Vibing With Montero

“I need time to give up just like before/I love it how you know I’d only come right back for more”

And so the chorus goes, with its roundabout search for love and belonging. It’s a habit and a talisman of heartbreak. Lil Nas X doesn’t shy away from the vicarious pleasure of being hurt, of having and holding a broken heart. He does things differently because he knows what he is doing with himself and in music. That is what makes his debut album Montero so alluring. The quoted lyrics from Lost In The Citadel is but a small sample of the experience of a deeply queer story.

The term ‘queer’ has in many ways lost meaning today. It still seems to be the only word capable of capturing any deviance from the norm of a cis-het existence on this broken planet. There is always another dimension to what we call a queer experience. So, I would be amiss to call Lil Nas X’s work representing any sort of universal queerness. What I received from it is not an objective standard for good and bad either (I will leave that job to the critics), but I vibed with it in a way that novelist Brandon Taylor considers vibes as an aesthetic value. On the release date, Lil Nas X was the most streamed artist on Spotify reaching over 46 million streams globally. Many felt those vibes indeed.

All the hype and interest that lead to this massive release had a lot to do with how Lil Nas X represents himself, and of course his excellent marketing. Right from the release of the eponymous single of the album and the controversy around blood shoes to the veritably curious pictures of a pregnant Lil Nas X giving birth to his album, he embraced his queerness and it stood out in a world of sanitised pre-release publicity (and sometimes silly artifice). It wasn’t shock value, but his way to evoke and provoke that made him so special. It riled his critics and all the haters (including many racist and queerphobic assholes) and also brought him a heck load of publicity.

Being a black queer man, Lil Nas X is not the ‘ideal image’ of queerness represented by popular white ‘twink’ boys (like Troye Sivan), or like Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet who are packaged in this manner of desirability for conservative appeal. He is queer in a way that is messy and beautiful and chaotic and sometimes deeply melancholic. Some have referred to this album as a paean to sadness, but I find it deeply humbling as this sadness is also about survival.

His complicated relationship with his biological family is apparent in Dead Right Now and Tales of Dominica, where he provides a heartrending portrayal of his dynamic with his mother, who has suffered from drug addiction. Not similar, it still reminds me how it is difficult for me to have a simple conversation with my parents. After all the pleasantries while talking to my mother, there is an emptiness in how we broach subjects as if I am not enough. It’s perhaps because I am not enough for her. I have to manage my emotions and hide behind the note of cordiality. I can finally breathe with relief after putting down the phone.

As someone who has long struggled with gender identity and ‘sexual deviancy’, I feel it when Lil Nas X speaks of this loneliness in Void or the constant need to run away from life and living on Sun Goes Down. Also, that break in the tension like the sunbeam bursting through after the thunderstorm: “But there’s much more to life than dyin’/Over your past mistakes”.

And the pain of heartbreak is never far behind. His offer to be a part-time lover in Life After Salem is that desperate attempt to cling to something that was (maybe) good once. This inescapable and inexplicable sense of loss has an acrid taste of spent tears during lonely sunsets. I gulp down invisible tears when he croons with Miley Cyrus in Am I Dreaming: “Never forget me”. Our histories have been invisibilised and erased for so long. Lil Nas X is giving a name to this history by reclaiming his story. Though gruesome in its pain, this album is also an ode to his success and the hope for more.

When I listen to him, I believe in that hope. Hope is what anchors us to another tomorrow. And I will wait to let it play out its tune.

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Frankly, Amy

I read about it first on the news feed of Yahoo! It was a short piece; I do not remember much—I must have been sad, but I remember I was in awe of the touch of death. So close at hand (too far), so near, so hungry, and I felt the need to cry. That year was the year of knowing death for me. And it all started with Amy.

“All I can ever be to you/Is a darkness that we know/And this regret I got accustomed to…” she begins and lets the tears flow without restraint. I would perk up with those first few words and then wait for the refrain. She was good company for that lonely summer. Things were changing so quickly, and I had lost my bearing. But I had her. When she would indulge me with that groan of a sound in Rehab, “I just…ooh…I just need a friend”, I felt understood. That was one of the very few places where I felt understood.

