#hashtags

I have finally come to realize it. I am slowly coming to terms with it as well.

I am horrible with hashtags. For a while I was not sure whether the correct form of the word is hashtag or hash tag with a space in between. Doing some hasty research for this post has revealed that hashtag the word was only updated in OED this past June [someone should tell my word processing software that]. Many times I have come across hilariously appropriate tags in posts that after entertaining me for several precious seconds [or as long as it takes to scroll on to the next thing], make me realize why I am glad my livelihood does not depend on me coming up with groovy hashtags for content. I can merely experience this from a distance and admire the creativity of the posters. Usually when I use hashtags for anything, I pick the most obvious ones. The other day I posted a picture of books and after much thought tagged it ingeniously with #books, #read and #reading. The metadata gods must have chalked up a special place for me in their book of #utter #disappointments.

I am also fascinated by those who hashtag everything that they type. Instagram photos of coffee that start somewhere in the neighborhood of #coffee, #coffeeart, #flower, #weekend, somehow end up in the vicinity of #deepthought, #bestfriends, #followme #sunset #love and so forth. To each his own, and I’m all for expression. But I do not have the talent to make a story out of hashtags that have a beginning, a middle, an end and some side notes to take away with it.

Hashtags are infinitely cool though. They are the electronic links to connect your creative output with those of others who select the same words to represent their own thoughts and ideas. Activists, protesters, marketeers, promoters, do-gooders and feel-gooders – hashtags decide who you are and what you are saying. You do not even need to form a full sentence. Just tag and you’re it! You win the approval or get the vote or stand by something with just a #. The demand for justice for horrible crimes is hashtagged. Campaigns worth millions of dollars are based on specialized hashtags that form the crux of the message. This is the direction social media has gone with and it works.

Personally I feel good about something that I came across while writing this. The number one hashtag in Instagram is #love. Love. There are more than 600 million photos that the users thought had something to do with love. There were more than 600 million instances of someone spending the few seconds it takes to type #love to link with something they took a photo of. There are more than 600 million posts about a concept that makes us feel good, that makes us feel special, that some of us strive for all our lives and that some of us really need. Love is one of the most powerful emotions there is. Love builds us and it breaks us. Love is what a lot of stuff around is really about. Maybe half of those 600 million photos had little to do with the literal meaning of love and the posters just wanted to be linked to the most popular hashtag. But I consider even a weak association as proof to it being a good thing. Love is popular. That has to be a good #sign for us.

Back to School

For the last one week I’ve been an early bird. Wake up at 6 am, get ready for work. Pick up my 6 year old nephew and drop him at school. Go to this class I’m taking. Then commute to work. It’s a break from the usual mornings I have. Not exactly life changing stuff but it does give the thought process a little bit of a workout. A mild jog, if not a run.

As I approach my nephew’s school, the hum from a hundred too-awake-for-7-am kids screaming in the playground hits me. And it’s like it’s the 90s all over again. I’m sitting inside the car, bored and sleepy. I get off and get inside my classroom. Depending on which year I’ve landed in this flashback, I either run about with the other kids playing or sit around talking about everything and nothing outside class. Class starts. I am anxious about forgetting to bring a book.

I was so bloody terrified of not bringing a book that we had class for. The teachers were unusually anal about books and notebooks being brought to class. It was their weird way of injecting us with some discipline and responsibility. I was not scared of the punishment. I just did not want to ‘forget to bring the book’. It scared me and the days I did forget to bring the book I spent the whole time like I was awaiting my own execution till that class was due. The days I brought the stuff I needed, all passed smoothly.

