy, parking his bike and waiting for Spencer on the sidewalk.

Spencer’s thoughts became all tangled up in his head as he tried to shape them into words.

“Are you a first year?” Bike Boy prompted.

“No,” said Spencer, a little too forcefully. He pulled himself up to his not very tall height of five feet. He wasn’t insecure about it, not really, but it would be a long year if everyone,especially cute boys, thought he was a middle schooler who got lost on his way to class. “I’m a sophomore.”

“Cool, me too.”

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He followed Bike Boy up the path to the gated entrance. On the way the boy waved to a couple kids and high–fived another, but he didn’t introduce Spencer. Then again, what would he say?This is the kid whose mom almost ran me over and then made me walk him to class? Not exactly the first impression Spencer wanted.

“Let me guess, you were kicked out of your old school for talking too much.” Bike Boy shot Spencer a wide grin. His two front teeth overlapped slightly, which Spencer found oddly endearing considering that most of his friends had been put in braces as soon as they hit double digits.

Spencer searched for something witty to say back. Something to show Bike Boy that he wasn’t a complete weirdo, but his words got lost again.

The smile on Bike Boy’s face slipped off. “Wait, were you actually kicked out? I’m sorry, I—-”

“I wasn’t kicked out.”

“It was just a joke.”

“I know,” said Spencer, growing frustrated that even the most basic of conversations left him flustered.

Not wanting to prolong the agony, he made a decision when they reached the entrance. He knew where he was going. Sort of. He had taken a tour earlier that summer when signing up for classes.

“So what’s your first class?” asked Bike Boy.

He opened his mouth to respond when someone going past pushed him from behind, and he fell into Bike Boy, who reached out a hand to steady him.

Spencer pulled back his arm like he’d been burned. “It’s okay. I know where I’m going. But thanks for your help.”

Bike Boy searched his face as if trying to see if he was telling the truth. “Are you sure?”

Spencer nodded, scuffing his foot against the floor.

“All right, then. I’ll see you around, I guess,” said Bike Boy, his voice lilting slightly like he was asking a question. He hitched his backpack higher and turned to join the swarm of students on their way to class.

Spencer watched him leave, not with relief, but with something that felt a little like guilt. Maybe he should be a touch nicer to the guy who had offered to help him, despite narrowly escaping death at the wheels of his mother’s Subaru. Hell, Spencer didn’t even know who he was.

Before he could stop himself, he called out, “Wait, what’s your name?”

Bike Boy turned and flashed Spencer a smile. “Justice. Justice Cortes.”

Justice Cortes. Spencer silently mouthed the name before another wave of students knocked into him. He shook his head. The last thing he needed was to think about Justice Cortes, or any boy, really.

What he needed was to keep his distance. If he didn’t get too close to people, they wouldn’t find out his secret. If they didn’t find out, they couldn’t use it against him. Nobody at Oakley knew he was transgender.

Spencer needed to keep his head down, study hard, and escape Apple Creek, population 1,172, where the only traffic jams were caused by tractors and Amish buggies.

But first he’d have to survive PE.

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After a few wrong turns, he finally found the locker rooms just as the warning bell rang.

When he opened the door the nauseating stench of body spray mixed with floral air freshener blasted him in the face, invading his nostrils and making him light-headed.

Spencer hovered awkwardly at the door as a few stragglers in various stages of undress glanced up at him from the wooden benches lining the room. Maybe he should change in the nurse’s bathroom like Ms. Greene, his guidance counselor, had suggested. Private stall, a door that locked, and nobody who’d snap him in half like a twig if given the chance. But then someone might wonder why he didn’t change with the rest of them. First rule of passing: Don’t be different.

He found an empty corner and untied his shoes, avoiding eye contact. He wiggled his toes as a chill from the concrete floor seeped through his socks. After a minute the only sounds in the locker room were the thumping of his heartbeat and the dripping of a leaky faucet.

Alone at last, he jumped into action, wriggling out of his jeans and pulling on shorts from his backpack. He tugged on his T–shirt, grateful, not for the first time, that he hadn’t needed top surgery or to suffer through wearing a binder. Starting hormone blockers at thirteen prevented too much growth and almost one year on testosterone replaced whatever fat there was with smooth muscle.

The late bell rang and he slipped into sneakers, shoved his clothes and backpack into a locker, and hurried out the door.

With its towering oak trees and ivy–covered walls, the Oakley School looked impressive on the outside. But inside, the lemony scent of disinfectant and the squeak of his shoes against the linoleum as he jogged down the hallway connecting the locker room to the gym told Spencer that this was more like the charter school Miles Morales attended than the Xavier Institute. The hallway, which had teemed with the hustle and bustle of chattering students five minutes ago, was empty. He snuck into the gym, where a dozen or so boys were flinging foam balls at each other. One sped toward his face, forcing him to duck. Where was the teacher?

“You’re late.”

Spencer jumped and twisted around to see a man in a baseball cap standing beside him. The man wore saggy sweatpants and a ridiculous–looking cardigan with a hood—a hoodigan?—-and had a toothpick dangling from his mouth.

“Are you Coach Schilling?” he asked, slightly out of breath. “Sorry, I—-”

“Name?” Coach Schilling cut him off.

“Spencer Harris.”

“Harris, eh?” He surveyed his clipboard, rolling the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other.

Sweat pooled clammy and moist under Spencer’s armpits. The principal, Mrs. Dumas, had assured him that his school records would have the correct name and gender, but that didn’t stop the panic rising in his chest. If someone had made a mistake, he’d be outed in his very first class, and all of it—his dad working overtime, Theo switching schools—would be for nothing.

“You’re new,” said Coach Schilling. It wasn’t a question. With a school this small, new students must be easy to spot. “Make sure you’re on time tomorrow.” He pulled a magazine from the back of his sweatpants and began thumbing through it.

“Could you tell me what’s going on?” Spencer sidestepped as another ball hurtled toward him.

