How to be cool: quit trying to be cool

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Between being “cool” by unconsciously being oneself and being “cool” by consciously deciding to be oneself, lies the battlefield littered with the truly “uncool”.

“Being cool” is ironic — it involves “standing out” as well as “being in”. | Facebook / Sneha Annavarapu

It wasn’t just the way he said it; it was what he said. He looked me up and down, grinned with the right amount of nonchalance and said the magic phrase, “You’re cool.” I was fourteen then — an assemblage of pimples, “tomboy hair”, stellar class grades, and a lovely muffin top. “I’m cool?”, I wondered awestruck. I was not cool. I was someone the class teacher made “monitor” in her absence. I was someone who barely knew two things about Hollywood. I was someone who cried before and after Unit Tests. I was someone who would stand in a queue for two hours to watch Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon. Heck, I was someone who paid no less than ₹800 in 2003 to buy MPKDH merchandise from Pantaloons. I was the living anti-thesis of cool. I was its sworn enemy.

And yet, here I was, standing in front of the coolest-seeming seventeen-year-old man-child, and he had just branded me “cool”. It felt totally irrelevant that he said “You’re cool” to everyone he met. It also felt totally irrelevant that he didn’t know who I was or of any of my aforementioned loser tendencies. The fact is that I had won several awards in school before, but this was the apostle of all validations. I remember feeling elated for three whole days after. I have not had such a consistent streak of happy days since. Elation. Pure, sublime elation.

Wait, this seems like the plot of a cheesy romantic film. Well, don’t worry, if only things were that easy. Or cheesy.

Little did I know that even after a decade and some, I would still be craving this brand of “cool”.

 

I didn’t think too much about this whole “cool” thing for a while after that episode. Time flew by, I found out that “being cool” required me to take time out to have hobbies — time that I didn’t have since I had to memorise Sanskrit grammar tables. I got over it and stuck to writing exams, getting into good colleges, and constructing a fairly stable foundation for a fairly boring career. I didn’t have time, or the interest, in thinking about coolness. College began. I fell in love with a very normal, not-too-quirky individual. We didn’t discuss anything too ‘out there’. We were almost too… normal. My friends and I reveled in everyday humour, wore untattered clothes, did little by the way of inculcating “enigmatic personae” and just had a lot of loud, happy fun. We watched mainstream Hollywood and Bollywood, we devoured popular American television shows, we went dancing on Ladies Nights and drank free alcohol . We featured strong-center in the spectrum of coolness — we weren’t ‘losers’, but we so weren’t the multitalented, artsy, angsty people who knew things about Europe that I didn’t even know how to spell. The “cool people” were distant, icy, absorbed in some obscure thought — or just stoned, I guess? — not loud, extra-enthusiastic and meddlesome like us.

And then it happened. The very normal dude I was very normally seeing began to get interested in a very cool human person. She was so cool. I, the uncool neurotic human person, stalked her obsessively on social media and came to the emphatic conclusion: Holy! I cannot compete with this coolness. Ever. She was an artist, a theatre student, photographer, footloose traveler sort of person. She went to all these hipster getaways like Gokarna. I went to my grandparents’ house in Visakhapatnam for all my vacations. She looked thirty with her crop tops; I looked twelve with my ill-fitting Tantra t-shirts. And it is then the horror called “my adulthood” began.

As with most college romances, mine died a dramatic death. Mr. Normal moved on to greener pastures — fortunately for my swollen ego, not with the cool human person mentioned before. I, on the other hand, felt like a hamster on the wheel of eternal self-doubt. I find it hard to persuade anyone to do anything, but I had no issues persuading myself that all my romantic woes were caused by my lack of coolness.

But I am an obsessive fixer. So, my twenty-one-year-old-but-really-four-year-old-self decided to become cool.

But, wait a minute, I want to be considered “cool” so bad that I’m never going to be cool.

Shut up, naysayer rational mind, just go with the flow! You’ve aced entrance exams before and are on your way to a prestigious school for a PhD. Surely you can learn to become cool. If anyone can do it, you can.

With that enthusiasm and stupid belief, I got on a plane to America. I shed not a single tear for anyone back home because this was a chance to start from scratch. I was going to cultivate my “cool and distant” persona. People are, like, going to be so shocked (as they say in California).

The first three months in Chicago, I was anything but cool. I was a roaring ball of homesickness, existential dread, and panic. Then I discovered online dating. Aha! What better way to feel better about myself than through male validation?

 

Why was I so naïve? Could I not see through the myth of ‘coolness’? There is no such thing as a universal category of ‘coolness’. Period. It is extremely relative, fueled by social media, an absolutely capitalist quicksand, and a total waste of time.

 

Problem: Male-validation-seeking is the absolute worst + I am a little too brown here. But all my conceptions of “coolness” are very White — thank you, American media and double-thank you, racist India.