I was not the most popular; neither was I a wall-flower. I had Friends, Best Friends, Acquaintances. There were some who did not like me or were indifferent. I was not the best at everything but I had good balance [school prefect, above average grades, a great friend, no athletic abilities, no hotness whatsoever]. I read a lot and wrote a lot and watched a lot of documentaries and movies and cartoons and this added to stuff I had to say. I hid my insecurities as best as I could amid my extraordinarily confident friends who grew up at an unbelievable pace before my own eyes. I was lucky not to have been bullied or been the subject of mental torture that kids go through sometimes. I was a tomboy and ‘one of the guys’ and I was totally okay with it. I remember school being hot [we did not have air conditioning till we became upperclassmen as seniors] and fast. I remember the anticipation of the last bell, the agitation of being picked up late, the consternation of trying to remember history dates. I met my best friends for life amid the wooden chairs and crowded play-ground. From them I understood I could be so much more, and I already had so much more for them to pick up on. I remember feeling I did not quite belong but also realizing I could not imagine school being anything other than the sum of all the little parts I was experiencing every day.

Suffice to say, I miss school. I miss sitting in class, and backpacks, and notebooks. I would do anything to sit through the horrible chemistry class that I absolutely hated for just one more day. I would love to wait for school to end for just one more day. It would be great to be able to be a kid again for just one more day.

Fall

My pinterest homepage is exploding with pumpkin spice everything, decoration ideas for Halloween and girls in knee high boots, leg warmers, scarves and the latest in fall fashion. It’s fall. The lovely season of golden leaves and awesome clothes.

Except I live in Dhaka.

Yes, it’s October and theoretically a truly a beautiful time. Here in Dhaka it is tropical business as usual. There is a slight chill in the air after 2 or 3 a.m. that stays till dawn. In the morning the shadows are cool, but the sun is achingly bright and hot even as early as 8 am. You would not like to stand on direct sunlight because of how hot the sun’s rays are.

It’s a tease really. In the morning winter magic taunts us. It wafts through the air like the smell of kebabs on the tandoor in some corner we cannot see. It disappears within a few hours as we get busy with the day and get chilled to the bones from the uncontrollable air conditioning at work that is always set too cold. By afternoon it is just plain hot. Or it is raining. The weather has been pretty weird lately.

I remember reading in school about the six seasons in Bangladesh and the fluffy white clouds and the kash ful (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saccharum_spontaneum) that signifies autumn for this country. I usually never noticed the poetic difference that those hopeful authors tried to point out to us. But those books were written by authors who lived in a time when the seasons played a part in their lives and did not abandon them amid the concrete and steel of a city jungle. However, something did happen recently. Small white fluffy feathers were found all over Dhaka last month, so much so that people were posting queries on the social media asking what they were. Turns out it was kash ful, the flowery part of a type of tall grass that grows in autumn in the subcontinent, just like the books used to talk about. I guess nature found a way to snake its way into the concrete and glass and millions of ignorant unworthy people to show them she’s not that far gone.

One day maybe I’ll get to experience autumn with all its red and golden hues those pinterest girls keep going crazy about. (I will never try pumpkin spiced anything for sure though). Maybe I will finally wear those damn boots that look so good. But for this year, it’s only flying kash ful landing on my head as I race across the busy interaction that says to me… fall is here.

A Circus Act

The tightrope walker was right in the middle of the rope now, his feet perfectly aligned and balanced. His arms were extended out into the air. He focused on his feet and the rope, feeling like he was an extension of it.

He ignored the flashbulbs, the quiet murmur from the audience. He ignored the sweat on his palms, the slight thump of his heart as it protested from being put into such a situation.

He took another step. The end was a long way away from where he stood.

His glance caught the scene right below him- what seemed like miles down. His fellow performers looked up at him. The ground crew waited.

And suddenly, he realized, he did not have a net.

His whole body went rigid with shock. Which was, in such a situation, a blessing.

He glanced down at the Ringmaster.

Where the hell is my net??

The Ringmaster looked at him, confused. What net? Since when do you use a net? You’re the star performer just because you never use a net. People come to see you because they know that any performance might be your last.

The tightrope walker swallowed. He felt lightheaded. He did not know if this was a sick joke or if he was dreaming. Why would he say that he never used a net?

Right then and there, he had a mental conversation with his Ringmaster.

The Ringmaster said, you always pretended you had a net to fool your mind into believing it’s safe. And pretty soon you started believing in it.

The tightrope walker reigned in his fears and thought it was best to focus on the walk to the other side without worrying too much about the missing net.