Coach Schilling, preoccupied with uncovering the secret to getting rock–hard abs in thirty days, barely glanced up from his magazine and said, “Dodgeball.”

“Right,” said Spencer. “But what should I actually be doing?”

Coach Schilling raised a bushy eyebrow and gave three sharp bursts of his whistle. A hush fell across the gym. Spencer’s face burned as all eyes turned on him. Coach Schilling picked up a loose ball and shoved it in Spencer’s hands. “Take this and throw it over there.” He pointed across the painted line in the center of the gym. “No head shots, no crotch shots. Got it?”

Spencer nodded.

“Good. Have fun.” Coach Schilling blew his whistle to start the game then went to sit on the bleachers with his magazine.

Spencer’s knees knocked together as he joined his teammates. At least if it was a total disaster he could probably duck out after attendance tomorrow and Coach Schilling wouldn’t even notice.

After a few minutes of playing, Spencer’s pent–up anxiety about the first day of school dripped away with the sweat. He might be small, but he was nimble on his feet. He ducked, dived, and even got in a few hits himself, until he was the last man standing on his team and found himself outnumbered, two to one.

His first opponent, a tall boy with shaggy brown hair, chucked a ball at him. Spencer did a clumsy pirouette and it whipped past. He grinned as his teammates called out encouragement from the sidelines.

His second opponent threw a ball, which Spencer caught. His team erupted into cheers as the player moved to the sidelines, out of the game. Now it was Spencer and the shaggy–haired kid.

The boy launched the ball into the air. Spencer used the ball in his hands to deflect it back, then threw his second ball, forcing the kid to defend both shots simultaneously.

To Spencer’s shock, his opponent reached out with hands the size of Spencer’s face and caught both balls. Spencer was out.

Coach Schilling blew his whistle. “All right, game over.”

Spencer threw his head back. He didn’t consider himself a sore loser, but he disliked losing enough to make sure it didn’t happen very often. When it did, it was like a kick to the shins: incredibly painful, but unlikely to cause any real damage.

He forced his grimace into a smile as his opponent approached him, hand outstretched. “Nice moves out there, Twinkle Toes.” He winked at Spencer.

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Spencer’s cheeks ached with the effort of keeping his smile from falling. He took the kid’s hand, squeezing it limply. He couldn’t tell if he was making fun of him or not.

As the kid turned around and started walking back to his buddies, Spencer’s pulse raced. He imagined him telling them what he’d just called Spencer and the nickname spreading around the school. His eyes fell on a ball in front of him, and before his brain caught up with his body, Spencer pulled his leg back and let loose. The ball made a perfect arc in the air before smacking the kid in the back of his head.

The kid whirled around, his cheeks flushed and eyes flashing. Spencer’s brain finally caught up.Oh, shit.

“Who did that?” shouted the kid.

All eyes turned to Spencer. Even the girls playing badminton over on the other side of the gym with their own teacher stopped their game.

The kid rounded on Spencer.

Spencer flinched.

“Did you throw that at me?”

Spencer couldn’t exactly lie, not with a room of witnesses. “No, I kicked it.”

“With your right foot or your left foot?” asked the kid.

“I— What?” asked Spencer, wondering what the hell that had to do with anything.

The kid took another step toward Spencer, who found himself backed up against the wall. “That shot. Did you make it with your right foot or your left?”

“Left. My left.”

To Spencer’s surprise, the boy smiled and turned to Coach Schilling. “Did you see that, Coach?”

Coach Schilling was also staring at Spencer with a curious look on his face. “That I did, son, that I did.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “Macintosh, why don’t you head to the nurse and get an ice pack. You.” He pointed his whistle at Spencer. “Harris, right?”

“Yes, sir,” said Spencer.

“You’re coming with me.”

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House.

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Editor's Picks Book Club Books Pop Culture

“Counting Down with You” by Tashie Bhuiyan is The Tempest Book Club’s May Pick. Here’s the first chapter.

We’re so excited to announce Tashie Bhuiyan’s novel Counting Down with You as The Tempest Book Club May read. Counting Down with You centers around a reserved Bangladeshi teenager, who has twenty-eight days to make the biggest decision of her life after agreeing to fake date her school’s resident bad boy. It’s a story posing the quintessential question: How do you make one month last a lifetime? Read the first chapter below.

As always, we’re collaborating with HarperCollins to give away three copies. Enter here!  

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Airports are the true chaotic evil.

There are too many things happening around me. Too many people in a hurry, too many people lazing around, too many announcements on the overhead speakers, and way too many tearful goodbyes.

Anarchy reigns in my little corner. My mom is on the phone, saying goodbye to her ten million friends, and my dad looks like he already regrets agreeing to go on a month-long trip to Bangladesh with her. Even with my earphones in, JFK Airport is too loud.

I wish I were anywhere else.

My younger brother, Samir, stands next to me as I sip the drink I forced him to buy me at Starbucks. In my other hand, I have a book flipped open to pass the time.

Dadu, my grandma on my paternal side, is busy fretting over my dad’s shirt. “Tuck it in,” she says in Bengali.

I hide my smile behind my drink when he reluctantly tucks in his shirt. Dadu isn’t someone to mess with.

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“How much longer do we have to wait?” I ask Samir, taking out an earphone.

“Who knows,” he says. “Whenever Ma finally gets off the phone.”

That was decidedly unhelpful. “So…never.”

I still think the beginning of March is too chilly to go on vacation, but knowing my parents, plane tickets were probably the cheapest today.

Even though I love my parents, I’m happy to see them leave for a month to visit my mom’s side of the family. I’d never say it out loud, but I would’ve considered breaking a leg or something if they’d tried to make me go with them. Thankfully, high school takes priority over seeing extended family. Being sixteen is a good thing sometimes.

Only sometimes.

My mom finally gets off the phone and gestures to their suitcases. “Come help me, Samir.”
While my brother helps them check in their luggage, I sidle up beside Dadu and lean my shoulder against hers. She’s been at our house for a few days now, helping Ma and Baba pack for their trip.

