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Thursday, September 8, 2016

What it's like to have a stammer

When I was 10, I realised that I could do accents. Imitating others’ speech came naturally to me. Being able to make other people laugh has given me great confidence. But at roughly the same age, I realised that I had a stammer. It was pretty bad back then. It has improved a great deal since, but my speech problems still persist even though I’ve found ways to hide it. But today it choked me at the worst possible moment.

This morning I sat down for the first large lecture of the new year at university. The class was full of people – perhaps 100 beautiful, bright, good, young people. The lecturer asked everyone in class to introduce themselves by quickly saying their names, where they are from and what they did before coming to university. The lecturer was friendly but asked us all to be quick. The word ‘quick’ set off inexplicable panic within me. He said, “make sure you are ready to speak when the previous person finishes, so we can move quickly through the class”. How can something as simple as introducing oneself to one’s peers cause panic? I have been getting up in front of audiences and telling jokes since I was 20. But this morning I couldn’t even complete a sentence.

So one by one, all these incredibly talented, confident students began introducing themselves in 10 seconds or less. It went like clockwork. It was like a wave. It started from the back and the wave of introductions worked its way down to the middle row, just behind me. I knew what I was going to say, “I’m Shravan from India and I used to be a journalist with Forbes Magazine”. The wave seemed to gain speed as it approached me. “I’m going to be clear,” I told myself, “I’m going to say this simple sentence.” I saw everyone’s eyes fixed on the speaker before me. Their gaze was kind but unerring. My heart began to beat fast. I can feel my heart beating fast even as I write this. The girl before me finished her introduction and suddenly everyone was looking at me. I breathed deeply but that’s when the tsunami took me. I was suddenly under-water. On one side was me, looking up at the surface at the class on the other side. It was like swimming in the sea and looking up at the birds circling above. I was disconnected from them. I wanted to speak but I was choking. My mind was with them but my mouth was filled with water.

I managed to splutter out the first part: I’m Shravan from…. My mind wanted to say ‘India’ but my mouth wouldn’t let me. I knew after years of stammering that the opening “I” in “India” was not going to happen so I quickly switched to “Mumbai” and luckily the “M” was working so I was able to say it. So far so good. I was approaching sea-level. But then I began truly choking: my lungs filled up and was sinking again, spiralling downwards into the abyss of indecision. The problem was clear: I was caught between saying “I used to write for Forbes” and “I used to be a journalist”. My mind was thinking so unnecessarily far ahead. Is it too pompous to say Forbes? Would they judge me? At the core of my stammering is insecurity. It is insecurity about being wrong, about being disliked and about dismissed. My dad and mum have both tried to help me with my stammer and what I’ve come to realise is that my stammer comes from two primary sources: indecisiveness about what I’m going to say and the deep insecurity I just mentioned. My dad showed me a technique where I need to say affirmations like “I have nothing to defend”. For a while, I used to say those affirmations but I don’t think I put my heart into them and I stopped trying. So I know that stammering is my fault and no one else’s. And in that lecture hall this morning, I really didn’t have anything to defend. I was just as justified in being in that room as anyone else. I shouldn’t have overanalysed my sentence. But I did and so here I was, swept under the wave of embarrassment.

I have this new tick where instead of s-s-s-stammering the start of the word, I try and find alternatives that I know I can say. If I’m unable to find those synonyms in that split second, then I cover my face and close my eyes as if I’m yearning deeply, strenuously for some long forgotten memory. And so that’s what I did. I spluttered and stuttered with uhhs and umms and errs and all the while I felt us, as a class, cringe collectively. We were all one body of young people, watching this guy trying to speak and willing him to finish. Stammering is an out-of-body experience because the cerebral part of you – the mind – is watching the nervous part of you (in every sense) flounder. Under the ocean, I was a Flounder.

My heart was racing, I was sweating. I hate my body for many reasons but prime among them is that it reacts so viscerally to the most fleeting misdemeanour. Finally, after what seemed like a life-time, I bit the bullet and tried to say “journalist”. Just one word. I was forcing through the “j” and so I stammered. J-j-j-journalist. I opened my eyes as if to let everyone know that I was back from the depths of meek misadventure and they class could move on.

