Featured

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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Featured

Of Gods Past and Present

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When I was a child, gods were everywhere.

My mother would spend most of her waking hours with them – chanting prayers, singing hymns, preparing things for pooja or performing it. The pooja room of my tharavad (ancestral home) had a million – or so it seemed – framed images and statues of gods, with the central position given to my mother’s Krishna statue. Our backyard was under the supervision of Ayyappa and the many Sarpas (serpent gods), from whom we often borrowed space to play in the afternoons. 

Our family and its property was remotely protected by goddess Kali; the former by Chitturamma who lived a few kilometres away, and to whom we proclaimed undying slavery every year in the form of a coin placed on a brass sword. Another Amma, who lived in the middle of the paddy fields and demanded an annual pooja, guarded the latter. No one like a mother to take care of her family! 

When we bathed, it was either in the pond that was part of the Krishna temple next door, or the one near the Shiva temple a little further. Either way, a visit to the temple was mandatory at the end of each hour-long bath.

Gods were quite demanding, back then.

Our next door neighbour, as I said, was Krishna (the blue one who played flute and teased women, and was generally a cool dude as gods went). We kids gathered every evening at the temple, gossiped, skipped rope, played hide and seek and giggled at secrets. We prayed too, but mostly in times of emergency; an impending exam, for instance, brought out all our latent piety. 

Whenever we lied or cheated, we would silently appeal to him for forgiveness, swearing that we would never do it again. Until next time.

We would often bribe him too – three extra laps around the temple, two incense sticks, a banana… And most of the time he would oblige. I remember how he breathed life into Amitabh Bachan after his accident on the set of Coolie, just because my friend Vimala had offered to light a whole packet of camphor if he (Amitabh, of course) lived to tell the tale. She had been in tears for days, and as our friend and neighbour, he (Krishna) could not turn his back on her request now, could he? 

Gods were generous, back then.

The nuns in the school I went to – Vijaya Matha Convent English Medium Girls High School, Chittur, the only convent school in the radius of 10 kilometres – brought Jesus and Mary into my life. I remember how I had taken an intense liking to ‘Samayamaam rathathil njaan…’ (little knowing at the time that it was a funeral song) and would sing it at the drop of a hat each time someone asked me to. My pretty PT teacher in grade two was my biggest fan, and the huge smile on her face each time I sang it loud and clear for her used to be my biggest reward. 

We had in our class a girl called Beena who would fast during Ramadan. I secretly admired her determination to not even sip water, though I could not understand why she did it. It used to worry us, her classmates, that she turned all pale and near fainting by the end of each day, and we would be eager to support her in all possible ways. I don’t remember if Shani used to fast, but it was from her that I learned to pronounce Bismillahi Rahimani Rahim properly. I was so proud when she told me that I now knew Qur’an, which was a good thing. 

Gods were good things, back then.

I also remember the metre-tall lunch box that Shani’s mother used to send with the driver every afternoon, from which came out the most divine mutton cutlets and biriyanis I had ever tasted. (My lunch box usually had rice and eggs in varied forms, a meal that got a little unappetising over the years.) The best school lunches in my memory were the ones that Shani, Sheeba and I had shared, sitting on the floor of the landing next to the locked terrace door of the school building. 

Later in college, Nazir would bunk classes till lunch break so he could bring steaming hot pathiri and chicken curry his mother had made for his ‘college gang’. After lunch, we would all gather around Henry listening to him sing ‘Nilaave Vaa…’ for the nth time, good-naturedly indulging our – Honey’s and mine – repeated requests for Tamil songs. I would pester Henry for the meaning of the lyrics, and Praveen, Nazir and Anand would tease me mercilessly for that, chorusing ‘and that means…’ at the end of each line. Subramanian would intervene with words of wisdom and common sense, and all would be well. 

In my Bombay days, I used to seek sanctuary in the pews of St Thomas Cathedral near Flora Fountain on Saturdays after work before heading back to my hostel. My most intimate conversations with god would happen there, below the high-arched ceiling, under the marble eyes of the bas-relief angels that adorned the walls.

One day I admitted to the priest there that I tended to address Jesus as Krishna in my prayers, and he reassured me that He wouldn’t mind. Later, when I told him I was getting married, the elderly Father advised me to make sure that I retain my own individual bank account – not just share one with my future husband. It was important, he told me, that women were financially independent. I folded my hands and bent before him. He drew a cross on his chest and blessed me with closed eyes.

Gods were fluid back then.

They kept us separate, but did not divide.

Then came men with metal rods and plastic bombs. And gods are not the same anymore.

***

Photo: St Thomas Cathedral, Bombay – Marble Bas-relief (courtesy https://playingwithmemories.com)

Seeding – of clouds and other things

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The March sky outside is a paler version of the August sky back home. Like it wants to rain, but is too lazy to.

