Book Review: The Amazing Racist

A half-English, half-Tibetan author penned down a book set in Sri Lanka, narrated by an English protagonist, and which I, an Indian reader, loved reading. It won’t be wrong to state that Chhimi Tenduf-La has penned down a global novel.

Written from the point-of-view of Eddie Trusted, an English school teacher who moves to Colombo and falls in love with a native girl, ‘The Amazing Racist’ explores in intricate details the many idiosyncrasies of South Asian countries: our pride of our rich, past heritage; the anger we still feel towards our erstwhile colonizers, the poverty, our culture, our work values that stress on achievement and financial success, the potholed roads, the insufferable heat, the corrupt bureaucracy and finally our hot curries. The book explores all this and more in a poignant and witty package.

The story is one which has been told a numerous times in many Bollywood movies: boy meets rich girl at a party. They fall in love and wish to get married. They visit the girl’s father to seek his blessings but he balks at the idea of having his daughter marry (in this case) “a white guy”. Like all South Asian parents, Mr. Thilak Rupasinghe, wants his daughter to marry a man…

“…of the same race, religion, caste, literacy, social club, library, the same town, the same street, the same house. Someone with the right horoscope, the right job, salary, house, car…and skin tone”.

A white teacher from England just doesn’t fit the bill.

However my favourite part of the novel is the second half; after Menaka and Eddie’s marriage and the birth of their daughter, Kiki. Eddie and Thilak have to set aside their differences to look after Kiki, as her mother Menaka immerses herself in war reconciliation efforts that leave her with no time for her family. What slowly fosters through brilliant narration and witty anecdotes, is a bond stronger than blood.

The Amazing Racist is an amazing book!

It beautifully describes the changing South Asian social fabric, and tackles many contemporary issues like divorce, inheritance, extramarital love and stereotypes like that of the house husband and the career-driven mother.

The book will make you laugh and cry at the same time. Through his words Chhimi Tenduf-La will draw you into the world he has created: a world of white suddhas, lush paddy fields, extravagant fundraisers, hypocritical mothers, forbidden romance and an orthodox father-in-law with a sharp tongue and a golden heart. You will fall in love with the well-nuanced characters. The author describes them with such vivid details that you, as the reader, start feeling like you know them as intimately as a close friend: their fears, their ambitions, their triumphs and their weaknesses, all are laid out in black and white. The place and character descriptions are vivid, without being tedious.

The only fault I could find with the book was its depiction of Menaka as a negligent and selfish mother only because she prioritizes her career over her family. I find it wrong to pigeonhole women like that.

To conclude it is definitely one of the better books that I have read in quite a while now. A fantastic debut by Chimmi Tenduf-La. I can’t wait to see what further literary masterpieces come my way from his pen.

My rating for this book is very high. I simply loved it. I loved the witty descriptions of a tropical country that closely resembles my own. I loved Thilak Rupasinghe’s sarcastic comments and blustering arrogance. I loved Eddie, Caroline, Kiki and even Menaka.

And most of all I loved the simple narration of everyday life of simple, everyday people that culminates into a piece of literary brilliance.

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

Growth Pangs: Flash Fiction

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Meg looked around the apparel store in dismay. Her mother tapped her foot impatiently, “Are you done deciding what you want?”

Yes that frilly pink dress from the kids section that is a size too small for me, and the light blue shirt from the ladies section that reaches my knee.

Her mother made a clicking noise and noticeably checked her watch. “Nothing here is to my style” Meg said, and marched out of the shop. Her mother followed her with a bewildered silence.

*

“Touching a boy can get your pregnant”, Elsa said confidentially.

“Nonsense”. Helen rolled her eyes.  Her confident proclamation followed: “It only happens when you kiss!”

*

In the family function Meg sat in a corner listening to the grown-ups talk. “Come play with us”, her cousins begged.

“You go. I will come in a minute” she shooed them away.

Her parents were talking about the war. “Why don’t the two presidents just shake hands and apologize?” Meg asked. It seemed like a sensible question.

The ladies tittered. “Why don’t you go out and play with your cousins?” her mother suggested.

