Yesterday morning, I made a rather feeble attempt to clear out the ton of paper that’s making my rather feeble IKEA shelf sag. I didn’t get very far of course, but I did find some interesting-in-retrospect notes I had jotted down. Most of them were work-notes, taken down while on assignments, but some are just wistful, random jottings, scribbled haphazardly, in Aditya’s old notebooks, sheets of A4 with stuff printed behind, or those cute-looking notepads I tend to hoard ambitiously.
Among them was this note – written at the beginning of this summer. I know I had just come back from my morning walk in the park, but I don’t know if I had meant to add to this or it was just a random thought. Either way, it brought a remembered smile – and a faint whiff of neem flowers – to my morning. And hope – that the summer is on its last legs, and it will become walkable again.
It’s only May, and the sun is already sleepless. Now there’s June, July, August, and September to go. The balmy breeze that’s still hovering will soon be evicted, her place taken by razor-edged summer wind that sears all it touches.
For now, though, the neem flowers are giving way to baby fruits – nature goes on, and so does life,
I breathe in deeply wondering why we, who are perfecting AI and plotting to colonize Mars, have not yet found a way to capture the fragrance of neem flowers and release it slowly, so it takes us through the summer.
That’s it. Just that much on a torn-out sheet of lined paper. I’m now sure I’d meant to add on, but it hadn’t happened. I did manage to dig out a photograph I had clicked on the day though, thanks to technology.
Ahead of me is a long summer day, complete with a long bus-metro-metro-cab commute to the end of Dubai and back. But for now, it’s just these green, green words jotted down in scratchy red ink. And they will see me through.
Another Onam day. And like on every Onam day for the past howevermany years, today too I feel that familiar, lingering sense of sadness. Melancholy, as a thin film of salt water that gathers at the corner of my eyes, blurring my vision ever so slightly.
Why sadness, you might ask.
And I would say, because I miss–
Oh, so many things!
I don’t know. Things… There’s a word for it – there has to be. For this longing for the unnameable; for what’s lost and can never come back… Ah never mind!
But let me tell you this. Very, very long ago, I’d started writing a story.
So what’s new in that, you might ask again.
Nothing at all, I’d say. It’s just one of the million almost-but-not-quite-complete projects that fill the hard drive of my Mac. Only, this one is on Onam. So I remembered it today. Also because I tend to drivel, and today I feel the itch to.
So allow me to share the beginning of my Onam story, Two Onams, a Movie, and Some Dreams. As I have named it, for whatever it is worth.
Maybe I’d shared it here before? I’m not sure. Pardon me if I have. Here goes, then:
Two Onams, a Movie, and Some Dreams
“I love Onam, don’t you!” She finished the sentence with an exclamation mark instead of a question mark, overwrote the ‘love’ and underlined the ‘Onam’, secure in the knowledge that the ‘you’ at the receiving end shared her passionate love for Onam. Malu was writing her diary after all.A worldly-wise fourteen, she hadn’t managed to outgrow her fascination for the festival. She loved the rituals and the colours, and more than anything else, she loved the folklore associated with it.
“It’s the most beautiful festival in the whole world.”Again she underlined and overwrote as required, for proper effect.Her ‘whole world’ began at Thenappilly where she lived, a small town with a radius of roughly six kilometres, to her father’s village – about twenty kilometres away. Her school was somewhere midway.
“Legend says that Kerala had, once upon a time, been ruled by a benevolent asura king, Mahabali. Now, Asuras were traditionally expected to terrorize humans and loot the land.Mahabali, on the contrary, loved his subjects, and was in turn loved by them.There was enough of everything for everybody in the land, so there was no theft, nor any other crime of any sort.”Kallavumilla chatiyumilla, kallatharangal mattonnumilla…There was no child who had not heard those lines and marveled at the utopia that Kerala had once been.
“However, the Devas – the Gods above – did not like the state of affairs in Kerala.They were worried that if this little piece of land became such a heaven, what was going to happen to their own ‘original’ heaven?So they decided that it was time for some subtle political manoeuvres.” Like dethroning the king, sending him to the netherworld, and claiming the land for themselves…The usual stuff.
“So they approached Lord Vishnu, one of the three mightiest gods, the thrimurthis. Vishnu heard them out, and promised to do something.”
