Soul, he said

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Futility

It was love at first sight. In a greyly lit room filled with mild disquiet, anxious conversations and a few grey souls, the black and gold catalogue seemed strangely aloof. Luminous, and beyond anything my imagination had conjured up when I heard the term ‘publisher’s catalogue’. I watched it being passed from hand to hand to exclamations of delight and awe, smug in the knowledge that it was intended for me. You may covet all you want, ladies and gentlemen. But this beautiful, beautiful object is mine – and you can’t do a thing about it!

When it finally reached me, I held on tight, refusing to pass it on further or even put it down on the desk. I am known to be selectively selfish.

Later that evening, it was with a sense of reverence that I opened the catalogue to go through its contents: a collection of texts from his authors, written in response to a ‘provocation’ sent out to them by Naveen Kishore, founder and director of Seagull Books:

A myth. Of futility. Do not misunderstand so early in the half-formed thought. Not merely and uselessly futile. I speak of the futility of our lives filled to the brim with so many things. Not always essential. These so many things. All vital. Or life giving. Just things. That rattle in empty tins. Like heads filled with echoes.

So make me a myth of the futility of things.

And they did. Ivan Vladislavic, Mahasweta Devi, Thomas Lehr, Gayatri Spivak, Hans Magnus Enzensburger, Monica Cantini, Yves Bonnefoy… Just a handful of names from the impressive list of writers who responded to the provocation.

Sisyphus, it seemed, was being celebrated as never before – through language stretched, bent and moulded to loving will. Words like perspectives and writing styles seemed inadequate to describe the wealth of text those pages contained. The illustrations took off where the texts ended, adding to the meaning, lending it colour and form that seemed almost impossible.

At every turn of page, the possibility of the incredible, the unexpected – the fantastic. I was an overzealous Alice meandering through Wonderland! 

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Futility Catalogue

Back in the eighties, when my cousin was doing her MA, she had a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets – a hardbound volume with a blue and cream sleeve – that I had my eye on. Somehow, it always ended up spending more time with me than her. So much so that I had seriously considered pinching it while leaving home for the big city in search of a job. (To be fair, I did try asking her nicely, but she refused.)

In the end, I did not, of course. But it left behind a gap that no paperback, new or second hand, was ever able to fill.

I’m only mildly ashamed to admit that over the years, there have been many great works of literature that I left halfway through reading merely because the dull black, closely printed words on equally dull, thin, bluish-grey paper seemed a sacrilege to the literature it contained. And soul-numbingly tiresome to read.

So you see what that catalogue, and the many books that came from Seagull after, meant to me.

Now I am the proud owner of some truly remarkable books; among them these gorgeously produced catalogues, each with its own eclectic set of texts. There is the Loss catalogue (one of my favourites), last year’s stunningly beautiful one on Blindness, an earlier catalogue on Notes finished and incomplete… Plus a few older ones that I am yet to read. The pleasure I derive from the sheer sight of them, the touch and smell of them, is beyond words.

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Blindness

There’s a rather cheesy statement that talks about the universe conspiring to get you what you want with all your being. Perhaps it’s true. Only, I had not even dreamt of finding my own writing within the covers of a Seagull Books catalogue – until I received the ‘provocation’.

Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.

Body, soul, fear, love, death. Literature. Existential angst. The dark as a substitute for soul. Why did those words make me think of my old home? My tharavad, now a tired old ghost that lives somewhere between me and my sleep. Its trees and snakes and dark corners. Its shadows – warm, generous, forgiving. At some point, they had willingly sheltered a broken, confused teenager from the harsh light of the outside world. Shadows.

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Collage by Sundandini Banerjee 

My childhood was one of stories – heard, read and imagined. And eventually narrated, with great gusto and enough embellishments, to lure a bunch of open-mouthed younger cousins to do my bidding. She still talks about the stories you used to tell, my aunt told me a few days ago. Bindu, her daughter, had been one of my most avid listeners. Minichechi! Don’t stop now… Go on, pleeease!

And so I wrote my response, with little conscious thought about what/how I was writing.

Body, soul, fear, love, death, literature, existential angst… And the dark as a substitute for soul. Tangled inextricably, like the roots of an ancient tree. Who am I to separate them?

The other day, some of us friends were talking about healing. One suggested religion, another counselling – or psychotherapy, where necessary. I did not tell them that I had tried it all, with limited success. Literature, I said, and they smiled indulgently. I smiled back, knowing. 

That was random recall. I do that to a fault.

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Loss

When the ‘Soul’ catalogue reached my home in Dubai, I was in India. And when it reached my address in India, I was on hospital duty. My moment of glory, suspended. 

