I Am Just Playing Hard to Get and Other Reflections on Self-Reflection | Raji Manjari | The Hypocrite Reader

Raji Manjari

I Am Just Playing Hard to Get and Other Reflections on Self-Reflection


Urbain J. Kinet, vendor selling thangkas in Kathmandu, 1994

What am I doing here is one question I always get from people when I come home. Home so soon? You were here just last summer? What will you be doing?

And here I thought I was, you know, just home to be home.

I would like to tell them that I have several projects in mind, like just being home and not caring about anything. Reading, maybe. Learning something new, maybe. But what are you doing, you know, doing? is the question on their minds and transparently on their faces.

Kathmandu is my home, the town I was born and raised in, but I have only lived here a total of nine months in the last seven years. It’s as curious about my life as I am about its real estate. It’s like we are both seeking reasons that we two might be a good fit. It’s a weird courtship: I feel the city to be overbearing at times and it finds me to be aloof and removed. We are both stubborn and set in our ways. I love this city, but it wants me to grow up, get on with my life, get a job, marry, contribute. At the same time it has a strange idea that I have to live at home, with my parents. The irony is lost here because almost everyone unmarried lives with their parents; being an adult has nothing to do with it. And here at home, in “society,” I am an adult, albeit in half corduroy pants and baggy button-up shirt, with short hair and big glasses. And the city already has plans for me and for better or for worse, I am in on the plan and I have taught myself to play the parts.

Not so comfortably, though. I have impatient, angry thoughts. Why can’t Kathmandu accept me for who I am? So I want to write and rant about these situations and I do. I will relate them to a friend ahead of time because I know when I am home I will get asked these questions and will be forced to have these interactions. So I will talk about these scenarios of “having to” visit a relative I don’t want to and making the pretense of being a person I am not. And even before I get home, I set up these scenarios where I am the player as well as the audience of the spectator sport that is my life as I meet and greet, visit people, run into family acquaintances and get invited to dinners, etc. The anger usually lasts for the first month of going there and being there.

And then I come home and usually these days, people have stopped making a big deal about my visits. It’s not like the first time I was back. The setting right now is of an extended game where all calculations have been done, all grievances brought up. I have been told what is expected of me. There are no dinners or other invitations and I take a long sigh of relief. I am, to a certain extent, on my own, with some acts in between where I have to play good. I ramble, like I am rambling right now during conversations I have to keep up with—how is life in New York? Actually, it is a good question, a legitimate question if there was one. They just want to know how life is in a different city.

My standard joke that has so far made everyone laugh is preceded briefly by a short story about how I cook most of my meals. I tell the joke when I take my dinner plate to the sink and attempt to do some dishwashing. (It’s an act and I have it down!) Everyone objects, you are our guest coming to dinner, how can you wash the dish? Mind you, I am only washing my own plate here, nothing else. I ignore them; I just go on about the chore of washing one plate and add, well, I have to do this in New York too, so I can’t possibly stop practicing the art of dish washing! This always gets a lot of laughs. Joke made, everyone is tickled, I am done for the night. Its 8:00 PM.

I realize I am being a smarty-pants here. Why do I not want any of the living around extended family anymore, I wonder? I think it’s the general level of surveillance I have to face living in a street lined with relatives 24/7. But the one person I really don’t want to be around is my oldest aunt. In my mind we are such opposites on everything I can think about. And then I am around her and I see the roundabout way she talks, the intriguing stories she tells, and it hits me, I am so much like her and I obviously don’t like that. She is devoutly religious and a born evangelist. Her goal in life is to never have to be born into this “wretched world” again and so she does everything in her power to escape the circle of life, attain moksha. Thus she feels she has to spread the lord’s word as part of the deal to escape this world. To her, everything she experiences is visions and signs and she executes their telling with a certain mixture of stringency and cuteness that only she can pull off! When I was younger, she would show up some mornings with something she cooked. Last night, in my dreams, you appeared and asked me to cook you this, she would say and give me lentil pancakes (or sautéed beetle nuts, or halwa, etc., etc.). It would always pleasantly baffle me. But then she would start off with something religious and I would tune out. Now I realize, if I pass over the evangelizing part of her stories the rest is actually really good. It’s uncanny, the way we both orate, especially when we know there is a good point to be made, even when it’s goofing around, we hold on too long on the juicy parts, tangent after tangent, giving the listener no choice. Thank god she doesn’t drink! Seeing this part of myself in her, I want to curl up under something. The only thing that sets us apart is that I am about two feet taller than her. She would have a lot of luck curling under anything. Me I am, you know, me.