At this point, Malu made slight alterations to the story.She did not like to believe that Lord Vishnu, her favourite among all the Gods, would do what he eventually did, just to appease some jealous immortals with serious complexes.No, he was too much of a man for that.There had to be a greater, more benevolent, reason! So Malu clung to a more acceptable version of the story she had once heard or read somewhere.
“Mahabali was a great guy, but his sons had not inherited his benevolence.Lord Vishnu feared that after Mahabali’s time, when his sons took over, they would reduce the land to nothing.He had to do something before that, so he intervened.”
That sounded like a reasonable enough explanation.
“So Lord Vishnu took the form of Vamanan, a dwarf Brahmin, and came to Mahabali’s court to ask him for three feet of land.No one refused a Brahmin anything. And Mahabali, who did not refuse anybody anything, told Vamanan to measure out the land he wanted and take it.The prudent men of his court suspected foul play and tried to stop him, but Mahabali, wise as the sages, knew his time was up. So he decided to play along.” After all, it was Lord Vishnu himself who had come for him!
“Vamanan the dwarf then grew so tall that the first foot he measured out covered the earth. The second encompassed the skies, and there was nowhere left to place the third foot.So Mahabali bowed down and asked Vamanan to place it on his head.
“Mahabali was thus sent to the netherworld. He asked for only one thing in return – that he should be allowed to return to his beautiful land once a year to visit his ‘children’. Since then, every year, his subjects welcomed their beloved king in the happiest way possible, regardless of the religion they followed. They made beautiful flower carpets in front of their houses through the ten days of the festival, and on the tenth day made the traditional feast, sadya, in his honour.” Malu was also writing for posterity.
Malu enjoyed preparing the flower bed in front of the old tharavadu – the family house where she lived with her mother and aunt – although growing up had curtailed most of the fun.When she was younger, she used to get up early in the morning and join her brothers – though she was an only child, she had plenty of cousins – and a few other children from the neighbourhood to pick flowers from anywhere they could. Roadsides, fences, temples, even other people’s back- and front-yards. Malu firmly refused to call that ‘stealing’ – it was every child’s solemn duty to gather as many flowers as they could on Onam days. The end justified the means, as they say.
So they would gather as many flowers as they could, rush back to tharavadu, and share the loot.While sharing, there would be a lot of arguments and fights, but in the end, might was always right.Malu’s brothers had a standing in the group that was unparalleled, so they were never short of flowers.
But now that she was fourteen, her mother refused to let her go with her gang.Added to that was the fact that now this ‘gang’ was almost non-existent – only one of her brothers lived at home; the others had left for big cities in search of jobs.So now she had to make do with the flowers from their own yard, and the supply was limited.
“Oh how I miss the Onams of my childhood!”
She drew a line to indicate that the entry for the day ended there. Then she decorated the margins with flowers and leaves.It was the Onam day entry, after all.
So it goes, my not-so-short story. On and on and on. Like me when I start talking. Do you know that I can talk myself out of anything? Sadness, nostalgia, frustration, anger, broken heart, broken bones… you name it. Ask my family if you don’t believe me. Or my students. In fact, people get worried when I am silent.
And see how I’m already feeling better?
Anyway, here’s wishing you all a very, very soulful Onam. There’s a payasam boiling away on my stove, in case you’re interested.
I woke up to those words. They were there, inside the warm sheets, hovering between me and my sleep. Nudging me awake. Gently, persistently. I wish I knew what they meant, those words. I wish I could read dreams.
But then, I don’t remember dreaming of dragonflies. I just remember the words. And they didn’t come in my dreams. They woke me up.
This morning, there are dragonflies in the air. Just words. Without a speaker or a context.
When I was a child, I remember my mother peering at the heavy, grey-green-and-brown sky above our front yard and telling me: See how dragonflies are flying low? It’s going to rain! Come inside! And I would stand there, looking up at them, listening to their glassy wings, waiting for the rain. Wondering whether they were flying low because it was going to rain, or it was going to rain because they were flying low.
This morning, there are dragonflies in the air.