It’s beautiful, ‘Mma! You know you are in lofty company? I was told over a long-distance call. As eager as I was, eight nights of no sleep and total mental and physical exhaustion later, I have only now started reading. That too in small chunks – between client meetings, press releases, testimonials and op-eds that were waiting for me.

Now…

I pause in between work to look longingly at the silver grey catalogue on my table. I pick it up, flip through the pages with their marvellous illustrations. Touch a word, a dragonfly… Read a line or two, and put it aside – feeling the guilty taste of  unfinished work on my tongue. Let me finish this, I promise myself. Just let me get this done! And I return to my work.

Times are tough, as times tend to be. In fact, they have been so for a while. But you have so much literature in you! someone had reminded me once. True. There is always the literature. All 402 pages of it. Waiting.

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Soul

Just a Dance

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Photograph by Muhammed Muhiesen

I remember reading a Dick Francis novel long ago – Longshot, I think – where the protagonist is a freelance writer down to his last penny, and takes up an assignment purely because it would mean a roof over his head and three square meals a day. He talks about how, merely sitting for hours and writing has a way of making you tired, hungry and cold. With not enough money to foot the heating and grocery bills, he would do anything to survive. Even if it means postponing writing his first novel.

I can relate to that. All too well. Except perhaps for the heating bit. I live in the Arabian desert after all. My bills, therefore, are of air-conditioning.

So I’ve put my magnum opus ambitions on hold, and am down to brass tacks, taking on every bit of work that comes my way. The past few weeks has seen me all over Dubai and Sharjah, in cabs, buses and the metro, tapping away at my keyboard whenever I could get a seat. Then I return to my desk at home and type some more.

All that writing makes me tired and hungry of course. At least, that’s my excuse for the amount of baked potato I consumed during my four-day stint at Sharjah Expo Centre. Baked potato and tea with milk and sugar, please! I can already feel it spread evenly under my skin, with a little extra in places…

Sigh. 

All said and done though, I’m grateful. A lot has been happening lately, and after the sultry uneventfulness of summer, I am grateful for the happening bit, even if it means less sleep.

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Crop Circles at edges of The Empty Quarter – photograph by George Steinmitz

I like what I do, you see. Providing content for clients forces me to learn in great detail things I would otherwise have never even thought about. Like book illustrations for the visually challenged. Or strategic interventions made by UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Authority. Or Type 1 Diabetes / shipping containers / Ambrotype photography… You get my drift? They are all fodder for my restless brain with its multiple tabs open at all times. And since they have nothing to do with me personally, my emotions get a break. There’s just this sense of wonderment.

Covering events allows me to sneak out in between to attend seminars and listen to talks by people I only read about otherwise. Names like David Yarrow and George Steinmetz roll out of my tongue with practised ease now, after XPOSURE 2016. And I am waiting for a willing listener to talk about The Empty Quarter, after sitting through some stunning huge-screen visuals.

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The Empty Quarter – photograph by George Steinmetz

Sometimes I get to meet the titans. Like this wonderful photojournalist Muhammed Muheisen, whose work and words have changed my perception of refugees. In the middle of all that death and destruction, there is also life happening. And that’s what I try to focus on, he said. I had been wondering about the light, the hope, in his images of conflict zones.

If it is not documented, it did not happen. My job is to inform the world about their lives. With honesty, with due respect given to the privacy and dignity of my subjects. Sometimes they run away when they see me. I don’t run after them – that would be violating their privacy. I wait for them to learn to trust me, sometimes for years at a time.

I actually requested for a photo with him – some people have a way of moving you enough to do that.

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Photograph by Muhammed Muheisen

And I started teaching again.

Just three kids at my dining table, but it’s an elixir still. My relationship with teaching is something the family can’t quite understand. Don’t you think you’re stretching yourself too far, ‘Mma? my sons demand, looking down at me with all the seriousness of two adults watching over a particularly unreliable child…While I try to explain to them that it might well be, considering, but I need it for sanity.

They are like a couple of bouncers these days, my sons. Standing between me and what they call my self-destructive tendency to work myself to an early grave. Are you still working, ‘Mma? D’you realise how long it’s been since you started? Take a break, please! Watch something or go for a walk! Eavesdroppers outside our door will be confused about the nature of parent-child relationship in our house.

So now I try to finish the bulk of my work before they wake up. And they worry when they see me fall asleep across the bed at odd times.

