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Monday, March 30, 2020

Ratna Pathak Shah, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar and more: A letter to their 18-year-old selves from the present

What does it mean to come of age? What is an average 18-year-old Indian like? Let's explore the age of promise.

Updated: December 31, 2017 12:18:12 pm
The world is a dark place, but then there is light too, you just need to find the right switch, and you will. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

‘Live dangerously, once in a while at least’

Ratna Pathak Shah, actor

Dear R,

You are already wise — you are miserable at 18; you don’t buy any of that sweet 16 stuff can you? And rightly so. Things are hard, but you don’t have to be miserable; though I have to say that being miserable is good fun! I don’t want to warn you about the pitfalls ahead; don’t want to ruin the discoveries you will make. I don’t want to advise you — you won’t listen anyway. But I’d like to say that fear is a waste of time. And one can take forever to overcome various fears, so hurry up if possible.

You’re in for the long haul, you realise that, don’t you? You are going to be an actress forever. So get used to it and start learning ASAP. Nothing will be easy but it will be absorbing, so don’t belittle the art and craft of acting, as you are wont to at the moment. Develop respect for the art of creating, not just the creative product.

Travel — without being led, if possible. If you don’t look for safety and familiarity you may find unexpected delights.

A little secret — you can get more or less everything you ask for, so be careful what you want. Also you will get what you want but it won’t be in the way you want it; surprises are inevitable.

Bad news — you are a procrastinator by temperament — the fight will be endless and tiresome but totally worth it, so fight with all your might against it. You are also deeply lazy to make matters worse but you will surmount this, if goaded; allow yourself to be goaded.

Worse news — you will be astounded by how much of the gender nonsense you have internalised. And how much you will need to battle with yourself to overcome this early indoctrination. Get to work now.

Order and chaos are not necessarily independent of each other — don’t be anal about order; it’ll get in the way.

You’re wondering how one can work without being attached to the fruits of one’s labour. This is not the contradiction it appears to be now. It’s the only way to work constantly and remain sane.

Keep training your body and voice. An actor’s body has to be expressive in many ways and beauty is not the only aim.

Learn how to swim now. Please.

They say youth is wasted on the young but remember one can stay young-minded for as long as one wants.

So, I’m afraid I ended up with prophecy and advice after all! Sorry. Hindsight is always 20/20, but a hint — the ride is going to be fun.

I have a picture of you as you are now — those tweezed eyebrows and the almost painful look of anticipation and trepidation and I feel a great tenderness towards you. I’m deeply gratified to know that you will end up wiser than you are today.

PS: That good-looking guy on the bicycle is interested in you. Flirt confidently — your mom is not right about everything, you know. Live dangerously, once in a while at least!



Do not quit. First, fight back.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

A letter to his 18-year-old self from the present. What does it mean to come of age? What is an average 18-year-old Indian like? Let’s explore the age of promise.

Dear Sunny,

You turn 18 today and this is my gift to you: a letter. In this letter, I am going to tell you things that you might find helpful, if not now, then maybe some years later.

1. Listen to Papa and Mummy in the matter of your job and career. They know you love to write, but they will always want you to be financially secure and have a regular job before you set out to write books. I do not want to scare you, but I can see that you will go through an uncertain phase in which you will find yourself without a job and salary despite having a job! How that will happen, you will know when it happens. But, in order to tide over such a phase, you will need some savings in your bank account, for which you will need a secure career, for which you need to listen to Papa and Mummy’s advice.

2. Do not get too attached to anything, any person, any place. It might hurt if that attachment doesn’t work. Start with Teens Today, your favourite magazine and one you are so attached to. Teens Today will shut shop in the next few months. Yes, raise your dropped jaw. Try to withdraw all — OK, most of — your attachment to it. Trust me, letting go of all attachments is the only way to avoid getting hurt.