“Hi Myra,” she says, calling me by my dak nam, my familial name. I prefer my legal name, Karina, the bhalo nam all my friends use, but I don’t mind when Dadu calls me Myra.

“Hey Dadu. Ready for your second Uber ride?” I ask. “Baba said we’re going to have to take another one home.”

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“Another one?” she asks, squeezing my wrist. Her skin is wrinkled from old age and hours of hard work, but it’s warm and familiar. “Do you think they’ll try to kidnap us this time?”

“Inshallah,” I say jokingly. God willing.

Dadu laughs and swats me on the shoulder. “Don’t make silly jokes, Myra.”

I grin. “Sorry.”

It’s nice to have a light and easy conversation like this. We don’t have them often, because my grandma lives year-round in New Jersey. Every summer, I beg my parents to let me stay with her. They usually refuse until Dadu steps in and says she misses me, which is as good as saying Your daughter’s coming to visit me whether you like it or not.

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My parents return carrying only their handbags. My mom is shaking her head at my dad as he shows her something on his phone.

“Samir, you can download things from Netflix on your phone right, right?” my dad asks, looking pointedly at my mom.

Samir nods, but Ma narrows her eyes. “I told you already, I don’t have any space.”

“That’s because you have a million prayer apps on your phone,” Baba says under his breath. “Even Allah would agree one is enough.”

My mom smacks his arm. “Don’t say that in front of the kids. You’re going to set a bad example. You know it’s because of Candy Crush and Facebook. Why don’t you download some movies for me?”

Baba snorts. “You wish. I already downloaded every episode of Breaking Bad. No room for your dramas.”

Ma pinches the bridge of her nose. “We’re all checked in. We have to leave right now if we want to make the flight,” she says to my grandma before she turns to me, her gaze expectant.

My stomach flips uncertainly. I count backward in my head, trying to push away the uncomfortable weight pressing against my heart. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

I know I’m supposed to be emotional. I’m saying goodbye to my parents for a whole month, after all. We’re going to be nearly eight thousand miles apart with a time difference of ten hours.

It’s a lot.

It’s too little. T-28 days.

But they’re still my parents, and I can’t let them go without saying goodbye.

I lean forward to hug my mom. She smells like roses and citrus shampoo. The material of her salwar kameez scratches my cheek. I’m torn between wanting to hug her closer and wanting to be far, far away.

“Bye, Ma,” I say, and then I hug my dad, who smells like some God-awful cologne, probably worn to impress my mother’s relatives. I smile and brush some lint off his shoulders as I step back. “Bye, Baba.”

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“Myra, make sure to call us every day,” my mom says. “Dadu might be staying with you, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to do whatever you want. Make sure to behave properly and try to spend more time studying than reading these silly little books.”

My smile strains. I feel like a dog being told to roll over.

I have to remind myself she’s saying it with my best interests at heart. “Of course, Ma.”

My mom turns to my brother and starts cooing, brushing back his hair. I bite the inside of my cheek and try not to scowl. Naturally, she has nothing condescending to say to him. “Tell Dadu whenever you’re hungry, okay? She’ll make you whatever you want, Samir.”

“Stop it, Ma,” my brother says, batting her hands away. He’s grinning a hundred-watt smile that’s hard to look at for more than one reason. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled at my parents like that.

My dad steps forward, gaining my attention. His expression is only slightly easier to look at.

“Keep us updated on your grades, Myra,” he says, squeezing my shoulder. “It’s junior year. You know you need all As if you want to become a doctor.”

And what if I don’t want to? What then?

“Of course, Baba,” I say, because there isn’t any other answer. “I will.”

Between one blink and the next, they’re walking toward security, leaving the three of us alone. I can still hear them bickering about Netflix.

“Come on, Myra,” Dadu says, nudging my shoulder. I look away from my parents’ retreating backs. “Let’s find an Uber.”

“I’ve got it,” Samir says, whipping out his phone and waving me off as we start to walk to the exit.

[adsanity_group num_ads=”1″ align=”alignnone” num_columns=”1″ group_ids=”135796″/]

I roll my eyes, unsurprised he wants to take the lead. I can’t help but cast another glance over my shoulder at my parents, but Dadu gently tugs my ear.

“So what’s your book about?” she asks.

I turn to her in surprise. I closed the book after my mom’s rebuke, but the story is still fresh in my mind. “You want to know?”

“Of course,” Dadu says, smiling warmly at me. “You can tell me during the Uber ride.”

Something dislodges in my chest as we approach the exit. “That sounds great.”

When I look back this time, there’s no sign of my parents anywhere.

Even though I know it’s wrong, all I feel is relief.

Excerpted with the permission of Inkyard Press/HarperCollins.

Love + Sex Love

7 reasons why you should date a love and relationship writer

For many ordinary people, dating a relationship writer might seem like a pretty bad idea. If not bad, then probably a costly mistake. Everyone usually thinks that love/relationship writers have a scandalous occupation and spend their day reading erotica or writing articles about sex positions or vibrators and other ‘taboo’ topics. The truth is, dating a relationship writer is actually one of the best things you can do to involve yourself in a healthy, fulfilling, and trustworthy relationship.

When dating a writer who specializes in the love and health sector, you get 24/7 access to an encyclopedia of advice and knowledge followed by an enhanced understanding of human psychology, interpersonal relationships, and effective communication.

With that in mind, here are seven reasons why you should date a relationship writer:

1. Relationship writers are incredibly romantic

A male and female couple wearing backpacks while sitting closely and looking at green foggy mountains.
[Image Description: A male and female couple wearing backpacks while sitting closely and looking at green foggy mountains.] Via Pexels

We not only spend our day writing about love and health, but we’re also constantly immersed in a vast culture of romance, lust, desire, and passion. We breathe and exhale love as a language and directly implement what we learn into our real-life relationships.