Sometimes, when I’m exhausted, I turn on the TV and watch mindless action movies. They demand very little of one’s intelligence or emotions, and as such are relaxing. My boys shake their heads and sigh. So what about your urban poverty novels, ‘Mma? When are going to read them? they ask, their grin wicked.

We have these long conversations about stuff like capitalism, racism, sexism, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton’s dubious intentions, music sampling and cool anime. We share the sadness – and the impotence – about what’s happening in Kashmir and elsewhere. And sometimes we ponder on what a visiting alien would think of a culture that charges AED 300 for a dental consultation. X-rays and tests as required, and will be charged separately, Ma’am! Among other things.

We hug a lot too.

As sons go, they’re ok. And they reassure me that I’m ok too, sometimes. They even like me, they claim, though I’m not particularly interesting or smart.

Amen.

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The other day I danced. A good thirty years after my feet had learned to be strictly functional in their movements. It felt so good to let go and give in to the rhythm.

Juhi had invited us to a Navratri celebration – partly business, mostly pleasure. Manju was there, her Baroda genes swaying to the rhythm of garba. I can still see her…like an apparition, alone under a tree. Lost to the world, and dancing to—

What was she dancing to? The beat of distant music, or the song in her heart?

A beautiful, beautiful sight. I’ll remember it forever. 

It was her abandon that finally infected me – enough to let go of years of inhibitions and just give in. I danced, round and round, with Manju and Juhi on either side – till I was light in the heart and head.

It was also the same morning that I got to see the picture of Seagull Books catalogue where my name and text appears. I had been on cloud nine since. All it needed – I needed – was the dance.

But then, isn’t that what we all need? A dance? On good days, on bad days, on ok-ok days… With occasional missteps, perhaps. Sometimes to cheap remixes of Bollywood numbers, sometimes to the song in our hearts… Just a dance. 

And maybe, just maybe, life is but a dance. If you can find your song.

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 *All images courtesy Google

Urban Doodles

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A jerky hand, a quirk of technology, a happy accident – call it whatever. Or better still, call it the interference of a tech-savvy goddess who watches the world with wry humour from up there. Beyond the grey patches of a pixelated sky. 

This shot was certainly not planned. Just a failed attempt to click – with my phone camera – Dubai’s stunning skyline from Bhawna and Arun’s 28th floor apartment in JLT.  I would have deleted it. 

But viewing it in monochrome on my laptop, something stirred within me. As if this single random shot has somehow managed to capture all that I feel about this city. 

Its towering darkness, for instance. Ghosts – of the present and future. Impressive and intimidating at once. Looming, not quite straight, against an endless expanse of ambiguities. This city, after all, is inundated with greys – all shades of it. Just like its inhabitants. 

And then those clusters of neon doodles. Yes, those! Clouds of thoughts or words, gathering in the head one at a time. Or ‘shapeshifters’ that dance in front of your eyes as you stare into the sunlight for long. Floating just out of reach. Surreal, like the hopes and dreams of the millions of human beings trying to find their footing in this city.  

Tantalus, I am sure, would have empathised with our lot.  

Or maybe, just maybe, it is something else altogether… It could be that the aforementioned tech-savvy goddess has a habit of doodling absentmindedly while talking on the phone? I can almost see her talking quietly to whoever is at the other end, her darkly beautiful face a bit pensive, her liquid eyes far away…Perhaps she is a woman in love. Or almost in love. 

And from the tips of her distracted fingers, these fluid, sensuous lines. Of light. Kindly.  

The Summer, the Desert and the Digamma

Desert sky

We entered our sixth year saddened and in pain.

Every day my son asks me,

‘How long my father, until we return?

I miss the children of our street,

I miss the taste of our water

And the weather of our gorgeous country.’

Shiva read out the lines to me this morning. Written by Salam Ashara, a Syrian refugee. It was part of an article on refugees in an old edition of Gulf News, one that fell out of a shirt that came from the laundry. The launderers here fold the clothes around newspapers while ironing – perhaps for ‘structural support’ as Appu insists, or, as I suspect, for the fresh, crackling sound it gives off when you touch it.

Just a few lines of poetry, crisp like a starched and ironed cotton shirt. Lines written by a father who wants to keep his country alive for his children. How else does one keep anything alive except through the written word, the symbols – letters – it comprises?

The Malayalam word for ‘letter’ (from the alphabet) is ‘aksharam’: ah + ksharam. That which does not perish. Everlasting. Timeless.

Young Saintana was my colleague during my short stint as external consultant at a PR firm. She used to give me a lift sometimes, when we both finished work at the same time. Meandering through the peak hour traffic from Internet City to Al Rigga Station, we would talk about random things. And very often our conversations moved between her passion for perfumes and cooking, and her memories of her hometown somewhere up in the mountains of Syria – which she hadn’t visited for ages.