3.Have patience. One day, you will be able to afford to buy Sony Music audio cassettes. And you will be able to do a lot of things and achieve many things. Wait for the right time. Till then, work towards your goals and have happy and hopeful thoughts.

4. This might surprise you again, so hold your jaw. About a decade from now, you will be able to see films and read books on your phone. And this will be very addictive. Especially a certain show about winter and dragons. It is coming, just wait. The phones won’t be the kind we have now. They will be mobile, smaller, and they will have neither buttons nor the rotary dial. Try not to get addicted to any of it. Amazon will come to India. No, not the river. You will know when it comes. And it will bring a lot of books. I really wish I can ask you to stay away, but I know I can’t and you won’t. Talking of books, there will also be something called Facebook. It’s difficult to explain. You’ll know when you have to know. Till then, make the most of your time.

5. Time reminds me, sleep as much as you can. You already sleep a lot, continue. No matter what people say, just don’t bother. Never be ashamed of how much you sleep and what you eat and how much you eat.

6. However, never ever sleep in a train and miss your stop. And even if you do, do not ever jump out of a train even if it is only pulling out of a station. Either pull the chain or wait till the next stop.

7. Do not stop dancing to Falguni Pathak’s Yaad piya ki aane lagi and Meri chunar udd udd jaaye and Rani Mukerji’s Koi mil gaya. Dance for yourself, dance to be happy, just dance. And sing. And laugh.

8.Learn to say no. This is quite a difficult thing to do as you must have known in school itself. But you have to do it.

9. Learn new things. You already know how to sew a button, now learn to cook a meal. Or learn a new language, a new script. It is never too late to learn anything. Just do not feel ashamed to learn and to admit that you do not know something.

10. Do not quit, ever. First, fight back. Quit only if the situation is too dire. Nothing is more precious than your own life and sanity, and that of your family and loved ones.

11. Vote wisely. Choose anything

12. Whatever comes, do not ever try to kill yourself.

I am not sure if the things I have written make sense to you, but I hope they will be useful to you. Don’t bother to send me a reply soon. Write to me after maybe 18 years. Till then, stay well, stay safe.


‘Water will seep into you without you being aware of it’

Sumana Roy, writer

You’ve just discovered water.

It’s as if you were a newborn trying to come to terms with the difference between the pond in your mother’s womb and the water outside it. But you are 18. Like most discoveries in your life, this is a belated one. You’ve known water ever since you have known life, or your parents. And yet, though you don’t see it now, you feel something towards both that you haven’t before.

It is 1992, and you’ve turned 18. Your parents are taking you to see the Teesta. They’ve taken you out on loan from your boarding school in Calcutta — they want to spend their firstborn’s eighteenth birthday with her. But it is a small town, with little entertainment. So they turn it into a picnic — a river is nearby, it never disappoints; it has the constancy of a house — it’ll be there whenever you want to return to it. You don’t protest, though you are sceptical about your parents’ ability to conjure up appropriate entertainment.

You are permanently homesick in Calcutta. In letters to your mother, you write about the things you miss about Siliguri — oranges, the thin skin of momos, Wai Wai (the food you wasted when at home), the people who beat you at badminton (nearly everyone in the neighbourhood, because you were so bad at sports), Maya Mashi, the maid who both indulged and scolded you. You don’t say you miss your brother — you think you don’t; in fact, this will inaugurate the long career of missing your brother, of missing him even when he would be sitting next to you, because the one you’d be missing would not be the adult but the little boy of nine, with the joyous curls and a talent for hiding things.

You also don’t say that you miss the river. Rivers actually — the Teesta and the Mahananda. On the journey from the Tenzing Norgay Bus Terminus to your home in the early November morning, you complain to your father about the latter — “Water, even when dirty, is beautiful. Our Maha-Ganda.” Your father will remind you of this sleep-drugged observation every few years.

