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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*All images courtesy Google