Beyond her delicate Mediterranean profile and tumbling sunlit curls, beyond Dubai’s speeding skyline, just short of the orange sky, a thousand vivid images would shape themselves into an abstract tapestry. Woven as much by her words as her slim fingers waltzing in the air. Colours, smells, tastes, togetherness, warmth, love, nostalgia…Grandparents who told stories about the past, ‘jamming’ and pickling seasons when all members of the family gathered around a table, picking the finest fruits and vegetables and spices…

“Our hands would be all red with the juice from the cherries,” she would say, smiling at the memory. And I would watch her fingers wrap around the little red fruit that only she could see. 

I loved listening to her stories. Stories of a culture so different from mine, yet so similar. I too have stories like that. Stories of what once was, and now isn’t. All gone – just like that. Never to return. Or to return as something else for someone else.

Like the digamma.

The Digamma is the title of the book that I’m currently reading— Correction: one of the three books I’m reading intermittently these days. It’s a collection of poetry in prose by Yves Bonnefoy, published by Seagull Books. Out of the five books by this great French poet that my kind friend of words had sent me last month, I chose this one because its title intrigued me.

The internet has a lot to say about the digamma.

digamma

/daɪˈɡæmə/

noun

a letter of the Greek alphabet (Ϝ) that became obsolete before the classical period of the language. It represented a semivowel like English W and was used as a numeral in later stages of written Greek, and passed into the Roman alphabet as F

I don’t understand – not really. A letter that was once a part of an alphabet, and then wasn’t. Which then became a number, and was eventually passed on to someone else to become something else…

How does it all work?

I’m reading The Digamma in fits and starts – one little paragraph, a page, a couple of lines at a time. I lose the thread somewhere in the middle and put the book away, then take it up and start rereading it.

I’m also reading And; Nonetheless by Philippe Jaccottet (ChelseaEditions) and the last few pages of the latest Seagull Books catalogue in between.

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I pause to marvel at the beauty of a word, a sentence, an image it conjures. Then I lose my grip on the text again, put it away again and this time, head to the kitchen. With something bordering on despair.

“Despair, ‘Mma? Isn’t that extreme?” Adu asks. Perhaps it is desperation then, not despair, that I feel.

Cooking always helps. The absolute physicality of it, I mean. Till it tires me. 

It has been like that for a while now. I’m unable to read or write or do anything else as I’d have liked to. I’m restless, listless. Just less.

Perhaps like my body, I too need a complete overhaul. And some green. There’s almost no green left in me now. The summer, the desert, has drained me of green.

I have the sun, baby, but not the chlorophyl! So I can’t photosynthesise.

Urgh! That sounds cheesy even to me!

Let me say it again: I blame it all on the summer in this desert. This desert as in the desert on this side of the great desert out there, the one you see as you speed past it on the highway. That one is vast and primordial, like an ancient bedouin matriarch with deeply wrinkled face and hands, peering at you benevolently from behind her batoola. That one still has ghaff trees and bone dry desert shrubs. And if you stop your car, step out and wiggle your toes in the sand, you can find seashells buried within.

Seashells! Can you believe it?

So this— no, that desert out there was once a sea, an ocean. Blue and green and thronging with life. And then it was gone. All of it. The blue, the green, the life… Became something else. Like the digamma. All that is left is this vast, insatiable lust. For blue and green and life.

Still, on a winter evening, you can go out there, spread your arms and embrace the desert. And the sky, the bare hills, the sea you know is there, somewhere. Beyond, beneath… Who knows where, exactly.

This desert, the one you see in between the glass and chrome and concrete, this one is different. It gets to you. Gets you, rather. Sooner or later. This one is just sand, and one day you realise you’re also just sand. Perhaps with bits of fossils buried in you. And you also know that eventually they’ll dig you out, out of yourself, and build another skyscraper where you now stand.

And you, like the digamma, first become obsolete, then return as a number, and then become something else for someone else. A handful of sand? Seashells? Stardust? Memories? Or a story you narrate to a colleague on a summer evening as you weave through the rush-hour traffic?

You, then, are a letter in an alphabet, a symbol. Aksharam: that which does not perish. That which is, even when it isn’t. Like the digamma.

