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Of Antihistamines, Divine Pursuits and a General Election

20190523_070249Yesterday was Tough – with a capital T. My right eye started itching suddenly the night before, and in a matter of minutes became a purplish blob with a red slit in the middle. When the itch extended to my throat, I swallowed an antihistamine, and that sealed my misery. Spent the night tossing and turning in a restless half sleep, and was unable to pick myself up from the bed most of yesterday. And I’m no pleasure to be around when I’m forced to be horizontal – ask my family.

But that too has passed.

This morning I got up as usual, and responded to Poocha’s call in kind. Took my walk, with music on shuffle on the way back. There were fewer people on the road for some reason. 

Hazaron khwahishen aisi… 

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After so many months, it’s still with a sigh of relief that I breathe in the verdant evergreen by the porch, the mosaicked patch under the staircase, the few straggly plants in front of the door, and the living room with its yellow curtains. Yes. We have somehow managed to coax out ‘the home we want to live in’ (as my boys put it) from the ruins that had resulted from 14-years of neglect. And in the process, lived to learn that rebuilding a home out of its own dark shell is an act of love and hope.

I’m now treating our home ‘as a canvas’ as Adu advised me –  adding one brushstroke at a time.

I invariably water my plants as soon as I return – rather upsetting these days. They were all lush and happy until a couple of months ago, but since then have been morose and unresponsive. Nothing I do cheers them up enough to grow. (I’m beginning to believe that plants feel trauma – and that their cells hold the memory.) All I can do is to keep urging them, hoping that they will, one day, forget. And grow up. 

Innam konjam neram poruthaal thaan enna…

Amma’s usually in her room when I return, attending to her many gods. Her days are (and have been for as long as I can remember) devoted almost entirely to the pursuit of the divine: her version of it, rather. And after living most of her adult life in various states of aloneness, she doesn’t take very kindly to human interferences. Occasional short periods of social interactions are borne with patience, but any attempt to integrate her into sustained mainstream family life is an exercise in futility. So we live our parallel lives that meet mostly at the dining table thrice a day or so.

Could’ve been worse, I guess.

Lag jaa gale…

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Made my first tea of the day, and came to my room. I have an interesting selection of infusions now – hibiscus, tulsi and chamomile, sage… But the bright green tea I chose today is special; it’s a gift from Ricca, and has come all the way from Japan. It has the flavour of the wonderful stories she used to share with me of her almost nomadic life as a young woman from sub-Siberian Japan. 

Twitter opened to a wonderful essay on Walking by Maria Papova, where she quoted Lauren Elkin. “Why do I walk? I walk because I like it. I like the rhythm of it, my shadow always a little ahead of me on the pavement. I like being able to stop when I like, to lean against a building and make a note in my journal, or read an email, or send a text message, and for the world to stop while I do it. Walking, paradoxically, allows for the possibility of stillness.”

Couldn’t have said it better.

Anuragini ithaa en…

The results of the general election are not a shock. But that doesn’t make me feel any less sad. I worry about what awaits our children, our academia, our minorities, our nation – our individual and collective worth as the citizens thereof.  The general mood on social media is either defensive or gleefully smug – an easy trap to fall into, I suppose. But it breaks my heart to see the young people I once taught use words like sickular, libtard and presstitute to talk about those with opposing points of view. 

Nothing is going to be the same again. 

As a kind friend pointed out, maybe people like me did contribute to what happened, merely by voicing our opinions on public platforms. I only hope I have the restraint necessary to not do so in the future.

Anyway, it’s time I stopped feeling sad – stopped feeling anything at all – and moved on with life. Or something like it. 

Zindagi tujh ko toh bus khab mein dekha hum ne…

For now, the kitchen awaits.

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Of Cats, Flats and the Local Grocery Shop

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It’s Day 6. No mean achievement, considering.

As usual, Poocha was right outside the door, returning home to eat, rest and recuperate after her nightly adventures. She mewed her knock, waited patiently for me to open the net door, waited less patiently for her bowl to be refilled, and greedily downed a few mouthfuls. Then she generously brushed herself against my shin, telling that I’m not too bad after all, after which she jumped on to a dining chair, stretched out and closed her eyes.

She lives the cat’s life!