2.  Relationship writers are (usually) smart when it comes to finding love

A White woman with a bun sitting on a white bed and reading a magazine that is sitting in her lap.
[Image Description: A White woman with a bun sitting on a white bed and reading a magazine that is sitting in her lap.] Via Pexels

We’re constantly reading advice columns, love articles, researching new slang terms, and modern dating phenomenons. Not to mention, we have first-hand experience of being played by fuckboys and a surplus of entertaining dating app horror stories.

3.  Relationship writers are reliable

A female couple wearing dresses and embracing on the beach during sunset.
[Image Description: A female couple wearing dresses and happily embracing on the beach during sunset.] Via Pexels

Most of the articles we write are geared towards providing advice to readers and curating dynamic content that improves other people’s dating experiences and relationships. We’re technically the “mom friend” who you always turn to when you need some solid, uncensored, and unbiased advice. We’re brutally honest but in a good way.

4.  Relationship writers have a unique way with words

A man and woman holding hands across the table while on a date.
[Image Description: A man and woman holding hands across the table while on a date.] Via Pexels

We can be incredibly confident and outspoken. So, a first date with us is guaranteed to be eventful, full of great conversation, and constant laughter. We have a great sense of humor because most of the articles we write are pretty witty and catchy!

5.  Relationship writers are always full of creative ideas

A blonde White woman sitting down on a bed while wearing headphones, writing on a notepad, and staring at a laptop sitting on her lap.
[Image Description: A woman sitting down on a bed while wearing headphones, writing on a notepad, and staring at a laptop sitting on her lap.] Via Pexels

We’re bursting with ideas since it’s part of our job to strategically think of topics and content on the spot and to tackle assignments on a tight deadline. Whether you need a supportive partner to help you found your dream multi-million company or would like ideas on how to improve your college thesis, we’re here to help you out!!

6.  Relationship writers can see the positivity in everything

A man wearing a watch is hugging a woman wearing a orange spaghetti strap dress from behind.
[Image Description: A man wearing a watch is hugging a woman wearing an orange spaghetti strap dress from behind.] Via Pexels

It’s part of our job to take a prevalent dating issue/problem (that is catfishing or ghosting) and try to twist it around to shed a brighter, more positive light on it. We’re trained to use this tactic in our own relationship lives and trying to see the beauty in every little thing.

7.  Relationship writers craft the best-handwritten letters

A woman sitting on a white bed holding a notebook and a pen with a cup of coffee sitting on the bed next to her.
[Image Description: A woman sitting on a white bed holding a notebook and a pen with a cup of coffee sitting on the bed next to her.] Via Pexels

Our writing is known to be heartwarming, eloquent, and beautiful, so it’s only natural that we’ll be able to write a killer happy birthday card or a thank you letter. And—wedding vows?? Oh, don’t even get us started. We’ll be having you bawling like crazy!

And there you have it, seven reasons why you should date a relationship writer! Relationship writers in all their pride and glory. If you were skeptical about what dating a relationship writer might entail, these points can break those barriers and encourage you to take a chance!

One final rule of thumb, however. Don’t get on our bad side, or else you might end up being featured in a future article we write about!!

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History Forgotten History Lost in History Historical Badasses

Black women were at the core of the Harlem Renaissance

For stories of Black history and excellence, check out our Black History Month series. Celebrate with us by sharing your favorite articles on social media and uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Black people.

I first heard about the Harlem Renaissance when watching Black Nativity, a retelling of the Nativity story with Black characters.

The Harlem Renaissance was a twentieth-century African-American movement in art, culture, literature, politics, and music. Creativity and intellectual life flourished at this time for African-American communities following the Great Migration, where hundreds of families migrated from the South to the North for economic opportunities and to acquire cultural capital. Major players include Langston Hughes, Adelaide Hall and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

The name Langston was a frequent recurrence in the Black Nativity and I thought to myself, “who was this man?” After researching, I found out that Langston Hughes was an exceptional poet who contributed immensely to the Harlem Renaissance. However, as great as Langston’s poetry is, I began to think about the countless Black women who must have had an influence on the birth of this new African American identity.

It was not limited to only Black men or just Harlem. Despite being centered in Harlem, it was a diasporic movement with Black Francophone writers in Paris being influenced.

[Image description: Meta Warrick Fuller] Via Library of Congress
As mentioned above, the Harlem Renaissance has been known to be about the emergence of new forms of art and literature by African Americans living in Harlem, New York. After the First World War, artists such as Meta Warrick Fuller were influenced by African themes and this was reflected in her artwork. She was the first Black woman to receive a federal commission for her art. One of her most notable sculptures, ‘Ethiopia Awakening’ (1914) catalyzed the resurgence of numerous African themes in the Harlem Renaissance.

[Image description: Jessie Redmon Fauset] Via Library of Congress
Jessie Redmon Fauset has been described as the “midwife of the Harlem Renaissance” due to her position as the literary editor of The Crisis, an NAACP magazine. Her position as editor gave her the opportunities to promote literary work relating to social movements of the era. Fauset was ahead of her time as an editor! She discouraged writers to write about their struggles being Black in the early 20th century but rather encouraged them to speak about positivity, ensuring there was positive representation of Black identity in the magazine.

It’s interesting to see how even back then there was a collective understanding of what constitutes Black joy, Black identity, and why it must be preserved for future generations. It’s just bittersweet to see that up until today Black people are still writing about struggle given our experiences in the world. I wonder what Fauset anticipated for the future of Black writers. Would they be writing about joy and positivity?

Her influence during the era was unmatched, she bolstered the careers of figures we now know to be Langston Hughes and Nella Larson.

[Image description: Josephine Baker poses for a portrait in a beaded gown in 1970.] Via Getty Images
Remember Betty Boop? She was inspired by Josephine Baker. Dubbed the trendsetter and fashionista of the Renaissance, she served as inspiration for Black women and white women at the time with her outfits. Even across the Atlantic, she was causing a commotion. I mean, this is nothing new.

One of the most notable aspects of her career as a dancer is her refusal to perform for segregated audiences and this speaks volumes. By refusing to do so, she acknowledged her worth and respected herself enough by not doing so. I guess not everything is worth the bag. Her fashion influence left people copying left, right and center. Josephine was an influencer before her time.