Crows

Five random musings

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1.

the mirror looked back

her smile a glimmer

the stranger blushed

quickly hiding her song

behind lowered lashes

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2.

words like trembling fingers 

hesitant 

lest they startle the song 

gently tracing 

summer shadows on the skin

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3.

drawing the night 

a little closer

the dawn 

snuggled

sighing

reluctant 

to let go 

of the dream

nestled between 

eyelids

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4.

the colour of life

muted

the whisper

of dreams

dying

inside eyes

glazed

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5.

lurking words

dark shadows

of past

conversations

desolate

this landscape

of silence

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Through Mishran’s Lens

I’m yet to meet Mishran in real life, though he has promised to take me around the Nelliampathy Hills on his yellow bike if and when I visit my hometown of Palakkad, Kerala.

 

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Yesterday he sent me these photos he had taken just because. And graciously allowed me to use them in my blog. I did ask him to write captions, but he begged off. Just some random shots, he said, you can use them anyway you want.

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He did say though, that this dragonfly reminded him of me.

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Rusty, tired and a bit frayed around the edges – yet wouldn’t give up. I do see the resemblance.

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Thank you, Mishran.  Couldn’t have asked for a lovelier gift!

 

Thoughts from an adjustable hospital bed

My recent brief stint in hospital has taught me a thing or two, I tell you!

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For one, I have learned that it’s impossible to look elegant and dignified in a hospital gown, even when it’s a becoming shade of lavender.

Lying in the adjustable bed with its adjustable railings, multiple buttons and a remote controlled nurse-fetcher, stripped of everything but the shapeless robe that ties at the back, I am reminded of a meme that did its rounds on WhatsApp: Health insurance is like a hospital gown; you are never as covered as you think you are.

I suppress an urge to giggle – not only is it bound to be painful, giggling might dislodge stuff in/on/running through my body, that should not be.

On the brighter side, there is the fact that I am lying inert on my back, and am bound to remain so for a while. So never mind the inadequacy of the cover.

As it turned out, those good insurance guys did a better job of covering than my lavender hospital gown did, thank God!

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Another very important lesson I learn is that my woes are never as bad the ones that my friends and family and neighbours and strangers on the road have gone through, in the exact same situation. Random conversations sound something like this:

“And what did she say?”

“That I need a D&C urgently.”

“Oh D&C?” Do I detect a slight note of disappointment there, or is it my wayward imagination?

“Everyone does it these days. In fact, my friend had her second one recently. It’s nothing.” Yes, ma’am!

“What’s your HB level? Did the doctor tell you?”

“Nine, I think. I’m not sure. She just said that I lost a lot of blood, and I’ll need to have heavy doses iron supplements…”

I am to be the Iron Lady of Al Nahda 2, Dubai… But wait, not so fast!

“Oh? Then you’re better off than I had been. Mine was eight!” I’m outdone, yet again.

Such is the story of my life. Sigh.

Which movie is it where Boman Irani’s character keeps haunting Amitabh Bachan’s with Yeh toh kuch bhi nahi! and launches a tirade about the bigger fortunes/misfortunes of the various members of his family including himself? 

Ok, this isn’t half as bad, really. I’m just being mean.

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I also come to understand that waiting for a calamity (I’m allowed a bit a hyperbole, in my condition) to happen can stretch one’s nerves thinner than the calamity itself does.

Quite possibly because the latter, in my case, happens under general anaesthesia. I go to sleep under bright white lights with benevolent eyes peering at me over white masks that tell me to breathe deeply, there, there… And voila! an instant later I wake up with my innards hoovered and fixed!

Then it’s just a matter of drifting in and out of the twilit zone trying to smile bravely at the world, but sleeping off in the middle, only to get up wincing, painfully aware of the fluids – clear and coloured – being pumped into me. I am informed that this one kills pain and stops bleeding, while the other is the hormone my body badly needs, and a third that looks like strong black tea is actually haemoglobin to replace what my body has been generously dispensing with for  a while.

The latter, despite all its innocuous black tea pretensions, turns out to be painful enough to make me protest, albeit feebly. There, there…let me flush this out. Then it will flow more easily, the smiling lady in aquamarine uniform reassures me. Impressive bedside manners, though I’m glad Indian nurses don’t use the first person plural to address their patients. 

I recall reading a Mills & Boon romance once where the red-haired heroine is in hospital, and her kindly doctor asks: Shouldn’t we go to bed now? It’s rather late. To which the lady retorts: Do you think there’s enough space in this bed for both of us?

You see the kind of muck my brain is filed with?

This time though, the memory does not even make me smile. And the ‘flushing’ itself turns out to be—  Ah well! The less said about it the better. 

***

But I was talking about the waiting-for-the-calamity part, before all this.