I was already hurting, and suicidal ideation was creeping up on me like vines on a derelict wall. I remember the black dots of my vision when I would feel faint. I remember when I started starving myself. I remember the purple wall behind and the frame of the bed where I gave up on saving myself every day and every night. I don’t remember much of her death or my immediate response to it, but I remember that it was just the beginning.

Losing Amy was like losing the last vestiges of my innocence. More death followed that year. Someone I had once called a friend (who had moved on to another city for her education), a relative taken by cancer. So grew my fascination with what the end would mean. When life seemed to be slipping out of me one drop at a time, I felt a kinship with death. I followed its voice in my dreams — its whispers provided a relief from the pain, its silence was always punctuated with another hurt. I ached for it, I thought I needed it to fulfil what I could not in life.

Through it all, I still clung to Amy. I found others in later years—those voices with the Siren call, with the touch of a crystal cleanness, with the darkness of suffocation and breaking away from it.

“And life is like a pipe/And I’m a tiny penny/Rolling up the walls inside…” I repeated and repeated after my first heartbreak, and all the times I felt deceived by myself. She was there, as I delved into the exuberance of a tomorrow and the hopelessness of today, during my metro journeys to college. “As far as my heart, I’d rather be restless/Second I stop, the sleep catches up and I’m breathless…” remained in my head through the emptiness, as I found myself trapped in the pattern of my breaking.

But she was also there when I found myself in the company of friends. “Since I’ve come home/Well, my body’s been a mess/And I miss your ginger hair/And the way you like to dress”: I would forget my discomfort with my voice and sing out loud with Chi Chi, finding the joy of Amy in what has often been a lonely journey.

Whenever I find it creeping on me—the death that still vies for my attention, that is always going to be there—I think of Amy, and I think of the life that is here in this moment now. Not always. I falter, I get lured away by the pleasure of a funereal fantasy. But my love for her has remained the same. So much has remained the same, and yet so much has changed as well.

When I hear her voice, I do not regret all of it. I do not regret any of my falls and hurts. I remember them fondly, I am learning to live with them.

If there is a ‘beyond’, I hope it is restful and kind. Thank you, Amy!

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© Anmol HA

Something for the 10 years of passing of Amy Winehouse

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Catch me, Holden!

Holden Caulfield was a friend. A rather uneasy one, who I thought was unnecessarily contradictory and morose, but that was what brought me close to him. We couldn’t have been more different. He was a white teenager in the late 1940s from a rich New York family, gallivanting around the city in search of himself. I, on the other hand, was this brown queer shadow in another part of the world some 50 years in the future, too afraid of my own-ness, who was staying in the confines of a room, reading a book after another, and giving up on the travails of daily living. He would have called me phony, I thought at the time, and still, I befriended him, and kept him close. My copy of The Catcher in the Rye was dirty and stained and somewhat smelly, from all the times and places I read it.

A few years later, I carried the same copy to a book group meeting and read a couple of pages, hoping that the enthusiastic book-worshippers would tell me why I felt so attached with it and with him. Basking in the mute yellow sun of a late winter afternoon on centuries-old stone steps of the Bada Gumbad (Big Dome tomb) at the Lodi Gardens, they all listened to my pesky little voice, still uncomfortable in its cadence and strength. Some said that I was perhaps like Holden.

The only thing common between us was our sense alienation and perhaps our conflict with individual needs and the trauma of our histories. But that did not make me like him or so I thought, not when it came to identifying traits of personality. I dropped it.

Holden fell through the cracks, or maybe I did. I forgot my copy of the book and all the pages that had become fragile beneath the restless touch of my thick fingers.

As I picked it up again and entered the somewhat muted and old-film-like-light of Holden’s story years later, I laughed. On an empty bed of an empty room, swathed in shades of blue and brown, I laughed like I never did before while reading it. I found it hilarious: his wry comments on everyone he found phony and all the things he did not feel like doing or talking about despite keeping on with it for paragraphs after paragraphs. As I moved from one chapter to another, I found that I never actually related with him. I only related with the circumstance of our shared disillusionment, that rises like a bleak sun through the peak of teenage, zigzagging down the winding ways of a still developing mind.