“They’re seeding clouds again, apparently. So the untimely rains.”

Cloud seeding – I like the term. There’s so much potential to it.

There’s this man – dark, old and wise – who has been doing this for centuries, you see. He has an ancient bamboo basket, a triangular one like an inverted pyramid, woven out of bamboo strips,  filled to the brim with little cumulonimbus seeds. He hitches it on to his waist, and climbs up the beanstalk, all the way to the pale blue sky.  There, he takes handfuls of  those blue-grey seeds and scatters them in the wind.

And then?

The seeds soak up the sky… and grow and grow… Into little cloudlings…  

Or maybe there’s a machine there, which churns out clouds from those seeds. Like cotton candy from sugar granules, you know?

But then, why are they – the cloudlings, I mean –  pale? Slightly bilious?

Maybe these seeds come from genetically modified clouds. Well, maybe not genetically modified, but at least lab-grown. One can’t expect them to have the same thunderous blue-grey as the Zeus variety.

I love fairytales too.

“They use chemicals, don’t they?”

“Salt. At least that’s what I heard.”

Not according to Wikipedia. It lists silver iodide, potassium iodide, dry ice (solid carbon dioxide, no less!) and liquid propane as the chemicals commonly used. A whole lot of iodine, and not a trace of sodium chloride.

Hypothyroidism, anyone? Stand in the rain. P.S. Safe for those with hypertension. 

“What are they trying to do, yaar? Turn this desert into an effing jungle?”

“That would be so cool!”

“Cool…? Well, maybe. But how would it matter to you and me?”

I look out of the train window at the stadium sprawled beneath us, and imagine a rain forest springing up there. Trees taller than the floodlight posts. Gigantic creepers with huge flowers covering the gallery… Monkeys, birds and butterflies… Maybe giant toadstools, fireflies… 

Oh yes.

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“Imagine what a sight it would be! For as long as we live here, I mean.”

“Hmm. Good for them, at least.”

Them, the desert people. Who inherited the ocean floor from the sea people.

“Good for us too.”

Us, the land-and-coast-and-mountain people. Who co-exist in harmony with the desert people and help them build dreams in exchange for dirhams. Us, who climb up beanstalks, and scatter handfuls of seeds in the wind. Those little multi-coloured seeds that will grow and grow… Into dreamscapes bleached by the desert sun and tasting ever so slightly of salt.

“It’s all good. Good for them, good for us.”

“If you say so.”

I do.

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*All images courtesy Google.

This morning…

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I’ve just left a brand new building surrounded by a low hill – lush green and dotted with flowers.  I’m not sure what I was doing in the building, but I have a file folder in my hand. I’m on an escalator that has pots of asters on both sides, marvelling at the view.

A girl in a black suit, standing a step above me, keeps staring down at me. She’s making me uncomfortable.

She stops her relentless chewing long enough to tell me that I am wearing only one sandal on my feet. I’m embarrassed – I’d hoped that no one would notice it. I try to pull my feet further under my sari.

She also tells me to stop chewing my gum as it was distracting her. Or I might end up swallowing this, she says, sticking out her tongue to reveal the short steel blade she has been chewing. It’s bent, and severely dented by her teeth. I spit out my gum immediately.

Moongil thottam, mooligai vaasam, neranja mounam, nee paadum geetham…

I smile at the girl. Hmm… I love this song, I tell her. And then I wake up.  I had set the song up as my morning alarm a few weeks ago.

Relief comes as a bathroom untainted by red droplets. I’m still wary, though – it’s a hungry earth I trod. I decide not to go for my walk, resenting the current fragility of my body.

This too shall pass, girl! This too shall pass.

My emo friend continues to be emo on WhatsApp. Stop this, my friend! I want to say. We’re just an inch short of the 50 mark, and there’s not a lot of time left to live.  Instead, I wish the group what I hope is a breezy good morning and put away the phone.

The apartment and the rest of its occupants are asleep, so I tiptoe to the kitchen.

I consider making myself some tea, and then remember the packet of dried leaves my Danish friend had gifted me some time back. She did not know what it’s called in English, and I’ve forgotten the Danish name she had told me. Tastes best if you brew it with fennel seeds, she had suggested. It does.

I’m all good intentions this morning, having read Mary Reufle’s advice on writing yesterday. “When your pencil is dull, sharpen it. And when your pencil is sharp, use it until it is dull again.”

So I take out my note book with its built-in USB flash drive, and the brand new pencil I had got while covering World Government Summit where everything was about future and technology. Then I remember the volunteer who gave it to me.

“You can plant it, and it’ll grow!”

“Grow?” Grow what? Pencils?

“Yes, oregano!” she had nodded proudly, pointing to the name stencilled on it.

I’ve been looking for an oregano plant to add to my collection of herbs anyway. Still, growing pencils would’ve been so cool!