And the class did move on. They rattled off their intros like a well-oiled machine. The lecturer thanked the class and rained platitudes on us about how amazing and diverse we all were. He then continued with his lecture. But I was left there, stewing in my own self-pity. Why can’t I speak! Why can’t I talk! I just want to talk normally like everyone. If you wake up in the morning and your mouth says what your mind tells it to, then I truly envy you.

This is what all my friends say: “but Shravan we can hardly notice it – I think it’s completely gone!” Maybe it doesn’t manifest itself as such a big deal to others around me. For everyone else in the lecture hall that morning, it was 10 seconds of some guy who doesn’t have his shit together. For me, it’s all I can think about for hours. The shame and humiliation of not being able to do something that everyone else does naturally. Let’s be clear: I don’t consider this a disability worthy of anyone’s pity and my life has been granted obscene privilege - my health, loving family, friends, money, education and Level 82 Gyarados. I always question how much of my stammer is simply being ill-prepared and how much is an actual mental disability. I err with the former because for the majority of the time, I’m able to speak pretty well.

And there are three occasions when I speak absolutely flawlessly: When I’m with a girl, when I’m drinking and when I’m doing stand-up. When I was dating my last girlfriend, she told me that I literally never stammered around her. I felt so comfortable, accepted and respected that I didn’t have anything to defend or prove. But I have to be able to excel without constant adulation from someone else. When I’m in party-mode and a few drinks down, I feel confident and spontaneous. I trust my lips to carry out the orders issued by my wits. But while alcohol gives me temporary eloquence, it has also given me the worst experiences of my life when I’ve had too much. The last one – when I’m telling jokes and performing for people – is the most interesting case and something I’ll try to do more research on.  

Over the years I’ve sought help from various people, including a hypnotherapist (which you can read about in a piece I wrote when I was 18). I’ve never been able to pin-point why I stammer, but recently I got some good advice on how to over-come it. We had a workshop in public speaking at my university and the instructor told me to approach everything like I was about to do a gig. I should psyche myself up like I’m about to entertain an audience because then I don’t think about speaking. It does work. But it can also feel forced. Do I always need to be in “please like me” performer mode – even when I’m with my friends? I can’t keep that up.

I’ve also never been in a situation in the workplace where I’ve been unable to do a task because of my stammer. If I need to speak to someone important, I make sure I’ve backed myself with all the knowledge I can get and then trust in the fact that I’m coming from a good place of genuineness and sincerity. I just can’t figure out why it’s become so bad at university. I feel like I belong here. I felt like I belonged in that class.

It’s funny actually because I actually didn’t belong in that class. I ended up dropping that course because it was way, way too easy for me. All that drama for nothing. At least I have my Level 82 Gyarados.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Another Window

And so I find myself at another window. Another apartment. Another beautiful night sky. Another evening sitting staring out at it alone. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to relocate and realign over the past two years. Bombay, Hamburg, New Haven and now Jerusalem. Soon, New Haven again and after that, who knows? The only constant is change. Isn’t this the life I fantasised about?

Growing up, we would move country every few years. Packing and unpacking our lives across continents was a given. We didn’t know any other way. I remember being woken gently for a 4am flight. The distant lights from the corridor were warm and filled with the muffled chatter of mum and dad planning our latest exodus. The movers had already whisked away our home, box by box. Shambhavi and I would be bundled into a taxi after a cup of tea, still half asleep but safe beneath the tender blanket of excitement. It was blanket excitement. The new flight, the new food, the new school, the new food, the new weather, the new TV, the new food and the new food. India, Singapore, London, Hong Kong and back to India – all before I was 13. We just went with it. It was the 90s. We were expats. The company would take care of mum and dad and they would take care of us. Everything was handed to us. We had the most charmed childhood. I went to university in England and Germany at 17 before moving back to Bombay at 21. But even university was organised by someone else. I was traveling again – this time mostly alone – but I didn’t question anything. I was meant to travel. You’re meant to go to university abroad. Last year I spent summer in Hamburg before heading to America for university. It was what I’d wanted: to get out of India.