Things I do when I am home:

Follow the daily horoscope. I will test a day when I read it in the morning and plan my day accordingly or read it at the end of the day and assess. My horoscope today says that I should start a new business because today will be very profitable for me. I should just do it.

I surf between Cinemax and any Bollywood movie channel to recapture that one amazing thing about TV: mediocrity. Remember “Flash,” the movie? I remember because it was the first time I saw a man without a shirt on and a woman with just a shirt on. And it’s on today and Flash in his red suit is running around getting the bad guys and the good girls. And I try to remember how I felt watching that as a little kid. And then I flip to something Bollywood and see that Salman Khan, this guy, has finally started keeping his shirt on but everyone else who used to laugh at him ten years ago is taking theirs off!

I also realize that the women are no longer curvy and all the item songs have mostly non-Indians, barely wearing anything at all. If you can see everything, what do you leave for imagination, I quip. Mom laughs. And then I think of the golden years of Bollywood when women didn’t need to move much and a sari and pointy-breasted blouse put together a complete package. I think I can write about this for the new HR theme. I think and think. I watch more TV.

I pretend to write meaningful sentences. I let myself ramble. Why the hell do I want to write about Bollywood’s fascination with dressing women? It’s just that when I come home I don’t have an existential crisis; I have the opposite (it just hit me recently). Everything I see and feel is so acutely related to me that I consume myself into thinking about myself. I realize it sets in more when I am around people I am related to, when their certain gestures or looks remind me of myself so much that I begin to question the reality of the existence of anything else around me. I begin to feel that everything I am seeing is an extension of myself and nothing more. I watch myself, being watched by others as I walk around, sit in a café, etc. I think of what these people are thinking about me, invariably thinking of what I am thinking about myself, my observations of the sights I see and sounds I hear. Hence, when I email HR editors about writing an article about Bollywood thumkas, about this song, all I am doing is making observations of what I should be thinking. I curl up inwards creating layers of these thoughts and at some point in time I make an escape. I start to float around. And like everyone around me, I watch myself. I too get in on the show everyone is tuned to.

And, how I see myself in the mirror changes drastically when I stand in front of my closet, my childhood closet. The mirror is old and silver paint on the inside that creates the illusion is all chipped off, mostly on the edges but it is slowly spreading on the inside and the marks show on my face as it is reflected back. And there is that split second, when after an hour of watching TV filled with whitening and anti-wrinkle creams, I look at myself in this mirror to find similar blotches of the “before” of the before-after-commercial, the senescence, reflecting back at me. At first I am startled, I think of those blotches as real. Then I go back feeling like my tween self, staring at a stranger’s face.

When I was around 12, apart from recording my own voice as I sang, getting disappointed and thus giving up the option of becoming a singer, I went through a phase where I would look at my face over and over before and after school (my Catholic school was devoid of mirrors, if my memory serves me right). So this is going to be your face for as long as you live, this is it, I would tell myself. This is it? I would question, and answer this is it out loud as if to make the thought final.

Now I look at myself from ages 3 to 27 because there are pictures of me all over the place here. I can see how I have changed. I realize that when I come home, in a sense, I come to visit my own various selves. I pick out parts and play them out. In essence, I become aware of what parts of myself I show to the world and what part I hide from myself.