Meg felt her cheeks redden. A surge of fury and humiliation coursed through her veins — “You never understand me!”

“Young lady, is that the way you talk to your elders?” her father’s voice was taut. “Go up to your room”.

As she stormed out, she heard her mother mutter to Aunt Rosa, “I really don’t know what’s come into her nowadays…”

She slammed the door of her room. Her eyes burning with unshed tears, she looked out from the window into the twilight yard where her young cousins played the childish games that no longer afforded her any joy.

*

Durga Puja 2014 in Mumbai

Durga Puja means three things to me and my family — good food, new clothes and pandal hopping!! For the uninitiated, pandal hopping is when you go around town visiting different durgoustavs and comparing the idols, the decor of the mandap, the pandal theme etc.

First Stop – Powai Bengali Welfare Association

Decor at the Pandal

Decor at the Pandal

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The Exterior

The crowds at this pandal was intense. We were only there long enough to sample some of the Mishti Doi being sold at the Mother Diary stall there, before proceeding to the second puja in Powai – The Spandan Durga Puja. 

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IMG_0497We reached this pandal around lunch time, and feasted with pleasure on the delicious and piping hot bhog being served there.

Next we proceeded to Shivaji Park, in Dadar to see the famous Bengal Club Durga Puja. 

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From here we went on to Shakti Samanta’s Puja. 

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A pandal built in the shape of a Buddhist Temple

A pandal built in the shape of a Buddhist Temple

Next we went to Hotel Tulip Star in Juhu, to visit the puja of famous Bollywood actress Rani Mukherjee. The decor of this pandal was probably my favourite!

The Gate

The Gate

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The Stalls outside the mandap.

The Stalls outside the mandap.

From here, we proceeded to the Lokhandwala Puja, in Andheri. 

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As evening approached, twinkling lights appeared on the trees and everywhere within the pandal. The lights in themselves were a sight to behold.
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The Changing Lights on the Idol

The Changing Lights on the Idol

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We were also lucky enough to catch some the dhak performance of the evening.

IMG_0631IMG_0633IMG_0636Next destination, Thakur Village in Kandivali, with its two puja pandals. 

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Dhunuchi Dance

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The Lights Leading to the Next Pandal

The Lights Outside

Lights Leading to the Next Pandal

Lights Leading to the Next Pandal

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Festive Tidings On The Autumn Breeze

After 4 months of torrential rain, dank days and humid air – finally the dark clouds have passed. The sky is a lovely azure blue, with fluffy white clouds, and a just the merest hint of a cool breeze. The birds sing. In India, we do not have a ‘fall season’ like that in Europe or other parts of the world. For us, the end of monsoon brings with it the festive season. It’s time for joy and celebrations, for sharing happiness and beauty everywhere. Soon after autumn begins, there are various festivals celebrated in various regions of the country. Be it Navratri in Gujarat, or Durga Puja in West Bengal, or Diwali, all parts of the country cheer up as the festive season draws up on us. Shops across the city suddenly come up with massive festive discounts, and it’s time for innumerable shopping trips to purchase not only your festive wardrobe but also gifts for friends and family. This is a time many people choose to renovate their homes. Walls are painted, dusty corners swept, leaks fixed and every single bit of grime and dust washed off in preparation for the arrival of gods and guests. Houses are decorated with lights and rangolis. Fragrant, mouth-watering smells start wafting from the kitchen, and the larder over-filled with dry fruits, packets of crisps, and many more tasty delicacies. Most schools close for a month or so, and relatives flock to each other’s homes in masses. It’s time for laughter and loud conversation, for sharing old jokes and stories. Women from different generations gather in the kitchen, to talk and to cook together. The children are thoroughly spoiled by all the various uncles and aunts who come a-visiting. It’s a time for family.

