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Army brats don’t flinch if they’re teased, pointed and laughed at, humiliated or whispered about. They know that they are always going to be the ‘new kid’; they’ll never fit in. I guess I am too weak to be one – it broke me. Now, I’m undefined.
“My name is Srishti Pandey. I moved here from Nashik.” I am 5 years old. Out of breath, I was late on my first day of first grade. “Can you do cartwheels?” The boy on the front seat asks, and we erupt into laughter.
“I moved here from Ooty.” I am six. I glance at the teacher for approval but she isn’t looking at me. “Hopefully you will be wearing the correct uniform by next week," she says. “Yes ma’am.”
“I moved here from Bareilly." I am nine. The teacher nods, forcing a smile; she tells me to complete my work on time. I look at the class. There is a girl smiling at me. “You can borrow my books if you want.” It’s a genuine smile.
“I moved here from Mumbai.” I am ten. The teacher is beaming. But something has changed. There is a lot more whispering now. Ten-year-olds don’t want to be friends. They want to remain friends with whom they already are.
“I moved here from Nashik." I am thirteen. Life really does come full circle. The teacher doesn’t seem too pleased. But I don’t care what anybody says; I sit down and open my textbook. I’m tired of fitting in. I’m tired of pleasing people. I can’t take it anymore.
Most people presume that I belong to the city I come from, that I am from there. And they are wrong. Because assumption isn’t always mankind’s friend. But when I am asked “Where are you from?”, I gulp. I take a deep shaky breath, sigh audibly and rub my nape. I stammer, “My parents are from Ranchi.” That satisfies everybody, except me. I don’t know how to answer that question. I’ve never been in a place long enough to remember the name of the most famous local sweet shop. So, it isn’t my fault. Every year when we go to visit my grandparents, I can feel their disappointment. “I am sorry, but it isn’t my fault” – I want to shout. I don’t understand the language they speak. I don’t do things the way they do. I am not from there. Then again, I’ve never understood any regional language that has constantly been spoken around me. I am not from anywhere. Where am I from? It's undefined.
Every few years, we have to pack and unpack. I see our belongings and all our memories fit into the back of a truck and moved halfway across the country. But not all of it reached the destination.
When everything changed all the time, the only constant that I had was math. Its complexity and irrationality make sense. So, I hung on to math – it has kept me sane. But turns out, math isn’t an absolute constant. What will keep me sane when I no longer have it? It's undefined.
Going to school was like being stuck in a “reading your assumptions about me” video, which lasted 10 years too long. I took the assumptions to be true. I tried to fix myself because I wanted everyone to like me. So, thinking about whatever I said, to make sure I hadn’t said anything wrong, all night was valid. Looking in the mirror and wanting to end was valid. Trying to be like that friend was valid. Not raising my hand in class was valid. Lying to my parents was valid. Seeking validation was valid. Was I wrong? Or was I wronged?
In a society where the words ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ are still sometimes used as slurs, how could I say, that when I look around, my eyes don’t rest on anyone for that extra second? It’s easier to let people presume, than to explain. And it's even easier to follow the crowd and be like everyone else. But doing that wore me out, then burned me.
So, I asked myself, “What makes you happy, Srishti? What makes you come alive?” Being brilliant. Being different. And I found myself. Undefined. And yet, Me.