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One day, you'll break free

submission for the identity challenge

By Mesh ToraskarPublished 4 months ago Updated 4 months ago 4 min read
7
One day, you'll break free
Photo by Thomas Charters on Unsplash

It begins with 'Where are you from?', raised from the perimeter of the dinner table you’re sharing with students from your boarding halls, the last night of the freshers. A collective zeal is fresh in the air. “But where are you actually from?” This isn’t the last time you’ll be asked this. At dinner parties, over the phone, at various menial jobs, and by your professors at university. The askers are expectant with an urgency. They demand instant gratification. Their question knocks you off balance, those toes, inherited from your Indian dad, now tilting the other way. Not just because you don’t understand the question, but even if you did, you wouldn’t yet have an answer.

It was that day, surrounded by strangers familiar only in the shared term-time address, you decided to leave a couple of syllables out of your name. From a trisyllabic word, two of which defy the lexicon of English speakers to a solitary syllable that gracefully slips from the lips. It wasn’t hard. You never minded the scrubbing off of identity with syllables that once padded your name’s arrival in people’s mouths with intensity; you never did. You actually enjoyed it. You felt comfortable in that sound as the locus of their inquiries pivoted from your authentic origins to the origin of an unusual name, and that you could handle. “Mesh? What kind of name is that?”, they asked. “Oh, it’s short for something else, but it’s easier this way.”, you remarked. “Ah fair enough, Mesh it is then!”. And it was fair enough. Enough to leave a sound behind that trailed you for 17 years of your life. No longer a life sentence—your name, now merely lifeless.

Not the same day, but a couple of days before, you leave a bus, a hundred yards before your potential friend’s house, who’s hosting his third house party this week. It’s fresher’s week and you and your best friend who followed you across the world have made a pact to make friends, other than yourselves. You take a few steps and you suddenly find the house you’re looking for in a stone's throw's distance. You could actually throw a stone and it would shatter the window and inform them of your arrival. You’re thinking of an evening of introductions, wine, and good company. You’re in a memory of things yet to happen when they stop you both, hard. Suddenly you’re drowning in the piercing wails of "stop where you are, stop where you are, stop where you are". You hear your best friend leave out a skinny whimper cutting through the air like a razor. In your heart, the shutters of your goofiness rattle shut. And it'll be a while before they reopen.

They tell you to get on the ground - play dead, unceremoniously. And while you do that, they tell you there has been a series of robberies in the area and describe the appearance of the perpetrators matching both of yours. They ask the question again – “Where are you from? Where did you come from?” You remind yourself that this is not the last time you’ll be asked this question. They tell you appeared out of thin air, like magic. You try to explain, your head pressed to the ground. Your history in the country dating hours you could count out loud in under a minute. You try to explain again, but they don’t hear your protests. They don’t see you. They see someone, but that person is not you. You both fit the description. You both can be squeezed into the box. Your friend, whimpering, hasn’t said a word. You look into one of his eyes and see pitch black, like an eclipse. This is how it must feel to die. They would like to see your bags. Your possessions scattered around in front of you, on the ground. They say they are only doing their jobs. They extend their hands with a light apology which you don't accept, nor their extended hands. In darkness, you were told, even these tend to be weapons. They say you’re free to go now.

You get up, lift your friend up from the ground. It was not just the bags they emptied. No longer in control of your limbs, you stand in front of the door for god knows how long. In silence, heavy with all that was not said. When someone calls, asking where you are, you tell them something has come up, and you both won’t be able to make it. Then you make your way to the bus stop down the street, your breaths floating above your heads, the tears drying on your friend’s face.

Your hands empty except for your hands.

So in the kitchen that night, on the dinner table, you wonder what it means to be you and find the answer in the apology you were extended.

It is to be difficult in acceptance. Be it your name or the colour of your skin. To be a sound, touching the world not as yourself but as an echo of who you should be. To exist as you is to find solace in those apologies, to strike a deal with silence that shows no favourites. What it really means is that it will always be comfortable for you to linger within your private shadows, than to emerge wet in your vulnerability. Not ideal, but easier. However, the longer you clasp it all inside, the closer you come to losing your breath. At some point, you’ve got to breathe.

It's seven years since then and there’s a reason you haven’t worn your favourite hoodie out on the streets since, and don’t think you ever will again. But one day, I promise, you'll break free.

***

humanity
7

About the Creator

Mesh Toraskar

A wannabe storyteller from London. Sometimes words spill out of me and the only way to mop the spillage is to write them down.

"If you arrive here, remember, it wasn't you - it was me, in my longing, who found you."

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  • Mackenzie Davis3 months ago