There are a couple of fat tomcats in the neighbourhood who come to court her – a grim-looking grey one and a black and white one with one ear chewed off. Poocha is petite and looks quite the damsel in distress, so I understand why she runs inside screaming when they come anywhere near her. But that doesn’t stop her from flirting from within the safety of her home. When she sees or hears either of them, she walks quietly up to the glass door and stays there, watching them silently. The menfolk try their best to lure her out, but she wouldn’t budge. 

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It must be the Monday morning ‘josh’, but I saw more people out on the road today than usual. Took the same route, saw the same sights with a slightly different pair of eyes, and smiled a few more smiles. At least three of the new faces I came across today stopped and asked me the familiar question: Flateennano?

The local population of Eroor tends to attribute any unfamiliar face to ‘The Flat’ – an alien spaceship that landed in their backyard twenty years ago and wouldn’t leave. But when I confirm their suspicion, they invariably nod and smile. I told you they smile more easily in this part of the world. 

I usually put on Devi Kavacham (a 15-minute long rendition) when I start walking, go on ahead till it ends, and then turn back – which makes sure I have at least a 30-minute walk to take credit for. It takes me past Appu’s old school, and up to a tea stall that has come up, I guess, for the benefit of students. But since it’s vacation, I see only a couple of local fisherfolk sipping tea.

On my way back, I listen to film songs or ghazals, put on shuffle.

Pularkala sundara swapnathil njaanoru… I usually wait to reach home before I start humming along loudly.  A grey-haired woman in exercise clothes, walking through the bylanes of Eroor needs to exhibit some kind of restraint – for propriety’s sake. 

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Maybe it’s the fault of growing up in the villages, or all those years of living in the desert with its landscaped urban gardens, but I get all sentimental about the local flora of Eroor. There are so many trees and plants on the way that were an intrinsic part of my childhood, and some that still seem exotic to my Palakkadan sensibilities. 

Opposite the chapel, at the corner where the road turns, is a small grocery which is open even at 6 in the morning. You can find almost anything you need in the baskets or gunny bags scattered around, but you have to pay the one-man act his king’s ransom. When you have the monopoly of the grocery business this side of Kaniambuzha, you are going to name your price, I guess. 

Every morning, when I reach back, the elderly lady who lives alone (except for her home-nurse) in one of the apartments would be taking her slow morning walks. The click of her walking stick against the bricks on the pathway is a reassuring, welcoming sound, and she always gives me the most beautiful morning smile. On most days, though, I have to reintroduce myself to her failing memory.

This morning, she was standing in front of her door reading a newspaper as I walked past. I greeted her as usual, and she beckoned me over. I went to her and introduced myself again to her curious, bright eyes. She smiled her beatific smile, took my sweaty face in her hands, and kissed me on both cheeks. Then she went back to her newspaper, and I came back home. 

The day has begun. 

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Of Road Once Taken and Other Things Like That

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So I’ve resumed my (admittedly irregular) morning walks. They’d been put on hold since moving to Kochi, and I had a whole list of excuses for that. In fact, I’d almost convinced myself that it’s ok, you poor thing. 

1. The stress of moving, you see.

2. The stress of renovating the house – you understand that, right?

3. The stress of dealing with the summer heat in Kochi! *Roll eyes*

4. Oh, and what can I tell you about the stress of menopause? *Shake head* *Long sigh*

So on and so forth.

But my increasingly uncomfortable sari blouses and the terrible cramps that ravage my previously unacknowledged body parts are a warning I can no longer ignore. Sleep, that elusive entity who only flirts with me even on a good night, now seems ready to abandon me altogether. And believe me, that spells disaster. 

Truth be told, it’s not just my body that feels as if it’s turning into lead. There are times when I teeter on the brink of something black and wordless, and I can see an all-consuming numbness staring back at me from its depths. And I’m not going to give in to it. Not if I can help it. Not when I’m actually learning to live. 

So I need the walk. Because endorphins help. Serotonin helps. Whatever else gets released in the course of that walk helps.

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Four days in a row now, and the sense of achievement I feel now is beyond words. 

The walk on Day 1, though, was a trip to hell.  An ineffectual night rain had raised the humidity level to ‘unbelievable’ and I was sweating profusely even before I stepped out of the gate. But the sight of the rain-drenched flowers on the wayside was a motivation to plod on. So I plodded on, taking photos on the way.