Durga Puja

I have faint memories of Durga Puja at my hometown in Kolkata. Our locality, like many other localities, had its own pandal with our own idol of the goddess. It was a community affair, and the entire neighborhood would pitch in to help. The stage where the idol was kept would be decorated by the neighborhood women, all dressed in brand new saris. Young girls would braid the garlands that would be used for the idol. The men hurried around making sure that everything was proceeding smoothly. In the afternoon, the bhog would be prepared by the wives, while the men would serve it. In the evening there would be singing and dance performances by people from within the neighbourhood. We children would roam around in herds, utilizing all the money we had got from our parents and relatives to buy food and trinkets from the various stalls that would have popped up here and there. The trees all over the compound would be festooned with lights. Long strings of fairy lights would be hung off the apartment buildings. There would be no fixed bedtimes, and everyone would be up way past midnight. Sometimes there would be fireworks, and the sky would be lit up in gold and red. At Dashami, or Dusshera after the idol is sent for immersion there would be time for sweets. The ten days that followed is the time of reunion in Bengal. Relatives and friends from everywhere come visiting, and gifts and sweets would be exchanged.

After I moved to Mumbai, the celebrations changed. Now we don’t have family to meet during Durga Puja. Face-to-face conversations were replaced by long talks on the phone (never a good enough substitute). My parents, I think, feel the loss sorely, but my sister and I, as kids often do, just adapted ourselves to the change. Instead of running to the Durga Puja pandals, we would visit the mandaps of Lord Ganesh, during Ganesh Chaturthi with our friends. We would bow our heads in deference before the idol, and then stuff ourselves with the sweets kept as prasad. It grew to be a sort of practice for us. In the afternoons, when we were playing down in the compound, every time we felt hungry, we would run to the neighborhood mandap to munch on the prasad. During Navratri our locality hosted a dandiya raas, and we would dance riotously to the loud beats.

Diwali

Diyas at our home in Mumbai

At Diwali, when earthen diyas and fairy lights illuminated all homes, together we would burst crackers at eventide. Those friends have moved on now, to some unknown distance, far far away from these childhood reminiscences. I still celebrate Diwali and Navratri. With new friends that can never completely replace the old, but still provide unprecedented joy. We dress up in sequinned traditional garments that we will never wear again throughout the year (unless it’s for a wedding) and go dancing to some dandiya party. My High School Alumni Organisation hosts a reunion dandiya raas every year, and if I go there I meet all my old classmates, and it’s still a time for remembrances and nostalgic joy.

The Autumn Breeze brings with it  all the sweetness of a distant, innocent past. It brings with it faint memories of old friends and joyous times – the sound of forgotten laughter, the smell of my mother and my grandmother’s homecooked sweets and the smell of shiuli flowers (a white flower with an unmatched fragrance that blooms in Bengal during autumn). But it also brings with it the promise of a happy future.

It reminds me of who I am, where I come from, and where I need to go. It gives me the strength I need to stand against the cold winds that would soon follow.

It is my Favourite Time Of The Year. 

Shiuli Flowers

Shiuli Flowers

Today’s Daily Prompt: Autumn Leaves

Passing On a Reading Legacy

Ever since I can remember, I was fascinated by the bookcase. It stood in our family drawing room, filled with fat volumes of books that had no pictures. I knew they were my father and uncle’s books, and my childhood dream was to read all those books one day.
I would spend hours in front of the glass case, gazing enraptured at the dusty volumes within; craning my neck to gaze up at those books my short stature kept me away from. Like all kids I wanted to grow up quickly, and to my mind, hidden within those books that I could barely lift was the knowledge of a lifetime, that my parents and uncle had, and that I desired.
That one sunday a year when my parents would take all the books out to air them and dust them was probably my favorite day of the year, right next to the first day of summer vacations. I would sit next to the huge pile of books, and try to read them….or at least find one with pictures.
I was around 5 or 6 when I discovered the ‘Mystery of the Spiteful Letters’ by Enid Blyton within that pile. I was thrilled. I had already read Noddy and a few other of Blyton’s classics for children, but was yet to move on to reading her mysteries. This at least was an author I knew, and the book cover was a colourful orange with the picture of 5 kids. I wasn’t, yet, old enough to read on my own…not a novel at least, and my dad read out aloud to me. It was like a tradition. Every night before dinner he would read out to me, and together we would traverse through the written world of dreams and adventures, and I would fall asleep with the images still resonating within my mind.
That night I carried the book with me, and requested my father to read it out to me. He laughed and told me I was still too young for that book. I bristled at the suggestion, and insisted that he read it. He complied, and truthfully I did get a few nightmares for the first few nights, but I never told my parents about it, and this book started my lifelong romance with all kinds of mystery thrillers.
A few years ago, I rummaged the self-same bookcase for my first Agatha Christies.
Also I have made a few new additions to the shelves – JK Rowling, Rick Riordan, Dan Brown and Meg Cabot are just a few of the authors I have added to the rows already filled with tomes written by Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Shakespeare and other great literary giants.
This is my family’s reading legacy that has been passed down through generations to me…and yes, I am yet to finish reading ALL the books on the shelf. 