But I’m in a city now. A desert city. In the summer. With a pale, cloudless, dragonflyless sky stretched endlessly outside my window. High above the sand, the cars, the buildings and the few brave trees. Out of reach of us, little people. There are no dragonflies in the air. Never been.
In my living room, a painting. The result of a six-hour lesson on acrylic painting years ago. Where everything is a deep blue. The water, the sky, the sun, the people… Even the pink of the lotus is blue. In there, just above the flowers are a couple of dragonflies. Blue ones.
It’s summer, like I said. It has been for a while. Like forever.
Daylight peeps in through the closed curtains of my bedroom at around 4:30 or so, forces its way in through my eyelids, prising them apart. I remember one of my boys doing that when he was a baby. ‘Mma, are you sleeping? he would ask, peering closely into my eyes. (Who was it? Appu or Adu? Or both? Funny – I can’t recall now. I can only recall the tiny fingers holding my eyelids open.) Of course I’m not, I’d reply, and pretend to listen. As if I wasn’t dying to go back to sleep.
Well, summer days are like that too – persistent, and childishly inconsiderate. I fight it for up to an hour sometimes. And then I give in. Do I have a choice, really?
Standing in front of the mirror with my mouth full of toothpaste foam, I pick off a long(ish), silver hair from my pale purple housecoat. Whose is this now? I frown. And how did it come here? Then I realise it’s mine. Ah well. I’ll get used to it, eventually.
Madam, aren’t you colouring your hair? The young girl in the salon asks me each time I go for a hair cut or a head massage. (The latter is my vice, indulgence, and sin.)
I smile the same smile each time, and reply the same reply. No, thank you.
But Madam, it’s turning white. She lifts a lock of hair from my right temple with the hairbrush and holds it up for me in the mirror. See?
I know. And that’s okay. I continue smiling.
But why? You’ll look old! Her face is a mask of concern.
Because I am old! I reply, without letting the smile falter. At least, old enough for a few grey hairs.
She looks at me sympathetically, even tries to comfort me. For growing old, for having grey hair, and for giving in to both without a fight. You should colour your hair, Madam. Really you should. You’ll look and feel younger.
I don’t want to hurt her feelings. She means well. So I tell her things like how I tend to be sloppy with things. Not very regular, you know what I mean? And white roots would look so bad, no?
That she understands. Hmm. She nods thoughtfully. You should come more regularly, Madam. After forty, it’s important that you look after yourself…. She goes on to suggest a maintenance regime that, if followed properly, is sure to keep me looking at least ten years younger than I am, no matter what my age is.
I nod earnestly and ask the right questions. And get educated answers.
I’ve learned from experience that I shouldn’t try to tell her that I truly don’t mind. Not my grey hair, not my wrinkles – nothing except the weight that tends to pile up at odd places in my body. That in fact, I consider each passing year an achievement of sorts. See, I’ve lasted. Despite everything. To see my hair turning silver. Yaay!
Roopsha had come home the other day. Auntie, you should try colouring your hair – some blue highlights or something, she suggested. I’ve been telling my mother too. She would, of course. Petite, and exactly half my age, she looks lovely with pink and blue highlights on her short, straight hair.
I have to admit though, I’m not totally averse to the idea. Maybe I’ll live to be old (and bold) enough to try it out. Because growing older is, among other things, liberating. See how I wear turquoise nail polish these days? I wouldn’t have dreamt of it even a year back. And I’ve started sporting an anklet too, for good measure.
I go to the kitchen and pull out my chair. That’s where my morning writing happens. In my tiny kitchen, sitting on my tiny green wooden chair. The one that Adu outgrew some eleven years ago. With the Mac balanced on the wooden cutting board. All the other rooms, including the living room, have sleeping bodies in them that I don’t have the heart to disturb. But the kitchen, now that’s my sole domain. At that time of the day.
fI can’t begin to tell you how it feels when I resume my morning walk after a break. The moment I put on my trekking boots (yes, trekking boots, no less. I’m ambitious!), I begin to feel slimmer, fitter and positiver, and by the time I’m half way round the park, I’m light of foot and heart, never mind the fact that I have to take shin-nursing breaks every so often.
Now, you might ask why, if my morning walks elate me to this extent, can’t I just do it regularly. I’ve also asked myself the same question, and arrived at a rather humbling set of reasons for not doing so.