Not only am I painfully connected to various pieces of gadgets that sound like multiple hearts sinking at once in no particular rhythm, I am also being poked around with sterile equipment by serious people in white coats and uniforms. The collective frown on their faces when they do so is not reassuring either.

The worst thing, however, is the hunger. A cup of tea and an omelette wrapped in half a khubus – ingested before 6:00 am and nothing, not even a sip of water after – is just not my style. I function best on a full tank. Ask my family.

“Your room is not ready yet, so till we roll you in for the procedure, can you please share a room with another patient? We’ll make sure your room is ready by the time you come out.”

Of course I can! Anything  at all, as long as it does not require me to be vertical.

So here I am in a cheerless, artificially darkened room.  Horizontal, hungry, in pain and terrified – I’m never brave on an empty stomach.

From the other side of the floral print curtain, I can hear conversations.

There was a time in the past when I would have wanted to see the people involved, to engage in small talk, but I no longer have the will. So I listen, not particularly curious, only because I have nothing better to do. Italo Calvino, though light enough to hold with one hand, doesn’t mix well with painkillers and antihemorrhagics. 

The patient on the other side – a lady much younger to me, from the general drift of the conversation – sounds scared too, so her husband tries to be breezy enough for both of them. An older woman, his mother, not hers, obviously, gives sensible pieces of advice every so often which are taken by the other two with pinches of salt.

I hear lunch being rolled in, and then I smell it being opened. Agony!

“What’s this?” The mother sounds puzzled.

“Marrakech, an Arabic dish made of brinjal and olive oil and all that,” I hear him explaining.

Last I heard, Marrakech was not a dish, but a city in Morocco. I wonder if I should call out: That’s muttabel, not Marrakech!  Then I decide against it.

Instead I close my eyes and dream about the okra curry my friend’s mother had brought for me the last time I was admitted in a hospital, sixteen years ago. It’s good for you, especially since you have a premature baby to feed. I had been frightened then too, but strangely, it was her kindness that released the tears I had thus far suppressed.

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I’m hungry!

When are they taking me to the OT? I want this done with, and I really, really want to eat something!” 

“Another half-an-hour, they said,” my better half tries to console me.

And true to their word, they come on the dot of two, and wheel me out. The rest, as they say, is history. Herstory.  Mine.

***

Interesting how even the most fleeting brush with the grim reaper (of course, woh toh kuch bhi nahi tha, in real terms, I know) has a way of reorganising one’s priorities.

You realise that as you watch, unmoved, an ageing Tom Cruise going about his business with missions impossible and otherwise. And while looking outside the window at the buildings languishing in summer sunlight, with random thoughts flitting in and out of you. Later again when, while watching a Jolie-Pitt movie with artsy pretensions, you’re more excited by the sight of a Morandi print in a pub than by the explicit scenes the movie is generously littered with.

And you begin to feel that all the iron and hormones and painkillers you’re brimming with have done their good deed. For your mind if not your body. 

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Back home, what I feel is a sense of release. Coupled with a positive disenchantment with things that had me in their spell for a long while, without even realising it. It is with a deep sense of shame that I admit I had actually begun to count the ‘likes’. 

I don’t want to be doing that with/for the rest of my life.

***

Some are born good, while others have goodness thrust on them. I belong to the second category, where I’m repeatedly told that I’m a good person by those who love me too much to see the less-than-truth of it. Of me.

Maybe it’s time I gave an honest shot at goodness.

And guess what? The second generation of laughing doves have taken over the nest in my balcony, and begun the next cycle of life.

Which, I’m beginning to see, is beautiful indeed. Perfect as it comes. 

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***

All that matters

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The baby birds in our balcony are officially old enough to be left alone for short periods of time. Their mother now allows herself occasional short stretches of ‘me time’. She was absent when I came for my early morning rounds, and I was a bit worried when I saw the little downy lumps all alone and shivering in their nest.  They are yet to grow into their beaks, for God’s sake! But mommy arrived soon, and all was well and fawning. 

No Brexits rocking their world.

We had repotted the overgrown aloe in the balcony on Wednesday, an act that infuriated mamma bird. We took a lot of care to be silent, but ever since her chicks have arrived, the lady has been in an aggressive mood. She even tried to do a Hitchcock’s ‘Birds’ number on Appu when she caught him alone in the balcony!  

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At the end of repotting, we were left with a ton of aloe leaves, and it seemed a colossal waste to bin it, what with so many good things being said about aloe. So I looked up ‘how to store and use aloe gel’, and Google told me that I can skin the leaves, take out the gel, blend it with lemon juice and freeze it to store. Which seemed oh-so-simple on screen, but turned out to be a shoulder-wrenching affair in practice. Adu helped, but my motherly heart could not bear to watch his struggle with the wishy-washy gel and a steel spoon for too long, so I patted him on the back and set him free.  

