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Of Life and Loss and the Evolution of Grief

It’s that time of the year when something inside you becomes heavier and slows you down.  Not in an unpleasant way, but like your body does after a long, hard evening walk. You look for a bench to relax for a bit, knowing well that you’ll soon get up and get moving. There’s a mild sense of achievement as you sit down, face flushed, still slightly panting, feeling the sweat trickle down your throat and back.

And you look back on the path that took you through yet another year.

You see vistas of sand flanked by concrete buildings, you see cranes sticking out of half-made buildings like skeletal hands reaching out for the skies. Didn’t you hear the earth groan as you passed? You see the workers who were squatting on the ground outside the forbidding fences designed to keep out prying eyes, waiting for un-airconditioned buses to come and pick them up. Exhaustion drawn over them like a blanket, their collective silence punctuated by low conversations and brave attempts at hilarity.  What awaited them at the other end of the journey was no lovers’ meeting – just cramped bedspaces in a camp in some forgotten corner of the city. (Forgotten is not the word perhaps, because, those are the places we head to when we feel the urge to do good deeds.) There they would wait in line to wash their bodies and clothes, pray or not, cook in turns, eat, hold conversations over the din of TV, and fall into exhausted sleep.

You look back on the impatient cars inching their way through the congealed traffic, at the taxis with worried, tired cabbies talking to any willing ear about the prohibitive traffic fines. Madam, my eyes filled up this time when I opened the salary slip – I was hoping to send something home at least this month… My wife has been struggling, really, but–  Past the tired and hopeful faces of those waiting at bus stops, past young couples pushing their babies in prams, past the mosque-goers on their way to Maghrib. Past the tall gates of the park, on the treelined walkway, and around the lake, dodging other walkers, runners, bikers and stray cats,  inhaling the fragrance of marigold mixed with a hint of manure…

You are now thankful for the bench you managed to secure – under the streetlamp, facing the lake. A couple of feet away from the stray cat that is still contemplating the possibilities you hold. Watching the pink and blue and green and white lights of lifetimes lived – yours and others’ – undulating peacefully on the water, as if the chasm beneath did not exist. And you give in to the urge to give in, to wrap yourself in the mild, lingering melancholy of another late December evening. You sit back and sigh.

Really, what do you have to complain about?

I’m grateful for each passing year that has been granted to me. Truly. It’s a gift that so many are deprived of.

For no reason, I’m thinking of my cousin who had passed away when he was much younger than I am today (young being a relative term). He was among the closest I had to a brother, yet we had grown apart. Until that day when, from two ends of a phone line, we promised each other that we’d meet up for sure the next time he came down. Because I am his little sister, and don’t I ever forget that. No matter what differences we might have, we are family.

A few months later, when his body went home in a refrigerated box, I was not there. I mourned for him deeply from inside the walls of the small room in this desert city that I was barely getting used to. But what I mourned for was my loss. I lost a brother, a very very vital part of my childhood, my life. My brother whom I lost before I could–

Grief can be extremely selfish.

Today, years later, I still grieve for him. Not in a guilt-ridden, debilitating way, but as a fleeting, momentary sadness – a small white cloud at the corner of the sky that disappears as quietly as it appears. Today it is for him that I grieve, for what he lost.

My brother, I wish you had lived. Long enough to experience the luxury of growing older. Of watching your hair turn grey (though knowing you, you’d have reached out for the bottle of hair dye at the first glimpse of it). Of discovering that peaceful space within yourself…

We could have sat on the porch of your old house and laughed about our childhood antics. Remember the time when you–? We could shake our heads and smile knowingly as we watch our children walk through life as if it was something infinite, to be taken with utmost seriousness…

I still miss you, you know. At times. 

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I don’t know why I’m thinking of him today, now, in this December morning when the mist outside has all but hidden the buildings across. I did not start out with the intention of writing about him! I was going to take a look at the year that was. I was going to contemplate on my own journey: the books I read, the people I met, the lessons I learned. I was going to talk about my writing – complete and incomplete, the teaching projects I have taken on, my students who are my dopamine.

I was going to talk about my ever-lengthening bucket list…

Instead, here I am, writing about life and loss and the evolution of grief. Maybe it’s time I stopped. I can start again, on another December morning. There’s a weekful of them left anyway.