You’ll see the Teesta on your birthday — bluish-green, its colour unlike any other. You’ll smile to make your parents happy. A gift it is, better than anything in a box — this gift of water, its grace; its nutrition to the eye. It’ll seep into you without you being aware of it. You will reject the superficiality of flamboyance because the innate magnetism of the river, of water, will affect the way you’ll choose to live your life.

1992. The country will change. Houses will burst at the seams with things that its occupants won’t really need, everything will fatten except rivers. Soon, very soon, you’ll buy bottled water for the first time in your life. Maya Mashi will call it ‘Bisleri’, the way she uses ‘Surf’ for detergent. Your grandfather, who will die in a few months, will ask your father, “Is it true, that you have to pay to buy drinking water in a bottle?” You’ll learn about the reality of water wars, but you’ll be grateful to the last sanctuary that’ll remain — the indifference of water to money.

All this — and the scary voices about climate change and dying rivers and godmen asking you to save rivers by giving missed calls from your phones — you’ll discover as news, noise, clutter, words, amoral and without spirituality, without impact. What would change you, as you’ll look back to it later, is the sound of water, curdling on itself, a refuge from noise.

When you’d later choose to spend a life in literature, you’d find that the writers and the books that you’d gravitate towards would have water’s sublimity. Water, its easiness and its simplicity, would become the barometer of almost everything for you. Your favourite singer, for instance, would come to be one whose aalap would cleanse your soul, the notes erasing your blurry confusion.

From water you’ll learn the elasticity of relationships, their capacity for giving, their unchanging nature even when, like water, they’re soiled and sullied, their ability to be either solvent or catalyst, depending on the situation. A lifetime awaits you — a life of discovery, of how water nourishes, literally and figuratively; of water’s aesthetic: how writing tries to approximate its natural grace. Water also has memory, and you’ll discover it some day.

‘You. Are. Not. As. Hot. As. You. Think. You. Are.’

Chhimi Tenduf-la, author

Dear Jackass,

You doN’T like smoking, you just think it’s cool. If you keep this up, in 25 years, you will spend hours a day dreaming of that cigarette you cannot have, and, from time to time, you will smoke behind bushes, like a pathetic middle-aged schoolboy, and your life will be about what you cannot have. Like a six-pack.

Oh you have a six-pack, do you, tough guy? Okay, I admit, I envy you your ability to be able to eat a whole bacon mayo baguette and still have abs, but having defined muscles does not mean you should take your top off at any conceivable opportunity. Like that time a lady, five years older than you, asked if you could help her change her tyre and you took off your shirt, realised you did not know how to change a tyre, and said, “No”.

You. Are. Not. As. Hot. As. You. Think. You. Are. No one is as hot as you think you are, but still, remember to look after yourself because, in 25 years, you will look in the mirror and see a greying, blubber-faced, bushy eyebrowed has-been starring back at you. Desperately.

Listen in class. You will end up with all As, but the way you’re going you will have to do it the hard way, not sleeping for nights before your exams. If you just listen and take notes, if you just stop playing roulette at the back of the class, you can save yourself a lot of hassle.

Sit up straight; it seems a small thing but if you keep slouching now, you will end up with a constant pain in your right shoulder that can only be cured with improved posture, but it will be too late to change that.

Learn moderation. Okay, I admit you do well at things because you push yourself to get things finished, which will one day help you when you start taking writing seriously. But, it doesn’t mean you have to go hard at everything. Pushing your limits need not mean two bottles of vodka instead of one. Trying to stay on your feet on a night out is an admirable goal.

Put yourself in other’s shoes. In 20 years, people your age will be much more sensitive to the plight of others. Don’t be a caveman; get out there and help the needy, hug the dirty, hold hands with those marginalised, like your friend who is trying to come out but thinks you will make fun of him.