‘Life Is Beautiful’ – The Best Tragicomedy I Have Ever Seen

‘Tragicomedy’ is probably my favourite oxymoron. It is not everyday that you come across a movie that makes you laugh and cry at the same time; and when I do come across one, it immediately goes down on my list of favourite movies of all time. Recently in our ‘Audio-Video Production’ class our teacher showed us the movie, ‘Life is Beautiful’, and while I feel I am too young to remark on life, I must say the movie is beautiful! Here is my review of the movie: 

The Movie Starts With A Narration From The Adult Joshua (read on to find out who he is)

The Movie Starts With A Narration From The Adult Joshua (read on to find out who he is)

‘Life is Beautiful’ is a poignant tale of one man’s zest for life and his love for his family, set against the stark reality of the Second World War in Europe. Directed by Robert Bengini, the film opens in the year of 1939 when Anti-Semitic and Fascist tensions were high in parts of Europe, especially Italy and Germany; and follows the journey of the Jewish protagonist Guido, as he moves to a new city, hoping to fulfil his dreams of owning a bookshop. He literally falls in love with Dora, a young school teacher, and in a whirlwind fairy tale like romance convinces her to elope with him. His unabashed humour and childlike innocence endears him both to the hearts of the audience and the characters on-screen. Dora is literally swept off her feet. She breaks off her engagement to a rich but arrogant man, and goes against her mother’s wishes to marry Guido.

"You can't imagine how much I feel like making love to you. But I'll never tell anyone, especially not you. They'd have to torture me to make me say it." (Guido to Dora)

“You can’t imagine how much I feel like making love to you. But I’ll never tell anyone, especially not you. They’d have to torture me to make me say it.” (Guido to Dora)

The second part of the movie fast-forwards into a future, where the two are happily married. They have a son named Joshua whom they both adore, and Guido has fulfilled his dream of owning a bookstore.  Their blissful existence is however destroyed when Joshua and Guido are arrested and sent off to a concentration camp. What follows is a moving tale of a father’s love for his son, a race against time for survival, and a quest to find moments of cheerfulness in a place surrounded by misery, death and hardships.

 

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Guido: [being shipped to a concentration camp] You’ve never ridden on a train, have you? They’re fantastic! Everybody stands up, close together, and there are no seats!      Joshua: There aren’t any seats?    Guido: Seats? On a train? It’s obvious you’ve never ridden one before! No, everybody’s packed in, standing up. Look at this line to get on! Hey, we’ve got tickets, save room for us!

Guido tries to shield the ugly truth of the war from his son, by telling Joshua that is all an elaborate game. The plot is a fresh take on the power of love, family and imagination that conquer all hardships. Unlike other World War II films, this movie sidesteps politics and international affairs, focusing instead on humanity and innocence, two qualities hard to come by during a period of war, and therein lies its poignancy. The caricaturized acting of Robert Bengini, as the quirky protagonist and humorous dialogue delivery makes sure that you smile even through your tears. The central theme of the film is simple — Life is Beautiful and one must never lose one’s zest for it, regardless of where it is lived. Do go watch it!

