The Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay–Overall Winner

Of Distances
Ila Ananya

Jury Citation
Ila Ananya’s personal vignettes are drawn with an almost painterly craft. Searing and full of detail, her images are impossible to forget. She offers us no easy answers or manicured biography, just the ambivalences of memory.

P and I became friends during our first semester exams. It was a strange relationship, made stranger still because we hardly talked face to face—but on that first day, I told him all I knew for our Optional English paper. A few days ago we conveniently blamed this distance on our different friend circles and the people around us. But sometimes I wonder if we ever really made an effort; this is very comfortable. Perhaps there is also some fear—what if we’re too different to get along face to face? I didn’t tell him this.

On that night before our Optional English exam, he was in his house in Koramangala, and I was in my dimly lit room in Indiranagar. I could hear people laughing on the road, standing just outside a bar that no longer exists. WhatsApp made our conversation easier—there was also a class group that people were discussing things on, frantically sending photographs of notes. P and I had hardly spoken to each other in college before this; he always made me nervous with his sarcasm and imitations—perhaps he reminded me too much of classmates in school who seemed too sure of themselves. We argued about our interpretations till some late hour that night—what we thought of Llosa, and Decolonising the Mind—but in college the next day we didn’t say much to each other. There was an initial, “Hi, what’s up?” a rhetorical question he has never liked getting an answer to. But that evening we texted again—he said he thought his paper went alright, and I mine.

He kept me company when I was alone and bored at a passport office in Hyderabad, and I told him what I thought of his writing. We played truth or dare often; perhaps it was our way of getting to know each other, because we had nothing else. We talked a little more now, and he noticed more things than I thought he did—over text, we’d discuss them. We’d talk about travelling, relationships, things that bothered me, and his confusions—“I need to be less loud, less talkative”—sometimes I didn’t see what he saw. This WhatsApp life was mixing with everyday life, and oddly, it seemed just as real. The strangeness continued.

When P asked me, “How did we become friends?” I asked him to tell me. He told me of that night before our exam, and how before that day, he had always wondered whether it would be exhausting to be around us—“So much brain,” he had said. I think I was more offended than flattered; I didn’t like being seen as unapproachable. What we talked about and how we talked, were all based on these phone conversations we had. Perhaps this closeness also came with distance; I now think I would have taken much longer to tell him the things that I do, if we only talked face to face. More scarily, perhaps I never would. I couldn’t see his face, and somehow it didn’t matter if he judged me—sometimes we talked dramatically, and at others we did not take each other seriously. The words I typed and sent him over WhatsApp or Facebook seemed more genuine than they would have been if we had talked instead.

This is one image.

I have come to look at my relationships with people around me, with books, with the internet, all through words—to look at one relationship is to look at the other. When they told us to start our own blogs in college, I worried about finding a name. In the middle of completing a Psychology assignment I did not want to write, I’d start putting together words that seemed to sound alright—wordafterword, afternoon lessons. By seven o’clock, I’d be sitting in an almost dark room, still thinking. My grandmother would be calling me to draw the blinds across the windows and turn on the light, and my aunt would emerge from her room, asking Appa if he wanted a beer. My work would still be undone, and the name would still be unchosen. Everybody around me had already got their blogs running; either names did not bother them, or they arrived at them easily. Z called hers Dead End Left, and S had decided on Dinnertime Conversations. But this was the name I was going to be known as; how people I didn’t know, or I would never know identified me seemed to matter much more than it ever had before.

One night, I googled “How to name a blog”, and a video provided me with steps. Step one; write down words related to what you want to blog about. Step two, write down words that you like. Step three; combine the words from the first and second steps. Step four, check if it is available. All of it seemed so simple, and so planned. I have always been one to make plans on a sheet of paper, list after list of things I need to do. Work to be done, books to be read, emails to be sent or just random lists. Google is the plan I do not have to make. I will not explain what happened because that is another story, but Appa laughed at the names. He shouldn’t have, because the name he came up with was Didgeridoo, after spending a long time with a dictionary over coffee.

I finally settled on Trial Pieces, two words taken from a longer title of one of Heaney’s poems—Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces. I must admit that Appa picked it for me, and by now I was so desperate to have a blog, that any name would have seemed to fit. Trial Pieces did, because I focused on nothing, writing about this and that—Appa would tell me a few months later that I must begin to write stories other than my own. I had never seen myself as someone who could write, I was always known as the girl who drew. I did not notice when the shift happened, I only recognise that I had always liked to write, but it had only meant something, not everything.