Two paragraphs into manual writing, my good intentions fly out of the kitchen window, and I reach for my Mac. I’ve long suspected that my brain is connected to it wirelessly.

I’m reluctant to turn on the internet – the number of distractions is more than I can handle, what with the enforced immobility and all. I’ve been binge-watching The Mentalist for days now. With Patrick Jane getting closer to Red John, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep away.

I need another project soon, to give me a legitimate excuse to step out and clean up my act.

There she goes, to watch the blond guy solve mysteries, my boys would shake their heads each time they see me settle down on the bed with my laptop. They’ve already warned me that at this rate, I’ll have to make my own claim to fame – I’m not going to get a mention in their autobiographies or award-acceptance speeches.

An hour later one or the other would come to where I’m sitting, and give a bone-crushing hug. You’re not very bright/smart/cool, and you care for your Twitter friends more than you do for us, but I guess I love you anyway! 

I wonder what Patrick Jane would deduce about our family if he eavesdrops on our conversations.

My ‘get to work’ alarm has gone off, and I must get to work. Maybe Malayalam songs from the 80s will do well as background music while rolling puris? Or should I stick to dosa?

The men are still asleep, so the kitchen door shall remain closed.

It’s just another morning.

Ghosts of Good Things

Once there was a river. Cold and gentle and full of dark shadows. She was as blue as the sky above her, and had a heart large enough to drown all of the world’s grief. Which, of course, was why they called her Sokanasini.

We walked, my best friend and I. We walked back thirty odd years retracing the once familiar, well-trodden path. Looking for her – our Sokanasini. The one who had so willingly accepted all our sorrows back then. In exchange of narrow pink bunches of wildflowers, and rounded pebbles that glinted in the sun.

But she was nowhere to be found.

Now there are just ghosts. Of what once was. Memories – brown, brittle. Drawing their last breath.

Yet, what was it that pulled wetly at my feet from under it all?

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My Sokanasini.

She was. Once.

Close Encounters of a Certain Kind: Puli Murugan

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I was covering Global Summit of Women Speakers in Parliament when the call came. Just a number that showed up on the screen, with no name accompanying it. But then that has been the case since I changed phones. Even my oldest friends have become mere numbers, though they don’t know it.

“Can I call you back?” I texted, and went back to the session. There were world parliaments waiting to transform, and urgently. And I was there to document it. A plethora of voices, faces, costumes, hairdos, accents, nationalities, languages, concerns… Each interesting, relevant.

The evening was a treat to my linguistic senses: English, Arabic, English, Spanish, Russian, English, Portuguese, Arabic, French, English, Swahili…you name it. Mr R. Frost, you would understand me when I say that sometimes my vocation and avocation are one. On the flip side, it also means that I need to be alert and attuned – to the myriad voices and accents including the translators’.

So it was a good while later that I returned the call. The voice at the other end was familiar and apologetic.

“Sorry, Chechi! He was fussing so much that I had to call you. You were busy, weren’t you?”

I told Rajitha what I had been doing. “Is he awake?” It was pretty late by then.

“No, he has gone to sleep, after all that drama. I’ll ask him to call you when he comes back from school tomorrow.”

I was bathing when he called me the next day, but this time the phone showed his name as I had stored it: Puli Murugan. Aka Rahul.

The flashback:

We had met on the flight from Kochi to Dubai. He was sitting next to me, and eyeing my window seat with the kind of pathos only a four-year-old is capable of.

I couldn’t hold out for too long in the face of such misery.”Do you want to sit here?”  I asked.

He nodded, his face still a picture of lost hope.

“Come on over,” I said, getting up to exchange seats.

But apparently that wasn’t enough. He wanted his mother to sit next to him.

The young lady refused. Sitting on the other side of her was her newly widowed mother in law, whom she was understandably reluctant to leave alone. I managed to convince them that no, I really did not mind moving, please! You can all sit together.

We played our little round of musical chair once the seatbelt sign went off.

From where I was sitting, I could feel a pair of eyes shooting covert glances in my direction. Each time I look back, he would turn his face. After a while I beckoned him over. His face broke into an impish grin and he came running, as if he had been waiting for me to call.  And parked himself firmly on my lap.

“What’s your name, love?”

He lowered his head, looking shyly at me through a mop of hair.

“Tell auntie your name!” His mother admonished.

“Rahul…” he whispered, and fell silent.

“Like Shah Rukh Khan?” He shook his still bent head vehemently. Definitely not SRK.

A minute later, he lifted up his head, looked me in the eye, and stated, “But you can call me Puli Murugan!” For a minute I thought I heard wrong, but I hadn’t. And he wasn’t joking.

“Of course!” I answered with equal seriousness. Silence, again.

“So did you watch it? Puli Murugan?” I asked, for the sake of making conversation.