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“We Won, We Won” (the last scene of reunion between mother and son)

Things You See On Mumbai Locals #2

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Today while returning from a friend’s birthday lunch (on Mumbai’s lifeline of course – what else would I use?!) I had a sudden moment of epiphany about Life. As I watched the blue sky dappled with sunlight and the green trees wet from the last shower, flash by, I realized Life isn’t so different from a moving train ride.
We board the train at birth, and can only alight it after Death. All that lies in between is a magnificent journey. There are beautiful sights sometimes, like sprawling green meadows and rambling silver brooks which make me feel happy, and ugly sights like a garbage dump which makes me sad or angry.  But they both are transitory. I can’t stop and gaze at them. One second is all I get, to be jubilant or dejected in, before the train moves on, and all that is left is a memory.
Our friends and family are like our co-passengers. They get on the train at some point, and for some time we travel together, but soon their stop comes, and they get down, while I must go on. I can try holding onto their hands, till momentum tears us asunder; I can try craning my neck, craving  that one last look, but no matter how hard I try to hold on to the moment, it’s gonna fly away on the wings of nostalgia.
The train however moves on……..

The Fussy Writer

I am a fussy writer. One of the fussiest you may ever have the bad fortune of meeting.

For one, I can’t write if there are people around me. I am paranoid about people looking at my works, before they are done. The unedited, raw first draft contains too much of me — it contains raw emotions, disjointed words, melodramatic and verbose phrases, and loads of scribbled over lines. Letting someone see it is like letting them see me naked. Confession: It makes me feel vulnerable.

So, writing with anyone in a two-hand distance of me is out. I spend too much time looking over my shoulder, making sure they are not peeping (even if they are not remotely interested in my work, and would really appreciate it if the constant drone of the keyboard or the scribbling, scratching nib stopped). Though I am trying to get over this pet aversion of mine, there is another fussy habit of mine that probably causes more annoyance to people, especially my family.

I can’t write with the T.V. on. I can’t write if someone is talking on the phone near me. I can’t write if someone is listening to music near me. I can’t write if there is any kind of noise around me. I need a perfectly quiet, serene environment, that is nearly impossible to achieve in a suburban family apartment.

After years of tantrums, tears and me acting the misunderstood creative genius — my family lost patience.

They bought me a laptop, and locked me in my bedroom, where I can scribble in peace, and type away to glory. 

 

Talking about the Future on the School Bus

10320348_757120340986332_8630196627970622781_nHave you ever wondered why we only remember snippets of our memories? Like one precious moment in time we managed to catch just before it slipped away, and stored it in the treasure chest of our minds. It might be a little dusty with time, but the essence remains pure.

This is one such memory carefully preserved in my memory box – the details are a little dusty, but it is still cherished.

What do you want to be when you grow up? – the favourite question of every adult whom you met. Today we had just written a paragraph in class on what we wanted to be when we grew up, and the topic was still fresh in our minds. By we, I mean me and my two best friends – who for the sake of anonymity, I am calling S and M. 

“So” I asked, looking out of the school bus window, at the receding building, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” 

“You tell, first”, M demands, testing the waters, testing if it is a trick question.  We were only 4 years old. 

“I wanna be a doctor” I replied proudly. “Like my uncle. He stays in London”. I never knew which held more fascination for me – the profession or the distant land, synonymous with all the magical places I read about in books (maybe that is why when I finally visited the city, a few years ago I was vaguely a little disappointed). Whatever the case, that was the only career path I knew of and deemed fitting back then. 

Now, S followed, a little tentatively, “I wanna be a teacher”. We turn up our noses. Being a teacher is the worst thing you could want to be at that age. A teacher was a wooden ruler wielding monster back then, who mercilessly gave homework to students. “Not any teacher”, she is quick to defend. “A good one, like Rina Miss. I will help students. I will be kind and never shout at them”. This was, still understandable. Rina Miss was all of our favourite teacher. She was kind, and always took extra interest in the underdogs – those who were bullied in the playground, those who didn’t seem to have friends, those who had problems at home. She would call them and talk to them at length. Sometimes she would give us chocolates and small gifts like pencils or ball-point pens (a rare privilege allowed to kids). She would take interest in what books we read and what films we saw, and when another teacher scolded us, it was to she who wiped our tears. 

