The Problem with Potential

In second grade, while studying at the Saudi Arabian International School’s British chapter in Riyadh, I wrote a poem on a fictional pet – a dog, whose name I don’t quite remember now. I rhymed recklessly, alliterating awkwardly, without knowing what any of it meant. At the Parent Teacher Meeting at the end of the semester, my class teacher, Mrs. Carter – a wonderful New Zealander – read the poem out to my parents and ended by telling them I had ‘potential.’ In retrospect, I can see how that moment was a definitive one in my life’s trajectory. My parents now looked upon their precocious, seven-year-old, who spoke British to them, as different. I suddenly had ‘potential.’ This is not to say that they considered me lacking in basic intelligence before then, but only that my abilities now carried the additional weight of capability.

IMG_3951Many years later, when I was taking those god-awful Board exams back in India in the tenth grade, the untamed nature of my potential ran counter to almost everything else that seemed important to my fifteen-year-old self: waxing vs. shaving, boys, bras, movies, music, menstruation. My exam results were dismal and my parents and others, who were now aware of my wit and my intellect, felt I had not failed just myself, but I had failed possibility.

It was perhaps a couple of years later that Jack entered my life, terminally. The Jack of ‘all trades’ fame, and his nemesis – the Master. In pursuing one I have found myself channeling the other. Not ironically, this quest has been motivated by the larger hope of achieving my potential; a ménage à trois of the most unappealing kind. I’ve read hungrily, watched ravenously, absorbed unconditionally, the resulting mosaic a pastiche of an unidentifiable kind: a brand most severely my own, yet lacking a universally palatable flavor. I can write some, sing some, sketch some, mimic some, act some, dance some, chat-shit some. I love math, literature, biology, geography, history, yet none has appealed to me enough to demand my unequivocal attention. I have tried achieving my so-called potential in halves and quarters, immeasurable littles and lots, the wholeness of mastery evading me with the stealth and surreptitiousness of socially accepted superiority. Reeling me in, however, is the magnetic pull of mediocrity, that unmarked territory between this and that, that space of neither and nor, where Toba Tek Singh releases that heart-rending shriek of hopelessness.

I’ve tried hard to not attach unnecessary importance to milestones. Yet, as I approach my twenty-ninth, I am forced to contend with my potential in absentia. For is this not the time when, conventionally, you ascend the incline of achievement, when the ticking of boxes in lists begins or is already in medias res? Is this not when you are at mid-point, treading the path of the known and knowable and not using subtext to mask the uncertainty engendered by the unfathomable? There, I’ve done it, directed the questioning tone of my rhetorical wondering to the unidentifiable second-person, implicating ‘you’ in the search for the definition of my ‘I,’ in the quest for that unmarked trail leading to ‘potential.’ Hoping, perhaps, that through complicity, I can accord authority to practitioners of all-tradeism, and in doing so, place that first ‘x’ in the first box against that first item that implies achievement of another kind of promise. 

© Ayesha Sindhu 2014

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One thought on “The Problem with Potential

  1. For you I’d put it as saying ‘master’ of all instead of ‘jack’ 🙂 its a gift being as knowledgeable as you are love. Keep up the good work. Lots of love 🙂

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