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The Train of History

I used to pass the time on train journeys to university by gazing out of the window at the fields and trees rushing past. I did this for three years. In truth, I wasn’t passing the time. Time was passing through me, through the vacuum in my mind. It was as if I had a gaping hole in my head through which life whistled through. I paraded around university, sat in lectures, took exams, all with this hole in my head, everything seeping out. I feel sad to think how much time I wasted – but I also know that it couldn’t have been any other way. Besides, time is still whistling through my head. Who put that hole in my head? I know I should take part of the blame but it was society that put that hole in my head. I wasn’t born with it – how did I learn language and grammar, how did I learn to walk and speak. Society doesn’t rear its children properly. It alienates them and turns them, most of them, into particles, alone, with holes in their head, through which, to varying degrees, life passes unnoticed.

Nowadays, I try not to gape thoughtlessly out the window. Today, I got out my book, a heavy and venerable tome by Howard Zinn – A People’s History of the United States. I started to read and soon, I was looking into a haze at uprisings in 1700s Boston, Orange County and other alien places. Class conflict was taking place. The rich elite grappled to retain control as the working class rioted and railed about unfairness. Farmers fought Indians. Working class fought farmers. Sheriffs imprisoned, other sheriffs were imprisoned by mobs. The British sought to impose a new tax. The mob retaliated and the Boston Massacre took place. The Brits blamed negroes, “saucy boys” and other riff raff. The rich American elites watched the working class insurrections nervously.

It was as if I was back gaping out the window but now, instead, of impassive trees and scrapes of poetry, injustice and resistance rushed past. And, yet, there is a fog that obscures the vision. It is the fog of lost time. The action is not compelling, nor the injustice. It is all too far away and chaotic. The train is going too fast for the visions to mean anything.

Why am I reading this history? On the way back from work, the train carriage is busier. At every stop people trundle on and off. The book is on my lap and I’m reading – the revolution against British rule is approaching – but I fold the corner of the page and put the book away.

I close my eyes from the window and the rushing world outside, lean my head back and try to doze. It’s too much. It feels futile. Whether I look out the window at the hieroglyphics of nature or at the window of the page and its litany of revolts and retaliation, everything seems to pass through the hole in my head.

Why read history’s grubby entrails of ignorance, injustice and suffering if it will merely tickle and blow away? It is better to doze, without expectation and, therefore, without much disappointment. Of course, perhaps, if I read enough history, it’ll fill up that hole. But, it didn’t work with nature, whilst I was at university.

I reach my stop and heroically rise, bag slung my shoulders, and leave the train, and start to walk home. I am alone and the train of history is safely closed and zipped in my bag. I will try to ride it again. I will try to reach the end. Yet, if I want my train journey to mean anything, I have to turn inside, to my neighbour and look back at the scene together. This is the solution to the hole in the head. Society tears us apart and then throws us together, incomplete particles, offensive to each other. We particles watch life stream right through us, dead bodies and all. We need to bridge the gap between our seats if we can ever hope to reclaim life and take the till of history towards justice. We need to stop being scared of strangers.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2012 in Anxiety

 

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Friday Prayers

I like Fridays because of the prayers – Jumu’ah, that is, not the prayers but the distraction of the prayers. I wake up, not to fret about where my life is going but to stoically and sanctimoniously get ready for prayers. In reality, this means to follow the same routine as every morning, without the guilt of not having regular employment. Prayers are at 1.30pm, so ‘preparing’ takes up half the day and after returning home, eating lunch, the day is all but over. The air grows thicker as evening approaches until the guilt is all but gone, for evenings are not for work. Another day will have passed – and wasted.

I needed to go to the pharmacy today because I think I have a throat infection. It feels bunged. The problem is, I feel anxious talking to people and the pharmacy is small. Inevitably, I will have to talk to the person at the till. It’s stupid to be scared of people, I think, walking to the mosque, for half the day has already gone somehow. It’s stupid but social anxiety is not rational.