I am out of India. I am in Israel. What the hell am I doing here? It’s the first time I’ve asked myself. Why am I in yet another country? Another consulate. Another visa in my passport. Another lonely, tired trek to the airport. Another long flight. Another sales pitch to a tired immigration officer, explaining why this Indian kid is here. Do I even know myself? Yes, I am here to do an internship to save the world. OK. But where has the excitement gone? There’s no warm light from the corridor. There’s my iPhone alarm. I have to turn the light on and make tea. I have to meet a stranger outside an Airbnb and get my house-keys. There’s no taxi driver with our surname on a placard. I’m not an expat. I realise how ungrateful I sound. People live their whole lives without moving around half as much as I have. Most people would give an arm and a leg to have seen so much of the world. I’m not sad about that. Most people would love to look out this big beautiful window into this amazing city. I just wish there was someone else here to look out with me. “Go outside and meet people,” I hear you say. I don’t want new friends. I have plenty of friends. My best friends are scattered all over the world. I have two sets of best friends. One from university in England, who are scattered across Europe. One from high school in India, who are scattered further still. Whatsapp is my best friend now. Maybe there will be a new set of best friends from my time in America. Another Whatsapp group. Another set of friends I’ll lose to this big world. People say the world is getting smaller. I think we are just getting more used to how big it is.

I met a girl called Lexy recently who was someone I would never usually have met. She was an au-pair taking care of our family-friends’ children in New York. I spent a month with them and I remember her reaction to my life story. She has lived in the US her whole life. She hasn’t left the country, as far as I’m aware. She’s a lovely, caring, feisty young woman who I’ll never speak to again. She’s my age but her experiences and world-view are so unimaginably different to mine. Usually when I tell someone my life story, they react with awe and envy. Wow you’ve moved around – so lucky! She was the first person who ever said, “Why did you move around so much? That must have been hard.” She felt sorry for me. It made me think. How much are we supposed to move around? We, molly-coddled, 3rd world children with 1st world problems, too good for our own country but not good enough for others, ungrateful dilettantes. My mum quipped over Skype, to my terror, that 25 was the age that my dad’s nesting instinct kicked in and he began to settle down. Settle down? Could it be so soon? I always fantasised about spending my 20s gallivanting around the world, seducing outrageously beautiful women and making money. But now the only girl I want is far away and things are weird (but that is a story for another blog) and more than money, I want to make a difference. Or, I want to make enough money such that I can make a difference.

In my current internship, I’m making a difference and I love it. If I am successful, I will help put together a deal that will generate solar electricity for 700,000 people in one of the world’s poorest countries where only 2% of people have electricity. Imagine them complaining about this kind of nonsense. What do they complain about? In India, the poverty that adorned my surroundings fortified me with perspective. Here, the lives of those 700,000 people are the perspective I cling to.

The laundromat ate my $5 today. Isn’t that expensive for a washing machine? It only takes specific coins and I lost my coins to the chasm of futile detergent. I went to three nearby shops to ask for change for my notes and they all declined in various degrees of rudeness. So I walked around town like an idiot, holding a green tub of Ariel detergent in one hand and my pride in the other. Another set of new institutions to get used to. Another integrated, end-to-end, cloud-based, cleanliness consultant and laundry solution. Another supermarket. Another commute. Another barber. Another housemate to appease. But the 700,000 are not complaining about this stuff so I can’t either.

I never questioned my innate path in life – my serial ability to find myself by another window. But I think I will start now. Is it worth it? It is worth it for another set of anothers? Another set of friends to make. Another evening having to introduce myself to new people and prattle on with the onerous task of recounting my spectacularly self-involved life story and trying to paint myself as a good person who deserves sympathy and admiration. Another SIM card. Another triumphant Facebook status, outlining where in the world I am. Another double bed filled with a single guy.