    (I realized this as I was writing: Pardon my use of "you" as though I am talking about you personally. I just realized I’ve been doing that; I ought to be referring to "the speaker" for better emotional distance, but know that that IS what I’m thinking of when I use "you." It’s hard, this being in second person, to not say "you.") It took me ages to get back to this one. I read it as soon as you posted it (while I was driving, actually! I remember it vividly). And damn, it took me so long to return. But at least I always return, right? That counts for something… That first paragraph starts in a way I thought I could predict its direction, and then it ends. Wrong. Nope, this is not directly about the larger implications, merely the personal struggle of understanding the question, "where do you come from?" It’s the "…even if you did, you wouldn’t yet have answer." Wow. You shift it from the speaker’s desire to know the answer to your own, and then make it take precedence over their demand. Also, I adore that imagery: "those toes, inherited from your Indian dad, now tilting the other way." Your subtle rejection of them, or else, your wanting to be rid of what their question holds. Breaking into my own analysis to ask, does your full name actually defy the English lexicon, like does the correct pronunciation? I didn’t realize that! Now I want to know how I should be saying it in my head, lol. Okay, back to the analysis. Who in their God-given right mind would not have follow-up questions to "Oh, it’s short for something else, but it’s easier this way"??? Am I a rare animal that I would have been that stranger asking you a follow up question? Ugh, my God, that last sentence: "No longer a life sentence—your name, now merely lifeless." This begs for further thought. How can one’s name be a life sentence? This says so much. It’s literally a six word story. Six word poem? One of the two. Both? I am picturing a name, a life, being sentenced to death or something equivalent, perhaps the culture that contains the name; the sentencing of one’s birth, in a way. That is so compelling! I wonder how many people feel locked into their names like that? Or if anyone but you could even be aware of it. But then you follow it up with "now merely lifeless" as though the death (or life) sentence (okay, isn’t it strange how those terms seem to hold a similar emotional weight here? Contradictory terms?) was extended to beheading as you chopped off the first two syllables of your name, and this renders it lifeless. Wow. Just kill me now, that is one of the best metaphors I’ve ever read. I didn’t remember that you flash BACK. The bus incident happened BEFORE the name stuff. That makes more sense to me now, and wow does it carry much more weight. You create such an atmosphere in the paragraph "Not the same day…". It feels to me like it must have to you, only less real and intense. The goofiness, the anticipation, the excitement, the naiveté…I felt the accosting happen in my heart. The rattling shut, the whimper cutting the air. I’m there. "Play dead" hearkens back to what you said about your name. Chronologically, this is the actual killing of your name, isn’t it? The weight of the life sentence extended into a beheading, though it almost seems like it’s a extension back into a life sentence, just one of a different life, which is of course, the truth of scrubbing your name like you did. "Where are you from? Where did you come from?" These are the beginning, the traumatic beginning of your decision to turn your toes away from the askers in the following days and weeks. The wrongful assumption of your motivations purely based on appearance. "You look into one of his eyes and see pitch black, like an eclipse. This is how it must feel to die." Holy shit, that is a metaphor to rule the world with. Eclipsed light, light snuffed out, life snuffed out by fear and widening of eyes trying to see the future and finding nothing. OMG. I also feel the weight of that lowercase 'G' in God, after the incident. It completely emptied you of faith. "Hands empty except for your hands." That makes no sense but it makes all the sense. Everything is different. Your hands are different. Emptiness is different. Those lines: "you wonder what it means to be you and find the answer in the apology you were extended. It is to be difficult in acceptance." WOW. You are literally a genius. This is my favorite two lines I’ve ever read. It sounds hyperbolic but I swear it’s not. Goddamnit. I am a feeble baby in comparison to you. To be difficult in acceptance means everything here, it says so much about your existence to others, but more so, it says so much about you too; it’s your struggle to accept an apology, to accept pure motives, to accept merit-based achievement, to accept acceptance. It’s not just the surface level definitions of the words and the way the culture will spin the story to suit a larger narrative of oppression, it’s literally identity, something the culture fails to understand in its nuance. The implications of a broken faith and abused exuberance. This is everything. I adore the concept you follow these lines with: "the longer you clasp it all inside, the closer you come to losing your breath." The idea that breath is something you clasp, like something to be protected and secured. Like life can be locked away, like the life sentence of your name extended into a beheading and then back into a different kind of life sentence. Eventually, you have to breathe, even though you remember dying, remember the feeling of steel on your neck. And there it is, you bring the "i" in. I almost wish you hadn’t italicized it so I could have missed its entrance until I didn’t. I don’t have a good finishing line for this analysis. But I’m sure there are a few good lines throughout that will fill in that lack.

  • It upsets me no end every time I hear a story like this. They have been ubiquitous in our country now that they've started covering incidents such as these in the media & online. My understanding is that they have been ubiquitous in this country anywhere you might be where your skin happens to be the wrong shade. At least in this age of video cameras on cell phones it's no longer hidden & less easy to deny (though there are plenty who still dismiss such experiences as aberrations). I'm so sorry you went through this. Beyond prayers & blessings, let us continue to call such things out until it never happens again.

  • Teresa Renton4 months ago

    Gut freezing storytelling Mesh! I find the second person story energising to write and poignantly powerful to read, as if the writer is inviting you to ‘imagine if’ for example, ‘You remind yourself that this is not the last time you’ll be asked this question.’ Sorry and angry that you live this 😥

  • Davina Z. McKee4 months ago

    Most people on Vocal are intimidated by this challenge, or hiding behind poetry. Personal essays are not popular here. I can understand why. The internet in and of itself provides such opportunity for anonymity, even if using your legal name… so people who are more comfortable publishing online than in print are not ready to truly be seen. This was courageous of you, even if written in the 2nd person from a place of detachment. And I see that you write beautifully vague poems, so you could’ve gone that route, and you could’ve blown your competition out of the water. But it just wouldn’t be as powerful as what you’ve done here. I see you’ve carried elements of poetry into your prose, writing with brevity and vivid sensuality. It works. I’ll never know what racial profiling feels like, no matter what country or neighborhood I enter. That only happens to young men. Yet, you put me right in that gut wrenching moment you and your friend experienced, which no apology could fix. You are an incredible writer. Reading this upset me as much as it should.

  • Real Poetic4 months ago

    I really enjoyed this. Good luck in the challenge!

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