Stop playing air guitar to impress girls, because I am sure they’re laughing at you behind your back. But you can’t hear, because of that damn guitar. And here, my friend, is where I have to get really serious. You think you’re nice to girls; a charmer, a safe man, a chaperone, but show more respect. Girls have it harder than you do, whatever you say. Don’t lead someone on unless you know you can keep your promises, because it will make you feel guilty as hell for years to come. You’re better than that.

Write more. You love it. You love writing comedy poems, dark stories, and history essays, where you have to make up all the facts because you know nothing. Nurture this. Don’t just do economics at university because you think that will make you money. Money is over-rated; just look at the kind of people who have the most of it.

Dance. Pretend no one is watching…actually I have just remembered how you dance — please never dance again.

Yours, C

‘Start loving yourself. You will live more freely’

Manjiri Indurkar, writer and poet

Dear Manjiri,

It’s only appropriate that I begin this letter with hope rather than despair because as you keep reading, you’ll encounter a lot of the latter. You are a beautiful person, inside and out, bursting with potential that you will, one day, realise. I have to say this because I know it doesn’t get said enough to you. Memory plays tricks with me, so I am not sure if it has already happened to you, but the first guy you fall for calls you ugly. I want you to know that the hurt will fade, and as you go on internalising all the hate the world throws at you, you will also learn to fight it. You will be able to rise above this hurt, and find other people to love, some of who will love you back, some who will want to, but they won’t have the capacity for it. And that too will be okay. You’ll see.

This, however, isn’t what I want to talk to you about. What I do want to talk to you about, my dear younger self, is trauma, and all the things it will be introducing in your life. It’s still 2005 in your side of the world and not a soul knows what you have been through. You will eventually talk about abuse in your own unique way, but since we have the opportunity, we should address some of the things you are experiencing.

Growing up in a small town, in a sheltered environment, no one ever talked about mental illnesses to you. You understand depression as sadness. You don’t know why you sometimes wake up mid-sleep with your heart pounding, and feelings of unexplained dread surrounding you. Every time your parents get late, you don’t know why you feel restless, and can’t shake off that feeling that something terrible has happened. You have negative associations with sex, and you don’t think about desire, not even when you feel attracted to someone. That just invokes feelings of guilt in you. You don’t know why the last birthday party you went to stopped being fun for you midway. You don’t know why you cried your eyes out that Diwali night.

You are still friends with your abusers. You haven’t started using the word “abuse” to describe what happened. As you move out of your hometown and meet new people and read more books, you will understand, painfully and slowly, that you are not alone in this. That what you feel isn’t just your imagination. That you suffer from mental illnesses. That you have been through extreme trauma and never shared it with anyone. Your body hatred will magnify before it abates.

I want you know that you will be losing friends, and loved ones, and I don’t mean to death. You will cut a lot of people out of your life because you will realise that they don’t deserve your respect. And I want you to know that it’s imperative for you to do this.

You will witness hatred grow. But you will also see hope and love and kindness in strangers. The world is a dark place, but then there is light too, you just need to find the right switch, and you will. Your experiences will become fodder for your writing, and that will help you get through each day. Oh, did I mention you’ll become a writer?

You will travel, you will make new friends, you will fall in love, you will struggle with the idea of waking up, you will feel deep and all-consuming loneliness. You will face helplessness in times of political turmoil, and there is a lot of that to come in your future, but you will not give up hope. If there is one advice I can give you, it is this. Start loving yourself. It won’t ever be too late, if you don’t start now, but if you do, you will make fewer compromises, and live more freely. That invisibility you feel inside you, even though you are anything but invisible, will slowly disintegrate, if only you reach out to more people, and let them in. Open up about your struggles more, your friends will listen. And continue being sassy, and funny, and rude because some habits are worth keeping.

As you grow older you will realise that the world remains the same, neither all good, nor all bad. And you should be able to survive life, with scars, yes, but also with a lot of good memories. A very happy new year, dear M. You have done well, and you will continue to do well, no matter what.