I apologise for my incoherence. I have no answers – only the 700,000 and their unimaginably different set of questions. Another time, then.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Book of Michael

Americans are the friendliest people. You make eye-contact for more than three seconds and boom: in, they jump.

“Hi, I’m Mike. I’ll be your neighbour on this flight,” said Mike, my neighbour on the flight. Neighbours on flights can tricky: either it’s uncomfortable because you don’t say a word to each other for hours even though you elbow each other more than Maroune Fellaini at rush hour. Or, you get one of AMC’s “The Talking Dead” who will not shut up. Finding the perfect balance is rare: someone who knows when to flit in and out of conversation as your both your moods see fit. I call these people “soul-mates”. Mike was a talker. And he wanted to spread his message: the teachings of Jesus Christ.  
Mike was on some sort of Christian bible tour of Israel. Our flight to Tel Aviv from JFK would take 10 hours. He started off harmlessly enough, asking about me and what I do. I told him I was headed to Israel to do a summer internship at a solar energy company. Then I asked him about what he did and he mentioned that a group of 10 of them from their church-group were going to visit all the holy sites in Israel. Mike was in his early 40s and spoke softly but with great conviction. After we exchanged introductions, he got down to business.

“So are you interested in religion?”
“Not really,” I said, “I’m not very religious.”
“But do you know about them? You must know about them. What religion are you?”

To his credit, he had already probed me about renewable energy and my plans in Israel. But now we had come down to brass tacks. This was his domain. This was the Game 1 of the Middle-Eastern Conference Finals and he had home court advantage. We were going to do this.

“I guess I was born Hindu, but I’m not religious,” I reaffirmed, my previously dormant atheism now yawning into life.
“Well, all the world religions say that there is going to be a saviour who will come to fix all the world’s problems. What does Hinduism say about it?”

Having spent the last few weeks reading Amartya Sen’s masterpiece “The Argumentative Indian” to try and figure out why my country is the way it is, I took a stab at some sort of answer about reincarnation and had little clue what Hinduism’s end-game was, other than all of us being enlightened enough to know how girls work. He wasn’t convinced. While he was polite and magnanimous when talking about other religions, his knowledge of them, for someone who claimed to be all about that life, was starting to strike me as scratchy.

The conversation moved – of course – to the Israel Palestine conflict and how it was all down to religion. I disagreed, arguing there were many issues that keep it going. He kept starting every sentence with “if you read the Bible, it says that…” and each time I didn’t have the heart or the will to counter with the notion that we need not take everything in the Holy books literally. But that was against my policy of not antagonising religious people, like a lot of atheists do for no apparent reason. I even threw in a few “hey, science doesn’t (yet) have all the answers” to ease the swelling furrow in his brow. Eventually we reached the grand question of why is the world so shitty and how we fix it. We don’t, explained Mike. Jesus will.

“We [his sect of Christianity] believe that Jesus Christ will return and save us and make everything perfect. No war, no suffering. Other religions believe in a saviour too. That’s why there will be a conflict. The Jews will not accept the Messiah. We don’t know when he will appear.”

The atheism inside me now went from groaning to growling. A tepid self-righteousness began to warm - filling me with eloquence I didn’t know I had. I must have sounded unbearably pretentious.

“Well, Mike, I have had a great and privileged life and I can afford to sit around and wait for the Messiah. But I come from a very poor country where most people cannot afford to sit around and wait because their child could die of starvation tomorrow. (Jah will not provide.) I have a duty and an obligation to do what I can to improve their lives today. If I can help build some solar plants to delivery energy and cut down on coal emissions, then that’s what I’ll do. I can afford to sit around and wait for the Messiah, but I won’t because they can’t.”

Mike had lost Game 1 of the Middle-Eastern Conference Finals. The conversation was amicable and we both did our best to make the other person’s viewpoint feel valued. But it had run its course and after a few “hey well you know, what you gonna do’s” from either side, we popped in our earphones and settled into our in-flight movies.