Now it was M’s turn. She proudly puffed up her chest – “I want to be a wife!” We broke into peals of laughter. Marriage only had two meanings for us – 

  1. A game to play with when we were playing with our dolls.
  2. An occasion where we had to go dressed up and would be served tasty food, and would have our cheeks pulled by a dozen people we never remembered meeting. 

Once we managed to resume seriousness, we gave some serious thought to the question. “You will have to leave your parents”, I said gravely. As a girl, that was the biggest obstacle to marriage, in my opinion.

“I won’t”, M said, confidently. “I will make my husband leave his house, and come to live with my parents. My mother said that long ago that is how it happened. Men left their houses after marriage to come, stay with their wives”. (I have thought of this strange piece of knowledge for long. I guess my friend had misunderstood, or maybe her mother was talking about matriarchal societies)

“That is such a nice tradition!” I said. “Why did they change it? Why did our mothers shift residence after marriage?” 

For a moment we ponder this incomprehensible question. This ridiculousness of our mothers. “My father has a nice house” S said, almost defensively. We all were quiet. We couldn’t really debate this topic, without debasing either one of our parents, so we left it.

“When we get married, we won’t be like our mothers” I decide. “We will bring our husbands to our home. I will never leave my family!” images (1)

More than fifteen years has passed since this conversation took place. None of us are married….yet. I am pursuing a journalism career. M is pursuing English majors, and S just cleared high school. Very little remains of that ignorance and confidence now. Back then, all insurmountable problems had a simple solution. Sometimes I wish I could view life as simplistically now too.

(This post is in response to today’s Daily Prompt: Futures Past)

 

 

 

Everything I have ever been

Today’s Daily Prompt: If you were one part human, two parts something else — another animal, a plant, an inanimate object — what would the other two parts be?

A lot of images run through my mind when I read this prompt:

  1. I am 10-years old, and standing on the boundary wall of the playground. The earth seems so far away. I shake my head, and tell my friends, I can’t jump. One of them shouts, Chicken! You are Chicken!
  2. I am 12 years old, and my mother is telling me: A Woman should be like Water. She should fit in whatever bowl or situation she is poured into, perfectly moulding herself to the requirement. I remember her words vividly till day. It is some of the best advice I have ever received.
  3. I am 13 years old, and my mother is screaming at me – You are a Locked Chest. You never tell me anything anymore. This was the age when I first started keeping secrets from my parents.
  4. I am in ninth-grade. I am 14-years old. This was the time when my biology teacher devised a nickname for me: Dictionary. I was a voracious reader, and thus had built up a vocabulary better than the average 14-year old student. I don’t remember which word it was whose meaning I was able to correctly tell her, but soon she affectionately started to call me Her Dictionary. Whenever while reading out a chapter in class any student would ask her the meaning of a word, she would turn to me. When I couldn’t answer, she would be so disappointed, that I soon started making it a point to read up lessons before class, and learn all the difficult words I didn’t know the meaning of. In a way, I guess, I did become the class dictionary then.
  5. I am 16 years old. I have recently joined high school. The teacher asks something and I know the answer. I raise my hand, recite the answer, and become my friend’s Encyclopedia. That was my nickname in high-school, sometimes inter-changed with ‘Wiki’ (from Wikipedia).
  6. I am 17 years, and my article has been published in a magazine. My friends look at me with awe. One of them say, You write so well. You are like a Pen. Words flow easily from your mind.
  7. I am 19, and taking an online test What Animal Are You? The answer comes – Beaver (Really, I have never even seen one in my life! But apparently, I am like one). 

If you ask my opinion, I am one part human, one part chameleon and one part of a budding flower. 

I am a chameleon. You will never be able to categorize me in one pigeon-hole. I am made up of many colours: red for assertiveness, blue for desire for peace, black for recklessness, yellow for cheerfulness, dark blue for sadness, gold for joy, green for imagination and pink for femininity…..and white to absorb all these colours into one. 

I am a budding flower. I blossom a little more everyday. Everyday as I learn something new, I open my petals a little further, and look at the world with a new perspective – see something that I never knew existed before.

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