As I caressed these espresso pages and fingered the scrawl of those ant-words, I missed Holden. And I missed myself, or a part of self that I do not see in the mirror anymore. I finished the book on my 25th birthday.

I do not think that revisiting Holden was a mistake. That is a kind thing I did for myself, and understand the uncertain and inane myths that I built and believed for a very long time. They are not untrue because they are myths. They are not negative, or self-serving in a sanctimonious way. They are a sliver of history with a range of subjectivities, allusions, inspirations, and needs.

I accept them today. Now that my face is a bit more serious, a little less gaunt, my eyes deeper-set, and the hairline receding from prominent stress lines, I acknowledge it all. Holden is a long-lost friend, and I will let him stay for a little more before sending him on his way towards an ever-changing past.

It’s been a while since I last posted here. Many things have changed and yet many have stayed the same. If you are new here, you can check out my short-lived #Trash personal essay series or the archive of poems.
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Learning to ride a bicycle

It started on a bitter note.

“This one is for girls,” said my sister, about her old Ladybird cycle we found in the storeroom. Despite the saliva gathering in my mouth, I kept silent and declined to comment on how it does not matter to me. I want to learn how to ride that bicycle. I do.

We brought it down from the second floor to everyone’s surprise. We got it repaired because I kept on with my desire.

I want to learn how to ride the bicycle. I used to ride one while growing up, with training wheels attached to it. Everyone thought that I would eventually find my balance and manage without that support. I did not. As in life, I shelved the plan when I could not succeed. I did not try hard enough. No one complained as they did not want me to get hurt, even though I was hurting enough.

The same thing happened with my car driving lessons. I knew what was what, how to change gears and when to release the clutch, the foot pressure required for the accelerator, the simple demands of the steering, and the much-dreaded brake. But I let it go when my father or sister would create a clamour even at a tiny mistake. They said they were protecting me.

They were protecting me. I let it all go, I gave up too easily, too soon, too much that I did not know what it meant to let it go.

I want to ride a bicycle. My sister accompanied me to the dusty unlevelled ground near my home. It is the go-to place for all the major events and occasions here — the Ramlila and the Dussehra, the many fairs and festivals before the pandemic, the Parents’ Devotion Day (a “cultural” offering instead of Valentine’s) as well as storage space for the stray cows captured by the municipality and a dumping ground for mud water drained from the easily-flooded streets during monsoons.

So, it began. The bike looked almost new through my foggy glasses. The rust glistened in the late afternoon sun, and the black dotted seat seemed repulsive. I took it, tried to lift myself from the ground for the first time since forever, and let my right foot on the pedal. I tried, but it did not budge.

“Put more pressure,” she said. I did. It moved a little, but my left foot could not hold on to the other pedal. I tried again. The handle became slick with my palm sweat, and the pointed seat kept on jabbing me in the groin.

I tried it again. She grabbed onto the rear seat to create the balance that I did not know would ever be mine. I needed to focus on pedalling so that I can at least learn to move again, tread this patch of land and transfer my weight to carry me onward. I managed to cover about 100 meters with the cycle swerving left and right and my wrists totally out of control of the situation. Finally, I rested my feet on the ground.

My sister was heaving behind me. She had to run to keep pace with me, never letting go of the fucking bicycle.

I was disappointed. Before we came, I had a theory in mind that I just need to get on it, feel it beneath me and with me to be able to ride it — no practice, no sweat, no balance, no support. “I will do it just like that,” I had told myself.

I let go of the bike. It was my turn to support her. She had not ridden it in many years, and she was somewhat afraid. She fumbled the first couple of times, not moving even when I kept ahold from behind. I kept on motivating her to let go (the opposite of mine), reach out and grab it from her memory and leave the rest to me.

It worked. I held on to it for a little distance and then stepped back. She kept on cycling without realising that no one was behind her for long. That is what I needed to do, I told myself. Use the support as a leeway to begin until I can find my balance within.