10-hour flight and the sound on my in-flight entertainment system doesn’t work. I tried changing the ear phones. I tried fiddling with the audio levels. Nothing. I was doomed. The flight was absolutely packed. I asked the flight attendant if I could move and instead of helping me, she said I could move if I found a free seat. Now begins one of the most awkward interactions you’re likely to face unless you’re a hot girl: going up to people on flights who have prized empty seats next to them and asking if you can sit there.

The first guy was some tall, blond dickhead who had moved to the empty back row (that doesn’t recline much) to stretch his giant legs. He was sat in the middle of the three seats, with his bag on the seat left of him and his giant horse legs in the space on the seat to the right. He was taking up an entire row.

“Excuse, may I take one of these seats next to you?”
“Uhhh, why?”
“My audio isn’t working.”
“Uhhh only if it’s necessary and you can’t find another one.”
“I moved here from my seat, 41F, go sit there.”
“OK, thanks.”

I went to 41F, there was a family sat in that row and I wasn’t about to evict them. I went back to fuckface backbencher to plead my case. Audio-less on a 10-hour flight? What am I going to do, read a book? Fuckface backbencher had, in those 5 minutes, laid down sideways across the entire row and gone to sleep. Fucking fuckface.

I saw another empty looking seat. This time, a friendly looking girl stood in my way.
“Excuse me, is this seat taken? May I sit here?”

Her “Uhhhh why?” had even more disgust than the other guy. I explained my case. She did the smart thing by saying, “I don’t know, ask the lady on the other end of the row if it’s OK. I think her kids are coming to sit there.” Again, going all the way around to the other side of the row was not going to happen.

I went back to my seat, rather dejected. Would I have to talk to Mike about why bad things happen to good people because it’s all God’s divine plan?

And then something happened that I will not forget.

“Do you want to swap seats with me? I don’t really want to watch these movies” said Mike. It would have meant he would be separate from the lady sat next to him who he knew and who I assume was his wife. The compassion of the Christ. Of all the people on this Godforsaken flight, it was him that offered to swap seats without thinking twice. I declined sheepishly and spent the flight watching foreign language movies with English subtitles. It was actually rather nice to give my ears a rest. I watched a great Mexican film called G├╝eros and a nice Chinese documentary called My Life in China with an awful, misogynistic Parisian romp called Nos Femmes sandwiched in between.

This isn’t some parable for how the religious guy turned out to be right in the end or any of that. It was just a nice, surprising turn of events that lead me question how we think about strangers and the judgements we form based on our initial impressions.

I go some sleep. I chatted some more to Mike about religion, India, Israel and more. This time, I wasn’t looking to score any more points. I conceded the Middle-Eastern Conference Finals to him. And then Michael said that it was good. And then God made it good. And then it was good.

Friday, April 8, 2016


The scariest thing about growing up is realising that your family are just normal human beings. They are flawed. They seem more and more imperfect, the older you get. And yet they love you unconditionally and in that moment you remember what family means.

My Dadima was a storyteller. She wanted nothing more than an audience and I humoured her. I suppose it’s true for many of the elderly but boy did she have stories. Of all my four grandparents, she was the most talkative. She would spend all afternoon reading her books and her newspaper and all evening explaining the ways of the world to me. I lived with her for a few months when I first moved to Bombay in 2012. She was in fine form. The saddest thing about the cancer than eventually took her way was that it silenced her. There are few tragedies more heart-breaking than a storyteller silenced. She lost the ability to speak and my world lost a familiar voice. Let us not deify her – I don’t think she would have wanted that. She was not perfect. If I may be so bold, I want to tell a few stories of my own.

