In Blocked Letters

This essay won the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay 2020. The theme was Making Do.

The judge, noted writer and journalist, Samanth Subramanian had this to say: “Shweta Philip’s funny, elegant essay captures the joys and frustrations of writing, the inadequate nature of language, and how we are making do even when we find words to fit our feelings.”

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As a being exiled from blissful non-being, one tends to feel, among other things, an insatiable need for an audience that understands, or simply one that wants to listen, even if it’s just you in a different moment, a page, a word document. You, the speaker, are distinct from you, the listener. And sometimes you just loathe (or love) what’s going on in your head so much, you need to put in words, maybe read later, maybe get other people to endure the abstractions up there.

And these words ought to do justice to them, do justice to the way they created a railway system for all your erratic trains of thought. I can’t remember the first time I wrote, but Ma tells me I’ve always been fond of it, even if it was just pencilling endless zeros to practise my handwriting before literacy arrived.


Being in second standard meant having so much free time the school’s management would schedule hours for sleeping or reading or writing. One could do anything except talk. I would take out my rough note book and write mindless essays, mostly about people: my internal laughter at the class teacher who hated me, whatever best friend I had at the time, or the boy who sat next to me (whom I secretly liked). I wish I could read them now, if only to cringe, and cry at the happiness that came from being so oblivious.

Another pseudo subject to fill the time table with was GK; it was the last period of the day, the sleepiest by default, and we were generally not much more knowledgeable after. Mahi ma’am would conjure up various ways to pass the time; once, she got us all to write a poem on a topic of our choosing.

Mine was called ‘Dreams’ – an extremely substandard set of four stanzas that focused more on rhyme than relevance, the little of which I remember I wouldn’t embarrass myself (and pain you) by reproducing here. After hichkichaing in my seat for a while, I went up to the front and showed it to her. I don’t know what she really thought about it, but she smiled and said I should write more.


My relationship with writing as I recall it was quite involuntary, hiccup-y, and a lot less unsatisfying. I wouldn’t say I was satisfied either; I just didn’t really have any expectations from it. The first big thud of expectation fell on me in the sixth standard thanks to a poetry writing competition I cluelessly won. The prompt was something to do with friendship.

The judges might’ve thought my blank verse (newly discovered in my English textbook) was quite profound and mature. At least, that’s what Ma thought. I was really just writing what I knew, and I didn’t think anything of it then, and I don’t seem to hate it now.

The expectations piled on as the years passed, and with it, my feeling of inadequacy. I don’t hate writing and like having written the way Dorothy Parker did, but writing can be frustrating, the end deeply unsatisfying. It’s like feeling an itch, then furiously picking your ear, and finally extracting a chunk of yellowed dirt.

Sometimes it’s a mad race of my fingers trying to keep up with the blindly barrelling railway carriages. Sometimes my mind has felt so devoid of sensible, writeable thoughts, all I can do is sit still, a train without tracks or a track without a train, while someone else might have sat here instead and spun a masterpiece.

I just stare at the keys instead, thinking of the way a mere repeated random tapping on black pressable squares can make these curious shapes appear on the screen. What is it about these shapes we call an alphabet, as intangible as light in the screen or goddamn ink on paper, that makes you cry and laugh and hate and love and bruise, die inside and come alive?


Do you ever think about the absolute fluke of evolution? There were millions of possibilities, but this here is how it turned out, that we would be plagued with this programmed sociable-ness, beings that feel the need to assign poeticised words to their thoughts.

It’s not like animals don’t communicate, and their conversations are not without agenda, but the lexical manifestations we agreed upon are so politically charged, so many in number and so inadequate. I’ve often wondered how language was invented, how each arbitrary agreement was arrived at, why logic dwells – and doesn’t – in some, how did our versatile tongues learn to twist and flick, caress parts of our mouth unknown to others.

Forget one language and its many synonyms, idioms, dialects and accents. We created several tongues, voices, tones, mood representations that don’t even use words, created instruments, paints, somehow broke our
bones and bent them into expression. And it still isn’t enough. There are infinite ways we can weave and unweave to trap emotions in words, evoke emotions with them. I find it crazy how times change and the words we would use then are strange to us now. Words carry time.


I am usually so set on getting my point across, I don’t look at the words, understand how they landed there, why that one and not another, or what part of my imagination prompted the next. Perhaps a linguist, a habitual poet, or that constant internal narrator of life’s movements would. There’s so much at our disposal, maybe it is not us making do with words but the words that make do with us. Even Shakespeare felt inadequate. Why must inadequacy accompany art like this? Is that where art comes from? Attempt after attempt at less mediocrity, less disappointment after the expectations were planted there?

If you have ever felt naive and entitled enough to look forward to something worthwhile emerging from the frantic, confused, lazy, exhausted, saturated, empty venting on keyboards, you might know that thirst for a satisfactory piece, and the barrenness that refuses to produce it.

I use these creations, the man-made inadequacies, with their flaws and dirty, sexist politics when I can’t process any feelings and can only allude articulately (because I’m a coward like that). The allusions are possibly a result of the fear of other people looking inside this sub-par, pretentious mind that seems like more than it is. Words more articulate would reveal the utter blandness of character and thought.


If I can’t write, I don’t. If I have to, it comes out eventually. Only now, I have come to the point of forcing voluntary writing. Where I have to spout a lot of bullshit and then do jhadu-poncha. So the drafts are fragmented and scrambled to place unconnected thoughts on a page before they escape me because I don’t have the normal energy to actually write. I thoroughly abuse myself while I’m at it for not finding the right verbs or adjectives. My thoughts feel slow, my stories poor. Organic, intangible, enigmas of feelings escape our understanding so easily.

To assign words to feelings and feelings to words is quite a feat. But as someone who hates the things she gives birth to in her confused, unimaginative mind, I am making do with the words, the reader is making do with the writer.

The writer is making do with herself.

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Illustration Credits: Aditi Kumar

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