I grew up in the little-known state of Odisha, on the eastern coast of India. The Jesuit-run school where my parents had enrolled me was one of the best in the capital city, Bhubaneswar. It sat on a large area of land that was practically a jungle before the school was built. One could still see the remains of the jungle at the far end of the football ground—wild vegetation, the tropical sun shining down upon tiny white flowers amidst thistle and weed. I was one of the school’s first students, and I spent the first thirteen years of my life there.
As the school expanded its staff, I was lucky to learn from some incredible teachers who came from across the country and had decided to settle in the city for good. The small town had its charms. As I reached high school, many of these teachers had become integral parts of my life. They were the kind of guides who opened me to the world in silent, unobtrusive, almost invisible ways. My English teacher, especially, was the most important person in my life at that point in time. She would always tell me that I was giving her a hard time. Every time we turned in an assignment, she would ask me, “I hope this is not too vague, Sristi. I write more comments than the margins can hold.” And I would say, “I don’t know, ma’am.” I really wouldn’t know—does she mean that she does not like it? Or does she mean that she likes it, but she thinks others, the “readers” wouldn’t like it? Still, I understood what she wanted me to do; or at least then I had an intuitive understanding, which now I think I can explain—she really wanted me to translate my thoughts from thought-language to written-language.
“This is very good,” she said, handing me my year-end essay, the margins full of comments. “But you can do better. It’s not coming through—this thing with…” She sounded a little frustrated. I felt helpless seeing her like this. With fifty essays to give feedback on, her job really was tough. Being a teacher today, I cannot imagine doing my job as perfectly as she did hers.
I exchanged my essay with my friend and saw that he’d scored more points and had fewer comments.
“What’s she telling you in all of this?” he asked, pointing at the tiny red cursive writing. The margins resembled an intricately embroidered sari.
“It looks quite daunting,” I admitted.
I read the comments on my own later on and felt happy. To me, they read like suggestions from one writer to another, in a language only writers can understand. She wrote about my style, my choice of words, the tone, the voice, the mood—things we talked about in literature classes while reading stories like “Dusk” by Saki. Did I apply her suggestions? Honestly, I spent all my years in school trying to figure out how I could marry her comments with my essay.
Sometimes I came close. I remember one time when she asked us to write an essay in class and submit it before the bell went. It was something like the stream-of-consciousness—although, in hindsight, that experience was more like automatic writing. Once done, we stood in a line that started at her desk and ran all the way out of the classroom door. When my turn came, I could feel something shift in the air around me. I felt nervous, the way a groom feels nervous before the bride arrives on the wedding day. I thought to myself: We’ve never done this before. We’ve never submitted anything without revision. What if I’ve made embarrassing grammatical errors? What if this whole thing is embarrassing? But I wanted her to read the essay because I thought it would be unfair for the essay itself, somehow, to stay hidden. At the same time, I almost wanted to tell her sorry, even before she had started reading it.
Halfway through, she stopped reading and looked up at me. I almost cried. She blinked her eyes a few times while still staring at me, as if she wanted to say something. Then, as if she’d forgotten something, she resumed reading. She took a while, longer than she did with my peers, and I could feel the class looking over my shoulders into my notebook. Like the title of Ruskin Bond’s memoir—The Room on the Roof—I wanted to hide in a single room on a large roof on a rainy day when the clouds have hidden the sun and the wind is the only thing reminding one of life.
When she was done, she took a deep breath and looked at me and asked, “When did you write this?”
I felt like an orphaned puppy. “Right now, ma’am.”
“No, I mean, did you just think about it right now? It’s not even raining outside, and this talks about rain.” She did not complete her sentence. She just smiled.
“Yes, ma’am. I wrote it right now.” I didn’t know what else to say. I was unsure if I was happy.
I went home confused. But there was something else mixed with that confusion that was making it delicious. On the bus journey back home, I felt as if the world around me had changed, taken on a different hue and shade. I thought to myself, perhaps there is another world—a world with very few people in it, and very few words. In that world, language is powerful, sacred. People do not abuse it, and they work very hard to keep it simple. Their achievement in life is the fact that they have solved the complex problem of simplicity. Perhaps in this world, people did not receive much for what they were doing—just like nobody in school except my English teacher and a few other kindred souls wanted to read my essays. They would say that they did not understand anything, and that included my parents. I did not know what my thoughts meant. I certainly did not know where my essays stood with respect to this nascent realization. I just wanted, at that moment, to be part of that world.
It took me a little more than ten years to find that world—to feel at home. Now, I finally feel like I have found people who think, write, and feel the same way as I do. No, they are very different from me, but we share something common, something that is important for us. I do not have many publications, and every poet on Instagram has more readers than I do. Just like in high school, my parents still do not understand most of what I write. My mother told me the other day that my writing is boring. “You’re not a page-turner!” she said. It was funny.
But unlike high school, I understand now that that world really is a big community of many writers. This community is spread across countries, absorbing voices and strength from little-known localities, towns, villages, and languages. Writers from diverse walks of life add edges to this community. In this online age, this community is a home to anyone who has felt the feelings that I did in high school. It is a school, a family, and an excursion of writers, artists, musicians, scientists, architects, and even those who are a bit of everything. Here, with people from places that I will never get to see, I feel at home. I write every day, and I am grateful to have something nice to read every night before going to bed. This is, after all, everything I had asked for.
Photo by by Danny Hahn, used and adapted under CC.