She grew up in a different time. She was 11 when India gained independence from the British Empire. She really really didn’t like the British. She didn’t much care for white people in general, from what I could gather – they were all out to get her. She was a deeply proud Indian and I think she carried the pain of colonial oppression with her. She was proud of being Indian. But she was prouder still of her Hindu identity and I think that that identity freed her from the tendrils of modern history. She could lose herself in the greatness of the ancient scriptures, cosy in the knowledge that it pre-dated these blood-thirsty Europeans by thousands of years. She danced between Hindu philosophy and myth in a way that mesmerized us as children, laying on the sofa-bed in our Bandra house and watching the purple night sky saunter heavily on outside. The night sky from that Bandra house – her home for the better part of 50 years – was lit so beautifully by our imaginations. It was a worthy canvas and I can’t begin to say how thankful I am for that giant window in the living room that let the night sky roll in every evening. She would never miss a chance to explain to us how this God built this and that Goddess said that and every story would end with some mere mortal understanding his inescapable finiteness and “falling at the feet of Lord ______”. If the guy didn’t fall at the God’s feet, it wasn’t the end of the story. I couldn’t separate the myth from the metaphor and I dismissed them all as fairy tales. I’m not going to say I’ve had a change of heart now. I’m simply saying that as a storyteller, she enchanted us with the majesty of Indian mythology – as only a grandmother can. We didn’t ask questions or fall asleep. We just gave her an audience.

Dadima always reminded us spoilt, foreign-educated kids who we were and where we came from. She would make it a point to sit us down and tell us about the village she came from and how she raised my dad after moving to the city. She came from romantic poverty – at least that’s how she made it seem. Life in the village was crossing rivers to get to school and drying tamarind in the summer. The childhood she told me about, was about seeking and striving for an education. She and her two siblings would study by kerosene lantern. Listening to her talk about the value of an education was more humbling than inspiring. To get out of the village, you had to study and learn to read and write and learn to love languages and learn to love learning. She told me how much she loved learning English (without loving the English) and how empowered she felt with it by her side. She told me how when she went for a job interview (at the bank where she would eventually spend her career at in Mumba), she carried an Oscar Wilde book. She didn’t even understand all of it, but the bank manager was impressed by her ambition. She told me about the bank manager, a Parsi gentleman, who was an eminent womanizer and whose charm crashed hopelessly against the folds of her sari. She would remember these kinds of things. Who wouldn’t be impressed by a candidate carrying an Oscar Wilde book to an interview, even today? Maybe some things never change. She showed me what it is to love the English language. She showed me its power and its beauty. She loved languages and spoke so many, so effortlessly. It is one of my deepest insecurities that I cannot speak an Indian language anywhere near as well as she spoke about 6 of them. “Once you learn one of the four South-Indian languages, you can learn them all.” She found comfort in Kannada poetry. She eulogized about a Kannada poet and teacher she had in high school. She loved the nuns who taught at her convent school, despite being Christians. She’d give out rationed bursts of begrudging love from time to time.

She was clear about the way things were and they were as she understood them. She would say things like, “I was never beautiful, but I worked hard.” What a thing to say! I was never beautiful? She was always apologising for herself like that. Here was a mother who woke up at 5am to cook food for the family's breakfasts and lunches before taking the train to work, working a full day, managing the children in the evening and making dinner by the time my granddad got home. These days she apologises for other things.

“Sorry, I didn’t make any non-vegetarian food.”

At the cancer ward (after her successful surgery) when she was weak and unable to move, she saw me looking at her with sadness and said, “Sorry you have to see me like this.” She found the time to apologise to bystanders for having cancer.

She loved singing and music and chanting her bhajjans and putting coconut oil in our hair on Sunday mornings. She would make us her trademark yellow dosas and chai using utensils given to her as wedding presents 50 years ago. She was someone who didn’t throw away the plastic cutlery that comes with home-delivered Chinese food. She would wash and reuse them. “Why should we throw them? We can use them.” And they will sit, unused, for another 50 years.

I’m glad she remained sharp of mind until the end. When I was leaving Bombay in January, she asked me to sit next to her on the bed and kissed me and said “I love you”. She would sing to us in Konkani about love all through our childhoods but she had never said those three words. I knew then that she was ready. She had checked out of the hotel. When her voice began failing, maybe she thought her story was told. I wish I had recorded her stories when she was alive. I told her to write them down but I don’t think she told stories to document them. I think she told them because she loved doing it. She loved holding an audience as I hope I’ve held you. So here’s to her, the storyteller never silenced.