 

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Atlas of a Master Storyteller

As a child, the high point of my life used to be the storytelling sessions we had during summer vacations. When Preetha, Praveenchettan, Pramod, Rajesh, Dinesh and I gathered around Jagdish (or Jagguettan, as we call him; our eldest cousin on my father’s side), listening in rapt silence to the stories he told us. No one, but no one, told a story like he did.

In a matter of minutes, he could make the walls of the small side room in Krishna Vihar disappear. And I would be standing on an unpaved street in the Wild West, watching Clint Eastwood enter, eyes screwed up against the sun, a cigar dangling from the side of his mouth… I would see his hat and poncho, his black horse, the taunting menNow he is taking out his gun and— Dhishkyaun! My heart would jump to my mouth even as the bad guys lay dead on the ground. Jagguettan could, with the same ease, take me to a studio in the Greenwich Village where Jhonsy would be looking out of the window and counting the leaves on the ivy vine opposite. And when Sue revealed Behrman’s masterpiece, my eyes would sting with tears too embarrassed to flow out.

Jagguettan, with his endless supply of stories, trivia and comic books, used to be my hero.  This, despite the fact that he had once declared me dead, while showing me how to find the pulse point on my wrist. After probing my then-skinny wrist for a good minute, he let go of it with a shake of his head. “No pulse,” he informed. “You’re dead!”

***

Growing up deprives you of a lot. For one, it takes you far away from cousins who tell stories. And when life decides its time for you to grow up, it comes at your bubble with a sledgehammer. All you can do is to quietly fold and pack the broken pieces of your childhood and stow them out of sight – in the farthest corner of your heart. Then you turn to books, a small part of you forever seeking your master storyteller between their pages. In hope.

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Then one day, another lifetime or so later, comes a book. “I saw the home of a god at latitude 28º28′ south and longitude 105º21′ west — a deserted rock crowded with seabirds far, far out in the Pacific,”  it begins. Your ears perk up. That voice – you know it! You’ve heard it before, in an almost-forgotten past. You read on, now eager, hopeful. And as the “…wave-battered, treeless, bush-less cliffs devoid of fresh water, grass, flowering plants and moss” unfurl before you, you realise with a thrill that it’s him, your Great Storyteller. You’ve found him again, inside the covers of this magical book titled ‘Atlas of an Anxious Man’.

You are, once again, that wide-eyed child standing at the open gates of wonderland. 

As Christoph Ransmayr begins each story with “I saw…”, I see what he saw. I see people – living, dying and long-dead. I see oceans, islands, rainforests and polar ice caps. Icy peaks, salmon-filled rivers and volcanic lakes. Abandoned graveyards, sunken ships, and remains of ancient civilizations. I hear batwings, birdsongs, and five laughing men. And sometimes, as when I see “an empty park bench, one of three on the market square beside the wrought-iron fence of the adjacent apothecary garden in the village of Lambach in Upper Austria,” my eyes fill up.

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Christoph Ransmayr*

Translated by Simon Pare for Seagull Books, the note in the jacket modestly describes Atlas of an Anxious Man as a ‘unique account that follows (its author) across the globe’. I would rather call it a book of stories. Stories woven out of Ransmayr’s experiences as an involved observer of people, places and events. Stories of love, grief, courage, heartbreak and lasting hope. Narrated as if to a group of close friends gathered around the fireplace on a cold evening.

The text inside the gorgeous jacket designed by Sunandini Banerjee is lyrical. It meanders unhurriedly through the many geographies Ransmayr has visited, pausing every so often to admire a garden or a graveyard, talk to its keeper, or listen to the sound of a sheepdog barking at a distance. The journey that starts from that first barren island 3,200 kilometres off the Chilian coast continues in no particular order across oceans, islands, mountains and continents, across treeless hillsides and tropical rainforests, across countrysides, cities and suburbs, until it reaches its lofty destination. As if the author is opening his atlas at random pages to shows us what he saw there.

“This crater, riven by erosion and tectonics, and half collapsed, resembled a skewed cauldron whose contents – a small house with a corrugated-iron roof, animal sheds, a barn and, above all, bellowing cattle and skin and bone horses on stony, black pastures – were about to be tipped into the sea. The cauldron’s lower rim lay so close to the surf that it was flecked again and again with flakes of spray whereas the upper edge of the crater faded away high above the breakers into scudding patches of fog.”