He looked at me as if I was daft. Of course he did! And he was appalled to find out that I had not. The next half an hour was spent in telling me why I must.

That was the beginning – of a friendship that was cemented by our shared love for Mohanlal. We both agreed that he was the bestest. He also adored Mammootty, but when he found out that I had reservations, he let it pass. Mohanlal it shall be, from now on. 

An hour or so later, things between us got more serious and we started making plans for future.

“A yellow Ferrari!” he decided. And a two seater at that. We don’t want anyone else intruding on us, do we?

“And we will go places in it, you and I. Dubai Mall, Burj Khalifa…hmmm…” He thought hard. “Ferrari World…” Of course. “Then…yes, Kongad! We will go to my grandmother’s place and have lunch, and payasam…”

By the time we landed, we had made a million plans about where to go in his yellow Ferrari, and every single one of them ended at his grandmother’s place in Kongad. We also decided to buy a purple motorbike, just in case.

Just so I don’t forget him, he took my card and gave it to his mother, insisting that she saved my name and number now! Then he took the card back from her hand and shoved it into the recesses of his trouser pocket.  We parted with a lot of reluctance and promises.

I did not expect him to remember me, much less call me. But he did – and in the month hence, we have talked over the phone quite a few times. He was thrilled when I told him that I watched Puli Murugan.

“Finally!”

“Yes, finally…” I agreed that the stunt scenes were awesome, and Mohanlal was awesomer – killing all those man-eating tigers and saving the villagers and all that.

“You will call, won’t you?” He would ask each time before disconnecting.

In Real Time:

I called him back. Again his mother was apologetic. “He made such a lot of fuss yesterday, Chechi, insisting that he wants to speak to you. Your card tore a bit around the edges, and that upset him too…” I could hear him in the background, pestering her for the phone.

“Remember the yellow Ferrari?” he asked as soon as he took the phone.

“Of course! Did you buy it?”

“Not yet, not yet. But remember that we have to go to so many places when I do!”

I assured him I will.

And on we talked for a while. In between he tried to make his elder brother talk to me, but the latter refused, quite understandably. To him, I’m just an apparition his brother keeps making a lot of noise about. “Appu doesn’t want to!” he said, incredulous. I convinced him it was ok not to.

“Call me, alright? Don’t forget. You wouldn’t, would you?” he asked as his mother told him Enough! Auntie has work to do..

I promised him that I wouldn’t. And so we parted. Until next time.

***

Yesterday I told my family about the lovely moon that travelled with me all the way from Abu Dhabi, flitting in and out of the clouds. It was indeed a lovely sight: it made me smile.

The men in my life looked at each other, shaking their heads. The same reaction they have when they catch me discussing yellow Ferraris over the phone. “No wonder she has four year olds as her fan club!”

Amen.

Yet there are times when I wonder about the luminous, invisible, divine thread that connects people. Strangers in time and space, like stars in the sky. Each separate, yet bound. One tugs at the fragile cord, and the other feels. Despite.

Only you seem to get such people in your life, ‘Mma!  

I’m not so sure, love. What about them, those strangers at the other end? Don’t they feel this – this sense of wonderment? Wouldn’t the four year old grow up and gradually forget and then one day remember the elderly stranger he had cried for? Would he then smile and shake his head at his own childishness?

I wonder. At the wonder of it all. Sometimes, nothing seems to make sense.

But then again, it doesn’t need to, does it? As long as it makes you smile…

Sometimes.

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Images courtesy Google

A Tapestry of Words

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Reading The Apocalypse Tapestries by John Taylor. An anthology: a collection of- what? Prose? Poetry? Short stories? Just texts? I don’t know. There are things that defy classification. Nor can I review the book – in the real sense of the word. Because I don’t have what it takes: the knowledge, for one. Or the objectivity, the clearheadedness, the whateverelse. I was never good at reviewing anything!

No. I’m just a reader. A feel-er. A reveller in words…

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So I can do only what I can do: meander through the weft and warp of the tapestry, pausing every so often to wonder, marvel, feel, revel…

And thank whoever is up there or down here – for all the beautiful words that come to me in brown, bubble wrapped parcels… Just gratitude and love.  As I realise, yet again, that to write is to – 

       love                        rue                      hope

paint                                               hum                             dance

     linger                         wonder                       wander

          ponder                         hesitate

 reminisce                       listen                                     dream

hurt                              bleed                       splinter              grieve

recall              sigh                             sob                    smile

       trust                         confide                        pray 

    reach out                             feel

              :

                                                             in words

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 Thank you John, for this beautiful gift I am unravelling, one word at a time. And for reminding me that… 

To write is. 

To live. 

 And die. 

One word at a time.


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The Apocalypse Tapestries by John Taylor -writer, critic, and translator. Published by Xenos Books. 

About John Taylor: http://johntaylor-author.com/en/about-johntaylor/

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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

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

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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