The aloe gel has since been cubed and zip-locked safely in the fridge, and I’m now adding it to detox water – my latest fad. It’s all Juhi’s fault – she served us an ice-cold glass of one at the end of a hot sweaty evening when Lisa and I had gone over to her place. Mission Detox is now into its second day at home, and while I have no clue how long it will last, it’s good while it does. The clear liquid with slices of green looks good in its clear IKEA jar, and tastes fine in the summer heat – despite the aloe gel. 

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Did I tell you that the mint that has gone into it comes from my balcony garden? It stands next to rosemary and basil on my window sill, where I can reach it from the kitchen. 

I like to think that I have a green thumb, but Mrs M claims her green thumb is greener than mine. Maybe. She has populated my balcony with her own two bits: a mango sapling and a ginger shoot that have taken over my glazed grey pot are her contributions. 

So I love green. Green plants, green buildings, green peas curry (that’s my Malayali gene at its most virulent), cold drinks laced with crushed green chilies, green chutney, green vegetables…even Brussel sprouts for that matter. And though I haven’t tasted it, my green chicken curry is reputed to be good. I remember an F&B professional calling it ’Nilgiri Khorma’ once. I also remember feeling elated – the names does sound grand. I like green window frames too (like the ones we have back in our Kochi apartment), and green words as against white or red ones. 

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And yes, green dresses – how could I forget those! So much so that I recently bought some bright fluorescent green sports innerwear just for the heck of it. At my age, I can’t get away with wearing fluorescent green outerwear…

I’ve never seen anyone wearing green shoes, though. Wonder why. 

There’s the memory of a Salman Rushdie novel I’d read long ago that has references to a green widow – one that declared emergency, if I’m not wrong. It tainted the colour a bit. And there’s of course the green monster. 

Too bad. Green is such a lovely colour otherwise. 

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Yesterday, while at the radio station, I found out that there’s a ‘cough button’ for guests that allowed them to cough (what else?) if they needed to, without the entire city having to listen to it. There was none on the RJ’s side of the table though. If they coughed, they coughed for humankind.

I had sorely wanted to test it out, but for the whole hour I was there, not a single cough came to my aid. Today though, while having lunch, an errant rice grain landed in the wrong pipe, and I coughed until my nose turned red and my eyes were streaming. 

I have never been known for my timing. 

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After the interview, Namitha took us home, and we tasted the best homemade watermelon mojitos ever. Muskan, her daughter, had turned some cupcakes into works of art, and it was only greed that made me eat one – I would have preferred to keep it as a centrepiece on my living room. Later in the evening, my thoughts kept returning to the two of them. They have seen so much together; way more than most people have. Yet, like the birds in my balcony, they have created a nice, cosy world of their own, and embellished it with little joys, much like Christmas bells on a winter morning. Pain and sorrow can wait outside, if you please.

One part acceptance, one part attitude, and two parts courage. Perhaps that’s the recipe for good life.

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At twilight yesterday, I entered a mosque for the first time, and partook of iftar with a few good friends. The air of hushed spirituality and the sense of reverence with which the ritual was conducted were a revelation. Outside, over a thousand hungry men were sitting under a canopy and having their first meal since sunrise. I could see no difference between man and man right then. 

Hunger is a great equaliser. 

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Last night, before going to bed, I tried to capture a poetic Ramadan moon with marginal success. And fell asleep to random thoughts on letting go. Of good things this time – like a smile, or a song…or love. Open the hand…and the heart… Let it all flow, or fly away, or fade like mist. If it doesn’t come back, that’s okay too.  

You are.

I am.

The world is.

And that’s all that matters.

For now. 

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No Fixed Abode: an Introspection of Urban Isolation

I have a penchant for rereading books I like. A variation of the errant tendency that makes me repeatedly listen to the same song or watch the same movie till it becomes a part of my DNA. The thing is, I like the comfort of returning to a familiar space, no unpleasant surprises in store. And there is also the thrill of finding interpretations and nuances that were missed the first time round.

Recently, though, I have developed a new habit. I return to the same book just hours after I have finished reading it the first time. I think it started with The Pilgrim’s Bowl. I was so unwilling to put it down that I went back quite a few times, revisiting random lines, paragraphs and chapters. Now I find myself doing it with other books too. Maybe my reluctance to part is growing with age. 