For one thing, I’m by default a not-very-disciplined person. I have to pep-talk myself up to do anything (beyond brushing my teeth) on a regular basis. Come on girl, you’ve four mouths to feed, so up! There there! You’re a decent cook – you know that. Now cook. The sooner you get over with it, the better it is for you.You can go back to living your life… And so on and so forth.
We are talking about a good day here.
Now add to that a body (and a mind) that is heading towards that inevitable Pause. You know the one I mean: Me-No-Pause. When your body acquires a mind of its own, one that has nothing to do with your real mind. Your real mind as in the one you suspect you’re quietly losing. Because your mind also has now developed its own separate mind, which looks at reason and logic with total disdain.
It’s chaos, I tell you. Ask anyone who’s going through it.
To cut the long story short, there are days when I give in to the diktats of my body, and then there are days when I triumph over it. Today was the latter kind of day.
When I stepped out of our apartment building at 5:51 AM, it was already light. But the roads were thankfully empty; in another 20 minutes, it would be impossible to cross them without dodging at least a dozen yellow buses, among other things.
I like to keep my songs on ‘shuffle’ when I walk – the sheer unpredictability of what the next song would be is fun. I could be listening to uff teri ada… one moment, and the next minute it could be suttrum vizhi chudar thaan, Kannamma… or anuraagathin velayil… And that’s cool with me.
I don’t remember if I had discussed this earlier, but in my world, there are three types of songs. There’s the kind you don’t want anywhere near you. If you happen to come across one, you just pluck it out of your sound space and put it away. Switch channels, turn off, run away – whatever it takes.
Then there’s the second type that just plays in the background without fuss. You don’t mind having it around because it doesn’t move, touch or demand. Nor does it jar your senses to the extent that the earlier type does. It’s there in the background, just letting you be, allowing you to carry on with whatever you are doing, quietly lending rhythm to your steps… The sweet, nice type.
It’s the third type you need to watch out for, however. The kind that grabs your arm, laces its fingers through yours, looks you deeply in the eyes… And you’re lost! Try to walk away from lag jaa gale… and you will understand what I mean. It’s the kind that possesses you.
Anyway, coming back to the walk, today I decided to go round the park in the clock-wise direction as against the regular anti-clockwise rotation. Not merely out of a sense of adventure (for want of a better term), but also because I was still vaguely wary. Of being accosted by another couple of friendly-looking ladies who would try to talk me into preparing for the Judgment Day (with capital J and D). It’s rather tiring to make them understand that it’s today I’m worried about, not some vague apocalyptic future.
There were also two Gulmohar trees in full bloom that I wanted to take photos of, both more accessible from this route. So I walked my walk to the the songs that were playing, stopping every so often to take pictures of gulmohar, frangipani and neem, reveling in the utter loveliness of an early summer morning.
My usual exercise corner was occupied by a serious yoga enthusiast, mat and all, so I quietly did my juvenile drills trying to keep as low a profile as possible. If he did notice me, he was kind enough not to laugh – and that’s something. I took the more meandering route around the park, and then walked out of the gates.
Past the sleepy children who were waiting for their buses and their sleepy parents waiting with them. Past the groups of office-goers waiting for their staff vans to pick them up, and past the cars waiting for the school buses to pass. Shedding with each stride the accumulated weight of long, long days.
The simple, simple pleasures of life. On a summer morning.
*Kalyani, who occasionally comes over to help me with cleaning, always looks as if she is just an inch away from bursting into laughter. And despite having known her for just a few days, we have shared quite a few laughs.
Like the time when she recounted how, after she cleaned a bathroom, the owner was so overwhelmed that he kept marveling at how she managed to make it sparkle like that. “I told him it’s all about experience – like any other job!” And bursts out laughing.
Did I say that her laughter is infectious? Well, it is.
“Twenty-seven years of cleaning experience, madam. No small thing, is it?” I nod in agreement.
Kalyani is thirty-seven – started working at ten, madam! – and a proud mother to her 21-year-old college-going son.
“What!?” I must have heard wrong. “How old were you when you had him then?”
“Seventeen, madam. The nurses who attended to my delivery threatened to complain to the police for marrying off a minor,” she laughs again. I can’t.