After shining a light on three prominent women during the Harlem Renaissance, I’ll remember that there are so many stories out there and sometimes you just have to find them. 

[Image Description: An illustrated graphic featuring several Black women with the text saying Black History Month in capital letters] Via The Tempest
[Image Description: An illustrated graphic featuring several Black women with the text saying Black History Month in capital letters] Via The Tempest
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Gender & Identity Life Stories Life

When my boss made my body feel taboo

As a teenager, you’re acutely aware of the way your body changes. It’s terrifying and yet exciting. But as you grow older, and enter the “real world”, shit changes. You watch your body being used against you. Your clothes being used against you. Your age being used against you.

I’m not writing this to make anyone feel bad, I’m writing this because this story needs to be told. And I need to tell it.

I went to the same school all my life. Fifteen years feels like a long time, but that school became a home. I didn’t have a bad high school experience, in fact, I always loved school. I loved my friends, my teachers, my classes. Surprisingly, I felt safe there. I was lucky. And for that, I am grateful. So when the opportunity arose to teach literature at the place that had always felt like home, I quickly accepted. The students were witty, bright, challenging – always pushing me to find new ways of teaching and learning. I loved every minute of it. 

However, there was another side to things. Ever since my first day of teaching, I was uncomfortable. 

My clothes were watched like a hawk. I was told my clothes were “too casual”, my shirt “too short”, my top “too formal”.

Every day, there was something new. I would ask my boss to tell me the dress code, just let me know what was acceptable. Because she wasn’t happy when I wore shalwar kameez, and she wasn’t happy when I wore western clothes. I was constantly on edge. Afraid of being told off for the way I dressed. 

And let me tell you, I was not inappropriate in my dressing. Not in the least. I’d wear button-downs with trousers, or a nice kurta and pants, or a formal shirt and plain black pants. Sometimes, even blazers. I dressed how you would in a workplace.

We weren’t allowed to wear sneakers (something I wasn’t told when I joined), so one incredibly cold day, I wore plain white sneakers and was reprimanded for them. And the irony was that senior teachers would wear them and get away with it.

But because I was “young” and “impressionable” and “the boys would look at me and think things”. Yes, I had to dress in a way that would hide the fact that I had a body from my 14-to-16-year-old male students. I had to dress like I had no style or taste.

It’s funny because some days I was so frustrated I would think they just didn’t want me to look or feel good. Because honestly, the way I look does impact the way I feel. I can’t help it, but it does. It’s there, and it’s real and so, if I’ve put together a power outfit that makes me feel on top of the damn world, I’m going to own it. 

But that wasn’t allowed. My feminism was constantly quashed. And I was walked all over.

See, I finally understood what the problem was. It wasn’t how I dressed. It was my age. And that irked my boss. That I was a young woman who knew who she was and dressed how she liked, and actually knew what she was teaching – that shook her. She wasn’t used to people not complying with reverse ageist tactics.

Before one sports day, she came up to me and two fellow young teachers and said: 

“Girls, since you’re young, I hope you know you need to wear something that will cover your behind.” 

Because God forbid someone actually looked at my ass and realized I was a grown woman? God forbid someone looked at me and thought something? God forbid I wore a shirt that wasn’t down till my ankles and her eyeballs would roll back in her head from seeing my physique?

Was it because I had a body that took up space? I hated the feeling of being watched and observed, her looking me up and down when I entered the building. I began to hide. I’d slip in and out of the school, checking the hallways to make sure she wasn’t there, eyeing me from a distance, ready to strike at any moment.

This one morning, it was 7:25, I was dressed in a plain white kurta, a shalwar and a shawl. I signed in and there she was. She looked me up and down, and said: 

“You’re dressed too casual.” 

I questioned what she meant by that because most of the teachers wore lawn kurtas and shalwars and tennis shoes.

“It’s not appropriate,” she went on.

It was too early for me to deal with that. She had ruined a perfectly good morning by accosting me in the hallway. So I turned around and said: 

“You know, every time you talk about my dressing, it makes me uncomfortable.”

And I ran off to class because the bell was ringing.

She was taken aback. I was being honest. For once, I just wanted to tell her that every time she commented on my dressing, it was a reminder that my body was taking up too much space, it was a reminder of every time I was conscious of my curves, a reminder of every time I dragged myself to the gym in the morning because I didn’t feel good about myself. It was a reminder that so many women in positions of power felt the need to belittle younger women.

I wanted to tell her, ask me about my work, my teaching, my students, my class disciple – ask me anything but the clothing that covers my skin, and the one that doesn’t.

If someone is doing a good job, is dressed appropriately, I don’t see the need to constantly berate them. 

I questioned myself. I wore my mother’s clothes instead of my own. I changed the way I dressed. And I’m realizing that I didn’t need to do that. No one had the right to tell me what to put on my skin. I wasn’t a child in uniform. Of course I had no problems following a dress code, I understood the need to dress appropriately, and I was following the lines. 

Workplace harassment comes in all shapes and sizes. You decide the line. The second you feel like someone is making you uncomfortable – that’s when you know. 

My body wasn’t there to be sexualized but the way she spoke about my clothing, and looked at me, made me feel like I was being observed like a piece of meat and not a human at all. And I got enough of that from the predators lurking around the city.

There needs to be an understanding of gender consciousness. When she used different language to address my younger colleagues and me, as opposed to the older teachers and men, that was age bias. And a lot of gender bias. Maybe it ran thick through her traditional ways. But things were changing. 

Was my body being policed by her? Yes.

Was this another form of her rooted patriarchy? Yes.

Was someone ready to do something about it? Maybe.

My head of department stood up for me, luckily. But that took a while. 

Imagine feeling like you need to hide your body because you’re so afraid of being called out for wearing something as simple as trousers? 

The dirty truth is that most workplaces in Pakistan are like that. So often they look at a woman and assume things due to the way she dresses. 