And I see it all. Every little thing.

Geography, however, is just one facet – albeit an intensely alive one – of this gem. There is also history, anthropology, politics, biology and astronomy. Philosophy too, among other things, woven intricately into the narrative by this master craftsman. Ultimately, Atlas of an Anxious Man is about human beings, as they come.

“I saw the dark, sweaty face of the fisherman Ho Doeun on a stormy November night in Phnom Penh. The capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia was celebrating the water festival that night. Ho was kneeling on the bank of the Mekong, under the sparkling bouquets of fireworks whose flaming arches and bridges of light spanned the river for two or three heartbeats before fading away in a thundering spectacle of colour.”

What makes this book so exceptional to me, however, is the silken thread of compassion that runs through the length of its narrative. There is no judgment – none at all. The man who narrates these stories has already made his peace with vagaries, both human and otherwise. He is merely telling us what he saw, heard, felt and remembered.

“…an autumn bird no longer really had to impress anyone very much. It sang, when it sang, more for itself than for or against another bird.”

And if I feel a lingering sense of melancholy after turning the last page, it could be because the afterglow has lit up some forgotten corners of my soul – where the wait for the next Great Storyteller has resumed.

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Khasakkinte Ithihasam: an epic of forgotten dialects

Among the many items I had left behind of my childhood are some dialects. About half a dozen of them, in fact. Very peculiar to the times, micro-geographies and cultures of the places I grew up in. Dialects that smelled of green fields and steaming paddy. Of cow-dung, rain and persistent anxiety. Of palm-trees and claustrophobia of the wide open spaces, and a loneliness that stuck to your clothes like yellow, gluey mud you scratched off the sides of the lotus pond.

“Enthinaanu thambraatti agiranathu? Namma ippo veettilethoolle?”

At the time I’d not even noticed the peculiarity of the lingo in which almost every vowel sound began and ended with the close-mid sound of ‘ɘ’. It was just a part of the landscape, like the greenness of the field or the blueness of the mountain, like the humid heat and the dark, lean bodies with their stench of sweat.

I’d just nod, not really sure why my eyes had filled up in the first place. Was I missing home or was I anxious about reaching it? I still don’t know.

Somewhere along the way, I made a choice – that of selective memory. Which meant that I let go of a lot of my childhood, including its dialects. I chose my memories in the order of their sunshine, and wove my narrative around them. I carefully picked the vocabulary, tone, and semantics of all the languages and their variations that had flowed past me, and created my own lingo. So now I have a set of streamlined memories that I can look back on and smile, and a language that rarely prods sleeping dogs. Malayalam with a hint of Tamil, which could have originated anywhere between the banks of the Nila and the blue shadows of Western Ghats. Liberally peppered with the English of all those cities I have lived, loved and read in.

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Perhaps that was why rereading Khasakkinte Ithihasam (Legends of Khasak) was like a punch in the gut.

True. Like any self-respecting Malayali teenager with intellectual aspirations (pretensions?), I too had read O.V. Vijayan’s epic while still in school. But what I had never admitted to anyone was that most of what was in there had flown right past me without leaving a dent. I had understood little, and I remembered even less. When people spoke so highly of it, I would nod in agreement, embarrassed that I had nothing to contribute to the conversation.

The other day, while browsing through the collection in a tiny DC Books store in Karama, I picked up Khasakkinte Ithihasam again. A burst of enthusiasm triggered as much by the prices, as by the cover illustration. And of course, sheer curiosity.  What is in there that has triggered so much dialogue for so many decades?

Life comes back to where it started – in one way or the other. The world I had eased myself out of enveloped me again like a quagmire, oozing out of the 168 pages of the O.V. Vijayan’s classic novel. Only now, with almost half a century of life behind me, there is no way I can escape the vagaries of Khasak.

There is little I can say about the book that has not been said before.

Ravi is familiar – a young, literate, well-read man from a reasonably well-to-do family in the throes of existential crisis. The quintessential protagonist of Malayalam literature of the time. I have met him in various forms and names between the pages of the many novels I have read. Vijayan, however, does not make any concessions for Ravi unlike some other ‘heroes’ of that era. He is what he is by choice. Or compulsion – take your pick. But the last thing he needs is your sympathy.