“So at what age did you get married? Sixteen?”
She shakes her head slowly. “Fourteen.” To a man twice her age.
Her father was an alcoholic, and an abusive one at that. The mother had to marry off the daughters early for their own well-being.
“And your husband? Is he in India?”
“He died. Brain tumor, madam.”
“I was twenty-one when he died.”
Married at fourteen, a mother at seventeen, and widowed by twenty-one.
“I couldn’t sleep for six months…” She stops smiling. “Kept thinking about — Things… That affected my health…”
After that, she continued working in houses, earning money to send her son to school. “My husband’s last wish was that. Neither you nor I could study, Kalyani. But you send our son to school. Give him a good education. But when he reached higher classes, I needed more money to pay his fees and all that.”
There were people ready to marry her, of course. One of them asked her how much money her late husband had left her. “I threw him out of the house! And then I thought, it’s better if I just take care of my son, madam. Live my life as Kannayya’s wife, you understand?”
Somebody advised her that working abroad will fetch her more money, so she got herself a passport and entered the country through an agency that provides cleaning staff to companies.
The agency still takes two-thirds of her salary as their commission, and gives her the rest.
“But why can’t you request your company to give you a visa? That way you don’t have to pay the agency!”
“They would have given me if I had completed tenth grade, Madam. But I got married when I was in eighth. And did not study after that.”
Kalyani’s son is now studying to be an aviation mechanical engineer. “He’s very good, madam. Passed his 10th grade with 94% marks! Plays the drums, guitar… O-grades in art, and a state level athlete.” She beams with pride.
“Two more years for him to complete his studies. I will hold on, somehow. After that, once he has a good job, I will go back. Then I won’t have to work… He will get married… And I will just look after my grandchildren…”
Her wide eyes are dreamy. Mine are moist.
Kalyani, here’s my heartfelt Mother’s Day wishes: May all your dreams come true! Every single one of them.
Today is the seventh day of my 7-day marathon writing. As days go, however, today has not been a productive one: words seem to elude me. So I’ll just share what my immensely talented brother-in-law, Mani Menon, had commented when he saw my posts:
Mini, since Dubai is the common thread running in your musings, I thought you might be interested in what I have to post here…
Yes, I am, Manietta. I am a sucker for stories. Especially the ones that start with ‘Long long ago…’
Long long ago, in May 1970 to be precise, my parents, sis and I had gone on a sort of a whistle stop tour of some cities in Europe and New York in the US. As my dad had been employed with Air India, the trip was free! We had flown to Geneva on our first port of call from Santa Cruz Airport in a Boeing 707. Not being a long haul jet airliner, she had to land in two airports along the way.
The first had been a place that appeared to have been established in the middle of an ocean of glistening blinding sand. The airport was a nondescript structure with a few stalls selling magazines, tea, coffee, ice cream etc. After a stop of 30 odd minutes, we were off.
A few seconds into the air, the air hostess—as the cabin attendants were then called—had announced, “Those seated on the right side side of the cabin, can look out and see the township of Dubai.” Yes!! the word used was ‘township’. My mom and I had craned and looked down. Sure enough, there was a road flanked by buildings that had been erected purely to be functional. None of them could be described as a skyscraper!
Even after all these years, when I see or read about yet another dazzling skyscraper coming up in Dubai, my thoughts go back to that sultry May in 1970, when we had ‘visited’ this place…
The township of Dubai! Buried under a trillion giga-tonnes of chrome and glass. All this? Only sand, Madam! Long, long ago…
Dubai cabs have some of the most interesting stories behind their steering wheels. Stories young, middle-aged and overdue for retirement. Stories on 12-hour shifts, that try to dodge peak-hour traffic and avoid fines. Stories of hope, despair, nostalgia, regret and everything in between. Lonely stories, waiting to be told.
A man from Afghanistan told me once about his haveli up in the mountains. About the hundred family members who co-exist within its walls in relative harmony, along with cows, goats, horses and hunting dogs. I could not but write about it. I remember how a writer friend of mine had been incredulous – she shared her own story of a rather stressful early morning encounter. But then, personal experiences are just the luck of the draw, ultimately.