I was hired because of my knowledge of my subject, and if it was just about the literature of things, maybe I would have even stayed. But being in the thick of a toxic environment that pushed every insecurity I had of myself was threatening my wellbeing on the daily. And I’ll never allow myself to go through that again.

I hope you won’t either.

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History Education

It is high time Shakespeare is written off as a relic of the past

“She hangs upon the cheek of night Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear” one of my high school students, playing Romeo read out. 

“Miss, isn’t that racist? Referring to the color of someone’s skin and making a metaphor out of it?” Interrupted another student. 

“Well, any piece of literature is a product of its time. And racist sentiments were very common during the colonial era.” I snapped back, partly embarrassed at my shallow save. 

“But if it’s so outdated, why are we still studying it over 300 years later?” He responded.

And there it was. The ultimate question, to which I really had no answer. My Generation Z students somehow had more political correctness than the board which set the curriculum. In light of all our Anglomania as a post-colonial society, Shakespeare continues to dominate most secondary school curriculums. And somehow, as educators, we must salvage some of this “great” playwright’s legacy, by defending his racism and sexism, which can be extremely offensive to modern-day sensibilities. 

Flipping through the pages of The Merchant of Venice, the depiction of Shylock as a stone-hearted usurer is disconcerting. Shakespeare picks up on the stereotype of Jews as being greedy and practically villainizes the entire Jewish community of the time by pitting it against Bassanio and Portia’s love story. 

Race and morality appear inextricably linked in Shakespeare’s works. Portia, when discussing her prospective suitors, claims that “If he have the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me.” As Portia is presented with the proposal of a Moroccan, she immediately turns it down on the basis of his skin tone. The idea of one’s skin color as an indication of their moral aptitude was what British colonialists thrived upon. This is precisely what allowed them to spread “enlightenment” and Christianity in the “dark continent” of Africa. 

This absurd idea is taken further in Othello. The character of Othello, himself, described as ‘the dark moor’, with ‘thick lips’ is said to resemble ‘the devil’, simply because of his complexion. 

Attribution: [Image Description: Laurence Fishburne in the title role of Othello, with Kenneth Branagh (right) as Iago, 1995.] via Castle Rock Entertainment
As you read through work after work, it becomes apparent that this is no coincidence. This is Shakespeare’s world view: devoid of diversity and nuance. It is one that exalts white Christian men and creates savages and murderous brutes out of people of color. 

If Shakespeare’s internalized racial prejudice is bothering you, wait till we talk about the blatant sexism in his works. Hamlet famously claimed: “Frailty thy name is a woman.” I remember while studying Hamlet in my sophomore year of college, many were very outraged by this statement. How can you read and respect a writer who basically undermines the intelligence of your entire gender? But then I also remember when a question was raised about his not so subtle sexism, our professor wrote it off as being Hamlet’s words and not Shakespeare’s. We must not conflate the two, we were told. 

But if it was just Hamlet who thinks of women as the epitome of weakness, why is it that this theme of fragile and hysterical women appears in many more of his works? In Macbeth, for instance, an otherwise ambitious man is led astray by his wife’s greed. Shakespeare continually emphasizes the superior moral ground of his own heroes. They are moral compasses for the women in their lives. It is as if he was trying to say: women, by their very nature, are fallible and when they transgress, they must be punished. Such is the case for Taming of the Shrew which basically glorifies domestic violence.  

Living in a society where people are still recovering from a post-colonial complex, Shakespeare is not just a playwright or an artist. He is deified into a god-like figure. He is an institution, a larger than life phenomenon. He is considered as the epitome of civilization, intellectual prowess, and spiritual superiority. At least, this is how he was institutionalized by the former colonizers in order to dominate their subjects. 

Today, Shakespeare is celebrated for his supposed universality. But how can we call him universal when, in fact, most of his writing, much like other Western Canonical texts, is about royalty and the aristocracy? He only ever wrote about higher mortals. And when these grand, inaccessible tales are told to us, we take it all unflinchingly, without a grain of salt. We don’t question it because it is not relatable.

Our own sense of inferiority prevents us from ever probing how problematic it really is. 

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How reading taught me to be emotionally competent in life

I’ve always loved reading. While other children often got told off for being naughty, I often found myself being told off for ‘being away with the fairies’ as my Math teacher called it – simply put, I love books.

Reading is fun; you come across so many characters that you like and dislike and so many to relate to. Personally, I’ve always related to Matilda – a tiny human that wants to do nothing more than read and be the best version of herself. Even as I’ve grown older, I seek knowledge through books rather than the internet and if there is one thing reading has taught me, it is how to be emotionally competent. 

I read all types of literature; essays, novellas, poetry, short stories. Hand me anything with words and I’ll absorb it. Remember during English class where your teacher would tell you to find the deeper meaning of the crow in the background or the gloomy setting of the book? Everyone would groan in disbelief – “Miss, it’s just a crow.” And it’s true, it may very well be just a crow, but secretly, I enjoyed looking for the deeper meaning of the scenes and characters in the book. I found it helping me to develop my understanding of humans in general. 

I think what a lot of people forget is that when authors write, they write what they know so it is likely that the characters in the book are a mirror image of someone the authors know or used to know. That would mean that all the little traits that the characters have in a book suddenly make them a part of who they are. When we were reading The Kite Runner in class, I knew that the protagonist’s father’s thoughts on Islamic leaders were his own personal thoughts. I had seen an interview somewhere where Khaled Hosseini described his hatred for Islamic leaders as he had grown up watching Kabul fall down at the leader’s expense. The same thing happened when we were reading Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Sebold drew from her experience as she wrote of Susie Salmon’s death. 

But it’s not just character emotions and insight that I’ve learned to pick up through reading; my friends will tell you that sometimes, I jolt when I walk past people because I can almost see their emotions. I didn’t have a social life growing up (story of every broody teen ever), but I am no longer a broody teen. I turned to books for comfort because of the lack of people in my life and somehow, I have ended up with the ability to feel other people’s emotions and their fluctuations. And I know I’m not the first person something like this has happened to. I have a friend who often calls herself emotionally inept – you could tell her the saddest story in the world and unfortunately, it will go in one ear and out the other. And that not to say that she’s not paying attention – she is. Her eyes zoom into your soul and everything in between. But she can’t comprehend emotions unless she is reading about them. 