I try to examine my anxiety, as I lope, hands in pockets. I’m dressed in a hoodie, walking the barren streets, like a bum. People will think, there goes the unemployed guy. This is social anxiety speaking – it turfs your mind out and looks in, imagining what other people see. Your mind becomes a crazy hall of mirrors, reflecting yourself in a grotesque, incessant parade. Your thoughts can’t go anywhere else but swarm over your own body and your own being like gunk.

Acceptance is the way out, I know. Those thoughts are like a radio leaking sound; it doesn’t have to control you. If you acknowledge the emotion as it emerges and question it before it takes control, it can be disarmed, without furore. Trust your instincts. If you feel fear or despair or envy, it is for a valid reason. But, it does not mean that the consequent emotion need dictate your behaviour. That valid instinctive sensation is a knot that can be gently untied, before it creates a pile-up. The emotion is your self asking for help from your rationality. Let fear into the light and then question, why do I feel fear?

Why am I going to the mosque? Is the mosque a knot? I’m not going there through faith. I feel nothing. I go because Abu and Ma expect me to go – and because, it gives me a purpose, a reason to leave the house and be a real human being. But what purpose? To walk the parade of mirrors pretending that all is well? To follow the ritual of prostrations in the sea of worshippers in the mosque without thought. To be an automaton presenting himself as a conscious person. To hide from my fears.

Abu’s car pulls up in the street. I am conscious of being a bum, hands in pockets, with my hoodie. He waves me to the car and I shake my head. I’m not going with him. The car reluctantly dribbles away, as I curse. I know Abu is scoffing at me in his mind, as he drives a way. A failure of a son – a bum. I hate him for it. I hate him for making me socially anxious. For a moment, I consider questioning this knot of hatred but, it is too late, it has entered the machinery with violent clutters.

When I reach the end of the road, I turn around. I decide not to go to the mosque and be an automaton. When I pray, I don’t even recite the koranic verses. I just follow the motions thoughtlessly. I have no faith in Allah at this moment. It is an act of posturing and denial. Abu would be enraged, Ma appalled – but they will not know. So I turn back towards the pharmacy, on the other side of the town.

I like walking. It’s like the mosque, it gives me a false sense of purpose, obliterating the hours spent at home inert and indolent in the computer screen. But, unfortunately, walking takes you, eventually, to people. I walk past the pharmacy, seeing they have no customers. Most people are at work. I’m trying to question my fears; they are valid, I coax to myself. They are valid but not necessary. But, the fears slip through and take over as I walk past the pharmacy, too scared to go in and face the staff.

I walk around the block, sometimes avoiding the eyes of the elderly people passing by, sometimes looking at them and smiling faintly – always posturing. The fear has taken over, the rational thoughts have been washed away. I move through the knots of emotion, pulled by self-loathing and fear. The policy of self-acceptance and analysis had failed and now was the simple, predictable, painful tug-of-war between fear and self-hatred. I have to go in the pharmacy having walked all this way, otherwise, the day would be a complete waste and I would hate myself deeply.

So, I go in. There are two Asian staff. A woman at the till and a tall pharmacist man, talking quickly and lifelessly from behind a block of shelves. The shop is tiny, with only one aisle and it is here that I go, scanning the shelf, conscious of my bum clothing. The staff carry on talking. The man is asking about a till discrepancy, “did you sort it out?”. He repeats the phrase, even as the woman is answering. He is cold but the woman is not put off. She answers quietly but without fear. I know about till discrepancies from working in a shop. In her position, with the cold man, I would be in a paralysis of fear and suffocation. I would be in a mental fugue in his shadow, in his voice.

But she is calm. “Don’t worry about it,” the man says to her, finally. She’s not worrying, she’s calm. I can’t see the throat medicine – I can barely see anything, even though I am scouring the shelves. I feel their minds like overwhelming rays, or hooks tugging at my mind. My thoughts are with them and I can’t concentrate on the simple task of looking at the shelves and reading the boxes.