I would get into a cab, and typically, we would reach the second or third roundabout from home, get stuck in the traffic, and then inch our way forward. Either the cabbie or I would mutter something about the traffic, reach the consensus that Dubai traffic (or the driver who unexpectedly changed lanes without warning, as the case may be) is our common enemy. A minute later, he would ask:
Aap India se hain?
On more than one occasion, the next response has been ‘India ke log acche hote hain.’ Elsewhere India and Pakistan might be baring teeth and snarling at each other… Biting off large chunks of each other (I’m all for euphemisms) for that matter. But not here, not today.
Aur aap? Peshawar?
Then he would ask me ifI worked. Yes, I do, I would say. I write and teach.And wait for the warmth level in the taxi to go up. I am an aurat with taleem, and a teacher at that! The finest kind of human being there is, purely by default.
He would then adjust the mirror to catch my eye, and we would begin our conversation.
Aap ke bachhe hain?
I would tell them about my boys. How old they are, what they do. Then he would ask me if I don’t have daughters. I would say no, and he would shake head in pity.
I would agree with him. Then he would tell me about his daughters and sons back home – either with a smile, or with a sigh. About what they were currently doing, and how much he missed them. And so on and so forth.
When we part ways, it is usually as life-long friends.
Only once had I been told off by a cabbie for being an educated woman who earned a living. None of his three wives back home would dare to do that, nor would his daughters. Hamare yahan auratein ghar sambhalte hain, ji! Because you see, he was a marad who didn’t rely on his women for money.
I did try to convert him to feminism all the way to the airport, but he just sneered at me.
The man who took me to Business Bay Metro Station, on the other hand, was coming back from seeing his daughter off at the airport. In the three decades he had driven a cab here, he had seen a lot.All this, he pointed at the skyscrapers on Sheikh Zayed Road, only sand, madam. No building. And with his earnings, the proud father had educated his three sons and two daughters. Including the youngest, a medical doctor, who had come to Dubai for an interview. Inshahallah she get job, madam. She too good! Too good!
There was this man from – was it Timbuktu or Sudan, I can’t recall – who loved Tamil songs, and another from Lahore who spoke a few sentences in ‘Keral’. It took me a minute to understand that he was asking me, in my own language, if I had lunch.
The young man who recently drove me home from City Centre told me in a matter-of-fact tone that very often tourists asked him where they could find ‘good women’. Of course he knew where – it was hard not to. But he did not think it was right to do ‘that kind of thing’, so he usually said he did not know. Though that was just his personal point of view – he had nothing against his colleagues who did. Everybody had to live.
Then there was another young man – he was twenty-two at the time I met him, the same age as Appu was back then – who told me about his village in Peshawar where each house was built like a fortress, complete with watchtowers, for safety. They slept with machine guns within arm’s reach because you never knew when you needed to use it.
He also told me about how his village had so many fatherless children and young women who were practically outcasts. The Taliban just took whomever they wanted – and when they were no longer wanted, they were brought back to the village and left there. If they were lucky, that is.
Yes, Dubai cabs have a million stories that sometimes go off to exhausted sleep at the steering wheel. Stories that long to go back home, but can’t – for whatever reason. Instead, they roam the streets, looking for a willing ear.
Today was going to be my Taxi Tales day. Because, as I was saying, there are so many I’ve collected, and I’m bursting to tell them. But it has been a very long day, and I’m too tired now to string two decent thoughts together. And then there is all the excitement about my newly acquired turquoise nail polish – a gift from Juhi – that is making me look at my fingernails every so often, wondering momentarily whose they are. The fingernails I mean.
You see, I’m usually more conservative with my nail polish. But what the heck – YOLO, as Aditya used to make fun of me, back when he was just a strapping lad. Now he’s almost seventeen, you see.
So I’m cheating. I’m using my turquoise-tipped fingers to copy-paste something I’d jotted down one glum morning a few weeks ago. A morning when the earth and the sky were glum, as were me and my thoughts.
a sky with dark circles
under the eyes
brushing off last night’s dreams
from her clothes
the moon biting her fingernails
for the sun who wandered away
lost in borrowed thoughts
a desert hungry for words
that fall on sand and die
That’s where I’d stopped. On that grey-blue morning in the last leg of winter.