I think that although the death of the book is on the rise, it is important to appreciate what a good book can do for a person; for a lonely person, it provided me with an endless variety of friends and a boost in confidence. For many other people, both children and adults, it provides entertainment and knowledge. It allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a brief moment in time and just escape.

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Culture Life

Why I am constantly drawn to lavender

I find that my most blissful moments remind me of the strong, calming scent of lavender. For one reason or another, I relate it to a lot of the more meaningful aspects of my life. To me, lavender is like a feeling; like the wind brushing up against your skin.

While I think that lavender is largely optimistic, I also find a certain sorrow that is comfortable, even humble, in its presence. I’ve come to appreciate it in every shape and form – the color, the flower, the scent. Its hard to place; not sweet or bitter, but rather musty. 

Lavender manages to incorporate itself into my life seemingly on a whim and in the most fleeting of moments. We have a peculiar relationship. I am stomach-knottingly anxious in the presence of many, especially when I first meet them. But, with some, I sense lavender, and I know that something great is about to happen. It is more of a feeling than anything else. Just talking to some people can be rejuvenating, and perhaps it is because our meeting reminds me of that warm, soft smell of a mid-spring day when the sun is bright and pure, and the entire day lies ahead.

Nowadays, when I am feeling an emotion that is simply beyond words, I say that I am overflowing with lavender. 

According to etymology, the English word “lavender” is derived from the Latin “lavare,” which translates to “to wash.” It is a necessary refinement – a cleanse. I am purified with every utterance of the word. 

Perhaps it’s not just me. In literature, lavender has been used significantly as a token of love. To me, it’s more like a notion of love at first sight. Shakespeare offers a bouquet of “hot lavender” in The Winter’s Tale. Cleopatra also roots lavender with love, as she is said to have used its sultry perfume to seduce both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Christians are also known to have used it as a repellent of evil. The plant is said to have been taken from the Garden of Eden and is sometimes found hanging in a cross shape above the doors of some Christian households as a means of protection. There are so many songs with the title lavender, my favorite being by The Beach Boys, and there have also been many poems written about it, too. Take, for example, this quote by an anonymous writer, “as rosemary is to the spirit, lavender is to the soul.” 

Lavender is swift, like a movement, carrying me in and out of perfectly imperfect moments. The vision of it is rather uplifting as well. It stands delicately tall among the rest, but it is not intimidating either. I adore its confrontation. In fact, I look forward to it. 

Culture Life

How learning about global literature brought me closer to home

I was one of the only South Asian international Arts students at my University, and it made me realize just how imperceptive I was of the cultural narratives that were a part of my own story. Growing up, we read the literature of the Western Canon, watched everything from Disney Channel original movies to The Sound of Music, and listened to the Billboard Hot 100. So while I knew that my culture was a huge part of who I was, my family, my upbringing, and my heritage, I didn’t fully realize the extent to which my ethnicity and my experience of it affected my thinking. 

Art & Popular Culture defines the Western Canon as – the body of high culture literature, music, philosophy, and works of art that are highly valued in the West: works that have achieved the status of classics. However, not all these works originate in the Western world, and such works are also valued throughout the world. It is ‘a certain Western intellectual tradition that goes from, say, Socrates to Wittgenstein philosophy, and from Homer to James Joyce in literature.

The word canon itself is derived from ancient Greek to mean a measuring rod or standard.

It wasn’t until my courses on postcolonial and global literature that a sense of other schools of thought and diverse cultural narratives really started to emerge. There were many references made during these classes to the Western canon. Including discussions of how much of what we learn is measured by the same benchmarks and held up against the same achievements as that of the Western world. This is no surprise and is the case with most things, even outside of literature and the Arts – a lingering reminder of wide-scale colonization. 

In some of these classes, we studied the work of one Sri Lankan diasporic writer, Michael Ondaatje. Being the only Sri Lankan in class, I was called on as a resource of sorts, to correct the pronunciation of names more than for my knowledge of the context and stories. It was refreshing to learn about familiar places and narratives that I could relate to on some level. However, despite the fact that the professor was qualified and knowledgeable, it still felt strange to be a bystander listening to an analysis of stories that were set in the not too distant past of my own country.

This prompted a conversation with a South Asian classmate who questioned why there were courses on American literature, English literature, even Chinese literature but there really wasn’t any from our part of the world, despite our massive collective populations and thousands of years worth of stories. I responded that someone who was interested would need to pursue a high level of education, formulate a course, and get hired as a professor for that course to exist. That’s when we realized how rare that occurrence would be.

The Arts aren’t a popular career path in my part of the world, to put it lightly. The fact that I was the only person in the room who had any personal rooting to the story, a story that didn’t fit in the Western Canon, made me feel more protective of these cultural narratives.  If I don’t take ownership of these stories in the path that I’ve chosen, then who will?

Learning about new perspectives and cultural narratives from across the globe, opened my eyes to the narratives that originate in my corner of the world. It made me appreciate just how much a part of my own story it is. For me, this turned into a sense of responsibility. It’s not about patriotism or a sense of righteousness. It’s simply the case that no one will advocate for the stories of any group of people more than those who are connected to these stories themselves. When taken to extremes, this itself can lead to problems of wiping out other narratives for the convenience of your own, an issue we have seen happen countless times in history. 

To me, this emphasizes our need to accept our stories and our histories for all that they are, not just the parts that are convenient to us or fit into our pre-existing notions. Understanding these narratives is how we learn from them, and make sure that our mistakes aren’t repeated.