Love, Manjiri

Hologram: 1997

Arjun Rajendran, poet

“that the day might/arrive when he would look back on his present self/
as on a distant relative who had drifted off into/uncharted lands.”
— Stephen Dobyns, Over a Cup of Coffee

Let’s pretend I can interrupt you from here. That you can stop celebrating inexperience for a while. Stop playing Duke Nukem 3D and try to listen because transmitting my hologram to where you are is taking up all my energy. I know you can’t believe you will turn my age. And, to tell you the truth, doing this makes me feel like Superman’s father, Jor-El, in the fortress of solitude. It’s 3 in the morning for you, and you have piled four eiderdowns on the modem to douse out its noise — you cannot be caught Talk City chatting. Your parents haven’t even turned 50 yet, and you will not be deluded that they will grow older. That soon, sooner than you think, you will step on the land you dream of, and eventually crumple.

You have yet to learn that driving your Maruti 800 to Marine Drive is not the same as driving for seven hours straight in winter; the prospect of black ice lacing your consciousness with dread; the fact of utter, unutterable loneliness drawing closer on the GPS as you listen to Christmas carols on the radio. You may not understand if I tell you there are places so cold, you feel like an icicle praying for a ray of sunlight to thaw your misery. That in such winters, you will encounter hatred, and nausea, and you will stay awake wondering how your parents never stayed young. How that lovely sea-facing room furnished with rosewood became an airbed thousands of miles away. Became a stale bottle of vodka.

The Pentium you are glued to right now is merely a tool, and not your vocation. Speaking of which, you believe you have found it. You have read the biography of the world’s richest man, and it inspires you to hoard books about programming games in Pascal. There’s an ennui gnawing at you. There’s an emphasis that’s missing. Shortcuts (and keyboard shortcuts) are your only philosophy. You think you are well-read because you have just finished Kane and Abel. You think you know about love because you have cried over Love Story. You will become a hacker, but not in the boxed-in way you imagine.

You despise the city you live in. The people you are surrounded by. You have no idea why you are friends with your friends, and have taken the liberty to assume your own importance in their lives. You are a joker. Everyone loves a joker. Except the guy drawing circuits on the blackboard, who is clearly feeling annoyed. You are annoying and funny. My two decades piled on yours guarantees that you will always be annoying. Maybe a different kind of annoying. But be proud you will never be the “dudes-blasting-music-to-impress” annoying, or “there’s nothing more to life than money” annoying.

Without slapping you awake from your privilege, I’d like to share some snapshots from your future, and now my past, of humans far lonelier than you or I. Of strangers opening up to you in a distant airport lounge waiting for the blizzard to end so the plane can take off to their broken homes; of neighbours pulped-up in parking lots, neighbours begging you to pay for dog food. Of friends with wholly intact bodies unable to shrug off their phantom limbs. Of the dead who are denied burial in consecrated ground. Of friends who only get a chance to kick their abusers at their funerals.

I will not tell you you are too young to be depressed. That your inexperience doesn’t deserve the right. That your desperation to find acceptance among your peers is misplaced, or fleeting. I won’t ask you to replace your ridiculous afternoons playing the fool, with libraries; to not hanker for relationships, or be an ageist asshole like the ageist assholes surrounding you.

I know you suffer from myopia, and cannot see yourself crossing the fog-bridge. I know the present is noxious enough, and far be it from me to be doling out wisdom to my past that has drifted into uncharted lands.

‘Write that letter to the girl you love’

Sambhaji Bhagat, lokshahir (troubadour)


I am looking at you and I am not sure whether to laugh or to cry.

I am laughing at your ignorance that has made you join the RSS and run their Panchgani shakha. Oh, the irony! These people don’t let you become human. They insist you choose a religion, be either a Hindu or a Muslim. And you are naïve enough to fall for it. That’s just hilarious!