I took the same route that Sonya and I used to take in a distant past for our occasional walks. Turned left at the gate and followed the winding road until I reached the fork, and turned left again to follow the path that runs by the river. My mind kept wandering to those walks with Sonya, and the random stuff we used to talk about back then. Things like Phi and its significance in the world, or whether we would dye our hair when it turned grey. 

But everything has changed. Sonya herself is now in another city, though her still empty flat suggests that she will return someday. Phi, however, has long been forgotten; it has absolutely no significance in my world right now. And as for turning grey, I’ve chosen to let it. Why fight the inevitable?

The once unpaved road has been tarred, and quite recently, as is evident from the absence of potholes. So the walk now is meandering but smooth. The grassy wasteland that we used to walk past has been divided into plots with names and numbers, with many with largish, well-kept houses standing tall within. There’s even a low-rise apartment block at the far end, near the school where Appu used to study.

Someone told me recently that such flats are designed for families with school-going children. I’m sure.

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The steel fabrication workshop at the corner, run by two Italian-looking brothers, is usually closed at that time of the morning. But going by the small board tacked to the rust-free shutters, it’s still functional,. The patch of land just outside, though, has been tiled and chained off, and sports a few stone benches. A red board says it’s now a ‘Senior Citizens’ Park’, but it’s usually a white Volkswagen GT that’s parked there in the mornings, staring morosely at the river. 

The senior citizens, whenever they park themselves on the benches, might not have much in terms of space, but they do have a stunning river view as the background for their inevitable reminiscences.

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New paths run like capillaries off the arterial road which is just wide enough for one largish car to squeeze through. They connect houses and housing plots, often reaching a dead end by the side of one. Another board, a white one this time, proclaims that a residents’ association is now in place. Good for them.

The Eroor West post office, which used to be a shanty halfway to the school, has moved to a small house closer to our apartment. A couple of new temples have sprouted on the way, along with a chapel at the corner of the road near our building. A testimony, I suppose, to the rising religious fervour.  

The ‘short cut’ I used to take to drop off Appu at school has become unrecognisable. It took me a second to register the once-muddy turn-off where my silver Sunny had skidded, taking down with it the three of us – Appu in his school uniform, and little Adu in his ‘kangaroo’ pouch, belted to my chest.

The whole area has been cemented, and leads to a narrow concrete path flanked by concrete walls, some with flowers spilling over. The canal that used to run by the side has disappeared under thick concrete slabs.

In this part of Eroor, concrete is king. 

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Back then, when it was still muddy, that path used to run through a large piece of wetland. An entire ecosystem had thrived there under a thick canopy of trees, and we had to jump across a small, clear stream in which fish and ducks swam. Snakes, chameleons and other reptiles used to move casually about, completely dismissive of the few human beings who crossed their path. What they did take heed of were the mongooses who had the run of the place.

It was a different world back then – a brownish-green world of perpetual twilight. A  sublime world whose silence used to reverberate with the shrill of a million unseen creatures.

A memory now. Walled in, weeded out. Easier to walk across, but heartbreaking.

That patch of earth had ignited Appu’s imagination no end, I remember. And much later, he brought it back to life in his first college project – as an animation video titled ‘Way Home’. 

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The other day, as I was about to get into an autorickshaw, a heavily pregnant young woman hurried across and asked me if I remembered her. It took me a minute, but I did. She and her mother were among the people who had helped us up from the red earth where we had fallen down. Later, but in that same life of mine, I had made dresses for her adolescent self. 

She told me that she almost didn’t know me either, but then she saw me smile. I’d recognise that smile anywhere, she said, smiling.

Made my day. 

Her little one has come out now, I think. I saw a line of nappies hanging by their porch.

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Not many people are out at that time of the morning, apart from the few who would be heading towards Chambakkara on their two-wheelers. Sometimes I see a woman or two in housecoats, doing things that women do at that time of the morning: sweep the yard, water the plants, wash the vessels… Some of them seem familiar, and I try to chip away the decade and a half from their faces to see if I can place them. Sometimes I can.

People smile so much more easily in this part of the world.

On the first morning, there was an elderly man standing in front of his house and brushing his teeth. He was still brushing when I came back. His must be whitest teeth in Eroor. 