What Vijayan narrates, however, is not Ravi’s story – it is the history of Khasak in all its myriad yet dark hues. Madhavan Nair, Appukkili, Mollakka, Nijaamali, Mymoona, Chandumma, Kunjaamina…. the list of Khasak’s children is endless, and each one plays a vital role in taking the narrative forward. Even the ghosts, gods and folklore of Khasak are living, breathing entities in Vijayan’s eerily familiar world, as real as it is imaginary. A world that is raw, primal and open to the elements.

Which, like life, brings me back to where I started – the dialect. It was the Malayalam that Vijayan has chosen for his epic that took me by the scruff of my neck. And it dropped me right in the middle of a world that I had safely stayed away from for decades. A very Khasak-like universe where a third of my memories (because my idea of ‘home’ was split three-ways during my growing up years) are set in.

“Ootareelu Jayettande padau odunundu. Namukku puggua thambraa?”

Pazhanimala would tether the bullocks to the cart and we would go to the theatrein Oottarawith its thatched roof and stained screen to watch Jayan seducing married women with his pecs and biceps. Mutton biriyani from Rahmania Hotel after, and a return journey under the starry, starry sky, with the tinkle of little brass bells lulling me to sleep…

If all was well that is.

A stray memory that drifted in.

There is a Khasak napping inside me, like there is in so many others. And it has now become restless.

Every good prose, I feel, has poetry running through it like a golden thread. It is there in a turn of phrase, a line that you want to utter out loud. Poetry lingers like melancholy in Vijayan’s writing, woven into the harsh overtones of its vernacular, adding to its poignancy, its earthy shadows. Touching you in a way that only poetry can.

If the hallmark of good literature is to disturb the reader, to shake them out of complacency, then it’s little wonder that Khasakkinte Ithihasam continues to revive and thrive, decade after decade.

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Found: Some Green, Early-summer Words

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.

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07/05/2017

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. 

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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.

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Some Onam Thoughts

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Image courtesy: Google

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–

Miss what?

Oh, so many things!

Like?

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?

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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.

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Dragonflies in the Air

This morning, there are dragonflies in the air.

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.

This morning, there are dragonflies in the air.

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Grey Hair and Turquoise Nail Polish

 

Sunrise
The view from my kitchen

 

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.

And so I begin. My summer day. 

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Hygge and the Summer

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It’s my twelfth summer here, in the UAE. And just like the eleven earlier ones, this summer too is a living, fire-breathing entity that has me in its vice grip, and doesn’t let go. I have to prise it off finger by finger, and if I slack for a moment in between, those sizzling hands will clamp over my temples again, pressing against my thoughts, choking them. There is no getting used to, I realise, when it comes to summer in the desert.

But I’m being self-indulgent here, talking about I, me and myself yet again. I, who is sitting inside a reasonably comfortable apartment and making a reasonable (though it could have been much better, certainly) living doing what I enjoy doing. There is running water, electricity and all other basic amenities that one could wish for. And more than anything else, I have my family with me. My children, my husband. Some friends and family… Each of which is a luxury, denied to many. Here, in this desert.

I’m grateful. Immensely.

A few months ago, Appu and I were discussing the Danish word Hygge which Christina had sent me when she was in Denmark as an exchange student. I was her English teacher back in 2007-08 when she was a mere eighth grader. Now she is all grown up and travelling between continents, but she still finds it in her to gift me interesting words and flavoured tea. Teachers are, by the very nature of our profession, privileged.

I’m digressing. I was talking about hygge.

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“We should consider something like that for our summers, ‘Mma,” Appu suggested while we were discussing the way Danes prepare themselves for winter. We decided vaguely that we would make our indoors cozy enough to beat the summer-induced depression, listlessness and claustrophobia – those unfortunate traits which both he and Adu, my younger one, have inherited (to a lesser degree) from me.

So this summer, the boys and I have managed to keep a house that we wouldn’t actively want to leave for the great, searing, blinding outdoors. And this summer, the green in our balcony, though dusty and sometimes tinged at the edges with brown, has so far survived the 40+ degree (Celsius, mind you!) temperature. My plants are standing up straight – or however they are supposed to stand.

