When I asked her if I can click pictures, she gave me a half-smile and a nod, more with resigned acceptance than enthusiasm. Then she turned away, leaving me – another alien with a camera and some good intentions – to my devices, and continued to watch the day’s proceedings in silence. If I found her fascinating, so had others before me. More will, after. She knew that. In the meantime, she had so much on her hands. And mind.
If the deep lines on her twenty-something face continue to haunt me, whose fault is it?
“All grown-ups were once children…but only few of them remember it.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
In the little resort town of Hakone, just outside of Tokyo, I visited a part of my literary childhood. The moment I learned that Japan has the only Little Prince Museum in the world, I made a mental note that I had to visit it should I ever visit Japan. That dream came true in June 2017 when I visited Japan for the first time. On hearing my Hakone plans, my friend from Tokyo asked me, “Why are you going to Hakone? Onsen (hotspring)?” Most people do go to Hakone for the hotsprings, to visitthe famous lake, or to see Mount Fuji if the sky is clear. The look of amusement on my friend’s face is one I’ve seen on many non-readers’ faces when I tell them about my literary aspirations, but that has never stopped me from my single-minded bookish pursuits. Fellow bookworms will understand my love of bibliotourism.
A few days after landing in Tokyo I took the Shinkansen to Odawara, and from there I took the bus to Hakone. The lady at the Odawara bus station nodded knowingly when I told her I was going to the Little Prince museum, and with gestures told me to wait until the bus driver calls the stop of Hoshi no Ōjisama Myūjiamu (The Little Prince Museum).
Bookworms are strange, I’m the first to admit it. I’m compulsive and obsessive when it comes to my literary loves. Having literary experiences ranks higher than a lot of things in my life. With The Little Prince, this book goes back with me a long way; the love runs deep. I was 10 years old when I first encountered it, and I was immediately smitten, probably due to a mixture of the great pictures (to this day I believe that all novels should contain illustrations), the characters, the simple truths. It was also due to being a child, nodding fervently when the prince says, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” I totally got that, being a misunderstood child myself. Now as an adult, I believe that book helped me keep my childlike curiosity and heart, and it’s a book that seems to have grown with me, one I have gained a deeper understanding of.
When I stepped off the bus in front of the museum, I realized I had picked the perfect day and season to visit. The sun was shining bright, and the flowers, particularly the roses, were in full bloom. The Little Prince museum was built as a sort of replica of a French village. It was, like I said, a perfect day to visit. The gardens were spectacular. We could explore the book and also the life of de Saint-Exupery
It feels cliché to say this, but I honestly felt like I was walking in the book. Books that really impact us as children, I believe, become a part of our souls. When the mind is still young, naïve and growing, with childlike curiosity and still not fully aware of the world, it is a mind that is malleable and fertile for new ideas and words. The first talking rose you meet you will probably remember, and subsequent talking roses won’t be as strange to you. When you learn that grown-ups only care about numbers, you vow not to be like that. At least I did.
Rowena and I met in the great world of Twitter, brought together perhaps by a shared love for the written word. It was pure serendipity that she feels the same spiritual connection I have with The Little Prince. Perhaps more, because she travelled all the way to experience it!
When I requested her for an introduction of herself to the readers, she sent me this: “Due to her Third Culture Kid upbringing, Rowena has always been passionate about culture, language, and communication. The arts are her passion and keep her grounded and curious about life. Other hobbies include nature, cooking, travel, and hiking.”
So now I learn that we share much more than a love for the written word! Nature, cooking, travel… And flowers. Isn’t it wonderful that social media enables birds of similar feather to flock together, even when they roost in different ends of the world?
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.
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?
I remember reading a Dick Francis novel long ago – Longshot, I think– where the protagonist is a freelance writer down to his last penny, and takes up an assignment purely because it would mean a roof over his head and three square meals a day. He talks about how, merely sitting for hours and writing has a way of making you tired, hungry and cold. With not enough money to foot the heating and grocery bills, he would do anything to survive. Even if it means postponing writing his first novel.
I can relate to that. All too well. Except perhaps for the heating bit. I live in the Arabian desert after all. My bills, therefore, are of air-conditioning.
So I’ve put my magnum opus ambitions on hold, and am down to brass tacks, taking on every bit of work that comes my way. The past few weeks has seen me all over Dubai and Sharjah, in cabs, buses and the metro, tapping away at my keyboard whenever I could get a seat. Then I return to my desk at home and type some more.
All that writing makes me tired and hungry of course. At least, that’s my excuse for the amount of baked potato I consumed during my four-day stint at Sharjah Expo Centre. Baked potato and tea with milk and sugar, please! I can already feel it spread evenly under my skin, with a little extra in places…
All said and done though, I’m grateful. A lot has been happening lately, and after the sultry uneventfulness of summer, I am grateful for the happening bit, even if it means less sleep.