I return home each morning feeling as if my body is being slow cooked. My clothes would be drenched in sweat, and my misted-over glasses would have slipped off my nose. And I don’t even want to know how I smell. Yet, the sense of well-being I feel makes it worth all of that and more. It’s fascinating how the world becomes so much more liveable after a walk and a bath!

Life has taught me to be wary of myself. I lost count of the number of times I had decided to adopt a healthy routine, only to feel my engines grind to a halt in a matter of days. Today is all about good intentions and general well-being; who knows about tomorrow?

But then, that’s life. To be taken one day at a time. 

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Of Diaper Pins, Rubber Bands, and an Old Man on the Metro

AduWe were on the Singapore Metro (or the ‘MRT’, as Amy calls it), though I can’t recall where we were going to, nor the name of the station we were to get down at. The train was quite crowded, so we stood to one side of the door.

He was standing near us – an old man, leaning against a pole grip. His back was to the crowd, and he was swaying gently with the train. I don’t know what it was about him that caught my attention because his focus was firmly fixed elsewhere, below eye-level.

I found myself glancing at him every so often. 

An unusually large pair of eyes revealed themselves suddenly to survey the compartment and just as quickly went back under the heavy eyelids they came out of. I was reminded of Ollie, a tortoise we had with us for a while in Dubai. He would draw himself into his shell when he went to sleep. But every so often he would raise his head from his shell, look around, and pull it back in again. 

When the old man raised his head again to look out of the window opposite, I noticed a chain of red rubber bands circling his bald head. It took me a moment to realise that its purpose was not decorative – it was holding in place his rather thick, misshapen eyeglasses that might otherwise have slid down his nose. 

He seemed to be chewing at something, and a single loose tooth emerged from the confines of his cavernous mouth every so often and retreated as quietly as it appeared.

I could not help but stare. Our eyes met suddenly and he turned away, decidedly ignoring me and every other person on the train.

Rather embarrassed, I was about to look away when I noticed that the well-worn, dirty salmon-pink T-shirt he was wearing was sporting a neat row of half-a-dozen diaper pins at the chest where a pocket would have been.  More diaper pins were fixed to the pocket flap of his shabby olive cargo shorts, and next to them, a wristwatch hung from a string that disappeared into the hem of his Tee.

Thin legs ended in a pair of loose grey socks and olive sneakers that looked as if they would give up their ghost any moment. Two heavy-looking cloth bags lay on the floor by his feet, still and alert like obedient dogs. 

Try as I might, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him. His, however, were fixed on something else by then. 

I watched him open a few sheets of folded paper that he had been holding in his hand – a few loose leaves pulled out of a ruled notebook. He started working on them furiously with a red pen. 

I forgot that it was rude to stare.

A red arc appeared on the paper, which soon became a head in the old Chinese style, with long hair on either side and a sparse, long beard at the chin. Small eyes, small mouth…

He paused, lifted his huge eyes, gave the surroundings a once-over. Finding nothing to hold his interest, he went back to his paper and began to draw lines around the head, like the rays of the sun. No – like the lines we used to draw in anatomy class to label body parts.

It turned that he was indeed labeling something around the head in a language that looked like Chinese. 

That done to his satisfaction, he paused, looked around for a long time, changed pages and started with the pen again. Soon the paper burst out in a bloom of red doodles that looked like small clouds interspersed with jottings in shorthand script – something that called for furrowed brows and unblinking concentration. 

After a while, his pauses became longer and more frequent, but he hardly bothered to look up. Soon he was sleeping – eyes closed, mouth slightly open, still holding the paper and the pen tightly, still swaying gently, but never once losing his balance. At times he would come back to the world with a jerk, quickly jot some things down, and then fall back asleep. The bags at his feet stood guard. 

When the train pulled into the terminus, he woke up as if to an alarm, gathered his evidently heavy bags, and got down before us – tall, thin and ageless, staggering under the weight of his bags.  No one offered help, and somehow it didn’t seem as if he would’ve accepted any. 

I looked around for him one last time before getting into the lift.

He was still there on the platform, just next to the door through which he got down. Leaning against the wall of the stationary train as if he couldn’t keep himself steady on terra firma. His bags waited next to him patiently.

I don’t know why, but I still think of him sometimes. A shabby old man lost in a world of his own making. Held together by diaper pins, rubber bands, and handwritten notes. Swaying gently to the rhythm of the train.

And I wonder.