You were a poor boy from a small village when you came to Panchgani two years ago. You had no food and no roof over your head but you had the dream to study, educate yourself. It is the promise of food and shelter that made you join the RSS. How sad it is that a young, innocent boy has to make compromises for such basic amenities. The thought of that makes me cry.

I cannot change your circumstances, but I can tell you that I am happy that you want to study because that is when you will see the light and quit this poisonous world.

Your intentions aren’t wrong, I can see that you want to change the world. But that letter you intend to write to Indira Gandhi, the one you think will make our prime minister have a change of heart — convince her to work towards eradicating poverty and inequality — that letter, let me tell you, is silly. Your ideas are too romantic. It is better I tell you this now; else, you will learn this the hard way much later.

No, Sambha, this world is not fit for living. It’s cruel, and you are just a village bumpkin. Your simplistic ideas of being able to change the world will be destroyed because the world does not change overnight. I am not saying there is no hope. Of course, there is hope and you have to work all your life towards bringing about small changes. Just don’t expect to see it happen while you live. And, please, throw that letter away because you will never post it anyway.

In fact, write another letter, this time, address it to that girl you love. Ha! Yes, I do know all about her. I know you really like her but you think you are not fit to propose to her. So what if you are poor, with no good clothes and shoes to show, without a house of your own and with no proper job? So what if you make a living by polishing boots? Why do all these factors come in the way of expressing love? What do you fear?

My boy, learn from my mistakes. I made the mistake and look at me, I am 57 and still single. Instead of writing that letter, I wrote a poem that I hoped would make me famous one day. I would dream that the poem will be so famous that it would reach my lady love someday, who will then realise that I am devoted to her, and draw her to me. And look where all those dreams got me!

Wake up and leave behind that slavery but don’t stop dreaming and desiring because you are poor.

– Sambha

‘You are a hero, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise’

JV Pawar, writer and founding member, Dalit Panthers

Dear Javi,

The year is 1962 and you are probably sitting under some street lamp in Marine Lines when you receive this letter, stealing a few moments alone before you fall asleep right there.

My intention is not to alarm you; I write to you because I want you to know that I am aware of how hard you are working, harder than others your age. The upper-caste boys, who are as old as you, go to school, play sports, hang out with girls. They are a lot like the heroes of the Marathi novels you so love to read. You, on the other hand, work two to three day jobs, attend night school and then work the night shift at the telephone department. I want you to know that while you may aspire to be like the other boys today, you will never regret your own life later.

But until the day you realise that you should spend your entire life serving the Ambedkarite movement, I want you to understand that you don’t have to struggle with inner self over the idea of success or happiness. What you see around you, those boys from upper-caste families, or read in popular culture, isn’t the path you seek. The fictional heroes you read about are heroes because they have caste and class privilege over you. To want to be like them is a waste of energy and time. Listen to me: You are a hero, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. You come from a poor family, unsure of whether you will be able to earn your next meal. Yet, you have cleared your higher secondary exams with good grades, which is rare for boys from your background.

I am happy that you have followed Babasaheb Ambedkar’s teachings from such an early age. Education is indeed the way to elevate one’s life. I am glad to see you spend your time at night reading instead of sleeping like the others at work on the night shift. This will change your life, it will make you a socially aware person. You love to pen poetry, you write for your school magazine — one day, you will be a known poet and writer. While that will bring you fame, you will soon realise that your life’s mission is to take the Ambedkarite movement forward.

The early success can blind you, like it happened with me. Thankfully, it didn’t last more than a couple months. My first book, Balidaan, published in 1964, became very popular. It was a love story against a political backdrop. The novel brought me fame but it didn’t change my circumstances because I was a Dalit. Even though I was successful, I was considered an outsider by the upper-caste literary circle, mostly comprising Brahmins.

You are young, you have two years ahead of you before you publish your first work. Take my advice, son, and forget about fame. Your greatest strength and asset is your poetry and writings. Use them for your people, write for the movement. Begin early because even an entire lifetime isn’t enough.



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