I like what I do, you see. Providing content for clients forces me to learn in great detail things I would otherwise have never even thought about. Like book illustrations for the visually challenged. Or strategic interventions made by UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Authority. Or Type 1 Diabetes / shipping containers / Ambrotype photography… You get my drift? They are all fodder for my restless brain with its multiple tabs open at all times. And since they have nothing to do with me personally, my emotions get a break. There’s just this sense of wonderment.
Covering events allows me to sneak out in between to attend seminars and listen to talks by people I only read about otherwise. Names like David Yarrow and George Steinmetz roll out of my tongue with practised ease now, after XPOSURE 2016. And I am waiting for a willing listener to talk about The Empty Quarter, after sitting through some stunning huge-screen visuals.
Sometimes I get to meet the titans. Like this wonderful photojournalist Muhammed Muheisen, whose work and words have changed my perception of refugees. In the middle of all that death and destruction, there is also life happening. And that’s what I try to focus on, he said. I had been wondering about the light, the hope, in his images of conflict zones.
If it is not documented, it did not happen. My job is to inform the world about their lives. With honesty, with due respect given to the privacy and dignity of my subjects. Sometimes they run away when they see me. I don’t run after them – that would be violating their privacy. I wait for them to learn to trust me, sometimes for years at a time.
I actually requested for a photo with him – some people have a way of moving you enough to do that.
And I started teaching again.
Just three kids at my dining table, but it’s an elixir still. My relationship with teaching is something the family can’t quite understand. Don’t you think you’re stretching yourself too far, ‘Mma? my sons demand, looking down at me with all the seriousness of two adults watching over a particularly unreliable child…While I try to explain to them that it might well be, considering, but I need it for sanity.
They are like a couple of bouncers these days, my sons. Standing between me and what they call my self-destructive tendency to work myself to an early grave. Are you still working, ‘Mma? D’you realise how long it’s been since you started? Take a break, please! Watch something or go for a walk! Eavesdroppers outside our door will be confused about the nature of parent-child relationship in our house.
So now I try to finish the bulk of my work before they wake up. And they worry when they see me fall asleep across the bed at odd times.
Sometimes, when I’m exhausted, I turn on the TV and watch mindless action movies. They demand very little of one’s intelligence or emotions, and as such are relaxing. My boys shake their heads and sigh. So what about your urban poverty novels, ‘Mma? When are going to read them? they ask, their grin wicked.
We have these long conversations about stuff like capitalism, racism, sexism, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton’s dubious intentions, music sampling and cool anime. We share the sadness – and the impotence – about what’s happening in Kashmir and elsewhere. And sometimes we ponder on what a visiting alien would think of a culture that charges AED 300 for a dental consultation. X-rays and tests as required, and will be charged separately, Ma’am! Among other things.
We hug a lot too.
As sons go, they’re ok. And they reassure me that I’m ok too, sometimes. They even like me, they claim, though I’m not particularly interesting or smart.
The other day I danced. A good thirty years after my feet had learned to be strictly functional in their movements. It felt so good to let go and give in to the rhythm.
Juhi had invited us to a Navratri celebration – partly business, mostly pleasure. Manju was there, her Baroda genes swaying to the rhythm of garba. I can still see her…like an apparition, alone under a tree. Lost to the world, and dancing to—
What was she dancing to? The beat of distant music, or the song in her heart?
A beautiful, beautiful sight. I’ll remember it forever.
It was her abandon that finally infected me – enough to let go of years of inhibitions and just give in. I danced, round and round, with Manju and Juhi on either side – till I was light in the heart and head.
It was also the same morning that I got to see the picture of Seagull Books catalogue where my name and text appears. I had been on cloud nine since. All it needed – I needed – was the dance.
But then, isn’t that what we all need? A dance? On good days, on bad days, on ok-ok days… With occasional missteps, perhaps. Sometimes to cheap remixes of Bollywood numbers, sometimes to the song in our hearts… Just a dance.
And maybe, just maybe, life is but a dance. If you can find your song.
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.
I’m yet to meet Mishran in real life, though he has promised to take me around the Nelliampathy Hills on his yellow bike if and when I visit my hometown of Palakkad, Kerala.
Yesterday he sent me these photos he had taken just because. And graciously allowed me to use them in my blog. I did ask him to write captions, but he begged off. Just some random shots, he said, you can use them anyway you want.
He did say though, that this dragonfly reminded him of me.
Rusty, tired and a bit frayed around the edges – yet wouldn’t give up. I do see the resemblance.
Thank you, Mishran. Couldn’t have asked for a lovelier gift!