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*Illustration: Aditya Shivakumar Menon, aka Son 2, who is extremely dissatisfied with his work. 

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Lest I Forget

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Memories from the far end of Bombay riots

I’ve managed to erase most of the memories of the days around December 6, 1992. A few fragments, however, remain stuck to my consciousness like a stain, and wouldn’t go away however much I try to wash them off. I was one of the luckier ones, of course – I was at the far end of the pool, where the ripples came only to subside. Thus the privilege of ‘forgetting’. I’m aware.

I was working in State Bank of India, Churchgate Branch, and less than four months pregnant at the time.

I remember that I was coming back from somewhere, though I’m not sure where. The train I was on was largely empty, but had stopped in the middle of nowhere. No one seemed to know why, though there was a general sense of disquiet in the air that the demolition of a mosque in Ayodha had caused. But at the time it seemed far away. And despite rumours of repercussions closer home, fear had not struck. At least, not me, not yet.

A good half an hour or so later, someone who scrambled up the train said there was dangafasad going on ahead, and that was the reason the train had stopped. After that, the train, with all of us inside it, was eerily silent.

Relief came as a long whistle, and there was a general buzz among us, commuters.  Just as the train was about to move, a heavily pregnant woman struggled up the steps sweating and panting. A few people rushed to help her. She flopped down on a window seat, still sweating profusely and sobbing all the while. She was trying to say something, but was mostly incoherent. The only words we could make out were: “They had swords!”

When she recovered enough to talk, she said that she had run away to escape a mob – they were not coming at her, but. They had bloodied swords and torches, though, and someone told her that a woman, similarly pregnant, had her stomach cut open.

I can’t recall the rest of the trip. Except that the heavy window pane fell on the lady’s hand and she started crying again. 

What I remember of the rest of those days are the random discussions that used to happen.  At work, in the train, among colleagues… On how if you were passing by this road, it is safer to wear a bindi. But if you were taking the other, your bindi could get you killed. About how a Hindu colony protected a Muslim family, or how a Muslim family that kept their Hindu friend and his family safe in their house…

Things like that. 

That was the time I learned that one’s name and surname could become something that saved or destroyed, depending. The first time I became aware of religion, in a way I had never been.

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I was in Bombay on March 12, 1993, as well. And again, what I remember are the most frivolous details of the day. Like the extra-large white and blue dress I was wearing because that was the most comfortable one for my extra-large stomach. And how I was sweating excessively and feeling slightly sick as I walked from Second Road to Chembur Station, but would not take leave. Because it meant one less day at home for my delivery, back in Coimbatore. 

At the station, I began to feel dizzy. Two women from Adelphi – my personal banking customers – held me up and sat me down. They told me it was better that I went back home as I did not look well enough to get through the day. They put me in an autorickshaw and left.

When the call came for me in the afternoon, I thought it was to inquire after my health, or to say that they missed me at lunchtime. But the voice at the other end was hushed. “I’m glad you took leave, Mini. There has been a bomb blast at the Stock Exchange. We felt it in our PB department (which was in the basement).”

It took a while for the news to sink in, as it did for everything that happened afterwards.

I remember the warnings that were being repeatedly heard on railway stations, trains and BEST buses. Please make sure that there is no unclaimed baggage left under your seats or above you. If you do find anything suspicious, inform the authorities immediately. Do not touch or go near it… Announcements to that effect. BEST buses went the extra mile – they started playing old songs, which would be punctuated every so often by such announcements.

To this day, each time I happen to hear the song tum agar saath dene ka wada karo, my heart skips a beat. And my stomach tightens in anticipation of the abrupt pause after main tumhe dekhkar geet gaata rahoon… And I almost wait for the voice that would tell me to check under my seat.

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My scars, however, are thin. Barely visible, considering. I’m aware of that.

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And yet, one has to remember. Always

 

 

*PC: Google images.

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An Old Facebook Post, Revamped!

The original post came up as a two-year-old memory on Facebook. These two years have brought so many things to a head, but the sentiments expressed there remain the same. So do most of the attitudes that provoked this outburst, sadly.