I copied her. I did what she asked me to do. Another half an hour and I was reeling with the effort with nothing much to show for it. The pedals stilled whenever my calves failed to function, and my shoulders became numb to this exercise. We left for the day.

“You need to do it at least for a week to make it work,” she said. I followed her advice and so, we went the next day. I was, if anything, worse. I tried to lift myself off the ground by keeping one foot on the pedal and sprinting with the other leg. Alas! I could not find that moment of release. My body was working against me. I blamed it on my lack of flexibility since I stopped practising yoga.

I let go. Not deliberately. It just got sidelined with other things taking precedence. I let go when I already had nothing, and fell into my careless routine. The job applications and story pitches gathered dust with no reply or a short reply or a half reply in my mail. My friends’ messages seemed unfamiliar, their voices unrecognisable, the names of the cities where I found them (along with some of my parts) disappearing from my lips. I could not bother, as I fled to the other universes of books and TV series.

A character I identified with learned to ride a bike in the matter of a minute on my laptop screen. Their life took a turn in other ways. I felt my failure growing stronger. My room and body turned into a small cage, chiding me and making me question myself.

After ten days, I hesitantly asked my sister if she would go back with me. We repeated the same things, similar protocols and guidelines and balancing strategies. After a quarter of an hour passed, I asked her to stop holding on to me, to give me space, to leave me even if I fall. I won’t get hurt with the brake on my command and my long legs to place me on the ground, if not above it. She came in the way; she was hesitant and did not let go.

I always had trouble to be myself, being the third child and the only son (assigned male at birth). Everyone wanted to cushion me from all the hurt, protect me from life and death, save me from the world. Unfortunately, they could not shield me from themselves. I rebelled, I made some strange decisions. I found my space outside when I did, never trusting them to understand what I need. They have been there with their somnolent arms to cushion me when I fall. I fall too often.

I needed to fall on my terms. I needed to let go.

There was no epiphany. Nothing remarkable happened. I stayed stubborn and kept on trying and trying for long, and I managed to carry myself forth on the cycle. I realised it suddenly, which made me come to an abrupt stop. But I managed to cover some distance on my own.

Another half an hour of halting and starting, pedalling and sweating, and I did it again. I found some balance. We came back the next day and the day after that. Three days, many stumbling blocks and I took my first round of the entire ground, albeit with some sudden stops in between.

The balance was within me like I always thought, but I was the one keeping myself from attaining it. I learned to ride a bicycle. I am learning to be better so that I can move out and cycle away. Away.

Sometimes, I lose my mind and end up hitting the stones that the kids use to make wickets for their cricket matches. I get tired soon, the gravity works against me, and I end up getting stuck in sand and mud. I swerve too much at times, here and there, left and right, almost falling but my legs save me. I end up erect by placing myself on the ground when I can not go on anymore.

I am where I am supposed to be. It is only here that I can keep finding the balance till I am ready to take my stand and leave.

While cycling here, I am letting go in a new way. It is a different time. I am learning what it means to me while hoping that I will reach somewhere.

This is the fourth in my #Trash essay series. You can check out the previous essays under #Trash: A Series of Essays. This is a different kind as compared to my previous pieces as it’s mostly internal with no references and quotes to make it more universal. I kept on procrastinating and therefore, I did not have a lot of time to edit the piece. It is quite raw and I’ll be making future edits and trimming it a bit. Let me know what you think about it, when you learned to ride a bicycle or your experience with attaining balance, as well as reading recommendations for personal essays and memoirs. I welcome your feedback and topic suggestions to continue this series.

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I cry a river…

The art of crying is about losing your form — your eyes becoming the primordial ocean of existence and lips twitching and twirling into a knot that keeps you from falling apart — so that you may learn to be able to accommodate more and more.

Why do we cry? Why do we emote our feelings welling up like tides responding to the vagaries of the moon? Why do we let it out by displaying it on our solemn faces?