There was so much I wanted to say, so many stories I wanted to tell because I needed to process them, feel them; stories that lay like my clothes in a basket asking to be washed and worn again. Writing was dropping a chocolate wrapper from the third floor of a building and watching it get carried away by the wind; clothes going in circles over and over in a washing machine that would stop only when the cycle was completed.

Back then I always wrote the same story. I wrote to remember Amma, because at twelve I worried that I would forget her. I wrote to remember little details—the sound of her voice, her smell, her laughter, our rides home from music class in the evenings, her office. I wrote because I worried that her passing did not seem real to me, because reading the letters she had left me when I was twelve made me cry, and at fifteen made me happy. Because that night I had believed that nothing could go so terribly wrong; I clung to something, perhaps to Appa repeating over and over that he could feel a pulse. I wrote because I was strangely calm as I watered the plants next morning and told the neighbours what had happened when they asked me how Amma was, and the woman ran into her house; because I later cried as I had a bath and realised how dramatic the scene was.

There is now a distance when I write. I tell the same story differently; perhaps I will continue to do so as long as I tell the story. Words are now things I spend time searching for, and to pick one word is to not pick another. Perhaps it is the process of picking that has created this distance, perhaps it is the fact that through my blog, I have come to realise that our writing selves are different for different people. What I would have previously guarded closely and kept to myself, I now put out there—all the people without faces that I might never meet are free to read and make of it what they will. The story is now both mine and theirs, and I am not sure where this sharing has left me.

This is a second image.

In 2009, S created a Facebook id for me and kept the password. I pretended I did not care for as long as I could, but I was terrified of what they could do using it. At some point they gave me the password, once I promised that I would use Facebook; S now laughs at me because she believes I always wanted to be on it, and that she became my excuse. I used it much more then, than I do now. There is a whole album I uploaded towards the end of my tenth standard in school, and I have done no such thing ever since. I now see pictures people post of themselves, or links to articles, and sometimes I secretly wish that I did too, simply because of what it would tell the world about me. I have always been the quiet one who keeps most things to herself, and this image of someone with an online extension of themselves seems both scary and attractive.

When Shantamma, the principal of Vidyaranya, my school in Hyderabad passed away, everyone took to Facebook to share their grief. S wrote of assemblies that Shantamma took, F, and many others posted pictures. I did not understand it, but there was a moment when I did not want to seem like her passing did not bother me. I liked the post that S made. As soon as I did, I regretted it, and I am not sure why. Where the mind is without fear, Shantamma had said. It is strange when you have pictured a death in your head, and you have planned every bit of your reaction—not the tears, because you do not know if you will cry, but definitely getting on the next flight back home. When I could not do this, there were just images of what would have been. Her face, what she would have been wearing, and the empty halls in school, because Shankar would not ring the bell that day. A week later I posted a poem about Shantamma on my blog, knowing that nobody from school would read it. This was important, and I cried.

That is another image.

I am in Rishi Valley, and it is Sunday morning. I have not eaten breakfast because I woke up late; the coffee that used to attract me to the dining hall no longer does, because I have my own bottle of instant powder. It is our mailing hour, and I am in the brick building with the computer lab, waiting for a free computer. “After you, after you, after you,” I say to five people. It is fifteen minutes before I get my chance.

In boarding school, we were not allowed access to Facebook or Gmail. We were given our own school ids, through which we were allowed to send mails home. I would take a full forty minutes, giving Appa details that I would never have given him if we I saw him every day. It surprised me how honest I was, and how much I told him—I was happy and did not miss home, I was practicing for the 100m relay race and was getting faster, we had gone cycling to the vegetable garden, and I had eaten so much baby corn, and I had broken school rules to go to Thettu village nearby to eat masala dosa. Now, I think it is these emails that brought us closer—I worry less about him being alone because I know that he can take care of himself. He’d tell me a lot about the food he was cooking, and the newest paper he was working on. The distance here was both a physical distance because of the two places we were in, and the distance that came from our words.This is why I talk to him about writing.

This is my last image, though there are many more. I have pictures in my head, and some of them are blurred—most are like black and white photographs of my grandparents—they are stagnant images whose surrounding stories have never been told to me. But I have never asked either. These images are without a sense of precise time, the only gauge I can provide is of how old I look, or what I am wearing. These are my images of writing, accessed by the internet. Here is distance, again.

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