But he couldn’t push the feeling away. He was too scared of falling into the abyss. He knew that he had performed previously only because he knew there was a net below to catch him if he fell. He liked the guarantee that if he went down, it would not be the end.

And now his guarantee, his safety net was gone.

He was all alone, standing on a tightrope, weak and powerless.

The audience watched with bated breath, waiting for him to fall.

Wasting Away On The Streets

I am a firm believer in believing in the good in something. Even when most things point to the negative, I always have a small, niggling doubt in my mind that hopes to justify the inappropriate and illogical. I believe things just do not suck by default and if they seem that they do, there must be a logical explanation behind it that may somehow make it easier to accept.

Sadly, this is not something I feel about the traffic situation in Dhaka.

In the past two days, I have spent on average 4.5 hours commuting to and from work. The map in my phone says the distance is approximately 8 to 9 km, and takes 19 minutes without traffic. Now since no one in Dhaka has ever fully accepted the words ‘without traffic’ as a truth [unless it’s three am], the estimates by the map is in all accounts, invalid. Even then the actual time should be somewhat closer to the estimate. It’s not even in the same continent as close.

The traffic situation prompts the urban, facebook-trigger happy commuter with a steady slew of frustrated status updates damning this City to hell and beyond. Some enterprising people put up updates to ask about the waiting time for a particular area in hopes to predict a faster route. Mostly it’s just anger and frustration and a hopeless desire to walk out of the vehicles and break someone’s windshield.

The opportunity cost is insane. Brace yourself for some intense second grade math. Two plus two four hours taken from twenty four. Five days a week. If we work fifty weeks a year [because who can skip work and get sick or go on vacation when so much time is wasted on the roads?] that is 1000 hours just coming and going from work. That is 60,000 minutes of one person’s year spent sitting inside a car or a bus or an auto-rickshaw. The most you can do in this time is listen to the radio, if you’re lucky enough not to drive, read a book, go through your phone and answer calls. Maybe bicker about the state of the world with your commute-mates.

The issue should not be whether we are making optimum use of our time while being stuck in traffic. Instead there needs to be an actual shift in not taking this horrible waste of time and money for granted anymore. I read up on cases where some cities of the world improved traffic conditions drastically by programs and initiatives. Unfortunately when I tried to imagine implementing those ideas within the context of Dhaka, I found that in most cases it would not work. It is not that there is no scope of change by following the programs of other cities. But the overhaul would need to be so major it would require the combined effort of the government, private enterprises, the commuters and a league of angels to bring about a significant shift.

I am not hopeful. The naïve, believe-in-the-best side of me has been horribly beaten down in this case. I realize how precious my time is. In the four hours I spend in the car, I may come up with the greatest novel ever written. Or I may just take a nap. Either ways it would be my choice to do so. I would not be a slave of a system which can arguably be considered one of the best, or should I say, worst examples of inefficiency and lack of planning and progress of urban transportation. I sound bitter and there will be people talking to me about headway by referring to upcoming flyovers being constructed and so on. But I say to them, as the traffic situation has gone from bad to disgusting, how many campaigns have you seen that promotes car-pooling, encourages use of public-transportation, encourages people to walk instead of taking their cars and enforces proper traffic laws? I’ve seen none so far, and I’ve been alive to wait for it for twenty six years. This is in a city with probably one of the worst continuous traffic conditions in the whole world.

There are many who say we as a people are incapable of improvement in certain aspects. We do not follow rules of the road and we drive like maniacs. It’s like blaming the kid who blows up a toilet for not knowing any better instead of the parents who never told him that this was not what good kids do. The people of this city do not have a special gene that makes us contribute to bad traffic. In a proper system, everyone will behave. But there needs to be a start somewhere. Someone needs to tell us – we are doing this, you can do your part by doing that. Case in point, there are no major traffic issues within the armed forces cantonment of the city. People follow rules because they are enforced. They do not magically turn into law-abiding citizens as they pass through those gates.