Pigeons and sparrows still visit, though unlike last year, they have chosen not to build nests among my plants to lay eggs. Procreation must be the last thing on their mind, given the heat. But they are still territorial. Very much so. The other day, an errant mynah came to steal the tender leaves of our equally errant mango sapling, and little miss pigeon mercilessly drove her off, sputtering with rage.

You can’t blame her for getting angry, really. There are times when I wish I could make a huge fuss like she did, and get my point across to whoever it should. And there are so many inhuman beings I would like to bite a chunk off and drive away from my world as she had done.

No, I don’t mean the ones who come to steal a leaf from my balcony. I mean those other faceless people. Like the ones who have printed that ugly (and I use the word with great deliberation here) massage centre card we found on the pavement, while walking to the supermarket. The one with the picture of an innocent looking adolescent girl on it. How can you sell your services using her? She’s just a child! I want to scream. At somebody. 

I shudder at the thought of those other faceless people; the ones who pick up that card and dial those numbers. And I feel angry that those who should feel angry and can do something about it, but don’t. Angry. And impotent.

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Then there is this young man who comes to clean my apartment. The latest in a row of people who have come and gone in the past few months because of some visa-related issue or the other. This young man is polite, minds his own business, and does a fantastic job of cleaning. For the first time, even our fans are sparkling. Well, almost. And then a week ago, Appu told me that he is a graduate, and holds an MBA degree. He is looking for a job, and has so far been unable to find one. So he has taken up the current position until he finds one that will pay him better than this one does.

I feel angry. At a system that is making someone who is better educated than me clean my house. But if I replace him, he will lose even the paltry sum he is currently earning, which is infinitely worse. I tell him to bring his CV so we can update it and send it ahead. He says he has it in his email and will take it out for me tomorrow. We will do it, I assure him, knowing that I’m powerless to do anything much. I feel angry. At myself. Angry and impotent.

The same feeling I have when I read about what’s happening in my country. When I think of how Shobha, Alex and Nazar have become Hindu, Christian and Muslim respectively. How homo sapiens have become disposable commodity based on colour, creed, bank balance and political leanings. Impossibly, impotently angry.

Pause. Take deep breaths. Count till ten. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 8.20.20 PMComing back to hygge – or my version of zen. So I have decluttered my minuscule kitchen and streamlined the cooking process down to a seamless, easy one that I finish before nine in the morning. I have jars full of all kinds of Mini-made curry/spice powders which I whip out proudly at the drop of a hat. I also have time to write, socialise via (the social) media, and have long and utterly pointless conversations with the boys. I even sing aloud despite my complete tonelessness.

I was singing ‘Beat it!’ yesterday evening while we were cooking pasta. “Amma, you know why you don’t drink?” asked Aditya the Wise. He was referring to one of the items on my wish-list that I keep talking about: to get punch drunk one day.

“Why?” I paused to ask him.

“Because you don’t need to. You’re on a high even without it. If your health is fine, and you’re not worrying yourself sick, that is.”

Ah, well.

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Yesterday I saw some lovely green moss in a flower shop. The young Filipino manning the counter told me I could buy it only as a box, for a hundred dirhams. Collected from the mountains of Holland, madam. Very difficult to grow. We don’t sell it loose. Five minutes later, he took pity on my wistfulness (I guess I can do a Puss-in-Boots when push comes to shove) and gave me a handful of them for five dirhams, to try my luck. In return, I have promised to report to him my progress (or not) with growing it.

Google tells me that moss draws moisture from the atmosphere, so I keep spraying water around it every so often. “‘Mma…! Are you trying to choke it death?” asks Appu. I sigh.

Tonight Juhi, Ahmed and Mustafa are coming over for dinner – a mild sort of celebration for something she achieved. Their collective love for my brand of potato stew means that cooking is no sweat. And after that, if there is time, I will have my daily dose of murder and mayhem – in the form of Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

A couple of hours ago, Rachna, who’s on her first vacation from university, gave me Bis gleich, and has promised to come over for tea on Friday. I am planning to serve her something deep-fried and totally unGerman with tea. The joys of teacherhood!

See, summer? I have you all sorted out. The twelfth time round.

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Simple Pleasures of a Summer Morning

f8I 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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.  

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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.  

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