So sharing it again here, with just minor changes. (I’m not prone to writing long posts on the Facebook wall, but the situation calls for it.)
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But before that, here’s something that I’ve been itching to say despite having taken the decision to stay off politics for a couple of months, for the sake of sanity:
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#Metoo is NOT funny. Don’t circulate jokes and memes on it. It is decades and centuries of pain, shame and misplaced guilt coming out in torrents. And if you are a man who asks ‘How do I qualify for #metoo?’ (This is not made up – someone actually did!), don’t worry – you most likely are, and have been for a long time. At least in intent.

And fellow women, please don’t think that taking years to speak up is a sign of weakness. It’s not. To retaliate on the spot does take courage – but so does speaking up after ages. Even more courage because they would need to deal with not just the abuser, the world, but also the likes of you who ask things like ‘Why didn’t you slap him and walk away?’

(I actually saw women sharing a post to the effect that if you are a real woman, a ‘shakti’, you do that! I can only say you, who said that and who share that with the same intent, are supremely privileged. And supremely insensitive.)

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Now, to my original post:
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Women have bodies, just as men do. And our bodies are different from those of men – with good reason. The species has lasted solely because of that.

Some of us are proud of our bodies, and why not?

Skirts fly, saris slip off, blouses open – whether we like it or not. We scratch our backsides, dig our noses and drool while sleeping. I’m sure the rest of the world does these things too.

This might be news to some, but these are very human acts. Every constitution has (or ought to have) these as part of the fundamental rights of its citizens.

Sometimes skin shows, and that’s ok too. It’s skin, not dirty laundry.

So stop taking photos of people in their vulnerable moments and circulating them in your groups. It’s as crass as hiding behind the doors of someone’s bathroom or bedroom and watching them. And infinitely worse for the damage it does.

That woman whose photo you’re sharing, with crude remarks textboxed into it, is a human being, entitled to live her life with dignity, unaffected by filthy camera eyes.

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Remember, so is vulgarity.

Even if you don’t actively promote such posts, stop laughing at them, stop accepting them. Somebody could catch you and me too in the wrong frame.

For, the camera, like the bullet, does not discriminate. Nor does the Internet.
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Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your patience.

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Fish Whisperers of Varanasi

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At Varanasi, they whisper to the fish and set them free in the water. 

I’d come to the Ghats to watch the sunrise, an event that was turning out to be more spectacular than I had imagined. Ahead of me, the sun spilled molten gold onto the calm waters of the Ganga. Majhis (boatmen) were ferrying passengers across in similar-looking rowboats, their silhouettes adding to the drama. A million seagulls circled above the boats, their squawks accompanying the sound of temple bells and the chants of worshippers performing pooja on the stone steps. Men and women were bathing in the holy waters, their faith shielding them from the biting cold of a winter morning. Wash away our sins, mother…

From the high octagonal stone platform I was sitting on, everything seemed surreal.

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A while ago, I had bid goodbye to Pooja, a young engineer from Poona who was sharing the platform with me. She had come to the ghats with her brother and sister-in-law, and was kind enough to click a picture of me for memory. We had found each other on Instagram, and parted with vague promises to keep in touch.  

I sat there alone for a long time afterward, at peace with the world that was bustling around me. 

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As I got up to leave, I saw a couple of Muslim men – father and son, presumably – carrying transparent yellow plastic bags, making their way to where I was sitting.  I noticed that the bags held water, with small, black, live fish in them. I stopped in my tracks.

“Are those fish?” The father ignored me. Talk about stating the obvious. 

The son nodded.

“What are they for?”

“To be released in the Ganga,” he mumbled without looking at me.

“To be…what! Why?”

“Why? Because…He looked at his father, but the old man did not help. Then he turned and met my eyes. “...where else do fish belong except with Ganga Maiyya?”

Where else indeed. 

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I followed them as they went to the edge of the platform, asking their permission to click pictures. The son looked at his father again. Though the old man decidedly turned his back on me, the son did not seem to mind. I decided to take their silence for consent, but maintained an unobtrusive distance. 

They sat down and carefully opened the bags. The older man took each bag separately, brought it close to his face and blew softly into it. Then both the father and the son gently took the fish one by one in their palms and dropped it into the water. That done, they got up and left.

No one gave a second glance. Except me, that is. 

Later, I came to know that this is a sadka, a ritual performed by the members of the weaving community regardless of their faith. Meant to ward off evil, to protect their person and property.