It’s not often I go about bringing a negative image of my country where the whole world can see it. My country has enough to deal with without me adding to the pile of damaging things it is known for. But I also feel I had to do something, even if that means five people read this and just empathize. Also, it’s been almost two hours that I’ve started for home, and writing seemed a better use of the time.

Why Do I Blog?

I have asked myself this existential question many times as I created and deleted blogs back in the early days when I discovered what blogging was. This is by far my oldest blog in terms of the number of days it has existed, although the posts have been few and far between. I think it survived the cut because I promised myself that I’d keep it, a reminder to myself that I have the medium in case I had something I wanted to reveal to any fortunate reader who stumbles upon it.

Even now I search for the answer [quite evident in my random tagline and confusing about me section], although with much less gusto than before. It is a little like not vaguely questioning our purpose in life and instead being content enough with what feels right and what needs to be done.

I have kept a personal journal since I was eleven. Back then while I pretended to study and do homework, I wrote about anything that struck my fancy: school troubles, new TV shows, parents breathing down my neck, difficulties of being a tomboy while trying to get guys to like you, being an introvert, friends, teen-drama and sudden life altering realizations. Even though it started as a respite from studying, it helped me become one of the best writers in my class [I was especially good at fiction, my English teachers read out my short stories to the class and my blood ran icy cold like the protagonist’s as he faced his arch enemy]. It helped me organize my thoughts and let me vent when I was upset [Why am I not allowed to stay over at my friends’ places? EVERYONE DOES IT!]. It helped me shape an identity for myself. While some of my friends were great artists and athletes, some were the best at school and some were the funniest people ever, I was someone who could affect people with words.

My right shoulder would start hurting sometimes because I would keep on writing a new story that would form in my head faster than I could write it down. Before I had a computer, I saw movies where the characters would write on the screens, and I could not wait to get my own so that I too would look that cool while writing. I once almost made my uncle leave everything behind in Saudi Arabia to come to us to Dhaka by writing a moving, emotionally blackmailing letter.

These days I am but a shadow of the prolific writer I once was. Things happened, life happened, writing took a back seat with assignments and TV shows and hanging out and marathon chat sessions. Sometimes I would surprise myself with a good piece and it would feel like old times again. I would feel guilty. It was guilt similar to not talking to an old friend for years. But even with all the gaps in the practice, even though I have never considered writing as a profession, I have always been fascinated with the power it has over the reader. I admire good writers and I admire people who challenge themselves to be better writers than they currently are [If the blogosphere is any indication, there are so many of those wonderful, beautiful people around!].

Which brings me to my initial question.

One of the reasons I blog is because I think having an audience helps. When I wrote privately I was more focused on making myself happy, getting stuff written, getting it on paper, getting it out of my head. When I knew someone would read it, I would pay more attention to the finer details and consider how the reader would perceive me. I do not have a lot of visitors. But I think the possibility of having readers read my blog makes me try to be better.

I also do it because in part, it scares me.

2013 was a rough year for me. I consider that the worst year of my life so far. The mantra for the year was to ‘Be Brave’. I wrote it on my wall, kept a photo with the phrase ‘Be Brave’ written over it on my phone’s lock screen, and when things got difficult, I repeated to myself: Be Brave.

The happy consequence was that the risky jumps I took have made this year a much fortunate, peaceful time for me. Being brave and making myself do what makes me uncomfortable is not completely terrifying anymore. One of those is to not be scared of what people may think of what I have to say. I worried that my insight was not thought-provoking, or important, or relevant to most people. So I would type up many things, only to delete them or never post them. But in time I realized I was the one who was losing out from this fear. I started writing for myself first and foremost, and this had nothing to do with me. So why would I let it scare me? So I decided to be brave about what I had to say and not worry that no one cares about it.

So I supposed the two parts above give a half-answer to why I have a blog. I like the fact that as I pursue this further I may find more reasons. Or maybe I will figure out that writing is not for me and I should have put some effort into palm-reading or anthropology. Like so many answers to so many questions over the years [for e.g., Q: Why does my mouth clam up when I talk to Guy X? A: Because you’re scared of sounding stupid, stupid] the answers to this question will present itself as I keep writing.