Second rude awakening: I had no idea how to be cool in America. I still don’t. I was still adept at figuring out what the deal was in my little elite bubble in urban India, but America was a whole other beast. There were nerd-cools, there were hipster-cools, there were normie-cools, there were ballet-dancer-cools — basically everyone but people like me who had just gotten here, bought their coats at Burlington, ate curd-rice and pickle while watching some Karan Johar film, and worried about nobody understanding their accent.

I walked around the circuits of online dating, met many wonderful humans. Kind men, varying in race, age, life-goals, vital statistics (ahem), all willingly giving me more than enough validation. They thought I was interesting, funny, pretty, whatever — but nobody ever looked me up and down said, “You’re cool”. Of course, none of them lasted. And date after date, month after month, my sneaking suspicion of my own hopelessness was only validated. You need to “play it cool”, apparently. What does that feel like, I wonder? A clinically hyper-reactive, extremely high-strung, over-analyser, serial worrier like me shall never know. When a very hipster, very nerdy, very White person told me they didn’t want to go out with me because I was too “vanilla”, I almost thanked them for not calling me too “spicy” — as was more often the case with my fiery temper, or brown skin, or both.

(Digression: I had/have a friend in the crime of self-loathing which easily translated into other-people-loathing. She, like me, has given up on ever attaining cooldom so now we just sit and resent people who post quirky or profound or nonchalant things on Instagram. “You’re too cool for selfies? I’m too cool for you.” — this is our current stance. Honestly, we’re just sore losers who don’t have interesting enough happenings to report. My face is literally the most interesting thing in my life right now — sue me. Even now, if a benevolent friend ever tries to help me feel better about myself and says, “I think you’re cool”, I unfailingly respond with, “shut up, what do you know, you’re even more uncool than I.” Uncool and snarky — apparently that’s how I roll.)

Maybe if I changed parts of my appearance and style, I’ll play the role better. Maybe if I looked “cool”, I’d actually be compelled to be less of a hot-headed but boring human with very predictable needs and desires.

With this restless zeal to fix my image, I coloured my hair green. My gold-and-diamond nose-pin anyway stood out in Chicago and I had always managed to get some approving glances (little did they know that my nose-pin was most run-of-the-mill in India). I had a couple of visible tattoos, and I began to dress in a way that those would somehow be visible. Desperate times, desperate measures. It worked — in a way — and I began to get asked out by self-hating Americans. But, oh the misunderstandings! I had somehow managed to appear way cooler than what I was shooting for, so now I had awkward dates where topics I had absolutely no idea about were presented to me with confidence (requiring me to google things under the table, while mastering the art of an “ah, yes” nod); I attracted a lot of female attention; I was considered an anarchist; the list goes on. Each encounter, its own trove of mixed feelings, reminded me how I should just get rid of this green hair. It’s just dishonest, doesn’t reflect my personality, and makes me feel like I’m leading people on only to disappoint them with my ‘real’ personality.

But, hey, I liked the way it looked. For once, I refused to make myself feel bad about something and I kept it. Whatever, if people assume things about me because my hair is green (my favorite was when someone thought I was a radical environmental activist), it’s their problem. I let my hair be. I recoloured it every now and then with the same dedication I had towards my Sanskrit grammar tables in school.

Wait, am I growing up? Am I actually beginning to get a little comfortable about my ‘true’ desires?

About a year ago, a very insightful friend of mine, always opinionated about everything, sat me down and gave me a proper lecture. How can a sociologist, like me, be so blind to the politics of “coolness”? How can someone who waxes eloquent about changing the world be so utterly incapable of seeing how I was complicit in perpetrating this vicious cycle of jealousy that was splintering our feminist solidarity? Why was I so naïve? Could I not see through the myth of ‘coolness’? There is no such thing as a universal category of ‘coolness’. Period. It is extremely relative, fueled by social media, a trap in which more women than men get caught, an absolutely capitalist quicksand, and a total waste of time.

 

 

She made a lot of sense. I worked hard to get over my own neurotic obsession and focussed on “doing my own thang” which basically means listening to songs from Lagaan when I feel low and songs from Race 2 when I feel chirpy. I began to do my own thing of not even pretending to enjoy conversations that start with “I recently went to this museum…” I began to chill out, spend more time doing things I genuinely liked — binge-watching Friends counts — instead of going to watch experimental music in insufferably white neighbourhoods.

It was then that I noticed how many recently-immigrated brown women I know and love voiced similar thoughts about themselves — albeit less neurotically as I do. We talked about similar feelings of insecurity in a stage of their lives where one’s soul is literally split across two continents. All of us had stories about how we had re-watched some phenomenally terrible Bollywood film while eating Maggi. All of us had stories of feeling inadequate about our coolness quotient in a country where most people seemed distant and unfriendly. We, on the other hand, can hardly stop grinning at each other and making plans to have a Bollywood dance party. All of us, much to my relief, were slowly forming a community where we had our own inside jokes, our own understandings of what coolness was. “You don’t remember what Poo says when she sees Laddoo for the first time after decades in K3G? How uncool are you, man?” The elation I feel when any desi friend of mine looks at me with respect when I sing all the lyrics in Badtameez Dil is precious. It is the same elation I felt when I was fourteen years old.

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