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Protect us, mother, protect our livelihood. You, who are all-accepting, all-forgiving. You who do not distinguish between humans and their faiths.  Guard us against evil, Mother. Within and without…

A prayer or two, breathed into the slim, dark bodies of a dozen fishes. To be carried to the heart of a mighty river brimming with the desperate pleas of generations and lifetimes. Of the living and the dying, the hopeful and the hopeless.

Down there in her womb, these prayers too would feed on human sins and grow. As guardians, protectors. Shielding mortals from themselves… 

Perhaps.

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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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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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In the Country of Men – A Story of Love and Grief

Grief loves the hollow, all it wants is to hear its own echo. Be careful.

Many times while reading Hisham Matar’s ‘In the Country of Men’, I asked myself if this book would have resonated so much with me had I not been living here, in the UAE. If I had not had, among my friends, people who hail from other Middle East nations. If we had not shared stories with each other over tea and croissants. Or reminisced longingly about our home countries while maneuvering the rush hour traffic…

The answer is, probably not. Because some stories tend to remain once removed until they enter your immediate orbit. Until the ambiguous ‘they’ becomes a Maha, Sameh or Yasmin. Until you see at close quarters the shadow of displacement and hopeless longing at the edges of their brown, sun-lit eyes. Then they begin to find their echo in you.

Once, early on in my brief stint with a corporate house as its content provider, I was introduced to someone who had just come back from Syria after the funeral of his sister. She had been arrested some weeks ago for taking part in protests. In the same office, a young girl, only slightly older than my son, went to her country on vacation and was held there under house arrest. In the idealism of her youth, she had posted some images of protests on social media. It took months of intervention for her to be allowed out of her country.

In the Country of Men reminded me of all these stories. And others I have heard and read over the past twelve years in the Middle East.

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Set in Tripoli, Libya, during Qaddafi’s regime, the narrative unfolds as a series of events seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Suleiman. Slooma, as he is fondly addressed by the people close to him, is a not-very-silent witness to personal and political realities he is unable to fully grasp.  His beautiful yet ‘ill’ mother is an enigma; so is his businessman father who suddenly goes away without informing him. Then there are others – friends, neighbours, and acquaintances – whose lives are inextricably tied to his own: Moosa, Nasser and several others, including his friend and next door neighbour Kareem and his father Ustath Rashid.

Suleiman is puzzled and deeply hurt by the events that unfold, and he reacts to them in ways that only a child is capable of. In the end, he too bears the brunt of an uprising gone wrong in the world of adults.

In the Country of Men is also a story of love – the love of a nine-year-old son for his mother. She who condemns Sheherzadie of One Thousand and One Nights for choosing the life of a slave over death. Suleiman’s love for his mother is complex, often inexplicable even to himself. He longs to protect her from her own past, from all the men who seem to run her life. Yet there are times when he is filled with anger and hatred towards this self-absorbed woman with secrets he can’t bear to be privy to.

If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark, warm embrace of hate, but always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love. 

In the Country of Men certainly has its moments. Poignant ones. Some as beautiful as the Mediterranean sea and sky they evoke. And there are words that linger even after you close the book and put it away.

I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss. (…) How readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves, deceiving the world and what we might have become if we hadn’t got in the way, if only we had waited to see what might have become of us.

So it goes, Matar’s narrative, which effectively conveys Suleiman’s love, loneliness, bewilderment and misplaced anger to the reader, while highlighting the pervading sense of the fear and anxiety that stems from Libya’s political climate of the time. The unease that Suleiman feels is also the reader’s.

I have to admit though that I was left feeling a little dissatisfied, especially towards the end, when the story suddenly seems to fragment, dissipate. There are  paragraphs that felt disjointed and rushed, pages I sought more from. When I turned the last page and closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel that the narrative stopped just short of achieving something. Poetry, perhaps. Or something equally vague.

Or perhaps the fault lies in my expectations.

For a while now, I had been reading more about books than books themselves. My desk and bookshelf are full of half-read fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  Sometimes I feel as if the summer has a vice-grip on my soul, not allowing me to focus on anything. ‘In the Country of Men’ is, in truth, the first book I have completed in many weeks. And I feel a sense of release – as if a dark spell has been broken. As if the ennui, the listlessness, will soon begin to ebb, like the heat outside. In that sense, I do have a lot to be grateful for. To Hisham Matar’s Man Booker Prize-nominated book.