When I finished reading No Fixed Abode, I knew I had to read it again, and urgently. The reasons were very different from those that made me return to The Pilgrim’s Bowl. If that one was about poetry and nostalgia, this was because it left me – for want of a better term – restless. The kind of restlessness one feels when one is not able to decipher the last couple of clues in a crossword puzzle. 

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No Fixed Abode is not a book that would ordinarily have crossed my path or mind. I got it at the recommendation of a friend, one with similar taste in words. The name itself was intriguing to me. For someone who lost count of the number of times she has moved homes, such a name would automatically ring a bell.

Then of course there is the seductive charm of a hardbound, beautifully produced book batting its eyelashes at you through its prim grey jacket. There’s no book-lover alive who can resist that kind of temptation. I couldn’t. 

A confession: It’s rarely that I read a book blurb before I’m through with the book itself (I know it doesn’t make sense, but then, that’s me – I hardly make sense), but this time the terms ‘ethnofiction’ and ‘fictional ethnography’ on the inside flap of the jacket caught my attention. Certain polysyllabic words are so irresistible that it is hard to leave them behind and walk away. You have to bend down, pick them up and hold them to the light.

So I did my usual back and forth with Google and came up with this definition by Tobias Hecht, an American anthropologist, ethnographer, and translator:  

Ethnographic fiction is a form that blends the fact-gathering research of an anthropologist with the storytelling imagination of a fiction writer. It is not a true story, but it aims to depict a world that could be as it is told and that was discovered through anthropological research.

I warmed up to the term – and to the genre itself – immediately. Marrying anthropology and imagination seemed like the perfect situation, leading to endless possibilities. The rest of the blurb actually piqued my interest further: urban poverty and the resultant isolation is not a topic I come across very often, except in essays and activist Tweets. 

No Fixed Abode, however, did not fit into any slot I had created for it. In fact, it couldn’t have been further from all of them. 

Narrated as irregular diary entries made by Henri, a retired tax inspector who can no longer afford to maintain a home in Paris, No Fixed Abode explores the growing distance between an individual and the wider society he has been a part of, in a personal yet curiously objective manner. 

I’ve always dreamt about escaping. It’s a recurrent night time scene. The scenario’s never entirely the same, but each time I find myself surrounded by enemies who’ve miraculously failed to notice my presence(…) I wake up suddenly, shaken and upset, and the relief at having escaped my demons – those demons I can’t identify but which return regularly to haunt me – soon gives way to anxiety at having to face the tedium of the daily round. 

Henri’s ‘escape’ from domesticity, and subsequently his identity, happens by degrees: a slow transition from being an ordinary citizen to one that veers off the expected course, warily treading the unfamiliar paths of homelessness. In relinquishing his possessions, Henri is also leaving behind everything that has thus far been integral to his existence. To him, being alone is no longer an imposition, it is something he accepts  without resentment.

Loneliness — it’s best to call it by its name — has nothing unbearable about it. Silence is less annoying than the efforts aimed at overcoming it, and it’s infinitely less painful to be quiet on your own than when there is two of you.

As his grip on everyday social requisites loosens, Henri finds himself faltering at the fringes of the normal, unsure of the way ahead. The ties that bind him to the community are fraying, and even being with friends is no longer what it used to be.

It’s difficult to play a role when there are no grounds for that role anymore, difficult to stay in your place when you’ve lost that place, or to exist in another person’s dwelling when you yourself have no fixed abode, are without hearth or home, are almost nameless.

Henri’s defining moment comes when Dominique, an artist who drifts into his life, invites him into hers, once again offering a chance to return to society. As Henri makes his choice, his readers are faced with the vagaries of a culture that has rendered their choices and priorities questionable at best. 

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Marc Auge

To me, No Fixed Abode is a rather dispassionate introspection of urban isolation in the form of a deceptively simple narrative. Written by Marc Auge and translated by Chris Turner for Seagull Books, the book poses questions that are both cultural and anthropological, leaving the reader a little disturbed – as if suddenly confronted with an uncomfortable truth.  

They say books appeal to us because we find bits and pieces of ourselves in there. Or because we find in them answers we have been seeking. In which case, I’m not sure why I felt compelled to immediately reread No Fixed Abode: whether I was looking for fragments of the self, or trying to find answers.

Perhaps I was merely attempting to understand the questions themselves better. 

All I can say is that the book left me just as ruffled the second time too. Some truths remain uncomfortable regardless of how many times you confront them.

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The cover of No Fixed Abode has been designed by Sunandini Banerjee from a photograph by Bishan Samaddar.

*Images courtesy Google Images