An international study of criers suggests that the reasons behind crying are often mundane like watching a sad movie or dealing with a small failure and somewhat dependent on previous experiences. I recently cried when I watched Patrick singing a Tina Turner song to David in a Schitt’s Creek episode. I will never call it mundane. *sigh*

It goes on to note, “…for someone to start crying, exposure to an emotional event by itself often does not suffice. Instead, the person may need to be in a particular mental (and/or physical) state and situational factors should not too strongly discourage the shedding of emotional tears.”

I find the privacy of my room the only place where I do not need to hold off from spilling my tears. It is the only safe space as it has been imbibed in me that crying in front of others is not done. It is vulgar and unsophisticated when small streaks of water run down from my long lashes to a scraggy chin. They dry quickly as well, leaving the skin stretched out and clean as if it has undergone some kind of a cosmetic treatment.

“Your skin looks so good,” a friend told me, looking at my tear-worn face. I had not washed it after a small session of inadequate crying. I do not know whether they figured it out or not. Sometimes, I do position myself in front of the mirror when I cry. It is discomfiting, like when others cry in my presence.

From what I found out from the various modern researches on why we cry, some postulated that crying is a form of social bonding — it acts as a tool to evoke empathy and reduce aggression in others. Another suggested that it is manipulative in nature.

For those who still believe that crying is about releasing toxins or controlling body heat during a surge of emotions as has been hypothesised previously, all of it is now disproved. Also, it does not always lead to immediate relief as many self-help articles would say. “But the work that’s been done on this indicates that, if anything, we don’t feel good after we cry,” says Randy Cornelius, a professor of psychology at the Vassar College.

I am not going to delve into the science of it too much as it is still not entirely clear.

I am concerned about crying as a form of self-care. Well, I am having a pretty not-so-okay week, and I have taken many breaks already for some sob soirees in the middle of writing this piece.

Why am I expressing myself and my complicated emotions through tears?

Some of my close friends would know that I am quite harsh on myself; it is sometimes so bad that I tend to feel physical discomfort and even disgust looking at my image and the resulting intrusive thoughts make me almost nauseous. Such an unrelenting attack often leads to days and even weeks of absence from life — forgetting to feel my skin and just following a mechanical routine with no control over anything else — as a form of self-punishment. Therefore, I have realised crying for me is an expression which mellows my response to the situation.

How would you react if you see someone cry in your presence? If you have even a semblance of emotional intelligence, the social cue must make you reach out to them in some way, either through touch or words, to comfort them.

When I am the spectator of my tears, crackling breaths, and gurgling sounds that escape my parched tongue, I respond kindly. I am not that harsh; I seek to comfort and alleviate some of my pain. It does not make it better in a short term but allows me some space and time to recognise (and not antagonise) the cause as well as the effect of crying. It is not self-love but rather self-care that I aspire for and try to achieve at such times.

It is a reaction that I am learning and trying to replicate even if when I cry over the smallest of things. I may even call it a kind of intrapersonal conditioning. The tears accompanied by a debilitating experience act as a stimulant for me to act more gently. I am not self-diagnosing myself with anything, as no one should, and I am not saying that this is the ideal way of going about it.

We do what we have to do, to see through the night to another day and yet another one. Crying seems to be my thing right now.

Agha Shahid Ali ends his collection of ghazals, Call Me Ishmael Tonight, with a short ghazal, which is actually just a couplet:
“If you leave who will prove that my cry existed?
Tell me what was I like before I existed.”

In my case, I want to be the witness of my crying so that I can cogently believe that I am worth something, that my tears have meaning; there was existence prior to the pain, and there would still be one beyond it.

This is the third in my #Trash essay series. You can check out the previous essays here and here. This wasn’t a fun write but it was good for me to navigate through the art of crying and realise some things about myself. Let me know what you think about this essay, why you cry and what it means to you, as well as some book/movie/song recommendations for a good cry. I welcome your feedback and topic suggestions to continue this series.

If you liked this piece or anything I have ever written, I would appreciate if you would share it with others in your circle and show your support by making some contribution at Buy me a coffee (it accepts Paypal as well as UPI payments). Thank you.

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