Reading the stories of Michael Ondaatje while being so far away from home was a strange experience. He wrote from his own Sri Lankan multiethnic, diasporic point of view of his relationship to a motherland we both shared. He wrote about pre-Independence Ceylon in Running in the Family, Sri Lanka from a distance in The Cat’s Table, and a more recent Sri Lanka in the throes of a civil war in Anil’s Ghost. It opened my eyes to how complicated relationships to a nation can be – the idea that calling a place home wasn’t as superficial as language, passports, citizenship, or the amount of time you spend there. It made me view these complications in a way that wasn’t anti-nation or unpatriotic but came from a much deeper connection and emotion to a place that you may not always understand, but will always be home. A place you’ll always want to help along the journey to becoming better over time and learning from the past. 

Culture Family Gender & Identity Life

I’m Kashmiri – poetry helped me embrace that

“I’m Kashmiri.” 

It’s a simple sentence – two words, to be exact. But it took me over a decade to say it with conviction. Or to say it at all, for that matter. Despite being raised to take pride in my ethnicity, it was something I never truly connected with. How could I call myself Kashmiri after everything that my family had been through because of Kashmir? 

I belong to the community of Pandits. As far as I’ve been told, our roots have been in the Valley since forever. That was, until violence cloaked its landscape in the 90s, and my kin was left with no option but to escape the land that was once home. What they hoped would be a week’s disruption lasted 25 years, and before they knew it, their lives would never be the same again. The destiny of their future generations had been rewritten forever; their sense of stability and identity had been gruesomely torn apart by politics. 

Growing up, I was a first-hand witness to the effects of this unexpected displacement. It was the little things that had the most impact on me, like the several times I caught my grandfather admiring a picture of the Dal Lake on his wall, to the way my grandmother wished she’d had a moment to say goodbye. There was this unspoken longing for home that seemed to linger just on the outskirts of every conversation we had. And throughout our talks, I’d wonder how they could speak so fondly of a place that reminded them of so much pain.

But it was perhaps years later, through the strangest of mediums, that I learned to embrace my identity. When I picked up reading poetry, I expected nothing but boring sonnets glamorizing love. To my surprise, I discovered accounts of women of color who had similar experiences and were using words as a medium to heal from their own transgenerational trauma.  I’d found my catharsis, and it altered my perspective on a lot of things, including what being Kashmiri truly meant. 

It made me look beyond my angst and realize the resilience my people possessed. The kind of courage and tenacity they’ve had – to rebuild their lives despite everything being taken away from them. And just like that, I fell in love with the sheer spirit that ran through Kashmiri blood. We weren’t lost – we were simply paving another path for ourselves, overcoming obstacles and moving forward like never before. Eventually, it also dawned on me that the Kashmir my grandparents spoke so lovingly of was the one inhabited by these very people – ones with unparalleled resolve and strength – and it was the people of Kashmir they missed more than anything. 

In one of her poems,  Rupi Kaur stated that she was “the product of all the ancestors getting together, and deciding these stories need to be told.” Perhaps, I am also meant to tell this story. One about the indomitable nature of my people, one that I am still in awe of. 

Maybe one day the grey skies in the Valley will finally clear, and we’ll have a chance to go back home. Or maybe we won’t. But all I know is that the next time someone asks me about my ethnicity, I won’t shy away from telling it like it is.

After all, I’m Kashmiri. 

Career Coronavirus Now + Beyond

Zoom bombers reminded me why I cherish teaching

Like many teachers in the age of COVID-19, I’ve switched to virtual classrooms (Zoom) as of late. It’s been two months since I last stood in a classroom, since I last had a thriving discussion about Poe’s work or Bradbury’s prose

It’s a peculiar experience, this feeling of teaching literature – a form that so heavily relies on a connection between pen and paper, person and prose, real life discussion – through a screen. But we’ve been steadily moving, finding ways to decipher this new reality. 

Last week, I came across some articles about zoom bombers: someone crashing your Zoom and disrupting it, much like photobombing. I skimmed through them, not thinking too much about it. People had also been sending me a lot of videos with jokes being played on teachers à la zoom bombers, but I just brushed them off. It wasn’t until a few days after, when it happened to me, that I realized how deeply disturbing and disrespectful it could be. I was teaching a class, one that I’d spent the entire previous afternoon preparing when it was disrupted – I quickly removed the intruder and carried on. 

Because as a teacher, that’s what you do. You pick yourself up and keep moving. I’ve always been really impatient as a person, but teaching is the one thing that’s made me learn some patience. You can’t do it without any.

Teaching isn’t pretty.

And then came the next set of zoom bombers. This one was worse. The crasher came in, abusing, cursing, just totally taking away from the entire environment I had crafted for the day. It made me think about how the teenage mind works, how they believe that they’re invincible, and that repercussions and accountability don’t exist for them. Sometimes, respect isn’t given at all, only taken and honestly, it shocks me. I barely remember that feeling, the one where fear didn’t exist in my heart, and actions were the first means of communication before words. 

The class progressively got worse. Another crasher came in and played a recording of sex noises. I was disturbed, yes. But more than that, I was afraid. Afraid for the future of children who think like that, for those who are constantly on the mode of attack for the simple sake of humor. And humor to what extent? No one knows. 

My mind can’t fathom what makes someone act this way – but that’s alright. And the irony of the situation is that it says a lot more about them than it does about me.

This is why I teach.

I confronted my students, reported the incident, and carried on. But what I didn’t expect is how the students (the ones that come here to learn, to grow, to expand their thinking) reacted. My email flooded with apologies and appreciation and I was reminded – this is why I teach.

Classroom management in a virtual world is new to us and we’re all still learning. There will be bumps and bruises along the way but teaching isn’t meant to be pretty. It accepts the flaws that come with it and works on tackling them in the best way possible.

That one moment where the students sit quietly in awe of the way a story comes together – or a character has her moment of absolution – or a poet evokes some form of greater understanding – that’s everything. And that’s why there’s never a dull day in this line of work.

Zoom is an average substitute, and the virtual classroom is the only thing we can cling to right now – but we, as teachers, and educators know that human connection, the passing down of knowledge, the exchange of ideas – that’s where the real learning comes from.