Finally, I give up and turn to the woman at the till. Her eyes widen slightly. “Do you have Nystatin – Neestatin?” I ask, weakly, doubtfully. She goes behind the shelves and asks the man. “You need a prescription for it.” The phone starts ringing at the till. I need something for my throat, so, for a pregnant second, I imagine myself asking for anything similar available over the counter. But, the air outside is calling, where I can breathe.

“Oh – okay, thanks.” And with that, I leave the shop. I am gleeful of my escape but thinking about the medicine. I imagine going to the doctors – a trial far more arduous than merely going to the pharmacy. I decide I must do without. The glee drains as I walk back home. I have a strange despondency – my mind is pleading for something. I need help – but, I ignore this voice, because it is easier to avoid problems.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2012 in Anxiety, Religion

 

Ma plays the lotto

Ma plays the lotto. It is frowned upon by Allah but she is so low, the underground creature, that his judgment is excused from her. He chooses not to see her. She is mired in the soil; without pay for her service as a housewife and, therefore, without air. She is an internal organ; she exists for her husband, through her children. And, yet, her children are frozen immobile. Her husband continues to flog, gnashing, demanding motion but the children do not move. Ma cannot move them; she is the shield over them, broken, taking the lashing, too weak to carry them, too forgiving to force them.

She doesn’t play much, a couple of pounds a week, maybe. Down at the grainy local store which is stuck is some past age. The Indian shopkeeper, with dark wells for eyes, watches her as she chooses the numbers with her head down. How does she pick the numbers? Once upon a time, it was sentimental numbers, ages, dates of births. They’ve been used up, many times over, many years over. Now she chooses some other way. Numbers join together, somehow and pick themselves, after some hovering.

The shopkeeper takes the money, picked with agitated hands by Ma. He processes the ticket and they part with thanks.  One dull and wooden, the other like a flicker of candle-light before a draught. The door jangles and the cold claims Ma again. She doesn’t know the numbers, she doesn’t know the day, it is all part of the powerless game she has been required to play, all her life.

She does not dream of a house to replace the dingy cereal box which she enters with a push of the door. It is dark and cramped and the ticket is in the bag. She does not expect but hope is also stowed away, secretly, in that bag. It’ll be brought out, crumple faced and lifeless. She will check it for life and, as usual, the slithers of numbers will not move. There is hardly any disappointment in crumpling the paper and dropping it in the bin. No sadness beyond the constant sadness. Just resignation and a walk to return to the kitchen. Allah has granted her martyrdom but as life ebbs away, it seems, she is, instead, nothing more notable than roadkill. She plays the lotto to cheat her fate; who can blame her? She goes to the other temple, before the other God – and receives the same answer.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Ma

 

My new e-novel is born – Puppets Can’t Pray: Part 1

So the experiment truly beings! My first novel ”Puppets Can’t Pray: Part 1.”, is now available to buy via Amazon Kindle service and other formats from Smashwords.”Puppets Can’t Pray” refers specifically to the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice. The novel is set in Britain and covers the day of Eid al-Adha, as experienced by a deeply troubled British Bengali family.

The family in the story are dominated by an authoritarian father whose compulsion to control his wife and children has, over the years, damaged them psychologically. The children are now grown up but continue to live in extremely cramped and difficult conditions with their parents. The father cannot understand why his children have matured into such failures and pushed by unbearable financial and social pressures, which peak on Eid al-Adha, he seeks to change the spiralling decline of his family.

The major character of the novel is the eldest son of the family who, having carried his parents’ hopes, is now well into his twenties without a career and wholly dependent on his parents. He suffers from social anxiety which makes even his work in a shop a torture. Through his eyes and his siblings’, most of whom also suffer from some degree of anxiety, the novel examines the devastating effects of tyrannical patriarchy, as isolated and propped up by Islam, Bengali tradition and British society.

If you want to know any more about the novel or me, just leave a comment.

The official press release for Puppets Can’t Pray: Part 1, is available here.

 

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